Mary Clark, Traveler

It’s New Zealand’s Hour – Rugby Union World Cup

Rugby Scrum between Shirley Club and Russian team

I saw the countdown clock on the square of Christchurch, New Zealand in April of 2010.  At the time, it showed 76 weeks, five days, three hours, and 40 minutes to the most popular event in all of New Zealand and much of the world down under – the Rugby Union World Cup.  Yes, it was a year and a half away but the Kiwis were already counting.  They are not alone.  Viewership worldwide for these games ranks third  after the Olympics and the World Cup of Soccer.

Christchurch and its environs are typical of the rugby mania in New Zealand’s communities, with 49 rugby club teams, averaging a team for every 7,000 people.  This would be the equivalent to seven adult football teams in Lamar County.  Each club team has its own field and club house where gear is stored and players gather for a beer after games.  Most run a sports program for the youth and host family parties.  Some teams have been around for over 100 years.

Out of this strong building program come the professional teams.  Before the earthquake, the Christchurch Crusaders played at AMI stadium that held about 40,000 fans.  Because of the cracks in the facility, Christchurch couldn’t host its seven World Cup games but they are well represented on the national All Black team with 12 of the 30 players.

During our visit, the Shirley Club team was playing on a Sunday afternoon and we caught a city bus out to their field.  Fans were sitting on the ground or standing behind.  I sat by Anita, a Polynesian woman, whose son was hoping to play for Shirley.  He had played in Australia but couldn’t support his family since they only got paid if the team won.

Rugby Throw In

The game was a bit unusual as the opposing team was Russian.  We learned there was an offside as in soccer.  Throw-ins were great.  Each squad lifted a player high in the air to catch the ball- similar to our cheerleaders stunts. And then there is the scrum, a way of restarting a game.  Each team circled around in a common huddle while the referee barks out “Get Set.  Touch.  Engage.”  The successful team handed off  the ball to a player in back and all moved forward – a kind of quarterback sneak.  A few players wore helmets, a possible indication that the player had suffered from a concussion but most men preferred to play macho and bareheaded.

Anita’s  son favored the “union” style of rugby most popular in New Zealand to the “league” style of Australia.  The details of the differences were too technical for my limited knowledge of the game but I did understand  the union style allowed unlimited tackles and more points for the different scoring chances, including increased points for just trying for a goal.   After that, I felt like an European soccer fan watching American football for the first time – bewildered.

What distinguishes the New Zealand All Black team is the performance of the Haka before each game, a tradition that began as far back as 1894.   This Maori dance startled Wales the first time it was performed on a European tour in 1903.  “After that, the All Blacks became the most feared opponent in the sport. Fierce rivalries existed between all the rugby powers, but the men wearing the black jerseys with the silver fern and delivering the formal challenge of the haka had a psychological edge on the opposition whenever they stepped onto the field.”

The following  translation of the haka isn’t particularly frightening and seems barely connected to winning a game.   But chanting it to a pounding rhythm can rattle opponents.

Ka mate Ka mate  It is death It is death
Ka ora Ka ora  It is life It is life
Ka mate Ka mate  It is death It is death
Ka ora Ka ora  It is life It is life
Tenei Te Tangata Puhuruhuru  This is the hairy man
Nana i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra  Who caused the sun to shine again for me
Upane Upane   Up the ladder Up the ladder
Upane Kaupane   Up to the top
Whiti te ra  The sun shines!

As host, New Zealand is anxious to win this year’s trophy.  Their last victory was in 1987, the initial year of the Rugby Union World Cup. A recent article in England’s Guardian newspaper describes New Zealand as desperate to win.  Another claims “Our Turf Our Time”.  On the web, the Wait-of-a-Nation site pokes fun at the hand-wringing and misery of fans who feel the team capable of winning but fear it won’t.

With the entire country almost at a standstill, the tournament is being broadcast on at least four channels and by satellite. Twenty teams will play over the next two months until the final on October 23rd.   New Zealand’s  All Black team is actually favored to win – 4/7 odds – with Australia picked for second.   For a nation who has suffered devastation and loss from recent earthquakes and who loves the sport more than any others, I hope the countdown clock is to victory.

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Despite Problems at Rocky Mountain National Park, Nature Rules

View from Ridge Trail Highway at Rocky Mountain National Park
It’s all true.  Everything you’ve heard about Rocky Mountain National Park’s beauty and vastness is accurate – 415 square miles filled with sixty mountain peeks over 12,000 feet, an accessible Alpine Tundra, waterfalls, trout fishing, 350 miles of hiking trails and the Continental Divide that weaves its way through the park.   While famous for glaciers, clear water and open valleys, there were stories behind the beautiful scene. 
Mills Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
The first morning, we headed to Mills Lake for a family hike.  After entering a park gate and paying $20, we moved slowly over a winding road until directed to an overflow parking lot.   An overflow parking lot? A shuttle bus to our trail?  What happened to “getting away from it all”?  What happened was 3 million visitors a year to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).  It is the 5th most visited park in the country.   That’s a lot of cars on the road and the attendant air pollution.
The solution at this park and others is mass transportation.   A Hiker Shuttle is available  to whisk riders to various trail heads.  Bear Lake and Morraine Park Visitor Center also provide shuttle buses to the more popular trails.  Unlike the parks at Grand Canyon and Yosemite where bus rides are mandatory, RMNP allows free choice.  The reasons for mass transit are obvious.  Maintenance of roads, frustration with traffic, air quality in the pristine setting and protection of animals are all concerns  One hundred elk a year are killed by cars in RMNP.  According to the National Park Conservatory Association, replacing 5,000 private vehicles per day with 30 propane-powered buses, can eliminate more than 13,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions in a year.  
The shuttle bus filled quickly and dropped us off at our trail head.  Upon return,  many had finished their hikes and were watching for the bus.  A volunteer ranger radioed back about the awaiting crowd and the next bus was lightly loaded and able to hold most us.  Despite my grumbling and frustration with the delay, I had to admit the shuttle bus system worked well and was better than the huge parking lot that would be required near the fragile trail heads.  
Dead trees from bark beetle
Cut Lodge Pole Pine Trees to be burned
Although most of the park was incredibly green from record rainfalls, we noticed whole mountainsides were brown from dead or dying trees – the work of bark beetles, a native insect that has flourished thanks to warmer than average temperatures.  To suppress the beetle’s activities, temperatures must stay below freezing for 30 straight days in the winter.  Absent this, the beetles reproduce mightily and devour lodgepole pine trees.    High value trees can be treated but thousands are being removed each year.    Campgrounds lay in the open without shade trees –  made bare from fear of dead trees toppling on sleeping campers. The silver lining is the appearance of more wild flowers and aspen trees who are not affected by the beetles.  As one ranger said “It’s like pressing the reset button on nature”.    We can only hope.
RMNP is far enough north to have deer, elk, and bears and all want the experience of sighting these fine animals.  We got messages along a trail that a mother elk and two babies were ahead on the lake and in nearby  Estes Park,  cars had pulled over to see an elk in the stream.  But what we didn’t realize is the park has twice as many elk as can be sustained on the property without damage to the number of aspen trees and other elk favorites.  Rangers estimate only 30 bears live in the park but as many as 3100 elk do.  An ideal number would be 1500.  The solution has been to allow hunting of 30 female elk each year by park employees.  Since implementing the policy, there has been a gradual decrease in the elk number and increase in their food supply.
I’m not sure we met any “real” park rangers.  Those taking our money, riding the bus with us, and giving information were volunteers, as noted by their name tag and uniforms.  Because of dwindling federal money, most national parks operate on two-thirds of their needed budget.  So began the “Volunteers in the Parks” program.  RMNP has one of the largest with over 1700 volunteers at a savings of $2 million a year.  They are used to clean trails, remove and modify fences, handle the crowds, educate on wildlife, answer questions, collect seeds, and be ambassadors for the park.  The good news is many want to volunteer the selection process competitive.  The National Parks Service website even suggests you have a better chance of being chosen if you can provide your own housing.   The need for volunteers will just grow greater and may be the perfect place for baby boomers to give back.

Above tree line on Ridge Trail Highway
Glaciers at Rocky Mountain National Park
With one last drive along the famous Ridge Trail Highway, the highest in the country, we looked again at the park’s vast beauty.  Yes, there are too many cars and elks.  Thousands of trees are being leveled because of the pesky bark beetle.  And volunteers are filling the funding gap for the park.  But what we saw from on high was a landscape that’s had years of practice at rejuvenating itself.  We’re confident it will again.

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The Kibbutz Maagan – Changing with the Times

View of Sea of Galilee from Kibbut Maagan Holiday Village Hotel

As a teenager, I was drawn to the idea of the Israeli kibbutz – a community of like-minded residents who worked hard, celebrated often, and contributed to the greater good of the country.  It was romantic in a foreign sense of the word and I envied those who got to join one. But how has the communal setting aged in the modern world of individual rights?  On a recent trip, I was impressed the kibbutz still played an important part in Israel’s culture and economy but with a different model.

The Sea of Galilee is ringed with kibbutzim.  It is here they first began with Kibbutz Degania Alef, established in 1910.  Based on a socialist idea and manned by secular Zionists, the first kibbutzim were developed for protection as well as communal working of land.  The farmer-warrior image continued from the 1948 War of Independence to 1982 when many northern kibbutzim used their bunkers for protection from Syrian missiles just a few miles away.  During a tour of the Kibbutz Maagan on the south end of the Sea of Galilee, much of this history played out in the lives of the residents.

Our guide, Eli Kedem

Our guide Eli Kedem, a small, fit man in his early 60’s, was born and raised on this property.  His parents were early residents who, like many pioneers, helped Israel stake out territory for the eventual drawing of the country’s boundaries.  After World War II,  citizens of Hungary and Romania came as a part of the Jewish Youth Movement.  Some were Holocaust survivors.  .

As was customary, Kibbutz Maagan began with agriculture, relying on all residents to help in the fields.  This program was instrumental in turning the desert lands of Israel into many productive fields and orchards.  Throughout the Jewish world in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, speakers and rabbis encouraged young adults to volunteer and work at a kibbutz in the new country. We heard many such stories.  Eli met his wife who came from Holland to work at Maagan.    Our native Zimbabwean guide in Jerusalem started her life in Israel on a kibbutz.  A family friend from Ohio also met her Russian husband on a kibbutz and now lives in Israel with her family.  The kibbutz served as the Facebook of its time, connecting Jews from all parts of the globe.

Communal bicycles

It also tested the idea of a socialist economy on a small scale.  The first model had three principles – equal income, no private property, and direct democracy.  Eli and his wife raised their three children on the kibbutz.  Although Eli had lived apart from his parents at a children’s house, their children remained in their home.  School was held on the premises and children were expected to work.

The big changes at this kibbutz occurred six years ago. The commune was losing members.  Individuals wanted their own cars, homes and careers.   None of Eli’s children remained on the kibbutz.  After a passionate vote, rules changed.   Salaries are no longer equal although there is a minimum wage.   A member can earn more if they work longer or have a better job.  They can now work outside the kibbutz. And each family has its own budget. Major decisions for the kibbutz are still made by direct vote from each member but day to day ones are controlled by an economic manager and a social one.

Workshop Participant

Communal laundry

Elderly Workshop Gifts 

Vestiges of the socialist era remain – a common dining room, laundry room, daycare, and a workshop for elderly people.  Bicycles are scattered around for anyone’s use.  Sadly,  no more young volunteers work there. As Eli commented “paid employees stay longer”.  Some of the members continue to farm 400 acres for bananas, avocados, and grapefruit but most of their income is from the Kibbutz Maagan Holiday Village hotel where we stayed.  Eli now works with Christian and Jewish companies in the United States who sponsor tours of Israel and send their filled buses to the hotel. From Maagan, many holy and historical sites are available.  Since membership is no longer required to stay on the kibbutz, many students from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem attend a nearby university, work at the hotel, and rent an apartment on the kibbutz.

Buses in front of hotel

Maagan is not alone in making changes.  Today, only 15% of the country’s Kibbutz membership work in agriculture.  Laborers from Thailand now pick the crops. Some kibbutzim have branched into such businesses as diamond cutting, drip irrigation systems, plastic and medical tools, and even a Naot shoe store down the street from our kibbutz.  Many own hotels.  And despite their small number (only 1.5 % of the Israeli population), kibbutzim produce 9 % of the country’s industrial production as well as one half of its milk and 40% of its agriculture production.

Front yard of kibbutz home
Renovated kitchen

As Eli led us toward a line of duplexes that faced the Sea of Galilee, a woman waved us into her home.  Her front yard was filled with flowers and the door open to the cool morning air.  Inside, she proudly pointed out her newly renovated kitchen and introduced her husband who was just finishing breakfast.  They laughed easily, especially about us getting to meet real live kibbutz residents.  Both were artists and sold their sculptures and handbags in the marketplace.  They clearly enjoyed the beautiful, communal setting and were thriving in its new economy.

Eli smiled warily as we left.  He loved growing up on the kibbutz and raising his family there.  But he knew the changes were necessary.  Encouraged by the slight up-tick in members since the rules were revised,  the kibbutz expects more will be enticed to work there. Maybe even Eli’s grandchildren will continue this century old tradition.  He can only hope so.

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The Mayan Riviera 36 Years Later

I last visited  Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in 1975, when my husband and I spent our honeymoon there.  We were poor, ill-prepared and rode buses to the ruins of Chichen Itza and slept in hammocks at Isla Mujeres.  Since development at Cancun only began in 1970, there were just a handful of hotels and about that many tourists.  When I returned this summer to the now named Mayan Riviera for a family wedding, I was dumbstruck by the changes.

Our Continental flight from Houston was filled with summer clad tourists who happily accepted the offer of beer or Margaritas in the air.  At the Cancun Airport, the control tower was even wrapped in a large ad for Corona beer.  Planes from around the world nosed into their gates –   Air Canada, Air Cubana, and even the English Thomas Cook charter known for packaged holiday tours.  Twelve American airlines and thirty-one foreign ones now serve this very busy, modern airport where English is the first language of announcements.  An enormous customs hall filled with agents processed the approximately 1,000 arriving travelers within 30 minutes.

Outside, a squadron of white-shirted tour representatives held  placards as they searched for their named tourists.  Fortunately, mine was in a red shirt and easy to spot.  We chatted while awaiting the emergence of my sister-in-law. He felt about half the tourists came from Europe and half from the United States and Canada.  It had been slower this year, he said, but that was hard for me to gauge.  I did note the outdoor bar for those who just couldn’t wait.

The drive from the airport to our resort was along the four lane Highway 307 linking the 79 miles from Cancun through Playa del Carmen to Tulum in the south.  Spread along this road were literally hundreds of hotels and resorts.  Trip Advisor lists 258 hotels in the area.  Some are for adults only, others have great children’s programs, many are all inclusive and a few are for budget minded travelers.  The larger hotels cover acres and have pyramids peering over the trees.  One driver described them as “pueblitas” or little towns.

Security is a major concern today even though this area has not seen the crime waves reported in other parts of Mexico.  But the hotels take it seriously.  At each of the resorts for the two couples in our van, a guard at the gate checked the guest list before allowing us through.

Our resort, the Royal Playa del Carmen, faces the beach in the middle of the town of Playa del Carmen.  While it had no gate, security was heavy around the large driveway. We also saw policemen patrolling the area with regularity and even one handcuffed man being whisked away.  But there was never a moment that we felt at risk, even as we strolled the streets of the town.

Our hotel shone with  marbled floors, manicured lawns, numerous swimming pools and was filled with approximately 1500 friendly, hard-working employees who greeted us with “hola” and a hand over their heart.  It was a far cry from our motel at Chichen Itza years ago where we were just happy to have air conditioning.  This was also my first “all inclusive” experience and I could get used to ordering freely from the menu and not having to calculate tips after every meal. The choices were international with many fusion dishes but the portions small.  If you were still hungry, just order another course – which was true of the weak drinks they served.

Destination weddings are increasingly popular because of the romantic settings, reduced costs and  shortened guest list.  At our niece’s lovely wedding, we enjoyed  a familiar ritual in a tropical setting.  White gauze entwined the ocean front wedding gazebo where I had enjoyed a yoga session that morning.  Chairs with white covers were arranged on two sides of the aisle and parasols available for those in the sun.  The groom’s brother-in-law officiated even though he had no real power. The bridal couple had married in a civil ceremony in California before coming.  Evidence of our presence south of the border were numerous. Throughout the service and dinner reception, live and recorded music played from a harpist, Mariachi band, and a great DJ.   Groomsmen wore white Mexican shirts and sandals and sunglasses soothed the eyes of guests.  The wedding party had shots of tequila after the service while the hors d’oeuvres displayed all the wonderful fresh fruit and flowers available in those parts.

The resorts on the Mayan Riviera do provide a relaxing environment to eat, drink, sun, swim as well as marry.  Although the quality of lodging has changed significantly since our first trip there, the clear blue-green waters and white beaches haven’t.  I’ve long noticed how few Americans are traveling in the out-of-the way places I frequent.  But I found them on the beaches of Mexico, enjoying a taste of luxury at reasonable prices.

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Marilyn Stephenson’s Path to Paris, Texas

Marilyn in front of her apartment with the Army Flag

This is the second in an occasional series of stories about people traveling TO Paris, Texas to live.

Marilyn Stephenson is easy to spot in the winter.  She wears a Tyrolean hat from Bavaria tightly pulled over her military haircut.  Summer finds her in t-shirts and comfortable shoes.  Her gate is forward and deliberate, and she speaks with Army punctuated precision just as a retired sergeant should.  It’s clear from her accent she’s not from these parts.  But her path to Paris is a story of American mobility.

Originally from Crown Point, Indiana, of bank robber Dillinger escape fame, Marilyn comes from a family of three daughters.  After attending college for two years, she headed to California where she worked in a small IBM department.  As she points out, there were no women supervisors then and she was released after five years.  The military beckoned but her age was a problem.  At 32, she was too old to be in the Navy but not the Army which she joined on July 6, 1967.   Training was separate through the Women’s Army Corps in Ft. McPherson, Alabama.

During her 20 years of service, Marilyn was posted from California to the Pentagon and three times in Europe. Her first ten years were spent as a communications specialist where she “pushed messages”, learning to read the holes in  teletype messages that arrived from all over the world.  This was a typical placement for women at the time.  After emerging from  NCO training as Staff Sergeant, she had eight men under her who didn’t know what to expect from a woman leader.  She told them,  “See these stripes.  They’re brand new.  I worked for this promotion.  I didn’t brown nose anyone and I’m not losing these stripes for any of you.  If you’re concerned about a woman supervisor, let me know.  I don’t want you working for me”.  All the men stayed.  When the work at the Pentagon got tedious, she asked to change to a chaplain’s assistant.

Marilyn’s medals

In her new position, she was again among mostly men.  Marilyn got to go into the field and even participated in war games in Germany.  The primary duty of the troops there was to be prepared to “fold the gap when the Russians came.” At that time, it wasn’t a question of “if” but “when” the Russians tried to penetrate the Alps.  She served abroad three times in Germany and Belgium  between 1972 and 1981 and served at Grafenver with the 3rd Armor Tank Division (Patton’s old unit) on her last tour.

A chaplain’s assistant’s job is more varied than you would first imagine.  Marilyn tells stories of weddings that tried to derail, including one in which she had to sew the groom’s pants shut because of an unfortunate tear.  Because she was in charge of all chaplains’ assistants in Europe,  Marilyn made herself useful.  Before computers, she used cards to keep track of when each chaplain was leaving so she could be sure of an easy and smooth replacement.  Marilyn served as the highest ranking enlisted officer in the division.

After leaving the military in 1987, she lived in Ft. Monroe, Virginia until 1998 when she returned to California. She bought a truck and 5th wheeler and traveled all over the country.  Marilyn’s next door neighbors in California were Sam and Marc Williams.  Marc drove a long distance truck for Schneider trucking and had seen the United States from the highways.  He always said he wanted to retire to Paris, Texas because it was a nice little town that would be perfect for his later years. When he and his wife finally moved, Marilyn decided to come, too – sight unseen.

They all arrived in Paris in 2003 and Marilyn jumped in. Her activities have included Prime Time, art lessons, music lessons, Red Hat Society, lay reader for Holy Cross Episcopal church, domino player, and exercise classes and trips through Prime Time.  She believes there’s something to Texas hospitality although she had a hard time understanding our accent upon arrival. She notes people are very friendly here.   “Nobody says hello in California.”

When the Chamber of Commerce promotes Paris as a great place to retire, Marilyn could be the poster child.  She came without knowing anything about us, was greeted with open arms, and decided to stay and to participate. She’s proof that America’s mobility can benefit Lamar County.

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Red River County is old.  Prior to settlers moving west to Texas, Caddo Indians passed often over the gentle hills and even stayed a while in villages.  The Spaniards didn’t pay much attention but early settlers crossed the Red River on their way to all that free land in Texas.  Five signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence represented the Red River District at the Washington on the Brazos conference.  William Becknell (1788-1856), father of the Santa Fe Trail and first to take a wagon trail across the country’s interior, is buried west of town in the middle of a pasture. Over 200 cemeteries are listed on the Historic Texas Cemetery website.  It is no surprise then to find that much of what Clarksville and Red River County has to offer the traveler is history.  There are some nice restaurants interspersed.

1.  First Presbyterian Church, Clarksville, is the oldest, continuously operating Protestant church in Texas.  Considering how many protestant churches there are in Texas, that’s quite an honor.  The church is well maintained and has the side Corley Family Chapel with stain glass windows made by the Jacoby glass company.   Check with Jim Clark 903.427.2266 to gain entry. 106 S. Pecan Street

2.  The Red River County Courthouse.  What I can say?  This beautiful structure is as close to the Italian Renaissance as you’ll find in these parts.  Built in 1884 from yellow stone cut from a quarry 45 miles away, it was beautiful for its time and beautiful now.  Thanks to a renovation in 2003, the courthouse shines.  Inside, the hallways creak with original wood and that winding staircase leads you to one of the most authentic, historical district courtrooms in Texas.  And just down the street is the museum at the Old Jail  built in 1887 which provides a glimpse into penal conditions of the 1800s.  Courthouse – open 9:00 to 5 –  Monday to Thursday.  Contact Jim Clark to see Old Jail.

3.  Coleman’s BBQ is not on the main drag.  You’ll find it by the pick-ups parked outside at noon. Begun in 1972 by the Coleman Family, it’s been serving great Texas Bar-B-Q to locals of all colors and classes.  But the inside secret is they also make wonderful tamales which my family has enjoyed on Christmas Eve for years.  604 North Donoho Street. 903-427-3131

4. Built in 1833, three years before Texas Independence, the DeMorse House is the oldest building in this old town.  It is a two room log cabin and housed Colonel Charles DeMorse, the father of Texas journalism.  Writers of Texas history in the 1800s refer often to the Clarksville Standard, which DeMorse founded as the Northern Standard in 1842. It was one of Texas’ most influential newspapers.   A drive-by tour is all that is available at this time.  Located at 115 East Comanche Street.

5.  Even the country club is old here.  The Clarksville Country Club was built in 1920 and hosts a beautiful nine hole golf course.  There are no reviews of this golf course on the PGA web site but Northeast Texans consider it a hidden gem.  Green fees vary from $26 to $39 and the course is open to the public. Four miles north of Clarksville on Highway 37

6.  Wildcat Creek Quail Hunting Lodge.  Opened just two years ago, this lodge is attracting much attention.  Whether you want to hunt quail, pheasant, deer or turkey,  or simply enjoy a generous four course, fixed price evening meal, the staff is eager to serve you.  Chef David will visit at your table and even describe the thrill of getting a turkey with a seven inch beard.  You don’t have to be a hunter to enjoy the drive in the country, the high quality meal, or the chef.Wildcat Creek Quail Hunting Lodge

7.  Lennox House  The Lennox family were the  Rothschilds of Clarksville and Red River County, having extensive land and bank holdings.  The three siblings of Bagby, David, and Martha Lennox lived in the same house for most of their lives.  At their death, the home was given to the Red River Historical Society.  It is beautifully restored and used for special events.  Jim Clark can arrange a tour. 601 West Broadway.

8.  Located on the recently renovated downtown square, the Italian Bistro is a welcome food option in these parts.  The menu is authentic and the price reasonable.  You’ll also meet many locals if you dine here.  The owners, Alek and Aurora Lleshi, are friendly and available and will make any accommodations possible.  Drop in after shopping the great antique stores on the square. 106 North Walnut Street.

9.   If you enjoy nature, north of town is the Martha Lennox Memorial Nature Trail, located on a pristine old-growth forest and donated to The Nature Conservancy by the Lennox family. The Trail is a mile and a half loop that takes you under trees and over logs and from low, wetlands to highlands.   You don’t have to be able to recognize a Lady Slipper Orchid or a white oak to enjoy the woods.   Local Master Naturalists have provided markers naming various plants and trees.  For visual learners,  there’s even a picture of the identified plant. Call John Nichols for a tour – 903.427.5279. Lennox Woods

10. Trees. I mean it.  Red River County has seven state champion trees on the Big Tree Registry maintained by the Texas Forestry Service, all on the Sulphur River.  These include the Mimosa (silk) tree, the Nutmeg Hickory, and the Eastern Redbud.   While I can’t give you directions to these particular trees, the countryside of Red River County is a hidden gem. Try driving north of Detroit on FM 410 and 195 or wander around FM 909, 44 or 1487, in the south of the county. The ranches are massive and the trees large.  It’s well worth an outing.

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Jill Gila Rosenfield – Israeli Guide Extraordinaire

I had heard jokes about the number of guides in Israel as in “everyone in Jerusalem is a tour guide”.   There are reputed to be over 10,000 licensed guides in Israel. That same percentage for the United States would equal about 350,000 guides!  I didn’t appreciate the “licensed” part of the title until meeting our guide, Gila Rosenfield.

Gila was recommended  by a mutual friend  which is how most clients come to her – by referrals.  She is, actually, a typical guide who was raised in a Zionist family outside Israel (Zimbabwe), came there in her 20s to work on a kibbutz, and stayed.  After six months, she moved to Jerusalem to teach.  As she noted, “socialism sounds better as an idea than in practice.”    When a friend encouraged her to be a tour guide, Gila applied and was accepted into the Ministry of Tourism’s School of Tourism.

This is a two year program that is anything but easy. A psychological exam is given before admitting a student.  And then the courses are intense.  Here is a description of the required subjects: “These are quite intensive and difficult studies including: prehistory, ancient and middle ages, the modern State of Israel and the region, and all nations that lived there in the past. … Israel tour guides need to be versed in basic archeology, geology, climate, flora and fauna, ornithology, architecture, zoology, etc. In the school, Israel tour guides study the legal system of the past and present. Hundreds of study days in the field accompany the course work … as well as exams.” Jewish, Christian, and Muslim guides are all required to be licensed.

Gila took the courses while still teaching kindergarten.  After being certified, she used her school sabbatical to try her hand at guiding.  Not only could she make more money, but Gila thrived on sharing her immense knowledge with foreign visitors.  Fifteen years later, we benefitted from her studies and enthusiasm.

 Each morning, Gila arrived with her satchel full of study aids for that day’s sites.  She was sensitive to the fact that she was Jewish and we were Christians.  On the first day, we followed the Stations of the Cross.  Gila was careful about describing what could actually be proved and what required the Jerusalem phrases “it is believed” and “if you believe it, it is true.”  Since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the Old Testament, Gila could also easily point out Old Testament sites and help us with the history of the First and Second Temples.  We passed through the Muslim, Christian, and Armenians quarters that day.

On the second day, we moved into the Jewish quarter and delved more deeply into archeology – a very political subject.  Gila stays up with the latest news through an online magazine and newsletter called Biblical Archeology Review (  She was well aware of the great archeological divide between the skepticism of the secular Tel Aviv Archeologist, Israel Finkelstein, and others who are convinced they have found proof of David’s palace in recent discoveries.  Intense excavation under the Jewish Quarter after the destruction from the 1967 War has revealed many details of life two thousand years ago.

Current day digs continue in the City of David area just outside the Old City walls.  We were reminded of the fairness of our guide as we exited the excavation area.  Two young women, one Jewish and the other Arab, were handing out pamphlets warning “What your tour guide is not telling you”.  Much of that site’s excavation was happening under Palestinian homes whose residents were fearful of cave-ins but who couldn’t afford to sell.   Fortunately, Gila had already educated us on that issue and she made sure the protestors knew that.

As with any good guide, we were able to ask Gila anything about modern day Israel and she answered honestly.  There were parts of life in Israel that frustrated her such as the stronghold that the conservative Haredim families have on the government and its dole and the lack of compensation for Palestinian families after the ‘67 war.   Yet, she would be nowhere else.  She talked proudly of “when we united Jerusalem” and of how life goes on in Israel despite the pressure surrounding it.

At the end of our last day with her, Gila took us to the literal center of Jerusalem, a second floor walkway that had been built over the old Roman Cardo street. She pointed out the Arab quarter with flat roofs and TV dishes, the slanted, tiled roofs of the Christian quarter that were modeled after European homes, the small hidden Armenian quarter, and the Jewish quarter dominated by its beautiful new synagogue.  As we rested, the call to prayer began in stereo sound around us from many minarets.  Gila then read about Jerusalem in Psalm 87 as translated by our mutual friend, Lynn Bauman.  “ You see, it is a homeland, a sacred birthing place, for all people across the world.  And there God’s presence dwells, and draws them in, and makes them all her own.  So each soul leaves that place a singer and a dancer, saying ‘All my fresh, creative springs flow out of you, my Mother.”  Thanks to Gila, we left Jerusalem better informed, sympathetic and a singer and a dancer.

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On Jordan’s Roads and Highways

Bedoin Tents

Jordan is a small country carved out of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference after World War I.  The current King Abdullah, of the Hashemite family,  is a descendent of King Abdullah who first ruled the new country.  It is still proud of its Bedouin heritage – those tribes that roamed the deserts and fought fiercely.  While most of its people live in Amman and other cities, Jordan’s countryside reveals a bygone time as well as the country’s emerging economy.

We crossed from Israel at the Allenby/King Hussein bridge, a tedious procedure through seven checkpoints that cost two hours going and three hours back. When we finally got on the road to Petra, our driver, Moreed, maneuvered the back roads along the Jordan river. Tents of modern day Bedouins still dotted the landscape but were now also made of canvas, thatched grass, cardboard, plastic sheets and newspaper as well as the traditional woven goat’s hair.  Rock cairns marked a shepherd’s grazing field.    In May, the tribes load their pick-ups and move to the cooler high altitudes in the near-by mountains.  Camels are still raised for meat, not travel.  Our driver insisted their meat had medicinal value as Bedouins didn’t have cancer! When we stopped to photograph the sheep and goats, a shepherd in modern day pants and jacket asked if he could brew us some tea from the makings in his pack.  We reluctantly declined.

Also in the lower elevation were irrigated  fields of vegetables and fruits.  At the end of a row, the neighboring dry desert land lay fallow.  Further down the highway were orchards of medicinal herbs and aromatic plants that provide two per cent of  Jordan’s exports.  The Hawthorne tree is one example whose products are reported to reduce blood pressure and treat heart ailments.

Dead Sea on Jordan side

Soon, the Dead Sea approached with its deep blue-green colors and white salt crystal beaches.  Jordan has a major development of high-end hotels along these waters. Marriott, Crowne Plaza, and even the Holiday Inn are just some of the chains that have built large facilities with beaches, pools, spas, and restaurants.  The Dead Sea water is buoyant enough to sit up and even read a newspaper.  ts minerals make the water silky and the temperature is perfect for a refreshing float. Jordan is far ahead of Israel in promoting the Dead Sea as a resort destination. At the end of the Dead Sea,  factories mine potash and salt from the water – all for export.

One of many pictures of
King Abdulla

Turning east, we began the climb through a moonscape of dry mountains with our lone road providing the only color contrast.  At the top of the ridge, an outpost straight out of Star Wars sported a photo of King Abdullah, rug covered benches, and the head of a gazelle. A  turbaned Arab in his jallabiya robe, offered drinks as he lounged on his black leather couch under the thatched porch.  Only the TV dish and refrigerator betrayed the scene as current.

Crusade Castle at Kerak

We soon turned onto The King’s Highway, one of Jordan’s two north-south corridors.  The road dates back to Biblical times when Moses lead his people to first see the promised land at Mt. Nebo.  If accompanied on this highway by a Bible, Koran,  history book, and a good archeologist, one could check off Biblical sites, Roman fortresses, the massive Crusader castle at Kerak, fine Christian mosaics, a 1918  battle site for Arab Independence at Al Tafilah, early Islamic towns, a Shia holy shrine and the Nabataean capital of Petra.  Add in the geological wonder of the Wadi Mujib, Jordan’s Grand Canyon, and your Jordan bucket list just got smaller.

Water pipes being installed

Coming off the central mountain ridge, we joined the Desert Highway, the primary four-lane, commercial freeway from Amman to Aqaba at the Red Sea.  Immediately, we were surrounded by trucks moving freight to and from the port.  Signs for Iraq and Saudi Arabia reminded us of their proximity.    Despite the barren land, efforts were being made to beautify the road with patches of newly planted bushes, watered by small, elevated tanks.  Alongside the road was an incongruent scene of large pipes being buried to transfer sweet, subterranean water from the desert to Amman.

We passed several security checks for drivers’ licenses, an opportunity for the policemen to rib our driver about being with three women.   Bedecked Bedouin drivers passed us in their pickups talking on their cell phones, a notable change from camels of the past.    Yet we were still advised to watch for the “ships of the desert” on the road.  And signs of the past included a decaying Turkish fort and an army base made sparse by the abolition of the draft in 1978.

During our four short days on the road, Jordan’s past and present were on display. From the busy Red Sea port of Aqaba through the historical Wadi Rum desert of Lawrence of Arabia fame, to the pink carved sandstone of Petra, the small country is capitalizing on its beauty, history, and geography.  Its economy benefits from the trucks and the tour buses – an alliance that serves this petroleum absent country well and tourists most.

United Travel Agency (UTA)  is a good, long serving company for your travel needs.  United Travel Agency Jordan  Ask for Moreed as your driver.


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Israel – Tourists Welcome as Life Goes On

“Israel and Jordan” I would reply to inquiries of my next trip.  What followed were wide eyes, momentary silence, and the following “Aren’t you afraid?”.  The last question is a product of our instant, sensational news programming.  Statistically, I was in no more danger traveling to Israel than a quick trip to Dallas.  Other than references to Foreign Terrorists Organizations and sudden Israeli crack-downs in the West Bank, the U.S. State Department could only warn travelers to Israel about car break-ins and an occasional purse snatching. And, despite the Middle East turmoil, the State Department warnings haven’t changed since last year. Yet,  many visitors still hesitate to come.

One obvious difference between a trip to Dallas and one to Tel Aviv is the lack of an underlying, simmering tension among Israel, the Palestinians, and neighboring states.  Stories that appear in international papers are frightening.  Just two weeks before we were scheduled to depart, an Israeli family in a West Bank settlement was murdered at night in their home. For the first time in four years, a bomb went off at the bus station in Jerusalem and one person killed.  And rocket missiles were once again being fired from Gaza into southern Israel.

I wrote our contacts in Israel, asking if we should be concerned.  Our landlady’s response – “Not at all”, our friend’s answer – “Not enough to cancel”, and our guide’s thoughtful reply “Of course this attack brings back fears but we Israelis try not let  atrocities like this change our lives…  so life pretty much carries on as normal.  Due to the attack, people are being more vigilant and careful and there is heightened security around and one hopes and prays that it is an isolated incident. At this stage, I don’t think you need to change your plans. ”

We didn’t change our plans and arrived at the Ben Gurion airport on a beautiful day in April.    In the next two weeks, we saw much of Israel and in particular, Jerusalem, but few crowds of tourists.  Never did we feel in danger.   If we hadn’t occasionally read the the Jerusalem Post, we would not have been aware that a Gazan missile had killed a child in a school bus.  Nor would we have known that Israel had inaugurated the use of a portable anti-missile machine used to knock down the missiles from Gaza before they landed.  Life simply went on in Israel.  We even had some Israelis confess they didn’t listen to the news at all because it wouldn’t change how they lived their lives and only made them anxious.

Israel is careful.  The country was on high alert for the Easter and Passover holidays.  Threats had been made of planned  kidnaping.  Security was particularly high in Jerusalem.  This meant a pumped-up armed army presence at holy sites, entrances, and bus stations.  Yet the soldiers still posed for pictures with the tourists. I watched one army unit casually eat at a snack bar near a major archeological site.  And on a Saturday night of R&R, a group of uniformed women enlistees walked down the street singing and carrying their fashionable purses.

This determination to continue normal life was most evident one late afternoon.  We had visited the old city of Acre, filled with Crusader churches, views of the Mediterranean  and a living Arab presence.  Fifteen minutes away was the Lebanese  border where a tourist attraction beckoned.   A cable car carried visitors down to the sea to view the beautiful grottos formed at the base of the cliff.  Upon arrival, we spotted Israeli soldiers atop the cliff keeping watch over Israel and Lebanon.  The road literally ended at the cable car parking lot.  Below were farms, homes, and the grotto. We visited with an Israeli family who lived down the road and was just out for the evening. Yet, I had read recently that Hezbollah was accumulating rockets just inside Lebanon to use against Israel, literally a stones throw away.  This fact made little difference on that Saturday outing.  Life went on and so did we.

The turmoil in the Middle East does worry Israelis and hurts business.  Some see it as a good time to solve the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians who are also affected by the drop-off in tourism.  When we visited the Palestinian West Bank city of Bethlehem, we had to take a taxi on the Jerusalem side to the security wall that now separates the two cities.  After clearing security,  a Palestinian taxi driver drove us to the Church of the Nativity.  On a Palm Sunday, when thousands of pilgrims should be gathered outside the church, we walked in the door without waiting.  The slowdown in tourism in the Palestinian areas is attributable to the concern about the Middle East and a hesitancy by visitors to cross the security wall.  Yet the Palestinian police are trained by us!  We were treated well, never felt in danger and wished we could have stayed longer.

Humans have a hard time ignoring sensational news.  One death from a missile in southern Israel is far more intimidating than many deaths from drug related fights in south Los Angeles. Our emotions want to ignore the numbers that prove Israel and the West Bank are as safe as the United States to visit.  Could the Middle East erupt in a war while you visit?  Of course, but what are the chances, really?  The wonderful travel writer, Paul Thereoux, recently wrote a piece in the New York Times called “Why We Travel” .  He has found that in almost every case, the “know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger’s” advice  not go to a distant place has been bad advice.  I returned from Israel with a greater understanding of my Christian heritage, the Jewish/Palestinian conflict,  the geography of the Holy Land, and a love of pomegranates.  And, I found one thing  Israelis and Palestinians can agree on- they want the tourists to visit.

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Quebec’s Economuseums – Enlightened Contributions to Cultural Tourism Will Entertain the Family

“We protect the know-how”, our guide explained.  This summed up the goal of Quebec’s  Economuseum system. Begun in 1992, this network safeguards knowledge of ancient trades such as blacksmith forging, bread baking, cheese making, and apple cider production. Today,  51 handicraft and agri-food trade businesses promote the crafts by opening up their work-in-progress to public view and selling the finished  products. Families can easily combine vacation and education by exploring these examples of life in the past.

Most are in Quebec province.  To be a member, the artisan must use traditional methods but be open to new and creative uses of the craft.   Those who qualify proudly display the “Economusee” designation on their signs – in French, of course.

The economuseums vary greatly in size and offerings. Many charge for an informative tour and demonstration.   On the lovely Ile d’Orleans, near Quebec City, La Forge a Pique-Assaut is a blacksmith shop open for touring and viewing.  Using the same techniques that originally produced tools, horseshoes, and machines, Guy Bell and his assistant now create an array of beautiful wrought iron work for the home – furnishings, stair railings, and decorative pieces.

On the opposite side of the island, a wonderful Creme de Cassis is produced by the Monna family using local black currants.  The liqueur is mixed with white wine or champagne for the traditional French Kir apertif.  Recipes are provided to allow experimentation, including a Cassis Margarita – a new and creative use of an old craft.

Down the road in Charlevoix,  artistic heart of Quebec Province, papermakers at Papeterie Saint-Gilles stay busy dipping, pressing, separating, and drying sheets of cotton paper for elegant stationery.  Across the St. Lawrence River, at Les Moulins de L’isle Aux-Coudres, wheat is ground by a watermill fed by an old-fashioned mill pond.  We learned the success of this operation depended on a perfectly set and scraped 2,000 pound grindstone as well as the right direction and amount of wind.  If all is lined up properly, 450 pounds of flour can be ground in one hour.  Children will enjoy exploring the grounds of the mill.    Flour and breads are available for purchase.

The largest Economusee we visited was the Laterie Charlevoix where dairy products have been produced since 1948 by the Labbe family.  Traditional and experimental cheeses are now the emphasis.  All stages of cheesemaking are on view with a tour as well as a sampling of the products. The cheddar curds are used in ‘potin’, a Quebecan concoction of  french fries topped with cheddar curds and gravy.  With great names such as  L’Hercule de Charlevoix, their cheeses are sold onsite and sell out everyday.

A “traditional”  museum on the grounds gives a fine history of milk production and its delivery system.  The collection of 600 different  milk bottles is small by American standards but still impressive. On a busy summer day, 2000 tourists will visit the Laterie, including many families.

We were only able to sample a few of the economuseums but it was enough to appreciate the effort being made to protect ancient arts and trades.  Blacksmith shops, cheese creameries and paper mills are now inter-active museums as well as studios for production of traditional trades.    The result has been good for creativity, protection of ancient crafts, education of students, and for family tourism.

Maybe Northeast Texas could explore this new idea of what a museum should look like.  We have dairies, blacksmiths, winemakers, coffee roasters, quiltmakers, and other ancient trades still being practiced here.  It would be a great regional project and families would appreciate the opportunity to have fun while learning a thing or two.

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