Mary Clark, Traveler

Hot Air Balloon – History and Use in Tourism

I first noticed the hot air balloon option for tourists at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  These extensive thousand year old ruins spread over 40 miles with the tallest peaking out over the surrounding jungle.  It’s hard to grasp the extend of the temples without an aerial view.  But what ascends must descend and landing in the dense vegetation could be painful.  The solution was a tethered balloon that rises straight up and hovers while riders enjoy temples from above.  It peaked my interest in a transportation form that has been around for over two hundred years. Thanks to the beautiful Hot Air Balloon Museum in Albuquerque, officially known as Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, I learned much more of the balloon’s history.

A duck, sheep and rooster were the first passengers in an hot air balloon launch attended by over 100,000 people in France in 1783.   The Montgolfier brothers thought it smoke that lifted the balloon and so used old leather shoes and rotten meat for the fire.  In the same year, helium was first used to lift the gondola or basket.  Those two sources of power (lifting) are still in use – the helium gas system for long distance trips and hot air for short rides.

Hot air balloons rise and fall depending on how much hot air is heated into or released from the “envelope” as the balloon is called.  There have been improvements over the years, the most important one coming in 1950 when Ed Yost invented the propane system.  Ed Yost site This made the journey much safer and more reliable, thus opening up widespread use of the balloon for war time and  strategic observation, photography, monitoring weather, and frivolity.

Helium powered balloons manage their altitude with ballasts – heavy weights that are tossed when the balloon gets too low –  and a valve to release gas if too high.  The records set by helium balloons are really quite recent.  First Crossing of the Atlantic – 1978.  First crossing of the Pacific – 1981.  First trip around the world without stopping – 1999. And first solo trip around by world in 2002 by Steve Fossett.

As interest grew in the sport, festivals sprouted.  Albuquerque’s International Balloon festival in September is one of the world’s largest with participant cut-off at 500 balloonists. At the museum, I visited with Tom Fisher, who took up ballooning after retirement 15 years ago. Fisher enjoys going up in Albuquerque because of the famous “Albuquerque Box.”  With mountains on both sides of the city and a southerly air stream at sunrise, an inflated balloon can travel south, be pushed to the west, rise up to warmer air heading north, and drop back east to the beginning – a box like figure.  International pilots love the box and thus the fame of the festival.

Tom gave some basic information.  “If you go up, you must come down”, thus the need to check weather first.    Eight to ten miles per hours is the maximum wind to fly, with no wind the preference.   “Light and variable winds” is a good forecast for launching.  Since wind currents are invisible, a small balloon called a pibal can be sent out to determine where air is flowing. Balloons also fly like a porpoise to find wind direction.   Wires are the major source of injury. In the United States, all pilots must be licensed by FAA and the balloon inspected every other year.  And never say “blow up” a balloon.  Inflate is the proper verb.

The museum offers a simulated ride in which you can guide the balloon by pulling one cord to go up and a second to descend.  There’s no such thing as a left or right turn unless the air currents take you there. Even with Tom’s advice, I still missed my target as I gained appreciation for the challenges of directing a balloon.

It’s easy to understand the widespread use of balloons in tourist areas, especially deserts where landings can be softer.  Balloon rides are advertised in the Wadi Rum sands of Lawrence of Arabia fame and are a well used option at Cappadocia  in central Turkey.  Balloons hover over Sedona, Arizona in the early mornings.  And they can take you over the Galilean hills of Israel, the southern Alps of New Zealand, and the red city of Jaipur in Rajasthan, India.  But for the many who will not be witnessing ruins  by air, the Albuquerque Balloon Museum gives an appreciation of the sport without a hard landing.

Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Museum

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Journey from Vietnam to Northeast Texas

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in Can Tho

This is one in a series of occasional stories about people traveling TO Northeast Texas to live.  Their journeys are as varied as their states and countries.

If you want to learn Vietnamese in the United States, a place to practice is in the many nail salons owned by Vietnamese immigrants.  All of them have family stories of their journeys to the United States.  But few are as dramatic as that of Northeast Texas residents, T.C. Nguyen  and his wife, T.P. Nguyen (pseudonyms  by request), who have separate tales to tell of their passage to America.

A native of Saigon, T.C. Nguyen  joined the South Vietnamese Army at age 17 and spent time as a prisoner of war with the North Vietnamese.  After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Mr. Nguyen was sent to a re-education camp where he lost weight – down to 100 pounds.   In 1979, he made the hard decision to escape in order to get an education.  Leading 47 others,  Nguyen used a fishing boat to arrive in Malaysia, spending almost two years in a refugee camp.  The United States Catholic Relief service sponsored his move to the States in 1981 where he arrived on a cold evening in San Francisco dressed only in shorts and a shirt.

Serious about the opportunity to obtain education, Mr.  Nguyen earned his PhD in Applied Management and Decision Sciences from Walden University (Laureate International Universities) in 1996.   Despite offers to join the CIA and FBI, he worked in the corporate world, his last stint with a Fortune 500 company.  He married T.P. Nguyen 11 years ago, a second marriage for both.

Mrs.  Nguyen’s family was wealthy.  Her father owned a big business in Saigon that was dismantled by the communists when the city fell in 1975.   Her family managed to escape by boat but she decided to stay even though only 16 years old.  She wanted to protect the family home and to believe in the world the Communists described.

The reform policies launched in Vietnam in 1986 known as Doi Moi, translated literally as “reform”, brought profound changes to the country — rescuing it from the failures of central planning and self-isolation adopted after unification of the country in 1975. In 1992, Mrs.  Nguyen invested almost $1million into building low income housing and schools.    But even under the reform movement, a 30% bribe was expected which she refused to pay,  making it hard to get reimbursed by the government for work completed.  Eventually, Mrs.  Nguyen lost the entire investment.

Mrs.  Nguyen didn’t talk to her family for 15 years because phone connections were not allowed by the United States into Vietnam.  After diplomatic relations opened up, her family could sponsor her.  She came twice to the U.S., the second time in 1998.

The discussion with Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen became more complicated when we talked politics. All in Vietnam fear China. The United States just announced a new Asian policy that concentrates on empowering the other countries of SE Asia to check China’s growing military power by becoming stronger economically and militarily.  T.C. Nguyen likens this to an old fairy tale in which a monkey is gradually taken down by the tightening noose around its neck.  He thinks the United States is focusing on the right place now and considers Secretary of State Clinton as one of the best Secretaries our country has ever had.

 Both want Vietnam to continue to improve but the elite of the Communist Party control the economy for 90 million people and make most of the money.  State Owned Enterprises (SOE) are still 40 % of GDP and with their inherent inefficiency, burn through billions of dollars.  T.C. Nguyen has written extensively on the need for reform, including several books published in Vietnam.  He bemoans the mismanagement of Vinashin, an SOE created to build ships, whose chairman just received a 20 year jail sentence for violating economic management regulations.

With his PHD in Economics and extensive writings on economics, finance, management and politics, Mr. Nguyen is in a unique position to give advice to reformers in Vietnam, including the Communist Party.  Some recommendations are obvious – the constitution must allow more than the one communist political party.  Open the internet to all.  State Owned Enterprises should be sold.  With 53% of the population still working in agriculture, T.C. Nguyen knows the economy must evolve much more towards technology to bring up the standard of living for all Vietnamese.

T.C. Nguyen’s writings help free himself “from the haunted past” and use his “pain and tongue”to move Vietnam forward in peace.  Both Mr. Nguyen and his wife are passionate about their native country.   Their visits back to Vietnam and Cambodia help them access the situation and incorporate new ideas in Mr. Nguyen’s writings.  Meanwhile, the Nguyens enjoy the heat of Northeast Texas, Mrs. Nguyen offers spa services, and they dream of better times in their native land.

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View of Trasimeno Lake from Montegualandro Castle

Aerial View of Montegualandro Castle – photo from Castle’s website

Castles come in all sizes.  The largest in the world is not the English Windsor (4th on the list) but Malbork Castle in Poland.  Thanks to many ad-ons for a growing list of Teutonic knights, it measures in at 143,591 square meters.  Compare that to the Montegualandro Castle in Italy with 3100 square meters of space and you’ve got yourself a cozy castle and a magical place to spend the night.

Entry Gate to Montegualandro Castle
Key to castle’s gate
Spikes at bottom of castle’s gate

Soon after crossing from Tuscany to Umbria, we drove up a hill, around the castle’s moat and stopped in front of a 15 foot tall metal gate with spikes below. It had no doorbells or knockers.  We tried pounding on the gate with no response.  After honking our car’s horn, a window opened 30 feet up the smooth, stone wall and a woman’s voice called out “I’ll be right down” – a scene right out of Rapunzel or the Wizard of Oz.   The diminutive Franca Marti soon opened the gate and we walked into the castle’s courtyard, our home for two nights.

Inside of 12th Century Chapel
Exterior of 12th Century Chapel

“We fell in love,” is how Franca described the couple’s quixotic quest to renovate this very old structure.  They had originally wanted a place in the country to build a boat but the castle cast its spell and became theirs in 1985.   After two years of planning and five of reconstruction, the couple moved in and opened four apartments for let.  Ours was in the former tower and, naturally, had rounded walls.  Another was built in the stables with wooden beams and tile floors.  A consecrated chapel from the 1200s was even available for meditation.

Perched on a hill supervising Trasimeno Lake in Umbria, the site for Montegualandro Castle dates back to the Etruscans. And Hannibal used the elevation to sequester troops before attacking the Romans in 217 BCE.  From our window in the tower, we could have watched as Hannibal surprised Roman Consul Flaminio and killed 15,000 Roman troops.

Thanks to the Martis’ efforts, the castle’s title history can be traced to Charlemagne around 800 CE when the land was given to one of his officers.    In the next 1200 years, it passed through several Counts and Dukes, became a (very) small independent state with its own dungeon,  was occupied by Ferdinando de Medici, and later sold to the Pope. One family owned the land for over four centuries.   Most recently in WWII, the Germans used it to keep an eye on troop movements in the valley below.

The next morning, Franca propped a long ladder on the inside castle wall and allowed us to climb to a wooden walk along the parapets and imagine life before canons and other powerful artillery.    Since castles were early home security systems, trees and bushes would have been cleared to prevent enemies from sneaking up the hill.   The old drawbridge,  now walled into a large reception room, kept strangers out as did the filled moat.  An inside well allowed  inhabitants to withstand a short siege.   And gun portals protected the soldiers as they fired.  In the beauty of the renovated castle, it was easy to forget that in reality, castles were often comfortless with dark, damp interiors and straw beds.

Today, the landscape is filled with olive orchards, decorative trees, and farms.  Mountains circle the panorama.  Boats crisscross Lake Trasimeno as tourists swim along the shores. A four-lane highway has replaced the dirt road from Perugia to Florence. The view is no longer tinged with anxiety and the castle walls aren’t for defense.   The Martis recognized the walled enclosure is now about culture.  Montegualandro has a long history of artists stopping nearby –   Galileo, Michelangelo, Goethe, Byron and Stendhal.    By restoring the castle according to strict Italian historical standards,  Montegualandro is again a wonderful venue for artists, concerts, weddings and visitors from small town Texas.

Web Site for Montequalandro Castle

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Italy – Charming By Design

Country home in Tuscany

In my travels, I often ask locals what has changed in the last ten or twenty years? Were I asked the same of Paris, the answer would include new restaurants and hotels, subdivisions in the county, expanded school campuses, closing of Merico and Phillips Lighting, and the rejuvenation of downtown.  Yet, on a recent trip to Italy, that inquiry generated quizzical looks and slow  responses.   “Nothing” or “Not much” were typical answers.

That reply is exactly why tourists continue to be drawn by the millions to Italy, especially the Tuscany and Umbria areas. Italians know visitors have a certain vision of their country that does not include skyscrapers, billboards, or endless suburbs.  The country also values its long history and has adopted strict rules for renovation of old and construction of new buildings to maintain the “Italian look.”  Red tile roofs (whether real or fake polymer) are required in much of Italy.  Home paint colors are limited to warm, earth pastels such as ocher gold or terra cotta and if you want something else,  permission must be sought from local councils.

Foreigners are so drawn to la dolce vita – the dream of sipping wine on the back porch while watching the sun set across the hills of Tuscany – that real estate signs in hilltop Cortona are in English as are many of the real estate magazines.  Web sites such as Italy Assists and Italymag have forums for those seeking advice on renovation costs and rules – also in English.  But ex-pats need patience.  At one site, businesses are advised to expect a minimum of 135 days before approval of a warehouse building permit.  In recognition of the inefficiencies of the Italian bureaucracy, a new “rule of silence” in larger cities allows construction to begin if you haven’t heard anything from the authority in 180 days.  For residential renovations or new construction, the wait can be just as long.  (And we complain about the 5 days  Paris requires!)

Historical renovation can be even more challenging.  At Montegualandro Castle, just inside the border of the Umbria state, Franca Marti described the journey to renovate their very own castle.  She lamented,  “If one stone has fallen off the castle wall, it must remain there.”  Just the permission to rebuild took two years.  In “Under the Tuscan Sun,”, Frances Mayes writes of the challenges working with master stone builders, wrought iron blacksmiths, and electricians who had never installed a rheostat.  Her home was finished in three years – a time lapse Americans would never put up with.

Restored Milan Duomo

Governments (national and local) pour millions into restoring  cathedrals, palaces, museums, and stone streets inside the walled towns.  This effort brings other benefits for the Italians who live with their history in the maintained areas. As Frances Mayes wrote, the Italians “have the good instinct to bring the past along with them.”   Despite the huge tourist presence, these communities are still active with families who live in the family home, buy in 200 year old stores, and worship in  centuries old churches.  Our guide in Sienna grew up in the porcupine district of that beautiful city, one of 17 such family neighborhoods.  Babies are baptized in the local church as an infant but at age one, they are dipped in the local fountain and wrapped in the scarf of the district indicating they will belong forever to that contrada.

It’s been 43 years since my first visit to Florence  in 1969.  Other than pedestrian streets, a single McDonalds, and changing fashions in the clothes stores,  little has changed around the cathedral.  Even the pictures hung at the Uffizzi Museum are in the same rooms.  It is a city and country that are well-worn from tourist traffic but purposely retain the studied ambiance.  As a hotel owner in Bellagio proudly told me, “nothing has changed” in the last ten years.  I have counseled other travelers of the need to see certain places in the world before old buildings are demolished or modernized.    Italy is not one of those.  This land will be forever charming, thanks to a populace that embraces that which it shares – its history.

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Captain’s Camp, a desert camp in Wadi Rum, provides taste of Bedoin world

Welcome Tent at Captain’s Desert Camp

Lawrence of Arabia, that complicated Englishman who fought with Bedoin desert tribes for their independence after World War I,  endured days of travel by camel in the glare of the Wadi Rum desert of modern day Jordan but still fell in love with that silent valley surrounded by cliffs and towers approaching 3,000 feet.    He wrote “the crags are capped in nests of domes… They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place, this processional way greater than imagination…vast, echoing and godlike.”   Today, Lawrence would be surprised to find his sandy, majestic world discovered by jeep safaris, hot air balloons, an international array of tourists, and a host of desert camps.

Our Jordanian travel agency wanted to book our last night in their country at a Dead Sea luxury resort but the chance to sleep in a traditional Bedoin tent of woven goat hair was far too tempting. Some modern Bedoin families still live in tents but transfer their camp and herds by pick-up rather than camel.  Others help provide a simulation of desert life, taking advantage of visitors’ curiosity.

Inside our tent
Courtyard of Captain’s Camp

The Captain’s Camp is one of the original desert camps and obviously courts the international English speaking crowd.   Its tents circle round a sandy courtyard, using the rock outcrop as an additional barrier to prevailing winds.  A rug path led us to tent number 17.  We opened the heavy woven flap to find three single beds, one small table and chair, one mosquito net and a 30 watt bare light bulb.  More rugs covered our small space in the desert.  The surprisingly clean, communal bathrooms were down another rug path.  Only moonlight would give guidance if nature called in the middle of the night.

Our camel driver, Shaban

For our private camel ride, we joined Shaban, a seasoned, playful guide who loudly clicked and hissed at the animals if they acted up.  By leaning back and then forward, we moved with our awkward hosts as they stood, congratulating ourselves on our upper perch.   Within a few minutes we were away from the noise of the road, into the ancient sands and gently nodding with the camel’s gait.

Back at camp, Shaban invited us to sit with other drivers around a camp fire.   Traditional tea was shared while a new born baby camel and mother provided entertainment.  Modern life dropped in as Shaban visited with one of his small children on a cell phone, making noises that were funny in any language.  His dry-cleaned robes were also delivered then, solving my wonder at the whiteness of his vestment.

A traditional grilled lamb dinner, brightened by the wonderful middle eastern salad, was served on low tables with cushioned benches.  Young Jordanian school girls, visiting from Aqaba, insisted on teaching us local dances that required much jumping, belly movement, and laughter.   Lights were out for the whole camp at 9 p.m. but a nearby French family couldn’t stop laughing and some snoring persisted into the night.  Otherwise, all was quiet as only camps can be.

As with any discovered tourist destination, the Wadi Rum must be protected from overuse and Jordan intends to do that.  The Wadi Rum Protected Area is a UNESCO World Heritage Center in which rare wildlife is encouraged such as the wolf , ibix, and jackal.  Entrance to the protected area is limited.   Most of the desert camps and lodges are just outside the actual Wadi Rum but they are members of The Friends of Wadi Rum who are “ committed to the concept of Wadi Rum as a place for responsible, intentional individuals seeking meaningful, transformative experiences through time spent in our beautiful desert.”   That is a tall order to fill.  Hot air balloon rides and camel races are fun but probably not transformative.

Terry Clark, Jan Walker, and Mary Clark

Yet, a mere 24 hours near the grandeur of Wadi Rum connected us with an ancient desert life that is rapidly disappearing.  The wind blown silence of the camel ride,  tea around a jolly campfire, and the night protection of tightly woven tents gave  just a hint of that world – a world  Lawrence of Arabia would still recognize – and a far more meaningful experience than a night in a luxury resort.

Captain’s Desert Camp

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What is There To Do in Greenville, Texas?

Greenville’s Art Deco Municipal Auditorium

Greenville has several claims to fame – Audie Murphy, black soil, cotton history, and most recently L-3 Communications, formerly E-Systems.  For  years, I was only familiar with the I-30 corridor  and the football stadium for high school soccer games.   But upon closer inspection, Greenville has some charming places to shop and dine.

Outside patio at Landon’s Winery

Downtown has been greatly enhanced by two wineries, including  Landon Winery, the 10th largest production winery in Texas.  Its bottles fill a wall of this former Kress building and the City Bistro Restaurant spreads out in the remaining area.  The menu is Italian which can be enjoyed inside or alfresco on the large patio.  The more laid back  Blue Armadillo Winery has portable chairs so a group of friends can easily gather round tables and enjoy the live music scene each Friday and Saturday.  With a motto like “Wine a little, you’ll feel better”, how can you lose.

Also downtown is the Art Deco Municipal Auditorium which I drove past before recognizing.  In this 1938 building, the Dallas Orchestra performs three times a year, its only location outside of the Metroplex.  The 1700 seat space is also home to the Kenneth Threadgill series. And it boasts of a performance by Elvis Presley when the jail was actually below the auditorium and prisoners could be heard cheering him on.  Don’t be misled by the City offices which are also housed here.  The performance hall is upstairs and towards the rear.

Sit, Relax, Gossip

In its same location since 1941, C.B.’s Sandwich Shop is really a great hamburger joint. The owner’s father and uncle passed the business down to him.  When asked if the recipe had changed over the last 70 years, he replied, “Why?”  Fortunately for patrons, the Sandwich Shop continues to serves great burgers and fries to a loyal and friendly population, some of whom remember when burgers sold for 25 cents.

After years of passing this by, I finally visited The Audie Murphy and American Cotton Museum.  It’s an interesting combination but both appropriate for Greenville.  The City was once home to the world’s largest inland cotton press that could compress 2076 bales in a day – a record that has not been surpassed.  Children will enjoy the different colors of natural cotton and the many products, such as ice cream and peanut butter, that contain cotton oil.  Today, only one large cotton farmer remains in Hunt county but Greenville will always be grateful for its historical presence.

Audie Murphy’s WWII medals

On the Audie Murphy side of the museum, the most decorated veteran of World War II is honored as well as veterans from the Civil War to the Iraq conflict.  Murphy, a Hunt County native,  was fearless in war as well as in his later movie star days.   The museum still gets international visitors from towns Murphy liberated in WWII.  It’s a great history lesson for kids and adults.

Naot Shoes atThe Calico Cat
Colorful socks at The Calico Cat

From the outside,  Uptown Forum appears to be another historic building.  But the inside is beautifully restored and houses something for everyone.  Guys will be immediately pulled to the Greenville Hobby Depot, an increasingly rare railroad hobby shop.  Women of all ages are drawn to The Calico Cat, a contemporary clothing and gift shop.  I was happy to discover their large collection of Israeli Naot shoes, not an easy brand to find.  Also downstairs is Millie’s Kitchen that promotes its freshly made sandwiches and salads.  Her Kitchen Sampler is the most popular dish.  This is well worth a stop.

Casa Vieja

A true hidden gem is Casa Vieja, opened in 1996 by Raul Campos, a chef trained at The Mansion in Dallas, who fuses his Jalisco, Mexico heritage with Southwest cuisine.  In this very modest house, one can enjoy Red Snapper a la Veracrusana, Shrimp a la Diablo and even Sea Bass or Steak Ranchero.  The chips are served with three sauces – black bean, tomato and tomatillo – and a mango, raspberry creme brulee awaits your dessert order.  What a nice fusion surprise.

16 foot Calcutta Cane Pole

Other notable stops include Ernie’s BBQ, a Greenville staple for generations, and the numerous antique stores downtown, some with their own ghost stories.  A must destination for anglers is the 54 year old  Sabine Bait and Tackle Shop south of town which carries a large selection of bait and hooks as well as hard-to-find fishing poles such as the 16 foot Calcutta Cane Pole made in Vietnam.  All of this makes it well worth pulling off  Interstate 30 for a look at Greenville.

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 Palm Sunday has always been a favorite service, especially for children.  It celebrates the story of Jesus unexpectedly entering Jerusalem on a donkey.  His followers hurried to line the streets and waived branches and laid coats before him.  Traditionally, palms have represented triumph and victory and have become associated with this Sunday.  Many churches use processions into or around the church to recreate Jesus’ path through Jerusalem.  I had the opportunity of experiencing Palm Sunday where it all began.  

Our Palm Sunday actually started in Bethlehem, at the Church of the Holy Nativity.  Occasionally, the church calendar for the Orthodox and the Latin churches are aligned, meaning Palm Sunday and Easter are on the same days.  This caused  services to be staggered that day so all could enjoy their palm processions.

As we awaited the start of the Greek Orthodox service, I watched the young altar boys dressed in purple jab at each other as kids will do universally.  But soon the chanting began and the long procession slowly circled the church led by the priests, incense burners, acolytes, banners, choir, and then church members, all carrying palms or olive tree branches.  That service would be followed by the Armenian rites.  A separate space serves the Latin church as the Roman Catholics are called in Israel.

Later that day, we crossed back through the Security Wall and saw many Bethlehem residents hurrying to participate in the Palm Sunday processions in Jerusalem.  Because of the crowds, our cab driver could only drop us off several blocks from the start of the Latin parade on the Mount of Olives.  The atmosphere was surprisingly jovial and international.  While we waited, local children peddled palms and olive branches. Spontaneous songs broke out from the diverse groups around us.

I grabbed one of my sisters-in-law and we started walking up the street.  “Where are you from?”, we asked many.  Poland.  The Philippines.  France.  Korea.   Jerusalem. The Maldives. Russia.  Spain.  There were American Mormon teenagers from Nevada,  Girl Scouts,  Boy Scouts,  and a tour group with identifying green kerchiefs.  Gimme hats indicated other tours – “G&S Travel” or “Shepherd’s Since 1965″.  A large contingency hailed from Timor Leste – a sliver of a country near Indonesia that is 96% Catholic and which has only recently begun recovery from years of wars.  All smiled broadly as we snapped their pictures.

The procession began quietly with a few Israeli soldiers leading the way.  But it soon reflected the diversity within the greater world of Christianity.  Six foot palms marked the beat with the drums in a large group from Africa.  Praise songs and dirges were piped out of speakers held by pilgrims.  Franciscan monks, with Crocodile Dundee hats,  carried songbooks and were accompanied by tambourines and guitars.   An elderly woman wearing a hat displaying her mother’s picture  was pushed in her wheel chair.  There were priests by the dozens and nuns of all colors.   At times, it felt like a small town parade.

In the past, a person playing Jesus would ride a donkey at the end.  But, today, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Foud Twal, brought up the rear.  In his resplendent pink robes and gold-rimmed sunglasses, Twal, also the Archbishop of Jordan, carried only a small olive branch.   Those on the sidelines could join the procession at any time as it descended from the Mount of Olives, entered through Jerusalem’s Lions gate, and terminated at the Church of Sainte Anne.  Israeli soldiers provided a rear guard.

The Catholic procession was not the only one that day.  The Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox schedule services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as do the Armenian and Syrian Orthodox.   From 1 to 6 a.m. on Palm Sunday, Ethiopian Orthodox members play drums, cymbals and tambourines and celebrate Mass.  We also saw the last of a procession outside Old Jerusalem’s wall that was just ending at 5 p.m.

Palm Sunday signals the beginning of Holy Week for millions of Christians.  The next few days are always  more somber and reflective.  But on that beautiful Sunday afternoon in Jerusalem, the mood was light, the music varied, and the atmosphere inclusive.   For that moment, the divisions in Christianity seemed healed.

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Clint Frakes – Bringing a Spiritual Link to Environmental Consciousness

Clint Frakes

Clint Frakes’ web site promotes his longevity as a tour guide in Sedona, Arizona.   “Guiding pilgrims on Turtle Island sacred sites since 1993” is an offer to explore some important North American locations.   Seekers come to him for spiritual guidance, others for Native American history in the area, and all for his breadth of knowledge.  This gentle man sees life as a published poet would – in observations of the general world made succinct – and with eyes trained by Native Americans.

Clint grew up in Detroit, Michigan.  But after attending Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, Clint was adopted in adulthood by a Lakota (Sioux) family who provided him a “simple spiritual way to guide his life.”  He became a man of prayer and uses Native American practices daily.  On his tour, Clint was able to connect us to the centuries old respect local tribes have for the natural world.

Airport Mesa

At our first stop on Airport Mesa, we meditated on the red rock, considered a wisdom keeper.  Clint quietly educated us.  All things that have transpired from the beginning to now are downloaded into stones – the same silicon used in Silicon Valley.  We only needed to increase our capacity to receive this wisdom of the past.

Yerba Santa

As we walked the paths in the area, Clint revealed the healing properties of indigenous plants – long known by Native Americans.  The plant, Mormon Tea, is good for colds and sinus headaches.  Manzanita helps bladder infections.  Use the Banana Yucca for joint inflamation and prickly pear for scorpion bites.  Red Root dissolves cysts.  But the most powerful is Yerba Santa, used as a lung expectorant and also a treatment for depression.  Since my asthma had acted up in the dust, I wanted to try this one.  Clint advised me to ask permission of the plant to take some leaves and to make an offering.  We poured water on the plant, broke off leaves, and thanked it for its generosity – a surprisingly satisfying gesture.

Kachina rock formation in Boynton Canyon

Boynton Canyon, the Garden of Eden of the Yavapai-Apache people,  was our next stop.  Their legend describes man as emerging from this canyon. But first was Kamalpukwia, the “Old Lady White Stone” who was impregnated by the sun.  The nearby “ Kachina Rock” formation resembles this pregnant woman who later gives birth – by one account to twin boys and by another to a girl – from which all tribes came.  Today, there are many coming home ceremonies in the Sedona area by various Native American tribes  – of the same kind of desire to return to Jerusalem by the Jewish tribes.

Our last experience with Clint involved a Lakota Medicine Wheel he had constructed on a well-hidden lot. This formation is the “underpinning of all ceremonies”, a template for the story of creation.   Each of the 405 stones in the circle represents one earth medicine. Vertical and horizontal lines of stones cross within and a second circle in the middle signifies the Eye of God or one who unites.   The inner formation resembles a Jerusalem cross.

Any spiritual belief can be incorporated into the Medicine Wheel experience.  The four quarters can represent the four seasons, directions or  Gospels.  The first instruction was to take a concern or prayer. We then stepped into the circle from the east, where life begins,  and stated “all my relations” to honor all things as our brothers and sisters.  As we circled three (usually four) times, our prayers were energized by the physical movement and Clint’s singing.  After each of us chose a site to sit inside the circle, Clint explained the meanings of our selections. My quarter was associated with guardian angels, an image I liked a lot.  We exited the circle next to where we began and gave each other a traditional embrace.

Lakota Medicine Wheel 

The Lakotas believe the web of the wheel holds the earth together and man is essential to the balance of earth.  We’re part of the eco-system that must support the natural world around us as that world sustains us.  Our brief encounter with the way Lakotas acknowledge this web helped us appreciate the strong connection between nature and Native Americans – a link that our country’s environmental  consciousness is finally recognizing as essential to the survival of man.  And as a man with a foot in both worlds, Clint Frakes was the perfect guide to bring the two together.

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Will The Real Sedona, Arizona Please Stand Up?

Tourists visit Sedona, Arizona for as many reasons as there are strata in the surrounding canyon walls – made beautiful by the collision of the Sonoran Desert with the Colorado Plateau.  Until recently,  Sedona’s history was not that different from other desert towns.  Native Americans respected the area as a site for sacred ceremonies and it played a key role in the story of the beginning of man through the Kachina woman in Yavapai/Apache lore.  Coronado and his conquistadores mapped the area in the 1500’s.    Pioneer farmers planted orchards near the waters and ranchers spread out their cattle and sheep.  It was quietly discovered by retirees and some artists in the 1950’s and 60’s including Max Ernst.   But in 1978, the attitude and crowd changed.

One of several psychics

Paige Bryant is a well known psychic who lived in Sedona in the late 70’s and 80’s.  She felt  strong energy sources emanating from below and above the earth – cosmic portals.   Her description of four vortexes of electromagnetic energy began to draw spiritual tourists.  By 1987, Sedona was one of the hosts for the Harmonic Convergence, the world’s first globally synchronized meditation or human intention for the good of the planet.

Holy Cross Catholic Chapel

Soon the Chamber of Commerce, hotels, and restaurants saw the potential in a united presentation of the energy sources in Sedona.   On their maps, small tornado vortex forms hover over Bryant’s sites of Boynton Canyon, Cathedral Rock, Airport Mesa, and Bell Rock.  Crystal shops and yoga tours followed.  The phone books now lists 11 local psychics who can help your sensitivities.

By the 1990’s, the attraction of Sedona’s beauty could no longer be contained.  Larger resort companies such as Hyatt began buying out ranching families and turning the desert into sun retreats with golf and other amenities.  Time shares proliferated.   More retirees came as did movie stars.   And, of course, the service population grew with the tourist industry although most of those employees must commute from nearby towns with a lower cost of housing.  The average cost of a home in Sedona is $394,000.

Businesses along the main drag reflect the hodge-podge offerings for the two million tourists visiting this town of 12,000 inhabitants each year.  Jeep Rentals compete with Crystal Magic for customers.  Hot Yoga and Canyon Outfitters appeal to different crowds.  Cashing in on a more recent industry, the Sedona Wedding Studio vies for the destination couples.

Buddhist Stupa
Buddhist Rock Cairn

The religious world is just as mixed.    A variety of Baptist churches, a single Cowboy Church and the usual list of mainline Protestant denominations compete with Mormons, the area’s largest group.  The stunning Holy Cross Catholic chapel,  designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright,  peaks out between two large red rock towers,  rumored to also be a vortex site.  And the laid back crowd is treated to a rare, western Buddhist Stupa, considered to be the living presence of the Budha and to have healing powers.  Its affect is reflected in the many Buddhist rock cairns built on and added to the trails of the area.

The result of this cauldron of interests is something for everyone.   Hikers happily choose from a maze of trails in and out of the red canyons.  Meditators easily find a quiet spot  to inhale earth’s energy. More sedentary  adventurers ride in pink jeeps that haul them up to mesa tops for a full 360 degree view of the geological wonder.   In the mornings, hot air balloons linger above.  Golfers soak in the clear air and temperate climate for months of playing time.  And, everyone seems to pull off the roads in the late afternoon to take in one more glorious sunset.

Sunset in Sedona

Sedona’s Community Plan acknowledges the challenge of maintaining local character and quality of life while ensuring a quality experience for the visitors.  The balance is delicate,  especially at high season.  But Sedona’s been dealt an amazing hand of light, air, and beauty that will continue to draw crowds.  And whether it’s spiritual solace or spa soaks, Sedona will deliver – as it always has.

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What Is There To do in Commerce and Cooper, Texas?

 Planetarium on the campus of Texas A&M University, Commerce

The first major sight of Commerce from the north, south, and west is the campus of Texas A&M University at Commerce. The twelve story Whitley Hall is the tallest structure between Dallas and Texarkana.  This 123 year old school of almost 10,000 students has undergone major construction and revision in the last ten years and has become a welcoming, vibrant campus. It is the fastest growing university in the Texas A&M system.   Much of the activity in town is centered around the campus. Here are some suggestions for your visit there and in nearby Cooper.

The Texas A&M Planetarium on campus.  Offering weekly shows, the planetarium helps connect this little spot of Texas with the universe out there.  Comfortable chairs recline and allow star viewing without a stiff neck.  A professor often appears at the end of the programs for follow up questions and comments.  It’s a deal for students and visitors.  If you’re really lucky, there is occasional public viewing  at the nearby Observatory.

Menu at Izzy’s Cakes and Bistro

Izzy’s Cakes and Bistro. Don’t be fooled by the name.  The fare here is not limited to their lovely cakes.  Just across the street from campus is this surprisingly diverse bakery that serves a nice assortment of soups, salads, and sandwiches in addition to their sweet offerings.  The daily soup specials are made with fresh herbs and cheese.

Panda Chinese Restaurant downtown.   Billed as “Fine Chinese Cuisine”, it is, at last, a Chinese restaurant without a buffet.  This means all dishes are freshly made and the choices almost limitless.  We shared several dishes including one of my favorites, Mu Shu Pork.  You can even have Tsing Tao beer with the your meal.

Northeast Texas Children’s Museum

Northeast Texas Children’s Museum on campus.   It’s very unusual to have a children’s museum in such a small town.  Visiting children can push their own grocery cart, climb into a space ship, pull a bubble up around them, explore a tipi, or try their hand at hieroglyphics.  Area schools send buses of kids for special science or health programs.  The many activities fill the common area of a former dormitory that can hold and entertain a lot of children.

The Commerce Public Library downtown.  A stop at the local library gives you two for one – a fully stocked library amidst a 100 year old former post office.  There’s a large selection of historical archives downstairs.  It’s owned by the Commerce Friends of the Library rather than the City and serves several smaller communities.  Check out all of the architectural ornaments remaining from its post office days

KETR radio station on campus.  For a town of 9200 to have available a 100,000 watt radio station is unusual and impressive.  Owned by Texas A&M University, KETR started in 1975 and was greatly expanded in the 1980’s.  Today, it hosts national programs such as “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” but has wonderful evening music programs centered around Texas Music Artists, Latin Jazz, and Blue Grass.  It also features locals for political and cultural discussion.  Full Disclosure- it carries my radio show, Mary Clark, Traveler

Down the Road from Commerce on the way to Paris is small Cooper, Texas which drops a visitor into a turn of the century East Texas town.  Most people take the bypass around but there are some reasons to linger.

Soda Fountain at Miller’s Pharmacy
Menu at Miller’s Pharmacy

Miller’s Pharmacy  drug store downtown is known far and wide for having an old fashioned soda fountain.  This translates into “real” shakes and malts.  Mabel Wheat still greets you after 60 years in the same location.

Elias Richa, Owner of Little Chef
Little Chef Restaurant

A newcomer to the Cooper is the Little Chef Restaurant on West Dallas Street, a transplant from the Metroplex.  The owner, Elias Richa, got tired of the big city life and brought his restaurant to Cooper.  The menu is ambitious and offers a wonderful assortment of omelettes for the breakfast and brunch crowd as well as sandwiches and meals at lunch and dinner.

Cooper Automatic Gas

An old fashioned gas station experience is available at Cooper Automatic Gas and the Delta County Museum is just down Dallas street. On the square are many more restaurants than expected – Jalapeno’s Mexican Grill, the Pizza Factory and Burgers & Beans.

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