Mary Clark, Traveler

Shopping in Hong Kong with a Pro

Hong Kong residents are some of the world’s best shoppers. They, of course, observe the Chinese New Year’s but have also adopted Valentine’s Day and Christmas as additional opportunities to buy presents. The world’s products are easily available and at good prices. But how can a visitor take full advantage of these offerings? Enter Alicia Daigle, a former resident of Paris.

An Oklahoma native, Alicia lived in Seoul for five years and Hong Kong for four. One bedroom of their apartment stored the many bargains she found in her time in Asia. I knew I was in the hands of a shopping master in our early e-mail contact. She quickly displayed her knowledge of “vendors” as in “I have a purse lady”, a “lady at the Jade Market” and a “fabric guy, too”. At Yuet Tung, you can design your own dinnerware and have it hand painted and shipped. You must go to Shanghai Tang – “expensive but fabulous”. Every e-mail had a new suggestion.

We set up a shopping day which came with a set of instructions from Alicia, all of which proved helpful.

1. “It takes time.” Starting at 9 a.m. with a long metro ride to Yuet Tung, we arrived at a porcelain warehouse of gigantic proportions. Down many aisles were hand painted dishes stacked to the ceiling. As Alicia noted, there was no apparent inventory control. A large purse could do some damage here. It was tempting to order a set of hand painted dishes, especially after seeing the prices and the painting apparatus. This is becoming a lost art. But they couldn’t assure me that the set would be microwavable – a requirement in our household.

2. “Your hands will get dirty. Bring wet ones and tissue.” Bathrooms were precious commodities and wet ones saved us from the dust of many products.

3. “Bring water and snack bars/crackers.” It was going to be a full day and we would not have time for lunch. We stopped, briefly, at a bakery for bread to go. Otherwise, it was full speed ahead with only snacks on the metro.

4. “Wear comfortable shoes.” As we slowly passed through the beautiful flower and bird markets, we were glad to be in our ugly, black walking shoes. The birds noisily visited with each other. Owners bring their birds back to the avarian market on a regular basis to mingle with their own. Of course, the owners also visit. If only we had had more luggage, I would be the proud owner of an exquisite bamboo bird cage.

5. “The Jade Market has reasonable prices.” Alicia’s lady at the Jade Market was a find. Her specialty was “slightly chunky to very chunky with an Asian flair”. All of us bought necklaces, tassels, and key chains in that style. Considering the prices, we weren’t sure all purchases were really jade but we could truthfully say we had bought them at the Jade Market. It was up to our friends and family to inquire more if they really wanted to know.

Last stop was at Om International, a pearl store that can’t be beat for quality and price. The experience included just finding the showroom. Located on a side street in Kowloon, across from Hong Kong island, an overhead sign on the sidewalk pointed us into a stairway. One floor up was a steel door. We rang the bell and a small window behind bars opened to a slight, bespectacled woman. Since we didn’t look threatening, she allowed us to enter a lovely, small showroom with displays of beautiful pearls. There was no way we could leave without a purchase (or two).

So ended one of the most intense shopping days I’ve experienced. We rode on five different metro trains, shopped the enormous and the intimate, observed the Chinese spoiling their birds and buying buckets of flowers, took advantage of the famous Chinese jade and bought pearls with a story to match. We couldn’t have done it without our pro. Alicia monitored our time and steered us down the right streets and hallways. She knew quality and prices. She would tell us that “they’re giving it away” if we hesitated about buying. And she was right every time. In fact, our only regret is that we didn’t buy more.

Yuet Tung Call for directions.

Shanghai Tang – Pedder Building (built 1924) on Pedder Street between Queen’s Road Central and Des Voeux Road. This is dead center of the central business district on Hong Kong Island.

Jade Market – MTR Red Line to Tsuen Wan. Get off at Yau Ma Tei Station – Exit C. You will be facing Nathan Road – turn right and walk several blocks to Public Square Street. Turn right on Public Square street, walk one block to the temple which will be on your left. It is worth it to walk into the temple and also to check all the guys playing Go on the temple grounds. Shanghai Street runs in front of the temple. Cross Shanghai Street. You should be facing a large cream colored building – Yau Ma Tei Community Center. Turn left on Shanghai Street in front of the YMT Community Center. Walk about one block, turn right and walk between the small playground with the turquoise blue fence and the YMT Community Center. The Jade Market will be right in front of you. It is an unassuming red, blue and green building.
Eva Ho’s stall is #308. She does not bargain much – maybe 10% depending on how good or bad business is at that time.

Om International – # 6 Carnarvon Road, Friends House, First Floor, Suite A3.
MTR Red Line 1 or Line 2 to Tsuen Wan. Get off at Tism Sha Tsui (most folks just call it TST because it is difficult to pronounce) Station – Carnarvon Road D2 Exit. As you exit, just look straight ahead and OM is across the street on the left about half a block from the D2 exit. You can see their sign as you step onto the street. Remember it is on the first floor which is our second floor. Their first floor is the ground floor. This is not on HK Island it is on the Kowloon side.

Flower Market – MTR Red Line 1 or Line 2 to Tsuen Wan. Get off at Prince Edward Station – Exit B1. You will be at the corner of Nathan Road and Prince Edward Road, West. Turn left on PERW. If you are going the right direction, the Mong Kok Police Station will be on your left and an elevated road on your right. Walk about three or four blocks to Sai Yee Street. This is where the Flower Market starts. Turn left on Sai Yee and walk one block to Flower Market Road. Right on Flower Market Road. You can just continue down PERW and come back up FMR.

Bird Market – Most people call it the Bird Market but the correct name is Yuen Po Bird Garden. It is at the end of FMR at Yuen Po Street – far left back corner of the Flower Market if you are walking down FMR to Yeun Po Street.

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New Zealand’s Passion for Coffee

New Zealand is a former British Colony that only separated from the mother country in 1926. The English brought their church, language, left side driving, and tea sipping to this beautiful place. Tearooms dominated the hot drink culture until the arrival of American soldiers and European refugees during World War II when coffee was introduced. Unfortunately, instant coffee ruled until about 30 years ago when the Kiwis decided to get serious about their caffeine. They not only embraced freshly roasted and ground coffee, cappuccinos, and lattes, they also created their own variations. Today, good coffee is available from the largest cities to the smallest hamlets.

My husband and I knew it was serious coffee territory upon arriving at our first hotel. The coffee maker was a French Press – a far cry from the usual Mr. Coffee. The hotel provided a small carton of milk upon check-in. A hot water pot made it easy to prepare fresh, strong coffee in the morning. This pattern continued with almost all of our hotels.

The nicest surprise was the discovery of the Flat White, Long Black, and Short Black – not the most romantic of names but quite descriptive. These drinks are available in Australia and New Zealand and both countries claim their origin. They are the Kiwis’ own variations of the cappuccino, espresso, and Americano.

The Flat White is the most popular coffee drink “down under.” It is made with one shot of espresso in Australia and two in New Zealand. Milk is steamed enough to generate wet microfoam – that wonderful, creamy topping to a good cappuccino. The milk is poured from the bottom of the pitcher into a petite tulip cup followed by a small layer of microfoam. It has less milk than a latte, less foam than a cappuccino and is strong but not uncomfortably so. I loved it immediately.

A Long Black reverses the preparation of an Americano. Water is steamed and poured into the coffee cup. Two shots of espresso are then poured over the water, thus preserving the “crema” or foam. If you must have dairy, a very small pitcher of steamed milk will be served to the side. The Short Black is really a South Pacific name for a shot of espresso. These drinks so dominate New Zealand that the local Starbucks and McDonalds have added them to their menu.

It’s hard to describe the importance of coffee in New Zealand. Every small town has at least one coffee house and often more. With no significant local coffee chains, most coffee places are individually owned and operated. Full of Beans, Express Yourself, The Grind, Coffee Break, Divan Coffee name some of the smaller coffee shops. New Zealand’s barristas have placed in the top ten at the world’s barrista competition since 2002. And for the visiting coffee lovers, a web site, Zest, offers a guide to the top cafes and an explanation of New Zealand coffee terminology.

Kiwis are happy to talk about coffee. My van driver to Akaroa on the South Island discovered fresh ground coffee through a boyfriend’s influence and was quite aware of the difference a good barrista can make in the preparation of drinks. She even knew low fat milk frothed as well as or better than that of whole milk. During a phone inquiry, the owner of a kayaking operation in Okaria, a tiny spot on the Tasman Sea, boasted of his kayaks and great coffee. He was right on both counts. And in Nelson, an artist first shared valuable information on the history of coffee houses in New Zealand and the location of the best coffee roasters before he talked about his art.

Coffee is promoted even outside traditional coffee houses. A sign advertising ‘Trudy’s Bar On the Beach’ in Akaroa touted the following – “Fantastic View – Great Coffee.” Only in New Zealand would a waterfront bar boast of coffee rather than its alcoholic drinks. At Kudos Food Design, a catering company in Nelson, their portable advertising sign stated “Yes, we do catering. But… we also do great coffee to go.”

As with any novel drink, the Flat White and its cousins have circled the globe and are now available in Great Britain where many Kiwis and Aussies ex-pats live. In fact, Britons themselves are discovering the new coffee variations. The English company Costa Coffee reports a 9.5% increase in sales since the recent introduction of the Flat White. New York also now has a few coffee houses which can supply their local Antipodeans. Hopefully, it won’t be long before we all will have these new wonderful coffee options – without the need of fifteen hours of flying time.

Added Note – Starbucks has just added the Flat White – yippee!

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Lennox Woods and the Shortleaf Pine Tree – A Peak at Forests Of The Past

In the late 1800’s, the ancestors of Martha, David, and Bagby Lennox purchased 353 acres north of Clarksville, Red River County, Texas. Whether the early members of the Lennox family were pioneer environmentalists or just enjoyed picnicking on their land, this acreage was never completely harvested. Only dead trees were allowed to be cleared. The result is a treasure – one of the most pristine, old-growth forests in the state. It was donated by the Lennox family and their foundation to The Nature Conservancy and is available for public enjoyment.
Thanks to its location on the 613,000 acre Pecan Bayou, the largest undammed watershed in Northeast Texas, Lennox Woods has sufficient water resources to support its 51 tree species, 15 types of vines, 93 wildflower species, 39 species of grasses and sedeges, 9 of shrubs and 10 of moss and fern. Birds such as the pileated woodpecker and various warblers travel through. The rare and very shy timber rattlesnake hides in the woods’ nooks and crannies

Botanists are easily distracted here. Many come just to see the shortleaf pine trees, considered the gold standard for the state, with some being over 100 years old. The far more common loblolly pine is grown on nearby tree plantations and likes to invade the Lennox Woods. Because of two recent, severe ice storms, much of the canopy of the woods was lost, allowing the loblolly an entry point. Recently, the Conservancy used “prescribed burning” to muscle out the loblolly trees who don’t survive even a low temperature fire. Natural, shortleaf pine are unaffected by the elevated temperature and are returning in mass.
You don’t have to be able to recognize a Lady Slipper Orchid or a white oak to enjoy the woods. The Martha Lennox Memorial Nature Trail is a mile and a half loop that takes you under trees and over logs and from low, wetlands to highlands. This is actually only a change of 30 feet in elevation but it’s enough to shake up the plant life. As Nature Conservancy employee Jim Edson noted on a recent tour, “The soil’s the thing.” The soil dictates what plants it will support which tells you what animals will live there. Local Master Naturalists have provided markers naming various plants and trees. For visual learners, there’s even a picture of the identified plant.
Keep your eyes alert for Pimple Mounds, raised swells along the trail. Some have surmised these to be former Native American encampments. But the real story comes from the end of the Ice Age when the desert plains arrived, shrub communities developed, thickets created the mounds and eventually, the forests returned. The 5000 year old mounds are a compact history of soil development.
As we stood on the trail looking at an opened forest with sunlight streaming in, Jim Eidson smiled in great satisfaction. “We’re at the beginning of a cycle”, he informed us. If the Conservancy’s efforts are successful, more grasses and wildflowers will grow in the lit woods among more widely spaced native trees. The Lennox family would still be right at home here as would the early settlers. It’s certainly worth the drive to peak at our state’s forest past.
Directions: The Lennox Woods is not the easiest to find. Go North of Clarksville on Highway 37 to FM 2118. Take a left on FM 2118 and travel west for 1.6 miles. On your left is a sign for Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church. Turn left on this road and go approximately 1 mile. The sign for the Lennox Woods will be on your left and a small amount of parking is available.

Nature Conservancy site on Lennox Woods

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Bluebridge Ferry – the 1,000,000th booking

I have long said that the worst travel experiences make the best stories. But there are occasional good travel events that also are fun to relate. One such happening occurred recently on a ferry crossing the Cook Strait from Picton, New Zealand to its capital, Wellington.
We arrived at the terminal of the Blue Bridge Ferry about 45 minutes before the scheduled departure at 7 p.m. The employee at the check-in counter seemed very glad to see us and asked, “didn’t you check your e-mail?” We first feared that the crossing had been cancelled. But she quickly assured us that the correspondence concerned something really exciting. We were the one millionth booking for the ferry and they wanted to celebrate. The Company refunded the cost of our ticket and we were to be their guests for the three and one-half hour crossing.
First, a picture was taken of some of the employees and us to be used in their media. A van carried the two of us to the ship where we were escorted by “Lorna” up the elevator to the café. We were told we could order anything. Both my fish and chips (served with mayonnaise on top of the fish and sweet ketchup for the fries) and my husband’s chicken salad were basic but good. Drivers from the trucks below were already dining and other passengers soon joined us.
Lorna then offered to take us to the bar. We hesitated. It would be nice to relax and have a beer or glass of New Zealand wine but we knew the Cook Strait could be one of the world’s roughest stretches of water. It is the only opening between the North and South Islands and acts as a huge wind tunnel. Ships have been known to sink in the high swells. Lorna laughed. She said we were lucky. The wind was from the north that night which meant smooth sailing. A southerly wind is another story. A week after our crossing, all ferries were shut down because of “wild weather conditions” including a strong southerly air stream.
Reassured, we followed Lorna to the bar/lounge area which was quite comfortable with windows on three sides and an opening onto a large deck. Surmodh, our bartender from India, served the drinks and threw in a free Cadbury chocolate bar. He noted it was a quiet night with only 45 passengers and 30 truck drivers. I saw him dim the lights for some people trying to sleep. A Kiwi truck driver approached us and joined in the conversation. He had driven trucks through Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa and wanted to talk about the Obama Health Care bill which had received a lot of press in New Zealand.
After we had sailed through the Marlborough Sound into the strait, Lorna led us to the bridge to meet Captain Donald McCloud, a veteran of sailing in the South Pacific. We passed state rooms for the First Mate, Second Mate, First Engineer, and Second Engineer, before stepping into the darkened bridge. Only the soft lights of the radar and GPS system were on but a full moon lit the sea ahead. One sailor used binoculars to watch for fishing boats without lights. The season for Hoki fish was approaching and more fishermen would be out.
Captain McCloud pointed out the mounds on the radar which outlined the North Island and explained that their GPS system benefitted from the same satellite as the one used in cars. An engineer below was running the boat although they could do it all from the bridge, if needed. To our left were cables, 300 meters under water, that carried electricity between islands. And in answer to our questions about a rough sea, he said they would stop passenger ships at four meter swells (12 feet) but he had been on ships in 14 meter (42 feet) swells. Yikes.
At the end of our visit to the bridge, Captain McCloud gave us a dark blue Bluebridge travel bag filled with Bluebridge memorabilia. We are now the proud owners of two Bluebridge t-shirts, two Bluebridge hats, two Bluebridge tea towels and water bottles, and Bluebridge playing cards and chapstick.
Bluebridge is owned by Strait Shipping that has provided freight shipping for years. But the passenger ferries only began service in 2003. Their competitor is the Interislander ship line. When I asked Lorna what distinguished Bluebridge from the Interislander, she quickly replied “good, friendly customer service”. It’s hard for me to judge that comment as few customers get free fare, meals, drinks, and a meeting with the Captain. But I do know the friendly part is right and we would book Bluebridge if we’re ever lucky enough to again cross the Cook Strait.
Bluebridge Ferry Information –

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What Is There To Do In Sulphur Springs, Texas

An abundance of springs first attracted travelers to rest in the Sulphur Springs area. Today, Interstate 30 passes through the southern portion of this East Texas community and sports the usual national restaurants and hotels for the weary. But if visitors branched out, they would discover a surprisingly varied restaurant scene, some nice outdoor settings and unusual museums.

Main Street Eateries– Whether you’re hungry for an old fashioned hamburger or AHI tuna, just seared enough, the newly renovated Main Street area in downtown Sulphur Springs has you covered. (By the way, it’s also the setting for fun events through the year such as a farmers market every Saturday morning from March to October and a night time Christmas parade.)

1. Lou Viney Winery began with the owners making their own wine from locally grown grapes. Then owner/chef, Susann Briggs, discovered she enjoyed cooking for her clientele. Lunch and dinner are now available with daily specials and a nice wine list. The blackened talapia is the most popular dish with sweet brandy flat iron steak a close second. If you’re lucky enough to be there on a Friday night, enjoy the live music.
206 Main Street 903.438.8320

2. Muddy Jake’s is a sports grille and pub named after the owner’s two dogs. Burgers and sandwiches are even served in dog bowls. With all sports channels available as well as 32 screens, including one in the bathrooms, sports aficionados are in heaven. The owner keeps the crowd happy with basketball shots and American Idol shows.
Find Muddy Jakes on facebook
229 Main Street 903.885.6833

3. Pioneer Café is the dream of Barbara Palmer, who retired after 38 years with the government to open her own restaurant in 2009. Whether it’s an omelette for breakfast or her famous Hopkins County Stew for lunch, patrons are guaranteed good home cooking. Authentic Texas memorabilia decorate the comfortable setting.
307 Main Street 903.885.7773

Eateries outside of downtown.

4. Ray’s Barbecue is a walk-up, no-frills BBQ joint which offers chopped beef sandwiches for just $2.60. The only question is whether you want it with or without onion. “Gravy Sop Juice” is extra. At noon, the diverse crowd circles the order window, awaiting their names to be called. “If you don’t want greasy, go elsewhere,” advised a fan who has been coming here for years. It’s a great stop for local color.
158 Putnam St. 903.885.8506

5. Locals claim that Burgers & Fries on College Street has the best burgers within 100 miles. The french fries are “real” and fresh, as are the burgers. Chili can be added to anything. At noon, the courthouse crowd mixes easily with those in boots and tennis shoes. Gimmie hats dominate. They do a brisk drive-through business also.
208 College St. 903.885.9496

6. The San Remos Italian Restaurant comes with a New Jersey- Italian owner (the Mala family) and opera singers on CD. It’s no surprise then to find an ambitious, authentic Italian menu that includes Polenta Gorgonzola and veal at market price. While open for lunch, the dark walls and dim lighting are more inviting in the evening.
1201 South Broadway 903.438.1243

Other Hidden Gems

7. Southwest Dairy Museum. In a county that once had over 500 dairies, the milk cow is a sacred creature with the Holstein being the reigning queen. It is no surprise then to find a dairy museum here dedicated to this important local industry. Filled with great information and trivia for the family, all ages will find something of interest. Children will be particularly happy to learn that there is no nutritional difference between white and chocolate milk.
1210 Houston St. 903.439.MILK

8. Coleman Park. What is an urban park doing in a small town setting? Well, thanks to the donation of 21.44 acres of land by Robert Lanier, coupled with 166 city-owned acres, Sulphur Springs can rightly boast of its own Central Park. Soccer fields nestle among groves of trees, the walking track borders a fishing lake, and picnic tables are available for eating and viewing baseball games. It’s well worth a leisurely stop.

9. Hopkins County Courthouse (on the square). They don’t get any more beautiful than this courthouse built in 1895 of red granite and sandstone. With turrets and columned balconies, one expects the king to appear at any time to speak to his subjects. Instead, justice is meted out daily in a lovely setting. Feel free to explore and enjoy the district courtroom.

The Hopkins County Heritage Park began with the donation of the George H. Wilson home built in 1920 which houses historical collection and memorabilia from Caddo Indians to the Civil War. Over the years, historical buildings have been moved to the park, including an old general store with a Texaco pump, a mill, the 1894 St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church, and a Monument store. Special events, such as the folk art festival, are scheduled during the year but a drive-through visit is available anytime during its open hours.
416 North Jackson 903.885.2387

And if you have more time… Enjoy the Hopkins County Stew Cook-off in the fall or a performance at the local Community Players Theater ( A surprising world class collection of music boxes can be found at the public library.

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Iguazu Falls – Visited and Revisited and Revisited

Iguazu Falls is actually 275 waterfalls except in the rainy season when it expands to 350 falls. Eleanor Roosevelt is reported to have commented, “Poor Niagra” upon first viewing this natural wonder. Located in the far north of Argentina across from Brazil, Iguazu is four times the width of Niagra and has twice the water flow. If and when water gets tight, we should all hop on down there. The falls are also located on top of the Guarani , the largest underground fresh water reservoir in the world.. It is, literally, water, water everywhere.

Iguazu Falls is surrounded by jungle, nourished by the mist of the cascading waters. National Parks on both sides of the border have been strict in limiting development, preserving the “natural” part of the wonder. Commercial flights regularly land at nearby Puerto Iguazu airport dispensing visitors, most on tours. I was traveling with my cousin who lived in Buenos Aires. We checked into the Sheraton International Iguazu, the only hotel directly in the falls park. It provided easy paths down to the cascading waters and had a nice view of its spray. The constant roar kept us mindful of the falls’ presence.

Our first outing was to be a train ride along the edge of the falls, supplying the only access to the famous horseshoe portion of the falls. However, record rains had washed out the tracks. The only other way to see those falls was from the Brazilian side, requiring the purchase of an expensive visa in town and an all day excursion. Our options settled quickly on simply exploring the nearest falls both from above and below, via the Upper and Lower Circuits. Over the next two days, I walked both of these paths three times, with a very different experience for each.

The Upper Circuit stretches along the top of a set of falls for about ½ mile. Metal cat walks allow the flow of water to rush underfoot while promontories furnish a safer place to view. Soon after arrival, we eagerly reached the end of the upper trail for our first panoramic view of the Herman, Bosetti, Chico, Ramirez and San Martin Falls. Actually, there was little distinction in the individual falls because of the massive waters flowing over from the recent rains. Anyone who can’t watch an IMAX movie would be dizzy here.

After lunch, a second walk down the Lower Circuit took us closer to the falls where Great Dusky Swifts floated in and out and orchids clung to vines. Every turn revealed a new, powerful fall until we walked out at the end to look up at a panorama of water and mist. In normal times, a boat escorts you across the river to an island for a closer look. But that crossing had been also stopped by the excessive rain and flow of water. We did take a boat ride that took us as close to the cascading water as was safe. Watching the boat from the shore, it seemed to still be far from the heart of the falls. But in the boat, the spray of water from the falls alone drenched us all as if we were directly under the water. To return to port further down the river, the boat was simply put in neutral and rapidly whisked away.

My cousin was under the weather the next day and I tried both the Upper and Lower Circuits in the morning. The difference from the previous day was startling. I could hardly move because of the crowds. I had to push my way to the front of the look-outs as well as wait for people to pass across bridges. I kept looking for the weight limit signs on the catwalks. Photos were almost impossible to take without including a stranger’s head or hand.

At 4 p.m. that afternoon, I tried the Lower Circuit again and the trail was all mine. The crowds were gone. At the end of this trail, a metal walk extends to the spray of the nearest fall. I had watched others make that walk in swim suits and I wore mine to try it. I was alone as I eased out, holding tight to the rails. 2000 cubic yards of water per second were roaring past, ready to whisk away anything in its path. I was surprised how hard it was to force the final steps. At the end, the falls seemed close enough to touch but you couldn’t. The spray drenched me and the sound blocked all other thoughts.

On the solitary walk back up the trail, a herd of coatimundis, cousins to the raccon, obstructed the way. Several iguanas also eased by. The animals stay low when the crowds are out. Fortunately, that includes the snakes.

We were up at 6 a.m. the last morning to make our final pilgrimage along the Upper Circuit. Only the local birds joined us at that hour. Toucans and Motmots moved freely about. At the end of the trail, we simply stood over the fast moving falls and watched flocks of parakeets play. A parrot filled tree swayed nearby. On the mist covered island below, rainbows competed for attention. It was mystical and breathtaking and the view I carry in my head today.

We missed the train ride and the free boat ride. We missed the view of the horseshoe falls. We missed the walk to the Devil’s Throat falls. But our treks brought us much nearer to the heart of the falls where nature ignores the crowds and keeps on moving.

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The Pyramids Fascinate Tourists for Thousands of Years

The Giza Pyramids outside of Cairo have been a tourist destination for over 3,000 years. Let me repeat that. Three thousand years ago, tourists from ancient Greece and Rome had heard of and traveled to see this marvel. It is the only original Seven Wonders of the World that survives. By looking up at the tip of these structures, you join Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Mark Twain, William Thackeray, and millions of others who were stunned at the skill of workmanship and the effort needed to complete them. On the wall outside the Khafra pyramid, original hieroglyphics, or early day graffiti, revealed Ramses II had been there when he was Pharoah around 1300 BC. Writers from Herodotus in 449 B. C. to Amelia Edwards in the 1870s have tried to describe the significance of these tributes to the Pharoahs and their queens.

There have been dips and rises in the numbers who have come. It wasn’t a good time to visit in 969 when the Tunisian Fatimids marched 100,000 soldiers over the desert to take Cairo or in 1258 when the Mongols invaded Egypt. But tourism picked up in the 1800’s. Ancient Egypt was all the craze in Europe and camels were required, not just for photo ops but to ferry hoards of Englishmen to the site. Women, in their fine dresses and hats, insisted on viewing the pyramids up close and even on top.

As thousands year old graves were discovered filled with gold bejeweled masks and other finery, the frenzy continued. Despite occasional tourists attacks even in our time, tourism is by far the number one industry in Egypt today. Until the latest recession, Russians were taking their turn at overrunning the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and museums. Salesmen at the Pyramids shift effortlessly into English, French, German and Russian as they try ply their miniature pyramids, stuffed camels, and plastic jewelry, all made in China.

So, can it still be worth it? That interesting? Worth fighting the crowds? Of course it is.

The Giza pyramids stand in the middle of a Cairo suburb but with sufficient desert immediately surrounding them to maintain their integrity. From a distance they seem small. Only by standing at its base can the achievement of their construction be felt. Amelia Edwards wrote in her book, “A Thousand Miles Up the Nile”, of the Great Pyramid “in all its unexpected bulk and majesty towers close above one’s head, [and] the effect is as sudden as it is overwhelming. It shuts out the sky and the horizon. It shuts out everything but the sense of awe and wonder.”

The tallest, the Great Pyramid, is the largest single structure in the world. Its limestone blocks are so tightly packed that a knife can’t be inserted. Very recent excavation reveal that the workers were not slaves as commonly believed. They worked three month shifts and were fed well with meat and beer – similar to our modern day, off-shore oil workers.

In the past, tourists could climb to the top of the pyramids. But today, the major “extra” adventure offered is burrowing through tunnels inside either Khafra’s or Cheop’s pyramids into the chambers where kings were previously buried. Signs warn claustrophobic visitors shouldn’t try this. The tunnel into Khafra’s was about four feet tall and wide. I thought I wasn’t claustrophobic but learned otherwise. All had to walk hunchback, a kind of compressed duck walk, seeing only the person in front. It was hot and humid. Imaging helped calm breathing. We were only in the tunnel about five minutes but it felt forever. Finally, we burst into a remarkably large inner burial room with only an empty sarcarphogus to prove its original intent. A “guide” pointed out that it was indeed a sarcarphogus and then asked for “baksheesh” or a “tip”. I was so happy to be standing, I would have given him anything.

Outside , you also have many opportunities to be photographed with a bedecked camel and to ride on said bedecked camel. Negotiating is de rigeur and saying no impossible.

The Sphinx was the surprise and has its own riddle. It may be older than the pyramids and no one is sure of its purpose. The lion’s body lounges patiently in the sand with its tail circling comfortably around. In “Innocents Abroad”, Mark Twain described its great human face as “so sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient………… It was stone, but it seemed sentient.” This is where the crowds congregated late in the afternoon as all tried to get as close as allowed to the excavated feline.

The Sphinx supervises the Nile and modern day Cairo, a view that has evolved over 3,000 years of watching. But having tourists nearby hasn’t changed much. The fascination with the shape, angles, size, placement and reasons for the pyramids will surely continue for another three thousand years as visitors connect with a fascinating past that has slowly revealed its secrets.

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The television station’s call letters were APTN – Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. Based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, this was the world’s first television station dedicated to native people and one of only four officially licensed TV networks in Canada. Its broadcasts reached across the country and into our hotel room on a recent visit to Quebec. Curious about the First Nation people’s issues in Canada, we tuned in every evening.

Canada has over 600 recognized First Nations governments or bands and approximately 1,200,000 Native Canadians, about 3% of the population. First Nation People, Amerindians, Native Americans, and Aboriginal people are all terms used to refer to those who first occupied Canada. Although First Nation tribes were not conquered as they were in the United States, Canada has struggled with how to integrate federal and provincial laws with the treaties and land claim agreements negotiated over the last 250 years. The first proclamation in 1765 was meant to protect territories reserved to the tribes for their hunting grounds. The Indian Act of 1876 determined how reserves would operate, who qualifies as a First Nation descendant and how to enfranchise their inhabitants.

The 1927 Indian Act forbade First Nation people from forming political organizations and speaking their language in schools. 150,000 children were removed from their homes and placed in government supported boarding schools to assimilate them. On June 11, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the schools and the abuse many children received.

The Indian Act has been amended over the years. But it wasn’t until 1983 that the heads of the government sat down with the leaders of the Aboriginal groups. The issues were not a surprise – land claims, natural resources ownership, education and self determination rights. Those concerns continue today as evidenced by the news stories at APTN.

During our viewing, we learned there was an election for a regional chief to the Assembly of First Nations. The candidates talked about the problems of poverty, advancing human rights, and remembering their ancestors. A second story featured members of a tribe in the far north who were blocking the trucks of an oil company until claims of ownership of the natural resources could be determined. A feature advised of the growing number of native teachers in the First Nation schools, a process started in the 1970’s.

I was particularly interested in the discussion of the Sharon McIvor case, a sex discrimination suit that had just been settled the summer before. In 1985, the Indian Act was amended to correct a discrimination against Aboriginal women. Previously, an Aboriginal woman who married a non-status Indian lost her own status. The amendment corrected this problem but did not extend the protection to the woman’s children. An Aboriginal man’s children were protected even if he married a non-status woman – classic sex discrimination. It took ten years but Ms. McIvor won her case and now Aboriginal women’s children’s status are protected regardless of who their mother married.

Reading newspapers and watching local television in foreign countries helps with perspective. I realize the United States in not alone in its complexity. Canada, with ten provinces and three territories, must deal with the same federal and states rights issues we do and blend in past treaties. The most basic question of what nationality are the First Nation people is even a concern. I read that a tribal chief in Canada had recently developed a passport for his aboriginal nation which was accepted by several European countries.

Our English/Spanish debate is multiplied in Canada. At the APTN station, 56% of their broadcasts are in English, 16% in French, and 28% in Aboriginal languages. And the question of what children are taught in school is magnified in Canada as the First Nation people ask that their descendants and fellow Canadians learn of their traditions and history. Amerindians continue to protect their way of life by being politically active and by promoting tourism on their lands and in their crafts and arts. APTN helps keep them and us informed of this important goal.

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Baby Boomers Sample Budget Travel in Vietnam

The poor dollar seems to take a beating wherever it goes. Many Americans are letting their European cousins visit them this year. Others are dusting off their campers. But there is good news. In Vietnam, the dollar’s value has increased over the last year. In fact, with an exchange rate of around 18,435 dong to the dollar, a $100 bill can make you an instant millionaire. The even better news is that it is an economical place to travel.

Vietnam as a travel destination was discovered by the young back packer set at least15 years ago. They found a country with beautiful beaches, deltas laden with boats, motorcycle packed streets, interesting ethnic mountain tribes, hand tailored silk suits, and ruins from an advanced civilization hundreds of years old. Halong Bay took their breath away and Saigon’s night life beat most anything in the U.S. Hotels and food were cheap and the Vietnamese people welcoming. It was Europe in the early 1970s.

The older traveler has now caught on and Vietnam is experiencing a surge in tourism. Tour groups and even cruise lines have added Vietnam to their itineraries. The French have embraced their former colony and are coming in large numbers. Older Americans, however, first had to be convinced that they would be well received by the Vietnamese. Since seventy percent of the Vietnamese population is under 30 years of age, most Vietnamese only know of the “American War” from their history books. We’re treated as any other tourist, which means they want us to enjoy ourselves and come back.

What I noticed on my last visit was the number of older independent travelers who were venturing out of the luxury hotels and were really taking advantage of the low cost of travel here. The budget hotels in the “backpack” areas of Saigon and Hanoi are no longer just for the young. With bargaining, the hotel rates in these locations ranged from $12 to $25 per night. This buys you a clean room with a private bath, a small, stocked refrigerator, air conditioning and a television with CNN and BBC stations. Some even throw in a continental breakfast and if you’re really lucky, that includes the wonderful Vietnamese drip coffee.

All travelers enjoy the low cost of the food. The Vietnamese traditional soup, Pho, is as varied as Italy’s pasta, and is served all day long on the streets and in many restaurants for under $3. We got hooked on Bun Thit Nuong, a grilled meat salad with a rice vinaigrette dressing which cost a whopping four dollars. International food is now available in the larger tourist areas where a pizza and a glass of Australian Shiraz can be had for $6.

Even the high end travel scale in Vietnam is reasonable. In Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, I treated my traveling companions to a nice night out and was determined to spend $100 on the three of us. After drinks at the Saigon-Saigon bar on top of the elegant Caravelle Hotel, we enjoyed a meal at the Temple Club, a renovated former Chinese temple, where we retired to their drawing room for dessert and coffee. It was only with a large tip that I was able to spend the last of my $100.

Being an older independent traveler doesn’t mean you have to buy every ticket and book every hotel yourself. Vietnam is loaded with travel agencies. I counted 10 in one block of Hanoi. They have a variety of day or multi-day tours to explore the Mekong Delta, Halong Bay, Hoi Ann or the ethnic tribes in the mountains of Sapa. An overnight stay on a wooden junk boat in Halong (including food) will cost between $35 and $150, depending on the elegance of the boat. These tours can be booked after you arrive. Tour guides may be hired for each destination for $15 to $30 per day. The other nice choice is to custom-build your holiday through a consolidator. We found an operator recommended by who helped with hotels, transportation and occasional guides, all on the economic level we requested. Even with their 25 percent cost added on, it was reasonable and saved a lot of time.

With baby boomers retiring and having time for an extended vacation, Vietnam offers both variety and value. A little investigation, determination, and adventurous spirit will land you in a beautiful country where your dollar goes a long way.

SinhCafe Travel Agencies – reputable company with many locations. www. for recomendations of local travel agents
For very personalized service, contact Ninh through

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Traveling with a Christmas Tree

I’m not often jealous of an inanimate object. But I have never had a helicopter ride and our Christmas tree has. It wasn’t a long flight – only about a minute. This was just enough time to lift 30 to 40 other trees and transport them to a warehouse for shipping. I was talking to Erin Fletk, an owner of Emerald Christmas Tree Company in Bellevue, Washington, who assured me that transportation by helicopter keeps trees fresher by cutting the time needed to move them out of the field.

Fletk’s company has been supplying trees to the Kroger grocery chain from Oregon land for over 50 years. The trees are hand tagged in August, cut in November and early December, flown to the warehouse, sprayed with chipped ice, placed in a refrigerated truck and transported to the stores. That’s a lot of traveling for such a young tree. Kroger’s trees come from the upper Michigan peninsula or Oregon. Home Depot also buys trees from Michigan and Oregon as well as North Carolina and Canada.. The time period from harvest to store varied from 12 hours to 7 days, depending on the destination.

In these days of carbon footprints, the question is whether the growing and transportation of our tree is an ecologically smart one, especially compared to artificial trees. And that is when I waded into the sometimes sharp discussion of real vs. not real trees.

The first issue in the debate is what to call “not real” trees. The Christmas tree industry uses the word “fake” while the artificial tree industry doesn’t call them anything at all. I looked at some artificial trees at Wal-Mart and Home Depot. There was no mention of the fact that these trees were made of plastic. On the tree and the boxes they were simply named for the tree that they resembled – such as 7 ft. Douglas Fir or Yonkers Pine. The boxes did state clearly they were MADE IN CHINA.

As an aside, the first artificial tree was developed by the Addis Brush Company. In 1950, they patented the Addis Silver pine tree, designed to revolve with lights under it. While we never had that tree growing up, many of my friends’ families bought it. And upon reflection, it did look a lot like a silver brush.

The real tree people have some pretty strong ammunition in support of Christmas tree farms. The first is that natural trees are MADE IN AMERICA. Many American farmers are supported by this industry. There are 176 members of just the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, translating into thousands nationwide. And, according to Erin Fletk, three trees are planted for every tree harvested from a farm so that no trees are taken down in any of our national parks or forests. The numbers on the other side are startling – 85 % of artificial Christmas trees are from China. . This argument hits close to home. Paris had its own Christmas tree factory (Paris Industries) for several years but it closed when the competition from China became too stiff. Obviously, Asian artificial trees travel even further to arrive in our local stores.

The disposition of the trees are starkly different. Natural trees are biodegradable and can be placed in lakes for fish habitat. They are recyclable and used to prevent beach erosion and for mulch. Our Christmas tree will be mulched by the big horizontal grinder owned by the City of Paris and made available to nurseries, schools, and residents. Artificial trees don’t disintegrate well. Some come with a PVC warning and in California, a lead warning. So, they hang out in our waste disposal site for many, many years.

According to Ms. Fletk, the movement is back towards natural Christmas trees. Their numbers are up even in these tough economic times. The Kroger chain also is selling more and at a lower price than last year. Home Depot couldn’t release numbers but would tell me they are the world’s largest retailer of Christmas trees. That’s a lot of tree movement and traveling. Our tree traveled by helicopter and truck over 3000 miles to Paris just to light up our home. What I particularly like is that this Oregon tree will soon become mulch for a Texas garden – certainly worth the trip.

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