Mary Clark, Traveler

San Antonio de Padua – How an Italian Saint Joined us in the Streets of Guanajuato, Mexico

We were happy to be there – a girls trip with Paris friends. We rented a three bedroom house with a rooftop terrace for $500 a week near the central market of Guanajuato, Mexico. The weather was almost perfect with warm days and cool evenings. The city has been designated a World Heritage site because of its lovely colonial architecture dating from when Guanajuato produced one-third of the world’s silver. Thanks to the diversion of most traffic below the city, many plazas, streets, and callejons (paved pathways) were without vehicles – perfect for strolling.

Our itinerary was unexpectedly altered at 6 a.m. on Saturday, June 12th. Loud firecrackers booms are often heard here in the morning to celebrate birthdays. But at this dawn, a volley of explosions saluted the day, followed by the sounds of an advancing band down the small, steep callejon in front of our house. Close behind, religious banners, singers, and contrite parishioners paraded down the mountain, filling the street directly below our balconies.

It was the saint’s day for the near-by San Antonio de Padua chapel. San Antonio is a beloved saint across the continents. Portuguese by birth, he joined the Franciscan monks in Italy where his powers of preaching were recognized by his title “Evangelical Doctor”. Our own San Antonio, Texas was named in his honor and Italy claims him as their patron saint. (As we age, we should call upon him often as he is also the patron saint of lost things.) He died on June 13, 1231, a date that was now being celebrated in our hood in Guanajuato 779 years later.

A room on the street had been converted into a small chapel where mass was celebrated over loud speakers. Then the festivities began with large pots of soup and tamales offering free fare to any who asked.
Neighbors gathered and visited. They smiled at us as the only gringos on the street. We danced with an old, tilted woman who smiled sweetly at her four partners. Another lovely woman answered our questions and encouraged us to participate throughout the next two days of celebrations.
After an afternoon siesta, we opened our front door and stepped into a street filled with Chichimeca Indian dancers – replete with feathers, body paint and ankle bands of nuts from the Ayoyote tree. It took our breath away. Guanajuato was originally inhabited by one of the nomadic Chichimeca tribes who maintained a fierce resistance against the Spaniards for longer than most.
They were primitive, painted their bodies, and ate only game, roots and berries. Most have been assimilated although a sliver of the population (.26%) can still speak the indigenous language. Many of their descendants were joined by other tribes in Mexico to provide authentic dress and dance for San Antonio’s day.

I talked to Rosa Maria Hernandez Maya, a 65 years old Indigenous woman, who had been dancing since she was five. Her father started the dance group in Mexico City and they still travel throughout Mexico for performances. Ironically, we were told the shields used by the dancers were to protect the indigenous people from the religion of the conquerors and a common name for the nuts used in the dancers’ ankle bands is hueseros de friar or friar’s bones. Neither sounded welcoming to the new faith nor the present celebration.

On the opposite end of the street, a popular morality play was being performed. Actors dressed as the devil, young maiden, prostitute, drunk, farmer, cowboy and others battled with a bull character. Children laughed as the bull attacked the drunk or when the cowboy lashed his whip. We were helped with the drama’s meaning by Mariano, a native who currently works in Alabama, but who returns to Guanajuato every year for this festival. He explained that in the end, all characters die except death itself – represented by the devil.

The next morning, the festival was taken out into the streets of Guanajuato with a parade to the Templo de la Compania de Jesus where another mass was to be celebrated. More Indian dancers had arrived from different tribes. Members of the San Antonio chapel participated. Women in white dresses carried the statue of the baby Jesus, men in white and black supported the statute of San Antonio de Padua, and individuals proudly displayed banners and small statutes.

They were joined by a band or two and 12 different drum and bugle corps composed of fathers and young sons. It was all quite colorful and loud.

That afternoon and evening were too crowed for us and we explored other parts of the city. The next morning was blessedly quiet with no awakening booms. Streets were clean and people returned to a normal morning’s work.

No guide books mention this festival and few tourists were present. While not community wide, the celebration was large by neighborhood standards. And for us temporary neighbors, it was a magical festival – one of those unanticipated experiences that travelers dream about – a merging of the past and present, the sacred and savage, the young and old.

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Watching the World Cup with the World

It is the world’s biggest sports event – viewed by hundreds of millions around the world every four years. The Super Bowl doesn’t come close. World Cup play means the Dallas Morning News has real soccer coverage. It’s also the best opportunity to meet other soccer lovers in bars around the world.

The World Cup only began in 1930 when Jules Rimet, president of the French Football League, pushed for an international event that would not discriminate on the grounds of professional or amateur status. He even went so far as to hope that “football (our soccer) could reinforce the ideals of a permanent and real peace.” Only 13 teams participated in the first tournament held in Uruguay and, surprisingly, the United States was one of them. Because of a heavily weighted Scottish roster, we made it to the semi-finals. Host Uruguay beat neighbor Argentina 4-2 for the first championship.

The series took a break for the war years between 1938 and 1950. After a 40 year drought, the USA finally made an appearance in 1994. Each year more teams have vied to qualify – 53 teams in 1966, 113 teams in 1986 and 204 teams in 2010. But even as the competition has become harder, the American team has been able to qualify except for 1998. It helps that half of our players now belong to the more competitive teams outside the U.S.

I love the World Cup and have since our children started playing Kiwanas soccer. I was up at 4 a.m several mornings in 1990 to watch the USA lose all three of their matches in Italy. America hosted in 1994 and we had tickets to three games in Dallas. The Nigeria vs. Bulgaria game had no favorites but the constant pounding of drums by the Nigerian fans was a welcome relief from the usual air horns.

By winning a lottery, we got to watch a quarter-final game with Brazil and the Netherlands – largely considered the true world cup final game between the two strongest teams that year. It was a high scoring (3-2) event in which Brazil pulled out the win at the end. Fans were painted head to toe as the very international crowd took hold.. We cheered every time either team scored. Later that day, in the Galleria shopping center, we heard fans singing “Ole, Ole, Ole, Brazil, Brazil’ to be answered by other fans “Ole, Ole, Ole, USA, USA”.

For the final game in 1994, we were traveling in Yellowstone National Park. Unbelievably, there were no televisions in our room or hotel that carried the game. After many inquiries, the hotel staff directed us to a bar in the far northern part of the park that had satellite television service. We joined an international crowd evenly divided between supporters of the Brazilian and Italian teams as was our family. No particular language is required to watch a soccer game and all were cheering at appropriate times for their team.

France hosted 1998 and the USA didn’t quality. A twelve year plan was put into place to make America competitive by 2010. In the 2002 games hosted by Japan and Korea, the USA actually made it to the quarterfinals before losing to Germany 1-0. Those games also required early rising to view.

2006 games were another disappointment for American fans. I was studying Spanish in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala that summer and searched for a bar to watch the USA play. It was a morning game and I drank coffee and grimaced as Ghana beat the Americans. The other Guatemalan fans just shook their heads.

This year has been more promising. 2010’s first game was between Mexico and South Africa. The play began as some friends and I were taking a cooking lesson in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Like Christmas morning, the entire town was shut down – no cars on the streets and few pedestrians. Our instructor couldn’t remember a time of such quietness on the streets. Through the open windows, we heard the familiar “gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooal” when South Africa scored and later rousing cheers as Mexico evened the score.

The next day, we gathered in Guanajuato, Mexico, at La Botalleta bar with other tourists, ex-pats, and students to watch the U.S. challenge England. The crowd was heavily pro-American but a few cheered on the Brits. As one Mexican cab drive told me, Mexico will cheer for any country in the Americas – North or South – as long as they’re not playing Mexico. We tied and were happy for it.

As I write this, USA is playing Algeria and it’s been a frustrating game with lots of shots on goal, a goal called back, and no score by either team. I can hardly watch. Whoa, excuse me, Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooal by USA at the 91st minute! Now, how can that not be exciting? But watching a game in the privacy of you own home is just not the same as in a foreign bar surrounded by like-minded fans. America’s fans still have some catching up to do. As the American team progresses and improves, maybe we can convince Buffalo Joe’s to open up on July 11th for the finals. It’s really the only way to do it.

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Johnson’s Honey Bees – Seasoned Travelers

Boy, those bees get around. We think only humans travel for work but the honey bees can match many of us mile for mile. And few bee hives travel as far as those owned by the Lamar County business of Johnson’s Bee and Honey.

Randy Johnson has been in the apiary business since 1961 – almost 50 years. He and his son, Chad, are the only employees in an enterprise that makes between 150 to 200 barrels of honey a year. Since a barrel equals 650 pounds, this “small operation” produces over 60 tons of the nectar of the gods. It takes all of their 1500 hives and 75 million bees to accomplish this.

With its own wings, a worker honeybee will daily travel approximately three miles from its hive at a pretty decent speed of 15 miles per hour. Since an individual worker only lives six weeks, she covers about 125 miles creating 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. Obviously, many bees are needed to meet the goal of 60 tons of honey.

Enter the queen bee whose sole job is to lay eggs – and not just a few eggs at a time. Her royal highness is expected to produce 1000 to 1500 eggs per day. Now, that’s real multiple births. Mr. Johnson only keeps his queen bees for two years as they, understandably, “get tired”. He buys his queens from a California company that grafts from a good stock. After the queen is purchased, she is shipped UPS overnight from California to Texas where she’s placed in an existing hive.

Mr. Johnson’s bees have spring, summer, and winter homes. Bees produce the most honey in the late spring and summer. They use the sugar product to store up food for the winter. But by June, excess honey exists and the harvest begins. In the spring, most of their hives are placed around the Mt. Pleasant and Daingerfield area. Some remain in Lamar County where the hairy vetch, a flowering legume, provides the ingredients for production of white honey. In June, half of the bees are loaded on semi-trucks and sent to South Dakota where they feast on the nectar of yellow clover and alfalfa. Johnson’s beautiful golden honey is a mixture of the South Dakota and East Texas products.

There is a respite for the bees and the Johnsons in late fall. But in January, half of the hives are again loaded on semis and sent to California to pollinate the almond crop. Fifty to sixty semi-loads are needed for the large number of almond orchards and three-fourths of the bees are leased, including the Johnson’s bees. Back they come in March where the hives are again placed around East Texas.

All of Johnson’s honey is processed in Lamar County and placed in containers, ranging from a small bear shaped plastic dispenser to gallons sized for professional use and/or large families. Recently, the business expanded into cream honey – a whipped honey that can be flavored with cinnamon, apple, strawberry, etc. Chad has built the folksy display cabinets that can be seen in many Paris locations and within their 100 mile service area. They also sell heavily to the Save-A-Lot grocery store chain in Oklahoma.

Mr. Johnson is dismissive of the honey sold in most stores as it is not local. Labels for the large national companies confirm that much of the honey sold in the U.S. is from foreign countries with China (of course), Argentina , and Turkey being the largest contributors. I’ve always believed in supporting local bees, especially since they are the only insects that produce a food humans will eat.

The honey industry makes good use of our highways. Within a year , the queen bees cover about 8500 miles. Their chariots are the net covered semis that escort the royalty and her entourage across the Rockies to California and over the Midwest to South Dakota and back again. By traveling so much, they create a wonderful honey that supports our local economy and our health.

Johnson Honey & Bee Co., 200 County road 43360, Paris, Texas 75462. 903.785.6081

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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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