Mary Clark, Traveler

The Temples of Ankor Wat – More Than Just Ruins

Bhong was at the hotel early, waiting for us. It was still dark and surprisingly cool for a jungle morning. I was traveling with Paris friends, David Kennemer and Sharon Schneider. An elderly woman was already selling her fresh baked french baguettes on the street. We happily spent 75 cents to purchase three as we climbed into Bhong’s rented “tuk-tuk”, a motorcycle that pulls a two wheeled, modern day surrey without the fringe on top. Off we sped through Siem Reap and into the countryside where we passed the Cambodians walking, biking, and riding motorcycles to work. A quick stop at the Angkor Wat gate gave us a three day pass complete with our photos. The sun was rising as we arrived, the very first tourists that day.

The Temples of Angkor are the Kingdom of Cambodia’s number one tourist attraction. The temples were built from about 950 to 1220 A.D. by a series of Cambodian kings. During the centuries of construction, the emphasis was on the king as god, who resides in the temple after death as an intermediary between man and god. Each of the temples are constructed as a microcosm of the world, the temple as the central holy mountain, surrounded by a moat or ocean. The bridge was the rainbow connecting men and gods. The earlier temples centered on the Hindu Siva but as Buddhism spread, the later temples used Buddha representations. Even today, there are still Buddha statutes (covered by orange silks) attended by male and female Buddhist monks who will pray for your good luck when you purchase and light incense.

The surprise was the size of the complex at Angkor. It is an enormous park with temples spread over 40 miles . Transportation is required and you have choices – bicycles, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, cars, buses, minivans, and even elephants. Most tourists were on tours and were motored about in buses. We had hired Bhong and his tuk-tuk for three days. He was very attentive and eager. To pick us up close to a temple’s entrance, Bhong had to pay “extra” to the guards to park nearby.

Our schedule was to first visit the more popular temples such as the Bayon before the crowds arrived. We then paused for a breakfast at stall number “16”, one of many open air restaurants available. But this one was owned by Bhong’s mother-in-law (or so he said). The menu included slightly altered favorites such as pineapple pancakes but also offered fried rice with ginger and vegetables and topped with an omelette. Only the coffee was undrinkable. Next were visits to some of the smaller, out of the way temples that didn’t have lines of buses waiting in front. It was common as we approached a temple to hear live music played by a band of paraplegics, victims of land mines still scattered from Cambodia’s recent war past.

Each temple enjoys its own aura. The actual Angkor Wat temple has a working moat around it and is almost perfectly restored with lovely bas relief carvings of battle stories of demons and goddesses in the sea.

Other temples such as Ta Prohm are maintained in their discovered form with spung tree roots growing through rooms and roofs.

The rose colored Banteai Srei demurely reveals the most delicate sandstone carvings, perhaps a reflection of a queen’s influence.
But the most enigmatic and spiritual temple was the Bayon.

Unless prepared, the enormous smiles from the ten foot high Buddha faces peering down from 54 towers may shock you. As you wander, the faces become your companions and you wished they could tell their stories of the processions of kings and elephants and acrobats that paraded by in celebration of battle victories.
By 2 p.m., the heat was too great and we would return to the Bequest Hotel where we had the option of hiring a blind masseuse. (We declined but found the idea intriguing.) The evenings were spent on Bar street, an Asian Bourbon street scene, where you could dine al fresco at the Temple Club, Lucky Sian or Angkor Burgers. The Red Piano was our favorite restaurant as it had been for Angelina Jolie when she filmed “Tomb Raider”. For seven dollars, we had a taste of the colonial era with drinks, a meal, bamboo chairs, overhead fans and friendly geikos climbing up the nearby walls.

On the third day, we ended our time at the ruins of Angkor with a late stop at the Bayon and a last look at the moon faces. These were the visages of Cambodia’s past time of glory. After a devastating internal war in which at least one fourth of the population died, Cambodia is recovering and using its past to support the future. Bhong’s face is that of the new Cambodian – hard working, solicitous to please, and desperately hoping to earn enough to buy his own tuk-tuk. I would like to think we contributed to that goal. So, until the next column, remember tourism is a powerful industry for developing countries.

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Greer Farm – Improving on a Texas Tradition

Scattered throughout East Texas are locales offering farm stays, berry picking, log cabins, grass-fed beef, and gourmet cooking. But at Greer Farm, located just west of Daingerfield, you can enjoy it all in one lovely location.

Sid and Eva Greer are the playful owners of Greer Farm. Eva grew up in Belize with her Polish parents and Sid is a proud Texan and UT graduate. While in the employ of BP Amoco, they traveled the world, lived in Tunisia, London, and Madagascar and retired to a farm purchased in 1979.
The farm itself has been a Texas family homeplace since 1850, earning the distinction of being one of Texas’ first farms. The white clapboard home took two years to restore and is now an inviting respite with rocking chairs on the porch.

Sid’s energy and inquisitiveness are obvious. On a tour of the grounds, he could name (if you really wanted to know) all of the 10,000 bulb flowers and their origins, point out the Nigerian pygmy and Spanish goats, acknowledge the value of their Guinea Hens in controlling fire ants, and explain his unique method of replanting pine seedlings to significantly shorten the harvesting cycle. He promotes the farm as sustainable which is not the same as organic. This approach is a recognition that “there are lots of bugs in East Texas” but also a commitment to good stewardship of the land for future generations. Sustainable farming also includes social responsibility such as good working conditions for laborers. As a trustee for Northeast Texas Community College, Sid is proud that the college has committed to a program to teach sustainable farming.

Always the businessman, Sid prepared a business plan for the farm that continues to guide them. It included raising Maine-Anjou cattle, planting berry orchards, and developing some of the land for timber. When I asked if the goat cheese from our meal was made from their herd, he replied “Cheese making is the last item on our business plan and we’re not there yet”.

Eva is a culinary school graduate of the Art Institute of Houston and enjoys incorporating her native Belizean spices into some of her creations. A lifelong cook, she finds herself in the best of worlds. The farm provides her with hand- gathered eggs, beef, chicken, cabrito on occasion, fresh herbs, and vegetables. Her fine cuisine is available through her catering business and for reserved lunches and dinner and special occasions in their home. To enjoy her prix fixe gourmet meals, she requires a minimum of 12 guests, which is understandable after reviewing the choices for the four course meals. You can learn some of her secrets by attending one of her cooking classes. Eva also stays busy developing chicken recipes for Pilgrim’s Pride and supervising the 100 varieties of antique roses in one of the farms’ many gardens. She has achieved her goal of year round flowers.
Visitors can choose among other offered activities at the farm. The blackberry and blueberry patches are now in “full bloom”. You can pick your own and take them to the main house to be weighed. Down at the lake, paddle boats, kayaks, and canoes are for hire as well as bicycles. Children would also enjoy the animal feeding time as the goats, chickens, hens, sheep, and horses eagerly approach without inhibitions.
The most recent addition to the farm are the log cabins which face the lake. From the outside, they appear to be built with pine logs as they were 150 years ago. But inside are luxury hotel amenities – high definition TV, WIFI and computer hook up, and Ipod players. The kitchen area is well equipped for cooking meals. Homemade bread, jam and fresh eggs are delivered for breakfast. With screened windows on all four sides and three interior ceiling fans, you can sleep without air conditioning even into the summer. The front porch soothes you with a fourth ceiling fan. Rocking chairs are provided as well as garlic based organic spread to ward off mosquitoes. I get sleepy just thinking about it.

Over the entry doors of the main home are these words, “All Because Two People Fell In Love,” an anniversary gift from Sid to Eva. The Greers continue to expand and build their lives together. The difference now is that life is shared with people who can enjoy and appreciate their efforts to sustain and promote farm living. So, until the next column, remember the Greers’ philosophy, “life is simpler when you plow around stumps.”

The Greer Farm website is

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“The Cabin” , Cowles, and the Pecos Wilderness

“The Cabin”, as it was always referred to, was one of the first time shares. My father and some of his friends built it in 1956 as a hunting cabin in Cowles, New Mexico, one and a half hours northeast of Santa Fe. They dubbed it ” Plainview”, named for their hometown and for its open location in a mountain meadow. A classic log cabin, it originally was just a large room and a kitchen with a scary outhouse up the hill. When the families of the hunters started coming for annual summer trips, a bedroom and bathroom were added. Our next door neighbor was the Pecos Wilderness and the Santa Fe ski area was just over the mountain. All of the summer homes in this area were constructed on a 99 year lease from the National Park Service.
Across from the cabin is Winsor creek, a part of the headwaters of the Pecos River which eventually flows into Texas. Wildflowers line the banks and are wonderful to gather, being careful of the nettles. As kids we would occasionally fish off the bridges for the rainbow, brown or cutthroat trout. But we spent far more time dropping sticks and flowers on one side of the bridge and racing to the other to watch them float by on the other side. When I was growing up, Cowles was actually a little community with Mountain View Lodge, a bar and restaurant, dance hall, and horse stables. We could rent horses for the day, ride them (without guides) to the cabin and literally tie them up at the porch. Those amenities are all gone. Only Los Pinos, a small dude ranch, remains as well as ample camping areas.

After a 20 year break, I started going back to The Cabin with my husband and children. The road from Pecos was now paved but still passed by the wooden planked Tererro General Store, a staple since 1940.

The high country air, suffused with the aroma of Ponderosa pine, spruce, fir and aspen, was as clean and wonderful as ever. The cabin itself seemed smaller and the trees larger than I remembered. There was still no television or telephone but plenty of mice. Feeders placed on the porch continued to attract droves of hummingbirds who would helicopter in, occasionally landing on a patiently waiting finger.

Our new emphasis at this stage was on hiking. I had never really explored the Pecos Wilderness on foot. It was designated a wilderness in The Wilderness Act of 1964. With 15 aspen lakes and 150 miles of streams, it is full of wonderful trails that climb steeply to ridges or meander up valleys to waterfalls. Day hikes are our favorite. Hamilton Mesa and Winsor Ridge Trails offer the best views that can easily be had with a packed lunch. The Jack’s Creek trailhead is equestrian friendly with corrals for the packtrips and hunters. Actually, the picnic tables at Jack’s Creek provide a 360 degree look at the snow covered Truchas Peak and Pecos Baldy with a safe view of late afternoon summer thunderstorms entering the Pecos River valley. You can always jump in the car when the storm finally arrives.

Once we attempted to backpack in for an overnight stay with our kids and the Swasko family. A brush with a mountain lion considerably shortened the goal of Stewart Lake. We did spend the night out but in a meadow directly above our cabin rather than miles up the mountains. We didn’t really need the second tent we carried as all four members of our family slept in the same two man tent. When we told the forest rangers about the mountain lion sighting, they were excited – not exactly the reaction we had!
The joy of returning many times to the same vacation spot comes from the familiarity and comfort of knowing your surroundings and the anticipation of discovering something new each year. We realized the flora of the cabin area completely changed after visiting in June rather than our usual August trip. Mountain irises only appear at that time of the year and snow remains on the high paths. The trails at Holy Ghost Canyon (what a wonderful name) were most recently tried for the first time with our friend, A.W. Clem. And we were thrilled to spot Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep at Pecos Baldy Lake on a backpacking trip with local Paris guide, Bob Bush.

Yet with all those fabulous surroundings, the very best memories came from the night time, inside the cabin, after we ate dinner around the faded kitchen table. We acted out charades, played poker into the night and told stories in front of the fireplace. Common pleasures were somehow made even more satisfying when surrounded by the dark, silent forest and the star spangled heavens. So, until the next column, remember, “memories can be built from the simplest of vacations.”

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Acupuncture in Hong Kong

Acupuncture began in China in the Stone Age when sharp edged stones were used to treat disease. It developed into a complex system to diagnosis, treat, and prevent illness with the overall goal of restoring balance and harmony to the body. Acupuncture can relieve pain (even during surgery), treat chronic conditions and strengthen the immune system. It was suppressed after 1911 when Western Medicine was introduced. Chairman Mao Zedong was a believer and in 1950 Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture again were taught in medical school with Western Medicine.

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, it seemed the time to try this four thousand year old tradition. I was with Betty Swasko and Tina Smith. Tina’s daughter, a resident of Hong Kong, introduced a friend who regularly used an acupuncturist and who agreed to take us. Ceni’s doctor was Dr. Tsai Chang Yi whose official titles were Herb Doctor & Acupuncturist and Registered Chinese Medicine Practitioner. The latter profession allows him to write prescriptions for herbal teas to be used in conjunction with the acupuncture treatment. Dr. Chang’s father practiced in the same office for many years and his brother teaches acupuncture at the University of Hong Kong Medical School. He had an opportunity to move to a wealthier part of town, but he chose to remain at the family office where he could also serve the poor. His reputation for helping women who want to conceive was impressive but not something this group was going to ask about.

Located in an apartment building, Dr. Chang’s office was clean and welcoming but well used. He and his wife and mother greeted us with big smiles as we entered. Dr. Chang sat behind a computer with a chair beside his desk for the patients. He seemed a bit surprised to see us but listened carefully as Ceni explained who we were. He had somewhat different questions for each of us. Do you have energy? Do you sleep well? What year were you born? He checked our pulses and looked at our tongues. Betty complained of her planter faciatis and Tina was cold. I couldn’t really come up with a specific complaint other than lack of sleep due to the time change.

We were told that Betty was healthy but Tina and I had bad chi or energy! Other advice included avoid salads, eat more soups, flavor stir fry with ginger to help with digestion and put dried orange peel in soup for flavor. Betty was also told to eat more rice.

As he analyzed our answers and his findings, Dr. Chang wrote a prescription for each of us and handed it to his wife, who acted as the herb pharmacist. She held a set of hand scales and began pulling out various herbs, roots, berries, and some unidentifiable earthy things. Each was carefully weighed and placed in a sheet of torn butcher paper. When the prescription was filled, she took it to Dr. Chang’s mother in the adjacent kitchen who was to make tea from these items.

It was now time for the acupuncture. We were placed on individual, elevated beds. The sheets appeared quite clean but there were distinct round burned holes on each of them. Dr. Chang arrived and asked if we were nervous. Truthfully, yes. He just smiled and proceeded to apply the slender, spaghetti like needles to our feet, lower legs, neck, and behind the ears. There was just a slight prick as the needles were placed. Tina also had a metal box placed on her stomach filled with what appeared to be burning charcoal! That will teach her to complain about being cold. It may also explain the burned holes on the sheets. We were instructed to lie still for 30 minutes. The time passed quickly. When Dr. Change removed the needles, Betty felt immediate relief in her feet, the tenseness in my neck and upper back was better, and Tina was warmer.

When we all finished and paid our $25, we were handed our individually brewed teas in large to go cups. Dr. Chang warned us not to drink the tea until we had eaten. At lunch, I tried sipping the tea but it tasted awful and the only way to drink it all was to take gulps. There were no immediate, noticeable results from our prescriptions. That night, however, I became a believer. No, I didn’t sleep better but I was purged. I’m not sure what to blame it on but no one else had that experience. Only our teas were different.

Acupuncture is widely available in the United States and is beginning to be covered by insurance as it is in Hong Kong. There are 8000 acupuncturists and 16 acupuncture schools in America. We all agreed we would try it again, especially if we had specific complaints. But the next experience won’t be same without the benevolent Dr. Chang and his gentle wife and mother. So, until the next column, remember “eat more soup and less salad”.

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Whooping it up with the Cranes in Rockport, Texas

We were up before daylight and at The Skimmer boat by dawn. Most passengers arrived with coffee in hand. The real birders also had their extensive equipment – Swarovski binoculars harnessed to their backs, cameras with large extended zoom lenses, tripods, bird books, and bird journals. There were accents from around the world, Canada, Germany, Japan. This was a serious international birdwatching crowd and some birder groupies like us brought together in Fulton-Rockport, Texas to see the wintering whooping cranes. It was March and the cranes had been here since November. The migration back north had just begun. Our skipper, Tommy Moore, felt sure we would see the big birds and many other bird species. He was right.
Heavy winds accompanied us as we motored to the Intercoastal Canal. It took some time to arrive at the channel islands, along the edge of The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Complex. A sudden stop at a shallow bay moved the crowd to the port side of the boat. “Ring billed gulls at 12 o’clock” shouted the Skipper in familiar birding language. Soon more names were called out, almost too many to take in. I’m always astounded at birders’ ability to distinguish and identify birds that to my eye are simply white or brown or spotted. Birds’ flying shapes, size, crests, beaks, and color all help a trained eye determine the variety in a flock of birds. It’s entertaining when the experts disagree and have to start pointing out the nuances of a red spot under the beak or the shade of feathers to support their claim. Obviously, Skipper Moore had a very experienced eye and wasn’t to be challenged.

Soon we saw them in the distance, mother, father and baby crane. We could actually see three groups of three cranes each. The official number of Whooping Cranes for 2008 in Texas was 266, a number to celebrate since there were only 15 of them in 1940. Their numbers were severely depleted from loss of habitat and hunting. It wasn’t until the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed that the whooping crane population began to recover. The previous establishment of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in 1937 was to protect the crane’s last wintering ground. And in 1993, a non-migratory flock was introduced in central Florida. They had to be taught to migrate from Florida to Wisconsin by use of ultralight planes! But gradually these efforts are being rewarded.

Whooping Cranes are family oriented. They like time together and forage for large blue crabs separately from other families. They raise one baby at a time even though they may lay more eggs. Because of the fragility of their species, the forest service has snatched eggs and sent them to Wisconsin to roost with the other large group of whooping cranes. From our distant location, it was hard to appreciate the birds size until they flew. At five feet tall and a seven foot wing span, they’re the basketball players of the bird world. It looked as if their lumbering take-off would not succeed but the slow, graceful flaps gradually lifted them above us. What a thrill to see an endangered species casually move away.
After this experience, the numbers of bird sightings grew exponentially. My favorite was Manhattan Island. That wasn’t its real name but the tiny islet served a very large population of birds who clearly liked company. Each species claimed a neighborhood and there wasn’t much crossing of turf borders. We saw oystercatchers, great egrets, tri-colored herons, and great blue herons. On a nearby sandbar was a flock of Roseate Spoonbills, those wonderful pink birds that even I can identify.
The clouds began to threaten and Skipper Moore turned windward to return to port. But even in the rain that soon arrived, the die hard birdwatchers were still on deck claiming more lifetime birds for their journals. My husband entered 39 birds in his very new bird diary, some with fun names like Laughing Gull, Bufflehead, and Scissor Tail Flycatcher. Our crane watch continued at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a 115,000 acre complex where blinds are available to spy on any bird. We also came across alligators near the trails as well as wild turkeys and a very vocal bull frog.
It’s hard to know when to time your visit to Fulton-Rockport. If you miss the whopping cranes, you can catch the migrating birds from across the Gulf of Mexico who arrive in May or enjoy the hummingbirds who pass this way in September on their way back across the gulf. Anytime you go, you’ll enjoy meeting birders from around the world who appreciate all that’s been done to save the whooping cranes. So, until the next column, remember “birds and birders know no borders”.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, , 361.286.3559
The Skimmer Boat,, 877.892.4737
The Inn at Fulton Harbor – directly across the street from the Fulton Harbor where the Skimmer Boat docks., 866.301.5111
Restaurants within walking distance – Hu-Dat (Vietnamese and Oriental), Moon Dog Seaside Eatery, Charlotte Plummer’s Seafare Restaurant

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Vietnam’s Black Hmong Saleswomen

If sales is all about forming relationships, then the women of the Black Hmong tribe in northwestern Vietnam should write the marketing book. This discovery was made on a recent trip to visit Vietnam’s small ethnic minority tribes, many of them located in the mountains surrounding Sapa. These include the Black Hmong, Flower Hmong and Red Dzao people. I was traveling on a “girls” trip with two Paris friends. The three of us have long been interested in ethnic cultures and we were excited to learn more about some Asian tribes.
Thanks to its cool weather in the long, hot summer months, Sapa was a hill station retreat for the French when they colonized Vietnam. It fell into disrepair until recently. As Vietnam has attracted more travelers and as more Vietnamese have been able to vacation, the area has grown into quite the resort, sporting over 100 hotels. This has been a financial blessing to the local tribes whose villages are near Sapa.
Our plan was to trek through the valley with a guide and explore some local villages. As we walked out of Sapa, we were surprised to be joined by six women of the Black Hmong tribe dressed in their colorful headresses. They are named for the dark indigo dye used in their clothes. Two of them paired up with one of us. “Hi, what’s your name? Where are you from? How many children do you have?” At first, I was resistant to their questions, but they were so friendly and kind that I opened up and began to question them also. They had items to sell but there was no mention of that.
We meandered down into the valley, chatting and visiting. The path became very steep, muddy and slick as we turned off the main road. The women gently took our arms and steadied us as we descended to the river level. Our group paused at one of the women’s houses for her to briefly nurse her baby.

At Lao Chi, we stopped at a restaurant where our guide was to cook us lunch. It was there, two hours after the start of the trek, that we finally looked at the women’s goods. They had invested much of their time getting to know us and we them, hoping we would buy something. Obviously, we did. It helped that they had some nice selections of the embroidered purses, pillow covers, and wall hangings that we had seen in Sapa stores. But we would have bought something anyway, simply because we were now on a first name basis and had shared so much personal information. After hugs, Yen, Coo, Zoa, Lillie, My and Zaa left and we had lunch seated in an open air restaurant overlooking the river and dormant rice fields.

After lunch we discovered that this marketing system was not limited to one walk. As we continued on, twelve new Hmong women joined us. “Hi, what’s your name? Where are you from? How many children do you have?” I don’t know if the word got out that we were generous buyers, but more women continued to join us. When we finally stopped at our destination, 22 women were walking with us. We couldn’t buy from all of them and actually we bought very little from the second group. But they candidly said that was okay, “there would be other visitors.”

From our walks with the women (there were more walks), we learned that the men are too shy to sell. Because the women are now selling, the men have assumed extra chores, including minding the children. The villages have even brought in English teachers to help them with the vocabulary they need. There is a system among those selling in the villages. Only one sale per person is allowed until all in the group have made a sale. They share goods among themselves to be sure everyone gets a sale.

During the next couple of days, we would see some of our new friends in the marketplace or on the streets of Sapa. They always smiled and said hello but did not ask us again to buy. Not all of the Hmong women were so disciplined as we were often approached on the Sapa streets to buy. It is certainly a risk that this new found industry could seem like begging. But we were impressed with the self-imposed rules that the village women used to protect both us and them.

The business schools in our universities could learn some lessons from the Hmong women. After all of the business, marketing, and financial plans, the decision to buy is an individual one. And being on a first name basis can tip the scale. So, until the next column, remember each culture has its own way of closing a sale.

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Quirky Albuquerque Museums

Albuquerque is a desert city influenced by science and Pueblo Indian culture. So it’s no surprise to find these unique characteristics represented by three offbeat museums. I convinced my sister-in-law and my reluctant mother that visiting them would be a fun way to spend a cold winter day.
The Rattlesnake Museum is a compact display of real snakes, facts and myths of our slithering friends, and a surprising collection of snake art. It has the “largest collection of different species of live rattlesnakes in the world.” Located in the back of what appears to be one more gift store in Old Town, you must walk apprehensively through a set of swinging doors with a big sign “DO NOT TAP ON THE GLASS”. Inside is a large collection of beautiful snakes. The names such as Red Diamond Back, Timber, and Mottled Rock, prepare you for their desert shaded scales but not for locating them in their glass fronted homes. I thought more than one was missing until more patient observation noted them.
Bob Myers, owner of the museum, playfully encourages you to love these reptiles (or at least change your attitude). A quiz at the beginning punctures some common myths. Rattlesnakes are shy and just want you to keep walking. They are actually deaf but can feel vibrations and detect odors by their tongues. And if you do arouse a rattlesnake, their venom is “comparatively” weak, meaning you have little chance of dying (a fact ignored by Hollywood). At the end of the tour you’re treated to a display of snakes in art such as a Remington statue of a horse and snake, an Audubon picture of a rattlesnake in a mockingbird’s nest, a rattlesnake decorated slot machine, and comics by Gary Larson with his snake impersonations of human behavior. We earned the “Certificate of Bravery” handed out at the end but the woman behind us who screamed at seeing a caged tarantula should have been denied one.

The Museum of Turquoise is only 15 years old, surprising considering the long held association of Native Americans in New Mexico with turquoise jewelry. The museum’s collection is from the J.C. and Lillian Zachary Jr. family whose daughter and son-in-law founded the museum. We learned the word turquoise derives from the French word for Turkish where the French first thought the stone originated. It didn’t but the name stuck. It is the first gemstone ever mined by mankind. Five thousand year old turquoise jewelry was found in Egyptian tombs.
Turquoise stones come in three colors – white, green, and blue. American Southwest mines used to produce significant stones, but now less than thirty mines are still operating. If you are a true collector, you know which mine produces the most beautiful stones. But here’s the shocking truth – 80 % of turquoise stones used in jewelry today are from (sigh) China! There are natural stones and stabilized stones. White turquoise is too soft to work with and is stabilized by injecting liquid plastic into the stone, which brightens the surface and hardens the substance. Most stones are waxed, oiled and lacquered. Only 10% of the stones used in turquoise jewelry are natural stones.

We were warned to be sure that jewelry purchased had real turquoise stones and not just stones of the turquoise color. But I liked the fact that turquoise is being mined out and can only go up in value – a very decent reason to buy more “real” turquoise jewelry.
And, finally, we arrived at the National Atomic Museum, “the nation’s only museum for nuclear science”, as it announced at the front door. I’m not a scientist but I can appreciate the advances of science and nuclear science is one of the young kids on the block. Even though X-rays were discovered in 1895, the first nuclear device was not exploded until July 1945, just down the interstate from Albuquerque. Nuclear power plants were an early peaceful use of nuclear energy. The Europeans have been all over that source, especially France. The French gets 78% of their electricity from nuclear power and in fact, France exports electricity. In comparison, our nuclear plants provide 20.8% of our electrical needs (coal is the number one provider). We also learned (I really should say I learned since my mother decided to sit out this museum!) that nuclear waste can now be reused, which may encourage more plants to be built in the U.S.

The museum also had a well stocked store and an enticing children’s corner with hands on experiments and great Einstein quotes.
Albuquerque has other large, excellent museums but these three small, focused museums will give an introduction to the uniqueness of New Mexico.
So, until the next column, remember Albert Einstein’s words, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
The American International Rattlesanke Museum, 202 San Felipe N.W., Suite A, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 505.242.6569.
Museum of Turquoise, 2107 Central Ave NW, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 505.247.8650.
National Museum of Atomic Nuclear Science & History, 1905 Mountain Rd NW, 505.245.2137,
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, 2401 12th NW, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 505.843.7270.
Frontier Restaurant, 2400 Central Ave SE. Inexpensive restaurant near the University of New Mexico with the best cinnamon rolls and New Mexican food. Great combination!
Chow’s Chinese Bistro, 1950 Juan Tabo, NE.

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Semuc Champey – Nature’s Water Park

The name was so exotic – Semuc Champey, the loveliest spot in Guatemala. It was nature at its finest, a natural water park. The question was how anyone ever found it. Along a winding road from Guatemala City to Coban my son and I went 3 1/2 hours, continuing on for over an hour to the turnoff where the sign promised only 22 more kilometers (13.2 miles). Soon to be there, right? No, this road turned ugly. It was uneven and rocky and the pick-up truck listed back and forth as it maneuvered up and down the mountains, often requiring first gear. One and a half hours later, we arrived at the end of the road. (I didn’t add in the time when we had to turn around because our driver forgot to get gas nor the extra time it took to deliver a rope to his cousin.)

The good news is it’s worth it – vale la pena. At Semuc Champey, the thundering Cahabon river disappears under ground. Above it are gently layered pools of clear, jade colored water for swimming and wading, all located in a lush area of mountains with green, green, ferns, flowers, and pine trees. It was raining hard when we first arrived. As it shifted to a light rain, we went out – the only ones swimming. Everyone else was huddled under shelter. It was easy to make our way from pool to pool. The sun soon emerged, lighting up the pools and bringing in the crowds. There was a balance of Guatemalans and foreigners visiting the site, clearly distinguishable by shade and dress. Below the pools, the river emerges with a roar, causing some grand falls which we observed from below.

The second part of the day was a cave tour across the river at Kan’ Ba. As usual, we had to sign in and I noted that five of the last seven registrants were Israelis. It is a custom for young Israelis to take a year off for travel after serving their “sherut tzvai’l” or mandatory time in the military. They are adventurous travelers and we saw many of them.
Truthfully, I had been anxious about the cave tour since the morning. We knew what to expect from previous participants. An indigenous guide would give you a candle as you enter the water at the base of the cave. You would wade at first, but then swimming was required! After registering, I was reassured to meet our guide, Israel, a small, wiry, man with a huge, beautiful smile, reminiscent of Xi, the bushman in the movie, “The Gods Must be Crazy”. There were only two of us on the tour. In the dark of the cave, we would have three candles and a weak battery powered flashlight around Israel’s head. As we started, I was having serious questions about the wisdom of this adventure but I was still a mother and I couldn’t let my son go in there alone, even if he was twenty-four years old.

The water was cool, not cold. I was already breathing hard as we began to swim against a strong current flowing towards the cave opening while trying to keep the candle dry. There were stalactites to grab here and there. Israel stopped occasionally, pointing out various patterns with his headlight. It was hard to appreciate the different formations when all I could concentrate on was water rushing by, exiting in unknown places. The rains had been very heavy, preventing us from crawling out of the cave for a view of the waterfalls above us. Instead, we spent more time inside, climbing up to some dry caverns. When we finally turned around, it was wonderful to be flowing with the current. At one point, we had to direct our heads between two stalactites almost caressing the water with two feet of clearance between water and cave. Daylight never looked so good.
But Israel was not through with us. The tour also provided innertubes for a river float. Because of the rainy season, the river was on the run, making it more of a river dash. We hooked up our tubes, my feet under my son’s arms, and Israel’s small feet under my arms, putting in just below the falls. Floating along with waterfalls and mountains around us, children waving from the banks, and an occasional rapid was way beyond what Disney could ever provide. I was sorry when this part ended.

As with all adventures, it felt good to be done. If the cave tour had been in the U.S., I’m sure life jackets and better lighting would have been required. But many countries of the world let you access and assume the risk of your chosen undertaking without worry of a lawsuit. As an attorney, that’s bothersome. As a participant, it is exhilarating. So, until the next column, remember ‘always pack your swimsuit and some extra courage.’

Semuc Champey – Two hour drive from Coban, Guatemala. Their web site,, has lovely pictures.
Aventuras Turisticas has reasonable tours –
Kan’ Ba Caves – located immediately downriver from Semuc Champey.
Hotel La Posada in Coban – a private residence that became a hotel in 1939. 1a calle 4-12, zona 2, 502-7952-1495;
Casa D’Acuna – wonderful restaurant and home of the best waiter in Guatemala – extensive menu. (It’s also a budget hotel.) 4a Calle 3-11 Zona 2, 502-7951-0482

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Oklahoma City – Anyone Speak Vietnamese?

How is it possible that a life-long resident of Texas (which borders Oklahoma a good distance) and a current resident of Paris, Texas (which is only 20 miles from Oklahoma) had never been to Oklahoma City? It was too far north or too far west and really wasn’t on the way to anywhere for us until our daughter and son-in-law moved there. It was time.

First – the drive. How different than the drive to Dallas. Head straight north up the Indian turnpike, through the Ouachita mountains, take a left on Interstate 40, cruise through more rolling hills with open fields and ponds, and take in a few (large) Indian Casinos on the way. Other than slowing to pay tolls, you could make that drive in just over three hours without releasing your cruise control or spotting a Starbucks.

The expressways of OK City are elevated with high curving arches as the interstates meet and part in the wide open sky. Below the exchange, downtown is divided into three parts. The arts district is an architectural history lesson with a modern art museum and an Art Deco musical hall. Included in this area is the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the chilling and yet soothing testament to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred Munch Federal Building. Midtown has the renovated Skirvin Hilton and other major hotels, several bank buildings, the Cox Civic Center and the Ford Center where their hockey and basketball teams play.

The third district, Bricktown, was originally a compact, commercial center with red brick warehouses and store fronts. It declined after the Great Depression and was not revitalized until the 1990s. Someone had vision. Bricktown is now a lively cross between the San Antonio river walk and downtown Ft. Worth complete with historical buildings and a new section that has captured many national restaurants and stores. There’s even a Bricktown baseball park for the AAA Oklahoma Red Hawks. The river walk is particularly charming in the evening with restaurants spilling out onto sidewalks and boats motoring by.

Oklahoma City became even more interesting as we ventured out of downtown. It’s no surprise the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum resides here. They were having a special western day when we arrived, complete with cowboy greeters on horseback and gifts of red and white bandanas. A statue of John Wayne was to be dedicated that day. After an unsuccessful try at roping a saddle, we moved on to our biggest surprise, Little Saigon.
The large Asia District in Oklahoma City branches out from 23rd street. Asians are three percent of the OK City population, most of them Vietnamese who originally came after the fall of Saigon in 1975. When my daughter told me there was a Vietnamese grocery store near her, I expected a 7-11 type store. The large Super Cao Nguyen was named for the Central Highland area of Vietnam. It has been owned by the Luong family for over 25 years. Many of the fruit and vegetables of southeast Asia were available such as durian and jicama. It also had pig and duck as well as some of Asia’s more common gift items. They have recently begun to attract the Whole Foods crowd by carrying European specialties such as Greek olives.

There was a special program in the store’s parking lot that morning. One of the boats that had been used to escape Vietnam in the 70’s was making a tour of the United States along with black and white photos of the refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines. To make a journey of thousands of miles in that small ark was inconceivable. We heard the South Vietnamese national anthem sung by those present, many with tears in their eyes. It was obvious the crowd still missed their homeland.

Since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped at the Pho Hoa restaurant where we sampled Bun Thit Nuong, a dish I had liked in Vietnam. The clientele here was primarily Asian American, but I also noted a table of Native Americans and one of African Americans. There we were – a slice of America in a Vietnamese restaurant in Oklahoma City. I saw that melting pot again in December when I worked with my daughter in a Red Cross shelter after their ice storm. The shelter was heavily used by those whose power was lost. During 24 hours, I translated for Spanish speaking customers, wheeled an elderly African American woman to the curb to catch a cab, held a Vietnamese woman’s daughter, and served lunch to a cowboy.

You’ll find what you expect in Oklahoma City – a friendly, open community with heavy influence from the cowboy and native American cultures. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll find what you didn’t anticipate – a robust example of the melting pot that is America. And that’s what makes it even more interesting. So, until the next column, remember “cowboy boots fit everyone”.

Oklahoma City National Memorial – 620 N. Harvey Avenue, 405-235-3313;
National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum – 1700 NE 63rd, 405-478-2250;
Super Cao Nguyen Grocery Store – 2668 N. Military Ave., 405-525-7650;
Pho Hoa Restaurant – 901 NW 23rd, 405-521-8087
Saturn Grill – “Eat Great Food on a Cool Planet” – wonderful sandwiches, salads and slogan – 6432 Avondale Dr., 405-843-7114;
Cheever’s Café – Great for a special evening out. (We saw a wedding proposal here) 2409 N. Hudson Avenue, 405-525-7007;

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Consolation Lake Cantata

It all started with the bear warning. August in Lake Louise, Canada is berry season and the bears love them. There had been black bear sightings in the nearby Lake Moraine area where we planned to hike and all were advised to walk in a group of at least six people. There were only four of us– our friends, Paul and Betty, my husband, Ed, and me. Early one chilly morning we waited at the lake’s edge until more hikers joined us. Two of them were middle-aged, portly twin brothers from London, England. They looked as if they’d missed the bus tour rather than waiting to embark on a strenuous hike. They had one small backpack, no food, no decent hiking shoes or jackets, and only one of them carried a plastic bottle of water. This was in sharp contrast with the other couple who had joined us, who were serious, well equipped hikers complete with telescoping walking sticks. We were all silently sure the brothers would hold us back.

The first part of the trail was quite steep. A spry, fit physician from Vermont led the group at a fast clip and most of us were soon breathing heavily. But the brothers seemed to be on a stroll. They easily kept up and even chatted on the way. We stopped for water but the twins weren’t even perspiring. How could this be? After some inquiries into their lives in England, the brothers revealed that they were both opera singers, one teaches voice and performs and the second just performs. Riddle solved. Clearly, their lungs were in great shape and 6300 feet in altitude didn’t phase them at all.
The brothers were traveling on a recently received inheritance. They weren’t on a tour and didn’t know how to drive. One had failed the driving test five times. Their previous traveling passion had been to explore old industrial companies and they had been all over eastern Europe checking out steel mills. Upon arrival at a new destination, a car and driver would be hired to take them to these unusual places. In Canada, they were using public transportation, hotel cars, and the generosity of people they met.

After two hours of hiking through nature’s vertical gardens in the Canadian Rockies, we parted from the rest of our group and watched them continue an even steeper climb over a mountain pass. The brothers kept up their jaunty walk and soon disappeared.

Later that day, we again ran into the “opera” brothers at Consolation Lake. As we were sunning on a large rock, we asked the siblings to sing. They had a professional repertoire and could sing anything from the Beach Boys to Verdi, from the Beatles to Mendelssohn. They had performed Elvis Presley at a bar the previous night. Actually, they didn’t just sing. One brother would sing as the other puffed out his cheeks and slapped his thighs and made all necessary instrumental sounds. They insisted that we sing with them.

Since there were three members of the Holy Cross Episcopal choir in our group of four, we were able to sing many of our Lessons and Carols pieces, most of them British. Anything by John Rutter came easily to them. None of these stumped the brothers. But while Betty, Paul and I would forcefully sing the first verse of a piece, they also knew the second and the third and even the fourth verses. I’m sure we were quite a sight to other hikers as one of the twins dramatically directed his small chorus in our Alpine cantata. We even caroled on the path back and heard stories about giving tours at Windsor castle and performing in England. Nothing could slow down our brothers.

Of course, we gave the twins a ride back to their hotel. They hadn’t been a bit worried about being stranded. And, actually, they didn’t seem much worried about bears, either. Thinking about them and their wonderful approach to travel makes me smile. And so, until the next column, remember “Don’t judge a hiker by their shoes.”

Suggestions for Lake Louise, Banff, Canada:
Hiking in the Lake Louise area is glorious and should include the glacier walk on the far side of Lake Louise and any of the walks in the Lake Moraine area
Deer Lodge, 109 Lake Louise Dr, Lake Louise, Banff – 800-661-1595 – Wonderful location but some rooms are very small.
Post Hotel Dining Room, P.O. Box 69, Lake Louise – 800-661-1586 – A member of the luxury group, Relais & Chateaux properties, it has the best food in the area if you want to splurge.
Walliser Stube Wine Bar – located in the Chateau Lake Louise – 403-522-1918 – Wonderful Swiss food

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