Mary Clark, Traveler

Barcelona’s Nou Stadium – Being Near Greatness

Barcelona’s Motto – More Than a Team

Most visitors to Barcelona, Spain are charmed by its distinctive Art Nouveau architecture, the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Catalonian food and access to the Mediterranean.  But for soccer lovers, there’s only one destination – the Barcelona Football (soccer) stadium known as Camp Nou or new stadium, a 65 year old venue that holds 100,000 fans. Surprisingly to Americans, it is Barcelona’s number one tourist destination.  Known by its slogan, “ Mes que un equipo “ (more than a team), the club is renowned for freedom of movement for its players on the field, a history of political involvement, and a fan base from around the world.

Approach to the Nou Stadium

Unlike most stadiums in the United States, Europeans build theirs in the heart of a community with little space for parking.  Fans arrive by subway or bus as did we.  There was no game during our visit, but I still wanted to take the tour, hoping to feel the energy that accompanies an important soccer game.  In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup and we grabbed tickets to two of the games.  I have never felt such intensity amongst fans as I did in those games.

For visitors, the entry to the Nou stadium is through a museum filled with mementos from the team’s unique history.  Begun by a German immigrant in 1899, the team took some years to gain momentum.  The Nou stadium is the third of three built, each holding more fans.  The team established itself as a regional hero in 1930s when it tried to play under the Catalan flag.  This area of Catalonia, Spain has long wanted to be self-governed and loved that “their” team stood up for them.

Barcelona FC is also rare in that it is not owned by a corporation but by its 144,000 members. To become a member, simply make an in-person appointment in Barcelona, bring an ID card and a bank account number.  The annual fee is $220.  In the past, Barcelona FC was amongst the few without corporate sponsors.  They allied themselves with UNICEF children’s charity and pledged a yearly donation.  But today, the team is besieged with corporate suitors.

The museum is filled with the team’s dominant history and the numbers are impressive even if I didn’t know what all the initials stood for, 26 La Liga titles, 5 UEFA Championships, 15 FIFA Cup World Cup trophies, and 31 Copa del Rey titles.  Most will agree that Lionel Messi’s presence from 2004-2021 as one of the world’s best soccer player contributed greatly to the team’s success in their glory years.

Consistent with their “more than a team” description, I was surprised at how extensive their youth program was and that they also sponsored women’s soccer, basketball, handball, and roller hockey teams.

Visitors are allowed to walk this close to the field.

It was remarkable how free a visitor was to explore much of the stadium on the self-guided tour.  We passed through the visitors’ locker room, almost primitive by today’s American standards, stopped at the press boxes to admire their view, and descended the stairs to the field.  Yes, to the field.  One couldn’t run out and play but we were at field level and could look up at the stands, imagining them full of frantic fans.  Little distance separated the teams and the seats.

Deteriorated Condition of the Stands

What shocked me was the deteriorating condition of the whole stadium.  The paint on the seats was faded, plants grew in the cracks of the concrete, the press box lacked the high technology one would expect for a world class team.  I read of structural concerns.  So, it wasn’t a surprise when I learned recently that the stadium is getting a major facelift.

Espai Barca is the name of the renovation effort, meaning in Catalan, Football  Club of Barcelona Space.  For $1.7 billion, the plans include state of the art technology and a retractable roof covered with 30,000 square meters of solar panels. And the energy generated from those solar panels will power a 360-degree screen which will be located around the inside of the stadium.

In carrying out their reputation as “more than a team”, the plans include new offices, green spaces, event spaces, an ice rink, a hotel and the ‘Palau Blaugrana’ – a pavilion area which will be used by the basketball team.

For a team that is already one billion dollars in the hole, this expansion has risks.  But it is also inevitable, and the team is making the move now.  Games will be played elsewhere until 2025 when they hope to have the stadium finished.

The tour ended, of course, in the enormous gift shop. Despite their price, I couldn’t resist the Barcelona soccer outfits for our grandsons.  With parents who also love soccer, they may be able to watch a game at the renovated stadium someday.  I hope so. It is a part of the Catalonian heritage that should  be experienced.

Leave a Comment

Columbia River Gorge – a Site Still to be Savored

The Oregon Trail was one of the first video games to come out in the late 1970s, introduced to our family in the 1980s. In a rudimentary form, it followed the actual Oregon Trail and required a pioneer player to make life and death decisions as their wagon pushed across western America from St. Louis to Oregon. There were hazards along the way and it was the lucky player who arrived at the Columbia River Gorge.  I was the lucky one to visit on a beautiful December day with my Oregon friend.

Before Lewis & Clark showed up on their 1805 expedition to the Pacific Ocean, native Americans lived along the Columbia River which at the time was filled with strong winds and the wildest rapids of the explorers’ trip. Today, violent winds generated by warm dry air from eastern Oregon still collide with cooler air from the west, but the rapids have long been tamed by dams. A scenic four lane highway now follows the river, but one can still experience some of the sense of discovery that Lewis & Clark and the settlers must have felt.

From the western side, a small U. S. Historic Route 30 Highway follows high above the river and offers panoramic views of the rock gorge and of the numerous waterfalls that were noted by Lewis and Clark.  There are over 90 waterfalls on the Oregon side with some of the most spectacular ones just along the highway.  The longest is the 620-foot Multnomah at the road’s edge that sports a stone bridge halfway up the falls.  But my Oregon friend and I preferred Bridal Veil Falls that required a short hike in to view and had a smaller crowd.

The falls still empty into the Columbia River as they did over 200 years ago, but those waters are now controlled by numerous dams.  Thanks to a series of locks, the river is easily navigable for larger barges and even smaller personal boats.  Websites are available to explain to boat owners how to maneuver through the Bonneville locks.  A railroad used to traverse this route and an old tunnel has been cleaned out to illustrate the train’s past presence.

We took advantage of a 1926 Truss Cantilever bridge with a toll of $2 to take us over to the Washington side.  From there the southern canyon rock walls were clearly visible.  As we followed current railroad tracks, the height of the gorge diminished and suddenly, there in the distance stood the 11,000-foot-tall Mt. Hood – bathed in later afternoon light with its snow covering reflecting the colors.  Lewis & Clark had similar reactions the first time they saw that magnificent mountain from the river – a sharp intake of breath at its wonder.    We continued to get glimpses of the mountain as the day ended.

Another crossing of the river on a second $2 toll historic truss bridge narrowly built for horse drawn carriages and Model Ts took us to Hood River, Oregon, a small but lively outdoor sports destination for boaters, paragliders, hikers, and skiers.  It was quiet in December but still had beautiful B&Bs and gourmet restaurants open.  I could have stayed longer.

The next day, we took the highway south that curves around Mt. Hood.  Parts of this highway into the Portland area follow the old Barlow toll road, built by Sam Barlow and Philip Foster in 1846.  This road was an option in the Oregon Trail video game and in real life.  Since the Columbia River rapids were dangerous and there was often a long line of wagons waiting their turn on the river, Sam Barlow saw an opportunity for another safer route inland.  However, it was a toll road and in the video game, you may or may not have landed there with enough money to pay the toll, a true dilemma for early settlers.

The new highway works its way around the massive Mt. Hood, and we took the opportunity to visit another crown jewel of the Rockies – the Timberline Lodge, built in 1937 in Cascadian architecture.  With man-sized fireplace openings and wood carvings throughout, the hotel is worth the small detour from the highway.  Sadly, fog obscured the view of the ski area and valley below filled with its other snow-covered volcanoes.

As we returned to Portland, the highway followed or crossed the old Barlow Toll way until landing us in the beautiful and bountiful Willamette valley – the true destination of the Oregon Trail settlers.  Those who made it were fortunate.  In playing the video game as in true life, one would often lose a family member to dysentery or infection or drowning in a river.  Luckily, those are not perils today and we can simply enjoy the same stunning scenery that greeted Lewis and Clark and the pioneers. Only the weather remains untamed.

Leave a Comment

Maine – A State to be Savored

View from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park

Maine is not exactly on the way to anywhere for Texans except Maine itself.  It’s the end of the road in the U.S. Northeast and not easy to get to whether driving or flying.  Because of its isolation from most of the country, it has retained a unique laid-back charm.  As our Portland guide indicated, the state of Maine is all about simplicity, a notable reason it feels like a different world.  Their economy centers around only four industries, starting with tourism.

Despite its isolation, Maine attracts thirty million visitors a year.  Let’s put that number in perspective.  First, there’s only 1,350,000 “Mainers,” a diminutive state compared to Texas’ almost 30 million inhabitants.  This means for every Maine resident, there are 22 visitors.  If that same number were applied to Texas, we would get 650,000,000 visitors each year and Lamar County would entertain over 1 million.  Those numbers are staggering to think about and require appreciation for Maine’s ability to maintain its beauty and charm amongst the visiting throngs.

A trail along the ocean side in Acadia National Park

The beauty of Maine is spread throughout the state with most vacations concentrating on the rocky coastline, but the mountainous interior can hold its own.  I had long wanted to visit Acadia National Park, the crown jewel of National Parks.  Whether walking along its coast with the deep blue ocean contrasting with the green forest path or driving to the top of Cadillac Mountain with its 360-degree view of the island’s lakes and mountains, Acadia didn’t disappoint.  The iconic photo is of the lighthouse at Bass Harbor did prove to be elusive.  To get the full view required maneuvering long stairs and large boulders.  I had to settle for the partial view – an acknowledgment of my advancing age.

The fishing industry, especially for lobster, is known around the world.  Lobster traps with their brightly painted buoys are seen all along the coast.  The 600 lobster fishermen are a close-knit group, and they know whose traps belong in what parts of the ocean.  There’s no written agreement amongst them on their territories – a fall back to the hand-shake, simpler times. There are observed rules on which lobsters can be kept and which must be thrown back.  Because of a past unpleasant reaction to eating lobsters, I didn’t partake of this most popular of Maine foods, but I did enjoy the other fresh seafood offerings.

Ship building is an unexpected industry, harking back to the establishment of the city of Portland.  The town began in 1786 as a convenient ice-free deep-water port close to Europe to ship goods from Canada and the U.S. to England.  Boats were needed and wood was plentiful.  Until the separation of the U.S. from England, any pine tree greater than 24 inches could be harvested for “the Crown” to be used as a boat mast, regardless of whether it was on private property or not.  A Royal arrow mark would be placed on the tree to be confiscated.  Today, there are still 200 ship building firms in Maine, primarily for fishing but luxury yachts are also constructed, mainly for Europeans and Middle East residents.

Maine has an inordinate number of natural farms, producing organic vegetables and fruit that are used in the famous restaurants spread throughout the state – it is a foodie destination. Among our favorite foods were the “duck frites” or French fried potatoes cooked in duck fat.    We missed the blueberry season that yields the most blueberries in our country, but pies and jams were still available.  Maine is the number one producer of maple syrup and we noted and savored the generous portions of syrup served with our breakfasts.   Add in the wood and paper products created from the forests and you have the fourth industry generated by the land.

Hartstone Inn – a bed and breakfast in Camden, Maine



Two of thousands of sailboats along the coast of Maine



The simple life is reflected by the activities along the highways and coast – Quaker meeting houses, a Sculling Lodge, Unitarian/Universalist Churches, clams, mussels, and cherry tomatoes for sale, lack of feeder roads along the freeways and thousands of small sailboats in every harbor.  Chain hotels were few with more charming bed and breakfasts readily available.  And their most popular store is not for western wear but carries hiking and camping inventory at the unusually large L.L. Bean in Freeport.



The hardest part about a visit to Maine is deciding where to go on a limited vacation time.  A friend posted on Facebook about this dilemma and asked for suggestions.  There were many.  We only stayed in Bar Harbor, Camden and Portland.  But my observation is that you simply can’t go wrong, wherever you choose to visit.  The crowds may be there but somehow the beauty shines through.  You just have to get there.

Leave a Comment

The Trip Not Taken

I’ve always wanted to go to the Christmas markets in Europe.  The promotional photos look appropriately cheery with rows of booths filled with handmade toys, clothes, Christmas cake, and hot mulled wine.  Light snow may be falling. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose are available experiences.

With travel opening up in late summer and early fall, I approached my traveling girlfriends about going to the Croatian Christmas market, considered one of the best emerging European markets.  The uncertainty of crossing the Atlantic during active COVID season dampened that idea.  But Montreal and Quebec City have Christmas markets modeled on the European ones. Their COVID levels are less than ours.  And they spoke French, giving the experience of a foreign country without leaving our continent.  We were all in.

It’s not easy getting to Quebec City, a small but charming city filled with homes dating from the 1700 and 1800s.  We would have to fly through Montreal or Toronto first and then make our way to Quebec City with all of us scheduled to arrive in the evening of the first day. A townhouse from the late 1800s was booked under AirBnB with Luc as our host, located on Rue Saint Jean next to a patisserie. In addition to locally produced markets, the city hosts a German Christmas market that imports handmade goodies and Bratwurst from overseas.

Christmas Market Huts in Quebec City – What we hoped to see but didn’t

Montreal is more metropolitan but still has five Christmas markets listed in addition to their many leafy neighborhoods filled with boutique stores, organic markets, restaurants, and parks.  During this season, music programs are offered in some beautiful settings, including the full performance of Mozart’s Messiah at the St. Joseph’s Oratory located above Mont Royal park.  That was booked as was the four-hour train ride from Quebec City to Montreal through the beautiful countryside.  We were ready.

Recognizing the continued concern for COVID, Canada requires vaccination and a PCR test 72 hours before entry.  The rapid test is not sufficient.  Information on when your shots were taken have to to be entered on their ArriveCan App.  I discovered our hospital can do a PCR test with results in 15 minutes.  I made an appointment for the test on the Tuesday before our departure date. I also knew masks were required, even at the outdoor Christmas markets.  Canada is serious about containment of the virus.

Then the variant, Omicron, decided to make its appearance.  Originating in South Africa, it had moved up the continent and begun testing the waters of Europe.  Canada had two cases in Toronto and one in Montreal.  Scientists couldn’t confirm whether our vaccines would hold against the new form although they believed they would.  Questions abounded on whether it was a “serious” variant, making people sick, or just a mild case.  Travelers from southern Africa were banned from the United States and Canada.  What would be next?

On our departure date minus three days, I needed more information and called the Tourist Bureau of Montreal, expecting reassurance.  Martine answered the phone with a beautiful French accent, listened to my concern, and sighed.  “I wish I had an answer for you.  We just don’t know what will happen,” she acknowledged.  I told her my concern was not in getting the virus nor in the return into the United States but what might happen in Canada.  Could they close the Christmas markets as some countries in Europe had done already?  Could they still require a 14 day quarantine on our arrival?  She just couldn’t say but did express concern of a possible quarantine which would not be pleasant in a hotel room. She asked if we could get a full refund for our trip. I felt her encouraging us to reconsider.

It was time for a conference call with my traveling buddies. After updating them on my conversation with Martine, my friend from California seemed relieved to have an out.  Her children and husband had already been questioning her on the trip’s safety.  The Oregon friend had just fallen the day before, injuring her tailbone.  She wasn’t looking forward to the long plane rides. And I was tired of worrying about it.  Quickly, the trip was cancelled.  Surprisingly, we got full refunds from the airlines, railroad and AirBnBs.  The tickets to the performance of the Messiah were nonrefundable and we gave them to Martine. Only the open dates on the calendar remained.

I had planned to write this column about Canada’s Christmas Markets and experiencing winter in Canada.  Instead, I’m putting aside those UGG boots, long underwear, and heavy coat. I haven’t given up on the experience and at least it will be an easy trip to plan when we try again.  A’ la prochaine Quebec.

Leave a Comment

Galveston Reveals Family Ties

Galveston Sea Wall at dawn

I am not my family’s historian and have yet to joined Ancestry. Unlike many genealogists, I have never traveled to research past connections. Two brothers had their saliva analyzed for past relations which confirmed we are strongly connected to the British Isle and Ireland.  For the rest of my background, I have relied on family trees produced by my older brother and some cousins, and family lore.

It was the family’s Galveston 1900 flood story that I grew up hearing that has always intrigued me.  While thousands died in the worst hurricane in American history, my great grandparents survived, moved to Houston and then to Plainview, Texas where I was born 50 years later.  On a trip to Galveston recently for a wedding, I dug deeper into the story to determine if any evidence remained of my family’s past there.

The 1900 Hurricane (named for its date rather than a person’s name) is infamous as the deadliest national disaster in American history.  The estimate of lives lost is 8000 out of a population of 37,000 – almost one in four and three times the loss of any other American hurricane.  There were warnings of the approaching storm on September 8th, but they were either ignored or not widely spread.

I can only wonder if my great grandparents were aware of the pending disaster.  The story passed down through four generations is of my great grandfather and their oldest son spending the night of the hurricane in a school and my great grandmother and two of their children (including my grandmother) moving up the stairways in a nearby home step by step as the water rose.  She was at the last landing of the two-story home when the water crested and began to recede.  Neither of my great grand parents knew if the other had survived until the next morning.  Since most of the city’s buildings were destroyed, my family quickly vacated Galveston.

My great grandparents’ home in Galveston that weathered the 1900 storm

Thanks to a 1900 city directory, I was able to locate my great grandparents’ home on Winnie Street.  It still stands and has a diamond shaped marker on the outside indicating the home survived the 1900 storm, but it is now divided into four apartments.  I rang the doorbell but was unable to rouse a renter.  The Rosenburg school is still a block away but has been rebuilt.  I was also able to find the home of my great great Uncle Jeff.  Other prior family homes have been absorbed by the Galveston Medical Center, near Big Red, home of the original medical school.  My greatgrandfather’s grocery store is now an industrial electrical site.

Galveston’s reputation as the city who has survived the most hurricanes has generated a tourist industry complete with a “Hurricane Tour” which we took.  In air-conditioned comfort, we learned the history of the seventeen-foot sea wall, built to protect the island after the 1900 hurricane.  The need for the wall seemed obvious but it was the raising of the structures of the entire town that was most impressive. Home and businesses were lifted by hand turned jackscrews while sand from the ocean floor was brought to fill in the space created.  Structures nearest the water were raised the most, gradually tapering off across the island.

One of many wood carvings from lost trees from Hurricane Ike

Downtown on the Strand is a building with lines indicating the height of each storm surge, always the deadliest part of the storm.  The sea wall did its job until Hurricane Ike which came from a different direction and caused a surge of 19 feet.  On the tour, the driver pointed out unique wooden carvings in yards where trees had died from Hurricane Ike, a creative response to the disaster.

Stained Glass Window at Moody Methodist church dedicated to my great great grandmother, Caroline Davis.

The bonus in this forage into family history was the Moody Methodist Church, a large church built in 1962 thanks to a generous bequest from Libbie Moody.  My early family attended St. James Methodist Church, a predecessor of the Moody church.  Another family story was of a stained-glass window at St. James dedicated to my great greatgrandmother, Caroline Davis.  The receptionist at the front desk of the Moody church, though, was not aware of any preserved stained-glass window from the old church but offered to show us the sanctuary.  At the doors into the inner church, she glanced to her right and pointed out one stained glass window that she had forgotten about.  And, there it was – a lovely white robed angel holding lilies with a dedication at the bottom, “in Memoriam, Mrs. Caroline Davis.”

I’m confident few in the large Moody Methodist Church have paid much attention to this old stained-glass window but for me it was the strongest connection yet to a family history that launched my eventual presence in Texas. And I must now admit – family history trips have much to give.

Leave a Comment


Betty Swasko, Tina Smith, Mary Grace West and Mary Clark in the smallest of the lanes in the Fez Medina

I admit to being partial to medinas – those cloistered markets and neighborhoods encircled by old city walls in Northern Africa.  Some, as in Tunisia and Egypt, have become centered around tourists, but in Morocco, many generations continue to call the medina home and there’s much to explore.

An immediate challenge upon entering through an ancient gate of a medina is orientation.  Some roads have been enlarged to accommodate small cars or delivery trucks, but most are walking lanes to allow easy movement from side to side to shop.  The main hazards are donkeys laden with goods that can fill a path and motorcycles, which I consider the flies of the market – loud, persistent, and fast.  Some forward- thinking medina managers prohibit motorcycles on certain roads but in Marrakech, we were on constant alert for their approaching sounds, occasionally even being grazed by a leather jacket as it passed.

I learned to note landmarks or signs to remember the many turns to return to our hotels. Large squares such as Jeema el Fna in Marrakech with its snake charmers are helpful for orientation.  Names of hotels with arrows pointing down a lane are notable.  An unusual store or restaurant helps.  I had studied a map of the Marrakech Medina before traveling there, mentally marking our hotel location close to a major gate. This preparation was made easier by Google maps.  But a map on the screen is different than on the ground when your phone doesn’t work in the middle of a large Medina.

One of my traveling companions to Morocco had discovered the app “map my walk” that marks wherever you walk and then theoretically you can simply return the same way.  But in a medina, we were often sidetracked by shops and sights.  The resulting map from one day in the Chefchouen Medina looked like a game of Life with intersecting circles, ovals, and an occasional detour.

The world’s largest medina is in Fez, established in 789 CE, also location of the world’s oldest university and where 149,000 still live within the stucco walls.  At the gate, the hotel’s porter loaded our luggage on a wooden cart. He led, we followed. It was late at night, and I didn’t have the energy to make necessary mental notes of location. And, even with a good sense of direction, I couldn’t identify north or south or anything in between.

The next morning our guide met us at the Riad hotel, a beautifully repurposed home, and soon we were off through the narrow ways.  He explained the large doors to a home were for guests and the small door for family.  Slatted windows above the door protected a woman’s face but allowed her to watch the scene below.  A small cemetery provided instructions on how Muslims are buried on their sides facing Mecca so that in the next life they will have the Koran in the right hand.  The Jewish quarters were moved outside the original medinas and now most of its residents have immigrated to Israel, Europe, or the United States.


The Fez medina is known for its tanneries which we chose to miss but its meat market included heads of goats, donkeys, and cows, clearly marking what was sold at each store. The souks or specialized market areas provided almost overwhelming choices of shoes, leather good, herbs, candies with live bees on them, dried fruits, olives, jewelry, antiques, and copper, silver, and woven goods. Numerous madrasa schools and mosques dotted the inner city.  We were reminded that Morocco is a kingdom as one of the king’s 26 palaces is in the Fez Medina.

One of the gates to the royal palace in Fez 

A late typical lunch greeted us as we detoured down a non-descript hallway and into a stunning dining room of a hidden restaurant. The three courses began with four to seven small dishes – often potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, cauliflower, and okra.  Then a tagine or couscous dish.  Fresh fruit rounded out the meal as the dessert.  Until we arrived in Marrakesh with its more creative cuisine, this was our meal almost every day.





Noura, our guide in Marrakech

Our Fez guide made the tour all about history which I loved and wouldn’t allow even a short detour into a booth.   But in Marrakech, we had one of very few women guides in Morocco and she understood the need for a balance.

Noura asked about our shopping goals and took us to appropriate locations all over the medina with good quality and prices. We needed her guidance toward authentic Moroccan products rather than Chinese imitations.



Our Airbnb in Marakkesh provided a feel for living in the Medina – quiet home behind thick walls and closed doors.  But it was the thriving commerce and humanity in the lanes that I loved – a condensed human buzz that’s impossible to duplicate in American cities.

Leave a Comment

A Most Unusual 50th Wedding Anniversary Celebration – Captain Ron’s Swamp Tour

                       Paul and Betty Swasko enjoying their 50th anniversary boat ride

The Fiftieth wedding anniversary is traditionally a golden one.  For many couples, this would mean gifts of gold jewelry, an anniversary party or even a trip of a lifetime.  But for our good friends, Paul and Betty Swasko, theirs was celebrated with Captain Ron and a trip through Caddo Lake, where, according to its website,  it’s “not just a ride but an experience.” Thanks to a long friendship, my husband and I were invited to join in the adventure.

The Swaskos’ daughters are clever and wanted to honor their parents who met during college in Greece on World Campus Afloat, a university on a ship that stopped at countries around the world.  To recreate a water experience in East Texas took some imagination but they tracked down Captain Ron’s Swamp Tours at Caddo Lake and booked a late afternoon cruise through the bayous.  To add a hint of Greece, they ordered food to go at the Austin Street Bistro in Jefferson which included a Greek salad – a bit of a stretch but all delicious at the picnic table next to the lake.

Caddo Lake, named for the Caddo Indians who were early inhabitants, has long been mysterious to me.  It feels more like a swamp that became a lake thanks to a dam.  It is the largest freshwater lake in Texas. Captain Ron pushed our pontoon boat off the dock and we traveled a short distance down the deep Big Cypress Bayou before turning into a shallow lake world.  He explained the geological fault formation below us where a plate pushed up against another plate, forming bluffs on one side of the lake and flat land on the other.

Base of Bald Cypress Trees in Caddo Lake

Moss off of Cypress Trees – appear dead but revives with water

A good guide always makes a scene come alive and Captain Ron had many stories.  Inside the lake, the distinctive bald cypress trees (bald because they shed their leaves in the fall) with their knobby knee base anchored in the water, were indicators of four to six feet of shallow water.  Over 2,000 years ago, Caddo Indian canoes were shaped from these trees. In more recent times, the hanging moss stuffed the seats of Ford Pick-up Trucks and lumber from the harvest of the trees was used for beams in the downtown McKinney, Texas buildings that are still in use.  Best of all, the smell of the sap of the trees keeps mosquitos away.

Captain Ron directs the boat through Caddo Lake

Nonchalant about the possible presence of alligators, our leader assured us they were as scared of us as we are of them.  We should be grateful as they love to eat snakes, keeping that population down.  Turtles are also victims, but Ron convinced us their population needed to be controlled.

My favorite stories centered around the use of the swamp to hide moonshine stills, a busy and lucrative business during Prohibition.  It was so accepted by the local population that Black Tie affairs were held with guests arriving in boats for evening dancing and drinking.  All guests were instructed to listen for approaching boats in case the liquor had to be spilled quickly to avoid discovery by law enforcement.    Owning a moonshine remains illegal under federal law.


The strangest scene on the trip was the discovery of a two-man black submarine on the bank in front of Pine Needle Lodge, recently purchased and scheduled to be renovated.  It must have been a deal as navigating a submarine in such shallow water seemed unlikely. The lodge hopes to be a launching spot for canoes and kayaks.

Captain Ron wanted to be certain we appreciated the stillness, even shutting off the boat for a few moments of uninterrupted quiet, noting there was no freeway noise anywhere near, an observation more appropriate for his city clients than us.

Because our trip was late afternoon, sun rays separated as they passed through the trees and into the water.  The soft light allowed perfectly composed photos with the water providing mirror images of the trees.  Captain Ron continually exclaimed, “Ya’ll.  Isn’t this beautiful?”  His excitement reminded me of the biblical injunction, “Behold”, meaning look again, really see, take it all in, pay attention. Even after five tours a day on weekends, he had not lost his wonder at this natural lake.  It was easy to be caught up in his excitement and it certainly provided a lovely backdrop for a most unusual 50th anniversary celebration.  And for their 60th ?  Who knows?  Maybe we can catch the full moon ride through that dreamy world apart from every-day life.

Leave a Comment

Personal Disaster Stories from Friends Around the World

I’ve often said that travel in not just about checking off bucket lists.   Yes, I loved seeing the Pyramids, Himalayan Mountains, Machu Picchu, and the Galapagos Islands. What I remember most, though, are the people I engage with, and I try to stay in touch with at least one person in each of the countries I visit.

This means receiving first source information about a disaster or volatile political situation.  I’m sharing the ones I’ve received just in the last month.  I have not edited them as English is their second language and I am always impressed with their effort to correspond in our language.  The exception is my Cuban friend who writes in Spanish, and I translated his letter.

The floods in Germany prompted an email to a foreign exchange student, Helmut.  His response “… since the flooding happened very close to us, we were helping friends and other people who had so much mud in there houses. There is so much stuff that they cannot use any more and have to throw it away. It is terrible. No electricity, no drinking water. Always things like that seem to be in places like Bangladesh or India but not here.”

Ethiopia is suffering through a civil war that has affected the entire country and has halted their tourism industry.  Our Ethiopian Orthodox Deacon friend, Muchaw, writes “Mary as you know by different magazine television internet at the moment Ethiopia is not a peaceful country  beaucoup (because of) their civil war .COVID  19 very hard every a day increasing,  their is no governmental help so life is very difficult. mary to be honest there’s no electric power no light in the north part of ethiopia  because of the civil  war of Ethiopia.  it is very very hard civil war.  the electric power damage by the tigray military.  their is no access to send you a message.”

Fr. Frank Fernandez in Cuba

Cuba is having a very difficult time and an inquiry to a friend, who is an Episcopal priest, generated this reply to explain the recent demonstrations-  “Mary imagine the situation, currently the country is “ZERO”, there is nothing in the stores, only water pipes. There is much need. The Blockade is suffocating, Trump applied 243 extraterritorial measures and the country is at “ZERO”, there are no drugs in hospitals, people are dying of simple diseases such as asthma. Many medicines are manufactured in Cuba and we do not have them, because raw materials have to be imported. Add to that the 6-hour power cuts, in the middle of a hot summer like ours, says the government version that it is because there are no shipping companies that bring oil for fear of US sanctions. Those are the causes of the social explosion.”

On the right is Himangshu in Assam Valley of India 

Our wonderful guide in the Assam Valley of India wrote about the terrible floods they’ve had in the area, “Hello Mam, after a long gap I say hi to you.  Actually my phone and laptop has been completely damaged by flood.  Hope you are all alright.  We are well here and having our vaccines but situations here is not good.  For 20 days we are in a lock down in our area.  In spite of Covid, flood has also badly affected us.  Situations are really worse.  Every day it is very hard for those persons so that they can overcome this pandemic situation.  God knows when this will be over.  Please take care of yourself and sir.”

It is easy for we Americans to get caught up in our own problems and tune out the disasters from other parts of the world.  And even if we hear of them on the news, they are distant events, both physically and emotionally.  But having a direct contact with residents in a country makes the tragedies more personal.  My husband and I can sometimes ease the pain with a donation to our friends, but nothing is allowed into Cuba and we can only commiserate from afar. Having these contacts helps me understand the oft quoted “we are in this together.”  Since tourism is the number one industry in the world and millions around the globe make their living from our desire to travel, the COVID 19 pandemic and environmental disasters have wreaked havoc on these workers. My foreign friends are just trying to survive and are facing a more dire situation than we have in the U.S.

We can be grateful for what we have here but should not turn our backs on our worldwide brothers and sisters.  Even without personal contacts, all can do their part through the many churches and international NGOs working directly with those afflicted by COVID 19 and global warming. COVID 19 doesn’t respect borders, and neither should we in our support.

Leave a Comment

Jimmy Dean Museum – Remembering a Local Star

Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats

Small towns are rightfully proud of their people who make it big in the world at large.  Paris’ Coach Stallings’ name is recognized across the country for his Alabama championship teams.  Buddy Holly put Lubbock on the map.  In my hometown of Plainview, Texas it was Jimmy Dean, country music performer, actor, tv host, and sausage entrepreneur. Today a lovely Jimmy Dean Museum on the campus of Wayland Baptist University honors this icon and draws visitors from across the country.

Jimmy Dean came from modest means, growing up in the tiny suburb of Seth Ward, adjacent to Plainview. His mother worked hard after his father left, launching a lifetime desire for Jimmy to take care of her.  He came by his musical talents naturally as both parents were musicians.  His mother taught him piano, his father was a singer/songwriter, and Jimmy taught himself to play the accordion and harmonica.

After serving in the military, he began the band The Texas Wildcats in 1948 who were well known from appearances on the radio in Washington. Because of the success of his most famous song Big Bad John in 1961, he would go on to perform in Carnegie Hall, Hollywood Bowl, the Ed Sullivan Show and become the first country music star to perform in Las Vegas.

Jimmy Dean with Muppet Rowlf

Dean with a young Elvis Pressley

After Jimmy became the first guest host on the Tonight Show, he was given his own morning show on ABC.  It was a surprise hit, thanks to Dean’s easy going country boy approach to interviews. A favorite feature of the show was the interaction between Dean and the early appearance of the Muppet Rowlf, along with Jim Henson.  Through his career, Dean appeared with an array of famous people – from Elvis Pressley to Kate Smith, Pearl Bailey, Bing Crosby, Whitey Ford, three U.S. Presidents and even Woody Allen. The museum provides wonderful photos of these encounters as well as information on Dean’s later acting career.

Younger Americans may only recognize the name of Jimmy Dean because of his sausage company.  The decision to sell a quality sausage launched the construction of a large processing plant in Plainview and supported many local pig farmers.  The history of this popular product that was began in 1969 is in the museum and covers the parting of the ways when the company was sold to Sara Lee Corporation in 1984.

One of my favorite parts to the museum was Jimmy’s folksy quotes for which he was known.  Many were casually filled with mild expletives, but some were gentler. “Will Rogers was once quoted as saying he had never met a man he didn’t like and I can truthfully say I never met an audience I didn’t like.” “It’s nice to be important but more important to be nice.”  “Grin once in a while. It’s good for you.” And my favorite, “There’s hardly anything that cannot be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”

Dean’s greatest hit

A side benefit to having the museum in Plainview is the large number of residents who still have Jimmy Dean stories to share.  I heard from those who had their hair cut by Jimmy’s mother or who played the same piano at the Seth Ward Baptist church where Jimmy attended.  Many tell of his brother, Don Dean, who delivered milk in homes.  On occasion, Jimmy joined him on the milk rounds even after he became famous.  Former workers at the Jimmy Dean Plant called him polite and encouraging.  Jimmy once agreed to greet a soldier fighting in Vietnam when his brother asked him to say a few words into a cassette recorder. And some remember when Jimmy built a new house for his mother even though she just wanted a new linoleum floor.

The final decision to locate the Jimmy Dean Museum in Plainview came after his death when his widow, Donna Dean, recognized his hometown was more appropriate than in Virginia where they lived.  Jimmy had always kept in touch with Plainview residents with frequent visits and had been honored on several occasions. Reflecting his heart for kids, Jimmy gave $1 million to Wayland for scholarships.

Outside sign of museum

The Museum is well displayed, filled with memorabilia from his career, and is adjacent to the Llano Estacado Museum that tells the history of the area, including the other famous Plainview product – the Plainview Paleoindian projectile points dating from 10,000 BCE.  If you like West Texas music, the museum is sponsoring the first annual Jimmy Dean Music Festival on September 4th. Jimmy Dean Music Festival

After visiting the museum, you can check out the Jimmy Dean Dorm on the Wayland Campus or the granite plaque on the Walk of Fame downtown.  And don’t forget to talk to some folks.  You just might get more stories.

Leave a Comment

Visiting Mosques – A New World of Faith

Eyup Mosque in Istanbul

Inside Eyup Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Ahmet, our Turkish friend, insisted we were welcome in the Eyup Mosque of Istanbul, Turkey, even though we were not Muslims.  He wanted us to experience one of the many local spiritual centers of Islam and only required that my friend, Mary Grace, and I cover our heads.  We entered through the women’s section in the balcony and could observe supplicants below.  It was between the five required calls to prayer and yet there were men praying on their knees, occasionally bowing to the floor, coming and going as they chose, an experience similar to the activity in a European cathedral.

Inside a mosque, a feeling of spaciousness prevails as there are no pews or chairs but most often a thick layer of beautifully woven rugs, gifts of generous benefactors. Missing are statues, ritual objects, musical instruments, and stained-glass windows of the Christian story.  However, carved domes, arched windows, flowered tiles, wooden carvings of inscriptions from the Qur’an (Koran) or names of Muhammad and his companions are allowed and can be quite stunning.  Large crystal chandeliers often shed subdued light on the sacred space.

The semicircular niche or mihrab points in the direction of Mecca to assist in knowing in which direction to pray while the minbar serves the familiar purpose of a pulpit for the Imam to speak at the Friday noon weekly service.  Passing by a mosque on a Friday in Alexandria, Egypt, my group listened to a broadcast by the Imam talking a large group of Muslims seated outside.  Our guide translated it as advice about the required once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca.  The Imam advised one should only go after he has provided for his family and should not go into debt to make that journey.

Inside the Great Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia

Courtyard of Great Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia

The oldest mosque I have visited is also the oldest place of worship in North Africa dating from 670 AD – the Great Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia, relatively unknown in the West but well respected in the Mahgreb. If you cannot afford to travel to Mecca for the required haj, a visit to this mosque seven times can meet the requirement.  Even though we were well covered, all of us, including the men,  had to wrap ourselves in a cotton robe handed out at the entrance to the courtyard. Shoes must be removed to enter a mosque, and many were scattered at the entrance to the prayer hall.  At this one, we weren’t allowed inside but could view the open prayer hall with its 500 columns and imagine thousands of the faithful standing shoulder to shoulder.

Mosque inside the Fes Medina, Tunisia

From my various trips to Muslim countries, I have become used to the calls to prayer sung out through loudspeakers from the beautiful minarets attached to mosques.  I admit to finding the monotone grating at first but have come to simply associate it with my many positive experiences in Islamic countries.  Only the 5 a.m. rendition can be jarring, especially if the broadcast system is near my hotel window.

Recordings are now often used rather than a chanter’s voice.  The call is a reminder that God is the greatest, Muhammad is his prophet, and to come to prayer and salvation. Truthfully, I have not seen a large response to the call in the Muslim countries I have visited such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey or Jordan although more than one driver has pulled to the side of the road for a moment of prayer.  But it serves the purpose of church bells only more widely spread and even for non-Muslims, it is a reminder of God’s omnipresence.

Most mosques are government owned.  In Turkey in 2012, we saw many newly constructed mosques.  They were small but numerous.  Turkey’s government wanted to move the country’s traditional secular approach toward a more Islamic way of life.  To that end, they constructed hundreds of new mosques so that the call to prayer was readily heard by all Turks.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Since that time, Turkey has become a leader in providing funds to construct mosques internationally, both for those in the Turkish Diaspora in Germany but also for the Muslim community in Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Bucharest, and even Maryland, all in the traditional Ottoman building style.  They’ve also opened a Grand Mosque in Istanbul, large enough to compete with the iconic Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosques.  President Erdogan attends many of the openings of these new structures, claiming they present a more moderate way of Islam in comparison with the Wahhabi ideology of their mosque building competitor, Saudi Arabia.  The architecture of a mosque often can predict the form of Islam being taught.

I had heard only Muslims can enter a mosque but have learned that not to be universally true. The leaders of the mosques do ask for modest dress, shoes removed and for those in prayer to be respected – all simple requirements to experience a new world of faith.

Leave a Comment