Mary Clark, Traveler

Getting to Cuba – 2014

Jose’ Marti Airport in Cuba

As travelers, Americans have traditionally been well treated by other countries.  Most allow us to enter with a tourist visa obtained at the entry point – whether by land, air or sea.  Occasionally, a visa must be requested prior to arriving by sending passports to embassies for processing.  Because of where we entered, Cambodia, Argentina and Jordan demanded this procedure.  It is much harder for most of the world to travel to the United States, requiring months of petitioning and providing verified information.  Cuba is different.  Getting in is not a problem.  It’s returning to the United States that’s tricky.

On January 1, 1959, Fulgencio Bautista, the U.S. friendly dictator of Cuba, fled to Spain.  Fidel Castro’s army entered Havana and began the rule of Cuba that continues today.  Castro didn’t start as a communist but moved that way quickly when Russia offered financial support.  In response, the United States declared an embargo against the island.  No American companies could do business there with some small exceptions such as agriculture.  And Americans could no longer travel to the emerald island.  Actually, the rule allowed Americans to be in Cuba but they couldn’t spend any money – an impossibility that ensured termination of tourism. 

Over the years, rules have softened.  President Obama’s changes now allow those of Cuban descent to visit whenever they want.  Cuba has also released its citizens to travel wherever they want as long as the country accepts them.  Consequently, almost every person we met in Cuba had family in the United States and most had been to visit.

For the rest of us, there are two methods of visiting Cuba – one legal and one not.  Wouldn’t you know the illegal way is easier.   Simply fly to another country such as Mexico, Guatemala, or Canada,  buy your Cuban tourist visa at the airport and fly from there to Havana.  Ask the customs officer not to stamp your passport.  Have fun in Cuba.  Return to Mexico, Guatemala or Canada.  Reenter the United States and simply fail to disclose that you took a detour to Cuba.  Thousands of Americans do this every year.  Truthfully, the risk is low.  I could find only one notable case of an American being caught in the lie and having to pay a fine.

Uneasy with that approach?  Worried about your passport?  Then let’s look at the legal way which has been expanded significantly by the Obama administration.  Before, a license had to be obtained through Washington, a lengthy process.  Now, you must be able to prove upon reentry that you’ve qualified for one of the new methods.  These include visiting Cuba on a cultural tour.  People to People is doing a brisk business in this category as is National Geographic, Road Scholar and university alumni groups.   If you are conducting a study, you can come back in.   And if your church confirms you as the church’s representative in Cuba, you’re good.  We worked with our local Holy Cross Episcopal Church to meet that requirement and with the Episcopal Church in Cuba to obtain the Cuban religious visa.    
  
U.S. airlines cannot run regular flights to Cuba but charter flights are allowed out of several cities, including Miami.  These companies must be sure their passengers have the visa to enter Cuba and of equal importance, meet our requirements to reenter.  They also provide the health insurance required by Cuba.

 We used ABC Charter which is actually owned by American Airlines.  The plane had the bright new AA logo on its tail and its crew appeared to be seasoned.  Judging by their accents, most passengers on the Havana flight were Cuban, either returning home or visiting relatives.  Our seatmate was doing just that.  Upon return to Miami, two People to People tours filled much of the plane.  Leaving Havana at about the same time was a Jet Blue charter flight.  I think both American and Jet Blue are poised for the lifting of the embargo, although there’s no sign of change yet.

The details of our trip took eight months to confirm. Charter flights can’t be booked until two or three months out.  Email to the Episcopal Church in Havana was not always reliable.  Delays in getting a Cuban visa were notable.  Ours arrived 10 days before scheduled departure. But it did finally come together and we touched down on a beautiful September morning.  Customs was smooth and we saw Cuba for the first time.   

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Why Mount Rainier Beckons

View of Mt. Rainier National Park from Paradise Inn
With a son living in Olympia, Washington,  I’ve become familiar with the Queen of Washington’s  Cascade Mountains  – Mount Rainier.  Its Native American name of Mount Tacoma was shelved in 1792 when explorer George Vancouver named the mountain after his friend, Pete Rainier, a Rear-Admiral in the British Royal Navy.  Probably few of the two million visitors a year to the Mount Rainier National Park realize they’re climbing on a mountain dedicated to an officer who heartily fought against the United States in the Revolutionary War. 

Wildflowers on the moutain
Despite its British ties, Mount Rainier is beloved in her home state.  When the snow covered peaks appear in late afternoon, many citizens of Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia pause to look her way in acknowledgment of her majesty. When our family set out to visit Mt. Rainier National Park, she was covered in clouds.  But since the huge volcano creates its own constantly changing weather patterns, we knew there was always the possibility of seeing the grande dame.




Dining Room in Paradise Inn
What makes Mt. Rainier unique is her 25 glaciers with 36 miles of packed ice – largest remnant of the Ice Age on one mountain in the world.  At 14,411 feet, it’s only the fifth highest peak in the United States but sports more snow than any of the others.  In fact, it’s one of the snowiest places in the world, getting an average annual snowfall of 56 feet. As we ate a late Sunday brunch in the dining room of  100 year old Paradise Inn, the view was of wildflowers, green meadows, and occasional 1,000 year old trees, reminiscent of Switzerland in the summer.  In the winter though, the same large windows would be blocked by deep snow. On a trail, a park ranger pointed out the volcano’s own 18 foot tall weather station that snow would cover in a few months.  
Paved trails in Mr. Rainier Park
Trails began near the Scoop Jackson Visitors Center, a huge gathering place for the many travelers that day.  The crowd reflected America’s welcoming arms, both for immigrants and visitors with a heavy emphasis on Asians.  I thought it a busy day but two employees shrugged and said it was average.  A surprising number of trails were paved – steep but paved.  These paths brought out the families with baby strollers and wheel chairs.  All wanted pictures taken in front of the waterfall, near the wildflowers, or with the big mountain in the background.   Strangers exchanged cameras to take the other’s family photo.  Still, the mountain top had not appeared beneath the clouds.  

Mt Rainier is a popular climbing site with about 1,000 annual attempts at the summit but only half successful.  Occasional deaths are inevitable.  Just in May, six experienced climbers died on the ascent.  Most hike to a cabin built for them, sleep a few hours, and leave about 3 a.m. to make the top before snow begins to melt.  I wondered how many were up there that very day. 
  
River emerging from cave in Misqually Glacier Remains


A second trail through well tended forest ended with a view of the leavings of Nisqually Glacier.  Bare grey rocks disguised the stream running through.  Much of the water appeared to be emerging from a large cave, one of many formed by the geothermal heat from the volcano.  Clouds were lifting but the mountain only teased us with an occasional shrouded peak at the summit. 






Mt. Rainier finally peaks out
The day was waning as we began our descent down the mountain’s side, glancing back often.  It was then that Mt. Rainier threw off enough of her wrap to reveal one of her famous three peaks.  We pulled off on a widened part of the road and were quickly followed by several cars.  They had seen it, too.  Picture taking began anew. 

There are warnings about visiting Mt. Rainier National Park.  It is an active volcano – the second most active in the Cascade Mountains after Mount St. Helens.  Thirty earthquakes a year occur beneath its beautiful veneer.  The last eruption was as recent as the end of the 19th century.  It is one of sixteen on the “Decade Volcano” list that identifies those of most concern in the world.  An eruption or even a steam flow from Mt. Rainier would cause much destruction in the surrounding heavily populated areas.  But still we go, by the millions, to get close to her, to feel her heartbeat, to experience her past.  In John Muir’s words, we go to gaze in awe at that “noble beacon of fire”.

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Tugboat Races in Olympia, Washington

One of the many tugboats at the Harbor Day Festival in Olympia, Washington
From chariots in the Roman Coliseum to the Indianapolis  500, racing has provided entertainment through the ages.  Faster is better.  Fastest is best.  I’ve seen horses, dogs, and camels rush to the finish line and sailboats and canoes hustle to be first.  Even plastic toy ducks can dawdle on down to raise money for our local Boys and Girls Club.  I just never considered tugboats as racing instruments – a seeming oxymoron- until visiting Olympia, Washington during its 41st Annual Harbor Day Festival.

“Think about it,” 5th generation Olympian Ralph Blankenship explained.  “Large sailboats needed small tugboats to bring them into port.  And before easy communication, the first tugboat out would get the job.  They had to be fast and powerful.”  In this case, fast is relative.   Blankenship agreed the idea of a tugboat race was a seeming contradiction in terms but has loved watching the laid back pursuits that often top out at 11 knots or 12.5 mph.  Fortunately, there are three motor size categories in the race to protect smaller tugs from larger ones. 

Skip Suttmeir, owner of Galene with his wife, Marty
The racing tugboats gather at Olympia’s harbor, where Puget Sound ends under the shadow of Washington’s capitol building.  During  festival week-end, the public can explore the boats, most of which have been working for years or are retired.  One of the oldest and the largest was the Galene, one of 61 boats built by the U.S. Army in 1943 to accompany battleships across the ocean.  Only four remain operational.  Owners Skip and Marty Suttmeir, found the Galene for sale on Craig’s list in 2007, restored it and now live comfortably on it for several months of the year on Seattle’s Lake Union.  

In the over 400 HP category, the Galene came in first, winning by a mere 45 seconds over second place Shannon , owned by Captain Cindy Stahl.  The Shannon is a working tugboat, guiding pulp barges to Canada.  Built in 1957 and refurbished in 1977,  the boat changed ownership four years ago.   Captain Stahl’s    trips take approximately 19 hours to arrive in Canada, making the complete journey a three day adventure.  As a consolation prize, the Shannon did receive the “Spiffy” award for  being the neatest and classiest boat in the race.
Tugboat owners enjoying a tailboat party

Owners of the tugs were available to chat with visitors while their family and friends relaxed at the stern or rear of the boats, creating a kind of “tailboat” party atmosphere.  Large umbrellas shaded the gatherings with ice chests readily available.  Old captain friends caught up with each other. One congratulated a younger captain on his appointment to oversee the Seattle Port tugboats.  He would supervise steel tugs with the needed 2000 HP to guide modern cargo ships.




Steering wheel of the Sandman
Moored permanently at Olympia’s harbor is the Sandman, a 100+ year old tugboat that has been restored and can be explored anytime.  Some of the original wood remains as does its massive steering wheel.  With a 110 HP motor, the Sandman would have accompanied barges of sand and gravel, brought in to use in construction of many of Olympia’s buildings. 

And in case you got carried away with tugboat fever, the 1967 Mary Anne was for sale.  Others could find a selection on Craig’s list.   One owner strongly urged bargaining as he was able to pay $20,000 for a boat originally listed for $80,000. 
Since the debut of the first tugboat in 1802, progress in building has led to stronger, more powerful boats.  As recently as 2008, the first hybrid tugboat was built.  Only two or three tugs are now needed to maneuver even the largest of ships.  They are a far cry from those used to great moral purpose in children’s books such as “Little Toot” or “Scruffy the Tugboat” who discovered there’s no place like home after exploring rivers and lakes. 


The Harbor Festival also included a large assortment of artist booths, many with nautical themes.  Live music entertained all.  And fresh salmon smoked over an open fire was available for purchase.  We knew we were in the Northwest.  Each town wants a unique and appropriate festival.  Olympia found one with their tugboats – our unsung heroes of the waters that slowly and steadily cross the finish line.

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On The Road in Patagonia – 125 Years Later

Approach to Torres del Paine
In 1879, Lady Florence Dixie chose to travel by boat from England to explore Patagonia,  land of the Giants.  In responding to those who thought her crazy to journey to such an outlandish place so far away, she wrote that was precisely why she chose it.  Writing in her memoir, “Across Patagonia” Lady Dixie explained, “Palled for the moment with civilization and its surroundings, I wanted to escape somewhere, where I might be as far removed from them as possible.”  She recognized other countries may be “more favoured by Nature but nowhere else are you so completely alone.”

Upon arrival in the outpost of Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of the South American Continent, Lady Dixie, her brothers, husband and friend bought horses, food and guides as they set out for their six month journey.  Her first impression of the Pampas was disappointing – desolate, successions of bare plateaus, not a tree or shrub visible anywhere – like a landscape of some other planet.  And, the wind, oh, the “boisterous wind – the standing drawback to the otherwise agreeable climate of Patagonia.”
Two Guanacos in Patagonia

But Nature had much to offer Lady Dixie – herds of 5,000 guanacos (small members of the llama family), groups of 100 rheas or small ostriches, wild foxes, and pumas.  And, as they approached the majestic Cordilleros mountain range, geese, duck, swans, and flamingos appeared near the lakes. Wildlife was not just for viewing as they were all hunted for food with help from the dogs.   Califate berry bushes and wild cranberries provided some variety in the diet.   And the ibis made a great broth. 

They passed an Argentine gaucho, native tribes traveling and traders with their wares.  Never sure whether those approaching were friend or foe, Lady Dixie’s entourage kept guns handy.  Finally, they entered the mountains from the barren plains.  Despite the “almost painful silence”, Lady Florence knew her view of Torres del Paine (the Towers of Paine) with the snow covered mountains and glaciers was not yet shared by any other woman of her world.  Penciled sketches brought back her majestic views to England to prove her discovery and to entice others to visit. 

One hundred and twenty-five years later, I followed much of Lady Dixie’s path but in significantly more comfort.   Also starting in Punta Arenas, we traveled north by bus the first day, crossing the same Pampas, enduring equally strong wind, and awaiting the same snow covered mountains to gradually appear out of the haze.  

While the numbers of wild life were greatly reduced, we easily found guanacos and rheas as well as geese and ducks.  Sheep and cows were now numerous mixed with wild horses.  The modern world shone bright with an oil refinery and wind turbines. Plastic bags were caught in the brush like modern day tumbleweeds.   We stopped three times to pick up passengers waiting on the side of the road and at a bus station on an air force base.  And as we neared the mountains, beautiful estancias, tucked in ravines, provided green relief.      

Rheas in Patagonia
In a van on the second day of traveling, even fewer cars were on the road.  A sign warned “Watch for Flying Sand”, a rather obvious danger, I thought.  While stopped to observe our first eagle, we heard nearby Cara Cara birds squawking loudly and for good reason.  Three grey foxes were stealing their babies.  More guanacos passed by, easily jumping the fences.   And rheas seemed more numerous, possibly thanks to their being protected by law. 

In a mere 1 ½ days, we arrived at the foot of the mountain leading to the three towers of Torres del Paine, Lady Dixie’s ultimate site and one she described as “Cleopatra’s Needles”.   Our trails were more worn, filled now with visitors from around the world and we slept in beds rather than tents.  But we did share the building or contribution to rock cairns found along the trails while Lady Dixie alone carved her name in a yet unfound tree. 

Modern Day Gauchos in Patagonia
Lady Dixie is well known in the Patagonia area today.  A hotel in Puerta Natales is named in her honor and guides nod in recognition when you mention her name.  It was a relief to find the landscape intact and the wildlife visible – just as she wrote.  What hadn’t changed in those years was the vastness of the mountains, abundance of glaciers and waterfalls, stratified soil colors, scattered rain clouds, streams of clear water, and blue glacier lakes – all a geologist’s dream and a traveler’s thrill.  

Lady Dixie dedicated her amazing journal to His Royal Highness, Albert Edward, the  Prince of Wales.  I think I’ll dedicate this column to Lady Florence herself  – another adventuresome spirit of a different era.

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Denison, Texas – From a President’s Home to a Pirate Ship With Art In Between

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Birthplace
Room where Eisenhower was born

Denison, Texas began as a company town built by the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (called the KATY), the first railroad into Texas.  At its height, half of Denison worked for the KATY, including David Eisenhower from 1889-1892.  In a small white clapboard house across the road from a railroad tract, the family’s third son, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was born in 1890.  President Eisenhower’s birth details may have been lost since all births were at home and Denison had no hospital.  As late as his application to West Point, Dwight thought he was born in Tyler.  However, Principal Jennie Jackson remembered the Eisenhower family and contacted him when he became famous.  


Statue of Eisenhower by Robert Dean

Then General Eisenhower visited his birthplace in 1948, just after the home was purchased by Denison to be preserved.  It is now a State Historic Site that offers a short tour of the house (he only lived there 18 months). A bronze life size statue of General Eisenhower stands on the grounds with him dressed in his personally designed short Eisenhower jacket.  Oklahoma artist Robert Dean created five statues of the president and Denison was lucky to get one of them. The statue was dedicated on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France.  Eisenhower Birthplace


Denison’s downtown is surprisingly long and large with the train station anchoring the east side.  This is the third station on the site and includes a wedding venue in the former waiting room and a railroad museum.  There we learned Union Pacific bought the KATY railroad and still runs freight trains through the town.  However, the railroad yard now lies west of town and is a busy place. 


Kaboodles Store in Denison

A surprising number of art galleries and antique stores line Main Street with a proposed Studebaker Museum in the works.  My favorite store was Kaboodles, opened two years ago by Cindy Dickson.  The store includes creative and unique repurposed items by local artists and even carries leather purses made by Brad Berrentine, a resident of Pattonville.  Kaboodles Facebook Page



After lunch at Café Java’s (also known as CJ’s), we walked past the old Rialto theatre.  As we peered through the glass doors, new owner Rich Vann waved us in. He has replaced the sound system, brought in a large screen, and is ready for nightly live shows, movies, or even football games.  His opening event on August 23rd is a Stevie Wonder impersonator.  “We aren’t promising anything.  We’re just going to do it,” he tells us.  All those living in the downtown lofts are going to appreciate this venue. Rialto Facebook Page

Swimming Beach at Eisenhower State Park

Continuing to capitalize on the brief Eisenhower connection, the city boasts of nearby Eisenhower State Park on Lake Texoma.  This is a large park with many camping spots, screened in cabins and some serious marinas, including the Eisenhower Yacht Club.  An employee acknowledged there is no club nor club house and the name is just a fancy way to describe the marina.  Pontoon boats are available for hire and we particularly liked the small swimming beach.  We were sorry not to have brought swim suits to enjoy the clear, cool waters. 
Eisenhower State Park

Compass Rose
Further around the lake we found the Compass Rose – an exact replica of a wooden, tall sailing, brigantine privateer boat from the 1860s.   It was undergoing repairs as we approached.  A young man introduced himself as Mark Nagel.  “I’m the quartermaster,” he said.  Captain Ron Odom soon approached and shared the history of his boat.  She was built in 1968, has traveled around the world twice and is one of only 145 remaining privateers in the world, few of which are still sailing.  Since their purchase, Captain Ron and his wife, Tamie, have refigured the sails into a square rig which allows the boat to turn in any direction, picking up the wind on the lake.  They’ve replaced just about everything, furnished it with period pieces and covered the hull with fiber glass to protect it from growth in the lake.   

This nautical life is especially surprising for Ron who lived 52 years on a cattle ranch in West Texas.  After spending summers sailing in the Caribbean and owning a series of Hunter boats, Ron and Tamie are finally living their dream.   The Odoms have made the ship available for tours (1st and 3rdSaturdays) and sails.  All of the crew work as volunteers except a required 100 ton captain.  Passengers are treated to pirates in authentic costumes, complete with an ex-marine who climbs the mast and rigging.    Check their website for sailing times, including their full moon events.  
Compass Rose Website

Denison has an eclectic assortment of history, art, recreation, and entertainment for visitors – certainly enough to fill a day or weekend.  Since it’s just an hour down the road, more in Paris should take advantage – unless pirates make you nervous.

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Comparing International Airline Personalities

Quantas Airlines approaching Auckland, New Zealand

The travel day had already been long – early morning wake-up call, two hour drive to the airport, parking, check-in, security review, first flight out, lost in a new airport, and now, finally, the second and last flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca.  American Airlines brought us to Mexico City and bankrupt Mexicana was to carry us to our destination.  I walked into its clean, new airplane and immediately relaxed as classical music played overhead and wondered why other airlines didn=t use Mozart to calm passengers.  But then all international airlines have their own personalities.

Fly any of the Asian Airlines and the attendants will take you back in time when Astewardesses@ had to be of a certain height, weight, age, and appearance.  At Los Angeles Airport, I watched a crew of Singapore Airline attendants pass – bright smiles, hair drawn up, hats precisely tilted, and dressed in tight skirts, draped scarves, belted waists, and high heels.  All heads turned to watch this perfectly coiffed cast pass effortlessly through security.  I wanted to be on their flight.
On a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong, lovely attendants treated our general class cabin as if we were in first class.  The array of food choices was staggering – American, Asian, Indian, vegetarian, egg free, dairy free, kosher.  Soft voices whispered in my ear to determine if I were awake enough to want a snack or breakfast.  Warm damp towels freshened my face.  And bathrooms were kept spotless throughout the long flight. 
My experience with Egypt Airlines from New York to Cairo was in sharp contrast to the Asian ones.  Only male attendants dressed in blue and gold suits served us, and men being men, the bathrooms needed far more attention from the staff than they got. No alcohol was allowed because of its prohibition in Islam. That didn=t stop the loud visiting among passengers. Egyptians are, in general, a happy bunch and even some of the attendants joined in the bantering that crossed rows and aisles. I sat next to a couple who, judging by their tete-a-tete murmurings, were newly married.  They weren’t and acknowledged just enjoying time together before meeting their large family in Cairo. The husband wanted to know where my husband was.  
Alitalia Airlines has been in and out of bankruptcy for years, with a lousy on time record. On a trip to Italy and Tunisia though, it had the best schedule and prices.  The airline makes up for their often late arrivals with an open bar at the back of the plane – literally open bottles of wine that passengers pour themselves.  That made the rear of our plane the place to solve world problems which several travelers tried to do all night.   Turkish Airlines was all business but its low cost competitor, Pegasus, reminded me of the early days of Southwest Airlines, when flight attendants often joked around and gently teased travelers.  Pegasus’ obligatory safety film was made with children giving instructions – so amusing that everyone actually watched.
I had long been intrigued by El Al, Israel’s closely guarded airline, and finally got to try their services en route to Tel Aviv.  At Newark Airport, each passenger was separately interrogated.  My questions included where I was staying, who I was visiting, name of my landlady, had I ever been to the Middle East, why are you going to Israel, to Jordan?  On board, Hebrew dominated and passengers included bearded rabbis, large Hasidem families, a teenage girl in braces who bobbed her head in prayer through the night, and a handsome, teasing flight attendant.  Humus was standard as was the wonderful Middle Eastern breakfast salad with seeds and nuts.

Sky Airlines lunch on flight to Puerto Montt

In using international airlines, it’s been a surprise to be served meals and local products, even on short flights.  On an hour and a half flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi, we were given a hot lunch on Vietnam Airlines.  An even shorter flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt, Chile was enough to be offered cold cuts on Sky Airways, a start-up Chilean airline. On a 50 minute puddle jumper with Tunisair from Tunis, Tunisia, to Palermo, Italy, a sole attendant was able to distribute sweet snacks and hard candy. With its mostly male attendants, Quantas Airlines made available Australian wine and beer as well as Australian movies such as “There’s nothing I’d rather be than an Aborigine.” Swiss Air served the best milk chocolate candy ever and Dutch KLM promoted its dairy products, including Gouda and Edom cheese. 

In these days of tedious air travel, concentrating on the novelties of an airline helps pass the time.  The differences are there, just waiting to be noticed. And for those who prefer a taste of home, Coca Cola is always available – always.

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My Cousin’s Mountain Film Festival

Showing of Mountain Film Festival in Puerta Natales, Chile

Since 1946, film festivals have been held all over the world –  from Cannes to Venice to Toronto to Sundance with emphasis on first time releases, ethnic origins, genres, independent film producers or even documentaries or shorts.  I’ve seen promotions of festivals from Antalya, Turkey to Ft. Worth, Texas as communities work to attract visitors.  But my cousin takes his Mountain Film Festival on the road to where viewers are most likely to be. 

Patrick Moore grew up in Lubbock, graduated with a fine arts degree from Texas Tech, and became a serious world traveler thanks to a job maintaining satellite dishes at U.S. Embassies around the globe.    Even with extra pages, his passport never lasted long and was replaced often.  Wherever he went, Patrick hiked and explored and kept up with climbing feats around the world.  On a whim in New Zealand several years ago, he called Sir Edmund Hillary of Mt. Everest fame.  Sir Hillary invited him to his home and Patrick spent the afternoon with the family, learning more about the famous climber’s life.

 Patrick married a beautiful Chilean American Airline attendant and settled in Santiago to raise his family.  He found the outdoor opportunities in South America unparalleled and he and his family often hiked, biked, climbed and camped.  In his backyard is a climbing wall and a shed full of outdoor equipment.   Even before the embassy job played out, Patrick explored bringing a film festival to the far south that played to his interests – mountain climbing and extreme sports.  He found two.

Poster promoting Mountain Film Festival

The Banff Film festival licenses 25 films to be available to hosts like Patrick who select those they wish to show at their own locations.  He also picks up the four climbing films offered each year by  The Reel Rock Film Tour.  This year featured a harrowing rock climb by individuals who had missing limbs but no lack of courage as well as the Stonemasters, a 1960s group of self-taught rock climbers who ruled El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.  What distinguishes  Patrick’s two to three day festivals are his speakers and workshops on mountain climbing that accompany the films.  

The Mountain Film Festival is shown in 13 South American locations in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Peru –  just about anywhere young climbing enthusiasts congregate.  Backpackers love it when the festival arrives in town or even on the slope.  Entertainment is hard to come by in most outback areas.   His  most challenging location is at  Aconcagua,  highest mountain in North and South America at 22,000 feet. In February of this year,  Patrick carried his High Definition projector while others packed in a 22 foot inflatable screen.  It took two days of hiking to arrive at the second base camp of the mountain. There at 14,000 feet, the movies were shown on the screen under the stars to 200 grateful and amazed campers.  

After years of following Facebook posts on Patrick’s  festivals, I had the opportunity to experience a showing in Puerta Natales, Chile, a town of 20,000 where many launch into Patagonia.  While North Face is his primary sponsor,  Patrick finds local companies to help with overhead costs and to promote the showings.  In Puerta Natales, Erratic Rock, a local hostel/outfitting company, provided assistance with the location and set-up.  Posters of the festival had been hung around town and the local newspaper covered the upcoming event. 

We arrived on a rainy night at a large, metal hanger for a showing of “Towers of Temptation”, a film on the first ascent of the central towers of Torres del Paine in Patagonia 51 years ago.  At the premier showing in Santiago, Patrick had even brought in the film’s director, Leo Dickerson, to speak.  Inside, indirect lighting illuminated walls of powerful photographs of climbers and the towers. Outdoor equipment such as kayaks, mountain bicycles, and tents were displayed.  Young travelers from around the world milled about – visiting, comparing, sharing stories. Some even carried their backpacks as if they had just arrived in town.  Hot cider was served.  By the time of the showing of the first film, the 200 chairs had filled and all settled in for an evening of entertainment far from home.

The Mountain Film Festival shows continue throughout the year, even in  the coldest days of winter in southern Patagonia.  In my last e-mail from Patrick, he wrote enthusiastically of the next showing in Coyhaique, Chile where a Mt. Everest climber and an Antarctica Explorer will be giving lectures along with the films.  His timing is good.  Travels to Patagonia and other parts of South America are up.  And, there’s nothing more exciting than a good mountain climbing story, especially if the mountain is just outside the window.

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Edom and Ben Wheeler – Tiny Towns That Use The Arts to Survive

Potters Brown, Edom, Texas










Ken Carpenter Jewelry, Edom, Texas
Selections at Potters Brown



















I love small towns that use the arts to survive and Edom and Ben Wheeler are two such communities, closely connected and near Athens and Tyler.  Edom owes its survival to Doug Brown, owner of Potters Brown.   Potters Brown Freshly trained as a potter, Doug arrived in Edom in 1971, looking for a quiet place to live and work.   His uniquely painted and glazed pieces  attracted shoppers from the DFW Metroplex which brought in more artisans which attracted more shoppers.  Forty three years later, his store still anchors the “arts district” of Edom, population 375. 


Doug Brown of Potters Brown

Doug was hard to miss in his pink overalls,  t-shirt and  headband as he offered to show off his kiln in back where he was firing that day.  In what was once a feed store, the works of Doug and his wife, Beth, support reds and purples, colors that are hard to achieve in the glazing world, as well as more traditional browns and blues.  Doug was proud that Edom had managed to promote the arts without changing the character of the small town.  “Not much” was his reply to the question of what had changed since he established residency there, failing to note the one-third increase in population since 2000.  

Next door is Ken Carpenter’s Jewelry, which recently celebrated 25 years in “downtown” Edom.  Originally in the restaurant construction business, Ken opened his store in 1990.  Lapis, green turquoise, and larimar are just some of the stones used in his strong pieces.  Like other artists of Edom, Ken supplements his income with appearances at art fairs around the state.  Ken Carpenter Jewelry

Edom supports six other stores and studios. Easily 10% of the population is involved in the arts.  If Paris had the same ratio, we would have 2500 artists.  Imagine what an art center we would be.  

The most prominent building in town is The Shed Café, proudly displaying a banner noting its being designated Best Café in East Texas by Texas Monthly.  It was still full as we entered at 2 o’clock with many locals and visitors enjoying  basic Texas fare such as  chicken fried steak, meatloaf, steak, hamburgers. 


We happened to hit the Second Saturday Art Jam event along the 279 Artisans Trail – named for the highway connecting Ben Wheeler and Edom.  This includes 11 artist shops, several restaurants, produce stands, garden centers and music venues.  After a short, pleasant drive, we arrived in the revived town of Ben Wheeler, the  result of an experiment by two  residents with a vision.  Here’s the description of the foundation contained in the Ben Wheeler website – “Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic District Foundation, a non-profit 501 (c) (3) corporation, was created by Brooks and Rese Gremmels to serve as the vehicle for reconstructing, not only the physical aspects of Ben Wheeler, Texas but perhaps, more importantly, returning a sense of community to the town by providing it with various outlets through music, art, history, education, entrepreneurship, basic civil service and philanthropy.” 

The Foundation has been a kind of privately funded Main Street project with old buildings being renovated and filled with galleries and restaurants.  One dollar rent was offered to entice new shopkeepers.   The Harrison Knife Making school brings in students from around the country while Blue Moose Decoys can be purchased next door and hats across the street.   An old schoolhouse was moved in to house the local children’s library along with a wedding chapel.  Two music venues advertised live concerts the night of our visit.  


And there’s much promotion of its self-designated “Wild Hog Capital of Texas”.  As one resident said, “someone’s got to take ownership.”    At the festival in the fall, you can join a cook-off or compete to be crowned Hog Queen.  The Foundation has literally changed everything for this town of 400.  Sadly, Brooks Gremmels died this year from pancreatic cancer but the foundation and town remain committed to this project.

Serene setting at Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast

Edom and Ben Wheeler can be visited in a day from Paris but a nice outing is to spend the night at  Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast just outside of Athens. Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast  Randell and Marilyn Tarin are the Innkeepers and faces of a new kind of B&B.  No longer are B&Bs just historical Victorian homes with flowered chintz coverings.  Randell and Marilyn retired from the Metroplex and built their dream home in the East Texas woods along with two tastefully decorated cabins. 

One of Two cabins at Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast

Aside from providing our hearty breakfasts, the Tarins were knowledgeable local guides, steering us towards and away from certain restaurants and wineries.  They check it all out before making recommendations to their guests.  Even though we didn’t need their Elopement-Honeymoon Package, for which Randell is licensed to perform, the quiet, private setting was enough.  Remember this place when you just need to get away for a night.

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Magellanic Penguins – Struggling to Adapt


A couple of adult Magellanic Penguins

An entire island of penguins?  How could that not be cool?  Children and adults alike are pulled toward these little guys – strutting their stuff on land, sleek swimmers in the water.   On Magellan Island, on the Magellan Straits of South America, thousands of Magellanic penguins make their summer homes burrowed into the ground.  We got to walk among them on a morning excursion from Punta Arenas, Chile.

Melinka Ferry to Magellan Island

 There are two ways to travel to Magellan Island, assuming the trip is not cancelled due to high winds.  Pay lots more and arrive on a zodiac boat before the crowds or take the slow Melinka ferry, landing on the island two hours later.  We were in no hurry and enjoyed being on the Straits.  Many young adults in the international crowd chose to catch up on their sleep but we  were happy to listen to the lecture given in Spanish and English by a young woman who seemed to be in charge of us.  

Magellanic penguins can live up to 25 years with as many as 300,000 penguins roosting on this small island.  Male and female look exactly alike, weigh about 11 pounds and mate for life.  Couples are only together six months of the year, parting after babies are born, trained to hunt for food, and sent on their way.  Males and females will go separate directions for the winter, hooking back up the next year – same place, same time- with only the female’s ability to identify her mate’s call bringing them back together.


Upon arrival on the island, we had been strictly instructed NOT to stray from the marked path that led from the dock to an old lighthouse.  Looking at the island from the boat, I thought I was gazing at Prairie Dog Town in Lubbock, Texas.  With no vegetation for shade, thousand of penguins stood guard outside the hole that was their home.  They return to the exact same burrow each year where two eggs are produced by the female and hatched by both parents. 

By our visit in March, the babies had already been pushed out to sea to find their way up the east coast of Argentina, led by an adolescent.  All adolescents had also been sent packing.  No coddling or overprotective parents here.  Remaining were  adults, easy to identify by the broad black stripes on their chests.  The wider the strip, the older the penguin.  They had to bulk up – gain back weight lost in feeding babies all summer.  No fishing boats were allowed near the island,  but adults still would be out for 2 or 3 days to find food, swimming as far as the Atlantic and Pacific.  

Tourists on path through the Magellanic Penguins on Magellan Island


Molting Magellanic Penguin

We only had an hour on the island and cameras were whirring.  Photographers squatted, lay on the ground, leaned over the ropes marking the paths.  Telephoto lens competed with point and shoot cameras.  The penguins seemed oblivious of us all – similar to a Galapagos Island experience 40 years ago.  Occasionally, a penguin would cross the path on its way to the water, doing that funny waddle until diving in and smoothly swimming away.  It was surprisingly noisy with sea gulls complaining as they were attached by skuas –  large brown birds that like sea gull eggs.  Penguins chimed in with their donkey brays.  And feathers were everywhere as all penguins molt each year.

Skuas, Sea Gulls and Magellanic Penguins on Magellan Island

What our lecture on penguins failed to tell us is the real risk to the colonies because of global warming.  In February of this year, the New York Times ran an article by Harry Fountain detailing the increased heat and rain where penguins mate.  Baby penguins feathers are not waterproof for six weeks and many will die from hypothermia if soaked by rain.  I was shocked at the statistic that 2/3 of the hatchlings don’t survive to leave the nest.  Add this to oil spills, depleted fish supplies from commercial fishing, and unregulated tourism, and our little friends are struggling to adapt fast enough. Fortunately, organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society are working to create protected areas with commercial fishing banned.  

Magellanic Penguins close to the water

After an hour, our leader shooed us back down the path to the boat.  It appeared our group had been respectful of the rules regarding the path and didn’t try to get closer than allowed.  But I’m sure the penguins were happy to see us go.  One probably gave the “all clear” sign as the boat pulled out.   Today, that island would be empty as all have moved north for the winter.  We can only hope they’ll be back –  same place, same time next year.

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Punta Arenas – Hanging Out At the End of the Earth

Rebuilt waterfront in Punta Arenas, Chile

 Punta Arenas lies on the Straights of Magellan, 880 miles due north of the icy shores of Antarctica and 2500 miles from the South Pole.  It has been a harbor for boats and travelers through the Straits since it began as a penal colony in 1848.  After the town burned in an 1877 mutiny, it was rebuilt sans prison and became a major trade center for the sheep farming industry and those who hoped to discover gold in the area.   It also helped to have a coaling station for steamships on the main shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – at least until the Panama Canal was built in 1914.  Colonists from Spain were expected but Punta Arenas also attracted a surprisingly large crowd from Croatia in search of gold and escaping a long drought in their home country. 

I envisioned a small town clinging to the last rocks of the South American continent but instead found a small city of 170,000 inhabitants reinventing itself in a new world of energy and tourism. It is the center of Chile’s only oil reserves, now being drawn out by fracking.  Half of the country’s lamb production still ships in and out of its free port but  new kids on the block include dozens of cruise ships which call during the summer season of November through March.  

Punta Arenas is filled with names associated with its adventuresome past.  There’s a Charles Darwin Colegio, Magellan Street, Los Navegantes Hotel, Colon Avenue (after Christopher Columbus) and even a street named Yugoslavia after the homeland of many of the Croatians that immigrated here.  Just two years ago, flash floods filled streets and damaged or destroyed 500 homes. The city has taken advantage of the disaster and rebuilt the water walk, using pavers to redesign streets and sidewalks and adding monuments, benches and play areas.  

Monument to area’s  important sheep industry

Many visitors fly into Punta Arenas and immediately launch into Patagonia to the north or ship off to Antarctica.  Our unusual two night stay had two purposes – to see the Magellan  penguins and meet some local Rotarians who had visited my brother in Davis, California during a Rotary exchange.  

From our hotel, we easily walked to Ivan Baria’s home where we were joined by Alejandro Toro and his wife, Lily, and children.  Ivan was restoring his Art Deco home that had been damaged in the floods.   Trays of hors d’oeuvres awaited, many made from the very popular mayonnaise, with hot dogs served later.  Offers of Pisco Sours were accepted and visiting began.  

Ivan Baria, Mack Walker, and Alejandro Toro

Their children attend the local German school, where Lily teaches English.  Sports are played against 17 other German schools in Chile and parents have to pay for students to fly to games.  They learn 3 languages, Spanish, German, and English, and all will visit Germany for a month. Alejandro’s son had obviously just been to Europe as he sported a sweat shirt claiming to be part of a Czech Praha Drinking Team.   Ivan had been an exchange student in Nebraska in 1976 where he first saw color TV.  His daughter just returned from her exchange experience in Minnesota.  Exploring the world was a way of life for his family.

When asked what was good about Punta Arenas, Ivan explained everything centers around the home resulting in strong relationships and a safe place for children.  Alejandro and Ivan bonded during their trip to California and told wonderful stories that included my brother.  What struck me was how normal it all felt – enjoying an evening with friends – except it was at the end of the world. 

Southernmost Golf Course in the World
Exact replica of Magellan’s Ship,Nao Victoria














Ivan picked us up the next day for a “real” tour of the town.  It included a short ride up to the southern most ski area, open one month a year, the southern most golf course with its wind tilted trees, historic cemetery  and the two year old Nao Victoria Museum containing exact replicas of Magellan’s ship, Shackleford’s lifeboat and soon to be finished Darwin’s Beagle boat.  On a more personal note, we toured Ivan’s Croatian neighborhood where he grew up on a hill surveying the Magellan Straits.

Owner Silvia Harambour at Kiosko Roca

And for an insiders’ treat,  we arrived at Kiosko Roca at peak hour.  This small diner overflowed with students grabbing an afternoon snack while adults waited for take-outs.   It was named the best “picada” or “traditional hole in the wall” in Chile winning over 155 entrants.  The original owner’s daughter, Silvia Harambour, smiled easily and insisted we try their banana milk and choripanes, a sandwich with chorizo paste.  It was the perfect place to end the tour of Punta Arenas – a local spot filled with locals who hardly noticed the often heady wind outside. Thanks to the many modern conveniences, life is very doable at this end of the world.  


Author and husband on Southernmost ski lift in the world


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