Mary Clark, Traveler

Guatemala Revisited – 1975 and 2012

Beautiful Guatemalan Countryside
Thirty seven years ago, my husband and I started our married life in Guatemala.  After exchanging vows on May 31st, 1975, we arrived in Guatemala City four days later.  Ed had a three month grant to study intestinal ailments at the capital city’s Roosevelt Hospital and I was ready to explore.

An apartment was found on the top floor of a small five story building owned by a Chinese- Guatemalan family. Our spartan rooms were really the maids quarters but none wanted to live there.  We thought it glorious.  As we walked out our bedroom door each morning to the large patio, a view of the mountains, volcanos, and downtown Guatemala City greeted us.

We often strolled  to the central plaza, stopping on the return at open-aired markets.  A neighborhood store named Tienda Mary, supplied fresh milk and cheese.  And we enjoyed an occasional night out at one of the surprising number of international restaurants, German food  being our favorite.

Most tourists were young and looking for a cheap place to travel.  A few organized tours would include Antigua, the beautiful colonial former capital, Lake Atitlan, a volcanic mountain lake, and Tikal, a giant of a Maya ruin.   The government was ruled by General Laugerus Garcias, a conservative Norwegian/Guatemalan while “narcotrafico”  was not even a word.  We thought the traditional garb of the indigenous tribes charming and were unaware of the internal war that was building for native rights.  Guatemala simply enchanted us.

 McDonalds and Wendy’s are popular with Guatemalans

In November of 2012, we returned to Guatemala for our son’s wedding.  The country had changed in many ways.  Sadly, we avoided Guatemala City because of its high crime rate.  The city growth from 715,000 in 1975 to a metropolitan population of 4,000,000 inhabitants has strained  roads and air quality. A simple drive from the airport through town revealed Korea and China now have strong    presences in the textile industry,  Japanese car makers have scooped up much of that market, and American fast food restaurants have settled in, even including a Schlotzky’s.

View of Volcano from Antigua’s City Hall

In Antigua, a tour with Elizabeth Bell, an American ex-pat  resident since 1969, educated us on many of that town’s changes.  The first Spanish language school started in 1969 with 40 students.  Today, one thousand students study there, fueling an economy of teachers, restaurants, home stays, and side trips.  Most surprising was learning the mayor had been recently arrested for misappropriating public funds.  At city hall, accountants were busily reviewing the books for evidence.  Ms. Bell was encouraged that this step toward rooting out corruption had finally happened.

Tourists to Guatemala have more than doubled in the last eight  years, fueling 15% of the work force and one-fourth of the national GDP.  Lodging has even become a problem in high season.    NGOs are everywhere, helping women’s co-ops, building homes, and teaching business basics.  Guatemala is now about 50% “evangelico” or protestant, resulting in a broader array of mission trips from the U.S.

Two changes were obvious.   Roads were greatly improved.  The Pan American highway is now a well-paved, four lane fare way, a far cry from the bumpy,  two lane, shoulderless road of three decades ago. And cell phones are  ubiquitous and cheap, thus enhancing options for small business owners and farmers and encouraging communication among rich and poor.

Active Fuego Volcano near Antigua
Guatemalan textiles

What hadn’t changed was also significant.  Guatemala is still one of the most beautiful countries in the world with its volcanoes and mountains filled with coffee, sugar and cardamom fields.   Most indigenous women still wear the beautiful brocade huipiles or blouses, and those fine Guatemalan textiles are now made into every conceivable item a tourist might buy – bags, blouses, shirts, bedspreads, hats, hair bands, bracelets, robes, scarves, dolls, children’s clothes, luggage tags, wallets, and backpacks.  And the Chapines (as Guatemalans call themselves) continue to be some of the hardest working, gracious and generous people in the world.

Typical Guatemalan store with textile products

 The needs are immense.  Education (4th grade is the last for many children),  roads, health care, women’s rights, jobs, corruption and crime associated with the drug industry all cry for solutions.  But this time,  there was a confidence and hopefulness among the residents that I did not remember before.

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Maya Calendar and Fire Ceremony With Xalista Gabriel

Calista Gabriel, one of 3000 shamans in Guatemala

“World To End on December 21, 2012”  should be a headline reserved for the National Enquirer at check-out stands in your favorite grocery store but this story has been covered by serious news outlets.  The excitement comes from the accurate Maya Calendar begun over 5,000 years ago and still in use by the Maya people of Guatemala and Mexico.

As the end of this 5 millennial  calendar cycle approached, much attention has been given to the event. Yet, it’s really just a reset of the calendar for another 5,126 years.  There will be celebrating on December 21st as a rebirth of their civilization but no preparations for the apocalypse.

Ceramic Pot Used in Maya Fire Ceremony

A byproduct of the spotlight on the Maya Calendar has been the “outing” of their ancient Fire Ceremony.  When Spaniards arrived in Central America over 500 years ago, Maya temples were destroyed and all residents ordered to convert to Catholicism.  Not surprisingly, natives took their religion underground.  Because of the recent interest in the Maya Calendar, the indigenous of Guatemala have had many inquiries and have begun to more openly share their beliefs and ceremonies.  We were fortunate to experience their powerful Fire Ceremony with Calista Gabriel, one of the 3,000 mostly female Shamans, or guides, in Guatemala.

Calista was a political refugee in the United States during the Guatemalan internal war in the 1980s.  She returned and is part of the Maya artist movement.  With three university degrees and three languages,  the diminutive native was knowledgeable and self-assured.

From her we learned the Sacred Fire is over 5000 years old.  Each is different.  Some burn large.  Others  burn out.  With the Mayas, a fire may last three or four hours and include  much crying, laughing, and dancing.  Petitions are very personal such as  “My husband won’t give me enough money.”

Xalista Gabriel prepares fire for Maya Fire Ceremony

On our hotel’s enclosed parking lot, we sat in a  circle of 8 chairs surrounding a large, low, round ceramic pot .  Calista started the wood fire and lit a rue branch.  “Don’t be scared of smoke” .  She asked us to use fire as medicine.  “Talk to fire.” “Connect with it.  Tell it your name.”   As she waved the smoking branch around each of us, we introduced ourselves and verbalized what we hoped to receive from the ceremony. One wanted direction and healing for his family, another cure for a son, another wisdom,  and one for forgiveness for the overuse of earth’s resources.

As she swept our bodies, Calista noted we were part of the creation but have become artificial.  In villages, there is more connection among neighborhoods.  In the city, we are as she said “more weak” because of the disconnect.  As the plant crossed our heads, she talked of cleaning our “corona”, our antenna, and purifying our energies.  A sprinkling of flower water on us was the final preparation for the calling of the four directions.

Candles used in Maya Fire Ceremony

Candles are integral to this experience and Calista pulled them out of her backpack.  Red is for East and the color of blood, black for the west and earth, white is from the north and represents air, yellow the south and color of skin.  Blue is in the center of the cosmic cross and stands in for water and sky while green does so for plants and mother earth.  As our leader explained the meanings of each candle in her three languages of Kaqchikel, Spanish and English,  we individually placed ours in the fire with a prayer or observation.  The most  moving was the last, a lard candle made from animal fat standing in for our ancestors.  We all had special prayers for those who came before us.

At the end, Calista made the sign of the Maya cross, different than that of our Catholic brethren, indicating the balance of nature.   A final traditional embrace began with Calista hugging each of us as we individually followed her around the circle.

Calista Gabriel After the Ceremony

This is not a conversion opportunity. No one wants you to change religions.   You  are either Maya or not – like being Jewish.  Yet it is a recognition that we are all spiritual beings and it can be a  cleansing ceremony allowing participants to release petitions up to creation through nature’s fire and smoke.  My guess is that there will be many of these ceremonies on December 21st as the Mayas give thanks and celebrate their rebirth.

To experience a Maya Fire Ceremony with Calista Gabriel, contact Elizabeth Bell at

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Alan Jones’ Journey to Paris via the Circus

This is one in a series of articles on how individuals have traveled to our area to live

Alan Jones in his Paris Community Theater Office

The deep gravely voice answering the phone at Paris Community Theater belongs to Alan Jones, his native Canadian accent noticeable only the words about and out.  As manager, actor, and general flunky of the theatre, Alan uses skills he’s developed over a lifetime of show-biz, beginning at age 19 when he ran away to the circus for the first time.  How he arrived in Paris takes some telling.

In 1972, Alan was studying theater and design when the Garden Brothers Circus came to Burlington, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, as a fund raiser for the local band.  Jones liked the family atmosphere, thought the circus a lot like theater, and hopped on board, leaving a note for his mother… “Sorry, Mom, but had to do it.”  After a season of grooming and cleaning horses and the big cats, he returned home, only to skip out again the next year.  

Alan moved up to popcorn management but soon got into the entertainment side.  “I clowned for that show,” he noted.  No training was necessary for this new position as Jones was a natural comedian.  American clowns like simple slap-stick humor as compared to the more theatrical, mime-like European performers.  He began working with a family whose circus traveled to the United States where weather was warmer.  In 1984, some friends were opening their own Kelly Miller Circus out of Hugo, Oklahoma and wanted him to run the administrative office.  He bought a house and settled down as much as a circus employee can.  When Jones retired, the nearby Paris Community Theater drew him back into theater where he had started.

According to Alan, the circus is a “hard life”.  For his first job, he slept in a hayloft above the big cat cages, allowing the tigers’ gentle snoring to lull him to sleep.  Sleeping quarters evolved over the years.  A truck will now contain six dormitories for single employees and professionals have their own trailers.  An afternoon nap is still essential, though, between the morning set-up and evening show.  

Originally, circuses were made up of families with three generations of performers.  Grandfathers could be seen instructing grandchildren.   Italians rode horse back, Mexicans or Argentinians tamed the trapezes, and eastern Europeans could juggle and teeterboard.  Because of the international presence, Alan loved parties when everyone brought their own ethnic food.  Special bonds were formed within the extended circus family although a hierarchy existed depending on the difficulty of your act. 

Some stories stand out like the tent that was blown down by a tornado.  But one he’ll never forget was 9/11.  He was with a circus in Colorado for a Hot Air Balloon festival.  The word came of the tragedy as they were watching balloons go up.  All rushed to the trailers to watch the event.  The circus was cancelled that night but proceeds from the next night’s performance were donated to the Red Cross.

Alan fears the traditional circus is dying.  It’s very hard to be profitable with all the required insurance – employee, vehicles, general liability, workman’s comp.  The families are no longer tight.  “It’s just a job,” he says.  Cultural icon, Cirque du Soleil, incorporates many traditional circus acts with a lot more imagination.  Gymnastics overshadows other skills. Alan wouldn’t even consider it a circus but it is encroaching on traditional circus crowds. 

After 35 years of crossing the country, Jones was happy to stay permanently in Hugo.  In retirement, he has combined his two interests – theater and animals.  Six days a week Alan volunteers in the mornings at the animal shelter caring for the cats.  In the afternoons, he’s managing  Paris Community Theater.  He believes the talent and energy in Paris is unique for a community this size and he loves it.  And he has no  plans to run away to the circus a third time.

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Best Urban Green Experiences in Dallas

Glass Serpents appear to drift toward waterfall

The Dallas Botanical Garden is inherently well placed – an elevated position with views of downtown over White Rock Lake.  Many visitors come during the seasons of azaleas, tulips, and mums.  But nothing has compared to the crowds that have descended for the recent Chihuly exhibit.

Glass icebergs haunt the Garden’s stream

Dale Chihuly’s glass work has transformed an art form and most recently moved glass pieces out of museums and churches into garden settings.  Chihuly discovered his medium in college and even received a Fullbright scholarship in 1968 to work in Venice,  the motherlode of glass production.  Here, he learned that glass blowing is a team sport which has been essential to the creation of his large pieces.  Two separate accidents caused one eye to be blind and his shoulder dislocated, forcing him to use others in the production of his works.   Chilhuly has described the change in his position as  “more choreographer than dancer, more supervisor than participant, more director than actor.”

Largest Piece in Exhibit

Chilhuly has also proved to be an astute businessman.  His shows tour the world and the Dallas exhibit came from the Royal Botanical Gardens in London.   It took 3 semi-trucks to carry all the pieces and 3 ½ days and ten men to set it up.  The largest piece was 32 feet tall and required a sky hook and crane to place all parts.

Chihuly Iridescent globes peek out like Easter Eggs

The results were stunning.  By adding rare earth metals such as uranium to the glass, colors shone through, especially from sunlight in the garden.  Ice blue rocks placed in a stream appear to be mini icebergs between green shores.  Rounded multi-colored balls peeked out of shrubs like large Easter eggs.  And a boat full of bright red, green, and orange serpent figures seemed to be drifting toward the edge of a waterfall.  Truly magical.

The languages in the crowd appeared to come directly from the dismissal of a UN General Assembly.  Indian grandmothers, Asian couples, and Hispanic children were enjoying the outing in the beautiful, art-filled setting.  Chihuly may have single handedly  changed the requirements of a botanical garden to permanently include some of his works.  I know the crowd would approve.

Dallas Museum of Art Promotes Exhibits
Promenade at Klyde Warren Park

The second urban setting we explored was the newly opened Klyde Warren Park that sits atop a heavily used Woodall Rodgers Freeway tunnel.  City parks are often an oasis from the strong sounds of humans and machinery living so intimately together.  I was surprised this new, small  park could pull that off since it is surrounded, above and below, with urban energy.  With the freeway muted by the tunnel, distinct sounds could be heard in the cool breeze – chimes from the nearby cathedral, truck warning beeps as it backed up, cameras clicking, mothers scolding their children, street car clanging by, hip hop music from a passing car, Southwest airplane overhead, a cane tapping on the bricks, dogs panting, grackles cackling, a couple playing ping pong, and the underground irrigation system watering the many trees.

Dog Park at Kyde Warren Park

Thanks to the Dallas Morning News, a free outdoor  reading and games room offered magazines, newspapers, and  books for children and adults, as well as chess and checker sets.  Only a drivers license was needed to check-out  the offerings.  As one visitor said, “Right on.”   Further down the park were ping pong tables and a putting green, equally available for public use.  A child’s section was spongy for soft landings while an enclosed dog park allowed canines many opportunities for sniffing.

The good news is that the Chihuly Exhibit has been extended into December and the Klyde Warren Park is a permanent addition to downtown Dallas.  It’s odd to go to the Metroplex for green experiences but these two locations are worth the drive.  Add the Katy Trail, a rails to trails project near downtown, and you’ve found our favorite places.

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Tyler Roses – How the Industry Has Changed

Where have all the Tyler Roses gone?  Twice a year they were sold on every other street corner.  A vendor could sweep through the 60 plus rose growers of Smith County, purchase several dozen long stem flowers, and market them wherever cars were stopped.  Those days of $4/dozen are past but the question is why.  What happened?  A visit to the Tyler Rose Garden held answers from the experts.

Mark Chamblee, of Chamblee Nursery, first gave a very short history of the rose which originated in China (repeat bloomers) and Europe (single bloom).  Since there were no native roses in America, the queen of flowers arrived on merchant ships and with immigrants.   But roses today are a product of man-made evolution through cross hybridization begun in Germany in 1887.  While poets celebrate a rose’s sweet fragrance,  growers have other goals. They are more interested in the flower bush that can be dropped into a prepared landscape and survive disease, cold, and drought, be self cleaning and have abundant flowers. Aroma is an afterthought. Universities such as Texas A&M have jumped into the research, helping the quest for the hardiest rose.

Tyler became famous for its farm grown roses in the 1930’s. Winters were mild enough and the soil had a perfect 6.5 acidity in its sandy loam.  Forty years ago, one-half of the roses in the United States were grown here.  A freeze in the early 1980s killed the entire crop – seedlings, one year olds, and the mature two year old plants.  At a time of 18% interest rates, few farmers even tried to come back.  Today, only three field growers remain.  But Tyler’s processing plants still package and ship more than half of the rose bushes in the U.S. even though  most are grown in California and Arizona.

In order to showcase the rose industry, The Tyler Rose Festival began in 1933.  It is held in October  when roses are in their second full bloom of the year.  The best place to witness this is the Tyler Municipal Rose Garden where 35,000 bushes   demand attention for its 500 varieties, some recent creations and other heritage roses grown before the era of cross fertilization almost 150 years ago.   Names reflect past stars – an apricot blended flower named after Marilyn Monroe, lush red roses for Ingrid Bergman, and shades of pink for an unidentified Sexy Rexy.  I simply don’t have the vocabulary to describe the nuances of the colors.  As we slowly meandered through the gardens, our middle aged volunteer guide was also short in her descriptions with comments like “Aren’t these sweet” and “Isn’t this a pretty color” and “These look like carnations”.  She didn’t need to say much – the colors spoke for themselves.

Heritage Rose

At another lecture Craig Leiland, director of the Rose Garden, gave lots of good advice on how to grow and tend roses.  Plant in the fall but prune at Valentine’s Day.  Prepared soil is essential with generous mulch required.  Fertilize after first bloom.   The dreaded “black spot” can be due to poor air circulation.  Many at the lectures had very specific questions – How do I direct a climbing rose?  Why do our Don Juans only bloom on top?  I cut my roses back too far.  What do I do? Craig patiently answered them all.

Crane lowering Pagoda for Queen’s tea

The Rose Festival, with its crowning of the queen and her court,  is probably more famous than the gardens.  At the Rose Museum, we could view the costumes of past royalty.  Mr. Winn Morton of Lancaster, Texas has designed all those worn since 1982.  With sequins and fur, a dress can weigh 50 pounds and the Queen’s train as much as 100 pounds.  This year’s theme was Indochine and we watched cranes lower red pagodas into the Rose Garden where the Queen’s tea would be hosted.  Most of the duchesses come from old Tyler families but area girls also participate.   Many famous people such as Ronald Reagan have participated but sadly,  roses are no longer used to decorate the parade floats.

Since our yard is shaded and all roses require 6 to 8 hours of sun, our rose growing days lie in the future.  Maybe, by then, Japan will have developed the long elusive blue rose and growing them will be fool proof.  That is certainly the industry goal.

 Tyler Municipal Rose Garden

Tyler Rose Festival

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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Survives Centuries of Volatility

Ladder outside window of the Church which cannot be moved according to Status Quo Agreement

Ah, Jerusalem, where every stone, wall, church, synagogue, mosque, street, gate, archeological site, and neighborhood is steeped in history and politics.  The layers run deep and passion high.  In the Christian world, no place is more political than Church of the Holy Sepulcher and few approach its volatile history.

Helena, a self-declared archeologist and mother of Constantine, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, arrived in Jerusalem around 325 AD.  She promptly discovered the cave that was believed to be Jesus’ tomb and found three wooden crosses, the plaque with Jesus name as King of the Jews, and nails from the cross.  She had the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher built in four parts around the cave and the site of the crucifixion, making it the holiest site in all Christendom.

Soon after Mohammed’s death, Jerusalem was conquered by his followers. Muawiya , commander of the Arab believers, visited Holy Sepulcher in 661 to show continuity of religions and his imperial role as protector of holy places.
In 1009, al-Hakim, the caliph of Egypt ordered the church destroyed, but forty years later, Christians were allowed to rebuild. When Crusaders arrived in 1099, after very bloody battles, they prayed at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and took possession for the Latin or Roman Catholic church.   Saladin  took the city back in 1187 and restored the patriarchal throne to the Orthodox.

Ethiopian Monk who lives on roof of Church

Despite years of neglect, fire, and battles, the Church still stands but with wounds from the divisions of Christianity.  Looking at a floor plan of the church is similar to viewing a patchwork map of Israel and the occupied territories.  There’s the Armenian chapel of Division of Robes, the Greek chapel of the Derision, a Syrian chapel and Armenian shrine.  We entered from the rooftop where Ethiopian monks patrol their monastery site to keep Egyptian Coptic Christians out.  The only western presence is the Catholic church, thanks to the arrival of Franciscan monks 650 years ago.

American visitors to the Church are surprised to experience its deep Eastern Orthodox ambiance and very large crowds from Russia and eastern Europe.  When the various churches could not agree on custodianship of Holy Sepulcher, a “Status Quo” decree was issued in 1853 by the then sultan, freezing ownership of the parts of the church among the Greek, Latin, and Armenian churches with the Orthodox dominating.  Russia even threatened to invade Turkey if this arrangement weren’t maintained, a bit of an overreaction in our modern eyes.

Forward 160 years and the Status Quo still governs.  The Roman Catholic church waited years for an agreement to celebrate its new liturgy in the church.  With details sketchy, arguments still arise. Recently, the Israeli government fixed a leaky roof and added stainless steel stars as no consensus could be reached on responsibility among the churches.   Just a week before our visit, police broke up a fight between two priests caused by a swinging incense burner crossing the designated lines of authority.  But all this pales compared to the shoot-out in 1846 on a Good Friday when Catholic monks and Greek priests argued over who would conduct the first service.   They fought with crucifixes, candlesticks and lamps before resorting to daggers and pistols.  40 lay dead before Ottoman soldiers broke it up.

Graffiti left by Crusaders on wall of the Church

Surprisingly, two Moslem families of long standing help keep the peace.  The Al-Judeh family protects the key to the church, handing it every morning at 4 a.m. to a member of the Nesseibeh family, who then opens the Church.  They try to mediate disputes among the Christians and  have been carrying out these hereditary duties since the mid-seventh century – 1300 years.

After reading Jerusalem, the Biography by Simon Montefiore (from which much of the above information is found), I was well aware of  Holy Sepulcher’s foibles.  But the church is so steeped in history and religious fervor, a visit is still a must. The tomb, the  marble slab where it is believed Jesus’ body was prepared for burial, a beautiful silver altar given by the Italian De Medici family, cross graffiti on walls of a hall where Crusaders marked their presence, and pilgrims visibly moved by the closeness to their Lord’s life all evidenced the power the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has exerted for 1700 years.  Many are transformed by their visit.  Hopefully, their prayers asked for the divisions to cease – a tall order for this complicated part of the world.

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Hiking Abroad

International Marking for Trails

  My husband and I love to hike.  A trip is considered particularly good if it includes one walk through the countryside.  Hiking is hardly limited to the United States and easily available for those who care to try sites abroad.

View of Marlborough Sound on Queen Charlotte Track
Walking sticks for sale on trail

New Zealand’s zest for trails and “tramps” exceeded any we’ve experienced.  There are walks EVERYWHERE – behind your hotel, across from the restaurant, down any of the thousands of dirt roads, and along the many rivers.  Kiwis take pride in their long term hiking. An entire vacation is often spent in their mountains.  On a local radio program, we heard a physician who was leaving his government job.  But before taking a new position, he intended to do a month long “tramp” exploring his country – a jaunt that is culturally encouraged

Weka bird on Queen Charlotte Trail
Furneaux Lodge on Queen Charlotte Trail

Here, the trails are well marked with the painted international white and red lines, mostly on trees but occasionally on rocks or the ground.  On a coastal walk, a sign advised  dogs were banned as they killed kiwis.   They forgot to warn of another endangered bird, the weka, who will steal your banana if unattended for even a short time. Along one path, walking sticks were for sale on the honor system.  Beautiful hotels are available a days walk apart on some of the treks.  More common are mountain hostels with basic sleeping quarters and kitchens.  Water taxis will even drop off customers for a coastal walk and pick you up down the way. It is a walker’s heaven.

Walking on plateau

After such  good experiences in New Zealand, we tried a day of hiking along the Lycian Trail, Turkey’s first walking path.   The 300 mile trail opened in 1999 and follows the Mediterranean Sea as it curves around the southern corner of Turkey.  Our hotel owners in Kas had never had anyone try the plateau cliff portion of the trail above the town which should have been a warning.   According to the guide books, we could catch a bus to the town above and follow a road out to the trail.  As we tired of waiting at the bus stop, a passing taxi responded to our waves.  Gratefully, the driver knew exactly where to let us off and we were again following the red and white painted lines.

View of Kas from Lycian Trail in Turkey

This trail followed a dirt road through fields and onto a flat desert like escarpment plateau.   Painted directions on stones were essential to stay on the path.  As we neared the edge, a forested area blocked the view but our last steps brought us to a cliff with the splendid  blue Mediterranean Sea 1500 feet below.  Thinking the hard part behind us, we started down, crisscrossing the cliff face on a narrow path – a significant challenge to 60 + year old knees.   At the bottom, our wobbly legs barely carried us to the nearest restaurant to recover.  

Cinque Terre Town

Italy’s Cinque Terre is a very popular walk between small villages along the Ligurian Sea coast .  After a terrible storm flooded two-fifths of the trail last year, we were able to walk only the three opened parts.  Since the first part was paved and level, tours walked this portion.  But the numbers diminished on the next leg as we passed through small vineyards, around homes, up rocky stairs, and across streams, always following the red and white paint.  An enterprising Italian had a lemonade stand along the way.  If the trail became too much, trains were available.

Vineyards up close on Cinque Terre Trail

Few American accents are heard on these trails.  Germans are the most adventuresome travelers and love to hike. “Michael” joined us on the Abel Tasman walk in New Zealand.   He was born in East Germany and had taken a year off to travel and learn English. He loved Motown and couldn’t believe we had grown up with that music.  At Italy’s Cinque Terre, we heard mostly German from fit baby boomers. On Turkey’s Lycian trail, no Turks were in sight.  Only a couple from England shared the path whose entire vacation was dedicated to walking the trail and staying in towns along the way.

Beach at Monterrosa on Cinque Terre Trail


Hiking in foreign countries requires time.  You may miss other more popular tourist sites.  Finding trail heads can be a challenge.  Hiking shoes are cumbersome to pack.  But only on trails do I feel really connected to the country – its air, fauna, birds, animals, weather, and views.  So, we’ll keep hiking – as long as our knees hold up.

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Tunisians Must Speak Up

Tunisian Army protecting American Embassy

In 2008, my husband and I visited my cousin and her husband, a petroleum engineer, who lived in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.  They often ate at the American Embassy on Friday nights and asked if that sounded good.  It did, of course.  Carolyn had to get the numbers of our passports and provide them to the Embassy before we could be cleared to come.

The American Embassy in Tunis lies on a large tract of  flat land between the old walled town and the modern suburb of La Marsa.  A major boulevard passes in front and the airport is close.  It is encircled by a ten foot wall.  When approaching, drivers must slowly maneuver the switchbacks deliberately placed before the entrance gate as concrete bunkers  buffer each curve.  An embassy officer compared our passports with his list of approved visitors. We were waved forward and allowed to park near the canteen.

It was a beautiful evening.  Some families brought their children to swim and play on the swing set.  All were there to enjoy the familiar tastes from home – hamburgers,  hot dogs and the Marines’ favorite,  Bud Light.  Carolyn introduced us to some of their new friends.  I looked up as a tall, fit man in casual dress approached our table.  It was Ambassador Robert Godec.  He shook hands all around and welcomed us.  I remember thinking he was lucky to get this post.

The United States’s history with this North African country is long, having been recognized by Tunisia in 1795.  When President Thomas Jefferson invited its envoy to the White House in 1805, he learned it was Ramadan and moved the state dinner to sundown, thus respecting Islam’s  prohibition of eating during daylight hours.  Fast forward 200 years and the most recent American Ambassador to Tunisia, Jacob Waller, arrived in July of this year.  One of his first appearances was to Sidi Bouzid where he announced a university-to-university linkage program with the University of Colorado  promoting modern management in the agricultural sector.  In another encouraging move, the United States agreed to guarantee some Tunisian bonds to help open up international financing. Tunisia’s move to real democracy 20 months ago appeared to be on target.

Last week, however, that same American Embassy and the adjoining American School were attacked by members of the ultraconservative Muslim sect  known as Salafis who are small in number but quite disruptive of the democratic process.   They were furious over the film produced in the U.S. criticizing Mohammed.  Walls were breached, 68 cars vandalized and burned and three Tunisians died.  The country’s President Marzouki soon apologized saying “… acts of destruction, burning, and attempted attacks on the representatives of a friendly nation are not tolerated. These groups have crossed a red line.”

Tunisia has the best chance of the Middle Eastern countries to succeed in the transition from dictatorship to democracy.  Its modern history includes universal education for boys and girls, investment in infrastructure, and a political independence that kept ties with the PLO and France.  On its beautiful beaches, a successful tourist industry developed.  Much of Europe vacations here just as Americans do in Cancun.  Whole resorts are dedicated to the Germans or English. And its new president is a member of  the once-banned Islamist party, Ennahda, but has vowed “to protect the rights of women and free worship, while building a robust democracy.”

It’s hard to watch the violence and anger directed at the United States.  After visiting there, all I could think of were the friendly Tunisians we met – my cousin’s next door neighbor who invited us to her apartment, the rug salesman who insisted we sit for tea, our driver who had never met an American but was thrilled with the Paris, Texas pin we gave him, and the young woman attorney who worked for the stock exchange and was grateful for the career.  These are the Tunisians who must keep their country moving forward in its democratic quest.  They will have to use their majority to stand up to the radical Islamists who have hijacked their religion.  Whether they will…. we can only hope.

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Georgia O’Keefe’s Abiqui Home

Georgia O’Keefe is still an artist of the people despite her death 26 years ago at age 98.  Clean lines and crisp colors fill her oversized flowers.  Desert subjects evoke life and death.  Pastel canyons wave across  large canvases.  All are so simple and appealing to the public.  After a tour of O’Keefe’s Abiqui home in northern New Mexico, I learned those same qualities filled her life.

Judy Lopez, former companion of Mrs O’Keefe’s,  gave a tour of the winter home, just a few miles down from Ghost Ranch, the summer home.  “Total simplicity” was how a traveling mate described the Abiqui compound encompassed by rounded adobe walls. Sleek, modern lines easily supported the original Eanes furniture. Art work of O’Keefe’s friends filled the rooms although she was known to rearrange them often, noting that you stop seeing a picture if it is on the wall too long. Scattered throughout the house and courtyards were rocks, bones, and deadwood, collected on her many walks. And  out the large picture windows were Georgia’s familiar art subjects – valleys and canyons in desert colors, scrub trees, wooden doors, adobe walls.

Church near O’Keefe’s home where she walked

O’Keefe’s ordinary tastes were reflected in the metal cabinets ordered from Sear’s and clothes hung to dry, summer or winter.   For entertaining, a linen tablecloth would be placed over the plyboard dining room table.   She bought the home from the Catholic church but negotiated the sale so that part of the price was deductible on her income tax returns.   Her wealth, like her fame,  was understood but carried lightly.

O’Keefe was green before it became fashionable.  An irrigated garden provided fresh vegetables and fruits, kept pesticide free by turkeys brought in to snack on the bugs.  Her life was surprisingly routine.  As an early riser, she often ate breakfast in the morning darkness – eggs always and her favorite fried potatoes with green chiles.  She enjoyed fruit yoghurt smoothies  and a light dinner at night.  Daily walks sustained her.  When her eyes faded, she had the paths painted white to better maneuver them, using rocks to keep count of her laps around the driveway.

View of valley below O’Keefe’s home

By the time Ms. O’Keefe moved to Abiqui at age 67, her renown attracted fans.  Most would just drive by but some climbed the fence.  An employee escorted all away with one exception.  When two women from Japan pleaded to meet her, she asked them to tea, and kept in touch for years.  Knowing the need to keep her name before the media, O’Keefe did allow occasional interviews but would complain later about the big words used in the writings.

She still painted when inspired but after her vision was limited, she needed help in creating the art.  O’Keefe’s yearly notebooks that catalogued all of her work became smaller.  More time was spent on correspondence or even traveling.  Her library had a large section of travel books which were read to her as she aged.

Halfway into the tour, we got a hint of the will controversy generated after O’Keefe’s death.   Our guide was circumspect in her discussion of the ownership of the house, indicating only that the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe now owned it under the settlement agreement.  The actual story of a potter named Juan Hamilton arriving at Ms. O’Keefe home in 1971 looking for work is far more intriguing, filled with all the elements of a good will contest – younger male companion, elderly wealthy woman, years of companionship, gradual allocation of powers, and late in life amendments to a will.  In the end, most of the estate was distributed under the terms of the original will.

 The tour emphasized the veneer of Ms. O’Keefe’s time at Abiqui – simple, uncluttered in a beautiful  setting.  But her life was  complicated by wealth management, constraints of fame, physical deterioration, and need for companionship.  She tried to live her life as austerely as her paintings projected and came close to succeeding.  Old age just got in the way.

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Portland, Oregon – Epicenter of Food Cart Mania

Two of 700 Food Carts in Portland

Portland, Oregon boasts of views of Mount Hood on a clear day, two rivers flowing through, and microbreweries galore.  But it has another unusual claim to fame.  Portland has led the way in the emerging industry of food carts and has the largest concentration of street food in America.   In fact, tours are now available for those who want to sample and learn more.

Brett Burmeister

Our guide, Brett Burmeister of Food Carts Portland, began with questions – “Is any one vegetarian, requires a gluten free diet, or has food allergy issues?”   With 700 licensed food carts in Portland, he knew he could meet any needs.  Our group was only hungry and off we went on a beautiful summer day to explore the world’s cuisine made close.

This dining option emerged 100 years ago with hot dog stands.  Starting in 2006,  a shift from fair food to artist cuisine began.  Brett described the “good business model” as serving one or two unique items really well done.  Or more simply put –  finding your niche.   According to Brett, Nong’s Khao Man Gai makes the best chicken and rice, Noodle House has homemade noodles, and the Gaufre Gourmet uses a 300 year old recipe for dough instead of batter to create Belgium waffles.   The Swamp Shack fries up Cajun Alligator while The Frying Scotsman uses authentic haddock for its fish and chips.

The thriving food scene developed “organically”, Brett explained, with a “progressive interpretation of laws.”  This means they winged it.  Parking lots, called pods,  are now full of  carts, paying about $600 per month in rent.  After obtaining a license for $400 per year, the only requirement for the mobile food unit is to be on wheels, whether flat or not! Even though the kitchens range from one grill to fully outfitted stainless steel restaurant quality equipment, all are subject to inspection.  Costs for a cart range from $5,000 (used)  to $30,000 (new) and a premier parking spot can sell for up to $35,000 if a chef is anxious to get started.

As a history major in college, Brett is drawn to the stories of the owners.  Charles Thomas spent two years in Spain and Portugal, working in bars and exploring the cuisine.  At his trailer, Euro Trash,  food is infused with the Iberian peninsula’s flavors.  We sampled lightly battered calamari, the best I’ve ever had.  At The Dump Truck, owners Reed and Julia learned how to make dumplings in China.  Their “Mr Ma’s” special was my favorite with pork, scallion and ginger.  The Grilled Cheese Grill had the best slogan – “Come by for a taste of your childhood.  Unless your childhood sucked, then we’ll share a taste of ours.”  (Note – Good grammar is not a requirement for good food.)


Since the only option for a meal is “to go” and since “to go” orders require containers, local environmental advocate Laura Weiss realized a lot of trash was being generated by the food carts.  Her solution is a plastic, reusable “Go Box” that can be brought to certain designated locations after use by subscribers.  Laura or her designee picks up the boxes, delivers them to the Hilton Hotel to be washed overnight, and then returns them to the appropriate food cart owner.  There are already 900 subscribers that save 7,000 containers a month.

With all those choices, I’m embarrassed to admit my favorite food sample of the day was a hot dog from Scott at Bro-Dogs, a tiny outlet next to Veli Thai Food.  Scott’s enthusiasm for his lifestyle choice of careers was apparent.  Bro-Dogs is  home of “Dude” –  named for the reaction most have after tasting this speciality hot dog.   Scott also described it as “pretty girthy”.  Because we were on a food tour, he threw in some added ingredients to an already heavy dog – sausage, cream cheese, onion, mushrooms, bacon, cheddar cheese, fritos, macaroni and cheese, and a special sauce.  All were served on a unique one-piece hot dog bun designed by Scott that worked perfectly.

The food cart choice has now  spread into Texas providing quality international and local foods for a fair price.  Austin’s lots are on South Congress, the Dallas Arts District has three pod locations, and the new Ft. Worth Food Park is west of downtown.   Maybe our downtown should consider this emerging industry.   We certainly have the parking lots.  Here’s hoping.

Food Carts Portland – For information on tours and to get latest updates on Food Carts

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