Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Birds!!!! The Birds!!!!

31 July 2016

Yesterday, my sister-in-law took me out to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

I had never heard of this place.  And despite growing up in New York, not too terribly far away, I really never knew that the southern New Jersey coast was a series of barrier islands and a huge swath of wetlands.

The Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is a huge preserve, more than 47,000 acres of coastal habitat and wetlands, protected and managed for wildlife.  It was established in 1939, and expanded in 1967 to include the Barnegat region, though the entire area was renamed in 1984 after the late Congressman Edwin B. Forstythe.

This region is mostly salt marsh - low, flat, muddy marshes where fresh water washes down from the mainland, and saltwater comes in from the bays and canals that separate the mainland and the barrier islands.  Which means the water level changes with the tides.

Several varieties of grasses and flowers have adapted to the half-fresh-half-saltwater environment.  Fish swim in and out, there are turtles, and muskrats, beavers, all kinds of woodland creatures, and of course wonderful birds.

The refuge has several hiking trails through the woods, but it was a hot day and this is the season of the green-head flies.  Which are the local biting horse fly.  Yeah, we skipped the hiking trails.

The alternative is an eight mile drive out along causeways that link a couple of tiny islands, and surround much of the water in this small section.  There are a few places to stop and walk along a boardwalk over the marsh, to look at birds and turtles and fish, as well as the plants growing in this special environment.  

There are also places to just pull over and watch the birds.

Plus a lookout tower to climb, with wonderful views of the seabirds who live here, and come to dive for fish or forage along the beaches and mudflats.

The drive is marked by signs that are in the shape of flying geese, which correspond to various places of interest on the map.  Turtle Cove, the lookout tower, the boardwalk, the inner pool, and so on.  I just really liked the sign's shape!

Best of all, there are platforms for nesting peregrine falcons and osprey!  These large birds of prey, especially the osprey, build gigantic nests and lay a couple of eggs.  We thought perhaps the platforms help prevent muskrats from finding and eating the eggs or very young birds.  There were very few trees in the salt marsh, so the park rangers have built these platforms for the birds.

It was so interesting!  We drove slowly, stopping constantly to walk around, watch the birds, climb the tower, take photos.  I think my favorite were the families of osprey, especially this one with a young osprey looking as if he's testing his wings and thinking about flying.  Mom or dad osprey was sitting on a post nearby, waiting to see if junior was ready to take the plunge.  Junior never did.  Just balanced on the side of the nest, looking like a young child standing on the high dive platform and rethinking the wisdom of this move.

We saw a variety of hawks.  All kinds of seagulls, which are remarkably noisy and argumentative.  Barn swallows and tree swallows swooping over the grasses and water, hopefully eating all the mosquitoes and flies.  Stately and majestic egrets and herons, flapping their huge wings leisurely or walking around on their stilts of legs, looking for dinner.  Plus a few glossy ibis flew by, dark and shiny, with their signature long curving beaks.  (I had no idea we had ibis in this part of the world!)

There are occasional bald eagles, but we didn't see any.  Or swans, who migrate through.  We did see Canada geese, ducks, and cormorants paddling around in the water.

It was wonderful!  Quiet and tranquil, inhabited solely by all these wonderful birds, and large expanses of just water and grasses and pink flowers.  (And that's Atlantic City on the island in the distance, on the other side of the bay.)  We had a fabulous time!

It was sunny, but the breeze from the bay and the ocean beyond made it comfortable, and kept the insects away.  The fact that we saw so many nesting osprey was incredible, especially since they are still considered an endangered or threatened species.  They seem to have made a remarkable comeback, at least here at this refuge.

If you ever get to New Jersey, this is definitely a place to visit!!!


Friday, July 29, 2016

Summertime and the Living is Kitschy

29 July 2016

Summer is a good time to be relaxed and maybe even a little lazy.  Especially when the temperatures are in the high 90s F (high 30s C), and so humid the windows steam up.  It's difficult to be energetic when the climate is saying slow down!

Richard took his medications to kill his Guatemalan hitchhikers, and we visited his doctor again.  He should be over the parasite reaction by now, but isn't quite fully back to normal.  The doctor said we probably need to do more testing to see if the little guys are all gone or if something else is going on, but since we head west to Washington state on Monday, we should hold off and do the testing there.  So he's sort of on hold, hoping the little creepie crawlies are dead and not partying.  We'll get our medical person in Bellingham to talk to the doctor here, and figure out what happens next.  More meds, more tests, whatever.  

We've been doing a few things, seeing the next two generations - nieces, nephews, great or grand nieces and nephews.  Always a joy to see the little ones, who of course get bigger every year.  (Imagine that!)  It always seems as if they grow and age more rapidly than we do, right?  I still feel about 16 or 20 years old inside!  Hard to believe that we're now heading into being the older generation!!!

I spent some time with a few cousins who were out, but Richard wasn't up to going out that day.  In fact, I ended up going off with two friends to somewhere in the Brandywine Valley - I think that's sort of in southern Pennsylvania, though we went through Delaware to get there.  We visited the Brandywine River Museum of Art, which features artwork by the Wyeth family (N.C., Andrew, and the kids and an in-law or two) who lived in the area.  Had a great time and it was a beautiful day, plus the museum is built right along a river with lovely green views.  The art was amazing, plus they had a special exhibit of illustrations for children's books, always a delight!  I don't have photos, but some are available at the museum's website:

I also visited Lucy, who is a New Jersey landmark.  Lucy is a giant elephant, actually a building in the shape of an elephant.  Absolutely kitschy in a totally bizarre and surreal way!  I love Lucy, she's so funny and Twilight Zone at the same time!  I mean, the window under her tail?  Really?  Who thinks of things like that?  

You can buy a ticket to go inside Lucy - seriously!  And I guess come out and sit up top in her little pagoda sitting area!  Anyway, Lucy is an institution on the New Jersey, as insane as it sounds!  (Check out the sign - she may be running for President!)

Lucy, who actually is patented, was built in 1881, and has been kept up and repainted.  A celebration of her 135th birthday was held on 23 July!  There's a whole long story, which you can read at her web page:
And then we spent an afternoon or two in Atlantic City, with a visit to a casino (one visit went quite well, with both of us winning; the second visit wasn't as good, but wasn't disastrous) as well as the boardwalk.  The boardwalk is exactly that, a wide walkway built of wooden boards, so that people can walk parallel to the shore without walking through the sand dunes.  There are all kinds of shops, eateries, arcades, rides, and such along the boardwalk.  Sort of a place to see and be seen.

And kitsch.  Lucy is the Queen of Kitsch.  But the ice cream cone chairs, table, and umbrellas are running a close second!

Don't you love it?


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

We're Fine - Just BUSY!

20 July 2016 

Subtitled:  Goodbye Guatemala, Hello USA

I know, I realize it has been nearly a month since I posted a blog.  So much has been going on, and sometimes life needs to be lived, right?  

We spent two enjoyable weeks in Guatemala City.  We stayed in Zona 10, which is one of the safer areas of the city.  Also oriented toward tourists, but we look like tourists even though we consider ourselves to be travellers.  Anyway, we had a view of the volcanoes that are off to one side of the city.  (I'm not sure which direction.)  The volcanoes are apparently part of the city's symbol, as seen on one of the many manhole covers we found.  All the same design, with the city crest featuring the three smoking volcanoes.

Part of our neighborhood had what looks like jade covered sidewalks!  Absolutely amazing, and gorgeous!  Though slick in the rain, and not good for worn-down tread on the soles of our shoes - we were slip-sliding away on rainy days.  We talked to some young men at a café, and they said it looks like jade but isn't, it's a less precious stone.  Not of the same crystalline quality as jade.  But a similar color.  They didn't know the name in English, so we still have no idea what kind of stone this is.  

Plus there are areas where the stones, cut square or rectangular and about an inch thick, are LOOSE!  I picked one up to show the guys, and told them this was my souvenir!  Of course, they laughed and we had fun with that idea.  But I'm sure there are tourists who seriously think about taking one of these sidewalk stones home.  They really are beautiful!

We did our usual wandering around, finding little places we liked and going back often enough that the staff recognized us.  Striking up conversations in either English or Spanish, so we could find out a little more about the country and the city.  Visiting the nearest artisans' market to buy gifts for family and friends, and chatting with people there.  Having our usual fun.

However, Richard wasn't feeling great, and seemed to be suffering from traveller's tummy.  Or La Turista.  Or Montezuma's Revenge.  So he stayed close to the hotel, as needed.  We finally saw a doctor, who took some samples and came up with a "yes you have something, take this antibiotic."  It seemed to help a bit, but not fully.

I went off on my own a bit - got a great haircut, visited a mall that had a double-decker carousel (have you ever even heard of such a thing???  I hadn't!!!), and of course I went for a ride on this wonderful carousel!

Plus I starting to sketch again.  I stumbled on a website:  

Their motto or tagline or whatever is:  "Seeing the world one drawing at a time."  This is an international organization of people who draw where they are, where they travel, and share their sketches.  I was so inspired, I bought a sketchbook, aquarelle pencils, and a few paintbrushes - and started another blog to share my drawings as we travel.  The site: if you want to check it out.

Anyway, we flew back to the US, planning a visit to our usual spots in the northeast region.  But Richard's stomach thing seemed to get worse, so we figured it was time to get serious about getting this resolved.  

This turned into one of those farces you wouldn't believe if you saw it in a movie.  The walk-in medical facility couldn't do the kind of testing needed, so they sent us to the emergency room.  We spent a full morning there, with various specimens drawn or produced, and all kinds of tests.  But they don't do follow-up, so they sent us to a doctor to tell us what was going on.  Of course, we had to wait a day for the test results, and then saw the doctor.  Tests were inconclusive, more tests had to be done, the orders for the testing were wrong and had to be on hold while the lab contacted the doctor and got the right info - it dragged on and on.  For over a week!

Today we have a diagnosis.  Parasites.  Yeah, creepy.  However, the medication isn't readily available and had to be ordered by the pharmacy.  We can get the meds tomorrow.  So, well, we've been spending time hanging with Richard's brother and sister-in-law, who are very calm and kind about us being here for so long.  We're not able to go off and do much, because the parasites aren't cooperative that way.  But we're hoping the meds will kill off the little creeps, and all will be well.  With a follow-up visit next week, because apparently these are persistent little things.  (All I can say is, wear shoes in developing countries!)

We've postponed our visits to other parts of the NE US.  And we're sorry we haven't been able to catch up with everyone we'd like to see.  Richard has been long overdue for a travel-related illness, though I've certainly seen more than my share of hospitals in various locations.  Just part of being a rolling luggager, I guess.

Here's the updated map for our travels in Guatemala.  We had a great time, other than Richard getting these little hitchhikers.  Really a wonderful country with beautiful scenery, an incredible history, friendly people, and gorgeous textiles and arts and crafts.  

Just wear shoes!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Mellow Life in Antigua Guatemala

25 June 2016

This is our third week in Antigua Guatemala - not our third week in a row, though.  First we were here, then spent a week in Panajachel, near Lake Atitlán.  Then back to Antigua.  Then almost a week up north near Tikal.  And back to Antigua.

No, this town isn't boring.  Seems as if there's always something to see and do.  The weather is mild, not too hot nor too cold.  If it rains, it's usually in the late afternoon or evening.  There are bands that play in the Parque Central, interesting finds in the market, ever more souvenirs to shop for, and of course good food to eat.

I spent one afternoon walking to all the churches I could find in one region of the city, I think to the south of the street we usually walk along to head to town.  First was the church of San Francisco, with the tomb of Santo Hermano Pedro (Saint Brother Peter).  I had no idea who he was or when he lived, but he actually has a pretty interesting history.  He was born on the island of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, in 1626.  Was indentured to some moneylender to pay off his family's debt.  Was freed in 1649, when he was 23, and sailed to Guatemala - except he ran out of money before he arrived, so he stopped in Cuba and worked for a while.  When he finally made it to Guatemala, he was totally broke, and had to go to the bread line provided by the Franciscan friars.  Pedro eventually met up with his uncle who was in Guatemala, and then enrolled at the Jesuit college to join the priest- hood.  Brother Pedro visited the sick and poor, and eventually helped establish a hospital.  His work drew the attention of various benefactors, so he was able to expand the hospital to provide more services for the poor, indigent, and homeless.  He also worked for prisoners, begging for food and services for them.  When Pedro died in 1667 at the age of 41, he was buried here in Antigua Guatemala.  He was recognized for his devotion to those in need, and was beatified (or canonized?) by Pope John Paul in 2002.  

Anyway, the church dates back to the 1600s or before, and people visit his tomb to pray.  There was a statue of him outside the church, but a coffin or sepulcher inside the building.  This was surrounded by people deep in prayer.  I'm not sure if that's the actual tomb or not.  A little creepy and macabre, but the whole thing with relics tends to seem that way to me.  

But it was a lovely old building.  It also seemed to be almost at the base of Volcan de Agua, which loomed up above.  (It isn't really, the volcano is 20 or 30 miles or km or so away.)  I also had great views of Volcan de Fuego, and it's conjoined twin volcano, off to the west.  A bit further away, so not quite looming overhead.

I walked down another side street and found another old church.  Turns out this is the church of Hermano Pedro, that's the official name.  Not the church where he's interred, though.  This particular church provides care for those in need, including care for children, seniors, and the poor.  In fact, our hotel staff sent me there when I explained that I'd like to donate my used shoes.  So the church carries on Hermano Pedro's tradition of caring for people in need.  I'm not sure if this particular building is the church where Hermano Pedro began his work and turned it into a hospital, or what.  But it's a really pretty little church, with the pale yellow exterior and statues of saints all over the façade.

The Iglesia (church) de Hermano Pedro faces onto a little park, and is generally a lovely peaceful setting.  I enjoyed watching people walking through, meeting friends, entering the church.

Then I passed the Convent of Santa Clara.  There were a few interesting entrances along the exterior wall, and wanted to go inside.  But they charge a fee and I didn't really want to spend that much time there.  The church had an interesting front, not enough to see from the outside.  Oh well, by that time I was ready for lunch and really didn't want to explore too much more.  So that was about it for my church exploration.

I also spent a day or two at the market, first looking at everything and then a day of shopping for small items that fit in my luggage.  

The weaving and embroidery are still just so amazing!  I love watching the women working on their textiles, while they call to tourists and try to sell their items.  One woman showed me how she weaves a few rows of solid color, then uses a tiny embroidery hook to weave through small sections of color that eventually makes the pattern.  And the pattern, whether pictorial or just a geometric design, progresses along as she weaves.  I really am a little baffled by how someone keeps the pattern in their head and is able to continue, without error.  But the weavings are gorgeous!

I bought a few pouches made from old huipils - the embroidered or ornately woven section is upcycled once the body of the huipil is worn beyond saving.  There are belts, bags, luggage tags, wallets, shoes, etc. all made from recycled or upcycled huipils.  Since I keep everything in pouches or bags in my luggage, I thought these would be great for keeping all those small items organized.  (When you pack and repack every week or so, it's easy to lose things like camera or computer cables, or hair barrettes and elastics.  This is when different sized pouches come in handy.)

Having PRETTY pouches, rather than only utilitarian pouches, just makes me happier when I open my luggage.  Or repack.

The woman who sold these to me showed me the different styles - the tapestry-style woven pictorial designs come from one town.  The rainbow-colored woven geometric designs come from Chichicastanango.  (I may have spelled that wrong, but that's how the town is pronounced.)  The somewhat abstract animal patterns come from somewhere else.  She showed me all the various styles, and it really is amazing how many variations there are!

Of course, I always explain to the vendors that everything is beautiful and that I want everything.  But that my luggage is full, so I can only buy small things.  (And that we don't have a house, so I don't need anything for the house.)  The most difficult part really is making a decision!  But I finally picked out a few that sort of coordinated - birds and flowers, then just flowers, and then flowers and maybe a butterfly. 

And then, today.  We've been trying to figure out how to get to the beach.  Antigua isn't far from the Pacific coast, but that isn't the most beautiful region for beaches.  The Caribbean coast has prettier beaches, but is farther away.  So, instead of making a decision as to which beach to go to, we're just going to Guatemala City for a week.  We'll do the museum thing, and hopefully find a travel agent who can help us figure out how to get to a beach for a few weeks.

So today I went to my favorite couple of places to say goodbye.  We're not sure if we'll be back to Antigua.  First I had lunch at my favorite little café bistro place, and said goodbye over my melted brie and fig sandwich.  Then I ran into a few vendors who know me by name or at least by sight, and said my goodbyes.  Ran into our friendly taxi driver and son, and he re-confirmed for tomorrow.  (I know, it seems as if half the town recognizes me at this point!)

And then, I went in to say goodbye to all my buddies at the Choco Museo.  They all seem to know me by name!  Well, one guy said that there was another truffle workshop starting in half an hour.  So what could I do, I signed up for another workshop, LOL!  It was great fun, I made my signature dark chocolate truffles topped with just a few bits of nuts, and I had my usual wonderful time.  Served as Orlando's assistant, and said our friendly farewells.

The photos here, though, are from earlier in the week.  I stopped by one afternoon for the single portion chocolate fondue.  Yes, maybe half a banana, quarter of an apple, and two strawberries, with possibly a quarter cup of melted dark chocolate in a little pot over a candle.  All for 22 quetzales, roughly $3 US.  An absolutely wonderful treat for about 150 calories.  Several women came over to see what this amazing looking dish was, and one woman even took photos of my snack!  (Of course, I was photographing it as well.)  Turned out they were a youth group from Pennsylvania, doing volunteer work in the region.

I enjoyed by snack, smothering the fruit with chocolate.  As hard as I tried, I couldn't finish all that chocolate with the fruit.  So I pulled my spoon out of my purse (doesn't everyone carry a spoon?), and scooped up the chocolate.  And then offered the spoon to a little Guatemalan boy who was sitting with his grandmother, next to my table.  Oh his face lit up, and he scooped the chocolate up with his finger and popped it in his mouth.  I gathered more chocolate and offered it to his older sister, who also gave me a big smile and swiped the chocolate off with her finger.  One more scooping of the dish, and there was just enough for one more little boy sitting nearby - but I had to explain that he needed to put the spoon in his mouth to get all the chocolate, his finger wasn't enough.  Yes, some charades and some "en su boca, limpia, limpia!"  ("In your mouth, clean, clean."  Yeah, my Spanish is understandable but hardly poetic.)

Anyway, it was fun, sharing my dessert with these kids.  I had read that people in villages are suspicious of foreigners who spend too much time taking photos of the children, or talking to them; apparently this is leftover from the time when missionaries or whomever would try to get children to leave the villages to go to the mission schools, or even get the children adopted outside the country.  So I've been very careful about interacting with the children.  But, well, kids are cute and Guatemalan kids are extra cute with their big dark eyes, wearing miniature versions of the traditional clothing.  

Okay, off to the big city tomorrow.  We'll be staying in the more tourist-oriented areas, because Guatemala City has a bit of a reputation for petty crime.  We'll be our usual travel-savvy selves, carrying little cash and taking taxis around to the museums and such.

And trying to get to the beach!