Monday, December 7, 2009

This Week: Ambergris Caye, Belize

The People Perch

Some 25 years ago Susan Lala bought six acres of land one mile south of the tiny fishing village of San Pedro on the island of Ambergris Caye, Belize. Her plan: To build a secluded hotel. People said she was crazy to build so far away from town. Hardy and rare was the tourist that took the tiny plane or lurching ferry boat to San Pedro. After all that, why would anyone want to trek on the bumpy dirt road to stay at a hotel in the middle of nowhere? What stunned locals even more was that she only built the resort on three of the six acres.

Today Caribbean Villas are just one of hundreds of places tourists can spend their vacation. At the time it was built, the hotel was the farthest place south of San Pedro anyone could stay, but not anymore. Exclusive resorts, luxury condos and private houses take up every available space along the Caribbean Sea all the way to the southern tip of the island. And the road heading south is mostly paved. What makes the Caribbean Villas unique is the three acres of space that Lala didn’t develop. Today those acres are part of a bird sanctuary and three of the precious few acres of littoral forest left on the island. Standing three stories tall in the middle of this forest is Lala’s People Perch.

A littoral forest is a forest that exists near the shore. Any place near a body of water can have a littoral forest and the plants and animals contained in such forest depend on the body of water, the land and the latitude so each one is unique. A littoral forest in Georgia will not be the same as one in Oregon, Madagascar or Guam. Ambergris Caye’s littoral forest, which was only a thin slice of land on the windward side, has been stripped to make way for more and more housing. Lala’s bird sanctuary comprises most of what is left; a piece of what the island looked like 25 years ago. A small path near the resort’s office leads you into the forest. So thick is the foliage, you can’t see the sky. However, when the wind blows, you can catch glimpses of the sun’s rays filtering through. The path is marked with signs that provide the names of the different trees in the forest such as the seagrape, palmetto and wild oregano. The forest is filled with birds, but the challenge is to see them through the constantly shifting branches that change the light and shadow.

The People Perch sits about half way through the path. Its base is a concrete storage structure brightly painted with tropical birds and trees on a yellow background. The stairs and upper decks of the perch are unpainted wood. The stairs are steep, but sturdy. The structure does not sway in the breeze or creek under your feet. From the top are 360 degree views of the island just above the trees. The Caribbean is to the east and San Pedro Lagoon to the west. San Pedro town is to the north, and to the south is Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Even from the top of the perch, the birds can be difficult to find. You hear them first; a whistle here, a rustle of branches there. By the time your eyes focus in on the sound’s location, the bird may already be gone, but don’t let that deter you from climbing to the top. When first built, the People Perch was the tallest structure on the island. Now with condo development rampant, several buildings are taller, but not by much. The People Perch still provides a rare view to those who climb it.

During our walk in the sanctuary, we find great Kiskadees. Their bright yellow breasts give them away. However, all the other birds, I have no idea what they are. Most are tiny, but like an image inside an optical illusion, once you see the first bird, they start popping up everywhere: black cat birds, orioles, tody flycatchers and seedeaters. I admit it; the names are from a list of birds the hotel has documented as living in the sanctuary. Don’t ask me to tell you which birds are which. I just enjoy the challenge of finding them. Along with the birds we also see tiny frogs, beetles and geckos climbing the trees. Their stillness makes them easier to find.

Caribbean Villas Hotel is small by today’s standards, only 12 rooms in two buildings, but it has everything a visitor to the island needs to have a safe, relaxing stay: clean rooms, lounge chairs on the beach and a private pier. A few years ago Lala retired, selling her hotel to a gentleman from Great Britain. That man’s son and daughter-in-law, Graham and Ruth, manage the place. They have made many fabulous changes, such as a new teak-decked swimming pool with two hot tubs and a thatched-roof bar and snack shack called The Catamaran. However, many things, including Susan’s bird sanctuary and People Perch, remain untouched.

Along with the birds, the Caribbean Villas also set up a sanctuary for marine life. Several years ago the new owner recycled an old golf cart chassis and crane jib by placing it under the hotel’s pier to create an artificial reef. It’s loaded with all sorts of fish while crabs and other underwater creepy crawlies cling to the posts of the pier. The reef is a great place to practice snorkeling. We use it as a quick tune up before heading out to the barrier reef. If you can’t swim or are just plain lazy, you can sit on the pier’s ladder with a mask and stick your head in the water to catch the view. When you are done, take a nap in the pier’s hammock while swaying in the Caribbean breeze.

I don’t know what Susan’s motives were for creating the bird sanctuary along with her hotel. Twenty-five years ago the words “environmentalism” and “conservationist” had yet to become common vernacular, but foreseeing the island’s development potential, saving the forest could have been on her mind. The hotel could be considered green with its solar panels and rain water irrigation system, but back then island electricity was unreliable and connecting to the town’s water system expensive. Perhaps she just wanted to create a peaceful place where she and her guests could relax. Or she happened to like birds and trees just as much as beach and water. Whatever her motivations were, she saved a tiny bit of ecosystem for the birds and us to enjoy.

To learn more about the hotel and the island in general, go to their website: Caribbean Villas Be sure to view the hotel video on their home page. It will make you wish you were there.

To learn more about bird watching in Ambergris Caye visit: Birds of Ambergris Caye

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

This Week: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (Part 2 of 2)

A World Away

Medano Pass Primitive Road had 25 campsites from bottom to top. We chose site 2.1. It was downhill from the pass road, surrounded by trees and Medano Creek flowed behind it, about as picture perfect a campsite in the Colorado Mountains as you could get. It was hard to believe that just two miles down the mountain were the largest sand dunes in North America with desert climate to match. As we breathed the cool mountain air and washed our dishes in the ice cold creek, we felt like we were in another world.

Before picking this particular spot, we had stopped at Site 1.8 just before this one, however, it was above the road and the trees opened up on one side to the strong winds that batter the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We also could have gone higher up the pass, but the higher you went, the colder it got, even in August. There could easily have been a 10-15 degree difference between this campsite and the ones nearer the top (above 9,000 ft). The campsite had three areas, the tent area, the fire pit and the bear box, each with several feet in between. The bear box was an essential part of the campsite as black bears were alive and well in Colorado and it was large enough to fit our cooler and two food bags. After pitching the tent, my husband, Jasmine the world’s greatest dog, and I all waded in Medano Creek. The creek wasn’t deep enough for Jasmine to swim, but was still running wide and swift for August. With Colorado in a drought the last decade, most creeks are just a dribble this time of year, but a decent snowpack last winter and plenty of June rains had things flowing nicely.

The only problem with the campsite was that we were not allowed to drive the Jeep down to it. A log blocked the path down to the site. We assumed this was to protect the area from tire damage, which was understandable, but it was still an inconvenience to haul all our stuff (such as our very heavy cooler) over the log and down the hill. This also meant that I would be unable to hear the Jimmy Buffet concert that would be played on Sirius Saturday night, unless I walked up the hill and sat in the Jeep. I was looking forward to hearing the show while roasting marshmallows by the campfire and gazing at the stars while the band played Southern Cross. Bummer.

The winds that created the sand dunes blew swiftly through the woods. The trees were in a constant state of motion and the wind howled making quite a racket. Even sitting next to each other by the fire, we had to speak loudly to be heard. This worried us at first, however, the winds turned out to be a blessing. When we went to sleep at night, they provided a “white noise” over which all the creepy sounds of the forest couldn’t be heard. (Have my husband tell you about our first camping trip sometime. I annoyed him all night asking “What’s that?” every five minutes.) At some point during the night, the winds died down. The silence woke us up each morning just as the sun popped up above the mountains. It was the most perfect time of day at the site, completely quiet with a soft light filtering through the trees and causing the shadow on the mountain face across from us to slowly recede. Within the hour the winds would begin again.

Medano Pass Primitive Road could be summed up in one word: FUN! A great place for novice and expert drivers alike and it included nine creek crossings. The first part of the road, down at the dunes, was sandy and flat, fun to build up some speed and slide around in. Traveling north, the road also hugged the eastern side of the sand dunes, where they were at their steepest and most dramatic. Then as we approached the park preserve, the road turned right (east), changed to dirt and the ascent began. Although very bouncy, the road was easy to navigate. Shortly beyond our campsite location, the road narrowed and the trees leaned in close with their branches swatting the Jeep. At approximately the middle of the ascent, the road became rocky and more careful driving was required. Here the road came to its narrowest point, rocks jutting out on both sides, and we had to slowly drive through. Our Jeep, tall and narrow, fit through just fine, however, one afternoon we saw a Ford F-150 heading up the road from our campsite. Sure enough, about 15 minutes after it passed we saw it go back down again. Unless you like to detail your giant truck with some new stripes, I wouldn’t recommend driving it up Medano Pass Primitive Road. Once beyond this narrow passage, the road widened out to a small valley and you could see Medano Creek weaving in and out of the tall summer grasses. From here it was an easy drive to the top, well marked by national park signs and about six miles from where the preserve began.

Our reward for all that driving was a heavily forested area with log benches and parking for about six vehicles. Two other Jeeps, Wranglers just like ours, were already parked at the top, both with Kansas plates. Six people, all retired couples, were already there and eating a packed lunch of sandwiches and cheese and crackers. They had come up from Highway 160 from Walzenburg and wanted to head the way we had driven to see the sand dunes. One of the couples said they spent winters in Phoenix and told us about all the Jeep trails they had been on in Arizona. The two couples in the second Jeep were friends of theirs, but still lived in Kansas and met them in Colorado just to go 4-wheeling. They asked us about road conditions since they were headed in that direction. My husband was glad to oblige.

There wasn’t much to do at the top, other than let the dog run around so we strategized our next move. Off to the north was a gravel road that wasn’t marked on the map. With the possibility of an adventure waiting to happen, we put the dog back in the Jeep and took off. It immediately got very steep, but the rocks provided plenty of traction. As near as I could tell, this road followed the national park boundary, but the map did not show it as a road. We drove about a mile ascending a particularly steep portion. At the top we stopped. Mountains were all around us, including Mt. Herard (13,297 ft) to the northeast and Blanca Peak to the south (14,345 ft). Since the trees were becoming scarce at this high point, we guessed we were about 12,000 ft. As we took photos from this vantage point, a black Jeep Wrangler with two guys in the front and three kids in the back came lumbering by, continued past us and up the road. I wondered aloud how far the road went, but my husband told me we weren’t finding out because we had less than ½ a tank of gas and he wasn’t about to get stuck on top of a mountain without any gas. Just as we were putting the dog back in the Jeep, the black Jeep returned heading back down. Well, maybe the end wasn’t much farther anyway. We waved at the kids and followed them down to Medano Pass. Here they parked their Jeep while we continued back down to the campsite.

On the way down, we decided to let Jasmine cool off in Medano Creek and stopped where the creek widened out into the mountain grasses. It was an area that was wide enough for us to pull completely off the road incase another vehicle drove by. It was also very sunny and beautiful with blue sky above the tall Aspen trees on one side of the road, green grass and amber water on the other side. Jasmine enjoyed her wade through the creek, still not deep enough for her to swim, but she walked around and lapped up the water. The cool water felt good on her belly. As I walked around, I found a carcass of something that once lived on the edge of the road. There was no skull, but a long, thick spine and possibly a pelvic bone parallel to the road. Could be an elk; we had heard there were many around here, or mountain goats. Whatever it was, it was big and sun bleached.

Speaking of animals, we didn’t see any until the morning we left. We had gotten up early to beat the Sunday traffic on I-25. We drove down at about 8 a.m. when we spotted our first critters: A group of mountain goats eating a breakfast of grass in an open space between the trees. There were five altogether. We stopped and took photos. They looked us over and when they realized we weren’t getting out of the Jeep, went back to eating breakfast. One of them disappeared into the trees, probably not happy we disturbed him. Then just before getting back on the paved road, we saw a momma deer and two babies eating grass next to a tree, the babies’ ears barely visible above the grass. We also took photos of them as they ate their way around the tree until we couldn’t see them anymore.

Leaving the park we drove past the towering dunes again, a reminder of how different the terrain was from our campsite to the San Luis Valley. From alpine to desert and back to the city, all in four hours.


Please note - The National Preserve at Great Sand Dunes and Medano Primitive Road require a 4WD vehicle. Medano Primitive Road starts just past the RV campgrounds in the national park at Pinyon Flats and is a dirt road for about 1.2 miles. Although this first part does not require 4WD, that does not mean you should drive your Ford Taurus or Toyota Tercel here. Then you come to the Point of No Return. They aren’t kidding; there is a sign that says “Point of No Return” along with a parking area and turn around for those without 4WD. From the PONR the road turns into sand and you must maintain a little bit of speed to get through it. Some vehicles may even have to let air out of the tires to maintain traction. You’ll drive between 3-4 miles before the road turns back to dirt and begins climbing Medano Pass. WARNING: If you drive your non-4WD vehicle on this road and get stuck, the fines for being towed out start at $600. When we arrived a truck was towing a car back to Pinyon Flats. The car held four people who looked barely old enough to drive. Don’t be an idiot!

For more information visit: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Saturday, October 24, 2009

This Week: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (Part 1 of 2)

No Where Else on Earth

As I stood there, baking in the sun, my arms and legs pelted by millions of tiny airborne tacks, sand going up my nose and crunching between my teeth, I was astonished. If my eyes hadn’t dried out, I might have cried. North America’s largest beach stretched out for a half mile below me. A beach with no water, not in the month of August anyway. The harsh and unforgiving climate makes this location an extremely difficult one to visit, yet one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. It’s America’s newest National Park, the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado.

My husband and I had arrived earlier that morning to camp in the park and preserve. We could see them almost an hour away driving south on Highway 17 like giant piles of cinnamon next to the broccoli-colored Sangre de Cristo Mountains. What an odd combination, cinnamon and broccoli. They only got taller as we turned east on County Lane 6, growing until we saw the crests and troughs of the individual dunes. The dunes were so still they appeared painted on the mountain backdrop and strangely out of place. Mountains were supposed to be places of alpine trees, boulders and snowmelt creeks. What was all this sand doing here?

I had climbed about half way up the sand dunes hoping to make it to Star Dune, one of two high points visitors can hike to from the main parking area. The higher I climbed, the worse the winds swirled around me. The perpetual winds that buffet the mountains and continually build and rebuild the sand dunes pick up grains as they cross the ridges. The grains pelted my exposed skin. Fortunately I wore sunglasses or I would have been plucking the grains from my contacts later. In between the ridges, I found some relief as the winds blew above my head. Walking on the dunes was like walking through water just above your knees. I wore my trusty pair of sandals to trek through the dunes. Since these sandals were dusted with the sand from beaches all over North America and the Caribbean, I figured they would work great on the dunes. I was wrong as my ankles twisted, turned, slipped and were even buried in the dunes. I should have put on my hiking shoes that were in the Jeep. I had a water bottle with me, but I drank most of it just walking across the quarter mile flats before the dunes themselves start. I had just a few sips left and was only halfway there. Thank goodness I was smart enough to put sunscreen on before starting this trek.

I stopped to rest and take in the view around me. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains arose from the sand in the distance, vibrant green between the beige beach and the blue sky. I thought it would be cool to take a photo; my feet in the sand with the mountains in the background. To do this, I had to sit down on the dune. Big mistake. Sure it would look cool later, but the reality of sitting on the crest of a dune with the wind swirling sand all around was not a smart move on my part. There may still be grains of sand permanently wedged in my lungs.

Standing up in order to breathe better, I encountered two hikers, a man and a woman, coming back down, both silent as they passed. For some reason they took a great arc around me, probably wondering what the heck I was doing sitting in the sand. I wanted to continue and get to the top, but I looked at my cell phone. It was after 4 p.m. and my water bottle was now empty. My husband and dog were waiting on the flats below. He stayed behind because he didn’t think the dog, at 11 years old, was up the task, not to mention with panting her only way of keeping cool, she would have swallowed buckets of sand. With a sigh, I headed back down. Going down was much easier. I found I could skate down the dunes with my feet sliding a few inches with each step. It was fun. The softness of the sand also cushioned my knees as I took giant leaps down the dunes.

Several individuals, including some children, were making their way up. It amused me how most of them were grossly under prepared for the task. Few had water and almost all wore tank tops and flip flops. Flip flips were not going to get them very far as this was not your typical beach. Even more amusing were the number of people with plastic saucer sleds, only instead of snow, they were sliding down the sand. It looked like a good idea, but sitting that low to the ground would cause you to inhale large gobs of sand kicked up from under you. Maybe at age 10 that would be fun, but not something I would want to experience now.

Crossing the flats, I searched for my husband and dog. They were at the edge of the dunes, next to the parking lot. Jasmine, our dog, played with some children digging with a pail and shovel in the sand. A foot below the surface, they found water and Jasmine was stuck her head in the hole to drink as the children laughed. The water was always there; remnants of Medano Creek that flowed down from Medano Pass. In May and June, when the snow melt was at its peak, the creek flowed freely through the flats and it turned into a giant inland beach. Children in bathing suits could pull each other through the shallow water in blow-up rafts and build sand castles. However, this was August and the summer heat evaporated the creek from the surface, but the water was still there hidden below.

At the Great Sand Dunes Visitor’s Center, we got a quick lesson in why the dunes were there and how the park formed. The accepted theory of the sand dunes was that they were much younger than the mountains surrounding them (in geological terms anyway). While the mountains were millions of years old, the dunes were only thousands of years old, but no one could pin-point an exact age. It was believed a large inland lake used to fill the valley between the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the east. Slowly, some of the lake dried up due to climate change and the rest cut through an opening in the south and drained into the Rio Grande, leaving behind a large sheet of sand. That sand was driven by two opposing winds, one from the southwest and another from the northeast (these winds were actually shown on the park map, which gave you an idea of how strong they were). The winds picked up the sand and deposited them in a “pocket” at the base of the Sangre de Cristo. What completed the dune process was Medano Creek to the east and Sand Creek to the north. As the winds blew the top layer of sand up into the mountains, the grains eventually ended up in the creeks, which then brought them back down to the base of the dunes. This circular process had been happening for millennia and was what kept the dunes in place and built them so high, the highest in the country. The Park, including the Medano Preserve, covered about 150,000 acres. The dunes were declared a National Monument back in 1932, but didn’t become a National Park, with all the protections afforded that designation, until 2004. *

After my unsuccessful attempt to summit Star Dune, we drove back to camp, but we made a stop at Castle Creek first. Accessible only by 4WD vehicle, this was where Medano Creek met the dunes on the eastern side. Here in this more shaded and wind protected area, Medano Creek still flowed above ground and you have to walk through it to get to the dunes. The dunes rose steeply here, just like the walls of a fort (could that have been how Castle Creek was named?). From the ground, this dune looked hikable and I went charging up, this time in my hiking shoes. At mountain altitude, I was quickly out of breath and stopped to look behind me. I hadn’t gotten all that far, so I trudged on, taking small, but quick steps. Breathless, I stopped again. I felt like I’d gone a long way, but the creek didn’t look any smaller than before. My husband waved up to me while he walked Jasmine in the creek. Several children were building sand castles and a group of two older boys were building a dam. A small semi-circle of water pooled up behind it so they must have built a good one. I sat down in the sand as two guys with snowboards began to climb below me. Wow, I could imagine how thrilling that would be to slide down this steep hill. I stood up and began my climb again, but the guys that had started not five minutes before had already caught up to me.

“I take it you’ve done this before,” I said to them.

“This is our third run today,” the nearest one said.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I said, referring to their climb.

“It helps to use the board,” he explained. They used their snowboards like walking sticks, digging them into the sand ahead of them and pulling themselves up as they walked. “Works great until the wind starts blowing. Then they turn into giant sails.”

I asked them where they were going to track down the dune. I didn’t want to get runover. There was a large shrub below and I asked if they were going to the right or the left of it. He pointed and said they would go right. I followed a few more steps up the dune. The guy I was talking to was well past me while his buddy was up and over and couldn’t be seen anymore. Tired, I sat down in the dune and got my camera out. The guys would make great action photos as they passed. I waited several minutes and nothing. Then a few more minutes of nothing. Finally I heard a distant shout.

“Woo hoo!”

With a “shush” the guy I talked to appeared, sand flying around him. He didn’t go very fast, but was steady all the way to the bottom. I guessed that was about one minute of fun for 20 minutes of dune climbing. Another few minutes went by before I saw some more movement. The other guy started down the dune, then stopped. Then he sat down straddling his legs on each side of his board and continued his way down. I wasn’t sure sitting on the board was the wisest of choices as I watched the sand fly up and over his head. I took more photos anyway, but you couldn’t see the guy at all. Just a wave of sand.

As both guys washed the sand off their legs in the creek, I took a few more photos to document my height. The steepness of the dune didn’t make it seem very high, but I could see above the tops of the trees on the other side of the creek. I made my way down. Down was so much easier! Too bad I couldn’t just take an elevator to the top and then hop my way down. At the bottom, the guys came over and asked to see my photos. I was curious to see them for myself so we checked the pics on my digital camera display.

“Those look really good,” said the guy who talked to me on the dune. “Let me give you my email address.” By this time, my husband had walked over and looked at the photos too. We found out we were all camping on Medano Pass and they had been here for one night already. They drove down from Denver specifically to sandboard. True Coloradoans; couldn’t wait for the snow. The guys said they were going to make one more run and began climbing again. We headed back to the Jeep to go back to camp. It was time for dinner. We would play on the dunes again tomorrow.

On the day we left, I asked to climb the dune at Castle Creek one more time. This time I left the camera with my husband to take photos of me. It was a cool morning and I thought I would have no problem getting to the top. But there was a problem. As I climbed higher and higher, the top kept getting farther and farther away. Was that reverse vertigo? I looked out at the mountains behind me. I was way above the tops of the trees and this time, the creek did look a little smaller below me. I could barely hear my husband when he yelled, “Hey!” I turned and waved at the camera. Then I sat down for a second. This place was amazing and I wanted just a minute to savor the sand, the wind and the sun that shone just above the mountains. There was no where else like this on earth and it was in my back yard.


*I would like to credit the NPS map and website for providing this information.

For more information on the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, visit the National Park Service web site. There are some cool pics of people playing in the water flowing around the dunes. You can also check out my husband’s facebook page for photos from our trip, 104 photos to be exact.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

This Week: Tekamah, Nebraska

Small Town 4th of July

Tekamah is a town of 2,000 people on the edge of the Missouri River surrounded by farmland. I grew up there (Graduated 1986). Several years after moving away, I found myself returning, not for family holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, but the 4th of July. Independence Day was made for small towns, full of picnics and children and parades and fire works. Big cities have impersonal events, such as fireworks performed by professional companies that get paid large sums of money and parades that feature groups or organizations that have political or social agendas. My small town enjoy a more innocent holiday and treated it like a family reunion.

For me, the day would start with the Liberty Run, a 5K run/walk through the town. The race started at 8 a.m., so I had to get up early to make the 45 minute drive from Omaha. It started in the middle of downtown Main Street and went a mile east on County Road Gh (M Street) and back, then over to City Park and back downtown. There was also a 2-mile fun run to the edge of town and back that my mom would walk. One of my high school coaches was a volunteer timer at the event and I knew it just killed her to see me run those three miles every year because I use to whine and complain when she made me run that far in high school. For someone who quit high school track rather than run two miles, I’ve come a long way. (I now run a hilly 5-mile loop in my neighborhood at least once a week.) For regular runners like myself, the best part of racing was the finish when we feasted on bagels, bananas, yogurt, orange juice and maybe a fruit bar or two. However, I couldn’t linger long because I had to get cleaned up for the next big event.

After a quick shower at my parents’ house, we would all take a lawn chair and walk the three blocks back downtown where the Independence Day parade would take place at 10 a.m. The most popular spot to watch was in front of Ronnie’s, the downtown saloon, so those of us who were of age could enjoy an adult beverage on a hot July day. Tekamah held a great parade for its size, lasting over an hour. A color guard of local veterans always started the parade, which everyone observed with respectful silence. They were followed by marching bands, not just from my high school, but nearby towns who didn’t have their own parade to march in. There were also horse riding groups, banners from county politicians, decorated floats from local businesses and - the best part! - those tiny little cars ridden by the Shriners. It was well known that most of the members partook in a few adult beverages themselves before riding in those cars and when they performed those tight formations and criss-cross maneuvers, we were convinced someone would end up upside-down, but in all the years I went, that never happened.

Almost every parade participant threw handfuls of candy in the street for the kids to collect. Some kids were more aggressive than others at this activity, to the point of having plastic grocery bags that they would fill to the brim by running around and grabbing as many pieces as they could. The trick was to get the pieces out in the middle of the street without getting run over by the next group. Parents would take this opportunity to teach their older children about sharing by having them give pieces to younger siblings or other nearby children too shy to go into the street. However, there was always one pushy kid that wouldn’t share with anyone and would knock other kids out of the way to get more candy.

Once the parade was over, it was time to walk to City Park where the local Jaycees held a benefit BBQ. The line was always a block long by the time we got there, but we didn’t mind because we got to chat with friends, classmates and neighbors we hadn’t seen in a while as we waited. For $4 each we got a plate with the largest beef BBQ sandwich ever (you had to keep two hands on the plate), a heaping spoon of potato salad and another heaping spoon of baked beans, everything made from scratch. Drinks were a choice of lemonade or iced tea. After lunch we would slowly make our way through the picnic tables greeting, chatting and smiling at the babies of whomever we knew, which was pretty much everyone. This caused lunch to last almost two hours if not longer.

At this point in the afternoon, there were several different activities we could participate in and these have varied through the years. When I was a kid, we could ride on top of the fire engines all though town with the whistle blaring. There was a horseshoe tournament at the park, which I had little interest in. Also back in the day, the fire department held a fire hose tug-of-war, which consisted of a large metal barrel hanging from a wire strung across two sections of scaffolding. Then two teams of people on each side would use the water blasts from the hoses to move the barrel across the other team’s line, which was a rag tied at each end of the wire. My mom participated in this once and almost broke her wrist when it got wrapped up in the hose. That was probably why they didn’t have this anymore. Over the years there have been other activities, like the local model airplane club flying their machines and a regional baseball tournament.

After spending at least a few minutes at whatever activity was going on, we would eventually head back to my parents’ house to watch Wimbledon on television. Of course, after that gigantic lunch, there was more napping than tennis watching. Later in the afternoon, it was time to walk one block over to the Burt County Museum for their ice cream social. Along with a $2 donation, we would get a scoop of ice cream. Then we would tour the exhibits in the building, which was a large, white southern-style house with a wrap-around porch that was either willed or donated or something like that to the county when the owner passed away many years ago. On the second floor of the museum was a display that showed every graduating class photo from my high school, going back almost a century. It grew depressing over the years to see my class photo get buried by each successive class, including that of my two younger brothers. Soon I would be one of the old fogies. However, it was also fun to see my step-dad’s photo along with those of several of my friends’ parents in earlier class photos.

Normally it would have been time for dinner at this point in the day, but we were always so full from lunch that we would just make sandwiches or get snacks from the Dairy Queen across the street. Then we would sit on the front step of the house and watch people drive up and down Main Street, mostly just wasting time until the fireworks show.

The fire works didn’t start until 10:00 p.m. They were held at the baseball park also only three blocks away. Once again we would walk, this time over to the ugly green stadium with our lawn chairs. The Jaycees would finance the event and the volunteer fire department deployed the explosives. Most men in town were a member of one or both groups so this was the end of a long, busy day for them. For a town this size, Tekamah had quite a fireworks show, lasting at least a half hour. Some summers, we were lazy and would just sit on the front steps and watch the show, which could be seen from anywhere in town, but it was more fun to go to the park and listen to the ooohs and aaahs of the crowd. Then it was time for me to head back to the big city and the next day’s work grind.

I looked up Tekamah on the internet to see what they were up to this last 4th of July. According to my mom, the Liberty Run was suspended several years ago due to lack of participants. (I should have kept those race t-shirts. They’d be collector’s items by now! I still have one from 1997. Any bids?) Something I forgot about was the 5 a.m. igniting of anvils by the fire department. Yeah, I don’t miss that at all; those gigantic booms use to scare the crap out of me as a child. The BBQ was now sponsored by the Tekamah Area Community Club. The Museum had grown with two annex buildings for visitors to tour. They still had the horseshoe tournament and there was a NFPBR rodeo called the Bull-o-rama. Thanks to the Midwest Messenger for this information.

Next July enjoy the holiday by visiting a small town near you and find out what simple pleasures they have to offer.

Monday, September 28, 2009

This Week: Maui, Hawaii

Chasing Waterfalls

Technically, it was illegal to hike to Twin Falls. According to my Maui guidebook, Twin Falls was on private property, a tropical farm that harvested exotic flowers to be exact, so to hike it was considered trespassing. However, the guidebook also said this hike was so popular with tourists that the owners wouldn’t prosecute unless you wandered off the marked path and into the crops. With that knowledge, we drove past the surf town of Pa’ia until Highway 36 inexplicably turned into Highway 360 and the mile markers start over at 0. At Mile Marker 2, the guidebook told us to pull off the highway and park the car. If it weren’t for the three other cars parked along the barbwire fence and the juice cart off to the side, I wouldn’t have had any idea something worth pursuing was here. My mother and I locked our purses in the trunk, got a juice from the pretty juice cart girl and climbed over the locked farm gate onto the well-worn path that the guidebook said was the way to Twin Falls.

At first we were unsure of the path. The rows of tropical flowers and exotic fruits gave us no indication. Then under some crop branches we saw the first sign. It was a hand painted wooden sign that said “waterfalls” with an arrow. We walked in the direction of the arrow a little more confident we were going the right way. As we walked the crops gave way to a lush forest. We walked through two wide, but shallow streams of flowing water, my mother a little nervous at getting her shoes wet. Suddenly we heard it; the sound of rushing water. Lots of it. It couldn’t be that easy, could it? A branch of the path veered into the woods and we followed it toward the sound. Voices could also be heard. Abruptly the path ended above a raging river with a short, wide, gushing waterfall. This was the first twin. Four other people were already here taking photos and talking. They told us that there was a big rainstorm on the mountain above the night before and it was all running down toward the ocean today. The runoff from the mountain made the water brown.

“Take a picture of me in front of it,” my mother said. She wanted proof that she had found a hidden waterfall. We then followed the other group back to the main trail, but they were going down and we were going up. Again we were alone and I wondered how many people were on the trail. As soon as I had that thought, a family of three came down upon us, laughing and soaking wet.

“You’re gonna love it,” said a young, shirtless and extremely blonde boy still laughing. “You’re gonna get wet!” he shouted. His laugh had an almost ominous tone. He left my mother a bit worried because she wasn’t prepared for a swim. I was, but I only expected to get damp.

We came to another sign, this one simply a smooth stone with a drawing of a waterfall and another arrow pointing the way. Here the path turned and became a little steeper and muddier. After a few more minutes of walking the trail opened up a bit and a drainage ditch stopped us. On our left a retaining wall held the drainage ditch water, which presumably ran down to the crops below. The ditch was so full that water was overflowing the wall and tumbling down the hill through the trees. My mom and I walked on top of the wall to a small clearing surrounded by water. Now what? We didn’t know which way to go. All we could see was a swamp with lots of trees and very muddy. So muddy you couldn’t see how deep it was. We sat down on some rocks and looked around. Through our silence, we could just barely hear it; another rush of water traveling through the air and hitting more water below. The sound was in front of us, but the trees were so thick we couldn’t see anything.

“Do we have to go through that?” my mother asked. I didn’t know, but I was going to find out. I had my swim suit on under my clothes so I took off my t-shirt and slowly waded into the water. I left my shoes on as I walked across the bumpy swamp bottom in case there were any sharp rocks to cut me or tree roots that could twist my ankles, but there weren’t. The water came up to my knees, then my waist and then my chest. I wished I had brought my waterproof camera as I held my regular one over my head. Just when I thought I was going to have to swim for it, the water level diminished. Several yards away, I climbed out of the water and over some muddy tree roots and I could just barely see it: The second twin.

“Is it there?” Mom yelled. Yes it was. This fall was much taller than the first and the water broke into many large droplets as it landed into the circular pool below. It wasn’t exactly the crystal blue pool you see in the movies. It was brown with runoff. The shining green branches from the trees above provided all the color as they hung low, almost touching the pool. I brushed away some branches as I walked closer and saw a honeymoon couple had already beaten me there and were frolicking in the pool. I hoped I wasn’t interrupting anything. I cleared my throat and when they saw me they asked me to take a picture of them standing under the fall. As I took the picture, they kissed and it made me miss my boyfriend back on the mainland. After the picture they left and I was alone with the waterfall. I took pictures of the fall from all angles until I ran out of film.

I didn’t want to keep my mother waiting much longer so I waded back and told her about the fall. She thought about wading through the swamp in her jeans to see for herself, but the idea of spending the rest of the car ride in wet clothes didn’t appeal much to her. We had to get going because we still had a few more hours to Hana in front of us. I put my dry t-shirt on over my wet swim suit. The rest of me was going to have to air dry in the rented convertible. Just then two couples walked along the retaining wall to where we stood.

“Is that the way to the fall?” one of the men asked us pointing toward the ditch full of water.
“Yes, it is.”
“I hope everyone can swim,” the other guy said only half joking.

My mother and I made our way back across the retaining wall as the two couples stripped down to their swimsuits ready to take the plunge. We turned around when we heard one of the women squealing like a child at the dentist. I was 5’4” and the water came up to my chest. This woman was even shorter than I and the water approached her neck. Her squeals soon turned into laughter as we continued on our way. We passed a few more people making their way to Twin Falls and now I know what that blonde boy felt when he was laughing his way past us.

Mom was still a little mad at herself for not taking the plunge and seeing the second fall, but the twisting Hana Highway would prove to be surrounded by waterfalls, most of which we didn’t have to hike to. As for myself, I thought the trail was quite an adventure, hiking across swift rivers and wading in deep water just to see something very few people get to see. Maui had lots waterfalls for us to look at, but this one I enjoyed the most because I had to work for it. The chase was far more rewarding than the capture.
For more information: The Westin Maui

Sunday, September 13, 2009

This Week: Sydney, Australia

I Wish Lunch Could Last Forever

I had arrived in Sydney the previous morning, but was so jet lagged, I didn’t really enjoy it. I spent the most of day sleeping at Manly Beach. The few hours I was awake, I had a horrible headache and everything looked blurry. Unable to stay awake any more, I fell asleep at my hotel before dinner and slept straight through until the following morning.

Feeling much better, I spent the cool autumn morning putting lots of money into the Australia economy at The Rocks Farmers’ Market. Although it’s called a “farmer’s market,” the main produce on display was crafts and souvenirs for tourists and collectors. The market was only three city blocks, but it was full of vendors with all sorts of crafts ranging from the expected, like hand-painted Aboriginal boomerangs, to the artfully useful, such the hand-sewn photo album and scrapbook I purchased. Also present were hand-carved wooden picture frames and many, many works of art, from water colors to charcoal sketches. There were some food vendors, selling hand made jams, sauces and candies, but since you couldn’t take any food product out of the country, I couldn’t buy any to take back with me.

After spending most of my cash, I strolled around Sydney Harbor on the bridge side. I was at the traffic circle I’d seen on web cam, the one surrounded by flag poles with no flags. The brick steps curve around the harbor toward a series of four restaurants before changing to a wooden boardwalk in front the Park Hyatt Hotel. The Hyatt was curved to fit in to its unique spot on the harbor. It didn’t look all that large a hotel; it looked more like expensive condos, which is what I thought they were when I first saw them on the web cam. The green space at the tip of the hotel’s peninsula was a public park and several people, in couples or small families, lay about soaking up sunshine and salt air. The park was surrounded by a stately wrought iron fence that had far more detailing and care put it than it should have, but these details make Sydney Harbor so special.

As I walked back down the Hyatt’s boardwalk, a woman in a black pantsuit and jet black hair leaned on her hotel balcony smoking a cigarette. I had heard that the Park Hyatt was the most expensive hotel in Sydney, if not all of Australia. I wondered, why was she there? Was it an anniversary, birthday? Secret affair? Or just business?

As I walked back around to the traffic circle women with baby strollers and couples holding hands began to take up spots along the brick steps. The restaurants that lined the old building were now open and seating guests. Families were taking photos of their kids running around the plaza. Although the fall air was cool, the sun kept me warm. The locals wore long sleeve tops and jackets while I was in my short sleeve t-shirt, my jacket tied around my waist.

What attracted me to Doyle’s Café was the crisp white umbrellas that shaded the bright blue tablecloths that covered the patio tables. I had walked all around the old warehouse that had been converted into modern dining establishments and none of them had the appeal or the envious location on the end of the quay, like Doyle’s. While waiting for the hostess I read the menu posted on the wall. This was not going to be cheap, but how often do I get to eat lunch in Sydney Harbor? The hostess asked if I wanted to sit outside to which I replied, “Please.”

I was seated in the middle of the patio, not under an umbrella, which was OK. After two straight meals of fish and chips, I wanted to eat something that was not breaded and fried so I browsed the menu carefully and there were many expensive dishes, almost all them seafood. That’s when a disturbing thought hit me. I had not brought my VISA card and didn’t know if the café took American Express. I had spent almost all of my cash at the Farmers’ Market only having about $26 AUD left. I was just about to panic when something on the menu caught my eye, Pasta and Prawns for $23. It even came with garlic bread.

My waitress was a young, friendly Asian woman with shiny dark hair. She told me they had iced tea when I asked, something I had trouble finding at other Sydney restaurants. After ordering I looked around and looming in front of me was the Sydney Opera House. That’s when it hit me…I was in Australia!!!!!!! It took me twenty years to get here and I wanted to jump up on top of the table and scream at the top of my lungs. I had to grab the edges of my chair to keep from doing so. I smiled and decided I had to share this moment with someone so I pulled out my phone and began texting everyone I knew. The time on my cell phone, stuck in the Pacific Time Zone, reminded me it was 2 a.m. in the states. I didn’t care and sent a message anyway. It said, “Having lunch across from the opera house. Miss you.” Figuring everyone would be asleep, I didn’t expect any replies, however, I did receive a reply from my brother, Chad, in Oklahoma. It said he was cleaning up after a party and he’d get back to me later. Hmmm.

I managed to calm down enough to take in the view around me. The opera house just towered over everything. Also in front of me was a harbor walk that ended in a corner that overlooked the entire harbor, prime spot for photo opportunities and many, many people took advantage of it. Checking my surroundings, at the table on my left sat a man, a woman and a younger woman (daughter perhaps?). A wine bucket with a half empty bottle was between the women. Further away on my right one woman with perfectly coifed gray hair sat at a table set for six. She appeared to be giving instructions I couldn’t hear to the waiter, pointing her fingers around the table as she sat down. Next to them, a table with two Asian girls was receiving their meal. One of the girls had a huge plate of seafood set in front of her, enough to feed a half dozen people. It was beautifully arranged with strange fire engine red shellfish. Stacked vertically, as if standing up, were what looked like a giant prawns complete with heads and antennae, on top of some leafy green things. Mussels were circled around the red and green shrine. Instead of eating it, they took photos. Then they giggled as she began to pick at the dish, not sure where to start. On my far left at the edge of the patio a young couple sipped from tea cups and talked leaning in close to each other.

Just as I was beginning to wonder where my own lunch was, my waitress returned with a large white bowl filled with pasta and the largest prawns I had ever seen. I was so hungry and lunch was sooooo gooooood, I had to force myself to eat slowly. The dish was simple, six gigantic prawns grilled in garlic butter. Underneath was pasta, (a type somewhere between spaghetti and angel hair, not too thick, but not skinny either) with sprinkles of herbs and drizzled in more garlic butter. I did my best to savor the melting, velvety, buttery, garlicky, wish-it-were-bottomless dish. I was trying to remember the lyrics to a Jimmy Buffet song, I Wish Lunch Could Last Forever. Although the song was actually about Paris, I felt some of it applied here. The lone woman at the table of six was joined by five more people, one of whom was a gentleman with a booming British accent and he held up a guidebook of Sydney to show everyone at the table. When I had finished the pasta and prawns, I didn’t want to leave just yet, so I requested another glass of iced tea, even though it was starting to get chilly with the sun disappearing behind some clouds. Lingering as long as I could, I drank every last drop of tea. Although it seemed only minutes had past, it was a little before two o’clock in the afternoon. I had managed to while away two whole hours.

As I requested my check, I asked the waitress if Doyle’s took American Express. Of course, they didn’t. I had no choice, but to use what was left of my cash. I lingered a few more seconds putting on my jacket and slowly made my way to the patio exit, which looked across the harbor to the opera house. I had finally made it to Sydney.

I wish lunch could last forever
Make the whole day one big afternoon
We’ll begin with dessert, a little coconut tart
Tastes as sweet as a piece of your heart --J. Buffett

Update – Before putting this article on the internet, I wanted to see if anything had changed in the three years since I’ve been there (as any good journalist would do). After some internet research, I discovered the restaurant was now called Peter Doyle @ the Quay and, wouldn’t you know, they took American Express. I checked the menu on the website and the closest dish I can find to what I had was simply called “Pasta” under Main Courses. It listed red capsicum linguini with prawns, garlic, chilli and cream for $29.50 (AUD).

In other information, website doesn’t seem to work anymore. The web cam was awesome!!! Real time views of Sydney Harbor with a camera you could control for two minutes at a time. I used to pull it up as soon as I got to work to see the night time skyline and watch tomorrow’s sun rise over the harbor later in the day. The web cam went down shortly after I returned to the states (back in June 2006) and then the website itself disappeared some time after that. The link still appears on Yahoo web searches, but the browser can’t display anything. For more information on The Rocks Farmer’s Market, try this link:

Monday, September 7, 2009

This Week: Remembering Snickers, My South Dakota Cat

My cat, Snickers, was put to sleep today. He had been sick for over a month. His illness was liver cancer. His liver just couldn’t metabolize food anymore and his body began metabolizing his own fat and muscles, only weighing 4.5 lbs. at the end. His weight was what convinced me it was time to let him go. He had been on a series of drugs to fight the tumor and supplements to help his liver, but they weren’t enough. Dehydration was a worse enemy. Although he drank water constantly, his body just couldn’t absorb it well enough to keep him going. Dehydration made him weak, unable to stand. Every other week, we gave him subcutaneous fluid shots and they would help for a few days. We knew the condition was terminal, but we also thought we’d get three more months with the drugs and care. Sadly, it was not to be.

I first saw Snickers in Hot Springs, South Dakota, in June of 1993. My first husband and I were visiting his brother. Snickers was on the roof of a porch across the street from my then brother-in-law’s fiancé’s house. There were actually three cats on that roof, all exactly alike. It was the ex-brother-in-law who first suggested we take one home. At dinner the next night, the fiancé said she talked to her neighbor and the cats were available for adoption. However, it wasn’t until the morning we left that I asked if we could bring one home. On the way out of town, we stopped at the house and knocked on the door. A sixteen-year-old boy answered. Apparently the fiancé had mentioned to the neighbor that we were interested so the boy wasn’t surprised to see us. I don’t remember the kid’s name, but my ex-husband, a high school basketball coach, asked him his age and if he played ball. The kid took us to the detached half barn/half garage behind the house. That’s where the momma cat was set up in a large cardboard box with blankets and where the kittens were born. Momma looked nothing like her babies; she was gray with long hair. The kittens, all orange short-haired tabbies, hovered around their mother and our feet while we stood there. The boy told us the kittens were six months old and that there were six all together, but three others had already been given away. The three remaining cats were perfect copies of each other, all male and they checked us out while we checked them out. I picked one up and asked his name. The kid told us they called him “Peeve.” Then he said that this one was the runt of the litter. Although I didn’t think he looked like a runt, the kid’s comment solidified my decision to take him. We thanked the kid and then got back in the car with the cat on my lap. The cat seemed OK with this whole situation. We then stopped at a grocery store to get some cat food, a box of cat litter and a cardboard box to put him in. We also got a couple of Snickers bars to snack on during the eight hour trip back to Omaha and that was when I said we should name him Snickers. With his new name decided, we drove home while the kitten slept in a box in the back seat.

Snickers was a skinny kitten, but he didn’t stay that way. I actually had a vet tell me Snickers wasn’t fat, he was just “big boned.” Snicky was tall with very long legs, but he also weighed 15 lbs at his heaviest, five pounds too much really. He would be on a diet for the next few years, but never seemed to shed those extra pounds while living in Nebraska.

When I divorced, Snickers came with me. The place I was living in at the time didn’t allow pets so I had to move to keep him. It took quite a dent in my meager salary to do so. The strange thing about divorce is people you have known for years, people you call friends, suddenly stop calling you. It was during this time that I sat on the floor of my apartment, since I didn’t have a couch, and Snicky would curl up in my lap. I was too poor for cable so we would watch network shows on Saturday night (Remember the Pretender and the Profiler? That was a typical Saturday night for us.). Of course, with time, things eventually got better. I got a couch; it was a nice one too, with room for both Snicky and I to take naps together. Even after I found a new set of friends to hang out with on weekends, Snicky was still a huge part of my life. He slept at my feet every night, his purr letting me know things were good and he told me when it was time to get up and feed him in the morning by biting my toes through the blankets.

In 1998, I uprooted Snicky for the second time in his life to move to Denver, Colorado. He meowed all the way to North Platte before settling down. Once we got here, he loved it. I have moved six times since arriving (three before and three after getting remarried) and Snicky took each one in stride. Well, that may not have been completely true since there was a bit of spitefulness when I moved in with my husband and introduced Snicky to his big black Lab, Jasmine. Jasmine, to her credit, figured out fairly quick to leave Snicky alone because Snicky made it clear he was the boss, even if Jasmine was bigger. He ate Jasmine’s food and slept in her giant bed, but Jasmine respected her elders and let Snicky do what he wanted.

Snicky had the best purr. I never realized how loud it was until we found our second cat, Morgan. While Morgan’s purr was so tiny, you could barely hear it, Snicky’s purr was the rumble of a diesel engine. It kept my husband awake at night. To me it was the sweetest sound because it told me that all was right with the world. As his illness progressed, Snicky’s purr grew less and less until he stopped altogether.

Snickers was also a cat of many nick-names: Snicky, which I’ve used here, Snickerdoodle, Snickercat, Booger, Snicky-snoo, and since I thought he looked a lot like Supermascot Rocky (NBA, Denver Nuggets), I called him Rocky or Little Puma.

Snicky’s last vet appointment was Saturday, September 5, at 10:30 a.m. He spent his last night lying in the crook of my arm. Around 9 a.m. that morning, I wrapped him in a towel and took him outside on our back deck to sit in the sun. They say that owners and their pets have a lot in common and that was true of Snicky and I. We both liked to sun bathe. We had two sunroof windows in our family room and Snicky would curl up on the floor below them. As the sun moved across the sky, Snicky would move across the room to stay in that rectangle of light. On this morning, both of us basked the sunlight of a beautiful fall day in Colorado. We watched birds and insects buzz past and the occasional dog walker on the trail below. It was most precious hour of my life.

I was only two years out of college when I got Snicky. My entire adult life has revolved around him and now there is this huge void. I just hope that in the time we spent together, he understood how much he meant to me. I know Snicky lived a long life and that he was well cared for. I know that Jasmine and Morgan are here and still need my love and attention, but that doesn’t make it hurt less. Don’t doubt for a second that Snicky couldn’t be ornery, running out the back door when I was already late for work, jumping on the kitchen counter, knocking over glasses of milk, and peeing in my husband’s suitcase. At the end of the day, Snicky would sit in our laps and purr while we watched TV and sometimes when he slept he would put his paw over his head to hide his face. I will miss my Little Puma.

I would like to take this time to ask anyone reading this that you take a second or two to think about the animals in your life and to give a gift in your pet’s name or Snickers’ name to your local animal shelter to help those creatures that need it the most, or to make an even bigger commitment and bring one of those little creatures home to share your life. You will not regret it. For those of you in the Denver area, I ask that you support the Table Mountain Animal Center with your money, your time or your home because they are overwhelmed right now with dogs and cats that need help. Thank you.

Table Mountain Animal Center

Sunday, August 16, 2009

This week: San Pedro, Belize

It didn’t take long before we ran into Richard again. A man like him is easy to find, especially when he tells you his hangout. He was exactly where he said he would be, at Fido’s bar laughing it up with the Rasta men playing dice. He’s the type of guy you like instantly with his easy smile and handy pieces of advice. Richard proved more valuable than any guidebook on Belize I could have bought.

We first met Richard Melito on the turbo-prop from Belize City to San Pedro. Because our flight from Dallas had been delayed, we arrived on the Belize mainland after dark. Other travelers on our flight were scrambling for hotel rooms because at the islands and towns they were going to, the airports didn’t have lights for a night landing. In a panic, my husband and I made a mad dash to Tropic Air to ask about our flight to the island of Ambergris Caye. Standing in line ahead of us was Richard.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “San Pedro is the only airport outside of Belize City with lights.”

With our fears relieved, we boarded the eight-seater plane with the Richard and his wife and a few other travelers. Yelling over the roar of the plane’s engines, Richard told us about how wonderful the island of Ambergris was. He talked about how if you take the plane during the day, you can see the beautiful cayes and reefs in the Caribbean Sea and sometimes you can see pods of dolphins swimming below.

“From the sky you can see all the different colors of blue ,” he told us. “It’s absolutely amazing.”

Richard then began telling us about his favorite hang out, Fido’s.

“It’s pronounced Fee-doos. Don’t say Fi-doos ‘cuz you’ll get laughed at. I have lunch there and play a few games of dice. You ever play dice?” We said no. “Well, stop by in the afternoon and I’ll show you. Do you guys snorkel?” We said yes. “Well, you have to go to Hol-Chan, that’s the best place to snorkel…Oh, I have to tell you about the bugs on this island. Certain times of year they can be bad; it depends on which way the wind is blowing. If the wind is blowing in toward the island, the bugs stay here and bite the heck out of you. If the wind is blowing away from the island, it takes the bugs with it. No matter what, the bugs are at their worst around dusk so we always keep a bottle of bug spray near the front door. Then before we go out to dinner, we spray a little on and they don’t bother us at all.”

In less than 20 minutes we arrived at the tiny airstrip that was the San Pedro Airport. Because of the late American Airlines flight, Tropic Air was kind enough to hold all their airplanes going to San Pedro and every 10 minutes they shipped a few more people. Of course in all the havoc, everyone’s luggage got mixed up. Richard’s was on the flight before ours while our own luggage arrived on the flight after. As the travelers waiting at the baggage claim grabbed the luggage from our plane, I overheard Richard telling some young women where their hotel was.

“You’re staying at the Sea Breeze? Well, see that pink building over there,” he pointed in a northly direction. “That’s your hotel. Our place is on the next block so we’ll walk you over there.” He and his wife took their luggage and said good night to us, but we hoped to meet them again. And that bug spray thing…I planned to try that out.

The next day we did see Richard again, sort of. We were walking around the town of San Pedro (our resort was a mile to the south). We wanted to find some interesting restaurants and to see what kind of night life the place had to offer. As we walked along the beach, the main walking path on the island, we passed right in front of Fido’s. Remembering what Richard said, we stopped in for a burger and beer. Sure enough just as we were leaving out the back, Richard came in from the front and began a loud ruckus of conversation and laughter with the locals at the far end of the bar. We decided not to bother him and went on with our day.

It wasn’t until two days later that we ran into Richard at Fido’s again. This time he was reading a newspaper at the bar by himself so we walked up and said hello. He remembered us by name and greeted us like we had been friends for years, inviting us to sit at the bar and then ordered us some Belikin beers. Richard gave us the mini-version of his life story: He owned a restaurant back in Richmond, VA, called Melito’s. He was even wearing his restaurant T-shirt. He opened the restaurant back in 1981 and it had been very successful, so successful he was able to spend one week, three times a year, in San Pedro. He had been visiting Ambergris Caye around 10 years and finally bought his own condo three years ago (three doors down from Fido’s, of course). He told us that in all his travels San Pedro was the best place on earth. It had everything a person needed: good beer, good beach, and good people. His routine was pretty simple, coffee and a newspaper from the cafe by his condo in the morning, lunch and dice at Fido's in the afternoon, then dinner with his wife in the evening. Throw in a day of fishing and it was, to him, the perfect vacation.

He asked about where we were from and what we did. While talking he told us that living in a college town like Richmond, the population kept getting younger while he was getting older. He said most of those young people moved away after graduation so there were few people his age to hang around with. That was until he met his wife. I believe he said she was an interior designer. She was currently at the town’s fitness center and would be joining him later. He said until he met her, he thought he was meant to go through life alone and then suddenly she appeared. It was such a sweet story, I will never forget it.

Richard asked us how our vacation was going and we told him we had just snorkeled Hol-Chan that morning.

“Did you see any sharks [at Shark-Ray Alley],” he asked. Surprised he even asked, we told him no, we didn’t. Our tour guides had said this was the sharks’ mating season and they 'went somewhere else to mate.' Richard shook his head and began to tell us a story he had heard from a bartender - some Belizeans from the mainland came through with a drag net and captured all the sharks with the intent to sell them as meat to Mexico. Because the docile sharks around the caye are so used to boats coming around, they didn’t even know they were about to get captured. The poachers were later caught by the government, but by then all the sharks were dead. The worst part was that netting nurse sharks wasn’t illegal; there was nothing anyone could do. We were stunned.

“It’s so sad,” Richard said. “Their own people were poaching their own waters. That’s why there were no sharks to see.” (The next day I bought a local paper and the story Richard told us was confirmed. A tour guide from Caye Caulker had a run in with three boats, 1 Belizean, 2 Mexican, with filleted sharks on board)

Richard asked what else we had done and we told him we rented some bikes to ride around and that we had a sunset cruise planned at the end of week. He said he was glad to see we were “enjoying the island.”

“It has a lot to offer,” he said. I told him we had been using his bug spray advice and that we hadn’t been bit yet. We also told him we were headed to Elvie’s for dinner.

“Good choice!” he said gleefully. Meanwhile, he was off to play dice at the end of the bar.

Since we were leaving Saturday morning, we decided to live it up on Thursday night. That meant a nice dinner at the Blue Moon Restaurant where we met five vacationers that were also out for a night on the town. We decided to hang out together and all went over to Fido’s for some beers. We enjoyed several drinks with our new friends before they all decided to head back to their resort. They were getting up for a fishing trip the next day and needed to turn in early. Left alone, we debated whether or not to stay when we saw a familiar T-shirt and ball cap at the bar; it was Richard.

“How’s it going?” he asked as he ordered us more Belikins. “Would you like to learn how to play dice?”

My husband said, “Sure!” The bartender handed Richard some dice and he taught my husband how to play, wagers and all. After a few more rounds of dice and beer Richard announced he needed to get back to his sweetie and left the bar, but that he'd be back again tomorrow night.

Friday night was our last on Ambergris Caye. We couldn’t have asked for a better vacation. We went snorkeling around the beautiful reefs, rode bikes on the beach, played volleyball and relaxed on the shore of our fantastic resort. Since we had to get on a plane early the next morning, we didn’t want to do anything too crazy, but had to go back to San Pedro and Fido’s one more time. After dinner we settled down at the bar, ordered some Belikins and listened to the band as they tuned their instruments in preparation for the evening's entertainment. Fido’s was starting to fill up with the weekend crowd, a mix of locals and tourists. We had just ordered our second beer when we saw Richard approaching with his wife. Without his Melito’s t-shirt and baseball cap we almost didn’t recognize him. We were formally introduced to his wife and I must say what a little hottie she was! Slim and fit, blonde and foxy. Both were still dressed up from their sunset cruise, she in a halter dress and he in a tasteful Tommy Bahama-esque shirt. His wife began telling us about the wonderful sunset cruise they had just been on. Richard showed us the photos of the sunset he had on his digital camera. He asked us how our sunset cruise went. Disappointingly we had to tell him we didn’t go. We had run out of money.

“Well, that’s too bad. You’ll just have to do that one next time you come,” he said. Next time? “You’ll be back, I know it,” he nodded.

Suddenly, the patrons of the bar began to file out the front entrance and into the street.

“The street parade is starting. Let’s go outside and watch,” Richard said. We followed everyone to the front steps. Belize held its national elections the previous Wednesday and Richard told us San Pedro was having a parade for its re-elected mayor. Golf carts and construction trucks drove past Fido’s filled with balloons, streamers and people all in red and white, the winning political party’s colors.

“Isn’t this amazing?” Richard asked no one in particular. The whole crowd was in support of the winning party as they cheered and held up 1980’s boom boxes blaring island rap music and hollering. I took a few photos as the vehicles went by.

“What an island,” Richard sighed. It was nearing 10 o-clock and we needed to get back to our resort to pack. We waved goodbye to Richard and his wife.

“We hope to see you again soon!” he shouted to us. We hope so too, Richard.
For more information: Fido's Bar

Saturday, August 1, 2009

This week: St. John, US Virgin Islands

Down Island Deal Breaker

I fear spiders with every fiber of my being. I know that without spiders, insects would take over the world, but that provides little comfort. Upon entering a room, I immediately search the corners for webs. In Colorado we have wolf spiders, gray and harmless, but freaking huge. In the spring when the wolf spiders can eat crickets unhindered for days, sometimes weeks, they get as large as my hand. My cats bat at them like badminton shuttlecocks while I run the other way. Now I think mice are cute and snakes are smooth to the touch. We have both in our backyard and they don’t bother me a bit, but spiders? No thank you.

* * *

On the Virgin Island of St. John, my husband and I were leaving our Westin villa to find some dinner in Cruz Bay. We had rented a scooter for the week and it was parked out the front door. We opened up the storage space under the seat to retrieve our helmets and put in my bag. As I was putting on my helmet, my husband hopped on the scooter to turn it around when suddenly he yelled, “Holy *!@&!” and pointed to the ground. When I saw what he was looking at I sucked in a huge amount of moist tropical air and for about ten seconds forgot to breathe it back out. In front of me stood a gigantic tarantula; a nature channel documentary come to life. It was parked on the brick driveway of our villa…just a few feet from our front door…black as asphalt. I took a step to my left to put the scooter between us.

My husband put the kickstand on the scooter back down and went to take a closer look. I politely asked if we could “get the hell outta here,” but the 8-year-old in him had surfaced and he wanted to check this thing out. Neither of us had seen a tarantula ‘in the wild’ before. He got within five feet when the tarantula turned to face him. More expletives from both of us followed.

“I can see its eyes!” my husband exclaimed, half excited, half nervous. My husband moved a few steps to his left. The spider rotated accordingly. Then he moved a few steps to his right; the spider rotated again.

“He has me in his sights! It’s like radar! Doo-do-do-doot-doo-do-do-doot!”

We debated whether to take a photo since no one we knew would believe it. Then I imaged myself going through the pictures after we got home and in the middle all those pleasant memories this…thing would pop out. I couldn’t handle that.

“Can’t we just go?” I asked. “It’s creeping me out.”

My husband hopped back on the scooter and started it up. Then I got on the back and none too soon because it made me nervous to stand on the same ground as that beast.

“Maybe it will get into our villa while we’re gone,” my husband said. I smacked him on the shoulder. Then I asked him if he was certain he locked the front door, as if the tarantula could open it. He thought that was funny, but I was irrationally serious.

The only way to leave the villa driveway was to go past the tarantula so my husband made a wide turn and nearly bumped up against the curb as we went around. This turn put me at my closest point with the creature. It was the size of two bricks, side by side. It was black and silky, like fine velvet. I imagined it would be soft to touch, before it sunk its fangs into me. It had a typical spider body with a head and thorax. On the head were two tiny blackberry orbs. It didn’t move as we left, but I was convinced it watched us intently.

Safely tucked away at a corner table in Woody’s Seafood Saloon with a beer in my hand, I asked my husband if he thought the tarantula would still be there when we got back.

“I hope not!” he laughed. “So…do you still want to move to St. John?”

“I don’t know. I have to think about it now.”

“So it’s a deal-breaker for ya.”

“It might be.”

“Something like that could eat our dog.”

“Maybe you can spray for those things,” I wondered.

“Yeah, I doubt that,” he replied.

When we returned after few hours, the tarantula was not in the driveway. That actually bothered me more because we didn’t know where it was. Did it crawl up and over the hill? Or was it behind the bush next to the front door waiting to pounce? Just then, one of the Westin cats came meowing from under a nearby car and brushed up against our legs.

“Maybe this little guy ate it,” my husband said as he gave the black cat some ear scratches. “Lookit the size of his belly!” If he was trying to make me feel better, it wasn’t working.

Talk about paradise spoiled.

* * *

As stated above, I was too scared to take any photos of the tarantula, however, I did include some nice scenic photos of St. John. Looks likes paradise, right? Well vacationers, St. John is loaded with all kinds of creepy crawlies, some that can even kill you. For example, the Manchioneel Tree is so deadly the native Caribs used them to poison the tips of their arrows. Its sap burns the skin and the fruit is poisonous if eaten. The site of a giant black millipede would freak anyone out and even though its toxins are not deadly to humans, it would still be unpleasant to get bit by one. Getting back to spiders, the golden orb spider likes to spin its web, often the size of a human torso, between two trees. Although not deadly, many a hiker has walked into these almost invisible webs on St. John trails or had the spiders drop down on their heads from above. Ew! Had enough? I haven’t even begun to list the creatures below the water, such as the sea urchin, which won’t kill you, but I was told by someone who stepped on one that the pain is so bad, you wish it would.

If all this has creeped you out, then my plan to keep the island to myself is working…
For more information:

Friday, July 17, 2009

This week: Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Antique Car Rally

My friend Leeona’s in-laws belonged to an Antique Car Club in Bundaberg, Queensland. On weekends, they had “rallies” where they would get together to talk about antique cars, look at each other's cars and then go for a Sunday drive around the beautiful countryside of Isis County. In honor of my visit, the in-laws organized a rally to show me around. This rally started off as just two cars, but the open invitation was quickly accepted by others in the club and on rally day 15 cars showed up. They said they came because of Leeona’s “American Friend.” Present were cars of all shapes and sizes, even eras. Two of the oldest cars were pre-1929, while some of the “newer” models were from the 1960’s.

My ride was a 1926 Aston, oldest car in the group (pictured above), and my driver was Geoff. An amicable fellow, Geoff was extremely proud of his car, as he should be, and more than happy to answer my silly questions. He told me a car was considered an antique because of the year it was built. Cars built before 1929 are “antique” while cars built between 1930 and 1940 are “classic” and so on. The Aston, built in Britain, was shipped to Australia and had a top speed of 30 mph. It had no windows and no seat belts, much to the dismay of my two nieces because they learned in school you should always wear your seat belt. Geoff also told my nieces that if the car couldn’t make it up hills they’d have to get out and push. With his thick gray mustache hiding his smile, it was hard to tell if he was joking or not.

At noon sharp the cars started up and we headed out of the public parking lot at Bundaberg. Our first landmark was the Bundaberg Bridge, a beautiful old iron bridge over the Bundaberg River. From here to the ocean! It was a fall day in May and the wind blew our hair around, but the sun shone so a light jacket was all we needed. Our slow speed made us one of the last cars in the convoy.

Our route first took us north to Bennett Heads. We drove through the marina and marveled at the large boats in dry dock. There was also a huge sugar mill which had two giant storage bins on each side. It looked deserted as we drove by, but Geoff said in a few weeks when the crops came in, the place would be buzzing.

From Bennett we drove south down the coastal highway and gazed out onto rocky beaches and the Pacific Ocean. At first we saw just an occasional house, but as we got closer to the town of Bargara, the houses became more frequent. The rocks turned to fine sand at Bargara Beach, which was also the site of numerous subdivisions of expensive new homes. We honked at the kids playing in the front yards as we moved through the subdivision. From Bargara we had to go inland slightly to connect to another road that went south. With several stop signs on this road the girls were worried that they’d have to get out and push, but Geoff managed the car well. Instead the girls sang songs for us since the car had no radio.

Around noon we reached an ocean-side park at Elliot Heads, which is where we stopped for an afternoon snack or “tea” as they call it. The park had covered picnic tables next to a bay that at high tide would have been full of water, but since it was low, large black rocks filled it instead.

Everyone had tins and plasticware full of brownies, cookies and cakes as well as thermoses of tea or bottled water. Everyone was vying for “the American” to try their treats. Leeona whispered in my ear that normally members kept their snacks to themselves, but since people were asking me to sample their treats, they were also sharing with each other. I think some may have been showing off their baking skills, but I wasn’t about to question anyone with lemon cake, macadamia cookies and chocolate brownies around. After tea, Leeona, the girls and I walked in the exposed bay as people fished in a few shallow pools. Our stroll came to an end when we heard the sounds of engines starting up.

We were back on the road and heading for the “Hummock,” the highest point in the county. I had run out of questions to ask Geoff so the girls sang more songs for us. When we finally arrived at the Hummock road we could see the hill. It was an extinct volcano (much like the ones in southeastern Colorado) and stuck straight up out of the flat countryside. We worried the Aston wouldn’t make it up such a steep grade and even Geoff expressed doubts. He put it into low gear and the engine roared as we began our ascent. It was slow going, but we made it, last car up the hill. At the top was a lookout and from it we could see the patchwork squares of dark and light green farmland and Bundaberg town to the west, to the east the Pacific Ocean. A rally rider told me that homes built on this hill were quite expensive since they were the only properties with ocean views in the whole county. With high ground such a rare commodity in Queensland, the locals were quite proud of the Hummock. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I’d stood on the summits of Rocky Mountain fourteeners. However, no fourteener in Colorado had a view of the Pacific so the Hummock got points for that. A distant rain storm was on the southern side of the hill and beautiful rainbows arched in front of it. If not for the storm, we would have been able to see Frasier Island.

The sun was disappearing behind new clouds as we said goodbye and I thanked the members for coming out. We hopped back in the Aston for one last run back to Bundaberg. What a special memory I would get to take back to the States - an event held just for me.
Unless you know someone in the Bundaburg Antique Car Club, chances are you may not be able to experience this, however, there are several cool things to do in Bundaberg and here are some links:
Bundaberg Rum (awesome!)
There is a restaurant outside of Childers called (I kid you not) the Horney Critter. It is a family restaurant, I swear. The oysters are to die for. Can't find any web information at this time.