Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mexican Maintenance

Today Nancy & I walked for an hour along the sea wall in Campeche and after a bowl of my homemade granola, set off on a great day of travel. The 200 miles from Campeche to Valladolid took only four hours on a 4-lane divided highway. The two military checkpoints mainly involved inspecting our cooler!

For the past week, we’ve been discovering water in the trunk and on the floor of the car. This morning we finally discovered the source—a small gap in the rear window seal. A gardener at the hotel happened to have a tube of silicone handy, so he squeezed a bead into the gap. Now we just need to pull out the back seat and dry all the carpeting and padding!

This afternoon, after checking into a quaint Valladolid hotel, we got an oil change and new filter. Not exactly Rapid Oil, but the service in the open air shop was fast and friendly. While Nancy was chatting with Martin, the 70-year old proprietor, she learned that his dentist daughter's office was next door. So Nancy went in and introduced herself to la doctora, who happened to have an opening right then. (In Mexico, as in Costa Rica, dentists clean patients’ teeth themselves. Our Costa Rican dentist once said she doesn’t understand why dentists in the United States delegate such an important procedure to people with less training.) Zip, zap car and teeth were taken care of! The father charged $32, his daughter $39.

We love being back in the Yucatan. Even the air feels welcoming. Tomorrow we drive to Cancun and ride the car ferry to Isla Mujeres. This will complete the first part of our 3-month Mexican adventure.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Palenque Plus

Our driving adventure from Minneapolis to Cancun/Isla Mujeres for the last eleven days has been challenging but fun. We’ve enjoyed the beautiful and diverse countryside along the Gulf of Mexico south of Brownsville, Texas, where we crossed the border. Two days ago, when we reached the gorgeous cloud forests of Chiapas, the state bordering on Guatemala, we thought we were back in Costa Rica. However, the Chiapas roads, while much better than Costa Rican highways, have more frequent speed bumps, road construction, and even blockades by indigenous people. Yesterday we spent 8 hours driving the 122 miles between San Cristobal and Palenque. At one blockade, we waited in line with hundreds of vehicles before paying $5 for the campesinos to let us through.

We have to drive especially carefully because our 1996 Buick is so low to the ground that going over speed bumps has scraped the exhaust system many a time. We are also wary of local police who will stop gringas on any pretence. Twice, despite not agreeing that we had exceeded the speed limit or gone through a red light, we took the officer of the law’s advice and paid “a reduced fine” on the spot.

This evening Nancy and I are in the modern town of Palenque, back from touring the awesome Mayan ruins of the same name. Ancient Palenque had its golden age from 600-800 C.E. when many of its main structures were built. It boasted a population of 8,000 or four people per square meter!

Palenque is the only place in the Americas where a sarcophagus has been discovered. The small burial chamber in the Queen’s pyramid and her plain stone box with a lid look amazingly like ones I have seen in Egypt. Like the Egyptians, the Mayans trace their history way back—the first date recorded on many inscriptions corresponds to 3114 B.C.E. in our calendar. That date starts a cycle that will end December 21, 2012. (BTW, the 32nd century B.C. E. was quite eventful. It marks the start of the first Egyptian dynasty and the building of Stonehenge in Great Britain and Newgrange in Ireland.)

The connections to Egypt seem to be beyond coincidence. In addition to pyramids of the same proportions and sarcophagi, the Mayan knowledge of astronomy was on par with the ancient Egyptians. Our guide told us that Palenque’s three main buildings, including the Queen’s pyramid and the pyramid of Pakal, Palenque’s greatest ruler, are aligned with Orion’s belt, just as the pyramids at Giza are. NASA measurements have proven that the coordinates correspond perfectly to the constellation. Every important building at Palenque was constructed with equinoxes, solstices, or some other astronomical function in mind.

Pakal (603-683 C.E.) oversaw the building of his own monumental pyramid tomb. His ornately carved sarcophagus, only discovered in 1952, rests in the nearby modern museum. It is impressive, larger than King Tut’s sarcophagus. The top alone would cover two side-by-side king-sized mattresses. It’s miraculous that such a huge ornately-carved slab of stone could survive almost 14 centuries without cracking.

Palenque is a technological marvel. A large stone-lined aqueduct runs through the city, providing the pressurized water piped into the palace for baths, saunas, and a sanitation system. (See Nancy sitting on a stone Mayan toilet, sewage pipe directly underneath.)

Despite Palenque’s many 7th century comforts, Nancy and I are grateful for the Best Western hotel, where we enjoyed guacamole and chips as the full moon rose behind the royal palms surrounding the swimming pool.

Tomorrow we round the hook of southern Mexico and head north to Campeche as our destination for the night. We are looking forward to being in the Yucatan, where the roads are straight and the seafood exquisite.

Hasta luego!


Friday, August 20, 2010

Adios, Vista Esmeralda!

On August 6, Nancy & I sold our house in Costa Rica. With all the documents signed and stamped a dozen times, we passed our mountain retreat outside of San Ramon to three Costa Rican sisters.

We bought the lot and partially built house in 2003 when Nancy took Minnesota community college students down for a Spanish immersion semester. I returned in June of that year to shoo the local horses out of the building and restart construction. (The original owners had run into financial difficulties and needed to sell.)

In January, 2004, the first year of Nancy's phased retirement, we returned to Costa Rica where our "completed" house awaited us. My body knew there was trouble ahead because the night before we boarded the plane I broke out in hives for the second time in my life (the first being when I was a kid and Mom sprayed perfume on me).

We spent the next four months dealing with builders, repairmen, and craftsmen, trying to get the house finished...or at least the plumbing to work correctly. I cleaned 120 square meters of tile on my hands and knees, using acid to remove grout, paint, and crud because the workers never bothered to put down tarps when they worked.

Nancy got quite proficient at speaking rural Spanish and using words such as wrench, O-ring, faucet, leak.

God, we worked hard. But then, mid-afternoon, we'd take a break on the veranda, swaying in hammocks, breathing in the fresh mountain air, and looking over coffee and sugar fields to the volcanoes in the distance. Ahhh, we'd landed in paradise!

We still own the lot just below the house. It's a little piece of security, I guess, a bit of holding onto possibilities. When we stayed a few days with our friends Joanna and Jose up the hill, the glorious mornings, the fabulous birds, the fecundity of soil, and the spirit of a community built at the edge of a cloud forest, tempted us to think...hmmm...someday...

But for now, we say adios, Vista Esmeralda. Thanks for wonderful memories and (now) funny stories!


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ways to Shine: A Lesson from Birds

"Birds attract each other in two ways," Gary our local Costa Rican guide says. "Colorful birds attract by their beauty. Plain birds attract by their singing."

Nancy, Gary, & I are hiking along the coast toward Costa Rica's huge Corcovado National Park (what National Geographic has called "the most biologically intense place on Earth") when we spot scarlet macaws in the tall palm trees fringing the beach. Their harsh squawks are unmistakable, like cranky couples squabbling with each other. But the beauty of these tropical parrots is other-worldly. We stand enraptured by the bright blues, reds, yellows and whites.

Then there are “LLBs,” the little brown birds who trill their hearts out. One such bird, the riverside wren, graces our days with liquid tunes floating through the tropical forest. And each spring the clay colored robin, as undistinguished in appearance as its name, burbles the graceful music that harkens the arrival of the rainy season.

The guide's words resonate with me. I’m neither colorful nor tuneful, but my soul finds ways to shine, through my work, my words, my dancing, and my rich, loving relationships. Unlike birds, programmed for either colorful feathers or attractive song, we humans have many ways to be gifted--physical beauty, talents, intelligence, wit, competence, and compassion, to name a few. May we all shine, sing, and express our personal gifts freely and fearlessly, like the flamboyant macaw and the humble wren.


Luna Lodge in the Osa Peninsula

The Osa Peninsula in the southwestern corner of Costa Rica, is home to Corcovado National Park, which contains the largest primary rainforest on the Pacific Coast. Visiting this remote park has been a dream of Nancy and mine for years. Five years ago, we got close, but the arduous hike in searing temperatures into the roadless park kept us at a nearby tent camp accessible by car.

Corcovado still is not easy to get to. We took a 12-seat propeller plane from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, one hour southwest to the village of Puerto Jimenez. The plane bumped to a stop at a dirt road after taxiing past the town cemetery. "Convenient," our friend Joanna Marsh quipped.

Luna Lodge, where Nancy, Joanna, and I stayed for 4 nights, is at the end of a massively pot-holed road where 13 bridgeless river-crossing require a high-clearance vehicle and courage. The ride from Puerto Jimenez to the lodge would have taken two hours, without the stops to see monkey troupes crossing the road and a flock of chestnut-mandibled toucans.
All-inclusive Luna Lodge provided three satisfying meals a day, mostly organic. Situated about a mile from the coast, it is high enough to be out of the oppressive heat of the shore. The owner, Lana Wedmore, is the gracious proprietor from Colorado whose vision and determination have created a Shangri-La-like retreat in the jungle. Now she is spearheading the White Hawk Project in hopes of raising funds to purchase a large tract of virgin forest between Luna Lodge and Corcovado National Park to protect it from unbridled development.
We loved the quiet lodge, where all we heard were birds, frogs, and falling rain. The open-air yoga studio, where Lana offers classes twice a day, is perched high on the hillside, surrounded by forest with a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean deep in the background. No closing of eyes during that session. My eyes were feasting on nature.

Luna Lodge cabin and howler monkey photos by Joanna Marsh.
Below, Nancy & Becky doing yoga at Luna Lodge overlooking the misty jungle of the Osa Peninsula.
Photo by Klea Brewton-Fitzgerald

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Jane Lynch weds her life partner

One of our favorite actors, Jane Lynch, recently married her life partner, Lara Embry, a clinical psychologist. Becky and I first discovered Lynch's comic genius in the Christopher Guest film Best in Show (2000). Our appreciation grew with her performance as Julia Child's sister in Julia & Julia, and during the four seasons of The L Word, where she played a tough-as-nails, sexy lawyer. More recently we've howled at the outrageous cheerleading coach Lynch plays to perfection on Glee.

Becky and I wish Jane (49) and Lara (41) much happiness as a couple as a moms to Lara's eight-year-old daughter Haden. For the full New York Times story, click here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Crash Course

Is The United States on a crash course? According to Dr. Chris Martenson, red lights are flashing all over the dashboard, yet we keep driving down the freeway instead of pulling over and rethinking our trip, our speed, and our gas-burning vehicle.

Yesterday Nancy and I attended a presentation at the Minnesota History Society co-sponsored by the Legislative Committee on the Environment and the U of M Institute on the Environment. Martenson painted an alarming picture of the economy, energy, and environment.

Given the exponential growth of population and need for energy we humans are in a fix. He believes that massive changes are ahead of us in the next decade or two as we face economic upheaval, energy demands that cannot be met with fossil fuel, and dwindling resources that require ever more expense to extract fewer and fewer minerals from the earth.

"It's not a problem," he says, "it's a predicament." Problems have solutions, predicaments require management. But instead of tackling the challenges--for example, putting money into a Manhattan-type project to come up with an energy/economic system that can replace the mess we have now, the U.S. government continues on the path toward insolvency.

Bottom line, we need to shift our paradigm of what constitutes a fulfilling life. We need to use less energy, fewer resources, and shrink the economy. (Europeans use half the energy per capita that Americans do and still have a satisfying lifestyle.) We need government to start dealing with the hard problems. We cannot sustain an economic system based on consumerism, debt, and continual growth.

Martenson offers a free three-hour course on his website (www.chrismartenson.com/crashcourse). Nancy and I were riveted by his twenty short, clear, engaging chapters. I encourage you to check it out and share The Crash Course with others who would like to know what they can do about the probability that the next twenty years will be nothing like the last twenty years.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Beer from the Brau Brothers

Our favorite brewery is located in Lucan (pronounced LOO-CAN), Minnesota, population 220, a forty minute drive from Fort Ridgely State Park where Nancy and I camped last weekend.

Brau Brothers occupies a large red utilitarian shed at the edge of town. Outside is a pond used to drip-irrigate the nearby 600 hops, each plant requiring 6 gallons of water a day. A hops plant can grow up to 12 inches daily, curling up a rope in a counter-clockwise direction as it follows the sun's movement across the open prairie sky. Adjacent to the hops yard is a barley field. While it's fun to think that the Braus raises their own beer ingredients, these fields provide a miniscule percentage of their brewing requirements. They do get most of their grain locally, however, from a distributor in Kasota, near Mankato.

Dale Brau, the father of the three brothers who run the brewery, showed us around and gave us generous samples of ice cold beer. (Being the designated driver, I switched to Schell's 1919 Root Beer after the first round--how classy to offer premium root beer on tap!)

The brothers, Trevor, Dustin, and Brady, started the company in 2006. They bought repossessed brewing equipment in Virginia and shipped it to Minnesota on three semi-trailers. The beautiful copper vats line one wall of the building.

Nancy and I had our first taste of Brau Brother's Cream Stout one night at the Guthrie Theatre a couple of years ago. We immediately loved its rich, smooth depth --and have sought it out in local liquor stores every since. We tasted the Ring Neck Braun Ale and wow, does that slide down easily! For me, it's a toss up between the Cream Stout and Ring Neck. Both are fabulous.

For the first time the company is offering a light beer to answer demand. We don't care for light beer, and this one met our expectations--thin. But if forced to drink a light, I'd choose Old No. 56, named after Dale's newly acquired fire engine made by Forstner Fire Apparatus of Madelia--our home town! If we didn't already appreciate Brau Brothers, we would now with a little fire truck from Madelia scheduled to start pumping samples of their micro brew at the Lucan BrauFest street dance next weekend.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Nine-Holer at Fort Ridgely

We continued our yearly exploration of Minnesota state parks at Fort Ridgely, where we tried out our new tent. Although this park is only 100 miles southwest of Minneapolis and was less than an hour from Madelia the whole time we were growing up, neither Nancy nor I had ever been there. What a gem!

Situated on 478 acres of rolling hills on the north bluff of the Minnesota River Valley, Fort Ridgely is home to a crucial part of state history. Here the Dakota Sioux in 1862 rose up to fight the white men who were treating them so abominably. The fort became a retreat for hundreds of settlers as the small garrison, led by a 19-year-old lieutenant, fought off four hundred Dakota. It was this uprising that resulted in the Sioux being banished from the state.

Walking at sunset around the historic area that contains the foundation of the barracks and reading the descriptive plaques explaining what happened during the 3-day battle, Nancy and I were struck by the beauty and sacredness of the wide open spaces, the wooded ravines, and the reddening sky. It seemed hard to believe that as the Dakota were engaged in a struggle for their culture here in Minnesota, the United States struggled for its survival in the Civil War.

The commissary is the only military building left standing--its strong granite walls now houses a museum run by the Minnesota Historical Society, featuring an 18-minute video that is well worth the watch. Several picnic shelters and bathrooms were built by the CCC in the 1930s.

What makes this former military site doubly remarkable is that it is now wrapped by a golf course! Nancy and I played a round, although Nancy quit after three shots because her sprained thumb hurt too much to play, but she made a good caddy for me. The 1927 nine-hole par-35 course was renovated last year, and it is a challenging beauty. The hills are so steep that from the first tee, you descend 33 stone stairs to the fairway. There are plenty of woods, ponds, and high prairie grass in which to lose balls, but with few players and no carts , the course is leisurely. In fact, at the third tee, we lounged for several minutes under the oak canopy, enjoying the big blue sky, fresh breeze, and gorgeous view.

Tick season had passed, and mosquitoes were few, but we witnessed an infestation of tent caterpillars. They dropped from the trees with a splat onto our tent, table, and toes and crawled around. If we shifted position in our camp chairs, we had to make sure we didn't squash one.

Ridgely Creek runs along the campground, gurgling at night and providing a convenient place for kids to take a dip. There are miles of hiking trails and horse trails. Near the oak-shaded picnic area, a historic cemetery holds the remains of settlers and the soldiers from the Dakota uprising.

Fort Ridgely State Park is a winner. We want to return again and again!