Theodore Roosevelt National Park

While this isn’t the first national park, it’s a very important one. Our 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt, spent many happy seasons here in North Dakota hunting bison, exploring badlands, and developing a lifelong love for naturally wild areas.

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This is one entrance to the south part of the park. There is a separate northern part as well as a rustic area where Roosevelt once had a hunting camp.

Fortunately, for us, Roosevelt became an environmentalist before that was cool. He created the US Forest Service, protected 230 million acres of land, and added five national parks during his presidency. Without his avid support of preservation and conservation, we might not have fascinating lands like this–devoid of development–to visit. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is just one of numerous National Park Service and other sites honoring this forward-thinking conservationist.

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One trail sign said “Imagine you were a settler traveling west and came across this area you had to cross…” You’d probably call it bad lands too.

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If you don’t have to worry about blazing a trail, hauling water, and watching for rattlesnakes, the lands are quite beautiful.

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Stretching miles in the distance, these badlands were formed by millions of years of erosion of the stratified rock.

The south part of the park has a lovely loop road, almost 40 miles long, with numerous overlooks and trails. We followed one called Ridgeline Trail with views over the Little Missouri River, which at the time had very little water. Although the area looks dry, there is a lot of native vegetation.

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With his new appreciation for herbs, thanks to Blue Apron, Michael was able to confirm that sagebrush smells like…sage!

After seeing a couple big animal monuments on our way here we were looking forward to seeing real big animals in the wild. Despite the rugged conditions, many animals do quite well in the badlands.

Our first animals in the park were actually quite small. The park has a dozen sites labeled “prairie dog town,” as if specific areas are marked off for these little guys to inhabit. The ground is pockmarked with mounds around small holes, just big enough for the prairie dogs to pop their heads out or scurry down when danger arrives.

We did notice that the prairie dog towns seemed to be segregated. One location had animals with blondish fur. Another had brownish, and a third had reddish. These are not different species and it’s not a racial selection process. Prairie dogs tend to mate within colonies so coloration is proliferated based on genetic processes (like Mendel and his peas).

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Do blondes have more fun?

Apparently, we didn’t signal any danger. We drove up and stopped within a few feet of hundreds of these critters and they weren’t fazed. Then at 7 p.m. they all disappeared into their holes. Curfew? Or maybe it was time for the prairie dog’s equivalent of Game of Thrones.

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Prairie dogs are quite cute in action, very busy. They chitter a bit as they forage on the ground and then stand at attention to chew or just look around for a second or two.

The next animals were quite familiar. Wild turkeys, just like on Grandpa Bach’s farm.

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Quite an elaborate feather structure for birds that don’t really fly.

We hiked a bit in the hills and looked down on the wilderness. We knew the park had horseback riding, but we didn’t expect to see wild horses. This is what Teddy Roosevelt said about them: In a great many – indeed, in most – localities there are wild horses to be found, which, although invariably of domestic descent, being either themselves runaways from some ranch or Indian outfit, or else claiming such for their sires and dams, yet are quite as wild as the antelope on whose domain they have intruded.

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Wild horses roam the park. These look like descendants of horses from the 1800s.

The mule deer too were quite unafraid, standing right at the edge of the road, seemingly posing for photographs.

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They don’t seem to be worried about hunters. We actually drove past this one four times.

As we were leaving, our new friends came to say goodbye.

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The same horses we saw running in the hills earlier showed up again miles down the road.

The very last animal was the biggest of all.

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This bison strolled along just a few feet from the car, like the prairie dogs, not interested in us. Good thing, because our car would have been no match.

Next we head to Yellowstone, the nation’s first park, which is filled with herds of bison, deer, and elk. Same old, same old…

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Big Animals, the 2017 Version

We’re on the road again, heading from New York to California. It’s been a while since we’ve updated our travel stories, but we came across a site that was so impressive the blog had to come out of retirement.

This is one of the top ten attractions near Bismarck North Dakota, although it is actually in Steele, over 40 miles from Bismarck.

It’s been in place since 1999 when local farmer and ironworker James Miller was enlisted to create a sculpture representing the bird life of the region.

Without further ado, here is Sandy. Tada!

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So, do you think Sandy’s butt looks big in this color? Michael caught her best side.

Sandy is the world’s largest sand hill crane. She looks like she’s about 40 feet tall, but her smaller live cousins are 3 to 4 feet tall, with wingspan to 7 feet. These cranes—not this specific one, but the species—have existed on Earth for 2,500,000 years unchanged, the oldest living species of birds.

This area of Kidder County is “one of America’s premier birding hotspots,” with three Globally Important Bird Areas (GIBAs) and nesting spots for endangered piping plovers. They have grassland sparrows, raptors, waterfowl and shorebirds, with a stop for an avid birder. The cranes tend to visit glacial potholes. We’re moving from the glacial lakes of New York to the glacial potholes of North Dakota. We passed a number of these small lakes or ponds as we drove across the state.

The World’s Largest Sandhill Crane foundation maintains the site quite nicely. They also have a small garden showing some of the area’s native plants. Notice how old wine bottles are put to use for watering.

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This grass is Side Oats Gramma, paired with Barefoot Sweet Red water.

Wait! There’s more! As we continued west through North Dakota we couldn’t miss Salem Sue, a giant Holstein cow guarding a hillside overlooking the highway and the small town of New Salem. She is 38 feet tall and 50 feet long, cost $40,000 to build in 1974 and is very lifelike, complete with dew claws above her hooves and ductwork on her udders. She honors the dairymen of the region. The high school sports teams are the mighty Holsteins.

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We had holsteins on our farm when we were growing up. But our Bessie was never this big.

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Notice the dew claws, the gray appendages on Sue’s hind legs (just behind Nancy’s calf. Oh, that’s a pun. Get it?)

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Michael says you can never have too many big cow pictures. Here is Sue’s best side.

Sandy and Sue remind us of some of the big things we saw in Australia, as well as a tour we took with the kids and Gilda in 1998 from New York to the Midwest, stopping for photographs with every big animal we could find…and there were a lot. So many that the kids were a little tired of the whole idea by the time we reached Wisconsin. My mother’s cousin owned the Ellis Big Chicken Restaurant in Marinette. This was the end of the road for our big animal tour of 1998. None too soon as far as the kids were concerned.

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Michael caught the kids’ best sides too.

Next we’re headed to the northern national parks and hope to see other big animals, only live.

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Our own private Finger Lake seaplane tour…It was great!

Since we bought our home on Keuka Lake in the late 1980s we’ve enjoyed cruising along the shoreline. Michael calls this a “real estate cruise.” Today we made the cruise with a different perspective, from 1,000 feet in the air.

The journey south from our house, way above our normal “flight path” by boat

At Harbor Lights Marina, just a hop and a skip from our home by seaplane, Andy and Bob have started the company Finger Lakes Seaplanes.

Harbor Lights Marina has always had a flag flying. Now it’s joined by a wind sock.

They offer customized air cruises over Keuka and beyond for up to three people at a time. These guys are both commercial seaplane pilots with more than 30 years of flight experience between them, very professional and personable at the same time. With lots of information about the area we were flying over, they provided a safe, informative and fun trip. Headphones included!

Michael, Chris, and Nancy ready for take-off

In our 30-minute voyage we flew the length of Keuka Lake, 21 miles between Hammondsport at the south end and Penn Yan at the north, then a hop over the bluff to Branchport and a cruise back down the west branch of our crooked lake. It was fantastic seeing some of our favorite lakeside sights with views we’ve never had before.

Hammondsport, from a whole new perspective

Here’s a perfect example. Back in the 1970s and early ’80s we visited the working Gold Seal Winery, a beautiful spot for a tasting right along the lake. Sadly, it closed in 1984. Built in the late 1800s, it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places (lots of info about Gold Seal there). For several years we heard that new owners were planning to renovate the site for a rebirth. We saw giant dumpsters filling with items to be removed. The building still looks whole from the road. However, look at this aerial shot and you’ll see that the roof has fallen in.

Gold Seal Winery, not quite ready for reoccupation

We love going to Hammondsport (America’s Coolest Small Town) and walking around our own version of Stars Hollow. (Catch up on Gilmore Girls if you don’t get the reference.) We have our favorite restaurant, bakery, and liquor store and our friends at the post office. The square hosts weekly Thursday night concerts and the annual craft sale, arts sale, and palette auction. From this perspective, it does look cool. It also looks so small!

Hammondsport Square. COOL!

Every year Michael gets a from-the-water vision of Keuka College when he participates in the Keuka Triathlon when the water is still in the low to mid-60s. Brr. But from this perspective, it’s a view of a lovely, peaceful campus centered on the pretty white Norton Chapel.

Keuka College

The go-kart track in Penn Yan is one of the first places Chris “drove a car,” probably almost 20 years ago. Today it has finally gone out of business, but it sure looks neat from above.

Go-kart track ready for someone to scoop it up and reopen for the next generation of racecar drivers in training.

Along the west shoreline is Camp Good Days and Special Times, a very special organization that provides camping experiences for kids with cancer. It started in 1979! From the road we see the pool, but the rest of the facilities—cabins, playground, mini-golf, beach, basketball courts, an iceberg float and lots of space to play—are hidden from view until you’re up in the air. Over its many years of service, the camp has helped more than 45,000 kids have special times on Keuka Lake.

Camp Good Days and Special Times

As we passed Pulteney we could see Gilded Grapes vineyard owned by our friends John and Pam Althouse. Some of their premium grapes end up in lovely white wines from Dr. Konstantin Frank. We’ve spent a couple hours with them helping with maintenance tasks on the vines: tying up shoots, removing excess leaves, adjusting support wires. Our contribution was minuscule, but John is out there every day, Pam most days too, doing the painstaking work that gives these grapes their perfect sweetness and acidity, taste and nose. Some years John gets help from Mother Nature with just the right amount of sun and rain. Other years, he loses a significant part of his crop to horrendous wintry freezes. Here’s a riddle from a vineyard owner. Question: How do you make a little money running a vineyard? Answer: Start with a lot of money!

Gilded Grapes, one of the best-kept vineyards on Keuka Lake!

Keuka is the Y-shaped Finger Lake, with the bluff coming down the middle of two branches. From our perspective on the western shore, we see the image of a wine bottle on its side. From the air, the bluff actually looks like an island rising out of the lake.

Keuka Lake’s Bluff

Just past the bluff we buzzed over Garrett Memorial Chapel where Liz and Jesse were married. From the water the chapel is virtually invisible as it is surrounded by lush forest. In fact, just small bits of the lake are visible in views looking out from the chapel. From the air we can easily tell that the chapel exists. It’s the rooftop at the bottom of this photo.

Garrett Chapel from the air

Interestingly, Andy is the brother of Art, who owns the Manor House where Liz and Jesse had their wedding reception. On the western hillside of Keuka is Heron Hill winery.  That smaller white Tudor house with a brown roof on the left? That’s the Manor House. (Click on the photo to blow it up.) Aah! Happy memories.

Heron Hill and Manor House

The plane is a Cessna 180 and it was manufactured in 1954. (Now don’t think that’s old. A lot of good things were born that year.) It looks so young and fresh because every 100 hours many key parts are inspected, tested, exchanged, etc. as required for commercial use. We had no hesitation on the airworthiness and seaworthiness of this craft. Don’t we look enthusiastic?

Chris and Nancy ready for our tour.

This is the first year of operation for Finger Lakes Seaplanes. They hung out their shingle just a few weeks ago and through word-of-mouth advertising they’re already getting as many as eight flights a day. We love seeing them fly past. This fall they’ll be offering rides at the fly-in for the Keuka Lakes Seaplane Homecoming. (Read about the 2016 seaplane homecoming here.)

Da Plane. I forgot to ask if it has a name…

We were so pleased to meet Andy and Bob. Their effort exemplifies what’s great about America. These two men spent years working at a craft building their skills, took some risk, and channeled their passion to create a business around something they love that provides a unique and valued service for their neighbors. Kudos to them!

This is a view from above of the famous USA sign planted by local Branchport farmers in September 2001 to honor victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Book a flight with Finger Lakes Seaplanes. Tell your friends. And ask Andy or Bob to dip a wing to say hello as they pass over our cové. We’ll be waving from the dock.

Our little bit of paradise along Keuka Lake

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Seaplanes in the Home of Naval Aviation: Hammondsport, New York

Every year we leave Keuka Lake soon after Labor Day. In our last days here, we participate in the second and final ring of fire of the season (bonfires and flares all around the lakeshore), we put away all our toys (kayaks, paddleboard, sailboat, glider—swing, not plane—grill, etc. Many hours of work!), we close the windows to get through the cold nights (so sad!) and we head off for parts unknown. This year is different. We’re headed to Alexandria, Virginia, to care for our new grandchild. (Yay!) We don’t start till October so we aren’t in a rush to get there and we’re not in a rush to leave. Finally we can enjoy a popular post-Labor Day event: the seaplane homecoming!

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In this poster, the seaplane is heading south just beyond the bluff, about where our house is.

We rode our bikes to Hammondsport—still warm enough on September 17 for biking during the day. As we approached Depot Park at the bottom, as in south end, of the lake, we heard an announcer say, “This is the first time bombs will be dropped on Keuka Lake!” All of a sudden the event sounded very exciting. It turned out the bombs would be grapefruits—not explosive, but they still made big splashes visible from shore. The MC made another announcement. The first person who paid $50 to the Glenn Curtiss non-profit would have the chance to be a bombardier. Michael was too slow on the draw to snap that up; it was gone in an instant.

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Bombardier heading for a seaplane. (Note the grapefruit “bombs” ready to be loaded.)

The planes flew toward town lining up between two orange buoys and then dropped the “bombs” to try to hit a target. Most of the grapefruit fell quite distant from the target. We heard an explanation from the announcer. “We civilian pilots aren’t used to throwing things out the windows of our planes.” That sounds appropriate. Who won? It was the volunteer bombardier. His bomb landed just six feet from the target.

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A seaplane getting ready to taxi into the lake and take off.

After the bombing runs, the planes headed toward the beach, flying in and landing on their pontoons on the water. They dropped their wheels and with a final engine burst, they drove out of the lake onto the small beach. A couple planes needed a bit of help to maneuver into place, so folks in the crowd helped push. These planes are quite light.

Many of the pilots were friends, who meet up at fly-ins all over the East. Some were just coming from an event in North Carolina. Their planes had a lot of variety, with older Seabees on struts, some dual-prop (front and back) models, and even one that was built by the owner.

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This SeaBee was built in 1946.

This small plane took 9 months to build.

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Hard to tell it’s a seaplane. Where are the pontoons?

 

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This Cessna took a pacifist role in the day’s event, not participating in the bombing. We see it often along the Keuka shoreline…and in the air.

While the pilots patiently shared information about their seaplanes and posed for photos, the rest of us lined up for pulled pork sandwiches, just like Charlotte! The fire department boat came out on the lake to demonstrate its amazing spray. We heard someone in the crowd ask, “How much water do they store on that boat?” We think he was being funny, but couldn’t be sure. (FYI The boat draws its water from the lake, just as we draw water for our home from the lake.)

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Keuka’s fire department boat

It reminded us of the Jet d’Eau in Geneva, but with a sideways tilt.

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Geneva’s Jet d’Eau

You might wonder why tiny Hammondsport would host this kind of event. It’s not because Hammondsport is the coolest small town in America (although it is!) It’s because Hammondsport is the home of naval aviation because Glenn Curtiss, the father of naval aviation, lived and worked here.

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Glenn Curtiss, like the Wright brothers, was a local mechanic, repairing bicycles and small engines. He created his first flying machine, a dirigible powered by a motorcycle engine in 1904, some would say before Wilbur and Orville got off the ground. As the nation was preparing to join the war to end all wars, now known as World War I, Curtiss was preparing to fly across the Atlantic. In fact, we ran across the home of one of his fellow racers, Auguste Maicon, in Villefranche-sur-Mer.

By 1913, Curtiss had started training Yale aviators to fly the Curtiss Model E flying boat, truly an aviation wonder. Several years ago, seaplane enthusiasts restored one of the 100-year-old crafts and flew it over Keuka. Watch the Model E Flying Boat video at the Glenn Curtiss Museum. (You can even see the Keuka Maid dry-docked in the background.)

Visitors to the Glenn Curtiss Museum can see all of this information and plenty of artifacts related to seaplanes and much more. We’ve spent summers here since 1989 and we’ve yet to visit. Shame on us! Our friend and neighbor Julie went several times and created a blog post about the Glenn Curtiss Museum.

After the excitement of the afternoon, we rode our bikes home and were just in time to see the flyby. All the seaplanes flew up and down the lake, looking a bit like geese, almost in formation, as they said goodbye to summer.

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The seaplane flyby

After I took this photo I opened my email and saw that I had won a prize from the summer reading program at Pulteney Library. There’s a kids’ program too, but I feel like a kid participating in this annual event. Other years I’ve won wine, custom pottery, marina gift cards, a bag of books, and more. My prize this year was two passes to the Glenn Curtiss Museum. Is that a coincidence or what? We will visit next summer for sure.

We went for our last swim today, September 25, and the water in Keuka Lake was still 72 degrees, much more comfortable than we expected it to be. As I write this note, we’re driving to Alexandria to start the next chapter in our lives with our grandson, the current and future aviator.

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Our little Keuka aviator on his first flight, with Mom as copilot (and engine).

Post Script (I’m not getting this posted until Nov!): A month has flown by. We’ve had four weeks of bonding with this little guy. He’s adorable! And during that time, he’s flown to three different states and a foreign country. Following in Glenn Curtiss’s tracks, or contrails, for sure!

 

 

 

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Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Weird Structure

Our Keuka neighbor Julie and I went on a short hike on the Finger Lakes Trail south of Hammondsport NY. Julie had just returned from a 100-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park, but this was going to be just 3 miles—more my speed, or rather distance. Julie is an expert planner for outings like this. Read about her approach on her PlanPackGo site. Following her advice I put on some Off bug spray to keep the mosquitoes, gnats, black flies and other pests away.

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Notice the Chinese writing on our can. This is Off from our time in Hong Kong, 1995 to 2001. Despite being almost as old as Patrick, it still worked.

During our hiking chatter we found out that in our youth we were both Trixie Belden fans. Nothing like a good mystery! If you don’t know the name, Trixie and rich girl neighbor Honey inhabited a parallel universe with Nancy Drew. They lived in upstate New York and found more jewel thieves, antique thieves, and all-around bad guys than you can find in Chicago today. In every book Trixie, Honey, and the Bob Whites solved a mystery, escaped some danger, and were exceptionally conscientious about doing their chores at home.

So we happened upon a mystery that Trixie and Honey would have spent a full book solving. This is it. What is it?

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Very odd to see this kind of standalone structure at the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere.

Spoiler Alert: The answer is coming. Scroll to the comments and make a guess before you keep reading.

Our first guess was a drying rack, possibly for hops. This wasn’t all that likely since there wasn’t any hops in sight. Maybe we were just thirsty and thinking about having a beer. (These photos are hops from our trip to Washington/Oregon last year.)

Maybe the mystery structure was for drying marijuana, although the area seemed too exposed for something that is still so illegal. Tobacco? That doesn’t grow this far north. And where are the crop fields? Of course it could have been a drying rack for clothes. But as we got closer it seemed obvious that it was too large and too high, not to mention too far away from a house, to serve this purpose.

We continued on and found another clue. This blue stone, obviously manmade, was just off a trail at the edge of a field in the middle of nowhere near a wooded area. It could have been a piece for a mancala game or a collapsed marble or a decorative stone used for flower arranging. But why here?

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Not a diamond, as in Trixie Belden and the Gatehouse Mystery, but a blue stone.

At the top of a hill was a very nice bench with a spot overlooking a small lake next to a farm. Several colored flags stood in a circle. Another piece of the mystery.

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Beautiful spot to rest. What’s with the flags?

Trixie and Honey probably would have figured out everything from these clues, but we were stumped. We decided to take the easy way: Walk down to the farmhouse and simply ask. No one seemed to be around until we poked our heads into a greenhouse and met Kevin O’Brien, who explained it all.

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Kevin O’Brien wearing a Wegmans apron.

Kevin was tending microgreens (which looked delicious). For eight years, he’s worked on this site, which includes an organic farm, Thunder Mountain Foods. They provide microgreens and wheatgrass across upstate New York (including our favorite store Wegmans) AND they have a CSA, with an option to do a work share: Work at the farm for a few hours a week and take home fresh organic produce. We’re on it for next summer!

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Microgreens in the greenhouse just beginning to grow when the rest of the area’s crops are at the end of the season.

That didn’t clear up the mystery of the odd structure, but Kevin explained the second function of the site, hosting PeaceWeavers, a community formed when the drums of war beat in the 1990s for Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East. The group’s spirituality draws on Buddhism and Lakota Native American tradition. The sanctuary hosts retreats, seasonal gatherings, and in some years a natural building colloquium, NBC.

Among other materials, the natural building process uses mud and straw.

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Which little pig built a house of mud and straw?

On this hot day, it was cool and pleasant inside. One mystery was solved as well.

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The blue stone is one of the decorative pieces placed in the mud.

The group built a meeting house several years ago, a Round House.

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Inside the meeting house, very cozy.

Nearby is one of the simplest and most essential structures, an outhouse.

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All it needs is a half-moon cutout on the canvas door.

The retreat includes a sweat lodge, although with the hot weather this summer, a fire in an enclosed structure wasn’t really needed to work up a good sweat.

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Sweat lodge looking in

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Sweat lodge inside

We found out the flags we had seen above the lake were part of a medicine circle. Finally we came back to the mysterious structure. Its function became more clear when we saw the fire pit at the center. When PeaceWeavers hosts events, the structure becomes a shaded arbor. Pine boughs are placed on the overhead lattice and participants gather in the shade while the group creates a sacred circle for silent meditation. Mystery solved!

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Imagine a group of like-minded folks weaving a circle of peace around the mysterious structure.

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Here they are! The Peace Weavers (Photo from their website)

We were happy to find such an interesting spot. You don’t have to travel around the world to find something worth visiting.

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PeaceWeavers

Our return home brought even more surprises. Who would have thought that smelly old shoes could be repurposed as containers for succulents?

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This is only about 10% of the garden of hens and chicks in shoes. Note the greenery popping out of the roller blade.

We may have stumbled on the world’s smallest church, on Robbins Road outside Bath.

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Where is the rest of the church?

We ran into Jim Robbins (yes, related to the road), who explained what we were seeing. At one time, in fact for over 100 years, a Methodist church stood on this site. Some time after the church roof fell in, the building was removed but the steeple was left standing. This wasn’t dropped from a rooftop; it is the original position of the steeple. Jim and his family plan to repair the steeple, probably next year. We’ll be back to take a look.

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Foundation stone inside the steeple

Julie and I enjoyed our outing so much that we’ve decided to write a book together about Keuka Lake. Watch for its publication next summer!

Meanwhile, Michael and I still have more to publish from our trip this spring, specifically Mexico. That will come soon.

 

 

 

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Costa Rica plants, animals, volcanoes and a quetzal

If Costa Rica doesn’t bring visions of lush forested jungle, it should.

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Hibiscus in the wild

We visited Monte Verde Bosque Nuboso, not a rainforest, but a cloud forest.

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The distinction between rainforest and cloud forest wasn’t clear until we hiked to the viewpoint and found that there wasn’t one, viewpoint, that is. We were just 30 miles from the ocean, but in and above clouds so all we could see were the treetops fading into haze. No rain, but 100% humidity.

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The moisture in the air helps the foliage grow…BIG!

Monteverde is described as one of the most likely spots to see Costa Rica’s interesting wildlife.

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Our first sighting: a friendly face, complete with protruding tongue.

We were on the watch for koati, tree frogs, and howler monkeys. But they all evaded us. Guides we met along the trails suggested we needed to tiptoe along so as not to scare away the wildlife.

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This owl butterfly was huge, close to six inches wide. The “eyes” on the wings deter predators.

We were far from alone at the reserve. This is a birder’s haven. Guides carry high-powered telescopes on tripods and help visitors spot dozens of varieties of birds. We met one visitor from the U.S. whose business was painting Audubon bird images. Another group of more amateur birders excitedly showed us their excellent photos, all taken by holding iphones up to the eyepiece of the telescope. We scouted the area on our own and heard a lot of birds and spotted a few.

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Toucan Sam holding a Froot Loop in his mouth?

We were on a quest for a quetzal, not the national bird of Costa Rica (which is a very bland-looking clay-colored thrush), but possibly the most famous. Our friend Francene from Brisbane said she saw it not in the wild, but on the currency during her Central American trip. The quetzal note not only appears on the Guatemala bills; it is the country’s unit of currency!

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The quetzal flies across un quetzal.

We were lucky to arrive in Costa Rica during quetzal mating season. In fact, when we purchased our tickets the folks at the reception desk showed us a likely spot for a sighting where one quetzal pair had established a nest. We were in luck. Later we saw another pair in a different area, but far from the trail. We circled back to this spot later and watched the colorful bird grooming and chirping.

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The resplendent quetzal in all its splendid glory

On the very last trail before we left, a short loop that probably rarely had visitors, Nancy did see an animal. Four guides provided four different names for this gray snake, but all agreed it wasn’t poisonous.

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Just in case I misunderstood the Spanish assurances that this snake was NOT poisonous, I stayed away.

Outside the park is an information area with a gallery of hummingbird art and an outdoor gallery of live art as dozens of hummingbirds flit about from one feeder to another.

Lots of international visitors come to Costa Rica and stay at the full-service luxury resorts. We had one unscheduled night and thought about staying at one of these resorts, but that one night would have cost as much as the whole week at our guesthouse. It had a bigger pool but not worth the extra price. However, Michael did play golf and met up with some friends.

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Is an iguana considered a movable hazard?

From Monteverde we traveled back to one of the San Joses of Costa Rica (There are multiple San Joses, some with an accent, some without. Very important when booking travel!) and visited an active volcano just over an hour from the capital city.

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Imagine coming across this sight on a hike through the mountains.

Here too we found clouds at the top of the mountain obstructing our sight, but this time we did a hike and circled back just in time to see the clouds move from the crater of Poás Volcano to reveal the mudpots and steam rising from a lake. It is so acidic it has been measured at a pH of -0.87. This hot lake is appropriately named Laguna Caliente.

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Laguna Caliente in Poás Volcano

The last eruptive activity was in 1954 and scientists say the volcano could blow at any time. As in Hawaii, the volcanic soil is very fertile. The road down the mountain is lined with shops selling fresh strawberries with melted chocolate and sweetened condensed milk (a new treat). We sampled some: quite good! We ate them too quickly to get a photo.

Like Panama, Costa Rica is another country where expats flock to enjoy retirement and get off the grid. The lovely guesthouse where we stayed has been owned by a Swiss refugee for nearly 20 years. Next door a grandmother had emigrated from Canada a similar number of years earlier.

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Visiting with the Canadian grandmother who lived near the guesthouse. She was waiting for the tide to fill her own private pool.

One of the best restaurants in the area offered up-scale French cuisine and was run by a chef from L.A. and his family. These very happy refugees had all found locations along dusty, rutted gravel roads many miles from a supermarket or mall.

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This was a main road from our guest house to the restaurant. Not too bad if you avoid the deep ruts and drive during daylight.

The local residents all seemed to know each other too. Enrique, the young bartender at the restaurant at our guesthouse, was the son of the bartender at the French restaurant and his surfing buddies were our waiters at two different restaurants a few miles (but many minutes over rutted roads) away.

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The  beachside restaurant where all the surfing boys worked is called Lola’s. This is Lola, not the original, but the descendent of the pig for which the restaurant is named.

We discovered a new international drink perfect for hot weather, the BBC (Bailey’s banana colada). Enrique had never heard of it but gave it a shot and succeeded. We’ll see if the bartenders in Palm Springs can recreate it!

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Enrique created the BBC just for me.

Although our trip to Costa Rica was in March, time has flown (like the resplendent quetzal) and we will be off to Mexico on the blog and Palm Springs in real time. For now, here is a Costa Rican sunset.

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Buenas noches, Costa Rica!

 

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A man a plan a canal Panama (and a hat)

Our location at a Hyatt Place in Panama was easy to find. All we had to do was tell the taxi driver “Iglesia del Carmen” and he (or she) would bring us to this beautiful gothic church around the corner from our hotel. Like many of the other churches we visited in South and Central America, it had special activities for the Jubileo de la Misericordia, Jubilee of Mercy. This diocese celebrated 500 years of faith in 2013.

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Church of Our Lady of Carmen

Illuminated at night, it looked like a Disney fairy-tale castle as much as it did a church.

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Iglesia del Carmen at night

Panama is famous for at least two things: panama hats and the Panama Canal. Michael traded in the Made-in-China panama hat that he bought in Buenos Aires for a legit white panama hat handmade in Panama.

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Michael in his infinitely foldable Panama hat in front of the iconic Panama Canal.

With hat in hand, the place to be in Panama City is the canal, truly a logistical marvel. Without the canal, these container boats with precious cargo would risk the treacherous Drake Passage and long timeline to travel around South America’s Cape Horn. Alternatively, rail and truck traffic across the U.S. would be much higher.

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This might look like a stack of Legos, but it’s actually a giant ship full of railroad-car-sized containers.

Viewing canal crossings is a big deal. The Miraflores Visitor Center is equipped with four floors with stands, ongoing live descriptions in English and Spanish, and plenty of ice cream to withstand the heat. Construction of the canal was started by the French in 1880 but didn’t get far. That effort went bankrupt and the designers, including Gustave Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower, were indicted. President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in with support of Panamanian independence with strong economic interest of achieving this quick and inexpensive route between Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The canal was completed in 1914 and more than 25,000 workers died in the two construction efforts, mostly from mosquito-borne disease. More than 1,000,000 vessels passed through by 2010.

Giant ships move from the Atlantic to the Pacific for half the day, making an 8- to 10-hour voyage. Then the canal direction changes to allow passages from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

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Note that the canal actually has two parallel sets of locks so two large boats can pass through at the same time, but only in the same direction.

The dimensions of the canal explain the shape of large oceangoing ships. In 1914, the first large oceangoing diesel ship, the Selandia, was 53 feet wide. The canal was built 110 feet wide. Engineers probably believed they had plenty of safety margin, but they didn’t envision the size of modern watercraft. While pleasure boats generally have rounded hulls, modern container ships and cruise ships have straight up and down sides. This is specifically to enable the largest possible dimensions that will pass through the canal with a small safety margin, the Panamax limits. An oil carrier 106 feet wide has squeezed through.

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Like trying to put size 4 jeans on a size 14 body. Is there really a chance they will fit? (photo from the Panama Canal History Museum)

Ships are picked up by small guide boats in the manmade lake that holds rainwater to serve the lock chambers. We couldn’t see this process from the viewing platform, but it consists of throwing a lead rope between the two vessels and engaging a towline. Then a Panamanian pilot boards the large vessel, hoisting the Panamanian flag, and steers the vessel through the canal. Like the mules along the old Barge Canal in New York, small vehicles travel beside the canal pulling the ships forward through sections of locks.

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A modern-day mule. This vehicle has a bit of a roller-coaster ride up or down as it travels on the track beside the two sections of the lock.

Like so many other things in the world, the canal has been pressured to be “super sized.” The existing Panamax constraints on maximum boat dimensions no longer work. Wishes for a new, bigger canal began in 1939. Construction of a new canal just beyond the existing one finally began in 2007. Our announcer speculated that it might open as early as July 2016 but final agreements have been slow to be completed. This new canal will operate in parallel to the existing one, but it will be 180 feet wide and long enough to allow two boats to enter the single lock simultaneously.

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The basin for the new canal is above the existing canal in this photo.

As we write this in September, the new canal has been open since June, 2016, notwithstanding some problems. At least three ships have had some damage, hitting fenders of the locks.

Interestingly, Panama City is not an enclave for Americans. If Panama has 25,000 American residents, they’re not here. The beaches northeast of the city and on the Pacific Ocean are popular retirement spots. Most of our taxi drivers in the city spoke only limited English, but seemed to enjoy engaging with tourists and patiently tried to understand our Spanish. One particularly helpful driver took us on a side trip to see a small section of Panama near the canal. Here he said all the wealthy expats lived. He showed us the cemetery where American servicemen from the Spanish American War through to the building of the Panama Canal are buried.

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Corozal American Cemetery

Donald Trump has made a name for himself in Panama. His Trump Ocean Club is a residential property that bears his name but has had only a management company connection to the Donald. Recently residents sued the Trump management company for improperly paying themselves large amounts of money. Trump has countersued for millions for damage to the Trump name. Based on happenings in American politics, he doesn’t seem to have suffered much. We ate here…meh.

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Another monument to Trump that has left locals in a bind.

There isn’t a natural segue from the Donald to our next Panama experience unless it is by contrast. Donald Trump is a loud, larger-than-life character with a huge presence. This sloth was so quiet and small we would have missed it if we hadn’t noticed others gazing up in a tree. Maybe there a couple similarities between the sloth and the Donald. They both have small hands and odd hair.

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The sloth or the Donald?

The two things Panama is known for became three after our visit. The country made it big in the news with the publication of the Panama Papers revealing big names in world politics who have very large and questionable offshore accounts in Panama and elsewhere. Mossack and Fonseca had a big legal firm at the heart of the fray and just a few blocks from our hotel. Let it be known that we did not go to Panama to visit our investments. The only Panama papers we associated with were Spanish-language newspapers announcing the goings-on of the American presidential campaign.

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Near our hotel, the F&F Tower, right across the street from Mossack Fonseca.

Note: Our Panama trip was in March. We took the slow route around South America to bring this to publication.

 

 

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Lima, the city not the bean

The Old Town of Lima, Peru is filled with buildings from its development as a colonial capital beginning in the 16th century after the Spanish explorer Pizarro overtook the region from the Incas.

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The Government Palace at Plaza Mayor, built in the 1930s on the spot where Pizarro established his adobe palace in 1535.

We watched the changing of the guard in front of the palace. How do these men function in their long-sleeved tunics, helmets, heavy boots, and gloves in the equatorial heat? We were dying in shorts and t-shirts.

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Different colors, but the same high steps we’ve seen in ceremonies like this around the world.

The country is about to see a changing of the guard in its political leaders. Peru has close to 30 different parties and they all had giant billboards along the main streets of town.

Collage created using TurboCollage software from www.TurboCollage.com

Looks like the U.S. Republican Party candidates before the winnowing process.

As in other South American cities, old churches are among the largest and most significant buildings. The Monastery of San Francisco, with a bright yellow facade, sets the color scheme for the whole Centro Historico.

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Twin towers of the Monastery of San Francisco

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The monastery’s ornate interior

Inside we visited the catacombs where an estimated more than 25,000 bodies were buried.  Walking through these dark passages deep underground is a bit creepy, partly from the presence of all these bones and skulls, but also because of being under a massive structure in  the heart of earthquake country. Not to worry, according to our guide. The church has withstood many earthquakes in the past. It’s the safest place to be in town (but still creepy).

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This is just the top layer of bones and skulls. People were not decapitated and buried this way; it’s an artistic design made by the archaeologists who have explored the crypt over the last 70 years.

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Imagine trying to do DNA testing and skeleton reconstruction on all these bones.

After coming out of the crypt, we took a tour of the old town at night. An earthquake hit Lima in 1746 destroying many of the original buildings. Newer buildings were added to the site with a similar neo-colonial design and bright colors, making the buildings around Plaza Mayor simply glow.

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Lima after dark.

San Martin has a big presence in Lima. After his travels from Argentina over the Andes to Chile liberating the region from Spanish rule, he continued his path north to Lima and liberated Peru in 1821 in front of the Government Palace.

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The site of this fountain in Plaza Mayor was once the city gallows.

Moving forward in history, Lima’s mayor made an inspired investment in the city in 2007. A section of the Parque de la Reserva was reinvented as the Magic Water Circuit. Admission to the site has a fee (equivalent to $2 US) and lines of thousands of people formed to access on the Friday night we visited. The park has 13 fountains, some timed with lights and sound, similar to the fountains at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

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Brilliant color and motion in the fountains

One of the attractions of the fountains is the opportunity for a hands-on experience, or perhaps foot-on. Visitors come with bathing suits and a change of clothes and join hundreds of others standing on the fountain platform with sprays shooting up and drenching them. While the idea for the fountain park was originally criticized by other civic leaders, the outcome has provided significant affordable pleasure for local residents looking for a fun escape from the heat.

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Step in…

Besame mucho! (Kiss me a lot!) That’s a good description of one of the most famous attractions in Lima, a sculpture of “The Kiss” next to a pleasant walkway along the ocean in the Parque del Amor (Love Park).

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The ocean along Miraflores

People arrive for a romantic sunset with the sun streaming over the wrapped arms and legs of a couple. The artist (and barefoot subject with his wife) is Victor Delfín, who created the sculpture  to celebrate the lovers who come to this romantic spot in Miraflores.

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Dozens of paragliders flying over The Kiss.

We saw one couple who looked to be celebrating their wedding accompanied by a young girl, probably their daughter, photographing them.

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THE place to be for romantic moments

Surrounding the sculpture is a serpentine wall of mosaics with deep thoughts and whimsical romantic pairings. These include Romeo and Juliet, of course, but also Ursula and Tito, Cecilia and Alberto, AND Delicia and Alberto. (That Alberto gets around.)

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Cecilia and Alberto have a porthole to a beautiful sunset…although they may have an issue. “You are on one side and I on the other, like two oars.”

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Delicia and Alberto will again hold these cut feathers.

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Alberto Vega – “My dream is a lost island.”

A beautiful way to end our stay in Lima.

Note: This visit was actually in March of 2016, with an extended blogging hiatus before the write-up. Too much life going on in the meantime.

 

 

 

 

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Santiago, a modern city with fascinating recent history

After visiting the old town of Buenos Aires, the wilderness of Patagonia, and the wineries of Mendoza, Santiago seemed different. It is a modern city, with highrises and chic neighborhoods.

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Built in 2012, the Costanera Center, at 64 stories, is one of the tallest buildings in the Southern Hemisphere.

…and every U.S. chain imaginable. TGIFridays remains TGIFridays here, not TGIViernes! There are also Domino’s, KFC, and McDonald’s. In fact, the interiors of the large malls are practically indistinguishable from those in Charlotte, North Carolina. The world has morphed toward sameness in many respects.

View of Santiago, sprawling into the haze.

We climbed to the top of a mountain right in the city for that view. It’s Cerro San Cristobal with a 60-foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary.

Rio de Janeiro has Christo Redentor and Santiago has His mother.

Like all the other cities we’ve visited, Santiago has a fresh market.

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The sights and smells (but no sounds!) of fresh fish at the market in Santiago.

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Michael enjoyed fresh watermelon on the street corner.

Chile is on the Pacific Rim, earning its position on the Ring of Fire with regular earthquakes. One of the biggest earthquakes in history was in Chile in 1960. Santiago has seen significant damage in recent quakes in 2010 and 2015. Yet the city continues to rebuild and thrive. There were many museums. Some are quite old, such as the National Museum of Fine Arts, established in 1910.

A twilight view of the Palace of Fine Arts.

The temporary exhibit during our visit was interesting: (En) Clave Masculino, a play on words of both enclave and key to the masculine gender. It included works of male identity and power and submission. Not your typical still lifes and landscapes.

Fernando Botero’s statue The Horse is strikingly modern outside the Palace of Fine Arts.

We visited a museum without art, but rather a history focus, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.  Memory is important in issues of human rights. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This museum is focused on the atrocities during the reign of Auguste Pinochet, and it includes an international section highlighting more than 20 recent and ongoing human rights struggles across the world.

The Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago Chile

The Museum of Memory and Human Rights was initiated by the one-time and current President of Chile, Michelle  Bachelet, who was one of thousands detained and exiled during the Pinochet regime, while in her early 20s.

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The Palacio de Moneda, seat of the Chilean government as it looks today.

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The changing of the guard at the palace is on horseback.

On September 11, 1973, the Palacio was attacked in a military coup. Salvador Allende was the president, a Marxist who had lost the support of his legislature and was seen as ruling by decree, trying to gain absolute power.

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A statue of Allende near the palace (no statue of Pinochet)

By 7 a.m. the Chilean navy had captured Valparaiso and tanks surrounded the palace in Santiago.

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Palacio de Moneda on September 11, 1973. Note the smoke from the windows.

By 2 p.m. the coup was complete and President Allende had committed suicide (or been assassinated. Conspiracy theorists continue to debate this.) An audio timeline of this fateful day is one of the primary exhibits in the museum. The lead-up to the coup was aided by U.S. economic  warfare and CIA intervention under Nixon’s direction.

The photo we would have seen in the papers in 1973.

However, Chile jumped from the frying pan into the fire when Augusto Pinochet took over after the coup. His was a brutal rule of torture and disappearances (and probable deaths) for those who opposed him or presented supposed threats.  The museum records that in September 1973 there were 598 dead, 274 missing and 19,083 detained and tortured political prisoners. The Truth Commission’s final report documented 3,428 cases of disappearance, killing, torture and kidnapping between 1973 and the end of Pinochet’s rule in March 1990.

Pinochet’s known victims are cataloged in the museum with names, photos, and any available information on disappearance or torture. ¿Donde estan?

 

Since Pinochet’s departure 25 years ago, Chile has recovered a strong democratic position. In The Economist’s  assessment, Democracy Index 2015, Chile is ranked 30th of 165 countries. Interestingly the United States is at only 20 in the rankings and dropping dangerously close to the “flawed democracy” category over the last 10 years. The lowest contributing factor in the U.S. ranking is political participation. So in this major election year, get out and vote!

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Valparaiso = Colorful in Spanish (not really, but it could)

From the modern city of Santiago to the old cobblestoned streets of Valparaiso is only a couple hours by car, but the differences are huge. Google Maps led us up twisting, turning narrow streets that reminded us of the nearly impassable lanes in St. Tropez, only these were at 45 degrees (and in a manual transmission car!)

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The colorful cityscape of Valparaiso built nearly vertical from the sea.

The whole town of Valparaiso is drenched in color. Like the bright pastels on the attached homes in Cinque Terra, these buildings seemed to have varied colors to make it easy for one building to stand out from its neighbors when viewed from the sea.

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Do you have a favorite color? Blue, red, orange. OK, that’s what you paint your house.

While some buildings have a single color, any open outdoor wall space seems to be covered with creative artwork.

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Step out onto your balcony and into the rainforest.

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Could this be Frida Kahlo on the side of a building?

It’s important to look all around, side to side, up and down, and behind you so you don’t miss any of the artwork.

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It’s a long hard climb, but at least it’s a colorful one on the way up.

Some art work is functional.

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Pulso Taller is a clothing and handicrafts workshop.

Much of the art has some symbolic meaning, whimsical or serious.

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Can you find middle C?

At the top of the piano-key stairs were some musicians.

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We overheard a tour guide saying the woman was Whitney Houston. Maybe. Not sure who the others are.

These stairs also led to the Lutheran Church (not too many of those in Catholic Chile). In a five-minute walk we saw the next three:

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A man pushing his head uphill on a skateboard while he bites on a blue rope. What is the meaning?

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Wait. It’s not a blue rope. It’s an octopus tentacle. Now the meaning is clear, right?

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Tigers for Patrick.

As Valparaiso is often described as an artists’ colony, it has attracted folks from around the world to live and create here.

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We wonder if someone from California’s early hippie days escaped the U.S. and set up a home here in Valparaiso.

In addition to its artsy lifestyle, Valparaiso is also a maritime city. The beautiful building of the Armada de Chile (Chilean Navy), stands tall near the center of the town.

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Looking out from the Navy building, you don’t see a pretty sailing port or beach, however. Instead, it’s a busy cargo port.

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Not the greatest view.

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But a very important port for bringing goods into and out of Chile.

On our trip to Valparaiso, it wasn’t boat transportation that caught our attention, but bike transportation. Actually not so much transportation as competition. We were there on the day of the Cerro Abajo, which means”hill down” and is an amazing downhill bike race. (See some good videos at Cerro Abajo.) Crowds gathered in one of the town squares at the bottom of the hills to see the bikers. Some riders are quite the celebrities. Not yet knowing what we were watching, we expected to see the bikers leave from the square, pedal up the hills, and race back down. Not so. They were taken away by car and truck in a caravan parade to the top of the hill.

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What goes up will come down.

We were left to find our way uphill to see some of the action coming down. If the stairs are too much, it’s easy and affordable to find a funicular or ascensor.

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About 60 cents to ride this “train” up the hill instead of taking the steps. And well worth it at the end of the day!

We hadn’t quite reached the top when we heard loud banging noises. Fans “rang” their support with pieces of pipe inside metal wheels.

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Look closely. This guy doing a wheelie has artificial legs.

They rode down steps.

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Biker with flowers on one side and colorful mural on the other…and stairs underneath.

They made sharp turns.

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Quite the banked turn added to prevent crashing into buildings.

Organizers added little touches in case the natural layout wasn’t exciting and challenging enough.

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Go up and down a ramp and ride sideways for a bit. One enterprising biker chose to jump the tape instead. He cleared it.

Some streets of Valparaiso are literally above adjacent streets by 20 or 30 feet. No problem for the bikers. Organizers install take-off and landing ramps and the bikers sail through the air. (Like watching the bike scene of E.T. when the kids floated up in front of the moon.)

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Oops! There’s no more street here.

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Whee! Or maybe OMG What have I done?

The grand finale brought the bikers back into the square. But first they had to jump the curb and maneuver into this small garden space, and fly out over the gap for their final down ramp amid the cheering crowd. With the main street down blocked for the racers, we were still up the hill watching and trying to find a way down without having to climb up numerous steps first. (Valparaiso is all hills.)

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Between one night when this ramp was installed and the next day when the race was to be held, some artist had spray painted white images onto the black. Sponsors didn’t like that so one pre-race activity was repainting the ramp.

A short distance from the naval building is the cemetery. This too is colorful. While some of the flowers are plastic or fabric, most are fresh flowers. We were there on a Sunday and many families were in the cemetery tending the graves, replacing flowers, and having little picnics with their deceased family members.

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The dead in Valparaiso have a peaceful setting overlooking the blue Pacific Ocean.

Some of the crypts in the cemetery are more than 100 years old,

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Pretty fresh flowers on many of the more recent crypts.

But many of the graves on the lawn are more recent. This was the grave of a seven-year-old girl. It appears that her favorite color was purple. She has dozens of Disney characters and flowers to keep her company forever. Someone loved this little girl dearly.

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In eternity, surrounded by playthings and words of love that brought her joy.

By the way, “Colorful” in Spanish is “Vistoso.” Change a few of the middle letters and it is Valparaiso.

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