And the answer is….

The person who guessed it was a tree with the bark shaved off wins the prize. Though she is the only one who made a guess. So she wins by default – not that there is anything to win really. Other than recognition here.

The odd object pictured in Tuesday’s blog is a “mula” (a mule.) Or that is what it is supposed to be. I think it looks more like an anteater with horns.

Mula handle, on a cane, Taxco de Alarcon, MexicoMula is short for muleta. Muleta, means cane or crutch, and due to the word association, they often carve the handles into mule shapes. Thus a mula. This one is definitely a crude, folk art rendition.

So why do I have a picture of the head of a cane on my blog? Welllllllll….

Spring has come to Taxco. Mid-day it is hot (for me), in the mid-80s, and much more humid than it has been. I fell victim to the fate of most foreigners at one time or another, I got overheated. But let me tell you the rest of the story.

I was just getting over a severe chemical sensitivity reaction, caused by the bus company now adding fragrance to their air handling vents. I had been dizzy for 4 days but by Saturday night felt OK. So Sunday morning I travelled to a small town about 10 miles west of town for a meeting. Afterwards, my friend, Lili, and I were going to a welcome back party for our friend, Vanessa, about 10 miles outside Taxco in the opposite direction. Another friend asked if she could some with us and since she did not know where the gathering was would we wait for her? I said, sure, no problem but that was before I thought about the fact that she is Mexican.

Now nothing against the Mexican people. I LOVE the Mexican people. They are warm, loving, family oriented and many other good things. One thing they are not, usually, is timely. For example, if you make an appointment, it is perfectly acceptable to be 20 minutes late, or not show up at all. It is just the way it is with most people. (It is that way in Hawaii and other parts of the States too, so it is not solely a Mexican attitude.

Back to my story.

So we waited while she cleaned the bathroom. Now I am not sure how she cleaned the bathroom but since it took “forever” I suspect it might have been with a toothbrush. Finally she appeared and I thought we were ready to go. Noooooooo. She had to take a blind woman home, on a combi going in the opposite direction we were headed, so we waited some more. While we were waiting, everyone else left the meeting hall and we were left standing on the side of the road , with only the skimpiest of shade in the hottest part of a very humid day. Sweating, I finally sat down on a rock about 6 inches high, and wished for water, which I always have in my bag, but not today.

Eventually, our friend returned with the combi going in the right direction and we got on. Inside was like an oven, hotter than outside but at least when it moved there was air, hot air, rushing past. Eventually the heat and the constant back and forth, back and forth as we wove up the mountain to Taxco had me feeling queasy. I told myself we will be there soon and I can get some water at a tienda (a shop) and the queasiness will go away.

When the combi pulled up to the last stop, we were not by the bus station as I had expected and there were no tiendas in sight. Not only that but there was a taxi driver protest going on so no taxis and no combis were running in town either. We had to walk a few blocks. Dutifully I put one step in front of the other looking for water and a shady place to sit down. Another friend, on the corner said, “Hello.” I said “Hello” back and muttered, “I’m going to go sit in the shade over there.” which I am pretty sure she did not understand since she does not speak English. And without stopping, I headed for an iron gate behind which were some cool looking marble steps.

I remember reaching out for the gate but the next thing I was aware of was lying on the ground with my friends calling my name, waving my hat over my face, and slapping alcohol on my neck and chest while a police officer looked on, shouting something in Spanish. I had passed out in the street, from the sun, the heat, and a lack of water.

Someone brought a chair and answered my request for water, then more water. I was starting to feel better when the ambulance arrived. Oh no…..I have been in foreign countries before when an ambulance showed up and  it is not often a good thing.

Visions of some B-movie dark comedy — with a slow motion, spin through a hospital emergency room,  where not only do you not understand a word, but you cannot speak, and  every thing seems to be going wrong — flashed through my head. In the brief moment it took them to get out of their vehicle and be at my side, all kinds of horrors caused by communication issues and cultural differences rushed through my mind. I might as well be abducted onto an alien spaceship!

But all those thoughts were just a figment of an over active imagination. In reality, EMTs in Mexico are the same professional medical technicians as they are almost anywhere.  All they did was check my vital signs and finding everything normal, sent someone for a sports (electrolytes) drink, made me drink half of it, told me to go home take a cool shower and rest (all very reasonable.Unlike the US they are not required to transport when they are called. “Whew!”

As they packed up their gear and left  I asked if I owed them anything (hoping I had enough Mexican money in my bag.) The response, “gratis,”   no charge. Wow!!! For a foreigner (even someone from outside the city) just showing up would have cost a couple thousand dollars in the States!

I was free to go, but then we faced the question of “Now what do I do.”. The taxis and combis in town were not running; the only way I can get home and rest is to walk several miles in the hot, humid, sunshine. Not reasonable. So I decided the only sensible option was to continue on to the party! At least there would be food, water, and lots of people to watch over me. So we walked on  to the out of town combi station, a couple blocks away, no problem.

At the party, I was very aware of not exerting myself, so I sat on a chair, ate a little, drank a lot of water, along with some fruit punch, talked with a few people, and watched the festivities. A few hours later, I got up to head to the bathroom and I could barely walk. I figured that when I passed out, my legs folded underneath me and no matter how slowly I set myself down the weight of my entire body landed on my leg. Now my knee was complaining. By the time I had taken a half dozen steps, it loosened up and I got there just fine. So I went back and enjoyed the party.

As time went by, my knee got worse – it throbbed and started to swell, and I could not walk without assistance. I wanted to go home but how? I couldn’t walk up the hill to the combi stop and even if I made it that far, how would I get off and home when I arrived in Taxco. I certainly didn’t want to ruin the party for Vanessa, but of course that is exactly what happened.

The ever vigilant “mom” that she is (to everybody) found someone to take “us” home; she would not hear of not going; she wanted to make sure I was comfortably settled. But wait, someone came up and insisted I let their mother, “who does manipulations” take a look at my knee. Preferring a natural approach, I agreed. Anything to make this better sooner.

I am not sure what the credentials of this woman were, all I know is she knew her anatomy. It seemed that the muscles in my leg had gone into shock as a reaction to the fall, hours earlier, and had tensed up tightly and in the process, dislocated both my ankle and my knee. She pulled and pushed, smoothed and squeezed and eventually declared me fit to go home IF I would stay off it, and if possible, use a cane for the next couple days.

That is where the mula  comes in.

The next night, after 24 hours of hobbling back and forth to the bathroom using a collection of chairs as support, Vanessa showed up with this strange looking thing that I at first though was a sweet potato on a stick. By then, thanks to the treatment, hot saltwater compresses, and arnica, both topically and orally, the pain and swelling was mostly gone, and I could bear weight with only mild discomfort. Yet, she went out of her way to find it, and bring it to me, and reminded me that the therapist said to stay off it for 48 hours. OK, I will give it a try. But, I have no intention of taking it on the street with me. Sorry Vane. (If I really needed one, I would have.)

The following day, I declared myself able to walk. The swelling was gone, I managed the stairs to the ground floor without pain, and there is very little evidence of the original injury. My how we are marvelously made!

No one ever plans to have a medical emergency in a foreign land, however if I had to have one, I could not have been surrounded by better friends who treated me like family.

You know who you are. Muchas gracias!

 

And for those of you who might worry that I am all alone in this strange speaking land, never fear, I have papers on my person with local contacts and a durable power of attorney for health care in the local language to speak for my wishes if I cannot speak for myself. Things all foreign travelers should carry along with prescription medicines, eyeglass prescriptions, and  anything else necessary for your health and well being in a foreign country. I am well taken care of here; may you be also. For some ideas on what to pack for a stress free trip, see this article by my old friend Shelley Peterman Schwarz.

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Translation Please

There is no doubt about it, learning another language is hard (unless, maybe,  you learn as a kid.)

Spanish, being a romance language, shares many Latin root words with English that are the same or very similar in both languages (university is universidad). From there on, though, Spanish is pretty much opposite in structure (aka grammar) from English.

To give you a few examples, adjectives follow nouns rather than precede them (the boy small or the house beautiful) and when you say you do not want… or something is not…, the negative is added to the front of words and phrases (No want… or I no go…) and there are two words for to be (is, are, etc.) that have two distinctly different meanings, though both meanings translate to the same word in English.

So like my great grandmother who might have said, “Throw me down the stairs a hankie,” I have to learn to think and speak backwards. Like I said, it is not easy.

Blue Bear & Friend, Taxco, MexicoI have found though, that if I am having trouble making myself understood, I should speak with a woman — preferably one who has raised children.

I was relating a story in Spanish and was pretty sure that I was using the correct words and even phrases. Though the women were smiling and nodding, one hombre in particular kept shouting, “Speak Spanish,” to which I replied, “I thought I was.” He turned to his wife, and said, “Do you understand her?” And she replied, “Yes.” He said, “Only a few words here and there, right?” to which she replied, “No, every word.” He, of course, was dumbfounded.

As my hostess Irma, likes to say, “Many words fly into the air,” however due to their experience in raising little ones learning to talk, mothers will most likely catch most of those words, fill in the blanks, and understand what you are saying no matter how badly you mangle the language.

Here are just a few of the women who understand me.

Telefono

I have been here several weeks now without the ability to call my friends and family back home. You thought Verizon was bad???? Try dealing with a phone company that has no real competition!!! (Well perhaps that is the same). And customer service people who each tell you something different and either put you on hold forever until you hang up or outright hang up on you if they don’t want to answer or do not know the answer to your question.

My first two years coming to Mexico, I just used my Verizon phone with a Mexican-American plan; that gave me the ability to call home and to text local friends. However, in the push to get everyone off of their unlimited data plans and start charging by the usage, as of last year,Verizon no longer offers that plan. Well, actually you can get it but for no more than a 2 week vacation, not for longer term visits like mine.

So what to do? How to stay in touch when calling home is roaming at 99 cents a minute? Ouch!

cellphoneSolution: A Mexican smartphone.
For about $200, I was able to get a full feature Samsung smartphone (yep, just like the $600 ones back home) which allows me to text everyone here (their preferred, aka cheapest, mode of communication) and call home for the whopping sum of 1 or maybe 2 cents a minute. And if I have wi-fi and the right app, calling home is FREE!

The only trouble is that Mexico operates on a prepay system and for some reason if you do not use your phone for a period of time, they lock the phone and eventually reclaim your number and your credit. Such a deal!!!! ($100 pesos may not be much for me to lose but to someone living in Mexico, that is a lot of money.)

We knew of this usage requirement, of course, so to keep it active, my phone was used for visitors. And, when Vanessa’s family visited, they used it to keep in touch. Vanessa dutifully swapped out the chips (hers and mine) every few months (as required) and used my phone but apparently, somewhere along the line, the phone company changed the rules (again) shortening the time limit for not using the phone and unknowingly my phone number was locked and lost.

After at least 5 long phone calls to the company and several in person visits, I can reclaim my really cool number (111-8855) for a fee, or oh wait I cannot. Like most everything in Mexico, one is at the whim of the powers to be.

As it turned out, I had to start all over with a new number and trying to figure out how to keep it alive when I go home. I’d ask for suggestions but since the rules change constantly, who really knows?!!! I will just put credit on it every month and hope.

With my new Mexican phone in hand and my Internet calling app installed and tested (don’t try this on your Verizon phone unless you want to be rudely surprised with a REALLY big bill, as I was last year), I am ready to make phone calls. Family and friends I will be in touch soon.

And my Verizon phone? Well, it takes very nice pictures. And with the two phones together, I do not have to keep switching between different translation apps; I just consult a different one on each phone  — having the best of both instantly available.

Oh the challenges of international living! But it sure beats smoke signals.

Jekyll but no Hyde

A few miles up the road from St. Augustine, the landscape changes from endless miles of sandy beaches to wilder salt marshes, estuaries, and individual barrier islands. No longer do beach cities and development extend to the waves lapping at the shore.

The Atlantic coast of Georgia (USA) is filled with inlets, outlets, and barrier islands. It is a magical place of winding estuaries and tall marsh grasses that glow in the sun lending the nickname, the Golden Isles. Due to bad weather and limited time to meander and explore, I had to make like a dragonfly and zip through this area, lightly touching down from time to time. Here are a few of the highlights.

img_8314-qprSt. George Island (can you see the English connection in that name?) is the site of the Kinglsey Plantation, a national historic site depicting life on a Southern plantation. Since the idea of Southern plantations has a negative connotation, due to the Civil War, I recommend visiting and learning more about this era of American history.

The part the history books don’t tell is that under Spanish rule, slavery was outlawed. (In fact, Ft. Mose, just north of St. Augustine, was a settlement of Africans – freemen and former slaves.) But, when the British and later the Americans took over, land owners were actively recruited but were not granted tracts of  land to work agriculturally unless they had a certain number of slaves for every acre. Yeah, I know, shocking isn’t it?

Jekyll Island, once the winter playground of the rich and famous, this island is home to “cottages” built by people with names like JP Morgan, Vanderbilt, Goodyear, and Pulitzer that are bigger than the houses, even McMansions, of most people today. A group of these millionaires, bought the island from the family of the original plantation owner and created an exclusive club for the rich and famous. Many historic moments occurred here such as the first meeting of the Federal Reserve and the first transcontinental telephone call.

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Today, anyone, for a small fee, can drive to the island, tour the historic district and get a sense of the opulence of the Victorian era. You can rent a cottage or a room in the turn of the 20th century inn, or if just a day tripper, wander through the public rooms viewing vintage photographs, grab a bite in the Bistro, or dine in luxury in the historic dining room. Rent a bicycle and pedal through the historic area; head to the beach and on your way you will discover ruins of the original plantation house, the old cemetery and enjoy scenic vistas and byways.

img_8345-qprBe sure to stop at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center where nestlings are monitored and injured sea turtles are rescued, rehabilitated, and if possible, released back into the wild. There is a nice interactive exhibit hall with live animals. Your admission fees support the work they do to preserve these magnificent creatures, some of whom are threatened and endangered.

Skidaway Island is the home of a large state park that provides access to the salt marshes and estuaries. The campground is located on a large hammock on the intercoastal waterway, a brackish water river system that extends most of the way down the eastern seaboard, separating the mainland from the barrier islands, offshore, which serve to protect the land mass from storm surges.

These barrier islands afford opportunities to enjoy unspoiled beaches, paddle quiet backwaters and estuaries, hike, bird watch, and get away from it all in many ways. I could spend months or years exploring them all, but alas I do not have the time. I look forward to another opportunity to travel this way, stay longer and explore deeper.

Perchance to sleep

I am a simple bear. When I travel, I like to just throw the sleeping bag in the back of the van and hit the open road. I have the freedom to go where I want, when I want to go, and stop or change directions whenever it suits me.

I also prefer this type of travel because of my chemical sensitivities. Hotels, in addition to being expensive, are filled with the residue of cleaning chemicals.

Because of the extensive storm system I have been dodging, I have been rained on at times. Other than the raindrops falling on my roof, which can actually be quite soothing, a little rain is only a mild annoyance, sometimes requiring me to wait out a shower before getting out and enjoying the clear light and fresh smell of a newly washed landscape.

With the concerns of loved ones and threats of thunderstorms last night, I opted for a hotel room. The storms never materialized, at least here, and I feel like a truck ran over me while I was sleeping, but I got the benefits of a hot breakfast, a hot shower (even if I did have to go to a different room to take it), and this view when I opened my eyes.

Morning forest view Almost as good as camping. Next time I will opt for the real thing though.

Map vs. GPS

Shortly before I left to head back North, I started to look at the map and pick a general direction. Lamenting that I did not have a North Carolina map, someone suggested that I didn’t need a map, that’s what GPS is for.

It is obvious that the person who said that has never meandered. A GPS may work just fine in telling you how to get from point A to point B, but that assumes that you know where point B is. If you are meandering, there is no point B only a general direction so GPS is virtually useless.

I do use it to tell me what road I am on and the speed limit, but face it the map on the GPS does not give enough detail to be of much use other than navigating around a strange town. It is handy for those times when I am “making time,” usually in the dark, on the Interstate because it lets me know how many miles it is to my exit so I can read all the fun town names on the road signs, not wondering where I am, and just drive.

A map gives you a big picture of where you are heading. Whether a state map, which shows those blue highways and other off the beaten track roadways, or my multi-state maps that give me a general view of options to choose, a map is something you can hold in your hand and consult without opening up a computer. Although Google works very well, it is dependent upon a signal on the phone, which is not guaranteed off the beaten path. Unplugging and meandering just seem to go hand in hand.

Salt marsh, St George Island, FloridaSalt Marsh, St. George Island, FloridaI read somewhere that only people over 40 have maps in their cars. I guess that makes me an old bear huh!!?

Map or GPS, which do you prefer on your meanders?

The Scenic Route

In a favorite book of mine, “Blue Highways: A Journey into America,” William Least Heat-Moon wrote, “Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place I’d never have found this spring under the sycamores.”

That describes the beauty of taking the scenic route, getting off the Interstate — typically miles and miles and miles of straight, flat, and boring — and onto secondary roads, county highways, or better yet, those thin, wiggly lines on the map that wind around a lake, over a river, or through the forest.

Case in point, if you drive the Interstate North to South through Indiana, you travel through miles and miles of ancient lake bed, now flat land, however, go a few miles West and you traverse hills and rivers, past huge rock formations, Amish farms, and small towns — a wonderland that the average traveler, bad mouthing the boring drive, never realized existed.

At the beginning of his journey, Heat-Moon wondered if “Maybe the road could provide a therapy through observation of the ordinary and obvious, a means whereby the outer eye opens an inner one.”

Meandering backroadI can attest to the  truth of those words. Instead of flying past everything, seeing nothing, “meandering” the back roads forces you to slow down, see the hawk soar over the trees, hear the water babble in the creek, and snatch glimpses of another slice of life — horses grazing, children playing, the old folks rockin’ in the shade of their porch.

Blossoming trees, Georgia

 

Instead of billboards advertising gas prices or the next fast food restaurant or tourist attraction, homemade signs announcing “maters and taters” or asking “Are you willing to take a chance with your soul?” You literally go over the river and through the woods, whether to grandmother’s house or not. And you breathe — not only slower, as the stress of everyday life melts away, but cleaner, filled with the scent of apple blossoms, fresh grass, crunchy leaves, tumbling water, or pine.

Heat-Moon shares his father’s philosophy that “any traveler who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get,” that a man’s (or woman’s) observations and curiosity, make and remake them.

Taking five full days to travel from Wisconsin to central Florida may seem like an eternity to some. “I could do it in 2 ten-hour days!,” they boast. This isn’t Name that Tune, so I will not respond with how fast I could drive it because for me, it is the journey that matters.

This was not a true meander; I had a particular place to be in a “reasonable” amount of time. That time expectation and the cold, blustery weather kept me moving southward, hundreds of miles a day. In the end, it was more like Heat-Moon describes as “turning the windshield into a movie screen in which I, the viewer, did the moving while the subject held still.”

Since each day, I took time to stop, look, and listen — watching wildlife, lunching by pristine waters, hiking trails past awe-inspiring rock faces and to roaring waterfalls, sitting by the campfire, and star gazing — I did not mind watching the movie that unfolded before me at times. In the end it was a good journey.

On being flexible

Because it has been hovering around freezing in the mornings and much warmer in the afternoon, I changed up my usual meander schedule. Instead of driving where I want to explore with fresh eyes and energy in the morning, I have decided to stop mid-afternoon and enjoy myself while the sun is high and the air is still warm,  leaving those freezing temps for drive time.

img_7110-qprI was really glad that I did, because after a lovely drive over the mountains anticipating lunch at my favorite rest area on Nickajack Lake and finding it closed (bummer) I had the opportunity to camp at Cloudland Canyon, a beautiful state park in North Georgia near Chattanooga (of choo-choo fame.) On travels this way in the past I have always wanted to at least go for a mid-trip hike but it has always been too windy, wet, or cold (seeing that I have always made this trip in the winter not spring.)

 

Despite it suddenly being an hour later (I am now on Eastern Daylight Time) there was enough time to select a campsite and take a hike. The Waterfalls Trail dropped 350 vertical feet from my campsite into the canyon below. It does this in a a little less than a mile; I think the ranger said something about over 900 manmade steps and that does not count the non-manmade ones!

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The going down was not too bad as I kept stopping to take photos along the way. Yet, there is no getting around that basic rule of the universe — what goes down, must come back up. Now that was a hike to be remembered!

It was late and the sun was no longer shining in the bottom of the canyon but the waterfalls were spectacular. Well worth the effort. I already plan to do it again on the way home, weather permitting of course.

img_7100-qprFor the first time, the night was warm enough to sit outside after dark so I built a campfire, took the last of what I have been snacking on the last few days — grilled chicken, tomato, cheese, and pineapple — threw it all in a pan and feasted on a nice, hot, home cooked meal. Funny how the same foods can taste so different when you add a little ambiance.

I was hoping the morning sun would offer an opportunity to go back to the first of the falls and photograph it again. Though the day broke cold but with a promise of a sunny day, I took my time getting out of my sleeping bag. I started out for a gentle warm up along the rim of the canyon to the observation area. Was I glad I hiked the trail last night because a front came through that dropped the temperature drastically, accompanied with high winds, and even a few snowflakes. Time to hit the road.

 

Go that way young bear, that way!

Lewis & Clark tribute, Paducah, KY

After a lovely meander yesterday, ending at Cloudland Canyon State Park in Northern Georgia, a hiked to two spectacular waterfalls, and weather conducive to cooking out, a cold front came whipping in this morning that told me it was time to hit the road running.

Since I traveled from one end of Georgia to the other, I would not call that a meander. It is more like making time. But as Kenny Rogers is known to have sung, “You have to know when to hold ’em and you have to know when to fold ’em.” Today was a fold ’em kind of day.

Will send photos and a description soon.