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Posts Tagged ‘family travel’

…and then in the air. Four hour drive to the airport from here (they say) and then a couple flights and then boom! Home!

Which will be great, although this was nice, too:

 

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Gracias, Honduras, 6:30 am, 11/21. Hotel Guancascos.

I’ll be back tomorrow – maybe even late tonight – with Friday takes, and then spend the weekend pulling together my traditional post-trip set of posts summarizing things.

In the meantime, don’t forget Advent is coming – and in particular today, I’ll call your attention to this daily devotional, which begins on the first Sunday of Advent this year, and continues to December 31, 2020:

 

 

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…we climbed a smaller hill, did Spanish homework, and rested.

Perhaps we should have gone back today, but I had no idea how much time we’d actually want here, not knowing much about the area. We were essentially “done” last night, and not just because the 10k hike did us in…there wasn’t much left to see that was within walking distance. But that’s okay…it would have been insane and painful to go from yesterday to a 4-hour drive to the airport and the flights back home.

So it was good to have a day to not do much.

That smaller hill is right behind our hotel, atop of which stands the Fuerte San Cristobal. Nothing much happened there, and there’s not much to see but the views, but it ate up about twenty minutes, so there’s that:

Below is a good view of the Celaque National Park mountain range. The highest peak is, well, the highest peak in Honduras. I believe our Death March took us to the high peak on the left.

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We wandered into the town for some food. Lunch happened at this small cafeteria right across from the square and the church. It was homey, excellent and cheap (of course) – about $4/plate.

(Exterior, chicken, cerdo (pork), interior garden)

Here’s the San Marco church in the daytime. If you look at photos of it from the past, the trim is painted gold.

Then it was back to the hotel for much of the afternoon, where he worked on Spanish homework, I wrote a bit, and we watched the utility workers doing repairs and replacements on a series of poles down the street in front of us – the reason, we can safely assume, the power was out most of the afternoon.

Eventually, we made it back downtown, where we got our final Honduran meal from here, in the square. Roger helped us order – he’s a native Honduran who moved to the US, lived there for over two decades, became a citizen, and has recently returned here to help his mother.

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Then dessert in a cafe kiosk in the square which features and upstairs looking down on the park. I couldn’t get any panoramic shots, but I did get this weird looking tree:

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And that’s it from Honduras – probably – unless we get stuck here tomorrow, then who knows what I”d have to say?

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Well, good evening from Gracias, Honduras!

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Same country, new hammock.

For the first time in over a week, some of us were able to sleep past 7 am – I knew there would be evening Mass in Gracias, so we made that our plan, and a bit more sleeping was therefore in order. For some of us. I was still awake at six, but no Facetiming French people were at fault this time.

A lovely breakfast – as per usual at our stay – La Casa de Cafe, about which I’ll write more in my traditional summary post of “Why We Went/How we got there/Where we stayed.” Short version: If you go to Copan (and you should consider it) – stay there!

One of the great aspects of traveling is the people you meet, and this morning was no exception.

Are you afraid to get out? Hesitant to go beyond theme parks and all-inclusives? Afraid to go to places designated as “dangerous” by First World governments?

Well, meet Pamela.

Pamela is in her mid-70’s if she’s a day, lives between Cambridge and London, travels for two months every year, and this year her two months have been in Central America, getting around solely by bus, staying  only in hostels.

By herself, loving it, and fearless.

As she said, “If I listened to our Foreign Office’s warnings, I’d be afraid to go to Wales. ” 

And so we left her, there in the sun she’d been seeking when she came and sat near us, Pamela from somewhere between Cambridge and London, drinking her tea and reading her book there in a Honduran garden.

It was a fifteen-minute conversation, but it gave me enough inspiration, I think, for the next ten years.

And, I hope, adding to my son’s treasury of wisdom about life, journeys, openness and courage for the rest of his life.

After breakfast, we dashed out to do a few more purchases – I was actually surprised at how busy Copan was on a Sunday morning – it’s not like Italy – everything is open, including the place where son wanted to buy a couple more shirts and this spot, featuring the weaving of an indigenous community up near Hacienda San Lucas, where we walked on Thursday. 

Well then, ahem…to meet our, yeah…driver to go to Gracias. From which Pamela had just come on the buses. Hey guys, I explained this to you before…schedule…connections…etc. Okay. That’s my excuse. Next time. Bus. 

Anyway, yeah, the driver. A very nice guy, no English, arranged by our hotel. About a three hour drive through increasingly gorgeous country. I mean, the entire country of Honduras is beautiful, but the drive between La Entrada and Gracias was stunning. Mountainous and pristine. A photograph from a rapidly moving van can’t capture it.

Then to our present stay, an orientation, a walk around and a lunch at what seems to be a local fast food place called Buggy’s Burgers – it being Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t a lot open, so we went with the somewhat safe, although local fast food is always an adventure. I wouldn’t say it was “fast” – more like what we’d call in the US “fast casual.”  Served, by the way, on china plates with real silver, etc. It was big enough so that there’s going to be no more eating for the rest of the day….

Then back to the room for a couple of hours until Mass. Here:

Totally full, overflowing church. I was wondering why the presiding priest wasn’t wearing green vestments, but the introductory words by another concelebrating priest indicated that it was this priest’s fiftieth anniversary of ordination – so the Mass was a celebration of that, I’m guessing. Notes on the Mass:

  • Music was one guitar and some vocals in this large packed church. I really liked the setting of the Gloria and the Sanctus – I might try to find it online, although it will probably be impossible. The trouble was that the guitar was so terrible. Not in the playing, but in the quality of the instrument. Unless it was some native Honduran instrument. I felt like going up and making a personal donation so they could buy a better guitar.
  • As I said, church was packed. And not, as the mythology dictates, old women. It was everyone, from all walks of life. It was just Catholic.
  • They did this in Copan too – perhaps it is some Honduran thing – they did little introductions to each of the Scripture readings – you know, how we used to do it in the US in 1985?
  • They did this in Copan as well  – after the consecration of each element, there is some congregational response. In Copan, it was a general murmuring – probably of a prayer I just didn’t understand. Here it was an antiphon of sorts – the first phrase was “Dios es aqui” – God is here. Followed by something else I didn’t catch. And then with the memorial acclamation in the usual place.
  • As was the case in Copan, the entire congregation recites the Eucharist Prayer Doxology.
  • The Lord’s Prayer was sung, and the version was…not literal. I mean, it had the whole Lord’s Prayer in it, but each phrase was interspersed with “Gloria a Dios”
  • At the Sign of Peace – La Paz – there was a general rush up to the front which was very confusing, until I realized what was going on was that a lot of people were going up to give the pastor celebrating his anniversary their greetings.
  • It did seem to me – untutored, narrow, minimal experience – from the music and the priest’s (not the one celebrating his anniversary – a younger, concelebrating priest) very energetic, dramatic style of preaching, as well as the greater level of congregational interaction – that there might be a deliberate attempt to bring some Evangelical stylings into the Mass down here…just guessing.

And then, right after the Agnus Dei…

BOOM!

Out! Went the power. Pitch black, except for a few candles and an increasing number of phone flashlights. As the Communion Rite progressed, more candles were brought in, and at Communion, the altar servers holding patens were further assisted by another person standing over them with a phone light.

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We would have hung around after Mass or wandered a bit, except, you know…there was no power. Anywhere in town. You could see a store light here or there, but it was from places with generators. So might as well go home – we weren’t hungry, and it was 8:30, so what else should we do? Led by phone flashlights, then, we made our way through a pitch-black Honduran town on a Sunday night.

A few minutes after we returned, the power came back on, but still – we weren’t feeling any need for food, so might as well settle into our new home for the next few days. Except for those hours we’re out climbing mountains or some such nonsense.

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(And for the record, there is not a McDonald’s in Gracias, Honduras. One popped up on the map, and we walked over to see if it was so…but no. Someone must be playing games with Google Maps…)

 

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Tried to pop off this post this morning before we left, but the power went out, internet left my life, and so here we are.

(The power was out in Copan all day – it was a scheduled outage. So just as well that we were out and about!)

First Friday:

Well, not the First Friday, but you know what I mean.

A fairly quiet day: Son had his last Spanish class, which ended with decisions to continue the instruction once a week via Skype. For lunch we went a little more American – doing chicken nachos at a place called Twisted, a rooftop place looking over the town square. It actually hit the spot very well.

We’d checked off most of the items on the “Copan Day Trip” list – with one major one remaining for all day Saturday – so we knew it would be a slow afternoon. There was one remaining museum we wanted to see – this one, which is described as a “children’s museum,” but which all accounts attest is interesting for anyone. So we made the short hike up the hill to the north of town and found…it closed for the week, for some reason. Ah well. We saw things, were given access to the small tower on the property so we could take in the views of the town from that side, did some shopping, returned for rest, then went out to dinner at a Uruguayan steak place – it was quite good. My son had a hamburger, I had (shared)  a 12-ounce filet, thin, served with a steamed potato and salad, with an excellent chimchurri sauce. A little more shopping, sitting in the square watching soccer balls being bandied about – in how many places around the world was that same scene being played out in the evening hours?  – and then back to the room, meeting, on the way, an interesting friend.

 

 

Saturday:

I am at a point in my advanced life in which I require only about six hours of sleep a night. At home, I usually go to bed around midnight or one and wake up at 6 or 7. But here, we’ve been tired and going to bed earlier, which means…an earlier rising for some of us. So this morning, yeah, I woke up at 4. AM. Tried to go back to sleep, was halfway successful until I was fully awakened by the voice of a Frenchwoman in the garden speaking very loudly to someone on the other end of her phone – she was Facetiming or had someone on speaker – because the Wi-Fi is strongest outside – I guess she was making her connection to someone in Europe, because it was 6 am, things were urgent and she was loud. 

Ah well. Soon enough, it was time to get up anyway for  an all day trip up and out to Finca el Cisne – a coffee and cacao farm northeast of Copan, and not far from the Guatemalen border. It was absolutely marvelous – although if you’re prone to carsickness, don’t do it. You have to ride (in a truck) for about an hour over twisty, severely rutted roads. I don’t get carsick, thank goodness, but I can see how it could easily cause someone some trouble

Anyway, we arranged the tour through another local hotel/bar – we went down, I think, on Wednesday night, found someone in charge, they called the farm, made sure they had room on Saturday, we paid, and were told to come back to that hotel 8 am Saturday morning to be picked up  – and to bring bathing suits and towels, since hot springs would be part of the program.

The tour was led by an employee – a man who, has it happened had, a few years ago, done an intensive three-month English program at Georgia Tech – and had lived around Piedmont Park, so we had that to talk about besides all things Guatemalen (his nationality) and Honduran. There were two others on the tour – two young women from Roatan, one native (runs a nursery and does landscaping) and the other, an American who owns a B & B there. (Part of our conversation with our fellow tour attendees involved the pressing question…what the heck is it with all these French people here right now????) 

After we were picked up, the bumpy journey up and down began, past small settlements, folks walking by the side of the road (as per usual), dogs (as per usual), chickens and other livestock. The first part of the tour involved an explanation of the processing of both the coffee and the cacao – they don’t roast coffee there except in small specialized batches, but they do, of course, dry it.

 

In the box are cacao beans being fermented – the mix is called what would be translated into English as “drool.”

Then, to the horses! These are small mixed breeds, very docile. And cooperative. I’m not a rider, but I’m telling you, the experience of riding those mules down, down, down the switchbacks at Bryce Canyon that were about half as wide as the mules, their hooves loosening gravel as we went – took any fear I might have had of riding right out of me.

It was a lovely ride. Up into the hills, seeing the mountains in the not-far distance – right over those mountains is Guatemala. We paused several times to look at plants – my camera glitched out at the coffee plants, so sorry about that, but here’s some cardamon instead.

 

Then to lunch – prepared by a local woman in a spot that used to be a guest house of sorts but now is used as a much-needed secondary school. I didn’t get photos, because it didn’t seem to be the time or place, but know that it was delicious. Yucca – boiled and then fried, which was the best-prepared yucca I’ve ever had – topped with a mix of radishes, onion..and some other things I can’t remember. Rice with chicken, a type of squash (that my son took seconds of…something that never happens at home), tortillas of course, and then a lovely, simple little dessert of a banana (one of the small bananas they grow here) in a delicate sauce of milk dotted with chocolate, cinnamon and cardamon. And coffee, of course, for those who partake of such things.

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Then – here! To the Luna Jaguar Spa Resort – between the farm and Copan. A very, very popular and well-done hot springs. Kind of amazing, actually. It was beautifully done, with various pools of different sizes and levels. The water coming out of the hill was….ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY DEGREES. I mean, I’ve never been to a hot spring before and maybe that’s normal, but it’s also ALMOST BOILING GUYS.  Our guide said that it’s very popular at night – which I can understand and think it would be amazing to experience, but I also don’t think you could pay me to drive (or even ride) back to town from there on those roads, in the dark along with all the people who’ve been drinking at the hot springs all evening….

 

And yah, we’re pretty tired. Returned to no power, still – but it was restored about thirty minutes after our return. We headed to town, had tacos, skewers and gringas at our favorite street place, bought a few necessities…and now it’s time to pack!

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Tuesday began as every weekday here will – with four hours of Spanish for someone (not me). After that, we gave into someone’s  (not mine) pizza craving and had lunch at a place recommended by our tour guide on Sunday – a spot that seems to be owned by an aged American fellow with Honduran family members. And yes, the pizza was good.

We then caught a mototaxi back to the ruins – son wanted to take a more leisurely look, as well as see some features we’d missed on Sunday.

 

What you might be able to see from some of these photos is the impact of the vegetation on these structures. If you can dig up a map somewhere of all of the Mayan structures in Honduras up through the Yucatan, you will see thousands …most in overgrown, dense forest. Stephens says that they had to cut down trees around the stelas in order for Catherwood to get enough light to be able to see to sketch. Basically, everywhere you see a mound scattered with stones and trees growing out of it – you’ve got a Mayan structure.

 

Macaws have been released in the park, and they make a real racket – they also swoop and caw in great numbers, which I couldn’t capture on video, but believe me, is quite a sight. Macaws are so strange – they are not sexually dimorophous, so male and female bear that same stunning coloring – so vividly patterned that it seems as if they are pieces of art, not from nature – as beautiful as nature is!

 

We ended up walking back to town – it’s only a bit over a mile, although we would have taken a mototaxi if we’d have seen one. A bit of a rest, then out to eat. So here’s where we went, and boy am I dumb. I had seen this place twice before on our evening walks, and was determined to eat there. But then I could never find it again. I knew it was on one of the three or four cross streets on the way to the square, and every time I traveled those paths, I looked, but couldn’t find it. After we returned from the ruins, I left my son in the room and set out again, determined.  I was going to find this place – and came back, dispirited. Maybe, I told myself, they just set up on certain days.

And then out we went for dinner – just deciding we’d do whatever struck us on the way – we turned a corner – and there it was. And once I finally registered the location, I finally understood – it’s right across the way from the main market, in a space that, during the day, functions as another wing of the market. So no, it’s not there during the day, only in the evenings. And now I know exactly where it is.

 

Because we’ll probably return. I had a skewer of cerdo (pork) with various accompaniments, son had a torta (sandwich). They cook on a fire and a flattop grill close to the street, a long table is set up behind in the market space, and beside the folks coming and going are, of course, the ever present dogs – three sat mournfully around us, waiting…

IMG_20191113_073925Afterwards, it was over to Cafe Welchez, for a piece of cheesecake for someone (not me) and a glass of wine. All together – the meal, dessert and wine – I paid about $13 USD.

Something I read indicated that about 100,000 tourists a year visit Copan – not bad for a place that is not super easy to get to. To illustrate the extent of the tourism, here are my breakfast companions this morning – both Guatemalan tour guides, one leading a group from France, the other from Italy. So…be not afraid! Come on down!

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Coming to you from this morning’s office:

Sorry, not a coffee drinker, and a helpful young man in the convenience store dug behind all the regular bottles to find me a couple of Sabor Ligero – Coca-Cola Light, which is what you find outside the US instead of Diet Coke. You can also find Coke Zero, but I prefer the non-sweetness of this – which is not as perversely satisfying as the metallic mouth feel of Diet Coke, but hey. #GratitudeNovember or whatever.

Today’s the second day of Spanish school. I stayed at the school all morning yesterday, but there’s no need – so here I am back at our B & B, watching French tourists come and go.

All right – let’s do Monday:

Refresher: Kid #5, about to turn 15 next week has a long-standing interest in MesoAmerican civilizations, especially the Maya. It inspired past trips to the Yucatan and Guatemala. He is homeschooled, studied Spanish in 8th grade in school, has been doing his best on his own at home (mostly via this Great Courses and other random videos and reading, at the moment, El Hobbit.) But of course he needs more, and it seemed to be a good idea to combine the two interests – see a set of ruins he’s long wanted to visit and take a week of intensive Spanish study.

I had originally looked into Antigua, Guatemala, simply because I wanted to go there, but after thinking about it and considering options, it seemed as if the setting of Copan would give us more opportunities for after-school activities in the afternoons. There is a IMG_20191111_084415.jpglot to do around Antigua (not so much archaeological sites, but natural and cultural), but most of them seem to call for more than an afternoon. So, I was thinking, “We can do a week in Antigua, and then go to Copan”…I thought…why not just go to Copan for the week? As it turns out, there are a couple of well-regarded and reviewed Spanish language schools here, and so far – on day 2 – it seems to be working out well.

Monday morning, we rose, ate the typically well-prepared breakfast here at the B & B, then walked the six blocks or so to the school, located off the central square. It’s on the rooftop of a building housing a restaurant, a dental practice and some other businesses. He was introduced to a teacher, took a placement test, and then spent the next few hours learning how much he had to learn!

Humbling…

We then dropped our stuff off at the B & B, and ate lunch at a place recommended to us by our Copan guide – Cafe San Rafael – a lovely space centered on locally-made cheeses, as well as coffees (of course). It was more expensive than the typical local fare (full meal, for example, the previous night, for  both of us for 135 Lempira – about $5.50 USD), but worth it.

Then we took a mototaxi – what you’d know, more generally, as a “tuk-tuk” – they don’t Screenshot 2019-11-12 at 10.36.09 AMcall them that here – the prevalent mode of transportation in these parts – up  about 2 km to Macaw Mountain, a nature reserve originally started for birds that had served their usefulness to their owners as pets. You can read about it here. It was a good break from the hustle and bustle of town – we’d seen the flock of Macaws that fly freely at the ruins (and will see them again today) – and these guys are mostly in cages because they are being bred and trained to fly (those hatched in captivity), but still, it was a pleasant afternoon.

Back to town in a mototaxi, a rest, then out to get tickets for a Saturday excursion (we were originally going to leave Saturday, but decided this day-long excursion would be worth it), then dinner here – it was good – I had chicken, son had beef, with typical accompaniments. Monday Night Football en espanol on television, a cat wandering about. I prefer the more street-food stuff – the dishes cooked under tents in nooks and crannies  throughout town – and we have and will have plenty of that – but it’s nice to have a break from that to eat an actual enclosed space, as well!

Then a stroll into the center where we saw the pernicious influence of the USA in…Christmas decorations! On November 11! Ah, well…then to this small archaeological museum to fill out our Copan knowledge. Across the way, the church doors were open, so we went over to peek in and saw a man speaking to a fairly large group of folks – some sort of educational or mission activity I suppose. Children were racing around outside and since we obviously do not look native to these parts, were shouting, “Hello!” to us – one little boy (and I mean little – he was probably no more than 6 or 7) – was especially determined, so we took a few minutes for him to practice his English  – of which he was very proud – with us –  he could count to twelve, he knew all the greetings, and could tell me, when I asked him – gato? CAT! perro? DOG!

Back to the room…homework time for one of us, and me, reading John Lloyd Stephens on Copan. I have at home, for some reason, just the second volume of his great work – I think I got it when we first started on this path, and it’s the second volume that deals with the Yucatan. What I hadn’t realized was that Copan was actually the first ruins he encountered, the first place that revealed to him that maybe everything we thought we knew about this part of the world is wrong….It’s absolutely fascinating reading. 

Off-topic – Older Son is working his way through Billy Wilder’s oeuvre. Check it out here. 

Later!

(Don’t forget Instagram!) 

 

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Well, hello from Honduras!
I would say, “Hola,” except this meme, pointedly and regularly shared with me before, during and after our trip to Spain earlier this year, stills weighs heavily:

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So, no Spanish will be attempted.

Expect to see extensive blogging this week. I have four hours every morning, while this is happening:

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I’m hanging out this morning, but if it’s okay with everyone, during the rest of the week, I might make my way back to the B & B or wander. There’s not much to see, though, and we have every afternoon to do more wandering, so I’m thinking my best use of time will be to work either here or there, including sharing with you in this space.

After a typically rocky beginning to the trip, things have smoothed out nicely. When I say “typically” rocky, I don’t mean typically for me, I mean typically for leaving from the Birmingham airport. With all due respect, I think I’ve had more absurd delays from that airport than not. Delays that have necessitated totally scrapping a scheduled departure and leaving the next morning instead. Delays that have led to missing a connecting flight to Japan by maybe ten minutes, necessitating an overnight stay in Dallas and a lost day in Japan.

Things like that.

Luckily, we didn’t have a connecting flight to catch and even more fortunately this time, the airline – in the person of the pilot, specifically, was very good about keeping us informed – in complete violation of what I have long been under the impression was was Airline Rule #1: Obfuscate, deflect, and when that fails, just lie. No, this fellow, clearly wanting to get to Houston as badly as the rest of us, kept us as informed as possible on this very bizarre problem: the geniuses on duty couldn’t move the jetbridge. There was a problem, and evidently, for a solid hour, there was no one associate with the BHM airport staff that could be reached to give advice. The updates we got were things like: “Well, they’re going to gather every spare employee in the airport and try to push it.” That didn’t work. “Now they’re going to try the airplane tug.” Finally the pilot said, basically, “Screw it. We’re going to back out verrrrry slowly and if we break something, well, we break something.”
Nothing broke! We got to Houston about an hour late, and traveling mercies in restrospect on those rushing to make connections, but our only task was grabbing a hotel shuttle and getting some sleep.
Saturday morning:
Up early, hotel breakfast, then shuttle back to the airport for the a bit-less-than three hour flight to San Pedro Sula. Passengers were probably about half Honduran, half..not. I’m assuming most of those who weren’t, were were either going to Roatan to fish and/or dive or on mission trips. You could kind of tell the difference between the groups – I’m assuming the bros with the sunglasses latched on the back of their head  and the t-shirts barely covering their guts were in the former category, but hey, these days, who knows! And who am I to judge?

Immigration was bizarrely lengthy because of a strange situation. There were about thirty quite elderly people – who looked to be Honduran – all in wheelchairs, in the “special cases” line. Not long after we arrived, it seems as if an executive decision was made to prioritize these people – no argument from me there – and so the rest of us ended up waiting probably thirty minutes later than we would have otherwise. I really, really wondered what these group of wheel-chair bound elderly had been up to – they were all in Delta chairs (who knew they had so many) but I didn’t catch their flight origin. My main theories: They were native Hondurans living in the US who were being brought home for a visit in a group. They were Hondurans who were given the chance to go up to visit relations in the US in a group. Or three – they had been on a pilgrimage somewhere.
Anyway, we finally got through – without demands for papers from this child’s father allowing his travel – which happened to us in Belize and will explain to anyone who searches my purse and wonders why I am carrying a death certificate and a birth certificate with me on this trip…
…and met our driver, arranged by our hotel here in Copan.
Yes, there were other choices. We could have taken a bus. We could have rented a car. Let’s just say, I’m glad I did neither. We will probably end up on a bus for some parts of this trip, but for my initial entrance into the country, not knowing what the heck I’m doing and even being – I realized with a start on the flight over – totally clueless on the currency – I went for the driver and private car.
As I said – good choice. By car, it was a solid four-hour drive, which means, on a bus, it would have been longer, and, to boot, we would have had to leave the airport and go into the city to even catch the bus. We probably wouldn’t have arrived until 8 or so.
And driving? No thanks.

Let’s put it this way – if I were in the country for even just a week, being driven around, gaining understanding of the “rules” of the road, I could do it at that point. Avoid the (many) potholes, slow waaaay down for the (many) speed bumps, don’t freak out about the armed police stops (three, I think on the journey), and watch out for the people, dogs and chickens right on the edge of the road.
But again – right off a plane, new to the country? Probably jumping in a car and driving four hours would not be the best idea.
We arrived at our lovely B & B, freshened up, and headed out for food.
Copan Ruinas is a small town, central square, much poverty, but also set up for tourists who come mostly to visit the Mayan ruins. Lots of restaurants, a smattering of English spoken.

Our first food stop was in a courtyard where three women were set up – a food court, really. We just picked one and had a simple, lovely serving of pinchos.
That did not satisfy the young man who hadn’t eaten since the hotel breakfast, so we wandered out to find more. We settled for a touch more “formal” sit-down restaurant that’s centered on grilled meat. Not wanting a full meal, we just went for an appetizer of beans, cheese and chorizo kept warm over a cunning little charcoal brazier. At one point, seven heavily armed law/military guys came and sat at the table behind us – I mean, with their handguns on their hips and their rifles across their chests, even as they ate…I mean, yeah, you’re not going to hang your big gun (whatever they were) on the back of your chair, sure. I wasn’t going to stand up and get a photo (although they did gather and take a selfie at the table), but you can see one fellow behind my son in one of the photos.
Does a heavily armed culture make you feel more or less safe? Hard to say…
Anyway, we wandered, went into a few shops, and then back to sleep…

 

Blog post on Sunday Mass is already published here. 

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Coming to you from Omaha…

We’re circling back. Going to make a couple more stops, then God willing, back home on Friday. Today I drove across South Dakota once again – but through the northern part of the state, west to east this time. I’d thought about a few different stops along the way, but finally just decided to forge on and do the Big Thing we’d been thinking about the whole time, which was the Omaha Zoo.

*Cue elderly mother doing one more speech on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the old days of four channels and one nature show*

It’s said to be one of the top zoos in the country – second after San Diego, for some who rate such things. We got there mid-afternoon, and since most of the zoo closes at five, with the enclosed buildings remaining open until 6, we hit the outdoor exhibits first and saved the buildings for last.

What did we know? It made sense at the time. But honestly? We probably could have skipped most of the outdoor exhibits and headed straight to the buildings. It being late afternoon, most of the outdoor animals were sleeping, mostly hidden, and there really wasn’t much we hadn’t seen before. At this point I was thinking, Not so sure about these high ratings…

But then we got the desert building. And then the rainforest. Both were fabulous and well worth the price of admission. Well-designed, interesting, and with several animals we’d never seen before. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the aquarium, which I’m thinking is probably just as good.

(The gorilla exhibit was fine – but the best of those I’ve seen was at the Atlanta Zoo, by far. Best chimps? Knoxville. They had orangutans in Omaha with a decent habitat, but orangutans in captivity always seem so depressed to me – it depresses me.)

Anyway, we spent as much time as we could in these buildings, but the story really is the bats.

We rushed to the rainforest building, noted a sign telling us there would be a “high level of bat activity,” thought it meant that the bats would be flying around a lot in their enclosure, so sure, fine, when whoosh! right by our heads. A bat. Followed by another and another – and we looked up – and there they were – everywhere. Clinging to the walls right beside us, swirling about, sweeping through the passageways – astonishing. I suppose they are “out” all the time, but of course, sleep all day – and we arrived at 5:30, just as they were awakening and starting to feast. It was fascinating – a bit daunting, but I trust the zoo to not be unleashing any danger on my head, so I was fine – I can imagine, though, someone being really terrified by this, and maybe even in these lawsuit-happy-days – moved to action. Which is why we were…surprised at the vagueness of the “warning” contrasted with the quite intense activity of the bats all around us. At one point we went to the lower level to walk on the “trail” on the “rainforest” floor. There was a woman sitting on a bench outside. She swept her hand over her hair, scowled and said, “I hope you like bats.”

I’m guessing she…didn’t.

If you’d like to see video of the spectacle, go visit my Instagram page. Phew!

 

 

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I got a little hung up on the trip blogging because at some point I decided I should just go through the entire trip in order – and that quickly became a discouraging, daunting task. Mostly because I thought I might do a single post on Seville, but we were there for two weeks, and..what should I do?

So last night, I said, forget it. I’ll just blog topically and randomly, as is my wont. It will all be eventually organized in the proper order on the Travel page anyway.

When we went to Madrid several years ago (my daughter was working in Germany, and this was our way of meeting her for spring break – we’d been to Germany at Thanksgiving and she was ready for a change of scenery by that point), Toledo emerged as a possible day trip, but it lost out to Segovia, and I’m glad. Toledo is filled with daytrippers, and I think we got more out of our time there from not being a part of those hordes.

You might know the aspect of Toledo from El Greco, who settled here and painted it, memorably.

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That’s all I knew about it, really. Striking setting, old, former capitol. I’d considered staying for longer, and I’m glad we didn’t. Two days was enough. Not that we saw every corner, but there was something about the place that made me ready to leave.

There’s really no mystery about it – and it wasn’t the fact that it was blisteringly hot (high 90’s) during our time there. As I walked around, the best comparison I could come up with was Venice. Toledo certainly has more actual residents than Venice does, even in that historic center – I saw them shopping and sitting in government services waiting rooms (I wasn’t in those waiting rooms – the doors were wide open to the street), and you can see that the city spreads far out beyond the iconic rise on the river bend. But that historic center does seem predominantly tourist-centered in a way that, say, Seville, wasn’t. When I travel, what I enjoy experiencing is that mix of deep history and culture in the midst of vibrant contemporary life. Toledo struck me as more of a museum. Interesting with lots to see in a stunning setting – but still, a museum.

So – I’m definitely glad we went. The Cathedral was spectacular, with one of the most helpful and engaging audio guides I’ve heard, the setting was beautiful and thought-provoking and seeing the El Grecos – memorable. But I didn’t regret leaving – I didn’t think, “I could come back here” as I’ve felt in some other places, large (Seville), medium (Padova, Italy) and small (Uzes, France).

As I mentioned, we didn’t stay in the center. In retrospect, having walked around and seen some of the parking areas, I think we definitely could have managed a different arrangement with a hotel closer in – but not knowing the layout, I was hesitant to commit. So the Marriott it was! 

It’s about a kilometer from the center, and walkable, but…not in near 100 degree heat. I mean – you could do it, I suppose, but starting your day out with a kilometer walk, partly uphill, in that kind of weather, doesn’t make for a great rest of the day. So we took the bus which stopped on the hour right outside the hotel.

Highlights:

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, founded by Ferdinand and Isabella, who intended to be buried here, but ended up in Grenada. I highlight for you the weird monkey on a chamber pot and the prayer on display before the high altar, also pictured. It was nice to see what was on display presented in a way consistent with its original (and continuing) purpose.

 

 

El Greco Museum. There are, of course, several El Greco pieces on display in situ around Toledo, but photographs are not allowed in most of those places. Here at the El Greco Museum, they were – it’s basically a replica of his house, built by some wealthy fellow to highlight a collection. It’s not expensive to get in (maybe 4 Euros? And that was just for me), and it’s not huge, but it’s worth seeing, especially for these portraits of the apostles.

We arrived just as a huge, boisterous group of senior citizens did – so boisterous they had to be shushed by the attendants – glad they were having a good time! But we were able to outrun them and reach the important rooms before they got there.

 

 

We did walk back to our hotel that night – it cooled down a bit, and I wanted to see the area down by the river. You can’t see it from the photos, but fish of some sort were attempting to swim upstream over the little “falls.”

 

 

IMG_20190625_213337It’s one of my favorite parts of traveling – those early evening hours when you’re wandering back “home” and people are horsing around. They drive me a little nuts, but thinking about traveling on my own without them? Doesn’t actually hold much appeal to me.

Next morning – view from the hotel and breakfast.

 

 

Then, on the bus, up to the city. First stop: the Jesuit church of San Ildenfonso – wonderful art inside, and a tower with a great view:

 

 

My favorite detail on the Mary statue is that she’s holding the sword aimed at the dragon’s head. Awesome.

Then, the Cathedral. It is…huge. You don’t just wander in – I think it was ten Euros to enter and tour, and that is a price I can’t argue with. You can mutter, “It’s a church, you shouldn’t charge to enter it,” but with a structure like this, of great historic importance and such an attraction – sure. There’s no way you could maintain the structure and offer the experience without charging something, and ten Euros struck me as very reasonable. I don’t often get audio guides, but I’m certainly glad we got this one – it was very well done, with the explanations just the right length, and engaging as well. You can, of course, read about the Toledo Cathedral in all sorts of places and see wonderful, better images, so here are just a few:

 

 

Some notes:

The St. Christopher is huge – the length of a wall. The audio guide explained that it was a popular belief that if you saw an image of St. Christopher, you’d be protected from death on that day – so they painted this image of the saint so, well…no one could miss seeing it when they entered! Burgos had a similarly huge St. Christopher painted in their cathedral.

In the photo on the third row to the right, you see an oculus – it’s part of a fascinating structure, including a highly ornamented piece opposite – called El Transparente. More:

El Transparente is a Baroque altarpiece in the ambulatory of the Cathedral of Toledo. Its name refers to the unique illumination provided by a large skylight cut very high up into the thick wall across the ambulatory, and another hole cut into the back of the altarpiece itself to allow shafts of sunlight to strike the tabernacle. This lower hole also allows persons in the ambulatory to see through the altarpiece to the tabernacle, as if were transparent, so to speak. It was created in 1729-1732 by Narciso Tomé and his four sons (two architects, one painter and one sculptor). The use of light and of mixed materials (marble, bronze, paint, stucco) may reflect the influence of Bernini’s Cathedra Petri in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

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Not only was a skylight cut into the top of the thick back wall of the cathedral across the ambulatory behind the high altar, but another hole was cut into the high altar itself to allow the shafts of sunlight to illuminate the tabernacle like a spotlight.

After the two holes were cut, Tomé and his sons designed a way to visually connect the two by sculpting a fantastic company of angels, saints, prophets and cardinals. Abstract designs suggesting flowing robes and foliage hang over corners to mask the details of the architectural piercings. Along the edges of the skylight they arranged an array of Biblical figures who seem to tumble into the cathedral. At the outer edge of the opening sits Christ on a bank of clouds and surrounded by angels. The back side of the altarpiece was converted to a tower of marble which reaches from the floor to the ceiling. Intricate groups of figures were assembled so that the opening to the tabernacle could be hidden yet permit light to pass through.

The photo to the far right on the last row? Paschal Candle holder.

I was struck, as I always am, every time, in places like this, by sights such as you see in the photo on the right in the second row. Dozens – even, given the course of traffic in a single day – hundreds or thousands – of people standing, studying these images, which are not just images, but images that tell a story – the story of Jesus, the story that meets the deepest yearnings of the heart of every person standing there.

We wonder, we worry, constantly – how do we get people into churches? 

Guess what – in places like this – here they are. Here they are. 

 

We stopped in many other churches, ate some very good middle-eastern food, bought IMG_20190626_134620 (2)sweets from more cloistered nuns (left hand photos, top down), saw the remnants of what must have been a spectacular Corpus Christi procession, saw a couple more unphotographical El Grecos, then went back to the hotel to cool off, then – since it doesn’t get dark until about ten o’clock – headed out in the car, first to a castle south of the city. I’d read about it on TripAdvisor – it’s abandoned, high up on a hill – just what we needed to balance out the tourist hordes. The drive in the rental car was a little dicey – a rocky road with lots of switchbacks – but we did it, and my final bill from the rental car company arrived with no extra charges, so I guess I did fine. It was amazing and cooler up there than down below.

 

We then found a mall – this one – again, one of my favorite things to do when traveling. You can’t pay me to go into a mall in the United States, but I do love experiencing non-tourist shopping in other countries. It’s just so interesting to see what’s different – and what’s exactly the same. We ate at the food court, having found, of course a 100 Montaditos. The most popular restaurant, though? McDonald’s of course, and it wasn’t even close. The lines were five deep there – with Burger King right across the way, employees standing around, looking bored…

And the next morning….adios, Toledo! 

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Last post: Basic itinerary.

This post: how we got around:

 

In Seville, we mostly walked. And walked. And walked.

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Not usually with bulls, though. 

The central area of Seville is quite, quite walkable. Hardly anything more than a kilometer away – it would have been like nothing if it hadn’t been near or at a hundred degrees most days. We did the bus twice – the first time when we took our grandson/nephew down to the Aquarium from our apartment. Walking a mile and a half img_20190614_130303is fine, but not a great way to start the day with a five-year old if you would like to maintain his enthusiasm. Buses are much better for that. The second time involved the bullfight museum and the Basilica of La Macarena – Seville’s most revered image of the Virgin. I got the bright idea of going to the bullfight museum…but then we couldn’t get tickets for anytime earlier than 90 minutes from that moment. So I went ahead and got the tickets, and then got the next bright idea – that we’d go visit the Basilica – we had just enough time to do it, and All the Information told me it would be re-opening soon – at 4:30. It was just a little far to walk in that time, so sure – bus.

Well, we missed the bus the first time – we were standing in the shade a bit away, it swung by, paused….and left, with us running after it. Too bad! So we waited a few minutes until the next one came, took the bus up to the Basilica…and found that it actually didn’t re-open until five. Ah. By that point, I didn’t feel like walking back to the bus stop and waiting, so I just hailed a taxi to take us back – it was about 1 Euro more than the bus would have been for all of us.

The buses in Seville were – in my limited experience – prompt and clean. Very prompFare was $1.40, payable in cash, change actually given, which sort of shocked me.

Train to Cordoba was fine, although Spanish trains seem far more expensive than trains in at least Italy and France. Yes, they do offer discounts when you book in advance, and img_20190617_174007I’m sure Spanish residents use all sorts of plans and cards to get better deals, but still – I’ll just compare it to our brief stint in Italy. The train between Pisa and Lucca – about a 30 minute ride – was E 3.60, last minute, purchased before boarding. The train between Seville and Cordoba – longer, yes, but still a ride less than an hour – could not be had for less than E11, even in advance, and even on non-high-speed trains. I suppose there are differences in financial structures and support than impact that, but train travel in Spain was simply not as attractive as it had been in Italy in the past.

Above: walking to the Cordoba train station.

As I mentioned in the last post, I didn’t actually commit to renting a car for the second part of the trip until a couple of days before the moment arrived. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, although I’d driven in other countries before, and one stop in the last part of our trip would necessitate a car, absolutely. But still, I would have occasional seizures of hesitancy, and scramble around Google Maps, trying to figure if there were other destinations we could explore that were more friendly to train travel. There might have been, but it would have required me re-arranging my brain – and some of the destinations (like Guadalupe) would have been incredibly complicated to visit if we’d not had a car.

So…a car it was. Rented from Hertz, through the Hertz site. About $200 for ten days, pickup in one city, dropoff in another, much insurance paid for plus insurance through my Amex card.

I am extremely wary of 3rd-party sites when it comes to things like car rentals in foreign countries. Having that extra layer of responsible parties just might mean adding one more party who doesn’t want to help you when things go wrong, handing you back to the party in the previous layer…who would also like to not bother with you, and hands you back.

I read a lot of travel disaster stories and a great many of them involve aspects of travel booked through third-party sites, it seems to me.

International Driver’s License obtained through AAA, as you’re told to do – pay $20, get a form that you can show cops. There’s all sorts of conflicting information out there as to whether it’s required in various countries. All I can say is – the rental agency never asked for it at any point, and since I wasn’t stopped at any point, I don’t know if la policia would have actually asked to see it, rather than just my US state license.

I picked up the car in Seville, at the train station. I could have done so at the airport, but I wasn’t going to the airport, the airport was farther away, and my son and his family were going to the train station anyway on Saturday, so why not? The reason some warn against picking up a car at the train station rather than the airport has to do with traffic for the driver new to driving in Spain – the airport’s further away from the city, of course. But the train station is very near a highway, it was a Saturday, so there wasn’t much traffic – it was fine.

In fact, being introduced to driving in Spain on a weekend was an unintentionally excellent idea. I recommend it. I drove through and out of Seville, up to Merida, then to Caceres, and the next day to Trujillo and back to Caceres, going through the towns, parking in the middle of the towns – with no problems or issues, simply because it was a weekend and traffic was so light.

There were only two points during those ten days in which I felt a little harried behind the wheel – the first was in Talavera de la Reine – our stop on the way to Toledo. It was the middle of a weekday, everyone was out, and I found myself in the midst of traffic I hadn’t expected. I wasn’t keen on driving around in that and found parking as soon as I could, perhaps further away from the Basilica than needed, but at least I was off the road and away from all those other drivers, impatiently tailing me around roundabouts. The second was Tuesday in Bilbao – it was okay, but getting out of town at the end of our day there was a little tense, simply because it was around 5pm on a weekday. Only almost mowed over a couple of pedestrians.

Other than that, most of my driving was on highways – motorways  – as the GPS lady called them. My experience driving these roads was similar to what it had been in France – very relaxing, and for the same reason, I think. The speed limit for cars is 120 km/hour (about 75 mph). I don’t know if it is the same for trucks, but I don’t think it is, because they all seemed to be going at least 15-20 km/slower and they stuck to it. Trucks don’t pass cars on these highways – they generally seem to stick in the left lanes. So with that absence of barreling semis and no billboards to speak of (sorry, Shunnarah!), you have a much calmer driving landscape.

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Trujillo in the distance.

And roundabouts? As I’ve mentioned, I’m a fan. Once you get the hang of it and understand the yielding and that if you are exiting soon, you should hang right as soon as you can – they’re great. I particularly like them because they offer a more tolerant approach to mistakes and changes of mind. You miss your turn? Just drive around again, and there you are. Very…European. 

The only thing I didn’t like and really didn’t understand was the way directional arrows – really just triangles – are painted on Spanish roads. I can’t find an image online of one, and I didn’t photograph it – because obviously, we’d be in the car when we saw it, but picture this:

In the lane you’re driving in, you are approaching a triangle painted in your lane indicated the proper direction traffic should be flowing.  Imagine what this might look like – perhaps, if you’re imagining it, you’re envisioning being in your car and seeing the triangle painted on the road, with a side facing you and one of the vertices pointing away from you. Like an arrow.

But no.

It’s the opposite. For some reason, they do the opposite – a flat side facing away from you indicates the direction of traffic with the vertex pointing at you. I can’t tell you how many times I would get mildly, momentarily freaked out when glancing down and seeing that triangle pointing at me and my car. Am I going the right way?! Yes, my navigator would assure me. Yes, yes. Or, as the Spanish would say, si-si-si. 

I encountered a few toll roads I wasn’t expecting and wasn’t prepared for, but luckily had enough change for or by accident and happenstance got into a lane that took cards, so no disasters there. I stuck to the speed limit, so I don’t think I got a ticket, although in Spain, they don’t seem to have the law patrolling for speeders, but instead use some sort of Super Secreto Radar, and you think you’re fine when surprise  – a traffic ticket turns up in your mailbox a few weeks later.

And, finally, parking. That, rather than the challenges of driving, was the real reason I considered alternatives to driving. I was just really concerned about parking the car in these old towns designed for horsecarts, not cars. Where would I park? How would I know where to park? Would I have to parallel park on narrow stone roads?? That was a needless worry – and I didn’t have to go to the lengths I did to find “HOTEL WITH PARKING PROVIDED” either. Lesson really learned there – for of course, all of these towns are crazy to drive in, no one really wants to drive in them, and the towns don’t want to be clogged with cars either, so of course, there is plenty of parking available in lots right outside the centers, within easy walking distance of anything you’d want to stay, and even hotels.

One of the parking garage companies – I encountered this in a couple of places – has the tickets (we think) jerryrigged with chips or something so that after you pay, you don’t even have to insert it or even make contact with a machine before the barrier arm lifts – it just. There may be something else going on – perhaps an attendant has been watching via camera and knows you paid and raises the arm? But whatever the case, it was efficient and impressive.

Conclusion: I’m glad I rented the car. We were able to see things we would have missed if we’d traveled by bus or train. No way we could have reached Guadalupe as easily as we did, or made the out-of-the way stops we did with as much efficiency. Costwise, it just might have been a wash. If we’d just gone to major sites, even as expensive as train travel is in Spain, when you throw in the cost of parking and gas, I’m thinking it would have been about the same for the three of us. Hard to say, though. Either way, you see things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Left to right: Underground parking in Talavera de la Reine; free parking lot a few hundred meters from our inn in Guadalupe; parking garage outside the old city of Caceres, a ten minute walk from our hotel. 

 

Two spots where a slightly larger car came in handy – driving up the dirt switchbacks leading up to the castle on the left, south of Toledo, and then taking the hard way up a very rocky road to this overlook and then down a dirt path – instead of the slightly easier way involving only rural dirt roads and no straight uphill path of rocks – to the Sad Hill Cemetery.

 

And some of us even rode boats.

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More Travel blogposts here. 

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