Detomo's Abroad

Detomos Abroad

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Sailing the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia

November 1, 2015 8:01 pm

August & September 2015

Our 2015 adventure began with leaving Washington, D.C. after celebrating Julie’s 39th birthday for the 22nd time with our sons, their wives and our two grandchildren. We flew Delta to London-Heathrow, where we stayed at the Hilton for the night ready to fly British Air to Split, Croatia early on Wednesday, the next morning. Once in Split, we took a short taxi ride to Trogir Marina – a well-positioned boutique marina located on an island between an industrial port and an “old-town” marine trading village. We met up with our close friends and traveling companions, Peter and Nikki, and, after depositing our gear into our cabin on the boat, began a walk through the ancient town of Trogir. The streets were lined with all sorts of local vendor booths and shops selling heather sachets, olive oil, soaps and souvenirs, along with all sorts of market foods and clothing. The light rain that developed did nothing to dampen the activity, as we stopped at a local shop and had a big lunch of mussels (as a starter), followed by grilled octopus, beef, kolbasz, cheese and zucchini fritters. It was all washed down with pivo (beer) and cider. We then walked off our gluttony by shopping through the Marina stores finding a unique shop that sells bags made of sail-material. After returning to the boat to relax, visit, unpack and stow our gear, we waited for the skies to clear before setting out again to ogle the yachts in harbor, and make our way to a nice, little restaurant where we dined on mixed mussels and grilled prawns – Awesome!

Julie & Nikki

Julie & Nikki

Thursday, August 20th began as a day of perfect weather in the 60’s and 70’s, ideal for the day’s sail to the island and town of Vis. The island of Vis is farthest west from Croatia’s coast and was historically controlled by Italy, and the Italian influence is prevalent even today. The harbor was full of sail boats, all backed-in to the wharf, as is common in the Mediterranean. Once we were set, we set out to explore the town, only steps from our boat’s stern. While there, we walked to the neighboring town of Kut, a quaint seaside town of old stone with a church from the 1500’s and a fortress with cannons to protect the town.  We then returned to Vis and traveled to the far side of the bay to investigate an old cemetery, ringed with olive trees. In this town, the markets were again filled with seashells, heather sachets, and olive oil. We ate ashore in Kut at a small, local restaurant, where the island’s specialty: mussels, followed by eggplant casserole with anchovies, pasta Faggioli, and grilled sea bass. We then stopped and had street food for dessert -12 mini donuts with powdered sugar and chocolate, (white and dark), made to order for us while we waited. These, of course, we ate with a pear liqueur as a nightcap.

Friday was again perfect weather, and after morning cappuccinos and breakfast pastries, we set sail for the famous island and town of Hvar.  Hvar is a protected bay shielded from the sea by another island. The water there was crystal blue, but the small bay is dominated by super yachts with names such as: “Lotus”, “’joy Me”, and “Spirit”. Hvar is a high-end playground for the rich-and-famous, and luxury tourist spot for us! The wharf there is reserved for luxury liners only, so we were required to take a mooring ball and longline our stern to the shallow, rocky wharf. Lunch was a traditional Croatian goulash, mussels, and grilled shrimp and scallops! Walking about the town, we ran across the youth hostels and local topless beach.  Since the view was good, we stopped for drinks where we met some young British recruiters on holiday and talked rugby with them. Roc and Peter then decided it was time to “burn some calories” and hiked to the top of the local fortress above the town! From that vantage point, the harbor and town, with its luxury ships, offer a beautiful view.

Hvar Harbour

Hvar Harbour

Hvar Beach

Hvar Beach

Hvar from the top of the Fortress

Hvar from the top of the Fortress

Hvar - Fortress at night

Hvar – Fortress at night

Saturday morning, we set sail back to another marina in Trogir to trade in our 3-cabin boat, (“Martana”), for a 4 cabin boat, (“Kaja”). Another day of great sailing weather allowed us to get there before midday, dock-up next to our “new” boat and move all of our gear from one boat to the other. However, problems with “Kaja’s” GPS System and a non-functioning head, (toilet), delayed us for all afternoon. These problems, coupled with an incoming storm and the mass exodus of all of the marina’s other sailboats for “Yacht Week”, convinced us to “stay put” for the night! So, in consolation, we walked down the coast to a wonderful restaurant, “Frankie’s”, where we sat outside in the upstairs balcony overlooking the bay and treated ourselves to a lavish meal of mussels, veal and chicken!

The storm passed in the night, and, in the quiet of the morning, we had the full attention of the marina staff in trying to ready “Kaja” for us to be able to leave. With one of the boat’s heads permanently nonfunctioning, we convinced the staff to “jet blast” the waste storage from its tank (a very nasty job), which would allow us to proceed with an acceptable situation. The boat would then have only a single functioning head! We finally left port and laid course to Vela Luka on the northwest end of the island of Korcula. This would be on-route to Dubrovnik, where we would rendezvous with other friends coming aboard in a few days. Vela Luka is a quiet, historic town with a town quay that we tied-up at. Down the street, we found a nice family restaurant, where we dined on mussel risotto and shared an excellent order of lamb chops! That evening, we shared cocktails on the boat, played cards and toasted with local pear “palinka”!

The next morning, we set sail for the city of Korcula, an ancient town for which the island is named. Korcula is famous for being the birthplace of the famous explorer, Marco Polo! We were lucky enough to get there at a reasonable time to avoid the rush for boat space on the wharf. However, this port does leave the boats tied-up there open to the waves directly from the sea. That means that ferry traffic and large ship passing by the bay drive waves onto the moored boats, requiring them to be carefully tensioned in order to keep their sterns from hitting the pier. Once getting water and electric hooked-up, we went to explore the old-town. This is an ancient “walled-city”, with stone walls surrounding it, and narrow walkways crisscrossing within, up and down steep hills. Nikki and Julie explored the shops while Peter and Roc climbed the local church’s bell tower for a panoramic view. That night we sat at a table on the wall’s water’s edge, enjoying the starry sky, the ocean’s gentle breeze and great food! Strolling back to the boat, we stopped for gelatos and finished off the evening with “toasts” to the places we visited thus far.

Korcula Harbour

Korcula Harbour

The morning was Tuesday, August 25th and it was Peter’s birthday! For breakfast, we had traditional walnut fig pastries with our coffee, and then set sail for Polace. The sailing was great, and we ate a light lunch aboard as we enjoyed the blue seas and fair wind. In Polace, we backed the boat up to Spongo Restaurant’s private wharf where we would incur no docking fees. We preordered dinner (a fish pot for two and a mixed pot for 2), and then walked to explore the 2nd Century Roman ruins that the city is built upon. We took note of the local paths that would allow one to explore the area further, and decided that tomorrow would be a good time to journey on them. Back at the boat, we met new “neighbors” who had docked next to us – 9 men – former schoolmates on a “reunion” sailing trip – who were having a great time! At dinner, we had grilled octopus for starters, followed by our “pots”. However, we had obviously made a key mistake, when we found we had enough food to feed 8 people, instead of only the four of us. To celebrate Peter’s birthday, Nikki ordered a birthday cake! We all sang “Happy Birthday”, ate cake, and polished dinner off with joyous shots of grappa, before we called it a night.

Happy Birthday Peter! (Julie, Roc, Peter & Nikki)

Happy Birthday Peter!
(Julie, Roc, Peter & Nikki)

Wednesday morning, we had a light breakfast, and then set off hiking the trails we had noted the day before, heading into the hills to a place called “Velalike Jezzerra”, a “inland” lake. The lake is brackish waters with intermittent overflow from the sea, and along its shore we saw fish, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. The mountain path was very old – made of huge stones – obviously set in place through massive manual labor over a thousand years ago. After we returned to our boat, we set sail for Sipanska Luka, (“Luka” = Bay), on Otuk Sipan, (“Otuk” = Island of).  Another day of excellent sailing weather brought us a pod of playful dolphins off our bow. Good sailing, saw dolphins. Sipanska Luka is a very protected bay and a quaint little town of only 500. The island of Sipan is the largest of the Elephanti Islands located just offshore and to the northwest of Dubrovnik. Here, for the first time, we were required to actually anchor and test out the dingy and motor. Upon getting to shore, we noticed a crowd in the center of town, where the locals had turned out for a Bocce Ball Tournament – serious stuff – with spectators crowded around the court and a local bar. We joined the crowd and were amazed at the skill these people had rolling a ball over a bumpy, uneven surface. After we walked around the town, gathered a few supplies, we returned to the boat where we cooked pasta onboard. We finished the evening with a rousing game of cards, music and nightcaps.

On Thursday morning, August 27th, we took our dingy back ashore for a breakfast of fresh croissants. While waiting for the local supermarket to open, Peter and Rocky explored the local church grounds before we all eventually returned to the boat to begin our short trip to the city of Dubrovnik. There was no wind today, so we motor sailed our way into port. Along the way, we passed 4 large cruise ships, as Dubrovnik is a major port for tourists and travelers. The Marina Dubrovnik is up a small river that flows to the sea and is some ways from the city proper and old-town, but it was an excellent marina with laundry service, 3 restaurants, great showers and a refreshing swimming pool. Peter and Roc hiked up the mountainside to explore an old Church and graveyard, and after getting lost at least once, finally found their way back before darkness fell. That night, we relaxed on the pool patio and took dinner poolside at the local restaurant.

Heading into Dubrovnik

Heading into Dubrovnik

Friday we had breakfast onboard our boat, and then took the bus to old-town Dubrovnik where we were to meet our friends for the day, and explore at the sights of the old walled city. Roc and Peter went ahead first while the girls waited at the marina for a special delivery of liquor. Once in the old city, Roc found their way to the “Buza” (hole) bar, located seaside outside of the wall on the edge of the cliff.  Eventually, the girls found them, as did Terry and Elaine, and Rick and Mary Jane, our guest and friends that would be joining us for the last week of sailing. It was great having drinks with old friends, and grabbing some lunch in the middle of old town. The afternoon was spent catching up on news from “the states” while walking and shopping about town. We decided to ride the panoramic airway tram to the overlook above Dubrovnik, walked around the old town Marina, and had drinks in an old Irish bar. As the sun fell, we returned to the Marina on the bus and enjoyed a casual pizza dinner overlooking the marina’s yachts.

Dubrovnik from above !

Dubrovnik from above !

Saturday started with a light breakfast, and we prepared the boat as Terry and Elaine, and Rick and Mary Jane, arrived and settled into the two stern cabins. Once aboard, we set sail for Otuk Mljet and a small town called Okukjle. The wharf there was small and underdeveloped, with room for only a few boats. But the locals were welcoming, and we had our first group dinner at the highest peak of a local residence/restaurant, served by their family members. It was a great dinner of grilled fish and grilled prawns that everyone enjoyed. The dark, night-time trek back to the boat, however, was another matter as everyone was exhausted from the long, adventurous day.

Peter, Elaine, Terry, Mary Jane & Rick

Peter, Elaine, Terry, Mary Jane & Rick

On Sunday, we ate breakfast on the dock of a local family restaurant and then set sail for the port of Lastovo on Otuk Lastovo. Unfortunately, there was little wind that day, so we occupied ourselves “dragging” from the swim ladder behind the boat, and finally motoring our way into port. Lastovo was another small but pristine port with a welcoming wharf and a hotel with restaurant right ashore. We all met on the hotel’s balcony for dinner that night, before retiring to the boat for a lively game of cards and some ill-advised drinking!

On Monday, the last day of August, after a breakfast buffet on the hotel’s balcony overlooking the bay, we set sail for a return to Vis. Again, the wind was poor and we needed to motor sail for most of the day, but we arrived in Vis, eager to show our friends one of our favorite locations thus far. We again backed into a prime spot on the wharf right in front of café tables within a step from our boat’s ramp! After re-exploring the towns of Vis and Kut, and shopping at the local market, we settled into a little Italian restaurant between the two towns where we dined on a lasagna casserole and all of the accompanying Italian sides. We again had desert on the street with the same local vendor selling chocolate donuts and corkscrew fried potatoes.

"Sea Cloud" - Square rigger sailing ship

“Sea Cloud” – Square rigger sailing ship

Tuesday morning, after breakfast, we set sail for the short trip to Hvar. Along the way, we took the time to marvel and sail alongside a large square-masted ship also heading to Hvar. Again, we took a mooring ball and long-lined our stern to the shallows by the rocky wharf. This required us to use the dingy to line-ferry ourselves from the boat back-and-forth to shore. Unfortunately, with 8 people now on-board and a very small dingy, this required multiple ferry-trips to move us back and forth without the ability to stay dry! However, everyone made it onshore and took the opportunity to explore the town. Again, a group climbed to the ancient fortress up the hill, while others took the time to shop or chill at a local vendor. That night we visited a waterside Croatian restaurant that served a delicious local specialty of potatoes and onions with Cevipicci (lamb). After making it back to the boat safely, everyone relaxed with a drink and shared their day’s adventures.

Hvar from above

Hvar from above

Wednesday morning, we took a leisurely start with a light breakfast ashore, the stowing of the dingy, and a short sail to the town of Stari Grad. Because the wind was again poor, we again took the occasion to drag behind the back of the boat and enjoy the crystal-blue seas. Stari Grad was a very nice town with a beautifully wide wharf. The only issue, however, was that the showers and mariner’s restrooms were a 1/4-mile up the hill at a campground! An electrical problem with our shore-power plug forced us to hunt the local stores for a replacement and repair, and while the women shopped for local crafts, the guys finally fixed it. That night we made reservations at a little hillside, traditional Croatian restaurant where we ate a traditional Croatia dish consisting of potatoes and lamb cooked for 3 hours under a cast iron bell on a wood fire – it was so tender and delicious! The group also sampled lobster salad, grilled lamb chops and grilled sea bass. That night we moved our party to the wharf with music from our ipod and drinks from the boat, and were soon joined by passing locals who danced and drank with us into the evening hours. All-in-all, one of our favorite towns!

"Kaja" with her flags

“Kaja” with her flags

The next morning started lazily with everyone rising at their own preference and wandering off to the many cafes that lined the wharf. We, (Julie and Roc) took a leisurely walk to the far end of town where we found a waterfront café that looked over the local protected swimming area, where residents were getting their daily exercise. After cappuccinos, we returned to meet up with everyone at the boat, and set sail for the city of Bol. The recreation peninsula at Bol is one of the most photographed and popular beaches in Croatia, but the public wharf is at the quaint, old harbor of the waterside town, a few miles away. Julie, Roc and Nikki took a water-taxi to the Bol Beach, which was composed of smooth, white stones of varying sizes. Located there were lots of lounge chairs, music clubs, and cafes right at water’s edge and plenty of activities for everyone, including water slides, parasailing, tubing, banana boating, etc.  Nikki and Julie took a 10 minute wild “inflatable sofa ride” behind a manic speed boat! After barely staying aboard and landing on each other from jumping over waves, they decided they needed to be rewarded with some local Limon ice cream! What an adventure! After returning and joining up with the group, we found a nice restaurant for diner, before everyone set off to find a quiet place to people-watch.

Bol

Bol

The morning of September 4th we were awoken by the waves of the morning ferries arriving into the town’s port. We grabbed coffee and some croissants before setting sail for the trip back to Trogir to return the boat. The weather forecast was for storms later that day, so we decided to take up a spot in Marina Trogir Seget that afternoon before it would arrive. Arrive it did, and the evening was a wet affair with everyone beginning to pack and doing laundry at the local marina’s facilities. We also had dinner at the marina, eating local gnocchi, before calling it a night under drenching conditions.

On Saturday morning, September 5th, it was time to leave our boat. Everyone was busy packing and moving gear off the boat, receiving our “check-out”, ordering taxis, and getting breakfast. The continued storm from last night didn’t make things any easier! Since Rick and Mary Jane would be staying in Split a while longer, and the other 6 of us would be traveling by bus to Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb, we all caught a single taxi for 8 and headed into the main terminal/port of Split. Split is a large, industrial city with lots of 1950’s-style high-rise apartment buildings. Mary Jane and Rick said their “good-byes” to us to check into their hotel there, where they would explore for 2 more days before continuing the vacation in Germany. The rest of us got lunch and waited for our bus to start the next leg of our adventure.

Ascending Mt. St. Helens

July 12, 2015 6:03 pm

June 25, 2015

Ascending Mt. St. Helens

As a matter of fact, we had not planned to climb Mt. St. Helens in late June of 2015. However, because of a fortunate confluence of circumstances, our good friends, Peter & Nikki, had already committed for an addition spot that suddenly came available, and they were kind enough to invite me (Rocky) along. The trip was planned by another good friend, Cliff, a seasoned geologist and volcanic hobbyist, who had already climbed Mt. St. Helens five previous times over the past 20 years, all since the catastrophic eruption of the mountain that took numerous lives in 1980. Since Julie was committed to family obligation, Rocky took them up on the offer with only a couple weeks of notice, having most of what would be needed already stored in the closet.
The trip would begin with air flights from Orlando to Portland, where the “Team of Ten” would assemble over Thursday and Friday. After collecting rental cars, the earliest arrivals on Thursday would briefly sightsee in Oregon along the Columbia River before heading to our assembly point at a quaint motel in Woodland, Washington.

View east from a major overlook of the Columbia River in Oregon

View east from a major overlook of the Columbia River in Oregon

Friday, as we continued to assemble, we traveled north to the side of Mt. St. Helens which collapsed in 1980. Although authorities were wary of the grumbling volcano that year, and had evacuated much of the immediate area, no one expected what actually happened. An earthquake destabilized the entire north face of the mountain which slid down the valley uncovering the weight which held the volcanic forces in place directing a massive eruption sideways destroying everything within may miles of that north face. Today, the first beginnings of plants and animals are showing life among the desolate landscape.

Rocky-selfie looking south at the missing face of Mt. St. Helens, with the many miles of devastation still visible some 35 years later.

Rocky-selfie looking south at the missing face of Mt. St. Helens, with the many miles of devastation still visible some 35 years later.

 

A close-up of the volcano’s crater.  The large magma-dome in the middle has grown since 1980, but currently has deflated somewhat since 2009.  The “red dot” is where we ascended from the other side up to the crater’s edge.

A close-up of the volcano’s crater. The large magma-dome in the middle has grown since 1980, but currently has deflated somewhat since 2009. The “red dot” is where we ascended from the other side up to the crater’s edge.

Having time left in the day, we re-circumnavigated the mountain and went to the south face near where we would ascend from tomorrow (Saturday). In that area are remnant “Lava Tubes” – geologic features remaining from streams of lava where the ceiling solidifies while molten rock continues to flows in an “underground river.” Sometimes, the molten rock empties the underground channel leaving a “hollow tube” of igneous walls, floor and ceiling. Peter, Buddy and I decided to “hike” the 1 ¼ mile-long “Upper Tube” at Ape Caves, requiring headlamps and sturdy footwear to navigate the treacherous ripple and pock-marked wet floors and numerous ceiling cave-ins in pitch-darkness. The “hike” took us 2-hours, and although the surface temperature was 95 degrees, it was 42 degrees in the cave. Unfortunately, the ankle-busting terrain took one casualty as Buddy twisted his ankle and would be unable to ascend the mountain the next day.

Buddy emerging from the 1 ¼ mile long underground “Upper Lava Tube” at Ape Caves.

Buddy emerging from the 1 ¼ mile long underground “Upper Lava Tube” at Ape Caves.

Saturday required waking at 3am, gathering our 9 remaining climbers and making the 90 minute drive to “Climbers Bivouac” at elevation ~3800’ to start at ~4500’ ascent to the crater’s rim at 8365’. We signed in at left for the first part of our journey through 100 year-old forest for the first 2 hours until we emerged from the tree-line at ~4800’ elevation. Beyond this point, our assigned-day climbing permits were required. These are scarce items as only 100-per-day are made available, and they are grabbed-up almost immediately. Graciously, Cliff had done this for the group and we set off now scrambling over boulders and rocks for the next 3 1/5 hours. Our choice of days aligned with record high temperatures for the area, and as the thermometer exceeded 95 degrees, our climb became that much more difficult. Unfortunately, the grueling, strenuous and dangerous climb took its toll and 3 more of our party stopped before reaching the top of the boulder fields and began their descent down.

Jamie, Cliff, Angel, Pam, Peter and Scott at ~5000’ elevation, ascending onto the “switchbacks” – beginning our next 3+ hours scrambling over boulders.

Jamie, Cliff, Angel, Pam, Peter and Scott at ~5000’ elevation, ascending onto the “switchbacks” – beginning our next 3+ hours scrambling over boulders.

 

Pam taking a break at ~6600’ elevation – still climbing the boulder fields

Pam taking a break at ~6600’ elevation – still climbing the boulder fields

With our remaining group of six, we continued our ascent, eventually leaving the boulder fields and beginning the final 1000’ ascent on steep-faced “ash” – which was actually an assortment of unstable pea-gravel and unrooted boulders that slid-down 1 step for every 2 taken. Finally, after another 1 ½ hours of struggle, we reached the summit!
Once there, after 7 hours of climbing, we relaxed, caught our breaths, ate lunch and toasted each other with champagne. The view was spectacular as the haze cleared, and slowly, a cold front came in causing us to don our coats.

Nikki, Peter and Angel in a distance, making the final trek up the “Ash” fields that characterize the last 1000’ of ascent.

Nikki, Peter and Angel in a distance, making the final trek up the “Ash” fields that characterize the last 1000’ of ascent.

 

The view to the north from Mt. St. Helens crater summit looking at the current lava dome in the crater and viewing the still devastated area from the 1980 blast.

The view to the north from Mt. St. Helens crater summit looking at the current lava dome in the crater and viewing the still devastated area from the 1980 blast.

 

Rocky at the summit of Mt. St. Helens.  The crater is lined by a small glacier, of which the upper edge can be seen behind him.

Rocky at the summit of Mt. St. Helens. The crater is lined by a small glacier, of which the upper edge can be seen behind him.

 

SUCCESS – AT THE SUMMIT!           (from left to right) Pam, Rocky, Angel, Peter, Nikki, and Scott.

SUCCESS – AT THE SUMMIT! (from left to right) Pam, Rocky, Angel, Peter, Nikki, and Scott.

But now, it was time to consider our way down, and, although the snow-pack and glaciers were small, there was still some opportunity to “glissade” down the top part of the mountain. Some of us chose the “sitting method, (those with “tough” butts), sliding down over 500’ in elevation. But, this enjoyment was short-lived, as we needed to spend the next 4 ½ hours making our way back down. It was a long and trying journey, but definitely one of great accomplishment and personal satisfaction.

Glissading down from the summit on the valley glaciers.  This probably saved us 30-60 minutes in descent time and effort.

Glissading down from the summit on the valley glaciers. This probably saved us 30-60 minutes in descent time and effort.

Annual DC LCC Crawfish Boil

May 19, 2015 5:35 pm

May 16, 2015

Bayou Fête XII Washington DC

The largest crawfish boil east of Louisiana all started 12 years ago. Hosting a crawfish boil 1,500 miles from home is extremely expensive. In 2003, due to high costs and poor productions, LSU, ULM, UNO, and NSU, decided to pool our resources so we could host a better quality event for our members. By doing so, and contributing an annual membership start up fee, the big alumni chapters were able to supply the ticket numbers while hosting an event for far less money. Like wise, by joining resources with the larger chapters, the smaller chapters were able to create an official Washington, DC chapter while hosting a boil up here for their alums at a minimum cost. Interesting enough, we were in the red for the first DC LCC boil, barely consuming 300 lbs of crawfish, and unable to float two kegs. Fast forward through 12 highly successful years, along with the addition of Centenary, Tulane, LA Tech, McNeese, Grambling, Southeastern, Loyola, ULL, and Nicholls, we have proudly created the largest crawfish boil east of the Florida Parishes with over 10,000 lbs, 50 kegs of beer, tons of jambalaya, live Louisiana band, and much, much, more.

And thus we spent the day with friends and family eating crawfish and drinking beer while enjoying the Fort Hunt Park!

Getting ready to cook!

Getting ready to cook!

One steaming pot of crawfish!

One steaming pot of crawfish!

Beer & Crawfish

Beer & Crawfish

One table for crawfish & one table for Lagniappe!

One table for crawfish & one table for Lagniappe!

Crawfish Friends

Crawfish Friends

Ummm good!

Ummm good!

National Arboretum

May 8, 2015 9:25 pm

May 3, 2015

Washington DC

Experience the explosion of color when thousands of azaleas at the National Arboretum light up the forest with their subtle shades and colors.The Kurume azaleas were brought to North America from Japan.  The Glenn Dale Azalea Hillside is filling in after the azaleas were rejuvenated several years ago. This year, about 60% of the hillside is closed off to the public due to a family of bald eagles nesting there for the first time in over 60 years.

 

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Bald Eagle Nest

Bald Eagle in the Tree

Cherry Blossom Festival

9:09 pm

April 19, 2015

Washington DC

The cherry trees here in Washington DC were a gift of friendship from Japan in 1912.  Three thousand trees of several varieties were planted on the Northern Bank of the Tidal Basin and in Potomac Park.   From this gift comes the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, a festival of color and the beginning of spring .

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95th Running of the Middleburg Spring Races

April 21, 2015 3:41 pm

April 18, 2015

Saturday, April 18th brought us the opportunity to share the day with our son, Michael, and his family and friends, at a nearby Virginia institutional event – The Middleburg Spring Races – a steeplechase event that is a combination of history, horse racing, picnic and social.
It was a great day with fantastic weather, out in the Virginia countryside about 90-minute drive from Washington, D.C. The Spring Race event is a fundraiser that benefits INOVA/Loudoun Hospital, Glenwood Park Trust and Local Charities, and has a fantastic history.
The event was started by Daniel Cox Sands in 1911, and was originally planned for entertainment for the local farmers over whose crops and yards the race took place. It was reported that families came from miles around on every sort of transportation with picnic baskets to watch the spectacle. After a hiatus for World War I, the race was resumed in 1921 under its present format held on the estates of Sands and his neighbor, Hitt. From then, there is a long and colorful history reporting lost horses off course and famous participants, including John F. Kennedy while Jacqueline watched in the stands. Ever since Daniel Sands death in 1963, Trustees oversee the 112.2 acre Glenwood Park, which hosts prestigious hurdle races during each year.

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We were lucky enough to be invited by one of our son’s good friends, Cory, who regularly reserves picnic area along the rail before the final turn. With a collection of friends and family, and with food and drinks of all kinds, the social began at 1pm, interspersed with a new race running every ~30 minutes.

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Cory would keep everyone updated on the race’s favorites and odds, and we would ride the roller-coaster of emotion between the thrill of seeing galloping hooves just meters away, followed by the disappointment of having one’s choice not even finish.

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Either way, the people, food, drink and weather could not have been better and we felt incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate!

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Vietnam – Sai Gon

January 29, 2015 10:32 pm

January 2015

Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon), Vietnam
We arrive in Ho Chi Minh City via bus and embark on a panoramic city tour including the Old Saigon Post Office, a beautiful yellow building that replicates a French train station, and the Opera House, a traditional ornate building also built by the French during their colonial period.

Street decorations celebrating the 40th anniversary.

Street decorations celebrating the 40th anniversary.

 

 

The Post Office

The Post Office

We also tour the Norte Dame Cathedral, the largest cathedral in all of Indochina. We then enjoy the hospitality of a local middle class family for lunch. Our hostess is a seamstress with three children and three generations living in her house. Her house is a typical 4 meter wide building that is two rooms long with a stairway in the middle that rises 5 stories high, providing 2 rooms with a bathroom under the stairs on each floor. She serves us an excellent 6 course meal of fried spring rolls, sticky rice, a chicken curry, a vegetable dish, a fish stew and fruit for desert. After lunch, we check into the Hotel Intercontinental of Sai Gon to get cleaned up and prepare for our evening’s entertainment.

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre  - there are only 4 puppet shows remaining in Vietnam

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre – there are only 4 puppet shows remaining in Vietnam.

The evening starts with a trip to a Water Puppet Show at the Rong Vang Theater by the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Company – an art which is practiced today only in Viet Nam. The “stage” is a pool of water, and the puppets are controlled by sticks, pulleys and strings under the water. The show is one of everyday life in the villages of the rice fields showing planting, harvesting, and fishing and displays incredible creativity and artistry.

Puppetry in action.

Puppetry in action.

After the show, we go to a traditional Vietnamese restaurant for a dinner that locals might go out to dinner for.

Saigon Opera House - built by the French.

Saigon Opera House – built by the French.

That leaves us time to walk to the Opera House where there is a show using bamboo that is a combination of gymnastics, dance and ballet. The show is in its last night at the Opera, and it “brings down the house” with its energy and incredible coordination. We finish the evening with a gentle stroll back to our hotel as the streets are abuzz with people enjoying the beautiful evening.

The Post Office at night

The Post Office at night

The next morning starts with a buffet breakfast before boarding the bus for a trip to the city’s Reunification Palace, formerly the Presidential Palace before the fall of the South Vietnam government in 1975. The Reunification Palace has preserved the rooms and offices of South Vietnam’s government as the French originally designed it, and as the Americans supported it. The building are compete with the bunkers and tunnels that provided former President Diem’s escape during the coup that deposed him and eventually resulted in his death.

Independance Palace - room where visiting dignitaries were met

Independance Palace – room where visiting dignitaries were met

 

Palace roof-top helicopter at the ready.

Palace roof-top helicopter at the ready.

After a brief return to the hotel, we re-boarded the bus for a trip to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch followed by a trip north out of Sia Gon to the area of Chu Chi where the high ground in the bent of the river provided a setting for extensive tunneling by the locals. Although the tunnels were began during the reign of the French as a way for the local to avoid their oppressors, they were extensively added to during the years of the Vietnam War. The USA’s approach to dealing with these tunnels was to carpet bomb them from B-52 drops, leaving the ground surface by 1972 a cratered, barren area. However, the original jungle and rubber trees have grown back, and the tunnels have been preserved, along with examples of booby-traps and life underground, as an historical site. We entered a number of the tunnels, which are characterized as extremely “tight” for average-sized Americans, requiring walking in a crouch while hunched completely over.

Our guide showing us a hidden tunnel

Our guide showing us a hidden tunnel

Rocky descending into the hidden tunnel - a tight squeeze.

Rocky descending into the hidden tunnel – a tight squeeze.

After our trip to the tunnels, we returned to the hotel to prepare to go out to a restaurant for our Farewell Dinner, another 7 course meal of traditional Vietnamese food, with a series of toasts and friendly goodbyes. The next morning would see us leave for the airport early, and begin our long series of air flights back home.

VietNam – The Mekong River

10:04 pm

January 2015
After anchoring at the Cambodia-Vietnam border for the night, we clear immigration and customs in the morning, and after breakfast, we resume our journey south along the Mekong River towards Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Sai Gon. Over the border, after lunch, we stopped on the river near the town on Chau Doc where we took sampans to visit a local family’s farm located on a sandbar that is only exposed during the dry season. The annual flooding insures fertile ground for growing a range of crops, but their houses are raised to survive the rising waters of the monsoon season. We then traveled the waterways of the Venice-like adjacent town in our sampan, and examined another local family’s floating fish farm. This bustling city has its river-throughways lined with boats and floating markets who indicate their commercial wares by tying an example produce to the top of a pole on their boat. We continue our village tour by going ashore and catching cyclo-taxis that take us to explore an unusual Caodaism church with its spectacular colors and imposing “left eye of God” staring from behind the altar.

Cao Dai Temple

Cao Dai Church

Finally, we journey to watch a family making traditional reed mats using a hand loom before re-boarding our sampan ferries.

Mat Weaving

Mat Weaving

That afternoon, we returned to the Mekong Navigator and resumed our journey downstream. After dinner, the boat showed the French movie “The Lover”, an acclaimed movie about a young French girl in Vietnam, who at 14 years of age, fell in love with a local wealthy Chinese man and began a torrid affair, until her mother took her back to France. The movie was based upon a book that was a biographical account of Marguerite Duras, and whose actual location we would visit tomorrow.

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The following morning, we were met with sampans for our morning excursion to Sa Dec. The sampans dropped us ashore where we walked to the former home of Huyn Thuy Le, the lover of author Marguerite Duras. The house displays the symbols of wealth with inlayed mother-of-pearl decorations and ornate carvings and paintings. We continue our walk through the village’s local market – a plethora of fish, meat, vegetables and fruit being sold along the bustling market street with deliveries coming and going and crowds of local purchasing their daily foodstuffs.

Village Children.

Village Children.

 

Village Market

Village Market

At the end of the market, our sampan takes us along the delta’s many tributaries to a brick factory where hand-cut slabs of clay are cut from the earth and delivered to be mixed with rice husks, extruded through a form, dried in the sun and then fired in a huge kiln heated with waste rice husks.

Brick factory

Brick factory

 

Harvesting water hyacinth stems which can then be used in basket weaving.

Harvesting water hyacinth stems which can then be used in basket weaving.

 

Sampam pulling along side the Mekong Navigator.  Sampan hold ~24 people.

Sampam pulling along side the Mekong Navigator. Sampan hold ~24 people.

We then return to the Mekong Navigator for lunch, before again catching sampan for our afternoon tour of the town of Cai Be where we pass another floating market, visit a wealthy man’s Bed & Breakfast home and gardens, and finally stop at a Coconut Candy-making Workshop that demonstrates making coconut candy, the creation of rice paper, and the popping of rice over fire using hot, black sand, coating of the rice with a coconut caramel, and the forming of it into candy rice cakes for sale at the market. After some brief souvenir shopping, we return to our sampans and to our ship for our last night aboard.

Making rice paper which is then used to make Spring Rolls.

Making rice paper which is then used to make Spring Rolls.

The RV Mekong Navigator then continues its trip downstream arriving at the town of My Tho in the morning. After breakfast, we depart the ship to board buses for the 1 hour trip to our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon). The crew and staff aboard the ship have been excellent, and we will very much miss them.

Sunset on the Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong

Cambodia – The Mekong River

January 28, 2015 1:30 am

January 2015

Mekong River, Cambodia
We will pick up our boat at the city of Kampong Cham, which is south of Siem Reap along the Mekong River at a 5-hour bus trip away.

However, along the way, we stopped to interact and visit with local residents, all of which who have their homes built up on stilts due to the annual flooding the area incurs (upwards of 8 meters high)!

Stilt Village

Stilt Village

The center of Cambodia is shaped much like a bowl, where Phnom Penh is located at the outlet which is the confluence of the southerly flowing Mekong River, and the Tonle Sap River which connects to the northwest to Cambodia’s great lake – the Tonle Sap. The Tonle Sap River is interesting as it flows water from the lake to the southeast into the Mekong River during dry season, but reverses its flow northward, swelling this great lake to 5 times its size during the monsoon season when the Mekong River (the world’s 12 longest river), is at its highest. Because of this, the area can support 2 rice crops per year, and 1.2 million people live along the lake’s shores. However, since the shores move so far, these locals are forced to move up to 10 times during the year, following the changing shoreline. Along the way, we also stop near Kampong Thom to observe the vast latex rubber plantations and extensive cassava crops.

Rubber Trees giving latex - see the small bowls that are empty every day by cyclists with storage tanks.

Rubber Trees giving latex – see the small bowls that are emptied every day by cyclists with storage tanks.

 

By afternoon, we arrive in Kampong Cham and board our boat along the muddy banks of the Mekong River. The “RV Mekong Navigator” is a new built ship for 67 guests, designed and built by the French in Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon), and it is spacious, luxurious and beautiful. We disembark and sail north up the Tonle Sap river as we settle into our rooms, have our “welcome aboard” dinner.

Mekong Explorer

Mekong Explorer

The next morning after breakfast onboard, we pull over to the bank in the town of Wat Hanchey (a town from the seventh century) where we are greeted by local children who have come to meet us.

Rocky with village child.

Rocky with village child.

After climbing a make-shift set of stairs up the bank, we walk along the road, visiting residents of the area, and arriving at a local secondary school full of polite, uniformed children, (grades 6-12). We have the opportunity to talk with the children, and to visit their classrooms where they are learning English, math and history. After the visit, we walk up the local hill to visit the town’s monastery and monks, and to receive the Buddhist Water Blessing. Here, the monks provide an education option for boys who are interested. They may join the monastery at 9-years old and stay or leave at any point in time. Their life is highly structured, but their education is excellent and their daily needs are met by the monks. As an option for families who cannot afford public school, (they must pay for books, uniforms and materials), monasteries across Indochina, serve an important option for many young people. In Cambodia 90% of the population is Buddhist.

Buddhist school - lunch time

Buddhist school – lunch time

After boarding the boat, we have lunch and sail to Wat Nokor where we explore a 12th century remains of the ancient Khmer Empire (the Nokor Bachey Temple), hear the tales of horror from the Khmer Rouge times and learn more about the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime and watch a movie documenting the life of Pol Pot.

The next morning we continue to sail up the Tonle Sap River to the mouth of the lake and visit the town of Kampong Chhang. There we climb aboard a sampan boat and visit the floating villages that make up the region as the locals have learned to cope with the changing lake height and size by building their homes and villages on floating barges and migrating with the shoreline. Schools, markets, gas stations and churches are all interconnected and floating as most families catch and sell fish and raise vegetables. After returning to the boat, we have dinner on board the ship and watch the movie “Goodbye Vietnam”. That evening, we steam back downstream towards Phnom Penh.

Stupas erected to honor the dead from the nearby Khmer Killing Field.

Stupas erected to honor the dead from the nearby Khmer Killing Field.

After sitting at anchor for the night, the ship resumes its journey to Phnom Penh the next morning. Upon arrival, we take up a position in the city dockside, exit the boat and each person boards a cyclo-taxi for a tour about town.

Cyclo-cabs!

Cyclo-cabs! They hold only one person!

Our first stop is at the former Royal Palace where the modern Khmer King lived during the 18th-20th century French rule. The Palace is ornate and beautiful, and takes up a prominent place along the banks of the Mekong River. The temple on the palace grounds is the Silver Pagoda, a temple with a solid silver floor! We then travel a short distance to the National Museum, where artifact are displayed, and an active recovery of stolen artifacts from around the world is being pursued.

Silver Pagoda on the grounds of the Royal Palace.

The Royal Palace.

After lunch on board the ship, we venture out on our own to the local “central market” where hundreds of every possible item is for sale. After shopping for souvenirs and gifts, we return to the ship for a lecture on “Life along the Mekong”,

World's longest bamboo bridge.  Only allows cyclocabs. motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians!

World’s longest bamboo bridge. Only allows cyclocabs. motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians!

and a presentation onboard of Cambodian dance by a local children’s group. That night, we have a lobster dinner and a few nightcaps in the ship’s bar before retiring for the night.

Apsara Dancer

Apsara Dancer

The next morning begins our last day in Phnom Penh, and after breakfast, we board buses to travel to Cambodia’s Genocide Museum and Killing Fields. At the Killing Fields, under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, thousands of individuals were trucked to the site, killed and buried in mass graves. After 1998, the site was excavated recovering the remains of many individuals, some of whom are presented and displayed at the site’s monument.

The Killing Fields Memorial

The Killing Fields Memorial

Today, walking around reveals emerging bones and clothes from the ground as the local rains wash down to unrecovered remains. We then traveled to the Internment Center (S-21 Prison) where the individuals were housed as prisoners for interrogation and determination as to disposition. The cells were constructed from the classroom of an old school, and when freed by the Vietnamese troops, only 7 prisoners had survived. By the end of Pol Pot’s regime, over 1/3 of the country’s population had died, including nearly all of its educated individuals. Only now, is Cambodia beginning to recover from this calamity. We returned back to the ship for dinner and a Vantage reception while leaving the dock and heading down-river along the Mekong towards South Vietnam.

Cambodia – Siem Reap

January 27, 2015 6:07 pm

January 2015

Siem Reap, Cambodia

This part of our trip started with flying on Dragon Air from Ha Noi, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Cambodia, (or historically what was referred to as Kampuchea), also has a long, (and sad), history. The Cambodian people have also been referred to as the Khmer people, and the Khmer Empire reached its peak in the Siem Reap area between 900 and 1200 AD. During these times, Emperors would build temples that needed to be completed during their lifetimes, giving rise to a large number of sandstone temples scattered throughout the jungle. With an engineered series of waterways and a location near the largest freshwater lake in the region, the Khmer Empire moved large stones, and provided rice farming to support what was likely the world’s largest city of the time, estimated at ~1 million people. By 1200 AD, after repeated attacks from the west from Thailand and from the north from Mongols and the Chinese, the Khmer Emperor decided to move the capitol to the south, closer to the Mekong Delta and the present location of Phnom Penh, for better security. Abandoned and forgotten, the temples of this area were overgrown by the jungle until “re-discovered” by the French in the mid-1800’s. The French spent considerable resources over the next 60 years clearing away the jungle, building infrastructure, and restoring these ancient temples, but World War 2 had left the French control of the region seriously weakened. Having received independence soon afterwards, the country fell to the communist Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, after the USA left the region in 1975. Unfortunately, Pol Pot’s idea of reforming the country and imposing communism involved evacuating all cities and forcing everyone to work in the rice fields. In addition, he instituted a systematic elimination of all intellectuals and dissidents in the country, killing nearly 5 million people in “the killing fields” until he was driven from power and into the mountains in 1979 by the Vietnamese army. However, the Khmer Rouge continued their “civil war” within Cambodia until Pol Pot’s death in 1998. Today, Cambodia is a country of only ~17 million people, 50% under 25 years old, that is primarily agricultural, surviving principally on rice and fish supplied from the Mekong River and seasonal monsoons that characterize the country.

Upon arriving in Siem Reap, we traveled to the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Resort where our rooms were located among beautiful ponds and gardens. That night, we went to a local restaurant where we had an enjoyable dinner while watching a local show of traditional Cambodian dancing.

Aspara Dancers

Aspara Dancers

The next morning, Julie and Rocky arose early and hired a tuk-tuk (motorbike carriage taxi) to take us to the Angkor Wat Temple for observation of sunrise. Angkor Wat was the largest of the Khmer Empire Temple constructions which covers a very large area and is the most famous of these monuments. We observed sunrise from behind the temple with its reflection in a lake with ~400 other early risers.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

After the sun was up, we took our tuk-tuk back to the resort where we met the rest of our group for an extensive buffet breakfast before we left with the group for a more guided tour of Angkor Wat again.

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After Angkor Wat, we went to the Bayon Temple Ruins (also known as Angkor Thom or the temples of smiling faces) before heading to a local restaurant for lunch. Unfortunately, many of these temples were ransacked by archeological thieves during the chaos of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and many of the statues have had heads and pieces stolen for collectors.

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That afternoon, we explored to Ta Prohm Temple, made famous by its use in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider. This Temple is somewhat unique in the some of the jungle has been left so that visitors can observe the integrated nature of the two.

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That afternoon, we returned to the hotel and had a chance to explore the local market before having dinner at the hotel and being presented by another traditional Cambodian dance troupe.

Apsaras Dancers

Apsaras Dancers

The next morning, after breakfast, we traveled to a local Cambodian dance school. Traditional Cambodian dance was also a lost art under the Pol Pot regime, and only a few teachers survived the genocide. Today, the few students that were taught by the survivors are now the teachers, in spite of being under 25 years old themselves. Students to the school must be between 9 and 13 years old, must come from a needy family and must demonstrate capability and flexibility. Their training takes many years, but also includes a traditional textbook education, as well.

Apsaras Dance School

Apsaras Dance School

After visiting the dance school, we traveled to the Artisans Angkor Silk Farm that demonstrated the life cycle of growing mulberry plants for the silkworms, feeding them, harvesting their cocoons, unraveling the silk thread to spinning thread and weaving materials. The process is highly manual and the farm employs many local people who earn ~$1/hour, dependent upon their capabilities.

Silk Farm

Silk Farm Spinner  – 1000 meters thread will come from one silkworm cocoon.

For lunch, we went to a restaurant in downtown Siem Reap, and took the occasion afterwards to walk across the street to the local market to shop before returning to the hotel to leave on our optional village tour to an upcoming Ecotourism site. At the Ecotourism site, we rode on an Ox Cart, took a fishing dugout canoe on a brief paddle, and enjoyed dinner and wine while watching sunset on the horizon. At night, we returned back to the resort to pack and to ready ourselves for transfer to our boat and the trip along the Mekong River.

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