Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Let's Get Political

My blog is first and foremost a record of my travel experiences, and my readers know that I rarely venture into controversial political topics.  (I think the only exception to that was once when I posted a rant against Mexican President Peña Nieto.)  So I hesitated to offer my two cents on the Supreme Court decisions of last week.  I don't have anything to say that hasn't been said before a thousand times on the internet.  But I decided to go ahead and write a short opinion piece.

I have disagreed with numerous Supreme Court decisions... especially the infamous Citizens United case in which corporations were given the status of private citizens.  However, last week the Supreme Court got it right in two important decisions.

First, the court shot down the attempt of opponents to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as Obamacare).  Obamacare is far from perfect, but it is an attempt to bring our country's health care system in line with the rest of the developed world.  The United States has the highest health care costs of any nation in the world, and we were the only country in the developed world to not have universal coverage.  I have talked with many people in Europe who are absolutely astounded that we tolerate a system in which families go bankrupt from a medical crisis or in which people simply go without proper health care.

Later in the week the court ruled that state bans on same-gender marriage are unconstitutional.  None of the arguments against marriage equality hold any water in our legal system.  Churches may define matrimony as they see fit, but the civil contract of marriage is separate and subject to equal protection for all.  The argument that the people voted for laws and amendments prohibiting same sex marriage is not valid either.  The United States is a constitutional republic, not a direct democracy, and we as a people are protected from tyranny of the majority.  I am, however, somewhat disheartened that four of the nine justices just couldn't see that.  Some of their dissenting opinions sound like the whining of a child throwing a temper tantrum.  Also, most of the Republican candidates for President, are characterizing the decision as catastrophic, and some are vowing to fight it.  I suspect that ten years from now, people will wonder what all the brouhaha was about.

OK, my little political speech is over.  We will now resume our regular broadcasting.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Rain, rain, go away!

About a month ago we were complaining here about the lack of rain, but in the last couple weeks we have had more than our share of precipitation.  Last Tuesday, we had torrential rains.  Things were just starting to dry out, when today we had even heavier rains.  The saturated ground can't absorb it all, and I have lakes in front of, and in back of my house.

More rain is predicted for tomorrow... and for Tuesday... and for Wednesday.
I know that this is inconsequential compared to the loss of life and the property damage that some areas of the country have suffered this year due to flooding.
But after all the hours that I have put into my flower garden, I am very discouraged and fear that some of my plants are going to drown.

I wish that we could send some of this to California.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Journey to the Amazon

In the last two posts I wrote about my visit in 1985 to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru.  My Peruvian adventure, however, began with two nights in the Amazon rainforest.  Although the Amazon River is most associated with Brazil, it is born from the melting snows of the Andes from where it flows 4000 miles eastward, crossing nearly the entire breadth of the South American continent, to the Atlantic.  Half of Peru, everything east of the Andes, is in the Amazon Basin.

After flying to the capital city of Lima, I continued on a flight to Iquitos, the major city in the Peruvian Amazon.  Ocean-going ships can travel over 2000 miles up the Amazon to Iquitos.  The city is accessible only by boat or plane.  It is the largest city in the world inaccessible by road.

My flight was on the now defunct domestic carrier, Faucett Airlines.  (It was the only airline in the world with in-flight bingo games!  Bingo is very popular in Peru.)

I was met at Iquitos Airport and driven to the riverfront where I boarded a small boat to take me to my hotel.

This picture, taken from the boat, gives you an idea of how mighty the Amazon is.  The boat was in the middle of the river, so you can see that even at this point, far upstream, the river is very wide.

Although the Amazon is not the longest river in the world (that record is held by the Nile), it is by far the largest in terms of the flow of water.

Leaving Iquitos far behind, we eventually turned onto a small tributary, and arrived at my hotel, the Amazon Jungle Lodge.  The hotel consists of several buildings with thatched roofs.  The buildings and the walkways connecting them are all built on stilts because during the high water season the river overflows its banks.

This was my room.  As you can see, the accommodations were far from luxurious.  The ceiling of the room is a screen to keep out anything that might otherwise enter through the thatched roof.

Here I am with one of the hotel's residents, a little green parrot named Marú.  Marú was quite talkative.  He (she?) liked to say "Viva el Peru" (Long live Peru), and "Corre, corre, caballito" (Run, run, little horse).

After settling into my room, I was taken upstream to a small indigenous village to see native life on the river.  I am sure that the whole thing was staged.  I can imagine the villagers saying, "Tourists are coming.  It's time to take off our tee-shirts and jeans, and put on our grass skirts."
The village elder is posing here with a blowgun that I purchased.  They had a variety of handicrafts for sale.  However since they do not exist in a money economy, tourists must barter with them.  The tour information that I received before the trip said that I should bring some small household items... like needles and thread... to trade for their handicrafts.

I lugged around that blowgun for the rest of my trip through Peru and Ecuador.  I had no problems until I returned to the U.S.  I was not allowed to carry it with me onto the plane for the last leg of my flight home.  They put it in a box and checked it with my luggage.  The ironic part is that it wasn't until I returned home that I discovered that it was not a functional blowgun.  It wasn't hollow all the way through!

The elder gave a demonstration with a large, genuine blowgun.

I was given a chance to try my luck.  Needless to say, I was unable to shoot the dart anywhere near the target.


One of the most incredible experiences in the Amazon was one for which I have no photos.  We went out on a boat the first evening to look at the night sky.  I have never seen so many stars in my life!  We are so used to our "light pollution" that what I saw seemed unreal... but that was what the sky truly looks like.

The next day we were taken out on a small boat to go fishing.  I'm ashamed to admit it, but prior to this I had never been fishing.  What did I catch?  A piranha!  Of course, I let the boatman remove it from the hook.

Later that afternoon, one of the hotel guides took me for a hike through the forest.  The guide was a young fellow named Clever. (Yes, that was his name.  He said to me, "That means 'smart' in English.")

We did not see any snakes or jaguars on our hike.  Most animals have retreated deeper into the rainforest.  There were a lot of insects however.  Clever was constantly swatting away mosquitos.  I however was slathered in repellent, and I never had a bite the entire time I was there.  (The expensive malaria pills which the doctor prescribed before the trip, turned out to be unnecessary.)

Although I didn't see any wildlife, the vegetation was amazing.  Here I am standing in front of a huge tree.  That entire background is the trunk.

After two days in the rainforest, a boat took me back to Iquitos, and I took a plane back to Lima.

Even though I was "roughing it", the Amazon excursion was thoroughly enjoyable.  In fact, I don't think I have ever been so relaxed.in my life.  It seemed as if the worries of the world were a thousand miles away.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Another Day at Machu Picchu

In my previous post I wrote about my visit to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in 1985.  As I mentioned, I spent the night at what was back then the only hotel there.  Since the return train did not leave until late afternoon, I had most of another day to explore this incredible place.

On my second day, I got up early, hoping to view the sunrise.  Unfortunately. the morning was overcast.  I was at first disappointed, but the Incan city, shrouded in mist, had a mysterious, even eerie, atmosphere.  I had the site practically to myself, and I imagined that at any moment the ghosts of the departed inhabitants might materialize out of the fog. 

I climbed to the "Inti Watani", the hitching post of the sun, where centuries ago Incan priests performed ceremonies to ensure the continued existence of the sun. 
As I lingered there, the fog and clouds, like billows of smoke, began is dissipate, and sunlight bathed the rugged mountains.  Far in the distance I could discern snow-capped Andean peaks to the west.  It was a truly magical moment.

I returned to the hotel for breakfast.  There I chatted with another traveler, a lady who was a schoolteacher from Pennsylvania.  We decided that we would hike a short distance along the Inca Trail, the road which connected Machu Picchu with the Incan capital of Cuzco, fifty miles away.

We passed through the old gate and headed out of the city.

We walked uphill, perhaps a couple miles, along the trail...

until we came to the remains of an Incan structure.  This was the spot we were looking for... a panoramic, "travel poster" view of Machu Picchu.
After returning to the ruins, we still had several hours before our scheduled departure.  So we decided to be intrepid adventurers, and climb the path leading to the top of Huayna Picchu, the rugged mountain peak which towers 1000 feet above the site.
It was a strenuous climb along the slippery path... and descending was downright scary.  After climbing for what seemed an eternity, we came to an Incan wall.  There was a rope with which we had to hoist ourselves to the top of the wall where the path continued.  On and on we climbed.  Finally we entered a tunnel. At the end was a rickety ladder.  We climbed the ladder, and there we were... on the boulder strewn summit of Huayna Picchu!
"Hurry up, and take the picture" I'm thinking as I sit precariously close to the edge.
The view from the top is spectacular.  Spread below us, as if in miniature, are the ruins, the agricultural terraces, the hotel, the twisting road to the site, and the Inca Trail.
As I said at the beginning of my previous post, this trip was the most unforgettable of my life, and my two days at Machu Picchu were probably the greatest adventure I have ever experienced!

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Trip of a Lifetime

I have visited many wonderful places in my life, but without a doubt the most incredible trip that I have ever taken was one that I did way back in the summer of 1985.  I splurged and took a three week tour of Peru and Ecuador.  Generally I avoid guided tours.  I do not like being herded around like cattle with a group of tourists.  But on this trip I had private guides at each place on the itinerary, and I also had plenty of free time to explore on my own.

Of course, the place that I was most interested in seeing was Machu Picchu, the so-called "lost city of the Incas".   This remote Incan town was built around 1450 on a saddle between two mountains more than 1000 feet above the Urubamba River.  It was not a large city, but from its splendid architecture, it must have been a place of importance.  Archaeologists suggest that it might have been a retreat for the Incan emperor and his court.  Because of its location, the Spanish "conquistadores" never knew about the place, and it wasn't until 1911 that an American professor, Hiram Bingham, found it, and brought it to the attention of the world.  (It really wasn't a "lost city" however, since the locals knew about it all along.)

Back when I went there, Machu Picchu was much less developed for tourism.  Even today, visitors must take a train to get there (or hike for several days along the famous Inca Trail). Upon arriving at the train station in the valley below the ruins, they are transported in little buses up the twisting road to the archaeological site.  Back then there was only one small, government-run hotel at the site, so the majority of tourists took the morning train, spent a few hours at the ruins, and then caught the train back in the late afternoon.  Today there are numerous hotels, B&Bs and restaurants in the village that has grown up in the valley.  The number of visitors has grown enormously... it is the number one tourist destination in all of South America... and the sheer numbers pose a threat to the preservation of the site.

On the tour that I took, I was fortunate to have overnight accommodation at that one little hotel, so I had plenty of time to thoroughly explore this fantastic place in relative solitude.

This is the hotel where I stayed.  It was only a few feet from the entrance to the archaeological site.  The place was simple, but clean, comfortable and modern (although the generator for electricity was turned off after a certain hour at night).  Notice the buses which transported visitors up from the train station. From what I have read, the hotel has been replaced by a luxury hotel which charges $1000 per night!

  As you enter the archaeological site, you first pass through the "agricultural section".  These reconstructed buildings would have been the homes of the farmers.

Next to those houses are magnificent terraces, climbing the mountainside, where the crops to feed the population were cultivated.

From there, you enter the "urban section" of the site.  The distinctive mountain peak rising above the ruins is called Huayna Picchu (The Young Mountain).

One half of the "urban section" appears to have been reserved for nobility.  Archaeologists assume this because of the fine quality of the stonework of these constructions.

In this royal neighborhood is a structure which is thought to be the Temple of the Sun.  It has a curved wall similar to the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, the Incan capital.  The stonework is of amazing quality.  The Incas had no iron tools to cut the stone, but the builders were able to fit the blocks together perfectly without mortar.

For obvious reasons this building is called the Temple of the Three Windows.  It may commemorate the myth that told that the founders of the Incan tribe emerged from three windows in the mountains.

At the highest point of the royal neighborhood is this carving cut out of the sheer rock.  It is called the "Inti Watani"... "The Hitching Post of the Sun".  At the winter solstice, when the sun was lower in the sky, the priests performed a rite which supposedly tethered the sun lest it disappear.  Of course after that ceremony, the sun would gradually start to rise higher in the sky.  Very few of these "hitching posts" survive.  The Spanish destroyed most of them because they were a part the pagan religion of the Incas.

Some more photos of this fantastic place...


 (In the background you can see the winding road which climbs up to Machu Picchu.)


I spent several hours wandering around the ruins, but late in the afternoon it began to rain.  I went back to the hotel and took a short nap.  When I woke up, the rain had stopped, the sun was out, and this was the view from outside the hotel...

I will write about my second day at Machu Picchu... which was equally amazing... in my next post.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Quiz Time - Where Is This Painting?

I have written a number of posts about the mural paintings of the famous Mexican artist, Diego Rivera.  Here is another one of Rivera's works, the centerpiece of a series of murals that he painted in a public building.

Can you tell me where this painting is located?  Just one hint... it is NOT in Mexico City.

Good luck!
¡Buena suerte!
UPDATE -  We have a winner!  Once again Joan has answered correctly.  This mural, considered one of Rivera's masterpieces, is located at the Chapingo Autonomous University, located about 25 miles northeast of Mexico City on the outskirts of the city of Texcoco. 
The university is considered the most prestigious agricultural school in the country.  The campus is on the site of an old hacienda. 
The former hacienda chapel is now an assembly hall where university ceremonies are held.  Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint the walls and ceiling of the hall.  The murals were painted between 1924 and 1927.

Congratulations to Joan!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Procession of Flowers

I know, this is supposed to be a travel blog, and you are probably wondering, "When are we going to see some more travel pics?"   But this is a "stay-at-home" summer, at least until my friend Alejandro comes up from Mexico for a visit, and I take him on some excursions.  Every day (weather permitting) I have been working in the garden between four and seven hours.  After a day of gardening, I don't feel like uploading old travel photos.  The most I can muster for my blog are some pictures of the garden.

This morning I went out and took some pictures of some of the plants that are currently in bloom.  It is a gray, cloudy day, but I figured that the lack of sun would intensify the color of the flowers in the photos.

So here is what is presently blooming at my place...

Feverfew is a medicinal plant that used to be used for treating fevers, headaches and arthritis.  It is also an attractive decorative perennial with small daisy-like flowers.

Filipendula is a not-so-common plant that likes a lot of water.  Since I have a number of damp areas, I have planted several of these perennials.  They grow fairly tall... more than three feet in height... and they have delicate pinkish flowers.

I previously mentioned and showed a picture of gooseneck loosestrife.  This is its cousin, the purple loosestrife.  It also likes damp locations.

I just planted this blanket flower this year.  Unlike most perennials, it is supposed to bloom all summer long.  We'll see.

I have a large variety of daylilies.  The early bloomers have begun.

I also have some Asiatic lilies which are now in bloom.

I used to plant a lot of impatiens as annuals in my shady areas.  However a few years ago, the impatiens in this area were hit by some kind of fungus, and they all rotted.  I haven't tried planting any since then.  However, this variety of impatiens, which is marketed as a "sunpatiens" likes more sunlight, and is supposedly immune to the fungus. 

Most of my flowers beds are filled with perennials which generally bloom once and then are done.  So, to provide summer-long color, on my patios I set out a load of flower pots with annuals.  In the back right corner is a tomato plant.  I used to have a large vegetable garden, but it produced more than I or more neighbors could eat.  So now my vegetable gardening is reduced to one potted cherry tomato plant.