Viva Havana

We booked Havana Air for our first visit to Cuba, flying from Miami to Havana for a brief 45  minute flight.  At the time of booking, I didn’t realize it was part of the new Eastern Airlines until check-in. A group purchased the once famed but defunct airline’s intellectual property including their trademarks.  The flight was full and check in slow since most of the flight consisted of Cubans carrying 8-10 bags of goods they couldn’t buy in Havana.  Fashionable clothes, shoes and food, all having to be weighed for the flight.  My husband and I carried only our carry-on, weighing less than 20 lbs.

In Havana, it took us an hour and a half to clear customs, wait for our prearranged rental car and change money.  We arrived with Canadian currency for a better exchange rate since it’s a 10% penalty for American dollars.  We also had to leave the rental company an extra $250 deposit we weren’t expecting.

Our Hotel Habana Libre, sat in the heart of Havana near the Malecon.  It’s a high-rise full of character and history. Once the Havana Hilton, nine months after it opened Castro’s revolutionaries took it over and Fidel ruled the country from a suite on the 24th floor.  The leader’s pictures and propaganda are documented in the lobby, near the bar where we sat for our first mojito.  This refreshing rum drink became my drink of choice for the rest of our trip.

car classicMy immediate impression of Havana, it’s unlike anywhere I’ve been.  A city stuck in time with antique cars, beautiful but dilapidated buildings, and bustling with locals and tourists. The air smelled of diesel and gas outside and cigars and dust inside the hotel. Horns and music blared on the streets. People gathered near a TV/media building to access the internet on their smart phones and tablets.  It had a good and positive vibe.

 

We had dinner just two blocks away at a local joint recommended by Anthony Bourdain called Los Amigos. It was a small place but it had good cuban food and a nice ambience.

embassyThe following morning I ran along the Malecon, a historic stone sea wall.  The United States Embassy majestically greeted me as I began my trot.  Men fished off the wall, lovers walked holding hands, and fellow joggers and bikers passed by.  I grinned and danced around dents in the pavement.  Most smiled back, while a few mimicked my movements. A stone fort-like fort restaurantbuilding turned restaurant signaled the end of the Malecon, and my turnaround point.

We spent the afternoon walking the narrow streets of Habana Vieja.  We explored shops, bars, plazas, churches, and street art.  We had an average lunch at a restaurant in Plaza De Armas. The location was great for people watching, but the food pretty bland. Stray dogs and cats gathered around the tables for scraps.  The cats didn’t mind pieces of my soggy pizza, but the dogs were a bit more picky. I didn’t blame them, since I was also unimpressed.  Hopefully they were just well fed.

20160416_142700_resizedWe checked out two random wooden boats slightly bigger than a canoe.  A local in overhauls was busy working on one of them.  With the help of a translator, my husband had a fishing conversation with him. They discussed types of fish he caught, methods used, and while laughing they exchanged fishing stories.

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We walked down Calle Mercaderes and Obispo, stopping to admire the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived and wrote between 1932-1939 in room 511. We also visited a few places where he drank, including the famed Floridita. While having mojitos at Cafe Paris, we watched dancers on stilts perform a traditional dance.

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We drove through a tunnel arriving on the other side of the harbor at Castillo del Morro, and learned about the British invasion of Havana.  The view of the city from there was amazing.  We parked out front and meandered through the exhibits, all written in Spanish, but we figured out the gist of it.

dancersWe unknowingly chose a state-run restaurant for dinner. Although the menu looked promising the food was horrible.  I laughed myself into tears over how someone could mess up pasta with olive oil.  Well they certainly did.  A late night dance performance at our hotel saved the evening.

buildingMy morning run along the Malecon in the other direction towards central Havana provided stunning views and I had a perpetual grin for five blissful miles.  A wave crashed over the seawall and left me drenched, so I crossed the street and ran alongside a quiet stretch of buildings until I noticed large chunks of rubble on the sidewalk.  I imagined one of them falling off the building onto my head, but I took the risk.

marinaWe drove a half-hour outside of town to the Hemingway Marina.  The drive was along a beautiful neighborhood and the Marina itself was pleasant but quiet without much to do. A restaurant back along the Malecon had decent local cuisine and live music. By now we started to me musicrealize if we ran out of pesos we’d be screwed since our American credit cards didn’t work in Cuba.  For me, becoming stranded and cashless became a big fear and we budgeted accordingly.

hamelA drive through Chinatown proved there really weren’t any Asians left in Cuba as they fled at the first mention of Communism.  An a cute artistic area with Afro-Cuban roots called Callejon de Hamel was full of murals, rumba, Santeria, cafe’s, and culture-seeking tourists.

We visited the historic Hotel National for a hotel national
mojito or two and awaited the firing of the canons at 5:00 each day, except Sunday.  Well our visit was on Sunday, but we did learn about the missile crisis and the history of who stayed there including Lucky Luciano, Frank Sinatra, Vladimir Putin, and Winston Churchill.

The following day, we left Havana for a three-hour drive to Cienfuego’s for a few nights. Next week I’ll blog about our experience there.

Easter: Spring Rebirth

yellow treeMy favorite season in south Florida is spring, especially the month of April with longer days and somewhat cooler air, in this tropical environment that means 70-80 degrees and less humidity.  Baby chicks float in canals learning how to be duck-like from mama, one of them having a whopping ten chicks following. Lime green iguanas litter docks and yards, a nuisance to many I suppose. Fuchsia bushes, purple vines, bright pink and Yellow trees vividly blooming. Spring is definitely in the air with procreation abound as nature brilliantly displays its awe-inspiring beauty.  Even the grass seems more lush and the sky radiant blue.pink flowers purple bush

Everyone is outside this week, as if we were in a deep freeze the prior months.  It’s Florida, winter wasn’t so bad.  But recently I’ve seen more people walking, jogging, landscaping and boating.  I applaud any outdoor activity, engaging in the open-air environment daily myself.  This past week, the change of season brought me inside for a bit of spring cleaning.  Dusting, washing cabinets, throwing away ragged rugs, tossing Christmas candles and out-of-season scented soaps.  All to make room for fresh fragrances and colors associated with Spring, combined with a true need to purify the house. Replaced by aromas such as Peach Bellini, Caribbean Escape, Coconut Lime, and Mango Maui.

bunny egg 2Easter, the oldest Christian holiday and perhaps the oldest celebration in human culture, symbolizes fertility and rebirth.  Observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern hemisphere’s spring equinox, occurring anytime between March 21 and April 25.  The concept of spring and rebirth is not unique to Christians.

Easter’s earliest reference comes from Babylon around 2400 BCE, with festivities honoring the moon and the spring equinox.  The holiday and many of its non-religious traditions have Pagan roots.  Easter is likely named after the Anglo-Saxon mother goddess, Eostre.  Her symbol was a rabbit and an egg, because of fertility and new life, although some say the ancients saw a Hare in the full moon.  Anglo- Saxons ate hot cross buns to honor their estrogen goddess during spring celebrations.  Some say the bun represented the moon and the cross the moon’s quarters.  For Christians it symbolizes the crucifixion of Jesus, the son of God.

bunny egg chickMany cultures throughout history have celebrated spring equinox, when light is equal to darkness.  After a long dismal winter, they incorporate themes of decent into darkness, renewal, fertility, and the ultimate triumph of light over darkness or good over evil.  A celebration I consider worthy as the oldest and most celebrated tradition in human history.  Whatever your belief or reason to embrace this life-giving season, do so wholeheartedly.

If you ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it…  But if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.

– Frank Lloyd Wright

New Orleans: Marathon, Music and Musings

fritzelsI signed up for the New Orleans Rock and Roll half marathon three months ago, taking advantage of the travel opportunity to make a fun weekend out of it. I booked three nights at the Royal Sonesta in the heart of the French Quarter, on Bourbon street, with its five-star ratings and an inner courtyard facing room, allowing for peace among the chaos. Upon arrival the street buzzed with performers, tourists, hobos and bead throwers. After all Mardi Gras was only a few weeks away, but it seemed like the party had already started.  Our chosen restaurant for the night, Grapevine Bistro, was a short walk with a few drink and entertainment stops along the way.  A crowd gathered around two break dancers jumping around to “I got a feeling“, a song by Maroon 5 that always gets my hips moving.  The next crowd was standing below a balcony of men and woman throwing beads for flashes of boobs.  A pair landed at my feet, so I looked up with a wide smile. Not this trip, maybe ten years ago.

At the Grapevine, I savored baked Brie, artesian salad and my favorite dessert creme brûlée, while my husband was in seafood heaven. Afterwards, we sauntered over to the oldest jazz club in the French Quarter, Fritzel’s, finishing our evening listening to live traditional jazz in a casual atmosphere. The walk back to the hotel was even more crazy with larger, drunker, louder crowds.  Oh, the French Quarter, how do I love thee?  The food, jazz, people, town… even if only for a few days.

marathon signSaturday centered around marathon preparation.  Finding the starting and finishing line, picking up my race packet at one of longest the convention centers spanning over six blocks, the running expo was in the last hall. Since a cold front left the city around 40 degrees in the morning and evening, I picked up a hat and gloves for my 13.1 mile run. I also acquired free samples of mostly energy boosters. Who knew they made energy jelly bellies.

After prepping my clothes, gear and caffeine for the following morning we headed out for an extremely well-behaved early evening around Bourbon Street. Well almost.  Music continued blaring and drinks flowed as we visited a few bars, for me that was white wine mixed with ice and soda water as a safe pre-race night drink.  At a close-by Italian restaurant, a small plate of linguine pesto soaked up the alcohol while providing a scrumptious carb-loading meal for the following day. The crowd outside was just beginning their debauchery as we ended a perfect evening at Irvin Mayfield’s jazz playhouse in the quiet comfort of our hotel.

By 6:30 a.m. I was bouncing off the walls from the energy drinks I sipped while getting ready, mostly a giant Monster green tea tasting like medicine. That combined with pure adrenaline and anticipation for the race had me acting like a caged lion pacing for freedom.  My hubby and pup slept through the madness.

Bourbon street was eerie in the early morning, the way I pictured the fictional Gotham City to be right before Batman’s arrival. Spotting a group of runners ahead, I swiftly caught up with them.  The street smelled of stale alcohol mixed with fresh-baked bread. The wind was blowing with an occasional strong gust.  My long running pants, three layers of shirts and  running beanie complete with a pony tail gap provided enough warmth.  A few young drifters slept in sleeping bags against the buildings.  Who would choose that lifestyle, I wondered.burbon 4 The starting line overflowed with runners prepping for the half and full marathon, like a skinny healthy version of Fat Tuesday kicking off Mardi Gras.  They had corrals instead of pace groups, and they seemed endless, winding around corners and streets. “How do I know what corral I’m in?”  I asked a stranger.

“It’s based on the first number on your race bib,” She said, and added, “They’re not that strict.”

marathonMine was seven, towards the front.  I was relived not to be in back of the 30,000 runners.  It was about ten minutes from the official start when my corral was up for release.  A thin yellow rope held us at the starting line until countdown and then we were set free as if bulls running in Pamplona, Spain.  I started my marathon playlist with my chosen first song, Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys.  Every few miles a band played above my music, and then my earphones went silent after about mile five. I was also getting extremely hot.  After trying to talk myself out of it I stopped and removed one of my shirts, tossing it to the side entangling my earphones in the process. The music came and went intermittently as I tried not to let it bother me.  Around mile ten my left foot went from numb to shooting an intense pain.  All the little nerves in my foot protesting, I ignored it.  Many observers with creative signs lined the marathon course.

                    I thought you said rum, not run.  Do you still have your toenails.  Look alive you’re about to pass a cemetery. We’re looking at your ass, keep running. Run, Zombies are chasing you.  It sounded like a great idea a few months ago. 

Some bystanders offered jello shots, mimosa and even a slice of pizza.  I smiled, waved and looked forward to the near end of 13.1 miles.

I found my husband and dog at the finish line, took a nice long hot shower and then met up with an old friend for a quick museum visit and Jazz brunch. The small Voodoo museum I went to years ago was interesting, but this time I was looking for information to include in my upcoming book, Breakfast in Bimini.  The attendant was very helpful suggesting a few possibilities and resources to check out.  Brunch was simply amazing and I was famished.  Made to order omelets, eggs benedict and pancakes.  A traditional pirogue, a flat boat-shaped serving vessel, held salads, meats, seafood and specialities.  Dessert pies and king cake tempted at the stern of the pirogue.  It was my first time trying the purple, green and gold doughy cake, and my little sliver didn’t hold the hidden plastic baby, meaning I didn’t have to buy the next king cake. Mimosa and Bloody Mary’s were constantly refreshed.

Afterwards we roamed the streets of the French Quarter, leisurely checking out boutiques, street art and pop up jazz bands. The music continued to delight with the rhythm, creativity and talent.  Young hobos still abundant, I gazed into one young girl’s blue eyes, probably about 18 years old.  She looked pretty, clean and lost sitting next to her sleeping bag on the street with a bowl holding coins.  I understand rebellion, wanting to travel and experience life, but at what cost?  Would she be lost forever in an unrealistic quest?  I hoped not, but the French quarter draws people to its culture and some just get sucked into a romantic abyss.burbon jazz

Fall is in the air, Northern Georgia

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Fall is my favorite time of year along the eastern coast of the USA, with a change in temperature, foliage and festivities.  I took a week to admire and appreciate this yearly change of seasons in the northern Georgia mountains.  A hike in nature revealed its beauty after a day of chilly deluge with radiant earthly colors and cool crisp air.  The trail was soft and spongy from pine needles and the previous day’s rain.  Yellow, red, brown and unturned green maple leaves scenically littered the path while other leaves endlessly floated in the wind. Sourwood and dogwood trees were equally colorful and abundant. Soggy chocolate-brown pine cones and sturdier acorns appeared on parts of the trail, some broken, others in tact.  I imagined squirrels stockpiling for the winter, but I didn’t see a single animal large or small. A burbling creek ebbed and flowed, sometimes growing louder, other times just whispering in the distance.  I crossed over the creek via wooden tree planks on a few occasions, paralleling it during the most of my walk while meandering past boulders and tranquil Raven_Cliff_Falls_GAvalleys.  Ancient tree roots sprouted through the organic trail, well-worn and glossed over like a penny rubbed too much for good luck.   The air was fresh, clean, oxygenated, and slightly petrichor. The trail ends in a grand finale, a hill of slippery boulders flanked by a gigantic granite rock split in two with a waterfall splashing and cascading to the bottom.  I cautiously climbed the smaller rocks to the top of the waterfall, admiring for a brief moment its magnificent beauty.

Fall in the alpine village of Helen means Oktoberfest, one of the longest and largest Bavarian festivals held in the United States.  Crowds flock to the quaint town to celebrate from September 17 to November 1st.  Weekends are packed with beer drinkers sporting traditional Bavarian hats called Tirolerhüte, many exhibiting pewter pins based on personal interest and cities they have visited.  A man with many pins is either well-travelled, very active, or just a tourist collecting pins for Oktoberfest.  Woman also wear these hats in the United States, but it’s not traditional garb.  If you want to stick to custom, their outfit consist of a tight-fitting white Dirndl dress and blouse showing ample cleavage.  An apron wrapped around the dress with a bow tied on front and flat shoes complete the outfit.

octoberfestThe festhalle housing the main event was full of people, beer, bratwurst, pretzels and dancing to live music. First on our minds was buying a stein full of Oktoberfest Warsteiner which we accomplished immediately.  After securing a seat at the common long tables, food was next on our agenda.  For a vegetarian that means a pretzel at this event and a bratwurst for my husband.  Beer would be my nourishment for the evening since the pretzel was dry and less enticing and flavorful than the beer, although the beer cheese dip helped the dehydrated dough.  Apparently fine cuisine was not the strongpoint of the popular festhalle, but music and socializing was the highlight.  The band, people watching and making friends beat out the lack of flavorful fare, but well worth it.  Although I love a good meal , it’s not  always my top priority.  At the end of the night I was singing and dancing to Rocky Top and doing the chicken dance thanks to Warsteiner and a lack of vegetarian options.

The next few days we explored the many pop-up tents housing beer gardens and festivities surrounding Oktoberfest.  Every major venue had their own personal tent and talent for the occasion.  One thing that stuck out in my mind was the ubiquity of boots among females, an appreciation I held being a lover of a good pair of boots.  My husband and I made a game of it, him not noticing the Northern Georgia boot culture until I pointed it out, and then he could not stop noticing it, almost becoming obsessed.  We started taking pictures of the various boots and he approached one couple.

“My wife loves your boots.  Can I take a picture?
The boyfriend almost fell over, “Your wife loves her boobs?”
“No, Boots. Not boobs.  Don’t get too excited.”

We laughed and took a picture along with photos of ten other boots.  Oktoberfest in Helen, the boot culture.  I better find a good pair.

bootsboots 7boots 6

boots 4   boots2

 

Breakfast in Bimini excerpt

end of world barDark in comparison to the bright sun outside, the rustic tavern displayed writing all over wood panel walls, underwear hanging above, and signed currency from many countries taped on a panel behind the bar. Names of boats and fishing teams, individuals with dates they visited, relationships broadcasted, love proclaimed.

“Interesting,” I mumbled.

My name’s in here,” Luke announced.

“My underwear’s on the ceiling,” Russ challenged. I looked up searching for the camouflage boxers I saw earlier on the trip. It was mostly ladies thongs, but boxers also hung from above like a flag revealing a conquest. My eyes shifted to one distinguished pair depicting a skull and crossbones with a patch over the eye, the typical Jolly Roger avatar faded and exposed on a single pair of boxers. I briefly thought of Jeff and his treasure hunting Davy Jones yacht, wondering if he’d left his mark in this bar. I continued scanning for Russ’s undies, my gaze landing on a pair representing the confederate flag. It was integrated with a rainbow of woman’s thongs. Blue, black, pick, multicolored, green and purple.

“That’s yours,” I pointed to the pair hanging in the distance. “The confederate flag, cowboy.”

“Damn, you’re good Kelly. But wrong. I wouldn’t give up a pair that nice.” He turned his stool in the opposite direction, pointing to a plain tan pair with grey scribbling’s. “Those are mine from 2001, during a wild fishing trip.”

“So you let people sign your ass while wearing them, or afterwards?” I asked, giggling at the thought of Russ running around the bar in his undies asking for autographs.

“On of course. A bunch of drunk girls in the bar signing my ass. Nothing on the front, I’m not that type of guy.”

I choked on my drink, spraying a mist of beer while laughing. “Oh, I could imagine.” Glancing at Luke, “So no undies on the ceiling for you, sweetie?”

Smirking, “No just a signature of my name and year, somewhere around here.” He searched the tavern, eyes scanning for a hint of recognition and then handing me a black sharpie, one of many sitting atop the bar. “Make your mark,” he said pragmatically.

Eagerly grabbing the sharpie and searching for an empty section to claim as my own, I noticed fainter scratching’s were written over with darker, fresher markings. I avoided busy walls and found a corner behind a speaker and wrote, Kelly and Luke, Breakfast in Bimini, 2011. Satisfied with my scribbling’s, I joined the two men sitting on bar stools, gulping a slightly stronger Kalik Gold.

“Ok, now the undies,” Russ blurted out, wickedly grinning.

“And I can do a shot from your belly button,” Luke added with an equally sinful grin. “It’s tradition in this bar.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” I addressed both of them with a smiling gaze. “But I’d have to say, this place definitely has character.”

compleat angler 1“You might change your mind after a few of these,” Luke said, handing me a Kalik Gold to go. Walking the streets of Bimini with a drink in hand is also tradition, ambling to our next stop, lunch at the Big Game Club. During our short walk to the restaurant we sauntered past some ruins stopping for a moment of nostalgia. Luke and Russ both filled me in on the colorful history the Compleat Angler. Ernest Hemingway was perhaps the most notable resident that slept, drank, and wrote at the Angler, but so did Jimmy Buffett, presidential hopeful Gary Hart got caught messing around at the bar and hotel, Matt Damon was spotted there and the less famous Russ and Luke with their past debauchery. Built in the 1930’s it was once the staging area for rum-runners during the prohibition. Prior to its fiery destruction just five years ago, it housed a small yet unique Hemingway museum and it was full of fishing pictures from every decade since the thirty’s. On any given weekend the bar was packed with drunken tourists and locals listening to live music from Stevie S while socializing, sometimes getting downright crazy. The two compared their most memorable stories, with passionate sinful laughs. I longed to have the same memory of the Compleat Angler. Now only a brick fireplace stood in the center of boulders outlining the three rooms and an outside patio. An A-frame wooden sign over a stone archway read The Compleat Angler, a reminder of its humble yet ornate vibrant past.

“How did it burn down and do you think they’ll rebuild it?” I asked.

The two chortled in unison as we continued strolling to the Big Game Club. “The fire was questionable, the owner was the only one who died. All the Hemingway memorabilia was destroyed. Lots of gossip about foul play, but no arrest were made.”

“If it was that popular, will they rebuild?”

Luke took a swig from his beer as we continued along King’s Road. “It’s the Bahamas, nothing much gets done around here.”

 

Discoveries along the east coast

Our annual trip in our single engine plane from south Florida, north to Philadelphia and Ohio, began with adventure. Scooting around thunderstorms during takeoff, our airspeed indicator failed.  The transponder, what identifies our plane to Air Traffic Control, was intermittent, and the two iPad’s we use for backup navigation were quickly losing power.  We only needed to make it to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for our first leg of the trip.

shipwreckWeather cleared within a half-hour flying north, so we flew along the central Florida coast with a flawless view of the unusually transparent water.  I have an archaeological permit allowing exclusive exploration to search for shipwrecks in a small portion of the Atlantic Ocean. I took the opportunity to visually inspect the area from air, knowing I would return in a few weeks by boat… an anticipated pre-planned mid-July expedition.  I spotted a curious dark outline the size of a ship.  Scribbling notes, coordinates and drawings, my mind raced through the possibilities as if I was winning the lottery before checking the numbers.treasure chest

A storm was nearing our destination, competing in a marathon for the runway.  One iPad died, the other had 8% power, and our airspeed indicator was still unresponsive.  We won by about five minutes, but we would continue the race the following morning.

Mossy trees, crickets and the faint smell of rain greeted me during a morning jog.  Roadside motels, restaurants and an amusement park provided visual stimulation as I listened to my audiobook.  I briefly peaked at the ocean waves and slightly turbulent sky at my turnaround point, arriving back at our hotel an hour later.

After fixing our airspeed indicator we were again airborne heading to the Philadelphia area, a three-hour flight.  I was flying, circling up between the bulbous clouds building in the region.  This tropical disturbance would later become the first hurricane of the season, Arthur.

robinFor the first time I found  simple but familiar creatures interesting while socializing outside in the summer air.  The ubiquitous northeast coast american robin was funny to watch hop around in the grass.  I’m sure other birds hop, but robins are like the kangaroo of the avian kingdom.  Blue jays and cardinals flew by, sat on fences and studied me as much as I watched them.

At night lighting bugs lit up the fields, bringing back memories of light bug 2my youth.  Similar creatures roamed Ohio, my hometown and our next stop on our journey.  I recalled catching lightning bugs and throwing white objects at bats for entertainment. Bats would dive white balls as we dove into the grass to escape. Simple childhood fun. Damn, I hope I don’t see bats this trip?

Our next stop in Georgia brought about a different kind of animal analysis, that of my little crazy dog.  Last time we visited our home in the Georgia mountains, just three weeks prior, a mini tornado formed as I was walking my pup.  It was brief, just a few minutes of high winds spinning at 70 plus miles per hour, but she remembered.  When it happened she didn’t know what to do and I grabbed her before she bolted into the woods.  I teased her about being Toto in the classic movie The Wizard of Oz.  Now she won’t go outside past 6 p.m. about the time she was almost”Totoed,” she needs a psychiatrist. wizard oz

 

 

Wizard tornado 2

 

A little piece of heaven in the hills

helen signA spur of the moment purchase of a mountain home in Helen, Georgia flung my husband and me into an unexpected trip and immersion into a country lifestyle.  We won the high bid on a foreclosure and decided to turn it into a vacation rental for ourselves and others.  Collecting furniture from auctions and personal knick-knacks from our Florida house we hit the road with the goal of having it ready for the rental market in a week or less.  Game on.  It was not my first rodeo doing this, we’d done it twice prior.  My ten pound snorkie was accustomed to the drill and probably thought we were professional movers.

It was my first time seeing the house, hubby flew up and checked it out prior to our bid.  It blew me away instantly. Within walking distance to the quaint Bavarian styled village, yet in the woods in a gated golf course community and we are the only house on the street.  Hiking trails are nearby as are wineries, ATV rentals, zip lines, mini golf, German restaurants galore and my favorite country store Betty’s.betty country store

What surprised me as the crème de la crème and the real gem of north Georgia are the super friendly people.  They are warm, sociable, helpful and generally pleasant folks.  We made friends everywhere we went, already feeling like part of the community.  Before we even arrived in Helen we got stuck in gridlock traffic on Interstate 75 due to a fatal accident.  We backed up an interstate ramp and pulled over to figure out directions around the traffic jam.  A local pulled up in a red dodge asked where we were heading.

“Follow me.” He suggested.

We sped through winding country roads, landing us just north of the accident and continued on our merry way.  During our detour I spotted a unique bright yellow government issued sign reading “Quiet Sickness,” and silently pondered its meaning.  Does this mean I’m in danger of getting sick and why the quiet part of sickness.  Weird and strange things to discover on country roads in Georgia.  Winding paths I’d become all too familiar with over the course of the week.georgia sign

The gate guard at our newly acquired house as well as the young freckled blond at the local convenient store were smiling and congenial.  As were our few neighbors who went out of their way to introduce themselves, welcoming us to the community.

The best part of our initial stay was the interaction at bars and restaurants.  One night we joined a biker party singing Karaoke combined with a separate birthday party group from Atlanta.  Everyone laughed, toasted drinks, exchanged home states and even shared an impulsive parking lot mob flash dance.  Many of them were in a band and we applauded their performance. I smiled all night including our stop at the local pub where we mingled into the wee hours.  One woman was a little too friendly and a fight between two men almost broke out.  My hubby grabbed the bartender, our new friend and neighbor, warning him of the tension building.  He was quick to react, diverting any fight.

At Lowes when I couldn’t find something the clerk was readily available and walked me to the item.  At Betty’s, when ordering lunch, the boys behind the counter were attentive, assuring me that my sandwich was made with care and the best I would have.  They were right.

helen roadSo with all the love is there any downside to Helen?  Just that’s it far from some basics like large chain stores.  Groceries, home improvement, Wal-Mart and anything other than a small country grocery store will be at least a 45 minute drive or more.  But I’ll take that given all the natural and cultural beauty of the place.

The heart of the Inca Empire

Rolling into Cusco after 10:00 p.m., I noticed the sleepy town I once visited was bustling with young twenty-somethings hanging around night clubs blaring hip-hop. They were circulating the streets and sidewalks as if buzzing around a bee hive. The dogs were socializing in a different manner. Packs of them scavenging on garbage piles scattered along the sides of streets and in empty lots.

“Damn, I don’t recall Cusco being this crowded or dirty,” I thought verbally.

hotel cuscoOur hotel was the complete opposite of the litter we had just driven through. With a Spanish castle motif, the Palacio Del Inka, was five-star luxury. It also held almost 500 years of history with some original Inca walls once home to the virgins of the sun. Part of the current structure was built for the Spanish Conquistador, Pizarro and his men. The open-air courtyard below our suite, offered a zen atmosphere where my husband and I could relax with a drink and cigarette.  I kept passing through the courtyard and various other rooms over the next 24 hours, getting lost each time, yet discovering a new maze back to our room.

cuzcoI wanted to run outside the next morning, but the hotel staff strongly suggested I use the treadmill due to pedestrian and car traffic. That combined with our altitude of 11,000 feet, I acquiesced.  A handful of North Americans from our travel group did an optional tour, but we decided to take a leisurely day to explore the city. The historic Qoricancha, or Temple of the Sun, with the omnipresent church of Santo Domingo sat across from our hotel. We agreed to explore the church later in the day and then headed to the main square, passing a original Inca wall along the way. The Plaza de Armas is one of the most beautiful colonial style squares in all of South America. Two enormous churches flanked two sides of the square, La Cathedral and Templo de la Compania de Jesus. I recalled the first time I saw La Cathedral twenty years ago during Easter break. I witnessed the traditional Inca procession of the saints in front of the church. My friend and I were the only tourists then, and it was sublime. Equally rewarding now we just hung out around the plaza. Wooden balconies surrounded the square, most of them part of the numerous restaurants. We had a few drinks with lunch followed by shopping, people watching and a brief visit to the underfunded Inca museum. A visible police presence caught our attention and we later learned that some workers were on strike due to unfair labor laws. They were throwing rocks, wavering on unrest. The police were in full riot gear complete with plastic shields.

We ended our afternoon with a tour through the church adjacent to our hotel, Santo Domingo. With a rich Spanish and Inca history, our local guide only covered the Inca story and she did it well, although I felt like the beautiful Spanish church we were walking through was being ignored. But then again the Spanish did sack and destroy all known Inca monuments, replacing them with their own. Once the Temple of the Sun dominated Cusco, housing more than 4,000 high-ranking Inca priests. Some of the walls, windows and niches are still visible inside of the church and this was the story we followed during our tour.

high pointWe were on the road again by 8:00 a.m. for the last leg of our trip, Lake Titicaca.  I was especially excited about visiting this southern region since I’d hadn’t been there,  although I studied the archaeology found around the lake as a student at UCLA under one of my professors.  Driving through the Andes I noticed mustard colored hills mottled with blackish brown soil, beet-purple mountains, valleys with pools of water, corn fields, a lonely railroad track paralleling the road, wheat-colored sheep matching the grass they grazed,  and simple shacks.  We stopped by an elementary school to meet the children and bring them much-needed school supplies, and then continued to our highest point of 14,500 to breathe the thin windy air and take a picture. Seven hours later after cruising through a town known as the cocaine capital we pulled into our headquarters for the next two nights just in time for a lightning storm over the lake.

I had some time for a light jog proceeding of our morning boat journey.  At 12,500 I was a little winded but after ten minutes I was doing fine.  I kept my jog short and turned around becoming annoyed at the minivans speeding by, men howling and dogs barking.  Although a short run, I was still proud of my highest run ever, gloating by my fellow travelers with several of them suffering from altitude sickness.

“You ran.  I can barely walk,” one of them breathed.

“It was just a short run,” I humbly said.

urosA boat ride brought us to a different world, a floating spongy one known as the Uros Islands.  They are floating reeds housing an average of three to five native Uros families per island.  We visited one and sat down for a demonstration. The reeds only last 30 years then they have to build a new island.  If there’s a fight among them they pick up their hut and turn it around, unless the disagreement is more serious, in that case they cut the island in half.  After the demonstration and a few laughs we were free to roam the tiny island.  The huts were modest with just the basics: a bed, roof with a blue tarp under the reeds to keep rain out, blankets, a four-inch black and white tv attached to a golf cart size battery, and clothes tossed in the corners of the room, just like my husband bundles his dirty clothes.  They had no bathroom, you had to jump into the lake for that, they shared a clay oven in the open area for cooking and they got around by reed boats and a paddle.

My husband went to the side of the island and lit a cigarette.

I gave him a sideways glance then looked at our guide standing next to him.”Honey, don’t catch their island on fire.  I don’t think you should smoke with all of this hay, it looks very flammable.”

He pointed to our guide, “Leo says it’s O.K.”

I grunted then climbed aboard the two-story reed boat for a ten minute ride with the rest of our group.

me flat mtAfter an excellent lunch of fresh pizza in Puno half of the group went to the hotel and the rest of us went to the Sillustani Tombs, an archaeological site full of pre-Inca and Inca funeral towers.  It started pouring just as we arrived.  Up the wheat hills, whitherward through the cold rain and mud we listened to our local guide’s brief description.  He offered to take my picture with a beautiful view of a lake and a mysteriously flat-topped hill that some think is a UFO landing site. I tripped lightly and then turned around for a picture, prior to looking down over a deadly cliff.  That could have been disastrous, I realized as I imagined my umbrella whisking me through the air like Mary Poppins.

If I had more time during this brief jaunt to Peru, I would have taken a few more days to explore some archaeological ruins dating to the pre-Inca Tiwanaku on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca.

As the locals like to say, “The titi part of the lake belongs to Peru, the caca part belongs to Bolivia.”

I’m sure Bolivians would disagree and it gives me an excuse to come back to the region.

Our last night in Lima we spent together as a group. Our guide Leo had us all pick a piece of paper from a bag.  Of the twenty-four pieces, only two had “yes” scribbled on them. I received one of these.  Throughout our tour various people carried two small Inca dolls that Leo said we had to treat like our baby, but they would change hands every few days. My husband even kidnapped one for a few hours.  I got to take the female Inca as a reminder of our special trip in the Andes.

Discovering the deep south. My neighborhood.

I’m a nomad, a vagabond at heart and my travel experience reflects this passion I have for culture.  About ten years ago I settled in South Florida, the place I currently call home.  It’s as far south as you can go in the U.S., yet it’s has a northern city feel at times with Miami and Fort Lauderdale dominating the east coast of Florida. A common saying is, “we are so far south it feels as if you’re in the north.” That’s culture wise, not weather related. Recently during an early morning jog, I felt like a stranger visiting my neighborhood, a sort of out-of-body experience as I noticed the sights and sounds reflecting a southern lifestyle.

This particular August morning was extremely steamy. The sun had not yet fully risen, so it wasn’t a double kick of intense solar heat.  The humidity just drenched me in sweat when I was strolling and preparing to run, as if a bucket of water gushed from my inner body through my pores.  My right hand constantly reaching up to wipe off the excess sweat while making my way to my starting point, the five-mile track surrounding the local general aviation airport.

The streets were eerily quiet.  No rush hour in this neighborhood.  I wondered if everyone was still sleeping until I saw a few teenagers walking to school.  They were also soundless with a slow sleepy gait among the few scattered students.  Crossing guards sporting bright yellow vests stood at the busier streets, holding up stop signs when the lights changed in order to help the children traverse safely.

“Good morning, Ma’am,” the older gentleman greeted me as I hurried past to my destination.

I smiled.  “Morning.”  I somehow forgot to add the good over the past decade, and made a mental note to actually emphasize the “good” prior to “morning” next time.  Perhaps the yogi in me shining through, I silently giggled.  Life is good, and I must say it during my greeting for now on.

I smelled bacon lingering through the neighborhood, a particularly strong smell for my vegetarian nose.  It was mixed with a slight sulfur smell of the nearby ocean and the dankness of humidity. I was jolted by the brief refreshing smell of Jasmine while passing a blooming bush.  I took a deep breath and grinned.

One corner in particular stood out as very southern, with a large Baptist church on one corner,oak tree a neighboring empty lot across with an associated church thrift store and a few pre-schools.  An abundance of empty land dedicated to church and the people they help.  Not really a sight you’d see in the city, but a community staple in the south.

 spiderOak, Banyan, Palm and Pine trees flanked large single story homes built in the fifty’s and sixty’s.  It was as if the trees weren’t sure if they were northern or southern with the palms and giant oaks living side-by-side. Banana spiders the size of the palm of my hand waited in complex webs spread between some of the trees. Its long black and yellow legs stretched out, flaunting a huge yellowish brown abdomen. I quivered at the thought of running into her web. Birds sang, crickets chirped a simultaneous rhythm while frogs croaked a deeper bellow, all creating quite the symphony.

fec railrway

I picked up my pace to a light jog. The Florida East Coast Railway hummed by with a clack, clack, clack, a squeal of the wheel flange scraping against the rail, and a long, loud tooooooot . Paralleling Dixie Highway, the almost forgotten railway system is a symbol of our industrial past.

Southern Florida is indeed a mix of north and south and I’ll take these southern roots any day as long as I have my northern comforts, occasionally slipping into a true love of everything the deep south has to offer, even the unbearable inescapable tropical, wet air.

The song from the movie, Singing in the Rain , flooded my blissful mind.   

Good Morning
Good Morning
We’ve talked the whole night through
Good Morning
Good Morning to you
Good Morning
Good Morning
It’s great to stay up late
Good Morning
Good Morning to you

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=J0j3-tmQLjg