Monday, December 31, 2018

A bitter/sweet vacation

I can't say I have ever had a bad vacation in my life and despite the title of this piece, that remains true.

My daughter-in-law Michelle, unfortunately, has a horror story to tell about our latest get-together.

She should have arrived  from New York at 10pm on Boxing Day night 2018, at the
Denver International airport, so we could all drive to a warm-water resort in Colorado Springs the next day.

US Air force Academy and sections of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains are clear from the resort's balcony.
Lo and beholed however, as the time drew close for us to pick her up at the airport, we got a call that the flight had been diverted from its stop in Dallas, due to floods. She would be diverted to New Orleans on the same flight but could get no information about how and when she would arrive in Denver, her distressing text read.

The entire night we monitored the phone for word of her progress. We eventually heard early next morning  that she was at the New Orleans, airport but all the restaurants were closed, so she was tired and hungry and  would be transported to a hotel in New Orleans shortly,

You see, she was unfortunate enough to have been one of the hundreds of passengers who had flown on Spirit airline, the airline notorious for providing nothing or as little as possible for its passengers despite the over five hours they had been held hostage inside the plane.

At the early hour of the morning when they were transported to a hotel, they had nowhere open to feed the guests but a helpful worker told her, there was an all-night gas station across the road where she could get a snack.

Desperate for something to eat, she went out, only to find that it was quite far, not "across the road" at all and the only food they had was junk food. 

Having no choice, she bought something.

That was when her stomach started to rebel.

Worse was yet to come for at the hotel where Spirit put her up,  she was told she had to check out at 11am the next day, despite the fact that Southwest flight they booked her on to fly to Denver, was not departing until 6pm.

To make a long story short, she never arrived at Denver Airport after midnight on the 27th December.

Since by then, we had already departed to Colorado Springs (we left out on the morning of the 27th) she  made a reservation with Uber to transport her to join us.

When the driver arrived however, he declared ominously;  "If you are going to the mountains, forget it.

Clearly when he accepted the job he had no idea where Great Wolf Lodge was!

Fortunately, after consulting his GPS and discovering it was in Colorado Springs, just under fifty miles away and not in the mountains as he had initially assumed, he decided to respect his contract. 

She arrived at the lodge just after 1.30 am on the 28th, tired and unwell.

We were relieved and happy to have her finally arrive safely to join us, but for the next two days, it was torture for her, as she had bouts of vomiting, diarrhea  and no appetite, naturally resulting in spells of weakness.

That's no way to spend a vacation, no matter how cold it is outside and how wonderful the resort is, but she put up a good front  anyway, as the holiday was really one for us to bond with my young granddaughter, in a place designed to give children ultimate pleasure. 

One of the "kid-friendly" magic stations.
Great Wolf Lodge surely delivered for while it was freezing outside, 1degree Fahrenheit (which the weatherman said felt like minus 12), inside was warm and toasty and you could see that an unbelievable amount of planning went into the design of that two-year-old resort.
A huge shower of  warm water pours over a section of the water park
The magic setup was really thoughtful, intriguing and challenging for children of different ages who were required to accomplish various magical feats before finally earning certificates to show that they were now master magicians.

This regime had the kids enthralled for many hours and even days,  it being far more well-thought-out and actually magical, than the offerings at  Disney World.

A simulated tidal wave  in one pool.
The water park was also extremely popular with the children as they had around five different types of pools, some with water slides, others with water polo, one with an obstacle course across the pool plus one with rock climbing on the side wall of the pool.

Then there was the pool that even simulated tidal waves.

This appeared to be the most
popular attraction among the kids even surpassing the large gaming arcade and the mining site where the kids learned to wash out sandy ore to recover actual semi-precious gems.

High wire challenges overhead for adults

Anyway, since it is really supposed to be a family resort, I give them nine out of ten for creativity.

Naturally, as it was still the Christmas holidays,  the place was teeming with adults who accompanied their kids to ensure that they had the maximum enjoyment.

Miniature golf

However, for those of us not having that role to keep us occupied, the only adult activities were miniature golf and some high wire challenges which really only seemed to attract "macho" men.  

But it was surely wonderful to be able to wear a swimsuit while all outdoor was freezing.

But I did learn an important lesson during this period and it is that I should avoid flying during the busy holiday season, especially when the flight involves traveling into areas where the weather is notoriously unstable.

 Most importantly, one should avoid Spirit Airlines, unless taking short direct flights!

Friday, December 21, 2018

San Andres island

View of a section of San Andres from the steeple of the First Baptist church at Mission Hill
San Andres is a Colombian-owned coral island in the Caribbean Sea. This and the nearby islands of Providence and Santa Catalina form the department of San Andres, Providence and Santa Catalina of which San Andres is the largest. These islands are however closer in distance to Panama than Colombia.

A brief  history

According to Wikipedia, the Dutch went to these islands at the end of the 16th century and British settlers arrived in 1628.  

It is also mentioned that Columbus ran into the islands during his fourth voyage. 

Inside the Baptist church

During the 17th century, English Puritans from Barbados and England settled in San Andres and i they later brought in African slaves from Jamaica.

Signs of Jamaican culture visible almost everywhere
Around that period too, the competitive Spaniards saw the economic potential of the islands and attacked the archipelago but were driven out shortly after.

Pirates including the notorious Henry Morgan also used the area in the 1670s as a center of his operations. They attacked Spanish ships carrying gold and other precious material that sailed in the Caribbean waters and also attacked Panama and Santa Maria.

After the temporary Spanish occupation of the islands, they were controlled by the British from 1740 until 1787, agreeing to respect the Creole population.

 In July 1818, the independent forces of Simon Bolivar occupied the islands, and it became part of Gran Colombia on June 23, 1822.

In 1821, the issuing of the Constitution of Cacti determined that every child born in Colombia was born as a free.

When the construction of the Panama Canal ended in the early 1900's, thousands of Jamaicans (and a few other West Indians) workers who had toiled on the project, settled in Colon, Panama; San Andres; Bluefields in Nicaragua and Limon in Costa Rica instead of going home.

 The extremely pervasive Jamaican culture and use of patois in those regions are lasting

reminders of this history.

My introduction to San Andres.

My late cousin-in-law Harris
I first heard of the tiny island of San Andres (it is just over 10 square miles with a population of around 80,000) from a cousin-in-law, Harris, who was born there.

Lifelike statues are all over the island

As a ship's engineer, he had traveled extensively and always insisted that his island was just like mine, Jamaica, so I should go there and see for myself.

Unfortunately, I procrastinated until he died. However, I met several of his relatives at his funeral in August 2018 and they too insisted that I respect his wishes by visiting their island soon.

Finally, in December 2018, I made the trip and was not at all disappointed, for indeed the similarities are stark, especially the similarities to my favorite parish-Portland.

Scooters are the most popular mode of transportation

Downtown San Andres, Centro, also bears a remarkable resemblance to our own western tourism city of Montego Bay with the proliferation of hotels, tourists and great white-sand beaches.

The immediate contrast though is that San Andres has smooth pothole-free roads throughout the island, because unlike our flimsily built asphalted roads, their roads are made from  hardy concrete.
The Mule

There is significantly less traffic there too with the most popular mode of private transportation being scooters, whereas tourists use a larger and hardier variation known as the Mule.

 Anyway, the island does resemble Portland a great deal in that it is extremely green and fruitful with wonderful white-sand beaches.

It is not quite as mountainous though and most importantly it has no rivers or waterfalls.

They, therefore, get their water from wells and have also constructed a desalination plant at place called Cove.

 We visited that area where I was re-introduced to the lifelike statues that the government erects throughout the island to beautify it, and also something called  Babia.

Downtown with its numerous hotels, beaches and tourists reminds me a bit of our own Montego Bay

These tiny croc-like creatures clearly do not like red meat!
The Babia is a small crocodile-like creature that lives in the pond close to where the desalinated water is processed.

What fascinated me about these tiny reptiles is how tame and peaceful they are!

 I just could not believe my eyes as they swam around looking for fish to eat while small dogs and birds were in close proximity, each ignoring the other.

Because the island is so beautiful, I was not surprised that despite their small size, they welcome over half a million tourists annually. 

The attractions that I personally found extremely enticing were the Cays, the stingrays and the Blowhole.

I had always thought of stingrays as being extremely dangerous creatures because of their lethal tail,  even if they do not mean to do harm!

The young man plays with a huge stingray.
However, the captains of the boats that take visitors to nearby Aquarius and Rose Cays apparently do not think so, as they had no problem interacting with these interesting creatures that heavily populate an area close by.

Rose and Aquarius Cays are close to each other, allowing visitors to easily walk
from to the other.  Rose Cay has great beaches and Aquarius, a wide variety of restaurants mainly specializing in seafood.

They are both visited by hundreds of visitors daily as boats arrive and leave in droves non-stop, up to 4pm.

Other Cays that also attract hundreds of visitors are Johnny Cay and Rocky Cay.

A section of Aquarius Cay
While you need to take a boat to Johnny Cay, you can actually walk from the huge white sand beach on the mainland to Rocky Cay.

The attraction that I found most fascinating however was the Blowhole.

The western side of the island is extremely rocky and the water is quite rough but it is still very beautiful.  This is where you find the blowhole which is in fact a big hole in the rocks through which the huge waves forces the water upwards, dousing all who are close by, much to our enjoyment..

Getting doused by the fierce sea spray coming up out of the blowhole
I really enjoyed the bath there.

I think Harris is finally happy that I followed his suggestion to visit his homeland as not only is it as absolutely beautiful as he described but I discovered such a warm and welcoming "family" there. Well, all except for this goose that lives at his cousin Kathleen's home, where I was hosted for my entire stay on the island.

The only unfriendly inhabitant of San Andres that I met!
 He made it known every time he saw me, that I was unwelcome.

However, the humans showed the very opposite attitude as cousins and new friends, made every effort to ensure that my stay was comfortable and most rewarding.

I have rarely felt more welcome and loved elsewhere and considered this visit a mere taste of what I hope will become a giant meal one day

Hopefully, San Andres will remain as quiet and peaceful as it is today, although based on some troubling information I garnered during my visit,  I am having a few doubts. 

I enjoyed riding around on the back of 'cousin' Colagio's scooter

As I understand it, there seems to be a major thrust by some "Spaniards" from the mainland to take over the beautiful island and even introduce racism in what I found to be the most integrated society I have ever seen.

Posing with some of my new 'family members' at Cove
 Due to the threat of over-population and excessive pressure on the infrastructure, the government passed laws a few decades ago preventing people from the mainland, living or working on the island unless they marry a native there or have a skill that is not available locally.

 However, an ominous sign that autonomy on the island is in danger arose from the government in Colombia, recently imposing a military person from the mainland to replace the civilian governor on the island.

Further, they have built  a huge police station downtown, which is mainly manned by "Spaniards" from the mainland, many of  whom are not shy to make racist statements against

the local people, it is reported.

 Troubling too is the fact that many from the mainland who sneak into the island through the porous beaches, are wanted for crimes on the mainland and are accused of escalating the drug smuggling industry and introducing a really scary form of extortion to vulnerable local young people on the island.
You can walk from the mainland to Rocky Cay

Hopefully, these trends will be nipped in the bud as San Andres is too close to being a real Garden of Eden to be destroyed.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Christmas celebration with a difference

It was a Christmas party for seven-year-olds with a difference. For instead of the kids getting fed on sweets and drinks and playing around, they were instead required to participate in making blankets for sick children who will most likely spend Christmas confined to their beds at the Denver Children's hospital.

I was very impressed with the project and very happy to assist.

At this break-up year-end party, some mothers, one father and two grandmothers attended and the innovative teacher behind the project, brought along her four-month-old son and two-year-old daughter.

The morning session began with the children sitting in a circle, greeting each other individually then telling the class something they were grateful for.

I was so proud when my granddaughter expressed gratitude for her grandma Joan. That's me!

The teacher then played a You Tube video, explaining how fleece blankets are made.

The fleece materials the children were given afterward, were precut and brought by some parents and the teacher,

Then the kids got to work making knots all around the edges of the blankets to tie the plain fleece underneath to the beautifully patterned ones on top.

The project took about an hour by which time five blankets were completed by the 21 students in the class for presentation to the less fortunate children in the hospital.

This is a most worthwhile project not only because of the gifts being made for the sick kids but also, more importantly, because of the important lesson the children were being taught about caring for others less fortunate than themselves.

Kudos to this most conscientious teacher, a born leader.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

A fabulous wedding

I love weddings. I am also a nature buff. Combine these two and what do you get?

An unforgettable evening.
My beautiful god-daughter played a major role 

That's what it was yesterday as I attended the wedding of the youngest daughter of one of my longest-standing and dearest friend's.

This delightful affair was held at the historic Walton House in Homestead,, Miami, described as a tropical paridise.

It surely is.

Apart from the lush fauna, it has an amazing collection of fish including colorful koi.

There is also quite a large collection of friendly birds with the most vibrant colors and large white geese plus animals like apes and cat-sized lemurs.

And it was not only me who was overwhelmed by the environment but also my grandson who could not stop taking pictures and admitted on our journey home, that it was his first wedding.

If the aura, environment, weather, commeradie, food, and the overall joy of the day is any indication, the new bride and groom are in for a long, happy and wonderful  life together.

                    Other photos of the wonderful environment

Friday, November 30, 2018

Thanksgiving 2019, Nevada, Califonia, Arizona and all that

I always look forward to Thanksgiving, not because I love turkey but because I enjoy the get- together with some of my in-laws at my grandson's aunt's home in Vegas.

I love Vegas for the bright lights and the shows but will admit that I am no gambler, betting only $5 last year and increasing my loss by 100% to $10 this year.

That probably makes me the last person casino owners in Vegas want to see in their establishments!
The cast of the excellent variety show we say this year

It was a small but pleasant gathering which included my grandson's mom, aunt, and his other grandma, who happens to be one of the greatest cooks of delicious Jamaican food that we can give thanks for.

Coincidentally, my daughter-in-law's birthday fell on Thanksgiving day this year too, so she got the opportunity to cut a cake with her son, who she does not see often enough, as he lives in Florida and she in New York.

My daughter-in-law shares my love of travel so every opportunity we get, we tour together.

One of the places I wanted to visit this year as we were only five hours away, was Los Angeles, a place I have not been to, for at least eighteen years.

I must admit that the week before we traveled to Vegas, we were both a bit concerned about the number of huge fires there, that were being widely reported in the media. In fact, if you followed the reports, you could easily get the impression that the entire place was burning down to the ground. 

This news easily confused people into forgetting that Los Angeles is not only a city but also a county of over four thousand square miles in which there are in excess of 85 cities with a population of over eleven million people.

In other words, Los Angles is gigantic so it is highly unlikely that we would have gone into the fire zones anyway!

However, the huge fires were under control before we arrived in Vegas so all cause for irrational nervousness had dissipated from before Thanksgiving, so off we went.

Sun glowing on a huge boulder atop a section of Red Rock

Hiking at Red Rock
The five-hour drive took us through the huge but sparsely populated Mohave desert which takes up most of the territory between Nevada and California. 

This is the driest desert in North America, and one of the sunniest places in the western hemisphere so I was not surprised to see two gigantic solar farms on the way.

 I must have driven through that same area some forty years ago while traveling the same route, but I remembered nothing.

On leaving Nevada, I recognized sections of Red Rock though, as it is a national park in Nevada where we hiked only last year.

This time, I was really fascinated by the large sizes and shapes of the numerous sand dunes which dominate the landscape, once we passed the town of Primm, which straddles the border of California and Nevada. 
Huge sand dunes in the desert

Once in L.A,  of course, the first place we headed for was Hollywood Blvd. This is where you find the Walk of Fame which has brass stars embedded into the sidewalk, honoring actors/actresses, directors, musicians and other persons involved in the entertainment industry.
A scenic section of the Mohave desert

I must admit I was not as impressed as I was when I first saw it some forty years ago. Then the awardees were few and far between but now it appears that everyone gets a star, for instead of the stares only being engraved in the previously designated area, now the so-called walk of fame has been extended into several other streets.

With so many persons getting "stars," in my estimation, it has now lost its meaningfulness!

As I normally do, when I arrive in a big city, I get on the Hop on Hop off bus which I find provides a world of information, so when I only have short touring time, I can easily figure out where I want to visit.

A "bride" scene being shot on Hollywood Blvd.
As we waited to board the bus, I saw something which is commonplace in Hollywood, filming being done. This was right on Hollywood Blvd where a man dressed in a dirty, tattered wedding dress was acting out a scene.

Once on the bus, I really did not see much in downtown L.A. that I wanted to inspect in greater detail apart from the world famous La Brae Tar Pits.

We got off there and it was really fascinating, a visit I would recommend to all who visit Los Angeles.

It is located in the middle of a highly populated area where natural asphalt continues to seep up from deep down in the ground to the surface, as it has done for thousands of years.

Replica of saber-toothed sloth in background
It has an excellent museum, so after we toured it, we took in the twenty-five-minute film which was really very educational.

This film graphically traces how many of the huge animals that roamed the earth during the Ice Age, (some 30,000 years ago,) were snared and died a terrible death, long before climate change brought the ice age to an end and totally eliminated them.

Apparently, many of these poor animals were fooled by the glare of the tar, into thinking the ponds had water, so they ventured in, only to be trapped for life.

Their bones are constantly being recovered, identified, scarped and put together, to display for the edification of modern man, which animals roamed that vicinity during that period.

A display of  different types of street lights is at the entrance of the Art Museum
Afterward, we made a quick visit to the  Los Angeles Art Museum but the place that remains on my bucket list for the next visit is the Petersen Automotive Museum.

The attractive automotive museum
This museum has some three hundreds vehicles on display, marking the history and development of the automotive industry. Among the automobiles there are; outstanding racing cars, classics as well as the loveable VW bug known as Herbie, which stole our hearts in the Disney movie with the same name.

Even if you don't like cars as much as I do, the striking architecture of the museum will really drag you inside!

Of course, you cannot visit this region of the United States without going to Grand Canyon in nearby Arizona. This is somewhere I had visited twice before but it will always be a drawing card for me as the scenery is so awesome.

Although I knew beforehand that it was a long five-hour drive from Vegas to the canyon, I did not anticipate that some of my passengers would have wanted to detour to the huge gravity-fed  Hoover Dam, the largest reservoir in the US, which is located at the border of Nevada and Arizona.

I, therefore, ended up driving for seven hours! It was, however, worth it.

Although the Hoover Dam project started in the '30s, in the early seventies when I was touring the region while driving from Toronto, Ontario to Panama, I did hear that this mammoth engineering project was still being expanded, so never visited it then.

A mammoth engineering feat

Two years ago, however, while being in Vegas for Thanksgiving, we took a tour-bus there but it was still worth another visit.

This dam is located in the shadow of the 75- mile long Black Mountain range and is fed by the Colorado River.

The lines were long getting there but we had no regrets about taking the detour even though it meant reaching Grand Canyon only shortly before sunset.

As we moved slowly in the line to enter this wonderful Grand Canyon National Park, my grandson spied a herd of Alpaca.

These are native to Peru and I was certainly surprised to see them roaming freely in Arizona and gravely disappointed that being in a long line across the road, was unable to get any photos of these gentle animals.

Because nightfall was rapidly approaching by the time we parked, we did not get to tour the canyon as much as I would have wished, but I certainly didn't mind too much as it was freezing!

Got enough beautiful photos to share with you though, so here they are below.