A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

Leopard Correct 2

Leopard at Mala Mala

Nature has never been “my thing.” I’m more in tune with books and technology – a Kindle freak and a camera junkie. Our kids had the usual assortment of pets – from dogs and cats to rabbits and hamsters. Our family frequented zoos, of course, and even took a photographic safari to Mala Mala in Africa, but actually seeking out animals in the wild on my own was absolutely foreign to me. The closest I ever came to nature was when a wood duck plummeted down our fireplace chimney in Minnesota and had to be rescued.

Eventually we moved to Texas and I was forced to confront nature in the raw. When a wolf spider the size of my fist decided to explore my VW convertible, I exploded from the car screaming, “Ragno, Ragno –Aiuto! Aiuto!” I couldn’t think of “spider” or “help” in Spanish and reverted to Italian; the Hispanic groundskeepers at our office looked heavenward for spiritual succor and hastily backed away from the hysterical woman screaming in a foreign language!

At times baby copperheads slithered down the hall outside my office, fire ants found me particularly delectable, and once a Portuguese Man-o-War wrapped itself around my thigh at the Galveston beach. I learned to check out my surroundings in Texas.

But now I live in Southwest Florida. Sometimes when I sit on our lanai in the early morning, I feel as though I am channeling Walt Disney! As the sun brightens the treetops, baby bunnies and squirrels have been known to peer through the screen at me, owls hoot in the nearby nature preserve, anhingas pose on the creekbed rocks behind our condo and stretch their wings to dry. The setting is so idyllic that when I rouse myself to refill my coffee mug, I would not be surprised if bluebirds tied an apron around my waist and told Cinderella to get to work!

Not HONY, but AOSWF

Having lived mostly in “the North,” I am enamored by the Animals of Southwest Florida. My camera (a Nikon P600) has been key to helping me discover nature in detail. With its 60X optical zoom, I see things through the camera that I could never see otherwise. I love shelling at Barefoot Beach where osprey shelter their young 30 feet above me on nesting platforms.Osprey (Once a friend and I watched a young osprey learning to fly in fits and spurts; I was so mesmerized that I forgot to take pictures!) Sometimes I use the camera on my phone to photograph the shore birds as they snatch minnows and crabs in the ripples. Gopher tortoises poke their heads out of their burrows, then emerge to stroll to nearby grasses for a leisurely snack. Cranes, herons and pelicans eye fisherman and try to steal their bait.

Egrets fish and ibis grub in our back yard. Dolphins gambol in the wake of the pontoon boat ferrying us to an island beach, where even the jellyfish are Disney benign!Dolphin A couple of weeks ago, I saw the beach rangers  gently carrying platter-sized jelly fish from the shallows back into the waves. I could feel those burning man-o-war tentacles grasping my thigh as I remonstrated with the rangers – surely they should at least have gloves and shirts on their bare hands and arms! But, no, they patiently explained, these were moon jellies and not dangerous to humans.

Birds, dolphins, jellyfish were all good subjects, of course, but I was eager to photograph an alligator in the wild. Our neighbors regaled us with tales of eight foot gators sauntering down the road in front of our condo; but when pinned down, they confessed that it was five or six or maybe ten years ago – not recently. I went on lengthy walks, checked out ponds, looked in reeds for sleeping logs, but to no avail. The keepers at the Naples Zoo told us that alligators feed at night, that they were uninterested in humans unless someone had been foolish enough to feed them. Regretfully I concluded that gators were unlikely to be cruising my suburban neighborhood. I was ten years too late.

Call of the Wild

Our young grandson loves netting minnows in the creek behind our condo – hanging on to tree branches to get a longer reach into the brackish, murky water. Our son-in-law (he of intrepid driver fame in a previous blog) likes to cast for bass from the bank and has caught some big ones.

Late one afternoon I heard a call, “Cyndee, better get your camera!” I ran to the creek before the big one got away. A cast – SNAP! An unseen fish grabbed the shiny lure, then spit it back into the water! Another cast – another snap! Only this time the “fish” was visible – a log with sharp teeth, beady eyes and large nostrils. And it looked annoyed that the shiny lure was not a silvery bass!Alligator

I took lots of pictures of our creek visitor, but I confess that I am no longer quite so carefree about walking near the ponds and reeds looking for wild life in the neighborhood. I’ve photographed more gators lurking in the water and sunning themselves on the shore of the nature preserve during the day, but I remain reading my Kindle comfortably on the lanai at night. I’m still channeling Walt Disney, of course, but in the evening I’m more in tune with Peter Pan and the ticking croc, than with Cinderella and the bluebirds!

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NORTH TO ALASKA: Two if by Sea

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

PART TWO: Two if by Sea

Disclaimer: Neither Dina nor I have ever been on a cruise (not counting the Staten Island Ferry) – and never harbored any desire to do so.

At the Whittier dock we stood in line with hundreds of other people readying to board the Coral Princess. My violently shaking right hand held my boarding pass. Canadian Customs officials eyed me suspiciously as I approached. You could read their mind – “Is it contagious?” “Should he be quarantined?” Much to my surprise the official in charge asked, “Have you ever been on a cruise before?” I answered “No” and his body language eased. Just another cruise newbie.

The Coral Princess can accommodate 1,974 passengers, has 14 decks, 1398 staterooms/suites, 9 restaurants, 4 performance spaces, numerous bars, a casino, outdoor pool, sports deck, hot tubs, an outdoor movie theatre and is 964 ft. long. It’s an ocean going hotel. As long as you have a Coral Princess ID card the world, or in this case the Coral Princess, is your oyster.Coral Princess Card

Most cruise ships stop at different ports during the day so passengers can go on day excursions and cruise to the next port at night. Excursions are a huge money-maker for cruise lines. The premise is once you have the cow, or in this case passengers, milk the heck out of them. As soon as you sign up for a cruise, information regarding various available excursions floods your in-box and doesn’t stop – whale watching, scenic train rides, glacier landings, high-speed power boat river rides, nature adventures, dog sledding, salmon fishing, visits to totem pole parks…

SkagwayOur ports of call were Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan with a final destination of Vancouver. The main industry in the first three (discounting Vancouver) is tourism. All towns were no more than a five minute walk from our docked ship, and each had its overwhelming number of discount jewelry, t-shirt, Harley Davidson and tchotchke shops. So much so that I felt that the real towns were hiding a few miles away and we were exploring sets built for the tourists.

Glacier BayOn our way to Skagway we spent an amazing afternoon cruising Glacier Bay National Park, which is on Alaska’s Inside Passage and covers some 3.3 million acres. Glaciers are constantly moving masses of ice under tremendous amounts of pressure. As tidewater glaciers reach the water, large pieces break off, or calve, and form icebergs. The sound of these massive chunks of ice plummeting into the water around us was thunderous and eerie.

Our first port of call was Skagway, a town founded in 1897 at the head of the Taiya Inlet – the northern most point of the Inside Passage. After having our fill of tourist shops we boarded the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway for the 40-mile White Pass Summit Excursion. White Pass TrainThe breath taking ride in vintage passenger coaches took us along wild flower festooned valleys, mile high waterfalls, mammoth glaciers, snow peaked mountains, and part of the original Klondike Trail, a narrow trail where countless lives were lost in the search for gold.

Our next port of call was Juneau, founded in 1890 and the capital of Alaska. It has the distinction of being the only U.S. state capital with no road access. Could its founding fathers have needed their “alone time”? If you want to get to Juneau you either fly or sail in. (Alaska has the highest number of pilots per capita than any other U.S. state)

By this point in the trip, with passengers having gone on numerous excursions, a game of one-upmanship commenced. During communal meals claims like “I saw 2 bear”, or “Well, I saw 7 moose”, and “Big deal – I saw 6 bald eagles” were common. I found myself being swept up in the moment. Up until that point Dina and I had only seen 3 moose and some spawning salmon but out of my mouth came “Well, we’ve seen 4 black bears, 6 whales, 9 moose, 8 bald eagles and 3 squirrels”. Ooops. What does a kid from Brooklyn know about animals in the Northern wild? While in Juneau, however, Dina and I went on a whale watch and spotted numerous humpback whales breaching and sea lions sunning themselves along deserted beaches. We were ready to play the game again! Emergency Sign

Food is served 24-hours a day on a cruise ship and you’re never farther than 3-minutes from a meal. Passengers have their choice of Anytime, Traditional, or Buffet style dining. For an additional charge you can have dinner at one of the ship’s five Specialty Restaurants (remember the cow theory). If that were not enough, you can also graze at The Grill & Bar, Ice Cream Bar, Princess Pizzeria, and International Pastry & Coffee Bar.

At home, except for dinner, our meals are simple and quick. I boarded the ship determined to hold to the same regimen. Keep in mind that one of the big activities on a cruise ship is eating – and most passengers whole-heartedly embrace the activity. Suffice to say that I left the ship weighing an additional 5 lbs.

SelfieWe chose Anytime dining for meals. Now we had the option of eating by ourselves or at a communal table. The first night we chose to dine alone. Were we embracing the Alaskan concept of “alone time”? Or was it that I like people only when I’m in the mood? During dinner we struck up a conversation with a couple at the next table. Steve and Barbara from Arizona were in their mid 80’s and had gotten married in the last year. We had a pleasant conversation which led us to choose communal dining from that point on.

Over the next 6 days we ate with roughly 144 interesting people and heard some fascinating stories. We met a husband and wife from Burbank, CA who collect and restore 1956 Cadillacs, a couple from Australia who take 3-month vacations several times a year, and a woman from South Africa who ended up becoming sick on vacation in Russia and convalescing in a hospital there. (Here’s a shout-out to Tom and Paula from Delaware and Jack and Judy from Colorado. It was great meeting you!) I truly enjoyed taking my meals and talking with many of the 144 people – except for one right wing wing-nut from Ohio. Maybe it was the fact that I’ve worked alone at home for the past 21 years and needed some time around people.

Ketchikan, the least touristy town of the three, was our next port. By that time we had our fill of excursions so we just meandered around. The highlight of the day was visiting Burger Queen on Water Street – an excellent burger joint with killer malteds. It was the best malted I’ve had since living in the East Village. I suggest the pistachio – even with a hamburger. Some women like to buy jewelry on vacation. What was my wife’s treasured purchase? A 3” tall pewter moose purchased in Ketchikan that now sits proudly on our living room mantel.Moose

Vancouver was the final destination. By that time we both needed our “alone time” so we stayed for 3 days and shunned people. Did I have a good vacation? I had a great vacation! Did I enjoy the cruise? Most definitely! Would I do another cruise? Probably not, but I did confront my fears and the nightmares have finally stopped!

NORTH to ALASKA: One if by Land

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

PART ONE: One if by Land

Eventually we all have to confront our fears. My time came this summer. Young DavidEver since I was young I’ve had a reoccurring nightmare of being trapped at sea on a mid-size cruise ship in a cold climate. While on this ship I’m forced by tribal customs to eat sizeable meals every 4 hours and make pleasant conversation with large numbers of people from all over the world. (But more about my nightmare later.)

This year was my wife’s turn to pick our summer vacation destination and Dina chose Alaska. I believe she selected it in retaliation for my choosing Cuba last summer. Dina is not a fan of hot weather, humidity or nail polish, and I’m not a fan of cold weather, gated communities or cruise ships. The dagger to my heart was that, in addition to the cold of Alaska, part of the trip would be spent on a cruise ship.Coral Princess

The first thing I did was research weather in Alaska in August. Not too bad – a high of low 60’s to 70˚F. What did concern me was descriptions like “weather highly unpredictable”, “dress in layers” and “Alaska gets rainier as the summer progresses”. We set off on July 29th with our first stop being Anchorage. The weather gods must have been listening to my prayers, because when we landed it was 80˚F and sunny. And I do mean sunny because at that time of year Anchorage experiences 20 hours of sunlight per day. Lucky for us our hotel room had blackout curtains.

What’s the first thing to do after landing in Anchorage? Play “Anchorage” by Michelle Shocked – a personal favorite of mine. What’s the second thing? Find a place to eat some great seafood. For us it was Simon’s and Seafort’s Saloon & Grill. After consuming a dozen local oysters, wild Alaska salmon Carpaccio, crab cakes, and several glasses of sauvignon blanc while watching the sun go down over the bay, we were ready to start our Alaskan adventure.

Mt. McKinley RangeOur first stop was the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, where Mt. McKinley (proper name is Mt. Denali – meaning “The High One”) could be seen in the distance. Standing at 20,237 feet tall it’s the highest mountain peak in North America and only fully visible 33% of the time. We took a short bus ride to Talkeetna, a small village at the base of the mountain, for a glacier landing with K2Aviation. Put this awesome adventure on your bucket list!

Jeff BabcockJeff Babcock, a retired 28 year veteran pilot of the Alaskan State Troopers was our pilot and enjoys his job. As soon as the de Havilland Otter took off, Jeff’s shoulders relaxed and he cracked jokes through our headsets. After flying over moose grazing below, we were within a mile of one of the most amazing sights in the world. To accentuate the moment Jeff pressed play on his iPod mini and we were instantly grooving to Johnny Horton singing “North to Alaska” followed by John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”. Yes, I know where the second song takes place, but it still worked.

Glacier LandingWe landed at an elevation of 5600 feet on the Ruth Glacier. Alaska is aptly nicknamed “The Last Wilderness”. The scene was one of austere beauty – vast, quiet, pristine and uninhabited. Dina and I were as silent as the landscape, awed and aware that we were in a place that only a small percentage of the world population will ever see.

The following day we panned for gold with Rich Humphrey, the new owner of Denali Gold Tours in Trappers Creek, Alaska. Rich was born in Alaska and has spent his entire life there except for a hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps. Since Dina and I were the only people on the tour that day, Rich had time to talk about Alaskans. The best way to sum them up is “friendly people who need their alone time”. Many live off the grid with no running water, electricity and little contact with neighbors – and prefer it that way.

Even though Dina and I have faced numerous precarious situations while living in NYC, we were nervous driving 20 miles down gravel roads into the back country with a man carrying two hand guns. Rich assured us that the guns were only a precaution in case we encountered bears. His explanation shifted our worry from him and his two guns to possible bear confrontations.Gold Panning

We were lucky since no bears were sighted, but we did see moose and spawning salmon. Dina proved to be a master gold panner in the mountain-fed freezing river as she found several flecks of gold. The best I could find was some flour gold – so small it wasn’t worth saving. Our back breaking labor was rewarded with a gourmet lunch of Reindeer Dogs and cold drinks at the local 7-Eleven equivalent and a visit to the Trapper Creek Museum. (Best of luck with the new business, Rich!)

Our next stop was a 2-hour drive to Denali, Alaska. There we took a half day tour of the six million acre Denali National Park and Preserve, filled with snow capped mountains and virgin forests. Our visit included an exhibition of overzealous 80-100 lb. dogs pulling a sled. The excited dogs almost pulled their trainers out of their boots as they went from the kennels to the sled. The trainers had to restrain the dogs’ enthusiasm by grasping their collars and lifting their front paws off the ground. No matter what the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages says about cruelty to horses, these dogs love pulling a sled.Lake WasillaDog Sled Exhibition

The next day we left on the McKinley Explorer glass-domed train for a relaxing six-hour train ride from Denali to Whittier, Alaska. The ride took us through endless acres of forests, over rivers and gorges, past Sarah Palin’s summer home on Lake Lucille in Wasilla, Alaska and down the coast along the Prince William Sound to Whittier. The train did stop briefly in Wasilla, but as hard as I tried …  I couldn’t see Russia from there!

NEXT WEEK

PART TWO : Two if by Sea

Cuba Part 2: Just Look Up

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

At some point in the past decade, people began walking with their heads down.

Why? What are people looking for?   Looking at?   Their feet?   The ground?   Avoiding gum?   No, they are looking at cell phones in their hands. With the invention of the smart phone, the art of personal interaction and communication started changing.

Wherever you travel these days there’s an internet connection. Or so I thought. We were told in advance that internet connections could be “spotty” in Cuba. Even though I travel with a smart phone and iPad, I found the prospect of limited access intriguing. I activated the auto reply on my business email, recorded a voice mail greeting informing clients I was out of the office, and off we went.

Pedicab in Havana

Pedicab in Havana

As digital protocol dictated, on arrival I checked my email on the iPad. In Cuba my smart phone was useless except as a clock or camera. The hotel wifi connection was slow the first day. On the second day – even slower. I could brush my teeth and shower by the time my email loaded. (Unlike home, our hotel shower was extremely luxurious resulting in my taking an abnormally long shower.) This lengthy shower enabled all my vital communications to download. After so much time and effort and so little reward (important emails vs. junk emails), I decided to turn off all electronics and experience being “digitally disconnected” for the remainder of the trip. I felt a sudden strange sense of freedom.

For me, cutting the digital cord was not as hard as you might think. Unlike many of my contemporaries, technology doesn’t play a large part in my life. Outside of work, I don’t Tweet, post on Facebook or check in on Foursquare. I do have a Facebook account, but only have a small number of friends – and they “friended” me. My wife says I’m antisocial.  She’s probably right, but I think it’s only a part time condition.

Poster at Hotel SaratogaBeing digitally free, I had more time to explore my surroundings. One day, while wandering around the Hotel Saratoga lobby, I noticed an interesting wall decoration. On it were signatures of people from all over the world who had stayed at the hotel. At the bottom were the words Brooklyn, NYC and a website address: Olivesveryvintage.com. Since I was born in Brooklyn and my son had recently moved there, it piqued my curiosity.

The photo and website address stayed in the back of my mind until I returned home. I found out that olivesveryvintage.com is the website of Olive and Olaf’s, a store in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn and an online shopping website for vintage fashions and home décor items. On a lark I clicked on the company’s email link and sent the photo and a short email detailing how I came to take it. Later that day I received an email from Jen McCulloch, the founder and owner of Olive and Olaf’s. She was amazed that someone would contact her regarding a poster she had signed 5 years earlier. I just might drop in to Olive and Olaf’s next time I’m in need of something vintage to wear. (It’s funny that after refraining from using technology, I needed it to connect with Jen.)

While traveling around Cuba I saw little evidence of people using smart phones or tablets. Because of poor or nonexistent internet connections, if you do see a smart phone it’s for voice conversations or texting. Even in people’s homes internet connections are rare due to the high cost, limited bandwidth and censorship of online content.

On one hand limited technology hinders progress in Cuba, but at the same time facilitates an atmosphere for people to people communication. People talk directly to one another – not via technology. They tend to live in the moment, their moment, not through someone else’s life on Facebook.

Wall Graffiti

Wall Graffiti

Walking through the streets of Havana, while looking up, I noticed interesting graffiti on the outside wall of a bar. The bar turned out to be La Bodeguita Del Medio, one,of  Ernest Hemingway’s many favorite watering holes.  The bar & restaurant was also a favorite of former Chilean President Salvador Allende and the poet Pablo Neruda. It lays claim to being the birthplace of the mojito.

Hemingway's Hangout

Hemingway’s Hangout

While in Cuba I consumed more alcohol (mojitos and cervezas) than I have in the last two years combined. I rationalized this consumption as a way of staying hydrated. And I did.

La Bodeguita Del Medio was packed and alive with conversation as I entered. No one was looking down at their hands. Drinks were being consumed, food shared and stories exchanged. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand one word, but I knew everyone was thoroughly engrossed in the moment.

People to People

People to People

In the evening many Cubans congregate along malecons with the hope of catching a breeze and meeting friends. Face-to-face conversation is the main entertainment … and perhaps receiving a free bottle of rum from a passing carload of crazy Americanos. One night, with Matt our tour guide from Austin and Cindy and Terry from Michigan, I cruised the malecon in Havana.

While speaking with a Cuban about the local social scene, a young woman came up to me and posed for pictures her friend was taking. She was about 20 years old, extremely attractive, and had a great smile. This led to a conversation with Matt translating, since he was the only one in our group fluent in Spanish. Through Matt I asked why she wanted pictures with me, secretly hoping I still had that certain “something” (which I’m not sure I ever had). Or was it that I reminded her of her father? It turns out she just wanted pictures with an American tourist. She gave us her phone number and told us to call if she could be of any help during our stay in Cuba. I’m still waiting for her to “friend” me.

As I get older, I have a growing desire to find the world of my early years. Where neighbors would go outside on a hot summer night and speak over the fence. Where children would see how many fireflies or bees they could catch in a jar.Dina Photo Web 2

To facilitate a true “people-to-people” experience on vacation, you might first want to attend a 3-day retreat at Digital Detox in Ukiah, CA., where the theme is “disconnect to reconnect”. After attending you could take a flight directly to Cuba and truly enjoy a “people-to-people” experience. All you need to do is just Look Up! If not you might miss something like this – click here!

Cuba Part 1: People to People

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

OK. How many of you have taken a vacation where the apparent goal was to visit as many churches (even if you’re Jewish) and museums as possible? Or at least until the funds ran out?

Raise your hand…

This year was my turn to pick our summer vacation destination, and I vowed to do something different. After all I had just had one of those “decade” birthdays. After much deliberation I chose Cuba. When informed of my choice, the only thing my wife said was “Cuba?” This she repeated several times over the next two days. On the third day, it changed to “Cuba!”

Hanging out at a Cuban market

Hanging out at a Cuban market

Since travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens (unless you’re Jay-Z and Beyonce) is restricted for the most part to educational, cultural or religious programs, we needed to find a group to travel with. A friend recommended Grand Circle Foundation, a company that runs People-to-People Cultural Exchange Programs that help the countries they visit. The Foundation has pledged or donated more than $91 million throughout the world. The programs emphasize meeting and speaking with “real” people.

“People-to-People” travel licenses were created under former President Bill Clinton. Along with many other missteps, they were stopped due to travel restrictions imposed by George W. Bush and later reinstated by the Obama administration. For this reason alone, Cubans love Obama.

Hotel Saratoga, Havana

Hotel Saratoga, Havana

We landed in Havana and checked into the Hotel Saratoga – the very same hotel where Jay-Z and Beyonce had stayed. Being in the same hotel as A-list celebrities was a new experience for my wife and me. During the next several days we argued with one of our tour group members from Michigan, as to who had Jay-Z and Beyonce’s room. In the end, for the sake of tour group relations, we resolved that she had their room and we had Cyndi Lauper’s room. Why Cyndi? We had just seen Kinky Boots on Broadway. (Has she ever been to Cuba? If not, she can say she stayed in the Rhodes’ room when she visits!)

Art Deco in Havana

Art Deco in Havana

Walking through the streets of Havana you see a city that has been in architectural decline for decades. Buildings once magnificent are now in dire need of TLC. In spite of this, the city still has an amazing air of dignity and style.  Some of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture can be found in Havana. This year Havana was the host site of the World Congress on Art Deco.

Baseball is a large part of Cuban culture. In our tour guide Roberto’s quest to arrange spontaneous “people-to-people” experiences, he organized a pick-up baseball game for Austin, an 18 year-old tour group member who had just received a full baseball athletic scholarship to New Mexico State. Roberto approached a group of young men on a street corner in Cienfuegos, the home of Los Angeles Dodgers rookie phenom Yasiel Puig with the promise of rum and other swag if they could assemble enough friends for a ballgame at the local field that afternoon.

Pick-up baseball in Cienfuegos

Pick-up baseball in Cienfuegos

With no advance warning we drove to the ball field – which was really a flat field full of rocks and scattered horse droppings. In Cuba horses and other animals are used as lawn mowers. Needless to say, we did not strike fear in the hearts of our opponents as we unloaded from the bus. Sixteen Americans, some slightly overweight (count me in), some in flip flops (count me in) who probably had not played ball in over 25 years (count me in) …if at all.

Trash talking is not nearly so effective when your opponent doesn’t speak the same language, but it didn’t stop either side. No one was keeping score, since we already knew who the winner would be. The game was pure comedy – easy grounders missed, fly balls dropped, horse manure stepped in, not enough gloves to go around, pitches flailed at, cars almost hit, and some friendly cheating. Our side did manage to score a few runs with the help of my 2 for 3 performance at the plate.

Leena and husband

Leena and husband

One afternoon Roberto invited my wife and me to visit Leena, a woman in her late 60’s he had met 12 months prior. She lives in a tiny apartment with her husband off the town square. Leena told Roberto of her dream the prior week that he would visit her soon. She was overjoyed to see him.

During our visit Roberto gave Leena two bottles of Aleve. When they first met, she had mentioned that she suffered from arthritis. To her the medicine was like gold. Even though there is free health care in Cuba, citizens must pay high prices for any medications needed.

Dance Practice

Dance Practice

The Arts have been supported as much as financially possible by the government. Music and dance permeate Cuban culture. At a rest stop between Havana and Cienfuegos our driver Felix offered Laura, a young dancer waiting for a bus, a ride. Before we reached our destination, Roberto had arranged for us to see a rehearsal of Laura’s dance company the following day.

Even though the wood floors in the rehearsal space were warped and probably had never been refinished and the temperature was well over 90 degrees, the dancers vibrated to the beats coming out of a boom box. The condition of the location was irrelevant to the dancers. The pride in their craft was what mattered.

When we checked in at our hotel in Trinidad each group member received a bottle of aged Cuban rum. Since the rum could not be brought back to the US and we couldn’t possibly drink it all, our tour guide Roberto said he had something in mind for the bottles. After finishing an incredible meal in Havana on our last night, we exited the restaurant to find four vintage 1940’s American convertibles -pink, orange, blue and white- waiting to take us back to the Hotel Nacional.

People to People

People to People

Could Hollywood have scripted a better ending to a vacation? Sixteen tourists piled into four vintage convertibles, cruising down the malecon under a starlit Havana sky, horns honking, stopping and passing out bottles of excellent rum to random Cubans. The look on their faces was indescribable when presented with the rum.

Could it get any more “people-to-people” than that???

Relax…Breathe…

The highway digital sign crying “Silver Alert – Missing elderly man in gray Mercedes, License XXXX” signaled our entry into Florida. Having spent the last twenty years living in the suburbs of DC and Houston, we are accustomed to snipers, car-jacking , kidnapping and Amber alerts, murder and mayhem…missing children, but not missing seniors!

Loving the Beach!

Loving the Beach!

Whenever we relocate, we approach the adventure as if we were moving to a foreign country – new foods, new vocabulary, new customs. We followed the same process with this move to the Naples area.

We quickly adapted to the new foods: Tex Mex has been replaced by Italian and fresh seafood restaurants.

New vocabulary: “In Season” no longer means to wear white after Memorial Day, but refers to the time of year when tourists invade the Florida beaches.

New customs: Relax…breathe…relax…  Keeping up with the 80 MPH traffic on the Interstates around Houston has given me a heavy foot and an attitude. Traffic on Highway 41 (Tamiami Road) to Fort Myers is nearly as congested as it is on Beltway 8 in Houston, except that it moves at 1/3 the speed; instead of eighteen wheelers and super big pick-ups rocketing past us on the Interstate, a plodding phalanx of luxury cars block all three lanes. We are trying to learn to calm our ulcers and enjoy the pace.  After all, we are retired. We don’t HAVE to be anywhere! Relax..breathe…

All the News…

I am a print newspaper person. Yes, I have my Kindle for books, my tablet for research, my phone for email, and my computer for blog writing. But I love my paper and coffee in the morning, even though the news is 24 hours old and I’ve already read the highlights on Google.  Embarrassed though I am to confess it, my favorite part of the Daily News is the police reports!

The first one I read hooked me forever:  a motorized wheelchair had been found in downtown Naples; if not claimed in 90 days, the wheelchair would be turned over to the finder.

I pondered with another cup of coffee: did the chair take off on its own? did junior high kids joy-ride in a stolen wheel chair, and then abandon it? was the occupant of the chair suddenly raptured?  Did he appear in heaven wearing his clothes, but leaving his wheelchair behind?

After the murder and mayhem of Houston, the domestic “violence” reports here are lifted from the 50’s. A few of my favorites from the last weeks are:

  • The couple who were arrested because he scratched her neck and left a red mark after she struck him with a phone charger cord. This is violence?  Have they never heard of assault weapons?
  • A woman who attacked another with a hair dryer. That was the whole story in the paper. I want to know more! Was the dryer set at full power and on hot? Did the victim’s hair stand on end?
  • The adult who threw a soup can at the teen-age boy who had not started his chores. The boy had a bruised arm and “the soup can was taken into evidence.” With some fast thinking by the “perp,” this report could have been the gentler version of the Alfred Hitchcock episode where Mary killed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then roasted it and served it to the investigating officers. Why didn’t the guy have lunch before the police arrived?

And the crime stopper:

  • A man was arrested for operating a dental office out of a one-car garage. He picked up people at the local grocery store and drove them to his place of business. He quoted undercover agents $350 for a root canal, and was charged with practicing dental hygiene without a license! Where can I get a license for flossing? Target? CVS? Walgreens?

Barefoot

Lest you think I don’t like it here, let me extol the virtues: really nice people, amazing photo ops, great restaurants and beaches. Beaches and more beaches, and all within a few minutes’ drive! We often have to remind ourselves that that we don’t have to “go back” in a few days – we’re not on vacation. We actually LIVE here!

Now if we could only learn to relax…

It’s a Small World, but a Big Decision

My aunt once announced that Perk and I had to quit moving because she had run out of space for us in her address book. When I calculated the number of places we have lived over the course of our marriage, I realized that we averaged a move every three-four years – sometimes to a new city, sometimes to a new place in the old city. I started keeping an inventory of our worldly goods, so that we could divest ourselves of them more easily with each move. We’ve pared down considerably.

???????????????????????????????When we were moving from Minneapolis, I measured my bookshelves in the new DC condo and made tough choices; as an English teacher, I had collected books for decades. Our son carted boxes of cherished volumes to the used book store until the manager cried, “That’s enough! We can’t take any more!” My son sorrowfully choked, “But I don’t know what to do with all of these. My parents aren’t with me anymore.” Assuming that we had moved on to that great Barnes and Noble in the sky, the manager relented and took all 3,000 (yes, three THOUSAND!) books.

Where in the World?

This next relocation, however, is disconcerting because we have no parameters for our decision-making.  Being retired, we do not need to worry about the commute time to the office, the quality of the schools, or even the city we live in. We only need to think about where we want to go, and it’s a big world out there!

As a Type-A Virgo, I had to invent some boundaries for myself.  We began by thinking about what we wanted in a new location:

  • A destination place We are gregarious, accustomed to lots of house guests. Apparently our delightful presence is not enough of a draw, because NO ONE accepts our invitations to come to Houston.  As my friend Ann Flanagan said, “Once you’ve seen the zoo and the beer can house, what else is there to do?”

    Beer Can House

    Beer Can House

  • No snow We lived in Minneapolis, Chicago and sometimes snowy DC for most of our lives. I’ve learned how much more room you have in the trunk of your car when you don’t have to carry bags of sand, snow brushes and jumper cables. I rarely complain about the rain in Houston … I don’t have to shovel it!
  •  Clean beaches I love sitting in the sun and smelling the salt water, wading in the surf and feeling the sand slip from beneath my toes. I don’t want to know what could be slipping from beneath my toes on the shores of the Potomac or on the red tide beaches of Bolivar Peninsula!
  • Things to do We like street fairs and open air concerts, science museums, funky art galleries, baseball games and people-watching.  We like to be outside, dressed in casual clothes and munching goodies purchased from sidewalk vendors.

After we considered the above four bullets, we still had too many options – California, the Carolinas, a Caribbean Island?  We added criteria:

  • Affordable
  • Healthy lifestyles
  • Friends to show us around

We were making progress, but decided that we needed input from the most important people in our lives.

Gulf Coast Sunset

Gulf Coast Sunset

Yes, we consulted our grandchildren. Where did they want us to live? Where would they like to visit us? I loved that their first response was “Paris”, but it’s too expensive for many visitors, snow sometimes clogs the Champs Elysees, the Seine is not for wading.  Their next choice was inevitable …

…and so we’re off to Florida. It’s a Small World after all!

Not Pandora’s Box

Guide books report where to find those “little out of the way shops” and blogs tell you the latest “trendy” spots to get a bargain. But by the time the guide books are published and the blogs are posted, everyone has discovered the boutiques and the bargains are gone.  So what to do when you’re shopping in Paris, or Houston, or Shanghai? Get out of the malls and out of the shopping centers. Avoid Pandora’s Box!

The Treasure Hunt

I have a friend who collects decorative boxes. Although I don’t always find one for her, searching for a box has been the key to finding many other treasures. Wandering the streets of Paris, I looked in all kinds of shop windows for a box; next to an antique shop, I discovered fashion designer Anna Fjord. Her clothing is custom-made of beautiful fabrics and reasonably priced for a unique design in Paris.  I bought a dress … but no box.

A new restaurant opened on Rue Chappe, and its window was decorated with pillows, baskets and painted boxes.  Adjacent to the restaurant, I found a potter who displayed pitchers, cups and bowls in a functional setting with one bare light bulb.  Marie Caloz proclaims herself from the Jurassic Age; she has no television, no computer, no Website, although she did get a cell phone six months ago for emergencies. I bought a couple of pieces of pottery for gifts … but no box.

We saw a street-fair that certainly wasn’t a sidewalk sale! Vendors had Cristofle silver, Lancel handbags, Baccarat and Lalique glass. I was careful not to touch anything for fear of decimating the crystal AND my bank account! And there I found it, nestled among the silk foulards … the perfect box!  I bought a scarf AND the box!

It’s In the Bag

My friend Deb Evans is a handbag freak – she LOVES purses, bags and satchels. I knew that was what I wanted to buy for her in Paris, but I wanted it to be unique. Over the course of the two months, I saw several women carrying handbags that I admired.  Finally, I gathered my courage and asked for help from a woman walking in Montmartre.

“Votre sac est tres agreable. Pourriez-vous me dire ou vous l’avez achete?”  Your handbag is very nice. Would you mind telling me where you bought it? “Je voudrais acheter un sac simulaire pour une amie aux Etats-Unis.”  I would like to buy one for a friend in the US.

Not only did she tell me where she purchased the bag, she took me into the nearby store and introduced me to the owner! Of course I bought one!

When is a Bargain … a Bargain?

When you pay what you’re willing to pay! I used to enjoy bargaining for the lowest price in Sicily and Mexico, but I’ve become too lazy.

We try to buy one antique liqueur glass from each country when we travel – just one, special individual glass, not a set. Like searching for the box, we have a good time searching for the perfect glass. We were in Marche Aux Puces, once a flea market but now with an upscale antique area, and discovered a signed Baccarat glass. It was marked 80 Euro; I was willing to pay 40. Instead of starting at 20 Euro, and negotiating up while the vendor negotiated down, I decided to experiment with an alternative technique learned from a friend who took me to the gold Souk in Dubai.

I waited until no one else was in the shop, so the vendor and I could speak privately. I looked at several glasses, appearing to consider less expensive options, none of which I really wanted; I kept returning to the heaviest cut, and most expensive, piece, but my reluctant body language made it “obvious” that the less expensive ones were in my budget. Finally, I asked “Qu’est-ce que le plus bas prix que vous accepterez de celui-ci?” What is your lowest price?

He looked at me for a moment, then replied, “Quarante Euro” – 40 Euro. Just as we purchased the gold bracelet for half price in Dubai by looking at other options and asking for the lowest price, we paid what we wanted to pay for the glass in Paris.

Maybe I could have paid less, but maybe not. If nothing else, I bought less frustration for myself and more time to do additional shopping!

Three key takeaways for frustration-free shopping are:

  • Search for the Unusual and you may find something even more unique next door
  • Enlist the Help of Strangers and score a great find
  • Decide What You Will Pay and never discuss price in front of other clients. (The proprietor will feel obligated to stick to his price in case the other customers aren’t so savvy as you!)

And, as the gift-giving season approaches, have fun finding the unusual!

The Top Ten Things I Didn’t Realize about Paris Until I Got There

GUEST BLOGGER: JEFF PERKINS

I spent a week in Paris with Larry and Cyndee Perkins (my brother and his wife) who rented an apartment in Montmartre for two months. I had never been to Paris, but I knew what I wanted to do – enjoy the art masterpieces, eat good food, and drink great wine. In preparation, I read my guide books and learned some basic French phrases; prepped by one of Cyndee’s previous blogs, I could both count to ten AND attend to my personal needs. But I wasn’t prepared for everything.

10. Courteous

Espresso and Orange Juice

The Parisian people are very pleasant and courteous. I had heard stories about how they did not like Americans.  Well, a smile and a friendly “bonjour” from me got an immediate return smile and greeting. One gentleman helped translate so that I could get an espresso and some orange juice at the train station. He smiled and said, “It’s hard (learning French), but keep at it.” Thanks to his encouragement, I kept trying!

9. Baguettes

I had the best baguette in the world, every day. A local boulangerie (bakery) in Montmarte was recognized in 2011 as providing the “Best Baguette in Paris”. If their baguette is the best in Paris, I think it is probably the best in France, and the best in France must be the best in the world. Sometimes I bought two … one to take home for dinner, and one to eat on the way!

8. Legs

Most women in Paris have legs that go to their shoulders. Even short women seem to have long, shapely legs. This year’s fashion trend of short skirts and high-heeled boots provided a visual delight … to go along with so many other Parisian attractions.

7. Massive

The Eiffel Tower is massive. Even though I could see it from almost any place in the city, I had no conception of how large it really is. The Statue of Liberty is 305 feet (about 30 stories high); the Arch in Saint Louis is 630 feet. The Eiffel Tower is about 40% higher at 1,063 feet. Once I got to the Deuxieme Etage of the tower, I was happy to stay right there … no need for a “bird’s eye view” from the top of a tower swaying in the wind!

6. Awesome

The Paris Metro (subway) is awesome. The apartment was only a couple of blocks walk to the Metro. 32 Euro ($40) for a 5 day pass to go anywhere in Paris is such a deal! The system is easy to follow and I could have done it on my own by the end of the second day (though glad I didn’t have to, having the two best tour guides in Paris…see #1) .

5. Feu d’artifice

The feu d’artifice (fireworks) display at the Montmarte Wine Festival, which was being held near Larry and Cyndee’s apartment, was probably the best display I have ever seen. It overwhelmed us with continuous star bursts, rockets, whistlers, all less than 100 yards from the apartment balcony and at eye level. The kid in me couldn’t quit smiling and laughing. Cyndee was so affected, she had tears in her eyes…

4. A Fine Line

The necessary walking and standing in line to see Paris attractions was definitely a surprise! Sometimes we stood in line to stand in another line (Stand in line to buy a ticket to go up the Eiffel Tower; stand in another line to get on the elevator after you have your ticket.) I learned that Paris has more tourists than any other city in the world. I believe most of them had descended upon Paris when I was there. On the other hand, I walked more than 50 miles in six days. That was good, because I could eat a second baguette every day!

3. Magical

Monet’s Water Lilies in October

Giverny is a magical place. Okay, Monet’s home is a 45 minute train ride from Paris, but give me a little author’s license here. I saw the pond with the “Water Lilies” and the Japanese bridge; I sat, stared, trying to see and feel what Monet saw well over 100 years ago. Well, maybe not exactly what HE saw, but I sure felt a lot of emotion.

2. Joy

Watching and hearing my nephew’s 6 year old daughter sing her heart out on the balcony of the apartment for no apparent reason made me realize that just being in Paris makes you feel good.  Watching her lean out the second story window of a restaurant where we were having dinner, and hearing her call “Bonjour, Bonjour” to the passers-by showed the true joy only a child, or the child in us, can express.

1. And the number one… Family

The special time I had with Larry and Cyndee, the two best tour guides in Paris. We have always been close but this is a very special memory for me and there is no way I will ever be able to thank them for their hospitality, their joy of living and most important, their love.

The Pickpockets Are Not the Problem

Signs to remind the unwary to “beware of pickpockets” are in every Paris metro station, restaurant and museum. Paris bloggers tell you the latest scams such as the dropped gold ring and woven bracelets. Thieves work alone, in pairs or in groups, and as two obvious tourists, Perk and I know that we are wonderful targets!

Sometimes the groups are outrageously overt. A half-dozen schoolgirls dressed in uniforms of dark skirts and white blouses hover at the entrance of a Montmartre metro station each day, miming a request to sign a petition to help the deaf and mute; I know that they are neither because early one morning on my way to the boulangerie, I saw them laughing and talking on their way to “work.” It’s a good ploy: when a sympathetic tourist takes the clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other from one young woman, another girl slips her hand into his pocket or bag.  All of us who use that metro regularly watch out for the more gullible visitors on their way to the Sacre Coeur. Perk and I used to feel quite smug that we were “local” enough to be able to warn other tourists.

Music in the Air, a Hand in Your Pocket

One day we stopped in the Metro passage between train platforms to listen to a group of musicians playing rousing folk songs and selling their CD’s; children skipped through the crowd, adults snapped photos. The music made you want to dance. I took several pictures, tossed a few euros into a basket, and we moved on.  When we reached the platform, a man approached Perk,

“I want to warn you that two Gypsy boys from the music group tried to open your bag and steal from you. Please be more careful.” Sure enough, when Perk looked at the shoulder bag which he had slung over his back, the zipper was partly open.  The “pickings” weren’t good; apparently the kids didn’t need maps or another umbrella. But we were not quite so smug thereafter and we now make sure that our bags are secured!

The Problem?  C’est Nous!

We made our way into the Louvre taking our membership cards from our wallets, stopping by the information desk to pick up some pamphlets about a new exhibit. Hands overflowing with cards, brochures, wallets and cameras, we moved to the side of the madding crowd to organize ourselves. At that point, I realized that my wallet was gone.

A museum employee shook her head mournfully when I asked where to find the Lost and Found. “I will take you there, but I am sure it is of no use.  You need to be more careful about pickpockets, Madame.”  I know, I know…  I have seen them on the streets and in the metro; I can read French signs…

The clerk at the Lost and Found eyed me carefully. She spoke English. “You lost your wallet?” I nodded and started a description. Interrupting me, she held out a pad of paper and said, “Write your name here.” It wasn’t a form to be filled out, but plain notepaper. I printed “Cynthia Perkins”.

She unlocked a drawer and pulled out my red wallet. She looked at me, at the picture on my driver’s license and then held out the wallet — credit cards, driver’s license and euros intact. She stated the obvious. “You are lucky, Madame, that an honest person saw you drop this. A pickpocket would not have returned it.”

***

A few nights later, we chose a sidewalk table for dinner at a nearby restaurant. We carefully put our bags under the table so that no super scooper thief on a skateboard could swing by and grab them. The staff was fun and gregarious; the locals were friendly. We enjoyed the duck, the recommended wine, dessert and coffee.  Like stuffed ducks ourselves, we waddled the half-mile back up the hill to our apartment. Three hours later, Perk decided to check his phone … that was in his bag…that was left under the table.

Midnight on Saturday night in Montmartre is the beginning of the fun, so we knew the restaurant would still be open. We sped back and our waiter greeted us joyously!

“It is here! It is here! You left your bag and I did not know how to find you! No one has opened it, I promise you!”  Telephone, binoculars, camera were all in place! Grateful, Perk tipped the waiter who thanked him and said, “Please, you must be more careful. Not all people are so honest.”

He is right, of course. Not all people in Paris nor in Houston, New York or London are so honest. It’s not the pickpockets of Paris who are the problem; it’s the people like us – the casual, careless, trusting tourists who get themselves into trouble!

Once Bitten…

Sauntering through the Tuilleries, we watched a group of young adults in their school sweatshirts, joking and laughing. They approached us with a clipboard, but the metro petitioners and the Gypsy songsters had made us more careful.  We ignored their requests for “help,” until one young woman explained in careful English,

“We are a group of engineering students from the Ecole Centrale, and we have a series of challenges that we have to do today.” She pointed to a checklist on the clipboard.

“One thing that we have to do is to make a video of some old people saying that our university is the best in all of France.” Seeing our grins, another student intervened, “No, no, she didn’t mean ‘old’ like senile. She meant ‘old’ like ‘mature’ – we can’t ask other students.”  We looked at each other, shrugged and agreed.

Perk donned a Centrale sweatshirt , we made the quick video, then handed over our cameras for them to take a group picture …  no one took my Nikon and ran, no one slipped a hand into my shoulder bag. Sometimes you just have to take a chance!