Monday, September 30, 2013
After some debate as to our next step we have decided to go to Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Our friends from Patagonia, Marcela and Mariano are going to meet us in Cuzco and from there we will travel together by train to Machu Picchu. From Arequipa it is only a 45 minute flight and since we very rarely stay in hotels we decide to splurge. In Machu Picchu we will stay at Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel based at the ruins and at $1,300 dollars a night, the most expensive hotel we have ever stayed in. But we figure, this is a once in a lifetime experience. We have also found a really nice pet hotel for Winston to stay while we are gone. Going to Machu Picchu takes a bit of planning. Besides air flights and hotels, we also have to book the train and obtain park passes, all needing to be done in advance. We have an early flight arriving in Cuzco in the morning so we will have the whole day to explore the city and some of the Inca ruins close by. Situated high in the Andes, Cuzco, developed under the rule of Pachacutec is considered the capital of the Incan Empire and even today while most shop owners and trades people speak Spanish to the tourists, they speak Quechua with one another. In Quechua, the word Cusco” means “navel” because the Incas considered the city the center of their universe. Our hotel, Palacio del Inka is located only a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas and is beautiful with interior courtyards and some amazing artwork from the Cusco school of painting, but we want to get out and explore the city and the best place to start is right outside our hotel. The Iglesia de Santo Domingo was once the El Templo del Q’urikancha (Temple of the Sun), the richest temple in the Incan Empire. All that remains are the ruins of incredible stonework, the walls of which form the foundation for the church but through excavation, the old walls and terraces for which the Inca were famous are clearly visible. As we walk to the Plaza, the amazing architecture of this old city surrounds us. Huge walls of intricately fitted stonework are seen all over, paying testimony to the Inca Empire. When the Spaniards arrived they attempted to destroy any trace of what was considered “the pagan civilization” but it was too daunting a task so they ended up building their own colonial buildings on top of the indestructible Incan foundations using the same huge stones. At the Plaza de Armas, two churches dominate the square. Built on the site of what was once the palace of Incan ruler Viracocha and taking a century to build, the cathedral mixes Spanish Renaissance architecture with the stone fitting skills of the Incas. In the north tower the bell made from a ton of gold, silver and bronze is more than 300 years old and is considered the largest in South America. The other church on the plaza is the La Campania de Jesus and in a city filled with churches, is considered to be the most beautiful. Where once stood the palace of Incan Huayna Capac, La Campania de Jesus is a gorgeous example of Andean baroque architecture. As we sit and eat lunch at one of the balcony restaurants that encircle the square we get some great views although the clouds are rolling in and it starts to rain. We already knew rain was expected this afternoon and tomorrow but should clear by Thursday which is when we have the park passes for Machu Picchu. So we are undaunted by the downpour and are committed to sightseeing. We also it seems are committed to shopping. Tom picked up a couple of beautiful baby alpaca sweaters and we bought gifts for Danny and Nicole. After lunch, we walk back to the hotel to drop off our purchases and to hire a taxi to take us to the nearby ruins of Sacsayhuaman. This huge old military fortress is built on a hilltop from massive stones that archeologists estimate took tens of thousands of workers about 70 years to build hauling the monstrous stone blocks that make up the double outside walls and constructing a nearly indestructible building. June 24th, there is a large procession and ceremony here to mark the winter solstice. Also nearby, is a much more modern statue of Christ the Redentor which overlooks the entire city of Cuzco and gave us some great views of the city below us. The statue is very similar to the one in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. All the while our taxi driver who was very informative became our impromptu tour guide and explained much about the history of the city and very patiently waited for us while we checked out local artisan stalls and took photos. It was getting dark when we arrived back at the hotel, leaving us not much time to change for dinner and meet up with Marcela and Mariano for cocktails. We were all so excited to see one another again and spent an hour over pisco sours in the hotel bar catching up on news. We had made reservations at the Inka Grill for dinner. It is one of the top restaurants in Cuzco and did not disappoint us. Marcela however had forgotten to take her altitude pills and was feeling nauseous with a headache the whole time. We decided to call it a night as we have leave for the train station at 7:30 in the morning. Hopefully Marcela will feel better.
Saturday, September 28, 2013
The second most populated city in Peru, Arequipa's history dates back as far as 5000-6000 BC, as recorded in cave paintings and some 400 archaeological monuments. Conquered by the Incas in the 15th century, the city served as an important supplier of agricultural products to the Inca Empire. In 1537, the first group of Spanish conquerors came to Arequipa, calling it first the 'Villa Hermosa de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción" and in 1541 renaming it to the City of Arequipa. Nestled in a valley called the Valley of Arequipa or the Valley of Chili at the base of three volcanoes -- Chachani, Pichu Pichu and Misti, the central part of the city is crossed by the River Chili. To the north and east are the Andes mountain and the three volcanic cones dominates the skyline. Rocked continuously by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes nearly every century since the Spanish arrived, Peru’s second-largest city doesn’t lack for drama and major earthquakes have marked the key changes in the development and changes to the architecture. The natural disaster of 1582 caused a major change in favor of antiseismic construction, introducing the systematic use of sillar, a pink or pearl-colored volcanic stone and ashlar, an off-white petrified volcanic ash, both of which come from the nearby Chachani volcano. Prior to 1582, this material had only been used in the doorways of the main church and in a handful of dwellings. Being soft, lightweight, and weather resistant this provided a solution to the problems caused by earth tremors and emerged as a seismically structural solution. As a result of this, Arequipa is often referred to as the Ciudad Blanca (White City). Its grand colonial buildings, built from the off-white volcanic rock dazzles in the sun and distinctive stonework graces the countless beautiful colonial churches, monasteries and mansions scattered throughout the city. In 2000, UNESCO declared Arequipa and the surrounding area a World Heritage Site which gave a big boost to the tourism industry. Now the historical and monumental buildings with their unique architecture along with many other scenic and cultural sites within easy driving distance, make the city a national and international tourist destination. And we plan on making the most of our time here to visit as much as we can and to get to some of the more regional areas, in general to “play at being tourists”.
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Leaving Ilo, our next stop was going to be an inland town of Moquegua, which from our map appeared to be a medium sized town and inland means we are climbing to elevation again. However, when we arrived we found it cramped and although there were lots of people in the streets, they seemed to be more poor and the town itself more ill-kept. It reminded us a little of Tacna and after the comparative upscale feel of Ilo, a little depressing. It was still early in the afternoon, so we made the decision to continue driving to the next city of Arequipa. It will make for a long drive day but we know in Arequipa there is a hostel that has room on its grounds for motorhomes with all the amenities of power, hot water and Wi-Fi. From Moquegua to Arequipa the road first drops down to sea level before the final grind up the mountain. Arequipa is at 7,530 feet (2,350 meters) above sea level and we are hoping it won’t be too cold. We are still in what is considered to be the Atacama Desert albeit at the northern end so the landscape is still very moon-like with no signs of habitation, no animal life, little vegetation and plenty of sand dunes in colors ranging from very pale almost white sand through all shades of browns and reds. It is actually quite fascinating. Around the rivers and streams it is another story. Small homes were the people eke out a living doing God knows what but with their own crops of vegetables; corn, cabbage, cauliflower seem to dominate and a couple of heads of livestock; goats, cows and plenty of chickens. Interestingly, part of the road is also designated as the Ruta de pisco and we could see plenty of vineyards and some small bodegas offering pisco tasting and sales. We were tempted but pisco is quite strong with considerably more alcohol than wine and this is a drive day. In addition, the bodegas appeared to be just a step above a hut and we know there is a much more developed Ruta de Pisco further north towards Lima. On the final ascent into the Andes to the city, the motorhome again began to overheat a little but the motor and transmission seemed fine although with the temperature gauge on the rise, we were glad reach the final pass at almost 9,000 feet and descend into the valley. We have the GPS co-ordinates for Hostel Las Mercedes and know from other overlanders that it is by the river on a fairly busy street but with comparatively easy access even for large vehicles. The roads getting to the hostel were another matter and at times our Garmin wanted us to go down small, narrow pasajes (alleyways) that we would never have been able to fit down so as anyone with a GPS device knows, we heard a lot of “recalculating”! We eventually got onto the right street and found the hostel, a huge blue and white building with beautiful French style cornices and embellishments. As Tom pulled over to the side of the road by the double gated entrance, I went to a pedestrian entrance and rang the bell. Eventually a guard appeared and let me in as I pointed to the RV and told him we needed parking. I was amazed to find behind the 14 foot (3 meter) wall about six RV’s in various sizes from camper shell pickups to a 35 foot motorhome and a huge Rotel overlander vehicle owned by Tucan travel. I also felt a bit worried that there was no room for us and worse, little space to maneuver however the guard said there was room and pointed to a spot down the side of the hostel leading to the back gardens. It was a tight squeeze past the Rotel truck but we made it although as Tom pointed out, with no room to turn around getting out will be a bear, but that is a worry for another day. Right now we have arrived with no problems and this will be a great place to hang for a while and consider our options for going to Bolivia and Machu Pichu. In addition, the grounds are huge and completely secured and the managers have no problem with Winston roaming especially after we promise to be sure to clean up after him. We are actually quite excited as Arequipa is supposed to be an old town with lots to see. After getting the motorhome settled, we go to check out the rest of the property with Winston and to meet the other overlanders who are here. There is a French couple from Normandy, a British couple and to our surprise and pleasure, the South African family that we had met previously in Bariloche; Graeme and Luisa with their two children, Jessica and Keelan. Winston, who had had a fabulous time with the children in Argentina, greeted them like long lost family and soon we were exchanging news and getting progress reports from everyone. In the past few months they have also experienced a lot of vehicle problems with a hold up in Chile waiting for parts and right now they are waiting for yet more parts here. It seems the altitude messes with all vehicles and they have a monster heavy-duty, converted Land Rover. What can you do? Well, for now we are going to enjoy a beer and for me a glass of wine and spend the evening getting acquainted with our neighbors.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Ilo with some 65,000 inhabitants is the largest city in the Moquegua Region of southern Peru. Copper mines originally owned by the Southern Peru Copper Corporation (SPCC) drive much of the economy. Unfortunately, the copper smelting plant and a refinery located about 10 kilometers to the north have contributed to a large amount of air and water pollution in the region. This gave Ilo some notoriety when it was featured in the Canadian documentary film The Corporation, as an example of environmental problems caused by industries. However, in the past couple of years the government has made efforts to clean up the pollution problems and one of ways was to construct a new promenade along the beach front using lots of grass, plants, flowering shrubs and trees. The result is this gorgeous, green landscape, irrigated by water from the nearby river. One our first night here, we parked in one of the parking areas that was adjacent to a lawned memorial dedicated to the national police force. With lots of tile mosaic paths meandering down to the water and so much lush grass, Winston has in seventh heaven. Unfortunately, it was close to downtown and there was no space to safely let him run off lead so the next morning, we decided to try and find another spot. Driving the costanera, we could see why besides mining, the town also has a strong fishing economy; they have one of the largest fishing fleets we have seen. Everything from small boats to large trawlers complete with radar and presumably all the accoutrements for successful commercial fishing, they are all crammed side by side into the bay. There is a municipal fish market and we resolve to come back and see what fresh catch is available. The port area is also busy with large ships and barges docked and being unloaded and others out in the bay waiting to dock. Interestingly, Bolivia uses Ilo as a free passage to the Pacific Ocean for both recreational and trade purposes. After going to war with Peru in the 19th century to claim a portion of the Pacific, diplomacy took over. Now the Peruvian government has granted a renewable 99 year lease to the government of landlocked Bolivia to use a portion of the port facility as its own, in effect allowing Bolivia to claim to be a "Pacific Ocean nation". Since rain is almost non-existent here, as Ilo is located just north of the Atacama Desert which is considered to be the most arid place on earth, the weather stays warm and consistent most of the year and there a quite a few swimming coves that have been developed for the mostly, Peruvian tourists. One of them to the north of town, Pozo de Lizas looks like it will be ideal for our next couple of days in Ilo. Close to the army barracks, there is no other housing nearby and we can park, perched on a cliff with easy walkway access to the water. There is about a 3 mile long stretch of sand for us to allow Winston off leash and run. Judging from the new looking stucco and tiled tiered building with bathrooms, showers and kiosks for restaurants, in the summer this “balneario” (Spanish word for a commercialized, swimming area) would be a busy place. In winter, it is closed up and deserted save for one security guard. Since there are other coves and balnearios closer to town, in the two days we are here, we see only a few people walking the beach and a fishing boat with a couple of fishermen setting and retrieving their nets. We did see however a myriad of sea birds and a couple of sea lions swimming off-shore. There is a reserve “Punta Coles” close by but we had been told it is closed for 15 days due to contamination, no other information just “contamination”, so we presumed the sea lions were part of that reserve. Sunday, we went into town and walked along the promenade. We visited the fish market and picked up some fresh Albacore tuna and we also found an internet café where we checked on emails and were even able to Skype the kids. After, we returned to our place on the cliff and spent the afternoon alternately playing on the beach with Winston and reading. Tom set up with gas barbeque and we had the tuna which he marinated in a teriyaki style sauce for dinner. It was delicious and a fitting meal for our last night in a town which is touted as having a thriving fishing economy.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
Leaving the border, it was late afternoon so we immediately left the main highway Pan Americana named Route 1 in Peru for the more scenic coastal route 1A. We were hoping to find a good spot for the night and simply relax and regroup. Unfortunately, the road is not actually on the coast but about half a mile (one km) inland and the first couple of small beach towns had no access for our vehicle. One road that was paved and went to the beach, turned out to be an indigenous community and they had lots of signs stating “private” and “no admittance allowed”. Turning around, we continued north and finally arrived at Boca del Rio. At the mouth of Sama River which drains all the way from Lake Titicaca, Boca del Rio is the largest town we have come to so far. Driving into town on a well maintained paved road, everything – homes, businesses, hotels – were boarded up and there was not a person in sight. Arriving at the beach there was a huge flat area for parking and a long stretch of beach with waves crashing over rocks. There was one restaurant that was not boarded up but closed immediately after we arrived. Driving along the vast sea front, we choose a place which was level and where we could park so our door opened to the ocean. With the sun already setting I took Winston for a well deserved run on the beach. When I got back Tom had settled the motorhome for the night and had started dinner, beef stroganoff over noodles. “Okay,” I told him “this is weird”. Boca del Rio is as close to a ghost town that we have ever been to. There was not a single person on the beach walking, jogging or just watching the sun set. There was not a single vehicle driving up and down the coastline. And just as mysterious, there was not a single stray dog around. Most overlanders will testify to the fact that one of the most distressing points of travelling in Central and South America are the sheer numbers of stray dogs everywhere. In towns, cities and beaches, these dogs are allowed to roam unchecked and for the most part, uncared for. For the rest of the night, it stayed that way. Besides the two people we had seen closing the restaurant, no-one else. Like I said weird. The next morning gave us another surprise. I had already walked Winston and noticed that the tide was in and thundering against the rocks but it did not look particularly dangerous or bothersome. So, imagine my surprise as I was drinking coffee and happened to be looking out the window to see water sweeping up the parking lot towards the beachside property. I opened the door to swirling waves under the motorhome. Waking Tom, I told him that I was moving the RV and what was happening. Moving the motorhome to a safer place, we watched as the waves crashed over the short sea wall and just rushed into the area washing out a beach sign. Soon, some men appeared, the first we had seen and went down to the water and as the waves continued, they attempted to rescue the sign floating against the rocks. “Glad I wasn’t walking Winston when that happened” I told Tom. After that excitement of the morning, the rest of the day was disappointing. We had decided to go back inland to the fairly large city of Tacna, to shop, go to the bank for Peruvian Soles, get gas and to see if there was a tourist office. Well, Tacna may be the capital of the region and a large city but in reality it is poor, rundown and uninteresting. For some reason our trusty Garmin refused to work, maybe the streets here aren’t mapped, so it was by chance we found a supermarket with a bank inside. We were able to change our remaining Chilean pesos and also use an ATM to get more cash. We were also told that there is no tourist office in town. Like I said, disappointing, although gas in Peru is only around $4.50 a gallon which is $2.00 cheaper than Chile. After checking the only map we have, we decide on the town of Ilo for the night. Staying on the Pan Americana, we steadily climbed up the mountains before dropping back down to the coast. On the way there was a surprising mandatory stop at a customs office. The Customs building was huge spanning both sections of the road with plenty of guards and police. Every vehicle was forced to stop. Our paperwork was examined and all our info entered into a register. They then stamped our vehicle permit and waved us on. We did not undergo an inspection but we noticed that they checked inside and the trunk of most cars. We could not even surmise what they were looking for. By the time we got to Ilo, it was dark and our main interest at this point was just to find a place to park for the night. The town is having a new costanera road built and at first all we passed were areas of construction and one lane traffic. However further south the area is finished and we found plenty of parking. Our eventual spot was beside a pretty walkway and large grassy area. Winston was in heaven – the dog loves grass. It is late and we are tired. Soup for dinner and bed. We will explore Ilo tomorrow.
Friday, September 20, 2013
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
After all the excitement of New Orleans, we are headed home to California and we have plenty to do. The first is the most sobering (judicious use of the word after New Orleans!), as we need to prepare for mom’s funeral and “celebration of life” luncheon. We have to shop as neither Tom nor I have suitable clothes for this kind of service. Traveling in a motorhome is not conducive to dressy clothes and all our good clothes are in storage. Macys for me and the Mens Wearhouse for Tom, which since they have 2 for 1 on everything in the store, Danny lucks out with new suit, shirt and tie also. We also have shopping to do for supplies for the RV and our travels and our favorite restaurants to catch up with. First on the agenda is Fats. This is one of the best Chinese restaurants around and as regular readers know, I love Chinese food and miss it. After that, we separate and I go for my foraging at Macys, while Tom and Danny go to take care of their own shopping. Since the weather is so nice, we take the time to relax and enjoy the pool at Bruce and Jeanne’s, who are always so accommodating whenever we are home and invite us to stay with them, our own house being leased. The plan is to leave for San Jose on Sunday and stay in a hotel overnight so we are not rushed Monday morning. Nicole will also meet up with us Sunday night so we can arrive together. The funeral is at Saint Justin’s church in Santa Clara which was their parish when they were growing up and the limousines are scheduled to pick us up at 9am. I have to say, Tom and Danny looked very dashing in their suits. The church looked amazing with some gorgeous floral arrangements sent from family and friends and many of their friends attended. After the service and internment, it was time for lunch at Marianis. About 60 people came and it was wonderful. Many stood up and spoke remembering not just Tom’s mom but also his dad and the many antics, stories and anecdotes about Tom and his siblings growing up. It really was a wonderful celebration of an amazing 91 year old lady. It was great seeing the kids together also. Our time with Nicole was too brief due to her work and school schedule and Danny leaves Tuesday to return to Utah. We won’t see them again until Christmas, when they will join us in Ecuador for the holidays; well that is the plan anyway. Wednesday we fly to Los Angeles for a final few days of “vacation”. Haley is graduating from USC (University of Southern California) on Thursday and Friday we will attend a 10K swim race before flying back to Santiago. Colette and Randy, Haley’s parents and Jeanne and Erin will also be there for the events, so it seems rather like the celebrations are continuing from New Orleans. The graduation ceremony was mercifully small compared to some as Haley is graduating with her fellow student athletes instead of the main graduating class so instead of thousands there were maybe only a couple of hundred young adults, bright-eyed, bright minded and with Haley’s group of swimmers brightly adorned with a gorgeous lei crown courtesy of an Hawaiian girl’s family. Friday we went to the 10K swim race for USA swim but unfortunately Haley had for her, a disappointing finish but we all reminded her she is a talented and loved young lady with a great future and as a family we are so proud of her accomplishments. She also bounced back and won the 5K swim the following day. After, yet another family celebration dinner, this time with Haley as the honoree, it was time for us to say goodbye to the family once again and get back to our adventures, our motorhome and most of all to Winston who between Easter Island and this trip must be feeling quite alone.
Monday, September 16, 2013
Saturday, September 14, 2013
After all of our sight-seeing, it was time for the main event, the primary reason for coming to New Orleans. Jeanne’s inauguration as the new President of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG). We were instructed by Bruce to be at the Hilton no later than 8 in the morning and we would all walk to the convention center as a family. Jeanne was going to leave much earlier, of course, with her daughter Erin who was going to help her get ready, hair, makeup, whatever. Arriving at the center, I was surprised by all of the protestors hanging around waving placards. Surprised, but I guess I shouldn’t have been, this is after all an Ob/Gyn conference and as such these doctors do perform legal surgeries like abortion and circumcision in addition to providing vital care for women in the way of preventative care, prenatal care and safe pregnancies and births. But these demonstrators seem to forget the positive to focus on the negative. In addition, it never fails to amaze me that the majority of protestors are men! What’s that about? And it is a Wednesday morning, don’t they have jobs? Oh, well to each their own. It is their legal right to protest and they should remember that the doctors are not breaking any laws either. Inside, the place was packed and this is a big place and security was ever-present. Much of it had to do with the fact that one of the star attendees was the First Lady of Zambia, Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata. She was going to be honored with an award for her progressive policies in Africa for promoting and advancing women’s health care, not only in Zambia but throughout the region. We were seated in the front row and so had great views of the stage plus the giant monitors on each side. The current president gave an introductory speech and several awards including the one to the First Lady and then he introduced Jeanne. She entered the room flanked by her closest friends, other doctors who have helped her along the way. We were all standing and cheering as she made her way to the podium. After all the applause died down, she then very ceremoniously introduced each and every one of us, her family to the audience. By the time she got to Bruce and her children Erin and Ryan, we were all standing again clapping and cheering for her. She was so visibly moved by everyone being with her at this moment. Her speech was amazing and that is not just because I am biased! She talked about the year of the woman, preventative health care for “every woman, every time”. In fact, that was a standing mantra throughout her speech, which if anyone is interested can be accessed via YouTube, Twitter or the ACOG website. “Every Women, Every Time”. Afterwards there were the obligatory photographs both official and professional and amateur. After chatting with the Ambassador of Zambia for a while, I also had the pleasure of meeting the First Lady, Dr Christine Kaseba who was very charming and spoke excellent English. After the convention, we left for a scheduled lunch at Commanders Palace. Bruce and Jeanne had arranged this for the family and about 30 or so friends and colleagues of Jeanne. Leaving the convention center for the restaurant, we noticed that most of the protestors had dissipated, thank goodness – must have gotten paid to attend another gig! For anyone who is going to New Orleans, Commanders Palace Restaurant should be on their list of places to eat. Both Tom and I agreed that of all the restaurants we have been to, this was one of the top five in terms of well everything. The food was excellent and the service and attention to detail was just outstanding. It was a fitting climax to a remarkable day. Congratulations again to Dr. Jeanne Conry.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
This museum dedicated to the Second World War is without doubt one of the best I have ever seen and I have visited hundreds of museums. Opened on June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of D-Day, the museum which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute focuses on the contribution made by the United States to the victory in Europe, the Invasion of Normandy and the Allied strategy in the east which culminated with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The museum originally opened as the much smaller National D-Day Museum, focusing on the amphibious invasions of Normandy and the Pacific As the Higgins Boats which were vital to the D-Day success were designed, built, and tested in New Orleans by Higgins Industries, the city was the natural home for such a project. Also, New Orleans was the home of historian Stephen Ambrose, who spearheaded the effort to build the museum. Now, thanks in part to a $15 million dollar donation from Boeing Corporation and a $20 million dollar grant from the Department of Defense, the museum is in the middle of a $300 million capital expansion campaign called The Road to Victory: A Vision for Future Generations. The entire project won’t be completed until 2015 and as we moved between buildings, at times we had to cut through construction areas. After purchasing our tickets, our first stop was the Solomon Victory Theater to see the 4D movie “Beyond All Boundaries”. Produced and narrated by Tom Hanks, the 4-D technique engages all of your senses with digital effects, life-sized props, animation and atmospherics as well as film and sound, but it is not all glitz. The movie reveals the huge human loss with quotes and photos while incorporating vintage black and white film footage. From the comfort of the armchairs thanks to technology, we could feel the tanks rumbling across North Africa's deserts, brush snow from our faces during the wintery Battle of the Bulge and flinch as anti-aircraft fire tries to bring down the enemy aircraft. The first-person accounts from letters written in the trenches to home, read by Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Gary Sinise, Patricia Clarkson, Wendell Pierce and lots of other actors are poignant and heart wrenching. Leaving the theater there were many people myself included wiping away tears. I needed a break so we stopped off at the Stage Door Canteen for a beer before heading to the next pavilion. If you love old Hollywood, there is a special display here of Bob Hope which tells the story of his passion to entertain the troops. How he could be funny in the midst of some of the most tragic days of our history is unbelievable. Besides Bob Hope, there were some great photographs of other Hollywood legends that made trips to entertain the military often at great personal risk. All the while there is the music and songs of the war years sung by The Victory Belles. After that break, it was on to the newest building. Opened in January, the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center is a huge atrium, several stories high with two multi level sections and numerous catwalks. We have tickets for “Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience” and the next voyage is about to start. Before boarding the submarine, we are all given a “watch bill” representing a specific Tang crewmember and after boarding, we are shown to our station and enlisted with certain tasks of running the submarine or firing its weapons. The date is 25th October 1944 and this is the USS Tang’s fifth (and final) war patrol in the Pacific. In any other context this would classify as one of the cheesiest things I have ever participated in. However, in re-enacting this last, epic battle I feel a deep appreciation of the bravery of those men who served in the confined space of submarine warfare and at the end of the experience, we are confronted with a wall with the names of those on board. By matching up our watch name, we find out if we were one of those lost at sea or became a POW. Entering the atrium, the collection of aircraft includes a B-17E Flying Fortress bomber, a B-25J Mitchell bomber, a SBD-3 Dauntless, an Avenger, a P-51D Mustang and a Corsair F4U-4, all restored to their wartime glory. These were not models or replicas, but real WWII planes suspended from the ceiling. The B-17E is the airplane dubbed My Gal Sal, famous for having been lost in a mission over Greenland and recovered 53 years later. Walking between the levels and along the catwalks, we can see the planes from top and bottom and every vantage point in between. On the ground floor, the vehicle of war exhibit also displays a restored jeep, Sherman tank and an ambulance. On a vast, 31-foot HD video wall is a montage of rare archival footage showing the iconic American arsenal at war. The Service & Sacrifice experience honoring American patriots who have dedicated their lives in times of war and peace is introduced by the late Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, himself a World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient. The interactive touch screen exhibits the profiles of World War II veterans who went on to serve as Presidents, Vice Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, Senators and Representatives. Another thought provoking interactive exhibit is titled “What Would You Do?” and presents difficult decisions faced by real people during World War II. Put yourself in their shoes with the thought-provoking scenarios that hold strategic, moral and ethical significance and you realize nothing is black and white. The final part of our visit was to the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion which houses the museum's reproduction of the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel) or Higgins boat that carried thousands of Allied soldiers to the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. It was reproduced from original WWII plans by more than 100 volunteers, many of whom were former employees of A.J. Higgins, Inc., the New Orleans-based shipbuilding company. The interactive visual display panels detailing the schedule leading up to D-Day and the events as they occurred that day are incredible. The mission of the museum focuses on the remembrance and celebration of the American spirit; the courage and sacrifice of the men and women who served during World War II and many of the volunteers here are veterans who are informative and take their time to help you make the most of the visit. The displays allow you to walk through history, examining the European events vs. the drama of the Pacific. If you never understood the Normandy invasion, the visuals will help you put the pieces together. I came away grateful to Mr. Solomon for creating such a memorable museum. To all who served and continue to serve; thank you, thank you, thank you. Truly one of the best museums I have ever gone through. And I understand why some people still save every scrap of aluminum foil.
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Our second plantation was Laura: A Creole Plantation and it could not have been more different. This is not a typical plantation home with the elaborate white columned, balconied antebellum mansion. Instead, it is a raised, wooden Creole style home painted yellow and is also surprisingly small. Despite all this, Laura is unique and extremely interesting because visitors become totally immersed in Louisiana’s rich, Creole culture. Louisiana Creoles, from the millionaire to the poorest slave, lived separate from the Anglo-American in family, architecture, music, food, society and life-style. What Laura lacks in grandeur, it makes up in colorful Creole history and characters. The 70 minute tour is based on 5,000 pages of documents from the French National Archives related to the free and enslaved families who lived here and told by guides who share the compelling, real-life accounts of 7 generations of Laura Plantation’s Creole inhabitants. No costumed tour guides here, only enthusiastic historic story-tellers sharing the well-researched history of the family and the plantation from the American Revolution through the Civil War and beyond. Another reason that Laura doesn't look like a grand southern plantation home is because this was a working plantation with a business residence rather than being the primary home for the family who actually resided in New Orleans. The property is restored to historic accuracy and is still surrounded by fields of sugar cane. The tour begins at the main house. Formerly known as Duparc Plantation and shaded by the low branches of large oak trees, the main house is almost hidden from the road. Constructed in 1804-1805, the "big house" at Laura Plantation has a raised brick basement and it is one of only 30 substantial Creole raised houses in the state. It's not a manor like Oak Alley but more a cornucopia of historical detail with the raised basement-turned-wine cellar, the birthing room, and family heirlooms. The rooms painted in alternating shades of ochre, red, green, mauve and gray have been beautifully decorated to provide an idea of daily life. However, a few rooms inside the home have been left unrestored to give a sense of history and to show construction methods. A large collection of family treasures and items of apparel are on display, with some pieces donated to the plantation by families of the original owners. Also architecturally noteworthy are the Federal-style interior woodwork and Norman roof truss which were unusual for later Creole style houses. We are then led to the gardens and the more sobering sight of a dozen slave shacks. The original slave quarters still stand at Laura Plantation and these shacks used to stretch over 3 1/2 miles out. The guide explained that when a bell rang, the slaves would send their small children to walk to the main house to get their family rations. I didn't know what to expect regarding the topic of slavery (which was not discussed at all at Oak Alley) but our guide did not gloss over or sugar coat the way of life during those times. There was a lot of information regarding the family as well as their slaves and their lives and stories. Indeed, Laura Plantation is well known for the West-African stories the home’s former slaves related to folklorist Alcée Fortier. Alcée Fortier, who later became Professor of Romance Languages and folklore at Tulane University, was said to have collected Louisiana Creole versions of the West African Br'er Rabbit stories. Recorded in the slave cabins here in the 1870s, they were later popularized in English and became the “Tales of Br’er Rabbit.” Also, the parents and family of U.S. singer-songwriter Fats Domino ("Blueberry Hill") had lived and worked on the plantation. With 11 structures listed on the National Register, there is plenty of opportunity to explore its newly restored Manor House, the formal and kitchen gardens, Banana-Land grove, and its authentic Creole cottages and slave cabins. The complex continued functioning as a plantation into the 20th century and the slave quarters, which workers continued to live in until 1977, contributes to the historic significance of the complex. Due to its historical importance, the plantation is on the National Register of Historic Places and is also included on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. Since opening in 1994, Laura is Louisiana's fastest growing historic attraction. The plantation offers a very tangible explanation of the Creole culture and way of life in Louisiana The tour is worth it because you really get a unique sense of Creole culture. We visited this plantation after seeing Oak Alley and were able to enjoy the extremes in a business-run plantation versus the grandeur of Oak Alley. If you have the time, I recommend going to both plantations as they are very different and will give you a good perspective of both wealthy families, plantations, and the difference between Creole/French and American/English governing, architecture, business, and of course, slavery. However if you can only choose one between Laura and Oak Alley, choose Oak Alley. Yes, I know it is shallow of me but there really is no competition. I liked the tour much better than the one at Laura. The rooms were far more interesting to look at and more opulent. The self guided walks around the property and the spectacular oaks should be a must see for everyone visiting the area and then there were those mint juleps! Yes, they do tend to gloss over the history of slavery, so if you want a more accurate portrayal of what life was like for all of those that lived on a plantation, then Laura would be the right choice or go and enjoy Oak Alley and then read a book about the history of slavery.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
About 45 minutes from New Orleans, by the banks of the Mississippi along the winding, picturesque Great River Road, are lavish estates with majestic plantation homes. For hundreds of years the sub-tropical air was filled with the sweet smell of sugarcane and opulence, wealth and culture clashed with slavery and tragedy to make this region, for better or worse, a part of American history. Our first stop on a two plantation tour is Oak Alley. I have wanted to visit this plantation since seeing Interview with a Vampire. In the movie this was Brad’s (Pitt) house and I was not to be disappointed. Leaving the tour bus, when we turned the corner and saw Oak Alley, my jaw dropped. The famous view appeared and it is every bit as stunning as any photograph depicting it. There are no words to describe the transcendent experience of walking down the main avenue toward the mansion. Once there, we were met by two charming people dressed in period costume who offered mint juleps or lemonade. Transcendence in gear. I was feeling mighty parched after all that walking without my parasol. Lord have mercy and pass me the mint julep. For the uninitiated, a mint julep is ice, bourbon and water with a little sugar and mint. But, what they really are is heaven and these are very good. One sip: transcendence is complete and I have stepped back in time. Civil war era. Lookout Rhett and Scarlett. The mansion’s design is Greek Revival architecture, featuring a free-standing colonnade of 28 Doric columns on all four sides, a common feature of antebellum mansions of the Mississippi Valley, though Oak Alley is supposedly one of the finest of those remaining. The pale pink white of the plastered columns and walls and the blue green of the louvered shutters and gallery railing gleam in the afternoon sun. Accompanied by a tour guide in period costume, once inside the house we entered the living room, where we learned the history of the original owners of the plantation, Jacques and Celina Roman. Celina's father built the house for the couple with his daughters comfort in mind. The veranda extends 13 feet from the walls, keeping the home in shade most of the day. As a designer what I found even more interesting was that the tall windows and doors face each other, allowing for cross ventilation and the ceilings are 12 feet high which allowed for maximum comfort during the hot humid summer Louisiana days. Across from the living room was the dining room where Celina hosted many parties. Sipping my mint julep, yes drinks are allowed in the house, I could imagine myself back in the day being entertained here. After the dining room, we headed up stairs where we first saw a sparse, solitary room. This would be in this room that a sick family member who was contagious or one who was dying slept. Oh my, pass the smelling salts; I do believe I'm getting the vapors. Across the hall was the nursery. The Roman's had 4 children, two of whom passed at young ages. Then onto the master suite and a lavender guest suite, lavender was the owner’s favorite color. The tour ends with a stop on the balcony which overlooks the “backyard”. Get your camera ready for the view of the line of oaks from the second floor balcony as the guide theatrically opens the floor to ceiling windows that lead to a balcony. It is an amazing sight. Planted before the house was constructed in 1837, there is an impressive double row of giant live oak trees which form an alley about 800 feet long, from which the property derived its present name. Unfortunately Oak Alley, like all plantations share an unhappy history and it can’t be denied that the wealth that built the property was predicated on slavery. There was nothing on the tour which glorified slavery or excused it but neither was there any real discussion about the slave trade or the slaves’ role on the plantation. There are a few slave cabins which you pass on the way to the house tour and they are currently reconstructing the slave quarters to do a better job of telling the history of the plantation and the South and more sobering (excuse the pun, after the mint juleps) is an inventory of plantation slaves, complete with names and their value taken from a census in April of 1848. But no one really comes here to learn the history, do they? They come for the scenic, picturesque grounds, which are breathtaking, the beautiful antebellum mansion and well, quite frankly the mint juleps which are phenomenal. Pass me another while I walk, otherwise I may swoon from the heat. Oak Alley is iconic for its design, its state of preservation and the unbeatable view of a canopy of aged, gigantic oak trees forming a verdant tunnel of Southern comfort grandeur. The grounds are beautifully maintained with magnolias galore, lush lawns, pristinely kept gardens and meandering pathways that encourage one to slow down, relax, and take it all in. There is also a former office turned into a garage which houses two original Ford Model T automobiles. As you stroll around this beautiful property, preferably with a mint julep in hand, it is easy to imagine a bygone era, and to step back in time. Rhett, I do believe that my corset is laced a little too tight, must be the mint juleps. Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn! Play acting aside, if you're going to visit plantations, definitely make this one of your stops. Yes, the tour was mainly about the white plantation owners with only a cursory mention of their slaves, but the 180-year old restored house is beautiful & the 300-year old oak trees are just outstanding. With knowledgeable and entertaining tour guides all dressed in period clothing which adds to the ambience, lax rules (photography, eating & sipping mint juleps anywhere in the house and property was permitted and even encouraged), I think Oak Alley is absolutely beautiful, interesting, historical, and entertaining. . "Oak Alley”... Home. I'll go home. And don’t worry about Rhett, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all... tomorrow is another day." (My apologies to Gone with the Wind, Scarlett and Rhett Butler, but Oak Alley brought out the Southern Belle in me). Pass the smelling salts, or better yet the mint julep!
Friday, September 6, 2013
With Danny here and with a couple of days to spare before Jeanne’s inauguration as President of ACOG, we really want to get out and explore not just New Orleans but the surrounding area. As beautiful, funky and thrilling that New Orleans can feel, guaranteed you'll want to get out of town for a bit once you are done with Bourbon Street and all the action. When you do, go and try a swamp or plantation tour. I'll start by saying that a swamp tour is a very touristy thing to do, but we are tourists and wanted to check it out. Also we want to ride an airboat through the swamps at high speed. Lots of tour companies in NOLA do these tours but at the hotel they recommended “Airboat Adventures” and we were not disappointed. We were picked up from our hotel promptly and the shuttle was clean and air conditioned. Our bus driver was full of stories and jokes as we went and picked up other passengers along the way, giving us hints on where to eat, where to shop, what other sights to see and kept up a running commentary all the way to the docks which is in the Jean Lafitte Preserve. The thirty minutes or so shuttle ride went quickly. Once at the dock there was a small shack for check-in with snacks, t shirts and beverages, as well as restrooms and a small alligator in a pen. A swamp tour sounds like a rural, bug-infested adventure where you meet toothless hillbillies who make you strip and scream like a pig. OK, Tom loves the movie "Deliverance" and I’ve had to watch it many times, and yes, I know it was filmed in Georgia, but, it could happen. Tom, Danny and I sat with just a few other tourists and our tour guide and because we were on the small airboat we will be able to go deeper into the swamps and get really close to the wildlife. Also because of the noise on the airboat when it is going fast, the boat can be very loud; they provide high quality headsets as well. These headsets turned out to be a godsend because as soon as the boat cleared the dock area, we were off and running. My first tip to anyone wanting to do this trip is wear sunglasses. You move fast in these boats. Really fast. Fast enough that your eyes will definitely be watering if you are trying to look forward while you're speeding down the bayou. It is a rush and fun but soon we were entering the swamp area and slowed way down. The first thing I realized is that the swamps are not as wild or bug-infested as you think they would be and the scenery was arrestingly beautiful with the magnolia trees and Spanish moss swaying in what little breeze we were feeling. Louisiana's swamps are breathtaking with their trees dripping with Spanish moss, still waters covered in hyacinth and other vegetation and the stars of the show: the gators. When we were out there among the mossy cypress and with the resident white egrets wading in the shallow water and taking to slow flight, the only thought I had was that an alligator would be a rude interruption. But gators there were and lots of them. Our guide took us to quite a few different areas where alligators like to hang out and we saw at least two dozen of them on the 2 hour tour! He was really good at getting us very close to them and was able to get some of the alligators to come right up to the boat using marshmallows as a lure. Yes, I can tell you, alligators love marshmallows. I didn't think we'd see so many alligators so close up! Most of them are about 6 ft long and are not frightening, though I'd not put my hand near them! Born and raised in the swamps, the guide was funny, educational, entertaining, insightful- especially on socio/economic impacts of Katrina for the area, and above all, clearly respectful of the nature and wildlife in the bayou. He talked about Katrina, the type of people out here, how people make a living, the hunting, the alligators and anything else that came to his mind about the area. I love it when guides give you their personal stories as a balance to the informative parts. He turned some facts into a personal story and even if some of it seemed the stuff of story- telling and we weren't sure that everything he said was true, guessing at the real facts was fun. In addition, he was full of energy and passionate about his work and the Louisiana wildlife. He patiently answered every question we had, and there were a lot! He made the tour extremely interesting, hand feeding the gators and I learned far more about the ecology of the swampland than I ever imagined. Just before heading out of the cypress swamp he pulled out his pet, an 18 inch baby alligator and we all got to pass it around and hold it, its mouth temporarily held closed by a rubber band for safety. We all got a thrill out of this and took plenty of photos. Then came the trip back to the dock and the best part was when he opened up the throttle and we went fish-tailing around curves in the larger bayous. The airboat got up to 35mph. It was awesome! Loud, but awesome! Although there was the ear protection. Back on dry land, the three of us agree that the tour was an outstanding success. There were plenty of times where the boat was moving so fast that I had to look to the side to see anything other than water coming out of my eyes, but there were many, many more opportunities where the guide pulled over and killed the engines and just let us soak up the tranquility of the bayou, take pictures and ask questions about the swamp. It was amazing... who would have thought swamps are so incredibly beautiful! Travel at high speeds and sit low enough to get up close and personal with the baby gators. I guess we are gator addicts now.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
With Danny in town and Tom in the mood to party and with many of the best restaurants in town located in the French Quarter, we descended on New Orleans street to be seen. Welcome to Bourbon Street in the famous French Quarter, where the party literally never stops. There is much to do in the way of entertainment regardless of your taste in music, clubs, food, or my favorite, people watching that this place will keep you entertained for quite a few hours. When the French engineer Adrien de Pauger laid out the streets of New Orleans in 1721, he chose one to carry the name of the French Royal Family ruling at the time - Rue Bourbon. Since then, Bourbon Street has become one of the most recognizable party destinations in the world. Though largely quiet during the day, the Street comes alive at night. Local open container laws in the French Quarter allow the drinking of alcoholic beverages in the street and the tourists take full advantage of it. Popular drinks include the hurricane and resurrection cocktails and of course beer in large plastic cups, all marketed to tourists at a low price. History tells us that over the years Bourbon Street has been home to vaudeville, burlesque, jazz joints and gentlemen's clubs - serving as inspiration for the bawdy, party atmosphere the street is known for today. In addition to venues featuring bands covering all types of other music genre, the street is also home to traditional jazz clubs, upscale lounges, historic restaurants and exotic striptease clubs - it all depends on what you're looking for. But the attraction that ties it all together is the street itself - a carnival of sights and sounds where people from all walks of life come to let their hair down. City officials actually turn Bourbon Street into a pedestrian mall each evening so the street is shut down to vehicular traffic leaving plenty of room for visitors to walk the strip. The party starts at the intersection of Canal Street and Bourbon, where brass bands gather almost every night, filling the street with musicians and dancers. Down Bourbon's thirteen blocks to Esplanade Avenue, the revelry continues beneath beautiful cast-iron balconies, with a seemingly endless row of bars, music clubs and restaurants. The architecture of the old converted mansions is gorgeous although at night it is difficult to see because of all the neon lights. Tom and Danny loved the whole scene, while I found it to be a little seedy. But I did love the old hotels, restaurants and the general bon vive that everyone exhibited. We went to a superb jazz lounge in the fabulously elegant Rita Carlton. The quartet was amazing and it gave us a welcome break from the throngs of people crowding the street. Tom and I even took a turn on the dance floor and did not embarrass ourselves. In fact we enjoyed the music so much we stayed longer than we intended, plus the room and atmosphere was fantastic. On the flip side we also went to the Urban Cowboy complete with sawdust and a mechanical bull. No, I did not try it and neither did Tom nor Danny, thank goodness. From champagne to beer, in the blink of an eye. It's clear why Bourbon Street has become so famous- its laizze faire attitude and lively atmosphere and the people who take part in its traditions are sure to give you something to write home about. Move over Las Vegas, New Orleans is the place for nightlife.
Monday, September 2, 2013
It is the last weekend of the jazz festival and New Orleans is rocking. Since the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, the city brims with more music, food, and fun of all kinds than usual. The festival, which typically occurs over the course of two weekends during April to May rivals Mardi Gras, attracts over 650,000 attendees. Back in 1970 that first Jazz Fest was not so well-attended. The inaugural festival began with a midnight concert by Pete Fountain on a riverboat, and only 350 people bought tickets (which cost $3) for the festival days which back then were held in Congo Square. This was roughly half the number of musicians and production staff who actually put the festival on! In spite of the low attendance, that first Jazz Fest was an artistic and critical success. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation secured more funding, so a second festival could be held in 1971. Working with money from a loan the second festival in Congo Square, expanded to also use the adjacent Municipal Auditorium and was a huge success, attracting so much larger crowds that it was clear that they would need a larger venue for the third year. It was negotiated to move the Jazz Fest to the infield of the Fair Grounds racetrack, where it has been ever since. As Jazz Fest continued to grow in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, one of the biggest challenges facing the production staff was attracting interesting and diverse artists. While locals occasionally long for the days when “big-name” acts didn’t play Jazz Fest, those acts serve as a draw to enable lesser-known local bands to get an audience. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Foundation reached out to Royal Dutch Shell, and the oil company became the primary sponsor of Jazz Fest 2006, and each festival since. While it began as a showcase for nothing but local acts, the festival now attracts a number of well known American and international artists. The annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a rite of spring for hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, throughout the United States and around the world. It is, arguably, the biggest and best-attended multi-style music festival in the world and it is the place to hear and see the great names of Louisiana music. Those four original stages have grown to a combined 14 stages and tents, spread out over the Fair Grounds infield and grandstand. This weekend, thousands of locals and visitors will converge on the Fair Grounds Racecourse for the 44th Annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and we will be among them. We all met up at the ticket booth in town and although there were crowds of people, the organization was great and we quickly had our bus and entrance tickets. Those $3.00 dollar days are long gone and the cost of both bus and entry tickets were $75.00 per person per day. Fortunately, there had been no more rain and the mud is not as bad as Erin had told us it was the day before. The sheer size of the fairgrounds took me by surprise. This is a huge affair. Featuring an endless amount of music, succulent local and regional delicacies, one-of-a-kind handmade arts and crafts, second line parades and so much more, there is something for everyone at Jazz Fest! There are 12 stages scattered at intervals throughout the grounds with music playing jazz, gospel, Cajun, blues, R&B, rock, funk, African, Latin, Caribbean, folk, and much more, it is a feast for the ears. Our first stop was, of course the booth selling beer and wine. Need libation for an event like this but we were also eyeing the food booths. And the food is something else. The official food policy of the Festival is "no carnival food” so all food vendors are small, locally owned businesses and there are more than seventy food booths, all with unique Cajun and Louisiana specialties. In addition, most of the foods are made with fresh, local ingredients, and are prepared by hand. There are also craft booths dispersed throughout the grounds in three areas containing pieces from local, national, and international artisans, and have the atmosphere of a true marketplace. Many of the artisans utilize ancient crafting techniques and visitors can watch demonstrations of metal, painting, pottery, and fiber works. There are naturally all kinds of shirts, t-shirts, hats and other articles of clothing which advertize the fact that yes, you have attended the Jazz Festival, so yes, being tourists we purchased shirts for everyone plus Danny and Nicole. Erin did not want to miss seeing the band “The Black Keys”, so after wandering around the various stages, we made our way to where they were performing in order to get, at least a view. Fortunately monstrous monitors are set up so that we can get close ups and the music is definitely loud enough to hear. By the time the band started, we were all working on our second and in Tom’s case, third drink of the afternoon which combined with the heat made it quite heady. From there, I wanted to see Aaron Neville and the Neville Brothers which because it is later in the afternoon was not quite as crowded. In addition, parades are held throughout the duration of the day by the Mardi Gras Indians, as well as by marching and brass bands from various social aid and pleasure clubs. There was so much to see and do and eat and drink, that by the time we left, we were all exhausted. Now all we have to do is stay awake until Danny flies in. Maybe take a nap since he will probably want to see a little of the night life.