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San Diego on a Clear Day

San Diego [click to zoom]

This a view of San Diego this morning at 9:30am. Downtown is in the center. The San Diego Bay is prominent across the picture, and the Pacific Ocean is on the bottom. The island you see is Coronado, and the “cross” on the left are the two runways of the Navy base. The beaches on the bottom left is where all the Navy SEALs get their training. On the upper side of the island, opposite the city skyline, you can see two moored aircraft carriers.

The airport, from where we came, is on the other side of the bay, to the left of downtown. To the right of downtown you can make out the curve of the famous Coronado bridge connecting the island with the city.

And incredibly, in the very distance, on the horizon on the left side of  the picture you can see the massive Mt. San Gorgonio, at 11,503 feet the highest mountain in Southern California. Read more about it here.  To its right you can see Mt. San Jacinto, the massive peak above Palm Springs. It’s 10,833 feet high. Here is a post about San Jacinto and the famous cactus to clouds (C2C) hike.

These mountains are 120 miles north of San Diego. The air was obviously very clear today.

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It’s the last few days of the year, and the Platinum Marathons are in full swing at American Airlines.

Yesterday, on the way back from Kaua’i to Los Angeles we were in the First Class section, courtesy of upgrades from American Airlines. I am an Executive Platinum frequent flyer, which is the highest tier you can reach. To get there, you have to spend at least $12,000 a year on tickets and fly at least 100,000 miles. Mind you, that’s a lot of traveling and there is no cheating your way there.

You might ask what it’s worth. The difference between “regular” Platinum and Executive Platinum is huge. For instance, as a Platinum member, you get occasional upgrades when there is room – which is not very often. As an Executive Platinum member, I fly First Class without paying for First Class at least 3 out of 4 flights or more. Quite often I am upgraded on an entire trip, like this time to Hawai’i. It makes a huge difference in the overall travel experience.

And that’s where the Platinum Marathons have their origin. Toward the end of the qualifying year, many Executive Platinum members may find themselves short a few miles from the 100,000 and are at risk of losing the status for the next year.

The lady in front of us yesterday was an example. She flew from North Carolina to Kaua’i on Wednesday, checked into the Marriott for the night, spent Thursday at the resort, and boarded the plane back to the mainland at 10:00pm that night. She was in Hawai’i barely 24 hours, but she burned 8,000 miles which was enough to get her over the 100,000 mile threshold. Whew, another year of top tier status achieved!

This is not unusual between Christmas and New Years in the First Class sections of long-distance flights. All the road warriors, or better “air warriors” who are lacking a few miles are just spending time on airplanes, traveling long distances with no destinations in mind, burning miles.

And now all you land-lubbers know a little bit more about the world of the road warriors: Platinum Marathons!

 

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‘Twas the night before Christmas and it rained buckets. The rain came down so hard on our cabin, the roof seemed to vibrate. I drifted in and out of sleep surrounded by the white noise of the rain storm.

In the morning it was clear and we decided to go on a drive to see some waterfalls.

One the way we stopped at a scenic overlook, and the most scenic part of it was the abundance of wild chickens that seemed to converge on any parked car. They must have learned that these creatures in their cruising tin boxes were the bringers of crumbs.

The highland of Kaua’i is lush, green and apparently a paradise for horses.

We stopped so Trisha could scratch the heads of a couple of horses, and they thoroughly enjoyed our attention.

When we got to Wailua Falls they were very swollen and completely brown. Normally those falls are beautiful, white and blue. But the heavy rains had stirred up the waters. The rivers and the waterfalls were all reddish-brown and fierce.

Later, at the ocean at the mouth of the Wailua River, it was an altogether eerie picture. The ocean was deep brown and wild. Driftwood covered all the beaches, and as far as we could see, brown water. The rivers wash the brown earth into the ocean, and the currents push it back to the beaches.

The island of Kaua’i is about 5.1 million years old and in another 5 million years, it will have largely been washed into the sea and become an atoll. Today, I was able to see this process of erosion in action, in front of my eyes. The brown ocean was my witness, as I stood, a bystander only in the eons of time, like dust in the wind, watching the dust in the ocean.

It put me in my place on this very different Christmas Day.

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Christmas Eve in Kaua’i

It’s nice and warm on the island of Kaua’i, except it’s rainy. Great single and double rainbows, though. Merry Christmas!

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Grand Canyon

[click to enlarge]

A beautiful and clear view of a vast section of the Grand Canyon this afternoon from 36,000 feet.

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Guatemala – a Nation Tortured

Touring Guatemala City and Antigua, visiting the sights of the city, traveling around the country, I would not help but feel that the Guatemalan people are beaten by centuries of torture of all possible kinds.

The country is filled with old missions, churches, monasteries and mansions, and not one of them seems intact. Everything old, and much new, is in utter ruin.

I grew up in Germany, the “old country,” in a small and ancient city named Regensburg. Traces of the city were there over 2,000 years ago, before the Romans arrived and built the first fortress there called Castra Regina. Regensburg has 17 churches, many of them hundreds of years old and none of them ruined. I might note that the city was fortunate to not have been the victim of Allied carpet bombing during World War II, and many of its ancient treasures are still preserved. My point is, the city is very old, and all the old stuff is there to see, live in, worship in, and generally enjoy.

The old buildings in Guatemala have all been destroyed, some of them many times over. The country has 37 volcanos, eight of them active today. When we were there, Fuego, the volcano just outside Antigua, which last had erupted in June 2018, was spewing flames and smoke every 10 or 15 minutes.

We just waited a few minutes, and sure enough, there would be a plume (see arrow) and we would be able to photograph it. Then, four days after we left, Fuego erupted again, and thousands more people living on its slopes were evacuated. Volcano eruptions have devastated Antigua and many other cities and villages in Guatemala routinely, consistently and devastatingly. Ash, lava, fire, landslides, mudslides, and flashfloods, all stemming from volcanic activity, have ruined cities, homes and killed thousands of people with brutal regularity.

When it wasn’t a volcano, it was an earthquake. Guatemala experiences frequent and severe earthquakes. Being a Californian myself, I can relate to that, but I have to say that I have never experienced any actual damage from an earthquake. I hope my writing this does not evoke one. In Guatemala, however, buildings are not always constructed based on the same building codes we have in California, and a quake that would make our cupboards shake and rattle in our house, might completely collapse a Guatemalan church or monastery. The last significant earthquake hit Guatemala City on February 4, 1976 at 3:04am. 23,000 people died. Many were crushed in their adobe homes in their sleep.

Extreme poverty and inept leadership then resulted in things not being rebuilt. So you walk around the city and you find it dotted with ruins of buildings, sometimes not even fenced in, where the rocks that fell out of walls decades ago are still on the ground, weeds and bushes growing over them, and trees growing inside the walls of a church were the pews once stood centuries ago.

Then there are hurricanes that have beaten over the ravaged country, coming in from both directions, the Caribbean as well as the Pacific side. Here is a list of many of the hurricanes.

Before the 1500s, when the Spanish had not yet arrived, the Mayans were the people tortured by volcanos, earthquakes and hurricanes. Then came the Spaniards, and in their thirst for Mayan jade and gold, enslaved the people, brought murder, rape, slavery and diseases. The Mayan people were then tortured by volcanos, earthquakes, hurricanes and the invaders and conquerors from Europe. They died by the millions at the hands of the conquistadores and from their diseases.

Then, most recently, came the Gringos and their thirst for drugs. They spawned crime from the drug trade. Cartels took over the desperate villages, where lack of opportunities for the young and hungry caused them to join whatever promised a way to make a few coins to feed their children and provide a semblance of hope.

And all the while, the volcanos and earthquakes never stop.

Guatemala is a tortured nation, and the Guatemalan people are a tortured people. And they deal with it with grace, pride, and smiling faces. I learned a lot about life and happiness during this visit.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrowmindedness … and many of our people need it solely on these accounts.

— Mark Twain

The Guatemalan people have earned my respect forever.

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[click to enlarge]


After two weeks of miserable conditions, the rains on Wednesday finally cleared up the smoke just in time for the holiday. The city breathes again. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Guatemala – Security

In the week we were in Guatemala, I never once felt at risk or uncomfortable. The people were always friendly and accommodating. Whether I knew it or not, I was probably “protected” as a tourist.

However, check out the picture above. The people in the center are members of our group. See the two men in black on the right side of the building? Those are armed guards.

The picture above is in front of a bank.

Here is a guard at a convenience store at a gas station. He was very friendly and held the door open to any patron that walked up to it.

The guards are also never shy about posing with tourists. There is quite a bit of that going on all the time.

It became quickly obvious that any business of significance required armed guards. Banks usually had two or three heavily armed guards, with full battle uniforms and bullet-proof vests. Hotels, restaurants, gas stations, car dealerships, and many other retail businesses had armed guards. I didn’t count them, but just riding in a shuttle from Guatemala City to Antigua, which is a very industrial stretch, I am sure I saw hundreds of armed guards in front of businesses.

We went to visit a coffee plantation.

The Filadelfia Estate is owned by the family of Robert Dalton. The plantation was started in 1870 and Dalton is the 4th generation owner. It’s a huge farm and I learned a lot about coffee that I never knew. I will not ever look at a coffee bean the same way again. But I digress.

We took a tour of the plantation. At one point, we stopped and the guide explained the harvesting of coffee beans when I looked over and saw a huge wall behind the trees.

The green shrubs in the foreground are coffee plants. The trees are shade trees that are necessary to protect the coffee. The wall is huge, with a chain link fence on top, and razor wire coils above that. At the corner, there is a cluster of video surveillance equipment.


Looking in the other direction, the chain link fence is even higher. You can see the bars in the center of the image. This is on top of the wall.

We were obviously curious what’s behind that wall, so we asked the guide.

“The house of the owner” was the answer.

In the context of security, this is a frightening thought.

The owner of a large coffee plantation is obviously very rich. His house is probably beautiful and opulent, yet, nobody can see it since it’s behind a 20 foot high wall. Not only is it inside a wall, but it’s way in the middle of a plantation which is surrounded by fences, and a massive guard house with armed men protecting it 24 hours a day.

The owner has to basically imprison himself in concentric circles of security to be safe. I cannot imagine living this way. He must be in constant fear of being kidnapped, obviously, why otherwise would he imprison himself and his family.

Hotels in Guatemala are also interesting with regard to security. I wrote about that in another post.

 

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Guatemala – Hotels

We are used to hotels being nice, large buildings with stately portal entrances and parking lots on the side and manicured grounds around them. Not so in Guatemala.

We visited the very best hotel in Antigua, the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo , several times. Rooms run from US $300 to US $600 a night. From the outside, you cannot see the hotel. It’s just a high wall in the middle the city, on a shabby cobblestone street.

This is the entrance. I am the one of the right side, calling an Uber. You see the sidewalk we’re on is about two feet wide and the wall is about 12 feet high and surrounds an entire city block in Antigua. The street in front of it is narrow and cobblestone covered. When you walk through this door, you enter a different world. But first, there are armed guards. We never had any trouble getting past the guards, since we’re obviously foreign tourists and they know we’re coming to spend on a single dinner as much as their own average monthly salary.

But my point is – hotels are invisible from the outside, and they are guarded fortresses.

We stayed at two different hotels in Antigua. The first was Hotel La Ermita de Santa Lucia.

[click to enlarge]

This is what it looks like from the main entrance at the street. Note the barred windows, the wall to the right, and the door. This door is locked all the time. To get in, you have to knock. Somebody comes to the door, after they inspect you through the lookout window.

Once inside, it’s a friendly courtyard with the rooms all around. The inside of this hotel makes you believe you are in a completely different world than what you see from the street. This seems to be the case in all of Guatemala.

This is another hotel where we stayed for a few days, el Hotel Casa San Bartolo. Yes, this is it. The door in the center is solid steel. You have to knock to be allowed in. The sidewalk is narrow.

Here is the view from our room. Note the barbed wire at the top of the wall.

Rich people (tourists) imprison themselves to enjoy life.

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Trisha holding the setting sun at the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

[photo credit: Ziya Aras]

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Last Sunday our group took a bus tour to Chichicastenango, a market town in the highlands of Guatemala, about two hours from Antigua, over steep mountains.

Our guides took us there because it has one of the most famous markets. The market itself is in the courtyard of a two-story building. We went upstairs and looked down on it. Dozens of vendors were selling their vegetables. What you can’t see in this picture is the strong aroma of the amalgam of all types of vegetables, fresh out of the earth. I have never before smelled vegetables that strong.

To get to the market, we had to walk down crowded alleyways which were packed with vendors on both sides. The paths themselves were also patrolled by vendors, women and children mostly, trying to sell us trinkets of all manner. It was frighteningly crowded. Sure enough, within just minutes one man in our group had his wallet and smartphone stolen. Somebody had bumped into him from the front, while presumably someone else picked the pocket in the right leg of his cargo shorts.

I walked with my wallet in my hand and my hand in my pocket, and my other hand on my phone all the way. I got through unscathed.

As we walked, women and children constantly solicited us to buy their wares. One boy, I estimate him about 12 years old, was Jeremy.

Here you can see Trisha surrounded by vendors. Jeremy is the boy on the right. The vendors latched on to us and followed us. Jeremy would simply not leave. He was very polite, spoke surprisingly good English, gave his name, told us about his family. We bought a blanket from his mother. He would just follow us and keep us engaged for at least 20 minutes all they way back to the gate of the town’s best hotel, which was our meeting place. Vendors cannot enter the hotel. Armed guards keep them out. It was almost like a sanctuary that kept the locals out.

And there stood Jeremy, as we walked away from him and the other children and women, looking at us with his smiling eyes and wishing us a good day. I turned around and bought a bamboo drum for 50 Quetzales, as a mercy purchase. Jeremy had obviously learned that as long as he simply persisted, he would eventually make the sale. I didn’t ask him how long he had been working the market, but there were little boys and girls who looked no older than six or seven who were out there hustling and hawking their trinkets.

The poverty in Guatemala is striking. People everywhere are working hard, trying to make a living somehow, and it just seems that the system is holding them down.

The average wage in Guatemala is about eight Quetzales an hour, that’s about $1.25 or perhaps one Euro.

I wonder what they are thinking when they serve tourists like us in luxury hotels. A beer costs 24 Quetzales in any bar or restaurant, or about 3 to 4 hours of work for the average person. A meal for two will easily run 500 or more Quetzales. That would be almost two weeks of work. A night in a good hotel will be 800 to 1500 Quetzales. That’s one month of wages.

What do these people who serve us think about us? In a single week in their country, between meals, hotels, fares, entry fees for various events and places, each of us might spend two years’ worth of wages of an average person.

Is it any wonder that boys like Jeremy, once they are 16 years old and independent, get on a bus and head “al norte” to make a better living for themselves?

I cannot blame them. These people are made of passion and diligence and an indomitable spirit. It’s as if they came straight from Mother Earth.

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We are visiting Antigua, one of the most historic cities in Guatemala. I can definitely say I am experiencing culture shock. Antigua is very different from any city I have ever visited, and some main features are very characteristic. For instance, all the roads in the city are paved with cobblestones, very rough cobblestones.  They are lined by narrow sidewalks, often broken, with major holes and walking hazards.

The city is classified as a historic monument, so all the cobblestone roads are supposedly the original colonial roads. They are not paved or cemented. This makes for a very rough ride in cars, vans, busses, tuk-tuks, or motorcycles, which are ubiquitous. Here is a quick video of what the roads are like. Forgive the poor video quality – due to my limited upload bandwidth, but it gives you a sense of the rough rides.

All city streets are like this. I can’t imagine what this does to their tires, suspensions, shocks, and the general reliability of their cars. It’s like speed bumps all the time, everywhere. When you’re in a car (we took many Ubers) you get completely rattled.

Above is a typical street picture. The houses or businesses reach right to the narrow sidewalks and windows either don’t exist, or they are heavily boarded or covered by prison-like bars. The streets, as you can see, are very rough, and there are usually too many cars parked along them.

Here is another view of a typical city street. There are hundreds of blocks like this. The walls by the sidewalk are often broken, covered with graffiti and usually very shabby.

But appearances can deceive. Sometimes these “houses” that are nothing like shabby walls from the street are elaborate homes inside. Sometimes they are hotels, restaurants or other businesses. Going through the doors of these walls is often like going into another world. I will illustrate this in another post showing you outside and inside photographs of our hotel.

Here is another example. There are thousands of facades like this in Antigua, and you can never tell from the outside what it is like inside.

Of course, some views are amazing. Here is a view from approximately the city center looking south to the volcano called Agua. It’s over 12,300 feet tall and towers majestically over the city.

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No visit to New York City is complete for me without stopping in at the Met and spending some time with my favorite van Gogh paintings there. I probably posted these before, but I just can’t help it. These are some of my favorite paintings in the world.

van Gogh – Roses – 1890

van Gogh – Irises – 1890

 

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An Amazing View

I visited a company on the 36th floor of the Grace Building in New York City. That’s the building that slopes slightly back before it rises straight up, adjacent to Bryant Park. This was the view from their lobby:

The light bars at the top are the reflection of the lamps in the lobby. I could not get rid of those. Bryant Park is below, outside of the frame of this picture, but visible to the human eye standing at the window. With the park there, there will never be any construction in front of this building that could obstruct the view. Prime New York real estate.

The large building in the foreground, of course, is the Empire State Building, and in the very center in the back you can just make out the tower of World Trade Center One, which is down in the financial district at the tip of Manhattan.

The view from this office is incredible.

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Back in New York City.

Here is the view looking south out of my 22nd floor room at the DoubleTree in Chelsea, across from the Madison Square Garden. The World Trade Center 1 tower, the highest building in the Western Hemisphere, in the background. The antenna on top is about as tall as the Cologne Cathedral spires.

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