Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

Grand Canyon

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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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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.

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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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Hilton Honors Lifetime Diamond

For 17 years I have participated in the Hilton Honors rewards program. Their top tier is Diamond. To qualify, you have to spend either 60 nights a year or 30 stays a year at a Hilton property. Every year you have to re-qualify. There are a lot of travel perks that come with the Diamond status, like extra bonus points for every stay. That’s the most valuable part, since the points get me free stays when I want them. But I get room upgrades all the time, free breakfasts, water, WiFi and any other amenities. I can get rooms in hotels that are completely booked (you figure how they do that…) and when I have a complaint, like I don’t like my room, they listen and work hard to accommodate any wishes. Needless to say, the Diamond status has paid off over the years. Since I started, I have qualified every year. Now you know how much I travel. And that does not include any Best Western, Hyatt, Marriott, Holiday Inn and boutique hotels overseas that I might have stayed in.

Now Hilton sent me a big box with presents, including a set of Bose earphones and other swag. They awarded me the Lifetime Diamond status. Now I don’t need to qualify anymore. I am not sure what you have to do to get this, but as you see above, in 17 years I have spent 1016 nights at 283 Hilton hotels.

That’s three YEARS!

Road warrior anyone?

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The Original Starbucks

Yesterday I was at a conference in downtown Seattle. In the afternoon I had some free time so I walked down to the pier to the famous Pike Place Market. Seattle has more Starbucks stores than any other city. You can literally step out of any building and look around in all direction and you will likely see a Starbucks. Here is a fun little article that illustrates my point. 

When I got down to Pike Place Market, I was in for a treat. Because that’s where the original Starbucks store is.

The first Starbucks store was established in 1971 at 2000 Western Avenue where it operated until 1976, when it moved to 1912 Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. So this address, while still hosting the original Starbucks, is actually the second location for the chain.

There are now 27,339 Starbucks stores worldwide.

As you can see in the picture above, there is a line going into the store. While it is not visible in the image, the line continues along the sidewalk to the left and goes all the way down the block.  There were probably a hundred or more people lined up – to get a cup of Starbucks in this store. I was not in the mood.

But I enjoyed a bit of coffee history and took this photograph.

My plan was to visit the Seattle Art Museum, just a few blocks down the road, but unfortunately, it was closed Monday as Tuesday, as museums are wont to be. Perhaps another time, after a good cup of coffee.

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Visiting Dana Point

Yesterday we visited Dana Point, a little city on the shores of the Pacific not an hour’s drive away from my home. In my more than thirty years of living in Southern California I have never been to Dana Point before.

After reading Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana recently, I have had plans to go and see the location. Richard Henry Dana, with this book, gave Dana Point its name, basically on the grounds of the following passage from the book which I read out loud on the beach to celebrate the occasion:

Coasting along on the quiet shore of the Pacific, we came to anchor in twenty fathoms’ water, almost out at sea, as it were, and directly abreast of a steep hill which overhung the water, and was twice as high as our royal-mast-head. We had heard much of this place from the Lagoda’s crew, who said it was the worst place in California. The shore is rocky, and directly exposed to the southeast, so that vessels are obliged to slip and run for their lives on the first sign of a gale; and late as it was in the season, we got up our slip-rope and gear, though we meant to stay only twenty-four hours.

We pulled the agent ashore, and were ordered to wait for him, while he took a circuitous way round the hill to the Mission, which was hidden behind it. We were glad of the opportunity to examine this singular place, and hauling the boat up, and making her well fast, took different directions up and down the beach, to explore it.

San Juan is the only romantic spot on the coast. The country here for several miles is high table-land, running boldly to the shore, and breaking off in a steep cliff, at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing. For several miles the water washes the very base of the hill, or breaks upon ledges and fragments of rocks which run out into the sea. Just where we landed was a small cove, or bight, which gave us, at high tide, a few square feet of sand-beach between the sea and the bottom of the hill. This was the only landing-place.

Directly before us rose the perpendicular height of four or five hundred feet. How we were to get hides down, or goods up, upon the table-land on which the Mission was situated, was more than we could tell. The agent had taken a long circuit, and yet had frequently to jump over breaks, and climb steep places, in the ascent. No animal but a man or a monkey could get up it. However, that was not our lookout; and, knowing that the agent would be gone an hour or more, we strolled about, picking up shells, and following the sea where it tumbled in, roaring and spouting, among the crevices of the great rocks. What a sight, thought I, must this be in a southeaster! The rocks were as large as those of Nahant or Newport, but, to my eye, more grand and broken.

Beside, there was a grandeur in everything around, which gave a solemnity to the scene, a silence and solitariness which affected every part! Not a human being but ourselves for miles, and no sound heard but the pulsations of the great Pacific! and the great steep hill rising like a wall, and cutting us off from all the world, but the “world of waters”! I separated myself from the rest, and sat down on a rock, just where the sea ran in and formed a fine spouting horn. Compared with the plain, dull sand-beach of the rest of the coast, this grandeur was as refreshing as a great rock in a weary land. It was almost the first time that I had been positively alone — free from the sense that human beings were at my elbow, if not talking with me — since I had left home. My better nature returned strong upon me. Everything was in accordance with my state of feeling, and I experienced a glow of pleasure at finding that what of poetry and romance I ever had in me had not been entirely deadened by the laborious life, with its paltry, vulgar associations, which I had been leading. Nearly an hour did I sit, almost lost in the luxury of this entire new scene of the play in which I had been so long acting, when I was aroused by the distant shouts of my companions, and saw that they were collecting together, as the agent had made his appearance, on his way back to our boat.

We pulled aboard, and found the long-boat hoisted out, and nearly laden with goods; and, after dinner, we all went on shore in the quarter-boat, with the long-boat in tow. As we drew in, we descried an ox-cart and a couple of men standing directly on the brow of the hill; and having landed, the captain took his way round the hill, ordering me and one other to follow him. We followed, picking our way out, and jumping and scrambling up, walking over briers and prickly pears, until we came to the top.

Here the country stretched out for miles, as far as the eye could reach, on a level, table surface, and the only habitation in sight was the small white mission of San Juan Capistrano, with a few Indian huts about it, standing in a small hollow, about a mile from where we were. Reaching the brow of the hill, where the cart stood, we found several piles of hides, and Indians sitting round them. One or two other carts were coming slowly on from the Mission, and the captain told us to begin and throw the hides down. This, then, was the way they were to be got down — thrown down, one at a time, a distance of four hundred feet! This was doing the business on a great scale.

Standing on the edge of the hill, and looking down the perpendicular height, the sailors “That walked upon the beach appeared like mice; and our tall anchoring bark diminished to her cock; her cock a buoy almost too small for sight.” Down this height we pitched the hides, throwing them as far out into the air as we could; and as they were all large, stiff, and doubled, like the cover of a book, the wind took them, and they swayed and eddied about, plunging and rising in the air, like a kite when it has broken its string. As it was now low tide, there was no danger of their falling into the water; and, as fast as they came to ground, the men below picked them up, and, taking them on their heads, walked off with them to the boat. It was really a picturesque sight: the great height, the scaling of the hides, and the continual walking to and fro of the men, who looked like mites, on the beach. This was the romance of hide dropping! Some of the hides lodged in cavities under the bank and out of our sight, being directly under us; but by pitching other hides in the same direction, we succeeded in dislodging them. Had they remained there, the captain said he should have sent on board for a couple of pairs of long halyards, and got some one to go down for them. It was said that one of the crew of an English brig went down in the same way, a few years before. We looked over, and thought it would not be a welcome task, especially for a few paltry hides; but no one knows what he will do until he is called upon; for, six months afterwards, I descended the same place by a pair of top-gallant studding-sail halyards, to save half a dozen hides which had lodged there. Having thrown them all over, we took our way back again, and found the boat loaded and ready to start. We pulled off, took the hides all aboard, hoisted in the boats, hove up our anchor, made sail, and before sundown were on our way to San Diego.

— Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast; A Personal Narrative (1911): WITH A SUPPLEMENT BY THE AUTHOR AND INTRODUCTION AND ADDITIONAL CHAPTER BY HIS SON (Kindle Locations 2302-2351). Houghton Mifflin. Kindle Edition.

I took a picture of the cliffs Dana is describing. It was still morning, and the marine layer over the coast had not yet cleared, hence the grey sky.

Later, after spending some time walking along the board walk and getting some lunch in one of the seafood places, we drove up the hill, where there are now housing developments with ocean view as far as the eye can see. However, we found the spot where Dana was likely standing when he took the hides off the ox cart and threw them down the cliff like huge Frisbees.

Here is the view from the top:

Moored down in the harbor is the Pilgrim, a full-sized replica of the ship Dana sailed on from Boston in 1835 on the trip he described in Two Years Before the Mast.

This is that the Pilgrim looks like under full sail, which I found on the Ocean Institute’s website. Click on the image to jump to that site for more information.

[picture credit: Ocean Institute]

The Pilgrim moored at Dana Point is a replica of the original ship that was built in 1825 in Boston for $50,000 and designed for shipping back and forth between the American East Coast and California. To do this, they had to sail all the way around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. This replica was built in Denmark in 1945. 

I truly enjoyed our visit to Dana Point, tracing some California history, and I strongly recommend reading Two Years Before the Mast, a book for which I gave a four-star review.

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Click to enlarge to see the White House and the Capitol all in one photograph.

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