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Monday, March 30, 2009


Viva Mexico! Caribbean paradise or Pacific heaven—the choice is yours. The country is beautiful and diverse; the people welcoming, the culture historical, preserved, and interesting.

A two-week winter break in Cancun seemed like a good idea to us last Spring so we booked it—magnificently warm weather, Caribbean’s green water and silky, cool white sand, an all-inclusive hotel suite big enough to invite company, and plenty of cultural venues close by should we muster the energy and inclination to coax ourselves off the chaise.

Love sailing? Sailing Hobie Cats on the Caribbean is exhilarating. The spectacular greens of the water sparkle like jewels, the rushing wind speeds us around windsurfers and kite boarders. All of us prefer the power of nature to the power of loud motors.

Love snorkeling? We snorkel off Isla Mujeres’ reef. This is an island we see in the distance from our patio. It sparkles in the night’s blackness. A trimaran trip drops us at the coral reef where we spent time with the vividly colored fishes. We spend the rest of the day exploring Isla Mujeres, dining in a hotel there, and enjoying the sights.

We decided to visit some distant places but not cheat ourselves of the beach. One day in the city of Cancun would be fine.

Have a yen to experience Mexican culture via the bullfight? Each Wednesday at Plaza de Toros there is a bullfight performed as it is all over Mexico and other Latin American countries. Preceding the fight itself is a show featuring pig chases, dancing, lariat twirling, horsemanship, and other colorful folkloric acts. That’s a nice hour.

The bullfight is modeled after Spain’s, ritualistic and choreographed. We saw the real thing. Once is enough for me. But the pictures do tell it.

Click to play this Smilebox slideshow: Bullfight in Cancun

Plaza de Toros is in downtown Cancun and before the bullfight, a short walk takes us into the Mexican business and residential section where my rudimentary Spanish helps. There we visit an upscale mall geared to upscale Mexicans rather than to tourists. No bilingual signs, for instance. It’s good to visit here for a number of reasons, and one is to permanently debunk a slew of stereotypes. In Cancun, the tourists are really congregated in one major area, and over and over again we find we have to go looking for Mexico.

After the bullfight we head to Mercado 28, the biggest flea market I’ve ever seen and in some ways the equivalent to NYC’s lower East Side. There isn’t a tour book that doesn’t highly recommend a visit. Booth after booth of merchandise with hawkers outside telling me to “Start here; you won’t need to go elsewhere!” That line emanated from silver merchants, t-shirt merchants, postcard merchants, leather merchants, clothing merchants, wood sculpture merchants, etc., etc., etc. (as the King would say). Overwhelming, for sure. If you want to bring home a piece of Mexico, this is the place to find it. Rob brought home three beautiful leather belts.

From Mercado 28, a 15 minute walk through a business and residential neighborhood with one more stop to ask directions in my shaky Spanish from a man sitting in a store’s doorway, we head to Parillas, a restaurant highly touted for its Mexican authenticity and mariachi music (a favorite of ours). Too touristy, I’m afraid. Michael, Rob and I tried dinners that provided samples of different Mexican foods, but something was lacking—it seemed geared toward non-Mexican tourists—and I can’t recommend this restaurant.

The mariachi band proved to be strolling musicians willing to play a song at your table for 70 pesos. Not expensive. BUT their repertoire seemed to be limited to La Bomba and several versions of Happy Birthday. We ordered seconds of excellent, delicious, and potent margaritas instead, and I report that we were much happier for that experience.

There are places in Cancun where Mexico is lost, or where Mexico is what we see in the movies. We had to go far afield to find what we were really looking for, but I will write about that next month.

We took a taxi back to Blue Bay Club. Our day in Cancun proper was long, varied, and interesting. We also compiled a list of things to do for our next visit, which may be this coming winter.


My book of the year is Mary Ann Shaffer's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. This novel is literature; it has all the hallmarks of a great book in its use of literary technique. One of the most charming elements is its form. It is epistolary--a series of letters. Through the letters the reader is invited to enter a private world and see the personal thoughts of the characters. Guernsey's great plot takes the reader on an emotional ride as each new event is uncovered.

The story begins on Jan.8, 1946 immediately following the end of World War II when people in England are trying to find their centers after years of war, bombings, and deprivation. That's true in busy London where our main character lived through the bombing and destruction. It's also true on the quiet Channel Island where the people, no longer captives of the Nazi occupiers, are trying to find--or remember--what life is like on a small island isolated from the mainland's hectic life. It's not easy re-defining the meaning of "normal." The search for an answer suggests a look at life's values.

One of the strongest aspects of the novel is the diversity of character. As in any society, the range of personalities, values, and reactions to events is diverse. How people react to war, occupation, and a shrinking of basic living supplies can reveal traits that in a better world may remain hidden. Through the letters, we are treated to various reactions to the lack of food, fuel, housing, and freedom. Through the people on Guernsey and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, we gain familiarity and insight. So does our main character, Londoner Juliet Ashton.

Juliet Ashton is a young, weary London writer whose home, belongings, and sense of normalcy have been bombed into oblivion. Trying to write a book as a transition from wartime columnist attempting to bring some humor into a humorless situation to a recognized serious author rebuilding a shattered emotional life and adjusting to a blitzkrieg-free post war environment, Juliet begins to find some sense to the world through a casual correspondence with a Guernsey Island inhabitant, Dawsey Adams.

Juliet's relationship widens through letters to other members of Guernsey's Literary and Potato Pie Society, people also desperate for news of the world after years of isolated Nazi occupation. Their letters reveal the pains and joys of life lived under dire circumstances. The letters reflect their resilience, and this novel becomes praise for the human spirit.

But don't think this is a serious, no-nonsense book. It's not! There is plenty of lol funny stuff going on, and there's burgeoning affection and confliction as well. The tone is warm, friendly, and humorous. Juliet is aggressively courted by super-wealthy, wheeler-dealer, suave Markham Reynolds who inundates her with flowers and wines, and who dines her in a way that her war-rationed mentality finds gloriously stimulating. He introduces her into international society. The rush and the romance is very tempting for a girl who still delights over real eggs and real sugar for icing!

The key is--This book is delightful, real, vivid, exciting, and, to my absolute pleasure, a piece of real literature! The characters will become your friends, and you will yearn to visit the Channel Islands (although the inhabitants will hardly enjoy becoming a tourist spot). Treat yourself to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.


Drive from I-81 to Sharpsburg, Maryland and enter the quiet pastoral beauty along the Antietam Creek. There, on Sept. 17, 1862 beauty became a carnivorous beast, and within a few hours, 23,000 boys lay scattered against and atop one another, packed so thickly that avoiding stepping on them was a challenge. The South called this the battle of Sharpsburg, but for most of us it is known as Antietam. The battle was a draw, and those who lived were to fight each other again.

The Antietam Battlefield is part of America’s hallowed ground. The National Park Service maintains it and instructs visitors about the sacrifices made here as each side fought to preserve its ideology. The Visitor Center is an educational mecca where we first listen to U.S. Forest Service Ranger Gentile’s interpretative lecture.

As is Rob and my experience at other National Parks, the Ranger presentation is enthusiastic, artfully presented, and full of details that spark our imaginations. As he points through the walls of glass in the presentation room, the rolling hills and fields are suddenly peopled with soldiers, drummers, and standard bearers advancing. As he speaks we begin to understand the mental processes of Generals Lee and McClellan as well as the challenges that caused the best made plans to go astray.

After the Ranger presentation, we watch a video about the battle, and it adds information to our growing understanding. Through the video we gain more perspective in terms of area and strategy. The Visitor Center also includes a museum, and there we see artifacts of the men who participated in the battle. We see a photograph of young Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who fought here long before he became a Supreme Court Justice. Additionally, we learn about the medical help available at the time. Knowledge of sanitation was still decades away, and more men died of infection than of the wounds themselves. Injuries to the head, chest or stomach area meant almost certain death. Injuries to the limbs meant amputation. Many of the doctors who participated in the war on either side had never done amputations before, and the numbers were so horrific that the word "sawbones" was coined, and often outside the medical units were limbs heaped in alarming piles.

Each new fact reinforces what we already know--war is horrible, and the destruction of lives is inevitable. The ground drenched in the blood of soldiers is hallowed ground.

We bought a cd driving tour of the battlefield. Following its path, we gain additional perspective. Imagine standing at the edge of a 30 acre cornfield with the corn stalks still standing. The soldiers begin the battle marching between the rows. At the end of the battle several hours later, exploding shells, bullets and men have totally destroyed the cornfield. Standing at the end of the field, now returned to its natural state peaceful and serene, I am reminded once again of the horror of that day. It is at once moving and terrifying.

As we follow this tour, we see monuments dedicated to the different participants--very often erected by the states that sent them to battle. We view a monument to Clara Barton who began her great work here--a Massachusetts volunteer who delivered supplies to the soldiers and who nursed them. The monument to her includes a Red Cross, symbol of the organization she founded. Another positive result was the development of an ambulance system to evacuate the wounded more efficiently. Between Antietam and the Battle of Fredericksburg a mere ten months later, the time taken to remove the wounded was cut down by DAYS. It took almost a week to separate the wounded lying among the dead at Antietam.

Let yourself flow with the story, and the history and the horror of this battle comes alive. These were 23,000 Americans killed in only hours. More than one hundred years of historical analysis suggests that the outcome of the war was really solidified at this battle. Lee had hoped to advance into Maryland, a Union state, to show the Confederate strength and to play upon the war-weariness of the North. He had hoped his victory would convince both England and France to recognize the South's independence and to enter in some manner on the Confederate side. Although he eventually fought at Gettysburg, Lee never had another real opportunity to win in the North, and he never won the European countries primarily because of the South’s stand on slavery. Of course he couldn't foretell the years and bloodshed still to come, but to me, standing in this place, the waste and sacrifice is illuminated.

Some might not call this a "vacation," but visiting the places where American history was made has always been moving and enlightening experiences. Carol, Rob, and I spent about four hours at Antietam, and we still did not get a chance to see everything. I highly recommend this visit, and I guarantee you will come away a more enlightened individual.

TWAIN'S THE INNOCENTS ABROAD is not so innocent!

I’m a Mark Twain fan. I believe The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a brilliant work—one I would take with me if left on a desert island. Twain’s witticisms are sharp, insightful, and laced with vinegar. My bumper sticker this last election cycle read, “Mark Twain for President: Better to be popular than right.”

So it was no hardship to pick up a book of his I had never read, The Innocents Abroad. This 1867 travel book of four-month excursion through Europe to the Holy Land seemed just the venue to showcase Twain’s talents. I was right. This book is both a journey into the past and its perspectives as well as a look at some apparently universal qualities that are just as true today as they were in 1867. That means if you are looking for a PC book, skip this one. What’s true is not always pretty, and Twain’s ink is tinted with reality. That goes for People, Places, and Things. He definitely voices the idea that The Emperor Has No Clothes. I did a lot of chuckling at how little some things have changed.

If you close your eyes and think of what was unfamiliar to people in the mid 19th century, you can see how spectacularly this book which was available by subscription was received. His descriptions are wonderful—some complimentary, others caustic. In his fashion he strips away the expectations and describes the reality. It’s a wonderful read------IF you can forget that he was painting pictures for people who were far less familiar with the world than we are today. That makes some of the detail quite tedious and other detail quite amusing. I admit to skimming through some of that 1867 stuff and chuckling at the stuff that remains true today.

But don’t mistake Twain for a mocking writer. In almost every case, he mocks and admires at the same time. A great example is his first daylight impression of Venice that evokes disdain and disappointment. But as night falls and lights come on (just a few paragraphs later), the charm and beauty of the city is evoked with all the grace and talent he possesses.

Twain describes the great Bazaar in Stamboul: “The place is crowded with people all the time, and as the gay-colored Eastern fabrics are lavishly displayed before every shop, the great Bazaar of Stamboul is one of the sights that are worth seeing. It is full of life, and stir, and business, dirt, beggars, asses, yelling peddlers, porters, dervishes, high-born Turkish female shoppers, Greeks, and weird-looking and weirdly dressed Mohammedans from the mountains and the far provinces—and the only solitary thing one does not smell when he is in the Great Bazaar, is something which smells good.”

Does that seem old-fashioned and stereotyped? Here is a description from a current popular book, Out Stealing Horses: “There is nothing but bazaars in that town, and voices shouting in every language wanting to sell you something, wanting you to come down the gangway…and it is deafening and bewildering, there are cymbals and kettledrums, and smells that almost make you faint; a mixture of overripe vegetables and indefinable meat he had no idea existed in this world.”

Twain remarks about the pomposity of travelers: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad…there are Americans …who have actually forgotten their mother tongue in three months—forgot it in France. They cannot even write their address in English in a hotel register.”

I cannot help but include this section from an 1870 Saturday Review (British magazine) piece done on this book: “Perhaps we have persuaded our readers by this time that Mr. Twain is a very offensive specimen of the vulgarest kind of Yankee. And yet, to say the truth, we have a kind of liking for him. There is a frankness and originality about his remarks which is pleasanter than the mere repetition of stale raptures; and his fun, if not very refined, is often tolerable in its way. In short, his pages may be turned over with amusement, as exhibiting more or less consciously a very lively portrait of the uncultivated American tourist, who may be more obtrusive and misjudging, but is not quite so stupidly unobservant as our native product. We should not choose either of them for our companions on a visit to a church or a picture-gallery, but we should expect most amusement from the Yankee as long as we could stand him."

Choose this book with care, but hang on—it’s going to be a bumpy but remarkable ride.


101 East Hartford St.
Milford, PA 18337
(570) 296-4021

Milford, PA is a charming town constantly working to reinvent itself and become a Pennsylvania tourist attraction. I think the town is succeeding. It was to Milford that I’ve come to see Grey Towers, the home of Gifford Pinchot, founder of our National Park Service under Theodore Roosevelt and owner of a very amazing home well worth touring. I've been there three times, and I've enjoyed it each time. Last fall, my friends and I did some letterboxing in the town. We tried some of Milford's restaurants too.

Rob and I passed through Milford on our way to Shawnee, PA, and we stopped for lunch at the Dimmick Inn. This is the first week in March, and it's cold. The town is empty or tourists.

My friend Carol and I ate at the Dimmick Inn on a summer afternoon some years ago, and I have good memories. Carol and I dined on the big porch overlooking the Main Street, and lunch was a combination of food and people watching. It’s a bit different for Rob and me. We park, climb over the snow banks lining the curb and enter through the dining room entrance. I'd never been inside, and on this day the dining room has two patrons. The bar has a group of people who appear to be regulars.

There is a great, friendly, homey feeling and a smiling friendly waitress. It's warm and cozy. The Travel Channel is on the bar's TV, and Samantha Brown is doing her lovely vacation thing at some beautiful beach--180 degrees from cold and snowy Pennsylvania. Because Rob's back faces the TV, I mention Samantha Brown, a woman traveler after my own heart. One fellow watching the show comes over, and we three begin conversation. I’d like to travel like Samantha Brown and to places she visits. Our new friend is a fan of Anthony Bourdain, and Rob talks about his favorite, Andrew Zimmern. This is a weird bar conversation, but the patron is well-versed, and we enjoy the chat. Travel Channel personalities aren't names or shows we'd ordinarily expect in barroom chat, but it's just this kind of encounter that makes life interesting, isn’t it?

Lunch is really good. I order Fish & Chips and Bass ale. My plate comes piled with crisp french fries, a big order of cole slaw, lettuce and lemons, and three big pieces of panko. It is delicious, and it is more than enough for a dinner platter. The fish is crisp, not oily. The potatoes are thin, slightly salty, and very tasty. Rob orders a steak sandwich, rare. The meat is done just as he likes, practically mooing, is covered with onions and cheese, and is stuffed between two pieces of rye bread and. He, too, has the potatoes and coleslaw. He drinks Stella Artois. The "lunch" is big enough for dinner. We jokingly wonder what Anthony Bourdain would think of our lunches!

Sometimes traveling during the 0ff, 0ff season is too quiet. We are on the verge of that here, but meeting and talking to some nice people and having a great lunch in a place that is pretty busy during the summer is just the right way to begin our short trip to the Poconos.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Travel tips

While Americans expect never to pay sticker price for a car, they’re often skittish about bargaining about prices in foreign countries although every travel book about Mexico suggests bargaining is an expectation. Perhaps our hesitance has something to do with the knowledge of how wonderfully well we live in the United States. We don't like to take advantage of people we provincially see as less fortunate. At any rate, on our tours in Mexico, the guides warned us, as the tour books did, to refuse the marked price and to pay not more than 20% below that. That is about the difference agreed upon whenever we did shop—Michael’s Cuban cigar, Rob’s leather belts, my rain-god sculpture—all from different locations. Michael and I were skittish, but Rob took the guides at their word and lo and behold, they were right!

One other caution about travel in Mexico. Agree on the taxi fare before entering the taxi. There are no meters. Your hotel concierge will give you an amount to expect to pay. When we left Plaza de Toros, for instance, the first driver, spotting tourists, quoted an outlandish amount. When Rob countered with the amount somewhat closer to the concierge’s suggestion, the driver immediately agreed. We were on our way with all parties satisfied.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


Last year when we took the Autotrain to Florida, we enjoyed the company of other people in the dining car. It’s one of the pleasures of train travel. I’d like to share one experience with you that is typical of the nice encounters we’ve had. I’m ready for another train trip.

One of the unknowns about travel is who we will meet. At our Autotrain check-in, we choose a 7:00 dinner seating—early enough for cocktails with the other passengers in our downstairs compartment and late enough to give us some time before calling it a night. We’re pleased when we’re seated with a younger but shy couple.

Rob introduces himself and me, and a conversation begins. On the Autotrain the first question is always, “Where are you from?” and it’s the perfect icebreaker. They’re leaving from Virginia Beach. Great.

“We know Virginia Beach,” Rob immediately replies. We know people who live there, and we’ve vacationed there after dropping off our son at Virginia Tech.”

The ice melts away.

They just left Virginia Beach and are heading to Jacksonville with two cars—not for vacation but for three years.

“Are you in the Military?” I ask. That three-year stint is becoming code to me.

With that the conversation opens up. Our dinner companion is crew chief for maintenance on F-18 Hornets after working on Sea Hawk helicopters. He’s assigned to Florida and he and his wife, a cardiac nurse, are headed down to find a home.

We tell them about Michael in Iraq and Leslie from Virginia Beach. We talk of how Rob and I loved to lie on that beach in the sun watching the Navy jets fly out each morning and return in the afternoon—bursts of silver against the robin egg blue sky.

Our companions are anxious to talk too, and we hear their stories. They originally came to the United States from Sierra Leone, and he joined the Navy after college. That was ten years ago. They love their life.

We share a lovely meal with these two young people, sharing some experiences. We all agree that the relaxed feel of the Autotrain makes the trip a relaxing interlude to the often frenetic pace of life. It's nice to meet other people, and it was nice to have a chance to speak to this military couple and to thank them.

Meanwhile the train slowly rocked its way through the darkness past Selma, North Carolina—another sleepy town on our way south.