St. Augustine

20130226-182728.jpgAfter four days of visiting with the Alabama kids we headed out Monday morning for Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine, FL. What should have been an easy six hour drive across I10 was actually a stressful seven hour drive due to heavy rain nearly the whole way. Poor visibility, and the need to keep the tires out of the water filled depressions worn into the pavement by trucks, meant 50 – 55 mph was about it. Believe me, we were happy to pull into the park about 5:00 PM, and happy the rain ended before we had to do our set-up chores.

Unfortunately, the many hours of heavy rain and 50 mph relative wind forced water into every possible nook and cranny of the trailer. We have had minor window leaks before but nothing like this. Sue’s bedding was wet as was the corner on my bed under the window. Fortunately the park bathroom had a clothes dryer so we could get our stuff dried. There was a grim moment when we realized our rain-hassle was not over, but Sue had dinner on the table a couple of hours later, we opened a bottle of wine and agreed it hadn’t killed us so it must have made us stronger. Yeh, right.

After a nice meal accompanied by Roseanne Cash’s The List and Spike Nicer’s Mystery Time, we walked for a couple of miles to watch the full moon duck in and out of the clouds over the Atlantic.

20130227-080521.jpgAhhh, we got our camping groove back.

It has been a little over a month since we last camped at Cedar Key and we were both looking forward to taking off in the Snoozy again. The all-day rain sucked but here we are now warm and dry and ready to start exploring again.

Back In the USA

20130221-190932.jpg We flew back from Mexico last Thursday morning, arriving at Matt and Renee’s house in Chicago mid-afternoon. They were both at work, giving us a little alone time to decompress.

They are still in the middle of sprucing up their new-to-them hundred year old house. Sue painted on Friday and I fixed a couple of dripping faucets and did some other miscellaneous chores. Saturday was a birthday luncheon for Renee’s niece, Kira, then a late afternoon trip downtown to see a photo exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center.

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Once again we learned not to be too invested in what we want as what we get is often much better. We had read on the Internet about an exhibition of historic photos at the Cultural Center that sounded interesting. When we asked the lady at the info desk where the pictures were she looked at us like we must be from really far out of town and said she had no idea what we were talking about. Turned out the exhibition was February 2012, not 2013. As Rick Perry so famously said, “Oops!”

We decided to stay anyway and wander around looking at the architecture and were completely blown away by the two beautiful glass domed rotundas.

This one, called Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, was commissioned in 1896 to honor Union Civil War veterans.

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This building was originally the main branch of the Chicago Public Library. The great hall where patrons checked out their books is roofed with the largest single piece of stained glass artwork the Tiffany Company ever produced. The dome is composed of 2848 individual pieces of glass covering more than 10,000 square feet. It was just stunning.

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Sunday we regained our tropical vibe, for a few hours at least, at the Garfield Park Conservatory.

20130221-194654.jpg A steam heated greenhouse full of palm trees and bright flowers is a nice place to be on a cold sunny day.

We spent Sunday afternoon through Tuesday morning with old friends living in Naperville, a western suburb of Chicago. Reminiscing about old times, we calculated we had started hanging out together 42 years ago.

A long day of driving got as far as Huntsville, AL before stopping for the night. Visited the rest area again with the big rocket pictured in the my very first blog post written last December. Arrived at the kids’ house in Enterprise Wednesday afternoon and took the grand kids William (5 mths) and Luke (26 mths) to the park this morning.

I think my grandchildren are cute and can’t resist posting this picture of Luke picking Dandelions for his Grandma. So sue me.

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Adios Isla

20130216-073148.jpg We had four more days of enjoying the island and hanging out with George and Diane. From my vantage point back here in Chicago now our whole experience on Isla Mujeres seems like a really intense, really nice dream.

We were lucky enough to land in a place where every day was like the nicest day of the summer, good friends were around all the time but not too much, there were lots of interesting restaurants with good food and not too expensive, we were seldom out of sight of the ocean and often walking barefoot on the sand but never cold, didn’t have much to do but were never bored. Ahhh….

This picture says it all: A sunny afternoon at our favorite restaurant enjoying lunch outdoors with G&D, our bare feet in the sand and the ocean fifty feet away.

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An extra bonus for me was going to yoga twice with Sue and Diane. Sue has been doing yoga for some time but I had never seriously tried it. Diane said the instructor was great and the studio looked nice, a simple screened room up in the air under a thatched roof, so I thought, “Why not?” It was an eye (and mind) opening experience – something I definitely want to explore further – and an unexpected gift from Isla Mujeres.

Adiós hasta la próxima vez.

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Isla Mujeres III

20130210-110950.jpg Two more days of drifting through this easy island life seeing the sights and enjoying the beach. Well it was two days when I started this post but now it’s been four days. Time sure flies by when you are having fun.

We still had the golf cart so I drove Sue and Diane to yoga early Friday morning then tooled around the island until they were done an hour later. Back at George and Diane’s apartment Diane made us breakfast then she and Sue worked on Wednesday Wisdom while I sat on the beach working on this blog. Brought the cart back to town at noon at the end of the 24 hour rental, got some lunch and met G&D later at North Beach for swimming.

20130212-172605.jpgThe water was about waist deep where I took this picture.

Afterward we went to dinner at La Lomita

20130212-221902.jpg George and Diane headed home around 9:00; Sue and I strolled around checking out the Carnival festivities.

We had no idea when we booked our tickets but this is the week before Lent so therefore Carnival time. It’s a five day celebration that started Friday and ends Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Groups of people, including kids, create really elaborate costumes and dance on a stage set up in the town square. They compete on the basis of costumes and dancing ability with REALLY LOUD music blasting. Right down the block from our hotel.

I tried to get some pictures of the competition but the camera wasn’t up to the night time picture task.

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There is also a parade every day at 3:00 and after that the groups ride around town in the back of pick-up trucks with huge speakers tied to the roof. They stop here and there on the main street, block traffic and do a short dance routine so I could get a few daylight pictures. I especially thought the little kids were cool all dressed up.

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Of course the grown-ups were not so shy about making eye contact with the gringo with the iPhone.

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Isla Mujeres II

20130208-140547.jpgMore touristing with some random weirdness thrown in.

20130208-140824.jpgAfter breakfast we went snorkeling again in the Avalon Reef Lagoon then got cleaned up to meet George and Diane for a picnic on the beach. We rented a golf cart so we could get around a little quicker and have a George-guided tour of the island in the afternoon.

The rental experience was Mexican commerce at its best. Trip Advisor reviewers suggested renting a cart from one of the vendors hanging around the ferry dock. I asked the cop directing traffic in front of the dock who was the best to rent from (he may or may not have understood a word I said besides golf cart). He pointed to a guy who had a sign advertising a cart for 650 pesos (about $50) for 24 hours. I told the cart guy I’d rent a large cart (they come in two sizes, regular with two people facing forward and two aft or large with four people forward and a trunk) for 650 pesos. He said regular was 700 pesos, I said what about the sign that says 650. He apparently could not see that part of the sign and just insisted on 700. I said “OK, I’ll pay 700 for the large”. After some polite squirming and insisting he agreed. We walk with him a couple of blocks to the garage and the garage guy says 700 for the regular size, 850 for the large. I protest the other guy already agreed to 700. We each say the same thing three or four times; then he takes us into the garage to show how spacious the regular size is. I see they only have one large cart left but a dozen regulars. I argue my case one more time but no luck so we go back to the hotel (maybe 100′ away) where they rent regulars for 680 pesos, the deal I had in my back pocket as plan B. Of course, the hotel carts were sold out so we walk back past the first garage and the guy is outside so I tell him I’ll pay 600 for a regular. We pretty quickly haggle that to 660 and off we go. The whole time Sue has this ‘for Pete’s sake, Den it’s only an extra ten bucks’ look on her face. She totally doesn’t get how much fun this is, way better than talking about feelings.

So, we finally got to G & D’s and headed over to the ocean beach where he and I went swimming and rock climbing the day before. We found a little shady alcove in the rocks for lunch then played around in the surf.

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After the picnic we set out south on the coast road. We passed by the place where George does his sunrise yoga so he and Diane jumped out to demonstrate their warrior pose.

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We continued south, down to Punta Sur, the most southerly point of the island and the area most exposed to the ocean waves. There’s a little park on the very end with odd-looking welded steel modern art statues and a recreated Mayan temple built in honor of the goddess Ixchel.

20130208-144837.jpgThis is the most easterly point in Mexico so it is the place where the sun rises first each day. There was a path along the top of the cliff and another running through the rocks 10′ or 15′ above the water. Most of the railing was intact.

The surf crashing in on the rocks was mesmerizing. We must have spent a half hour just meandering along the path watching the waves. This picture completely fails to convey the sense of energy in the scene.

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Weirdness #1: We got in our cart to leave and were both surprised and mad to see someone had stolen our beach towel and bag of fruit we had left on the floor of the cart. We drove away talking ourselves into the fact that they were probably poor people who needed the towel and fruit a lot more than we did and that this was a small cost to pay for being stupid enough to leave anything laying around like that.

Well we were stupid but in a much more profound way – we had stolen someone else’s golf cart! We hopped in, the key fit, so we drove away. About a mile later I noticed that the cart had a round rear view mirror and I distinctly remembered a rectangular mirror. We sophisticated products of expensive university educations hustled back to the parking lot and got the right cart. Of course our towel and fruit were still there.

Weirdness #2: We were stopped in the middle of the road waiting to turn left when a cop car blew by us on the right going maybe 50 mph. Kind of scary as these are narrow roads with lots of dopey tourists like us going 10 mph in golf carts, families of four riding 50cc scooters going 20 mph and taxis going 30 mph. Anyway we got back to the hotel and found that police car plus several others parked in front and lots of people standing around looking at nothing. I asked an American woman what the cops were doing and she whispered that a man had had a heart attack and died in his room and the body was still there. If that’s not weird enough, a little later Sue saw the cops carry the body out wrapped in a sheet and load it in the back of a pick-up truck.

We finished the day with dinner at Basto’s Grill, a little neighborhood place just a couple of blocks from the school where George teaches. It’s been great having a Spanish speaking host as George could describe the vegetarian dishes Sue and Diane wanted even though they weren’t on the menu.

20130208-152650.jpg Well then we really finished the day with more wine and deep conversation about the meaning of life, etc. back at G & D’s.

Isla Mujeres I

20130207-114210.jpg The little map to the left shows the north end of the island. The blue line is the route from our hotel to Diane and George’s apartment, the black squiggle is the snorkel trip we took Tuesday afternoon.

We’ve been pretty typical tourists here so far – walking around sightseeing, swimming and eating too much. I try as much as I can to avoid the ‘first we did this, then we did that’ writing style but nothing really happened in the last few days to make much of a story. So, with my apology for being boring….

Tuesday morning Diane came over so she and Sue could work on their poetry together, something they make sure to carve out time for at home but have been unable to do since Diane came down here last September. We then had a fun lunch at Pita Amore, a little hole in the wall restaurant in the middle of town.

20130207-121032.jpg As you can see on the beam over Sue’s head, people have written messages to future diners all over the walls. Someone had written “best flan in the world” right next to my shoulder so we took that as a message from the food gods to try the flan. It was the best IMHO but Diane promised an even better one later in the week.

We had been snorkeling off the beach at Avalon reef lagoon yesterday but wanted to try someplace more diverse, you know with coral and everything, so we booked a tour at Sea Hawk Dive Charters. George goes scuba diving with this company and has gotten to know the owners, Ariel and Bonnie, so we were expecting a good trip. George had class but the three of us went along with five other people. Ariel took us a couple of miles down the inside coast in his boat then we swam/drifted right along the edge of the rocky shore for about one mile. There was lots of coral and tropical fish to see and the water was calm. They made us were life jackets so it was not possible to dive down under water but it was mostly only 10′ – 15′ deep and visibility was quite good. The water is gin-clear everywhere here.

Sue brought her underwater camera so you can get up close and personal with the fish.

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That night George booked a table at his favorite restaurant here, Olivia’s. Great Mediterranean food in a beautiful setting where it was hard to tell if we were indoors or outdoors.

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Afterwards, a little stroll through town and along the beach, some Gelato then off to bed. It’s a tough job being a tourist here but somebody has to do it 😉

Wednesday Sue planned to join Diane for yoga at 8:00 AM but the taxi driver couldn’t find the yoga studio so she went to Diane’s house instead. Walked over there later about when George got home from school. Sue and Diane kept working

20130207-124342.jpg while George and I biked over to the ocean side of the island to swim in the surf and climb around on the rocks like a couple of really slow kids. This was a picture postcard spot but I didn’t bring my phone so no pictures yet but all four of us are going back today with a picnic lunch and camera.

Then yet another leisurely lunch at a stinking beautiful waterside restaurant after which George went back to school for one more late afternoon class and we hiked to the grocery store to get supplies for dinner.

While watching the sunset some Frigate birds flew in close so I managed to get a few blurry under exposed pictures

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These birds are really cool, according to the interweb they have the lightest wing loading (weight/wing area) – think glider- of any bird and can stay aloft for up to a week and only land on trees and cliffs where they can jump off to get airborne again. They can’t take off from level ground or the water.

33 Degrees

20130204-174512.jpg We have traversed thirty three degrees of latitude in the last week and what a week it’s been. After a couple of days visiting the southern kids we left the Lil Snoozy parked in Ami and Josh’s back yard and hit the road for Marine City (10 degrees north). It’s a long boring drive but we made good time driving a lot faster than when we pull the trailer plus not so many trucks on the freeway on the weekend.

Monday through Wednesday were devoted to chores, dentist appointment, hair cuts and reconnecting with some local friends. As planned, no surprises.

Thursday morning we left for Chicago (2 degrees south) with a utility trailer full of furniture from our attic to help Matt and Renee furnish their new house. Weather forecast was for occasional snow showers but no accumulation. So much for the forecast – the first snow squall had us doing 30 mph on I 94 a half hour after we left home. Lake effect snow was so bad on the west side of the state speeds averaged 35 – 45 mph until they averaged zero between Kalamazoo and Benton Harbor. The MDOT website showed the freeway closed 6 miles ahead due to a accident. We made a U turn through the median and backtracked a few miles to get off and take a country road west.

20130204-175839.jpg Palm trees had filled this windshield a few days earlier, what the heck were we doing here? Snow tapered off as we got out of the lee of Lake Michigan however we traded snow for Chicago rush hour traffic on the Dan Ryan. Arrived at Matt’s 3 hours later than we expected. Temp hit -3 that night. We waited until the next morning when it was a balmy 12 to move the furniture in.

Had a nice visit though and enjoyed helping with painting and other chores as he and Renee work hard to turn their new house into their home.

Sunday we flew from Chicago to Cancun, Mexico (21 degrees south). We aren’t sports fans but thought Superbowl Sunday was wonderful. Everyone was home watching the big game except us. Our Sunday travel experience by the numbers: 19 minutes drive from Matt’s house to O’Hare; 13 ticket agents at the American counter, 2 customers (us); zero people in line ahead of us at security; 75% of the seats on the airplane empty; 2 people ahead of us in line at Mexican Immigration; zero people in line at customs. I did not make any of this up! Our 21 degrees of travel ended with a nice late evening dinner on the terrace of the Airport Marriott Courtyard.

The next morning we planned to take a taxi to the ferry port a few miles north of Cancun then take the ferry to Isla Mujeres where we will spend ten days visiting our friends George and Diane. George is a volunteer teacher at a school for Special Ed students on the island.

The taxi ride was a lot more exciting that we expected. The driver passed a bunch of cars on the right only to ram his car under a truck turning right from the middle lane.

20130204-183012.jpg We were in the back with our seat belts on and we couldn’t have been going more than 15 or 20 mph when we collided so no one was hurt. The taxi driver and two guys from the truck got out and just stood there looking at the damage with “Oh shit” looks on their faces. Surprisingly, no yelling. Another taxi stopped for us as the taxi guy was getting our suitcases out of the trunk and we were back on our way.

George and Diane met us at the dock on Isla and we all walked the couple of blocks to our hotel. George has been living here since last August and seems to know everybody. He got us a great rate at the Hotel Rocamar. We are on the very northern tip of the Island with water on three sides. Here’s the view east toward the Carribean

20130204-184102.jpg Unpacked, got our suits and snorkel gear and walked a few blocks to the Avalon reef lagoon. Swimming was great in the crystal clear 80ish degree water and a good number of tropical fish (and one small Barracuda) to see. Afterwards fresh grouper in a nice sauce and a couple of Mexican beers for $10 at Picus right in the sand on the beach.

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We finished our first day in Mexico lazing around the pool, writing then walking around town shopping for a restaurant. The main street in the center of town is pedestrian only and lined with restaurants, bars, sombrero stores, etc. George recommended Rolandi which had great Italian food. Here’s the usual dinner table picture.

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