Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories Guatemala, Part 2

© 1993, 2023 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[Continued from Part 1 (April 2023).]

Antigua: Week 2 of Spanish Lessons

Back in Antigua, I bought some emergency rations, dropped my postcards at the post office, and was back in my room by 1 o'clock. The trip back took three hours, which was less than half the time it took me to get away, but more than three times as long as if the original minibus trip had worked out. C'est la vie! Or as they say in Spanish, "Así es la vida;" such is life! I enjoyed a nice, long, hot shower, and had a Spanish lesson from 2–5.

At 6:30 pm, I saw the movie "Body of Evidence," starring Madonna and Willem Defoe, which I enjoyed. Prior to that, they showed some CNN International news in which I saw fires near Los Angeles. At the movie, I met a couple from the UK/Ireland, and we chatted a while afterwards.

I found a Chinese restaurant with Spanish menu and had a great meal of curried chicken with celery and rice. Total cost, $2.50. Then it was off to my favorite restaurant for dessert. Unfortunately, they had run out of honey-covered fried banana. I tried the banana with cinnamon sauce, which I washed down with some coffee. It was adequate. All the while, I read my new novel, "Lie Down with Lions," by Ken Follett. Back home, I read a bit before lights-out at 10:30.

Before I stopped for the day, I thought I'd write about my bus experience. It turns out that legally they are not supposed to carry more passengers than they have seats. Twice during my weekend trip, the driver yelled out that he could see police coming, and all those standing should crouch down, so it wouldn't look obvious that the bus was overloaded. As if the police didn't know how buses operated! Anyway, picture a bus with an aisle down the middle, a door at the front, and an emergency door at the back that was also used for normal exit and entry. Many of the buses are cast-off school buses, and each seat can hold three small bottoms. Once two adults occupy a seat, the driver's assistant gets other people to sit half on the remaining seat space, hanging out into the aisle, and pretty much against the person hanging out from the seat across the aisle, leaving no room for anyone to get down the aisle. Ideally, you pack the passengers in from the middle towards the front or back doors. But no, that would require discipline and planning, and people simply took whatever space they first saw once they got on. And to compound things, instead of selling ticket as passengers boarded, once the bus was loaded, the assistant tried to come down the aisle, literally climbing over seats and people, standing up on a seat with his back to the roof for stability as he sold tickets and made change. Invariably, when a person needed to get off, they were nowhere near either door! What a system!

[Next day] I woke early and lay in bed reading for an hour. After some cereal, I washed my clothes by hand, and moved my desk and chair into the courtyard, the only place receiving direct sunlight. I was bringing this diary up to date when Carmen arrived around 10 am. We worked outside in the glorious sunshine, although it got pretty cool when the clouds intervened. It was hard going!

I visited my friendly bakery for lunch, where the lady made me a roll, which I washed down with a strawberry Fanta. [It wasn't until I left Australia in 1979, that I discovered Fanta came in flavors other than orange!]

I ventured out and visited some ruins and the main plaza. Mid-afternoon, I took in the movie "The Fisher King," with Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. By the time I went home to change into some warmer clothes and came back, the 6-pm movie was about to start: "Thelma and Louise," starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. Afterwards, I made my way to the Italian restaurant and had a small pizza with every topping imaginable, and a couple of cups of coffee, while I read my novel.

I must say that the novelty of learning Spanish was wearing off!

[Next day] Once again, I was awake early, and I read in bed. Then after a small breakfast, I moved my table and chair into the courtyard where I could sit in the sun and prepare for my day's lesson. Carmen arrived at 10 o'clock. I made good progress. We snacked on potato chips and orange juice, and we worked for three hours.

I went to a bank to change US$200. Although I was only second in line at the teller, the customer ahead of me seemed to be opening an account for every living soul in his hometown. It sure took a while, and he signed many sheets of paper. The exchange rate was about the same, and I had to pay the "huge" commission of $1. Armed with a basketful of play money, I headed to my friendly bakery, where I ate Chile relleno on a warm bread roll smothered in spicy salsa. It was so good, I had a second one, and washed that all down with a bottle of raspberry Fanta. After some time, I smelled fresh doughnuts, which looked so good, I just had to sample one.

I headed to the park to sit and read some travel literature, as I planned to leave town on the weekend. Afterwards, I took in the movie, "Fried Green Tomatoes." Now ours was the last showing of the day, and once the operator got everything going, he headed home for the night. However, 75 minutes in, the screen went blank, and it was obvious that when the movie was recorded, something went wrong, and we were missing the final 45 minutes. Don't you just hate that when that happens! [It was quite some years later that I finally saw the rest of the movie!]

As we got out early, I had time to kill before a movie at another theater. I stopped at a burger place and had a cheeseburger and coffee. At 8:20, I got up to leave for my 8:30-movie, when the whole town was blacked-out. The waiter immediately raced to the front door and shut it, presumably to stop patrons from sneaking out in the dark without paying. Outside, stall owners lit candles and there were headlights on cars, as I made my way to the theater. After 30 minutes, the power came back on, and "Unforgiven" starring Clint Eastwood got underway.

[Next day] I woke at 8 o'clock and read in bed a while before going downtown. There, I visited a travel agency and organized a package trip to the Mayan ruins for the following week.

Back home, I had a light breakfast and prepared for my 10-am Spanish session. Things went quite well, and we spent most of the time reviewing the five compound tenses I'd learned the previous day. Then Carmen surprised me with a written test that required me to conjugate 20 verbs in six different tenses! I struggled with a few, but of the 120 problems, I got only five wrong, so I was pretty happy. When I'm working on any one tense I do okay, but switching between them on a regular basis can make one's head spin!

On the edge of the main square, I discovered a new restaurant for lunch. I ordered a club sandwich, Antigua-style and my usual café con leche. The sandwich was very good: four slices of toast filled with chicken, salad, tomato, lettuce, and salad dressing, among other things. It dripped down my hands as I ate, making it a challenge to read my novel at the same time.

Out in the park, I met a Texan who was reading a novel by an author I liked, so I stopped to chat. It turned out he was looking for a room for two with private Spanish instruction, so I told him mine would be free starting Sunday. Then I met a retired couple from Boston who wintered in New Mexico, and we talked while watching a wedding celebration nearby. Apparently, the family had hired two local buses to hold all the guests who were out taking photos in the square dressed in very colorful clothes.

Back in my room, I sat on the balcony writing, and one of the Dutch girls was doing likewise. I started a new novel, and got right into it. As I had only one other book left, I'd soon need to find a bookshop or exchange.

Late evening, I arrived at a theater and settled in to watch "Glengarry Glen Ross," which was about the worst movie I'd seen in a long while, so much so that I don't ever want to read/see anything written by the author, David Mamet! The good news was that I'd only paid $1.

Back in my room, I read my novel until I finished it, all in one day! After two weeks, I was ready to leave. It was time to break the daily ritual and to do something new.

[Next day] I was up at 8:15, and having used up all my cereal, I ventured out for breakfast. It was another nice day, and I sat at the bakery eating a doughnut and sipping coffee. Back home, I prepared for my final class with Carmen. I decided that I'd had enough of grammar, and I suggested we look at pictures in a book, and I'd describe the situations to give my vocabulary a workout. Afterwards, Carmen asked me to describe my trip to Costa Rica the previous year, to get my past tense going. Then I wrote a few sentences. After two hours, I was spent, so we stopped. I took her photo, and I paid my bill for 14 nights' accommodation and 33 hours of tuition, which came to the Grand Total of US$100! But since I was VERY happy with the whole experience, I gave her an extra $25.

At a local bookstore, I swapped two books and bought three new ones. I started reading one about Perry Mason, and got right into it. [So much so that I finished it that evening and raced back to exchange it for two others!]

I took my time crossing the park, but the rain came down quite heavily, so I hurried to my 6-o'clock movie. It was "Husbands and Wives," starring Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. I really enjoyed it. It was 8 o'clock by the time the film ended, and I had planned to eat dessert and coffee only, having had a large lunch. However, I found myself at the Italian restaurant reading while waiting for a pizza to be cooked. Light Italian opera music wafted in, followed by some foot-tapping accordion music.

Back in my room, I set the alarm for 4-bloody-am! Unfortunately, it was a noisy Saturday night, and although it was "lights out" at 10 pm, sleep took a while to come. The concert music downtown was very loud, but I refused to look at the clock, so I wouldn't know how much sleep I didn't get!

Flying North Over the Jungle

[Next day] All too soon, my 4-am alarm sounded, and by 4:15, I was packed and waiting out front. It was Sunday, and time to take my weekly malaria pill, especially as I was headed for the jungle in the northeast. My pickup time was 4:20, but that came and went, as did 4:30. I had visions of missing my flight. Then at 4:40, lo and behold, a minibus arrived and headed off around the town picking up other passengers. Twenty minutes later, we drove back past my front door to the other side of town! An hour after I started waiting, we actually left town. But, of course, we were on Latin-American time, as in mañana!

The road to the capital was much better than I remembered from the trip out. Of course, this minibus was much more comfortable, and every passenger had their own seat. The van pulled a small trailer that contained all our luggage. As the bus filled, I moved to the single seat next to the driver. We were filled to capacity. Day broke as we drove through the mountains, and the lights of the capital filled the valley below. The sun rose around 6 am as we descended to the city, and people were out setting up food and drink stalls. Some were even jogging.

We reached the airport's international terminal soon after, where we dropped off half the passengers. Then it was on to the domestic terminal, all the way around the other side of the field, next to an air-force base. After we passed through a military police checkpoint, I was dropped at the hangar for the carrier Tapso. However, as I was the only passenger booked on the flight, they cancelled it, and rebooked me on another carrier, Avcon. I walked several hangars down where I was checked in and given a boarding pass. A number of 25- and 50-passenger turboprop planes stood nearby.

Departure time was scheduled for 7 am, so I sat and had a nice cup of coffee, which the airline provided free-of-charge. Some 10 passengers were waiting for my flight, and they were speaking a variety of languages, as my destination was popular with international tourists. We boarded a small plane. I was first on-board, so picked a single seat on the port (left) side right behind the cockpit. As the wing was on the roof, I was in a good viewing position.

We took off right on schedule; imagine that! And we were in the air after using only 100 yards of the runway. I looked out over the capital until we climbed into the clouds. We levelled off at 8,000 feet and it was "smooth flying" from there. After 20 minutes, we were out of the mountains and over flat jungle with a clear sky. Although I could see a long way, there wasn't anything to view except for trees with an occasional cleared patch, a large meandering river, and one main road going north. Occasionally, smaller roads branched off.

After an hour of flying, before landing, we circled the field at Santa Elena. I could see the large Lake Petén Itzá in the distance, as well as the town of Flores. In recent years, the rainfall had been extra heavy, and as the lake doesn't have an exit point, it had flooded over into the neighboring towns. An Aviateca Boeing 737 stood nearby. That airline serves the capital and neighboring countries.

My package tour was with the Jungle Lodge, they had a desk at the airport, and my name was on their list; YES! The two agents were friendly and spoke English. By the time the other guests had been rounded up and our luggage found, it was 9 o'clock. We were 10 passengers, a driver, and a guide, and we boarded a comfortable van. We drove north for an hour on a decent road.

The Mayan Temples at Tikal

The Jungle Lodge reminded me of the base camp at which I'd stayed along the Amazon River in Peru, and of the lodge at Canaima, Venezuela. The main building housed offices, a lounge, and a large eating area. Everything was wide open with thatched roofs and tall ceilings with the obligatory fan. My room was 6B, and shared a common wall with the room next door. I had two double beds, some bits of furniture, a bathroom, and a front patio (with seats) that overlooked a garden. The bathroom was about the same size as the room I'd been living in for the past two weeks! The shower stall was so large, I used only a small corner of it. Although it was by no means fancy, it was more than adequate. Electricity was available from 5:30 pm to 10 pm only, so there was no reading or ceiling fan after that. My neighbors were German, which I gathered from their accents through the common wall.

By mid-morning, I had unpacked and went in search of some food. A short walk from the hotel, I found a cheap eating place. I ordered a picnic lunch to-go. It included a boiled egg, which they'd cooked while I waited. Two sandwiches contained an assortment of meats. An orange and some salt were included in the plastic bag. Cost: $3.

After I ate a sandwich, I went back to the lodge where I met my guide, Alfredo. We set off on a personal 2-hour orientation of the archeological site nearby. Tikal is one of the best-known Mayan building sites. Built over 1,000 years, it seems that it was abandoned around AD 900. More than 3,000 different structures have been identified, including a number of reasonably large pyramids. Apparently, they were into sacrifices, including human, and had lots of altars. And although lots of jade trinkets have been found, they didn't have any gold. In fact, they had no metal tools. All carving was done with pointed sticks, and hammers were made of stone.

We looked around the main plaza where there was a concentration of large structures and Temple I, the one featured on most postcards. Although it was impressive, there was a lot of erosion on the stones. It's a stepped pyramid with a 3-room temple at the top, and a "comb" on top of that. A single flight of stone steps rises from the bottom to the base of the temple. As it was closed for renovations, I could only gaze upon it from a neighboring building.

Each complex has a main structure in each of the positions north, south, east, and west. The Mayans were very knowledgeable, especially about the planets. They had a calendar, a written language, and a number system. They've been gone some 1,200 years, and I wondered if civilization had really progressed much since then!

Across the plaza is Temple II, which was also quite impressive. I raced up the steps to look around that complex, and then went onto Temple III. This was still in the condition in which it was found in 1860, overgrown completely up to the base of the temple on the top. You'd never know it was not "just another hill." I climbed up the "path" over slippery rocks using some roots as handholds. From the top, I got a view of Temple IV nearby, which is the tallest structure; it too is still completely overgrown. The Park had installed very strong, wooden ladders that slope gently up, so one can reach the temple without too much effort. At the base of the temple, a steel ladder allowed me to climb right to the top where I could see out over the jungle for miles around. Near the temple base, I met a coatimundi, a friendly animal that walked off into the undergrowth, or perhaps I should say overgrowth! Back at ground level, I spied a vendor with a cooler of beer and soda, so I had a nice, cold Pepsi in the shade of a tree.

Alfredo pointed out a howler monkey sitting quietly overhead. I also spotted a pair of toucans in all their resplendent glory, sitting just above my head.

At the end of our tour, I stayed in the main plaza and read the guidebook I'd bought at the entrance. It was written by William Robertson Coe II, an archaeologist who'd worked at the site through the University of Pennsylvania. By then, the insects were gnawing on me, despite my XXX-rated repellant. And while the mosquitoes kept their distance, some tiny, black critters sure liked my blood! So, I went in search of a good breeze, and I found it at the top of Temple II. Clouds blocked out the sun as I continued to read my guidebook. The view from the top was spectacular, across the main plaza to Temple I sitting 100 yards away, with a detailed complex on either side.

I chatted with a young German woman from Heidelberg, and then a Belgian couple, before finishing with a good Spanish workout with a park ranger. Then came a young man from Finland, and a French couple, the wife of which had cut her shin rather badly. So, I broke out my First-Aid kit and "patched her up." After carrying it around the world for some years, I was happy to finally use it, but not on myself!

It started to get cool around 5 o'clock, especially under the thick tree canopy, so I headed off on a trail, eventually finding my way to the main entrance. (One needed a permit to stay in the ruins from 6–8 pm. Apparently, the pyramids are worth seeing in the moonlight.)

By 5:30, I was in the pool. After a hard day of slashing through the humid jungle, there's nothing quite like a swim. Following that, I settled down in a restaurant with a new detective novel. I ordered fresh-squeezed orange juice; a plate of cantaloupe, watermelon, and pineapple; and a toasted bacon, tomato, and onion sandwich. It cost me all of $4!

Having started the day at 4 am, by 8 pm, I was starting to fade, and not long after, it was "lights out." Like all jungle environments, the room smelled musty from the high humidity, and the sounds of the night critters came in the open window. The good news was that the screens kept out the hungry insects.

[Next day] Early morning, it started to rain quite heavily, making a loud noise on the corrugated-iron roof. Despite that, I slept quite well until 9 o'clock. I lay in bed reading until 10, and then shaved and showered. Although the electricity was off, the water was hot, but the pressure was quite low. All the water is carted in from a large lake 30-odd miles away. As the local soil is so porous, ground water is not retained, so wells are no good.

Late morning, I packed and handed in my room key, and left my backpack in the lobby. I was told that the bus to the airport would depart around 2 pm. I'd eaten a boiled egg for breakfast, but now it was lunchtime. I ordered scrambled eggs with tomato, onion, and bacon. When it arrived, the usual black-bean paste was present. I washed that all down with coffee while writing in this diary.

The site has at least three lodges and a nice campground. The government has done a good job of keeping the place simple and clean. As I approached the museum, it started to drizzle. There, I bought some postcards and looked over the exhibits, which were mostly altars and stele. I also bought a 70-minute video of the area, so I could re-experience the trip from back at home. It rained quite heavily, but stopped when I walked back to the hotel. I sat under a thatched roof by the pool sipping a cold bottle of Pepsi, and the rain started up again.

A Stay in Flores in Flood!

While waiting for my bus, I read a bit about the town of Flores, my next stop. It took an hour to drive south to the airport, where most passengers got out. The driver then dropped me at Pasada el Toucan, a cheap hotel recommended by my guidebook. It was fully booked, and I was told to try next door, at Villa del Largo. They had one double room left for Q70, which wasn't expensive, but I declined. As I sat reading my guidebook for other options, the manager told the desk clerk to offer me the single rate of Q40, and I promptly agreed and paid for two nights. The bed was comfortable, and an electric fan was mounted on one wall. There were two shared bathrooms. It certainly was more than adequate. The back patio led to a dock right on the lake. In fact, the lake had flooded the lower back yard, which in a normal season is 100 feet from the water's edge!

Flores is a densely packed town situated on an island in the lake with a causeway to the mainland. By mid-afternoon, I set out to walk around the island. The street running around the edge was under two feet of water, and there were gangplanks leading to the front doors of many houses and other buildings. I was especially amused by a rather rundown beauty parlor still in operation despite water lapping the front doorstep. There was a flat-topped hill in the center with a church and a small park complete with coconut palms, shrubs, and trees.

I found a grocery store that had everything from cornflakes to rat poison! I bought milk, juice, and cookies. By then, the sky was black, and rain was imminent. It came soon after and positively teemed down, so I waited some 15 minutes in several stores and talked to a young woman at a travel agency. Unfortunately, she hadn't been to any of the places she sent her clients. Once the rain stopped, I headed home.

I was hungry, so I headed out to find somewhere to eat, and I soon settled on a place nearby primarily as it was well lit, so I could read. Of course, no sooner I'd ordered, the power on that side of the island went out. Don't you just hate that when that happens! Within minutes, the staff brought me a candle that was so small I could hardly see the table let alone read my book. Unfortunately, the enchiladas weren't very tasty and were only partly offset by the coffee.

The power was still off when I got back to my hotel, but there were two very large altar candles in the lobby. An elderly man was on duty, and I had trouble understanding him. Eventually, I got from him the Spanish words for candle and matches. After an hour, the power came back, and the quiet town started booming with music and TVs blaring.

I read until 9 o'clock and then collapsed, leaving the fan on more to drown out the music rather than because it was hot. However, I couldn't sleep, and at 10:15, I started reading again, finally getting to sleep at 11.

[Next day] I woke at 8:15 and read until I finished my book. Breakfast was a tall glass of chocolate milk and some cookies; YES! At 10:30, I made myself reasonably presentable and set out across the causeway to the mainland town of Santa Elena. There, I sat in a small park and wrote some postcards. I picked a street at random and set out to explore the neighborhood and stumbled on a bustling market and commercial district. It was a typical Latin-American market: imagine a 5-acre pigsty the day after a heavy rain. Then imagine 100–200 small stalls erected there in a drunken stupor! The stalls were built of odd bits of wood and old galvanized iron sheets, all held together by bits of rope and canvas. Narrow and dark walkways meandered between the rows of stalls. They sold everything from electronics and toys to silver-tipped cowboy boots and saddles.

I stopped in the shade to drink a nice cold Pepsi and to watch the world go by. There was an army base out near the airport, and a truck full of soldiers came and carried off a large stack of boxes of fresh eggs, all done with military precision, not! I found my way to the post office, which reminded me of when I was a kid playing "shops;" you know, cartons and crates set up as a counter. The postal clerk efficiently stamped my cards.

On the walk back over the causeway, a boatman offered me a ride out on the lake. While I was interested, I told him the price was too high. He lowered it enough and we pushed off at noon and headed across to a small zoo on the mainland. There were some impressive jaguars, pumas, monkeys, and rodents of some species I'd not seen before. Next up, we stopped at the base of a hill, and I climbed to the top to find a huge tree with stairs up to a platform. I could see well out over the lake to surrounding towns. Two hours after we'd started, he dropped me back at Flores where I snacked on some tasty potato trips as I walked home. Then I read and napped.

Early evening, I started a new novel, and then headed out in search of supper. I found a nice place set over the water. My first choice wasn't available, the alternate choice was only fair, the dessert wasn't quite what I expected, and they had no coffee! Then they could not make change from a Q50 bill, and the waiter had to go and find change, taking 15 minutes. Apart from that, everything was wonderful!

I strolled around a bit before getting back home around 7:30, when I settled into my book until it was finished. Lights out by 9:30.

Back to the Capital

[Next day] I had the fan on most of the night to keep the insects away. I started the day in bed with a new novel. After a shave and a shower, I packed my gear. It was only 9:45 am, and my plane didn't leave until 4 pm, so I had a lot of time to kill. It was another sunny day in Paradise! I sat in the shade in a park, searching in my guidebook for a place to stay back in the capital.

I went out in search of some food and found a nice restaurant where I was the only customer. My ham and cheese omelet was exceptionally good, as was the milk coffee. However, when I asked the waiter for another cup, he informed me that they had no more milk. Say what!

I ambled back to the hotel and left my pack in the lobby. Then it was nap time, but I couldn't find a shady spot to stretch out. I watched the world go by, which mostly involved a middle-aged woman doing laundry by hand in a corrugated-iron lean-to. I walked a bit and found a nice patch of soft grass in the shade, so I laid down and closed my eyes. Well, don't you know, I felt a slight drizzle on my face and when I opened my eyes, a black cloud loomed right overhead. Within seconds, it was raining quite heavily. It lasted only 15 minutes, but afterwards there were no dry places to sit!

Eventually, a taxi drove by, and I hailed it. I got my gear and we drove to the airport arriving around 2:30. The "terminal" was a big, open shed, and although there was security, it was "out to lunch" when I arrived, so I walked right in. Later, a guy came and checked all hand luggage as people entered. I tried to buy postcards at several stalls, but they couldn't change a Q20 bill. Then I spied a stall with potato chips, but it was closed.

A number of us boarded an un-marked plane at 4:10, and we took off. It was a relatively new twin-engine craft with some 25 seats, fewer than half of which were occupied. We flew at 10,500 feet and the trip was uneventful, as one likes flights to be. I snagged the front seat, as that was the only one with enough room for my long legs. After 45 minutes, Guatemala City came into view. We landed swiftly, and taxied right into a hangar. We each grabbed our luggage as it was unloaded.

A taxi driver asked if I needed a ride, and I said, "Si," so we walked to his cab parked nearby and headed out. He stopped along the way trying to solicit other passengers at various hangars eventually arriving back where we'd started. Then he transferred me to another guy's cab, and we repeated the process, eventually enticing one other person, after which we headed for the downtown area, during peak-hour traffic. He dropped me at my hotel, and I checked in.

At 6 pm, I headed out for 6th Avenue, the main place for shopping, eating, and nightlife. I hadn't been interested to spend much time in the Capital and was pleasantly surprised at how clean it was. The stalls on the sidewalks made it crowded, but being two feet taller than everyone else, it wasn't at all claustrophobic. I was heading for McDonalds and could almost taste their French fries. Along the way, I came across a complex of six theaters, and not having seen a movie in four whole days, I checked out the program. One at 7:15 looked promising. Then, right there in front of me was a Pizza Hut; Yes! So, I ordered a small Supreme and ate outdoors.

At 7:15, I'd bought my ticket and was seated waiting for the start of Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Action Hero. The best I can say about the movie was that it helped pass the time and it was cheap. By 9:30, I was seated in McDonalds having the fries I'd drooled over earlier, along with a mug of hot chocolate. It was the first McDonalds I'd ever seen with an armed guard! He had a pump-action shotgun, a pistol, and handcuffs.

Back in my room, I read a while. Lights out at 10:30.

[Next day] Although I was wide awake at 7:30, I lay there until 8 o'clock and then read until 9:15. I decided to stay the final night in the same hotel. As I was almost out of local currency, I asked the front-desk clerk if he'd take US$ cash, and he said, "No problemo!"

So, where to go for breakfast? McDonalds, of course! I ate an egg-and-sausage sandwich smothered in ketchup followed by a mug of hot chocolate while I worked on this diary. I strolled down 6th Avenue to a park, an area the size of at least two city blocks. There were plenty of trees, seats, and a performance stage. I made my way over to the Presidential Palace nearby. A band of seven men played double bass, drums, and two very long, multi-person xylophones. I sat and listened to them play for quite some time. That week was the 50th anniversary of the Palace's construction, and there was a small exhibit, which I visited. I toured the three main floors and was quite impressed by the building, the courtyards, gardens, and fountains. Many government ministries were located there. After that, I sat in the park by the large fountain and watched the world go by then read my novel.

At 4:15, I bought a movie ticket and settled in for the 4:30 showing of Cliffhanger, starring Sylvester Stallone. What a movie; it had me on the edge of my seat from the get-go! It ended at 6:20, and I raced off to buy a ticket for a 6:30 show, Death Train. It too was great!

Not having eaten all day, I was ready to "eat a horse and chase the rider!" Although I saw McDonalds off in the distance, I went to Burger King instead, where I washed down a bacon-cheese burger with hot chocolate. As my final night in Guatemala wound down, I was more than ready to be home. It was after 9 pm when I walked to my hotel, and the street stalls were being packed up for the night. Lights out at 10 pm.

Heading Home

[Next day] I woke at 2:30, then again at 4:30, and finally at 5:30, 10 minutes before my alarm was due to go off. I was dressed and packed in 10 minutes, and out front in a taxi at 5:45, speeding toward the international airport. Although the city was starting to come alive, it wasn't yet crowded.

I was third in line at the check-in counter, and everything went smoothly. Then, as I went through security the alarm sounded. However, none of the attendants seemed to hear it or care, so after waiting there a minute with no-one coming, I walked through. Great security, huh? I was supposed to depart at 7:45, but there was a long backup at customs/immigration, so we were delayed 30 minutes.

Finally, our lightly loaded Boeing 757 took off. Breakfast was decent: three smoked sausages, tortilla, an omelet containing my daily vegetable requirements, bread roll, butter, cinnamon roll, and coffee. Soon we were over Mexico and a mountainous desert. As we approached a volcano, I recognized it from the previous year's flight when I flew up from Costa Rica. There was snow on the ground. Smoke was rising from the volcano's cone as we flew by only a few miles away.

We came in over Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis of 20+ million people. A thick, brown cloud of pollution hung around 1,000–2,000 feet up. We landed, and although I didn't have to change planes, I did have to deplane and re-board. So, what did I do on the way to Washington's Dulles airport? I watched a movie, of course: Sleepless in Seattle, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. According to the menu—which is still in pristine condition 28 years later—I ate a green garden salad served with a tangy vinaigrette dressing, followed by sliced roast beef with a caramelized onion and comino (cumin, that is) sauce, accompanied by green beans, celery, potato, sweet pepper casserole, and sautéed red peppers. Dessert involved cookies.

So, after never having thought about going to Guatemala, I'd spent three weeks there, and it was fine. I'd worked on my Spanish and had a bit of a look around, and I was quite impressed with the Mayan ruins.

Travel: Memories of Guatemala, Part 1

© 1993, 2023 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[Originally, this diary was written by hand in a spiral notebook during the trip, in October 1993. Many years later, I transcribed and edited it. I'd glued all kinds of things into the paper version: postcards, bus tickets, receipts, and so forth.]

In October 1992, I was in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, staying at the youth hostel. I had three roommates, one of whom was Norwegian. Like a lot of budget travelers going to Latin America, he'd spent time in Antigua, Guatemala, taking basic Spanish language lessons. Rather than stay with a host family, as offered by many language programs, he'd found his own accommodation and private language teacher. He gave me the family's name and address, lest I should ever be in that area. At that time, Guatemala had never been on my travel radar, but I listened to him tell of his experiences, thanked him, and filed away the information. And don't you know it, a year later, there I was knocking on that family's door, asking about renting a room and taking Spanish lessons!

Preparation, Departure, and Layover

At Washington Dulles International airport (IAD), I waited in the lounge for my flight to Mexico City (MEX). It was packed, and seated to my left were two French couples, while a Spanish-speaking family sat on my right. The announcements were in English and Spanish, so I started getting into "Spanish mode." And while I had a basic grounding in some aspects of Spanish grammar and a decent-sized vocabulary, my comprehension was very poor. In fact, the main reason for this trip was to improve those skills.

Apart from buying a guidebook and a good map, my preparation for the trip was pretty much non-existent. I'd make it up as I went, right from Day 1. However, I'd set a goal of having two weeks of intensive, one-on-one Spanish tutoring.

I'd bought a new backpack for the Costa Rican trip the previous year, and I loved it. Having travelled extensively, I'd refined the packing process, and was carrying the bare minimum. In fact, I'd packed everything in 15 minutes on the day of the trip! For a 3-week trip, my pack contained the following: 5 pairs of woolen socks, 3 pairs of sock liners, 1 pair of hiking boots, 1 pair of sandals, 5 pairs of underpants, 2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of trousers, 4 T-shirts, 1 rainproof jacket, 1 warm jacket liner, 1 warm cap, 1 sun hat, numerous Spanish grammar and vocabulary books, an electronic Spanish translator, and some candy.

As we boarded the flight, I got a workout in both Spanish and German as I helped several travelers with the boarding process. The flight was smooth and uneventful, just as one prefers. I had a window seat, and next to me sat a young man from Mexico City. Dinner was served, and I spent some time studying the Spanish half of the menu, learning several practical words and phrases. I watched the movie "The Firm," starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman.

After 1,200 miles and 4:30 hours, we arrived at MEX at 8:10 pm, local time, two hours earlier than back home, in light drizzle. Since my plane was continuing to Guatemala, I stayed onboard, talking to two young German women. [As it happened, I had been in their part of Germany just six weeks earlier.] We departed at 9:15 pm with only a small load. The 660 miles took 1:30 hours.

Guatemala City    

The United Airlines agent who greeted us at Guatemala City airport (GUA) was very friendly, and sold me the required tourist card for $5. Customs and immigration were a formality. I knew the airport bank would be closed, but I went there to read the exchange rate. An enterprising policeman came up to me and told me the bank was closed, but he was willing to sell me some local currency (Guatemalan quetzales, GTQ) for US cash, if I wanted. He offered five for 1 US$, which was very fair, so I changed $20-worth.

Out at the curb, I met Felix, a young German from Stuttgart. As he didn't have a place to stay either, we agreed to share a taxi downtown to a cheap place I'd found in my guidebook. However, the taxi driver informed us that place had gotten expensive, and he recommended another place, so we took his advice. The ride was like being in a high-speed race, and cost us $10.

The pension he dropped us at was a seedy dump frequented by tourists travelling on the cheap (just like us). Our room had four beds, and I picked one without an end, so my long legs could hang over. Despite being spartan and run-down, the room was clean, and cost us $2.80 each for the night. Lights-out around 11 pm, local time.

[Next day] I slept well, and was up at 8 o'clock. After a quick look around, I packed and walked to the main bus terminal from which buses left for the former capital, Antigua. My fairly new Ford bus was gaily painted and decorated, and like all the buses, sported a large and very loud air horn, which the driver used constantly to warn pedestrians and other drivers to "get the hell out of my way!". While I expected there were road rules, I surely couldn't figure them out from our driver's behavior. It seemed that the rougher the road, the faster the driver went. As I wanted to take my pack inside the bus rather than risk having it stolen from the roof, I paid double fare, a whopping $1.50. It took an hour, and we stopped pretty much anywhere anyone waved us down. The bus license stuck to the wall said "43 passajeros maxima," but I think we set a Guinness World Record, as we were stuffed in like sardines! I sat up front and made room next to me for a small (the usual size down there) mother with a baby hanging in a shawl wrapped around her neck. Several women flagged us down, and it took three guys to load their baskets of pineapples and melons onto the roof.

As we charged at breakneck speed down the highway, we narrowly missed a manhole whose cover was missing; no problemo! We passed through a police checkpoint. I don't know what the purpose of that was, but the officers carried automatic rifles. This is a country apparently with no mechanized lawnmowers, and plenty of humidity and heat to help the grass grow. As a result, along the way, we passed numerous men slashing the tall grass on the roadside with their machetes. It surely was a life-long job!

Antigua: Week 1 of Spanish Lessons

When we arrived at Antigua, I was glad to be outside, especially as the bus seats were each intended for small people with short legs. My knees sure took a beating! I took out the accommodation address the Norwegian guy had given me in Costa Rica, and got some directions from a policeman. I soon came across the main plaza—a beautiful spot—where I found 2nd Avenue. However, there was no Number 4, which was the woman's address. Number 6 was a store, and I went in. The owner was German, and after a short chat in German and Spanish, she told me I wanted South 2nd, not North. Soon after, I located the house of Señora Maria del Carmen Ramos.

Teenage daughter Indira informed me that her mother already had a student in the mornings, and would return from work around 1 pm. She showed me three bedrooms, and I chose the one upstairs, separate from the main house, with a view over the city towards the highlands. The room was clean, and had a double bed, bookcase, writing desk, and chair. The cost was $5/night, without meals.

Half a block away, I found a family-run, hole-in-the-wall bakery/café that had three tables. A young boy waited on me, and I had a Chile rellano—spicy beef in pastry—between slices of bread with lettuce and salsa. With a bottle of ice-cold Coke, it all cost 80 cents. While I ate, I watched a man sweep the cobblestone street with a broom handmade from twigs (a sight I was to see every day all around the downtown).

Next up was the tourist office. The man running it, Thomas, was very friendly, wore a tie, and introduced himself. I bought a town map for 25 centavos (5 cents), and when I asked about banks, he showed me one nearby. There, a very pleasant señora changed $250, which got me 1,450 quetzales. All the banks had armed guards standing in the doorways, some with automatic weapons, others with 12-guage shotguns. Inside, either I was in a very safe place or a very dangerous place, but which one was it?

The main plaza was a park and one of the nicest I'd seen in Latin America. There was no trash! Most of the foreigners there were French. I spoke with a Canadian couple who'd just come from Belize (the only English-speaking country in Central America) and had visited the Mayan ruins at Tikal (more on that place later). As they were headed to Costa Rica, we exchanged travel advice.

When I got back home, Carmen was there. She told me she could spare me three hours each afternoon that week at 4:30 for Spanish lessons, with more hours the following week. The cost would be $2/hour. I agreed to start that very afternoon.

I pulled out my books and did a bit of a refresher course on past tense (unfortunately, there are two forms of that) and other bits and pieces. Then I had a nap and a short walk around the neighborhood. Afterwards, Carmen came up to my room and, soon we were naked in bed practicing my vocabulary regarding body parts! No; wait a minute; that was a completely different trip! Now I remember, we sat at my table and after I told her the kinds of things I'd like to practice, we jumped headfirst into speaking Spanish! We spent most of the first session using past tense with her asking me questions about myself. To help me, she spoke reasonably slow, but I still missed a lot. She was very patient and a good teacher. We paused halfway in to have coffee and chocolate. My biggest problem had been a lack of practice with direct and indirect object pronouns (and 30 years later, I still haven't mastered them). While I knew the rules and could write correct sentences, when speaking, one has no time to think about the rules. It was a good first lesson, and set the tone for my stay.

Around 7:45, I strolled down to the plaza. The main fountain was working and was lit. Couples sat on benches talking or walked around. The sounds of a Mariachi band (guitars and trumpet) come from a group performing nearby. They were dressed very smartly.

I found a restaurant that specialized in fondue, Guatemalan style, so I ordered one with cheese and sausage. Although it looked small, it was sufficient and came with bread sticks. Along with café con leche (milk coffee) the bill came to $3. The waitress and cook smiled constantly and were very friendly.

I met two young women from Ireland who'd come from Belize. The whole of the downtown had cobblestone streets. No vehicular traffic was allowed on the streets for much of the day, just for early-morning and late-afternoon deliveries. Therefore, it was relatively quiet and unpolluted. And as the rainy season had just ended, the days were dry. After walking around, I finished up back at the plaza listening to the fountain bubble and watching water trickle from the breasts of four stone-maiden statues. Using my electronic translator, I worked on new vocabulary.

Back home, once my light was out, the room was quite dark. It was 10:30 pm, and it had been a very good first full day of the trip.

[Next day] After a good sleep in my comfortable bed, I was up at 8:30 am. I looked out the window to find it was another nice day in Paradise! As there was no running hot water, I shaved in cold water. Then I jumped into the shower. Now this had hot water, on-demand, but at what looked like some risk. Two electric wires ran into a box right on top of the shower head, and they heated the water as it passed through. Although I'd used this kind of device before in other countries, I can never get used to the idea that it's a good thing to mix water and electricity. The shared bathroom was quite adequate with two batwing doors that opened out into the courtyard, and with no roof, so tall people like me could look over the wall and chat to Gomez the gardener while taking care of our ablutions. Being luggage-weight conscious, I'd brought only a hand towel, but I made do.

Back in my room, I had a nutritious breakfast of potato chips and milk, after which I was ready to take on the world. But was the world ready for me? Having the day free until my 4:30-pm lesson, I reviewed the previous day's lesson. I also planned to write sentences for Carmen to check. To that end, I found a stationary store and bought a notebook. I also went to the post office and bought postcard stamps to various countries, the most expensive of which was only 8 cents.

Across the street was a market, so I took a look. It covered several acres under one big roof, which was really a loose collection of galvanized-iron sheets cleverly disguised as a roof. Many of the stalls were very small with hardly any room to turn around let alone swing a dead cat (an Aussie measure of space)! The first section was all clothes, leather goods, and bags. Then came a big fruit and vegetable section where I bought a cucumber, a very large carrot, and three small tomatoes. Many women working the stalls either had a small baby in a shawl bouncing around on their backs, or were breastfeeding between sales. Most were so short they could barely look into my navel let alone see the top of my head! Although they were of small stature, they certainly stacked loads in baskets on their heads without using their hands. Typical of Latin American markets, it was colorful, busy, noisy, friendly, and not too grubby. I certainly had no concerns about buying food there.

Next came stalls selling hardware and groceries, and butcher shops that had no refrigeration. Surprisingly, there were few flies. In any event, I never buy raw meat hanging out in the open. A whole section contained dining places where the prices were rock bottom! Each place was run by a woman or a young girl. What you learn quite quickly in such markets is not to look too long at an item, as someone will approach you and try to sell it to you, speaking way too fast for you to understand. Some vendors were quite aggressive.

Near the market was a very long public pool of water with many troughs. Many indigenous women were lined up doing their laundry by hand and washing and combing each other's long, black hair. They were all wearing very colorful clothes.

I came across the main supermarket where I stocked up on a few cheesy comestibles: milk, orange juice, grapefruit juice, Milo chocolate milk flavoring (which is very popular in Latin America as well as Australia), mayonnaise, bread rolls, cookies, Kellogg's cornflakes, cheese, and ham. Total cost: $14.70. My small daypack was bulging.

Back home, I had a roll with ham and tomato, and flavored milk, which hit the spot! I'd also had a banana at the market.

By the time I started on my Spanish work, it was noon. I got right into it and wrote 12 pages of sentences, and worked right up until Carmen came home. A couple of young Dutch women moved into another of the rooms. Their English was good, and they'd been studying Spanish for a while.

Carmen checked my writing and added only a few red lines! Some of the lesson went well, other parts not so. I had to describe a story told in 24 small pictures, like a cartoon strip. While I could see quite well what was happening, I could not find the right words. At the end, we started on reflexive verbs, something very common in Spanish but not at all in English. A personal problem arose after two hours, and Carmen had to end the lesson early. That was just fine with me as it was clear I had a lot of work to do. I rewarded myself (hey, that used a past-tense verb in a reflexive context) with another ham-and-cheese sandwich and a tall glass of milk from contented Guatemalan cows.

By 7:30 pm, it was getting a bit cool out, so I traded my shorts para mis pantalones largos (for my long pants)! I headed out to the neighborhood and found a minimovie theater with two small rooms each having a large TV, VCR, and 20 seats. The deal was that patrons paid $1 to watch a movie the owner had recorded from cable TV.

It rained lightly while I walked, but it was pleasant. It was quiet with some restaurants closed. I finished up at the fountain where I took a seat and started reading Robert Ludlam's "The Icarus Agenda." I got right into it, and when I got back to my room, I read a bit more, and then some more. It certainly was a "page-turner." Lights out at 10:30.

[Next day] I woke at 8:30 am and read for 30 minutes. It was rather cool out, definitely not shorts weather. In order to promote a better diet, I cut back on the amount of potato chips for breakfast, instead having a BIG bowl of cornflakes. I read some more, studied, and then napped.

After two lessons totaling five hours, I was finding it to be far less romantic than I had (probably foolishly) envisioned. It can be quite intimidating to have someone ask you questions for two hours straight when you don't understand most of them without having them repeated at least twice! Lesson Number 3 got underway at 4:45 pm. Light rain fell and lasted a good while. I struggled through, but at least the written work I'd done earlier in the day was largely correct. Carmen provided cake and coffee.

We finished at 7:45 after which I went out into the street and settled into a theater showing the movie "Salvador" about the civil war in the nearby country of El Salvador. It was pretty gruesome! Back home, I read until lights-out.

[Next day] I woke at 9 o'clock and read in bed for an hour. Then after a shave and a nice, hot shower, I had a bowl of cornflakes and a banana. Afterwards, I ventured out to buy some postcards, but didn't find any that excited me, so I wandered around some stores and the streets to the north edge of town, and up a tall hill for a view of the city and one volcano. I came across eucalypt trees just like I had seen in Peru 10 years earlier. [At that time, I was ignorant of the fact that they grew outside Australia.] One shop was selling something that caught my eye, packets of plastic bags. The interesting thing was that the brand name of the product was "Kanguru," and the picture on the packet showed that the bags were as secure as a kangaroo's pouch!

I saw a number of large ruins, mostly churches, as the Catholics spent a huge amount of money in the region over the centuries. There have been more than a few very big earthquakes over the years, the most recent one about 10 years ago. In fact, I think that's why the capital was moved away from here. One church I saw was built in 1638, destroyed by a quake in 1717, then rebuilt and destroyed in 1773. (I guess that's what the insurance companies mean when they use the term "an act of God!")

By noon, I was back in my room drinking an ice-cold Pepsi and contemplating studying. I squeezed in four hours of very productive work, mostly on relative and interrogative pronouns and adverbs. Very exciting stuff, wot! Everything just seemed to fall into place. I also worked on position and location, such as under, above, in front of, and such. Carmen arrived at 4:45 with coffee and pastries and we talked up a storm. We only spent 15 minutes on the topic I'd been studying, and otherwise digressed into general conversation covering topics such as politics, education, malaria, and waterfalls. It was by far the best and most relaxed workout I'd had yet, and we spent three hours.

I settled in at a fondue restaurant where I nibbled while reading a novel. I had the house-special soup, which consisted of chicken breast in a broth with rice. On the side were dishes of chopped onion, cilantro, oregano, and chili powder. By the time I loaded some of each into my soup bowl, it looked like grass was growing out of it! The meal was served with three tortillas. After a short break, I had a nice, hot cup of local coffee, and got back to my reading. Although I was full, I asked for the dessert menu from which I selected a delectable dish of fried banana with honey drizzled over it. It was served hot and tasted pretty darned good! I washed it down with another coffee. At 10 pm, they started closing the place, so I paid my bill, which came to less than $5, with tip included. Lights-out back home at 11:45.

[Next day] After I read in bed, a bowl of peaches and cereal got me off to a good start for the day. Around noon, I started work on my Spanish, and after only 15 minutes, had mastered the future tense. I made so much progress that I quit studying and went touring instead. I visited a ruined convent and bought some postcards. By 2:30, rain came, and it was heavy, so much so, that I headed home.

Carmen came home at 6 o'clock. The first 30 minutes of our session went like a house on fire, and my written work was decent. However, I then fell into a really big hole, and the next 90 minutes was torture of the worst kind. Fortunately, there were no razor blades handy, or I might have ended it right then and there. But then there'd be blood all over the place, and don't you just hate that when that happens!

At 8 pm, I ventured out to find a quick bite, as I was planning on an 8:30 movie. I found a burger place–Guatemalan-style—and had a cheeseburger and fries. They tasted pretty good, and the burger included some sort of salad with dressing. As hygiene seems to be decent in this town, I didn't hesitate to eat fresh vegetables, which normally are off-limits in third-world countries.

At the theater, I sat in the last row. Two policemen passed me and settled into a dark corner. It seemed that they were on duty and wanted to be hiding lest a superior came in. The light went down promptly at 8:30, and the movie started, with no ads, no intros. It was "Hard Target," a beat-em-up action movie, starring Jean-Claude van Damme. As the patrons were quite noisy, I had trouble hearing the English audio, so had to resort to reading the Spanish sub-titles. Surprise, I even saw some of the new tenses I was learning actually being used! Mid-way through the movie, there were some technical difficulties, and we had an unscheduled 5-minute break. The audience members jeered loudly. We got out at 10:15 and I walked home where I read my engrossing book for an hour before lights-out.

[Next day] Once again, I lay in bed reading for an hour, before taking care of my ablutions. Breakfast was cereal and fruit. I started work with my Spanish books, and fairly soon after, had a breakthrough. To reward myself, I walked to the corner store and bought potato chips and some Chile rellenos, and sat and had a cold Pepsi at a bakery where the woman was always friendly, spoke slowly, and tried to help me improve my Spanish. Then it was back to my books! As Carmen didn't work on Saturdays, we started our lesson at 2 o'clock, and things went very well for three hours.

At 6:30, I went into town and stopped at an Italian restaurant where I had a sausage pizza, although it appeared the sausage had taken a vacation! I washed that down with a drink while reading my novel. There were people out in force, all around the plaza.

I made it to a movie house at 8:25, and grabbed a comfortable lounge chair. I saw the video "The Crying Game." It was quite a dark movie, but I liked it. The price was $1.15. Just before the movie ended, heavy rain started, but eased as I walked home.

Chichicastenango, Panajachel, and Lake Atitlán

[Next day] It was All Hallows Eve/All Saints Eve/Halloween, a big day in the Catholic calendar down here, and I'd set the alarm for 7:30. After some cereal and fruit, I went to the bus station in search of a bus to Chimaltenango. A driver informed me that there would not be any for some time, but I could take a bus to San Lucas and go from there. I took his advice, boarded such bus, which promptly departed, went 500 yards, and stopped and waited for 15 minutes. Thirty minutes after I'd left home, we were parked at the end of my street. I could tell that it was going to be "one of those days."

In San Lucas, I waited on the main road trying to flag down a bus going to Chimaltenango. Many buses came and went, and after two hours, I was still standing there. Afterall, it was a very big holiday period. I got talking with some young Americans who were serving two years down there in the Peace Corps. It rained on and off, and finally I got on a bus. That took me to Los Encuentros (Spanish for meeting place/crossroads). That leg took 90 minutes, and I had to stand for most of the time, packed in with all the short sardines! I was also back behind the rear wheels, so the turning motion was exaggerated. Immediately on arrival, I caught a bus to Chichicastenango, my actual destination, and actually got a seat; YES! A pleasant young man traveling with his family gave me some tips. As we got up into the mountains, there was rain and fog. We arrived at Chichi 6:30 hours after I'd left my room, and I'd traveled all of 50 miles!

Within minutes of my getting off the bus, a big procession of hand-carried floats passed by with people in bright costumes, bands playing, and fireworks. The weekend celebration had begun, and they were bringing a sacred relic from storage to the main church. Of course, I ran out of film just at that moment, but managed to quickly load a new roll and to get some great shots.

Although the town was rather run-down, with all the colors and celebrations, it almost looked nice! Chichi is famous for its cloth, most of which is hand-made, and there was a BIG textile market. As my guidebook said, "If you are not into textiles or anthropology, a couple of hours in such a place might be one hour too many!" And so, it was. After looking at half-a-dozen stalls, it was just lots of repetition. Other stalls sold fruit and vegetables, meat, and fruit, along with prepared food. The market was about five acres in size, all covered with blue and orange tarpaulin squares, each rigged up over bamboo slats and wooden frames. The rain dripped off many of the covers. I bought several pieces of cloth. At a food stall, the vendor cooked me some fries.

As I'd seen the procession, there was no reason to stay the night, so I went in search of a bus. The first one to stop was bursting at the seams with people, and the second was full of smokers. I caught the third one, but had to stand all the way back to Los Encuentros. After a short break there, I boarded a minibus headed for Sololá. From there, I arranged a ride into the nearby town of Panajachel, riding with five others on the bed of a small truck. Fortunately, the back was covered, so we were protected from the wind and rain. The 5-mile road took about 20 minutes in the dark, and in fact, the road was hardly a road at all.

The driver dropped us all in front of the Hotel Mayan Palace, the cheapest of the better places. Having regurgitated my food several times after leaving Chichi, I was in no mood to shop around for a place to stay, so I took a room there, for $12. The bed was comfortable, I had an en-suite bathroom, and plenty of hot water. After a very long and hot shower—during which the shower head fell off—I climbed into bed. There, I ate a chocolate bar and drank half a liter of milk before settling down to read my novel. Lights out at 10 pm after a day that travel-wise I didn't wish to repeat, ever again!

[Next day] It was All Saint's Day (Todo Santos)! After a "sleep of the angels," I woke at 8:30 feeling like a whole new person. It was a new day that wouldn't, indeed couldn't, be as bad as the day before. The town was on a large lake, Lago de Atitlán, and the road down to the water's edge had wall-to-wall stalls selling cloth, clothes, leather belts, and bags. After seeing the lake and the surrounding three (hopefully) dormant volcanoes, I decided to stay another night. There were regular ferry services to towns around the lake, and kayaks and jet skis for hire. There was even a helicopter ride. A path ran by the lake along which there were grassed areas and eating places. Numerous people were sunbathing. It was a glorious day, and everything was right in this little corner of the world. A group of locals was colorfully dressed and was involved in some sort of religious service. Then people started playing musical instruments, and the group sang. I very much stood out as being the only person there who was taller than 4'6" (I'm 6'4"). Women were bathing in the lake and washing and brushing their hair.

Late morning, I found a small, dilapidated restaurant where I ordered breakfast. I had two eggs scrambled with tomato, cheese, black beans, onions, and tortillas. I washed that down with two cups of coffee, all for the price of $2.50. I finished my book while drinking coffee, spending 90 minutes for the break. Then I chatted with a Canadian couple for an hour.

I hired a boatman to take me out on the lake for a look around. We spent an hour, visiting the towns of San Antonio and Santa Caterina. The mountainsides were quite steep and had lots of agriculture. There were some nice-looking cottages on the cliffs.

Back on dry land, it was getting dark and as I walked along a path, I came awfully close to plunging into an open sewer that was several feet deep. One hole in the track was so deep, I could barely hear the cries for help from the people who'd fallen in earlier! I came across a carpenter working late in his shop, and I stopped to have a chat. He was making a display case for a shop nearby. I returned to the beach area and lay on the grass writing postcards and watching the impressive lightening display in the sky and reflected in the lake.

Around 9:30 pm, I started looking for a place to stay, as I'd checked out of my previous place. I quickly found one for only $4. The bed was good, but the location was quite noisy. The bathroom consisted of a hand basin bolted to the outside wall of a shed. There was cold water only, but it did have a roof over it! Wadda ya expect for $4, indoor plumbing? After a cup of coffee, I hit the hay at 10 pm.

[Next day] Panajachel came alive quite early, and so did I! I packed and was downtown by 9 am, looking to catch an early bus. A minibus pulled up and offered to take me directly to Antigua for the princely sum of $12. But I'd have a seat, and there would be no changes. Well, we waited for the bus to fill, and it never did. So, when a regular bus came along, I caught that instead. As I'd boarded at the start of the journey, I had a seat and leg room. The good news about having a window seat was I had a great view of the cliff as we were about to drive over it as we raced around the sharp corners. Of course, we stopped at several places along the way. It's the journey, not the destination, right? The steep hillsides supported corn crops, and I figured the farmers must have one long leg and one short to get around out there. At times, the rain and fog got so thick that the driver thought about slowing down! Of course, he didn't, but he came close to thinking about it! There were so many turns driving through the mountains, and then finally we had a 200-yard stretch of straight road, then 500 yards, and Heaven forbid a whole mile!

Once we got out of the mountains, it was mostly farming with vegetables, sheep, and cattle. At one stop, kids got on and came through the bus selling food and drinks, and I bought two home-made, spicy Chili rellenos, which surely put some fire in my belly. I saw many kids and adults flying kites in the stiff breeze. It was a sunny day, and the rest of the trip was uneventful. At Chimaltenango, I boarded a bus for the half-hour ride back to Antigua. I shared a small seat with a Frenchman. We passed by several cemeteries, which were covered in floral arrangements as part of the All Saint's Day celebrations. After all, that day was the Day of the Dead!

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Signs of Life: Part 31

© 2023 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

From time to time during my travels, I come across signs that I find interesting for one reason or another. Sometimes, they contain clever writing, are humorous, or remind me of some place or event. Here are some from trips to the Czech Republic, Germany, and the UK.


Interestingly, as I asked the waiter just how good the food was at this place, his nose got longer and longer!


With hairdressers' names like that, what could possibly go wrong?


This on a men's barber shop. However, I'm not sure I'd want a treatment that came "without warning."


If I understand correctly, a dormouse is a rodent, and we certainly wouldn't want one of those in a bookshop!


At a first glace, this sign seemed to be about getting high on drugs and being drunk. However, on closer inspection, I saw that it was a jewelery store and that the O in the first word was a ring!


Another hairdresser, but I have to say that I'd never seen an organic one.


"What big teeth you have!" "All the better to eat your sandwiches!


When my son was quite young and wouldn't eat his raw vegetables, I told him that carrots were good for his eyesight. After all, rabbits eat carrots and you don't see them wearing glasses! And then I came across this sign!


Although an apothecary is a pharmacy, this place was a bar and restaurant. Apparently, Mr. Postles' "innovative thinking is portrayed in the extensive range of magical potions and eccentric elixirs on sale at the counter."


Well, that certainly narrows down the sorts of things this place sells!


Geting connected, with nature, sounds like a fine idea.


There I was in London, killing time between an afternoon matinee and an evening theater performance, when I came across this eating establishment. Many of the people around me were German-speaking tourists, and we all agreed that Herman the German's wurst was indeed the best!


Well, I've heard of various kinds of co-operative business, but I'd never come across one that handled funerals. Why not? Any how, it adds some intersting possibilities to the wife saying, "Dear, I'm just going to make a quick trip to the co-op! Have you seen my casket; I mean basket!"


Yes, those are bullet holes! And the barbershop seats were upholstered in military camoflage-patterned cloth!


The instructions at this place seem to be quite straighforward.


My first thought was of mace spray, and how the staff might use it to keep order in the classroom. Not many repeat offenders, I expect!


A Little Bit of Sports and Recreation

© 2023 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


I was raised near the town of Loxton in the Riverland region of South Australia, from 1953–1969. I then lived in the state capital, Adelaide, for 10 years. My father, my two brothers, one of my two sisters, and I were very much into sports, both as a player and a spectator. (My father and one brother were also part of team/club management.) The Riverland has produced—and still produces—some very talented sportsmen and women, who have competed at the state, national, and international level (including at the Commonwealth Games), and even won Olympic gold (see Alexander Hill and Grant Schubert).

Although a wide variety of Christian churches were long established in my home state, in reality, the main religion during my years there was sport! And I think it's fair to say that is still true today. And in every sporting household, Saturday—especially the afternoon—was reserved for sports.

Australian Rules Football

Down Under, winter is in the middle of the year, and the longest-played main winter sport for men and boys in most states is Aussie Rules Football. (In the past 15 years or so, women have started playing it as well.)

Regarding my time with this game, see my essay "Football, Aussie Style" from January 2020.

I remain an avid fan, and each weekend from April to September, I view the Australian national league game highlights online.


While I never played competition tennis at a young age, I did go to all the local club's games. In fact, that's where I learned to play. Before, after, and in-between official games, a friend and I would race out and hit the ball around. At that young age, I served from the halfway line as the base line was way too far back for a kid. A team was made up of 10 players, 6 men and 4 women, and included two of my brothers and one sister. Our club had two blacktop courts. The poles holding up the nets were old iron railway sleepers (US: ties). And the backstops were tall, metal frames covered with coarse wire netting (US: chicken wire). We played in summer, and summers in the semi-desert of Australia can get pretty darned hot, although back then there was no humidity. At the end of the game, we had afternoon tea. Years later, while in high school, I played several seasons in that league.

In the late 1970s', I played in a nighttime league formed by state government departments and agencies. Playing tennis at night was a whole other challenge, and as I'd had several lots of knee surgeries by then, I had to pace myself. I preferred doubles, as I didn't have to move around so much.


Although I was quite tall, my basketball career was short, and many games I was sent off with five fouls. (Apparently, tackling opponents like in football, is not permitted!)

For the last couple of years of high school, I played for the Zebras, a team whose colors were green and yellow. Yes, Australian zebras are indeed those colors! (Actually, being an older club, the Magpies had already taken black and white.) The A-Grade competition was pretty serious and there were some very talented players. B-Grade, which I played, was a whole other story; we had fun.

My good friend Peter was a fellow Zebra, and he introduced me to the game, and drove me to/from games, which were held on mid-week nights. Before I started playing, the league played indoors. Later, a pair of outdoor concrete courts with lighting were built on the edge of town.

Each year, the state capital hosted what was called a Country Carnival, with teams coming from all over the state. I recall playing in at least one. The team members slept in sleeping bags at a host sporting club's facility.

Each year, Loxton High School and Kadina High School met in "combat" for a week, with competitions mostly involving sports, but there was also a debating contest. And each year, the host alternated. In Year 12, we went to Kadina by bus where I was hosted by a family that just so happened to live in and run a large country pub. As such, I stayed in a guestroom and ate my meals in the dining room. My team was soundly defeated that year!


In my early years, I attended small schools. Each week, we had a Physical Education (PE) lesson. Then at some time during the year, we had a regional Sports Day, which was comprised of individual and team events. I participated in both. However, it wasn't until I got to high school that I really "showed my stuff."

Each week at high school, we had a PE lesson, separated by gender. Depending on the season, we played a number of things, from football, cricket, tennis, field hockey, and athletics (track and field in the U.S.). Each year, we had a Sports Day between the four school houses: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. During my five years there, my house, Alpha, did very well in athletics, and I contributed significantly. Individual events were classified by age, as follows:

  • Sub-Junior – Under 13 years-old
  • Junior – Under 14 years-old
  • Intermediate – Under 15 years-old
  • Senior – 15 years-old and over

[School began with First Grade, at age 5, so most students were 16 going into Year 12. Grades 1–7 attended Primary School, and Grades 8–12 attended High School. There was no equivalent to the US's Junior High/Middle School.]

As I was 11 years and 2 months old when I started Year 8, I spent two years in the sub-junior ranks, and in Year 9, I won the Boy's Sub-Junior trophy. In Year 10, I placed second in the Boy's Junior competition, and in Year 11, I placed third in the Boy's Intermediate competition. [Do you see the pattern?] In Year 12, I was up against all those guys who were 16, 17, and some even 18 years old. My biggest event was high jump with triple jump and long jump not far behind. I was pretty good at flat races of 100 and 220 yards, but not very good at longer distances or hurdles. In later years, I threw the discus and javelin as well.

In the last few years of my time in high school, cross-country running was introduced, and I competed once, in Year 12. The best I can say in retrospect is, "It seemed like a good idea at the time!" The school was located on a main highway near high cliffs overlooking the river flats below, and to make it interesting, competitors walked down a dirt road to the bottom of the 500-foot cliffs, and we started the race there. Yes, we ran back up that damned hill, then for some three miles on a flat, packed dirt track, then down a cliff track, across several miles of muddy river flat/swamp land and then back up that damned hill again, to finish at school. As the old saying goes, "Nothing is a complete waste; it can always serve as a bad example!"

Walking and Hiking

In the mid-1960's, walkathons became very popular ways of raising money, and somehow, I managed to enter two of them. (It must have seemed a good idea at the time!)

The first was 13 miles (21 kms). Buses drove us to the river flats near Berri and unloaded us at the bottom of a very steep and long hill, called Bookpernong Hill. The biggest challenge was at the beginning. Once one got to the top of that hill, it was relatively flat all the way to Loxton, although we were walking/running on the edge of a busy two-lane highway with no breakdown lane.

The second was 20 miles (32 kms). Once again, we were bussed to the start, which was somewhere near Moorook, and we walked/ran from there. For the final few miles, I was with my cousin Tim, and we agreed that we'd run across the finish line together. But being young males, as we got to within a few hundred yards of the finish line, we both started sprinting, and I beat him by a nose to come in third.

[In May of 2005, I managed to walk the 187 miles (300 kms) of the Thames Path in England, with a full backpack. I can assure you that I was no longer a young male and there was no running! I walked 15 days over a 21-day period. See "A Walk along the River" from July 2011.]


I enjoyed squash, but unfortunately, didn't really start playing it until after I'd had my first serious knee injury. As such, whenever I really extended myself, I finished up twisting a knee. Court time was booked in 30-minute slots, and I can assure you that a half hour of serious squash gives one a very good workout.

The US pseudo-equivalent to squash is racquetball. I tried it a few times, but much preferred squash.

Swimming, Water Sports, and Fishing

For many years in my home state, each summer, the state Department of Education sponsored "Learn to Swim" campaigns, so that kids all around the state could earn certificates of many levels from beginners to lifesaving. Most instructors were schoolteachers, who like their swim students were on their summer break.

I was never a very good swimmer, as I swam with my head out of the water. [Hey! How else am I gonna see where I'm going?] In any event, at the start of Grade 7, I managed to complete the Beginner's Certificate program. Over the next year or so, I started the next level.

Towards the end of my high-school days, we started a swimming carnival, a team and individual competition between the four houses of the school. The only event I entered was the whistle grab, which involved a large number of students jumping into the pool at the sound of a whistle to retrieve tennis balls. Hardly an Olympic event!

Brother Terry had access to a speedboat, and from time to time, he would take me to the river to waterski. I never progressed beyond skiing on doubles, but I can clearly remember the buzz I got from racing along at 30 miles-per-hour (48 kph). And while water might seem pretty soft, when you hit it at that speed (or even faster on an outside corner), you certainly can bounce quite a lot before sinking.

As far back as I can remember, Dad liked to fish, and sometimes the techniques he used weren't exactly legal! Now the River Murray was famous for its Murray Cod, which could grow up to 30–40 pounds (13.5–18 kgs). But over time, they were few and far between, and there was a limited season. One way to catch them was to use a spinner, a large lure that involved a metal shaft around which span two propellers, in opposite directions. At the tail end was a large hook. Spinners were definitely illegal. Now while it was legal to have a drum net, it definitely was not to have a gill net. Of course, Dad had one of each!

Most often, we anchored the boat and sat in one spot for a while with hand rods (US: fishing poles) using either worms or shrimp as bait. When moving, we trailed a line with a floppy, a small rubber lure that looked a bit like a fish and contained a hook. Sometimes we rowed and sometimes we used a small outboard motor.

I recall one year that we went to Port Param, not far north of Adelaide. The beach there was famous for crabs, and we'd each walk out towing a metal tub set inside an inflated car tube (US: inner tube) that was tied to our waist. We used homemade crab rakes to dig around in the sand in about 1–2 feet (30–60 cms) of water until we felt a crab move, and then we scooped it up quickly and dropped it in our tub.

In my mid-60's, here in the US, I discovered that a neighboring town had an indoor pool, which cost a pittance to use. After an initial visit, I bought a pass and went once a week. (No sense overdoing it, right! In any event, once a week is infinitely more often than never!) Over time that increased to twice a week, and now it's three times. Having played semi-pro sport in my youth, exercise was part of the job, and never something I enjoyed, so the only way to not lose interest in this endeavor has been to limit myself to 30 minutes per session. I have a form that involves six kinds of swimming or exercise. Much more than a half hour seems like work.

Lawn bowls

In the British Commonwealth, playing bowls on a flat, hard green was a popular pastime for both men and women, as individuals or in pairs. My parents were avid players. However, I recall that in my youth, it was deemed to be "old person's game;" however, that changed over the next 20 years as much younger (even teenage) players got involved.

Although I tried the game a few times, it was not something that interested me.


My rural area had a 9-hole golf course on which the greens were actually browns! That is, they were made of packed, fine-grained sand rather than grass, and that sand contained oil (something simply not allowed now in these eco-friendly times). And to make it interesting, a major, 2-lane state highway ran through the middle of the course, and near several holes there was a large quarry (that had been created to build the highway).

My Dad and two brothers played there for several seasons. I remember once caddying for my father, who managed to hit his ball into the quarry. Let's just say that after a lot of swearing, he finally got it out after more than a dozen shots!

When I lived in Adelaide, I occasionally played a par-3 course.

I have since learned about Mark Twain's attitude towards golf—Golf is a good walk spoiled—and I'm inclined to agree. I also recall hearing that, "If the ball goes right, it's a slice. If it goes left, it's a hook. If it goes straight ahead, it's a miracle."

Given the generally warm climate in Australia, even in winter, golf is very popular, and many clubs have associated motels, restaurants, and caravan parks. And fees to play can be quite low. As such, I was stunned to learn from my Japanese friends that as there is little flat land in Japan, golf courses are rather scarce, and many people can only afford to play a few times a year. Most make do by hitting shots from platforms at a multi-story driving range!


This 7-person form of basketball used to be for women and girls only, but in the 1970s, men started playing it too. It's very popular throughout the British Commonwealth. The goal does not have a backboard, and the ball is passed; there is no dribbling. During my school years, in my local leagues, the women played netball at the same time and place as the men played Aussie Rules football.

Field Hockey

In Australia, I knew this sport simply as hockey; after all, what other kind of hockey could there be?

Although I was required to try the game during high school PE classes, I played it like golf, but apparently one isn't permitted to swing the stick above one's shoulder!

Of course, I've since learned that in Canada and many parts of the US and other countries, hockey means ice hockey, as God intended, and many youngsters there learn to skate before they can walk! Some years ago, I stayed with friends in Slovakia, and at the end of my trip, my host gave me a Slovakian national ice-hockey team shirt. I rediscovered it several years ago, and sometimes wear it as a night shirt.


Now, what sort of a game is played over five days and can end in a draw, and stops for tea breaks? That would be cricket! It's another very popular sport throughout the British Commonwealth.

Back in my youth, cricket pitches were made of concrete, and they were often located in the middle of Aussie football fields. (Cricket is played in summer, football in winter.) Imagine having a long concrete slab in the center of your football field! Clearly, that was dangerous. At major venues, the cricket pitch was made of hard-packed dirt, but in the winter when it rained, that section became very muddy and slippery, making things very difficult for football players (he says from experience).

In 2015, on a trip to Adelaide, South Australia, I had the privilege of having a behind-the-scenes tour of Adelaide Oval, the home to the state cricket team and now to the city's two professional Aussie Rules Football teams. Before the football season starts, they use a large machine to dig up as a whole thing the grass cricket pitch, transport it to another field, plant it there, and replace it with another grass section of the same composition as the rest of the field. So, no more muddy football games!

Like tennis and some other older sports, cricket had a (conservative) dress code: one could wear any color one liked, as long as it was white! However, in the late 1970s, Aussie media tycoon, Kerry Packer, upset that classical approach, and then some. He founded World Series Cricket, which directly competed against the classic international cricket test system, and–Heaven Forbid—had players in colored uniforms! Eventually, there was a great reconciliation of the world's cricketing organizations, and the game was very much improved as a result. Many major games are now held on a single day, which makes playing more aggressive and results in higher scores.

Except for high school PE, I had no exposure to the game, and I definitely wasn't keen to face a bowler sending me a very hard ball at great speed, having it bounce once on a concrete pitch on its way toward my head or body. To use an Aussie saying, "I'd rather have a poke in the eye with a blunt stick!" These days, players wear helmets, and sometimes face guards.

Snooker, Pool, and Billiards

At age 16, I went to play in a junior league for a semi-pro Aussie Rules Football club. The club recreation room had two full-size billiard tables, and I soon fell in love with the game of snooker. I also enjoyed pool, playing that mostly on smaller tables, but preferred snooker. On rare occasions, I played billiards. If you have never played on a full-size table, I can assure you that being tall and having a long reach is an advantage!

Occasionally, I watched a very popular British TV show called Pot Black, which featured snooker games.

Table Tennis

I definitely like playing table tennis. As a very tall person with very long arms, I can reach around the table without having to jeopardize my bad knees, so it's one of the few physical games I can still manage. That said, I rarely play it, but when I do, my natural ability soon surfaces, especially with my backhand shots.

Ten-Pin bowling

This was a popular activity in Adelaide in the 70's, and I played occasionally with a few friends. More often, after university night classes ended, several of us would go to a bowling alley, sit upstairs in the visitor's lounge, and watch people playing, while we ate grilled cheese sandwiches.

Rifle Shooting

On a visit to my hometown, my dear friend Colin invited me to a meeting of the local rifle club. We spent some time down in the large hole below the targets. Our job was to lower the target after each shot, record the score, and plug the hole. We were in communication with a club officer back at the shooting line via a telephone. Later, I took my turn actually shooting, and I varied from hitting the target close-in to missing it completely. Although my eyesight has never been stellar, looking at a target some hundreds of yards (meters) away over an open sight showed me that a very small error at my end meant a very large one at the target end!

Attending Professional Sports Games as a Spectator

My first-ever baseball game was on Opening Day at Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs. Back in 1980, the field had no lights, and the game was played on a weekday afternoon. (I lived in Chicago from 1979–80.) My second baseball game was at (the now demolished) Comiskey Park, then the home of the Chicago White Sox. It was a night game on America's July 4th Independence Day holiday, and there was low cloud cover. As such, when the fireworks were set off, the sound of the explosions was contained, and fairly shook the stands. My third game was at (the now demolished) Kingdome, home of the Seattle Mariners. What made that especially interesting was the field was indoors, which made for a pretty good-sized building.

While living in Chicago, I saw an exhibition game of the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters. (Oddly, I never did go to a Chicago Bulls game, however.)

My only ice-hockey game was in the Washington DC area to see the Washington Capitals play the Edmonton Oilers. It was a high-scoring game with three goals scored in a minute or so.

I've attended two professional American football games. The first was Opening Day with the Seattle Seahawks. I was in a private, corporate suite for 24 guests, halfway up the stands, overlooking one end's goal line. The cost of that little 3–4-hour soiree was around US$18,000, with food and drink included. The second was with the Washington Redskins, (whose name was deemed politically incorrect, and has since been changed to Washington Commanders).

While on separate trips down under, I attended an Aussie Rules Football night game at (the now-retired) Football Park stadium at West Lakes to see the Adelaide Crows, and years later an evening Crosstown Showdown between my home state's two teams, Adelaide Crows and Port Power.

Olympic Games

Although I've never had the urge to attend, as a tourist, I have visited a number of Olympic stadiums. My first was Montreal, Canada. The facility was built with enormous cost overruns, which took years to pay off. Next up was Helsinki, Finland. Originally built for the 1940 Games, which were cancelled because of WWII, the facility sat idle until 1952. I've twice visited the Beijing, China, site, where I was very impressed by the exterior view of the "Bird's Nest" stadium. Of course, my visit to the Munich, Germany, site conjured up memories of the "Munich massacre." My most recent Olympic site visit was in Barcelona, Spain. I've also visited Lillehammer, Norway (a Winter Olympics host), to attend a conference. At that time, deep snow was all around and one could see the Olympic ski jump in the distance.

Bits and Pieces

Recently, when I was tired of looking at a screen for hours at a time, I searched through my (now not so large) collection of books, and came up with "Rules of the Game: The complete illustrated encyclopedia of all the sports of the world," an Aussie publication from 1974. I spent several hours reminding myself about rules of games I'd played, as well as learning about some others. Here are some of the things I (re-)learned from that book and subsequent research:

  • The biathlon involves cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.
  • A quadrathlon (or quadriathlon, tetrathlon) is an endurance sports event involving swimming, cycling, kayaking, and running. However, in winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing replace swimming and kayaking.
  • Regarding the pentathlon, according to Wikipedia, "Five events were contested over one day …, starting with the long jump, javelin throwing, and discus throwing, followed by the stadion (a short foot race) and wrestling." However, the modern pentathlon involves fencing, freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, pistol shooting, and cross country running. (This event should not be confused with the Aussie Working-Man's Pentathlon, which involves the following: having the wife sprint to the local bottle department [US: liquor store] to get cold beer; having the wife deliver beer to husband who is sitting on the couch watching sport on TV; husband drinks beer; husband burps repeatedly and loudly; husband calls out, "Beryl, bring more beer!" And when she asks, "What's the magic word, Dear? [as in please]," he replies, "Now!")
  • The heptathlon involves seven track and field events, which differ by gender. Over two days, men compete in 60 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 60-meters hurdles, pole vault, and 1,000 meters. women compete in 100-meters hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meters, long jump, javelin, and 800 meters.
  • If you are a true glutton for punishment, you might try the decathlon, which involves 10 track and field events held over two days.


I once observed my long-time friend Gerard compete in an Ironman triathlon qualifier. He was one of 2,000 people who at 7 o'clock in the morning, thought it was a good idea to swim two 1-mile (1.6 km) laps in the sea, ride 112 miles (180 kms) on a bike, and then finish off with a marathon run (26 miles/42 kms). I was tired just thinking about competing! [Being Dutch, in winter competitions, Gerard replaced the swimming component with skating on a frozen canal.]

From time to time, I think about taking a parachute jump before I die, but not just before I die! Certainly, I'd be tethered to a jump instructor. But then being so tall, I'd likely hit the ground before the instructor. I've also thought about flying, but given that I don't do well with motion sickness, piloting small planes would never work. But flying an ultralight might! I briefly considered helicopters. (I've had two such rides: a short one around Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and a long one from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon.) I once went to the top of a small mountain to watch people jump while hanging under very large hang gliders. While I can imagine trying that from the top of a sand dune, jumping off the edge of a precipice is not my idea of fun!

Once I'd played a decent level of sport, I found it way more interesting to be a player rather than a spectator. And about the only game I actually enjoy watching is Aussie Rules. However, after my knee surgeries at ages 19 and 21, my playing days for most sports were definitely over. When I'm doing something, be it work or play, I put in 110% effort; I really don't know how to put in less! So having a casual game of anything is quite a challenge.

In my humble opinion, a major downside to sports in Australia, is that as a fundraising thing, many sporting clubs installed poker machines. In way too many cases, this simply provided yet another way for blue-collar workers to waste their money. As such, on a trip to my home state a few years ago, I was encouraged to hear they were reducing the number of machines allowed per venue.

Travel: Memories of Costa Rica

© 1992, 2023 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[Originally, this diary was written by hand in a spiral notebook during the trip, in October 1992. Nearly 30 years later, I transcribed and edited it. I'd glued all kinds of things into the paper version: bus tickets, receipts, and so forth. It's quite likely that I hadn't read the diary since I first wrote it.]

Preparation and Departure

It was Adventure Time again! This trip, I'd visit Central America for the first time by going to Costa Rica. [In Spanish, Costa Rica literally means "Rich Coast." In that language, adjectives are written after the nouns to which they refer.] I had two weeks and a round-trip airline ticket plus a list of contacts with whom I might be able to stay. Basically, there was no grand plan; I'd make it up as I went.

I'd purchased a new, internal-frame backpack. It had one main compartment, another small one that zipped to the bottom, a zippered compartment on the top, and two side pockets. It had all kinds of adjustable straps and when I was wearing it, I looked a bit like a decorated Christmas tree! It was a medium shade of blue with black trim. By the time I got all the gear in, there was still quite a bit of room. My empty daypack folded up and fit just nicely into the small compartment, so everything went on my back keeping my hands free, something I very much like to have. Around my waist I'd wear a large fanny pack that contained my valuables, pen, paper, candy, and, of course, my good old Swiss Army knife, complete with blades, a screwdriver, and a toothpick, I kid you not!

Here's what I packed for the 2-week trip:

  • 1 all-weather coat with zip-out liner and numerous pockets
  • 1 pair of khaki hiking trousers and 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair of hiking boots
  • 6 pairs of hand-knitted woolen socks
  • 6 pairs of underpants
  • 2 long-sleeve shirts
  • 2 T-shirts
  • 1 Army-style jungle hat
  • 1 woolen cap
  • First-aid kit, malaria pills, diarrhea tablets, iodine tables
  • Emergency-rations of granola bars
  • Guidebook and maps
  • Spanish language dictionary and phrase book
  • Miscellaneous: Flashlight, matches, whistle, small roll of toilet paper, basic mess kit, washing powder, and toiletries

That was it; no kitchen sink; not even a plug for one! Each time I travel I seem to take less, so at this rate, in another 10 years, I'll be traveling naked and empty-handed!

[Next day] As I'd organized my gear a few days earlier, on Travel Day, it didn't take long to pack. Around 3:30 pm, Jenny drove me to Washington Dulles International airport (IAD). I waited in line at the United Airlines international desk for a half hour, and when I eventually got to the front of the line, I was told that I had to go to another counter to get my ticket reissued after which I could come back and check-in. After 10 minutes in the other line, a pleasant lady agent apologized for the other agent's behavior and said that the first agent could have handled the issue himself. I rewarded her with a United employee certificate that frequent flyers get to hand out to airline employees who "go the extra mile."

Passing Through Mexico City

After security, I rode the bus to the mid-field Terminal C and walked to Gate 11. Flight UA1003 was going to San Jose, Costa Rica, via Mexico City, Mexico. The Boeing 737 was nearly full, and I sat at a window with the middle seat next to me empty. Although there wasn't much room for my long legs, the seat in front of me was occupied by a small child who slept the whole way without putting the seat back.

The first leg was uneventful, as one likes flights to be. The cabin crew were very light-hearted, and the co-pilot was a young woman. We were served supper, for which I chose the chicken on rice (pollo con arroz) with some sort of Mexican sauce, a salad, and a slice of cake. After I read a newspaper, I perused my Costa Rica guidebook, primarily to figure out where I might stay the first night.

It took about five hours to get to Mexico City (MEX), and it was raining when we arrived. With some 20 million people, it was one of the world's biggest cities. As we approached, I started to think about the 1968 Summer Olympics that were held there, during which athletes had to adjust to the high-altitude (7,350 feet/2,240 meters). Most of all, I thought about the 8.1-magnitude earthquake they had in 1985, and I hoped the ground would stay still for the short time I'd be on it. Fortunately, it did!

Ground time was short and I and only five or six other passengers stayed on board for the next leg. Seventy-odd others boarded at MEX. During the 2.5-hour flight, we were served a snack, but having eaten a bit earlier, I put most of that in my pack. Besides, I'm a great hoarder when I travel, picking up all kinds of things I figure might be useful, from airline cups, containers, salt/pepper/ketchup packs, and nuts.

Arrival in Costa Rica

We landed at San José airport (SJO), some 20 km west of downtown, around 11:45 pm, local time (two hours behind my home time, including Daylight Savings-Time adjustment). Although I was one of the first passengers off the plane, my luggage was one of the last pieces to arrive at the baggage carousel. Don't you just hate that when that happens! Immigration was a formality, and then I got in the long line for customs inspection. As the staff seemed to have nothing else to do at that hour, they decided to check nearly everyone's bags! However, since I stuck out in the crowd—being two feet taller than everyone else and wearing a blue backpack—it was obvious that I was not a Tico (a person from Costa Rica) returning home. The agents were only interested in natives bringing home stuff and trying to avoid paying import duty. So, I was pulled out of line and told to go straight through (or something like that, in Spanish!) I smiled and said "Muchas gracias! (Many thanks!)"

By then, it was after midnight and the airport bank was long closed leaving me with US$ travelers checks and cash only. As I left the restricted area, about 10 different people approached me asking if I wanted a taxi. After a short exchange in Spanish, I chose one of the guys, and we set off in his cab for the capital. And, "Si," he would be happy to take US$ cash, and the ride would cost $10, which according to my guidebook was the going rate. (As nobody uses meters, you have to negotiate the fare in advance.)

I had picked out a hotel from the "better class" of cheap places, and my driver soon found it. I asked him if I could buy some local currency from him. He agreed, and for US$20, I got CRC 2,500 (Costa Rican colones, which have the symbol ₡), which at 125/$, was decent compared to the official rate. According to my guidebook, the Hotel Rialto was "reasonable and cheap, has hot water, $4 a double room and $5 with private washbasin and toilet." My book was 18 months old, so not completely up to date, but I got a room with two beds at the single rate of $5/night. I got another Spanish workout while checking in during which time I was told the basic rules and regulations only a few of which I understood.

Both beds were OK, but one was better than the other, and by 1 am, I "hit the hay." Now while Ticos are short—you could easily fit two of them in my single bed—you could only fit two thirds of me! So, my feet alternated between hanging out at the end or being tucked up to my chest. I eventually got to sleep despite the street noise and bright lights outside.

[Next day] After an intermittent sleep, I was wide awake at 8 o'clock. And after I splashed some cold water on my face, I started writing this diary. Let's start by describing my room. What should one expect for $5 in this part of the world? It was about 10 feet by 10 feet (3 meters square) with two single beds and a small dresser/table with two drawers. Mounted on the wall above my bed was a place to hang clothes. The walls and ceiling were painted a cream/yellow color and were completely bare. A fluorescent light was fixed to the ceiling. The door was solid with two locks. The four sheets, two pillowcases, and two quilts were all different colors, mostly with floral patterns. And while they clashed with my "designer" hiking clothes, I thought, "What the heck; I'm on an adventure!"

The floor was cement tile with a pattern of maroon, yellow, and black squares. Using that, if you moved the beds up against the wall, you could play chess! One whole wall was windows, none of which opened. From them I had a wonderful view of the narrow street below, called "Calle 2" (Street Number 2, or maybe Second Street). To the right was a power pole with two large transformers and lots of wires. Down on the corner was a Burger King fast-food place, and opposite me was a zapateria (shoe shop) and some places selling fried chicken. From my vantage point I could see lots of rusty galvanized-iron roofs and walls well into the distance. In fact, surprise, it looked exactly like a Latin American city; everything pretty much worked, but had a general run-down appearance!

Looking at the receipt stuck in my paper diary, I see that I was in Room 6 and that my address was "Australia," as that was the country of my passport even though I no longer lived there.

I checked out around 9:30 am and headed outside to see what I could see. I started at the Central Market, which had many small stores under a big roof. They sold everything from shoes and clothes; to flowers; fruit; vegetables; and meat; to a pet store selling dogs, cats, birds, chickens, and ducks; to quite a few eating places, one of which was right next door to the pet shop! Most things were cheaper than back at home, but not always by a lot. The streets were narrow and crowded, and with my backpack on it was easier if I walked in the gutter rather than the sidewalk. Even though I towered over everyone, not too many people stared at the Gringo Gigantico.

I stopped at a bank and changed $100, getting a rate of 135 colones per dollar. All the staff were friendly and helpful. I love street musicians and I stopped to listen to a blind, young man playing a keyboard, and to a group of four not-so-young men really "getting it on" with their instruments. Street vendors were all around selling everything from newspapers, the ever-present lottery tickets, ice creams, and fruit.

I found the tourist office and got a good map of the capital and the whole country. I also got a schedule for all long-distance buses. I learned that the "Jungle Train" that used to run to Puerto Limon on the Caribbean coast stopped running several years earlier. While there, I met an American from Seattle. He'd been in-country for six weeks and gave me some good tips. He was staying at a youth hostel. I also met a Danish guy who'd arrived the day before, like me.

As a member of Servas International, a peace-based hosting organization, I'd gotten its host list for Costa Rica. I phoned one host, a retired journalist. She currently had guests, but she invited me to stay for my final two nights of the trip. I tried contacting a second host, but the number I had for them did not have the correct number of digits. I finally resorted to the paper directory next to the phone, but couldn't find any of the names on my list. Eventually, a young lady came along who spoke some English, and she helped me. Apparently, in the Spanish-speaking world people have two last names, one from their mother and one from their father. I still couldn't find any of the names, and my helper even called Information for me. Finally, I called the local Servas coordinator, but she didn't have a better number of that one host, and I had great difficulty understanding her Spanish.

After that ordeal–trying to use a foreign language on a telephone can be very intimidating/frustrating—what to do but have some comfort food! So, I headed back to the central market, to the Golden Café, where waitress Maria escorted me to a booth upstairs. She practiced her minimal English and me my introductory Spanish. I ordered soup, which was served in a broad, flat dish. It came with two large carrots, large pieces of potato and sweet potato, pieces of beef, and broth. It was quite good, perhaps even "as good as Grandma used to make!" I also had a side-order of rice with vegetables, and a glass of iced-cold pineapple drink. All up it cost me $2.50, including a generous tip. Maria thanked me and told me to come back, and she'd take good care of me, and to have a good trip.

I headed back out on the street where I saw a man pedaling a stationary bicycle. The back wheel was mounted on a frame, and it drove a grinding wheel near the handlebars. He was using the wheel to sharpen knives and scissors.

As best as I could figure out, I could catch a bus to the youth hostel on Avenida 2. I found the street and asked various people for directions to the bus stop, and each one told me to go a few hundred meters and I'd see it. After three times following that advice, I found it. I paid about 10 cents for a ticket and a friendly passenger helped me determine my stop, just before the Kentucky Fried Chicken place! Apparently, the locals give directions using landmarks rather than street numbers. (As some streets don't have signs, at times I walked several blocks in the wrong direction before I discovered where I was.)

At 3:30 pm, I was checked-in for the night at the youth hostel. I sat outdoors in the afternoon sunshine writing. I was assigned a dorm room with beds for seven others. My mattress was decent and came with a pillow, one sheet, and one blanket. The lounge had a TV and plenty of books and magazines in English, which could be exchanged. Breakfast was included. There was a daytime curfew, from 10–2, during which all guests had to leave. I made a plan to head out of the city the next morning. I was quite happy with my Spanish thus far. I was communicating, but clearly had a long way to go to understand others. The recent effort I'd made to increase my vocabulary had already paid off, and I could read lots of signs in shops and public places.

I found a convenience store and laid-in some cold milk, bread, juice, cheese, and ham, and back in the hostel lounge I ate sandwiches while reading a Robert Ludlum novel, "The Scarlatti Inheritance."

The American and Dane I'd met earlier were my room mates! There was also another American and an English architect. They were traveling in Central and South America for several months. Other guests and I talked into the night. Several spoke German as well as Spanish, and most spoke fluent English. A young Panamanian arrived.

Before bedtime, I took a shower, but the hot water gave out before I was done. Don't you just hate that when that happens! Like good roommates, the others did not turn on the main room light when they came home. In any event, there were people "coming and going" in the hostel until very late and then again from early the next morning. My bed was comfortable, and I slept reasonably well. I set my alarm for 8 am, intending to catch a 10-o'clock bus.

East to the Caribbean Coast

[Next day] Although my alarm wasn't due to go off until 8, I woke before 6 o'clock, but managed to lie in until 7:15. Don't you just hate that when that happens! By 7:30, I was packed and checked out, and I walked to a restaurant nearby, located in the old hostel. There I was joined by several other guys from my room. I had huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs), toast, and a mug of hot chocolate.

I was going east to the Caribbean coast, and the bus station for that region was only a 10-minute walk. I set out from the restaurant right about the time my alarm was originally going to wake me, so I was quite a bit ahead of schedule. At 8:25 I bought a ticket (for $2.25) to find it was for the 8:30 bus, which was just about to leave, and that put me even further ahead. The long-distance coach was comfortable and reasonably full. The young guy sitting next to me slept the whole way, so I was denied a Spanish workout. (Perhaps he was just pretending to sleep, to avoid having to speak to the foreigner!) Instead, I watched the countryside go by out the window. The 170 km trip took 2½ hours. First, there were mountains with fog and rain, and coffee and banana plantations, the mainstay of the economy. The road was in poor condition and there was quite some traffic with each driver seemingly following their own set of road rules. Out on the slopes I could see quite a few cattle grazing. Then in the tropical lowlands it was all bananas and coconuts. As we approached the coast, the humidity increased significantly although it wasn't especially hot.

We arrived at Puerto Limón ("Lemon Port"), a regional capital. I walked to the park a few blocks away to see the famous sloths that lived there, but didn't see any although a worker could see some and he tried to point them out to me. They are nocturnal critters and during the day they curl up and sleep on branches making it difficult to see them.

My original plan gave me a half hour free there, but with my early start I had two hours until my 1 o'clock bus south towards the Panamanian border. After a stroll along the waterfront, I was back at the park under the shade of some huge tropical, vine-covered trees. Nearby, a young mother was sitting on a bench breastfeeding a baby, and a few other people sat chatting. An old man who looked rather worse for wear, and with only a few teeth in his mouth, asked me for something to eat, and I gave him four slices of bread, some cheese, and sliced meat. I wondered if I should have lent him my dentures as well! He was very happy and thanked me.

The ancestors of many people living on the coast originally came as slaves from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. As such their descendants were quite dark skinned and spoke a flavor of English with some Spanish mixed in.

There wasn't much to see or do around the town, so I sat and read my novel before walking to a different bus station for the next leg. There, I and many passengers boarded a contraption that in a previous life might have been a bus! It was run-down with torn or missing seats, badly cracked windows, and numerous holes rusted through the floor. There was a baggage area in the back, so I dumped my pack there and settled into the backseat next to the back door. Near me were two American women, one of whom (Toni) managed the very place at which I was planning to stay, Cabañas Black Sands. (She was originally from the Washington DC area.)

The bus was quite full and with the seats so close together, turned sideways to accommodate my long legs, I took up most of a whole bench seat. A young Italian lady managed to find space next to me. She and her husband and 3-year-old daughter were going to Cahuita, a town just before my destination. They were from Turin, Italy, and had been traveling since January. Her English was passable and certainly much better than my 30-odd words of Italian. We talked and shared candy and fruit.

Soon after we started, the road as such seemed to disappear! There were potholes everywhere and the going was slow. It took two hours to go 50 kms! And then disaster struck! We stopped in the middle of nowhere opposite a lone house where a young mother and child stood waiting for their family to arrive on the bus. The father and small girl got off the bus, and seeing her mother waiting, the girl raced across the road in front of the bus just as a fast-driving idiot passed the stationary bus in his pickup truck. We all heard the THUMP as the vehicle hit the girl and came to a screeching halt with the girl underneath. Most passengers on the bus knew immediately what happened and started crying. Some people got the girl out from under, and while she was alive, she had severe head injuries. They loaded her onto the back of the pickup and raced off to the nearest hospital, some 40 minutes away. I didn't give her much chance of surviving.

The Town of Viejo

My destination was Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, known simply as Puerto Viejo ("Old Port"), and just outside the town, Toni and I got off and walked the 300 meters to her cabins. Unfortunately, I was told that they were completely full for the next four days, by which time, I'd have left the area. It was a popular place with American backpackers, and they were happy to have the copy of the US National newspaper, USA Today, that I gave them. So, I sat in the shade and thought about a Plan B. Then someone suggested I try an elderly widow just down the path, as she sometimes rented a room.

I set out for her place and had been told that I couldn't miss it, as her front fence was painted in very bright colors. And there it was! I met the owner, Señora Julia, who I guessed was well into her 70's. She spoke Spanish and some English. Her house was built on high stilts underneath which was a spare bedroom with shower and toilet. The room came with an electric fan, some chairs, and mosquito screens, but only on most of the windows! Well, she looked me up and down, and decided to take a chance on me, and I paid her $7/night for two nights, in advance. Her place was located outside of (what I found was a very noisy) town, and that was just fine with me. One hundred meters away through a coconut grove was the beach.

I visited the "corner store" nearby where I bought a liter of leche frio (cold milk) and two liters of jugo de naranja (orange juice). I drank some of that with leftover food and called that "supper!"

It got dark early, around 5 pm, and I read until I couldn't see any more. Then without any invitation, the mosquitos arrived, so I put on some heavy-duty repellant. I also had started taking anti-malaria tables, just in case.

My double bed came with two sheets only, but given the climate, I wouldn't need a blanket. The bed was quite comfortable, and for that I was very grateful. I was dog-tired, and put out the light at 6:30. I left the fan on low all night to keep away the mosquitos who managed to find the holes in the screens.

[Next day] Dawn broke around 5 am and it rained quite heavily for several hours. Apparently, at that time of the year that happened every morning. (Having been raised in an area with a 10-inch annual rainfall, this was quite unusual for me.) By 9 o'clock, the weather was clear, the sun was out, and it was getting quite hot. However, a gentle breeze blew, so it wasn't oppressive heat. As to where all that water drained away, I had no idea, but the ground must surely be saturated! I ate some leftovers and continued reading my gripping novel. Outside on the verandah, a sink was mounted on some wobbly wooden planks. There, I handwashed socks, underwear, and a T-shirt.

As I sat in my room, my host came out of her upstairs rooms and called out "Rex" several times. Of course, that got my attention until it occurred to me that I didn't think I'd told her my name. Well, don't you know, she had a Jack Russell terrier called Rex. And when I explained to her that my name was Rex, she didn't believe me, "'cos that's a dog's name!"

Mid-morning, I headed out for the 20-minute walk into town. I had to decide whether to stay two or four nights, to coordinate with the reduced bus service over the weekend, but that could wait until later. I walked out the back yard where the chickens were pecking for food, stepped over the low galvanized-iron fence, went through a grove of coconut palms, and came out on a black lava-sand beach. I spied a long piece of sturdy bamboo partly buried in the mud, and I dug it out, washed it off in the sea while hanging down over the water from a coconut tree, and used it as a walking stick.

The beach sand was so fine it was like powder. The surf was quite strong, and it pounded loudly all day (and night) long, but that's a sound I'm happy to have in the background. In fact, I'd felt its crashing vibrations up through the floor of my room the night before, some 100 meters away. I walked into town, which was quite small with two large shops and several smaller ones selling T-shirts, among other things. There were a number of places to eat and to rent rooms. I bought some pineapple-flavored ice cream and ate that while walking further along the beach stopping occasionally to watch the people and the surf, and then to read my novel. Beyond the town the beach was brown and white and not so powder-like. Eventually, the way became impassable as it was completely blocked by huge tree trunks and large pieces of wood of every shape and size. Apparently, this was a result of a sizeable earthquake from the previous year. The trees were flushed out to sea and then washed up on beaches along the coast, depending on the current and tide.

Lunch consisted of the last piece of cheese and two slices of bread. Once I finished my novel, I sat outside the store opposite the bus stop. Waiting at the stop were two young European women, and in my best Spanish I struck up a conversation with one of them. It was clear to both of us that Spanish was not our first language. Uta and Stephanie were German, and they had come down from Cahuita on a daytrip, and were waiting for the return bus, which, of course, came whenever the driver felt like it! In fact, we talked for 90-odd minutes before it arrived. As one of the women spoke only German, I said in Spanish that I spoke some German, with the idea that all three of us could chat. However, I discovered that when I'm in one foreign language mode, I can't even begin to think in another, and I tried to explain in Spanish and English that although I did in fact speak some German, right then I couldn't remember any. Really!

After their bus departed, I spoke to another couple. He was from Venezuela, but had been living in Italy for 12 years, and she was from Lucerne, Switzerland. He spoke Spanish and Italian, and she spoke German, Spanish, and some English. For the next hour, my Spanish got a good work out! I also met some Americans and an Aussie from Canberra. At that time of the year, tourism was slow, but apparently during the surfing season, it was very busy with international beach bums!

From 4–7, it rained steadily, and at times heavily.

For supper, I went to a local soda (diner), where I actually ordered breakfast. I had gallo pinto, which literally means "spotted rooster!" It was a popular meal consisting of rice and speckled kidney beans and came with a side order of scrambled egg. My drink was a blend of fruit and milk, which while disgusting looking, tasted pretty darned good. The only other patron was a young guy from Switzerland. I ate slowly while reading a book and waiting for the rain to stop.

At 7:15, I stepped out in light drizzle for the walk home. A young guy offered me a sheet of plastic, but I declined. I went back via the road, which wound around and had very few streetlights. To avoid the many potholes filled with water, I broke out my trusty flashlight. At one point, I had to cross a large wooden bridge, which I did with care, as I'd found out earlier how slippery the soles of my boots could be when I did an impromptu "dance" on muddy beach sand. It definitely was not the night to break a leg! With all the rain, the grass was waterlogged, and parts of the road were flooded.

Back home, I had an early night as I'd been yawning since mid-afternoon. After studying my Spanish books for a bit, I went off to sleep.

[Next day] The rain started about 5 am, and six hours later, it was still coming down. And that after three hours of rain the previous evening! When Señora Julia surfaced I paid for two more nights. Breakfast consisted of orange juice and potato chips! My laundry was reasonably dry, but with the humidity I wanted to make sure the clothes didn't get moldy. While it rained, I rested up and worked on my Spanish vocabulary. The resident rooster and his harem of hens were sheltering under the verandah next to my room, but eventually they wandered out into the rain. (If you know the story of Henny Penny, you'll know about "the sky is falling!") As I learned, they were in the habit of leaving deposits of fresh manure near my door.

I put on my rain poncho, long pants, and long sleeve shirt, and headed to the beach and on to town. The weather soon cleared, and it got rather warm. I met a young American woman, Corrine, and asked her if she had any reading material to swap. She didn't, but we sat and chatted a good while. She was an Education and Anthropology Professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington. She was on a 1-year sabbatical, and would be in this town for six months volunteering with a preservation and ecotourism organization. She'd just completed four weeks of intensive Spanish having had no exposure to that language beforehand. So, we talked in Spanish to give both of us practice. I took her to Cabañas Black Sands, as she was looking for places for her parents to stay when they came to visit. While there, I managed to swap a novel and we were given fresh fruit to take with us. I went with her back to her place where we made a jug of punch from the fruit. I helped her resolve some problems on her portable computer.

By the time I left Corinne's place, it was dark, and I went in search of a place to eat, and I came across a Chinese restaurant where I ordered Chicken chop suey, Costa Rican-style. The serving was large, but the meat was a bit raw; however, it went down with the aid of a bottle of Pepsi. Midway through my meal, a young guy arrived, and I invited him to join me. He was a postman from Germany, and he spoke some English.

I walked around the town and came upon an open-air Catholic Church having a Saturday-night singalong with guitar and keyboards. It was a nice evening with enough breeze to keep away the insects. From the many pools left behind after all the rain, frogs croaked, and once I found my flashlight, I watched some swimming. I was back home by 8 o'clock, but as I was wide awake, I started a new novel, "Murder at the Kennedy Center," by Margaret Truman (President Harry's daughter). It was a page-turner, and I read until late. The night was cool and breezy, so I left the fan switched off.

[Next day] I was pleasantly surprised to find no rain in the early morning, but then, the previous morning it had rained enough for several days! As soon as I woke up, I started reading my novel, which I finished before noon. I then worked on Spanish vocabulary, mostly on opposites: hard/soft, strong/weak, heavy/light, and rough/smooth. When I'm in the mood to learn, it all goes very easily, but when I'm not, no amount of repetition works.

I showered and dressed, and as it felt like a storm was coming, I took my rain gear. As I was going to town, I met three Frenchmen who were heading out to the main road to catch a bus. Downtown was very quiet with the main stores closed; however, the eating places were open. I sat and read a good while and then around 2:30 I decided it was time to eat, so I went to the small soda I'd visited several days earlier, and I had the same meal again. I spoke at length with a young guy who worked there. Throughout I managed to drink several nice cups of café con leche. When I mentioned that I collected coins and small banknotes when I traveled, he gave me an out-of-circulation 10 colones note. In exchange, I gave him some US coins.

I walked around town a bit, but rain started, and it got heavier, and I made my way to some cover near the main bus stop where I spoke to some tourists. One lived near me in the US; the other was from Norway. I also met an American woman who was driving back to the capital, and she offered me a ride. However, I'd already paid for the night at my place, so I declined. Besides, riding the local buses would be much more interesting. The rain eased off and I went back to my restaurant for dessert: pineapple, avocado, watermelon, and orange ice cream. Afterwards, I read some more.

On the walk home it drizzled, but otherwise was pleasant. A very sad-looking stray dog followed me all the way, as it wanted a friend, and preferably one who had food. Back at my place, I obliged with a can of tuna and vegetables. Within minutes, he'd licked clean the dish and wanted to join me in my room. However, I declined to invite him in, and he laid down outside to guard my door. It was still early, and it was time to start my new book, "The Dream Merchants," by Harold Robbins.

Tomorrow, I'd head back to the capital via Puerto Limon on a new adventure.

Back to Puerto Limon and the Capital

[Next day] I was wide awake at 5:30 am, which was not my plan. I quickly decided to get up and pack, so I could catch the 6:10 bus to Puerto Limon. Miss Julia was already up and outside sweeping the verandah, so we said our "Goodbyes." It was a fine morning out as I walked the 150 meters to the bus stop. Two people arrived soon after me and we chatted a bit. The bus arrived and filled up rather quickly with many of the passengers being school kids headed off to Cahuita, the nearest town to the north. Then when they all got off at the school, more people got on with some standing the whole two-hour trip. I offered a piece of my seat to a young woman, which she accepted, but she was very shy, and we rode in silence.

At Puerto Limon I stopped by a bakery to "rescue" a few things. Then it was on to the 9-am bus to San Jose, which actually left 10 minutes early. I managed to get two seats to myself, so I could stretch out a bit. Having gotten up way too early, I was fading, but there was no way to lie back and rest. The trip took 2½ hours, the same as when I left, and on arrival, I decided to go back to the youth hostel, as it was close, predictable, and it had hot water!

After I dumped my pack, I set out into the city. I changed some money and bought a nice 100%-cotton T-shirt. By 2 pm, my body was asleep, but my eyes wouldn't close, so I kept strolling around. To stay awake, I went to a 3-o'clock movie, which when I arrived, I discovered was not playing until 4. Don't you just hate that when that happens! By then it was raining, so I found a dry spot and read for an hour before going back to the movie. It was an action movie in English with Spanish subtitles, but I'm certain a lot was lost in the translation. I got out at 5:45, by which time I was wide awake.

Nearby a restaurant beckoned me, so I stopped in for a ham and cheese roll with two cups of café con leche, which I consumed while reading. An hour later, I was back at the hostel enjoying a hot shower. I made up my bed and started making a plan for the next day. That involved heading up into the mountains after sleeping late, hopefully! Then I swapped two novels and read some more. I was sharing with three others, including the Norwegian I'd shared with the previous week. (Like me, he'd been off to some other part of the country in the meantime.)

[Next day] Two of my room mates were Germans, and they got in at 3:30 am, but only made a bit of noise. Fortunately, I went back to sleep. I went down to breakfast with Harald, the Norwegian, and soon after, two other guys joined us.

Arenal and Active-Volcano Country!

I planned to catch an 11:30 bus that left from the old Coca Cola terminal across town, and having plenty of time, I decided to walk there. It was a nice morning and I browsed in shops and markets along the way, and took some photos. My bus was decent, and I got a seat up front with plenty of legroom. We pulled out on schedule and headed north. An hour out we had to transfer to a smaller and less comfortable bus, although no reason I could understand was given. I managed to stand my backpack between my legs for the continuation. I invited a woman to take the window seat next to me and she gladly accepted, and then proceeded to give me a good workout in Spanish. She had six children and two grandchildren, and her husband worked in a dairy. I asked her questions about things we saw along the way, and about her life, in general.

The old bus climbed and climbed and then climbed some more until we were up over 2,000 meters. Everywhere I looked there was agriculture. First it was bananas and sugar cane, then coffee and cattle. I also saw some horses. The towns along the way were quite crowded. The bus stopped to let people on and off, pretty much on demand; there were no stops, as such. So, the first leg of 110 kms took three hours along winding mountain roads. My seatmate got off, and her replacement was shy, but later another talkative woman sat by me. We stopped in Cuidad Quesada for 30 minutes and I bought some interesting and tasty food, but I really couldn't figure out just what it was! Then it was on to my destination at the breakneck speed of one hour for 52 kms!

In the town of La Fortuna, the bus stopped right outside Hotel Fortuna. A young man, who introduced himself as Adrian, was soliciting guests for the hotel and he persuaded me to go inside and "check it out." His English was quite good, which was no surprise, as people came from all over the world to hike to the waterfalls and to see the nearby volcano erupt. I had a look at a room and agreed to stay. My room had three beds and a private bathroom, and I had it all to myself for only $6/night. It was insect-proof, it had hot water, and it had a ceiling fan. (A room without a bathroom cost only $3, so I was living high!)

Around 4:30, while I was registering, someone called out my name. So, who would recognize me here in the wilds but the two German women I'd spoken with on the Caribbean coast some days earlier. I joined them for a chat. Grace, the receptionist and daughter of the owner, and Adrian and his cousin, Oldemar, also joined us. I'd bought some Spanish-language music tapes but had nothing to play them on, so Grace fetched a player and then wrote out the words for me as the songs played.

Heavy rain started falling around 6 o'clock, and we decided to stay in and eat something, and I asked Grace if her mother could provide us with some food. Thirty minutes later, we all sat down to a supper of beans, rice, egg, steak, onions, and chips, plus a jug of lemonade. The total cost was only $2 each! We talked into the night switching from Spanish to English to German when any of us ran out of vocabulary in one language, and we even resorted to drawing pictures for some things. The good news was that we communicated and had a great time! When the rain stopped, several of us went out to buy some emergency rations. I started to fade around 11 o'clock, and I said goodnight, and goodbye to the Germans, as they were leaving the next morning.

[Next day] I was up at 8 o'clock and sipped a café con leche while reading a novel. I had signed up for a guided horse ride to the waterfall at 9 am. The season was slow, and I was the only person going. The guide was a nice guy, and we talked along the way. My horse's name was Platero (literally "Silversmith"), and while he was docile, he insisted on keeping up with the lead horse. A couple of times we got behind, and he started to gallop. Now I've never quite gotten the hang of riding faster than a walk, and I started to bounce more than I wanted to. Don't you just hate that when that happens! Now while cars can drive to within several kilometers of the falls, we took a trail the whole way.

At the falls, I hiked down a primitive, steep path holding on to tree roots as I went, all the way down to the pool at the base of the rushing water coming over the cliff high up. Some Canadians were swimming. It took us an hour to ride there and then 15 minutes to get down to the bottom. We'd tied our horses to a guava tree whose fruit tasted mighty fine. I took it easy on the ride home, as my backside was getting a bit sore. And while I got a little sunburned, the falls were very much worth the effort.

During the ride out and back, the Arenal volcano nearby rumbled loudly at least five times. However, the top was covered in clouds. There was one especially large explosion, and a huge cloud of steam and ash blew out and was clearly visible above the clouds. What I'd really come to see was a clear view of an eruption. Stay tuned.

Back in my room, I drank a whole liter of ice-cold milk and then rested up for the afternoon; this tourist business can be hard work! As I sat in the expansive lobby, two young Norwegian women and a Swede arrived and checked in. Later, a Dutchman (Peter) came. It rained again, for 5–6 hours. I ate supper with Peter, and in the process discovered the local pineapple milkshakes.

[Next day] After a very good sleep, I had a long, hot shower. Two bare electric wires ran into the shower head and heated the water "on demand." Of course, being so tall my head was quite near the shower head, and I had visions of having a "shocking" experience. Fortunately, I was standing on a cement floor. Mid-morning, I decided to have some breakfast, so I went across the street to a restaurant with a garden. I consumed a nice ham-and-cheese omelet with toast and coffee. Throughout, I wrote a bunch of postcards. Afterwards, I walked around the town. Back at the hotel, after my rough riding from the day before, I got a pillow from my room to sit on. I spent the afternoon giving English lessons to Grace and Adrian, and getting Spanish lessons from them in return.

There was only a little rain and that ended late evening, so I joined the 7-pm volcano tour. It was a clear and cool night. As we rode the Jeep up a dirt track, the volcano blew, and we all got out and watched the lava flowing several kms away. Then we drove some more and walked to within a kilometer of the lava. Throughout, we saw one very big eruption and three smaller ones, all against the dark sky. For the big blast, it took quite a while for the solid material that was blown into the air to hit the ground, and as we were downwind, we felt a light blast of coarse sand. On the way back, we stopped off at a small stream that ran from under the volcano. It was about 30-degrees C and we all sat in and splashed around. We got back to the hotel around 10 o'clock. After a nearly 3-day wait for the weather to clear, we had been rewarded!

West to Puntarenas

[Next day] I was up early ready to catch an 8-am bus, which was 20 minutes late arriving. I got a prime seat right up front with a clear view out the front window. For the first 20 kms, the road was mud and rocks, and there had been recent mudslides from all the rain. At one place, a third of the road had collapsed and fallen away. We twisted and turned continually as well as going up and down. I chatted with the driver who shared some fruit with me. I changed buses along the way and headed south for the Pacific coast. The second bus was completely full, and I had to stand for about 10 minutes until enough people got off. I could see the ocean in the distance as we came down out of the mountains. The Nicoya Peninsular was also visible.

We arrived in Puntarenas, a city of around 35,000. It used to be a busy port, but now, most shipping goes from the Caribbean coast instead. The downtown area sits on a long and narrow peninsular. I checked out one hotel, but it was too primitive, even for me, and I found a better place nearby for $4 with a ceiling fan. It was still quite basic, however. I ventured out into the market and the surrounds, and sat in a park reading before I ate supper. In the evening, I took in a movie called "Body Parts" in which a mass murderer was executed, and his arms and legs were transplanted onto other people, with the new limbs taking over! Separately, the head had been transplanted to yet another person, and it was killing the other people to get back its body parts. Very heavy! I paid $1 for the privilege.

Back in my room, I stayed up late reading my novel. The bed was comfortable and even came with two sheets!

Back to San Jose

[Next day] As soon as I woke, I picked up my gripping book and didn't put it down until two hours later, when I finished it. It turned out that there really wasn't anything to see or do in that city, so I packed and headed to the bus station where a bus was about to leave for the capital. It was an uneventful trip through mountains, and I looked out the window and daydreamed throughout the 2-hour trip.

The terminal was way across town from where I wanted to be, but I decided to walk and to take in the sounds and sights of the bustling city. I came across a large group of school bands parading down Avenida Central towards a large plaza. They beat their drums so hard that I could feel the pressure of it in the air. I decided to forgo the youth hostel and instead headed for the Quaker-run Peace Center. They had five rooms for rent, some private, and some dormitories. I got a small, private room for $9 with access to a shared kitchen and a small garden off the terrace. I swapped a book at the exchange and lounged around reading.

Mid-afternoon, I went to a supermarket and then, back home, I cooked my big meal of the day: sausages, fried tomato, melted cheese, a small salad, and lots of milk. The two people running the place were live-in volunteers, one from Texas, the other from Arizona. They had been there five and 18 months, respectively. I spent the afternoon talking, reading, and listening to music.

I caught the 7 o'clock showing of "Medicine Man," starring Sean Connery, and found it interesting and entertaining. The theater was filled to capacity. I strolled home in light rain, had a mug of hot chocolate, and read a while until lights-out at 10 o'clock.

[Next day] My bed was a bit short, but only at one end! Despite that, I had a good sleep. As there was only one other guest, noise was at a minimum. I woke early, but managed to get back to sleep and then to lie in reading. I had a light breakfast in my room and then studied my Spanish books for a couple of hours until I checked out.

I found the house of my Servas host without any problem. It was middle-to-upper class and nicely furnished. My host, Señora Ovares, was a 76-year-old widow and a retired journalist. Of her eight children, six were married. Her youngest, Andres, still lived at home. She was a very nice lady and had been a member of Servas for four years. (This was my very first time using that organization.) She'd travelled to the US twice that year. Her English was about like my Spanish, but we managed to communicate except when she spoke very long sentences and lost me along the way.

I arrived in time for lunch–the largest meal of the day–which consisted of chicken, potato with onion and cheese, salad, fried banana, bread, and drinks. It was enough food for a small army! After lunch, rain set in for the rest of the afternoon. I read and then listened to a number of CDs in Spanish. The power went off a few times, but only for a few minutes. Around 9:15 pm, we ate a light supper of leftovers. I stayed up late reading.

[Next day] I started the day with pineapple and banana, along with coffee; after all, this was Costa Rica, a major producer! Andres headed out to a class at university and along the way, he dropped me at a private Spanish immersion school, something quite popular in San Jose. I was there to check out the place to see if I might like to make a return trip for some classes. I met the director, and he gave me a tour. The students were taking a break and I spoke with them about their classes. When they restarted, I was invited to sit in on an intermediate-level class, which I did for 20 minutes. There were no more than three students per instructor, and it was very interactive. Afterwards, I visited another school.

On the walk home, I bought some groceries. Maria, the part-time housekeeper, was cleaning, washing dishes, and cooking up a storm. As I sat at the kitchen table bringing this diary up to date, it sure smelled good! I'd reconfirmed my flight home, and as I'd have a very early start the next day, I took it really easy. Mid-afternoon, I went out for a walk, taking in the new Christopher Columbus movie "1492," which was partly filmed in Costa Rica. It was quite long, but enjoyable. I walked home in light rain, which got quite heavy as I neared my place.

After a nice supper, I asked my host to book me a taxi for the airport at 5 am; I didn't trust my Spanish to do that myself, especially for such an important task! After I packed my gear and had a shower, I read in bed until lights-out at 9:15.

Heading Home

[Next day] Travel Day! I woke at 3 o'clock and lay there quite a while before getting a bit more sleep until my 4:45-am alarm sounded. I was up and ready and out-front waiting at 5. However, the taxi didn't arrive until 5:20, but still got me to the airport by 5:30, the time I'd wanted to be there. As the bank was not yet open, an arriving passenger asked if she could buy my excess colones, and I obliged. Check-in was straightforward, but I had to buy an exit tax stamp. I met a very interesting elderly man from California, and we talked at length until I boarded my plane.

We took off a bit early, and the plane had few passengers. Breakfast was served, and it consisted of a decent omelet with sausage, juice, and fruit. The weather was clear as we flew up to Mexico City, and I started a new novel along the way. Just before Mexico City, I saw three snow-capped extinct volcanoes and then some very dry flatlands, a real change from the tropical area in which I'd just spent two weeks. The smog over Mexico City was unbelievable! It was a thick, yellow/brown cloud, and I took photos of it.

We were on the ground for an hour with no plane change. Soon after we took off, lunch was served. I read and looked out the window much of the flight home. Each row on each side of the aisle had a phone one could use with a credit card, so I called home once we were inside US airspace letting Jenny know my ETA. We touched down at IAD on-time, but had to wait a bit until a mobile lounge came to take us off the plane. In my haste to get off the plane, I left my good feather pillow behind; don't you just hate that when that happens! After an easy run through immigration and customs, Jenny and Scott picked me up, and we drove home to Reston. By then, I was back to my old life, and the trip was becoming a fading memory.

The total cost of my 2-week trip was around $1,000, which included my airline ticket, accommodation, meals, transportation, and personal things like movies.

[Postscript: The Danish guy with whom I stayed in the youth hostel had just come from some weeks of intensive, immersion Spanish-language training in Antigua, Guatemala. (At that time, it was the cheapest place for international backpackers to learn the language before they headed out around Latin America.) He gave me the name and address of the woman from whom he'd rented a room there, and with whom he'd taken private lessons. At that time, Guatemala was not at all on my travel radar, but I filed away the contact info. Well, don't you know, exactly a year later, I was knocking on that woman's door, and I stayed with her and took private lessons for two weeks, which spanned the Halloween/All Saints Day weekend. Stay tuned for the diary from that trip.]

Signs of Life: Part 30

© 2022 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

From time to time during my travels, I come across signs that I find interesting for one reason or another. Sometimes, they contain clever writing, are humorous, or remind me of some place or event. Here are some from a trip to Norfolk County in England.


A man is crawling across a desert, and he comes across two signs. One says, "Go left 100 meters to find water." The other says, "Go right 1,000 meters to find Maynards WineGums." Is your palate so sophisticated that you'd go right? I know which way I'd turn. In any event, that water stuff is highly overrated!


I love hot chocolate, and I don't mind a little bit of chilli now and then, but together?


Note the Devil's horns and tail in "Hot."


This is no ordinary English letter box. No, it was installed during the reign of Queen Victoria, hence the VR: Victoria Regina. (Regina is Queen in Latin.) Vicky ruled from 1837–1901.


Now, when you are Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, you can get you name put on lots of things.

Next up, boxes labelled "CR: Charles Rex," maybe!


During my vacation in Norfolk, I visited the coastal town of Cromer. I walked a long way on the beach and then the cliffs above, but I didn't see any wet dogs or surfers. However, it being March might have had something to do with that.


As this shop was in a nicer part of town, I presumed that the "rags" (slang for clothes in some countries) and "bags" were pricey!


A better coffee shop, apparently!


I was walking the back streets of the coastal town of Sheringham when I came across a house bearing this plaque.


According to Wikipedia, this was one of two bombs dropped on the town from a Zeppelin.


Coming from the US, to me, a doggy bag is what one uses to take home leftovers from a restaurant. And while one could conceivably do that with this "doggy bag," I suspect it is just a handbag shop with a catchy name!


A clever take on the men's hairdresser order, "Short back and sides!"


I can't begin to think how many times I've walked around some towns looking for a crematorium, without finding one. And here was a town with a sign! It might have been interesting to attend the town council meeting that decided to erect it. "Mr. Mayor, I have a burning question …."


There I was in the mood for a kebab, when, abracadabra, this sign appeared, as if by an Act of God! Or should I say, "Act of Allah!"


The answer is quite clear, YES! But what was the question?


Reviewer John suggested the question might be, "Does this town have a crematorium?"


With such an attractive name, who wouldn't want to buy their clothes there?

(Norwich is the county seat of Norfolk, and the more sophisticated among us do not pronounce the "w"!)


This place seemed to be offering a personal overhaul. However, there was no mention if one got any discount for trading in the "old u."


A hip place to buy men's clothing in Norwich.


Hmm! What does it mean to mix these two words? Is the money new; that is, has never been spent?


Perhaps once it's been laundered, it could be born-again money! As you might expect, this finacial services company is leveraging off Sir Richard Branson's Virgin brand.


What is Normal - Part 11: Electrical Power

© 2022 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Those of us living in the developed world take a number of basic things for granted, and one of them is the stable availability of electrical power. It usually isn't until we have a power outage that lasts for more than a few hours that we are reminded of how much of our lives relies on being able to simply "plug something in!"

I was raised in rural South Australia, and up until age seven, I lived in houses without electricity. We used kerosine to fuel lamps and a refrigerator. The wood stove had a hot-water tank attached, and we also heated water on top of that stove in a large kettle, as needed. Bath water was heated by a wood-fired contraption, which was only operated on a weekly basis. Perhaps you've heard the old saying, "I bath every Saturday, whether I need to or not!" Been there, done that!

In 1961, we moved to a farm on which we had a 32-volt DC generator, the standard for rural properties at that time. However, the 16 2-volt batteries could only hold enough charge to drive lighting, or very low-current appliances. Our house certainly did not have any power outlets! Rural electrification came through the area during my five years on that farm, but the farm's owner declined to pay for the hookup, the cost of which was based on the number of poles needed to divert the line to the property. About that time, several television signals started broadcasting to our area, and we got a TV set. That needed an inverter to go from 32-volt DC to 240-volt AC, and it required the generator to be running, so TV watching certainly was not available on-demand! Regarding clothes washing, Mom progressed from doing it all by hand to a gasoline-operated washer that, like a motorcycle, was started with a kick starter pedal.

In early 1966, when I was 12, I moved to a house with mains electricity. [In fact, the back half of the house was still wired for 32-volt DC, and we had a generator for that too, although we had no real use for it.] We got our first freezer and electric stove. And hot water in the kitchen and bathroom sinks, on-demand; how decadent!

In this essay, I'll compare electrical-related things in various places around the world. And we know how normal is relative, right?


The electrical system is 240 volts, 50 HZ, with power outlets using a 3-pin plug/socket where the top two blades are flat and slanted, and the third flat blade serves as the earth/ground. The cables on some appliances omit the ground blade. For safety, power points (US: outlets) have switches. Outlet and light switches go down to switch on, and up to switch off. Light bulbs have a bayonet connection. To allow multiple devices to be hooked to a single plug, a double adapter is used. This is a large plastic brick that has two outlets on one side and one plug on the other; it is quite different from a power strip.

Initially, like many facilities in Australia, electricity generation was the responsibility of state governments, and in my state, that fell to the Electricity Trust of South Australia (ETSA). [ETSA was privatized in 1999.] The steam turbines were driven by burning coal, which initially came from another state. However, a huge, open-cut mine was created in my state at Leigh Creek, and being the mine's biggest customer, ETSA took over the town as well. According to Wikipedia, "the current town is 13 km further south than the original town—it was moved in 1982 to allow for the expansion of the mine."

Unique to South Australia and an invention by a local man, James Stobie, was the stobie pole, "a power line pole made of two steel joists held apart by a slab of concrete."

The Snowy Mountains scheme is a huge complex for generating hydroelectric power (as well as irrigation), built in the mountains of the southern-eastern states between 1949 and 1974.

Australian power is still generated mostly from coal, oil, and natural gas. According to the World Nuclear Association, "Much of the energy exported from Australia is used for generating electricity overseas; three times as much thermal black coal is exported as is used in Australia, and all of the uranium production is exported."

Given Australia's geographical location, solar power is a fast-growing industry.

According to Wikipedia, "The prospect of nuclear power in Australia has been a topic of public debate since the 1950s. Australia has never had a nuclear power station. Australia hosts 33% of the world's uranium deposits and is the world's third largest producer of uranium."

The World Nuclear Association stated, "New Zealand is one of the few developed countries not using electricity from nuclear energy. As hydro-electric potential was progressively utilized, nuclear power featured in national power plans from 1969 to 1976." See "New Zealand nuclear-free zone" for details about NZ's ban on nuclear-powered or armed ships, and the impact that has had on the ANZUS treaty. As I've often stated, "Principles belong to those who can afford them!" Fortunately, New Zealand has plenty of hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind power.

North and Central America

The system is 110 volts, 60 HZ, with power outlets using a 3-pin plug/socket where the top two blades are flat and parallel, and the third circular pin serves as the earth/ground. The cables on some appliances omit the ground pin. In general, power outlets do not have switches. Light switches go up to switch on, and down to switch off. Light bulbs have a screw-in connection. [Going back 100 years, 40-HZ power was common.]

The US is the land of the private enterprise, so it should be no surprise that what are public utilities in many other countries are privately-owned in the US. (My power comes from Dominion Energy, formerly Virginia Electric & Power Company [VEPCO].)

One of the biggest power projects in the US was the TVA project. According to Wikipedia, "The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a federally owned corporation in the United States created by congressional charter on May 18, 1933, to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and economic development to the Tennessee Valley, a region particularly affected by the Great Depression."

Another project built during the Great Depression, which supplies electricity, was Hoover Dam, not far from Las Vegas. The dam spans a canyon on the Colorado River, and at the base on each side is a power station, one of which is part of the public tour. I've visited it more than a few times when passing through with guests. It surely is impressive, especially for something built in the 1930s. The dams along the Columbia River in the North-West US and Canada are also major suppliers of power.

Although Niagara Falls isn't very high, it is very wide, and a huge amount of water passes over. However, a great deal of it no longer does; instead, it is diverted! On the Canadian side, pipelines take water downstream some distance to a hydro power station. A major player in the development of hydro power in Canada was Henry Pellatt. He was also known for his 100-room château in Toronto, called Casa Loma, which was the biggest private residence ever constructed in Canada. If you are in the Toronto area, do go see it; it is impressive! (There, steam pipes ran through the soil of the indoor gardens to keep plants from freezing.)

On a business trip to the Livermore area of Northern California, I came across Altamont Pass wind farm, which has more than 5,000 turbines, of all shapes and sizes. I pulled over to the side of the road in several places just to watch them. Many of them were not the traditional up-right fan-style.

In June 1999, I left Australia to move to the US. In March of that year, there was a meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility. As I was going to start out in the greater Washington DC area, I thought I'd see just where that disaster took place. And lo and behold, it was only 150-odd miles away!

The United Kingdom

The system is 240 volts, 50 HZ, with power outlets using a 3-pin plug/socket where the top two blades are flat, and the third flat pin serves as the earth/ground. The cables on some appliances omit the ground pin. The plug is large and contains a fuse. In general, power outlets have switches. Outlet and light switches go down to switch on, and up switch off. Light bulbs have a screw-in connection. The system is common in many current and former Commonwealth countries.

During a family vacation to Wales, we stayed with a host family in a small village. It was the year after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in the Ukraine. A group of children from the Chernobyl area had come to the village for a physical and mental respite and were staying with local families. Our hosts had a swimming pool, which proved very popular with those kids.

Continental Europe

The system is 220–240 volts, 50 HZ, with power outlets using a 3-pin plug/socket where the top two blades are pins, and the third pin serves as the earth/ground. The cables on many appliances omit the ground pin. In general, power outlets have switches. Forty years ago, I ran into places having the same configuration, but with thinner pins instead, or as well.


Countries having a strong connection with the US—such as Japan and South Korea—use the US system. My hotels in Beijing, China had US and Aussie plugs. Of course, you are bound to find colonial connections in former British, French, and Dutch territories.

Travelling with Electrical Gadgets

When I left Australia in 1979 and travelled for five-plus weeks in Asia and Europe on my way to the US, I started shaving with a hand razor, as I knew that taking electric appliances to different countries would be a challenge. Some twenty years later, I travelled to Europe with my first video camera. I plugged it into a brick that changed voltage and frequency, and sometimes the brick hummed, and it certainly got warm.

Later, as laptop computers became common, there was the issue of accessing a local dial-up network for email. For US$100, I bought a kit that contained some 30-odd phone and power adaptors for most countries. I've found that there really are only three needed these days: US, UK, and European. (Although the Aussie socket is different to that of the US, I have an adaptor that allows the top blades to be swiveled to satisfy both.)

These days, lots of devices come with a USB plug, which allows them to be charged in a great many places without having to have a local power plug adaptor.

Ten years ago, I had a colleague from South Africa, and I was surprised to find that country had its own idea of an electric plug.

Power Generation Methods

We have the traditional approaches—coal, hydro, natural gas, geothermal, and nuclear—but alternate ones such as water-waves, wind, and solar are becoming more popular.

Over an 18-year period, I commuted to Maine to work on a power-related project. A network of minicomputers monitored and controlled a set of six hydroelectric dams and monitored (but did not control) two steam plants that burned wood chips and chemicals that were extracted from wood by a digester. [See my essay, "My Time in Maine" from January 2019, in which I discussed that as well as reporting on my adventure of a snow survey, measuring how much power was lying on the ground as snow.]

When it comes to wind power, Denmark is a world leader in the manufacture and use of wind turbines. On one stay with my friend Keld near Copenhagen, we toured a wind farm where one turbine had been shut down for maintenance. (Its blades had been struck by lightning, which had burned holes right through some of the carbon-fiber material.) We took the opportunity to climb up the ladder inside the 40-meter tower and stood out on the platform at the top by the huge generator. The view, as well as the equipment, was impressive. At that time, they were starting to ship 100-meter towers, which could be installed in the forest, but be high above the trees. Separately, on several visits to friend Belinda's town in northeast Germany, I have been enchanted by the many clusters of turbines, all turning ever so gently, often looking like choreographed dancers. And at night, when they have static and/or flashing lights on, they can look like a large convoy of UFOs approaching.

Of course, one can always generate one's own electricity! In fact, in many parts of the US, if a private individual generates more power than they need, the local utility is obliged to buy it from them.

A few years ago, a large tree came down in my neighborhood and brought down the power lines. As such, I was without power for more than 24 hours. When it looked like being longer than a few hours, I went in search of a generator. Initially, all the ones I found cost at least US$1,000, and had way more capability than I needed. However, soon after, I found an entry-level one for only $200. Back home, I sat it on some old towels on my small front verandah, fired it up, ran a cable through the window, and hooked up my two fridges/freezers and some lights. The unit was not powerful enough, however, to run my microwave oven, so I resorted to a gas camping stove. Being in the IT industry, I also hooked up a computer, so I could work. And then I discovered that when I powered up my internet gear, I had my usual strong signal. The fiber optic cable for that was quite separate from the power lines and was not affected by the outage. Basically, I was camping in my house, in comfort!

Electric Vehicles

While electric vehicles (EVs) are becoming popular and the US tax system provides generous incentives, they are a long way from becoming ubiquitous. However, battery technology is improving all the time, and with longer-lasting charges, people can drive further without the need to recharge. At the start of 2021, one of my local supermarkets added a charging station. General Motors' recent announcement that it was moving completely to EVs was a welcome thing. However, as I don't drive many miles a year, and I only buy cheap, used vehicles, it's unlikely I'll ever own one.

Now electric vehicles are not new. From Wikipedia, "EVs first came into existence in the mid-19th century, when electricity was among the preferred methods for motor vehicle propulsion, providing a level of comfort and ease of operation that could not be achieved by the gasoline cars of the time. Modern internal combustion engines have been the dominant propulsion method for motor vehicles for almost 100 years, but electric power has remained commonplace in other vehicle types, such as trains and smaller vehicles of all types." I had no idea about this until I came across a WWI-era electric truck on display in Germany.

My most unusual electric-powered mode of transport was a submarine. My family and I were on a Disney Cruise out of Florida through some of the Bahamian Islands, and this was one of the options we could chose for activities when we were anchored at a small island. I was lucky to get a seat right up front next to the pilot, so was able to shoot video out the front and to one side.

Miscellaneous Stuff

During various stays in business hotels in Japan and South Korea, I've had the dubious distinction of having a toilet that plugs into an electrical outlet. Not only does the power operate various fancy options, including water sprays, it also can heat the seat. In some hotels, as a power-saving measure, one must insert one's magnetic room keycard into a slot to activate the room's electrical appliances. At one place, this even included the toilet, so every time I came into the room and inserted my card, the microcomputer in the toilet went through its boot (start-up, that is) phase. Can you say, "overkill?" In any event, would you trust a computer with attached mechanical devices to conduct "its business" around your nether regions?

On an IT-related business trip to Montreux, Switzerland, after we broke for the day, some of us took a mountain railway up a steep ride to the 1,000-meter mark. There, we had drinks and took in the view. Someone reported that the public toilets there had a very high-tech mechanism, so quite a few of us computer-nerds just had to go in and watch it go through its motions, as it retracted the seat and put it through an extensive cleaning process. If you have never been mesmerized by a toilet with an electric brain, do add that to your list-of-things-to-do-before-you-die.

In 1966, while my family moved to a house that had mains electricity, it still had an outhouse (AU: dunny). A year or so later, my dad decided to go modern, and have a flush toilet installed, but, of course, that required a rather large hole to be dug in the back yard to accommodate the associated septic tank. As it happened, around that time, a crew from ETSA was working in the area, drilling holes for some new power poles. Apparently, my dad approached them (probably with the promise of some cash or several dozen bottles of beer) and asked them if they wouldn't mind dropping by the house with their truck-mounted drill and making some good-size holes as practice for their main job, which he'd then finish off with a shovel.

In case you were wondering, YES, I have been shocked by 240-volt and 110-volt systems, several times. However, I don't go making a habit out of it.

Almost certainly, the most impressive use of battery power I've ever seen was in the electric light parade, which was primarily held at Disney's theme parks in Florida and California, but no longer operates on a regular basis, if at all. Hundreds of performers and floats were lit up with many thousands of lights as they moved around the park; it was mesmerizing for both young and old!

On a flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Washington, DC, as we entered New England airspace, there was a complete power outage in New York City and the greater surrounds, so air-traffic control for the region had minimal operating services. As such, our plane went for a tour of the New England countryside, but after an hour or so, we ran low on fuel and had to detour to Boston, where we waited some hours to get refueled. However, by the time we were done there, we had a clear flight path down to DC.

For many years, I lived in a planned city, Reston, Virginia. [See my essay, "Living in Utopia" from February 2012.] I used to joke that Reston had so many (sometimes anal) rules, that one could only breathe in on Mondays, and out again on Tuesdays! As such, to avoid "unpleasant-looking pylons and wires" around the residential areas, all local power lines were buried underground. Oh, and while one could put powered boats up to a certain size on the four man-made lakes, the power had to come from a small electric motor.

In the early 1970s, I played semipro Australian Rules Football. [See my essay, "Football, Aussie Style" from January 2020.] My club's arena, Norwood Oval, was one of the very few in the state capital with a great lighting system, and we trained there two nights a week each winter. (Games were played Saturday afternoons.) The Oval also hosted the city's baseball league games and an occasional international rugby test, all played at night. It takes some getting used to playing at night, especially when one has to look up to find and track a football. At some point, the game introduced yellow (and later, white) balls for night games, as the traditional, red/brown ones were hard to see.


For more information that you ever wanted to know about power in various countries, click here. And for AC power plugs and sockets, click here.

It is rare that the power goes out at my house. But when it does, as I turn to other activities, invariably almost all of them require power! It can be humbling to have to go back to the "good old days." That said, I always have a pencil and paper nearby!

As I get ready to publish this, we're more than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, and when people complain about how bad things are, I reply, "It could be much worse; we could be without power as well!" And in my case, having my own underground water well, no power means no water either.

When I wrote this in February 2021, some 100 million here in the US had been hit by extreme winter weather with several million having no power for days. Fortunately, those storms largely bypassed my area. More recently, Hurricane Ian hit Florida, causing major and extended power outages.

Travel: Memories of Paris, France

© 2009, 2022 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

This trip involved four days of business in Paris, France, followed by seven days of play in Normandy, and three more back in Paris, all in December, 2009.

Heading Out

My 3:15-pm taxi arrived five minutes early, and my Indian driver whisked me away to Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) at a break-neck pace. The weather was very pleasant, and we had the windows down all the way there, an unexpected treat after the recent rain and cold. Although it was the end of the 4-day Thanksgiving holiday, the cab driver said that business was quite slow. Apparently, all the people from out of town who were returning to the airport had friends or family members drive them.

Surprisingly, the airport was far from busy, and I was through check-in in 10 minutes. The new security area lines moved quite quickly, but the new inter-terminal train system opening had been delayed, so I boarded the old-fashioned bus to Terminal C. I settled into United Airline's Red-Carpet Club lounge and snacked on some celery and carrots while chatting with some Germans who were heading home, and a retired American couple heading for Alsace. I started my emergency rations kit by taking some of the complimentary granola bars, cookies, cheese, and crackers.

My in-coming plane was 45 minutes late departing San Francisco, so I was sure my departure would be delayed. However, that was not to be, and boarding at Gate 4 was called right on time, at 4:35 pm. So, I made my way there and took up starboard window Seat 11J in Business Class on a Boeing 777. Business Class was no more than half-full, and the seat next to me was empty, so my imaginary friend sat there. Although I very much like the B777, having recently flown the refurbished B767 several times—the Business Class of which now has large suites with lay-flat beds—Business Class in the B777 seemed rather feeble by comparison.

The scheduled departure time was 5:20 pm and the doors closed right on time. However, we were informed that there was a problem with one of the fuel pumps and that a mechanic was on his way to "check it out." (Don't you just hate that when that happens!) Not long after, the pilot told us with great confidence that the mechanic stared hard at the offending piece of equipment, and it started working again. (This interested me very much as I've stared at all sorts of malfunctioning appliances at home, and none has ever jumped back to life!)

We were 20 minutes late pushing back from the gate and 15 minutes after that, flight UA914 took off to the west, circled back to the east, and headed northeast up towards the New England states, the Atlantic states of Canada, and across the Atlantic. I was quite tired, so decided to forgo a movie and to watch several episodes of the TV show "The United States of Tara," during which hot towels were dispensed and drinks were served.

Dinner included the following: Saumon fume, prosciutto et crudité aux sauce ranch, and salade César ou Vinaigrette asiatique au sesame et au gingembre, followed by a choice of three main courses: mahi mahi grille, boeuf braise sauce au poivre, or roulades de lassagne aux épinards sauce rosetta la tomate. For those of you not versed in the French language that would be smoked salmon and ham with vegetables and ranch dressing, a green salad with Asian sesame ginger vinaigrette, and fish, beef, or pasta. I had the braised beef with peppercorn sauce, and it was very good despite the preponderance of spinach. (I rationalized that it was good for me as it contained lots of iron, and I had recently been rejected not once or twice but three times at the blood bank because of a low iron count.) I forwent the cheese, coffee, and port wine, and at 7:30 pm I put my seat way back, arranged two pillows and two blankets, put in my ear plugs, put on my sleep goggles, and wished for dreamland.

[Next day] After a very long time, I finally got to sleep. When I woke, my clock showed 12:15 am, so I put it forward six hours to GMT+1 making it 06:15, Paris time. We'd just crossed the English Channel ("La Manche" in French, meaning "the sleeve") and were over Joan of Arc's former stomping ground, Rouen, in Upper Normandy with only 20 minutes flying time to go.

Arrival in Paris

I'd slept through breakfast, but managed to get a glass of orange juice. There was a flurry of activity as the cabin crew prepared for landing, and at 06:45 we touched down at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) international airport. Passport control was a formality; I didn't need an immigration card and the agent barely looked at my passport and did not stamp it. (Apparently, for both my and France's benefit, there would be no record of my having entered the country!) A series of long moving sidewalks took us from the plane into the terminal. At Carousel 3, I had a 10-minute wait for my bag. Then I walked straight through the "Nothing to Declare" (except that it was bloody cold) line at Customs and was out in the general population in no time at all, mingling freely with the Cancan dancers from Moulin Rouge who had been sent by the President to welcome me to "Gay Paris." (Actually, that's not true; I think it was the Prime Minister.)

I found a cash machine, which was happy to dispense €250 in €50- and €20-bills. I deliberately avoided finding out the exchange rate, as I knew it was in the "extremely depressing" range. At the information desk, a young woman was ever so happy to direct me to the train that went into the city. I rode the airport train two stops to get to the main station and along the way, I chatted with an elderly French couple who were returning home from a holiday in Laos.

Using my minimal French, I deduced that the sign on the ticket machine at the entrance to my train platform indicated the machine was out of order, so I went in search of another entrance. With the help of a local man, I managed to buy a ticket, which cost €6.90. I had some Euro coins left over from my Netherlands trip in September, so I used those. At the platform, I set about deciphering the schedule on a large TV screen. There were two tracks, both of which serviced the inner city; however, they had slightly different sets of stops. A Chinese man from Singapore approached me for help and together we tried to figure it out. He was going to a stop two beyond mine.

We got on the next train that came and chatted as we rode towards the city. Interestingly, he too was in town for an international standard's meeting; however, his was all about metal welding while mine was on office software technology. As we talked, day broke around 08:15. At the station before mine, I got up and made my way to the door for a quick exit. Then off to the right I saw a very large sporting stadium, and as that was right next to my hotel, I knew I was on the right track. Unfortunately, the train failed to stop and did not do so until it had gone some distance to the next stop, Gare du Nord, the Paris North station. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!) So, it was on to Plan B. I found the track going in the opposite direction and, don't you know, the very next train (which left in two minutes) was a local one terminating at my station. (Don't you just love that!) And once I got out, the first thing I saw was the building where I'd be meeting for the next three days.

It was rather cold and overcast out and commuters were pouring in and out of the station area stopping for their breakfast croissants and coffee and having their early morning cigarettes. There were more than a few restaurants and snack places open including a large McDonalds.

In 15 minutes, I was in front of the Suite Hotel, one of the recommended conference hotels that I'd booked via the internet. It was 08:45 and I fully expected to have to wait 3–4 hours before I could get a room. But no, the very friendly front desk clerk was ever so happy to see me and to give me a room right away at no extra charge. I had a nightly rate of €101 with the final night (a Friday) running €125. Breakfast was another €12 but I could accept/reject that each day. High-speed wired internet access was included.

Each room was a large suite that was very nicely decorated and had a large work desk on wheels and a series of tall pull-down screens that could be lowered to separate the sleeping area from the working/living area. There was a microwave oven, fridge, electric kettle, and tea/coffee-making facilities along with a large digital TV on wheels.

Once I pulled the blinds closed, the room was very dark, and the windows sealed well enough to keep out the noise from the traffic. Within five minutes, I was in bed with the lights out. I think I lay there a good while, but I finally made it off to sleep. Four hours later, my alarm went off. I made a cup of boiling tea and snacked on cheese and crackers from my emergency supplies. I connected to the outside world and, of course, email arrived. I also was notified that a colleague had arrived at his hotel.

The TV had only one channel with English-language programming, and that was Germany's DW-TV, which alternated between German and English every hour. I watched some news and current affairs programs while working on email and this diary. Soon, it was afternoon teatime, so I boiled the kettle and enjoyed another cuppa along with several of the Walkers' finest shortbread cookies I had rescued from the Red-Carpet Club.

I spent several hours preparing for my meeting. I also worked on some personal stuff. Around 19:00, I went out in search of a place to eat and finished up at a restaurant right next to the hotel. I ordered a pizza, which was quite large. It came with an egg fried in the middle something I hadn't seen since eating at my favorite pizza place in Adelaide, South Australia, many years ago. Unfortunately, the egg white was nowhere near cooked, so between the waiter's basic English and my minimal French I managed to explain that I needed it cooked more. I finished off with a decent but strong cup of café au lait while reading the arts section of the UK newspaper, the "Financial Times."

I found a greengrocer's and bought juice, fresh fruit, some carrots, and other emergency snacks. The combination coconut/pineapple juice was "to die for." Back in my room, I worked and played while keeping one ear on the TV news. Lights out at 23:30.

Getting Down to Business

[Next day] Sleep-wise, it was a terrible night. I had a small breakfast in my room, and after a very hot shower, I packed for work. Outside it was cold but dry and I took some back streets to AFNOR the French national standards organization. The 500-meter walk got my circulation going. A number of colleagues were already there when I arrived at 08:30, and we chatted until the conference room was unlocked.

People were late arriving, so our meeting start was delayed 40 minutes. Eventually, we got underway for a 3-day standard's meeting for which I was secretary. Eighteen people from seven countries attended. We worked through until 16:00 taking an hour break for lunch at which time I stayed behind to bring the minutes up to date and to work on some action items. After lunch, I had to fight sleep, but several times, it got the better of me. Although the sun came out in the afternoon, unfortunately, I was in no position or mood to take advantage of it.

We broke early with some of us taking home action items to be completed overnight. On the way back to my room, I stopped by McDonalds to have an early supper of fish and chicken. The walk and cold air woke me up a bit but once I sat at the desk in my room, I had to fight to stay awake. I got most of my work done and sent it out to the other members for proofing before I turned out the lights at 18:30.

[Next day] I woke at 00:45 after six hours of deep sleep. After a small snack, I checked my email and phoned home. At 01:00, DW-TV broadcast in English, so I caught up with some world news and current affairs. After several hours of work, I went back to bed where I got another three hours of sleep before my 07:00 alarm sounded. Breakfast consisted of a cup of very hot tea and a large nashi (Asian pear). If you've never tried one, I highly recommend it. It has the consistency of an apple but tastes like a pear and has sweet juice.

Workwise, it was a very productive day, running from 09:00 through to 18:00 with an hour break for lunch at 13:00. At 18:30, we moved to a reception room for a social event hosted by IBM and Microsoft. A large variety of appetizers was served along with drinks. As is often the case, business issues get resolved more easily by different factions getting together socially. I ate enough snacks that I didn't need an evening meal. I walked home in light rain with a German colleague and friend, Mario, who was staying at the same hotel. I worked on the day's minutes and then tried to keep busy and awake. Lights out at 21:30.

[Next day] After a short and restless night, I was up, showered, and dressed by 08:00. Once again, we had a productive session and completed an important phase of our work. The meeting adjourned at 13:00 and once again, I forwent lunch. Around 14:30, the committee chair and I had a private meeting to discuss a number of issues. Around 15:30, I said goodbye to my colleagues and walked back to my hotel in light rain. I worked for several hours completing the draft minutes for the 3-day meeting, and then circulated them to attendees by email. Them I worked on some personal projects while keeping one ear on world news that played in the background.

At 19:00, I dressed warmly and went down to the hotel foyer. A few minutes later, Mario joined me, and we walked to a restaurant nearby. "Events" was a sports bar with a giant TV screen and casual fare. We spent two hours talking mostly about travel especially the four weeks he had spent in New Zealand and Tahiti. I had a nice piece of veal with hot vegetables and a small salad while Mario enjoyed a large steak. By the time we ventured outside light rain was falling, again. Back in my room, I dealt with email that had arrived while I was out, and did some planning for my up-coming vacation while sipping coffee. Lights out at 22:30, asleep very soon after.

[Next day] I woke at 09:30 after 11 hours solid sleep and when I raised the blinds, I saw that the sun was shining brightly. That was indeed a very good start to the day. I caught some world news from DW-TV while sipping a cup of boiling tea and savoring some Walkers shortbread cookies. A local radio station played various French and American hits. After playing some games on my computer and working on this diary, it was time to go to work for the day right there at the desk in my hotel room. It was just the kind of work commute I prefer!

At 14:00, I broke for lunch and went out to a local bakery. It sure was busy and the server and I struggled to communicate. Eventually, I managed to order a large bowl of onion and potato soup and a bread roll. It really hit the spot! As I left, I bought a large bread stick filled with sausage and cheese, and a pastry "for Ron," as in "later on."

I worked through to 23:30 with occasional snack breaks delivering a major piece of work by email at the end. My seat got pretty hard by day's end, and I was glad to lie flat that night. Lights out at 23:45.

A Visit with Stéphane and a Culture Fix

After a week in Normandy (click here for that trip's diary), I was back in Paris, staying with friend, Stéphane, who I'd hosted some years before. His apartment was located right downtown on the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) of the Seine River, 200 meters from the Sorbonne university, and 400 meters from Notre Dame Cathedral on an island in the river.

Within 45 minutes of my arrival, we headed out to meet a group of more than 20 of his friends for a walking tour of Paris. Members of the group walked together monthly, and this time they planned to see the City of Lights all lit up! By the time the group all gathered, and we set out, it was 16:00. It was bitterly cold with a light wind, but except for my nose, I kept warm. Here was our itinerary (note that we only walked by these places; we did not go in any of them): Notre Dame, Hotel de Ville (city hall), George Pompidou Center, Forum des Halles, the Louvre Museum (we walked through the courtyard as the outside lights came on), the Tuileries Gardens, Place Vendome, Opera, Maxim's restaurant, Galeries Lafayette (several department stores decorated and lit up like Macey's or Harrods), Madeline, Concord Plaza, Grand Palais (where one of the great Paris exhibitions was held 100 years ago), all along the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, and, finally, back across the Seine, to the Eiffel Tour. The streets and garden walks were lit for Christmas, many with lights that simulated melting icicles. One big section was filled with rides, included an enormous Ferris wheel, and stalls selling all kinds of things.

Mid-way in our walk, some people brought out containers of hot wine with cinnamon and we warmed our insides. We walked, stopped, looked, and talked for 5½ hours, and we covered 11 kms. Then we caught the Metro and rode 20 minutes back across the city to Place d'Italia where, at 22:00, we sat down to a 2-hour dinner in a Greek restaurant. The food and company were superb! We caught the Metro back home and were in bed by 00:30. It had been a long but good day. As I closed the blind of my bedroom window, I could see the top half of the Eiffel Tower all lit up in the distance.

[Next day] I slept soundly for 10½ hours, which was great. After a nice warm shower, I had brunch, which consisted of a bowl of boiling tea with some bread and jam. By then it was after noon, and we discussed what we might do for the day. Around 13:30, we set out on a 2–3 km walk to the Museum d'Orsay. Several of the floors were closed for renovation but what was open kept us very busy for three hours. We saw rooms full of paintings by Degas, Manet, Monet, Cezanne, and van Gogh, and many sculptures by Rodin. There was also some furniture, ceramics, and glassware. One of the two temporary exhibitions was on Art Nouveau. Although I really liked half a dozen things I saw, what I liked most of all was the building. Until not many years ago, it was a major train station, and after the renovation and conversion, it looked fantastic. And I managed to improve my culture quotient a little bit. After the long walk the night before and then three hours of standing and walking, we decided to catch a bus home. At our stop, we visited a small supermarket to get some provisions; for me, that meant whole milk (my first in two weeks), juice, and chocolate with hazelnuts.

Back home, I worked on this diary and phoned home. Stéphane cooked fish, rice, and vegetables for supper, which we followed with a selection of cheeses and some fresh fruit. Lights out at 22:30.

[Next day] I was wide-awake at 10:30 after 12 hours sleep. Yes! Over a light breakfast of tea, bread, jam, and cheese, I looked at the possibilities for the day. Stéphane had gone out for the morning, and I was on my own. Plan A was to go to the Museum Picasso but according to the website that was closed for renovation. So, I moved to Plan B, the Rodin sculpture museum, but that was closed on Mondays. Plan C was that good old Parisian backup, the Louvre, and although its website suggested in French that there were work stoppages, it gave no status about that day. Being positive, I decided to go and find out.

I went down to my local Metro station to find that there was no ticket window or machine. I asked a young woman where I could buy a ticket, and (presumably) as I was so cute, she smiled and simply waved me to the turnstile and passed me through on her pass. Then, because the machine wouldn't let her use that pass again immediately, she bent down and pushed her way under the now-closed barrier. I was now a criminal, certain that Interpol would be waiting for me at the next stop. (Unlike some subway systems, the Paris Metro does not require a ticket to get out of any station.) I rode three lines until I got to the main Louvre station.

I came out the station in a small underground city of shopping arcades that lead into the museum entrance. And boy was it crowded. I bought a general admission ticket from a machine and found my way up to the 2nd Floor. That was full of Flemish, Dutch, and French paintings, hung in small and large halls some from floor to ceiling. Based on my observations there and the day before at the d'Orsay, I decided that the subjects of many paintings were poor people especially women. I deduced this from their obvious inability to afford much clothing. I came around one corner and there was a very realistic "still life." However, on closer inspection I determined it was an elderly patron asleep in a chair. (I kid you not. Hey, it could have been art!) I spent quite some time on that floor looking at a large room full of Rubens' and "The Lacemaker" by Vermeer. (Back in September, I'd been to Vermeer's hometown of Delft, the Netherlands, and seen a collection of his works including some of the Girl/Pearl Earring series.) While it was all very impressive, I could not help but wonder if these guys could actually paint my house. I don't mean a picture of it; I mean to actually paint it!

The 1st Floor had all kinds of artsy-fartsy stuff called "antiquities," which is a fancy name for "old stuff," and I moved through that very quickly. In the Italian paintings wing I dropped by to see da Vinci's Mona Lisa. As I walked from side to side, it sure looked like her eyes were following me. Opposite, taking up a whole wall was Veronese's The Wedding at Cana. It was huge with such a lot of detail.

The Ground Floor had sculptures and lots of antiquities from the Orient, Egypt, and Greece. I stopped by to see Venus de Milo. She was only discovered 180 years earlier on a remote Greek island in the eastern Mediterranean, and there is some doubt as to whom she depicts, Aphrodite or some other goddess. She looked quite (h)armless. The big attraction for me was in the Mesopotamia section; it was the large basalt pillar on which was carved Hammurabi's code of laws from around 1750 BC. This was one of the first known set of written laws and was very progressive.

I browsed the bookstore a bit and then went up the steps into the big glass pyramid in the courtyard to look outside in all directions. Now, being the Philistine that I am, I went through all four floors in double-quick time; however, it was not quite like the cartoon depicting an American tourist arriving at the Louvre by taxi and asking the driver to wait while he took a tour!

I rode the Metro (this time as a paying customer) to the town hall where I came back above ground into the vicious cold. In the tunnel leading from the subway, I stopped for a mini concert by a young woman playing a cello. After a short walk, I was at the Notre Dame Cathedral where I went in for a sit and a look around. Admission was free unless one wanted a guided tour, but I noted that admission to the Treasury cost €3. I quickly figured out how the Treasury was funded! One ignorant tourist ignored the "no chapeau" sign at the entrance but the hat police—in the form of an 80-year-old woman with a walking stick—caught up with him and made him remove his hat.

From there it was a 10-minute walk home, and I was glad to be out of the cold wind. To be sure, it had been an abbreviated tour, but I had to leave something for the next visit, right? I worked on this diary, occasionally looking out the window to the Eiffel Tower as day turned to dusk and then to night.

At 19:30, we ventured out for my last supper. Throughout the day, I had been thinking about a nice veal dinner at an Italian restaurant, so where did we finish up, but at the Maharaja's Indian place. Both country names began with the same letter, so close enough, right? We started with some garlic nan and then we each had curried chicken, one with fresh cream, almonds, and tomato, the other with onions and green peppers. We shared a dish of rice with vegetables. Although I was quite full after that, I had already picked out a dessert at the beginning and nothing could dissuade me from having a small scoop each of passion fruit, mango, and coconut sorbet.

On the way home, we stopped by a train station where I bought a ticket to the airport for the following morning. When we checked the schedule on the internet back home, a rail strike was still going on, but most trains were scheduled to run. Lights out at 22:30.

Travel Day

[Next day] I was awake at 06:00, 90 minutes before my alarm. (Don't you just hate that!) I lay there until 07:15 listening and feeling the vibrations from the subway system below as the city came alive. Stéphane and I had our usual light breakfast, and I wrote in his visitor's book.

I had planned to take the 08:46 train, but I was packed and ready to leave at 08:00. We said our goodbyes and I walked out into the dark street to go a block to the RER B station that served CDG directly. Despite the strike-restricted service, three trains were scheduled to leave before the one I'd planned to take, so I took the first one that came along. When it arrived, it was only 110% full, so 10 more people pushed their way on at each door. It was everyone for themselves with elbows out and pushing and shoving. Fortunately, many people got off at the next two stops, so I soon got a seat.

Daylight broke on the way to the airport and the trip was uneventful. At the end, I changed to the inter-terminal train and went to Terminal 1. Check-in took only a few minutes, and I was off to passport control where the agent gave me an exit stamp. While I was in line, I spoke to a young American living in France who was going home to Colorado. I asked him if he'd like to be my guest in the Business Lounge. He accepted, and we sat there and snacked for the hour before our flight. It was his first time in such a lounge.

The security process at the gate was very slow and a bit chaotic, but as all the staff members were so darned polite it was hard to be upset. In any event, the plane was right there and wasn't going without us. Eventually, we boarded, and I took up window Seat 11J in Business Class—the same as my flight over—where I could keep an eye on the starboard engine. The sun streamed in my window as boarding completed and all seemed right in that part of the world.

United Airlines flight 915 took off to the east about 10 minutes late. As we used up the whole runway, I figured we had a full load onboard. We circled around to the west and headed home over France, UK, the Atlantic, and Canada. Once we'd gotten to our altitude, drinks and nuts were served followed by hot towels; then came lunch. To begin we had bresaola ham with roasted peppers and vegetable barley salad (which I found not at all interesting) and a green salad with creamy peppercorn dressing (which was excellent). The main course was a choice of filet mignon with garlic, potatoes, and carrots with parsley (my pick); roasted cod with honey ginger sauce, herbed rice pilaf and creamed spinach; or porcini mushroom raviolacci with cream sauce and chopped chives. Dessert consisted of cheese and passion fruit white chocolate mousse cake.

During lunch, I watched the Quentin Tarantino movie, "Inglourious Basterds," starring Brad Pitt. I found it very interesting, and the two hours went quickly. After that tiring activity, it was naptime, and I managed a couple of hours. When I awoke, we were over Nova Scotia, Canada, on the final leg home. After burning all the calories sitting, sleeping, and watching a movie, what I needed was more food. Right! So, 90 minutes before landing, a substantial snack was served. I had the fruit and cheese plate with two cups of coffee and that got my pulse rate back to normal.

We had an on-time touchdown landing from the south. We were one of the first flights in from Europe that afternoon, so the airport was not at all crowded. Our plane pulled into a gate right next door to the mobile lounge gate, and soon we were in the immigration hall where I walked straight up to an officer for processing. My luggage came out soon after, and I was in a taxi headed home in double quick time. Although it was cool out it was nowhere as cold and windy as in Paris.

I was happy to be home and to be staying in one place for an extended period. I made a shopping list and went off to the supermarket to fill my fridge and pantry. Then I unpacked my luggage and synchronized my laptop and desktop computers. Lights out at 8:30 pm.

Merci beaucoup. Au revoir mon ami.

Signs of Life: Part 29

© 2022 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

From time to time during my travels, I come across signs that I find interesting for one reason or another. Sometimes, they contain clever writing, are humorous, or remind me of some place or event. Here are some from Germany and England.


From the instant I saw this postcard, I knew I just had to buy it for myself! For the past four years, it's been sitting on my work desk.

The translation is, "I will grow up next week!" Now that said, I can't promise I will actually do that. In fact, I often ask people I meet, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" If they ask me the same question, I usually reply, "It's a moot point, as I don't plan on growing up!"


Shoes change your life, ask Cinderella!


Well, that seems pretty clear!

Sometimes when I'm cooking, I announce that, "You can order anything you like, but you'll eat what I serve!"


A supermarket sign; obviously, as the terrier is carrying the groceries home!

According to Wikipedia, "Netto is a Danish discount supermarket operating in Denmark, Germany, Poland, and [other places]."


"Here, there is no sex, no drugs, and no rock-n-roll; just coffee." And at very good prices, too!


What caught my eye was the second sign from the top: Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela 3,400 kms (2,125 miles).

This pilgrimage walk—Camino de Santiago—is very popular, and ends in Galicia, northern Spain. It is the subject of The Way, a 2010 movie directed and written by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen.


Given the love affair many people have with their mobile phone, this phone store's name seems appropriate: "Your phone and you!"


Ladies, have you never lusted after a particular handbag? Yes, it's the same word in German!


No dancing on the train platform! Or, perhaps I'm misunderstanding.


High-tech weapon? Rivet gun? No, this tool is used to break a window of the train carriage to get out in an emergency! What will those Germans think of next!


Now I'm all for having "Quite Cars" when riding on a long-distance train. However, it's not clear to me that "Psst" is the best indicator of one. According to Wiktionary, this word is used "to get someone's attention or to communicate with them" yet nowhere is there any symbol indicating to "keep quiet." It seems to me that the word "shush," written the same in English and German, would be better.


Don't you just hate that when a large boulder crashes through your windshield (AU: windscreen)!

Well if that happens, and you are anywhere near the German city of Apolda, "We can take care of your glass damage!"


Well, I've seen parking places reserved for people with disabilities, pregnant women and new mothers, military veterans, and "Employee of the Month," however, I'd never before seen any reserved just for women! I think it had to do with safety, as this spot was in a well-lit area near an exit and elevator (AU: lift).

Now it just so happens that the German equivalent of "parking" (Parken) also begins with the letter P, so the sign is instantly recognizable by English speakers. However, in Spanish-speaking countries, it's an E (estacionamiento).


There I was touring the main cathedral in Erfurt (the capital of the German state of Thuringia), and I came across this set of tourist prohibitions. And while I easily figured out the first five, all I could think of for the sixth one was being struck down by a bolt of lightning. (The wrath of God, perhaps?)


Now, if you were going to have a lower goat lane in your village, it seems entirely reasonable to also have an upper one! That said, when I walked said lanes, no goats were to be seen.


"Psst, want some quality white stuff?"

No, not that kind of white stuff! According to Wikipedia, "White Stuff is a British fashion and lifestyle brand that sells women's, men's and kids' clothing, accessories, homeware and gifts in over 120 shops in the United Kingdom, shops in Germany, via mail-order catalogues and through its website."


A Little Bit of History

© 2022 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


According to Wikipedia, 'History … is the study of the past. Events occurring before the invention of writing systems are considered prehistory. "History" is an umbrella term that relates to past events as well as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of information about these events. Historians place the past in context using historical sources such as written documents, oral accounts, ecological markers, and material objects including art and artifacts.'

Some time ago, I was looking at all the books on my shelves, many of which hadn't been opened in years despite having survived several moves (including a trip across the Pacific in a container), and I came across one called, "Australia since 1606." I cast my mind back to the 1960s when I first had social studies in school, and I remembered that the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in 1788, not too many years after Captain James Cook "discovered" Australia.

[It wasn't until many years later that I discovered the link between American independence and the settlement of Australia. Also, from Wikipedia, "Convicts were originally transported to the Thirteen Colonies in North America, but after the American War of Independence ended in 1783, the newly formed United States refused to accept further convicts. On 6 December 1785, Orders in Council were issued in London for the establishment of a penal colony in New South Wales, on land claimed for Britain by explorer James Cook in his first voyage to the Pacific in 1770."]

I remembered learning about the Dutch explorers (especially Dirk Hartog and Abel Tasman); after all, Australia used to be called New Holland! However, as I got into that book, I found that the Spanish had also sighted the northeast tip, something I'd never heard about before. And these folks were exploring the general area well before 1770. However, they thought the land was quite inhospitable and they made no claim to it.

When I got to the chapter covering the settlement of my home state, South Australia, I came across a reference to Encounter Bay, a place I had visited on several occasions. But how did it get its name? Who encountered whom and why might anyone care? Captain Matthew Flinders (an English navigator and cartographer) encountered one Nicolas Baudin (a French explorer, cartographer, naturalist and hydrographer). They met peacefully in April of 1802 even though they thought their countries were at war back home. [Unbeknown to them, a peace treaty had been signed two weeks earlier.] So now the French were in the picture, something else I don't recall having learned in school.

After 25 years in Australia, I've now lived 43 years in the US, almost all of that in the state of Virginia, the oldest of the US states having been formed in 1607 (vs. South Australia in 1836).

In this essay, I'll talk about my early exposure to the subject of history, I'll mention some of the historically significant places I've visited, and I'll mention how history actually can come alive when you are standing in the place where it happened!

My Early Exposure to History

Let's begin with social studies in elementary (AU: primary) school. I was one of 28 students in a 1-teacher country school, with seven grades being taught in parallel, by the same teacher! I expect we barely got the basics. Our entire reference library was probably no more than 50 books, one of which was a world atlas, lots of which was colored pink to indicate the far-flung British Empire.

In high school, I had history classes for four years, with emphasis on the British Commonwealth. [Of course, now that I live in the US, not surprisingly, I see the emphasis here is US- and state-based.] From my report card, Year 8: Terms 1, 2, and 3 – 63%, 52%, and 53%, respectively; Year 9: 57%, 56%, 45%; Year 10: 74%, 48%, passed the EOY state-wide exam; Year 11: 57%, 49%, failed the EOY state-wide exam; Year 12: no history; YES! And none in university/college. (Hey, I was a math/science nerd!)

Let me make this perfectly clear: I did not like history! The materials were boring: no color, no slides, no films, and no relevance. It was all about the regurgitation of dates for tests, and there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that learning history was punishment! I did, however, have a small world atlas, and to this day, I love maps and various aspects of geography, and I've even come to embrace at least some history.

In a fit of madness, in Year 11, I took Modern History, which covered South East Asia, Australia's own backyard. We learned about China and Vietnam. Now this was in 1968, and Australia was a significant player in the Vietnam War, and Australia had conscription at age 20.

By the way, being raised in the British Commonwealth, for us World War II started in September 1939, whereas for the Americans, it was December 1941.

Outside of school, I was exposed to a few historical things:

  • One of the main immigrant groups (including my ancestors) to settle my home state were German-speaking Lutherans from Prussia. They started arriving in the 1840s. [Even though my parents were 4th-generation Australians, they spoke only German until they started school. My maternal grandparents' first language was actually Wendish/Sorbish.]
  • When my parents were children, their families farmed with horse-drawn machinery, and I well remember riding in a horse-drawn cart with my maternal grandfather, repairing fences on his farm.
  • My region had several Historical Villages and restored paddle-wheeler boats as tourist attractions.
  • Once during my school years, I visited the South Australian Museum in the state capital.
  • At the end of Year 11, I travelled to Alice Springs in Central Australia where I visited the old Telegraph Station and the Hermannsburg Aboriginal Mission where my sister lived.
  • I visited Uluru (formerly Ayer's Rock), a huge world-renowned sandstone rock formation in central Australia that is sacred to the local Aboriginal people. 

My First Trip Abroad

During my 25 years Down Under, I visited only a few areas of my state and I had few short trips to two neighboring states. My first big travel adventure involved five weeks in Southeast Asia and Western Europe on my way to living in the US. Here are some of the history-related activities from that trip, all of which involved visiting places with a recorded history that was far older than the almost-200 years I was used to:

  • Hong Kong: This was my first exposure to a non-Western society and my first ever international destination. It surely was exciting. (According to Wikipedia, "Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire after the Qing Empire ceded Hong Kong Island at the end of the First Opium War in 1842."
  • Singapore: I took a cable car to Sentosa Island to see the military fortress and WWII Allied surrender memorial.
  • Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, and Penang. In Penang, I had my first experience of being woken by a very loud public-address system for early morning prayers at a mosque nearby.
  • Thailand: Bangkok, Kanchanaburi, and Pattaya. Kanchanaburi featured in the construction of the infamous Burma Railway, and was the location at which the movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai" was filmed.
  • India: In Bombay (now Mumbai) I encountered my first slums and deformed beggars. Initially, I had visions of touring much of the country by train, but I stayed only 24 hours. The experience was quite a shock, and I couldn't leave fast enough!
  • Italy: After seeing many and huge sitting, standing, and reclining Buddhas through Southeast Asia, in Rome, I progressed to the 7-hour walking tour of the Vatican City museums, which I completed in an hour, Philistine that I am! I also dropped by the Coliseum and Circus Maximus.
  • Switzerland: In Geneva, I stumbled across an interesting museum of armor, pikes, and crossbows.
  • France: I was accidentally in Paris during Bastille Day, and I made the usual tourist walk along the Seine.
  • England: In London, I checked out the Houses of Parliament and watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

The Very Old Days

  • After 10 days in the Amazon rainforest of northeastern Peru, my first foray into an old culture was to Cuzco and Machu Pichu, Peru, the heart of the Incan civilization. Once the afternoon train departed with the day-trippers, I was one of only 100 overnight tourists on-site, and I lay on the grassed terraces listening to the roaring river beneath the clouds below me, thinking about life there during the city's heyday.
  • While Stonehenge looks impressive in photos, I had the opportunity of walking among, and touching, the great stones. [On my second visit, the stones had been roped off and we looked from a distance.] It's hard to imagine that 150 years ago, one could rent a hammer from a local blacksmith and break off a souvenir piece to take home, and farmers crushed some of the huge lintels for gravel.
  • On a trip through Mexico City and points east, I stopped off at the great earthen pyramid near Puebla. Much later, on a trip to Guatemala, I spent several days at the Mayan Temple city of Tikal. Finally, I visited the Mayan city of Chichen Itza in the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula. While at each, I thought a great deal about their builder's knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.
  • The reason I went to Jordan was to spend several days at the 2,000-year-old Nabatean city of Petra. [By the way, Jordan's capital, Amman, was named Philadelphia during its Greek and Roman periods.] Once I got in-country, I discovered a delightful bonus, the Roman city of Jerash, where tourists could ride in a horse-drawn chariot driven by a centurion!
  • My first trip to Beijing, China, was in early winter, and it was cooold! However, I braved the elements and went to see, and walk on, a section of the Great Wall. There were no labor unions back in those days!

The Good Old Days

New Europe

I've spent quality time in the following European countries and cities, all of which have plenty of historical sites:

  • Berlin, Potsdam, Leipzig, Dresden, all in Germany
  • Hanseatic League states: Lubeck, Rostock, and Bremen in Germany, and Tallinn and Tartu in Estonia
  • Denmark and Norway
  • Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam
  • St. Petersburg, Russia
  • Prague, Czech Republic
  • Vienna and Salzburg, Austria
  • Bratislava, Slovakia
  • Budapest, Hungary

North America

Here are some historical highlights I've visited in Canada and the US:

Military/War-Related Places

  • Dover Castle, England, is impressive. Its miles of underground tunnels are still mostly off-limits. It's the place from which the Dunkirk evacuation of WWII was managed.
  • In Brussels, Belgium, I spent time at the Waterloo battlefield.
  • While in Helsinki, Finland, I visited the island of Suomenlinna, home to an impressive naval dry dock and fortress. There, in a museum, I learned about the Winter War of 1939–1940 against the Soviet Union.
  • The 1066 Battle of Hastings actually took place in Battle, some miles inland. The battlefield has never been developed. It was interesting to walk that field with an audio wand that allowed me to listen to a reenactment from the point of view of the Normans, the Anglo-Saxons, and someone in King Harold's medical corps. On a separate trip, I visited the York battlefield area where Harold defeated his half-brother just days before having to march all the way to Hastings to face William of Normandy.
  • If you have a spare half day in London, I highly recommend the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum.
  • It was a sobering experience to visit the US War Cemeteries in Luxembourg (General Patton); the Netherlands; and in Normandy, France.
  • I've been to the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, three times; frankly, once is enough.
  • On a walk through the lovely town of Caen, France, I tried to imagine what it was like in the days immediately following the D-Day landing in WWII.
  • After WWI, the French started—but never completed—the Maginot Line, a defense against future attacks by Germany. I toured some of the tunnels near Alsace.
  • Peenemunde on the German island of Usedom was the place where the V1 and V2 flying bombs were built and tested. I've visited it twice.
  • On a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan, I was most interested to see that people who had survived the atomic bomb blast there received free admission to the museum. Some benefit, huh? My young son was especially taken with a wristwatch from a victim, which showed the exact time of the blast, when the watch stopped working.
  • In Ireland, I walked around the field from the Battle of the Boyne (1690).
  • Part of a "social" event during a conference in Berlin, Germany, involved a tour of a WWII bunker.
  • While riding a bike in rural Germany with two German friends, we stopped for a picnic lunch at a small village church. As I walked around the cemetery, I saw a section for local men who'd died in WWI and WWII. I immediately thought of similar graveyards back in Australia, and I quickly realized that people were conscripted on both sides.
  • My hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland, almost bragged about having had the most bomb threats during The Troubles!

Some Odds and Ends

  • While touring the Adriatic Coast of Croatia, I visited the island where long-time Jugoslav President, Tito, lived and met with leaders from the non-aligned countries. It's now Brijuni National Park.
  • A plaque marks the place on the steps of Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. where Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a dream speech."
  • On a week's holiday in County Kent, England, I stopped off in Sandwich and visited the Earl's place. I also visited Botany Bay the namesake of the place were the first settlers landed in Australia. [The Earl of Sandwich was a sponsor of Caption James Cook, who named the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) after him.]
  • The highlight of Pula, Croatia, is a beautifully preserved Roman Coliseum.
  • I once spend a few hours in Lutherstadt Wittenberg where Martin Luther famously nailed his theses on the church door.
  • If you are looking for a spectacular castle that is not at all drafty, go visit the Bavarian castle Neuschwanstein, which Walt Disney reportedly used as the model for the centerpiece of his Magic Kingdom. (King Ludwig's palace Linderhof ain't half bad either!)
  • I've had the pleasure of visiting more than a few areas over which the Habsburgs ruled.
  • While in Bratislava, Slovakia, I saw a memorial to all the people killed trying to escape from behind the Iron Curtain by swimming across the Danube River to Austria (near Vienna).
  • While in Berlin, I went in search of The Empty Library, "a Memorial in memory of … the Nazi book burning that took place in the Bebelplatz in Berlin, Germany on May 10, 1933. The memorial is set into the cobblestones of the plaza and contains a collection of empty subterranean bookcases." As a non-recovering bookaholic, it was stunning!
  • The highlight of my personal time in Stockholm, Sweden, was a visit to the Vasa Museum, which houses the warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628.
  • In Denmark, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at the home/museum of Hans Christian Anderson.
  • Lapland, Finland, was definitely worth the visit, although the vodka the reindeer herder gave me to drink from a traditional wooden mug surely was "fire water!"
  • On a day trip from Reykjavík, Iceland, I visited the site of the Althing, the oldest parliament.
  • Port Arthur the infamous convict settlement (in the Australian state of Tasmania), is definitely worth a visit. (Separately, in 1996, it was the scene of a tourist massacre by a deranged gunman.)


  • For years, I've been saying, "History is nothing but one thing after another," something I'd picked up over many years of reading. It seems that around 1909, various US magazines and newspapers contained text such as, "Life: One damn thing after another," "life is just one darn thing after another," and later "History is just one damn fact after another."
  • A number of people (including George Santayana and Winston Churchill) are credited with saying something like, "Those who don't learn from history are bound to repeat its mistakes."
  • If you want a quick overview of (tongue-in-cheek) history, watch Mel Brooks' movie "History of the World: Part I." In the same vein, I also recommend Monty Pythons "Life of Brian."