24 July 2018

The National Railway Museum - York

Trains are in my blood. My granddad and great granddad drove coal trains in Pennsylvania. My dad, for a summer or two, worked as a fireman shoveling coal into stem engines. There’s something about the all that gleaming metal and chugging and clacking that sets my mind to thinking about jumping on a freight train and leaving all my cares behind.

When I found out that York had one of the largest Railway Museums in the world, I penciled in a date on my calendar.  Link: National Railway Museum

“Home to the iconic locomotives and as unrivaled collection of engineering firsts we celebrate the past, present, and future of innovation on the railways. We’re home to over 200 years of history and a million fascinating railway objects.”

It is situated on grounds that were once part of the York Railway Station, which creates quite and alluring atmosphere.  The various halls make use of the tracks and buildings that served to transport people and goods, store engines, and move trains, for around 100 years.

The Station Hall was the first area of my visit. Built in 1870, it served as York’s main goods station until the 1960’s. I strolled along the concrete platforms, past station clocks, lamp posts, displays of luggage, and numerous gleaming engines and carriages. The middle of the central platform is now a café where you can sip coffee and get a bite to eat, all the while surrounded by locomotive history.

image: National  Railway Museum
Queen Victoria’s Saloon Car rested along one set of tracks opposite a number of other Royal Carriages. I peered into the luxurious blue velvet and gold appointed car, marveling at the intricate details and mentally comparing it to the train that had taken me up to York. Just a tad different. I watched two men delicately apply paint to the outer carriage and asked them about the restoration efforts. They happily told me about the work they were doing and what had already been done to the carriage that had been built in 1869. They added additional insights such as the Queen’s Car had been the first in the world with both electricity and an indoor toilet. However, it turned out that the Queen did not trust indoor plumbing and would make restroom stops at stations along the way. And although the train ran at quite a good clip, the Queen felt this was not good for the health. It ran at what she considered to be an acceptable, much slower, speed.

Along with the royal carriages, service trains are on display. The postal carriage caught my
eye and, as luck would have it, was one of the ones you could step into. Inside is a moving post office, with pigeon hole shelves in which to sort mail as the train roared along the tracks. A grainy black and white movie on an end wall showed how the workers dropped off and picked up mail bags, all without ever stopping. A system of bags and nets and boxes did the work. Even after watching the film, I have no idea how they managed to do that without loosing mail or an arm or two.

Another interactive display is found in the eerie Ambulance Train, built for transportation of soldiers in the First World War.

“Mass warfare meant massive casualties.
Railway companies had to fit the facilities of a hospital into the confines of a train.

Ambulance trains were up to a third of a mile long, and included wards, pharmacies, emergency operating rooms, kitchens and staff accommodation.” National Railway Museum

Hospital Train
I walked into the car and nearly jumped when I saw the holographic nurse walk into a treatment room and go about gathering supplies. As with many of the displays, posters with detailed information stood next to the car. Although I did not have time to carefully read all the details about this part of history that I had never before heard of, I was glad to find it online.  Link: Hospital Trains WWI UK

Engine Shed number 4, built in1877, is now home to The Great Hall. (I would call it a roundhouse, but maybe we use a different term in the US.) I didn’t count how many engines are on display, but there are a lot. Everything from really old engines to the Japanese Bullet Train. I especially loved the Mallard, and the Duchess of Hamilton – all art deco shaped and painted. Possibly I had never been that close to engines that large, because I was totally astonished at their size. Some of the wheels are taller than me.

I arrived in time to see the Turntable Demonstration and watched as an engine slowly moved around from one side of the massive turntable to the other.

Throughout every day, there are various events and demonstrations. A few of the items listed in the daily guide were: Tour: The Royal Carriages; Talk: The Japanese Bullet Train; Storytelling. And the one I missed and most want to partake in: Tour of the Collections Store.

The North Shed is an enormous warehouse-sized area, houses over 10,000 objects connected to railway history. I saw signs, and stained-glass windows, and tea cups, and a million other items that I could only guess about their origin. There simply wasn’t enough time to explore the entire museum and also go to all the talks and tours. Once again, I wished I were closer so that I could go back to the museum.
North Shed

This had to be one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. I spent four or five hours and there was so much more to see and do. Thankfully, a lot of their materials are on their beautiful website where the photos are much better than mine.

The Duchess of Hamilton

Engine Shed 4

The Mallard

27 June 2018

The North York Moors & Whitby

I rarely take paid tours of anywhere. In fact I may never have taken one before my tour of the North York Moors, Whitby on the coast, and beautiful little villages in between. What a perfect day!

It helped that the whole of the UK is in the middle of a British heatwave. Skies are clear and blue, the temps are lovely, and everyone is smiling. Add to that a spacious comfy mini-van, with only six other people, and a top-notch driver/tour guide. I can’t think of a better scenario for a perfect day.

Mark, our tour guide and driver par excellence,  loaded our little group in the Bob Holiday van. (That’s BOB as in Best of Britain, not Bob’s).  BOB Holidays As we wound our way out of the city and into the country, Mark filled us in on the surrounding history and pointed out various sites of interest. Prior to the trip, I only knew that Whitby was a coastal town and that the moors were out in the country.

The North York Moors National Park encompasses over 500 square miles of rolling hills and dales. Created in 1952, it also contains all the small villages that have existed in its boundaries for centuries. How lovely it would be to say that you live inside a national park! Even better, there are rules set up to ensure whatever existed there prior to its inception, remains. There are no fast-food restaurants, or chain stores, or shopping malls; simply lovely countryside and quint villages that takes one’s breath away.

It always happens when I have been surrounded by city noise and people and a bit of chaos. I forget that another world exists. Driving along the two-lane country roads while gazing out onto the vast expanses of green rolling hills, it begins to sink in. The first time we stepped out of the van and I inhaled that glorious fresh air and heard only the sounds of nature, I once again questioned what it is I like about cities. This was heaven.

The Moors are renowned for their bright purple fields of heather which are just beginning to bloom. In two weeks the color will stretch as far as the eye can see. What a spectacular sight that would be. But as Mark explained, at that time the roads will be packed with cars and families on their summer holidays out to experience the heather in its full glory. We had the hills and dales basically to ourselves which is a trade-off I was happy to make. 

And then there are the sheep happily grazing and resting in the fields everywhere we traveled, not a fence in sight. Up here in the moors, the sheep have free rein of the land. The farmers leave them to roam untethered year round. During lambing season, about two months ago, the farmers are up to check on the moms several times a day. And when it’s sheering time, they are rounded up and brought back to the farm. Only if there is a severe storm, are they are brought down off the hills in the winter.   

I wondered how it was possible to get them all back to their respective farms. As with all my non-stop questions, Mark had the answer. (Actually, the whole sheep thing had been part of his planned talk.) Turns out sheep never stray more than six or seven miles from home. And they tend to stay in groups. Each animal has a red, green or blue stripe painted on its wool to designate its owner. Even with sheep dogs, it must be quite a task to collect them all.

Next up was the market town of Helmsley. What I would give to live a few months in Hemsley! At least on a bright and sunny day. I was most taken by the stone cottages and even more so by the flower boxes. Surely I could replicate those back in California. It is one of the first things I will attempt when I return.

From there we descended back down the mountain, out of the National Park, and to the fishing village and seaside resort of Whitby. Aside from my normal longing to gaze out onto the sea, I wanted to walk around the ancient ruins of Whitby Abbey. I believe the first monastery on the site dates from the mid-600’s. The gothic ruins date to 1225. Whitby Abbey

In 1890, Bram Stoker paid a visit to Whitby, sat on a bench overlooking the port and across to he Abbey high on the hill. It was there that the he got his inspiration to write Dracula. I could easily see how that occurred, especially when I first arrived up on the hill with the sea mist swirling around the spooky spires.

No time to waste – this was a tour after all, I had had to get down the 199 steps and into town, grab my fish and chips, and be back at the bus pick-up in two hours. (provided I actually found the bus pick-up spot.) I had no time to spend reading about the history or going through the lovely museum.

Mark had warned us, no less than three times, about the 199 steps down to the town. Lucky for us, he dropped us off at the top. I don’t know if I would have attempted the ascent. But 199 steps down, when you have less than perfect knees, can be a little intimidating. Turns out I had nothing to fear. These were not Mayan ruin steps. Easy going, handrails, and magnificent views. I simply followed behind a group of folks at least 10 years older than me. I wasn’t about to complain.

Whitby is lovely, but I really wish I could have walked the streets at 6AM. It was noon and packed with people like me, there to take it all in. But never mind; I was in England, I was in a fishing village, and I was going to eat fish and chips.

There are several famous shops along the waterfront and they all had lines out the door. I do not wait in line to buy food. So I popped in a few doors down to Terry’s, (no line), and grabbed an order. The owner warned me about the aggressive seagulls and not to walk with an open food container. Mark had also warned us.

At this point I still had my bulky camera slung around my neck, small bag across my chest, backpack on back, sun visor on arm, and clutching my box of fish & chips. I wove in and out of the crowds, with a sharp eye out for an available seat and lurking seagulls.

Eventually I came to some ancient stone thing – not a proper seat, but that’s where others sat. An older, local woman seated next to me warned about the seagulls who would snatch your meal right out of your hand.

At this point, I normally would have stowed my camera and done something else with all my dangling objects, but that would entail putting my food carton down. The seagull at my feet served as a reminder to not make such a foolish attempt. So I hunched over, put my face into the carton, and ate a few bites. I came up for air and that darn seagull now took a step towards me, looking for a way to get a snack. I finally had enough of playing chicken with Mr. Seagull and got up to find another spot.

I eventually did, but will never again attempt a meal totally encumbered by belongings and fear of a seagull snatching.

Our next stop took us to the village of Goathland. The name of the town might not ring a bell, but say Hogsmeade Station, and everyone will know what you’re talking about. The Harry Potter folks filmed the kids leaving for Hogwarts at the Goathland Railway Station. The village itself featured in the long-running, (1992-2010), British police drama, Heartbeat. In the series, it is know as Aidensfield. I’d never heard of the series, but now will see if I can find it.

We had reached our final stop and it was time to head back towards York. The drive back took us through one-lane, two-way roads, and over the moors with one final chance to breath in the glorious air and let our senses become saturated with nature.

I really do need to go back to the wide open, quiet spaces. It’s only when I come back from such a day that I realize how loud a city really is. All that background noise that one tends to ignore is suddenly amplified, and I feel like my head will explode with all the pandemonium. I’m staying in for today. And maybe searching for a home in the moors.

Note: my links aren't loading. bobholidays.com
                  Whitby Abbey:   google it

25 June 2018

Roman York

Medieval is nice. Vikings are nice. Gothic is cool. But I’ll take Romans over all of them any day of the week. I can’t tell you why Romans speak to me more than many other great civilizations and periods in history. Maybe it’s the togas. Maybe the Colosseum. Honestly, who wouldn’t love a culture that had invented indoor plumbing and bath houses when much of the world was still using the local streams?

Eboracum, as the Romans called York, was founded in 71 CE, on land situated between the Rivers Ouse and Foss. The Ninth Legion did the heavy lifting, and York eventually became the capital of Britannia Inferior of the Roman Empire. The boys ruled the land until around 400 CE.

Over the weekend, I was fortunate enough to go on a walking tour “Round the Roman Fortress”, with the renowned archeologist Professor Peter Addyman. He’s been digging things up here in York and writing about it since the early 70’s. The walk had been organized by the York Civic Trust. York Civic Trust (along with about twenty other different walks all lead by specialists.)

Our group was set to meet in St Samson’s Square. I had studied my York map for two whole days before the walk. Simple: enter the walled city of York through Monkgate Bar, walk a few blocks down Goodramgate, veer right at King’s Square onto Church Street, which leads you right to said square. Possibly a ten minute walk. It took me a bit longer, but at least I only had to ask for directions one time.

With our group of about fifteen interested folks, we gathered around Professor Addyman. He told us we were, at that very moment, standing on top of part of the Roman Bathhouse. He pointed off in the distance and asked us to imagine the size of a bathhouse that could serve 5000 men. It’s times like these that I long for x-ray vision. An entire Roman garrison that housed 5000 men, lay below our feet. It boggles the mind to think about the treasures and history right under your own two feet.

At one point I asked Professor Addyman if he had the desire to simply start digging down to all the Roman-ness that lay beneath. Of course he did. If I felt the frustration in not being able to look at it all, I can just imagine what someone whose life’s work had revolved around antiquity felt like.

We then took off and followed the Professor across the square, down tiny streets, and in and out of the increasing mass of visitors enjoying the sights. I thought of taking out my camera to document our footsteps, but I did not want all the people in the shots. The plan was to go back the following day, in the early morning, and take pictures. I did that, but was not quite able to find all the bits we saw.

What I did find, were the markings Professor Addyman had shown us on the street that indicated Roman walls. This was thanks to diligent archeologists who worked with the city to ensure everyone knew where the Fortress once stood. Actually, still stands. How did they figure it out? After all, after the Romans came the Anglo-Saxons, followed by the Vikings, then came Medieval times, and so on until we get to the present day tourist spot. That’s a whole lot of years of buildings, and garbage piled one on top of another. How they do find ancient things usually happens when the builders come in.

Everywhere you dig deep enough in York, you’re bound to find something other than dirt and rocks. And if you happen to be renovating a shop, or excavating for a parking lot and run into a mysterious whatever, the experts are called in. That’s one way they have found parts of Roman walls and buildings.

We stopped in front of shops where the professor had been called in during renovations. He showed us photos of what was found. In one café, they have installed a large section of thick Plexiglas on the floor so that you can sip coffee and gaze down onto remains of Roman structures.
Roman road

On another street, where all the buildings are connected to one another, he pointed out that one building was sinking slightly to it’s right, while the adjoining one sunk left. That is because it is directly on top of a Roman wall.

Several times her pointed out a slight slope in a street, that led to a flattened area. Roman walls again. Roman concrete does not sink.  

On either side Monkgate Bar, (one of the entrances to the walled city of York that still stands), one can climb up stone steps and walk the wall. Down at street level, there is a secret, locked plywood door next to the steps. The professor had the key and led us in to a narrow patch of overgrown thistles and grass. What we now stood in front of was the longest standing exposed Roman wall in the country. (if I make historical mistakes, it’s because I did not take notes….unlike a fellow adventurer who wrote down everything in a small notebook.) And down at the bottom of this wall was the actual stamp of the Roman journeyman who had help build it a few thousand years before.

The Minster, the massive Medieval cathedral, sits atop the Roman Legion’s headquarters. It was in the courtyard in front that Constantine was proclaimed emperor in 306 CE. It is marked by a rather dashing bronze sculpture of the emperor, for which the sculptor may have taken a bit of artistic license. Professor Addyman related the story of when he saw the artist’s model for the sculpture. He noted that the sword was incorrect; that Roman swords did not have the cross-piece guard on the hilt. He assured the artist that Roman swords only employed a round ball at the gripped end. All the same, it is quite lovely. 
Constantine the Great

It truly was a fabulous walk. And again I asked myself why I had not gone into archeology. I suppose I might never have been able to decide which culture I would want to explore every day for the rest of my life. Would it be the Romans? Or maybe the Egyptians? Very possibly the Mayans.

21 June 2018

Summer Solstice in York

The plan was to get out of the house at 4AM to document Summer Solstice 2018. Why? Because I can do it here. Never before have I been in a location where the first rays of sun are apparent at 3-something AM.

I am a morning person. I get up with the sun and the birds. Perfect mornings for me begin at 5:30 AM. That happens for a few months of the year in Northern California. And then it slowly descends into the hades of late fall and Daylight Savings Time. You can imagine how thrilled I was when the sun woke me up at 4AM. The problem is, I never get enough sleep.

It also doesn’t get dark-dark until after 10:30PM. Five hours of sleep is not what my body needs. Then again, I tell myself, I don’t have to be at work, don’t have any appointments to make, and if I get a little spacey from lack of slumber, who cares?

But I do wonder if I would ever be able to adjust to minimal night-time. I had always thought that the folks up in the polar region had the best of it; nearly 24-hours of sunlight in the summer. I do well in bright sun, really well. The same cannot be said for grey skies and diminished hours of sunlight. I might be able to go to sleep at the correct hour – after all, it would be equivalent to taking an afternoon nap. It’s the early morning sun that would not allow me to stay in bed. I grew up hearing rise and shine as the early morning tinges of daylight crept though the window. I feel like a sloth if I get up by the time the sun is bright in the sky; not that I ever do that.

One has to remember that all this glorious daylight will be supplanted by an equal number of days of gloom and darkness. However little winter daylight one gets in California, it’s nothing compared to what they get in England. I won’t bother going into the climate differences and the other reasons this would not be a long-term country-of-choice. For now, it’s all about sunshine and ancient history.

All kids in America grow up reading about ancient civilizations, but it remains a completely abstract idea. If you are on the west coast, a one-hundred year old building is old. Find a coin from 1902 and you’re thrilled. I ran across an old beer can buried in the dirt a few months ago and actually saved it. And then you come to a place like York.

I am not equipped to write about the history just yet, if ever. All the bits about the city’s 2000 year history I have taken in over the past week have become a cauldron of historical data swirling around in my head. And that’s just fine with me. I know that York had Romans, and Saxons, and Vikings, and Tudors, and this church and that church, and conquerors, and tradesmen. I can’t remember if I have heard anything about witches, but I’d bet they figure in here at some point in time.

Often, when I am out walking, I come to a dead stop and gaze at the buildings and the street. I’ll touch an ancient Roman pillar and marvel that it had been carved centuries in the past. Or stare up in disbelief at the York Minster’s Great East Window – the largest medieval stained glass in the country.  It is totally incomprehensible that it could have been erected in the 15th century.

As usual, I get lost every single day wandering through the twisty turn-y streets that encompass the center of York. Possibly, if I paid more attention to where I was walking, I might get my bearings. But I am constantly distracted by the quaint buildings and cobblestone streets, and imagining the lives that have passed along these same routes for centuries.

Tonight I will be up until at least 11PM. I don’t like to miss an hour of the solstice. Maybe tomorrow I will be able to stay in bed until 6 in the morning, but I doubt it. Why waste sunlight when you don’t have to?

07 April 2017

No One Told Me About the Sex-Tourism in The DR

My trip to the Dominican Republic last November had been in the planning stages for several years. It was in the Caribbean, they spoke Spanish, and there was that huge baseball connection. What could be better?  

I’d also been paying close attention to all those find-a-home-abroad TV shows. Folks shopping for vacation homes in Punta Cana, Terranas, and Sosúa, gushed about everything the DR had to offer. And although I knew that ex-pat vacation destinations would not be for me, my research indicated that there were plenty of beach areas that would be just as lovely.
     I'd roughly planned for two weeks in the capitol; two weeks in Boca Chica checking out baseball academies and exploring a quaint beach town; and then two more weeks further down the road in Juan Dolio for a more relaxing end to my trip. Somehow, I managed to miss the caveat about sex-tourism in all three of those places.
     On my strolls around the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo, I did notice the requisite old foreign geezers with their young local babes. That was nothing new; go to a country where people make very little money and it’s a common phenomenon. My first real hint that prostitution in the DR may operate by a different standard than in other countries I knew, occurred at my hotel in the capitol.
     It was the beginning of November and the big influx of tourists would not arrive for another month. My accommodation was in a large, budget hotel, owned by an ex-pat and his Dominican wife. The owner and staff, many of whom were family, were lovely. At the time, there were only three other solo guests and two, older European couples.
     One afternoon I noticed one of the male guests sitting in the lounge with a young local woman I had never seen before. Prior to this, the man had always been by himself, reading books or checking his email in the common area. I thought nothing of it until two hours later when I saw him and the woman walk out of his room. She left the hotel and he stayed. I never saw her again and the man returned to his solitary pursuits.

     How could a respectable hotel allow hookers in the rooms? I had never seen anything like it in all my travels. In fact, one usually sees big signs stating No one other than paying guests allowed in rooms. It concerned me, but I let it go. Anyway, I’d be heading down the road in a few days.

     I already wrote about my horrible experience in the first hotel I had booked in Boca Chica, which had to do with filth and a shady locale. I stayed a whole five minutes before going to look for somewhere else. And when I found that somewhere else, I thought it was perfect. The lovely owner, a middle-aged European woman, showed me a beautiful, very reasonably priced room, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I headed back to the rat-hole to retrieve my belongings.

     When I returned with my bags, it was hard not to miss the obese 70-year-old German man in speedos sitting at a table with a young Dominican woman. By the next day, it was clear that she was his local girlfriend and living with him at the hotel. I wasn’t overly concerned; these things happen.
     It was during my second day there that I realized something was seriously amiss. Young working girls, accompanied by their handler, were let in through the front, locked gate. They then sat at a table, scrolling through their phone apps, while business was conducted between pimp and hotel customer. The chosen girl would then go up with the man to his room and reappear an hour later.
     It wasn’t like the owner didn’t know about this. She was the one to buzz in the working girls. She was the one who checked their ID’s. She was the one who greeted the pimp like an old friend. And I am sure she was the one getting a kickback from the transactions.
    As it was a small hotel, I could see a good part of the entire property from my room where I generally kept the door open during the day for ventilation. I watched the comings and goings of the men in the hotel. And they were all men. No women; no families. Among them were several other fat, old Germans in Speedos, and a group of three French men who were in Boca Chica on business. The French guys left each morning at 7am and returned 10 or 12 hours later. Two appeared to be in their 50’s and the third in his 30’s. I imagined they might be engineers working on a local project. Well, I thought, at least they aren’t buying hookers.

   The following day, the youngest French man came home with a working girl. In fact, it was a different one every night. One afternoon the man, the girl-of-the-day, and the pimp walked past my room where I was sitting in the doorway. The pimp said hello and I walked inside and left them to exchange money in front of my window.
  At least the older French men were behaving decently; or so I thought. Late one evening, all three returned to the hotel with a girl in tow. The ladies moved right into their respective rooms, there for the long haul.
  Another time, I watched as one of fat German’s in speedos sat at a table, two ladies seated on either side. The women ignored him and kept their eyes glued to their phones. The German kept trying to talk to them, but they would not respond. Granted, he did not speak Spanish and they spoke neither German nor English, but there was no attempt at communication on the women’s part. Several minutes later the owner walked by and the German looked up at her. I don’t know which one to choose, he said, as if deciding on a bottle of wine.
  It was clearly apparent that I was living in a bordello and I needed to get out. Across the street was another budget hotel that I had read about before leaving the States. It had good reviews on TripAdvisor and other sites. I do remember that the reviews had been written by families and couples, and not just men. It was worth a look. Although the rooms were not nearly as spotless and fresh as where I was staying, and they did cost a few dollars more a night, I decided it might be the best answer if I wanted to get away from the constant sex trade going on outside my room.
  After looking at several rooms, I sat down to talk to the manager. I calmly explained that I was staying at the hotel across the way and that I was having trouble accepting the to and fro of the working girls. The manager seemed shocked that prostitutes were allowed to walk into my hotel. He assured me that their gate was always locked and no hookers could come in.

  Just to make absolutely sure we were really on the same page I rephrased the question: “No prostitutes are allowed in the hotel, right?”  He responded that none could walk in off the street, but “if a client wants to bring a woman back to his room, that’s perfectly fine.”
  I then quietly and calmly began to explain that poor young women should not be exploited, that in a few years most would be hooked on drugs, dead, or whatever, and that it was a horrible situation.
  His response? “That’s your opinion.”  My response of “It is not my opinion, it’s a fact,” only got a shoulder shrug. Before leaving I asked about the place one block up that I thought was another hotel. Turns out, that one was an actual brothel.
  Although I had wanted to stay in Boca Chica and visit more baseball academies, I had reached my limit. The next day I headed down to Juan Dolio and booked into the hippie hotel.
  Like the other place I had stayed in Santo Domingo, it had only a few guests. I got a real deal on my little run-down room and kitchenette. It felt like a place I could stay for the remainder of my trip. There were five other similar rooms along the one side of the hotel and only one was occupied by a Canadian man who had been coming to the hotel for nearly twenty years. He would be there for six months and told me what a great place it was and that soon all the other rooms would be filled by returning guests to sit out the European and North American winter.  
  The man was pleasant enough and told me about how this time he had finally met an honest girlfriend. Over the next week I learned that he would arrive every year, find someone to fill his days, and then get a new someone the following season. He would be drunk most days and would often arrive back at the hotel, nearly carrying in his drunken girlfriend. She had three kids and the man provided for the family, buying food and other items. It seemed a little more tolerable to me than the nightly prostitutes, but it was still exploitation.
  I had hoped that at least the little town of Juan Dolio would offer a pleasant retreat. The problem was, it was even smaller than Boca Chica; just a few short blocks of restaurants and hotels, running along the beach. At least I was able to stroll on the beach in the early hours of the day.
  Walking along the shoreline in the morning, it was not hard to imagine what went on in the afternoons and evenings. Scores of workers combed the beach raking up mountains of trash; empty booze bottles, food containers, diapers, and much more. It might have lessened their work load had there been garbage cans anywhere on the beach.
  One morning I stopped by a coffee shop and got into a conversation with the owner, a woman who had spent her teenage years in Los Angeles. She told me that the sex worker situation had not been nearly as bad just a few years back. I mentioned the hotel in Boca Chica, the European owner, and the daily prostitute situation. She agreed that it was a sorry state of affairs, but also said that there was nothing that an owner could do about it. I glanced over at a man with a woman eating breakfast. He was in his early forties, obese, talking non-stop about his life in California, all the money he had, and what he could do for her. She smiled demurely, not understanding much of what he said.
  Although I thought I could stay in Juan Dolio at the hippie hotel for the rest of my trip, I had reached my limit of watching drunken men and their purchased companions. I even tried to find a way to change my flight home, but was unable to do so. Whatever the situation, I needed cash, which meant grabbing a gua gua down to New Juan Dolio – a few kilometers away, where there was a bank.
  When I exited the mini-van, I walked in from the main road and the first thing I noticed was a small supermarket. This had been another problem in Old Juan Dolio; there was only a tiny mini-mart. I went in, bought a few things, and asked about economical hotels in the area. I might as well see if it might be better here.
  Just around the bend, the road ran along a wide boulevard. Several massive hotel/vacation rental condos ran along the beach side and blocked most of the view to the sea. Three blocks farther along the road, and on the other side, was the hotel the supermarket lady had suggested. I walked in.
  It appeared to be quite pleasant and extended from the street all the way back to the street behind it. There were two, narrow, four story buildings in the front, and a beautifully landscaped pool and lounge area. Beyond that lay a line of small cottages. I asked about rooms and rates and was shown to a wonderful room on the third floor. From there, I could even glimpse a small spec of the ocean from between the condos across the way. I negotiated a great price for my final two weeks in the DR.
  I thought my only objection to the hotel was the booming music they played by the pool from early morning until late at night. Since I wasn’t up to lying out by the swimming hole, it only proved to be a hassle when I tried to get internet connection. (once again, there was no internet in the rooms.) It was then that I noticed the lady at the pool bar who looked to be a working girl. But the staff and owner greeted her like she was an old friend, or possibly an employee on a break. Once more, my first impression was correct. The hotel apparently employed its own good-time girl.
  It soon became apparent that prostitution was one of the activities provided by the hotel. Only at the end of my stay did I find out that the main security man at the front entrance was also the purveyor of young ladies.
  I wondered how the foreign men knew about the women for hire. I certainly hadn’t seen any sort of mention in Lonely Planet or elsewhere, and there were no signs up around the hotels. Yet within an hour of any man being at any hotel, I’d see them with a working girl.
  More confusing were the families and church groups that booked into this hotel. They didn’t seem to be bothered that little kids were swimming right next to tourists engaged in a lot of groping with rented women.
  When I got back to California, I re-checked all the travel sites I had read before leaving. I did find some bottom-of-the-page mentions of prostitution, but not much. One review on TripAdvisor for a hotel I had passed stated, “…if you don’t mind a little prostitution, this is good for a family…”   And a recent episode of House Hunters International, featured a couple looking for a condo in Sosúa, which is the sex-tourism capitol of the northern coast. The narrator actually said, “This condo is just steps from the bustling center of Sosúa’s nightlife.”  One quick internet check is all one needs to see what type of nightlife is on offer.

  I wanted so much to love the Dominican Republic. It is beautiful and the people are wonderful. But, at least for me, I was unable to ignore or escape the constant reminder of young women being exploited by foreign men.

10 December 2016

The Cigar Factory

Although purchasing cigars was on my list of things to do in the DR, I found myself running out of time, stuck in a mini-hamlet, and having no idea where to go or what to buy.

Sr, Rodriguez & flying fingers
In my trips to Mexico, it had been easy enough to find cigar vendors and wade through the various sales pitches until I found a seemingly reputable, knowledgeable source. Maybe if I had still been in the capitol,I could have done that in the DR. But I wasn’t. Fortunately for me, I found a fellow traveler who seemed well acquainted with the local product. He would accompany me to San Pedro de Macoris.

Where they make them
The city of San Pedro is known for the large number of MLB players who hail from the area. For me, it was also that elusive city where the big things happened. In Boca Chica and Juan Dolio I would ask about a larger market, you have to go to San Pedro.  What about a post office? In San Pedro.  Is there anywhere I can get a light bulb, only in San Pedro.

Driving into town, I realized that I probably should have hopped on a gua gua, (mini-bus), and made a visit at an earlier date. It was a real city that one could explore. We drove past a beautiful old church and streets lined with old architecture; just the type of place I like to mosey around in. Then again, I wasn’t sure if that was something I should do on my own. Since arriving, locals had made a point of telling me not to walk around any area other than the designated tourist spots. Whether or not that was really the case, for the first time in my life I did very little exploring.

The Doña Dorada Cigar factory has been in business for 101 years., and is still family owned and operated. I believe there is a larger factory elsewhere, but the one in downtown San Pedro was more than enough to give one a very well-informed lesson on how the cigars are made.

Sr. Elpidio Rodríguez, great-grandson of the founder, greeted me at the door and soon returned to making cigars. I tried to keep up with his flying hands as he whipped a stogie into shape, walked it over to a press, put the final wrap on a different cigar, and most likely did ten other things that I couldn’t keep up with. (note the blurred pictures…. I did not move; that was rapid-fire-cigar rolling.) I asked about the individual tobacco leaves and he explained that they must age four years before they can be used. That still does not make sense to me, even though I asked him twice to make sure I had heard him correctly.

It was evident that the cigar making equipment was 101 years old. Wooden work stations, wooden cigar forms and drying racks. The presses were of steel, but appeared equally antique. After watching Sr. Rodriguez work, I wondered how automated cigar rolling could ever compete with what he was doing.

When he had finished off his work, he led me to the room with shelves of cigars, sorted into various sizes. I asked about the differences between sizes. Did they taste differently? He explained that there were only two flavors; strong and suave. The different sizes were a matter of preference. Did I want ones the size of cigarettes, or the Winston Churchill big boys? Considering these were going to large men, I chose the Churchills'.

Suddenly, it was time to go. I could have stayed another hour talking to Sr. Rodriguez, but my ride back to Juan Dolio was ready to go and I know I'd never find my way back to the bus stop.
The final product

I never did get back to explore San Pedro, but it is something I should have done. Maybe next time.

30 November 2016

I'm back!!! will post soon

Just got my travel blog back after loosing it the day after I got to the DR. Challenging trip,to say the least. Thank you Mishka at blogger! I'm typing on a tiny phone so this is all for now. Kate

24 October 2016

Once Again on the Road

I was beginning to wonder if I had lost my travel mojo; that innate ability to jump on a plane, fly to a never-before-been-to country, and hit the ground running. The night before I left for The Dominican Republic, I sat on the couch, looked at my over-stuffed suitcase, and seriously questioned just what the heck I was doing. It’s not like I recently won the lottery or sold a thousand books – although I did just have highest sales month ever, so what was I doing flying off to an island in the Caribbean?
By the time the airport shuttle picked me up all my doubts were forgotten. But then there was the journey itself. Even though the total flight time was a mere nine hours, I swear this trip was nearly as bad as flying all the way to South East Asia. The actual time on the plane was nowhere near as horrendous, but the after effects were absolutely worse.
First there was the woman who shared the airport shuttle who, for some reason, thought that drenching herself in patchouli oil was what one did before flying on a jam-packed airplane. As soon as she popped in the van, I through my scarf over my nose and the driver rolled down both windows, which he kept open on the freeway and over the bridge. I survived without getting a migraine, but I wondered what would happen to all her fellow passengers on the flight over to London.
Then there was the security screening. When did it become such a nightmare? Two years ago, they searched and scanned and questioned as much as they do now, but I don’t remember it taking that long. This time, it took about an hour and a half, filing through a never ending loop-d-loop line. Stupidly, I dumped my water at the beginning of the line because a sign told me to. An hour into the wait, I started to fell dehydrated, claustrophobic, dizzy-ish, and wondered if passing out would speed up the process. I honestly don’t know if I will be able to tolerate that again. Maybe check in at 2am and crash out in the waiting room overnight.
The flight from San Francisco to Mexico City, a mere four hours, was especially comfortable because I had three seats all to myself. It was an uneventful flight, and since I had never been to Mexico City, I loved looking down on the millions of sparkling nighttime lights that went on and on and on.
We were about two minutes from touchdown when suddenly the engines roared and the plane shot straight up in the air at quite a steep angle. No one panicked, and I assumed we weren’t being hijacked because that would have happened at altitude. But when the plane finally leveled out, and it felt like we were on our way to Cuba, I questioned my original assumption. The pilot eventually came on and explained that some other plane had been parked in our runway. How close a call that was, or who was in error, I’ll never know, but I did enjoy this new experience.
Once through Mexican customs and back into the waiting lounge for another three hours until my next flight, I realized I needed to eat something more than the soggy croissant with Velveeta I’d been fed on the way down from SFO. It was when I was traipsing through the Mexico City airport, trying to find food that cost less than $15, when it struck me that I was hauling around way too much weight.

When the heck was it that I decided that a roll-on carryon was not the way to go, and had opted for a laptop backpack? It’s not like I am getting any younger, and it’s not like my funky knee is getting any better, yet here I was burdened with 15 extra pounds in backpack weight and 5 more in my purse. (Which makes me sound like a real wimp. I can easily carry 20 extra pounds, but parts of my body strongly object.)  Added to that, I had spent the previous two days working in the garden and hauling stuff around. My knee was a wreck.
Trying my best to ignore all that, I grabbed a reasonably priced cheese sandwich at Starbucks and headed over to wait for my plane. As someone who needlessly worries about being at the wrong gate, I checked with knowledgeable personnel several times. On the final check, I was told that no, my flight was not leaving at Gate 58, but at Gate 71, at a completely different wing. I took off for said gate, walking like a 92 year-old, and swearing a blue-streak inside my head every time my right foot hit the ground.
I finally got there and grabbed a seat. And then the lady directly behind me started hacking loudly. Germ-a-phobe that I am, I got up and found another spot. But then the guy across from me appeared to have a fatal disease. He had a washcloth over his mouth and was coughing and sneezing and blowing his nose, sweating profusely, and looked like he should have been hospitalized. This musical chairs game went on several more times before I finally just stood at the entrance to the gate. It appeared that fully one-third of my fellow passengers were not at all well.
By now, I was seriously limping and guess I look old enough that no one questions if I ask to pre-board. (of course, I always go on after the babies and wheelchairs.) Once settled in, I waited for the other passengers to board. I nervously watched as the deathly ill man strode down the aisle and sat in the seat in front of me. Great. Four hours with the bubonic plague within spitting distance. But no one was next to me and the seats behind were empty, so I was able to move back one row….until the sick guy moved into my original seat. I wrapped my scarf around my nose and hoped my generally excellent immune system was up to the task of fighting off airborne bacteria.
I won’t bother mentioning the seven drunken 40-something-year-olds because they finally stopped hooting and hollering and fell asleep.
It was 6am when I got off the plane and headed into the Santo Domingo airport. A few steps inside, and I realized I was really in my beloved tropics. I stood still, closed my eyes, and breathed in that wonderful humid air…even if it was tinged with a bit of jet fuel. Customs was a snap, and then it was outside to get a taxi. A lovely drive into town, with my own personal tour guide.
Back in the good old days, when I had even less money and there was no internet, I’d get a ride into town and start looking for cheap digs. This time, after much research, I booked a place online. It was double what I am usually willing to pay, but I wanted to be in the Colonial Zone and not worry about a thing for a few days. It turned out to be nice enough and the people here are great, but even if I had all the money in the world, two days would be enough. Sometime after taking a shower and trying to get some sleep, (which was not something I had done much of in the previous day or two), I started to once again question what the heck was I doing here.
I went out for a walk in a sleep-deprived, food-deprived state, and immediately saw why everyone loves this country and the colonial zone, which I will write more about at a later date. But I basically felt like crap. I’d gone without sleep and food before and there was only a three hour time difference. What was up? I bought some horrible food at a restaurant, but had a lovely chat with the waiters. I then went back to the hotel and tried to search for other hotels so that I could visit them today.

Oopps….the internet connection does not work in my room. Between sitting on the floor in the outside hall, and checking with hotel names I had jotted down before leaving, and then trying to find them on a teeny-tiny map, I was set to explore come morning.
I woke up today feeling fairly refreshed, ate breakfast, packed up my list and went in search of housing. It turns out my travel mojo hadn’t left me. I not only found a great place, I found a fantastic place! It’s like it fell out of the sky for me. It may have been a 24-hour delay, but I still have it in me to hit the ground at a fast pace. Thank goodness! I was seriously starting to worry.
The Spanish is also starting to kick in. Blabbermouth Kate says hi to everyone she passes and comments on their cute kids; which really doesn’t do much for fluency. However, can’t-tell-left-from-right Kate constantly gets turned around and needs to ask for directions. I’ve talked to dozens of policemen and army guys and waiters, who very kindly and slowly, tell me which way to go. I sometimes get sidetracked, and then just ask another lovely local. Today when I got twisted around, (and for the life of me, I have no idea how I did so because I swear I was on the same street the whole time), I stopped in front of some official building. I said to the young military man, Can you help me? I’m lost again. To which he replied, You were lost, now you’re not!  He might have reserved that comment had he seen me five minutes later asking for directions again. If I just had a map, none of this would be quite so bad.   

The stars are aligning and this is set to be one wonderful adventure!
(Better pictures, with more explanations to come. need to get this up before I loose the connection again)