Author Archives: toothontheloose

A Visit to San Marcos Abajo School

My favorite part of every Honduras trip with CapeCARES is our school visit.  We try to rotate schools every year so we are reaching a different group of students.  Last March, our team traveled to the Isletas School, but this year we stayed a little closer, heading off right after breakfast mid-week to visit the San Marcos Abajo (lower) School since we were staying in the upper (Arriba) region of the village.

Most of us decided to go on foot, running into some students who were also on the way to school.
  

Walking along the road also gave us a chance to get a closer look at some of the sights we might miss from a speeding truck:
 

A cashew plant growing over the road


I wonder if this was one of the little piggies I saw on our hike earlier in the week. He seems to know his way around!


 

A local man from San Marcos posed with his beautifully groomed horse.

As usual, there was pandemonium when we arrived at the school.  Don’t you remember the excitement of getting a visitor when you were in grade school?  The teachers assembled the students into lines (except for the older boys, who coolly decided to hang out in the back), welcomed us, and then organized a little performance for us:

 
I liked to dance along to the music, which made a lot of the kids giggle.  (I know they’re laughing at me.  It’s ok.  I have no shame). I also recognized a young boy whose tooth I had extracted the day before. When I asked in Spanish how he was feeling today, he gave me a shy smile and wave and answered that everything was good.

Next, it was time to provide quick lessons in oral hygiene.  I willingly handed over this job, which I have done for the past two years, to Josh, who gave excellent brushing instructions in his neon pink Kevin Bacon shirt :).  As he spoke, we distributed toothbrushes to each of the students.  Then Okie talked for a bit about handwashing, hydration, and nutrition.

Josh giving brushing lessons while Gabriel translates


 

Everyone have a toothbrush?


 

Okie speaking to the kids while Monica translates



Once our home care instructions were done, we split up into teams to apply fluoride varnish to the kids’ teeth.  This went quickly because we had so many volunteers from our group helping out.


 

Once the varnish applications were complete, we  said our goodbyes and continued down the road.  Team leader Randy thought it was important for all the team members to visit part of the local village to see how our patients live.  While we were visiting, the medical team made a few house calls to homes with elderly residents who couldn’t make it up the road to our temporary clinic.   One man who lived in a very basic lean-to comprised of narrow logs was in extremely dire condition:  the physicians determined that he was suffering from congestive heart failure and there was nothing that could be done to save him.  He died the next day.   

    

With our house calls complete, it was time to get back to clinic and start seeing patients again.  We crammed as many of us as possible into the bed of the truck to speed up the return trip to San Marcos Arriba.     

Something tells me that if this guy says you should brush, you listen to him!

On our way back up the road, we passed again by the school, and I saw something that made me cry out in excitement:  the little kids were brushing their teeth! Yay!!!

 
And so ended another San Marcos school visit. I hope that the children will take some of our messages to heart and that we can make a positive impact on their health and quality of life.

For more information on our CapeCARES group, please visit www.capecares.com.

Categories: CapeCARES, dental, honduras, san marcos, Uncategorized, volunteer | 2 Comments

Our friends in San Marcos:  A photo essay

A picture is worth a thousand words, and since I have hundreds of photos, I’ll spare you several hundred thousand words and just share some pictures of the lovely people that we visit every year in San Marcos, Honduras. Our military guards liked to pose for “friendly tough guy” shots. Most of the photos of me confirm my status as The Biggest Woman in San Marcos:  Note that for this shot, Teresa and Tomasa are standing on the porch while I stand on the ground.  I greatly prefer this to my Xena, Warrior Princess vibe in the other photos: There are usually a ton of kids waiting outside the gate of the complex (often asking for toothbrushes.  Or more toothbrushes.  Or sunglasses.  Or anything, really).  But this particular group really liked to take photos  -especially silly poses- and check them out on my camera. Of course, I cannot forget to post a photo of David, my favorite little guy in the village.  He has grown up so much in the past two years.  This year, he was often spotted borrowing his dad’s hat and wearing the white tank-and-jeans outfit that his dad typically sports. David has also learned how to dance.  Many nights, he would listen to music on his dad’s cell phone and do his own little salsa moves:

Sometimes I tried to get his attention by dancing along with him.   One evening, I stood a distance away on the porch, doing the chicken dance (“como un pollo!“) and imitating his air guitar moves.  His mouth hung open as he watched me with suspicion and his dad laughed.  I soon noticed that I had a much larger audience:  on the far side of the fence, a group of spectators from the village had gathered to watch me and were roaring with laughter, firmly cementing my reputation in San Marcos as “that big pale dentist who is 100% out of her mind.”

I went with it:  the next morning, I taught all the ladies working in the kitchen how to do the chicken dance.

Categories: honduras, san marcos | 1 Comment

It’s March: time for San Marcos!

This year marked my third trip to Honduras volunteering with CapeCARES.  It has come to feel like a tradition, like something that I just naturally do this time of year.  With any luck, I will be able to continue these trips in the future.  I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go this year, but after reviewing my finances and happily discovering that I still had enough saved to cover the cost of the trip (see, being frugal has its benefits!), I signed up with CapeCARES in January.  Unfortunately, March is high season for travel to Central America, between all the volunteer brigades, college spring break-ers, and people in northern states desperate to escape the lingering winter weather for a few days, and this was reflected in the prices of airfare to Tegucigalpa.  Yikes.  My choices were either shelling out over $800 for a flight to Tegus (absolutely not!) or paying less but connecting not once, but twice in the US (again, after my missed-connection and delayed baggage debacle last year, absolutely not).  So I devised a plan C:  flying into San Pedro Sula, Honduras (frequently awarded the moniker “Murder Capital of the World”) and taking the bus down to Tegucigalpa.  Even including the price of a round–trip bus ticket and accommodation before and after arrival, this was a savings of several hundred dollars.

This was also the first year that I attempted to take only a carry-on with me.  Ahhh, such a luxury not to have to worry about losing checked bags!  I landed in San Pedro Sula, flew through customs, marched directly over to an ATM, bought two baleadas for lunch and a Honduran SIM card for my phone from the Tigo lady, and soon was on board the Hedman Alas bus en route to Tegus.  I like being able to look out the windows, which is not as scenic from a plane!  The bus was over an hour late arriving into the capital, and the cab that I had arranged was not there.  Arriving after dark to a locked bus station made me VERY thankful that I had a cell phone.  I called my hostel to rearrange the cab pickup, and my driver was even nice enough to swing through a drive-thru -at no extra charge- so that I could get dinner (more bean-and-cheese baleadas;  I had given up meat for Lent 😉 ).

The next morning, I hailed a cab to the airport to meet my team.  The regulars were there:  Randy, Gordon, Helena, Warren, and Diane, as well as a slew of new volunteers:  physicians Bill, Susie, and Okechukwu (whose name we immediately shortened to Okie for simplicity), midwife Meredith, dentist Josh and his wife Jessica, and two high school students, Gabriel and Monica, as well as her mother Maria Elena, all of whom would serve as our translators.  I sat with Gabriel at the restaurant at the airport, eating my rice and beans.  “So you go to the Discovery School, ” I asked him.  “Do you know Cati?” mentioning a volunteer student from my first trip two years ago.  She and I have kept in touch and even met up once for dinner in Washington, DC, where she is now studying.  “Uh, yeah, ” Gabi responded.  “She’s my sister.”  No way!  Small world!

Once we were met by our military guards, we split up into trucks to begin the ride to Nacaome, where we would stay overnight.  We usually try to avoid driving at night for security reasons.  I was happy to be driving through the countryside again.

We enjoyed a relaxing evening at the pool at our hotel in Nacaome, then loaded the trucks back up the next morning to continue to San Marcos.  Some of us decided to walk down the road to the gas station to pick up snacks (and a bottle of wine) for the week.

We drove on to Langue, the last major town along the paved road, where they were having their Sunday  market.  Then it was onto the bumpy dirt road, my favorite part of the journey.

Before long, we were passing through the gates of the compound where we stay in San Marcos.  We greeted all of the familiar faces of the village and immediately began setting up for the week. This year, we hung up bedsheets over the porch that we use as our dental clinic: this not only blocks out the intense morning sun from our workspace, but an additional sheet also provided a bit more privacy while we worked. Normally, I sit on the corner of the porch, in view of all those waiting for appointments as well as the people congregating outside the gate.  With a sheet in place, it was like having my own private operatory :).

This space becomes our medical clinic, pharmacy, and dining room.

Step into my office.

Bill and Monica with their young patient

Warren checking blood pressure

Okie and Maria Elena giving a consultation

Meredith awaiting the next script to fill in pharmacy.

Diane, working hard in pharmacy.

Randy, Gordon, and Helena at work in dental.

Josh and Jessica treating their dental patient

Juan Carlos assisting in dental (with a patient who’s ready to go!)

As always, the women of the village provided us with three delicious meal a day.  Eating temporarily vegetarian was not an issue for me this year, since many of our meals are bean- or egg-based as it is.  And they are drool-worthy!

In past years, the weather during the day was hot but became dramatically cooler at night.  My first year, I was so  underprepared for the nighttime chill that I had to ask someone in the village for a thick blanket by the second night.  This was not the case this year.  Although the wind was so intense that at times we were afraid that our equipment would blow over in the night, the heat was oppressive:  I typically would lie in spread eagle position on my sleeping pad, trying not to make contact between any of my sweaty limbs until I had cooled off enough to crawl into my sleep sack and fall asleep.  I have gotten San Marcos sleep down to a science:  with ear plugs firmly in place, I am now impervious to the loudest of nighttime roosters and barking dogs.

The ladies’ dorm room (a bit of a squeeze this year!)

Since the snowy Ohio weather had prevented me from getting much outdoor exercise this winter, I reveled in Gordon and Warren’s early morning hikes.  My favorite memory from these excursions was standing in the middle of the woods and hearing a series of little grunts and snorts.  Then one, two, three hairy little brown piglets appeared in a line, trotting their way down the hill, across the path, and up the opposite slope to a village. They knew exactly where they were going.

After a busy and successful volunteer week in San Marcos, we packed up our trucks and drove off to see another side of Honduras.  More on our continued travels in a future post!

Categories: CapeCARES, dental, honduras, san marcos, tegucigalpa, volunteer | Leave a comment

  If you’re going to San Francisco…

My friend Jill picked me up from the train station at Santa Clara University and we headed back to her home in Sunnyvale.  Jill and I were activity buddies in Boston.  We were in the same Saturday morning running club there and met in a triathlon training group.  She even carpooled with and raced along side me during my first ever Olympic distance tri.  Unlike me, though, Jill has actual athletic skill:  she placed third in our age group, while by the time I finished the race, they had already run out of bottled beverages and were tearing down the transition area.   I missed my sports and hiking buddy when she moved to California several years ago, so I was looking forward to spending some time with her.

This may be the only existing photo of me and Jill where we are not wearing athletic apparel.

Also unlike me at the moment (ahem), Jill is employed, so she would not be available until the evenings to hang out.  This was just as well on my first day in town, because I woke up feeling terrible (stupid train germs!) and ended up staying in and sleeping for much of the day.   Much improved after my rest, I took a long walk to the closest Caltrain station in nearby Mountain View, where I caught the train to Palo Alto to meet Jill after work.

Quaint little plaza at the Mountain View Caltrain station.

The platforms were packed with workers returning home from their jobs at Google, Yahoo!, and the like.

Pretty cool double-decker train with second-floor single seating.

The next day was super exciting because I would be meeting up with another pair of friends:  Lynn and Garrett, whom I met while on the Camino in Spain!

They had planned a day trip to Sausalito, which is over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County.

 

We used the ride from Sunnyvale to SF to catch up on things, then parked in a garage downtown and walked to the Ferry Terminal.  I got really pumped up because there were all these great Asian food vendors.  It had been just over a month and a half since I returned from Asia, and I had been going through major pan-Asian food withdrawal.  I bought a steamed pork bun and a hot Hong Kong milk tea to accompany me on the ferry ride.

We could see Candlestick Park, slated for upcoming demolition, from the highway.

The San Francisco Giants now play at AT&T Park downtown.

Driving along the Embarcadero

“But isn’t Rice-a-Roni ‘The San Francisco Treat?'” “It *was.* They’re changing their image.”

The Ferry Building

 

I saw this monument and thought, "What a coincidence!  That looks like someone who is walking the Camino!"

I saw this monument and thought, “What a coincidence! That looks like someone who is walking the Camino!”

Except it was Gandhi.  Oops.  :)

Except it was Gandhi. Oops. 🙂

The warm San Francisco weather was blowing my mind.  Hadn’t I just been wearing double layers of pants in Chicago a few days earlier?  Even though the nights did get chilly, I was perfectly comfortable in a sweater as we sat on the sunny deck of the ferry.

Once in Sausalito, we headed to one of Garrett’s favorite restaurants on the water:  The Trident, which was originally opened by the Kingston Trio in the ’60s as a bar-restaurant and music venue.  They still have a lot of funky artwork and music paraphernalia.  In other words, my kind of place :).

We decided to take a later ferry back to the city in order to have more time to explore.  Sausalito is such a cute little town, and we spent a good chunk of time in a shop filled with framed black-and-white photos of everything from Humphrey Bogart to classic cars to Major League Baseball teams.  Our return ferry left at the perfect time to get some beautiful sunset views of the Bay Area.

Alcatraz in the distance

Since we wouldn’t really have enough time to do Lynn and Garrett’s renowned walking tour of San Francisco, we took the scenic route in the car through the city, a journey made substantially more scenic and long-lasting due to the discovery of several roadblocks:  here, President Obama was in town.

It’s kind of bizarre to see Chinatown in a US city after having recently been in China. But the good news is that it makes authentic food that much easier to access!

My first ever backpack- and blister-free day of walking with Lynn and Garrett was a blast.  I am so grateful for their unfailing support and encouragement on the Camino and for their continued friendship.

On my last day in California… I got lazy.  I had considered taking a train into downtown SF to see a new Patttie Boyd rock art exhibit until I realized that it would take me three hours (between walking and trains) to get there.  Yeahhh, no thanks.  Instead, I took a leisurely walk back up to Mountain View, explored a bit (there was an optometrist’s office called Site for Sore Eyes that I thought was particularly clever), and worked on my blog.  Jill met up with me for a fun Mexican dinner, and then it was time to head to the airport.  In less than 24 hours, I went from this:

This was in someone’s *front yard.*

to this:

WHAT THE HECK??? Wait, we’ve LANDED? Why don’t I see ground?

Near whiteout airport conditions. Welcome back to Cleveland, Beck.

This coast-to-coast train journey was an incredible adventure.  It made me realize that for as much as I enjoy international travel, my own country is just as remarkable and diverse and worth exploring.  And I could not be more appreciative of all my friends, both old and new, who share it with me and allow me to see it in a new way.

Now… where to next?

Categories: california, ferry, san francisco, sausalito | 2 Comments

California, here I come

Note:  this post is going to have a LOT of photos.  Choosing between the bazillion shots that I took while on the most scenic train ride of my life has proven to be more difficult than I thought.  So my apologies if this post takes forever to load on your computer or device!

Right as I was boarding the train in Denver early Saturday morning and sorting away my luggage , a jovial, 50-something-year-old African-American man in a baseball cap approached my seat.  “Well, it’s about time!” he cheerfully said to me.  “I had just been askin’ the Lord to give us some eye candy on this train, and he has answered my prayers!”  Not exactly sure how to respond to this gentleman caller (what do you say after being referred to as “eye candy”?),  I smiled, thanked him, and awkwardly returned his enthusiastic high-five.

If the population of the train from Chicago to Denver was mostly leisure travelers, the group from Denver to Emeryville, CA took that and raised it to the level of Full-Fledged Train Geeks.  Almost everyone that I met that first day, even if that person was traveling for work, was taking the train because they loved trains.  There were many conversations in the observation car – a hopping place on this scenic route- about previous long-distance journeys and future dream trips.

As the train left Denver, the course was flat, then started to slowly gain elevation, zigzagging its way toward the distant mountains.  Every one of us was chomping at the bit in the observation car, cameras in hand.

At the table, eating my oatmeal and coffee, I was seated across from a young woman.  Her name was Shelby, and she had recently made the decision to leave her small hometown in Iowa and start a life for herself somewhere out west. As we exchanged travel stories, she was impressed by the long list of places that I have seen, but I was even more amazed at the sheer gutsiness of this 20-year-old to just buy a one-way train ticket and head off on her own!  I would never have been brave enough to do that at her age!

Passing through consecutive tunnels, we watched as the landscape turned white with snow.

Passing through all of these quaint little ski towns made me want to get off the train and hit the slopes myself!

I’ve been to the desert through a town with no name. 😉

Soon we were seeing signs for “a place where the beer flows like wine. Where women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano. I’m talking about a little place called Assss-pennnn.”

Every so often, the train would make a 10-minute stop and allow the passengers off for a stretch of the legs and some “fresh air,” which contradictingly was thick with cigarette smoke.  Glenwood Springs was one of the most scenic stops.

The train continued along the Colorado River through mountain passes.  What I love about these routes is that there is really no other way to see them except by train.  There are no other roads.  Passing through is like discovering a hidden treasure.

(I really wanted to post a video here from Gore Canyon, but it is refusing to upload either from my home or from either of two different Paneras.  So I think this is a no-go.  Sorry).

Slowly the snow began to dissipate as we approached Colorado’s western edge.  The gray peaks became a  blend of oranges and reds.We stopped for about half an hour for a streching break in Grand Junction while the train restocked and had a staff change.  I took this as an opportunity to check out the old station nearby and wander around the block.  Across the street, I could see a Pawn and Loan with snowy peaks in the distance.  The dilapidated old station was a sad sight:  what was once a beautiful structure had fallen into severe disrepair over the last 40 years.  The art deco arches were crumbling, the old Pufferbelly Station sign was faded and chipping, and wooden boards had been nailed behind the jagged glass of the windows.  I overheard someone say that the property was $300,000 to buy but would cost over $1 million to renovate.  Although it seems doubtful now, I hope that someday the station can be restored to its historic grandeur.

The modern Grand Junction Amtrak station

Entrance to the historic station

Back aboard the train, we piled back into the observation car, where one of the Amtrak staff members was serving as a tour guide.  He knew the route like the back of his hand and pointed out all sorts of landmarks and interesting sites, from the hillside “graffitti” marking the border between Colorado and Utah to the rock formation known as the Three Sisters to the barely-visible rocky arch from Arches National Park in the distance. Also noted but not part of the official tour was a naked man hitting golf balls off a nearby plateau!

Entering Utah

Our “tour guide”

Along this river were several canoes and kayaks, who know to expect the train at this hour. It is customary for the boaters to either wave to or moon the train. 😉

Zoom-in of the Three Sisters

During the time between the “tour’s” end and dinner, I sat in a single seat in the observation car, listening to my ChooChoo! Mix on shuffle and recording the song titles for a later blog post.  This looked somewhat obsessive-compulsive, I’m sure (What, me?  With OCD?  Never!) and piqued the interest of two of my fellow passengers.  Justin lives in Brooklyn but was traveling to a conference in Salt Lake City;  James lives in the southeast and was heading to San Jose for a work meeting but had decided to take the train.  He was one of the few passengers I met who had splurged on a roommette.  We were all green with envy, notably Shelby, who had grown so disgusted with her overnight-from-Iowa-train-hair that she had given up and washed it with considerable effort in the sink of the moving train.  The guys were excellent company, and they joined me and Shelby for a incredibly fun meal in the dining car.

The following morning, I woke up bleary-eyed to the sight of the Nevada desert.  Within minutes,  my Gentleman Caller approached me from down the aisle.  “Has anyone ever told you that God made you perfection? You are just perfect.”  I was half asleep and still wearing my mouthguard, with matted overnight train hair and the remnants of eye crusties still behind my glasses.  To each his own, I guess.

We were not far from Reno, where a large number of passengers disembarked and an even greater number boarded.  The route between Reno and Californbia is quite popular as a short trip, as was evidenced by the several groups of friends who boarded after their Reno getaway, including a gaggle (I call them this because they were as collectively noisy as a bunch of geese and complained just as much) of well-dressed gray-haired ladies.  I did not get to see much of Reno as the train travels beneath the city.

Back in the observation car, I enjoyed my last oatmeal-and-coffee breakfast.  The cafe car attendant had for some reason grown to dislike me.  The day before, when I had asked for a cup of hot water (free, but after which I always tipped him), he had accused, “You know, you’re going to have to stop using so many cups!  There won’t be enough for the other people on the train!  Once we’re out, we’re out!”  (I had used two).  Not wanting to incur his wrath again, I saved my cup for reuse throughout the day, still tipping every time. That morning, when I offered him my cup and asked for a water, he scowled and shook his head in irritation as he returned it to me. It’s a cup of water, for crying out loud!

This second and final train day was a real treat, as volunteers boarded the train to serve as docents and read information about key points along the routes.  As we curled through another mountain pass, a gray pall was cast over the entire landscape.  Through the gloom, the bleak, colorless vegetation was covered in frost that looked like a fine layer of ash.  It felt like rolling through a graveyard.

Truckee, California: another pit stop

Our first view of the infamous Donner Pass. Almost as impressive as my nonexistent view of Vesuvius last year.

The mist cleared *just* before we left the pass, giving us a brief glimpse of Donner Lake.  The area is named after the Donner Party, a group of settlers from the Midwest who became stranded here in 1846 and were forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive.  (Whether or not they ate Robin’s minstrels and subsequently rejoiced has yet to be determined).

The cute little town of Colfax. I would love to come back here and look around someday.

And to see The Goonies on the big screen!

Shelby was beside herself with excitement at seeing her first palm trees.

As we continued deeper into California, the mountains tapered down annd we entered a lush green agricultural area.  I learned that much of the country’s produce comes from this region.  Among others, we passed farms for California raisins, almonds, oranges, as well as fields of dairy cows.  Because you know, the best cheese comes from happy cows ;).

It’s log! It’s log! It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood! It’s log! It’s log! It’s better than bad; it’s good!

The fields soon became logged (haha, see what I did there?) with water, and entire roads alongside the tracks looked impassable.  A house made of wooden planks with a sign saying “BANJO LESSONS HERE” stood on stilts over the marshy ground outside of Davis, CA.

Before too long, the first glimpses of the coast came into view.  The tracks abutted the shoreline, and we crossed the bridge into Martinez, the last major stop before Emeryville.

And then in the far distance came the sight which meant that my transcontinental journey had come to an end:

At 3:05 pm, over an hour early, our train arrived in Emeryville, CA.  I had made it coast to coast.

James helped me take some celebratory photos at the station.  (Excellent camera work, James!) Both of us would be taking a later train, the Capitol Corridor, further south, but we had over an hour until the next scheduled train. James checked his luggage, and we explored the neighborhood looking for a bite to eat and a beer.  Sadly, this place wouldn’t be opening until 4pm:

James, looking thoughtful over Italian beer and Indian takeout.

Right on time, we boarded the Capitol Corridor and headed south through Oakland toward San Jose.  My ultimate train journey was now complete, but more fun awaited.  My friend Jill would be picking me up at the Santa Clara University stop, and next few days would be spent exploring Silicon Valley and San Francisco.  I couldn’t wait.

Categories: amtrak, california, colorado, emeryville, nevada, san francisco, Train, utah | 4 Comments

A Rocky Mountain High:  My Weekend in Boulder

Megan met me inside the train station with a huge hug.  You may remember Megan from such previous stories as “Adventures in Guatemalan Karaoke” and “How I Almost Passed Out at Palm Sunday Mass.”  She was a fellow Spanish student while I was staying in San Pedro de Atitlán last spring, and we have kept in touch over the last year.

And here she is with Ken from Chicago!

We threw my luggage in the car and headed to Boulder, only about a 40-minute drive away, where Megan lives with her husband, Craig.  It was my first time driving near the Rockies, and the scenery was breathtaking.

But first, let’s take another look at the awesome Denver station sign!

The drive to Boulder. Warm weather and no local snow in sight.

After showering away the grunginess from my overnight train ride, Megan and I returned to the car along with her dog Jameson and another little cutie, JTag, whom Megan was pet-sitting for the weekend.  We took advantage of the beautiful weather and headed to the park, where Megan’s friends slack-lined, the dogs looked on, and I promptly passed out on my sarong on the ground.  Perhaps I had not slept as well as I thought on the train!

Happy dogs looking forward to the park

Megan and JTag

JTag, all smiles, as Meggie tries to stay on her slackline

Afterwards, we dropped off the dogs and stopped downtown for margaritas and nachos.  Sadly, neither the view from the rooftop deck nor the cool weather could keep me awake, so we stayed in the rest of the night watching movies.  I promised that I would have more energy after a real night’s sleep that was NOT in a moving vehicle.

Jordan, Megan, and Craig (and a devoured margarita)

The rooftop deck of Rio at dusk

The next morning, I felt 100% better.  Megan and I had decided to make a day of free factory tours.  We started off in Boulder at the Celestial Seasonings tea factory.  Megan has done this MANY times but still welcomes the opportunity to take another tourist friend there, because hey, free tea!  Delicious!

We were checked in at the front desk and given a packet of tea as our “ticket.”  Inside is a gallery with all of the whimsical framed artwork used on the tea packages as well as a tea bar, where you can sample as many cups as you want of any of Celestial Seasonings’ dozens of flavors.  Yum.

Vicious prarie dogs guard the entrance with ugly, big pointy teeth;)

Hee hee. So cute.

Mandatory start-of-tour photo

Part of the artwork in the gallery. Reminds me of a challenge on Project Runway.

The tea bar. I had no idea there were this many flavors. I tried to pick the unusual ones.

Once we put on our hair nets (super classy)  and watched a short video, we were taken through a tour of the facility.  There was no production happening that day since it was a Sunday, but it was still really interesting to walk through the warehouse and get whiffs of all the different ingredients as you walked along.  First peach, then chamomile, then maybe licorice root or vanilla.  Megan’s absolute favorite is The Peppermint Room:  because of the strength of the mints’ oils, CS has to keep all of the peppermint, spearmint, and catnip (apparently this is also in the mint family.  Ya learn something new every day!) sequestered in a separate room of the warehouse to prevent scent and flavor contamination of the other ingredients.  Upon entering the room, it took about 30 seconds for the pleasant but potent minty smell to clear our sinuses and make ours eyes water.  Mmm…hurts so good!

After some  time in the Celestial Seasonings gift shop and a stop in Boulder for a snack, we hit the highway for Golden, going from bear hug…

image

…to beer hug.

Although it was late in the afternoon, we were able to make it into one of the last tour groups of the Coors Brewery.   I have done brewery tours before (hello, Sam Adams!), but never one on this grand a scale.  I love the warm, earthy smell of brewing beer.  And the best part:  a few free samples at the end.  Megan travels extensively (she and her husband recently returned from Sri Lanka, India, and the Maldives on their honeymoon.  Girl puts me to shame!), and apparently, so did our Coors bartender, so we practically closed down the bar talking like the travel fangirls that we are :).

After returning to downtown Boulder for dinner, we made it home to find Megan’s cat Oliver in a comfortable new spot:

Puss in (my) Boots

We woke up at the crack of dawn on Monday so that I could catch my train from Denver to Emeryville, CA, the final leg of the trip.  Miraculously, we did not encounter too much traffic on the ride there.

It was so good to be able to spend some time with Megan and Craig.  It never ceases to amaze me how close you can feel to people after knowing them for such a short time.  You guys are welcome in Cleveland anytime!

Megan and I hugged goodbye, and I went inside to squeeze in some final photos of Union Station before my ultimate train journey -through the Colorado mountains and Nevada desert- began.

Hmm…tempting pastries, but I’ll stick with my oatmeal cup, thank you.

I love this mural!

Categories: boulder, celestialseasonings, colorado, coors, denver, golden, Train | 4 Comments

Happy 100!

Hi everyone!

As I published my latest blog post, a little notification from WordPress popped up, informing me that this was my 100th post!  Wow:  that’s a lot of blogging!  Thank you to everyone who continues to read and comment on this site.  It has been such a pleasure to share my travel stories with you.  There is much more to come :).



Categories: Uncategorized | 6 Comments

On a Plain: Chicago to Denver

After meeting for lunch nearby with my friend Pete (who declined to be photographed for this blog), I made my way back to Chicago Union Station to catch my train, the California Zephyr, which terminates just outside of San Francisco.  This would be my second overnighter, arriving in Denver early the next morning.  I took a spot in line behind a young Asian man with a remarkably minimalist backpack.  “This is to Denver?” he asked me.  “Yup, that’s where I’m headed, too,” I replied.  “Where are you from?”

“Japan,” he answered, “but my English not very good.”

“Ooh, Japan!” I responded.  “I would LOVE to go to Japan.  I was traveling around Asia a few months ago, but Japan was much too expensive to include in my plan.  Maybe next time!”

“Excuse me, where have you traveled in Asia?” asked the man in front of us in line as he shuffled his snowboard bag forward.  He wore a patterned wool hat and carried a large backpack.  It looked as if he was bound for Colorado as well.  I described my trip itinerary to him, and it turned out that he had also traveled to Hong Kong and much of Southeast Asia.  As we boarded the train, we sat in seats across the aisle from each other so that we could continue our conversation.  I learned that his name was Jim, and even though he lives and works in the New York City area, he is originally from outside of Boston.  Go figure.

I was excited to be on the Zephyr because this train has a bit of a different layout than the Lake Shore Limited that I had taken between Chicago and the East Coast.  The Zephyr is a double-decker train with the majority of passenger seating on the upper level. In addition to a cafe car and a permanent dining car (unlike the LSL’s dining car which splits off from the Boston-bound train in Albany), it also has an observation car, which includes both tables and a large area of single seats which face the high windows. Excellent sightseeing opportunities!

Hangin' out in the table section of the observation car

Hangin’ out in the table section of the observation car

I was immediately impressed with the frequent updates (unfortunately in regards to delays, but appreciated all the same) by the train staff.  Maybe it was because the Chicago-East Coast route is populated more by commuters rather than leisure travelers, but I noticed that everyone on this route – staff included – was a bit more relaxed and convivial.  We also noted the presence of mostly older couples wearing red America by Rail tour nametags on lanyards around their necks.  What a fun vacation to take!

Jim and I spent the next several hours talking and watching the flat and snowy landscape go by.

I was one of those little girls who really really really loved dolphins.

I was one of those little girls who really really really loved dolphins.

Flat and snowy and peaceful

Flat and snowy and peaceful

I loved rolling through little towns and seeing the local shops and restaurants.

I loved rolling through little towns and seeing the local shops and restaurants.

Wind turbines in the distance

Wind turbines in the distance

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Galesburg, Illinois

Galesburg, Illinois

An Illinois sunset

An Illinois sunset

After dark, we passed an exciting milestone by crossing over the Mississippi River.  Sadly, my photos were so blurry and underwhelming that they do not warrant a spot in this blog.

A train attendant had come by earlier to take reservations for dinner in the dining car.  Since I had been keeping to a pretty low food budget with my oatmeals, Easy Macs, and snacks, I decided to treat myself to an actual cooked meal.  Jim and I signed up for a 7:15 dinner time and were seated at a table with another passenger, Marla, who works in the publishing industry.  My meal was…okay, but the company in the dining car (including conversations between all of the tables about which celebrity we would most like to take on a date) more than made up for it.

Marla

Marla

Me with Jim (in his Boston Strong shirt, haha)

Me with Jim (in his Boston Strong shirt, haha)

After dark, we passed an excitiing milestone when we crossed over the Mississippi River.  Sadly, my photos are so blurry and underwhelming that they do not warrant a spot on this blog.

I was finally getting the hang of overnighters on the train and slept without a problem.  When I awoke just before dawn, I blearily looked out the window, expecting to see the outlines of the Rockies in the distance, since our train was due to arrive in Denver at 7:15 am.  In my myopia, the skyline was a block of orange sitting upon a sea of black, but as I fumbled for and donned my glasses, I saw… an orange sky over a dark plain.  Um, weren’t we supposed to be in Colorado?  A thought came to mind (note:  some objectionable language in this clip):

[from Dumb and Dumber, New Line Cinema, 1994]

I soon heard rumblings from other passengers that our train had managed to fall behind by four hours during the night.  Sigh:  oh well.  It’s one of the joys of leisurely train travel that a delay might simply mean that you have more time to enjoy the scenery.  Which is what I did, popping my ChooChoo! Mix on my iPod and quietly watching the shadow of our train pass over the golden fields and small towns of Nebraska.

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I feel like this could be on the cover of a copy of Atlas Shrugged.

I feel like this could be the cover of a copy of Atlas Shrugged.

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Once Jim woke up, we headed back over to the observation car for breakfast in the hopes of catching our first glimpses of the mountains.

A popular spot.  People had already staked out seats and were playing cards.

A popular spot. People had already staked out seats and were playing cards.

The Rockies!  Yay!

The Rockies! Yay!

So pretty.  Having grown up in Ohio, the sight of mountains in the distance always gets to me.

So pretty. Having grown up in Ohio, the sight of mountains in the distance always gets to me.

Our train finally rolled into Denver Union Station around 11:15 am.  We stepped off the train into -what? Warm weather???  Just two days earlier, I was wearing two pairs of pants in the snow, and now a long-sleeved shirt would suffice.  Union Station is gorgeous, having been recently restored.  I strolled around, taking photos and drooling.  All I know is that someday I will spend a night at the historic hotel (I know, I know, me and my historic hotels) within the station, the Crawford, which is both a) super swanky, and b) completely out of my budget right now.  But someday….

Blue skies and warm weather at Union Station

Blue skies and warm weather at Union Station

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Inside the station/Crawford Hotel.  Drool.

Inside the station/Crawford Hotel. Drool.

Such a cool sign.  I love it.

Such a cool sign. I love it.

Jim and I said our goodbyes.  He was off to rent a car to meet up with friends for a ski vacation.  I headed in the other direction to find my Guatemala friend Megan and start our fun-filled weekend in nearby Boulder.

Categories: amtrak, chicago, denver, Train | Leave a comment

Choo Choo!: Soundtrack to a Train Ride

No trip is complete without the appropriate musical accompaniment.

Candidates for making the Choo Choo! Mix must satisfy any combination of the following criteria:
A) Songs with titles and/or lyrics about trains or travel, either in general or specific to this trip.
B) Songs with bass or drum lines that bring to mind the motion of a train (or in other words, anything by Johnny Cash).
C) Americana/country/folk songs, or some blend of the three genres.
D) Songs that I like, especially gloomy, atmospheric, winter-appropriate songs. No further criteria needed :).

I know this is a long mix (56 songs), but do you KNOW how many hours I’m going to be on the train? I better have a long mix!

Choo Choo! Mix
1. “Baby Did a Bad Thing,” Chris Isaak
2. “Set Out Running,” Neko Case
3. “I’m a Wheel,” Wilco
4. “Civilian,” Wye Oak
5. “Lake Michigan,” Rogue Wave
6. “Via Chicago,” Wilco – bonus points for mentioning both Chicago *and* San Francisco
7. “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash
8. “The Way It Goes,” Gillian Welch
9. “Going to California,” Led Zeppelin
10. “Broken Train,” Beck
11. “Hey Porter,” Johnny Cash
12. “Black River Killer,” Blitzen Trapper
13. “Universal Traveler,” Air
14. “Move Over Mama,” Justin Townes Earle
15. “Right Down the Line,” Gerry Rafferty – best country-esque rock song written by a Scottish dude
16. “One Big Holiday,” My Morning Jacket -their album It Still Moves is just one big road trip mix
17. “Rox in the Box,” The Decemberists
18. “Scarlet Town,” Gillian Welch
19. “Straight Shooter,” He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister
20. “Love is All I Am,” Dawes
21. “Louise,” Bonnie Raitt
22. “Bluebird,” Jim White
23. “Company in My Back,” Wilco
24. “Why Not Me,” The Judds
25. “Are You Ready for the Country?,” Neil Young
26. “The Vagabond,” Air
27. “Workin’ on the MTA,” Justin Townes Earle
28. “Shippin’ Up to Boston,” The Dropkick Murphys
29. “Ride Like the Wind,” Christopher Cross
30. “What Goes On,” He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister
31. “American Goldwing,” Blitzen Trapper
32. “On the Road Again,” Canned Heat
33. “Houston, TX,” Deer Tick
34. “Train in Vain,” The Clash
35. “Ride,” Lana del Rey
36. “Night Rider,” Jonny Corndawg
37. “Driver 8,” REM
38. “Steam Engine,” My Morning Jacket
39. “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings,” Lucinda Williams
40. “One Way Ticket,” The Darkness
41. “Twenty Miles,” Deer Tick
42. “Mykonos,” Fleet Foxes
43. “I’m on Fire,” Bruce Springsteen
44. “Rooster Mountain,” The Court and Spark
45. “Man of Constant Sorrow,” O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
46. “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Johnny Cash -makes me smile, as the train passes through many of these towns!
47. “Country Down,” Beck
48. “I Wanna Holler (But The Town’s Too Small),” The Detroit Cobras
49. “Entrance Song,” The Black Angels
50. “In a Big Country,” Big Country
51. “White Winter Hymnal,” Fleet Foxes
52. “American Goldwing,” Blitzen Trapper
53. “Harlem River Blues,” Justin Townes Earle
54. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Paul Simon
55. “Horse with No Name,” America
56. “Golden,” My Morning Jacket

Shuffle. Repeat. Enjoy :).

Categories: music, Train | Leave a comment

Via Chicago

A train geek setting foot into Chicago’s Union Station is like a budding musician setting foot into Carnegie Hall.  Now this was a train station! I could have spent hours wandering around and taking photos of the magnificent architecture.  There was also a huge US map on the wall which detailed the numerous Amtrak routes throughout the country.  I stood there for a while (I am also a map geek), feverishly making mental itineraries of future trips and trying not to salivate, when I noticed that I was not alone.  A woman stood next to me, staring at the map and lost in her own internal geekout.  So I didn’t feel too bad.

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Recognize these steps from The Untouchables?

Recognize these steps from The Untouchables?

I mentally created four different routes in the ten minutes that I stood staring at this map.

I mentally created four different vacations in the ten minutes that I stood staring at this map.

I stepped onto an escalator to reach the food court.  I had originally planned to go to a museum on my first day in town, but since our train arrived four hours late, I decided to grab a quick lunch and just head to my cousins’ apartment.  A station employee riding in front of me turned and struck up a conversation:  “Are you coming or leaving?” I explained that I had just arrived and that this was my first time in town.  “Ah, on the Lake Shore Limited.  Welcome to Chicago!” he wished with a warm smile.  I marveled at his friendliness.  Toto, we’re not in Boston anymore!

I soon had my first experience with riding the El, Chicago’s elevated train.  It brought back pleasant memories of the Skytrain in Bangkok, although I don’t think Thai winter weather necessitates overhead space heaters at its stations!  I also thought it was interesting that the Ventra card kiosks offer instructions in Polish as well as the more commonly seen Spanish option.

I'll take da 3-day tourist pass, Bob.

I’ll take da 3-day tourist pass, Bob.

Shivering at one of the elevated stations

Shivering at one of the elevated stations

Lizza and Tricia, who are my third cousins, had generously offered to let me stay at their apartment.  Once I had showered and warmed up at their place, my night of fitful sleep caught up with me, and I didn’t do much else for the rest of the evening except catch up with my cousins over some Thai food.

I started off the next day slowly, finally getting in some yoga to stretch out my limbs which had been cramped into my train seat for over 24 hours. In the late morning, I set off through the slush and snow to grab a coffee at Intelligentsia coffee. I first heard of this place a few years ago at the Solid Sound music festival, where my favorite Chicago band, Wilco, brought their favorite local coffee shop up to North Adams, MA, to provide the festival’s coffee. (Yay Wilco!) While my coffee was eyebrow-raisingly (I just made up that word) expensive, I sat for half an hour and enjoyed really fantastic 60’s music that sent me scrambling for my phone to Shazam almost every song that came on.

I braved the nasty snow to take the bus to the International Museum of Surgical Science. While its dental exhibit was pretty paltry, it was interesting to learn about the history of surgery and pharmacy. They even had a model apothecary inside that showed how early medicines were made. A good afternoon of nerdy fun.

Ahem!  Lone dental exhibit.

Ahem! Lone dental exhibit.

The downside to my visit was the bitter, bitter cold.  I usually like to wander around new cities on foot, but I could only do so until I lost feeling in my fingers.  Then it was time for a stop at Elly’s Pancake House for some chili.  A hot, cheap meal: just the way I like it.

Chicago has some cute diners, no?

Chicago has some cute diners, no?

Later on, I was invited to dinner at the apartment of Ken, my walking buddy that I met last year in Guatemala, and his girlfriend Jen.  The walls were covered with Jen’s paintings, which were just as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as their view of the Chicago skyline and river.  We discussed the logistics of their upcoming spring trip:  completing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela by bike :).  Go for it, guys!

Tres peregrinos

Tres peregrinos

After Ken walked me to the El station, I realized that I might still have enough time to check out one of the free late-night improv comedy shows at Second City.  Stepping inside the giant complex, I was struck by a wave of awe and giddiness.  The walls exhibited black-and-white photos of so many famous actors and comedians that it wasn’t possible to see them all.  And I did another little geekout.  I have what you might call an unconditional love for Saturday Night Live and usually pepper my conversations with funny but obscure quotes and references to past movies and skits.  (Those who meet me either choose to accept this or never speak to me again).  So it was a real treat to hear the improv sketches of this group of up-and-comers, who welcomed me after the show with what I now realize is universal Chicago enthusiasm.  I hope that I can see some of them on SNL someday.

A warm welcome from the gang at Second City, satisfying my inner comedienne.  Only partly visible in the background are old photos of stars like Steve Carrell, Tim Meadows, Amy Sedaris, and others who got their start here.

A warm welcome from the hilarious gang at Second City, satisfying my inner comedienne. Only partly visible in the background are old photos of stars like Steve Carrell, Tim Meadows, Amy Sedaris, and others who got their start here.

The next morning, the windchill was below zero, so I didn’t really relish the idea of spending much time outside.  I dawdled around in the morning, working on the blog and doing anything to avoid leaving the apartment.  My feet -and wallet- also didn’t feel like spending the entire day walking through a museum.  So I did what I tend to do when I am unsure how to plan a vacation day:  I went out to eat.  I needed lunch at some point, right?

Let me begin by saying that although I love to eat and try new things, I am not a foodie.  I don’t want to have to wait three months to get a reservation for a trendy restaurant.  Although I know that these master chefs are at the top of their craft, I have no patience for this if it means little drizzles of sauce under an expensive matchbox-sized entree with a side of flavored foam.  I am entirely too hungry and cheap for that.  So I was excited to read that Stephanie Izard, one of the previous winners of Top Chef, had opened a diner called Little Goat across the street from her popular restaurant Girl and The Goat. A diner!  That’s much more my speed.

Little Goat:  diner chic

Little Goat: diner chic

One thing that struck me upon entering the diner was how friendly the staff was.  Not scary-clown friendly, but genuinely nice. (Ah, the Midwest.  It’s good to be back).  The second thing I noticed was the awesome music: a mix of everything from the Traveling Wilburys to Wilco to the Eurythmics.  (Bonus points for a Eurythmics song other than “Sweet Dreams.”)  I even caught a glimpe of Stephanie Izard herself. I happily scarfed down a coffee, Sloppy Goat -yes, that’s a sloppy joe with goat meat- and a fruit tart.    Thankfully, my server was nothing like this:

(clip from Billy Madison, 1995, Universal Pictures)

I rolled myself out of the diner and spent the rest of the sunny but freezing afternoon walking around the city and taking photos.  I lasted about an hour and a half before my frozen toes cried out for mercy.

View of downtown from the Brown Line

View of downtown from the Brown Line

Merchandise Mart, which was once the largest building (area-wise) in the world.  It has its own zip code.

Merchandise Mart, which was once the largest building (area-wise) in the world. It has its own zip code.

Macaroons in the French Market.  Thank God I had just eaten a big lunch, or this could have gotten dangerous.

Macaroons in the French Market. Thank God I had just eaten a big lunch, or this could have gotten dangerous.

The train rolls overhead

The train rolls overhead

I am an American aquarium drinker.  I assassin down the avenue.

I am an American aquarium drinker. I assassin down the avenue.

My last night in town, I met up with all the Chicago Zakelj cousins for a deep dish pizza dinner followed by a round of beers.  Fun Zakelj fact: everyone in my dad’s immediate family pronounces our name “ZAY-kel” while  all of my dad’s cousins and their children (including the Chicagoans) say “Zuh-KELL.”  Other New York cousins have had the “j” ending legally removed.  And guess what?  We are ALL technically saying it wrong, since the true Slovenian pronunciation is “ZHAH-kel.”  In any case, it was nice to be able to spend time with family that I so rarely see.

Look at all those good-lookin' Zakeljs!  Lizza, Tricia, me, Chris, and Mike

Look at all those good-lookin’ Zakeljs! Lizza, Tricia, me, Chris, and Mike

Before my train departed the next day, I had a bit of time to kill, so along with my luggage, I played the “get off at a random stop on the El and explore” game.  What I came across was Holy Name Cathedral, which had one of the most intricate wooden ceilings I have ever seen.image

My friend Pete met me for lunch shortly before I had to head out.  As I entered Union Station to board my train to Denver, I knew that I would be back in Chicago before too long. (At least when the weather’s better!)

Categories: chicago, diners, second city, union station | 2 Comments

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