The Blue Basin is named for obvious reasons: the clay formations here are not only beautiful, but blue and green.

We had a busy day of exploration planned, so we left early after the complimentary breakfast at Hotel Condon to get started on day three of our series of mini road trips. Our first stop was Blue Basin. I had hiked Blue Basin last year during the eclipse, and knew it was worth another visit.

The sun was beating down, but we grabbed some water, Vlad grabbed his hat, and off we went. The most remarkable thing to the casual viewer is the colour of the canyon. I was told that it’s most stunning during a rain, and I believe that. Just imagine the bright colours if the picturesque cliffs here were wet.

An easy, well-maintained path leads 1.3 miles to a great overlook.

Along the path we saw a green stream. I put my hand in the water and confirmed it is clay – that slimy feel – that is the sediment clouding the water.

Also along the trail are replicas of fossils found in this area.

Even the dry clay is distinctly blue-green.

The blue is more noticeable next to the reds from oxidization.

We were only a short drive from the gorgeous Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. It was built in 2005 and named after an Oregon scientist who recognized the value of this fossil collection in the 19th century. It is an impressive, modern museum and information center for visitors, as well as an active research center (with windows so you can watch paleontologists at work!). It’s in the middle of No Where Oregon. I’m serious. Part of the reason I love this place is the impressive quality of the facility in a place where there are very few people and the local economy struggles. Thank you thank you to the entity/grant/taxes/ whatever-it-was that made it possible for this facility to be built. It’s top notch.

And it’s certainly money well spent. By geologic and climactic chance, this region reveals 40 million years of fossils in one spot. Yes, fossils have been found here as old as 44 million years old, and fossils as new as 7 million years old, and lots of stuff in between. What an incredibly valuable resource to be able to track the change over time. In fact, fossil collections around the world that span only a couple million years will send samples here for comparison and confirmation of age. This period is after the dinosaurs, with tropical plants like avocados and animals like three-toed horses.

A fossil display of a three-toed foot inside the museum.

The Dawn Sequoia, which still grows in the US today.

For Maureen who loves fossils: a 44 million year old cicada.

We arrived at the Paleontology Center as a ranger was beginning his talk. He explained the significance of the place, and how it was found after erosion exposed the fossils and locals began talking about it. It was a famous place for awhile, and scientists flocked here to excavate and collect. He passed fossils around while he talked, so we could handle them.

View from the Paleontology Center

Ranger tells us about the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

I got to hold leaf fossils. In my hand!

After the talk we went inside and explored the museum, watched a movie, and spied on the research facilities. We went out to the Jeep again to hit the road and hit the next stop.

Ok. Disclaimer. I love the Painted Hills. I’m telling you: such wonderful photographic opportunities. So I’m just gonna post a string of photos, and you’re going to deal with it.

The view from the summit of a short hike.

The colours and formations are simply stunning. And otherworldly.

Vlad and I are former weather forecasters, so we got very excited when some afternoon thunderstorms began.

Here you are, Derrick: flower shots.

Flowers in the desert.

At the Painted Hills, boardwalks are installed to help people resist the temptation to walk on the hills.

The colours along the trail include, red, yellow, and even lavender.

The red comes from oxidization.

Are we on Mars?

Up close, the hills are even more interesting.

Is this not fascinating? Vlad wondered why there is no vegetation on the hills. There was no ranger on site to ask.

Contrasts between green and red were intriguing.

By this time it was late in the afternoon and we were ready for home. We left and drove through thunder, lightning, and downpours for much of the return journey. As any proper forecaster would be: we were both delighted.

Winding highway drops down into the valley in Eastern Oregon.

Most of our mini road trips will be day trips. But there is one place we wanted to go that was so far away we had to do an overnighter. We decided to do this one early in the road trip series. So day two we headed east and then dropped south from the Columbia River Gorge to explore the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. I found a road I had not traveled before (my rule is to take a different road whenever possible), and as we came through the dry, exposed plains, we noticed over and over the gorgeous views.

The Palisades at the Clarno Unit.

The Palisades are a long string of cliffs along the highway. We hiked along them for awhile, then hiked up to the base.

The landscape in this part of Oregon has it’s own kind of beauty.

The National Monument is in three pieces separated by quite a distance. Our route to our hotel passed one of the areas, called the Clarno Unit. We arrived in the afternoon and had time to park and explore the trails at The Palisades. The Palisades are interesting and beautiful crags that tower above the highway. They were formed 45 million years ago after a volcanic eruption that filled the valley with mudflows called lahars. There were multiple flows filled with rocks, ash, and other debris that settled in layers. Over the millennia, erosion has formed magnificent towers.

The lahars also trapped living things like plants, trees, and animals. It is a treasure trove for fossil hunters. The Clarno Unit is protected as part of the National Monument, so the only time these fossils are disturbed or collected is for scientific study. Near the trail we spotted leaf fossils trapped here from when the environment was wet, lush, and near-tropical.

Fossilized leaves trapped in stone.

Embedded in stone are two petrified logs: one horizontal and one vertical.

An exposed stone that tumbled from the cliffs above shows clearly that the lahars were a mixture of foreign debris. Vlad described it as “concrete, basically.”

The time of day we arrived put most of the cliffs in shadow, but the views were stunning nonetheless.

The first trail we walked had information signs that explained how the landscape changed over time. The second trail took us up the mountain to an arch.

Vlad takes a closer look at the base of The Palisades.

The arch from a distance.

The arch up close.

After the second hike we were hungry and ready to stop traveling. In an hour we reached our hotel in the town of Condon.

I was in this area (and blogged about it) not too long ago when I came over to view the Eclipse in 2017. When I made my way toward the path of totality in August 2017, I passed through the darling little town of Condon, Oregon. I recalled that Condon was the last place I still had cell service before heading farther into the vast emptiness of this part of the state, and for me that is as good a reason as any to choose a home base. Earlier in the week we made reservations at a place called the Hotel Condon that looked interesting online.

It is indeed an interesting place, built in 1920 and restored to a fine state. As one might hope in a place like this, there are rumors of a ghost. I talked with a resident who suspects he has seen evidence of the ghost. The man has stayed here almost 4 months, he said, while doing an electrical project nearby. When the place is mostly empty of guests, he has heard footsteps in the hall and has seen doors opening and closing. Now that is cool.

Hotel Condon (image from http://www.innshopper.com)

The lobby of the Hotel Condon.

Dining Room

A panoramic view of Mt. St. Helens from the west side.

My friend Vladimir and I have known each other since I lived in Eureka, California. That was right around the turn of the century (makes it sound like the distant past, huh?). So yeah, 18 years or so. At the time we both worked for the National Weather Service. Vlad recently retired from his forecasting job in Honolulu, and decided to move to Portland. Sans car. While Portland has super great public transportation…it still limits a person to the city. He has yet to get a really good look at his surrounds.

It was Vlad’s idea a while back to enlist my help (and the Jeep) to explore the local area. Our plan is a series of mini-road trips (RTs) to see some of the local stuff that a person can’t get to via lightrail.

The view from the north, standing beside the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Monday we drove north into Washington state to see Mt. St. Helens. This is the volcano that blew in May 1980. For Vlad and I, growing up here on the West coast, we clearly remember the news stories and the fear and the awe…not to mention the ash clouds. We went to see what it looks like today, 38 years later. The surrounding beauty is remarkable in that it looks so far along the path of recovery. At the same time, it’s genuinely startling how much has not yet changed since the eruption.

We drove to the Johnston Ridge Observatory in the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, and arrived just in time to hear a Ranger talk about the high points of the eruption. First, there was the largest landslide in human recorded history, as the north side of the mountain sloughed off. Right behind that was the explosive blast that blew the whole side and top off the mountain. Then the pyroclastic flow, which is not so much a “flow” but more blasting, of ash, rocks, lava, etc. that hurtled down the mountainside and destroyed everything in its path.

The Ranger talked all the way through the area’s natural recovery, including the giant Roosevelt Elk herd and the mountain goats that live in the crater. He ended on a very interesting tidbit. Due to the characteristics of this particular spot, we have the fastest-forming glacier in North America, possibly the globe. Pretty cool, huh? I didn’t realize glaciers were growing anywhere. Snow falls into the crater, which is sheltered from the sun. The dome is slowly growing inside the crater, compacting the snow up against the walls. Regular showers of rocks and ash coat the top of the ice from tiny eruptions from the mountain. Badda-boom: recipe for glacier.

We hiked a trail in the area, ate a picnic lunch with a fabulous view and a chipmunk that needs to lay off the carbs, and then got home by dark.

Trying to be artistic with the gorgeous wildflowers.

more flowers

Not that I’m the type to judge body shape, but this was one fat chipmunk, begging while we ate our picnic. (He’s standing right now, to make himself look slimmer.)

The view from an overlook about 10 miles from the Observatory. The extent of recovery is impressive.

Dooky Chase’s restaurant, open since 1941, is famous for multiple reasons including a civil rights meeting place and the source of authentic Creole cuisine.

It was not until my fourth day in New Orleans did I finally set foot for the very first time in the French Quarter, and walk down Bourbon Street, and drink too much, and eat beignets. But first we went to Treme.

Inside Dooky Chase’s. The walls are covered in work by African American artists.

A room off to the side of the main dining room. The painting is of Leah Chase.

I liked the yoni in the bathroom.

Painting of Obama with Leah Chase

Today we skipped breakfast and hit Dooky Chase’s for an early lunch so we could stuff ourselves at the buffet. Part of the interest for me was that we were going into the Treme community, that I know from watching the show by the same name. This is a working-class neighborhood with predominantly black homeowners and shop owners. Dooky Chase’s closed its doors for two years after Hurricane Katrina because this entire neighborhood was flooded. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita came through in 2005, so it has been over a decade, and on the major streets where we were, there was very little evidence of the flooding to untrained eyes.

People who came with us to eat at this iconic restaurant were all here to pay respect to the history and impact of the place. Each person was either quietly humble, or gushing in appreciation, and the staff returned the gratitude with their own for the customers’ support. Me, having never heard of the place prior to my trip, I just kept my mouth shut and watched and listened. Inside the front door are paintings of Obama with Leah Chase, the celebrated head chef and longtime owner of the place. There are photographs of the two most recent popes. In 1941, Ms. Leah was the one to turn her husband’s sandwich shop into a sit-down restaurant and then make it a haven for black organizers and a venue for black artists. In their turn, patrons included Louis Armstrong, Martin Luther King, and the Black Panthers. At 97 years old, she is still an active part of the business and I hoped to see her but did not.

Louis Armstrong’s first coronet.

One of Fats Domino’s pianos, rescued and mostly restored after being destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

Women in jazz exhibit.

One of the astonishingly magnificent costumes worn during Mardi Gras by a distinct contingent of participants.

These costumes are made of feathers, beads, sequins, and rhinestones and can take more than a year to create.

Detail on one of the masks.

Detail of a face

Ranger Matt and Julie. Ranger James is behind Julie.

Next we went to the New Orleans Jazz Museum, which is in the old New Orleans Coin Mint building so we toured the Mint Museum as well. Both museums were rather small, and we were able see all of the displays in a short time. We were there for the 2:00 pm live jazz performance by the  Down on Their Luck Orchestra. The group had a guest performer, Julia, who played bass cello. It was not what we were expecting, and turned out to be an educational performance: designed to introduce visitors to New Orleans jazz and a bit of the history of jazz in the United States. The two main musicians were Ranger Matt, who did all the talking and played piano, and Ranger James who was mostly on drums but also played saxophone and sang a convincing Louis Armstrong impersonation. In between each song they asked for audience questions and I finally couldn’t hold mine back any longer. As a federal employee, I recognized that identifying themselves as rangers meant they were also federal employees. I had seen them pass through a hallway earlier wearing National Park Service jackets, and both of them, on stage, were clearly in uniform. In my mind I was saying, what on earth is going on?!! I asked, “How common are ranger musicians?”

Ranger Matt explained that, of the 20,000 employees of the NPS, exactly 4 of them were hired to be musicians and all 4 of those are in New Orleans. In other words: ranger musicians are rare. U.S. Park Rangers are entrusted with protecting and preserving natural and cultural resources, and the the NPS decided that New Orleans jazz is one of those resources.

Beignets with almost enough powdered sugar.

Out on the street we stopped for a few moments to listen to the fabulous music of a large percussion band on the sidewalk right there across the street from the Jazz Museum, on the edge of the French Quarter. Next we walked over to an open market where local entrepreneurs sold their wares, and then got in line at Cafe du Monde, another famous stop, and had coffee and beignets. These are fried square pastries covered in powdered sugar – like doughnuts. It had been a windy day and while we sat there we witnessed multiple fierce gusts of wind stirring up sugar tornadoes. Everyone in the outside seating patio was covered in powdered sugar in no time.

Then we plunged into New Orleans’ most famous district.

Ironwork for which the French Quarter is famous.

A street in the French Quarter.

Bourbon Street, looking toward the center of New Orleans.

Lights on Bourbon Street.

The French Quarter dates to when New Orleans was founded by a French colonist. The distinctive architectural styles retain the influence of construction during the late 1700s. Today the age of the buildings is evident, and the most eye-catching design is the prevalence of cast-iron railings and decorative work around balconies of nearly all of the structures.

We walked the entire length of Bourbon Street, famous today for unlimited drinking by people who can purchase alcohol right on the sidewalk and can carry their drinks with them when typical American cities have “open container” laws preventing that. Patrick and I walked through in early evening while the sun was still up, and cars were still moving along Bourbon Street (auto traffic is prevented at night). So we didn’t see the craziness. We did hear live bands on  every single block, however, which is another thing the area is known for. We criss-crossed the district, peeked into windows, and admired the sights until we ended up at Jackson Square. It is a lovely little park between the St. Louis Cathedral and the Mississippi River. I had only one thing on my mind there, however, and that was to express myself to Andrew Jackson.

I am not a fan of Andrew Jackson.

We headed back into the district and found Pat O’Brien’s. We ordered their specialty drink and settled back to listen to the piano duo take turns playing songs requested by patrons. We had several drinks and finally headed out into the nighttime with a neon-lighted street where revelers were just beginning to get warmed up for their night on the town.

Dueling pianos at Pat O’Brien’s

Shadow of Jesus

Swamp ahead!

We showed up for the 9:00 am Cajun Pride Swamp Tours in Frenier, Louisiana. It was hot and sticky that day, as a swamp should be.  As with everything else in my New Orleans vacation, I had no expectations and was prepared to enjoy anything we did or saw. We climbed onto a boat filled with tourists and were soon moving through human-cut waterways through the swamp in a nature reserve on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

This was my actual view through the boat railings. I cropped the rest of the photos.

We began seeing wildlife right away. There were many alligators, and most of them rather small. Our captain told us that alligators grow 8 to 9 inches a year in the wild, and can live to be 60 years old. We saw two kinds of turtles, and three remarkable birds: the Great Egret, the Great Blue Heron, and an Osprey. We also saw a lot of raccoons, who beg from the side of the waterways for treats from the boats, but we were most excited about the alligators.

The shores of our waterway were thick with forest.

Cypress were the most interesting trees, and I saw Spanish Moss for the first time.

Great Egret

Abandoned trapper cabin fixed up for tourists. Our captain said it was his home – ha! See the alligators?

Raccoons hoping for treats thrown by the captain.

Whenever you spot an alligator in the wild, chances are good that you are looking at a female. First of all, when there is a dominant male in an area, he will kill any nearby males, to minimize competition for mates. But the greater determining factor is birthrate. If the temperature at birth is 87 degrees or cooler, the entire clutch will hatch female. If the temperature is 88 or 89, there is an equal chance of either sex. And if the temperature is 90 degrees or above when the eggs are laid, they will all be male. It works out that there is a 15:1 ratio of females to males.

There’s a big one.

Turtles on the log.

Our tour boat filled with tourists.

Our boat pilot was a local Creole man and proud of his heritage. He said that his father spoke the French-based Creole language, but he did not. To show us how different the language is from the French language, he played some music for us. French tourists on the boat shook their heads and laughed. They couldn’t make sense of any of it.

He explained to us that the unique Cajun foods were simply a matter of collecting what was available from the land. Obviously the main courses are catfish, shrimp, crawdad, and Nutria (also called a swamp rat) because those are the available meat sources. He said that the spices and garnishes also originate in what could be harvested from the swamp.

We learned that the different kinds of trees we saw are the Palmetto Palm, Red Maple, Tupelo gum tree with long narrow leaves, and of course the famous Cypress tree. I learned that the knobs of wood emerging from the water around the base of the Cypress are its roots! They are called the knees, and apparently you can cut them off entirely without hurting the tree itself. Though Cypress trees are protected, the knees are knot. (heh heh)

There is an interesting legend about the site of this particular swamp tour. A woman named Julia Brown took up witchcraft, which made everyone afraid of her, and she was ostracized. In retaliation Brown warned that when she died she was taking the town and everyone with her. During her funeral in 1915, the wind picked up and a storm moved in. It was a hurricane. Wiped the town off the map and only 22 of the hundreds of residents survived. For this reason, many people believe that the swamp is haunted by the ghosts of the dead townsfolk.

The captain then introduced us to a 2-year-old female alligator that we all got to hold if we wanted to. If you know me, you know I held her.

My new friend.

Farther west, away from New Orleans, was a plantation Patrick said he has always wanted to see called Oak Alley.

We found it and explored the grounds. This was a former sugar cane plantation that had over 100 slaves at its peak production. Some of the slave quarters have been restored, and the home itself is in beautiful shape. It is named for magnificent oak trees that line an alley in front and in back of the house.

Oak Alley Plantation house

Sun lights up the house.

“Please do not ring bell.” I was tempted!! This bell called the slaves to work in the morning and sent them to their quarters each night.

Slave quarters

The Oaks at the front of the house.

The famous Oak Alley. There are 28 oaks in the front alley. This home and its oaks have been featured in many films, shows, and videos.

WWII tent and interpreter were on the grounds.

WWII tent set up as it would have been during the Civil War.

The ticket to enter mainly covers a guided tour of the house, but there is so much more to see, including a blacksmith’s shop, a movie on sugar cane processing and history in the area, a Civil War tent, and of course the Slave Quarters which were set up with educational signs and also had a site interpreter provide a talk on slaves in the time of the sugar cane production. There were a series of information signs that told the history of all the different owners of the plantation and the many uses to which the land was put. We explored it all and saved the house tour for last.

I admit it was awkward for me as a tourist to participate in the tour guided by a black woman. That pervasive White Person’s Guilt struck me, and I wondered what it was like for her, day after day, describing the nearly incomprehensible conditions of the slaves of the plantation, like when their futures were tossed about by the owners of the home as part of an inheritance negotiation. Someone asked our very sweet and smiling tour guide what she liked about being a guide, and she actually said she liked seeing the reactions from people when she talked about the differences between a white person’s life and a black person’s life in a typical day in this plantation’s history. So interesting.

Master bedroom

Another bedroom

The Lavender Room

By this time we were STARVING. We had passed a roadside restaurant on the way through Vacherie, and went back to it, knowing nothing about the place. B&C Seafood Riverside Market & Cajun Restaurant is now my favourite place to eat in Louisiana.

Patrick knew what he was doing at a place like that, and while I ordered something like a sampler, he began listing to the waitress what he needed: a pound of shrimp, three pounds of crawdads, boudin, and a bloody mary. “To wash the shrimp down,” he said. My meal was fried catfish, fried oysters, and smoked rabbit gumbo with hush puppies. Oh man, I can’t even tell you how amazing that food was. We ate every last bite, crawdad juice going everywhere. I tipped up my bowl to get the last drop of rabbit gumbo. Luckily the bathroom had showers to scrub down after the crawdads. Kidding.

We were a distance out of town and decided to just go for a scenic drive as our next plan for the day. Instead of heading east back to New Orleans, we went north, then east, then dropped south to New Orleans so we could drive over Lake Pontchartrain.

Sun setting on Lake Pontchartrain.

Lake Pontchartrain is 630 square miles and the bridge crossing it is almost 24 miles (38 km) long.

Statue of a weeping angel in the Chapman Hyman Tomb. Standing before the statue, I could feel the grief in my own body.

I am one of the lucky few who got out again, after being shut up in a cemetery for the night.

But let me start at the beginning. I’m in New Orleans for a quick trip with a friend. The trip was my idea. He loves the city and I’ve never seen it, so I wanted to be introduced through the eyes of someone who loves it, you know? Anyway, we arrived at night and on our first day out we both wanted to see cemeteries.

We went to Metairie Cemetery first. Built on the site of an old racetrack, some of the curved shape of the track can still be seen today. The cemetery is simply gorgeous, with white shining marble everywhere, manicured lawns and mature trees. Patrick wanted to see the weeping angel first, so we drove to it and parked the car. You can see my photo of her above. The expressiveness of the statue is heartbreaking, and the inscription “Sister” at the base brought tears to my eyes.

Then we walked. And walked. The place is enormous! We didn’t really intend to walk around for two hours, but that is what happened.

The city was founded in 1718 and people have been dying there ever since. As you know, half of the city of New Orleans is below sea level and protected with dikes and flood walls and massive water pump systems. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize that you don’t want to bury your dead in the ground. So tombs are built on top of the ground. As we walked between them, the ground was often marshy beneath our feet and there were standing pools of water in low spots, reminding us that it is no myth: the city of New Orleans is level with the water table.

One of the tree-lined avenues at Metairie Cemetery.

At this cemetery, tombs are not crowded.

Many of the tombs are elaborate.

The pyramid caught our eye.

Spofford tomb

detail from the pyramid

A tree shades a tomb

Parts of the cemetery were more congested, but still lovely.

This panoramic view shows the arrangement of tombs along the avenues. Click for a larger version so you can see the detail.

I was not able to show clearly this picturesque narrow row of tombs because I was trying to crop out a bunch of bright orange construction cones.

Another row in the apparently more modern section.

One of the many “Woodmen of the World” grave markers.

Interesting aside: we noticed many Woodmen of the World markers on graves, with marble markers in the shape of logs. There were at least six styles of log markers that we noticed, and I became curious. Founded in 1890, Woodmen of the World is a fraternal benefit society. From 1890 to 1900, WOW’s life insurance policies had a proviso that provided for the grave markers, free of charge for members.  From 1900 to the mid- 1920’s, members purchased a $100 rider to cover the cost of the monument. Since then there have been no discounts for grave markers.

As I was leaving, I turned back to look one last time, and saw this amazing sky casting an eerie light on the darkened scene below. I regret that my simple phone camera couldn’t duplicate how beautiful it truly was.

Next we went into the Garden District to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. This one is famous because author Anne Rice used to live near it and based the tombs of the Mayfair Witches and the vampire Lestat on the tombs she found here. And consistent with that history, this cemetery was more what I anticipated in a New Orleans cemetery: not crumbling apart, but certainly a very old and storied place in the center of busy neighborhood streets.

As we approached the front gate, there was a crowd encircling a tour guide, and other people milling about in every direction. We slipped as quickly as we could through the tourists and between a row of tombs to begin our cemetery explorations in peace. We actively avoided all people while we were in there…which was likely the reason we did not hear the warning to get out.

An avenue in Layfayette Cemetery No. 1

This is what I had in mind when I pictured a New Orleans cemetery.

The Layfayette Cemetery No 1 is much smaller than the Metarie cemetery and the tombs are less elaborate.

After an hour in this much smaller cemetery, Patrick and I had become separated and I found myself near the front gate. I could hear the chatter of people on the sidewalk outside the cemetery. I heard a man’s voice say, “Does that lady know she’s locked in?” I glanced up. “Hey, do you know you’re locked in?” he said to me. I responded with a half smile. He reached over and grabbed the bars of the gate and shook them – presumably to show me that he knew what he was talking about. “I am not even kidding,” he said. Uh-oh.

I began walking up and down the paths until I found Patrick. “Hey, there may be a problem.” “Oh yeah? With what?” When I told him, he remembered that the cemetery was supposed to close at 3pm.  It was a few minutes past.

We went back to the gate and laughed with the people on the outside, and eyed the cast iron gate for footholds. I handed my phone through and one of them got a picture of me. Then suddenly, two tour guides showed up.

The person with the key had locked the gates and left, but these two were still sitting in their parked car nearby and no one had noticed them till they came to the rescue. “We have someone trapped in here once a week,” one of the women told us. “Step here, then your left foot goes here…”

And Viola! We climbed right out.

Me, trapped in a cemetery.

This image is from mikestravelguide.com where he wrote about free things to do in New Orleans.

After that we went to the waterfront and walked along the river. I didn’t get any more decent photos, so I don’t have much more to show you. We took a lovely dinner cruise on a paddlewheeler Creole Queen down the Mississippi River and back again. It was warm and lovely and I was on a ship in the country’s longest river. Our view of the city in the sunset from the water was a pretty nice final scene for the day.

New Orleans from the Mississippi River.

Here is the final day I skipped when I had no Internet while traveling in Myanmar. Please click the image to go to the post.

An irresistible smile.

 

24-hour tea shop in Kalaw. See the full post: https://crystaltrulove.wordpress.com/2018/02/17/trekking-from-kalaw/

The reason I skipped a few days in posting my daily blog while in Myanmar (Burma) was because Margaret and I were hiking through the hills from Kalaw to Inle Lake. I’ve posted days 1 and 2 in their proper place with the proper date stamp, but here I’ve included a link so you can get to the post easily. Click the image to go to the post.

 

I skipped three days while I was in Burma – called Myanmar by the locals and much of the world. This was because I was hiking across country, and had no Internet. I’ll post the next two missed days when I get to them. Click the image to reach the blog post.

Our first view of the Golden Rock from a distance.

https://crystaltrulove.wordpress.com/2018/02/16/the-golden-rock-at-kyaiktiyo-pagoda/

A monk feeds some pigeons on the bridge/hotel/train station.

At breakfast we decided to try to find anything but temples, pagodas, and Buddha. Mandalay is a big city; there must be other things to see. After reviewing pamphlets, Trip Advisor, the front desk…we decided it would be a crafts day.

First though, we walked over to the train station to buy a ticket for Margaret’s departure to Hsipaw the next day. It was a little confusing to find where to go, but we eventually discovered the ticket offices in the open air second floor of a hotel, on a bridge over the train tracks. (Yeah, get your head around that) We explained what we wanted at the counter, and the man shook his head and pointed for us to go somewhere else. We didn’t see anywhere else to go, but he seemed insistent, so we walked away and stumbled upon an identical ticket office on the other side of the building. After much discussion behind the windows, someone finally said “sixteen,” which we realized was window #16, and once we got there, everything was rather self-explanatory. Language is really not so much of a barrier when you look at it practically: two tourists show up at a ticket window at a train station. It doesn’t take language to realize they are most likely hoping to buy a ticket. All the tourists have to say is “Hsipaw,” and all the counter agent has to convey is the price. Except…. there was a little more to say, and thank goodness our agent was able to convey it. First class was sold out, and the only seats available were coach, it was a 12-hour journey, and it departed at 4:00 am. Margaret decided to take the bus instead.

On 78th Street near the train station.

Blur of the hammer as a man pounds thin gold into very thin gold. In the bowl of water is half a coconut shell with a small hole drilled into it. The coconut fills with water in 3 minutes, then the pounders know to flip their packet and beat the other side of it.

Woman applies gold flakes

Then we walked to the gold leaf craft shop. We arrived soon after two tour busses arrived, so the small place was filled with tourists from England. It was noisy the whole time we were there, while two men banged away at their tiny pieces of gold flake, making them molecule-thin. An employee came up to me with a bunch of samples and explained the whole process of making gold leaf and also of making bamboo paper (which is made exactly the same as other paper, as far as I could tell). The gold flakes are pressed between layers of bamboo paper, then bound into a packet. The packet is then pounded for hours, periodically opened to split the flakes into smaller pieces, then bound up again and pounded some more. Eight hours total for each final flake of about 2 inches squared. Inside the show room I found a few lacquered bamboo boxes, embellished in gold designs. Continuing to test what I had been told (look, I just don’t trust that the stories told to tourists are always accurate), I asked if they made the lacquered boxes here in Mandalay. “No, the boxes are made in Bagan.” This pleased me, since I had purchased a box in Bagan, believing it to be a local product. From my casual investigation, it appears to be true.

Margaret and I were sitting on a bench in a corner, looking at the map and trying to figure out where to go next, when the buses pulled away. The banging of the men with hammers ceased immediately. Ha ha ha!

Our next stop was miles away so we hired a taxi. The hotel front desk had told us that the wood craft shops were near the Mahamuni Buddha Temple, so we asked the taxi driver to take us there, just to give him and easy landmark to aim for. We had no plan to visit the temple at first. But our driver brought us to a quiet street with a less popular entrance, and the quiet was inviting. We decided to step inside and check it out, since we were there anyway. It was a good decision.

A wooden Buddha sheltered by a cobra.

The entrances to many temples have people selling things on both sides, and this place was no different. Small Buddha statues, jade jewelry, textiles, and paintings were offered. This one held multiple palmists, which we had not seen previously. Margaret bought jade bracelets and I browsed.

The temple proper was surrounded by pillars encased in jade in myriad mosaics. It was specatacular, all green and glistening in the sun. Just inside, we found the Mahamuni Buddha. Like we saw at the Golden Rock, worshipers bought gold flake and applied it to the Buddha while praying. Again, only men were allowed to do this. Women sat in rows outside, praying. And for the benefit of the people outside, there was a livecam going the whole time, so we could watch our men apply the gold. We continued on and realized this was a large complex with museums and other holy sites. We explored bronze sculptures on display, magnificent art, artifacts, a giant gong, several giant bells, and additional pagodas. There were at least four separate museums with different categories of collections. One appeared to hold manuscripts, and looked something like a library, with books, parchments, and even dusty old cassette tapes.

Interestingly, very few foreigners were there, which could have explained the amped up excitement of the local visitors. Many more group photos were taken. We were delighted when a super happy monk begged us for a photo with him, then demanded (with a sly smile) that his shy, blushing sister also get a photo with us. (Margaret has the photos of this, or I would show you.) Twice more we bumped into the same monk and his sister, and it felt like we were old friends after awhile.

Jade pillars of the Mahamuni Buddha temple.

Mahamuni Buddha in the background, with livecam out front for the women.

Golden hall around the Mahamuni Buddha.

Margaret loves to get people to be goofy in photos. Here she begged them all to hold their fingers up, which made them laugh. Look, I’m tall and thick like an Amazon next to them. It was something M and I were always conscious of.

Posing for us.

Here, Margaret demonstrates that she is also willing to goof off in photos.

One of the paintings in the art museum.

Bronze figures on display were originally from Angkor Wat in Cambodia and were taken to Thailand. After winning a battle in 1599 when the Thai king attacked Taungoo (in the Bago region of Myanmar), the Taungoo king presented these bronze figures to the Rakhine king in gratitude for his assistance, and thus they came to live in Myanmar.

Bronze elephants

Bronze men. One 8 feet tall and the other 7 feet tall.

We were both so glad we randomly decided to tour that temple. It was one of our best stops of the trip!

Outside we went to a wood crafters shop, which held some pretty cool wood carvings but was not really set up for tourists like the gold flake place. No craftsman was around, no evidence of the work being done, just a very dusty showroom with one young woman and a baby on site. I found it amusing that the baby’s blanket, crib, and diaper pack were in the center of the showroom.

Across the street we found marble crafts, which weren’t even mentioned by the hotel front desk or in any of the lists of things to do that we found during our morning search. There were many shops selling marble statues (mostly of Buddha), crowding each other on both sides of the street. This is clearly a major craft in the area and I’m surprised that we hadn’t heard of it before stumbling onto this part of town.

Baby blanket and crib in the middle of the wood craft showroom.

Thousands of Buddha statues sit, in various stages of completion, in this section of town.

One crafter at work.

Near the marble Buddhas, a dove guards her nest in a very protected place. Can you see it?

We were hot and tired at this stage. Our plan had been to grab a taxi to our next stop, but there were none in sight. I can’t understand why, but there are simply very few tourists here, among all the marble and wood and the wonderful Mahamuni Buddha complex. That explains why there were no taxis. We thought to start walking to the bridge. Why not? But soon we had to stop for a rest. We picked one of the millions of tiny little shops beside the road to sit under an awning in the shade. There was a woman rolling up betel leaf packets in the front. A dirty little boy in the back sat on the floor beside a cooler. I went to the back and tapped on the side of the cooler, and the boy opened it for me. I bought a soda for 500 kyats (38 cents), and we sat there while the women and children from other nearby stalls drew close and chatted happily around us, though we couldn’t speak to each other. I gave some of my mandarin oranges to the kids. Would you believe it? While we sat there, the happy monk and his sister showed up and stopped at the stall next to us. We all laughed at seeing each other again.

The soda was finished and we were ready to go when a taxi pulled up. The woman had laid down for a nap, and the taxi driver obviously knew her, because he went right to her betel stand, grabbed what he wanted, and said a few things to her and she nodded. M and I asked him “Taxi?” he nodded, and we asked “U Bein bridge?” and he sort of hesitated, then nodded. So we climbed into the back.

The driver turned the taxi around and began heading north, and we were pretty sure the bridge was south. We found the photo of the bridge in our itinerary, and tapped on the window to show one of the men in the cab where we wanted to go. The driver nodded with great assuredness, but did not change course. We waited until we were confident again that we were going the wrong way. We tapped on the window to get the driver to pull over, which he did. We showed him U Bein bridge on the GPS. He nodded – clearly no hesitation that he knew what we wanted. He spoke quite a bit, but obviously we didn’t understand anything until he began pointing to the bags of goods in the back with us. OH! He needed to make another trip first! The man in the front was a passenger, not his buddy. We dropped the man off at the hospital, with all of his goods, then turned and headed due south.

It was a rather long trip and Margaret and I realized we would never have made it walking. It was a good 5 miles south of where we stopped to rest. Once we arrived, the driver would not accept payment, which puzzled us. We tried multiple times to pay him, but he wouldn’t accept it. We thought maybe his plan was to wait for us and then get a larger payment by returning us home, so we used sign language to say we would be back and we would meet him at that spot. We hoped he understood.

U Bein bridge was packed with tourists, both local and foreigners.

The piles of food for sale always looks delicious though we often won’t eat it: like these fried crabs.

The bridge is built in a curve shape to withstand the current of the water when the lake is higher.

I saw these men trying to pull down a piling.

They seemed amused that I wanted a photo.

The U Bein Bridge is 3/4 mile long and believed to be the longest teak wood bridge in the world. Tilapia are farmed in the lake, but due to recent growth in industry along the shores and tributaries, there is a wastewater pollution problem. Thousands of fish are dying, impacting the fishermen and causing a rotten fish smell that we noticed along portions of the bridge. In 2016, the government of Myanmar designated Taungthaman Lake an environmental conservation area and began making plans to clean it up.

The popular thing is to see the bridge at sunrise, but we were there at midday. Still, there were plenty of tourists. This, unlike the Mahamuni Buddha temple, draws the masses. People hawked their wares all over the parking lot and the roads up to the bridge, and for a good portion along the bridge as we walked it. I was very excited to see my favourite snack of Myanmar – sliced green mango in chili powder – sold here, and I bought some within minutes. M’s tummy was still upset and she didn’t share the spicy treat with me. In fact, she was still feeling poorly when we had walked all the way to the end of the bridge and back, so we bought a coconut to drink the milk and fill up on natural electrolytes.

Crunchy spicy goodness!

Natural health food drink.

We searched and searched for our taxi driver, but he was nowhere to be seen. We were disappointed because we wanted to pay him for that very long ride earlier. We couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t accept payment – he was a taxi driver after all. Maybe it was because the shop owner said good things about us. Maybe they appreciated that we had befriended the monk. Maybe he regretted the confusion about delivering the guy to the hospital before taking us to the bridge. Finally we hired another family that was thrilled to get our business. There was a man sleeping in the back of the taxi and the son thumped his leg to wake him up. We showed them our map of where the hotel was, and they happily carried us north again through the entertaining streets of Mandalay.

People on the streets of Mandalay.

They look much more gruff than they really are. Takes two seconds to get them to smile.

Uh…cattle? Ok.

One of my many guises

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