Wednesday, June 25, 2008

San Juan-Vieques Puerto Rico-Jun'08

Every three years we go to a national drug prevention conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico and stay at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan. It is rated only a 3 star hotel but with a little more effort and a more disciplined staff it could easily be a 4 star. If you stay in the Tower with a view of the ocean, the experience is great, even with the room having a slight musty smell when you open the door and the maid service lacking attention to detail. Wiping the phone with a dirty rag just doesn’t add to the phone experience. But the view is really great out our balcony. Below are the remains of an old fort. Three years ago the big conference dinner was held here and it was cool even if you had to stand in a long line to get to the food.
Looking the other direction the hotel beach area is in the foreground and across the inlet is the ruins of another fort and a public beach.
A purple sunset.
The beach bar has a bar tender with a great personality and dedication to his customers, but don’t ever order a Margarita. They are the worst ever. The Mai Tais, however, are very nice, made with a shot of Amaretto added to two kinds of rum, white rum and Meyer’s dark rum. The Caribe Hilton was where the Pino Colada was invented and this drink should not be missed. The inventor experimented to get just the right mixture of coconut milk and pineapple juice. At one o'clock each day, free samples are given out although I am not sure there is alcohol in them. But the real ones are a delight. All drinks are expensive. Note-If you go to Singapore, stop in at the Raffles Hotel and have a Singapore Sling. They were invented there.

Food prices at hotels are no bargain usually but we did eat a burger around the pool restaurant.

Other times we walked half a block to a Subway where we learned the popular footwear here is the dreaded Crocs, at least by young people.
One evening we walked across a bridge under construction to eat some local, less expensive food. This is looking back at the hotel and the Tower is on the left.
We ate at a local restaurant with a Mexican theme and sat five feet from waves crashing on a few rocks below.
We went to old San Juan and walked the streets. We had a nice dinner at a restaurant named Baru and the Sangria was really good.
We fly to the small island of Vieques just off the coast of Puerto Rico. The plane will carry 6 passengers but this trip there are only 3 of us. There is a ferry to take to Vieques but it takes most of the day to make the trip. Actually, Vieques is part of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico so if is it called Vieques, Puerto Rico, is the island of Puerto Rico called Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico? I wish someone would clear this up. But I digress.

After we land at this very small airport, our bags arrive on the baggage carrier about 30 seconds after we enter the terminal. We find that the island taxi will come in 15 minutes, but I believe the taxi came because one of the security guards called him and made arrangements for him to come. However, he does come soon and we travel across the island (about 5 miles) to our hotel, the Hacienda Tamarindo, named for the very old Tamarindo tree that grows up through the hotel starting in the lobby. Our room is the best room in the small hotel with a private balcony overlooking about ½ mile of landscape to the sea. The photo below show the balcony the rest of the guests can use. Our room door is on the right and we have the same view from our smaller balcony.
Here is the side of the hotel taken from our balcony.
After checking in our rental car arrives after an hour. It is essential to book a rental car reservation ahead of time. There is only one car rental on the island and some of the guests we talked at the hotel had to wait a day or two until a car was available to them. Without a car, there is no way to get to a restaurant and the hotel only serves breakfast (and a box lunch if you let them know). We drive to the small village of Esperanza about 2 miles away and I have one of the best tasting Margaritas.
The restaurant/bar/hotel is called Bananas and besides good drinks, the food is good also,
We also later ate next door at Bili. It was hot and the sangria was very good. We ordered some fried plantains with salsa which we enjoyed.
We were very disappointed with our dinner at the Trade Winds up the street. We arrive about ½ hour before dinner was served, so we offered to have some drinks before and sat down at a table near the bar. The bartender continued to her duties instead of stopping and asking what he would like. So we decided to visit some of the shops and come back later. When we returned, we ordered two starters and wanted to share an entrée. The calamari was dull and tasteless and the goat cheese and toast was served with rancid oil which we sent back. The entrée of was a Thai dish with penne pasta instead of Thai noodles and we were charged $5 more because we shared the entrée. The menu or waitress made no reference to the added charge. I made sure before I left that the kitchen was told about the calamari. I could have given a Chef Ramsey rant starting with, “does someone taste the food before it is served.” We do not recommend this place because of the food and the attitude. Everywhere else the service and food were good, especially at Bananas.

We spent a day at Sun Beach and in spite of spending almost all of the time under palm tree shade; we both got just a little too much sun, not too bad though. The hotel prepared a nice box lunch which was really good. We brought a few seashells back.

One day we signed up for snorkeling/scuba called snuba. The air tanks are on a raft with a hose leading to a mouthpiece. We had wet suits though the water was not cold. I was hyper venting and became uncomfortable so I quit. But Judith stuck it out just fine and was pleased to see a spotted leopord ray among some of the other creatures. Here she is being helped through the slippery rocks. The raft holding the air tanks can be seen.
While I was waiting in the van for Judith to finish her snuba, the helper Fred told me about life on Vieques. He has lived here 30 years. In the early days, there were no paved roads, and only pay phones that seldom worked on the Esperanza side of the island. There were no street lights and little electricity. When people first got refrigerators, they put them on their front porch to let everyone know they had one. (You can still see them on some of the porches). When a pay phone did work you had to shout into the phone so everyone knew your business. Whoever answered the pay phone was responsible to go get the person if the call was important or to deliver a message the next time they saw the recipient. There was no crime. It was a simpler time when people looked after their neighbors’ interests and they did also in return. I could tell Fred could have gone on and on and he missed the good ole days.

During our stay there was a full moon. This had unfortunate consequences.
There are bioluminescent bays in Vieques but when there is too much moon light, the creatures are not visible.

The bioluminescent glow is produced by a physico-chemical reaction that begins when the single celled dinoflagelate organism is disturbed. The defense mechanism starts a chemical chain reaction that results in a blue green glow that lasts as long as the organism is disturbed. It is not like a "glow in the dark" toy that has to be held up to a light and charged up. This is a reaction that occurs because a very specific set of nutrients are available in the water to sustain these little "water fireflies".

There is actually more than one bioluminescent bay on the Island of Vieques, the brightest is the "Mosquito Bay" - it is this bay the dinoflagelate population numbers refer to. Several things had to come together all in one spot for bioluminescence in Puerto Mosquito and elsewhere to have evolved:

1) Mangroves (or their ancestors) had to surround the bay and provide a habitat for specific bacterium which produces vitamin B12 in large quantities as a metabolic by-product.
2) The mouth of the bay had to be narrow to keep its waters from being washed out to sea, diluting the dinoflagelate population.
3) The location had to be remote and thus without pollution.
4) The temperature had to stay warm, and constant, within a very narrow range.
5) The water had to remain calm enough so that most of the saltier water could sink to the bottom and eventually be carried away back into the ocean by mild undercurrents, since the organisms can not thrive in the saltier ocean water.
6) The population of natural predators for the organism had to remain low.

We are told that the experience of being in the water with the dinoflagelates is a very unique experience. So we may return in another 3 years if there is no full moon.

While we were at Esperanza at night, while having a cold drink, with the temperature in the low 80’s, watching people walk along the colorful lights, we seemed to be enjoying a bit of paradise. And in the morning, opening the balcony doors and enjoying the view, I had the same feeling.
We flew back to San Juan early in a slightly bigger plane, and had a long wait for our flight back home. During the time, these guys came through the terminal singing and playing their instruments. It was a nice touch to a great trip. The trumpet and sax players are behind these wide guys.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Li Jiang, Dali, and Back to Beijing-Oct'07

After our Ruili visit, we are off on vacation to Lijiang. This requires us to take a 3 hour ride back to Luxi , take a 1 hour plane ride back to Kunming, then get on another plane to Lijiang.

Lijiang was devastated by a major earthquake in 1997 and Chinese officials, having never been there before, were struck by the natural beauty of the surroundings and decided to invest some money for tourists. The entire town is now a World Heritage Site. We came to Jijiang in the midst of a week long Chinese holiday and the place was really crowded. We stayed in the old town part and anything less would not have surfeited. We stayed at the beautiful Zen Garden Hotel just far enough away from night time noise yet close enough to be in the heart of things very quickly. We stayed in a very small room for 3 nights, but it had the best view of the countryside, roofs of the old town, and garden below. This was especially striking at night. There is a pagoda sitting on top of the hill in the distance and I will end up there and take

this photo looking down on the Old Town and our hotel which lies in the cloud shadow.
Every morning this Chinese young woman placed lyrical music on her harp like instrument. Our room is visible on top.

The Zen Garden was an interesting blend of old and new. There were two computers in the entry room for guests to use with free Internet. Breakfast was kind of a Continental deal except tea instead of coffee. Two nights we stayed in the top room which had an antique bed. The bed was regular size (remember those) and was pushed against a wall so there was no way the wall person could get up at night without disturbing the other. But like I said, what a view.

There was a sit down commode but no flushing water for it. Doing #2 required careful planning to securely wrap everything up for deposit in a bucket. BTW-this is not uncommon for public facilities outside of major cities.

Our luggage had to be transported from the nearest street by cart down a cobblestone slope to reach our hotel and back up the hill when we left.

We were moved down stairs our final night due to a prior booking and I left my sport jacket in the wee closet. The hotel management knew we were going to Dali, 4 hours away and the name of our hotel. They paid a taxi driver to deliver my coat the next day, free of charge. That kind of service is hard to beat, anywhere.

Lijiang is home of the Naxi (Na’see) minority people and we learned much about their religion and way of life. Their religion seems to be close to that of our native Americans, where spirits and nature harmonize. They have a 1000 year old written language and developed a paper made of (I forget) which lasts and lasts, Their writing is based on pictographs. The Naxi shamans were care takers of the written language and are mediators between the Naxis and the spirit world. (Every religion has a middleman).

We visited a Naxi cultural center and joined in with the old women during a little dance routine. The Naxi women wear blue blouses and trousers covered by blue or black aprons. The T-shaped traditional cape not only stops the wicker basket, always worn on the back, from chaffing but also symbolizes the heavens. Day and night are represented by the light and dark halves of the cape; seven embroidered circles symbolize the stars. Two larger circles, one on each shoulder, are there to depict the eyes of a frog, which until the 15th Century was an important God to the Naxi. With the decline in animist beliefs the frog's eyes fell out of fashion, but the Naxi still call the cape by its original name: frog-eye goatskin.
These ladies were such fun.
This lady is either a goddess or character from one of the Naxi folklore. What would Freud say?
We visited Black Dragon Lake where we saw one of the Naxi shaman in action and learned all about how to make the paper. Judith, Chevy, Wei and myself. And we saw this famous painter in action. He uses no brushes, just his hands.
Then we see the Mu Fu Mansion. It is a modern complex of buildings that recreates the palatial residence and seat of government (Fu) of the ruling clan (the Mu family) of Lijiang. It has been built entirely from scratch, in a style that imagines the state of these buildings as they might have existed during the 18th century Qing dynasty. The original complex was razed to the ground during the later Qing.

On the right is the Hall of 10,000 Scrolls or what could be called the library.

So we shopped a lot among us and bargained for everything we bought. Here are some of the people seen on the streets of old town.

After Lijiang our last stop is Dali, home of the Bai minority. It is a 4 hour drive up and down mountains pausing for occasion goats to clear the highway. I was struck more than ever how much labor is involved in growing rice. The Dali valley is very fertile and I saw corn, tapioca, bamboo, cabbage, being grown in the fields. The climate is warm year round in this area and doesn’t get very hot because the elevation is about 7500 feet. So there is a continuous growing season. Below-farmers replanting rice and rice drying in the fields.

Dali has a population of about three million people. The city sits in the mountains of the Tibeto-Burman region, resting on the western edge of Erhai Lake. The Cangshan Mountains form a majestic horizon behind the city. Dali has a number of attractions, not the least of which are the city's pagodas, the three Chongsheng Pagodas near the Chongsheng Temple are the most well known. The city is also well known for a number of ethnic festivals. The tallest pagoda is 230 feet tall and was elected about 800 A.D.
The three pagodas of Chongsheng. This is a very popular place to take this shot. Notice that the two smaller pagodas further away lean in towards the large one. I image that this is to protect the big pagoda from having the smaller ones falling on it during an earthquake.
This Buddha is about 5 stories high.
This is the rear of the Chongsheng Temple and due to the steepness of the hill and the angle of the shot, the 3 pagodas are not visible.
This was taken just above the Chongsheng Temple showing Buddha in a fountain with streams of water shooting out of dragon’s months to form the effect of a halo. Cool!
Just about then the monks started a procession to the temple.
About half way up the slope there was kind of a rest stop and these musicians played and each one of us took turns playing the cymbals.
These young women entertained us as we took a boat ride on the Er-Hai Lake.
We took a gondola up the Yulong Snow Mt. and there is a trail to go further up, so I did.
I saw this morning glory type pool where the trail ended.
We take a few minutes to meet with the local head of the CDC to have some drinks. She tells about the local conditions of the AIDS epidemic which is driven by heroin users. She just has some tea but Judith and I enjoy a couple of gin and tonics, the drug of our choice.

We fly back to Beijing and stay within walking distance of our hotel. I saw the blind man playing this instrument sitting on the steps of one of those under the street tunnels. I am going to try to PhotoShop the intruding elbow out of the picture when I have time. Otherwise, it is a nice shot.
These are shots I took around Tianamen Square.
I decide to get a pedicure, having never had one, and the man comes in and says I have nail fungus in three toes and finds some on Judith’s nails also. The young woman translator comes in and tells us they have Chinese medicine that will eliminate the fungus. She also mentions that there is medicine taken orally in the U.S. but can be harmful to your liver (Judith knows this to be true). So Dr. Mengele, as we like to call him, puts this gooey black paste on our toe nails and wraps them up with tape and says to leave this on for three days. The cost is about $25 US each toe, but what the hell, we gave it a shot. The old nails have to grow out before we can really tell, but I think it did the job. Very clever these Chinese. Finally, I can’t resist this photo of a young lad I saw in an antique shop with a teddy bear strapped to his back.