Monday, December 10, 2018

Bougainvillea Everywhere - Playa del Carmen, Mexico 2015

I dreamed about you last night. You were as beautiful as ever, exactly how I remember you with your amazing hair, your smile and your stare. Most always talking hopeful and positive while your life seemed from my view to crumble around you. Forever young indeed and always strikingly gorgeous. You only looked different to me because your usual sun soaked skin was white as milk. You were sitting in a tower of a building that had a thatched roof, and you were looking down at me from a window. 
Someone came to me to tell me that you wanted to see me. I'm not sure who it was. I climbed some stairs up to where you were sitting. I felt as though you had something important to say. I grabbed your milk white hand and your skin felt cold as ice. We walked quietly along the beach together. I asked you if you were really dead and you simply said yes. I saw all your children waving to us. We walked a little more turning on to a beautiful cobble stone path that led us through the shade, away from the blazing sun of the beach. We passed old, lovely trees and there was bougainvillea blooming everywhere.

I forgot to tell you, I miss you and that I loved you. Then you were gone. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Van Build - Ford Transit Connect

Removed passenger seats and installed plywood floor

Living the van-life dream. Last year we bought a Ford Transit Connect passenger van and did a very simple build so that we can travel and sleep in the van. In previous years we had taken a few road trips in our Honda Element and slept in a tent. That worked out pretty well except for the time we were in the Florida Keys where it was way too hot and a storm kicked up which just about sent our tent into the dark lagoon. Another time we were in the brush country of Texas and we woke up to bunch of javalina grazing in our campsite just outside our tent. It's time to get a van, sleep up off the ground and make one of those dreams come true.

Short of throwing a mattress on the floor of the van, we decided on a simple conversion giving us some storage and a decent place to sleep. We removed the two rows of passenger seats and then covered the floor with a 4' x 6' sheet of plywood. Since it is a passenger van we didn't have to insulate the floor or walls.  Then we built a bench with storage and stained all the plywood. We thought we would sit in the back during bad weather or on cool evenings but it's really not that comfortable. It is however a fantastic place to lay down and read.

Building frame for storage and bench
Stained floor/ bench & seat back map holder
Cozy Sleeping

Keeping everything really simple. The bench has two sections that flip up with piano hinges. In general the stuff we keep in this storage area are things that we want ready access to or use on a daily basis. One section by the driver side sliding door holds our camp kitchen stuff and the other one towards the back holds food and supplies. The sleeping is good. We purchased two tri-fold, 4" thick memory foam mattresses and they work out really well. I made fun covers for them that easily pull off to wash. They are super comfortable. During the day we keep one of them folded up and the other one easily flips up to get to our kitchen storage. Our bedding stays towards the back of the van and we still have ample room for our cooler, stepladder, two folding chairs, a small table and our day packs.

This real simple design worked pretty well for us. We made a few small trips in it to see how it went and made a few changes before leaving for winter travels. We made a quick trip to south western Wisconsin and northern Illinois to visit friends. We took a couple of weeks and went to the Badlands, Blackhills and Estes Park. Returned home made a few changes, swapped out some gear and got ready for the next adventure. A good rule to follow is bring only what you need not what you think you need. You can always purchase something along the way if you need to.

On The Road, Needles Highway, South Dakota 2017
The Thule Cargo Box is essential for a small van. We keep most everything up there accept for daily essentials, kitchen items, day packs and our bedding. We use small reusable lightweight bags and storage cubes to hold things. For example we keep cold weather gear packed into its own packing cube so we can grab and go when needed. Those cubes are great for keeping things organized and it keeps us from constantly rummaging around looking for things. Everything goes in a reusable bag. If we need the fan we say grab the yellow bag. It works if you are smart about what you need to bring with you. 

We have made a variety of window coverings and they have all proven to work quite well. The windshield uses a  cheap sunshade made of reflectix. We created back window vents with screen and altered rain gutter guards. The drivers and passenger side doors have sewn window screen that slips over and provides privacy. You can vent the window or open it as much as you want depending on the weather. These windows also have rain guards installed so windows can be cracked open during rainy weather and water stays outside the vehicle. We used cardboard for the way back windows to provide privacy at night along with a dark window curtain on the back hatch window (not pictured) and the sliding doors.  

Back Window Vents
Front Window Screens
Way Back Window Covering
Slider Door Curtains

We dragged our bicycles all over Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, southern California, Utah and Colorado but didn't use them as much as we had hoped. We purchased the Thule swing away bike rack so we can access the back hatch and still keep the bikes on the hitch rack.

Ready to Roll
We have a few limitations with this set up. While the gas mileage is something to boast about, we find that in the evenings when the weather is cool we actually have nowhere comfortable to sit. Can't make a cup of tea or make a snack. Yup its a bit cramped. At night the cooler goes on the driver side seat, my partner in crime sits in the passenger seat and I am in the back sitting on the floor or the bench bed and inventing new yoga poses. It works but we think we can do better. 

Well that's how we roll at least for one more big trip in 2019 back to Arizona and southern California where we don't worry about rain or bugs. We will likely leave the bikes at home this time and will stay a bit longer in each place. We will see how it all unfolds. Our plan going forward after we return back home is to purchase and build out a full size van, insulating it and adding a just a few creature comforts. Stay tuned for that and never stop dreaming.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Mr. Jack's Dog - Punta Gorda - Belize 2015

In this place, even the paper gets wet as I try to write with pen and paper. Bugs feast on our skin with fierceness. The thick humid air makes me tired from doing nothing. I wonder how that is even possible. I can't remember what it is like to feel cold.

We walk the gravel road to the main street which brings us into town for WiFi, electricity, breakfast and socializing. We order up eggs, potato with blackened cheese and cassava and while away the day under the ceiling fan watching the buses come and go. Sending messages to friends and planning where we are headed next. We drink wonderful cold coffee with milk and sugar to balance the lethargy of the insanely humid air. Our friend is an excellent cook and owns a small cafe in town. 

At night, we sit under the beautifully woven thatch of the drum school. It was recently built and is a huge expanse of roof over our heads. There is no electricity here so we wit in the dark, tell stories, and listen to the night sounds. The humidity is relentless and the sky is dark. 
When it's time to sleep, we crawl under a bug net into dampened sheets from the humid air. I hear a rustling outside as some critter has one more go at my fear of things that crawl around in the night. I trust the net will protect me from the scorpions I have seen about, the yellow, red and black.
I awake just before dawn to the howler monkeys as they announce the coming of a new day. This is one of my most awesome memories. Their orchestra is followed by birdsong at first light. When I am not thinking about the snakes and scorpions I am reveling in the welcoming in of a new day.
We watch the preparations for a Black Pot Friday event and we are in awe at the incredible food that this kitchen can produce. What a beautiful hearth. Food that will be presented to customers attending an evening cultural food and drumming event. The menu is fantastic, lots of choices and amazing flavors. There was boil up with roasted tomato sauce, yellow ginger or brown rice with chick peas and coconut milk, stewed chicken, fish roasted in cowfoot leaf, tamale casserole with vegan chili, cornbread, kriol bread and jalapeno cornbread.

The next afternoon, I see Mr Jack's dog running into the thatch and erratically pawing his face. His all too curious nature put him in a situation where he did not win in his encounter with a small porcupine type critter. He comes by for help to remove the sharp quills from his mouth and face but he is in too much pain to sit still. One person consoles Mr Jack's dog while the other tries to remove the quills with a pliers. We remove only 5 bloody quills before he lumbered off back towards his home. There were maybe 30-40 more quills that needed to be removed. We hope that Mr. Jack will have better luck removing the quills. Sadly we didn't see Mr. Jack's dog again that day and early the next morning we walked the gravel road back into to town to head north up the coast to Placencia for some very mellow beach time. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Crossing Tabasco - Chiapas Mexico - 2016

Crossing Tabasco to Chiapas by bus after visiting the Mayan Ruins at the Palenque National Park Archeological Site and the waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol Ha is not a fast ride.

We slowly, slowly make our way to the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas which is located in the Central Highlands region of the Mexican state of Chiapas. As much as I had read, before we left I hadn't realized how the roads were laid out. Our trip into Chiapas took us through Tabasco heading west towards the city of Tuxtla Guetierez and then back inland to San Critstóbal.

The day is long, the drive is long and the narrow road winds back and forth through mountainous terrain. When you look out the window you see a long way down. I remind myself that the driver does not want to die as he passes double trailer-ed semi trucks at speeds I am not comfortable with on these roads. I just know this is not where I am going to die.

We stop in, I don't know where and everyone is told to get off the bus. My husband decides it is a most excellent time to use the bus bathroom. The driver thinks he has gotten everyone off the bus and unaware he proceeds to back the bus out of its boarding stall and over to fill it with gasoline. I along with about 10 other non-Mexican travelers are wondering what the hell is going on. All we know is that the bus driver said "diez minutos". My confidence wanes when I no longer recognize anyone. I'm a little worried my translation skills have failed me. I felt fairly certain the bus would return because everyone's packs and luggage were still on board. Then bay 10 filled with colectivos but I hovered anyway. The young French guy with the man bun comes to tell me that my husband is on the bus, which I already knew. I stand around anxiously for about 10 minutes and the bus returns to bay 9, which is close enough for me.
We keep making our way ever so slowly along winding, narrow roads. The bus that was already an hour and a half late when we got on it, is taking a lot longer than we had been told for it to reach our destination. It is not the drivers fault, these roads are crazy. Everyone is tired. After 8 hours or so, we arrive in San Cristóbal, at the bus station. It is colder than expected and dark. The town is much larger than imagined. Fortunately there were helpful people at the bus station who pointed us in the right direction for our lodging. We think we are grateful we have already booked a room for our entire stay, but that is another story. A story that involved a few emails to the booking site.

San Cristóbal sits in a small valley surrounded by mountains. The architecture is colonial with red tiled roofs and cobblestone streets. It is very picturesque. A walk outside the tourists streets will provide an opportunity to see a community rich in history, culture with a strong indigenous population. A short walk from the center shows you the poverty of the locals. We are walking ATM's to the people who live here although we will be spending very little money as we travel. Women are everywhere carrying heavy loads of woven shawls and trinkets to purchase. Along the edge of town you can gaze out onto nearby farmland, see people working the dry land and witness the impact of deforestation.  
It wasn't just the Zapatista that rallied and fought for a better life. We had two rather grim hostel experiences here in our first couple of days. The first place had some pretty glowing reviews and I had booked it for 6 nights. Lesson learned. We discover it is filled with artists who are living there and that is the good part. There were several mural projects going on and I enjoyed seeing people happily making art. The place is was kind of a mess. It was hard to look past the overflowing garbage, really dirty kitchen and saggy old furniture. I tried to ignore my first impressions but reality won out. Our room was stinky with sewer gas which we hadn't noticed at first. They had no other room to move us to.

That evening, we head out to visit another hostel run by a guy who helped us with directions earlier in the day. He shows us the three private rooms with shared bath and we pay him ahead for the next night to hold one of the rooms. We eat dinner and return to stinkyville. We close the bathroom door to let the sewer gas vent out the bathroom window and sleep with our room window cracked open even though the air is cool. Sleeping sucks for a variety of reasons and I am up at 6 am ready to check out. Fernando who was really very very nice, asks how we slept and I said not too well. We cancel our remaining days and head to the next place.
We are filled with new hope and go to our new room at the other hostel down the street. We think it is cleaner and the room much better. It has a view of the surrounding hills and we can see some impressive red tiled roofs. The kitchen area while a bit shabby is not nearly as bad as the other place. The bed is another story but we don't find out until later when we try to sleep. 

Up early again to problem solve and we head down the street to check out a couple of hotels. We settle on one that is new, super clean friendly and has new beds. There is no one there which is strange. We are happy with our courtyard view sitting area and clean surroundings. It's cold but we have a wool blanket and layers of clothes to keep us warm. It is raining on and off and the night air is cool.
Back in Palenque town, one of our credit cards got compromised after I used it at a restaurant. A gentle reminder in Mexico where we usually use only cash. Fortunately I was able to report it right away but that resulted in the card getting canceled. I had recently purchased airline tickets with that card to fly us out of Tuxtla Guetierez instead of riding a bus for 18 hours back to Playa del Carmen. With the airport two hours away and the compromised credit card we thought we best just keep with the plan and not try to change of flights.

We waited out our time in San Cristóbal de las Casas cold as we were and made the most of a bad situation. I am so happy we made this journey, even with some minor disappointments. Yes we were cold and missed the Caribbean Sea but we got to see a place where I treasure the handwork done by the local women.

Many lessons learned. 
  • Do not take photos of local market stalls as there is nothing worse than getting yelled at by a very old woman.
  • Never eat chile rellenos in combination with a fruit smoothie. I know I said, "No leche por favor". It tasted really good but my belly blew up and my stomach turns still, just thinking about it.
  • Never go where it is very cold with only one pair of leggings and a sweatshirt. 
  • You can never take too many pictures of Volkswagons.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Lost Minneapolis - Skid Row

I did not grow up here in Minneapolis but by 1980 I was living in an inner city neighborhood and I had a steady job downtown. I  was working at 250 Marquette, I saw no vestiges of the old business area, the skid row hotels, bars, or the old Gateway Park. It had all been wiped clean before I arrived. There is barely a trace left of this portion of the city which was once the heart of the Minneapolis business district. I became curious about this lost area focusing on photos from the area around Marquette and Washington avenues. I read stories of buildings lost to the widespread demolition of this area, most of which was already gone long before I arrived in town and wiped clean. Modern Architecture taking over and spreading for many blocks going towards the river. 

Good Bye Skid Row - City Demolishes 17 Square Blocks

In the late 1950's, the city planners in an effort to "clean up" the "embarrassment" of what had become a very large skid row, created a major redevelopment design for the downtown business district. Buildings began to disappear around 1959 and it is estimated that about 40% of the city's central business district or 17 square blocks of aging structures were leveled to make way for a cleaner and more modern downtown. I keep reading this over. It's just crazy! 17 square blocks!
Washington Avenue & Marquette Avenue late 1950's
Gateway Pavilion 1950s
$1.25 Weekly Rate - Pioneer Hotel

Hello Modern -  Washington and Marquette Avenue

Today the intersection of Marquette and Washington is marked by some well designed modern architecture. The architect, Minoru Yamasaki designed a complex of three buildings which all include  simplified Gothic forms, grand plazas and water features. The building at 20 Washington is one of my favorite buildings in Minneapolis. I spent a lot of time there over the years sitting near the reflecting pools. It was so peaceful and no one was ever there. This building was originally set to be the centerpiece of the new Gateway District. It opened in 1965. It deserves a close look. It is stunning modern architecture.I knew it as the North Western National Life Building but it has had several name changes over the years.
20 Washington Avenue - Architect: Minouru Yamasaki
The architect Gunnar Birkerts designed the original 250 Marquette. It opened in 1975 and was a building I worked in for many years. It was an architectural modern wonder and I had studied about it in Art History classes when I was at University. It has since had a major renovation due to costly asbestos abatement and a mold problem in the suspension cable enclosures. It is still an amazing building with a much appreciated green space on it's plaza.
250 Marquette Avenue 1982

What Happened to Gateway Park?

The Gateway Park was near the Nicollet Hotel but it was also near Skid Row, all of which were included in the demolitions. The Flag pole isn't particularly interesting but it somehow survived and is all that is left. It was originally at the convergence of Nicollet and Hennepin Avenues.  It was later moved out-of-the-way of a Hennepin Avenue redesign when the new Hennepin Bridge was built in 1990 . It is now completely dwarfed by the adjacent buildings and the multi-lane intersection at the Hennepin Avenue Bridge site.
Gateway Park Flag Pole - Long Ago

The Andrews Hotel - circa 1981

By the time I started working in this area around 1980, about the only thing I remember that was still there was the Andrews Hotel. I often wandered through the lobby, curious about this tired old place and the old men sitting around. Maybe we bought cigarettes and liquor from the lobby liquor store or stopped into the coffee shop.
I usually envisioned that it was once a grand hotel but further investigation tells me that it was never grand. It was known as a solid hotel for business travelers at some point and it somehow, survived all the demolition in this area during the 1960's. By the 1970's it was known more as a flop house and was designated for use as transitional housing for veterans and homeless individuals.  It was built in 1911 and imploded on a cold Sunday morning in 1984. That I remember. Sadly the entire block it sat on has remained a parking lot ever since.
The Andrews Hotel
Well, what got all my curiosity going was a film that was at the Hennepin History Museum Skid Row exhibit. I didn't have time to watch it when I was there, but they had the URL to locate it online. I watched it the following day and the film sent me down a bit of a worm hole and then the journey of this post.
The film was made in the late 1950's by John Bacich who later provided narration over it sometime in the mid 1980's and the film has been newly digitized.  It provides a gritty and candid record of the Minneapolis Gateway District. It runs about 30 minutes. Use this link to The King of Skid Row and select Skidrow Film from the website menu.

pres·er·va·tion               prezərˈvāSH(ə)n/

noun - the action of preserving something
synonyms: conservation, protection, perpetuation

We would love to hear any memories you have of this area. You can list them in the comments below.