Thursday, November 21, 2013

California Dreamin'

As we continued west along the US/Mexico border, the land got drier and more deserted. Towns were few and far between and many establishments that were once thriving were boarded up and abandoned. 

As soon as we crossed from Arizona into California, something changed. Suddenly there were endless fields of vegetation at various stages of growth, all being watered in the intense mid-day sunshine by thousands of sprinkler heads.  My guess is that watering in the peak of the heat is the only way to keep lush green crops from shriveling up in the extreme desert conditions, which are only conducive to growing cacti. Not sustainable. The most disturbing part of this was the hundreds of miles of open aqueducts (like canals) that were being used to supply massive quantities of water to these plantations.

 These canals are sourced from several major rivers and from the Ogallala aquifer, which lies beneath a large potion of the Midwest and southwestern USA. It's estimated that it formed over millions of years, and It's being drained at an alarming rate to feed the need for mass-produced meat and commercial produce across North America.  In some places the aquifer is nearly tapped out, giant sink holes are forming and communities are running out of water. It is estimated to run dry in the next several decades. Consider these circumstances. It's alarming to me that we have no idea where the majority of our food is coming from and what it takes to get it into our shopping carts. The severity of the sacrifices that are being made now and left for our future generations to deal with later is a huge concern. I will forever have these images in my mind when I see produce that has a California sticker on it. (probably Mexico too). Another great reason to eat local, and in season.

I was relieved to see fields full of wind turbines (a step in a better direction?) spanning across the desert as we approached an extremely unique mountain range called the Cuyamaca Mountains. 

These mountains were actually made up of huge piles of giant boulders that looked like a massive bulldozer had dropped from the sky. So amazing. 

As we summited the mountain range and coasted down the west side, weaving in between peaks, we began to see signs of human settlements again. After driving for an entire day, without seeing more than a gas station, this was strangely relieving. 

As per a suggestion from TripAdvisor, (which we rarely turned to for "touristy" suggestions) we headed late afternoon to the Sunset Cliffs in San Diego. We wanted to watch the sun go down and celebrate our return to the West Coast. 

We parked the car and walked along the cliff boardwalk. What a beautiful place. We strolled through the neighborhood and marveled at the fact that produce was dripping from trees in every yard and many fruits were rotting on the ground. 

Lemons, oranges, persimmons, avocados, pomegranates and many other fruits grow so abundantly here that the locals give them away to each other by the bagful and they are considered by many to be a nuisance.

We had posted a general note on the San Diego Couch Surfing message board seeking a host for a couple of nights. A man around our age responded and invited us to stay with him while we were in town. We thoroughly enjoyed his hospitality and his sightseeing and restaurant suggestions. 

We went just outside of San Diego to a town called La Jolla. Torrey Pines National Park was calling to us for an afternoon hike. The park land was donated to the state by a wealthy family back in the 1930's. This park and a few small surrounding areas are the only places in the world that house the Torrey Pine trees.

The trails scale up steep cliffs and through many acres of chaparral brush land. We concluded the hike with a walk down a long stretch of beach. 

Afterward we headed north to Encinitas to visit the Self-Realization Fellowship campus. It is a yoga center that was founded in the 1930's by Paramahansa Yogananda. What a neat place!

 We strolled through the meditation gardens, which coincidentally were closed to the public that day. We said hello to the security guard who asked where we were from. She said they make exceptions for out-of-towners, so we got a chance to look around after all. There were several acres of lush tropical gardens and ponds with waterfalls that Yogananda had helped plant himself. Such a serene environment.  

We climbed a small flight of stairs to a viewpoint that overlooked the ocean. An older woman sat on a bench alone and invited us to join her. We had a lovely visit with her and she told us that this was one of her favorite spots of all time. She said that when she dies, she would like her ashes spread in all of her favorite places, this being one of them. It's a very special place. 

PS.  I think that SoCal is one of the only places where you will see lost pet signs like these:

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Across the Sands of Time

We have made so many awesome connections with strangers on this trip. On the streetcars, at gas stations and grocery stores, outside of public washrooms, in parking lots, at campgrounds, in parks and at restaurants. There are so many seekers and travelers in the world. Even those who aren't currently traveling have done some exploring and are excited to share their experiences and helpful pointers with us fellow explorers. Some of our favorite places were discovered thanks to suggestions from strangers. 

Photo: everydaydreamholiday

One evening at dusk, we played tennis with our pals who have recently relocated to Houston, TX. We were in a park just outside of downtown and we watched the Waugh Bat Colony flutter overhead by the tens of thousands.  They formed swirly clouds of black specs and came in waves, one after the next for nearly a half hour. Then after a break in the black swirls, we thought they were all passed...but then a short while later, more swarms passed overhead. They all live underneath a large bridge at the edge of center city and they swarm overhead every night around sundown. A similar colony lives in Austin, TX too on Congress Ave. 

A bit of weather irony: while in one of the warmest states along the south coast, we camped in some of the coldest weather that we have encountered on this whole trip. The locals told us we must have left the back door open when we left Canada. It's apparent that the USA doesn't teach it's citizens much about it's giant frigid neighbor to the north, as most Americans we have met admittedly don't know much about Canada. Funny right? We have also repeatedly heard the frustration of Americans with the new Obamacare system. They hoped to have health care more like Canada's. Things aren't always what they seem...even in Canada.

They say everything is bigger in Texas. I don't know where "they" get that idea, but it sounds good.  The state itself is huge. Other than that, the only things I have noticed that are bigger are the pickups, the speed limit (it's the only state we have passed through with an 80mph speed limit) and the penalty for littering which is up to $2000 and a prison sentence.  They are also big on military bases and intensive cattle ranching.  We noticed an imaginary line through Texas, where the eastern part had a very similar feel to many east coast cities, and the western half was very "wild west" feeling. 

We pulled off the highway to take a tour of one of the older military forts in central Texas called Fort Lancaster. It was erected in the mid 1800's. There were minimal remains of various structures and lots of stories to go along with them. What a life it would have been living in the wide open desert/prairies of the south back then. So desolate. 

We did see many different agricultural ventures along the southern border including massive pecan and walnut groves covering thousands of acres amongst the dry brown grasses and cacti. We also saw more cotton plantations (finally snapped a photo) and fields full of drying chiles. Goats seem to be a popular livestock choice, probably because they will eat anything, including the dry, crunchy brush that covers the wide open ranches across the south of Texas. 

We headed for El Paso, TX, which shares the border with Juarez, Mexico. As we drove closer to the lights of the city, the Mexican border was visibly illuminated along the south side. We did a little exploring and saw that the border is lined with several walls of razor wire fences and has a canal nestled in between. There were two US border inspection stations, one that we went through along the highway, which I haven't seen before, other than when we actually crossed a US border. I suppose people slip through the borders on a regular basis and smuggle illegal substances in freight trucks, or they wouldn't bother having such stations. 

We Couch Surfed with a couple of nice guys in El Paso and tried some of the local Mexican food. We also drove up one of the mountains bordering the city to get a Birdseye view. 

Our host suggested that we take a tour of one of the original homesteads in El Paso called the Magoffin House. We caught the last tour of the day and really enjoyed hearing about the history of that area beginning in the late 1700's. 

As we headed through New Mexico and Arizona we noticed the terrain getting increasingly dry and barren. Tumbleweed the size of dogs blew in the harsh winds across the highway. There were dust storms in the distance and many road signs warned of the dangers of blowing dust. 
This certainly felt like the Wild West. 

We did some research and decided to camp just outside of Tucson, AZ in the western half of Saguaro National Park, nestled in the Red Hills. It's home of the Saguaro cacti, which only grow in a limited area of SW Arizona and a small portion of Northern Mexico. These are those iconic tall cacti with happy, waving arms. They can live up to 150 years!

We took a hike down one of many dry riverbeds at sunset. The views were breathtaking. The wind was still howling over the hills and through the valleys. As we climbed back to the parking area, we heard a dog bark across a small ravine. In the dimming light I saw that it was a large coyote- Much bigger than the scrawny variety way up north. He trotted along the side and disappeared down into the brush and popped up near us on the near side. We barked back at him and waved our arms and he scampered away. 

We sat under the full moon and played cards by headlamps at our campsite.  The campground was nearly silent. We heard a coyote yelp in the darkness across the campground. Then we were surrounded by a shrieking, yelping, barking chorus of dogs that were strategically scattered amongst the campsites in the bushes. We weren't alone. It was eerie. The desert winds picked up in the night and whipped our tent around above us. Twice more during the night I awoke to that alarming sound of coyote packs that seemed like it was right outside of our tent. In the morning, one of my sandals was curiously far from the tent.

This morning we awoke to the sun rising over the mountains and the cacti and into our tent and the sound of hummingbirds zooming around our campsite made us smile. The melody of a cowboy's harmonica in the desert breeze brought me a feeling of being a cowgirl on a trail ride in the old west where you never know what might be waiting around the next bend. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Cotton Fields and Cajun Spirit

The sun is shining in Houston as we sit on a park bench and the melody of a saxophone floats across the breeze. It still feels like summer here. It's tough to believe that it's fall in the south. Out of five weeks of travels, we have had only three days of inclement weather. It has allowed us to do lots of outdoor exploring. We rented bicycles on a street corner and our pals in Houston took us for a little tour. They also took us to our first climbing gym experience. We are hooked! We scooped up someone's extra tickets on Craigslist for the Houston Diwali Mela 2013 festival at a baseball stadium. We were four of maybe 10 non-Indian attendees and it was quite the event!! There were thousands of people there dressed in their best saris and dotis all colorful and bejeweled. The drums thundered and shimmering dancers performed in the aisles. Vendors offered trinkets and Hindu art and clothing. We ate a delicious meal from some street vendors and watched several dance performances on the main stage. We eventually left when we realized that we couldn't understand 90% of what was being said because we don't speak Hindi. 

So, flashing back to last week...we reluctantly said farewell to the beaches of North Carolina and headed south through South Carolina and Georgia. We made a stop in Savannah to play some evening tennis in a gorgeous park that was filled with gnarled, Spanish moss-covered Live Oaks. Many of these trees are several hundred years old and they are simply massive. It was hard to show their grandeur in a photo, but I tried. 

As we wound through Georgia, we passed plantations covered with crops that just don't thrive in the Northern climate. Cotton, sugar cane, sorghum and tomatoes grew mile after mile. Ironically, the sky looked a lot like a cotton field that day. 

Later that night, our GPS took us on a dark, back woods adventure down winding country dirt roads that were overgrown with the jungly foliage of the Deep South. We dodged numerous armadillos, which, if you've never seen one, are the size of a cat and pinkish gray, like a possum covered in leathery scales. They move slowly and when they are threatened, they roll into an armored ball. 

We decided to try our luck at finding a Couch Surfing host that would take us in late in the night around Tallahassee, Florida. Within an hour of posting a request, a woman offered us a bed for the night. We arrived there around 11pm and stayed up chatting with her until 2 am. We had so much in common and really enjoyed the stay. She had this happy flag outside her front door. It seemed like a slogan for our road trip. 

 She suggested that before we depart the area that we visit Wakulla Springs park. It was nearby, very close to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Wakulla Springs is one of the world's largest and deepest fresh water springs. Florida has more fresh water springs than anywhere else at over 600 springs! Who knew??

We arrived and bought tickets for a boat tour. The water was swimming temperature year round and based on vintage photos in the beautiful guest lodge, it is a hot spot in the summertime for tourists to cool off. The tour guide said that 400,000 gallons of spring water come up out of the ground every minute and flow into a 150 foot deep pool, which then gently flows about 20 miles to the ocean.  

The shallow water was crystal clear and we could see every fish, turtle and diving bird that we passed by. There was abundant life in every square inch of that refuge. We saw well over a dozen manatees, even some wee calves with their mamas. Sometimes when we got too close they swished their tails in the sandy bottom to create a cloudy mess. This was the best photo I could get. 

The guest lodge at the spring. 

We also enjoyed seeing the alligators basking in the sun. They ranged in size from a foot long and five pounds, all the way up to 12 feet long and 600 pounds!

This guy "Big Willie" was a local legend for many decades until one morning when he was found poached, floating in the spring. There was a huge reward for the guilty party(ies) but no one ever came forward.

After our afternoon in nature, we drove over the many miles of bridges that span across the Gulf Coast bayous, New Orleans-bound.  A local fella had agreed to host us via Couch Surfing for three nights. I had been to New Orleans briefly back in 2003, prior to hurricane Katrina and expected it to be less amazing, but it wasn't. The people of New Orleans had come together to rebuild and repair their gorgeous city. It now seems stronger and more lovely than before!  

I can't say this any more won us over and we wanted to stay forever. The bold colors, the constant sound of  jazz music, the art, fashion, food, tiled street names and overall friendly vibe stole our hearts. 

We arrived at our host's home and hunkered down in his wonderfully fun, traditional "shotgun"-style home. All of the rooms were in a row, save the bathroom. Kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms, front and back porches, straight as an arrow. What a great place. 

We must have put 15 miles on our shoes touring around the magical streets and back alleys of the city. We strolled through City Park, which is 1,300 acres, and saw a neat sculpture garden followed by the New Orleans Museum of Art. 

The people of the city collectively cleaned up the mess in the park after the hurricane to build back good cheer and keep the city beautiful...and secure the venue where many of the city's music festivals are held throughout the year.

There are two things I can guarantee you will see in this city: amazing musical performances and beads. There are Mardi Gras beads in Every. Single. Tree. And on practically every power line. 

We marveled at the grand, colorful houses with big old rocking chairs, porch swings and gas lanterns burning around the clock. The yards were mostly solid green foliage with avocado, palm and banana trees amongst the gigantic live oaks and tangled vines.  The locals refer to the grassy medians between the traffic lanes as "neutral ground". We got around the city by vintage street cars.

 The oldest, and longest running street car in North America is in downtown NOLA (as the locals refer to their city). We made so many fun connections with folks as we rode the streetcars around the city. One man stood out above the rest. Richard was a veteran, about 60 years old. He was also on a cross-country road trip. He carried with him, in his jacket pocket a small, plush goat. I asked him what the goat was for. He said it belonged to his wife, who had recently passed away from cancer. He said that they always wanted to see the country together, so this was his way of bringing her spirit along. He referred to himself and his mascot as "two old goats". We had a great conversation, and I was once again reminded that we are all on a personal journey. We all want answers to life's mysteries and we all reach out in our own ways to connect with others and hear their stories, exchanging puzzle pieces along the way. 

One evening, the air was sweaty and thick and there was a steady drizzle of rain. We walked through the old streets of brick and cobblestones, which are notoriously treacherous. One website suggested that you leave your heels and coffee cups at home before embarking on a walking tour. We stepped in many pot holes and stubbed many toes. At one point, a large, wet rat came charging toward us and scampered across my feet and proceeded across the street. Not something that you see in Canada. Something else you don't see in many places are real estate signs that read as follows:

We had an evening out on Frenchmen Street, in the French Quarter with our host, Louis. We had a hoot going from one jazz club to the next. The dancing and clapping and cigar smoke all added to the energy of the night. 

This was on a Wednesday. Every night is a music night in NOLA. There were street bands playing on many corners with buckets out to collect tips. Some are big band brass jazz and some are comprised of a home made mop bucket upright bass, washboards, spoons and banjos. 

At one club, The Spotted Cat, I must have ventured a little too close to the dance floor because an older gentleman swooped over and pulled me onto the floor with a twirl. It was a very sweaty (and slightly awkward) dance, but when we finished I smiled immediately said "we need to take some swing dancing lessons!" Watching the locals dip and spin and laugh had an addictive energy to it. What fun!

There were lots of "human statues" along the streets. 

On our last night in NOLA, we strolled through Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter. In a row along the fence were fortune tellers, palm readers and tarot card readers. We decided to check them out. One man called out to us with a smile and so we went to see what he had to offer, mostly for fun. He said his name was Jeffy and he wore a red and black sparkly jester's hat, which was a bit comical. He offered to read our tarot cards and our palms and we smiled and took a seat. There was a cold wind that night so we huddled close over his tiny table. For a good 20 or 30 minutes, he told us that we would both live long lives and travel a lot and be very successful in our business ventures and our relationship. These all seemed like pre-packaged comments that could apply to anyone. But then he got specific. He said, "don't have more than three children, more would be too many. Bring reiki into your lives for healing, and keep learning, and then teaching what you know. You are both meant to be teachers."

He's right. We both love to teach AND we both love to learn.  I am convinced that it's why we are all here.