Jun 26, 2017

Scotts Bluff, Oregon Trail, & Pony Express

 “Go West, young man, and grow with the country” wrote Horace Greeley in 1865 in the “New York Tribune.”  He was encouraging Americans to take advantage of the Homestead Act whereby, in exchange for a small filing fee, settlers were given 160 acres of public land.  People were already moving west.  It
was part of what some thought was America’s Manifest Destiny, the belief that the U.S. should reach from ocean to ocean. Before 1.6 million homesteaders moved west there were over 400,000 who followed the 2,170 mile route from Missouri to Oregon and California braving everything from disease to accidents to rushing river crossings and many other hardships. Most walked and, keep in mind, that they had to get to Missouri first; many did so via the Erie Canal. 

Chimney Rock was one of the many landmarks along the Oregon
Trail. Pioneers could see it several days before they arrived.  When John and I visited Chimney Rock National Historical Site, park ranger Loren Pospisil, said, “What makes Chimney Rock is not the rock but the people who passed by here.” It is one of the most mentioned landmarks in the traveler’s journals. The next major landmark was Scotts Bluff and the adjacent Mitchell Pass. From here settlers continued to Fort
Laramie and the hard part – when they were exhausted and often sick – through the mountains.  Beside the Visitor Center, there are covered wagons with pioneer-clad docents to tell more tales of the journey.  I even got to try some hardtack, a staple food because it didn’t spoil. I couldn’t help but think of Catherine Sager who, after making it to Oregon, wrote “Across the Plains in 1844.” It was at Scotts Bluff that the wagon slipped breaking Catherine’s leg.  Later her mother had a baby making it a family of seven children.  Both her parents died leaving her 14-year-old brother to lead the seven of them to Oregon. Amazing! And, that is just one story.

We also visited the nearby Legacy of the Plains Museum which
covered everything from the Native Americans to present day farming.  One video display included a saying found on a deserted shack near Chadron, “30 miles to water, 20 miles to wood, 10 miles to Hell, and I gone there for good.” We were fortunate because we got to meet Casey and Matt Debus, members of the National Pony Express Association.  The Pony Express was only in operation for 18 months but played a
significant role in the history of the West.  Riders were young, had to be less than 125 pounds, had to take an oath of loyalty, and were given a Bible to carry. Casey gave us a riding demonstration and with her father showed us how the mochila (mail bag) was transferred from horse to horse.  Three of the four pockets of the mochila were locked to insure
letters arrived without being tampered with. The riders rode 1800 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California in 10 days. Besides the Oregon settlers and the Pony Express, it was the way west for gold seekers, Mormons, traders and other adventurers. 

The Fur Trade Museum in Chadron depicts the time “...when skins were money.” It is America’s oldest business and made John Jacob Astor America’s first millionaire. Outdoor displays included a trading post and one display showed how 10 tanned buffalo hides were compressed into a 2x3-foot bale for easier shipping. The mystique of the West lives on.

Jun 19, 2017

Snug Harbor, Staten Island

One of the most interesting places John and I visited on Staten Island was Snug Harbor Cultural Center.  It was a one-stop see-a-lot place.  It is a Smithsonian affiliate that was started in 1801 by Robert Richard Randall as a sanctuary for aged sailors and grew to
have 50 structures and nearly a 1000 residents from every corner of the world. Snug Harbor was a self-sustaining community with a dairy, chapel, hospital and music hall and by the 20th century the richest charitable institution in the United States.  There are rooms where the sailors stayed and one display follows a Swedish sailor, Bengt Eric Bengtsson, during his time in Snug Harbor.  Other rooms feature a variety of displays from early Staten Island paintings and one called “Remembering the Mastodon.” 

As a sailor’s retreat it began to experience financial difficulties in the mid-20th century especially when federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare were introduced.  Fortunately in the 1960s, the newly formed New York City Landmarks Commission stepped forward to save the five Greek Revival buildings and the chapel. They were New York City’s first landmark structures and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1970s citizens, concerned over the deterioration of some of the
buildings, and artists were able to save Snug Harbor as a cultural center. Today, Snug Harbor is a place where history, architecture, visual art, theater, dance, music and environmental science come together and provide experiences for all ages. It is one of the largest ongoing adaptive reuse projects in America, consisting of 28 buildings, and is one of New York City’s unique architectural complexes and historic landscapes. Many building are being restored including the Music Hall that rivals Carnegie Hall. It is also home to the Staten Island Children’s Museum. I liked the Chinese Scholar’s Garden. I wished we had been there for one of their many events.

John and I took a step into Staten Island’s past in Historic Richmond Town, with over 30 original historic structures and where some of the treasures date to the mid-1600s. It is the only historic town in New York City. After watching the introductory video we took a guided tour of
the town including the tin shop and general store. I wish there had been time to return to the tavern in the evening for one of their frequent musical presentations that included sea shanties.  I always thought the word “bar” came from a piece of flat wood where, in the early days, drinks were served.  Our guide told us it actually was a wooden barred window in the tavern that could be closed to “bar” the rowdies from getting to the booze. Always something to learn.

When people say they are going to New York City they usually are
referring just to Manhattan. New York City is divided into five boroughs: Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Think of Staten Island as the “other NYC” and it is only a twenty-five minute free ferry ride from downtown. Staying on Staten Island while
visiting Manhattan saves a lot of money – the hotels are reasonable and provide free parking and transport to/from the Staten Island Ferry. It is the least populated of the boroughs with over 170 parks and dubbed “The Greenest Borough.” It is said “If you haven’t seen Staten Island, you haven’t really seen New York. Think of it as small town New York City.

Jun 9, 2017

Loving Hocking Hills

There are few places where I go out of my way to revisit.  Hocking Hills in the southeast part of Ohio near Logan is one of those places.  About 10 years ago John and I stayed at The Inn at Cedar Falls in the Hocking Hills area. We stayed in Dogwood Cabin nestled in the woods with two balconies that
overlooked the forest.  In the morning I wandered out to the top balcony with my coffee to see a deer watching me.  It was very serene.  When John and I chanced to be near Hocking Hills again I contacted the Inn at Cedar Falls and, as luck would have it, the only accommodation available (they have cottages and yurts plus the authentic log cabins) was Dogwood and only during the week which meshed perfectly with our plans.

Dogwood is one of the five original 1840’s log cabins that was
moved to the area by the owner of Inn at Cedar Falls. It may be a log cabin of yesteryear but it has all the modern amenities; heat/AC, full kitchen, and a modern bathroom. There are two levels. A spiral staircase leads to the lower lever with a king-size bed, a two-person whirlpool hot tub and double doors looking out at the balcony and dense forest beyond. A
complete breakfast of locally sourced items is included and served in their restaurant that is also open to the public. It is located in another original log cabin decorated with antique items. They also serve lunch and dinner and will pack a to-go lunch for day hikers.  I knew there was a kitchen so I brought some food with me but had planned to go to the restaurant one night but we had too much food of our own. There is also a spa which I never got to go to.  The Inn is a favorite of groups on yoga retreats. 

There are a slew of hiking trail some of which link two caves and
waterfalls together.  One day we walked to Cedar Falls.  There was a light mist which made all the leaves glisten. The Falls was missed named by the early settlers who mistook the hemlocks for cedar. There were steps but it was an easy walk and not far. The next day we
went to Ash Cave which is handicap accessible. Ash Cave is huge – 700 feet from end to end, 100 feet deep and 90 feet high.  As one might expect the name comes from the fact that early settlers found what amounted to several thousand bushels of ashes in the cave believed to have been built up from Indian campfires. It is possible the Native Americans may have smelted silver and lead from the nearby rocks.

We also visited Old Man’s Cave which is accessed at Hocking Hills
State Park where there is a Visitor Center with a small museum. There are several trailheads in the park.  John and I took the easy path to Old Man’s Cave. The cave is named for a hermit, Richard Rowe, who arrived in the area in 1796 from Tennessee. He is buried beneath the ledge of the main recess cave.  There is a plaque in his honor. 

Each night we returned to Dogwood Cabin and spent the evening reading by the fire.  Sometimes returning to a favorite spot after ten years is a disappointment. That wasn’t the case this time; our second stay was as wonderful as our first. 

Jun 5, 2017

Longaberger Basket

Remember the days of the Longaberger home parties?  I do; however, I never bought one. Ten years ago when John and I were in Ohio we stopped in Newark to see the World’s Largest Basket.  It was actually the corporate headquarters for the Longaberger Company. The building is still there but sadly it is unoccupied and will be auctioned off with the starting bid - if you are interested - equal to the $700,000 tax debt.  The building cost $32 million to build in 1997.

Dave Longaberger wanted to create Longaberger-world with hotels, amusement rides, and eateries - something similar to Hershey, PA. It never came to fruition and today there is only Longaberger Homestead.  He died just before the Visitor Center opened. There was hardly anyone there and most of the buildings were not open.  The Visitor Center is beautiful and has a gift shop with
Longaberger baskets and other locally made items “mostly hand-touched products, made in America.”  A couple of the rooms in the main building are dedicated to the Longaberger story. There is a “make your own basket” area whereby visitors can pay to make a basket – at great expense, I might add.  They will also restore baskets. Most baskets will become family heirlooms. All Longaberger baskets are signed by the maker and labeled “Longaberger”

The Homestead has a large apple basket, the first workshop of Dave Longaberger’s father, the family homestead and a couple other buildings.  Only the large Visitor Center and workshop are open.  The Longaberger family moved to Dresden, Ohio in 1896. At that time baskets were as common as paper bags are now. His father took a job with the Dresden Basket Factory and learned the art of basket making. His son, Dave, had a severe shuddering problem and epilepsy but that did not stand in
his way. As a youngster he worked at so many different jobs his family called him the “25-cent millionaire.”  He owned and operated a small restaurant and an IGA store. Noticing the baskets were becoming popular he asked his father to make some which he took to local shops.  They sold and stores asked for more. The baskets were sold, with varying degrees of success, in malls and department stores. Dave

Longaberger found the most effective way to sell the baskets was via home shows whereby an educated home consultant would show Longaberger baskets, share the history, touting the excellent craftsmanship. There are still Longaberger home shows. The market for the baskets is not
what it used to be and the workforce has diminished. The baskets are now made in a factory near the Homestead. It is sad because so many people in the area were employed by Longaberger.  I chatted with a lady who no longer has family members who work for the company but she said it was the reason they moved to Dresden. 

We stayed at the lovely Inn at Dresden, which was the home of Dave Longaberger.  He used to play on the hill where the Inn is now located pretending he controlled everything as far as he could see.  The view is beautiful. Interestingly, the dining room has a section of La Guerre d’Independence.  They say the only other place that has parts of the mural/wall paper is the White House but I know different.  There is a section in Frances Tavern in NYC; and to my knowledge, Mexico High School has the only complete set. 

May 29, 2017

Places to visit in Kathmandu

There are actually three Durbar Squares in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Durbar means “palace.”  The most famous is Basantapur Durbar Square which is considered the traditional heart of the old town and is famed for its traditional architecture. The Basantapur Durbar Square was in front of Nepal’s 19th century royal residence. It was hard hit in the 2015 earthquake when more
than half of the temples were destroyed. Some buildings were badly damaged but are still standing and in the process of being repaired.  Regardless the square is still fascinating with people making offerings to Kal Bhairav. The image is frightful. Kal Bhairav, an incarnation of Lord Shiva, and worshipped by Hindus and Jaines but also by the Nepalese who want to better manage their time instead of wasting time on frivolous pursuits.
 John and I have much to learn about the religions and practices in Asia. Men were selling oil lights as offerings. There’s a huge wooden wagon that is used in special religious processions that the children enjoy clambering over; and Hindu monks wanting monetary offerings. (Buddhist monks never ask for money.) The square has many pigeons with ladies feeding them.  It is said that just before the earthquake the pigeons took flight. I have heard that animals often sense impending natural phenomena. There is still evidence of earthquake damage here and there.  Our hotel, the Shanker, had damage to the lobby and is in the process of repairing it. 

John and I visited Narayanhity Palace which is actually a newly built palace-like museum built on the site of the last royal palace. Taking pictures is not allowed. There is an impressive throne room and other royal articles.  Outside the main building, in the gardens which were once part of the previous palace, there are signs indicating
where each member of the royal family was executed. In 2001 Prince Dipendra went on a rampage, most likely drug and alcohol induced, and murdered nine members of the royal family including his parents before shooting himself.  He was upset over his parent’s refusal to allow his marriage to a commoner. In essence it was the beginning of the end of the monarchy which came about in 2007and in 2008 Nepal became a republic.

We also visited Swayambhu, better known as Monkey Temple, a religious complex at the top of a hill and one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites.  There are free-roaming “holy” monkeys. Why are they considered holy? I love the legends/stories that explain such things. It seems that when Manjushri, the bodhisattva (a person who is saint-like) of wisdom and learning, was creating the hill and temple he was supposed to keep his hair short but it grew long and with head lice. It is said that the head lice turned into the monkeys. 

Not too far from our hotel was an oasis of peace and tranquility
“The Garden of Dreams.” The Garden was a neo-classical historical garden created in the 1920s and considered one of the most sophisticated private gardens at that time with fountains, flowers, and pavilions each dedicated to one of the six seasons of Nepal. Today only half of it remains but it is still beautiful as it was restored with the cooperation of the Austrian government making it a beautiful place to relax for tourist and locals alike. 

May 21, 2017

Visiting Kathmandu

 The names of some destinations have a magical draw for me such as Katmandu and Timbuktu. I will probably never get to Timbuktu but I decided if I was ever going to Kathmandu I better go while I still can. 

When John and I arrived at Nepal’s Tribhuvan International Airport it was very busy with
several planes arriving about the same time. We decided to get a visa on arrival but so did most of the other passengers so it was very hectic.  One of the airport security guards came to the rescue (I sure TSA& airport security in the US would do the same – maybe, maybe not).  He motioned for us to sit and said if we gave him the money for the visas ($25 pp for a 15-day visa) he would do it for us.  We gave him the money and our passports and after a few minutes he returned with all the necessary paperwork, led us to the desk where visas are issued and with a nod to the people standing in line we went ahead of everyone and received our visas.  It was much appreciated.  

Our hotel, Hotel Shanker, provided complimentary airport
transfers. I try to book hotels with complimentary transport because we find dealing with airport taxis frustrating.  The ride into the city was interesting.  The city seemed chaotic. Vendors had their wares displayed along the roadway. The traffic was intense. Katmandu has over one
million people and no stoplights or stop signs. There are a few policemen at critical intersections but basically traffic, which is heavy most of the time, operates on drivers taking turns giving way to other drivers. I was told that some foreign organizations had installed traffic lights but it caused more confusion because Kathmandu does not have reliable electricity 24 hours. 

Our hotel, the Shanker, was, like many other high end hotels,
located down a private side road from the main highway making it an oasis in the midst of a pulsating city. The Shanker is a family owner hotel and offered great deals because the hotel suffered some damage to the lobby during the earthquake and while they are repairing the damage they decided to upgrade some parts of the hotel.  It didn’t impact our stay. For a reasonable price we were able to book a suite. 

John and I enjoy cultural shows.  The concierge at the hotel booked dinner for us at Bhojan Girha with transportation. It was much better than I thought it would be. I imaged tour buses dropping of dozens of people.  Not so.  The restaurant is in an history building in neo-classic design that was once the residence of the royal priest and  is over 150 years old. It was on the verge of collapse when it was skillfully restored using
traditional methods to become a place that promotes culture and local cuisine.   They have several restaurants to meet the needs of various groups.  Our room was perfect.  Quite intimate.  Seating is traditional – on the floor but they had special low chairs for those of us who were not accustomed to
sitting comfortably on the floor. 
The festive folk music was representative of some of the over 100 Nepali ethnic groups. The many course meal was delicious from the Momocha (meat filled dumplings) to Kukhura Ko Masu (chicken curry) to Sikarni (sweetened yogurt Cream).  A wonderful way to learn about Napali culture. 

May 20, 2017

Refresh at Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand

No matter how one gets to Asia it is a long, arduous trip. Flights to Bangkok are often the best deal. During our three-plus months in SE Asia we fly through Bangkok several times; sometimes via Suvarnbhumi Airport, usually referred to as Bangkok International airport.  The other airport is Don Mueang International.  I love it when our flights arrive at
Suvarnabhumi because we stay at the Novotel at the airport.  All flights to Thailand from Europe and the US arrive at Suvarnabhumi.  After 20+ hours of traveling I do not want to continue to another destination, not even Bangkok city which is an hour’s drive.  The airport is very modern and Novotel makes getting to the hotel hassle-free. When we exit the baggage area we just walk to Exit Door 4 where the Novotel agent is waiting.  He escorts us to the hotel’s van. The airport is about 10 years old and so is the Novotel.  Why they didn’t make direct access from the airport to the hotel is a mystery.

The Novotel is the perfect place to get rid of jet lag and
refresh.Walking into the bright, airy four-story atrium brightens the mind and spirit. The lobby is huge with five restaurants/bars plus a Business Center.  One of the unique benefits is that there is no set check in/out time. The room is ours for 24 hours. We usually arrive about midnight so we don’t have to get up and rush out in the morning. People going on the Bangkok city can catch a cab from the hotel, less hassle than dealing with a taxi at the airport or take the Skytrain into Bangkok with direct access from the hotel. People flying can take the free shuttle back to the airport.  For those flying to Phuket or one of Thailand popular beach locations will most likely find that staying at the Novotel will be less expensive than the night at an island resort. 

The hotel has one of the most attractive rooftop pool of any airport hotel with afull-service spa and well-equipped gym just steps away. The spa offers a special treatment to alleviate the symptoms of jetlag.  Last year they were celebrating their 10th year so that had a special lottery. I drew the lucky envelope and received ten free massages. It was good for one year and I managed to use six of them.

The rooms are excellent – think five-star hotel. This Novotel is
much more upscale than most Novotels.  Join their loyalty program and book via their website for the lowest rate and free internet.  The room can be booked with or without breakfast.  The breakfast buffet is absolutely huge – unlike anything stateside; besides the usual breakfast items there are f
resh vegetables, several kinds of soup, curries, and many other things.  It may be breakfast for some but dinner for others so everything is available for all ethnic groups. John and I like their Executive Club Level. For the extra money we get breakfast (in the restaurant or club), cookies midday (John never misses) and evening cocktails with a nice selection of hor d’oeuvres. For us it serves as dinner. The other thing we like about club level is we get express check-in and the executive lounge is always serene.   Also, we usually plan to spend our last night in Asia at the hotel to grid ourselves for the long flight home.