Gary’s Birthday 4 – 1/2015

August 26, 2015

We could have stayed in Guadalajara for a week, but other adventures called. Tequila!!! It had been years since Monika and I had been to the town of Tequila, a short drive northwest of Guadalajara.

Tequila is a regional specific name for a distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area near the city of Tequila. The fields of Agave that surround the town form part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Agave Landsape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila. The red volcanic soil in the region is particularly well suited to the growing of the Blue Agave, and more than 300 million of the plants are harvested there each year.

Gary's BD Blog 4 102 Although tequila is a kind of mezcal, the standard for good tequila uses only blue agave plants. Mexican laws state that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.

Agave plants, like grapes or olives, grow differently depending on the region. Blue Agaves grown in the highlands of the Los Altos region are larger in size and sweeter in aroma and taste. Agaves harvested in the lowlands, on the other hand, have a more herbaceous fragrance and flavor.

What this means is that if you buy a bottle of Tequila, it could come from anywhere, BUT, if it does not state on the bottle “100% Blue Agave”, you don’t know what you’re drinking. Tequila is most often made at a 38%–40% alcohol content (76–80 U.S. proof), but can be produced between 31% and 55% alcohol content (62 and 110 U.S. proof). A couple of well-blended Margaritas can spin your head. For comparison, most wine ranges from 12% to 15% and beer is around 5%.

Gary's BD Blog 4 101The first time I drove into Tequila in our 1967 Land Rover, back in 1974, the streets were still all cobblestone and kids ran behind us, hanging onto the rear tire mount and trying to get us to take a free tour at either the Sauza or Cuervo Tequila distilleries. There were only two in town, and we were the only tourists around. Today there are a dozen or more that charge for a tour and with the explosion of Tequila’s popularity, including “yuppie blends” like Patron for $30-$50 a bottle, the little town has prospered under the daily influx of tourists from any of the more than 40 countries where the liquor is recognized as a Mexican designation of origin product.

Happy to say, the town has cleaned up a bit, but it still has the flavor of Mexico, with the church and the plaza being the center of activity. We found a nice hotel on the plaza and did the tourist route, a tour, always interesting, educational—and fun. Back in our room after patronizing a couple of the street taco stands, we mixed our own Margaritas—better than most bars and restaurants. The simple recipe if you’re taking notes: 1 part freshly squeezed lime juice, 1 part Triple Sec or Cointreau, and 2 parts Tequila. Mix or shake with ice. Do not blend into a snow cone. Serve in a glass or cup with a lightly salted rim. Don’t drive afterwards.

Making a U-turn back through Guadalajara, we headed for Lake Chapala and the town of Chapala where I had lived for two years as a kid.


Gary’s Birthday 3 – 1/2015

August 23, 2015

Now we’re getting to Gary’s real birthday celebration and some of you may be thinking, “You must be crazy going to Mexico, yes?” Despite all the horrible warnings from the State Department about where not to travel in Mexico, if you had to go, the worst places were probably the states of Jalisco and Michoacán. I am happy to say that despite all the yellow press and warnings about the dangers in Mexico, it still remains one of the safest places in the world of travel. To date we have not been robbed, kidnapped, threatened or ripped off.

When I was asked what I wanted to do for my 70th birthday, aside from hiking to the Everest Base Camp or hot air ballooning over the Serengeti, I said I wanted sit in the Mariachi Plaza and listen to the Mariachis play songs that I can remember when I lived in Mexico as a child. That’s what started this whole chain of adventures.

Gary's BD Blog 3 22

While almost everything in the world seems to change, often for the worst, and Mariachi Plaza next to Guadalajara’s Mercado Libertad remains much as it was 60 years ago years ago. I remember it well, living in Chapala just 35 miles south of Guadalajara. It was a place we always took visitors.

After a traditional shot of tequila, (maybe two), we walked a few blocks from our hotel to the Plaza. Mariachi music is something that is part of the heart and soul of Mexico and specifically in the States of Jalisco and Michoacán. It is as much a part of Mexico as tacos. While you can find Mariachis almost anywhere there are festivities going on, the Plaza is a place where several of the different groups congregate. They can vary in size from 3 or 4 musicians to 10 or 12. As they wander through the tables where locals are celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, baptisms or just a fun evening out on the town, they are roving troubadours, charging by the song.

Gary's BD Blog 3 23After a quick walk around the Plaza, Monika discovered a group that was one of the best; 3 guitars, 2 bases, 2 violins, a little Requinto and 2 trumpets. All the guys wore the classic Mariachi outfits, which told us that they were a unified group and practiced together. When they found out that it was my birthday they immediately broke into Las Mañanitas, the beautiful Mexican birthday song. I had a few requests of favorites and they knew all but one. After a second cold Corona I could even remember the words to a couple of them.

It was definitely exactly what I had wished for. (How often does that happen?) As they moved on to play for another party we headed for one of my favorite places in the world to eat. Yep, you guessed it. One of the safest places in Mexico to eat is the street taco stand. It was a birthday I will not soon forget.

Some of you may recall our motto: “Don’t take the trip. Let the trip take you!” With that in mind, we headed northwest to the town of Tequila and the land of the blue agave.


Gary’s Birthday 2 – 1/2015

August 19, 2015

So now you’re looking at news with a slight time delay. Following our visit in San Diego and with our truck and car safely stored at our friends’ home, the next day we found ourselves sitting in the waiting room at the Los Angeles airport. What a zoo, except no monkeys and elephants. We ended up in a section that was being rebuilt. It looked like something in a third-world country. By the time we got through security we had also missed all the overpriced fast food shops so the only thing edible was in coin-operated vending machines. I think a ham sandwich, a salad and a glass of bad red wine cost about $50 bucks for two! We did score one of the three tables. It gets better.

After a comfortable flight on Aero Mexico we waded through the process of renting a car and headed for the cute hotel we had stayed at years before. The San Francisco Plaza Hotel was a perfect location, walking distance to downtown Guadalajara with all its gardens, museums and government buildings, and just a few blocks from the main giant open market and perhaps most importantly, the Mariachi Plaza.

Gary's BD Blog 2 61Cousin Carol and her husband Doug arrived on a later flight so we had our welcome ceremony in our room with a glass of box San Ramon wine and chips & salsa. A Walmart (yes!) was just a few blocks away. Carol & Doug appreciated that we are experienced budget travelers.

In the morning after coffee in the beautiful garden patio beneath the rooms, we donned our walking shoes and headed for town. Guadalajara is one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico, famous for its plazas, cathedrals and old colonial buildings. By chance as we entered the Teatro Degollado, the concert pianist for the evening, Jorge Federico Osorio, was warming up with a little Brahms. It was like a private performance just for us.

Gary's BD Blog 2 60After a couple of visits to other government buildings to gasp at the incredible murals, it was siesta time and we knew where lunch was waiting. The giant three-level Mercado de San Juan de Dios (also called Mercado Libertad) has an array of tempting little food stalls to die for. After wandering through the isles of vegetables and butcher stalls, we found the perfect place to introduce Doug to his first Pozole, a very typical spicy hominy and pork soup.

Before heading back to our rooms for a short nap we picked up some fresh fruit for breakfast the next day. As expected, the selection of papayas, mangos, guayabas (guavas) and other tropical fruit was amazing. The question of “What do you eat in Mexico?” was easy to answer. Everything!!


Gary’s Birthday 1 – 1/2015

August 14, 2015

Okay so we’re a few months behind, but really, news is only relevant to whether you’ve heard it or seen it previously, so before we return to Greece and onward to our 40,000 mile expedition across Asia, following the Silk Road, we have to tell you a little bit about my birthday. It was the big 7-0, so I was told I could do anything I wanted that was legal. Humm— Options like hot air ballooning over the Serengeti Plains or trekking to the base camp of Everest crossed my mind but Mexico was so close and relatively easy.

Stage one: Only a few days late, coming from South Korea, we took delivery of The Turtle V at the harbor in Long Beach, just off the Wallenius Wihelmsen Ro-Ro freighter, and headed south toward our good friends’ home in El Cajon. Plans were already in the works to fly to Guadalajara, Mexico where my cousin and her husband would join us for a second celebration, but first, what to do in San Diego? Of course the San Diego Zoo, one of the finest in the world, has always been a favorite place, (I hadn’t been there for years.), so off we went to see the elephants.

Dinner was my choice so smoked oysters, rib eye steaks and a nice zinfandel were on the menu. The next day found us sitting in the San Diego International Airport, passports in hand. Before I forget, thank you all for the wonderful birthday cards I received and the uncountable emails and Facebook congrats. I have them sitting on my desk right now. Even the ones I received while we were in Mexico were special. It’s never too late to get a birthday card.








Japan 6 – Snow Monkeys – 12/2014

July 30, 2015

Let the truth be known, one of the main reasons Monika and I wanted to visit Japan was to see the amazing Snow Monkeys. In the frigid valley of Japan’s Shiga-Kogen (Shiga Highlands) near Nagano, the site of 1998 Winter Olympics, there is a thermal spring that has been discovered by a troop of Japanese Macaque monkeys. They are also known as the Snow Monkeys because they live in areas where snow covers the ground for months each year. No other non-human primate is more northern-living, nor lives in a colder climate, surviving winter temperatures of below -15 °C, (5°F). They have brown-gray fur, a red face, hands and bottom, a short tail and big ears, and often seem remarkably human-like.

Snow Monkeys Japan 6 47In 1964 the Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park opened. It is located in the valley of the Yokoyu River that flows down from the Shiga-Kogen. At an elevation of 850 m, (2,788 ft), surrounded by steep cliffs and hot water steaming out from the earth’s surface, the area is called Jigokudani (“Hell’s Valley”). The monkeys discovered the pool of warm water and made it their winter home. Free food too…..

A great way to travel through Japan is with the Japan Rail Pass. You need to buy it before you arrive in Japan. From Kanazawa, it took three train rides, a bus and finally a taxicab, (because an avalanche had closed the train tracks), to get to our accommodation in the Hakuba area. Dragging our luggage behind us through the snow we arrived at the Pension Ratanrirun, mostly frequented by skiers and snow borders. It was a cozy place with a Japanese style hot tub, bathroom down the hall and comfortable beds.

In the morning, getting an early start to avoid the crowds, a bus brought us to the trailhead for the Snow Monkey Park. From there it was a steep 40-minute hike up a treacherously icy trail to the hot pool where this particular troop of Japanese Macaques has made its hangout. For the first time during our two-year adventure around the world, we wished we had our MSR trekking poles and our Yaktrax traction clip-ons for ice and hard-packed snow, but of course they were packed safely in The Turtle V, now in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on its way to California.

We could tell you all kinds of wonderful Snow Monkeys Japan 6 57things about these amazing monkeys but the pictures are worth a thousand words. Just for fun we have included a caption here and there. The animals are so used to tourists; thousands come every year to see them. In the wild they spend most of their time in forests and feed on seeds, buds, fruit, invertebrates, berries, leaves, and bark. In the park they are fed rice in the winter by Park Rangers who watch over the crowd to make sure no one steps out of line. A sign at the entrance says it all:

 “You may think these monkeys are your long-lost relatives. They don’t! Don’t touch them.”

That evening, delighted we had finally seen the famous snow monkeys, we walked through the neighborhood in search of dinner. Skiers were happy.  The snow was dumping hard. The air was crisp and the fresh powder was squeaking under our boots. It was a magical night, our last in Japan. A local bar served some excellent Sashimi, still a bit pricey. The restaurant that supposedly offered Kobe beef was already closed so we ended up eating the worst pizza we’ve ever had.

Trudging back to the train station in the morning in the dark, we caught a series of trains to the Narita airport in Tokyo for our flight to San Francisco. It was New Year’s Eve 2014, the longest we have ever experienced (32 hours).

You may think that’s the end of our journey. It’s not. Without reverting to Greece where we left off with our blogs on our Around-the-World Adventure, we have to tell you first about Gary’s birthday party. Stay tuned.


Japan 5 – Hiroshima – 12/2014

July 18, 2015

At 8:15 AM, August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber carried out the World’s first atomic bombing. The bomb was about 3 m, (9.8 ft.), long and weighed about 4 tons. It was called “Thin Man” at first because of its long thin design. When the actual bomb turned out to be shorter than expected, the name was changed to “Little Boy”.

The bomb exploded approximately 600 m, (2,000 ft), above and 160 m, (525 ft), southeast of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, ripping through and igniting the building, instantly killing everyone in it. Because the blast struck from almost directly above, some of the center walls remained standing. Even the building’s iron frame could be recognized as a dome. After the war these dramatic remains came to be known as the A-Bomb Dome.

The impressive Hiroshima Peace Museum

The impressive Hiroshima Peace Museum

The bomb was delivered by a total of three B-29 bombers. One carried devices for scientific observation, another carried photographic equipment, and the third called Enola Gay, named after Col. Paul Tibbits’ (the pilot) mother, actually carried the bomb.

On the streets of Hiroshima it was just another Monday. It dawned clear and sunny. The yellow air raid alarm was cleared and the hot summer’s day began as usual.

The detonation of the “Little Boy” created a fireball that blazed like a small sun. More than 1,000,000°C, (1,800,032 F°), at its center, the fireball reached a maximum diameter of 280 m, (918 ft.), in two seconds. Surface temperatures near the hypocenter rose up to 4,000°C, (7,232F°). Fierce heat rays and radiation burst out in every direction, expanding the air around the fireball and creating a super high-pressure blast. These factors interacted in complex ways to inflict tremendous damage.

Although the casualties are not precisely known, approximately 140,000 people are believed to have died by the end of 1945. Among them were many school children and South Korean prisoners of war, mobilized to demolish buildings near the city center for fire lanes. Buildings within a 2 km, (1.5 mi), radius of the hypocenter crumbled and burnt to the ground. Death was often presumed from personal effects left behind. Many bodies were never found or identified.

Japan Hiroshima 28

Hiroshima Peace Museum’s reflection in the Peace Pond

People close to the hypocenter said the atomic explosion looked yellowish red. Those further away reported a bright bluish white light resembling burning magnesium. The intense thermal rays from the fireball caused burns within a radius of up to 3.5 km, (2mi). Those within 1.2 km, (1,312 yd.), of the hypocenter sustained severe injuries to their internal organs and most died within a few days.

As we walked past the shocking photos of the results of this horrific act of war, as an American, I could not help but feel sad, and I could only wonder how many American lives had been saved and the thousands of other soldiers and civilians who would have perished had the war not been stopped in its tracks. And then again, remembering what the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor, I could not repress the smugness of thinking, “Well, did we get your attention?”

In fact, the devastation brought to Hiroshima had not been sufficient to convince the Japanese War Council to accept the Potsdam Conference’s demand for unconditional surrender. On August 9 at 1:56 a.m., a specially adapted B-29 bomber, called “Bock’s Car,” after its commander, Frederick Bock, took off from Tinian Island under the command of Major Charles W. Sweeney. Nagasaki was a shipbuilding center, the very industry intended for destruction. The bomb was dropped at 11:02 a.m., 503 m, (1,650 ft.), above the city. The explosion unleashed the equivalent force of 22,000 tons of TNT. The hills that surrounded the city did a better job of containing the destructive force, but the number killed is estimated at anywhere between 60,000 and 80,000 (exact figures are impossible, the blast having obliterated bodies and disintegrated records). Even though the Japanese War Council still remained divided, Emperor Hirohito, by request of two War Council members eager to end the war, met with the Council and declared, “continuing the war can only result in the annihilation of the Japanese people…” The Emperor of Japan gave his permission for unconditional surrender.

The Children's Peace Monument is dedicated to Sadako Sadaki and thousands of other child victims of the A-bombing in Hiroshima.

The Children’s Peace Monument is dedicated to Sadako Sadaki and thousands of other child victims of the A-bombing in Hiroshima.

The beautiful Memorial Monument for Hiroshima, City of Peace, erected on August 6, 1952, embodies the hope that Hiroshima, will stand forever as a City of Peace. The stone chamber in the center contains the register of Deceased A-bomb Victims. The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of the victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima – enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning to genuine, lasting world peace.


Japan 4 – Parks & Temples – 12/2014

July 9, 2015

In case you never get to visit Japan, we wanted to give you a quick glimpse of some of the amazing parks and temples we saw. While every big city in the world has beautiful parks, those of Kyoto were spectacular. It seemed that almost every leaf and twig and branch had been exactly trimmed. Many of the parks have ponds and surround beautiful temples. The attention to detail of the buildings was exquisite.

Japan Parks & Temples 24In Kyoto, one of its main attractions was a huge courtyard of carefully manicured gravel and a few rocks but no trees. It’s the internationally famous Rock Garden that is said to have been created by a highly respected Zen monk named Tokuho Zenketsu around 1500.

Japan Parks & Temples 14In Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen Garden and Castle Park each tree had guidelines to maintain the exact shape of each limb and to help protect them from heavy snow loads. The historic castle is being restored and its woodworking was amazing. There appeared to be no nails or metal fasteners. Each beam and truss was joined using interlocking joints and pegs.

On a little side trip to the historic village of Shirakawago winter had already come. Old traditional houses were heavily laden with snow. Many were open to the public. Exhibits showed how people lived a 100 years ago.

A quick look at these pictures will give you an idea of another element of Japan.



Japan 3 – Food – 12/2014

June 28, 2015

Food is such an important part of traveling to new countries. While we do most of our own cooking in our self-contained camper, we never miss the opportunity to try the local specialties. Wandering through the market place in Kyoto, without a translator standing next to us, the question was, “What is it?” While there were a few things we could recognize, there were many others that looked more like bait to me. Shrimp and baby octopus were easy to identify. Fresh crab was a popular item but at prices like 25,000 Yen, ($202.00), or even 42,000 Yen ($339.00), apiece or per kilo, we settled for a little take-out sushi.

Food Japan 004Normal vegetables were plentiful, but they took on a different appearance when prepared Japanese style. Spices are a very interesting part of Japanese cooking and there were plenty to choose from. We were particularly intrigued with Sansho Japanese Peppers, actually seedpods of the Japanese prickly ash (Zanthoxylum piperitum). They have a sharp, citrusy taste, with an electrifying tingling numbness that can linger for more than ten minutes. Related to Szechuan peppercorns, but far stronger, they bring a sensation that is something like a mild electrical current. Sanshos appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once, inducing a sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, causing a kind of general neurological confusion in your mouth. Yes, you can taste a few in the market.

Safe to say, if it swims in the ocean it’s edible, and sometimes pricy. The record for a bluefin tuna was $1.8 million. Yeah, $1,800,000.00 US dollars! The best slices of fatty bluefin – called “o-toro” can sell for 2,000 Yen ($17.00) per piece at upmarket Tokyo sushi bars. The fish’s tender pink and red meat is prized for sushi. With a single mouthful-sized piece of sashimi weighing around 1 oz, the record-breaking tuna is worth around $219.00 per bite. Japanese eat 80 per cent of the bluefin tuna caught worldwide.

Food Japan 042To wash it all down, there is always tea or sake. Tea is served with most meals and we found some interesting varieties in the market. We visited the Historic Gekkeikan Sake Okura Museum for an educational tour showing how this traditional wine was distilled.

Japan’s tradition of sake making began more than 2,000 years ago shortly after rice cultivation was introduced from China. Though the first few centuries yielded a beverage quite unlike that of today, years of experience perfected brewing techniques and increased sake’s overall appeal and popularity. The Gekkeikan sake brewery was founded in 1637 in the town of Fushimi, a location well known for its high quality of water.

If you want to take an experimental viewpoint, sometimes what makes a food fall into the “gourmet” class, is that you don’t know how it was made or what’s in it. When all else fails, there is always a hot dog on a stick and a cold beer. See how many of the photos here you can identify.


Japan 2 – Geisha – 12/2014

June 4, 2015

Whatever images might come up when we think of Japan, Toyotas, Nikon cameras, Sony TVs and Sushi, the beautiful and mysterious Geishas should be included. When Monika said she wanted to go to Japan to see the Snow Monkeys, I immediately imagined going to spa and having a nice massage by a Geisha. Well, that idea was quickly blown out of the water.

Japan 2 035The misconception of the Geisha image comes from the period of the Allied Occupation of Japan when “Geisha girls” were Japanese women who worked as prostitutes (not entertainers). They almost exclusively serviced American GIs stationed in the country who referred to them as “Geesha girls”, a mispronunciation. These women dressed in kimonos and imitated the look of a real Geisha. Many Americans unfamiliar with the Japanese culture could not tell the difference between legitimate geishas and these costumed performers. Shortly after their arrival in 1945, some occupying American GIs are said to have congregated in Ginza, a district of Cjuo in central Tokyo and shouted, “We want geesha girls! “We want geesha girls! Eventually, the term “geisha girl” became a general word for any female Japanese prostitute. This is largely responsible for the continuing misconception in the West that all geishas are engaged in prostitution.

Japan 2 034In fact, a Geisha (the correct name is actually “Geika”) is a highly respected traditional Japanese female entertainer who acts as a hostess and whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, the traditional tea ceremony, dance, games and conversation, mainly to entertain male customers. She doesn’t do massages nor anything like it. A Geisha may gracefully flirt with her (often infatuated) guests but she will always remain in control of the hospitality. Over her years of apprenticeship as a Maiko she learns to adapt to different situations and personalities, mastering the art of the hostess. Modern Geishas still live in traditional okiya (Geisha houses) in areas called hanamachi or “flower towns”, particularly during their apprenticeship.

The Geishas’ dress, makeup and hairstyle are very complicated and highly stylized, and change as a Geisha moves through the stages of training, starting at a very early age. Simply applying the classic Geisha makeup can take over an hour before the multilayered kimonos are put on.

On the street, especially during festivals times like New Year, many young women either buy or rent beautiful kimonos and parade with their friends around the popular social centers but we actually saw women of all ages wearing kimonos on the Emperor’s birthday and a theater performance we attended.

To take the image to a personal level, Monika decided to become a Geisha, well, sort of. Of course, I had to become a Samurai too, well, sort of. They forgot to give me the sword. The professional makeover and outfitting took over an hour and the results were quite surprising. In the end, I seriously thought of renting Monika out but she couldn’t sing nor play cards in Japanese. Oh well. I was still hoping for a massage. That never happened either. We ate Sushi instead.


Japan 1 – Kyoto – 12/2014

May 30, 2015

With The Turtle V safely on its way back to California, we had a little time to burn. One of the countries we had always been interested in visiting was Japan. Being so close to South Korea it was easy to take the overnight ferry to Osaka and the “bullet train” to Kyoto.

Japan 1 046According to Wikipedia, Japanese are the sixth largest Asian American group in the US at roughly 1,304,286, including those of mixed-race or mixed-ethnicity. Southern California has the largest Japanese-American population in North America. Hard working and industrious, they are an integral part of our American culture. In their own country they form an exciting and totally unique culture, much different than we might have imagined just because they make Toyotas and Hondas.

Reputation has it that Japan is extremely expensive to travel in. Our current Lonely Planet guide suggested that if you don’t mind eating noodles once in a while and keep away from five-star hotels, Japan is not cheap but quite affordable.

The first guesthouse we stayed at was very traditional, with the bathroom downstairs requiring careful negotiation of something close to a chicken ladder. Our room was covered with grass mats. No chair, no table, and the beds were rather thin futons, an interesting experience. Soon we would move to a western-style apartment. OK, so we’re soft.

Japan 1 050While the public transportation system was excellent, traffic congestion often made it slower than walking. The other option was the uncountable number of taxicabs, mostly black and polished as if they were going to a car show. The drivers wore snappy hats, white gloves, coat and tie, and looked more like private limousine drivers.

On Christmas Eve we treated ourselves to the opening of the Kabuki season of the popular Minamiza Theater. While the costumes and actors were, ahhh—, interesting, everything was in Japanese so I think I may have missed parts of the four-hour performance. Quite surprisingly, during the lengthy intermission, most people popped out their little lunch boxes and chopsticks and enjoyed dinner right in their seats.

Strolling through the dark streets of the Geisha District after the performance, (more about that later), we always felt totally safe. The nighttime colors of fountains and canals were beautiful.