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We saw many pelicans

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Merida has many interesting street signs

waterBEACH, BIRDS, AND BYGONE CITY

If you don’t fancy the crowds along the Maya Riviera, on the Caribbean coast south of Cancun, Mexico, a great alternative is to use Merida as a base. This pretty Colonial city on the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula is within easy distance of many famous Mayan sites (Chichen Itza and the Puuc Route, with Uxmal), the northern biosphere, and good sand beaches.

On this daytrip, we went to Progresso for the beach, the sea, and the sun; to Uaymintun

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Progresso beach

for the lagoon and flamingo viewing; to Xtambo for a Mayan ruin and more flamingoes. We returned to Merida on side roads, passing through typical small Yucatecan villages.

We decided on this as an alternative to flamingo viewing at the Celestun Park to the west. On a previous visit to Celestun we felt concerned at how the tourist boats on the estuary are disturbing the birds, especially the flamingoes. Another plus—this way is free.

We drove north out of Merida on Paseo Montejo, noting the richer colonial side of the city, with wide streets, mansions and shopping complexes, and even a Sams Club!

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Part of the lagoon—if you look closely there are a few flamingoes there

Progresso, Merida’s port, is about a 30-minute drive, past a huge abandonned henequin factory (which produced ropes, mats etc), evidence of the previous wealth from this crop; and Dzibilchaltun, another ruined Mayan city with an excellent museum of Mayan history. It’s a worthwhile stop if you’re interested in the Maya. The site also has the famous House of the Seven Dolls, and an interesting cenote (steep-sided natural well.)

Progresso has progressed, compared to our visit four years before. Parking is plentiful along the esplanade, rebuilt after the hurricane a few years ago. All the usual tourist facilities line the esplanade, in a scaled-down version compared to the Caribbean coast, and we found it much more pleasant. A wide sand beach, with beach chairs, palapa huts, and beach restaurants, looks out over the calm blue water, tiny waves lapping.

After a swim, and lunch at one of the beach restaurants, we headed out east along the

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Beautiful birds

coastal road, palm trees on one side, stubby salt-flats bush on the other. There’s a string of development in the narrow strip between the sea and the biosphere, mostly brightly-painted houses, some holiday flats and hotels.

We followed the coastal road to Uaymintun, a small village with a tall wooden lookout tower over the lagoon; a great way to see part of the lagoon and biosphere preserve and do bird-watching, especially with binoculars. (The lookout tower is free, but you can rent binoculars there). The biosphere extends for hundreds of kilometers: lagoons, shallow lakes and waterways with small islands and mud flats. Scores of flamingoes were walking in the shallow water, many still bright pink even though this wasn’t nesting season. We saw many other birds too, including pelicans.

A few miles further on, the sign for Xtambo ruins is on the right. The drive is along a miles-long causeway over the lagoon with views of an amazing number of birds, especially flamingoes. The road is not busy, so stopping is easy. What a marvelous place for viewing and photographing birds in their natural environment: pelicans, oyster catchers, sandpipers, cormorants, white herons, blue herons, turkey buzzards.

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Xtambo

Xtambo ruins are just off to the right after the lagoon, along a narrow dirt road between tall grasses and stubby trees, swampy areas just to the side. The name means “place of the crocodile”, and we could easily imagine there might be a crocodile in there somewhere!

These Maya ruins are bigger than we expected, and much still remains to be excavated. It was a salt distribution center, reaching its peak around 600AD. The bases of two large structures are in a clearing before the main ruins: the low Pyramid of the Cross, and other buildings around a courtyard. All are grey stone, with little visible ornamentation now other than some stone masks. Xtambo was important as the port for Izamal, a bigger town inland, which was far away for people in those days. We’d known that the Maya traded, but did they travel by sea?

There were no other visitors, so we rambled happily around at will. The structures are not

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A mix of Mayan and Catholic beliefs

remarkable, compared to Chichen Itza, for example, but it’s an interesting little site. Of note is the small Catholic Chapel of the Virgin at the base of the temple, built 50-plus years ago after the Virgin of X’Cambo appeared here, showing us that old and new beliefs can co-exist. The view out is to scrubby palm trees and swamp, rather than jungle, but it’s completely isolated, giving us a real feel for what it must have been like thirteen centuries ago.

On smaller roads south back to Merida, prolific vines are creeping over almost everything, and the jungle encroaches on both sides of the road. It’s not hard to see how they could ‘eat up’ the area again. We passed through a number of villages, all arranged around a central square. This can be hazardous driving. Topes (speed bumps) slowed us down, but people walk along the road, or ride bikes, or pull carts loaded with firewood. Children play in the unpaved streets lined with banana trees, and animals wander at will. Huts with thatched roofs, or low houses with tin roofs and faded, chipped paint, are in dusty yards, with washing draped on fences, pigs tethered to small papaya trees, mangy dogs prowling under acacia trees, and a group of kids playing in the dirt, their noses running.

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Scrubby jungle around Xtambo

This is local life, as it really is, not a sanitized version for tourist viewing. We felt privileged to see this natural version of life in rural Yucatan.

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Merida’s cathedral—one of the oldest in the Americas

PRACTICAL INFORMATION—MERIDA:

Given the sometimes-poor state of the roads, this is more than enough in one day. Start early, especially if you want lots of swimming time. There are gas stations in Progresso, but not on the smaller roads.

Picking up a rental car at Merida airport is very easy. The airport has a Tourist Information desk and an ATM for cash. The best Tourist Information Office is on Calle 60 in town, on the edge of Parque de la Maternidad, two blocks north of the main square (see below). General information at www.travelyucatan.com/merida_mexico.php

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Balloon sellers are popular on the main square

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Traditional Yucatecan dancing

DSCF0045.JPGPlaza de la Independencia, the center of downtown Merida, is a green oasis. On Sundays, the streets around it are closed, so everyone can enjoy the bustling Sunday market, and free music concerts and traditional Yucatecan dancing. Don’t miss the huge cathedral, and the Governor’s Palace, with a series of enormous, strikingly colorful, abstract murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco of Merida, depicting the history of the Yucatan.

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Part of the colorful Merida market

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Many tasty tropical fruits

The Anthropological and Historical Museum on Paseo Montejo has an excellent, although small, collection of ancient Mayan artifacts.

Around the main plaza, and Park Hidalgo—another square one block north—are many restaurants, food stalls, bars, and coffee shops (most with internet connections).

Merida has many hotels in all price ranges. Two of our favorites (with swimming pools, and parking facilities offered) are Hotel Dolores Alba, with rooms arranged around the courtyard of a restored colonial house

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Imagine a hotel in a lovely old Colonial building

(www.doloresalba.com); and Gran Hotel, a grand 100-year-old Italianate building on Park Hidalgo. Tel: +52 999-924-7730, fax +52 999-924-7622, www.granhoteldemerida.com.mx

Friends stayed at Hotel Colonial and were very satisfied, www.hotelcolonial.com.mx (in Spanish)

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Variety of chile peppers

 

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Easter Bunny with a modern twist—A Marshmallow Drop, a Sweet Alternative to Egg-Hunting

ingardenThe Easter Bunny has been charming children in many parts of the world for years. The tradition is that the Easter Bunny leaves Easter eggs on Easter Sunday. Parents hide eggs in the garden and the children go on an egg hunt to find them. This used to be real eggs, dyed different colors, and perhaps decorated.

How did this tradition come about?

Rabbits have been associated with springtime since ancient times. Many believe that the Anglo-Saxon Pagan Goddess of Spring, Dawn and Fertility—Eostre—had a hare as her companion. Legend says this was after she transformed a wounded bird into a hare as a way to help it—hence an egg-laying rabbit. The hare symbolizes fertility and rebirth. The symbol of the hare later changed to the rabbit.

Eggs also represent new life, and it’s thought that decorating eggs for Easter dates way back to the 13th century. “Eostre” became “Easter”, and the link between rabbits and eggs much firmer.

Some sources say that the Easter Bunny first arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants, who settled in Pennsylvania and brought their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws.” Their children made “nests” with their caps and bonnets and, if they were good, this creature would leave them colored eggs. Eventually, the custom spread across the U.S. and the mythical rabbit’s Easter morning deliveries grew to include chocolate and other types of candy and gifts, and decorated baskets replaced nests. In addition, children often left out carrots for the bunny in case he got hungry from all his hopping.

I find the parallels between the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus very interesting: a “person”

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Easter Bunny photo op

who brings gifts to children if they are good at a certain time of the year. The Bunny and Santa both usually come in secret, get around the whole world quickly, and children often leave out food of some kind to help them on their way. Sadly, it’s also true that both have become much more commercialized, there are far more candy and various gifts involved now, and we find the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus in public places, like big shopping malls, dressed up, ready for photo ops. The bunny has a white furry costume and a big smile and is ready to hand out candy or chocolate eggs, or sit for a photo.

 

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Helicopter starts dropping thousands of marshmallows

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Kids wait patiently behind the pink ribbon

So, back to the flying rabbit.

This Easter we encountered a new Easter Bunny tradition, not in the “normal” style at all. This Easter Bunny was in a helicopter, and pushed out thousands of white marshmallows. In Oviedo, Florida, on Easter Saturday was the city’s annual Marshmallow Drop. Thousands of children and their families gathered on the softball and baseball fields at the Oviedo Sports Complex on Saturday morning for a chance to collect marshmallows and redeem them for a goodie-bag. Four different fields were used for four age group: 0-3 years on one field; 4-5 years on another; 6-8 years on another and 9-12 years on the last one.

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More marshmallows dropping

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Kids run towards the marshmallows on the second field

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Marshmallows raining down!

Kids lined up behind a ribbon on the edge of their field and waited. Soon, a helicopter appeared in the sky, landed in an adjacent field to load up with marshmallows, and then circled over the first field. It hovered, as the door opened and the Easter Bunny pushed out thousands of marshmallows, which tumbled onto the ground. The MC called out “1-2-3” and kids rushed out onto the field to gather the sticky white blobs in their Easter baskets.

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kidspickingThe helicopter went to fill up with marshmallows again and the whole procedure was repeated for each field. Kids were super excited, but we didn’t see too much pushing and shoving, and we even saw kids allowing a child in a wheelchair to be pushed across the field. By the time all the marshmallows were collected they were actually grassy and dusty so not terribly edible really (although a few kids did try). So, kids proceeded to the Marshmallow Trade-in, dumped the marshmallows in the bin, and each child got a blue goodie-bag instead—like a small backpack, with some plastic eggs with jelly beans inside and a couple of fridge magnets.

 

Afterwards, kids could meet the Easter Bunny, play on the “jumpy castle”, get snacks at stalls etc. Great excitement and great fun. Cost? Only $3 per child.

A new experience for some of the kids, and certainly something we’ve never come across before!

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A blue goodie bag instead of marshmallows

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Setting for the labyrinth

labMore to Clinton, NY, than initial impressions suggest

Picturesque and peaceful, Clinton reflects its New England heritage, with its attractive village green and tree-lined streets.

Clinton is in up-state New York, about 5 miles from Utica. The population is around 2,000, but there are other villages adjoining it, so actually the population is a bit more than that.

The reason we were in Clinton in October last year (2015) was to visit new family after a family wedding in the Berkshires in neighboring Massachusetts. I was only in Clinton for 2 days, just enough to begin to get a feel for the area. We enjoyed it and realize it would be very easy to return here and explore more.

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Walking the labyrinth

labwalking2We ate at home with the family, and at a couple of restaurants in other nearby villages, but we did visit two really interesting local places: The Labyrinth, and Clinton Cider Mill.

The Labyrinth is on The Path at Sunset Hill, in an area called The Clearing. It’s a simple construction of grass and gravel, based on a Celtic design, and is largely the work of George and Pinny Kuckel, wonderful local citizens. They felt that the area could benefit from a feature like this and put a lot of effort into making it happen. We drove there with them one morning, and found the labyrinth in a very pretty setting, in a clearing on a hill overlooking woods and a distant valley with more hills beyond. At the time, the fall colors were not totally over, so it was really lovely. We walked the whole labyrinth and it is indeed very peaceful and meditative.

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Denise S at the labyrinth center

labsignWe’ve seen the famous labyrinth at Chartres in France, and a couple of others in France, plus our town in Illinois recently developed one too, close to a big hospital. I’ve been meaning to learn more about the power of these labyrinths, so this visit has inspired me to do so.

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Clinton Cider Mill

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A beautiful entrance door

The Clinton Cider Mill is open every year, daily from early September through Thanksgiving weekend, so we were lucky to be there when it was open. As we walked through the front door, we were immediately enveloped in a wonderful fruity, apple-y aroma. The mill has a long history; it opened in 1903 with a screw press powered by a steam engine. In 1927, a new hydraulic press was installed. Since then, although the mill changed hands in 1998 (now owned by the Fehlner family), the cider-making process has stayed the same, with the addition of screening and refrigeration.

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The apple press

millpress2Sometimes when the press is running you can watch them press the apples making the juice (cider). But, the mill shop offers other goodies too: fresh apples, cider donuts, fruit pies, cookies, apple butter, bread mixes, salsas, maple syrup for example.

Some fun cider facts:

—There are 100-125 apples in a bushel (to be honest I still can’t slushconceptualize what a bushel is!).

—One bushel makes 4 gallons of cider.

—The mill makes their cider with a blend of fresh local NY apples, such as Empire, Macoun, Ida Red, Cortland, Northern Spry and others.

—Their cider has no additives at all.

Lots of details on their good web page;

http://www.clintoncidermill.com

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Apple butter

 Where to stay: The Artful Lodger B&B, right by the Village Green, a pretty place in the center of the village, with a fountain and various places to eat and drink and relax nearby.

It’s a very pleasant B&B, run by Tim and Susan Sweetland, offering a full breakfast, parking and free wifi.

http://www.artfullodger.net

maplesyrupBrief History of Clinton:

A small town that boasts a pretty big history. Clinton was settled in 1787 by pioneers from Connecticut led by Capt. Moses Foote, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. It was named in honor of George Clinton, the first governor of New York State. In1843, by then the hub of the growing Town of Kirkland, it was incorporated as a village.

Clinton is the home of Hamilton College, third oldest in the State. Founded in 1793 as Hamilton-Oneida Academy by the Rev. Samuel Kirkland, a missionary to the Oneida Indians, it was chartered as a college by the Board of Regents in 1812.

Hematite ore was discovered early in the area, and until the late 19th

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Apple bread mix

century (when deposits of iron ore were developed in the Lake Superior region) Clinton was the center of a thriving mining and manufacturing industry.

For almost a century the hematite ore was mined and converted by local blast furnaces into ingots, which were widely used in the production of stoves, scales, and other cast iron products of the day. The last mine closed in 1963, its production at the time used mainly in manufacturing red paint pigment.

Clinton is also the original home of the nationally known Bristol-Myers Company, which got its start in the second floor rooms of a West Park Row building on the village green in 1887. The Town also once boasted mineral spring activity as well as several textile mills, the largest being Clark Mills.

 

 

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Rice bowl, chopstick and spoon at place setting

Rice bowl, chopstick and spoon at place setting

Water dispenser and metal cups

Water dispenser and metal cups

In Korea we found that it’s the custom to use stainless-steel chopsticks, bowls, dishes and drinking cups. At virtually all restaurants you’ll have a basket on the table with stainless-steel chopsticks and spoons, and a communal table with cold water, served in small stainless-steel cups.

When we ate at the home of our Korean hosts, they too had the sets of metal chopsticks, beautifully wrapped up in a cloth case. They told us that sometimes for a very special occasion they will bring out a lacquerware set. They don’t, however, use metal bowls, plates or cups.

Our friend Mi Kwon's chopsticks set at home

Our friend Mi Kwon’s chopsticks set at home

Cold noodles in metal bowl, plus metal water cup

Cold noodles in metal bowl, plus metal water cup

Korea has a long history of making wonderful ceramics, as do Japan and China, where bowls in restaurants are usually pretty ceramic ones and chopsticks are wood or plastic (these days). So we wondered why Korea uses metal.

It’s generally believed that this tradition dates back to the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). The Joseon kings were always worried about personal security, including poisoning. So they insisted on having their food first tasted by a servant and on using silver chopsticks and bowls, as silver would tarnish if there was a poison.

The custom caught on and was passed down to the common people, but of course they couldn’t afford silver so they turned to other metals. They also discovered another advantage: metal is easy to clean and hard to break.

Metal cups for public use

Metal cups for public use

Table settings for a wonderful bulgogi meal

Table settings for a wonderful bulgogi meal

Makes sense to me, but I have to say that the metal chopsticks are more difficult to use, as the shiny surface doesn’t pick up food as well.

We ate at many different types of restaurants, from fancy to casual, trying an amazing variety of foods. Interestingly, the common denominator was always the metal chopsticks and spoons, frequently a metal rice bowl, and sometimes the metal cups and plates.

Even for a special meal with a great array of side dishes we still had metal chopsticks

Even for a special meal with a great array of side dishes we still had metal chopsticks and spoons

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