Monday, February 12, 2018

January Activities; Roll Tide! Costa Rica! A Memorial Ylang-Ylang Tree; Terciopelo or Fer de Lance? Pickin' Cherries; Rakin' Beans

This post is being written in frigid weather (well, in Chicago, anyway, where My Lovely Bride Suzanne is speaking to the Chicago International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS). This was the view from her window on final approach into Midway Airport... the temp there at this moment is 22F. I hope she packed her woolies!

Contrast that picture with this one, taken a few minutes ago here in The Villages, FL, where the temp hit 90 briefly today. This is Your Trusty Correspondent with our "back yard" over his shoulder - not ours really, but the view from our patio and lanai. Readers in Minnesnowta may note that I am NOT wearing woolies, but rather a polo shirt (and shorts, to boot)!

Before we get into our big January adventure, I would like to honor the Alabama Crimson Tide and our dear friends Judson and Donna Jo Emens in Tuscumbia, Alabama, for their favorite team's whoopin' of the Georgia Bulldogs for the college National Championship. This, of course, was Bama's fifth national title in 9 years, a record to be proud of. "Roll, Tide, Roll!"

Anyway, it's been a long time since I've written, but I have some great material for this post, so here goes... The highlight of the past six weeks was our trip to La Potenciana, Costa Rica to visit a coffee farm owned and operated by two good friends, Bill Bayer (right) and Mike Pannell (left). Mike was our host during our visit; Bill's mom Madeline transitioned to the other side just before our trip, and he couldn't make it down. Bill and I had worked together on some military programs in a previous lifetime. Mike is a PhD and runs the OSHA program at the Stennis Space Flight Center in Mississippi. They are old high school chums who joined the Air Force together; they decided to buy farm land in the mountains of Costa Rica about 11 years ago, and began planting coffee plants. They are also improving the lives of the villagers, not just through providing livelihoods for the adults, but also by providing scholarships for the children. Here are Bill and Mike with several of the local kids they have helped. Lupe, in the center, is the first girl in her village to go to university. 

Mike and Alex, the farm's day-to-day jefe, met us at the airport and drove us to the farm (finca). On the way, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. Alex explained the local cuisine, which turned out to be fabuloso! (I tactfully refrained from commenting on Alex's soccer team shirt, which had no relation to the American slang for an attractive, but empty-headed young female...)

Mike's Grateful Dead shirt was what we keyed in on in the airport arrival hall - we had been warned that he would be wearing it, and his wild shirt and above-fleet average height made him easy to pick out among a throng of taxi drivers looking for fares. 

Potenciana cafe finca is located about 30 miles west of San Jose - a 2 hour and change drive into the mountains. About halfway there we passed this worker carrying a 120 lb bag of coffee cherries to a truck to be transported to a processing plant... manual labor is key to the entire process of growing and processing coffee.

Note the steepness of the terrain - those are coffee trees on the semi-terraced slopes of the mountain below, and the big building is the processing plant. There is not another big building around for miles and miles.

Along the side of the road is a small spring whose water is supposed to have healing qualities. It is marked and honored with flowers and a small shrine honoring the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus. It is notable that it not protected by a fence, barbed wire or armed guards - which would be necessary in much of the United States... a sad commentary on our 21st century American popular culture that ridicules religion.

The road up into the mountains is rugged - four wheel drive is definitely required. There were places where the road had been completely washed out and repaired, almost completely with manual labor.

We arrived at the lodge that Mike and Bill had built a few years before. It is the only two story building for at least an hour's drive in any direction. There are four bedrooms and a kitchen on the top floor, and an office and bunk rooms for workers and pickers on the ground floor. There is also a detached kitchen for workers/pickers with gas and wood stoves/open fires.

After getting settled, Mike brewed up our first pot of Potenciana Geisha coffee - it was superb; Geisha is the best coffee bean you can grow, smooth and with low acidity. 

Suzanne made time every day to meditate - the view over the mountains to the Pacific Ocean was spectacular. We quickly understood why Bill and Mike picked this site for their little bit of heaven.

Barbara was our chef for the week - her day job is as Potenciana Cafe's legal counsel and project manager. In fact, she is doing a doctoral paper on managing a coffee farm. Her son Omar also spent the week here - school was out in Costa Rica the whole time we were there. We enjoyed Barbara's delicious Costa Rican cuisine, and one night were surprised with a birthday cake for Mike.

Mike took us on several hikes around the area - this stream marks the eastern boundary of the farm. Since we were in the dry season, the water level was relatively low. In the wet season, it is a raging torrent. 

As we hiked up this lovely stream to several small waterfalls, we were on the lookout for one of the local residents, the fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper), one of the most venomous snakes in the world. Called the terciopelo (translated as "velvet") in Costa Rica, it is regarded as irritable and aggressive, and can raise up to strike above the knee. Observant readers may note that My Lovely Bride is armed with a 20 inch long machete, which Mike thoughtfully arranged for each of us to be fitted with before our hike. I asked Suzanne to lead the way in this part of the jungle... thankfully, the jaguars were nocturnal, but the terciopelo were often found sunning themselves on rocks near streams...

We learned a lot about coffee trees. Here Mike is explaining the Geisha coffee variety to us newbies... they are now up to about 85,000 coffee trees!

Suzanne found the aroma of coffee flowers to be much like fine perfume. She wanted to bottle the aroma for body lotion, but it would have been hard to bring home in our luggage.

This is what a coffee "cherry" looks like close up - the fruit actually has a sweet taste, but it's too small to be worth separating. There are two beans in every cherry...

One of the very special highlights of our trip was the dedication of a Ylang-Ylang tree (Cananga odorata) in memory of our Marine Corps daughter Susan, who was six months pregnant with her first child when she was struck by lightning and died. Bill and Mike thoughtfully offered a tree in their memorial grove in her honor. Susan would love this tree - it is also called the perfume tree in the South Pacific, and its flowers smell like Chanel No. 5.

This stunning rainbow appeared shortly after the tree dedication.The left side ends right at Susan's tree.  It was a poignant moment, and I knew Susan and her unborn son Liam were smiling down on us...

The next day, Suzanne decided she wanted a ride with Mike on the farm's ATV. She had fun, but said that my getting one to use at home in The Villages was not in the cards. (She can be such a spoilsport!)

We got to pick coffee cherries one Sunday afternoon when the real pickers were off work. Let me tell you, there is a reason that Costa Ricans don't do this work, but rather hire Nicaraguans to pick... it's hard work!

In 15 minutes we had picked about the same amount of cherries that a professional picks in 30 seconds... okay, maybe not quite that many. In any case, it proved to us that we would starve pretty quickly without lots of experience! 

On a drive to the local schools, we encountered a farmer and his wife and several of their cows on the road. The road was so narrow that we had to stop and wait until they passed. 

This was the schoolhouse that is closest to Cafe Potenciana - on average, six or eight students of all grades through high school attend this one-room school. Bill and Mike have sponsored several successful initiatives to improve this school, but there is still more work to be done. 

The school in the next village down the mountain, however, needs a lot more work, and will hopefully be getting some needed improvements this year, thanks to support from Bill and Mike's foundation, We had brought down a suitcase-sized box of school supplies, but when we saw what the kids had, we wished that we could have sent a ship-load. Even though Suzanne and I have each traveled to 50 or 60 countries, being reminded of the difference in school facilities world-wide was a humbling experience.

On the way to San Jose (Gee, that sounds like a good song title!), we stopped at a coffee processing plant, Beneficio el Diamante in the town of Arenas. After the coffee beans are shipped here, they are dried in the sunshine for a day. Here we see MLB being put to work with a rake turning the beans over to help in the drying process.

The entire process of turning fresh beans into dried and roasted beans takes weeks, if not months, depending on how long the beans are aged. Our tour guide walked us through the entire process, and we have a new appreciation for the long process of growing, harvesting, and processing coffee before it ever gets to our cups. 

Our thanks go out to Bill and Mike for their planning and hospitality for our trip, to Alex and Barbara for making us feel at home like real Ticos (and of course for Barbara's amazing cooking!), to their son Omar who was always quick with a smile, and to the citizens and children of Potenciana, whose lives are improving due in large part to Los Dos Locos Gringos. (This is the Potenciana Class of 2018.) You can help by visiting their web site,; donations of any amount are most gratefully appreciated. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Up from the Depths; Pilot on a Mule; Jacob's Ladder; A Doberge Birthday; A Beautiful Model; Happy New Year!

Following the two nights and one full day Robert and I spent at Phantom Ranch, we prepared for our climb back up to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail. This 10-mile long "corridor trail" starts out relatively flat, crossing the Colorado River on the Silver Suspension  Bridge, paralleling the river for a couple of miles, partly through loose sand, and then climbing up through side canyons 4,460 feet to the rim. On this map, it's only a couple of inches long...

We had an early breakfast at 0530 - all the eggs, bacon, sausage and pancakes you could eat. I would need every calorie on this hike. I left promptly at 0600, in the dark, using a headlamp for light. Robert would follow a couple of hours later on a different adventure - a mule train. He thought it would be a unique experience. Being a cheapskate, and having an intense dislike of mules (based on a previous "adventure" when the mule I was riding stopped to graze over the edge of a 500 ft cliff), I opted to use my own feet, but told him that if he found my body on the side of the trail, just sling it over a mule and haul me out. 

I hiked alone for the entire duration of the hike out. It was a little spooky hiking in the dark, hearing only the occasion owl and coyote, and the distant sounds of the rapids on the river a  few hundred yards below the trail. Half an hour later, the sky was just beginning to lighten.

Two miles after leaving Phantom Ranch took me to the River House shelter, where I left the river and started climbing. 

I climbed steadily over a rocky trail for the next few miles along Bright Angel Creek. The scenery was barren, but beautiful. The trail got steeper as I hiked higher. 

Bright Angel Creek wasn't running very high - it hadn't rained heavily in months - but the vegetation was relatively lush, compared with the arid, rocky desert that surrounds the creek.

The reddish cliffs towering above the trail are composed of  sedimentary rock called Redwall Limestone, from the Mississippian age, about 350 million years ago.

Reaching Indian Garden, I stopped for lunch, and met a young woman who had been out alone for five days and nights, camping off trail and away from established campgrounds. Tammy works at one of the lodges here, so is acclimated to the elevation, but her pack was the smallest I have ever seen a backpacker carrying for a 5-day outing. The advantage of a light pack is being able to move faster and farther than someone carrying a heavier pack. The disadvantage is that you have to be very selective about what to carry. Tammy was living on water and beef jerky so she wouldn't have to carry heavy food, stove, fuel and utensils. She did admit that she was going to splurge on a big steak when she got back home. Oh, and she was wearing Keds, not hiking boots!

After Indian Garden, the trail steepened, and entered what seemed like unending switchbacks. But the view... my God, the view was awesome! Cameras and cell phones just cannot duplicate the magnificence of the Grand Canyon. This area is called Jacob's Ladder, named for the connection between earth and Heaven that Jacob dreams about in the Book of Genesis. 

Another hiker from years past is shown here on Jacob's Ladder. History buffs may recognize President Teddy Roosevelt, who visited here in 1903. He declared the area a National Monument in 1908; National Park status followed 11 years later.

This was Second Tunnel, only 500 feet below the rim, with about 3/4 mile to go. I could hear the whistle of the Grand Canyon Railway down here, and I thought that Suzanne's dad Bill was giving me encouragement "from the other side". 

The trail's final pitch was the steepest, a climb of about 750 vertical feet. At this point, I just wanted to finish and have a celebratory beer.

Finally, 7 hours and 20 minutes after leaving Phantom Ranch, Your Faithful Correspondent reached the South Rim and the end of the Bright Angel Trail. I felt surprisingly good, even better than when Suzanne and I had hiked down to Indian Garden and back in one day, 20 years ago. But then, I was carrying a 40 lb backpack for training purposes... I know - it makes one doubt my sanity.

I'm glad I made it to the top without having to be rescued by a mule; since I didn't know when Robert was arriving, I hiked up to the El Tovar Hotel and tried to check in and get a shower, but alas, they wouldn't give me a key until 3:00 PM. So I hiked back to the trailhead and waited for the cavalry to arrive. About two hours later, a mule skinner and four turistas arrived. Here is Robert after almost 5 hours in the saddle. Hate to say it, but he walked kinda funny for the rest of the day...

My closing trip photos show the dawn's early light on Grand Canyon as we prepared to depart for our flight back in Las Vegas the next morning. Hard to believe that we had checked off one of our most important "bucket list" items. If you haven't been to Grand Canyon to see one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, you are missing out...

Shortly after returning from Grand Canyon, Suzanne and I loaded Rudy and Gretchen into the coach and headed north to visit Hilton Head, SC. Our dear friends Tony and Irene Vouvalides visited us in the coach at our campground with party hats. Tony's birthday is 2 days after mine (although he is much younger - a mere kid), and this is the second year we have gotten together to celebrate jointly. 

Suzanne had ordered a special birthday cake to be shipped from Joe Gambino's Bakery in New Orleans for our joint birthday. Bev Garlipp had conspired to put it on her credit card so I wouldn't see the bill. For those of you unfamiliar with New Orleans cuisine, one of the city's signature desserts is doberge cake, comprised of six layers of white or yellow buttermilk cake separated by custard filling, and frosted with buttercream and petit fours fondant icing, in this case half chocolate and half lemon. It is one of the World's Truly Evil Desserts. One 12 inch diameter cake weighs about 10 lbs. It is "To Die For"... 

Tony gave me the most amazing gift. He had personally made this beautiful, hand-crafted model of my destroyer, USS John Rodgers (DD-983), which I had commanded for two years. It was a touching moment when I gazed upon my old ship, and brought back many fond memories. 

Here is a close-up of Tony's exquisite model. He is a master craftsman - he has built his own wooden sailboat and many ship models that nautical museums would be proud to display.

On the morning of my birthday (Suzanne says it's my 70th, but it's really only my 35th), she made me go for a 70 minute run around beautiful Moss Creek in Bluffton. I actually wanted to lie in bed and bask in the delight of the 2 pounds of cake I had eaten the night before, but she is a cruel person. Irene led the way on her bike, probably to ensure that if I collapsed and needed an ambulance, she'd be right there. Along the way, we met Susan Carlson, whom Irene had alerted as a witness to my misery. 

While in Hilton Head, we made a day trip to Savannah, Georgia. Tony parked on the north side of the Savannah River, and we took a water taxi across the river and walked around downtown for a couple of hours. Here we are, with Rudy and Gretchen, on a cool, sunny day in one of our favorite Southern cities. (Apologies to Linus, Tony and Irene's cute goldendoodle, who couldn't make the trip.)

As we reach the end of 2017, we look ahead for an even better 2018. This sunrise suggests the optimism that sailors have always had at the dawn of a new day. We wish you all fair winds, following seas and exciting adventures in the year ahead.