Posts Tagged With: river

Down in the Valley, Big Island Style

We’re back in Hawaii for our annual escape-the-winter sojourn, and we returned today to one of our regular stops on our “ferry around our visitors” circuit.

One of the iconic images of the Big Island is the overlook at Waipi’o Valley (the name means “curved water”) near the northern end of the island. You’ve seen it on any number of postcards, and here’s how it looked today.

Those cliffs across the way rise to 2000′ (600 m) above the valley floor and its black sand beach; you can hike the ridiculously steep road down to the bottom but unless you’re a fitness freak or a masochist you will hitchhike back to the top. (In my salad days, 35 years ago, I walked that road up and down a number of times. Not the craziest thing I’ve ever done but it’s definitely on the list.) More about the road shortly.

Waipi’o was the capital and residence of many of the early Hawaiian chiefs for the first few centuries after the islands were settled from Polynesia. It became less central in the 15th century but has always been an important farming area for the locals: avocado, guava, and most importantly taro. Here’s a taro farm in the valley.

When I lived in on the island in the early 1980’s there were — and still are — only a few dozen residents in the valley, almost all living without electricity. At the time you could divide most of them into three categories: farmers (mostly taro), marijuana growers (the Hawaiian word is pakololo), and crazy-eyed Vietnam veterans retreating from the world. There aren’t any Vietnam veterans left, but the taro farmers are going great guns; I don’t know about the pakololo growers. (Hawaii has a medical marijuana law.) But farming can be a risky business: although the valley is ridiculously fertile, a tsunami sends a (literal) wave of ocean (i.e. salt) water up along the length, essentially poisoning the soil for ten years at a time. This has happened in 1946 and 1960.

There is also a lot more tourism into the valley than there was 35 years ago; there are a couple of companies operating four wheel drive tours of the place, which is how we got down here today. That is far and away the best way to see it, since half the land is private and the road down is a recipe for disaster for the inexperienced 4WD driver. Take a look at this picture from the valley floor, looking up towards the hillside:

Look at that seeming slash in the hillside, pointing to the upper left from about one-quarter of the way up the middle palm tree. That’s the road, the steepest public road in the United States. It has an average grade of 25%, and the steepest part is 33%. From inside a vehicle, a 33% downhill grade looks like you’re driving straight down a cliff, which you more or less are. The road is only about 1 1/2 vehicles wide, very poorly paved, and sporting a guardrail that is best described as decorative. Uphill vehicles have the right of way, and an elaborate vehicular minuet ensues when a descending vehicle meets an ascending one. The real fun happens — and we actually saw this — when a naive first-timer in a rented Jeep gets halfway down the road, realizes belatedly that he has bitten off way more than he can chew…. and tries do to a U-turn to get back up. That is to say, he tries to turn around on a road whose width is more or less equal to the length of his vehicle, with a vertical wall on one side and 500 foot drop on the other, waiting for him to make a mistake.

We, happily, made it to the bottom without incident thanks to our very experienced tour guide, and we repeatedly forded the Wailoa river as we made our way towards the back of the valley. Here are a couple of scenes for context.

 

The tree in the upper photo is a monkeypod, which is actually of African origin. But see the waterfall in the distance at the far left of the panorama? Here’s a better view:

That is Hiilawe Falls, at about 1200 ft (350 m) the tallest waterfall in the state of Hawaii. (There is some dispute about its height, with some claiming something like 1500 feet.) The flow used to be bigger but has been reduced due to some upstream irrigation.

If you’re inclined to rough it, you could live pretty well and far off the grid down here. The Wailoa river has fish — in particular tilapia, which are not native to Hawaii but which escaped into the wild and are now plentiful. There are a number of underground springs providing fresh water, though you’d have to know which ones are infected with leptospirosis, which is a bacterium found in infected animal urine. And of course there is an abundance of fruit and taro. So your daily routine would involve scenes like the ones above and this one.

It’s all very idyllic-seeming, and back in the 1980’s I actually knew a pair of biologists (graduate students) who lived here, and whom I occasionally stayed with. They loved it down there, occasionally venturing up the cliff side into town in a rusted-out 1961 Jeep that didn’t have a second gear. When they left the island to finish their degrees they sold me the Jeep. A year or two later when I left the island, I in turn sold it to a local stoner who was altogether unsure what day of the week it was but was quite certain that it would serve him well in his own pakololo-related adventures. He offered to trade a kilo of local weed for it, which was more than fair, but I took $300 in cash instead and avoided eventual arrest.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Mekong Delta

We have been home for exactly three weeks as I write this, and I still have a couple of Vietnam destinations’ worth of blog posts in my notes. Normally I try and write these up while we are still in country, but time and energy levels did not really allow that, so these are all rather after the fact. But hey, I’m here, you’re here, so let’s go.

The Mekong Delta is sort of the Amazon Basin of Vietnam, a network of rivers that collectively create a cauldron of biodiversity. It was the scene of an enormous amount of bloody fighting during the war but is now a placid center of agriculture, fishing, and tourism. And coconuts. They are very big on coconuts there. In fact, the Mekong used to be home to the Coconut Religion, which I swear I am not making up. Adherents to the Coconut Religion — who counted John Steinbeck’s son among their number — advocated eating only coconuts and consuming only coconut milk. The religion, such as it was, was founded in 1963 and even at its peak numbered a paltry 4,000 followers. The authorities declared it a cult and banned it in 1975, possibly out of envy upon learning that Coconut Religion monks were allowed to have up to nine wives. (Historical note: 1975 is the year that Saigon fell and the country was reunified under the Communists. You might think that both sides had more important things to worry about that year, but somebody obviously was all hot and bothered about those priapic coconut cultists.)

Anyway, wives are more parsimoniously distributed these days, but the area is still big on coconuts. We visited a coconut candy factory: here is a photo of some gainfully employed but presumably very bored women, hand wrapping coconut candies all day long.

“Keep wrapping. We’ve still got to make 5,000 Almond Joy bars by sundown.”

 

(It would appear that this was Bring Your Child to Work day.) The machines in the background mix the mix up the coconut goop from which the candies are fashioned; everything is done by hand.

I should mention how we came to this place, which was via a pleasant boat ride on the Mekong River.

The lower boat is a cargo boat, not our little tourist barge. Note the traditional eyes painted on the prow.

You will be unsurprised to hear that adjacent to the coconut candy station was a gift shop, where pretty much everything was made out of or otherwise related to coconuts. The one exception to this were the whiskey bottles with the dead cobras and scorpions added to impart that certain je ne sais quoi venomous flavor.

Yep, they poured us samples into those shot glasses. Yep, we drank them. At this point you are no doubt wanting to ask, “OK Rich, how does Dead Cobra Whiskey taste, compared to the usual “reptile-corpse-free” whiskey?” And the disappointing answer is, that I have no idea. I am almost a complete teetotaler; I don’t enjoy the taste of alcohol and can barely — if at all — tell the difference between rotgut rum and single-malt Scotch. To me, all whiskey tastes like it has a dead snake in it, so there was nothing unusual about this stuff. Sorry.

Flushed with the warm glow of alcohol-infused snake venom, we bid our coconut enthusiasts goodbye and traveled a short distance via golf-cart-like shuttles to listen to a short performance from some local traditional folk singers. Here’s an excerpt, about 1 1/2 minutes long.

I call your attention to the women’s voices in particular, which they pitch to a high chanting timbre. You can hear the effect quite clearly starting with the solo performance about 45 seconds into the video. It appears to be quite typical; we heard a number of such performances throughout the trip, and the women usually song in that high, almost whining warble. I confess that neither Alice nor I find it particularly pleasant; you may feel differently.

I have mentioned in an earlier post that we seem to be experiencing quite the diversity of transportation modes on this. We can add sampans to that list, since that was our next means of travel after the singing concluded. A sampan by definition is a small flat-bottomed boat used on inland waters. Here in the Delta they’ve been weaponized as a means of assembly-line tourism, as we lined up, four at a time, to take about a quarter-mile trip down the river.

The woman in purple, our gondolier (so to speak), you would suppose would work quite hard to paddle people that quarter or half mile, a zillion times a day. And that is doubtless true, up to a point. But is there something you cannot see in the photos. In the bottom photo, hidden beneath the woman’s feet inside the hull of the boat, is a motor, which she turns on to power the boat back upstream after dropping us off. So it’s all a little, um, Disney World-ish. The boats are real enough, the motive power a little more modern than anyone lets on.

We returned to Saigon in the late afternoon and rested for an hour or two before climbing aboard our next transport device: Vespa motor scooters, for a nighttime tour of the city. The Vespas are slightly less throaty and rumbly than our earlier motorbikes, but the adrenaline rush of zipping through nighttime traffic in Saigon no less satisfying. Here’s Alice (red jacket and white helmet at left) behind her driver in typical Saigon traffic chaos.

Down main thoroughfares, and through alleys we putt-putted. Our first stop was a very-local-indeed seafood restaurant in an alley, a sea of formica tables amidst a hubbub of locals, where among other dishes we dined on squid beak. (Spoiler alert: it tastes like calamari.) I am also proud to report that it was in this venue that I won a chopstick-handling contest among our travel group, by transferring 15 spheroidal garlic-coated peanuts into a bowl in 20 seconds. Alice was a close second, but I am the one now in possession of the coveted Wooden Vespa, a nice little model about 8″ long that will no doubt end up in the hands of a grandchild in the near future.

Then it was on to Hồ Thị Kỷ Street, home to Saigon’s flower market…

…and a walk down an alley to try our handing at cooking a rice crepe over an coals. Not dropping the crepe into the coals is harder than it looks.

We ended the night with a drink on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Tower to get a panoramic view of the city, then a quick jaunt across the river to see the skyline.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Crafts and Markets and More Crafts

Hoi An IMG_8206-HDRHoi An is known as a sort of retail craft paradise, in part because the locals are known to be able to create quality knockoffs of pretty much anything. In fact, last night we had what one might consider to be a dramatic example of this, when upon returning home from our evening’s wanderings (about which more in a moment) we discovered that the hotel had provided a turndown service and, instead of mints, had left a little packages of Oreos on our pillows. But closer inspection revealed that, despite the virtually identical packaging, they were not Oreos but rather “Creamos”. The package and the cookies themselves looked just like the real deal (except for the wrapper saying “Creamos”), and the cookies tasted just like Oreos, albeit a little thin on the filling. So there you have it: knockoff Oreos.

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Speaking of food, there is one item that I forgot to mention yesterday in regard to our cooking lesson of two evenings ago. When one of our group exclaimed “Yum!” upon tasting one of our creations, she was admonished with a wink and a leer not to say that: turns out that “yum” and “yummy” are Vietnamese slang for “horny”. Now you know.

We spent most of yesterday wandering around Hoi An, which in practice meant drifting in and out of souvenir, craft, and clothing stores. It’s one of those places where you can get a good custom suit made in 24 hours for a ridiculously low price, and if I were not retired I probably would have done so. (One member of our group did.) It also meant fending off a nonstop and utterly relentless stream of street vendors, all selling the same two tchotchkes: laser-cut popup greeting cards, and plastic windup birds that flap their wings and fly around for 5 or 10 seconds. The popup greeting card people in particular are implacable; they follow you down the street and into restaurants, and they are everywhere. “One dollah! One dollah!” You can buy them online, though they are admittedly much more expensive than one dollah. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a typical one:

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I was also approached by a perky 20-ish Japanese girl (her name tag was Japanese and her accent was unmistakable) who gave me a bizarre story about being in Vietnam on a business internship involving a project that required developing and selling souvenirs, and would I mind coming in to the store where she worked? I followed her in, having no more urgent priorities, and she proudly produced a bamboo spoon that I should buy. “You can eat soup with it!” she explained brightly. “Yes, I am familiar with the use of a spoon,” I replied, perhaps with unnecessary churlishness. I then broke her heart by regretfully informing her that she would have to complete her internship and return to Japan without any of my money.

We wandered for a while as a group, crossing an old covered bridge of some historical significance, and of course visiting a Buddhist temple or two. The best of these had a spectacular mosaic tile dragon statue in front of it.

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After lunch, everyone split up to do their own thing, which in Alice’s case meant shopping and in my case meant looking for places to take pictures. Hoi An sits on the Thu Bon river, and there’s a lot of activity on the river in the form of tourist boats, water taxis, and the like.

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The Thu Bon is also the channel by which the fishermen bring their catch to market in town. (I hope to God that they do not actually fish in the river itself; the town does not have a water filtration plant and so everything is flushed into the river.) Phil directed me to the fish market on the river, and I spent a happy hour or two taking photos there.

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Note the flags. We’re talking communist fish here.

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The market was bustling, crowded, and unsurprisingly smelled like a fish market. One thing that struck me was that every one of the vendors was a woman; market work is considered woman’s work, since the men go out to do the actual fishing. And hard work it is; there were a lot of careworn faces here. Here’s a gallery of several portraits that I took long distance with a telephoto lens; the subjects did not know that I was photographing them. (Click on the thumbnails to see the full size images.)

After I had been there for a while, it started to rain. Then it started to pour. It rained monsoon-like buckets for a 45 minutes or so, so I just meandered in the market and took a couple of shots out into the rain, like these two.

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It eventually let up enough for me to venture outside with a rain slicker and an umbrella that I had wisely brought along in my backpack. I rendezvoused with Alice and the rest of the group at the prearranged meeting point, she feeling well satisfied at having picked up some suitably classy gifts for the folks back home.

We returned to the hotel, lounged for a while, and came back to the town just after sunset to find some dinner and take in the night scene, which is lively. There’s a tremendous amount of activity both on the river and in the side streets; the shopping and the restaurant scene is going full blast, and everything is lit by lanterns. Boats on the river are all lit with lanterns as well, and there are floating candles drifting downstream. It’s a riot of light and color and yeasty activity.

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We are on our own tonight, so we will probably go back and wander around some more, weather permitting. We leave Hoi An and our snazzy resort hotel tomorrow morning to catch an early afternoon flight to the coastal city of Nha Trang for the next leg of our journey.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Other Red River Valley

The old Western song notwithstanding, it probably never occurred to you (why would it?) that the literal translation of Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi means “between the rivers”, the rivers in question being the Nhue and the Red. Parts of the city are periodically flooded because of this, and there are actually dikes that run through part of town.

We arrived this morning, met at the airport by our group lead Phuc Nguyen, who wisely goes by “Phil” to avoid three weeks of puerile jokes from his American charges. Phil is a handsome, trim 40 year old who like all OAT tour leads seems to require no sleep whatsoever and has an inexhaustible supply of cheery enthusiasm and useful information.

Hanoi has a population of 7.8 million, who get around via a mere 600,000 cars…. augmented by approximately 11 billion motor scooters. The latter are absolutely everywhere, the streets and even the sidewalks choked with weaving phalanxes of them and the air filled with the ceaseless din of their honking. Interspersed among them are the occasional bus and tourist-bearing rickshaw.

Those scooters, despite their tiny engines, clog the streets in such vast numbers and operate with such  inefficient combustion that air pollution is a real issue. The humidity is very high here — it is monsoon season — and the combination of the water vapor and the scooter exhaust creates a hazy blanket over the city through which a watery sunlight filters.  Phil describes Hanoi as a “second world” city: visibly more advanced than a less developed country but still trying to break into the First World big leagues. They’re working on it: the downtown area includes a lot of very modern high end stores (e.g., Prada, Lamborghini) that would be quite at home in a European capital city.

And indeed, Hanoi does present itself as a struggling-to-be-less-seedy European capital. The architectural DNA of its French colonial history is obvious: broad boulevards, ornate cornices and eaves, tree-lined avenues. The trees are stout, leafy, and old; they clearly weathered the bombings of the war, now 50 years ago, just fine. You still wouldn’t mistake it for Paris, though. Traffic is random and dangerous, and that French architecture often overlooks odd, densely packed storefronts selling all manner of jumbled up, vaguely unsanitary looking stuff ranging from random electronic gadgets to food of questionable provenance. (My characterization of the latter did not stop me from buying some delicious still-hot deep-fried dough balls with custard centers.)

Our hotel is excellently situated in the center of town, very near some of the street markets and major  sights (e.g., the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison where John McCain was held, which we will visit tomorrow). It’s also a several block walk from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, a small (600 x 200 meter), shallow (1.5 meter) freshwater lake surrounded by an elaborate legend involving a magic sword and a giant turtle. The weird part is that there are giant turtles in the lake, a species of rare soft-shelled turtles nearly six feet long. Or at least there were; the last sighting of one was three years ago.

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At the northern end of the lake is a Buddhist temple where all manner of activity was going on when we arrived, having walked the mile or so from the hotel. People were lighting incense and praying at the censer; others were posing in rented traditional costumes; and some kind of presumed Ladies Auxiliary were selling something whilst in costume as well.

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We kept walking north past the lake and found ourselves in a no-kidding Asian market district, block after block of crowded storefronts and makeshift sales counters, this street housing a dozen consecutive shoe stores, the next redolent of marinating fish from 20 different vendors. Scooters clogged the sidewalks, vendors spread their wares on tables, on blankets on the ground, on makeshift counters, in Plexiglas display cases on spindly legs.

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The smells were exotic, the colors all saturated, the hubbub nearly impossible to navigate. It was a hoot, the kind of thing you can only experience in a not-altogether-developed Asian or African country.

We walked back to the hotel, at this point drenched in sweat from the humidity. (The weather today was several degrees cooler than in Hong Kong, but the humidity just as bad and the afternoon punctuated with a downpour.) We’ve been going through our clean clothes way faster than planned, and are thus about to drop a small fortune on the hotel laundry service. This is some kind of karmic balancing for the fact that restaurants here are extremely cheap, our nice meals coming in at about five bucks a person. (It takes an active act of calculation to realize this is because the Viet currency, the dong, is of microscopic value: the exchange rate is about 23,000 to the dollar. So one suffers a moment of confused sticker shock when a restaurant tab for two people comes in at 196,000 dong and it takes you a moment to realize that you just spent all of nine bucks.)

Phil took us all out for drinks at about 7 PM, both to show us some typical night life and to teach us how to cross the street without getting killed. (Hints: safety in numbers, and do not waver from your path despite the vehicles weaving around you within inches.) Here’s half of our group, including Alice at lower right. The woman in the red teeshirt is the waitress.

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The Vietnamese love beer, and there are a couple of native brands that flowed freely. Our snacks were also typical for the locals: steamed peanuts, pork sausage steamed in banana leaves, and fried tofu. (I liked two out of three; tofu and I are generally not on speaking terms.)  Afterwards we went out to one of those wonderful $5 dinners and called it a day.

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Agog in Prague

Prague is a strikingly beautiful city, albeit a little heavy on the whole Medieval Catholicism thing. It has park areas like this:

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…as well as densely packed looming Gothic edifices like this.

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The bridge in that night photo is the Charles Bridge, the main pedestrian thoroughfare between the Old and New Town areas on the east side of the river, and the more modern areas to the west. It is lined with ominous saintly statues and throngs of tourists.

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But it is not the only bridge into the old city, and by crossing a little further to the south you get a great panoramic view of the river and the Charles Bridge connecting the two halves of the city.

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The river is dotted with pedal boats, as you can see; the unseasonably warm sunny weather brings them out in droves, a celebration of the most inefficient form of transportation known to man.

Our first destination of the day, about a 20 minute walk from our flat across the Charles Bridge, was the Jewish Quarter. Tiny — perhaps 700 meters on a side (less than half a mile) — it houses five synagogues and an ancient Jewish cemetery. The usual starting point when touring the Jewish Quarter is the Maisel Synagogue, because the tickets are sold there and because it houses a display of artifacts and an historical narrative of the history of the Jews in Bohemia. Short summary: restrictive laws and humiliation, occasional easing, relocation, re-imposition of restrictive laws and humiliation, enlightenment and false hope, expulsion, return, pogroms, re-relocation, re-enlightenment, World War II. Today there are somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 Jews in the Czech Republic, about half of them in Prague.

The most venerable of the synagogues is the Old New Synagogue, so named because it was the New Synagogue in 1270, later superseded by a newer New Synagogue a mere three hundred years later. So it became known as the Old New Synagogue, primarily due to a failure of imagination. It is tiny, with thick stone walls, and it is still in use.

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Our next stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, known for its Holocaust memorial, which, in the philosophy of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, is little more than a compelling list of names on the walls: 78,000 of them, sorted by the neighborhood from which the Jews were taken, then alphabetically within the neighborhood, then by dates of birth and death. In most cases the date of death is unknown, and so the date is the last day on which the victim was seen alive. 78,000 names on a wall is a lot, and the emotional impact grows as you move from one room into the next, only to be confronted with more names, row after row after row of them.

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Adjacent to the Pinkas Synagogue, appropriately enough, is an old Jewish cemetery, densely packed with headstones pointing at random angles. (In the 2 x 2 grid of photos below the color one, you can click on the thumbnails to see larger images.)

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And now to answer the question that you, if you are a nerd like me, have been wondering about for 40 years, namely: did Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute really come from a Jewish priestly blessing? Answer: yes, and here is your proof (beside the fact that actor Leonard Nimoy actually said that this was the case):

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Alice, being generally estranged from popular culture, pointed this and a couple of similar headstones out to me and asked, “What’s the weird hand gesture?” I informed her that it was the Vulcan salute, which she did not feel fully answered the question, and which required additional explanation.

We left the Jewish quarter and walked the short distance to Old Town Square, dominated by the much photographed city hall and overseen by the statue of Bohemia’s favorite saintly regent, Good King Wenceslas. The Christmas carol notwithstanding, Wenceslas was actually a 10th century duke. His 17-year reign was marked by the usual political intrigue and minor military skirmishes, and he was considered neither particularly saintly nor un-saintly at the time. However, in the year 935 he was murdered by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, whose name is so cool that I am thinking of changing mine.

Nobody liked Boleslav — he might have considered a different nickname — and so a retroactive cult grew up around Wenceslas, and he was deemed a martyr. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred the title “king” upon him, somebody wrote that Christmas song a couple of centuries later, and bingo, the guy is a pop culture icon.  In my opinion there are better ways to achieve popularity than being run through by a lance at age 35. In any case, here is the square and the town hall. I have no idea why Superman is in the foreground, a little left of center; Alice speculates that someone lost a bet.

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Part of the reason that we went to the main square, besides finding an ice cream vendor, of which there are fortunately many, was that it is just around the corner from Prague’s famed 600 year old, 2 1/2 story tall Astronomical Clock, which I mentioned yesterday.

And now a brief diversion. If you have been following this blog for a while, then you may recall that if there is one single word that can be applied to Alice’s and my travels to the great cities of the world, then that word is…. scaffolding. Yes. As soon as we book a trip, some mysterious omniscient organization — possibly Interpol, or the Illuminati — notifies the authorities at our destination so that scaffolding can be erected before our arrival. I suspect that they take it down as soon as we leave. You name it — the Parthenon, the Via Veneto, Big Ben, Notre Dame — we have seen them all, covered in scaffolding. (The Eiffel Tower is a freebie because it sort of is scaffolding.) I am quite convinced that if someone had somehow figured out how to put scaffolding around blue-footed boobies and Darwin’s finches then our trip to the Galapagos might have been a very different experience. So with that background information, here is Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock as we beheld it this afternoon:

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Sigh. It is of course supposed to be back in place some time next month.

Well, the only way to sublimate our disappointment at this turn of events was to go the Sex Machine Museum, right down the block from the afflicted clock.

What? You mean you’ve never heard of Prague’s Sex Machine Museum? Housing some 200, um, devices spread out (so to speak) over three floors, the museum’s reviews range from “must see” to “tourist trap”, but for ten bucks we thought it was a hoot. If you can get through this place without laughing out loud at least once, there is something seriously wrong with you.

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This being a mostly family blog, and me not wanting to be banned by WordPress.com, I can’t show photos of most of the exhibits; X-rated barely describes some of them. But I will make one or two observations. First, it is clear that late 19th and early 20th century sex devices had a distinctly…. how shall I put this…. “industrial” aspect to them. Yes, “industrial” is definitely the word.

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There was one mid-19th century item, which I couldn’t get a good picture of, and which I probably wouldn’t show anyway, that — I am not making this up — was steam-powered, using a coal-fired boiler. No kidding, this thing belonged on a narrow-gauge railroad track, and definitely not anywhere near anyone’s genitals.

But my absolute favorite — and possibly the best best museum exhibit in the history of time — was this remote-control Ukrainian sex toy from the 1960’s:

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Seriously, this is an erotic device. It positively screams, “Defend the Motherland!” Or more likely, moans.

At this point, the astute reader may have noticed that in the space of a few hours we visited a Holocaust memorial, followed by a visit to a sex machine museum. I know what you’re thinking, and you are probably right: we are going to burn in Hell. But we will deal with that later, because we wanted to finish our afternoon by visiting Franz Kafka instead. More accurately, we went to visit Franz Kafka’s head. Or still more accurately, an 11 meter tall steel statue of his head.

As you can see the head comprises a number of horizontal slabs — 42 of them, to be exact — which rotate to cause the head to metamorphose into random shapes. Or rather, they are supposed to. No one seemed to know when this action would take place; there was no information to be found about it online — randomly? On the hour? Or what? — and the speculation arose among those of us waiting patiently for something to happen that the thing was no longer functional.  There is some circumstantial evidence for this because if you look carefully you will see that the slab corresponding to the middle of Franz’s nose is out of position. All I can tell you for certain is that we waited for 45 minutes for something to happen, and nothing ever did. The experience was…… Kafkaesque. Hmmm.

Giving up, we made our way back to the our flat, rested up for a couple of hours, and had an elegant dinner at a nearby restaurant, supposedly one of the best in Prague, that specializes in duck, plus the kind of meals where the animal’s head is hanging on the wall. It was excellent. (We both had the duck.) Tomorrow is our full day guided tour, so I’ll report back.

Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Czeching In

Sorry, no photos in this entry… we arrived in Prague late yesterday afternoon, met with our tour guide, and had dinner. We haven’t had the chance to do any real tourism — with accompanying photos of course — so that will happen today.

We have a full-day city tour booked for tomorrow with a private guide, a genial former organic chemist named Martin, whom we met through a friend of a friend. Turns out he’s a pretty well known guide and is mentioned in travel guru Rick Steves’ best-selling guide to Prague. (And needless to say, Martin’s been flooded with bookings since being cited in Steves’ book, so we’re lucky to get him.) We met him for drinks yesterday evening to plan out tomorrow’s tour and also to give us some ideas for today’s walking around so we don’t duplicate the sights on two consecutive days.

Immediately following drinks with Martin we promptly went out and got scammed in order to have a complete travel experience. We have experienced three scam attempts on this trip, and saw through the first two of them. They were in Paris and easy to spot. On our first day, some young guys with fake laminated IDs tried to “help” us buy tickets in the Metro. Alice almost got taken in but I saw through it and shooed them away. Three days later a guy on the Quai d’Orsay (the tree-lined sidewalk that follows the left bank of the Seine) “found” a massive fake gold wedding band on the path, declared that it didn’t fit him, and tried to sell it to us.

But last night was the perfect storm, when we were tired from a day of traveling (that included some glitches) and unfamiliar with the local currency. The Czech Republic, though a member of the EU, still uses its own currency, the koruna, at about 21 to the dollar (25 to the euro). We only had euros on us so I withdrew a few hundred dollars worth of koruna from an ATM on a busy street. A few seconds later, a guy offered to break a bill for me, since the ATM only dispensed large notes. He offered four 500 Kč bills (worth a little under  US $25 each) for my 2000 Kč note, and in my fatigue I did not ask the obvious question: Why would anyone want a larger bill for smaller ones? You almost always want to go the other way around. So I went for it, and — as I learned about an hour later when I tried to spend one — the 500’s were fake. I’m out a little under $100 but at least got a story to tell out of it. The irony is that the fakes do not even resemble actual 500 Kč  notes. (Though of course at the time I did not know what actual ones looked like.) Not-particularly-close inspection reveals that the writing on them is Cyrillic (instead of Czech) and declares them to be 500 Russian rubles. But they’re not that either. They’re basically realistic props, complete with embedded strip and watermark. Oh well. At least it was a more interesting scam than the attempts in Paris, and I have four fake banknotes to show for it.

So welcome to Prague. We are staying in a large, utterly beautiful apartment a very short walk over the Vltava River, the body of water where vowels go to drown. The apartment is at least 1000 square feet (93 sq meters) with high arched ceilings and thick painted stone walls; it is a renovated very old building. The flat is owned by an artist — a photographer as it happens — and so is beautifully decorated as well.

Prague itself is a very compact, walkable city whose architecture has preserved a lot of its 18th century character. Because of this, it is a popular movie filming location. It stood in for Vienna in the movie Amadeus — the actual Vienna being too modernized and too expensive to film in — and is the go-to Generic Eastern European City in any number of spy movies, e.g. The Bourne Identity.  It’s got a population of 1.3 million — and had 6.6 million foreign visitors in 2017. That’s not quite as lopsided as Iceland, but it’s close. There are a lot of tourists here, Germans being by far the largest group, with the US and UK in second and third place.

The city is loosely divided into four districts, being the “Old Town” and the “New Town” on the east side of the river and the “Little Quarter” and “Castle Town” on the west. We’re staying in the Little Quarter, a few minute walk over the Charles Bridge from Old Town. Our apartment living room faces north towards Castle Town: from our window we can see the imposing Prague Castle, a gloomily imposing 9th century edifice that houses the president of the country and was the former seat of power of the Holy Roman Empire. (Fun historical fact: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor much of an empire. But it shows the importance of branding.) The castle also has the distinction of being the largest castle in the world, sprawling over 17 acres (7 hectares) not counting the exterior grounds. God knows what the heating bills are like.

Our plans today are relatively modest. We’re going to walk into the Old Town and visit the tiny Jewish Quarter, which has five synagogues including the most famous one: the “Old New Synagogue” (it’s a long story), which is the oldest in Europe that is still in use. And, being an astronomer, I feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to Prague’s famed Astronomical Clock, which is over 600 years old. It shows the Moon, the Sun, assorted astronomical information, and the appearance of a proper 500 koruna banknote.

Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lon Chaney, Call Your Office

So it appears that in France they believe that “The Phantom of the Opera” was a documentary. And, weirdly, that may not be altogether off the mark. The famed book, about a half dozen movie versions, and the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical all take place at L’Opera de Paris, also known as the Palais Garnier for the young architect who designed it in the 1870’s. Interestingly, the following things actually did happen in real life:

  • Some flooding occurred during construction, necessitating the inclusion of a retaining wall that created a small sub-basement pool that still exists and became the “Fantasy Lake” of the story.
  • One of the construction workers had a terrible facial deformity that he kept hidden. He loved the building and pretty much hung around there in secret all the time.
  • A counterweight from the chandelier in the main auditorium broke loose and fell in 1896, killing a spectator.

Who knew? In any case, the building is a spectacular one, built in an ornate neoclassical style, all marble and curlicues and domes and staircases. We took the tour. Here is the main lobby. It made me feel like I should have arrived in a horse-drawn carriage.

Paris 2018-072-Edit

Here’s the domed main auditorium. It seats nearly 2,000.

Paris 2018-068

And here is the dome itself with the infamous chandelier. You may note that the painting style does not exactly say “1875”. That is because it was repainted in a more current motif in 1968 at the behest of the then Minister of Culture, author Andre Malraux. The style may look familiar to you, since the artist is… Marc Chagall!

Paris 2018-057

And finally, here is the austere, understated Great Hall, in case the palace of Versailles isn’t garish enough for your tastes.

Paris 2018-083-Edit

Now here’s the weird part: the blockbuster Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera” has never been shown in France. Apparently it was finally scheduled to run in Paris two years ago in October 2016, but a fire in the theater a few days before opening destroyed everything. So… no “Phantom” for Parisians, L’Opera notwithstanding.

Our next stop was a pilgrimage of sort, although I am not sure if it counts as a pilgrimage when you’re making the trip for somebody else. My former Evil Assistant and longtime BFF Angie is a devotee of insanely expensive designer purses (or, as she describes them, “receptacles for my soul”) and so we spent a few minutes wandering through the Insanely Expensive Purse And Other Retail Store district, just off the Champs Elysée. Our specific goal at Angie’s request was the Hermes flagship store (it’s pronounced er-MEZZ, you Philistine, not HER-meez), which we photographed but did not enter because we were not worthy. Angie was outraged that we did not take the opportunity to stop in and pick her up something called a “Birkin 35 Vermillion Togo”, which a moment of Googling revealed to be a $10,000 purse. I told her that we had decided to wait till it went on sale.

Designer-purseless, we moved on to one of our favorite museums in Paris, the Picasso Museum.

Paris 2018-096-Edit

The Picasso Museum is four stories tall, and by the time we got to the top I must confess that even we, big fans that we are, were utterly Picasso’ed out.

We had dinner at an excellent nearby Greek restaurant, three doors down from one of the sleazy sex shops on our street. Our dirty little secret (unrelated to the sex shops) is that neither Alice nor I are big fans of French haute cuisine. We love French “street food”: baguettes, crepes, that sort of thing. But I am not especially fond of creamy sauces, and Alice, being lactose intolerant, can’t handle the French fondness for butter and cream in everything. So when in Paris we go ethnic, much as we do at home. As you might expect Paris has very cosmopolitan restaurant offerings; so far our diners have been Italian, Vietnamese, and Greek. Tonight we’re doing Japanese.

It was dark after dinner, and so we made our way to the Seine for our nighttime boat ride. The Bateaux Mouches (literally “fly boats”, as in the insect, named for the Mouche region of Lyon where they were first built) are one of Paris’s delightful institutions They’re huge barge-like tourist boats, perhaps 200′ (60 m) long that hold hundreds of passengers, and they’ve been plying the Seine since 1867. Americans and Japanese seemed to be the predominant groups last night. The best time to go is at night when the monuments are lit up, so here are some shots from our trip. (The first, showing the beacon, is from shore, but all the others from on board. The second one shows Notre Dame over the rooftops.)

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-006

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-022

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-026

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-058

Eifel Tower Moon crop (5 of 1)

Note the sequence of low bridges in the middle photo. The boats have unusual design to accommodate them: the ship’s bridge (where the captain steers) is on a hydraulic cantilevered arm and can raise and lower by several feet as needed.

We returned home about 11 PM, navigating the gauntlet of prostitutes working the street near our flat. One surprisingly pretty streetwalker, all hot pants and fishnets, greeted me with that most venerable come-on: “Hi! Do you speak English?” I said, “Yep,” and continued to walk, but before I could take another step, Alice charged up from a few feet behind me, grabbed my arm, and forcefully declared, “HE’S MINE!” It was such an absurd, retro bit of rom-com that all three of us — including the hooker — burst out laughing. Which, I suppose, was as surreal a way as any to end the evening.

We had another “museum day” today — St Chappelle cathedral, with its spectacular stained glass, and the Musée d’Orsay. I may write about them later if time and energy permit. This was our last day in Paris: we head to Prague tomorrow morning. We loved our time here; for us, Paris is the most enjoyable city in the world to simply be in, regardless of whether one runs around checking off all the traditional sights.

Categories: Europe, France, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Roadside Waterfall

Driving around in northern Iceland is a head-turning exercise in trying to take in first this volcanic feature, than that unnamed waterfall. The countryside is pretty isolated in the north, where the largest town, Akureyri, has a population of less than 19,000 which, amazingly, makes it the second largest city in Iceland after Reykjavik.

That Alaska-like low population density means that we needed to be mindful of our fuel tank, so we started the day by backtracking into Saudarkrokur for gas. While Tim and Alice coped with the one-pump street corner filling station, Janet and I walked down the block in search of a restroom, ultimately finding ourselves in the local bakery/tea room. It was there that we discovered that Icelanders are really excellent bakers with an inordinate fondness for pink icing. Seriously, everything they sold looked criminally mouth-watering, and half of it had pink icing. Wanting to blend in with the locals, I bought and ate a fresh doughnut with pink icing. It was as light as air and I’m sure contained at most zero calories. That’s how I know that they are excellent bakers.

The landscape in northern Iceland is oddly like Hawaii except for the large temperature difference and presence of sheep. It’s volcanic terrain dotted with cinder cones and the occasional serendipitous waterfall within a few hundred meters of the road. Here’s the first one we encountered, photographed by drone:

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-003

This is a pretty typical sight. In this case, we were still close to a fjord flowing northwestward, which at this time of year and this far inland was at a very low water level, creating this abstract scene as viewed from some 200 meters directly above.

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-008

I’m rather proud of this photo, but if you are having trouble visually parsing the scene, here it is again looking more upward towards the sea.

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-009

Swiveling the drone to look upstream towards the mountains (and the sun), the same river looks like this:

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-011

Such are the rewards of driving in northern Iceland. While I was flying the drone, Alice walked a quarter mile or so up the road, where we had passed a gravel lot packed with cars and trucks. Turns out that it was also packed with sheep: this was the venue where the various livestock owners identified their particular sheep via ear tags. The sheep all graze together, you see, and are herded together en masse and sorted by owner later.

We continued on our way and spotted a gravel spur and small parking lot at the head of a path leading down to a valley. A short walk down the path took us to a precipice overlooking a river with an oxbow bend around a steep basaltic hillside. Here are Alice and I defying death, about 15 meters above the valley floor on a somewhat precarious lookout point. We look a lot cheerier than we felt; the path was loose dirt and rock, slipperier than we’d like, and it was a long way down.

Iceland Alice & Rich Precipice

Our next destination was one of Iceland’s better-known waterfalls, the Goðafoss, which means “Waterfall of the Gods”. Like every stationary object in Iceland, this one has a legend associated with it. As the story goes, in the year 1000 a local chieftain named Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði — his friends called him Bob — was taking a lot of political heat from the Norse, who had recently converted to Christianity from Paganism and wanted Iceland to do the same. Chief Bob had to make the big decision about which way to go, and since I am not typing this by candlelight you probably know the outcome. Deciding that Icelanders should become Christian, he demonstrated his commitment by throwing all of his statues of Pagan gods into this waterfall. Hence the name. (What history conceals from us is that that Bob went home and got an earful from Mrs. Ljósvetningagoði, who went out and bought a new set of idols at Pier One the next day.)

Anyway, here’s Goðafoss. The main cascade (there’s a smaller one a short way downstream) is about 12 meters (40′) high. The river above it is the Skjálfandafljót (pronounced “Snuffleupaguss”), which is the fourth longest river in Iceland.

Iceland Godafoss 2018-036

Our next stop — and our destination for the day — was Lake Mývatn, which means “Midge Lake” due to the ubiquitous dense swarms of the goddamn things. (They even got into our noses and mouths, and I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer. Thank God they don’t bite.) Mývatn is a popular tourist area because of all the geothermal activity: there are natural hot spring baths, nature trails through volcanic formations, and “resort farms” for lodging, including the one we are staying at. The lake itself is dotted with what appear to be mini-volcanoes, and sort of are. Here is the scene:

Iceland Myvatn 2018-023-Edit

What they actually are, are “pseudocraters” (that’s their real name), essentially burst lava bubbles that formed when the original lava flow overran a marshy area. They’re also called “rootless cones” because despite their appearance they are not actually lava vents. Rather, the moisture in the swampy land under the then-hot lava flow boiled away and emitted steam from underneath the lava, swelling it into a bubble that hardened and later collapsed. It’s an odd, unearthly sight. Or at least I think it is, since the midges kept swarming around my head.

We finally came to rest at the Vogafjós Farm Resort. In case you are wondering what that means, it means that we have a very comfortable motel-like room, all wood paneled and with a super-comfy geothermally heated floor (!), and that there are cows outside. There is also an excellent farm-to-table restaurant, in this case the farm-to-table distance being zero. Their specialty is lamb — quite the best I have ever had — and “Geyser Bread”, which is a very moist dark rye bread baked by burying it in the hot ground near a geothermal vent. Yes, really. It’s great!

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ever Northward

We are now near the town of Sauðárkrókur, which if you’re allergic to the weird typography is written as Saudarkrokur in non-Icelandic. That’s actually a little misleading since the third character, the ð, looks like a d but is actually pronounced th. But the main point is that it is at a latitude of 65.7°, which puts us about 55 miles (90 km) below the Arctic Circle. You wouldn’t know it from the weather, which was mostly sunny and mild today, reaching about 15 C (59 F). The relatively balmy temperatures and the sunshine, combined with much milder winds, made it a fine day to continue our drive to the north and take in the scenery, which at its most idyllic looked like this.

Iceland Grabrok and North Drone 2018-017-EditIceland Grabrok and North 2018-026Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-029

I took the top two via drone; it was a good day for that too. All three shots were taken about halfway into today’s journey, when we stopped for lunch at a turnoff from the road next to the river in the picture. Our company was a team of sheep herders and their dogs and ATV, rounding up an enormous flock on a nearby hillside.

Our first stop of the day had actually been an hour earlier, at the Grábok (the name means “gray rock”) cinder cones, the remnants of a not-completely-ancient volcano. It’s setting is a stark volcanic landscape with close greenish-yellow ground cover, as you can see here.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-012

This particular environmental motif is typically Icelandic: if you live outside of the city you are morally obliged to build a white farmhouse with a red roof on an otherwise desolate landscape with mountains in the background. If you don’t believe me, compare that last photo to the first one in this post after the lead-in paragraph. See?

Grábok is about 100 meters tall and has a convenient boardwalk leading up its side and around the crater rim. You can see it clearly in this drone view, taken from about 100 meters above the crater rim:

 

Iceland Grabrok and North Drone 2018-016

(I also shot a nice video of the drone flyoner, which I will post at a later date.) You may also notice a few rows of stones, about a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the image and about a quarter of the way in from the right. That is an archaeological site, the remains of a settlement dating from the 10th century, when the Norse first arrived in Iceland. In the century or so after those initial settlements, the locals were building sod houses like these.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-062

 

The walls and the roof are all made of chunks of sod as advertised, and since plants like to grow upwards, the roofs sprout. These particular guys are found at the  Glaumbaer Folk Museum, a little ways south of Sauðárkrókur. They are surprisingly sophisticated dwellings, extending two stories underground and containing kitchens, storage areas, and dormitory-like bunk bed sleeping quarters. The fronts of the buildings are made of wood as you can see (now reconstructed, of course), which raises the obvious question of how you build with wood when there are no trees around. The terrain is bleak and treeless, with not a lot of promising building materials. But we are very close to the coast, and so the answer is: driftwood! The early inhabitants gathered enough driftwood to build houses, furniture, and (I presume) horse carts.

Speaking of horses, there are a lot of them around. Small in stature but nimble on the rough ground and on ice, Icelandic horses are all the descendants of the initial cargoes of ponies from Norway, brought over in the 10th and 11 centuries. They still look like ponies, and according to my dictionary definition they are ponies, being barely 5 feet  (1.5 meters) high at the shoulder. However, you must not call them ponies here. To Icelanders they are horses, dammit, and if you call the horses “ponies” the locals will throw you into a fjord with your hiking boots tied around your neck.

I should also mention that they all have gorgeous manes; they all look either blow-dried or carefully windblown. You can admire the mane that this not-pony is sporting against a dramatic background.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-056-Edit

Beautiful, yes, but what are all these horses for? There isn’t a big demand for draft animals in Iceland these days, and a horse this size would hardly do the job anyway. The answer is that most are pets or used for riding, and the ones that aren’t suitable for either of those or for breeding are… eaten. (Do not tell my niece, who is a very avid and experienced horsewoman.)

I mention all this horse stuff because our lodgings this evening are a beautiful 3-bedroom guest house on a working farm about 10 km south of Sauðárkrókur. And by a “working farm” I mean that the owners were out all day gathering sheep into this pen:

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-066

(The horns notwithstanding, these are all ewes. The males are kept separately.) Like most farms it is kind of in the middle of nowhere, so we returned to town for dinner, driving northward along the fjord around sunset as a sharply-defined cloud layer formed a few tens of meters over the water, hovering like a gigantic UFO.  The town itself is very small, with a only a couple thousand inhabitants, and just about the only restaurant was the suspiciously-named “Hard Wok”, whose two-page menus offered cuisine from about five different countries, including Chinese, Italian, and Mexican food. Our meals were surprisingly good.

Tomorrow, we fuel up — with actual diesel this time, thank you very much — and continue eastward and a little farther north.

 

 

Categories: Europe, Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Saguaro Lake

Speaking of lakes, since we are wrapping up our stay in Scottsdale, Arizona, before heading home tomorrow, I thought I’d throw in one last very brief blog post from our current venue.

When you think of Arizona, you probably think “unbearably hot desert”, and in general you’d be right. But the weather has been unusually cool these past few days, with highs in the low 60’s (around 16 C). It was especially beautiful today, up close to 70F (21C), so our very dear longtime friends and perpetual Scottsdale hosts drove us on an outing to Saguaro Lake, about a 20 minute drive from home.

Saguaro Lake is artificial, the result of damming up the Salt River in 1930. It’s long and skinny, only about 2 square miles (500 hectare) in surface area and about 100′ (30m) deep. It’s a beautiful deep crystal blue, surrounded by several hundred foot high sedimentary cliffs. There are about 10 species of fish — trout and that sort of thing — so as you’d suppose it’s a popular boating and fishing spot. There’s a even a tour boat that brings you around the lake and into some of the narrow canyons on a 90 minute excursion. (We took that boat tour a few years ago on a blistering summer day with temperatures in the 105 F (41 C) range. It would have been a lot more fun today.)

The lake sits in a region called the Tonto National Forest (no Lone Ranger jokes, please). There was a uniformed ranger-looking person sitting in a white pickup truck in the parking lot, so I asked her if it was allowable to fly my drone. “Beats me,” she said, “I’m a Forest Service biologist and have no authority over anything.” That sounded like permission to me, so here is the drone flight. The video is a little under 5 minutes long, and you can see the tour boat starting at about 2:45.

 

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