Tag: Game

Finally Some Oxygen!!

Finally Some Oxygen!!

Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia – April 6, 2019

Departing from La Paz, one must always wake up early.  Fortunately, when it is a domestic flight, it is not crazy early.  Our driver from Mujeres al Volante (Women at the Wheel) was right on time for our 05:00 pick up from home.

When we can, we use Mujeres al Volante to get us around La Paz.  As one can tell from the business name, it is an all-female taxi service.  We like that idea because it gives women a chance they might not otherwise have.  The service operates, in part, via WhatsApp.  After arranging for a pickup, the service sends a text message via WhatsApp with the name, photograph, and cellular phone number of the driver.  Additionally, one also receives a picture of the vehicle, including the license plate.  That allows for confirmation of the ride before getting in the car.

In our experience, each driver is very kind.  Each driver is also very conscientious and safe.  For example, this morning, our driver stopped at every red light.  That may not be all that unusual in La Paz; however, our driver remained stopped until the light turned green.  That is a bit unusual.  Several other drivers stopped or slowed, only to continue through the intersection.  Those few stops did not hamper our progress.  We quickly and safely made it to the airport at El Alto by 05:45.

It was quick and easy to check-in for our 07:30 Boliviana de Aviación (BOA) flight.  After clearing the security checkpoint, we sat at Uyu café.  We both had a coffee.  Leslie also had a toasted ham and cheese croissant.  She said it was unusually delicious, especially for airport food.

Cloudy conditions did not interfere with the air traffic.  We had no problems seeing our BOA airplane arrive at the jet bridge.  About 30-minutes after the aircraft arrived, we boarded.  Then, right on time, we pushed back from the gate at 07:30.

Our Bolivian Airlines jet approaches the boarding gate.

At roughly 4,115 meters (13,500 feet), there is not an abundance of oxygen.  The main runway at El Alto International Airport is 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) long.  It seemed our airplane used about 3,990 meters of the runway before finally lifting off the ground.  Even jet airplanes have trouble at that altitude.  Quite frankly, that is no doubt part of the reason for so many early morning flights.  As the air heats up during the day, the lifting capacity of the air diminishes.

La Paz nestles amongst the mountains and cliffs along the west side of the Andes.  Santa Cruz de la Sierra, our destination, is about 554 kilometers (344 miles) east and south of La Paz.  That meant our flight went directly over the Andes.  Seeing some of the highest peaks in Bolivia from the air is beautiful.  Two offered some breathtaking views that morning, Illimani (6,438 meters/21,122 feet) and Huayna Potosí (6,088 meters/19,974 feet).  Illimani is the second highest peak in Bolivia, Huayna Potosí is the fifth highest.

We landed at Viri Viri International Airport right on time, 08:35.  As soon as we deplaned, we both felt like Olympic athletes!  There was more oxygen than our bodies had encountered in quite some time!  We felt like we could jog to the hotel.  A mere 55-minutes later we arrived at the Marriott Hotel…via a van.

The reason for our oxygen “high” was because we were low.  In a little over one-hour, we transitioned from 4,115 meters to 416 meters (1,365 feet); about a 90-percent decrease in altitude!  We were as giddy as junior high school kids…well maybe not, but we sure felt great!

After brunch at the hotel, we got in a taxi and headed to the Cathedral of Santa Cruz.  Our driver let us out on the west side of the Central Plaza.  The beautifully landscaped plaza covers one city block, containing many sidewalks.  At the center of the square is a statue of Colonel Ignacio Warnes (1770-1816).  He famously liberated the city of Santa Cruz in about 1813.

A statue of Colonel Ignacio Warnes in the center of the Central Plaza.

From the moment we exited our taxi, we heard a band playing.  As we walked through the plaza, we headed toward the cathedral at the southeast corner of the square.  In formation and at the front of the cathedral, was the Banda Intercontinental Poopó (the Poopó Intercontinental Band).  The band hails from the Bolivian city of Oruro.  The group, formed in 1964, it is famously known for playing Bolivian folk music.  Every year the band performs during Carnaval in Oruro.

There were about 50 band members on the steps in front of the cathedral.  Their uniforms are distinct, each member wearing a red jacket with gold and yellow accents.  The jackets have the name of the band emblazoned diagonally across the chest.  Dazzling white slacks offset the red coats.  Each side of the pants also carries the name of the group.  The white shoes are like none I have ever seen.  To top it all off each member wears a brownish hardhat that carries the name of the band.

When we arrived, dozens and dozens of people surrounded the band, enjoying the music.  The first song we heard was the Bolivian national anthem.  After the anthem, they segued to a Bolivian folk song.  We listened and watched for several minutes before entering the cathedral.

The Poopó Band playing in front of the cathedral.
The band smartly lined up on the stairs.
The uniforms are very intricate.
The pants and shoes are pretty snappy too!

The Cathedral of Santa Cruz, completed in 1915, is also known as the Basílica Menor de San Lorenzo Martir (Minor Basilica of St. Lawrence Martyr).  St. Lawrence was a Spanish deacon martyred in Rome in 258.  Inside, the altar that is opposite the entry point immediately draws one’s attention.  The basilica is all brick and concrete except for the beautiful vaulted wooden ceilings.  These vaulted ceilings are over the central aisle as well as the two side aisles.

The main aisle inside the cathedral.

We opted to walk along the right-side aisle toward the front of the basilica.  A typical sight in a Catholic church is prayer candles.  However, I have never seen them done as they were in the basilica.  At strategic points, there are metal tables.  Each table is about two-feet by four-feet with upturned edges.  On the flat surface, worshipers place candles.  The melted wax gathers on the tabletop without harming anything else in the basilica.  In front of a crucifix and depictions of Mary and Joseph were two of these tables.  Off to one side of the display is a hinged door with a small slot.  Many worshipers place money in the slot while admiring the display.

A pan for prayer candles.
Jesus on the cross with Mary and Joseph below.

Further along the aisle is a wooden and glass display case.  Inside are depictions of Mary, Joseph, and a young Jesus.  I am not sure who the depicted person is on the left side of the display.  As with the crucifix display, another, albeit smaller, metal table for prayer candles sat in front of the display case.  A donation box was also available.

This case depicts Mary in the center and Jesus and Joseph on the right.
The prayer candles in front of the display.

The next display was a life-size statue, possibly depicting St. Lawrence.  Just beyond that statue, at the right side of the altar was a depiction of Mary.  While we were there, a woman stood in front of the figure the entire time.

A statue in the cathedral.
A woman standing in front of a depiction of Mary.

When crossing from one side of the basilica to the other, the enormous scale of the altar area is striking.  The height and depth make it an expansive space, yet it does seem inviting.  Because the Easter Season is approaching, purple draping is behind the altar and tabernacle.  That is a pleasing offset to the wood ceilings and the mainly white walls and columns.  It also makes the silver tabernacle visually pop from the space.

The base of the altar is unique.  It appears to be hand-carved wood bas relief.  The scene depicts Jesus among several Latinos.  The Latinos are in relatively modern looking clothing, not clothing from their native past.  Some of the men sport traditional hats.  The lone woman does not appear to have her head covered at all.  The painting of the bas relief helps bring the scene to life.

The purple draping in anticipation of Easter.
The crucifix above the tabernacle.
Detail of the crucifix.
A uniquely carved altar.

On the left side of the altar is a statue of Peter, complete with the keys to the Kingdom.

A statue honoring Peter.

Outside the small chapel is another depiction of Mary and one of Jesus.  Both have space for worshipers to place prayer candles.  The chapel is small and cozy.  The tabernacle is the focus of the chapel as it is in most Catholic churches.

A statue of Jesus.
Some prayer candles in front of a depiction of Mary.
The tabernacle in the chapel.
The prayer candles in front of the statue of Jesus.
Detail of the side of the cathedral.
Detail at the top of the column.

Leaving the chapel area, one encounters another bas relief.  This bas relief depicts the Holy Trinity.  It looks ancient.

A bas relief of the Holy Trinity.
A man and woman stop in front of the side crucifix.

We could hear the Poopó Band during our entire visit to the basilica.  When we emerged, we saw some dancers performing between the band and the group of onlookers.  At one point, a man from the crowd began dancing to the folk song played at that moment.

At the left is a man dancing to the music of the Poopó Band.
Dozens and dozens of people enjoying the band.
Three members of one of the dance groups.
The clock spire of the cathedral.

Departing the basilica area, we opted to walk along the east side of the Central Plaza.  Along the way, I spotted the “Barcelona” money exchange.  Because of our time in Spain, I just had to take a photograph.  We crossed the street and entered a tourist gift shop.  After much looking, we spotted a hand-carved depiction of the Holy Family.  Carved to appear like native Bolivians, both Mary and Joseph are unique.  Even though we have a lot of Nativity scenes already, we could not resist this opportunity.  The man that served us was very kind.  He also agreed to have his photograph made while he was wrapping our purchase.

The cathedral as seen from the Central Plaza.
Looking south toward the cathedral along 24 de Septiembre.
A money exchange store.
The man from whom we purchased the wooden set of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.

Next door was another tourist shop.  There we decided we had to have two Bolivian blankets.  Much like the other store, the woman serving us was kind and posed for a photograph.

The woman from whom we purchased our “cholita” blankets.

At this point, it was near noon.  We saw an Irish Pub on the second level of a shopping mall.  It had open windows overlooking the Central Plaza.  We decided that was the place to be.  We walked upstairs and ordered a couple of beers.  Since we had brunch at the hotel, we decided to snack on some French fries.  Just as noted above, our server was kind and posed for a photograph.  In return, she captured Leslie and me at our very best…

Our server at the Irish Pub.
The patrons at the Irish Pub.

From our vantage point above the plaza, we saw a lot.  I think one of the most interesting sights was the two chess tables set up at the side of the square, both occupied by chess players.  For the entire time we were in the area, the Poopó Band played.  They never took a break.  I am sure they were exhausted whenever they finally did stop playing.

White flowers in a tree across from the Irish Pub.
Three costumed girls walking through Central Plaza.
It sounds German, but it is made in Bolivia.
Chess games in the Central Plaza.
Thinking of the next move.
One of the local security people in the Central Plaza.
The clock spire of the cathedral.
A juice vendor in the Central Plaza.
Detail of the cross atop the cathedral spire.
The Santa Cruz municipal government building. The Bolivian flag is red, yellow, and green. The green and white flag is for Santa Cruz.
Two women talking in the Central Plaza.

After our refreshments, we called for our taxi and returned to the hotel for a well-deserved nap.

The two “cholita” blankets we bought in a store just off the Central Plaza.

Before we departed La Paz, our good friends Joe and Tia told us we needed to eat at the steakhouse, La Cabrera.  We made reservations there for our first night in Santa Cruz.  Prior to arriving at the steakhouse, we had a glass of wine in the lobby of the hotel.  Drinks complete, we got in our taxi and rode to the steakhouse.

The bar/restaurant at the Marriott.
A white wine.
And both wines.
Lighting in the lobby of the Marriott.
Lighting above the bar.

The recommendation of the steakhouse was spot-on!  The building is two-stories; however, once inside, one can see the steakhouse has three separate levels on which to dine.  Our table happened to be on the ground floor.  Once seated, the wait staff immediately greeted us and asked for our beverage preference.  Oddly enough, we selected a bottle of wine.  We had a bottle of Juan Cruz Tannat which was one of the most delicious wines I have experienced.

La Cabrera, a wonderful steakhouse.
Interior of the steakhouse.
My happy date for the evening.
The bottle of wine we enjoyed with dinner.

For our starter, we selected Provoleta al Orégano (grilled provolone cheese with oregano).  It was a superb way to begin our meal.  We each chose the half-portion Argentinian steak for our main course.  Brought to the table on a sizzling serving platter, it is almost like a fajita platter.  The server cut a portion for each of us and placed it on our plates.  About a dozen small ramekins containing a variety of sauces and dressings accompanied the steak.  A fresh green salad came was also part of the fare.  The steak, done to perfection, massaged the tongue with each bite.

I am glad we each ordered a half portion.  The steaks were huge!  Nearly the size of a dinner plate!  I do not know what we would have done with the leftovers if we each had ordered a full steak.  As it was, we could barely make it through what we had.  Based on the previous sentence, one may wonder just why we ordered dessert…because we could!

The dessert at the steakhouse.

Our dessert was some enormous chocolate concoction.  While it was good, it was not my favorite.  It may have lacked the real chocolate punch I expected.  I am sure part of the issue is that I am not a big dessert eater anyway.  Regardless, we both highly recommend La Cabrera.  It is worth the effort to get there.

On Sunday we walked from the hotel to the Ventura Mall.  The mall is an easy walk, only about one-half mile.  The first store we entered was Supermercado Tia.  WOW!  What a grocery store!  La Paz does not have that supermarket.  It seemed we were in a whole different country.

The store has an entry to the mall.  When we arrived, the mall was not yet open.  That meant we spent our time wandering through the store.  On the street side of the store was a small café.  We each had a coffee and watched the other shoppers walk through the store.  After our coffee, we joined the wanderers.  The store had everything under one giant roof.  We saw everything for which we usually shop.  That is different than the area where we live.  When we go shopping at home, it is not unusual to have to go to between two and four different stores to find everything we want.  We made some mental notes of what we wanted to get from the store when we walked back to the Marriott.

When we entered the mall, we saw a modern, glistening, three-story structure.  We strolled through every inch of the mall.  On the upper level is a large movie theater complex.  We almost went in to see a movie…almost.  We decided not to go in because we did not see a film that we found interesting.  So, we walked through a small hallway and discovered a large food court.  There were some vendors we did not recognize, but there were many we did know; Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, and Burger King, to name a few.

We had not eaten at Burger King for a long time, so we decided that day was the day.  We each ordered a flame-broiled Whopper, fries, and a drink.  Leslie found a place to sit while I waited for our meal.  That was when I noticed the flame broiling did not take place there.  That appears to have happened elsewhere.  A microwave heats the hamburger patties before placing them on the bun.  The Whopper was ok, but it was not what we were expecting.

Leaving the food court, we stopped at Supermercado Tia to buy a few things and then walked back to the hotel.  We spent the rest of the day lounging.

That evening, we had dinner at the hotel. At the entry to the restaurant, there is a large ametrine crystal, about 18 inches wide by 12 inches tall, a purple and white quartz only found in Bolivia, on display. I have no clue about the value of that piece. The stone contains both citrine and amethyst.

We had an excellent dinner topped off with Flor de Caña 18 rum…my kind of dessert!

A huge specimen of ametine at the Marriott.
An after-dinner drink of Flor de Caña 18.

On Monday, one of my tasks was to view the local Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) office. APHIS is a part of the United States Department of Agriculture. It was at that office I saw the most unusual wall painting. In the corner of the front garden is a 3-D mural. It depicts the mission of APHIS. The mural focuses on animal husbandry and wildlife from the high mountains to the lowlands, including farming, and then on to the big cities. According to the locally employed staff member, the mural, completed by a local artist, cost only US$200 nearly 15-years ago. I am sure I will never see another wall like that one.

The 3-D mural at the APHIS facility.

Thursday morning, we boarded a plane to return to La Paz. The BOA Boeing 737 we boarded that morning was unusual. A sign at the front entry to the plan proudly announced, “Pope Francis flew in this aircraft from Quito to La Paz and from La Paz to Santa Cruz on July 8, 2015.”

Our plane waiting for us to board in Santa Cruz.
The fuselage of our plane.
This sign as we entered the airplane read, “Pope Francis flew in this aircraft from Quito to La Paz and from La Paz to Santa Cruz on July 8, 2015.”

The flight to La Paz was quick and uneventful.  Once we were on the ground, our bodies screamed that we seemed to have left a lot of oxygen behind!  Even though we were only absent from La Paz for five nights, our bodies had to reacclimate to the thin air of La Paz.  Regardless, it was good to be back home.  We like the weather in La Paz much more than Santa Cruz.  La Paz is cool and dry.  Santa Cruz is hot and humid.

A worker’s legs dangling through the trellis at the pool area.
A panorama of Santa Cruz, looking east from the swimming pool deck at the hotel.
Alasitas

Alasitas

La Paz, Bolivia – January 24, 2019

On Thursday, Leslie joined me at the office.  The occasion?  Alasitas!!

Our Community Liaison Officer (CLO) coordinated a trip to the opening day of Alasitas.  Alasitas begins on January 24 every year.  As stated on the LAPAZLIFE site,

“Taking place just before Carnaval, Alasitas Fair, or Feria de las Alasitas in Spanish, is a month-long festival, where locals purchase miniature items to give to Ekeko, the Aymara god of abundance, in the hope he will bring fortunate [sic] and happiness to their lives.”

One can read more at LAPAZLIFE by clicking on this Alasitas link.

Before we left my office, Leslie and I huddled to agree on a strategy for our shopping.  We agreed we might buy one or two items and then just look.  After departing the market, we could decide if we wanted anything else.  If so, we could return on another day.  That strategy held solid…until we arrived at the market!

At about 11:00, we made the short walk to the Saint George station of the Celeste Line of the Teleférico.  The Teleférico was very crowded.  No doubt we were not the only ones bound for Alasitas.  We waited for several gondolas before one had enough room for us to board.  Once onboard, we sat back and relaxed for the ride to the Prado station, the end of the line.

Between the Open-Air Theater station and the Prado station, we “flew” over the Alasitas venue.  It did not take a rocket surgeon to see there were hundreds and hundreds of people in attendance.  Our path took us directly over the main entrance to the venue.  We saw the official Alasitas opening ceremony was in full swing.

“Flying” in the Teleferico Linea Celeste, approaching the site of the Alasitas.
Our view of the venue as we “flew” on to the final station on the Celeste Line.

Arriving at Prado station, we disembarked and waited for the rest of our group.  When we were all accounted for, we began our walk.  CLO strategically selected the Prado station as our starting point because everything from there is downhill.  That is a huge benefit in this city of monstrous hills.

As soon as we walked under Calle Bueno, we saw the beginnings of the vendor stalls at the Campo Ferial Bicentennial, the venue for Alasitas.  At this far end of the site, only a few of the vendors were open.  There were, however, many foosball tables and pool tables.  They were all undercover.  Many of the tables were in use.  I assume one must pay a fee to be able to use one of the tables.

Looking down the valley toward the southeast. Many of the vendor stalls on this end of the Campo Ferial Bicentennial were not open.
There were dozens of foosball tables along our route.
There were also several pool tables along the way.

Some of my colleagues at work had told me that there are usually miniature Teleférico gondolas for sale.  I knew I had to get one each of the green and blue gondolas.  I saw some hanging at one of the first booths at which we stopped.  There was a wonderful woman there.  She sold us the two gondolas.  As part of the sale, she provided miniature certificates for each one.  They are copies of documents for each of the actual gondolas on the operating Teleférico.  She said she is an artist.  She made several of the items in the booth, including a green bus.  As we departed, she gave us a blessing in the Aymara language.  That is the language of one of the indigenous peoples of Bolivia.

This wonderful woman sold us the two miniature Teleferico gondolas, one green and one blue.

Our next stop was a booth with dozens of Ekekos of varying sizes. Ekeko is the Aymara god of abundance. He is the one the believers think will grant what is desired in their lives. The miniatures found at Alasitas represent those desires. We opted for one that is about six inches tall. He will reside in our kitchen. The young who sold the Ekeko also provided us with a cigarette. Those are typically lit and placed in the mouth of Ekeko. We decided it will just be by his ear.

A group of Ekekos for sale.
We purchased our Ekeko from this young man.

By this time, nearly noon, the central aisle was more and more crowded with people. That is because many believe that they need to purchase their miniatures and have them blessed on the first day of Alasitas, literally at high noon. For a blessing, one can go to a Catholic priest or an Aymara shaman. It is customary to pay for this service. The payment is probably around $5 Bolivianos (US$0.75).

The closer we got to the center of the feria, the more crowded things became.
A priest blessing some of the items purchased by a woman.

We veered off onto one of the side aisles.  The aisle was virtually empty of shoppers.  About halfway down the aisle was a vendor stall that had llama miniatures.  That particular stall also had a little girl that was beside herself, wanting ice cream.  As soon as her mother gave her one, she was very content.  The little girl’s mother was very kind to help us find just the right llama.

While the main walkway was very crowded with people, the side areas were relatively open.
A very happy little girl, once she received her ice cream.
The little girl’s mother sold us a miniature llama.

I seem to be a sucker for color, as evidenced when we walked by a stall that had several Bolivian branded items. In particular, some shot glasses with colorful leather holders caught my eye. The young woman that helped me a lot of fun and very lively.

From this vivacious young woman, we purchased a set of Bolivian shot glasses.

At the end of the side aisle, I saw some beautiful chess sets. I am not the best chess player in the world, nor do I have a collection of chess sets. That changed today, the collection part when I bought a chess set pitting the Spaniards against the Aztecs. I probably got the European discount, which means I probably overpaid. Regardless, I thought $250 Bolivianos (US$36) was very reasonable for the set. My “collection” now includes that chess set and an agate set I bought when we lived in Islamabad.

The very kind purveyor of chess sets, among other things.

There was a booth that sold nothing but miniature food items that were refrigerator magnets.  We had to have some of those, including my favorite, a salteña.

Our next stop was a father and son booth that specialized in small grocery items.  In this case, small truly means small.  There were boxes of food that could not have been more than one-half inch tall.  I have no idea what we will do with them.  I guess we will just have them and love them.

This both, manned by a father and son, is where we found our miniature food packages.

Just down the way was a stall with all sorts of miniature construction items and tools. Some of the devices were about three inches long. However, I opted for the wooden toolbox. This tiny toolbox held eight small tools, each about one-half inch long. The pliers work! A miniature blue hardhat topped off my purchase. The vendor tried to sell us miniature Academy Awards statues, Golden Globe statues, and a personal computer. We thanked her but decided we had enough already.

This vendor concentrated mostly on miniature construction items.

One couple was selling miniature currency from around the world. We knew these would be for sale. A colleague from the office gave Leslie and me some tiny money. She said people frequently hand these out to strangers. We had to buy a golden US$100 bill.

Money vendors. We bought a golden US$100 note.

After the currency purchase, I vowed not to buy anything else. I finally remembered the well-intentioned strategy Leslie and I agreed upon; albeit late!

Since we were finished flinging money around as though we had it, we decided to walk to the Teleférico and head back to the office. As we walked through the crowd, heading downhill, we passed several Aymara shamen who were blessing items people purchased. Part of the blessing entails smoke. The smoke comes from wood, sugar, and something else. We both thought the odor was quite pungent. We did not stop for any blessings, opting instead for fresh air.

People at a table with a shaman to bless their purchases.
A shaman blessing some items.
Another shaman waiting for items to bless.

When we walked through the main entrance, on our way out, the crowd seemed to multiply. Above the main entrance is a very large Ekeko. The sea of people seemed to go on forever. We happened to be walking behind a group from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Many of them were carrying colorful god’s eyes. As we walked along behind them, we took the opportunity to hand out some of the miniature currency my colleague had given us. The recipients indeed seemed to enjoy receiving them.

Moving closer to the main entry, the crowds and the smoke increased.
A vendor specializing in Barbie clothes.
A woman selling miniature diplomas and certificates in an interview with local media.
Looking back toward the Ekeko at the main entry.
The crowd at the main entry.
Beginning our walk back to the Teleferico station, the crowd was still enormous.
The group carrying the god’s-eyes are part of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
The crowd of people seemed unending.
Hundreds of people walking toward the main feria grounds.

We finally got to a side road that led to the Teleférico, thankfully not crowded with people. However, there were several dozen Bolivian police standing in formation. I am not quite sure why they were standing there. Leslie and I took advantage of the opportunity and handed out the rest of our miniature currency. Like the other recipients, they were happy to receive the notes.

A gathering of two or three dozen Bolivian police.

At the Open-Air Theater station, I stopped to take a photograph of the side of the station.  Since it is on the Celeste Line, the panels are various shades of blue.  I knew I needed such a shot for an upcoming photographers’ group competition.  I am not sure what the other photographers will think of the photo, but it is by far one of my favorites.

The side of the building at the Open Air Theater Station of the Celeste Line of the Teleferico.

We boarded and rode back to the Saint George station.  At the station is a beautiful mural.  The mural is only about two or three months old.  I have always meant to stop and take a photo.  Today, I stopped and took a photograph.

The mural at the Saint George Station of the Celeste Line. It celebrates 40 years of scholarships between Bolivia and Japan.

From there, we walked back to the office and had lunch.

When we got home that evening, we unwrapped all of our loot.  We are happy with it; although, we are not sure what we will do with some of the items!

We thoroughly enjoyed our first visit to Alasitas.  For anyone traveling to Bolivia at this time of year, Alasitas is a must-see!

Our “loot” from Alasitas.
The Ekeko is definitely center stage.
In this wooden chess set, it is the Spaniards…
…versus the Incas. The detail and color of the set is amazing.
This Ain’t Your Neighborhood Dominoes

This Ain’t Your Neighborhood Dominoes

Georgetown, Guyana – February 22, 2013

Last night was the long-awaited Embassy domino tournament. One of my maintenance crew colleagues had approached me with the idea a couple of months ago. He told me the last time there was a tournament the Facility Management crew won. He worked with the Community Liaison Officer (CLO) and the Foreign Service National Association Group (FSNAG) to pull the tournament together.

The trophies in waiting. The taller trophy is the Ambassador’s Cup.
Warming up with table tennis.
Keeping his eye on the ball.
Waiting for the domino games to begin.
More warming up at table tennis.
A shot with vigor.

The night happened to be the eve of Mashramani. That is a Guyanese festival celebrating the country’s Independence. It comes from an Amerindian word that means “job well-done.” We did not get to see the exotic costumes because Leslie was not feeling well. Maybe next year.

A Mashramani participant, the son of one of my colleagues.

There were four teams of nine players each going into the night. However, due to some last-minute maneuvering and deal-making, there ended up being three teams of six players each. The groups represented Facility Management, General Services Office, and Management.
Far be it from me to truly understand the intricacies of dominoes. After all, when I played dominoes as a child, it was to imitate the hallway and doors from the opening of the television show, Get Smart. When I tired of that game, I would stack the dominoes on end in curving lines only to watch them fall one-by-one after pushing the first one. So I am not an expert in the game.Dominoes come in sets of 28. Here in the Caribbean, they play with three players in each game. Each player draws seven dominoes which leaves seven out of play.
Players hold the dominoes in their hands, five in one and two in the other to start. The player holding the double six begins the game. If no one has it, then they use the double five and so on. Play continues until one player plays their last tile and shouts domino! If the last tiles are not playable, then the player with the lowest total of spots in their hand is the winner.
To the uninitiated, this may sound rather boring. That means the uninitiated has not watched the game in the Caribbean. Here, the players slam nearly every tile played onto the table with such force one fears the dots will come off or the tile will crack in two. The slamming is not complete without some yelling and boasting. It is effortless to get caught up in the frenzied excitement.

A Caribbean domino slam.
A Caribbean domino slam on table 3.
Making the next play.

As the games last night continued to the final round, the Facility Management team and the General Services Office team found themselves tied. In an exciting climax, the finish was 54-52 in favor of the Facility Management team. As the team captain, the team presented the trophy to me. The inscription read “Embassy of the United States of America CLO & FSNAG Ambassador’s Inter-Department Dominoes Tournament 2013 Winner”. The Facility Management team was very proud.
Maybe next time I will play. Then again, perhaps I will just set up a “Get Smart” hallway again.
On the way home from the tournament, Leslie and I stopped at the Grand Coastal Hotel to have dinner. After dinner, we went home and relaxed.

Son and father.
One of the domino players.
Another domino player waiting for the next game.
The next game begins.
Making a play on the end.
Shuffling the dominoes for the next game.
Picking just the right dominoes.
Holding the dominoes, coming up with the strategy.
Preparing to play the next domino.
Table 2.
The players really love their game.
Maybe a difference of opinion…
Talking off to the side of all of the commotion.
Another game beginning.
Shuffling for the next game.
Part of the cheering group.
The flag at dusk.
Taking a break during the tournament.
Nearing the end of the tournament.
Yelling some encouragement.
Some of the spectators.
Playing on the double six.
Nearing the end of the very last game.
After six rounds, the final score shows FM won by two points.
Our hosts for the evening.
Preparing to present the Ambassador’s Cup.
The winning FM team receiving the Ambassador’s Cup.
Proudly holding the cup.
Even though I did nothing more than take photographs, the FM team wanted me to pose with them and the cup.
A relaxing dinner at the Grand Coastal Hotel before going home.

St. Thomas

St. Thomas

Charlotte Amalie, U. S. Virgin Islands – January 7, 2013

***NEWSFLASH*** The U.S. Virgin Islands are officially beautiful!
I asked Leslie if she would like to retire there. She did not say no, but she did not say yes, either. Maybe there is a chance!
Sitting on the ship before we got off for the day’s adventure, we saw numerous yachts in the marina; they were mega yachts. We saw the Phoenix2, a 286-foot yacht built-in 2010; the Nirvana, a 290-foot yacht built-in 2012; and the US$103 million Vibrant Curiosity, a 280-foot yacht built-in 2009. They were all fantastic vessels. Photographs of them on-line confirm they are amazing inside too. The only yacht in these photos I might be able to afford is the rubber zodiac in the lower right corner of the panoramic photo…

The very large Vibrant Curiosity yacht.

The very large Phoenix yacht.
A panoramic view of the port at Charlotte Amalie.  Note the rubber zodiac in the lower right corner.

Our first destination was Blackbeard’s Castle. It is not a castle; in fact, the brochure even indicates “…it’s unlikely that Blackbeard himself…” was there. Regardless, it was a fun spot.
After we purchased our tickets, we listened to a brief presentation about Blackbeard and some of his antics. Then we were led into their small rum distillery. We listened to another short presentation on their rum-making methods. When that finished, we moved into the gift shop. We each sampled three different types of rum. We tried Blackbeard’s Castle Aged Rum, Bones Rum (complete with a skull and crossbones), and Virgin Islands Blend with peach flavoring. I suspect the last time I had rum at 09:00 I was probably in college!

A stone tower at Blackbeard’s Castle.
A pirate sculpture at Blackbeard’s Castle.
A pirate sculpture at Blackbeard’s Castle II.
A statue of Blackbeard in front of the tower.
Detail of the Blackbeard statue.
A view of Charlotte Amalie from Blackbeard’s Castle tower.
Some of the varieties of rum made and sold at Blackbeard’s Castle.
Some additional rums.

On this tour, once again, we were lucky. We had gotten out of the taxi at the front door, which was at the top of the hill. There are three other entry points; however, they were all at the bottom of the hill. That meant our self-guided tour was all downhill.
Shortly after exiting the rum distillery and museum we met a live “pirate” near one of the swimming pools. We took some fun photos with him.

Tyler dealing with a pirate at Blackbeard’s Castle.
Hillary dealing with a pirate at Blackbeard’s Castle.
Leslie dealing with a pirate at Blackbeard’s Castle.
I turned the tables on the pirate!!
The seaside of the tower at Blackbeard’s Castle, complete with a swimming pool.
A statue on the grounds of Blackbeard’s Castle.

Britannia House is on the grounds of Blackbeard’s Castle.  It is open for tours.  The admission is part of the price we originally paid.  It is a beautiful house with spectacular ceilings.  The views from the terrace are amazing.

A view of Britannia House including the unique ceiling.
Charlotte Amalie as seen from the terrace of Britannia House. The flag on the left is from Denmark. The flag on the right is for the U. S. Virgin Islands.
The view of the port from the terrace of Britannia House. Our cruise ship is the one on the left.
A street sign near Britannia House.

We continued to the World Caribbean Amber Museum. They have hundreds, if not thousands of pieces of amber on display. I found it unusual how lightweight even the most substantial pieces are. The other very unique item was the two-story-high amber waterfall.

A waterfall at the museum made entirely of amber.
Detail of the amber waterfall.
Closeup of the amber waterfall.
Flowers near the Amber Museum.
Flowers near the Amber Museum II.

Continuing downhill we next found ourselves at the Hotel 1829. The old kitchen is now the hotel bar. We took a break from our walking about and had a beer or two. Our two choices of local beer were the Blackbeard Ale and the Virgin Islands Summer Ale. They were both tasty, although I liked the Blackbeard Ale the best. The Island Summer Ale was a little too sweet for my taste.

During our beer tasting, Tyler and I discovered a backgammon table inside. He and I played a game while we drank our beer.

After all of the walking in the heat, it was time to sample some local lagers.
Tyler and I took the opportunity to play a game of backgammon.

Next on our list were the “99 Steps”. There are 103 by my count. It seems the U.S. added a few after purchasing the islands from the Dutch in the early 1900s. I am not sure exactly why; regardless, the stairs are still an attraction.

The famous 99 Steps of Charlotte Amalie.

Once we made it down the stairs, we hailed a taxi to take us back to the cruise ship area. When we were dropped off, we made our way to the Butterfly Farm. It is at the south end of the port. It was a little pricey at US$12 per head, but it was a unique experience. By the time we left, I had adjusted my thinking. The experience was well worth the price!
Tomorrow, sea day and a behind the scenes tour of our cruise ship.

Our cruise ship docked near the butterfly enclosure.
My family under a pergola covered with flowers. They were watching some butterflies.
Detail of the flowers on the pergola.
A butterfly enjoying a yellow flower.
A unique flower in the butterfly enclosure.
Butterflies snacking on a banana that seems to be beyond its prime.
There were multiple types of flowers from which the butterflies could choose.
An unusual looking plant in the butterfly enclosure.
We had to watch where we stepped while we were in the enclosure.
A butterfly on the leaves of a water plant.
A butterfly relaxing on a bench.
Several butterflies in a tree.
Another banana feeding point.
A butterfly spread its wings while dining.
The same butterfly with its wings folded.
Another view of the butterfly with open wings.
A butterfly hanging on an unopened flower.
A butterfly in the hand is worth two in the bush…or something like that.
Another butterfly on the hand.
This butterfly spread its wings for all to see.
A visitor in our room bearing chocolates.