Across America via Amtrak

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November 1st 2018
Published: November 18th 2018
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My Grandniece NatalieMy Grandniece NatalieMy Grandniece Natalie

Hooray! I finally got to meet my great niece, Natalie Philomena Landi, daughter of my sister's daughter Jenna. She is just precious and oh so delicious!!
Left my red truck (Scarlett O'Sare) parked in a friend's garage near Quito, and my taxi arrived just after midnight to get me to the airport in time for my 4:30 am flight. All went smoothly with my COPA connection in Panama City and, as always, I enjoyed catching up on old movies on the long leg of the flight (PTY to LAX is over 6 hours). My plane actually arrived in LA early, I sailed through immigration, my suitcase was the first one off the baggage carousel, and I was waved thru customs -- which meant I had to wait a bit curbside for my niece to swing by and pick me up. Jenna and her family just moved west from NY, much to my sister's delight! Jenna and I hurried to the babysitter's house...and I finally got to meet my 5 month old grandniece Natalie Philomena! What a joyful, exuberant bundle of love!

We continued on to Jenna and Patrick's spacious two bedroom apt in Venice (6 blocks from the beach!) where we waited for grandma Claire to arrive. Tummy time on the floor with the
Busy BabyBusy BabyBusy Baby

Here's Natalie at her "office" - this bright little nugget has every state of the art toy, book, nutritional supplement...she will want for nothing!!
baby, cuddling and rolling and smiling and laughing. I gifted Jenna some jewelry that I'd had stored away...a gold baby bracelet that belonged to Natalie's great grandma Natalie (my mom) had a few tiny dents which were supposedly teeth marks from when Natalie Selma herself was teething in 1926! There was also the gold filigree ring which had recently lost its ruby which I gifted to Jenna and she suggested to Patrick that, with a new stone, the ring would become her "push present". This was a new concept to me - if I understand correctly the "push party" and "push presents" are offered to pregnant women just before and after the birth of their child. Also new to me is the concept of gender reveal parties...I guess any excuse to celebrate!!

I was glad to have a few days with Claire before she left to work the month of October in Italy. I had initially planned this long US visit in order to be in LA all of Oct to spend time with my Dad while Claire was gone. After my Dad's passing I decided not to change
Arizona GirlArizona GirlArizona Girl

Wonderful to revisit favorite places and friends in Tucson, one of my favorite US cities!
the plane tix, but my travel plans changed since I wasn't needed in LA for a whole month -- keep reading for details of my revised itinerary--you'll get sneak previews since I can't manage to make the photos sync with the text for this blog entry!

Before she headed to Europe, Claire and I had a big walking day -- first to the Metro train station where we caught a train to Chinatown. After another long-ish walk to indulge in DimSum (yumyum) we retraced our steps back to the station and home to her house...over 5 miles walking...Urban Hiking is what Claire calls it. When you are walking with a destination, you can't wimp out! We took several other walks around her neighborhood and enjoyed some lovely meals together including a big family dinner at her place. My nephew Sam arrived with his new girlfriend (hooray! she's awesome- so happy for him!!) and of course my precious great niece and her parents were there too.

Once Claire was off to Tuscany, she left me
Sta Catalina MtnsSta Catalina MtnsSta Catalina Mtns

This view to the north of Tucson glows in the sunset! View from Marianna's driveway!!
with use of her car and I found my way through LA's crowded hiways and byways. One morning I had brunch with with Jim, a mutual friend that some Ecuador friends told me I ought to meet. Jim and I shared a lox plate at Canter’s Deli as we recounted our respective adventures around the globe. He's been to all but four countries in the world...impressive! He was heading off to India the next day, but I have a feeling our paths may cross again sooner or later...maybe in Ecuador!

Later that week I lunched with a new-ish acquaintance - it was nice to have a chance to get to know Armella better and we chatted on for hours. After lunch I had a few hours to kill before heading over to Jenna and Patrick's for dinner (in LA once you've driven "over the hills" you stay on that side!) Shopping at Marshall's, I found a backpack, nightgown, walking shoes and more!) Then I stopped in Whole Foods to look for coarse ground black pepper (in Ecuador it's always tasteless fine dust!). After seeing appalling prices for
Sunrise Over the DesertSunrise Over the DesertSunrise Over the Desert

After a long night of tossing and turning on the train, this view was magical!
avocados ($3.99) and mangos ($4.99) (I can get either of these at 4/$1 in season!) I found the pepper and then decided to splurge for a half-hour chair massage (offered in the lotions and potions aisle of the store). Just that quick treatment helped release some of the travel tension in my back and legs. Ahhh!

Another lovely evening with "the kids" (and their kid!) and once the traffic had calmed I made the drive back over the hills to Claire's place in the valley. Driving in LA is always an adventure. I keep smooth jazz radio playing (94.7 The Wave) to calm my nerves. My last night in LA another friend, Laura, drove down from the northern valleys (where she has a chicken farm) and we had a delish Thai meal together before she dropped me at the Metro station for the first leg of my train adventure. I was glad I'd previously taken this public transport trek with Claire; now navigating it with baggage I didn't want to flub up and have to backtrack! On the LA public transit people were incredibly polite and helpful;
At the Desert MuseumAt the Desert MuseumAt the Desert Museum

Posing with an ocotillo...they had just burst into leaf after generous rains the previous two days. The beauty of the desert filled my soul!
fellow passenger helped me lift my large suitcase over the turnstyle when the handicap door wouldn't open. It was a heavy bag since I had packed a carry'on size into a medium bag into the big one (matroishka luggage!)... it kept sliding and rolling with the train's starts and stops. Arriving at Union Station I rolled my bags directly on the the platform, since my ticket was already printed out.

Thus began a train trip from Los Angeles across to Atlanta. When I was booking each leg of my train journey I was amazed that a coach seat on the night train cost only $26 to ride from LA to Tucson! Had I upgraded to a sleeper car, it would have been over $200; I couldn't justify that for only one night...and so early on in my journey. SO, there I was on the windy, chilly tracks at 10pm, being prodded and herded like cattle with the other coach passengers, almost run over by the motorized baggage carts. Welcome to Amtrak. The more they shoved us from one place to another, each agent offering conflicting information from the last
The Star DocentThe Star DocentThe Star Docent

For over a decade my friend Kathy has been a volunteer docent at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum so she gets to exhibit the fancy birds!
one, the more stressed and unpleasant we passengers became. Folks are generally not at their best when under the stress of travel, and this confusing situation only made it worse. Finally we were permitted to board the train brusque announcers informing us that every seat was taken. An hour and a half delay seems pretty normal to the Amtrak folks, I learned as my journey continued.

Lucky for me my seatmate was an experienced train traveller and she immediately headed to the scenic observation car to grab a piece of floor, informing me as she left that she wouldn't be back so I could stretch out. In spite of the fact that the seats are wide with ample leg room, lean way back and have foot- and leg- rests, I still couldn't manage to get comfortable. I wadded up my fleece and folded over my neck pillow; I tried lying crosswise, lengthwise and diagonally across the two seats, but I still only managed to get at most four hours of sleep in half-hour to one-hour increments. My neck and hips felt stiff and I grumbled to myself about how
Kathy and Crazy CosmoKathy and Crazy CosmoKathy and Crazy Cosmo

Cosmo is a Crested Caracara - an elegant bird of prey
I was getting too old to put my body thru this and lamenting that I'd erroneously romanticized train travel in the planning stages. And then the sun rose over the desert mountains, and for the next hour of changing light and slanting shadows of scrubby manzanita trees and tall proud saguaro cacti, train travel magic was in full swing.

Bernie was there to meet me at the train while Kathy prepared breakfast at home. I'd met this marvelous couple in 1989 at an Amazon lodge called La Selva. I was teaching in Quito at the time and they were on months-long birding tour of Central and South America. Through the years we've visited one another, our paths criss-crossing somewhere on the planet. We've introduced each other to friends and friends of friends creating a network of International Folks! So lovely to spend time with them again. Bernie is a retired lawyer and Kathy is a volunteer docent at the AZ-Sonora Desert Museum. I had not been there for over 20 years and I jumped at the invitation to join Kathy for a day while she was working. It was
Copper Queen HotelCopper Queen HotelCopper Queen Hotel

Bisbee is a copper mining town, also known for its deposits of malachite, chrysacola and turquoise.
so great to just hang out with Bernie and Kathy in their lovely desert home, catching up and reminiscing. A number of years back Bernie taught International Law in Guayaquil and he'd love to come back to work in Ecuador but the fellows he taught are now teaching the course, so he basically educated himself out of a job!

I enjoyed wandering around the museum on my own on this not-too-hot perfect weather day. However, the highlight was watching Kathy show off Cosmo, the Crested CaraCara. A huge-looking bird of prey, he only weighs about 3 1/2 pounds, but it's still challenging for Kathy to hold that on her bent arm for 45 minutes! She answered each person's inquiry with a smile, often the same questions over and over again! At one point someone walked past with a service dog and Cosmo went a bit wacky; lifting off as if to fly away but pulled back with his leather leash which was attached to Kathy's leather glove. That heart-pounding moment for Kathy made for some great photo ops for us visitors! The museum has been improved over the years,
Cosmo the Crested CaracaraCosmo the Crested CaracaraCosmo the Crested Caracara

So fun to watch Kathy at work, showing off this majestic bird of prey, answering the same questions dozens of times, always with the same enthusiasm!
including water fountains that refill bottles easily and free sunscreen dispensers in the restrooms!

To escape the loud crowds at the walk-up counter eatery, I invited Kathy to lunch at the elegant Ocotillo Restaurant...fine dining amidst cacti and other desert plants. After lunch we visited the hummingbird enclosure and I must confess that I was non-plussed. I've gotten spoiled living in Ecuador with its diverse hummingbird species roster...I see more types of hummers out my bedroom window on a daily basis than were present in the museum's large mesh enclosure. I did, however, learn a sly trick...for those who complain that the bats are stealing the sugar-water from their plastic hummingbird feeders, just cover them each night with a showercap and the sweet syrup will still be there for your tiny avian friends!

I reconnected with old friend Kelly whom I'd met in a University of Arizona German class in 1984 while I was teaching at Benson HS in rural Arizona. I've seen Kelly more often than other old friends as she was teaching in LA so we
Bisbee with KellyBisbee with KellyBisbee with Kelly

A small Arizona mining town, Bisbee is a favorite place to visit and go antique-hunting. Old friend Kelly and I had a fabulous day there!
often spent time together when I was in Calif visiting my Dad. Kelly is an expert thrift shopper (a "picker" as they're known in the resale trade) and when she moved back to Tucson a few years ago she kept herself afloat selling her "picks" on Etsy. She is now teaching again and during her fall break we took a day trip to Bisbee, a cute & funky mining town near Tombstone. I have fond memories hunting basements of ramshackle shops and finding old bottles and polished chunks of malachite, lapiz lazuli, and chrysacolla. Alas, the jumble of secondhand treasures has now been neatly staged in overpriced Hipster-Oriented home decor shoppes. We had a lovely day window-shopping. On this early October day the desert heat had just broken and we enjoyed a slightly cool breeze beneath crystal clear skies until the trip back to Tucson when we drove right through a massive thunderstorm! Such striking desert landscape made even more dramatic by the rapidly changing weather.

I stayed a few nights at Kelly's beautiful home, decorated in SW style. I enjoyed loving on her three dogs; the two older
Trudy, Daniel & LisaTrudy, Daniel & LisaTrudy, Daniel & Lisa

Trudy and her husband Leo were some of my first friends when I moved to Tucson all alone at age 21.
gals I've know since they were pups. Her most recent rescue dog, a young male chihuahua mix, wolfs down his food so she found him a "slow down" dog bowl in the form of a maze. Her little guy has to chase his food around curves and swirls, considerably slowing his consumption speed. We visited Kelly's favorite second-hand haunts in Tucson and while 'Goodwill Hunting' we ran into the woman I'd been sitting beside on the train...what are the chances??

I reconnected with old friends Trudy and Daniel whom I'd met when I first moved to Tucson in 1981 and was playing in backgammon tournaments. We had lunch together at The Blue Willow Restaurant, a favorite place that is still around! The next day I had planned to meet up with the Cacciatore sisters for happy hour at the elegant La Encantada Mall up in Tucson's northwest foothills, I discovered that there was an Apple Genius Bar at that mall so I went early and I waited (for hours) to get an appointment. It ends up that the second-hand Iphone I'd been gifted is simply too old to perform
Theresa & MariannaTheresa & MariannaTheresa & Marianna

My Italian sisters ... we worked together 1982-83
many of the functions I had hoped to be able to access. So obsolete, in fact, that it will no longer be serviced by Apple next year. Harumph!

There was one friend I was was afraid I wouldn't get to see because she was returning from a diving trip at midnight the night before my early a.m. departure. Maggie taught in Quito before retiring in Tucson and we met when she'd been guest at the hotel where I often work as substitute manager. We were able to visit my last morning in Tucson, meeting for a 6:00 am breakfast. Then she gave me lift to the station, waiting with me when my train was delayed for over two hours. In the end we had plenty of time to catch up!

This leg of my train journey, Tucson to San Antonio, was supposed to be 20 hours but it ended taking much longer. To a one, every Amtrak employee on that stretch was not just impolite, they were downright rude. They clearly hated their jobs and took it out
Shabby but SoundShabby but SoundShabby but Sound

Many New Orleans houses have held up structurally but are in serious need of scraping and painting!
on the passengers. At one point we were stopped on the tracks for no apparent reason and when the guy in front of me asked the conductor why we were stopped she responded sharply, "How the hell am I supposed to know...I'm stuck on here with you." I guess since Amtrak is the only train service available, they don't bother to put much emphasis on customer service. I got the impression that an hour or two late is basically "on time" for them. On my next train journey I met an interesting gentleman in the dining car who sat on the board of the NARP (National Association of Rail Passengers). I recounted my experience and he explained that in an effort to cut costs, Amtrak had eliminated the position of "train chief" - basically there is no one in charge of the workers on board and if they are not a unified team that works well together, the sniping discontent oozes out at the customers.

This was my least favorite leg of the journey, for various reasons. Although I did meet some interesting folks in the dining car, the
Remember the AlamoRemember the AlamoRemember the Alamo

Old High School friend Scott posing with an ancient Live Oak tree. He lives in Ft Worth and flew down to San Antonio to meet up with me.
guy in the seat behind me was on his phone constantly, breaking up and making up with his girlfriend over and over again. At first it was almost entertaining, but it got old real quick as he repeatedly hung up and she kept calling back (obnoxious ring tone to boot!). There are all sorts of folks who ride the train as evidenced by the dings and pings and ringtones of their respective electronic devices - from gospel to rap. It's a real slice of America! I was in the observation car (ceiling to floor windows and swivel chairs looking out) when he conductor announced that we were coming up on the Big Bend where we could see the Rio Grande, with Mexico on the other side of the last vestiges of Bush's rusting metal fences. As we looked across at the brightly painted Mexican houses the comments all around me were decidedly anti-Trump. I tried to stretch my aching back and laid down on the observation car floor just around dusk but was soon (impolitely) informed that there is NO sleeping allowed in the common areas until after 10 p.m. Alrightly then! Back to my seat where I just could
Carriage Ride at DuskCarriage Ride at DuskCarriage Ride at Dusk

Great way to view San Antonio's stunning architecture. The old city center has been well preserved.
not get comfortable but felt grateful that it was not two nights IN A ROW that I had to suffer overnight train travel!

My train arrived in San Antonio 5 hours late, but I hopped a cab to the Hampton Inn just in time to catch the end of their buffet breakfast! An old High School friend, Scott, had arrived the night before from his home in Fort Worth so we could spend a few days together. We were glad we had booked a decent hotel with a nice pool which we enjoyed our second afternoon in San Antonio since the weather was still quite hot and humid and we had done a ton of walking! We started our touring with the requisite visit to The Alamo, its gardens and museum. I was amazed at how the street alongside the Alamo boasted the usual line-up of tourist attractions: Hard Rock Cafe, Madame Tussaud's, Ripley's Believe It or Not, etc. It seems all are part of the "must-see" roster for family vacations. Mostly Americans, very few foreign tourists that I could discern.

Boat Ride along River WalkBoat Ride along River WalkBoat Ride along River Walk

San Antonio River Walk is a highlight of the city. Very touristy, with dozens of restaurants and bars along its narrow walkways.

We explored the River Walk and while deciding whether or not to do the canal boat ride we were approached by the Wyndham Resort folks about attending a presentation. I had never gone to one of these sales events; Scott had once before and as we hemmed and hawed about our limited time they upped the ante. In the end it was worth a few hours of our time for a free riverboat cruise for two, free carriage ride for two, and two $75 Amex cards. Needless to say, we had two NICE meals in San Antone! We took our carriage ride at sunset, the boat ride next morning. We retreated to the cool comfort of the hotel because I was suffering a bit from sensory overload...SO many people along the often narrow River Walk pathways and lot and lots of BIG, loud tourists! Yep, everything's bigger in Texas!

Scott and I had an early morning start to catch our train to New Orleans - we had planned so he'd ride along on this leg of the journey with me!
New Orleans HousesNew Orleans HousesNew Orleans Houses

So much restoration has gone on since Katrina, and lots more yet to do. Rows of shotgun houses freshly painted.
Fellow passengers and Amtrak employees were much more pleasant on this segment. During the 14 hour trip we had two meals in the elegant dining car. Although they don't use real china (there are curves and bumps along the way) they have tablecloths, real cutlery and the food is actually quite good (if a bit expensive -- captive audience!) You never know who you'll be seated with in the dining car; it makes for often interesting conversation. On my first evening I learned the difference between "picking" cotton and "pulling" cotton (pulling is much easier on the hands, these old gals claimed).

Arriving in New Orleans at 10 pm, Gary and Faye were there to meet us at the station and take us to their huge house! I've taken this New Orleanian couple around Ecuador twice, both times their granddaughter Lillie was with them and I tutored her along the way. We stayed just two nights in New Orleans (I had to hurry to'll soon find out why) and the second night Scott and I invited Faye and Gary and Lillie out for dinner...typical Louisiana "swampfood" restaurant including
Eating Fried AlligatorEating Fried AlligatorEating Fried Alligator

I travelled with Gary, Faye & Lillie on two separate trips they made to Ecuador. Lillie was still a girl when I last saw her -- now she's a lovely young lady!
fried alligator (yummy!)

We spent our one full day in New Orleans with Jamie, a friend I'd taught with in Quito in 1989. When he retired a few years back he bought a hurricane Katrina rescue house and has been living in his long-term project as he fixes it up. The plan was for Jamie to take us on a walking tour of his stomping grounds and the day began warm and humid so we stopped for giant sized slushie fruit daquiris which we carried with us on our walk, checking out cool graffiti and homes in all states of repair and disrepair. As drizzle turned to downpour we hid out under the awning of a house. The guys renovating the interior invited us in and showed us around. The old man who died there had been a painter and there were wall and ceiling frescoes in every room. The workers were careful to repair and restore with minimal impact on his art. It was raining harder than ever and we had about 8 more block to get to the chosen bbq joint for lunch, so one of the
Icy Daquiris To GoIcy Daquiris To GoIcy Daquiris To Go

Best way to beat the heat -- sipping a slushy, sweet daquiri as you stroll the tree-lined streets. Jamie and Scott pose by the daquiri store.
workers loaned us his umbrella. Scott has his and Jamie used the other because it was too awkward to try to hurry along sharing it, and my clothes were more drip-dry than his heavy cotton t-shirt. We slid into the nearest restaurant booth, soaked to the skin.

On a plaque above my head was the New Orleans's new unofficial motto: Be nice or leave! (love it!) As we approached the Latin Quarter the architecture became more ornate. Some of the renovated properties were intentionally left somewhat shabby -- a great look! I learned that the undersides of the front porch overhangs are painted light blue so the birds will think it's sky and won't nest in the eaves. The weather improved after lunch and we enjoyed street-corner buskers in the Latin Quarter. Jamie had all sorts of information and NOLA tidbits to share with us. I wish we'd had more time to just visit, but that will happen someday somewhere!

My first Uber ride took me to the train station at the butt crack of dawn
Louisiana ArchitectureLouisiana ArchitectureLouisiana Architecture

The underside of the overhang is painted blue so the birds will think it's sky and won't nest there!
to begin the last leg of my train journey. It was a more comfortable train car (only two years old, I was told) and there were very few of us aboard. Had it been a night train, I probably could have slept on these more comfortable seats! Frequent announcements explained why we had stopped and everyone on board was kind and pleasant. I learned that freight companies own the rails and Amtrak only rents the use of them so at regular intervals we had to pull onto a siding to let the big money trains pass by. Sometimes when we were beside them and they began to move slowly it gave the illusion that we were moving backwards-- bizarre! Almost every frieght train had colorful graffiti tagging the bottom 1/3 of the cars -- as high as the artists could reach, I suppose.

There were only two of us interested in the early seating for lunch, so I enjoyed my meal with an African-American Army veteran whose great uncle was a Tuskeegee Airman. Our conversation ranged to many topics and it ends up that he had just done one
Top SpiceTop SpiceTop Spice

Favorite Malaysia Restaurant in Atlanta! Dinner with Gilbert, Julia and Michelle.
of those DNA tests which showed him to be 20% Beninese! Of course I told him that I was on my way to visit my former husband who is Beninese! Good friend Michelle met me at the station and I stayed at her house that night, sharing my room with her three rambunctious dogs, Crosby, Nash, and Dylan (well, they shared their room with me!).

The next day Michelle dropped me at the MARTA train station and I took two trains to get to the airport. My friend Julia arrived from Florida right on time and we headed over to the rental car desk where we picked up the posh VW Passat that her husband had reserved for us. Little did I know, Julia hates to drive in cities or on highways so she put me on the rental agreement (tricky since only my Ecuadorian license was Georgia license had expired last Feb on my birthday). We managed to convince them that it was all kosher and I was the driver for the next week as we headed north for a mosaic workshop. On the way home from
Panoramic ViewPanoramic ViewPanoramic View

Schoolbus Graveyard as seen from across the highway
the airport we stopped at Goodwill where we found all sorts of colorful dishes to be broken for our mosaic projects. We had both mailed ahead some favorite bits of crockery but now that we had the car we could really load up on goodies to use and share.

That first night in Atlanta Julia and I stayed at Gilbert's and I invited everyone out to dinner at my favorite Malaysian restaurant. During dinner I thanked Gilbert for hosting me and Julia in his home and his response, "It's your home too," made me feel secure in asking if I could use his place as my home base when I returned to Atlanta a week later. I had so many friends to visit, but spending a few nights in each person's home would have been disruptive to my sleep and their lives, not to mention the hassle of packing and unpacking.

The next morning Julia and I headed north to Asheville where an old friend of mine would be leading a workshop focusing on mosaic portraits using broken dishes (picassiette).
Schoolbus GraveyardSchoolbus GraveyardSchoolbus Graveyard

In Haversham GA, en route to Asheville we stopped to view this public art exhibit which is on private property.
On the way up we took the scenic route past Tallullah Falls (again, I'm so jaded by all the amazing waterfalls near my home in Baños...these were way across a canyon and we could hardly even see them!) We rolled into BP Gas Station with a huge mini-market where we found individually packed, wildly flavored pickles. We bought one of each because Julia wanted to use the rad package drawings in a future collage project! Feeling awed by our great good fortune we even bought a lottery ticket. Just as our tummies began to rumble we stumbled upon Kosta's, a third generation Greek diner with outstanding, authentic cuisine!

As we passed Haversham GA we glimpsed a public art installation called "School Bus Graveyard" (sing aloud to the tune of "Teenage Wasteland" from an old song by The Who). As we stood on a hillside across the highway trying to snap photos of the dozens of graffiti-decorated retired school buses, a battered pick-up made its way across and pulled up beside us. The driver's shirt pocket told us that he was Walter from Dale’s Auto Body Shop and he explained
Air BnB Bathroom!Air BnB Bathroom!Air BnB Bathroom!

The decor of this place was like a movie set...every detail perfectly in period and style. Huge bathroom with French provincial decor.
that we could go across and sneak in the fence to get a better look, but it was technically illegal. While we were chatting with Walter another car slowed and stopped. When the driver called out to us, "You gals OK?" my eyes filled with tears at the state of affairs in America; so much fear and mistrust...but more about that observation in my next blog entry.

Thanks to Julia's GPS Google Gal we found our way to the funky Air BnB she had reserved for us. It was called The Imaginaerum and whoever dreamed up the decor of this renovated attic ought to be a set designer. The bathroom had a French Louis XIV flavor, Julia's room was like a stone tower in an old castle, and my room boasted a moon roof / stargazing window over the bed, gargoyle lamps on each side, sparkling stars in the floor tiles alongside a plush purple and black labyrinth carpet. To reach our digs we climbed a wrought iron spiral staircase rising up from the broad stone steps beside our parking space. A friendly black cat named Spectre greeted us
My BnB BedroomMy BnB BedroomMy BnB Bedroom

Stargazing window over the bed, branch silhouettes on the sloped ceiling, gargoyles holding the bedside lights -- awesome decorating!
each time we arrived home; we nicknamed him Phil.

Coming out of the art studio after our first mosaic day, we struck up a conversation with a gal who had just parked behind us. She was a Middle School teacher headed out for a beer that Friday afternoon and when I told her that I was a retired MS teacher she exclaimed, "Let me give you a hug!" We had plans to meet old friends of mine for dinner that night in downtown Asheville and after a driving tour all around town which yielded no street parking, we opted for the city garaje. The carpark entrance had a light up-sign informing us that there were 3 spaces left; as we drove up and up thru the levels of the garage Julia commented that we were like two Jewish girls on Easter Egg Hunt!

Asheville is a spot of "blue" in an otherwise "red" swath of southern states. The city is hip and artsy, signs and shops announcing a liberal, inclusive vibe. Just after passing a lane full of
Picassiette Self-PortraitPicassiette Self-PortraitPicassiette Self-Portrait

Using broken dishes I recreated my own face! The hair is made of rough edges of spondylus shells.
yarn bomb art (fence posts and outrageous statues decorated with knitted creations), we heard a drum circle in full swing at the leafy park across from the restaurant where we were to meet Judy and Jerome. We'd taught together in Quito 30 years ago, but I'd seen them recently when they came down to visit their daughter, Caitlyn who was carrying on their legacy, teaching in Quito. We had a fabulous dinner at Tupelo Honey, a taste of the south.

Our mosaic instructor, Gila Rayberg, was the sister-in-law of one of my Malaysia teaching colleagues. She came to visit in 1992 and ended up staying to teach music. Now she travels all over the world as a renowned artist (she traded music for mosaic!) When I found out she'd be leading a three-day workshop in Asheville, I contacted my artist friend Julia and we both made our plans fit with the dates. There were 12 participants, some of them experienced mosaic artists. Everyone had brought so much stuff to share - plates and tiles and glass and was a bit overwhelming to choose what to use!

Grouting my FaceGrouting my FaceGrouting my Face

Blue tape looks like a shower cap which during the grouting process protected the spiky spondylus shells I used for my hair.

We'd been instructed to choose a photo of a person or a pet, which Gila blew up to fit the 11" x 14" substrate. We first sketched our photo to become familiar with the salient features we might decide to emphasize. Then we used carbon paper to draw basic outlines of the face. I'd had some experience doing mosaic, but never in portraiture. Once I'd selected my color palate I searched for plate rims, cup handles, smooth and jagged pieces to use. I had sent ahead some seashells (spiky spondylus edges) and some beach porcelain (pieces I'd picked up on my shore walks) and I knew I wanted to incorporate them. As Gila made her way around the room, helping us with detailed nipper cuts, some bizarre comments could be heard: Is that a nostril? Make my lips, please. Those are my husband's brain bones. This dog is beginning to look like a pig! And then I found a white plate with little white nubbins around the edge...perfect for teeth! After I cemented down my pearly whites it became a very popular dish for many...Hey, where is that dental plate?!
Jill'n'Julia's Finished ProjectsJill'n'Julia's Finished ProjectsJill'n'Julia's Finished Projects

What an amazing experience! Great to reconnect with dear friends, Gila who led the workshop, and Julia who participated with me.

We'd been taught to nip and shape, smooth and sand the edges of each piece, look for light and dark patches and use colors to reflect that shading -- however I didn't really have the patience for such exacting work. I just found pieces that more or less fit the space and cemented them down, creating a more rustic but still effective portrait. I had completed my face by the middle of the second day and moved ahead with the seashell hair and stained glass background. The other gals (some a bit frustrated by now) called me an over-achiever! This meant that my piece would be the example for the grouting process on the last day. I carefully covered the hair and beach sherds with blue tape so the grout wouldn't damage the texture (looked like I had on a shower cap!)

Since I was already finished, the last day I had time to go out for lunch with Gila and meet her husband Mark. That evening Julia and I were invited to Judy and Jerome's house for dinner.
Carving with CaitlinCarving with CaitlinCarving with Caitlin

who's cuter, me or my geometric pumpkin face?
Along with 5 other couples they bought a 375 acre hillside about a half hour from Asheville. I'd been there to visit them once before in 1997 (my honeymoon trip across America with Gilbert) and it was great to go back and share an evening in their beautiful home. We got to see Caitlyn, we carved pumpkins and had a wonderful time together.

Julia and I were up at the butt-crack of dawn the next day to drive back down to Atlanta (over 3 hours), return the rental car at the aiport and get to the gate in time for our noon flight to Orlando. No, were weren't headed for Disneyworld but rather to Julia's house an hour east of the Orlando airport in Titusville on the space coast, not far from Cape Canaveral (btw, cañaveral is Spanish for sugar cane fields). Julia has a gorgeous home, filled with museum quality furniture and artifacts handed down from her parents who were collectors during their years of living in the Phillipines and the Panama Canal Zone.

During the 4
Chef MichaelChef MichaelChef Michael

Making porchetta (pork roll, heavy on the bacon fat!) was a yummy experiment. Thanks for the fresh baked bagels too!!
days I spent at the Simonello home I was wined and dined and treated like royalty. Her hubby Michael is an amazing chef; this I already knew since he cooked up a storm when they visited me in Baños a few years ago and prior to that he helped me coordinate an amazing Thanksgiving feast at Hosteria Mandala! While I was in Florida I was treated to his homemade made bagels (yum!) and Italian Porchetta -- heavenly pork roll. It was so relaxing to just hang out with Julia and Michael in their ginormous screened-in Florida room which houses a magical swimming pool complete with hot tub, mini waterfalls and a lagoon just outside. I swam daily under the careful scrutiny and a big furry lifeguard -- their sweet Great Pyrenees dog Hooch! One day Michael loaned us his fancy convertible car and we gals had a fun day out, driving along the shore and chowing down on seafood. A much needed respite after my previous month of reconnecting, travels, visits, train rides...whew!

If you're still reading, thanks for following me this far on my long-winded journey! Next entry will recap my continued
Florida Room DeLuxeFlorida Room DeLuxeFlorida Room DeLuxe

Step outside the living room into this enclosed Florida room pool and jacuzzi area -- complete with waterfalls!
travels in Georgia, North and South Carolina & Maryland. Please make sure to scroll down to see the last few photos...I chose them especially for your viewing pleasure. Sending hugs from the USA!

Additional photos below
Photos: 40, Displayed: 40


Canine LifeguardCanine Lifeguard
Canine Lifeguard

Hooch the Great Pyr was very worried about my safety in the pool. Relaxing under a mini waterfall...ahh!!
View from the Florida RoomView from the Florida Room
View from the Florida Room

A pond with a fountain (to keep the skeeters from breeding) is big dog Hooch's favorite place to hang out.
Chillin' in FloridaChillin' in Florida
Chillin' in Florida

Getting me some doggie love with big boy Hooch!
Gals Gone WildGals Gone Wild
Gals Gone Wild

Fun day toodling around in Michael's convertible camaro (until it started raining). Seafood lunch at the beach followed by manatee viewing.
Vehicle Assembly BldgVehicle Assembly Bldg
Vehicle Assembly Bldg

That building is over 10 miles's enormous -- has to be in order to assemble the space shuttle inside of it!
Manatee RipplesManatee Ripples
Manatee Ripples

We did see a few come up out of the water, but it was impossible to grab a photo of them!
Mango PackagingMango Packaging
Mango Packaging

I couldn't get over this plastic six-pack carton to protect these little mangos. Can't even imagine what it cost!

Dinner at the Beck-Hay home included a pumpkin carving session. Too much fun!

30th November 2018

across america via amtrak
As always, love to hear of your adventures & was sorry not to be living in Tucson anymore while you were there. Sending you abrazos & best wishes for the holidays
4th December 2018

See you tomorrow!
See you tomorrow!!
11th June 2019

Amazing post, keep up the good work, thanks for sharing!
Amazing post, keep up the good work, thanks for sharing!

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