Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Smith Island - Back in Time

If you happen to live on the East Coast somewhere close by the Chesapeake Bay, you should take a trip to visit Smith Island either for a few hours or for a weekend.

You can pick up a ferry boat out of Crisfield ( we used Captain Jason) for around $20 one way per person and enjoy a nice ride across the waves, but be warned, don't be late as they don't wait for anyone. We happened to go on a day when the weather was a little rough and the waves tossed the boat a bit, enough to make me hold on tight to my seat. The captain was a hardy soul and didn't seem to mind that water was dripping from the ceiling in many points and sloshing around the deck as we plowed through the seas. It was exciting and scary for a landlubber like myself.

Once the island comes into the view of the ferry, you can see immediately that it is a waterman's island. Crab traps, boats, piers and pilings decorate the water's edge for most of the coast. Shantys dot the landscape where crab processing still goes on. Most of the wood structures have a gray weathered look and nothing seems to stand quite straight due to the storms that roll over the island every year.

We stepped off the ferry and walked to our bed and breakfast, the Smith Island Inn, one of only a few in Ewell that we knew about. Little streets lined with tall trees and old houses on either sides formed communities, although we were surprised at just how quiet everything was. Very few people were visible and since the island was tiny, there were almost no cars. Once in a while a person would pass by on a bicycle and smile and wave, but to us, the island seemed deserted,

Upon arriving at our lodgings, we were happy to see our host and a few other guests. He was quite willing to talk and fill us in on everything about the island. He mentioned that they had a few bikes for our use to tour the island a little faster than walking as well as a couple of kayaks for navigating the waterways - both of which we did. Our bedroom on the first floor was comfortable with a spacious bathroom, I loved the beautiful old wood floors covered here and there tastefully with woven rugs. Although no televisions were available, plenty of books and games were ours for the stay. Besides, we spent most of our time outside exploring.

The bikes were great for allowing us to explore the other side of the island, only about a mile away but very different and even quieter than Ewell. Everyone pays attention to the tide as roads flood over everyday during high tide and without a boat, you just have to wait for the water to subside before you can get to the other parts of the island. All the school aged children took a ferry boat to the mainland so we only saw a few in the late afternoon. Some old houses stood empty, in fact many beautiful old structures were empty, some partially rebuilt, pointing to a more prosperous time when the schools and churches were filled with a vibrant community of people.

Kayaking was pleasant on the southern side of the island where grasses stood tall and channels zigzagged through them. We saw eagles and osprey, white cranes and plenty of other birds. I imagine the bug population provided a feast for all the birds, which reminds me to recommend the strongest bug repellant you can get. Flies and mosquitoes seemed to enjoy our Deet and kept us either moving or inside. I could understand why some of the locals chose to stay inside and away from being live bait for the creatures.

Little islands were everywhere along with signs of previous inhabitants who had since long gone, leaving their homes to slowly sink into the ground, but generations of goats and turkeys still dominate the land, living wild. We found it fascinating to see herds of goats with one prominent male standing high on a leaning tree limb or rock while the rest of the flock grazed below.

Our first night was interesting as we didn't realize that the only restaurant open on the island at that time, Ruke's Seafood Deck closed at five, before we thought to plan ahead, since dinner for us was closer to seven or eight. Thankfully, we did have some sandwiches that we brought from home to tide us over. Early in the morning, before we were even thinking of waking up, we could hear men's voices calling out to each other in a brogue too hard to understand and then boat motors starting up. It seemed like almost a hundred of the watermen headed out at once, but later we found out that there were really more like twenty or thirty of them. Around three o'clock in the afternoon, they all flooded back into town and then disappeared into their homes, except for a few who came out to greet the kids that came home on the boat from school shortly thereafter.

Our innkeeper arranged for a local islander to make us a wonderful breakfast of french toast, fig jam made from local trees (which incidentally grow into massive trees with huge trunks there) delicious Smith Island Coffee and sausages, We paid attention to time and did get into the restaurant twice, once for lunch and then for dinner. For lunch we sat inside and were amazed at the antiques all around the room. The restaurant served as the antique shop for the town and everything had a little paper price tag tied to it. The servers were so friendly and the portions were huge. Of course, we tried the crabcakes and the local specialties. Our dinner was outside on a back screened in area overlooking the water where all the crabbers worked. A young boy was practicing using a hammer, securing any nails that the weather had popped out, and that was the extent of the people in our room. We sat at picnic tables and put our feet up on the benches as we waited for our dinner. Service was friendly but on island time so we just relaxed and enjoyed the quaintness of the place.

Time seemed to be at a standstill here with most of the focus on times past when there was a thriving community and before the Bay had reclaimed so much of the soil. Organizations are hard at work to keep the island from disappearing totally under water, but I recommend taking at least a day to come here and see this community before it sinks, so close to the major cities of the world but in a land far away from all the hubbub of our life as we know it. Here is a link to an article done by, The Big Picture, with amazing photography.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Windy Rincon

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Rincon, Puerto Rico for a few days Traveling there wasn't hard as it is a US territory and no passports or currency exchange are necessary. We took a flight to San Juan, rented a car and drove along the top of the island to the west coast where Rincon is located.

Now, I will mention that I don't enjoy getting hot, by which I mean anything over 78 degrees basically makes me uncomfortable and searching for a means of cooling off. So you might ask, why are you going to Puerto Rico? Well, I still love traveling and as long as there is water close by, I figure I can deal with the heat. 

Rincon was amazingly cool, at least where we stayed. The constant breezes that kick up the waves for the surfers also kept the air amazingly cool. Did I mention the waves? Rincon is a surfing town where experienced surfers come to seek the rough waters for the thrill of riding the waves. It is a quiet area where little boutique shops line the narrow roads that wind around the island. 

I happened to stay in a private residence (Caracol Che, which I highly recommend to anyone traveling in a group) that was built with open walls throughout and the breezes never stopped, keeping any bugs at bay. From there we could walk to beaches and restaurants. The walking was easy until we had to go uphill, but then we just walked a little slower. Walking gave us a chance to see the tropical plants like banana trees and coconut palms and beautiful vines that were in bloom all around. Colorful but strange birds and lizards would catch our eye and then we would be fascinated by the sightings of goats or horses or chickens that seem very common in the tropics.

We chose to cook most of our own meals which meant we got to go shopping. Their stores were filled with foods I had never seen or heard of and strangely lacking in some things I would consider a staple, like bread flour. However, I liked the challenge to work with the ingredients offered and had fun trying to correspond with the locals without speaking much Spanish. However, my favorite part of shopping was stopping at roadside stands and buying fresh fruits and vegetables and whole fish from a guy who spoke almost no English. 

We visited a few restaurants when we were tired of cooking and most were priced similar to what we were used to at home. Since fresh herbs are in abundance there, cocktails like mint mojitos were fresh and enjoyable.

One spot we found on the beach, blew all the other establishments out of my memory, the Tamboo Tavern Beach Bar. It was a beach bar with casual seating overlooking the ocean and open walls all around. Wind whipped through strong enough to blow the lighter foods off our plates but it was not irritating in any way. We could watch wind surfers playing on the waves while we ate the freshest appetizers of seafood or pork with fruits and vegetables prepared with minimal steps. Don't forget to try the tostones.

I like vacationing where I can interact with the locals as I want and eat the foods they like and Rincon gave us such a great visit. The prices of staying there were almost half of the Virgin Island's and although it is a US owned territory, I felt like we were in a different country. 

If you are a traveler that likes to venture beyond the normal American chain hotels and restaurants, I highly recommend Rincon but kind of hope that you don't go so that it can stay the quiet and laid back community that it is. I would like to say that I can't wait to go back, but I still want to visit so many other parts of the world that I haven't seen yet.

I can't write about Rincon without remembering to mention the beach glass. The waves seem to bring up shards of sand-softened colored glass, more than the usual beaches I am used to. When you feel like taking a little walk along the coast, look down and be amazed at what you might find.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Traveling to Vieques, Puerto Rico

If you have the time and the itch to travel, you really should check out the little island just east of Puerto Rico. Lush forests, empty beaches, exceptional views of the ocean and year round warm breezes were just a couple of the characteristics that pulled us down there. We also chose to go there because the US dollar is the currency; they speak English and are actually a territory of the United States. As new travelers, we wanted to explore far and distance exotic lands but knew we needed to get a little experience under our belt.  Vieques satisfied our wanderlust in full.

Flying was relatively inexpensive as we could get a direct flight to San Juan from Baltimore. Once there, we had the choice of  taking a ferry to the island or buying a plane ticket. Of course, since we are water lovers, we thought we would take the ferry and enjoy the ocean. However, after studying the timing of our flight and when we would finally get to Vieques, we realized we had to fly. Flying was just awesome. If you have never experienced flying in a small six seater plane, you are missing a treat. But let me back up a little. 

We landed in San Juan and immediately felt like we were in another country. It was warm and sunny and most everyone around us was speaking Spanish. The airport was bare bones compared to the large airports of the eastern coast of the US. We had been advised to grab a taxi to get to another even smaller airport to get to our next flight. (Since then, the smaller airport joined with the Luis Munoz Airport.) This one was more like a warehouse with planes out back. We filed into a small office where our luggage was weighed. If you plan to travel here, be sure to check the regulations as the small planes can only carry so much weight and it would be no fun to have to leave your luggage behind.

The plane was clean but well used. The pilot helped us lift our bags into the back and explained how the seatbelts fastened. I felt like I was in a seat from a 1980's van that rocked around with my every movement. But don't get me wrong, I was loving every second of it. The pilot clicked a few buttons and drove out to a little runway and after looking around, he took off, lifting our plane up into the clouds. My stomach was jumping around with every puff of wind that lifted and dropped the plane, but I forced myself to breathe deeply and just enjoy the excitement. I felt like the pilot was totally at ease as he would turn and talk to us while filling out paperwork on a clipboard and still flying the plane. We landed at the relatively modern airport on the island and our explorations began.

In case you didn't know, Vieques was the site of a US Navy testing and bombing range up until just a few years ago. Since then, the navy moved out and most of the land is part of a national wildlife refuge. Although our host told us what to expect, actually driving through the roads where warning signs of land mines still are necessary really shocked us. Although we like exploring, we did not feel like getting blown up. Our rental car was more like a four-wheeler as the roads are so bumpy, only cars with high clearance can pass. The life expectancy of the cars there can't be much more than a year or two. Again, we still loved it.

Our first night, we got to our destination - a bed and breakfast on the southern side of the island facing the Caribbean. We had not brought any food and were hungry for something, anything after a full day of travel. The only place around was a small corner store with barred windows and a weather worn sign in Spanish that we could not understand. A few locals stared at us but we ventured in - determined to find something for dinner. The fresh foods were gone for the day but we did find a couple of day-old rolls, a big chunk of blue cheese for a cheap price, a few apples, some sort of dried sausage and some bottles of wine. We sat out on our balcony and watched the night sky while sipping wine and eating delicious cheese on stale bread feeling like royalty.

Every morning after, mobs of black birds in the nearby mango trees woke us up. The view from our balcony was the ocean. There were a couple of coconut palms and two large mango trees but since we were on a hill, they did not block our view. We were surprised to find that the wildlife was very different than what we had at at home. Seemingly wild horses wandered around, some goats here and there, lots of lizards, chickens, ducks, and plenty of dogs and cats. Beautiful birds were everywhere and wonderfully fun to spot. 

On the island, we found that many of the locals were living on US aid, but there was a second level of locals made up of retired US business men and women who had moved to Vieques to start restaurants and small shops. We really enjoyed the chance to talk with them about the island and what their life was like in this paradise. I liked the southern side of Vieques where small shops and stores line the main road that circles the island. On the north, large hotels were moving in to provide fancy housing for tourists who don't like risking staying in a smaller hotel or bed and breakfast. 

Vieques is a quiet laid-back place where you have to relax and understand that life moves at a slower pace and that's okay. We walked along empty beaches, some flanked by sharp coral but some with soft white sand. The temperatures were warm in the middle of the day but the constant breeze made it comfortable. Even at night, we did not need air conditioning. We lost the sense of time and were able to relax without feeling the pull of agendas or even television to watch,

We found our way back home, finding it ironic that we had the same pilot fly us back to San Juan. We loved Vieques. It is an island destination for quiet, relaxing destressing. 

Now that I know how easy it is to get to, I hope to return again many times.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Writing a Bestseller

Today, I sat down at my desk and decided to write a bestseller.

Wouldn't it be awesome!

If I could just pen words that everyone suddenly wanted to read. 

Maybe I can. Why not? 

I am sure if you are reading this, you want to write one as well, but then we would be in competition and I might not be the author of the bestseller any more. 

So, my words need to be more interesting than yours. What is interesting to most people? 

Can I create a story that millions of people would stop what they are doing and read? How would they even know that I wrote the story?

I understand that as a society we go through history together and there are hot topics we like to think about, but which one is interesting enough to write a story about?

Is it the effort to get to Mars? 

How about the crazy robots?

Maybe the controversial first female president? 

Or do I stick with the normal placers like romance, sex and tragic relations?

I have a lot of questions that are bouncing around in my head but maybe I should just find a spot under a tree somewhere where I can smell the blossoms and feel the warm air on my skin and get started. 

Heck, it's worth a shot, right?

     "I first heard the dog barking. He only barked when someone was coming into his yard. I looked out the window and saw the brown delivery truck bouncing over the frozen ruts of ice at the end of our driveway and watched as he slowed but didn’t stop. A large box dropped out from the open passenger side of the truck and rolled once before stopping front of our mailbox.
      Intrigued, I wondered why in this wet weather the driver would leave a box outside on the ground. Snow was melting everywhere and I could hear the constant dripping from the gutters. The sun was warm and I was tired of sitting at my desk writing so I got up and put on my snow boots to check it out. I grabbed the trash bag to take down to the bins near our mailbox, making my trip doubly worthwhile. I had to watch my step as the melting snow hid massive puddles of water and I didn’t feel like getting my socks wet.
      The trash bins were mostly empty so I dropped our white plastic bag with its bright orange tie into the nearest one. The mailbox was just around a snowbank and I trudged around instead of attempting to go over the mess. 
     The box was torn on one corner and looked like someone had used it in a soccer match, except that it was huge. The length must have been close to six feet and when I bent over to lift it, I realized that there was no way I could bring the battered box back to the house on my own. I checked for a label and found my name printed on the white square but the sender’s name was smeared over by some sort of black substance.
      Without thinking too much, I decided to open the box where it lay on the ground. I pulled at a corner and released a thick staple. I could see some plastic inside but it wasn’t until I pulled out another staple that I suddenly realized what I was looking at and almost touching. I stood back in shock…"

Friday, February 13, 2015

Going Green

North East River

Green is definitely the way to go. The more we can live simply, the less stress, the less cost, and the less we take from our environment, the better life can be. Eric and I have started to make major changes in how we run our home. When we moved here several years ago, our motivation for buying was the land. We wanted space for our children, then just young teenagers, to have room to play outside. Little did we know how much influence the North East River would have on our lives. We discovered a community college (Cecil College) just a couple of miles from our home for our kids to start their second phase of education. We found the Tome school for our youngest daughter to enjoy her high school years where she received a healthy social life as well as a sound education.

Our new Ideal Steel Hybrid heating our home
Aside from the social changes, our life here was slow to change besides planting the normal garden plot, adding some fruit and nut trees and grape vines to add to our summer bounty. A couple of years ago, Eric branched out and bought six peeps. We were surprised how much we enjoyed having them and the fresh eggs as well as a source of amazing compost from their droppings. Over the months since, we learned about molting, bullying, possums, and the aspects of chicken raising that we had no education in, but comically, how many people are under the mistaken impression that you need a rooster for a chicken to lay eggs. Nope, no rooster and plenty of eggs.

The old behemoth
A few months back, when oil was at its highest price, Eric and I decided it was time to ditch our old oil burner that had the dual function of heating our home as well as our water. It was almost traumatic when we faced the chore of moving the monster out of our house, across the backyard and into Eric's truck. Thankfully, Eric is not afraid of swinging a heavy sledgehammer and I am constantly thinking of new ways to lift stuff that ordinarily we could never lift. So, the oil was out and Eric installed a new electric on-demand water heater. It works beautifully and we only heat water when we need it. Now before you start to argue that electricity is expensive, realize that our long term plan is to produce our own solar electricity and this is just the first step in that direction. We also pay a little extra each month to buy our electricity from a wind farm, not a coal burning plant.

The original small hearth
Wouldn't you know it, cold weather came before we knew it and we had a house with no heating system other than an old cast iron behemoth fireplace insert that smoked and produced heat erratically. To save our pipes during the times we were not home, Eric installed an electric hydronic baseboard heater in the kitchen. But our house was cold and ironically, oil dropped to its lowest price in years. Most mornings, we woke up to 48 degrees and we only heated the living room portion of our home. Again, we needed to make a change and I started doing research. I love wood heat, and we have plenty of trees on our land, but I didn't want a smoky stove that barely worked. We found a solution. Thanks to a National Geographic special, I found a company that was winning international competitions for being cost effective, low emissions beautiful, without needing any electricity. Enter the Woodstock Soapstone Company and their Ideal Steel Hybrid stove.  I was excited but had to convince Eric that we could afford and should invest in a new woodstove. He trusted me and we placed our order. 
Laying tile over concrete board

Fast forward a couple of months of crazy cold weather and the old behemoth in our living room was slowly dying, pouring clouds of smoke into our livingroom every time we started it. Basically we made bonfires in its iron lungs and poured heat into the environment with enough radiant heat inside the house to keep us warm, barely. 

The email came that our new stove was ready to be picked up from the trucking depo. It was a race in time. The weather reports started warning us of temperatures dropping to their lowest of the winter and we knew we had a short window of mild temperatures. Two days ago, we pulled out the dead cast iron stove.

Tile all in place
I laid a new hearth large enough for the new Ideal Steel Hybrid and the next day had my brother from Round2It, come and help us muscle out the old, slide in the new stove and install the piping safely into our chimney.

Three hours later, we were heating our home with a quiet, intensely warm and handsome wood stove. We are still learning it's intricacies, but are very impressed. As the outside temperatures dropped down into the teens last night, we loaded the stove with six or seven split logs around 9 pm. At seven this morning, we woke up and the house was still 60 degrees and the stove had a nice thick bed of coals.

Soapstone tiles inside stove
Cold weather? No problem. we are warm and snuggly! And, we are not fretting about a huge oil bill or listening to noisy pumps and fans. It's quiet and efficient, thanks to the fine engineering of Woodstock Soapstone Company!

 Did I mention it has a cooktop?!

Note the custom side design of blue heron

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