Thursday, December 26, 2013

Traveler at Home: Southern New Mexico

Yesi in Carlsbad
I've had a visitor for the last few months from Mexico. Yesenia (Yesi) is the daughter of my friend Malena whom I have mentioned often in the blogs about San Cristóbal, Chiapas. She came in September, took care of my house and cat when I went to Thailand, and spent most of her time in the US perfecting her English through the free ESL classes at UNM in Los Alamos.

Yesi had only a week or two left so we decided to go on a trip to Southern New Mexico, to see the Bosque del Apache, White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, and finally the Alien Museum in Roswell.

Yesi lives in southern Mexico with mountains covered in lush jungle. She commented on how naked our mountains were, and I told her that her own would look identical, stripped of their lovely green cloaks.

She also had no idea just how large the state is. We spent three nights in hotels and drove over 700 miles in a big circle starting in Los Alamos.

We arrived in San Antonio just in time for lunch at the famous Owl Bar. Scientists from the Los Alamos labs had presented themselves (at the bar) as prospectors during the war, while they prepared a nearby site for the first atomic bomb test. Just like they were, in those long ago days, the burgers are  the best in the state. Mine was juicy, cheesy and loaded with fresh roasted green chile. My mouth waters just writing about it!

White Sands in fog
At the Bosque, the ducks and geese rested on ponds but a few were flying around, we could hear the honking. Big gray sandhill cranes foraged in the wheat and corn fields planted just so they would have plenty of food. We went on a short hike through the forest where recent light rains had dampened just the top quarter inch of clay-soil. It clung to our shoes with each step building up until it felt like we were walking on platform shoes. Only they weren't stable and at any second the wad of clay and mud might fall off making one shoe inches shorter than the other. Yuk! Every log along the path was coated with mud where other people had scraped the bottoms of their boots.

Hours later we arrived at Alamogordo. It was dusk and cooling fast. We stayed at a small hotel along the main drag and went early the next morning to the White Sands. The whole valley was blanketed with a dense fog. I've been to White Sands many times in my life, but rarely in winter, and never in fog. It was interesting, and obvious that we could become seriously lost. With white fog over white sands, there was no way to orient oneself with the mountains on either side. It was literally like a white-out in a snow storm.

But eventually the sun burned off much of the fog revealing the mountains shrouded in deep blue rain clouds. It even warmed up enough to remove a few layers of clothing.

Winter in White Sands

Another long drive took us from Alamogordo through mountains to Carlsbad. In Artesia, I stopped by the school I had attended in first, second and third grades, Atoka Elementary. Thirty years ago, some company was using the old gym for a manufacturing operation. The building was outfitted with huge roll up doors on three sides and there were cars parked in the lot, indicating it was a going concern. But now, it's been completely abandoned for at least twenty years. The tall chain link fence was broken down in one spot so I could go in to take a few pictures. Chalkboards were still up on most of the classroom walls. Cupboards had doors, though most were barely hanging from hinges. The cafeteria, where rolls were baked fresh every morning, still had the old serving counter and built in ovens. Graffiti covered the halls and ceiling tiles formed piles on the floor, but in general it was not horribly ransacked like I expected. There was a dead civet cat in the open doorway, dessicated and defurred, but not eaten by crows nor torn apart by animals. The place was abandoned by all, even scavengers.

River of lights

Carlsbad, a half hour drive south of Artesia, is of course known for the caverns. But this time of year, the city hosts a River of Lights. Small open flat boats troll up and down the river to see the light displays put on by homeowners whose back yards slope down to the river banks.

I'd seen it once before and remembered it as less commercial. The most prosperous people in the town live along the river, the homes range from simply large to mansion-like. Many have sculpted their yards with stairways, piers, boat houses and even large water slides and tubes from the house's patio down into the river. All of those features formed the basis for the light displays as well as wooden cutouts, plastic statues, large golden crosses, and scripted sayings in lights. Many yards appeared to have been co-opted by local businesses. Three Chevrolets (a truck, a van, and a car) were covered in lights and parked on one lawn. Next door the Ford dealership had a similar presentation. But it was all pretty to look at, and the lights reflected in the mirror river was something to behold. We lucked out with the weather which was quite mild and made the ride on the river enjoyable.

The next day we headed south to the caverns. There are limestone caves all over Chiapas, but none like these caverns. Yesi was rather astonished, and insisted I take photos, though most didn't turn out well. She was appalled by the overwhelming guano smell at the entrance, but I assured her it didn't stink further down.

On the steep path into the bowels of the cave, we ran across a group of Angolan men who were on a field trip from their Police Academy school in Roswell. They all spoke Portuguese, which is another language Yesi speaks fluently. They had many questions about the formations which I was able to answer (from my days as a docent) and she translated.  We enjoyed the walk down so much, I barely noticed my aching aging knees.

Entrance to the Caverns

Stalactites high on the ceiling

The next day, our first stop was in Roswell. We spent about an hour at the cheesy tongue-in-cheek Alien museum. There are certainly many mysteries surrounding the crash siting back in 1947, and the town has amplified it to create a legend. The museum has been remodeled. It now features a large craft suspended over plastic larger-than-life aliens (as if we knew how large fictional aliens were!) that occasionally "turns on" spewing fog and blasting museum-goers with noise.

It also has a replica of Pakal's sarcophagus lid (from Palenque) which is the Mayan artwork used by Eric von Daniken to "prove" that people flew in space capsules. The display pointed out all of von Daniken's conjectures, and down below in small print, there was an archeologist's explanation for the symbols. Even an amateur like me could tell the difference between the Mayan's sacred corn-on-the-cob and a space ship!

The drive home took five hours, and we were privileged to see a glorious sunset over the mountains as we came through hills south of Santa Fe.

Dock on the Pecos River banks

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Life on Koh Tao

Rheta and I stayed on Koh Tao for two weeks. Her primary reason for being there was to visit with her son Darius. Mine was to learn scuba diving. But I had a cold. For some bizarre reason, the dive teachers frown on sneezing into the masks. So all I got to do was snorkel and do touristy things.

One of the finest touristy things to do is get a massage. Thai women are famous for their massage technique, and certainly there is a pattern and series of moves that distinguish Thai massage from other forms. 

The massage was done over a cotton shirt and pair of pants. We had to lie on a soft bed, and be mashed and pushed, prodded and poked until it hurt so good!

They start with the left foot and work up the leg, then do the other leg. Each hand and arm gets worked over before the groin, armpits, and finally, the back. 

"Madam? Madam? Turn over please.......Madam?" 

Barely able to open my eyes, those insistent women wanted me to rise up and rotate. It took all my will power to get those uber-relaxed limbs to respond.  

All I wanted to do was relax into oblivion.

We did this again and again. It was heaven, and for about $16 a pop, we could afford to have many over the course of two weeks. 

The island is fairly small, we circumnavigated it in a couple of hours on a snorkeling trip, stopping for half hour stints at various bays and reefs. I had heard it was volcanic, but the boulders that had tumbled into the ocean looked more like very weathered granite. The highest peak is only about 1000 feet (300 meters). Most of the roads were dirt or gravel. The main road between Mae Haad and Sairee Beach was paved. One disastrous road goes up over the mountain, through a saddle and down to the other side where there is an abandoned resort. Rheta and I attempted the hike twice, in the coolish early morning. The first day we decided our shoes weren't the best and bagged it about half way up. The second day, we could see the saddle but we could also see five vicious dogs, two of which were intent on rushing us. We would need to hire a long tail boat to take us around the island to the abandoned resort, if we were that intent on seeing it. We weren't. 

Nasty road up over the mountain

Staying in a place for a while allows the visitor to get to know some of the politics and the problems people face on a daily basis.

For instance, about the only zoning on the island is a law that no building can be taller than a coconut tree. But coconut trees can get really tall, taller than a standard 3 story building. So some buildings, especially those in the resorts are very tall and probably block the views of the neighbors. There is little or no concern for "green" building. Everything is concrete and fairly simple construction. 

Billboard showing the new resort

There is however a big concern about water. In the tropics it rains a lot. But it doesn't rain consistently. The island drains off all rainwater directly into the ocean, with almost none of it soaking in, filling up aquifers. As a result there isn't enough fresh water to fill all the swimming pools or to flush all those hotel toilets. People collect rainwater off roofs and fill giant concrete cisterns. People who collect all the rainwater from many houses sell it to users downhill. Even so, there is sometimes a serious shortage. 

Needless to say, a giant resort under construction is a very unpopular project. A billboard in front of it shows a design with at least five swimming pools. Other smaller private pools will be built for special suites. Once it comes online, the water situation on the island could become critical. There isn't a strong enough government to stem the tide of construction or slow down the number of people coming to visit Koh Tao. It's a place that may ultimately be destroyed by its own popularity. 

Typical resort cascading down a hill