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Pittsburgh and Baby Shower

We were in Pittsburgh for nine days where we saw our family and friends. More importantly, they all got to see me “in the family way.” It was a busy and hectic visit, but a good one. I’m in the last month I can fly, so we needed to get a visit in. The next time Pittsburgh sees us we’ll be a tiny family of three.

It certainly was weird to be in our home town and having to stay in a hotel. I’ve never been a guest in my own city before. Getting free upgrades to business class on both the outgoing and return flights was a huge bonus. I was worried I would be so uncomfortable flying at this point. But having seats that completely reclined to beds, real pillows, fillet mignon for dinner and so many other niceties went a long way. Epsilon’s first trans-Atlantic flights were done in style.

Cupcakes!  Chocolate brown and pink were the color theme of the day!I had a baby shower at my aunt’s and we now have so much stuff for Epsilon! Our flight returned this morning and already I have all of her gear unpacked, sorted and put away. I’ll get to the washing of her little clothes once I’m on Maternity Leave, which I gave my notice the week before we flew home to the Burgh to start in September.

Some nice family photos to be posted soon.

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Day Three: Pancakes and Painting

Buttermilk pancakes! I make really awesome ricotta pancakes, yes.  But, buttermilk is not a common thing to find in the UK, so while home, it is important we eat buttermilk pancakes to get our fill. We took our British friends out to our favorite diner and had load of pancakes and other sweet breakfast goodies you just don’t see served in England. A good way to end their whirlwind tour of Pittsburgh, hopefully we didn’t inadvertently put them into diabetic coma’s for the long drive back to New York City.

After saying our goodbyes, I took my friend up on her offer to help me with the wedding gift I was giving my brother and his soon to be new wife. Painting rooms in his new house. It is something that I do love to do and can’t think of a better gift for them. I was worried I wasn’t going to have enough time on this trip home to get all that I wanted to get done done. She is awesome. She helped me get one room done. We were there until midnight. And in our innovative and avant garde style, apparently spent hours painting in relative darkness by the light of a small halogen desk lamp. My new sister in law must think I/we are completely insane. She came in with a lamp from another room and the difference in lighting was, well, like the difference between night and day. At least it was good to get a good look at the paint coverage before cleaning up for the night.

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Day Two Of Tour: Fallingwater

The second day of the tour and it’s more about south western Pennsylvania.  It was a mini road trip to Fallingwater.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece of a home for the Kaufman family set IN the rocks of the hillside, set over the water of the stream below.  This was my second trip here and it’s just as awe inspiring as it was the first time.

After the historic piece of architecture we drove nearby to a couple waterfalls at Ohiopyle.  First off were the Ohiopyle Falls, made up of the Youghiogheny River taking a twenty-foot fall with a roar.  It looks different in every season.  With it being spring, there was a great volume of water rushing over the falls.  On the road back home we stopped at Cucumber Falls, one of the higher and more elegant veils of water.  Water, rock, forest.  A theme for the day, no?

Dinner involved yet another delicacy we can’t get in the UK: buffalo wings from Fat Heads in the South Side. Oh, sweet, sweet, spicy parms! How I have missed you! It is still shocking to my own ears, having been a vegetarian for ten years, hearing myself announce my own cravings for beer and wings at Fat Heads!

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Tour Of Pittsburgh: Day One

The next few days I played tour guide for a friend for their first trip to this city.  The tour of Pittsburgh started off with the West End Overlook. This, IMHO, is the superior overlook in and of the city. You get that incredible “head on” view of The Point and the three rivers. You get a better sense of how close nit the down town area is relative to other cities due to the topography of the region. And, well, it’s just prettier. It also happens to right up the hill from my childhood home in the West End (well, Elliott really), where my parents still live. I took my friend to my old street and home and briefly chatted with my dad. I ruminated over how I used to know every single neighbor. Childhood and family friends have mostly moved away. It’s not the same cul de sac of my youth.

I continued the tour with the classic explosive view you get from the Fort Pitt Bridge, I went a little out of the way to make sure we drove through the tunnel for that stunning view. We drove into Oakland where we strolled through the Nationality Rooms of the Cathedral of Learning. Pausing to admire the Gothic style architecture in the main hall, my teacher friend and I compared the differences in education systems between the U.S. and the U.K. We had rather different experiences in University.

We walked through South Oakland to indulge in a favorite of mine for lunch. Burritos at Mad Mex. This was the first trip of many on this trip home. I never get tired of my favorite: the chick pea chili burrito with sour cream and guac. I know everything on the menu is good. But I always get that burrito. Anytime I order anything else, I always wish I had just gone with the chick pea chili burrito. I make a fairly spot on facsimile, having teased apart and experimented with the recipe a dozen years ago or so. If only I could find tomatillos here! But there is always something so much better about getting the dish there. Maybe it’s the ambiance or the sangria, but to me, that is the ultimate comfort food. A trip home would not be complete without it.

After lunch we visited more of my old stomping grounds and went to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I was interested in seeing the renovations that had closed down a significant chunk of exhibits for two years. To be honest, I was disappointed with the new exhibit and space. In an institution where space is at a premium to every department, there seemed to be a lot of it wasted.

After a brief visit to our home. Have I mentioned how I love to tell people what we payed for our awesome house with its hard wood floors, slate roof, 3/4″ inch thick plaster walls, so much sweeter in the context of U.K. housing prices. Dinner was a trip into Station Square for a little fondue. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know the Melting Pot is a chain. But it appeals to me in so many ways. I love being able to have a little bit of a lot of different dishes and the “Big Night Out” sampler with a group of friends is an excellent way to do that.

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Bal Harbour: Day 3

My little Jewish French cafe is closed this morning but found a different coffee bar to enjoy a croissant in and then parked myself on the beach in the early morning to watch the insane little sand pipers run along the beach before there were other people there to scare them off.

Mark and I went out to dinner now that the conference wasn’t holding his attention. We found a lovely little Italian restaurant within walking distance across the causeway. We shared a bottle of Malbec, I had the Fettuccini al Salmone in vodka sauce and Mark had the veal ravioli. Over dinner we realized it was precisely our 6.66 wedding anniversary, four more months to the day we’ll have be married for 7 years. We shared the cutest profiteroles for dessert and then strolled over to the beach for a moonlit walk.

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Bal Harbour: Day 2

For breakfast today I ventured out and found an adorable cafe� it turned out to be a completely kosher Jewish French cafe. Everyone in it was speaking French and I was in heaven!! I had a leisurely breakfast of a cafe au lait and Challah French toast.

Lather, rinse, repeat. I lazed on the beach and by the pool and on the balcony. My olive Italian skin gets quite dark with this amount of sun and my hair is returning to a rather blonde state. Churning through books like mad.

I wandered into the Bal Harbour Shops, ummm, can we say, if there was ever a place to represent everything that isn’t me, it would be this place. I could care less about a blouse on sale for $2500.00 (when’s the last time you could say you saved $1500 on a blouse purchase?), I could care less about the latest night life fashion trends (is nude the new black?). It was horrifying. Really, just transport me back to the islands of the Tortugas away from that side of humanity.

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Dry Tortugas: Quick Update

(submitted this entry prior to detailed entries written)

Four days camping in the Dry Tortugas was absolutely amazing! The snorkeling unbelievable! Bringing an underwater housing for the camera has produced some spectacular photos. The kayaking was a workout but so totally worth it to get to some of the other islands. One of the nights we even experienced some Cuban refugees washing on shore just a few yards from our tent on the beach (there were 40 in all that night scattered across several islands…) at 4:30 in the morning, they sounded pretty happy to be on American sand.

Currently, I’m in the resort where the conference is being held in Miami Beach. A real shower to remove four days of funk (even with a solar camp shower, we were quite funky) and a solid night of sleep and it’s time to explore.

I’ll be posting more detailed trip report entries, but wanted to rave about the Dry Tortugas and let everyone know we’re not awash at sea.

Some of our photos have been uploaded here

We’ll be captioning them when we get back home.

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Bal Harbour: Day 1

A real shower and a decent night of sleep in a reasonable bed and I feel refreshed. Mark is off to the start of his conference and I’m easing myself into the day with a room service breakfast on the balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve finished book two of the book club book (which now I need to run out and find the third and last book of the series).

I ventured out to find a laundromat and ended up in a shady looking all Spanish speaking laundromat. I understand quite a bit of Spanish as it is so similar to French which I am quite fluent in. I cobbled together the sentences I needed to purchase the detergent and key cards to operate the machines.

On returning to the resort, I lazed on the balcony reading. I lazed by the river like complex of a pool and read. I periodically went for a swim to cool off from the 84 degree weather and to get a respite from the glaring sun. Today was all about laying around in the sun and reading and just relaxing completely.

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Dry Tortugas: Day 4

Our last day here and we are taking it easy. A “cold” front has moved through and it’s cloudy and windy. Meaning we decided not to go snorkeling today because the wind has whipped up the waves and made the water fairly cloudy with debris. Also, since we need to break camp and have our gear back on the boat shortly after it arrives (so new campers can have their choice of sites) and while all our gear is still dry, we decide to just steak out the best spot over looking the beach armed with books. We both had time to finish a couple of books while lounging over the week. We sat on the moat wall for a while and took lots of photos of the various species of birds. We wanted to leave the islands feeling refreshed and not feeling rushed. This was a perfect way to end these four days. Four days was also an ideal amount of time to stay to really experience and understand the flavor of the place.

Walking Barefoot

I love walking barefoot. I particularly love walking barefoot on sand. For four days I walked along in the sand (with the exception of when I toured the Fort). My rough and tired feet were polished and massaged into such a smooth natural state of bliss. Literally, it’s been a long time since my feet were this soft and comfortable.

Even wearing my most tiny sliver of slip-on sandals my feet were protesting with me loudly, to the point of bringing on blisters on the sides where the sandal came into contact.

I’m sorry feet, I promise to take care of you, there are still a few more days of bare-footedness and sandy beaches to be had before we return home.

Returning to Civilization

The boat trip back was a little rough, heavy chop whipped up by the cold front that had moved through and the captain took the boat north of the Marquesas. I took a precautionary Dramamine and was doing fine sitting outside in the stiff breeze toward the rear of the boat. Once we hit calmer waters, I ventured in for a snack of a soft pretzel. We reached Key West right at sunset and decided we need to move on.

We walked to where the car was parked, passing dozens of Key West roosters and hens that roam the streets freely here. Once at the car, I opened our “good clothes” suit case we had left behind and was overwhelmed by the perfume of clean laundry. We had noticed that morning, the intense smells coming off of the people fresh off the boat. It was a senses-cleansing process staying on that island for those four days.

We grabbed a quick dinner and set back for Miami Beach, to Bal Harbor for the conference.

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Dry Tortugas: Day 3

Our best investment for this trip was the $5 solar camp shower. We slept so much more soundly last night after being able to wash away that sticky film of salt water. It’s a black heavy plastic water sac that holds 5 gallons of water. It hangs and heats the water in the sun during the day. Since we made land fall at sunset and we were fairly soaked from the paddle in, it was nice to have a “hot” shower before getting into our dry clothes.

We both got out into the water again for more snorkeling and found an amazing chunk of coral head almost to the edge of the designated swim zone, almost into the channel where the boats and seaplanes would traverse. There was a bit more chop to the water today and a bit more debris clouding our view, but it was intense to be swimming in a school of fish with literally thousands of fish all around us.

Touring Fort Jefferson

P1010759I finally decided to join one of the tours of the Fort that takes up 12 acres of Garden Key. Each day, shortly after the ferry arrives, the tour guide organizes and leads a tour of the fort. I started out with the group but then broke away on my own, there was enough signage explaining the history and the various uses for the nooks and crannies, plus, getting away from the crowd allowed for better photography. In my usual fascination, I took detailed shots of the tree bark and leaves of the few species of tree that inhabit this island. There was a pair of Sharp-shinned hawks who made it to the island, periodically peeling out their high pitched whistle of a cry.

P1010738I spent extra time walking along the top of the three story Fort. Open air and incredible views into the Gulf and across to the other islands. You could easily see the new island Bird Key that Wilma was kind enough to bring to the surface. Actually, Bird Key had been there for a long time and disappeared around 1983. Just months ago you could walk from Garden Key over to Bush Key, but Wilma created a nine foot deep channel between the islands.

Kayaking to Bush Key and around Garden Key

Mine were the only footprints in the sandIt was a little windy today, but we decided to make the short paddle over to Bush Key. Primarily because there are no places on Garden Key where we were camping that allowed for fishing. We were hoping to catch something to grill for dinner. So off in the kayak we went to Bush Key. I loved seeing that my feet were leaving the only foot prints in the sand. I beach combed with my camera and took photos of the best shells, coconuts and Mark fishing.

I walked to the far end to get closer to Long Key which is off limits to humans year round. I tried to get some interesting shots of the Magnificent Frigate Birds which were currently nesting and mating on the island. These birds have an eight foot wing span on an impressively light weight 3-4 lb body. They were truly a magnificent sight to see when they took to they air. I was close enough to see the males puffing their bright red throat sac during their courtship display. Supposedly there is a salt water crocodile that lives on the southern end of Long Key and we were told not to go near there if we kayaked in that direction.Magnificent Frigate Birds

The island turns into a birders paradise come February when spring migrations bring hundreds of thousands of birds through here, including breeding and nesting of Sooty Terns. (I’ll later add a species list to link to photos I took.)

Mark had little success fishing of the island; there was a great deal of surf crashing onto shore making it difficult. We decided to head out and circle Garden Key, Mark would fish along the way. It was a choppy and slow going paddle around the island. Mark got a nibble or two, but we both needed to be focused on keeping the kayak on the right heading. The wind and the waves were conspiring to smash us into the moat wall.

We met an interesting couple this evening and shared our dinner and sat around chatting in the moonlight– she was a marine biologist, he was a marine ecologist– made for interesting conversation. They were here for some serious diving.

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Dry Tortugas: Day 2

View from tentWe shifted to a different camp site, yes, it’s only a difference of a couple of yards, but we moved to one that is sheltered by the trees and vegetation. It became quite windy during the night and with our all mesh tent, it was a little chilly to have a constant breeze blowing over us.

The previous tenant of the site gifted us with several gallons of fresh water they did not want to carry back to the mainland. We soon learned, this is what campers here do, gift extra supplies to the campers who remain after you. Most campers just stay for one night, we would become the veterans as each night we stayed new people came and went. We were later gifted with more water and shared food and drink with our neighbors.

Kayaking to Loggerhead Key

IMG_0381We loaded up the tandem kayak and set out for the hour long paddle to Loggerhead Key about 12:30. It’s a 3.6 mile journey; I brought my gps along to record our travels around the islands. This is where the light house was located and where two volunteers and 15 Cubans were there to greet us. The paddle was challenging but so worth it. There was no wind what so ever which had there been any, we would not have dared to make the pass across. Even in clear calm weather, there was some chop, and we did start to get a little green as we neared the island “Just 500 more yards!” “You said that 500 yards ago!”

We made land fall on the far end of the island and sat for awhile, took some Dramamine and I walked and Mark paddled the kayak further up the island. We stopped and greeted one of the volunteers; their little house had an array of solar panels to provide them with power. She directed us to “Little Africa” the coral reef head that was the reason for our paddle over, an unspoiled pristine coral head that when viewed from up in the light house was in the shape of the continent of Africa, hence the name.

I was still quite green and stayed on land while Mark went out to explore Little Africa. The coral spread all the way to the shore, it involved careful and tricky maneuvering to walk over the slick surface of coral to get into open water. While Mark was in the water I was able to observe quite a bit of wildlife through the crystal clear water just from shore. I eventually joined Mark out in the water and hand in hand we swam together over the coral.

The barracuda were a little spooky. Here are fish nearly as long or longer than I am, circling and following us around with their snarling unhappy expressions on their tooth filled mouths. They were no threat to us, but spooky none the less, as they would not budge. We had to swim around them if we wanted to get by.

Resting On Loggerhead KeyWe needed to start our return paddle, it takes and hour and a half on the return trip. We popped a couple of precautionary Dramamine and set off, we were both pretty beat but were rewarded with some gems on the trip: two turtle sightings coming up for air very close to our kayak, Mark was fishing on the way back and caught a barracuda and a yellow tailed snapper (which we let loose, but would have made a nice dinner with the lemons and onion we had brought), we paddled directly over quite a commotion of tarpin (?) that had swarmed around a school of smaller fish for a feeding frenzy� fish were flying out of the water and splashing and sea birds were circling over head and diving in for a catch as well, it was exciting to be in the middle of this in our small boat.

IMG_0384We made land fall right at sunset and beautiful and fitting end to our days’ adventure.

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Dry Tortugas: Day 1

You can only get to the Dry Tortugas by boat, and we used the ferry service. It was a day of clear skies and calm seas for the two and a half hour trip to those islands 70 miles west of the Keys into the Gulf of Mexico. The tour guide kept insisting that the weather has been “cool” and windy since the Hurricane season. I’ll take this “cool” mid-70’s morning over the snow we left behind. The water temperature is reported to be 74.8 F (too cold for the tour guide to get into) but what turned out to be the perfect temperature for us.

I spotted one turtle on the ride over. I couldn’t tell what species, it was a little too far away and too fast of an occurrence of the animal coming up for air. But it was clearly a reasonably sized beast that caught my attention.

We were told on the way over that apparently a small boat carrying 17 Cubans landed on one of the islands the night before. We were assured it wasn’t a nightly occurrence but the Coast Guard has had to remove about 800 from these islands so far this year.

IMG_0441We arrived and immediately claimed a camp site just yards from the beach and away from the other set of campers.

Our camp hosts were an older couple, probably in retirement. They explained to us that during the summer they were volunteer camp hosts in the Rocky Mountain National Park and in the winter, they were down here in the sub-tropical islands of the Tortugas. Not a bad way to spend your time, I imagine they receive room and board in exchange for their volunteering to maintain the camp sites.

Snorkeling: my first snorkeling experience

Unidentified Floating ObjectMark was out buzzing around in the water long before me. It took me a few minutes to adjust to the water after toasting myself in the sun on the coral white sand beach. I ventured out to snorkel and it took me quite a while to get a hang of it. First, my snorkel wasn’t quite right, I ended up using Mark’s. Then the nose plug I brought to use with my goggles kept slipping, I ended up using Mark’s mask as well. Mark was patient with me and I eventually got it and was snorkeling like a pro in minutes.

The original plan was for me to try these “close fit” but not my actual prescription contacts to help me see more while snorkeling, so I brought a different type of goggles instead of a mask. I decided I could see enough clearly not to mess around with the contacts. The water was crystal clear and since it wasn’t very deep all the corals and fishes were within a couple feet of us. Plus, Mark took amazing underwater photos (since he was the one who could actually see, he was in charge of the photography) which supplemented my slightly blurred first hand view.

This was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. I can’t quite find the words to capture this moment just yet. I will have to process and write on this later.

Laying on the beach getting warm and dry:

I’m laying still and here and there I see a shell making a dash in this direction or that. They are hermit crabs on the move. They come out in numbers later in the day after most of the people left. There are only a handful of us on the island. It is a time of relaxing and lazing on the beach. Sifting through the sand finding the most minute and perfect shells. My favorite: the polished smooth and shiny white shells that shine like glass beads. More sand sifting and losing myself in the sound of the water, of gentle waves sliding onto shore and of the birds gliding overhead.

Dinner was simply prepared and so delicious and satisfying after a day like today: steak and baked potatoes. The foil wrapped potatoes took a lot longer to cook over our small bed of charcoal. We had our steak, checked the potatoes, had some of my snack mix (m&m’s, dry roasted peanuts and dried banana chips), checked the potatoes, went for a crescent moon lit walk around to the far side of the island to enjoy the spectacular show that was the perfectly clear night sky, the Milky Way displayed before us in unbelievable clarity, very romantic, we walked back to camp, checked the potatoes. They were finally edible and so they were dessert.

The crescent moon light was so bright we were able to function on the island without our headlamps. The silver light cast shadows as sharp and crisp as nights of a full moon back home. The moon is waxing, each night getting brighter, on a full moon, it must be as daylight in such an isolated place.

After dinner we cuddled together in our tent and enjoyed the show as we looked through the photos of the day (dinner and a show on a deserted island!). Frankly, the underwater photos do not communicate the enormity, scale, color or beauty of the coral reefs. They are but a glimpse into tiny pockets. But they do capture our awe as we took hundreds of photos of probably common species.

4:30 am: Cubans in the night!

Cuban boatNot a “daily occurrence” my ass! A boat load, as in a tiny boat jammed to capacity with 12 people landed on the beach just yards from our tent. They kicked our kayak as they walked past our camp site. They sounded pretty happy to be on American sand. Apparently a total of 40 people (including several toddlers and an infant) landed across several of the islands this night. It’s a four day journey for them on their make shift boats, Cuba is 90 miles south.

Some of the jerry rigged boats of people have gps units with them, when they do, the Dry Tortugas or the Marquesas Keys are the highlighted way points where the Coast Guard does not have a strong presence to patrol to intercept and turn away these refugees.

They remain in situ until the Coast Guard can come and pick them up where they receive a starter care package of $8500 in assorted food stamps, Medicaid and other assorted goods to get them started.

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Key West and Provisioning for the Dry Tortugas

We flew into Miami around eleven in the morning, made it to the car rental, hopped into the convertible with the top down and immediately set out for Key West. We weren’t sure how long a drive it was going to be and we still had to provision ourselves with perishable goods and get in touch with the person we were renting the kayak from. We were hoping to cover a decent amount of ground in a reasonable amount of time.

We made the mistake of getting onto to route 1 instead of the Florida turnpike. Ten miles of strip mall hell and a light at every intersection. We did hit a Kmart and grabbed a quick lunch before making our way past all the humanity.

The ride down to the Keys eventually became pleasant as the scenery changed. We were surrounded by miles of wetlands and marshlands and eventually had open water of the Bays and Sounds leading up to the Keys.

Key Largo, Duck Key, Deer Key, Marathon, No Name Key, Ramrod Key and eventually to Key West, the southern most point in the U.S. Along those Keys, we eventually stopped in several more K-marts and a Winn-Dixie. I found it amusing that we never go into K-marts for anything, literally it’s been years, but in the provisioning for this trip, we were in four different K-marts.

It’s just, we were not sure what we would find store wise the further down the Keys we went. We were half expecting a sleepy little island with little to support a year round population. We were surprised to find so many amenities even just across the street or next to the hotel we were staying at for the night.

It was about 7:30 when we arrived in Key West, so we drove around, checking store hours so we had an idea of any time limitations. The Winn-Dixie was 24hrs. Sweet.

We checked in and headed for Alice’s for dinner. We made a dinner out of several appetizers and shared a piece of Key Lime pie.

The person we rented the kayak from also loaned us a cooler, which we found his house easily enough and off to provision and repack and reorganize the camping gear and load up on fresh water (everything we needed had to be packed in, including enough fresh water for the two of us for four days). We needed to be at the boat by 6:30 am to load our gear onto the ferry to the Dry Tortugas and it was well after midnight by the time we had everything sorted out and ready.

Note on supporting the local economy

Two months prior to our visit here, Hurricane Wilma devastated these islands. We were told of stories how most of the Keys were underwater and that explained the periodic huge mounds of kitchen appliances on the sides of the road we encountered on the drive down. The restaurants were not so busy and the ferry we were using that normally would take 100-250 people to the Dry Tortugas daily, only had about 40 of us on it. A part of me is glad we were able to make this trip now, so soon after such catastrophic damage.

We would soon learn that Wilma had not spared the Dry Tortugas either, and although we thought the islands were gorgeous, they vegetation is only starting to recover on what used to be green lush islands. We had actually looked into going here several years ago, in 2001, but Hurricane Charlie had caused the National Park service to close the island to visitors that year. I hope we have the opportunity to visit again when the islands have had time to recover.

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New York, New York

Because my body ignores my wishes to stay asleep, my eyes popped open at 9:00, fortunately it wasn’t my usual 7 am.

We were fortunate enough to visit the weekend of the The Mermaid Parade, a yearly event held at Coney Island. I generally strongly oppose parades of any sort, but if you’re going to go to one parade a year, this is the one to see. People watching is one of our favorite past times. You see, it’s a parade of people dressed up as mermaids and other creatures of the sea.

There was a long line of classic cars decked out for the occasion, floats included live bands being pulled along,then came the boobies. People, if you’re going to expose yourself to the world, at least have the body for it. We saw many sagging nasty breasts with tiny seashell pasties and plenty of “fried eggs” as Mark referred to them. I can’t even begin to fathom how uncomfortable the folks who had full body paint: several pink people on bicycles, a green naked man with a golden gourd, and multiple folks in metallic silver.

Even though it was armpit hot, it was bearable because of the cool constant steady breeze coming in off of the ocean. We had designs to walk up to the water and dip our toes in, but there were far too many people there. The beach was packed with humanity and so deemed the trek not worth the effort.

Two hours of fantastic freaky people watching in the blazing sun was enough so we headed off to Manhattan. First order of business, food, Patsy’s pizza to be specific. This was seriously the best pizza ever. Thin crispy crust, fresh mozzarella, light crushed tomato sauce and fresh basil leaves. We topped ourselves off with beignets from the F&B.

People watching, walking around town, shopping. We didn’t have a plan. I love seeing a city with friends who are local, or in this case one who grew up here. The last time Mark and I were here five years ago or so, I wondered the city alone and had public transportation mishaps while he was at a conference for work. During that visit, this city made my skin crawl, I felt as if I were in a hive, I didn’t feel particularly safe or comfortable. This visit had a completely different tone and flavor. I still prefer my smaller city, with it’s easy escapes into green places, but this visit makes me want to return in the near future.

We picked a good weekend to be in Manhattan, for it’s Gay Pride Day, which added to our people watching pleasure. In Pittsburgh, same sex couples walking down the street holding hands is a statement, but for New York, it just is what it is, the rainbow flag is more of a cliche there and it’s refreshing.

And why can’t we have a shop that has even a fraction of the variety their favorite home store provides. We only ventured into the first floor to admire the hundreds of chandeliers suspended above the eclectic mix of fabrics and dinnerware. We certainly would have found something to our taste there during our “search for interesting dinnerware” of a couple years ago.

Back to Brooklyn for the night where we hit the restaurant that deep fries everything the ChipShop. It was too hot of a day for actually eating something fried (although that didn’t stop Mark), I opted for the Korma. We did share the deep fried peanut butter cups. Which happened to approximate what we’ve been trying to achieve with a recent culinary experiment of ours: a grilled peanut butter and chocolate sandwich. Crispy and a little salty on the outside with gooey goodness on the inside.

Walking the streets of Brooklyn and people watching, you see a pattern here, we popped into The Total Wine Bar to partake of their deceptively advertised AC. The one thing I miss about the neighborhood where we currently live is that there is no place to walk to, no coffee shop, no restaurant, nothing. Brooklyn is cute with its surprisingly quiet side streets lined with Brownstone houses and the main Avenues packed with shops, bars and places to eat. Even the tiniest nook of space had something different, like The Total Wine Bar.

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Weekend in New York

Since we missed our friends so much, we decided this was a good weekend to visit them in New York City. We stayed with them in their adorable apartment situated on the first floor of a Brooklyn Brownstone.

We had a late start hitting the road and ended up arriving at their place around one in the morning. We headed out for a really late dinner at Blue Ribbon. Mark enjoyed a plateful of the crawdad special and I stuck to just a Caesar salad. It was after one in the morning so I didn’t want anything too heavy.

This was followed with just hanging out and chatting in another bar The Loki Lounge until last call was made, at 3:45 am. By the time we made it back to their place and were settling in for the night, when the lights went out I was puzzled, “What’s that strange blue light coming in the windows?… Oh, wait… it’s the sun.”

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Yosemite

Photos to soon follow suit, although no picture could truly capture the enormity of the mountains and water falls nor the vast size of the densely packed conifer forest.

We had the convertible for this trip, winding through the desert and chaparral, up the foot hills on twisty roads that seemed impossibly carved into the hillsides. In my sunglasses and scarf wrapped around my head to hold my golden hair in place, basking in the heat with the wind whipping by, nothing could smack more of California.

As we approached the park the air cooled noticeably as we climbed in elevation. The sun beating down was still hot, but there was a pleasant chill to the air.

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National ParkWe hiked up the steep and narrow granite paths to Vernal Falls. Mark was much braver than I and climbed out to the edge to feel the full force of the wind produced by the crashing cascading water. He’s standing on the rocks in the first picture with his arms spread wide:

Much to my surprise the hike down did little for my knees! It wasn�t a very long hike, just steep and on hard substrate, normally my knees don�t complain until after I�ve hiked eleven miles or so. They�re fine now.

We cruised through the mountains and passed by dense forests, admired the power of fire ecology as we found ourselves surrounded by recently burned forest with it�s rapidly recovering under growth. Natural reclamation is a wondrous thing, it is stunning how quickly vegetation takes over.

P7210418.jpgWe found ourselves in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, a grove of about 500 Sierra Redwoods (not to be confused with the Coast Redwoods). In the interest of time, we only hiked a short way into this grove of towering giants, humbled by their sheer size and age. They reminded me of the National Registry of Big Trees. Certainly one in this grove qualifies.

We wanted to reach Glacier Point for the sunset, the drive through the mountains as dusk approached was spectacular beyond words. We reached the point shortly after the sun had set; we were still rewarded with a magnificent view! (this shot was after sunset with a 16 second exposure time:)

We started to wind our way back down the mountains, at around 5000 feet and in total darkness we paused on the side of the road under the clear skies. A convertible makes a fantastic platform for star gazing! Our seats leaned back we were in store for a breathtaking show of sparkling stars, the gauzy veil of the Milky Way delicately gracing the sky, even a shooting star, a magical way to end our day!

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Berkley and house warming

We ventured into Berkley to have brunch with the always lovely and delightful Jon-anne and her beaux Matt. They recently moved to California from here, I miss her terribly. Walked around the neighborhood, stayed and chatted in her very cute bungalow house, walked to the brunch place where the accordion player serenaded us with ABBA tunes and other unexpected songs. Lazed around her apartment and chatted some more before we parted ways.

The evening involved lots of people, mostly people we didn�t know, pockets of folks whom we very rarely get to see in person. It was a house warming for Martin and Gun, our most fabulous hosts! I pitched in, made an enormous batch of my Asian pasta salad, some tried and true sangria (light and citrus flavored, c/o Cook�s Illustrated) and I made a homemade cream cheese icing for the dark chocolate cake.

I played that Dance, Dance Revolution game for the first time. They had the main living room set up with a few televisions and two game pads. As a dancer I thought I would have been better at it, the eye to foot coordination was tricky, but fun. There was a girl there who used that game as her workout, an hour every day, her foot work was crazy! It was fun. I would be inclined to use a game like that as a workout too.

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Spa trip day 1

Karen, Elizabeth, Courtney and I headed off to Napa Valley and Calistoga to begin our pilgrimage to our spa experience.

Wine tour and tasting at Beringer vineyards. We toured the grounds and were taken through the original tunnels the were excavated over 150 years ago. This is the oldest vineyard and winery in Napa valley as well as one of the few that remained open during prohibition under the guise of produce religious wines… many in the valley became devout followers and frequented the vineyards to procure the religiously sanctioned grape.

Dinner at the fantastic Mustards Grill. This was phenomenal, the menu speaks for itself.

Much time was spent soaking in the hot mineral pools of the Calistoga Spa hot springs. Ahhh! Most of the time was spent in the super hot hot spring, some time spent in the very warm spring… not time in the cooling spring. I want a natural hot mineral spring in my back yard!

Walked through the village of Calistoga, very cute, plenty of quaint looking shops and restaurants. We stopped and played a game of croquet, making up rules as we went. This is a town I would want to visit again, it would make a great starting point for exploring Northern California, which is what we will have to do on our next visit.

Stayed the night here before going on to the other spa for our indulgent treatments. Stayed up late chatting over our steaming cups of coffee. I miss that, just gabbing with the girls, most of my girlfriends are no longer in town where I live. It was so nice to have just girls to talk to. We enjoyed a wonderful assortment of pastries from a local bakery, along with some coffee of course, for breakfast before setting off to Napa for the other spa.

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Beach time

I love the ocean, even if it’s a chilly one. I love lazing around on the hot sand with cool inland breezes washing over me. Today was a beach day. We drove over to San Gregorio, explored the cliffs and caves, dipped our toes and feet into chilly waters and basked in the radiant and glorious sunshine!
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We also hit Pebble Beach, no not that one, the one with the beach made up of actual pebbles. Odd rock formations with pockets of pebbles that get exposed as the water erodes them open. It was difficult to walk on as our feet sank up to our ankles in pebbles.
%PHOTO{“http://denovich.org/gallery/roadtrip/P7110181”}%
There were large signs proclaiming, ‘do not take the pebbles!’ Of course with such a sign and proclamation goading me on, I had to take a pebble, or two. *sheepish grin* I know, not very environmentally sound of me to do, I know, if every one who visited that beach took just one pebble… I know, I know… but the temptation was too great. And I have my pebble, or two.

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Home again, home again

Ah, this is the way to travel, the train was almost completely empty for my return trip. I was able to read without being disturbed for the entire trip.

I have to say that the Pittsburgh train station is rather lack luster; it really leaves something to be desired. The Philadelphia station is comparable to an airport with its shops and restaurants. Even some of the smaller stations along the way had considerably more character than the Pgh station.

Winding over all the major rivers in this state, and plenty of minor tributaries, makes me want to go kayaking. The waters are all running high; the Conemaugh was looking particularly appealing. There was still heaps of snow throughout the mountains, spring is taking its time there, but the melting snow will continue to feed into the flowing waters that call to me.

Throughout the return trip, I kept coming back and thinking about a common and recurring theme of discussion between Suzanne and me. That of the general difficulty people our age seem to have in finding and meeting people who are genuinely fitting to be close friends. In my work place, I’m in the middle. I don’t fit in with older scientists who are not married, whose lives revolve around their work. I don’t fit in with the student workers, they are quite young, their humor or idea of a good time does not coincide with what’s amusing or a good time for me. I don’t go to places like bars and clubs to meet people because those are exactly the sort of people I wouldn’t hang out with. I hate to sound so much older, but I honestly don�t like to be around smokers or excessively loud music. It just does not appeal to me. I like to go dancing, but not club dancing, I love going Latin and standard dancing, a by product of my years of ballroom dancing and competitions, I have a talent for this type of dancing. I am left feeling much more content maintaining the well established connection of the long distance friends that I have.

We both have a similar problem of having the majority of the people we care about to be scattered around the country, of being separated from the familiar. She is in new surroundings with unfamiliar faces, I am in familiar surroundings lacking friendly faces. I have my moments of loneliness, generally just missing people and feeling bored, because the friends just are not there anymore. But these sentiments pass quickly, as Mark and I create and invent new adventures, we’re never bored when we’re together, we entertain and amuse eachother to no end. Even if we are just in the same room together doing separate tasks, our mutual company is all I need to never feel lonely. Most of the time I am happiest and content when it is just me and Mark.

Visiting Suzanne was incredibly refreshing and fun, but I think it will make me miss her even more. I miss having a girl friend I can just talk to about anything, someone who is as willing to have random silly adventures, who likes to be outside so much. Maybe that’s why I’ve surprised myself so much by writing here as much as I do, serving as a surrogate girl friend (although, I never plan to just write about anything, I do censor and edit what I put here).

Ah well, we’ve already made our plans for the next visit. Hopefully that will come sooner than later.

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The Beach? In March?

It’s March! Let’s go to the beach! Why not?

So we did! We packed up a picnic lunch and headed off for Ocean City, New Jersey. It was sunny and warm when we weren’t right by the shore, but the breeze coming onto shore was pretty chilly. We stuck it out, strolled along the shore bare foot; I love how smooth my feet become from walking on sand. Combing the beach tiny treasures were everywhere, conchs, hermit crabs, clams and snails… though no one was scurrying. One or two of the larger empty whole shells found their way into my pocket. They will find a lovely home in the salt water fish tank. The dry sand was warm on my toes once we planted ourselves on a dune with our lunch, only ingested a small amount of sand :)

We continued our walk by going up to the board walk even though only a few of the shops were open. There were a surprising number of people out and about. We were not entirely crazy for going to the beach in March. There was not a single coffee shop open, someone could make a fortune running an off season coffee shop there. We were forced to get coffee and hot chocolate from a little pizza place. The Christmas store was open, apparently it is open year round, we didn’t dare venture into it though.

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The Book and The Cook

Another first for me today, I actually went to an expo-mart show. It was a culinary market and showcase expo The Book and The Cook. It was pretty cool, we got there just in time to see Alton Brown’s demonstration, lots of food to sample, wine-tasting, books… it was all really neat. I didn’t wait in line for any chef to autograph a cook book; Suzanne did for Lidia Bastianich for her sister, although if I had my head together I should have brought my Alton Brown book. There were an amazing number of people in attendance. Just being around that many people for so long was tiring. So, we called it a day after spending about five hours there.

We took a walk through the main shopping business street of Palmyra and circled back around along the Delaware River and back home. I really miss having someone to go walking with everyday. I mean, I go for walks by myself, but it is just so much more enjoyable when there is someone to walk and talk with, to lose track of the time with. My solo walks tend to be much shorter than those where I have company.

Dinner and a movie was the theme at the apartment again, finally got to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I liked it, a sweet little movie that just tells a story, fun brain candy.

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Bugs and Center City

We went to the Insectarium in the morning. This place would be a perfect place for me to work, if I lived near Palmyra. It is catered toward a younger audience, but it was still a fun place to visit. There are not too many museums around anywhere entirely dedicated to insects. It is what an insect zoo and a place for education and interaction should be. We wandered around on our own, admiring the colonies of walking sticks, the displays of biodivirsity and local insects. We stayed and listened to a presentation that was given to a group of very young children as they were introduced to the live specimens. What a fun job to have!

We then headed into center city for some exploring. The Reading Terminal Market was our first stop. We were both ravenous and needed to eat something before roaming through this hyper-stimulating environment. So we decided on Greek, yummy spinach pie, hummus sandwich and of course a piece of baklava. Since we passed several juice bars, I needed to grab some fresh juice. The place that had huge piles of bananas, ginger and other fruits and veggies caught my eye, and settled for a carrot pineapple combo. Sweet and tart and surprisingly creamy, it reminded me of a mango lassi.

This market was fabulous, a huge indoor market, just about anything could be found there. In a grid filling the open space there were booths of meats, cheeses, breads, fruits and vegetables, dining spots, book sellers, plants, trinkets, seafood, spices, coffee, flowers. Really a remarkable place, the sort of place that if you worked in center city you could stop at almost daily to pick up fresh produce and supplies for dinner. This place reminded me of the large central indoor market in downtown San Jose in Costa Rica, only multiply the place by four. It had the same hectic and grand feel.

After the dizzying array of shops we then headed for Chinatown. I bought some attractive and sleek dishes, two, with a pair of matching soup bowls and dipping sauce dishes. I love browsing and meandering through the markets; especially interesting to me are the fruits and vegetables that are not available in traditional stores. Suzanne wanted to find a dragon fruit for me to try, but none were available. They apparently have a lavender and white flesh that tastes like a kiwi. Maybe we’ll have better success on the next visit.

I almost walked away with a traditional style Japanese dress from one of the shops, solely to fulfill a fantasy of Mark’s. However, I could not find one that fit well, they need half sizes, since they were either too tight across my hips or enormous on top. I was happy enough with my purchases of the day, but this too is something I will keep an eye out for on future visits in the different shops.

We headed back home for dinner, took a decently long but pleasant walk around her cute neighborhood and down along the Delaware River. We ended the day with steaming tea and a Marilyn Monroe movie, The Seven Year Itch.

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Off to Suzanne’s!

I took the train to Philadelphia to visit my girlfriend Suzanne who lives in Palmyra, NJ. She rents out half of her sister and brother-in-law’s house in this cute and quaint little town. This was my first time to ride the rails and it was a delightful experience. I was able to relax, enjoy the scenery, read and sip my coffee. I couldn’t have picked a better weekend to go; the weather was warm and the sky clear for the entire weekend.

The only exception on the ride was the pair Australians who seemed to make it their goal to deplete the alcohol supply of the dining car and hook up with some girls who were heading to D.C. as well. This didn’t progress until about the last hour or so of the trip, so it wasn’t too irritating or distracting.

The train was an hour late getting into Pittsburgh, thus it was an hour late leaving. The conductor claimed there would be ample time once we passed Harrisburg to make up for the hour to arrive on time in Philly. But that didn’t happen; it was an hour late into Philly.

The evening was quiet. As we snacked on pita, black bean hummus, crackers and this yummy spicy red pepper eggplant dip, we did some catching up and bull shitting and I was introduced to her sister Therese and her husband. The four of us had dinner together, we ordered take out from the local favorite Chinese restaurant and enjoyed fresh strawberry shortcakes. Apparently I had a system to making them that Suzanne said she ripped off of me, but I don’t remember having a system, but okay!

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Coming home from the first trip out west

5am and we’re awake again taking care of final packing. Martin drove us and saw us off at the airport. This was a pretty excellent vacation. We hoped we could snooze substantially on the flight back. Mark also purchased some sleepy pills to hasten his rest. I didn’t take any and barely had any sleep on the plane.

The skies were clearer than the flight out. Time sim scenery; meandering streams and rivers with oxbows dotting the flood plains; sink holes of Karst features; the surface looking like a distant topographic map with occasional cloud obscuring the view; almost microscopic vehicles glimpsing sunlight occasionally from some impossibly long narrow stretch of roadway below.

The hot breakfast sandwich, small fruit yogurt and banana on the plane wasn’t so bad, a bit better than ultra-greasy fast food breakfast items. The lay over at St. Paul/Minneapolis was fairly uneventful. We were shortly on the way to Columbus. Mark was extremely thankful to be sitting the comfy seats of his car and have cds to listen to.

We got home around 9pm this Saturday. We stayed up late being lazy and slept most of the next day� back to the grind.

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