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Greece Debt Deadline Approaching

I discussed the National Geographic article on the debt that Greece owes to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in my May 23, 2015 blog post.

The IMF has demanded repayment of 1.6 billion Euros which Greece simploy does not have. As a result of the impending collapse, people are panicking.  There are runs on the banks, which have put caps of 60 Euros per day for withdrawals.  and people are considering canceling their travel plans to Greece, which would be an even worse setback to the already struggling country.

The IMF have offered a bailout, which was soundly, and (in my opinion) wisely, rejected by the people of Greece in a referendum held on July 5, 2015.

Interestingly, a man in London has come up with the idea of crowdfunding the payoff amount.  He insists that this is a legitimate attempt to raise the money that Greece needs so desperately, and with 36 hours remaining in the campaign as I post this, it looks like they will not make the deadline.  However, they are approaching 2 million Euros in pledges so far and the numbers go up every few minutes.  If you would be interested in checking it out, you can find it here: Greek Bailout Fund.

The man behind this campaign has promised that if the goal is not met, he will refund all of the money sent for the campaign.  The perks offered if the campaign succeeds, he promises, all will come from Greece and will be mailed by residents of Greece.  I just found out about this two hours ago and think that it seems like a decent idea.


National Geographic July 2014, Part 3

Empire of Rock, by McKenzie Funk, photographs by Carsten Peter

Alas, Empire of Rock has nothing to do with popular music.  It is, in fact, about the karst caves underneath Guizhou, China.  This part of China was once covered by a sea.  Over the centuries, the mollusks left their shells behind, which compressed into a  limestone formation known as karst.  Karst is limestone which is punctured by holes.  Water seeps down into the holes, which wears the holes away until they join together and eventually form caves.  This area is relatively unique in that this process has taken place over so many centuries that there are entire mountains of karst on the surface.  Have you ever seen photographs or Chinese paintings of large, steep stone mountains, usually surrounded by mist?  Those are karst mountains.

Funk accompanied a group of scientists and cavers who were attempting to measure the volume of one of the largest cave chambers in the world, the Hong Meigui chamber.  Though Funk's eyes we watch them descend into the chamber and see their laser scanners, which Funk tells us is about the same size as a human head, measure the volume of the cave.  Funk and her hosts also visit other caves and karst formations in the area.

"Hong Meigui," by the way, is the word that inspired me make my last post, on my experiences with foreign language.  "Hong Meigui," depending on the tones, can mean "red rose."  And I suspect that may be the meaning here, since there is a caving organization called the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society and the characters for the name of that group are the "hong," "mei," and "gui" of "red rose."  Another chamber mentioned (the largest in the world) is the Miao Room, and my first instinct was that the "miao" in question is "temple," but, when looking at a list of other "miao"s, it could also be the "miao" that means "infinity," or any of a number of other Mandarin words that can be transliterated as "miao."  I just don't know.  To make things more frustrating, Funk does tell us that the Yanzi cave is named for the swallows that live in the walls, and I do know that "yanzi" is "swallow."

Two months after the cover date on this magazine, in September 2014, the title of the largest cave in the world was granted to the Miao Room.

Foreign Languages

I have an at-least-passing familiarity with four foreign languages.  They are, in order that I started to learn them: Spanish, German, Mandarin, and Italian. Eventually I want to be proficient in at least Spanish and Mandarin and hope to pick up enough of several other languages to get along in the countries where those languages are spoken by the time I travel there.

I think my first impulse to learn a foreign language was probably French.  We were visting my cousin and her daughter (who was just a baby at the time, which means that I was probably around nine) and we went to the pool of her apartment complex.  A young woman there was speaking French and I was fascinated.

Then, my sophomore year of high school, I had an opening for an elective and I wanted to take German.  My mom strong-armed me into taking Spanish instead.  During the rest of my high school experience, I ended up taking three years of Spanish.  My senior year I finally had an extra opening and got to take German I in addition to Spanish III.  I took to German like the proverbial duck to water and after my mom had a chance to meet the young adults in the German III class (who would have been my classmates, had she allowed me to take German) my mom said that she should have let me take German after all.

I have to admit that Spanish has been useful.  Being as close to Mexico as we are, we get Mexican nationals who don't speak English in the store from time to time and I can help them myself, rather than having to track down a Spanish-speaker to help me.  I am not good enough at Spanish yet to be approved to speak to pharmacy patients about their medications, but I hope to get that good someday.  There won't be any extra money in it, but it will look good on my resume if I can.

My son and I started to learn Italian because, frankly, it was the one language that I could find a lot of resources for.  We started to learn Italian in the summer of 2013, and in the summer of 2014, we traveled to i=Italy.  My son was mostly able to say things like "Grazie" and "Buongiorno," but I got along pretty well.  I was able to do basic transactions in Italian, even if we did eventually have to resort to English in a lot of cases.

The reason I am writing about this now is because of my Mandarin studies.  I still have a lot to learn, but I'm coming along, and in an article in the July 2014 issue of National Geographic which I just read last night, we visit a cave system in China.  I am nearly certain that I was able to understand the name of one of the chambers, but never once does the writer give us any idea what the Chinese corresponds to in English.  I am still wrestling with the name of one of the other chambers.  Probably most people won't even notice, but I know just enough Mandarin to know how much I don't know yet, and so for me, this was really frustrating.

Progress on my Photo Scanning Project

So what originally started with flipping through my photo albums to try to create a more or less comprehensive list  of where I have traveled has become a major photo scanning project.  In the last month I have scanned in over 1,200 pictures and I still have two photo albums and about half of a photo box to go through.  And those are just the things that have travel photos.  I also have boatloads of family photos to go through someday.

I ended up ordering a new scanner that supposedly scans negatives in addition to prints in order to make this project go a bit faster.  Everything I have read says that you get the best scans from negatives, so I figured I'd give it a try.  I have the prints for most of those photographs, so if scanning the negatives doesn't work out as well as I've been told it will, I can just go back to scanning the prints.  I couldn't find a local store that carried the scanner that I want, so I ended up ordering it from Amazon.  It should be here sometime in the next week.

And on top of everything else, I cannot find any photos from either of my honeymoons.  I just had the one marriage, but we took two honeymoons.  My ex didn't have any vacation time yet when we got married, so we took a long weekend and went to Indianapoiis for our first honeymoon.  Then, once we both had vacation time, we took a little more than a week and drove to Florida for our second honeymoon.  I know we took pictures, but cannot find a single one.  If they don't turn up, I'll contact my ex and see if by some chance he has them.

National Geographic, July 2014, Part 2

The Wells of Memory, by Paul Salopek, photographs by John Stanmeyer

In The Wells of Memory, we see the second installment of Salopek's Out of Eden Walk series.  In this installment, Salopek is walking up the western coast of Saudi Arabia, through an area known as the Hejaz, which was added to what is now Saudi Arabia in 1925. Both Mecca and Medina are in the Hejaz, so until the era of airplane flight, most of the pilgrims coming from around the world had to pass through the Hejaz. Jeddah, also in the Hejaz is the burial place of Eve, according to legends.

Salopek focuses in part on the wells that are spread, a day's walk apart, through the Hejaz.  The wells date back to the Caliphate of Caliph Umar in 638.  There were also guesthouses, forts, and hospitals along the route, courtesy fo the Caliph.  Today, in addition to the ancient wells, there are asbila, outdoor electric water coolers along the route these days.

Salopek is one of the first, if not the first, Westerner to travel this route in close to a century, but this is the route taken by other Westerners in the past, including Lawrence of Arabia.

As with nearly all National Geographic stories, The Wells of Memory is punctuated by photographs.  However, some of the photographs in this story were taken with a smartphone and then edited to look like vintage, sepia-toned photographs with an app called Hipstamatic.  Stanmeyer chose this approach to reflect his feeling that he "had one foot in the present, and the other had stepped back a hundred years."

Big Fish, by Jennifer S. Holland, photographs by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes

For the past 25 years, the Altantic goliath grouper has been a protected species.  Once sport fishermen would catch them by the dozen, but goliath groupers are long-lived and reproduce slowly.  This meant that the fish were not able to replace their numbers as quickly as they were being harvested.  This resulted in the species being granted legal protection as an endangered species.

Now, some fishermen believe that their numbers have rebounded enough that it should be safe to start catching them again.  In part they want the trophies, but these fishermen also believe that the goliath grouper is eating fish that the fishermen should legally be able to catch, thus reducing the numbers of legal fish even farther.

Holland seems unswayed by these fisherman's arguments.  She has spoken with scientists who are studying goliath grouper and who believe that the population is still too low.  Goliath groupers tend to stick to one area, and until they start to overpopulate that area, they will not spread elsewhere in their range.  Additionally, according to Holland, there are a number of studies (she doesn't tell us which ones) that show that there is not much overlap between the targets of the fishermen and those of the goliath grouper.  If the fishermen are finding it difficult to find fish to catch, it is not the fault of the goliath grouper.

Additionally, just because their numbers are rebounding now does not mean that this will continue indefinitely.  Goliath grouper juveniles live in mangrove swamps, and the mangroves in their home range are being decimated.  To make matters worse, due to mercury levels, goliath grouper are coming down with lesions in their livers.  This may also have an impact on their population numbers in the long term.  It also makes goliath grouper unsafe to eat, so fishermen who catch them would need to throw them back, or use them only for trophy purposes, which would be wasteful. 

Travel Finance: Grocery Shopping

I don't know if this is going to be a series, or if I will work it into my regular schedule or not, but in light of the fact that I'm about two weeks away from my 2015 vacation, I've been thinking about going grocery shopping on my vacations.

Off the top of my head, I have visited supermarkets in Seattle, Los Angeles, Maidstone, Wells, London, Toronto, Kailua-Kona, Asheville, Kitty Hawk, and Rome.  That's in addition to many supermarket trips during our visits to family in Chicago and Florida.

I like to visit supermarkets for three reasons.  One, it saves a bundle of money.  We usually pick up some baked goods and some fresh produce at the store.  Then we can take it with us as an on-the-go breakfast when we leave the hotel in the morning.  The hotel breakfast can run from around $5 to $10 per person.  A banana and a muffin is generally quite a bit less than that.  Two, it saves a bundle of calories.  Restaurant portions tend to be huge and most chefs load the food up with fat, which adds calories.  Stocking up on bananas or other fresh produce at the local supermarket lets us fill up on something less fattening than we would find in the restaurants. Three, it gives us a chance to see how the locals really live.  Normally when traveling, most people go from historic site to historic site or from scenic view to scenic view, without any thought for the fact that this historic site or scenic view is someone's home.  Additionally, as I want to live somewhere other than South Texas in my lifetime, I travel with a view towards how I would fare living there.  Visiting the local supermarkets gives me a better idea of what life is like for the locals than I would get just hitting the tourist attractions.

Now, to start researching supermarkets in Manhattan for my upcoming trip . . .


More Thoughts on Travel Destinations

The cities that I have called "home" (though technically, I lived  in the suburbs of Chicago) are two of the biggest tourist desinations in the United States.  The 2015 Top 25 Destinations list at TripAdvisor has Chicago in 2nd and San Antonio in 24th place, to be specific.

My first visits to both cities was in 1993.  I visited San Antonio when I came down to find an apartment.  I was still living in the Chicago area at the time, so that counts as travel.  Then once we moved down here, my now-ex and I went to visit my parents for the Fourth of July weekend.  Since I was living in San Antonio at the time, that counts as travel, as well.

If I were to include Chicago and San Antonio as if they were travel destinations, I would include them after my 1992 visit to Wyandotte Caves.  However, since there is just so much to see and I know them so well, I could get totally hung up on them and never be able to make it to my 1995 trip to Seattle.

So I'm thinking about including them as another topic.  Right now, I'm doing two National Geographic writeups, then one on my past travel.  I could stick Chicago and San Antonio (taking turns between them) in between the two National Geographic writeups, so that the pattern would be National Geographic, Chicago*/San Antonio, National Geographic, past travel.  And starting in July, I will probably be (temporarily at least) adding something on current travel, since my son's and my vacation, to New York City, with a side trip to Philadelphia, is this coming July.

*Bear in mind that I haven't been to Chicago since 2010.  As a result, my information may be ever-so-slightly out-of-date.  I am saving up for a long weekend in Chicago sometime in 2016, just as soon as I figure out what long weekend we will want to go.

My Travel Memories: St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine, Florida is definitely a place that I visited both before and after 1977.  I went there with my parents in the 1970s (and maybe visited it with my mom, aunt, and uncle in the late 1960s if memory serves) and in 1989 and then, for good measure, I made a return visit with my now-ex-husband in 1989.

In the United States, most people makes a big deal out of the Mayflower, like it is the very beginning of United States history.  I've even read a (pretty bad) young adult book in which the protagonist's love interest is supposedly a descendant of Mayflower immigrants.  It made a real impression on me when I was told that St. Augustine was the "oldest city" in the United States.  That is, of course, an oversimplification, since St. Augustine is technically the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the United States.

St. Augustine got its name because the coast of Florida was first sighted by the settlers of the area on August 28, 1565.  August 28 is the feast day of St. Augustine. If they'd been running a day earlier, the city would be named "Santa Monica," and if they'd been a day later, I don't know what they would have named it, since August 29 is the Feast Day of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  Maybe they just would have gone with "San Juan de Bautista," or "San Juan" for short.  Spanish settlers did this a lot.  I live in a city that was named for the day that the missionaries met the local Coahuiltecan tribe, the Payaya,

There are, as one would expect, a lot of historical buildings in St. Augustine, though no wooden buildings older than 1702, because the British burned the city in that year.  There is the "Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse," which is not actually the oldest at all, since the actual oldest schoolhouse in existence in the United States, to our ability to determine, is on Staten Island roughly 20 years older than the St. Augustine schoolhouse.

It was always kind of a thrill to walk down the streets of St. Augustine and think about how this is as old as it gets (in terms of permanent European settlements at least) in the United States.  Probably the most interesting building to visit, as far as I am concerned, is the Castillo de San Marcos, which would presumably have been founded on or around April 25, the Feast Day of St. Mark the Evangelist. The Castillo de San Marcos is older than 1702, since it was built of coquina, a sedimentary rock formed of shells bonded together, and thus it survived the 1702 fire.

Some of the most memorable buildings of St. Augustine are comparatively modern.  In the late 1800s a tycoon by the name of Henry Flagler moved to St. Augustine.  He commissioned a number of elaborate buildings which are there to this day.  Among the buildings he commissioned are the Ponce de Leon Hotel (which is now home to Flagler College), the Alcazar Hotel (now the Lightner Building, containing a museum and the St. Augustine City Hall), and the Memorial Presbyterian Church (which is still a church).

Author's Note:  I wrote this  and queued it up for June 26, then remembered bits and pieces of another place I've been, farther north in Florida than St. Augustine:  Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, Florida.  I don't really remember it, though.  I remember a building with a colonnaded porch (the museum, apparently), Spanish moss, and my mom explaining that the correct name of the river is "Suwannee" and not "Swanee."   That last is how I came to be pretty sure that the park I remember is the one in Florida and not the Stephen C. Foster State Park in Georgia.  The river looks closer to the Florida park than it does to the Georgia one.  I also cannot see any buildings with columns in any photographs of the Georgia park.

National Geographic, July 2014, Part 1

The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, by Michael D. Lemonick, photographs by Mark Thiessen

The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth is pretty much just like it says:  it's about scientists' attempts to find life on other planets.  Needless to say, Mars is one of the planets they are considering as home for this extraterrestrial life, but Mars is too close.  Rocks travel back and forth between Earth and Mars periodically.  As a result,  the discovery of life on Mars would not prove that said life developed there.  It could be terrestrial life that made the trip between the two planets.

Based on the premise that life should be develop in places with liquid water, we are also looking at two of Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus, as possible sites of life.  Saturn's moon Titan also has liquid, but that liquid is methane and not water.  As a result, scientists who are looking for life haven't ruled Titan out, but they are uncertain what kind of life would develop in liquid methane.

Then there is the possiblity of life beyond our solar system.  In 1961, an astronomer named Frank Drake created what is now known as the Drake Equation, which is an equation to calculate how many extrasolar civilizations we should be able to contact.  The equation included the number of sunlike stars in our galaxy, the number of those stars that had planetary systems, the number of planetary systems that have planets capable of sustaining life, the number of planets that actually do develop life, the number of those whose residents develop intelligence, and the number of those who develop radio signals that we could detect.  We are just now starting to be able to apply numbers to these variables.

As someone who has read and watched entirely too much science fiction for her own good, I think that the Drake Equation may understate the number of planets that we might be able to communicate with.  What if a society jumped right to television?  Or used some other form of radiation that we cannot yet detect to communicate?  Or evolved while orbiting a sun completely different from ours?  The Drake Equation might be a good estimate, but there are no guarantees that it is the only way for life to develop.  It's just the way that our life developed.

The Next Breadbasket, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., photographs by Robin Hammond

The Next Breadbasket is another installment in the Future of Food series.  For this installment, we travel to Africa to watch the various ways that the fertlile land, and those who work it, are being both used and exploited by agribusiness.  In too many African countries, the government allows the agribusiness entities to run people, some of whom have been farming this land for generations, off of their land.  Bourne names names, both of the companies that have treated the indigenous people well and those who have treated the people poorly.

So far, two of the ones that Bourne seems to support are a company called African Century Agriculture which uses an "outgrower" model, in which African Century provides soybeans, weeding, and training in conservation agriculture to small farmers. The farmers then sell the soybeans that they grow back to African Century, which deducts the costs of their services from the payment.  This way, the small farmers get to keep their land and also get education in the latest agricultural techniques.

Another company that Bourne seems to me to think well of is Bananalandia, the largest banana farm in Mozambique.  The owner of Bananalandia, Dries Gouws, pays his workers at least 110% of the Mozambican minimum wage and he also has done things to improve the lives of the people in the surrounding villages, including paving roads, providing electricity, building a school, and making improvements to the sewage system.  I know well that 110% of minimum wage is in no way going to raise these people out of poverty, but I feel that the other improvements in the quality of life that Gouws has made are not insignificant either.
Note:  I originally scheduled this for July 4, 2015.  I am not sure how it ended up being posted on June 22, 2015.  I have, accordingly, changed the first sentence of the second paragraph. Otherwise, I look like I can't read a calendar.

I've decided that I am going to call the posts about the two areas that I have called home "Northern Illinois Destinations" and "South Texas Destinations," since not all of the places I am going to talk about are in Chicago or San Antonio proper.

Since July 4 is approaching,  I figured I would start with one of my family's Fourth of July traditions, the Taste of Chicago Festival in Grant Park, Chicago.  I cannot remember specifically what year we started going to Taste of Chicago.  The festival started in 1980, so it certainly couldn't have been any earlier than that.  The last Fourth of July Taste of Chicago apparently was in 2011.  The festival is now later in the month.  For example, in 2015, the Taste of Chicago will be held July 8 through 15.

My parents and I had a traditional pattern for doing the Taste.  We would walk the entire thing once to get the lay of the land, then we would buy our tickets and make another pass and buy our food.  We traditionally got ribs, chicken wings, Chicago style hot dogs (though I cannot digest onions so I would scrape mine off), turtle soup (from the now-defunct Binyon's.  Frankly, the turtle was sort of optional -- most people ate the turtle soup for the sherry), and chocolate-covered strawberries.  Whatever else we bought would vary based on what was available that year.

I went back with my now-ex a few times after we moved to Texas and my parents retired to Florida.  We didn't have the specific routine that my folks and I did.  Then, after my ex and I split up, my son and I made a return visit in 2010.

The food is not the only reason to go to Taste of Chicago.  No, I'm not talking about beer, though if that's your thing, have at it (I don't drink, myself.  I come from a family of alcholics and that fate holds absolutely no interest for me).  I'm talking about two other things:  the music and the people-watching.  There is usually a big headliner act in the band shell at night.  One year the act was Chicago and I made my folks hang around the park for a few extra minutes just so that I could catch part of the concert.  There are also smaller stages that have musicians  throughout the day.

If you ever plan to attend Taste of Chicago, remember that it may be, as the saying goes "cooler by the lake," but it's not necessarily that much cooler.  Plan for it to be about the same temperature downtown as it is wherever your hotel/host/home is and dress accordingly.  Some years the temperature was a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit or so.  Other years, it has been in the high 90s.  


Olivia Ogden

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