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Travel and Photography by Burt and Evelyn Johnson

Iceland 3 – Glacier

Waterfalls are everywhere in Iceland, formed either by the frequent rains or by melting glaciers. We stopped at a farm this morning that has several waterfalls on the property, for a short session.

We then visited our first real ice -- in the form of a glacier.  It produced some interesting near-abstract photos by zooming into the details of the flow.

We finished the day with a quick sundown trip to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.  There was no sun to be seen (the clouds had returned in force), but it gave us a first preview of what the lagoon had to offer.

Iceland 2 – Northern Lights

This photo tour with Iurie Belegurschi had a busy first day -- culminating in success on a key goal. We had never seen the Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights) before, and scheduled this trip specifically to have a chance at them.  It has been raining for days, and no chance for them until tonight. Weather was bad, but Iurie took us out anyway -- and a clearing in the clouds allowed us to see them!  Rather faint, and in an area with boring foreground, but we can now say we have seen them. Chalk one more item off our bucket list! :)The day started with no real chance of a sunrise photo, when suddenly the clouds parted and the sun gave an indication of the day we were about to have -- our first without constant rain since we arrived in Iceland 5 days earlier.  Our first stop was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall we walked behind, then Skogafoss waterfall.  Both were fairly impressive, though I must admit that waterfalls are not high on my target list.

Clouds and rain covered us again as we moved to the Reynisfjara beach to reluctantly photograph waves crashing on the basalt shore. We learned a valuable lesson though -- even in bad weather, there's always something to photograph. You can look for patterns and turn an image into a powerful black and white photograph. We had 12 photographers along, and we traveled in a plush full sized bus, giving each of us a seat, so we could spread out our gear between stops.

As the sun went down (at 4:45PM this far North), we stopped to catch the sunset.  It didn't look hopeful, as there was solid cloud cover -- until just minutes before sunset, when the clouds cleared just enough to give us some nice color and variation to the sky.

Iceland 1 – Where’s The Ice?

We arrived in Iceland a couple days ago, expecting freezing weather and ice everywhere.  Instead we find 50 deg weather and rain.  The only ice in sight it at the top of that mountain in the background here -- and most of that was gone by our third day.  Though the temperature is warm, it is raining with a very strong cold wind, and the chill factor makes it feel like 22.  We are dressed warmly, but my face feels like it is freezing off whenever we walk around Reykjavík and face into the wind.

The language here is pretty much unpronounceable.  Even when someone says the name to me, I have no idea what I am looking for.  If it is written down, I can then find a matching sign somewhere, but the text does not match the sound, and the names for most places are really long! We later discovered that the words are often compound, where Icelanders combine 2 or more basic words into a single word, with no spaces. That makes the word seem even longer.

Fortunately, everyone here even vaguely related to tourism speaks fluent English, so the language is only an issue when trying to find places. Everyone is friendly, and efficient.  We first saw that coming off the plane in Reykjavík. The luggage was on the baggage conveyer by the time we reached it, we were waved through immigration with a quick stamp in our passport, and there was nobody in Customs to even talk to.  That was the fastest I have ever gotten from an international airplane to the bus into town.

The days are short here in November, with only 6-1/2 hours of daylight (9:45AM to 4:15PM), but you can add half an hour of twilight to that. In February, it gets down to only 3 hours of daylight, and in July reaches 21 hours, so the length of day changes rapidly this far north.

Wrapping Up New York

We wrapped up our first week of New York City today, walking our feet off and taking more subways up and down Manhattan.  We started by walking through Central Park, where surprisingly, the Fall colors were still visible.

While in the area, we visited Columbia University to check out the campus.  Alice (The High School daughter of the friends we are staying with in New Jersey) wants to go there, so we were curious.  It was a beautiful, but very small campus, with only 4500 students.

In the same area was the Frick Collection museum -- an art collection created by Henry Frick (1849-1919). Entry is free on Sunday from 11-1, so we walked over and went through the museum.  I am not an expert in painting, but this was one of the best collections I have seen in a museum in years.

When in the area of Central Park, we also visited the Natural History museum.  We particularly wanted to see "George" -- the last Galapagos tortoise of his species.  We saw him alive on our trip to the Galapagos in 2009, but he died last year and is now on display in New York.  The rest of the museum turned out to be fascinating too.  I haven't been to a Natural History museum in a few years, and this was a pleasant walk through dinosaur bones and lifelike animal displays.

Once you seen 'em stuffed, might as well head out to the Bronx Zoo to see them live too.  Unfortunately, the Winter schedule has many of the major animal displays closed though.

We spent the last of our final night in East Village by visiting a couple of jazz clubs -- two clubs is our version of "bar hopping" :) Being Sunday night, the clubs were all featuring jam sessions, and the Jules session included the owner/bartender joining in for some superb French vocals.

Liberty In The Rain

To go to the top of the Statue of Liberty requires buying tickets months in advance.  We had ours for today -- which turned out to be the only day on our New York trip that was raining.  Besides getting soaked, it gave us lots of photographs of the Manhattan skyline partially hidden in the clouds.

The climb to the crown is 188 steps above the pedestal, up a claustrophobic narrow circular staircase. One way up and one way down. Once you start, you are committed with no turning back till you reach the top.  Unfortunately, the view from the top is anti-climatic, with only tiny views of the bay through small plexiglass windows facing away from the city.  Glad we went, but not sure I'd recommend it to others...

An optional free stop back to Manhattan is at Ellis Island. The museum display there was exceptionally well done, and is a stop I'd recommend to all.  The tour ended with an emotional 30 minute documentary of the immigrants, much of it in their own words when interviewed in 1989.

One thing we miss in Ecuador is good Chinese food, so we returned to The Big Wong in Chinatown for one of the best Chinese meals I have had in years.  Because of the rain, we made an early night of it, giving me time to catch up on this blog... :)

Exotic New York

Another day of wandering around New York City and running up record numbers on our pedometers. We have gotten used to seeing a lot of fresh fruits and flowers in Ecuador. New York has small corner stands throughout East Village,  with everything just as fresh but having a more polished display.

First target neighborhood was Chinatown.  We had expected something similar to Chinatown in San Francisco, but this seemed much larger and more vibrant. There were the expected ducks hanging in the windows, and rows of spices, but the seafood was the most impressive. Massive amounts of fish, much of it still live, caught with a net out of an aquarium and killed specifically for the buyer.

Wandering into a local park, we came upon a scene that could have been from 100 years ago.  Men played mahjong, while women played cards, and a small group of musicians in a corner performed Chinese music.

Adjoining Chinatown is Little Italy, which was our next destination for the day. The peripheral of Little Italy was all Chinese stores, which surprised us -- seems that Chinatown is expanding at the expense of Little Italy.  Walking a couple more blocks, and the scenes from Italy began to emerge.  This region was less obvious and much smaller than the neighboring Chinatown though.

We have gotten pretty good at getting around on the subway here (which is a lot cleaner and more efficient that we expected), and took a train uptown to see "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder" on Broadway. It was one of the best musicals we have seen, with the lead having facial contortions to rival the young Jim Carey (you know -- when he was still funny...).


The City of the Young

This was a long day of walking and subway-ing (I know it's not a word, but we did it!) around New York City.  We started by going to the 9/11 memorial where the World Trade Center once stood.  It was massively impressive, with more buildings still going up.

The internal display was extremely well done, and highly emotional for those of us that watched the towers come down, even if only on TV.  There were classes of middle-school students also going through it, running and enjoying themselves.  I then realized that 9/11 was ancient history to them, just as was World War II was to me when I grew up in the 1950s.  Sobering thought...

Next on our tour was Grand Central Station.  Huge, and exactly as imaged from the various movies that have scenes here.

We went to Gallager's for dinner, and had a fabulous steak -- at New York prices of course, then followed that by attending "The Book of Mormons" on Broadway.

We wrapped up the night by visiting Times Square.  You're in New York City? Gotta see Times Square!  It was then that I noticed how young those on the town were. The Under-30 set outnumbered the grey-hair set easily 10-to-1.  This part of the city truly belongs to the young. And, even at 11:00 pm at night, the streets, Trader Joe’s, restaurants and bars were jammed packed — New York is known as the City that Never Sleeps, and we concur.

New York, Here We Come

We have spent the last couple of days in New Jersey, visiting with Zoya and Vladimir (friends we first met in St Petersburg, Russia in 1992), seeing the last of the Fall Colors, visiting the New York PhotoPro expo, and shopping for last minute items for Iceland.

Today we moved to East Village in New York City, where we will explore for the next week.  Evelyn was last in NYC in 1982 on a trip for Apple, and I was last here in 1968, as a college freshman (the year before I met Evelyn).  We walked the neighborhood around our AirBnb room, and found it to be an amazing, if expensive, area.

We arrived a bit hungry, so went into a tiny sandwich shop (Porchetta) and had a fabulous pork sandwich -- which we would have called a hornita in Ecuador. We then discovered an Indian spice shop, where we purchased a dozen spices that we cannot find in Ecuador.  After taking those back to the room (our arms were full), we took a short nap, then went out in search of dinner.

Since our intended restaurant had a half hour waiting time, we dropped around the corner at Eddy's for a drink and scallop ceviche appetizer. We had never had a cold scallop ceviche before, and the taste was incredible.  We then moved over to UpState, the restaurant we had chosen for dinner (TripAdvisor 5 star rating was definitely deserved).  We sat at the bar, and asked the bartender for a wine recommendation to go with our meal.  He first offered a sparkling white wine, that didn't quite suite our taste, so he then suggested and let us sample a sauvignon blanc, which we preferred more.  After a generous pouring, he brought out our smoked salmon "share plate," followed by a scallop main course.  Everything was over-the-top delicious.  Our bartender (Frank) turned out to be from Chile, and we talked briefly (he was kept pretty busy) about South American seafood and culture.

All in all, a very nice reintroduction to New York City.  Now, if only the temperature would rise about 20 degrees and wind stop blowing, this would be a perfect trip! :)

Murder He Wrote!

Cast of murder mystery dinner at Riox restaurant in Cuenca, Ecuador

The body of prominent Reaper Junction resident, Grimsby Graves, was found early this morning at the bottom of a newly dug grave in the Reaper Cemetery. The eerie find was made by sheriff's deputies after they received a call from a local resident.
Graves, whose ancestors helped found the town in 1770, owned the large estate that borders both the cemetary and the pumpkin farm of Jack Lantern.

So began our evening as deputies during the murder mystery dinner at Roux restaurant tonight.  There were six suspects that the local sheriff had identified, and it was up to us to determine who the real culprit was.

After each suspect gave their deposition to the audience, the court was kind enough to provide us with a delicious meal.  Of course, anyone who has seen a crime drama on TV knows that work often interrupts meals for the best detectives.  Sure enough, the suspects were all out on bail and each made their way to our table at some point during the meal, giving us a chance to interrogate them further.

Costumes worn at the murder mystery dinner

With Halloween just around the corner, many of the deputies working the case were dressed out in their finest.  In the end, each team had to come together and figure out whodunnit. Our team, composed of Beverly Ayler, Evelyn Johnson and your faithful reporter (Burt Johnson), nailed it by identifying who the culprit was (the clairvoyant), but also who was her unwitting assistant (the pastry chef), and how she pulled it off (combination of hypnosis and drugs).  We never figured out a motive though -- it turns out the clairvoyant was the granddaughter of Evil-Eyed Emil, who had been escorted out of town on Halloween night 100 years earlier by a mob led by Grimsly Graves relatives, and she had promised to avenge her grandfather.  

For our success, we each each awarded a free dessert at Roux restaurant, which we will almost certainly use. :)

Happy Halloween

Magic in Cuenca

Magic show at Paladar restaurant, Cuenca, Ecuador

Tomorrow marks our one year anniversary since we officially moved to Ecuador.  In that time, we have become a bit jaded. With so much to do every week (and most nights), we often hear or read about an event, then ask each other "so you want to go?"  The answer is often becoming "it looks like it might rain, it's cold outside,  and <enter your own excuse here>."  As a result, though we are now more connected and hear about more events, we no longer have the urgency to see and do everything in this magical city.

Tonight was a special event we did not want to miss though.  Juan Alvarez Estrella is the only South American member of the prestigious Magic Circle based in London, and has performed more than 600 "close-up magic" shows around the world.  We had seen one of his performances a while ago at Cork Proctor's comedy show, and loved his stage presence.

The night opened with a half-hour show by Juan with a variety of tricks.  He always includes volunteers from the audience, and his magic performance was no more than three feet from my seat. Yet, I never once figured out how he was doing it, so clearly it was magic! :)

After the show was dinner at the Paladar restaurant.  Soup and dessert were delicious, though I am afraid I can't say the same for the main course...   During dinner, Juan came around to each table to perform more in-your-face magic that left you wondering about the true physics of nature!  Bob Higgins had earlier acted as master of ceremony, and showed up at each table with his own display of magic.  Though his tricks were more "standard fare," his execution was flawless, and left the table gasping at how well he pulled them off.

All in all, an excellent way to end our first year in Ecuador.  Happy Anniversary To Us! :)

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