Thailand 1 – Bangkok: The Grand Palace

We are starting our 2019 travels in Bangkok, Thailand. This is our third time in Thailand, though our last visit was some 15 years ago, and we remember so little of the details that everything seems refreshingly new to us.  That was a major reason we started this blog — we found ourselves usually forgetting details after a few years. Now, we have this permanent record to refer back to, and relive the excitement of each location.

We rode to the Grand Palace in a complimentary hotel tuk tuk this morning.  The Grand Palace is always crowded, even immediately upon opening, and it is always difficult to take a photograph without having a tourist in the image. The last few years, we’ve seen more large Chinese tour groups. With Thailand neighboring China, the percentage of tourists from China is even higher than elsewhere in our travels.

The Grand Palace has been the official residence of the King of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782. The King and all government offices were relocated outside the Palace in 1932, after the abolition of absolute monarchy.

Gold statues are located throughout the Palace grounds, usually depicting mythical characters of Buddhist and Hindu religious significance.

Many of the guardians are jewel encrusted, or painted with ornate detailed designs.  Some of them are used as backdrops for an almost continuous flow of selfies (bottom-center).

Around one of the inner courtyards is what is claimed to be the longest “story mural” in the world.

Mural paintings depict the story of the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana epic. This story is the battle between Tosakanth who is the King of demons and King Rama (human being). The story tell about Tosakanth kidnaps the Queen of King Rama whose name is Sida, and takes her to Longka city, where he hopes that she will fall in love with him but she doesn’t. In the battle that follows, Tosakanth asks his innumerable relatives and friends to join him, whereas King Rama has a monkey army and the great monkey warriors under his command. Finally, Tosakanth is defeated and King Rama takes Sida back to Ayodhaya, his capital city. The painting consists of 178 sections. [Quote from the official Grand Palace website]

Ships traveled to China in the 18th and 19th centuries, carrying Thai goods for sale.  Rather than return empty, the ships would carry Chinese statues to be used as ballast, stabilizing the ships for the return journey.  Many of those statues ended up in the Grand Palace, yielding a rather bizarre counterpoint to the predominant Thai architecture.

There is also a series of statues depicting Thai people in yoga postures.

As mentioned, people were everywhere around the Palace.  The monk (left) was one of the few we saw who works here. The rest (right column) were swarms of tourists.

Speaking of tourists, here are members of our tour group, showing the five people we are traveling with (Mary, Nikki, Burt, Evelyn, Roger, Paul and Steve).

Cuenca New Year’s Eve 2018

Saying goodbye to the old year with fire destroying the negative aspects of the prior year is a traditional way of celebrating New Year’s Eve in Ecuador. This New Year’s Eve appeared to be “the year of the jumpers.” There must have been a Zhumir (a locally made strong alcohol drink) or Pilsner contest, as jumpers were daring each other on how many times they could jump over the hot fire at the El Vado neighborhood plaza (above).

There were 23 entries for the annual Amistad Club de Cuenca contest this year. The El Vado neighborhood located on calle Juan Montalvo in el Centro won the 3rd place prize of $1,500 for their theme: “El genio en el país de los sapos” (“The genius in the country of toads“). It was a series of displays linked to the theme of Arabian nights, including President Lenin Moreno coming out of a genie’s lamp (upper right), tales of corruption revolving around Odebrecht (upper left), Alvarado and the magic carpet, and a doll showing ex-VP Vicuna with a sign “put money into the game.” (lower left — She is currently on trial for forcing an underling to pay Vicuna $2000/mo to keep her job.)

This year, the crowds were thinner than in prior years. We were able to comfortably walk down this street and had time to stop at each display to read (and translate) the messages. For the first time, the Ministry of Tourism printed a map showing where all the 23 displays were located, so we could plan our day’s walking around the city.

The El Vergel neighborhood won the $3,000 first prize, as they did the previous year, shown above.  Their theme was “La Ortiga Film Festival.” The centerpiece was President Lenin Moreno, megaphone in hand,  shown directing the film of politics and corruption (upper center). There were scenes making fun of the Tranvia, with Paul Granda and Mayor Marcelo Cabrero dressed in a chola Cuencana dress (upper left), Correa as the incredible hulk, Jorge Glas in a luxurious prison cell, big cows and cuy alluded to the Azuay Prefectura for multiple road works.

A number of artistic posters were created, which supported the movie theme at the El Vergel display.

This year the El Vergel arrangement was moved to a park several blocks behind the old El Vergel church, which provided more space.  In prior years, the crowds blocked traffic along Avenida 12th de Abril. The entire neighborhood participated, as people were painting and setting up their displays all afternoon.

The San Francisco neighborhood, located on Padre Aguirre, won the fifth place prize of $1,000 with their theme: “Mi projecto marcha bien“(“My project is going well“)  and consisted of a score of uniformed traffic cops marching with legs in different positions (upper left).

Other displays included the theme “El pacto de la regalada gana” (as in “The kids do whatever they want“), showing President Lenin Moreno as the Magi with his chair as Basaltar with his foot on a monigote of Correa (middle left). Another display located on Gran Colombia made fun of the Catholic priests (lower right and lower left), and many others around the city poked fun at politicians from Venezuela, Tranvia, Ecuadorean politicians, soccer players, beauty queens, traffic agents of EMOV.

Then came the clowns… first you see two police motorcycles racing with sirens and lights blazing, then stopping to block traffic.  Next you hear the sirens of the fire truck escorting a flatbed truck. Dozens of clowns pile out from the back of the truck, pose with the crowds, and walk around each display.

These clowns  are from Amistad Club de Cuenca (The friendship club), and along with delegates of the Municipality and the Union of Journalists of Azuay, are the official judges for this contest. There were six prizes awarded taking into account the message, creativity, artistic presentation, lighting, and community participation.

Every year, we see manigotes (paper mâché effigies) paraded on top of cars and displayed in front of businesses.

Many families celebrate together, some starting earlier in the day. Notes are pinned to some of the manigotes with names of people the owner had trouble with, negative thoughts, and bad happenings.  You can see notes saying (in Spanish) “smoking,” “job,” “unemployed,” or sometimes the name of an ex-spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend.  At midnight, they are all burned, so the bad of the past can be left behind, and they can start the new year fresh and optimistic.

Some of the manigotes (effigies) were stuffed with fire crackers, then doused with gasoline before they were lit. Kids enjoyed playing with their sparklers. This year, there appeared to be fewer fireworks, and fewer monigotes burning on the streets in front of people’s homes and businesses at midnight in el Centro than in prior years.

The main bonfires that were associated with the large displays, appeared higher and larger though, as the personal effigies were added to the main fires at selected intersections.

Then, as tradition dictates, groups got together and danced around the bonfires to welcome in the new year.

Each person is supposed to jump over the fire three times to bring good luck in the new year. This year, they were jumping over bigger fires than we’ve seen in prior years. In the past, the fires burned down pretty low before many people took the leap. This year, they egged each other on, and the jumping started while the fires were still rather large.  Several cherry bombs exploded while the jumpers leaped above the flames.

Some were jumping over the burning piles of manigotes (effigies) with Pilsner bottle in hand. Others earned style points for tucking and rolling, or for dance poises.  One expat, after many dares, tried to make the jump, but landed right in the middle of the fire. A half dozen locals immediately ran and pulled him out of the hot fire, patting down the burning embers on his clothing.

Above shows a sequence as one person ran towards the fire, then jumped through it.

This year, Burt focused on capturing the festivities with his drone. Above is a 45 second clip showing some of the fires. It opens with a random group of people dancing in a circle next to a fire.  The video then switches to a fire at another street corner (seen in video image above), where people keep piling on more material, until it becomes so hot that people can no longer get close. You see the drone backing up too, because the fire was so hot I was afraid that the drone might melt!

Shortly after these clips were shot, I moved quickly to another street corner with yet another fire burning.  I goofed this time though… Because the scene was unfolding quickly, I sent the drone up too soon, before it had grabbed a GPS lock.  I quickly discovered that the visual sensors of the drone do not work at night, as it quickly went wildly off course, crashing into a tool shed and landing upside down in a fenced off construction area at San Francisco Plaza…

I looked around for a policeman to retrieve it for me, but you know the saying “there is never a cop around when you want one.”  Yep, true.  I walked around the perimeter until I found a weak spot where I could unwind a few wire ties and bend back the fence to gain entrance.  The drone was sad, sitting upside down with its landing lights still flashing.  All four props were destroyed (fortunately I have plenty of spare props).  I haven’t flown it since that crash, but all possible indoor tests make it appear that the drone survived the experience…

Evelyn Wins First Place – Christmas Photo Contest

Christmas in Cuenca culminated with Evelyn being  selected as the winner of the Cuenca Dispatch and CuencaHighLife Christmas photo contest. The winning photo shows a girl holding a candle at the annual International Chorale Christmas concert, seen above.

December is always a busy month for us in Cuenca. There are always so many choices that all expats here make on how to spend their time. Many times there are two or more events per day to attend, but not enough time to see and do everything. We saw the same flurry of activities this December attending various artist receptions, fund raisers and lots of holiday parties with friends, plus celebrating our 46th anniversary.

We have watched the annual Pase del Niño Viajero parade for the last six years on Christmas Eve, and watched part of it again this year (top two rows). The world’s largest animated nativity scene was on display at the New Cathedral (bottom row). It was loaned by the Loja church and covers an area of 3014 square feet, with 1400 pieces, of which 600 are animated as the light cycles from day to night. It’s a miniaturists dream.

We went to several concerts and symphonies, all of which are free in Cuenca. Evelyn’s Spanish teacher’s daughter, Estefani Ortiz (top left), is performing in a newly formed choral group at Iglesia La Merced with the Cuenca symphony orchestra led by maestro, Michael Meissner (top right).  There was the annual Festival of Lights, which has thousands of candles in paper holders all lit shortly after dusk.  For the first time, we sent a drone up to get a bird’s eye view (middle-left), and discovered that the candles are not placed randomly, but rather form an elaborate image of a Christian Cathlolic crown and sceptre.  Side streets had more such candles, with various words spelled out, and another venue, the plaza next to Catedral Nueva, the lights emerged into  an image of a church. When Cindy Benson sang at this plaza, the acoustics from her Broadway song “Memories” was so astounding, that we felt that we had been transformed to New York City.

Every two years an art biennial is staged in Cuenca, with artists from dozens of countries competing. Much of the work is installation art, such as the metal airplane in the plaza shown bottom-left. The theme this year was “Estructuras Vivientes” or “Living Structures”.  December always has its share of parades, many of which we come upon suddenly and without advance notice, such as the Scouts (Boy and Girl Scouts are a single group here) parading to celebrate their 50th year in Cuenca (bottom-right).

Burt and Evelyn also had their first photo exhibition in Cuenca, which continues through January 7th, 2019.

Just to make sure there is not too much free time lying around, Evelyn got a new guitar, and is now trying to learn to play it.  The guitar was custom made by Luis Uyaguari, one of the premier guitar makers in Ecuador, in exchange for a portrait Evelyn painted of him last year.

We will close out December with this aerial panorama of the Fiesta of Lights, shot from directly above Iglesia Santo Domingo, of the candles forming the Christian Catholic Crown.

Cuenca: The Traveling Child

This was our 6th year following the annual Christmas parade in Cuenca, and we wanted to show the annual parade from a different perspective. This year, Burt captured the parade from his drone at 150 feet above the gazebo at Parque Calderón, as seen above. Many visitors lined up along calle Simón Bolívar both inside and outside the barricades, leaving a passage of only 10′ for the participants to march.

Most people aren’t aware that Christmas Eve is a long day for Cuencanans. Evelyn decided to concentrate on capturing the pre-parade events at the beginning of the day. Many people start as early as 7:30 AM to attend mass.  The day ends with families getting together for their Christmas Eve dinners. The largest gathering is at the Catedral Nueva at Parque Calderón, where there was a military band and soldiers lined up on the steps leading to the church. The military are in charge of guarding the traveling child statue and a large front section of the church is reserved for the officers. At around 8:00 AM, the child statue is brought in and mass begins, led by the archbishop of Cuenca, Monseñor Marcos Pérez (upper right).

When mass ends, the traveling child is escorted from Catedral Nueva along calle Simón Bolívar to a resting place next to Iglesia San Sebastien. An angel leads the way from the church (upper left)  Along the way, the traveling child is handed off to various celebrities, including Cuenca’s mayor, Marcelo Cabrera (3rd row right),  prestigious family heads (3rd row left), the military lead, and finally the archbishop (lower left) who places the child on an altar surrounded by honored military in historic grenadier uniforms from Tarqui (lower right). At the end of the parade around 4 pm, the child is taken back along the parade route to her resting place, the Monastery del Carmen de la Asunción (next to the Flower Market), to culminate the event.

The opening procession route starts from Catedral Nueva along Calle Simón Bolívar around 9:45 AM, before the start of the official parade. This procession, to place the traveling child statue in its place of honor at the start of the official parade, is accompanied by angels, an honor guard on horseback (upper left), and the army marching bands.

Once the traveling child is set in place, the official parade begins after 10:15 AM going past Parque Calderón to Huayna Capac. It was estimated that more than 120,000 people attended this event this year. (Note that the population of Cuenca is approximately 600,000, so this means a turnout of more than 20%!)

The Pase del Nińo Viajero parade is actually a sequence of parades, where many neighborhood have their own groups that include bands, dancers and sometimes even floats.  Every such group always carries its own version of the Baby Jesus statue though, from its neighborhood church.  Many homes in Ecuador have a Baby Jesus statue too, and many of those are brought out for this parade (lower left).

This is a day dedicated to the children, so they are main stars of the parade. Before the parade begins, many parents can be seen getting their kids ready on their horses, checking the make up, jewelry, dresses. There is a long line, as many families wait their turn to enter the parade route.

Many people in the audience also take the opportunity to dress up.  Some will dress in their traditional,  native village costumes (upper row), while many others dress in religious costumes relating in one way or another to the birth of Jesus.

Photo Show Opening Dec 2018

Last night was the opening reception for Burt and Evelyn Johnson’s first photo exhibition in Cuenca, Ecuador, at the Miguel Illescas Gallery. It was called Ecuador y Más: Su tierra y su gente (the land and the people), and presented images from three photographers: Michael Hamilton, Burt Johnson and Evelyn Johnson. All three are retired North Americans and are avid world travelers. Because we were exhibiting, Jack Hardy offered to document the event for us. All photos on this page were taken by him.

Sara Coppler, of Zero Latitude Magazine, took  the lead in promoting the event, and did an exemplary job (and will still be promoting the event which continues through January 7, 2019).  El Mercurio, the local newspaper, featured us at the top of the front page, leading readers to the cultural section, where we had an inspiring write-up.  We had expected 125 people, but ran out of food and drinks in the first 45 minutes!  Our food whiz had to scramble and make a second batch of sangria, as well as start rationing to have something for all of the estimated 300 people that showed up.

Evelyn displayed photographs from the daily lives of the fisherman of Puerto López on the coast in the show. My favorite was her image of the five boats at sunset and her Fish Robbers series. She was kept busy talking to the guests, as seen above.

Burt’s photos in the show were from various fireworks “castles” plus drone images taken within Cuenca. His most popular image of the evening, called “Parque Calderón: the heart of Cuenca”, was a 360 degree panorama shot from a drone 150 feet above the central park of Calderon (lower-right).

Because of the coverage in El Mercurio, there were several Ecuadorians who attended, several of whom spoke no English. I am afraid I was tongue tied the first time when one person asked about the photos in Spanish. I am rather happy to say, though, that I regrouped, and was actually able to describe the images in Spanish and hold a basic conversation after that awkward start.

Michael Hamilton (bottom right), our partner, was complimented by many who were inspired by his photo of Chimborazo. This was Michael’s third photo exhibit in Cuenca.

The opening was officially from 5PM until 8PM.  A steady stream of people actually started showing up at 4:30, and kept us busy right until the end, which was past the closing time for the gallery.

The food was beautifully organized and presented by our good friend, Sandy Kraft, who told us that she was being recruited for other catering events all night. We also want to thank our other volunteers: Kathy Kaulitz, Lin Berke, and Jan Van Norte.  Together, they helped make this a completely successful event… while helping us maintain our sanity.

Group Art Show at CVA

Alberto Soriano and Evelyn Johnson looking at a painting from Evelyn’s new music series.

For the month of November, Evelyn was invited to participate in a group show of 8 artists at one of Cuenca’s newest fine arts galleries, Cuenca Visual Arts (CVA) that opened early 2018. Garry Kaulitz and Janda Grove created the gallery, and have been putting on a new show monthly.

There is a  variety of art styles ranging from Realism, Expressionism, Impressionism to Abstract. All eight artists have a different style and work in different mediums from oil paintings, acrylic abstracts, print making and more.

Other artists in the group show included Patricia Daugherty, Linda Wooten-Green, Garry Kaulitz, Boris Ordoñez, Alberto Soriano, Maité Eusebio, and Janda Grove.

New England 3 – Boston

We had originally planned on “chasing the Fall Colors.”  However, we were lucky enough to hit “Peak Color” in Vermont, and everything after that failed to live up to to our entry to Fall, so we decided to change plans.

We therefore wound up our New England travels with a week in Boston.  Evelyn loved this town when she visited for work several times in the 1980s, and Burt had never been there before.  If you look on TripAdvisor, you are told that the #1 thing to do in Boston is to visit the Fine Art Museum, so of course we did that first, as seen in the top two rows of the photo block above. The center image is from an “infinity display” where a couple dozen glass vessels were placed in front of a mirror, making it appear as though the bottles went on forever. Of course, Evelyn had to see  the works of some of her favorite painters: John Singer Sargent, Monet, Picasso, and other renown masters.  There was also a section devoted to historic musical instruments (lower-left), which we enjoyed.

Another attraction was the Museum of Science, which drew Burt’s attention. We arrived just as a demo was being given on electricity and lightning (lower-right).  This is an excellent place to take kids, with all the interactive displays showing how to think analytically.

Just as we thought we had seen it all and were ready to leave, we heard an 8 year-old kid talk to his mother excitedly about the dinosaur exhibit.  How could we leave and not see the dinosaurs?!  We made a point of going there to finish off the science museum (bottom-center).

Another TripAdvisor recommendation is the aquarium.  We usually go to the major aquariums in cities when we have the time, so did so here too.  It was a well done aquarium, and well worth a trip with the kids.  It is pretty hard to compete with the likes of the Monterey Bay  Aquarium in California though, and this comes up just a little short in that comparison.

In recent years, we have become fans of the “free walking tours” in major cities, where a local expert takes you around and shows the significant sites for no up-front fee. You tip the guide as you see fit at the end.  Most of these have been quite good, with only a couple (Venice comes to mind…) where we left early and chose not to tip at all.

We started at Boston Common along the Freedom Trail, that took us along a 1-mile section of the route marked by the city as having Revolutionary War significance, which included Faneuil Hall, which unfortunately has transformed into a touristy, shopping center.

The guide (upper-right) was very entertaining, though his over-the-top exuberance did wear on us rather quickly.

We also decided to take the free “Beacon Hill Crime Tour.” This guide (upper-left) was quite entertaining, and kept us wanting to hear more stories.  We walked through our neighborhood and learned of the horrific crimes that have occurred over the centuries here.  Rather appropriate, since we were only a couple days ahead of Halloween.

One thing we noticed is that the homes on Beacon Hills really seem to get into the spirit of Halloween. We saw more ghosts and goblins on doors and window sills than we can remember anywhere else. We were told that Halloween is quite an adult event here, and if you bring your wine glass, you not only get wine, but a tour of the mansions.

After the guided walks, we did some exploring on our own. Very near our apartment is the Tadpole playground at the Boston Public Garden, which was drained for the off-season.  There are rather cute frog statues around the park (upper-left and upper-right), including one wearing the Boston Red Sox outfit (upper-left).  The carousel horses (bottom-left) were carelessly stacked in a corner, making me wonder how well they will weather the Boston Winter to come.

Naively, we had not realized that the World Series was in town, and wondered why it was hard for us to find hotel rooms that week. As night approached, I went to the rooftop of our rented room to capture some Blue Hour images of the city (lower-middle and lower-right).

We almost skipped the John F Kennedy library.  One couple on our walking tour told us that the library was the highlight of their trip in Boston.  We therefore decided to see it on our last morning, on our way out of town.

We were so very glad we did.  We are both of the age where we can vaguely remember the events of his presidency, and can both still clearly remember where we were when we heard he had been assassinated.

The museum concentrated on Kennedy’s life up until his nomination by the Democratic Party in 1960.  We learned, for example, that he had been a rather poor student in his early years (second row-left).  We also found that California had voted Republican in the 1960 election, as had almost the entire West Coast (lower-left).

Kennedy first installed the secret tape recording mechanism that later got Nixon into trouble.  This was available and operating during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  A documentary was shown, in which all the words were recordings of Kennedy and his cabinet. We had known that the crisis brought us close to WW III, but the recordings here really drove the point home. While his military advisors were telling him to do an all-out surprise massive strike on Cuba, Kennedy’s response was “That is what the world expects from the Russians. It is not what they expect from America though. We must find a way to solve this that does not escalate to war.”

New England 2 – Jackson, NH and Martha’s Vineyard

While in New Hampshire, we took a one day trip to the north of the state to chase more Fall colors, and stayed overnight at the Christmas Farm Inn and Spa, in Jackson, NH. It turned out that the colors peaked a few days before we arrived.

When we woke the next morning, it was snowing! OK, by New England standards, it was only snow flurries, but to those of us now accustomed to Ecuador weather, it was C-O-L-D!  We went out to photograph the newly dusted landscape.

In sending up the drone, I quickly discovered that the winds were gusting high above the trees, as the drone got blown into a treetop at 120′ in the air. It sounded like a chain saw cutting down a tree, then we watched the drone tumbling to the ground, bouncing off branches as it went.  After I restarted my heart, I realized that the trusty little DJI Phantom 4 Pro had righted itself and avoided calamity, with only the tip of one blade needing to be replaced.

Jackson, NH, is known for their ski resorts, and we had hoped to ride the chair lift up Mt. Washington. Unfortunately, it was closed due to those same high winds.

After a second overnight with our Exeter friends, we headed to Martha’s Vineyard for a few days.  After hearing about this place most of our lives, we wanted to see it for ourselves.  The island is large and you really need a car to get around, so we put our rental car on the ferry and took it with us. The ride was pretty choppy (top), and turned out to be the last of the day — they cancelled all later trips due to rough waters.

Other images above are around the former whaling town of Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. The movie Jaws was filmed there, so there are lots of paraphernalia and factoids from that movie.

When we think of New England, we often think of light houses.  Since the map showed five on the island, we drove out to see them.  As it turned out, one was inaccessible except by four-wheel drive, two were now privately owned and visitors not welcome.  That left two accessible, only one of which was really very photogenic (seen above).

While here, we took a short trip to Chappaquiddick, the island on which Ted Kennedy had the fatal accident in 1969, which derailed his presidential aspirations for good.  To reach the island, you first go on a tiny 2 or 3-car ferry (bottom).  There are no signs nor maps showing the location of the bridge, so you have to do research from old newspapers in advance (upper-left two images). You cannot go further to the light house without a four-wheel drive, with lots of warnings that you WILL get stuck in the sand if you try it in a normal car, and that emergency pull-out is obscenely expensive.

Overall, Martha’s Vineyard was a disappointment. We were there after the end of the season, so many of the stores and restaurants were closed, there were very few people around, and it was cold and very windy (I could not send up the drone anywhere on the island). We expect it would be a different experience during the Summer though.

Photo Galleries

At the top of this page is a menu that will take you to a variety of galleries showing our favorite images.

The most recent galleries include our recent trips to India, Dubai, Botswana, Namibia and New England. You can see all our favorite images from our 2018 travel here: