Wednesday, November 25, 2009



This is our adventure of traveling to South America without the services of a travel agent. We left Chicago on the 5 P.M. American Airlines flight to Dallas. We arrived in Dallas without incident at 7:45 and went to the International terminal for the flight to Santiago, Chile. The airline would not give us reserve seats for this leg of the trip. I sensed that not much good was going to come out of this. We waited in a room with hundreds of people. The airline called off names and assigned seats. The few seats available in business class were assigned by lottery.

Eventually our names were called, and we were assigned seats 31E and 32E. As you can probably tell our seats were not together. They turned out to be middle seats on an MD-11 jumbo jet for a 9 hour flight. If one were to choose the worst possible seats on an airplane, these would be the ones. The plane configuration was 2-5-2, so we each had 2 people seated on either side of us to crawl over to get to the aisle. The good news is that we weren't in the cargo hold of the plane--and that we WERE on the plane.

Fortunately, the people on either side of us were friendly, and most of the passengers were booked for either our cruise of the Princess cruise leaving the same day. So I wouldn't have to keep climbing over people, I did so once and spent most of the flight walking around the plane which was jammed to the rafters.

An older woman (at least older than I am) came up and started talking to me. Although she was a perfect stranger, in the course of the conversation, it developed that we both went to the University of Illinois. Maybe its the secret handshake or the forlorn look that U of I grads have because of the sad state of the football team--but fellow alums manage to find each other.

The lady mentioned the name of someone she went to school with, and I recognized the name as my older sister's roommate. Well, Joan and her friend Edith, both on the plane and cruise with us, lived at Laurel House with my sister at the University almost 50 years before.

We ultimately arrived in one piece in Santiago on January 4th, Summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Chile is 3 hours ahead of Chicago time. It was shortly after 9 A.M. on a sunny warm day. We waited in a long line to pay $45 each to enter Chile. Exact change, American money, no credit cards. This fee was required only of American, Canadian and Australian tourists because those countries charge Chileans to enter their countries. It took about half an hour for the 300 or so people to enter Chile.

We finally picked up our checked bags and got a porter to wheel them outside. Dianne flashed some American bills and the porters were eager to serve us. Celebrity Cruise Line had buses to drive us from the airport to the ship which was 60miles away in Valparaiso. We enjoyed the scenery. Chile is a relatively prosperous Third World country, run by the so-called "Chicago boys" We're not talking about the Capone gang, but rather a group of economists educated at the University of Chicago who brought a market economy and prosperity to Chile. We passed several trucks carrying watermelons along the way. Many of the walls were covered with graffiti and political posters. Somebody named Kaplan was running for mayor or governor, and his name was written all over the place.

We arrived in Valparaiso, but the ship wasn't ready yet, so were were taken to a private club and given lunch and soft drinks to tide us over. We were the first group to arrive, but other groups came and eventually we shared a large room with almost 1000 people. the 45 minute wait turned out to be more than 2 hours, and we, of course, hadn't slept much on the plane.

We later learned that it was the first time the ship had ever docked in Valparaiso, and the dock was above the level where the passengers' suitcases were to be unloaded. Thus, every suitcase for the 1800 passengers had to be moved by hand to a higher deck to be moved on the ship.

We left the club on the bus and took a 30 minute winding downhill drive to the dock through the residential area of town. Valparaiso is the main seaport of Chile and very busy. The city is built on hillsides with cable cars like San Francisco. This is a vibrant city with several high rise condominiums under construction and for sale.


Our ship was called the Celebrity Mercury. We got on the ship at 3 P.M. and our bags were already in the room. Our room was on Deck 8 at the bow, the very front of the ship. There was ample storage and we had a lot of stuff to store. Once the ship sailed, we found the location of the room to be a major drawback. Because of the location on the bow, it pitched and rolled much more than a cabin at midship. The next day we changed rooms. The ship was only half full.

Dinner was at 7:30 each evening. We were seated at an 8 person table by the window facing out to sea. The other 3 couples were a diverse group, which, to us, makes the trip more interesting. The first couple, Eleanor and Gary are a retired couple from Southern California. She was an anesthetic nurse and he was a financial analyst and hard core hater of then-President Clinton. His favorite movie would have been The Big Lewinsky. Like our son, he was a USC alum, so we had a lot to talk about. The second couple, Sylvia and Johann (John) were from Berne, Switzerland, and their native tongue is German. John was about 70 and an inventor. I wasn't familiar with anything he invented. Sylvia has been his long time lady friend since his wife died. The couple spoke enough English that they were able to participate in all the activities.

The third couple was a 30-ish couple from Connecticut. Jeff is an attorney prosecutor in New Haven. Carmen, his wife, is a beautiful Puerto Rican girl who worked in the prosecutor's office were she met Jeff. Though they were significantly younger than the rest of us, we spent a lot of time with them.

Our table-mates became our "family" on the ship and we did many of the activities together. They had the same types of interest that we did regarding sightseeing, entertainment, trivia games, etc. They all had strong intellectual curiosities which is perfect for this type of trip.

Our waiter, Alin, was from Romania--actually from Transylvania. My first question to him was "Is that near New Jersey?" His response, "Where's New Jersey?" The assistant waiter (busboy) Luis, was from Columbia. Throughout the trip, John called him "Columbo".


We slept late to make up for yesterday's overnight flight. We had lunch in the dining room served by waiters. At lunch there is open seating because many passengers don't eat in the dining room. We were seated with a lady about our age, traveling with her elderly mother. Susan, a very strong personality (think Maude) was a vice president at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. We liked to shop at Saks, so we got along very well. We were to do several excursions and activities with them on the trip.

I ate a Thai dish with barbecued noodles and beef which was very good. The sea was rough, and we were somewhat queasy from the pitch in our cabin. I can get seasick in the bathtub, but we took ginger pills and felt better. We persuaded the ship to change our cabin, and in the afternoon, we moved to a cabin in midship on the same floor. It took an hour to move and get organized.

We had a formal dinner--men in dark suits or tuxedos and women in formal dresses. Dianne and I came down to dinner, and she immediately said, "We have to go back to the room and change. There's another woman with the same dress." I replied , "There's a hundred men there wearing the same tuxedo, and it doesn't bother me." I guess it's a woman thing. Dinner was an excellent filet mignon with Cherries Jubilee for dessert.

The entertainment was an outstanding musical show featuring Broadway songs from Phantom, Grease, 42nd Street, etc. The ship had an in-house troupe of very talented entertainers who sang and danced. They were to be much better than the so-called name entertainers who came on the ship at the various ports.


We sailed down the Chilean Coast to Puerto Montt, which is considered the gateway to the Lakes Region. Puerto Montt is a picturesque town of 100,000 people built on 4 levels of hillside. The port wasn't deep enough to accommodate our ship, so the ship had to anchor a mile or two outside the town. We had to take a tender to the pier, a 10 minute ride.

Our tour bus drove to an overlook at the highest point of town to marvel at the view of the town and harbor. We then drove to Puerto Varas where many shops were closed because it was Sunday. This is a smaller town on the shore of Lake Llanquihue (YAHNK-wha-hay), a large beautiful lake with a beach. The bus parked next to a land based casino (every city we visited had one), but it wasn't open. Las Vegas it isn't!

We walked around the town square, went down to the lake and the wharf and ventured into the few shops that were open. One shop had a 3-foot high wood carved penguin which we considered buying. We weren't about to schlep a 100 pound penguin around with us, so we passed on it. It was $250 but shipping it to the States was out of the question in that town. Eventually we did buy a similar one for more money in Punta Arenas.

Our tour continued up toward Saltos Petrohue--Petrohue Falls, located in a National Park. The falls are spectacular and are overlooked by Mount Osorno, a beautiful snow-capped volcano. Usually the weather is overcast and one can't see the volcano well, but this day we lucked out and had great weather, but the peak was obscured by clouds.

We went on to Lago de Todos Santos--Lake of All Saints which is also called Emerald Lake because of the green colored water. Back in Chicago, we do that once a year--on St. Patrick's Day. When we arrived, it was raining, so it was hard to tell what color the water was. We visited a small rustic hotel lodge. If I ever go back there, it would be a nice place to stay. After some rest time there, we returned to Puerto Varas for a nice lunch on Lake Llanquihue.

Before returning to the ship,, we visited the local market in Puerto Montt which has about 50 stalls along the street behind the dock area. We purchased a large woven wall hanging and 4 sock dolls for the grandkids.


Another rough sea and we were out of sorts. By evening we felt better after taking ginger pills. After dinner we played team trivia with our tablemates (against other teams) and we won. We got 17 out of 21 correct. The bonus question was: What department store introduced Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1939? I said "Montgomery Ward". The others thought I was kidding. I said I was 100% certain of the answer, which was correct. The prize was a travel alarm clock.

The night's entertainment was a well known (supposedly) ventriloquist who was awful. We weren't sure which one was the dummy. Actually, we were the dummies for listening to this knucklehead. We left before the act was finished and went to the ship's casino where we won some money.

On the trip we wound up playing at the crap table 12 straight nights with the same people. Jack, a Chicago businessman, did running commentaries of the games like a sports announcer. He told me he lived upstairs of a store. I asked him, "Which one?" He replied, "Neiman-Marcus." A couple other guys were high rollers, betting hundreds of dollars on every roll. When a guy bets $400.00 on a Hardway-six (a pair of 3's--a stupid bet), one wonders how he managed to make the money in the first place. But we had a great camaraderie. Dianne played roulette. She likes to play 29-black. and she even hit it several times on the trip.


We entered the Straits of Magellan in the early morning and cruised the Straits for the full day. This is a narrow strait, mostly about 3-4 miles wide, and we got many photo opportunities. The scenery is very beautiful, and it made the whole trip worth the price. The wonderful vistas featured snow covered mountains, glaciers, coves and waterfalls. We saw Gabriel Glacier and Mirabelli Glacier. Both are spectacular. The weather was cool--in the mid 40's with intermittent sun peeking out of the clouds. Being from Chicago, I'm no stranger to bad weather, but normally the weather in the Straits is much worse.

We were cruising the Straits, so we were on the ship the entire time. A university professor gave a lecture about Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the Straits of Magellan. Patagonia is so named because the early Spanish explorers found large footprints, probably because the natives wore foot coverings. The Spaniards assumed that the natives were very large. Patagonia means "land of those with wide feet", or something to that effect. Tierra del Fuego means "land of fire".
Actually, the explorer Magellan noticed that the fires of the natives gave off much smoke, and he was going to call it the "land of smoke." The Spanish King, who had the last word, decided that "land of fire" sounded better. The lecture was good and informative, but the afternoon lecture about Peruvian jewelry was good only in that we were able to take naps. We were shaken out of our reverie by the loudspeaker announcement that we were approaching Gabriel Glacier, a very prominent glacier. We rushed outside to take pictures.


The ship anchored in Punta Arenas, at the far Southern tip of Chile, in the early morning. Once again, we had to take a tender the 1 or 2 miles to shore. We weren't booked on a tour until that afternoon, but after breakfast, we tendered to shore and caught a taxi to downtown, a few blocks away. We wandered around and went into their version of a shopping mall. It was a large building with an indoor plaza and shops all around it on two or three levels. We bought a map of South America and a large, colorful poster of Patagonia which to this day hangs on the wall in my office.

We found the carved wooden penguin we craved at a handicraft store. It was similar to the one we saw in Puerto Varas, but it also had a companion penguin that was bending over. Both were over 3 feet high and weighed over 100 pounds. We bought the first one. If we ever return, maybe we'll buy the other one. They agreed to ship it home by DHL at a cost of $200.00 for shipping alone. I had to make all the arrangements in Spanish because nobody spoke English. Since I don't speak Spanish well, I wasn't certain if it would ever arrive at home, but it did.

We toured the city and visited two museums. The first was an outdoor museum, scattered around a clover meadow with various items of farm machinery used by early European settlers. It included a replica of a 19th century house and a 1918 garage with a Model T Ford and other cars. The second featured the Indians of the region with their boats and utensils. Also it displayed stuffed animals of the region like condors, guanacos, seals, etc. Neither museum would not be exceptional in the U.S., but let's face it--there's not much going on in Punta Arenas.

Because of the remote location, the Chilean government set out to attract European immigrants to the area, especially Croatians who now have a strong influence. Many of the business names in town are Croatian.

Punta Arenas is a city of 110,000. Like most cities, it has poor areas and wealthy areas. We saw both. The roofs on the houses are very colorful. We drove down tree lined parkways and parks with statues. We found the locals to be friendly. The city has two major industries--trade and oil. Most Americans don't realize there are many oil wells in Tierra del Fuego. The oil is produced there but shipped elsewhere for refining. In the rural areas, sheep raising and wool are important industries. The cemetery we saw had many above ground mausoleums like those in New Orleans. It's an interesting city, but, because of the climate and isolation, it is probably not a destination for most travelers.


The next morning, Thursday, we docked in Ushuaia, the Southernmost city in the world. It is located on the Beagle Channel. It has about 40,000 inhabitants. Viewed from the harbor, the city is very picturesque with its multi colored houses and colored roofs. Looming behind the city are snow covered mountains. This port was very busy, with several other ships docked next to ours. Ushuaia is a supply port and jumping off point for Antarctic expeditions.

The city was originally founded to house a prison which was the major industry until it closed in 1947. Now, I found it to be like any other small city except it was missing McDonalds and other fast food places. It did have a casino, however. We didn't go in. The Argentine government gave tax incentives to companies to set up manufacturing plants in Ushuaia, but several moved out again when the incentives ran out. This town is not near anything, not even Punta Arenas. The signs in town read El Fin del Mundo--"the end of the world". Most supplies must be brought in from Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, 2,000 miles away.

We saw the cruise ship Orient Lines Marco Polo, preparing to cruise to Antarctica. I'd like to do that cruise, but Dianne is ready to cruise in a warmer climate.

The weather on this midsummer day was overcast with intermittent showers. It rains most days here. The temperature was in the 40's, but would rise to the mid 50's by afternoon. The locals told me that occasionally it climbs into the low 70's in the Summer, but apparently not this particular Summer. The only consolation is that it doesn't get dark until about 11 P.M. in the Summer.

WE walked around the downtown area seeking McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell--anything! There ARE quite a few pizza places and other restaurants. The signs on the city buses say they go to Urbana, which is not near Champaign, but is the urban center of town. We went to a bookstore for a book about the area. The owner asked how we liked the end of the world. I said he was wrong, Ushuaia was the beginning of the world He wasn't expecting that and had a good laugh. I asked another merchant about the Falkland Islands and he reacted like he was going to shoot me. The Argentines are sensitive about that subject after they invaded those islands which they call the Malvinas, and were summarily thrown out by the British back in the 1980's.

We did find a store selling t-shirts and sweatshirts because we wanted one with Ushuaia on it. We found a couple, but they didn't have the selection one would find back in the states. The quality and artwork was not especially good.

Our excursion in Ushuaia was a train ride in the mountains. The English name for the train is "Train at the End of World". This was a narrow gauge railroad, and the train cars were small, like an amusement park ride. We sat in a small compartment with a Texas couple.

The train was originally used to carry prisoners up to the mountains to chop down trees in which is now Tierra del Fuego National Park. The wood was used for fuel to heat the city and the prison. They cleared forests and left the tree stumps and didn't plant new trees. Seeing that saddened us greatly. The conservation movement came late to this part of the world. However, there are still dense forests and spectacular snow covered mountains to see. We visited Macarena Falls and took pictures. The weather was wet and misty, and many folks complained that they didn't see much from the buses because the windows fogged up. We got off whenever we had the opportunity to take in the scenery.

In the late afternoon, the ship departed for Cape Horn where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. We would arrive the next morning. After dinner, we played Team Trivia, teaming up with the others from our table. We got 16 right out of 21 and tied for first place with two other teams. The team captains were called to the stage for one question--whoever raises his hand first with the correct answer wins. The first question nobody knew the answer. The second question was, "Which South American country declared war on Germany in 1945?" I raised my hand first and answered, "Argentina" the correct answer. I was probably the only person in the room who knew that answer. The answer was unexpected to most because Argentina became notorious after WWII for giving a haven to German war criminals. For our victory, our team got nice key chains with the ship's logo on them. Geez, I would have liked to have gotten a free cruise or something of value!

Another question we got right was: "The Catholic Church had a schism in the 13th Century and for many years had two popes. One was in Rome. Where was the other pope located?" I answered correctly, "Avignon, France." The others asked me how I knew that. My reply was "20 years in Catholic School." Jeff looked at me quizzingly and said, "I thought you were Jewish." "I am", I said, "I was just shi**in' you."


At 8:30 a.m., on January 12, 2001, our ship passed by cold, windswept, rainy Cape Horn, a rocky peninsula. The temperature was 45 degrees. Cape Horn got its name from Dutch sailors who discovered it in 1616. Their ship was called the Hoorn, named after the area in the Netherlands where they were from. Our ship sailed around for awhile there, in the Drake Passage, about 500 miles North of Antarctica, for a half-hour or so and then set sail for the North and warmer weather. Somehow, I expected there to be a big sign, or a flagpole or something to indicate such an important landmark as Cape Horn, but n-o-o-o-o. I suppose the North Pole is a similar experience, and cruise ships DO go to the North Pole. But that cruise costs about $35,000--they have to factor in the cost of rescue, if necessary.

The rest of the day was spent at sea. We attended 3 lectures, all of which were interesting. In the morning, Victoria Harris, an Argentine professor talked about Tierra del Fuego and its inhabitants and culture.

Next, our cruise director, Stewart Nelson held an informal talk about oceanography and the ship and answered many questions. Nelson, a congenial fellow who communicates well, has an interesting resume. He hails from the Bronx, has a Masters degree in oceanography from Rhode Island and a Ph.D in oceanography from USC. He has traveled the world, including wintering in Antarctica. (It's brutal but the pay is good). Nelson has lectured extensively and done various projects for the Navy and for private industry. The funny thing is that none of those experiences or skills are required or even helpful to be a cruise director. But I could listen to the guy all day long.

Later than day, we attended another lecture about the culture of Argentina with pictures of houses and churches, along with a film about Argentine history (prior to World War II). Argentina is a melting pot of European cultures. Argentina has very few Indians (indigenous peoples); and I didn't see any Blacks either. Most Argentines appear to be of European rather than Hispanic origin, at least in the areas where we visited.

That evening was the second formal night of the trip, and we were dressed to the nines. The entertainment that night was "Bond Voyage", a musical about James Bond with excellent singing and dancing.


We sailed North for another day or two and docked in Puerto Madryn, the provincial capital of Chulut province in Argentina. It is a city of 50,000, and the major industry is aluminum refining. We saw countless piles of ingots on the dock.

In the morning, we took a 2 1/2 hour bus ride South to Punto Tombo to see the famous Magellenic penguins. Most of the ride was on dirt road through a desert landscape resembling rural Nevada. We saw no trees, only scrub bushes. Llamas and guanacos run wild in this desert. We saw the giant rhea bird which looks like an ostrich, but a little smaller.

Eventually, we arrived at the Punto Tombo penguin colony. These cute creatures are about 18 inches tall and waddle around, oblivious to everybody. They have no fear of people and will even bump into you. You could literally trip over them. Compare this to visiting the zoo, except that we were the ones being confined. The penguins walk under the wire fence right in front of you. They live in burrows, and almost every bush had an adjacent penguin nest.

The beach contained literally hundreds of thousands of penguins up to about 1 kilometer inland. This was Oak Street Beach on the Fourth of July--for penguins. The birds do their courting on the beach and mate for life. They dig burrows and return to the same ones each year after their migration. The burrows are not numbered, but the birds manage to find the correct ones without problem. We were amused to watch them wade into the water and swim away like they're jet propelled.

We spent an hour or so at the penguin colony and drove back to downtown Puerto Madryn at the public beach. It was the first warm day since we left Valparaiso--about 80 degrees. It was Sunday and the park was the most popular place in town. Kids were kicking soccer balls and skateboarding. There was a busy amusement park. Newsstands were selling magazines, including girlie magazines in Spanish. It was a wonderful holiday.

We returned to the ship and headed for Montevideo, Uruguay. That night on the ship was the famous Midnight buffet. On every cruise we've taken, the cook staff puts out their most artistic culinary creations for the tourists to devour--at Midnight. They carve ice sculptures and chocolate sculptures to complement the trays and trays of cold cuts, cheeses, desserts and every other kind of food. Who can eat that much at midnight? They could feed a Third World country with what is not consumed.


After another day at sea, we arrived in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, nearing the end of our cruise. This city of 1.5 million souls sits on the North side of Rio de la Plata (River) which is not like a river at all. It is wider than Lake Michigan. Our tour began in the old part of the city which could use some cleaning up. We saw much trash in the streets. Like most other cities,the rest of the city
contained modern buildings. Like most South American--and European cities, one finds numerous squares honoring past generals and presidents.

Montevideo has a beautiful waterfront drive running for miles along this ocean-like river. It compares favorably with Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. On one side are high rise apartments and on the other side are the crowded beaches. It was a warm and sunny day--perfect beach weather. For students, it was January's summer vacation.

We drove the 100 or so miles to Punte del Este, a world class beach resort town. It is a peninsula on the Eastern point of Uruguay by the mouth of the Rio de la Plata which is about 150 miles wide at that point. This is the Miami Beach of Uruguay. Miles of beaches lined with luxury houses and high rise condominiums, this town is an architect's dream. The architecture of the houses is unique and unusual. The harbor is filled with sailboats, and nearby is the fine shopping area with all the well known luxury stores. We photographed the beautiful Conrad Hotel, part of the Hilton chain. We'd like to stay there, except for the difficulty in getting there from the U.S.

We ate lunch at a terrific restaurant on the beach. They served all the wine one could drink. We had chicken, but the others in our group told us the fish was excellent. After lunch, Dianne went down to the water edge and collected seshells. We then walked to the end of the concrete pier. This excursion far exceeded our expectations, which were not high originally.

We returned to the ship to play Bingo for a $1,500 jackpot, which they have on the last day of every cruise. Needless to say, we lost.


To end our cruise, we ended up in Buenos Aires, the capital and largest city in Argentina. It is the size of chicago, with over 3 million people.

We disembarked the ship an hour late. We had another all day tour planned, but we were concerned that we might not get to the airport in time to claim our bags and catch the flight to Chicago. The solution was to shorten the excursion and deposit us at the Crowne Plaza Hotel to catch the shuttle bus to the sirport. We had a fantastic luxury room for all of a half hour which was enough to take a shower and change.

The tour was a good one. We had a terrific tour guide, a gorgeous dark haired young lady named Valeria who taught English in a school. She was a Portenyo--a native of Buenos Aires. The city is quite beautiful, and is often called the Paris of South America, with wide boulevards, parks and squares. It is the principal seaport for the country and has been for its entire history. Interestingly, we saw very few Spanish style buildings; they were all torn down and replaced with French style buildings. A popular tourist area is the trendy Boca area where tango music was said to have originated. The tango is the national dance, and they make sure you're aware of that.

We did the grand tour of Buenos Aires in an hour or so and then journeyed abour 75 miles North on the Expressway to Estancia Santa Susana, a working ranch on the pampas, the flat agricultural area of Argentina that looks just like rural Illinois or Iowa. There, we learned about the culture of the gauchos, the Argentine cowboys. We were served a fine lunch of beef and salad and beef sausage which we thoroughly enjoyed.

The entertainment began--a guitar player and accordionist performing tango music, complete with dancers. Did I mention that the tango is popular here? Then gauchos, including a 5 year old boy did tricks with the bola which is 2 balls on a string. I've seen the same act in Las Vegas. Then they did horse riding exhibitions. Our stay was cut short because we needed to get back to the hotel, but we saw everything we wanted to see.

We went back to the hotel and caught the shuttle bus to Ezeiza International Airport (EZE). We got there about 2 1/2 hours before the flight because we had to claim our baggage which the cruise line had delivered there. We were asked to open each bag (we had 6) to be sure everything was there as we had packed it. Who can remember that? As it turned out, Dianne had a small box of costume jewelry stolen out of the checked bag. We had the good stuff on us, however.

Overall, we had a wonderful trip which exceeded our expectations. It was interesting to us to see the sun in the Northern sky. We had never crossed the Equator before, or seen the Southern Cross in the night sky (remember the Crosby, Stills & Nash song). We were privileged to meet many fine prople from several nations on the cruise. We had lunch with a Chilean couple who spoke limited English. I speak limited Spanish, but we could make outselves understood. We sat at an art auction with a Jewish couple from Mexico City. We played the trivia game with 2 British couples who needed an American on their team.

We enjoyed beautiful scenery and exotic locations that most Americans never get to see. To live a full life, you needs to touch as many bases as you can, and certainly we touched many of them on this trip.

(originally written in January, 2001)


Thursday, November 12, 2009



Driving down from Dianne's home town, Marietta, Georgia, we passed through Macon and Valdosta and eventually crossed into Florida. Our first stop was St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement in North America, founded in 1565. It was "discovered" by Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish nobleman, who was the first governor of Puerto Rico. He had heard stories from the local Puerto Rican Indians about a "fountain of youth", and he sailed up there to investigate.

He noticed that the Florida natives were tall and healthy, as compared to the Spaniards who were less than 5 feet tall. The springs there yielded "sweet" (fresh) water, compared to the stale water on the Spanish ships. He decided that there must be something to this "fountain of youth" thing. Although the natives were healthy, they were no match for the diseases carried in by the Europeans, and unfortunately large numbers died of measles and smallpox from which they had no immunity.

Although the fountain of youth is a good story, histsorians still argue whether the Ponce de Leon expedition's main motive was actually gold and slaves. The New World Spaniards needed a cheap source of labor to dig up the gold they were seeking.

We spent 2 days touring St. Augustine, and it was a real find, with its classic Spanish architecture. In the 1880's, it was transformed from a sleepy village by Henry Flagler who was John D. Rockefeller's partner in Standard Oil. Money was no object to Flagler. He built the Florida East Coast Railroad which went down the East coast of Florida, all the way through Miami to Key West. But in those days, few people lived on the Florida peninsula because it was steamy malarial swampland. Flagler built hotels in St. Augustine and down the coast to Palm Beach and Miami to create a demand for his railroad. In St. Augustine, he built the magnificent Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1888 which, since 1967 has been the home of Flagler College. The harbor is graced by a beautiful black and white striped lighthouse.

We were pleasantly surprised to find that the International Golf Hall of Fame is also in St. Augustine, and we visited. The museum part was closed that day, because we arrived just before this year's induction ceremony. A lot of the people there looked famous, but I didn't know who they were.

A major attraction is the Saint Johns County Jail (no longer in use), also built by Flagler. Flagler's hotel had a location problem--it was across the street from the original jail. Since Flagler catered to the carriage trade, the nearby jail was not good for his business--it even smelled bad. When county officials balked at moving it, Flagler agreed to build a new jail at his expense. So he did. It had no running water and was not comfortable by today's standards. Air conditioning had not been invented yet. The male prisoners willingly signed up for the chain gang, just for a change of scenery. The women prisoners worked all day in the hot kitchen. Today's jails are like health clubs, compared to those of 100 years ago.

The labor force in St. Augustine, and indeed, Northern Florida and Georgia by and large consisted of "crackers", who were Southern whites of modest means. In the early 1800's, these folks, of Scots-Irish descent, settled and farmed the pine forests. The name "cracker", a pejorative term for poor, uneducated Southern whites, appears to be derived from the crack of the whips they used to herd cattle (and slaves). Before the Civil War, plantation owners recruited overseers from the local cracker population.


We made it a point to drive down to Lake Wales in Central Florida to see the famous Edward Bok Tower Gardens, a National Historic Landmark. This is a 250 acre estate built by Bok, an immigrant from the Netherlands. He wanted to create carillon bells like those in his native land. He built it on Iron Mountain, the highest point in the Florida peninsula, which isn't all that high--only about 300 feet above sea level. But the lush grounds and music are beautiful.

Bok's claim to fame was that he was editor of the Ladies Home Journal. He had married well--the magazine was started by his father-in-law Cyrus Curtis.

Bok was an achiever. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok. He coined the word "living room" for the room in the house formerly known as the parlor or drawing room. In Chicago it would be called the "frontroom" (with the "tr" pronounced together).

Bok was also one of the first "peaceniks", although they weren't called that in the 1920's when the world powers were signing treaties outlawing war. He was a leader in international anti-war groups. From that standpoint, it was fortunate that he died in 1930, so he didn't get to see what happened to the world after that.

He lived his life by his grandmother's advice, "Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it."

This tower, completed in 1929 and dedicated by President Coolidge is pretty impressive. It is 205 feet high. The carillons consist of 60 bronze bells weighing from 16 pounds up to 12 tons. The Carillonneur plays twice a day, but we were disappointed to find that the concert we heard was pre-recorded. The concert, playing classical, hymnal and even popular (think Sinatra) music lasted about a half hour.

The surrounding gardens, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.--who also did New York's Central Park-- were equally impressive, with native and exotic plants around lagoons. We walked for more than a mile down the meandering walking paths through the woodlands. Most of the plants are labled with their scientific names. This was to be our last peaceful moment before encountering the noisy crowds of Disney World.


Until last week, I was the only person in the U.S. over 3 years old who had never been to Disney World. Now I've been there, and after 3 days in amusement parks, my head is spinning. We went to Epcot! We went to Animal Kingdom! We went to Disney Hollywood Studios which I enjoyed the most. They induced major corporations to sponsor many of the exhibits.

We watched as they filmed action shots of Indiana Jones blowing up enemy tanks and airplanes. The same tank gets blown up twice a day. Brawny Towels sponsored an action show featuring stunt drivers being filmed doing a car chase, complete with spin-outs, in a French town. It must be properly choreographed, or someone might get hurt. The special effects guys are the unsung heroes.

Perhaps the worst job for young people is a Disney World mascot. Throughout the parks, Disney employees, many of them college students, don costumes of the Disney characters like, of course, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and the Muppet characters. Interestingly, being a mascot is among the most dangerous jobs in the park, according to Workers Comp lawyers. Unruly kids think the mascot is the real character, and they hit, poke and throw things at the characters. Not only that, wearing a heavy costume composed of unbreatheable fabric in the humid Florida climate can be bad for your health. I noticed that, for protection, security people accompany the mascots as they walk around the parks. Being a stunt man is a piece of cake, compared to playing Mickey Mouse.

Walt Disney, a Chicago guy, was one of those visionaries who created an industry out of nothing. When he was about 6, his family moved to a farm in Missouri. Walt was a scrappy kid who delivered newspapers to earn money to go to art school in Kansas City and later in chicago. Always creative, he drew cartoon characters in his spare time. His first success, Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit, was essentially stolen from him by his partner. Welcome to the big leagues! Like most successful people, Disney learned from his failures.

One day, he drew a picture of a mouse with big ears. He called it Mortimer. His wife Lillian said "Are you kidding me with that name? It's too pompous. Get with the program. How about Mickey the Mouse?" For domestic tranquility, Walt Disney listened to his wife. So Mickey it was. He essentially invented the animated cartoon. At the time there was no indication that the public would buy it. But they did, and the rest is history.

I learned a lot of things I didn't know before. For example, Mickey's dog, Pluto was named after the former planet which was discovered in 1930. (See KENSUSKINREPORT, Dec. 16, 2008). Mickey had a dog before that, but it was unnamed. Until 1939, Mickey Mouse had a pointed nose and looked more like a rat. Walt Disney commissioned an artist to create a kinder, gentler Mickey Mouse. The new Mickey was a little rounder, but the most important change was to draw pupils in his eyes so he could convey emotion. His squeaky voice was that of Walt Disney himself, a point of great pride to Disney.

Through the extraordinary marketing efforts of the Disney organization, Mickey Mouse has become one of the most recognizable symbols in the world and a household name, even part of the English language.

For example, in the 1996 movie Space Jam, made by Disney's competitor, Warner Bros, Bugs Bunny disparages Daffy Duck's suggestion for a name of their basketball team asking, "What kind of Mickey Mouse organization would call themself 'the Ducks'?" Of course, the Disney Corp. owns the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey team. What's more American than Disney World?