Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Traveling to Vieques, Puerto Rico

If you have the time and the itch to travel, you really should check out the little island just east of Puerto Rico. Lush forests, empty beaches, exceptional views of the ocean and year round warm breezes were just a couple of the characteristics that pulled us down there. We also chose to go there because the US dollar is the currency; they speak English and are actually a territory of the United States. As new travelers, we wanted to explore far and distance exotic lands but knew we needed to get a little experience under our belt.  Vieques satisfied our wanderlust in full.

Flying was relatively inexpensive as we could get a direct flight to San Juan from Baltimore. Once there, we had the choice of  taking a ferry to the island or buying a plane ticket. Of course, since we are water lovers, we thought we would take the ferry and enjoy the ocean. However, after studying the timing of our flight and when we would finally get to Vieques, we realized we had to fly. Flying was just awesome. If you have never experienced flying in a small six seater plane, you are missing a treat. But let me back up a little. 

We landed in San Juan and immediately felt like we were in another country. It was warm and sunny and most everyone around us was speaking Spanish. The airport was bare bones compared to the large airports of the eastern coast of the US. We had been advised to grab a taxi to get to another even smaller airport to get to our next flight. (Since then, the smaller airport joined with the Luis Munoz Airport.) This one was more like a warehouse with planes out back. We filed into a small office where our luggage was weighed. If you plan to travel here, be sure to check the regulations as the small planes can only carry so much weight and it would be no fun to have to leave your luggage behind.

The plane was clean but well used. The pilot helped us lift our bags into the back and explained how the seatbelts fastened. I felt like I was in a seat from a 1980's van that rocked around with my every movement. But don't get me wrong, I was loving every second of it. The pilot clicked a few buttons and drove out to a little runway and after looking around, he took off, lifting our plane up into the clouds. My stomach was jumping around with every puff of wind that lifted and dropped the plane, but I forced myself to breathe deeply and just enjoy the excitement. I felt like the pilot was totally at ease as he would turn and talk to us while filling out paperwork on a clipboard and still flying the plane. We landed at the relatively modern airport on the island and our explorations began.

In case you didn't know, Vieques was the site of a US Navy testing and bombing range up until just a few years ago. Since then, the navy moved out and most of the land is part of a national wildlife refuge. Although our host told us what to expect, actually driving through the roads where warning signs of land mines still are necessary really shocked us. Although we like exploring, we did not feel like getting blown up. Our rental car was more like a four-wheeler as the roads are so bumpy, only cars with high clearance can pass. The life expectancy of the cars there can't be much more than a year or two. Again, we still loved it.

Our first night, we got to our destination - a bed and breakfast on the southern side of the island facing the Caribbean. We had not brought any food and were hungry for something, anything after a full day of travel. The only place around was a small corner store with barred windows and a weather worn sign in Spanish that we could not understand. A few locals stared at us but we ventured in - determined to find something for dinner. The fresh foods were gone for the day but we did find a couple of day-old rolls, a big chunk of blue cheese for a cheap price, a few apples, some sort of dried sausage and some bottles of wine. We sat out on our balcony and watched the night sky while sipping wine and eating delicious cheese on stale bread feeling like royalty.

Every morning after, mobs of black birds in the nearby mango trees woke us up. The view from our balcony was the ocean. There were a couple of coconut palms and two large mango trees but since we were on a hill, they did not block our view. We were surprised to find that the wildlife was very different than what we had at at home. Seemingly wild horses wandered around, some goats here and there, lots of lizards, chickens, ducks, and plenty of dogs and cats. Beautiful birds were everywhere and wonderfully fun to spot. 

On the island, we found that many of the locals were living on US aid, but there was a second level of locals made up of retired US business men and women who had moved to Vieques to start restaurants and small shops. We really enjoyed the chance to talk with them about the island and what their life was like in this paradise. I liked the southern side of Vieques where small shops and stores line the main road that circles the island. On the north, large hotels were moving in to provide fancy housing for tourists who don't like risking staying in a smaller hotel or bed and breakfast. 

Vieques is a quiet laid-back place where you have to relax and understand that life moves at a slower pace and that's okay. We walked along empty beaches, some flanked by sharp coral but some with soft white sand. The temperatures were warm in the middle of the day but the constant breeze made it comfortable. Even at night, we did not need air conditioning. We lost the sense of time and were able to relax without feeling the pull of agendas or even television to watch,

We found our way back home, finding it ironic that we had the same pilot fly us back to San Juan. We loved Vieques. It is an island destination for quiet, relaxing destressing. 

Now that I know how easy it is to get to, I hope to return again many times.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Writing a Bestseller

Today, I sat down at my desk and decided to write a bestseller.

Wouldn't it be awesome!

If I could just pen words that everyone suddenly wanted to read. 

Maybe I can. Why not? 

I am sure if you are reading this, you want to write one as well, but then we would be in competition and I might not be the author of the bestseller any more. 

So, my words need to be more interesting than yours. What is interesting to most people? 

Can I create a story that millions of people would stop what they are doing and read? How would they even know that I wrote the story?

I understand that as a society we go through history together and there are hot topics we like to think about, but which one is interesting enough to write a story about?

Is it the effort to get to Mars? 

How about the crazy robots?

Maybe the controversial first female president? 

Or do I stick with the normal placers like romance, sex and tragic relations?

I have a lot of questions that are bouncing around in my head but maybe I should just find a spot under a tree somewhere where I can smell the blossoms and feel the warm air on my skin and get started. 

Heck, it's worth a shot, right?

     "I first heard the dog barking. He only barked when someone was coming into his yard. I looked out the window and saw the brown delivery truck bouncing over the frozen ruts of ice at the end of our driveway and watched as he slowed but didn’t stop. A large box dropped out from the open passenger side of the truck and rolled once before stopping front of our mailbox.
      Intrigued, I wondered why in this wet weather the driver would leave a box outside on the ground. Snow was melting everywhere and I could hear the constant dripping from the gutters. The sun was warm and I was tired of sitting at my desk writing so I got up and put on my snow boots to check it out. I grabbed the trash bag to take down to the bins near our mailbox, making my trip doubly worthwhile. I had to watch my step as the melting snow hid massive puddles of water and I didn’t feel like getting my socks wet.
      The trash bins were mostly empty so I dropped our white plastic bag with its bright orange tie into the nearest one. The mailbox was just around a snowbank and I trudged around instead of attempting to go over the mess. 
     The box was torn on one corner and looked like someone had used it in a soccer match, except that it was huge. The length must have been close to six feet and when I bent over to lift it, I realized that there was no way I could bring the battered box back to the house on my own. I checked for a label and found my name printed on the white square but the sender’s name was smeared over by some sort of black substance.
      Without thinking too much, I decided to open the box where it lay on the ground. I pulled at a corner and released a thick staple. I could see some plastic inside but it wasn’t until I pulled out another staple that I suddenly realized what I was looking at and almost touching. I stood back in shock…"

Friday, February 13, 2015

Going Green

North East River

Green is definitely the way to go. The more we can live simply, the less stress, the less cost, and the less we take from our environment, the better life can be. Eric and I have started to make major changes in how we run our home. When we moved here several years ago, our motivation for buying was the land. We wanted space for our children, then just young teenagers, to have room to play outside. Little did we know how much influence the North East River would have on our lives. We discovered a community college (Cecil College) just a couple of miles from our home for our kids to start their second phase of education. We found the Tome school for our youngest daughter to enjoy her high school years where she received a healthy social life as well as a sound education.

Our new Ideal Steel Hybrid heating our home
Aside from the social changes, our life here was slow to change besides planting the normal garden plot, adding some fruit and nut trees and grape vines to add to our summer bounty. A couple of years ago, Eric branched out and bought six peeps. We were surprised how much we enjoyed having them and the fresh eggs as well as a source of amazing compost from their droppings. Over the months since, we learned about molting, bullying, possums, and the aspects of chicken raising that we had no education in, but comically, how many people are under the mistaken impression that you need a rooster for a chicken to lay eggs. Nope, no rooster and plenty of eggs.

The old behemoth
A few months back, when oil was at its highest price, Eric and I decided it was time to ditch our old oil burner that had the dual function of heating our home as well as our water. It was almost traumatic when we faced the chore of moving the monster out of our house, across the backyard and into Eric's truck. Thankfully, Eric is not afraid of swinging a heavy sledgehammer and I am constantly thinking of new ways to lift stuff that ordinarily we could never lift. So, the oil was out and Eric installed a new electric on-demand water heater. It works beautifully and we only heat water when we need it. Now before you start to argue that electricity is expensive, realize that our long term plan is to produce our own solar electricity and this is just the first step in that direction. We also pay a little extra each month to buy our electricity from a wind farm, not a coal burning plant.

The original small hearth
Wouldn't you know it, cold weather came before we knew it and we had a house with no heating system other than an old cast iron behemoth fireplace insert that smoked and produced heat erratically. To save our pipes during the times we were not home, Eric installed an electric hydronic baseboard heater in the kitchen. But our house was cold and ironically, oil dropped to its lowest price in years. Most mornings, we woke up to 48 degrees and we only heated the living room portion of our home. Again, we needed to make a change and I started doing research. I love wood heat, and we have plenty of trees on our land, but I didn't want a smoky stove that barely worked. We found a solution. Thanks to a National Geographic special, I found a company that was winning international competitions for being cost effective, low emissions beautiful, without needing any electricity. Enter the Woodstock Soapstone Company and their Ideal Steel Hybrid stove.  I was excited but had to convince Eric that we could afford and should invest in a new woodstove. He trusted me and we placed our order. 
Laying tile over concrete board

Fast forward a couple of months of crazy cold weather and the old behemoth in our living room was slowly dying, pouring clouds of smoke into our livingroom every time we started it. Basically we made bonfires in its iron lungs and poured heat into the environment with enough radiant heat inside the house to keep us warm, barely. 

The email came that our new stove was ready to be picked up from the trucking depo. It was a race in time. The weather reports started warning us of temperatures dropping to their lowest of the winter and we knew we had a short window of mild temperatures. Two days ago, we pulled out the dead cast iron stove.

Tile all in place
I laid a new hearth large enough for the new Ideal Steel Hybrid and the next day had my brother from Round2It, come and help us muscle out the old, slide in the new stove and install the piping safely into our chimney.

Three hours later, we were heating our home with a quiet, intensely warm and handsome wood stove. We are still learning it's intricacies, but are very impressed. As the outside temperatures dropped down into the teens last night, we loaded the stove with six or seven split logs around 9 pm. At seven this morning, we woke up and the house was still 60 degrees and the stove had a nice thick bed of coals.

Soapstone tiles inside stove
Cold weather? No problem. we are warm and snuggly! And, we are not fretting about a huge oil bill or listening to noisy pumps and fans. It's quiet and efficient, thanks to the fine engineering of Woodstock Soapstone Company!

 Did I mention it has a cooktop?!

Note the custom side design of blue heron

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


I am sitting by myself in my living room in front of the fireplace enjoying some music by Simon and Garfunkel. There is something so satisfying about being around or at least listening to talented people. They make me want to be creative and write and sing and well,... just enjoy life more. For me living life is not so much about playing but about being creative and producing tangible things with my efforts. I am in the midst of a project to raise our house eight feet to get out of the reach of floodwaters and I have almost no experience in building, but I do know how to look for possibilities.

This story in our life began with a notice that our house was reevaluated as being in the top flood prone zone for our area and therefore we were going to be charged for mandatory flood insurance for the life of our home. It wasn't a surprise that we were in a flood zone - I had experienced the evidence. But to be charged for it? I decided to read all the tiny print in the information that came with the notice and I noticed that FEMA was offering a grant as a pacifier to individuals who met the criteria to pay for the raising of their house or demolish it and buying out the land. I am a dreamer and I figured, what the heck? The worst thing they can do is turn me down. 

It is now nine months since I started the process of filling out forms and basically educating myself as fast as I could what FEMA was really saying and wanting. The process was a challenge, but anyone who knows me knows I love a challenge. I am willing to work for that grant and although I don't have a signed paper saying I am approved, no one has said no and several meetings have been held already, so I am continuing to dream. What kind of stairs? What trees have to be trimmed back? What to do in the whole new eight feet of space under our house? Where to live in the interim? What new views will I have? How much more sunlight will I get? Can I look into solar panels next?

Imagine. Dream. Stretch your brain. It is a little painful but nothing that a few nights rest won't cure and then you can look back, smile and say, "I did it!"

Friday, January 16, 2015

How to Travel the World, or at Least Plan to...

One thing I have always wanted to do was travel around the world. Now that our children can take care of themselves, we have more freedom to think about traveling. Of course, there are still many obstacles such as the cash flow, work schedules, family activities, weather, pet care and so on, that keep us grounded at home, but at least we are getting out once or twice a year to new places. If you also like traveling, there are a few tips for planning that we can offer.

Try taking weekend trips. Instead of looking at longer trips only to be disappointed because the cost is too high or the scheduling is just too tight, look closer to home for weekend getaways. We happen to live at the top of the Chesapeake Bay so there are plenty of little waterfront communities that are great for spending a day or two without spending a fortune. We also have several major cities; Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Washington DC, and Lancaster that are between one and three hours away from us. We love checking out theaters or events happening close by and then adding on a hotel room for the night. This year, we hope to do a little boating and camping for even more adventure once the weather warms up. I hate to say that I cannot afford to travel, instead I try to find what I can do with the limited funds that we (like most people) have at our disposal.

Look for cheap flights. Of course, this is often the clincher in the planning of our longer trips but with the recent drop in the price of oil, I hope that the savings will translate soon to airflight costs. I like to look at Spirit Airlines as they often have very low prices but only to specific areas. Some folks complain that they don't like the idea of having to pay for each aspect of the flight, but I kind of like the barebones approach. I can bring my own food and water and don't need to carry much luggage so their system works for me. Besides Spirit, you can check out Google Flights and watch their indicators for when flight prices will drop and make your plans within their parameters. Don't forget to sign up for airlines' email offers.

Look at your calendar for blocks of time where you don't have to take off work. For instance, if you work a normal eight to five, Monday through Friday job, your paycheck might shrink if you take a day off to travel. However, if you chose to travel on days that you might already have off, like the day after Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July or January First, you don't have to use up valuable work days. This is especially effective if the paid holiday is on a Friday or Monday so you can make it a long weekend.

Use offers from your credit cards or other financial partners. It seems everyone is offering some kind of reward for using their financial services, especially credit cards, banks and credit unions. Look closely at your online statements and see what your rewards can be used for. Sometimes you get cash back that you can then save up for traveling. Others offer points that are useful for discounts on hotel rooms or car rentals. Once you get an idea of what they offer, you can make plans around the details. Don't forget the old standby of AAA, the original travel service. If nothing else, you get a reduced rate on rooms, rental cars and even restaurants besides the assurance of their roadside service.

Read reviews before you travel. With the vast quantity of information available at our fingertips through our smartphones, we have no excuse for doing a few seconds of research on a destination. I like to use the Google reviews as a start. Simply plug in the business name and see what other viewers have posted. Another valuable site is Trip Advisor. They have accumulated a vast collection of reviews from all over the world and I always take a look there before I try any new places. 

I am no authority on world travel yet, but as I learn, I am happy to share any advice I get for helping you to get out there in this wild and crazy world and try to visit new places. Feel free to comment on your tips too, if I haven't included them.

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