Category Archives: Culture

Iowa in August

Yes, we went to Iowa in August 2019.  There was a very good reason for that: Bee had to drive a large farm tractor.

We also went to the Iowa State Fair and visited Madison County.  We had a really nice trip.

The tractor deal was a promise made by a friend many years before that and she did come through – her brother provided the tractor and the instructions.

Bee was concentrating hard for the maneuver to take the tractor out of the hangar.  It would not ave been good to crash right away.

It was not a very long ride, just enough to get a feel of the “beast” and say “I did it!”  We were fascinated by the switch with a hare and a tortoise – allowed to select between high and low speed.

While we were there, I drove it too.  It was by far the largest tractor I ever drove.  The oldest one must have been the Porsche I drove in the 70’s in Belgium – it was over 30 years old at the time.

The State Fair was quite an occasion.  Neither of us ad ever been to one and so it was an opportunity to see a side of American Culture that few visitors see; even a lot of Americans who live in cities have never been to a state fair.  We saw lots of farm animals, a wagon driving competition, explored some very large tractors, had chicken on a stick and tasted the six wines who had won the “Best” awards that year.  At the end of the day, we saw a concert by “Foreigner” (great – but I did not care at all for the opening act!)

This was a new experience for me: the first time I did not finish the glasses that were offered in a wine tasting.  Actually I finished one out of the six that was drinkable – the other five were way, way too sweet for my taste.  Later on during this trip, we went to one of the wineries in Madison County (The Covered Bridge Winery) and found very nice wine.  We started talking with the Winemaker and he reminded me that in judging wine, one has to differentiate between wine that one likes, and wine that is well made.  The wines that win the competition are very well made, but maybe not in a way that I like; that is a good point that I had not thought about before.  From that point on, I am now saying “I do not like that wine” rather than “that is not a good wine”.  Apparently people in Iowa prefer sweeter wines and most winemakers will make a sweeter wine to please the local palate – surprisingly enough, they do not make wine to please just me and I have to accept that.

After two days in the Des Moines area, we decided to move to Winterset, in the middle of Madison County where we had booked at the beautiful Heavenly Habitat Bed and Breakfast.  More on that at the bottom of this post.  On the way, we stopped at the Living History Farms – a large park where life in Iowa 100-150 years ago has been recreated with some original buildings.  We had a very interesting visit starting with the farms which are only reachable by taking local transport – a cart pulled by a tractor.

We went for a walk in the fields and saw this fence overgrown with wild flowers – very simple way to separate fields if you do not need barbed wire to keep animals in or out.

Not far from the fence we saw this beautiful bird who did not seem to mind our being there – or maybe he was waiting for us to leave so he could eat the bug in peace.  He is very discreet, keeping an eye on the bug, but looking distracted while doing so.

Continue reading Iowa in August

Christmas Eve – Bonfires on the Levees

In 2004, while I was living in Baton Rouge, I decided to stay home for Christmas.  My parents were coming and spending New Year with me, but I was free on Christmas Eve.

Somebody told me about Bonfires on the Mississippi levees around Lutcher and Gramercy so I decided to check it out.  At the time, I was still using film, but the company I used to develop the film had a special offer to put photos on CD and I took advantage of it.  I therefore had saved digital versions of the photos from this first visit – not necessarily the best quality, but good memories.

I arrived a few hours before the fires were lit, and was amazed at some of the constructions.  This is a log cabin that was fully equipped inside, with tables, chairs and dummies.

The ghost that you see in front of the photo is the result of a technique I used with my film camera when I was faced with a crowd.  I would put the camera on the tripod and take several super-imposed shots without winding the film.  Since people move, only the fixed objects that I am trying to photograph are clearly visible.  Here, I probably only took 3-4 shots.

At 7 PM, the fires are lit, and there are fireworks, by individuals.  Some of the fireworks are quite nice – I have no ideas how much money people put into these.

There were quite a few people, but it was not crowded.  Even the River Road was not totally jammed.

The majority of bonfires are pyramids that tend to burn quite well.

I like the movement of the embers in this photo.

Even the log cabin went up in smoke Continue reading Christmas Eve – Bonfires on the Levees

Costa Rica – Part 2: Monteverde

Following our successful stay in San Jose, we joined our Wilderness Adventure Group and headed off to Monteverde.  We had a very good driver and arrived there in good time.  Early enough for lunch and a first exploration of the lower tropical forest nearby.

Costa Rica is known for its very rich fauna and so we went immediately in search of  interesting creatures.  We all had a list of the “must see” on the trip.

This was not one of mine, still quite a nice centipede, I think…

Our guide was excellent at spotting small birds; I am not good at remembering names.

This was a stroke of luck, actually spotting a butterfly as it is coming out of its cocoon.

The feeders afforded a unique opportunity to see hummingbirds.  They are still not easy to catch, particularly to catch them in flight.

This one appeared to be posing for me – or was it just waiting for its turn at the feeders.  Not sure what the protocol is among the hummingbirds. Continue reading Costa Rica – Part 2: Monteverde

Costa Rica – San Jose

Every year, Bee and I try to go somewhere new for New Year. This time, we had decided rather early that it would be Costa Rica, but given that we moved to Houston and were distracted by many other things, we only booked our trip very late. Most of the time was spent with Wilderness Travel on a fantastic tour of some of the best National Parks and wildlife reserves in the country.

However, before and after this adventure, we spent a few days in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica.

On our first day there, we took a walking tour of the city. We started at the Post Office a superb pre-Art Deco building (completed in 1917) with a secret inside (which we discovered the next day on our second walking tour). Still today, most people do not receive mail at home. The use of street name and addresses is rather new in the country and people still use landmarks rather than street names to give directions. Families own post office boxes and there are thousands of them in this building.

San Jose is also full of street art. These are just some of the better statues that we saw on our walks

My favorite is this tribute to the ordinary working men and women, placed right in front of the Central Bank. Members of our tour group decided to pair up with the statue they liked best.

This is a metallic building from the late 1800’s.  It was made in Belgium and shipped here in parts then re-assembled.  There is also a metallic school, all pink that was also made in Belgium.  It seems Belgium was very famous at the end of the 19th century for its metallic constructions and exported them all over the world. Continue reading Costa Rica – San Jose

Greece – Santorini

I am very late, but I want to continue the Greek Odyssey before I start other trips.
From Amorgos, we headed to Santorini, the place I probably anticipated the most of the whole trip. There is indeed room for disappointment here.

As we left Mykonos, we passed the fast ferry probably coming from Santorini.


We approached the Caldera from the South and this is our first glimpse of Fira, the main ‘urban’ center in Santorini


This is Oia, the city right at the entrance to the caldera.  We will explore this on foot our last day.


Another view of Oia – the main sites are all right at the top of the caldera, and there are wide open spaces in between these.


Fira – You can see the path that descends from town to the old port, now only used for local tours.


Continue reading Greece – Santorini

Greece – Naxos and Amorgos

After a few days, it was time to leave Tynos and we moved to Naxos, a large island to the South.

We took another ferry to get there and had interesting views along the way.  Travelling by ferry, at this time of year, is very relaxing.  The ferries are not very crowded and therefore we just lounged around on the top deck, looking at the islands float by.

On the way we met this very interesting cruise ship which was making a stop at Mykonos – there are more and more sailing cruise ships and I think it would be a nice experience to try it, one of these days.  However, I suspect that these are fully automated and therefore there is not much “sailing” involved.


We ended up spending only one night in Naxos as the weather was getting worse and our guide feared that ferries may not be able to sail on our planned departure date.  He gave us the choice of one extra day in Naxos, or one extra day in Amorgos and the group chose Amorgos (and I think we made the right choice).

One of the attractions is the Temple of Apollo with the “Portara” which is an almost intact door frame.  It sits on a peninsula just outside of the main town.


We saw ferries come in and out while we were walking around.  There was a very strong side wind at the docks and we watched with interest as the “Cosmote” high speed ferry took 5-6 attempts to get its landing right.  It made for good lunch time entertainment.


I had to take a picture of the town viewed through the Portara.


A better view of the town, with the castle up at the top and the docks on the right.


As I said, we did not spend much time on Naxos and took our next ferry to Amorgos.  This took several hours and was due to make three stops along the way.  We were relaxing on the top deck and I just happened to be looking around when I saw this strange sight.  Looks like a dozen high speed boats heading straight for us.  The first thing that came my mind was: “I did not know they had pirates here in Greece! What do we do now?”

Why else would a formation of high speed boats come towards us like this?


As they approached. I noticed they were actually going past us, and I started to feel better, then they slowly, still in formation, started to turn around and come after us again.  There were 3-6 people on each boat but they did not look too menacing.


Continue reading Greece – Naxos and Amorgos

Greece – Athens, Tinos and Delos – Part 1

In May 2016, Bee and I spent three weeks in Greece, mostly visiting the Cyclades Islands on another Wilderness Travel adventure.

Before we joined the group, we had a couple of days in Athens on our own.

We explored the small streets of Plaka before ending in Monastiraki, which I remembered well from my first visit in 2009.


The is the daylight view.  I had taken this night time view of people in front of the church back in 2009 – I was publishing  smaller photos at the time.


Another church is this one, the Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea, situated in the middle of the main street from Monastiraki to Syntagma Square.  We were able to see it inside – by pure luck as we saw someone getting out and managed to convince the cleaning lady to let us in as well, for just a few minutes.


As if often the case in Athens, the church is a lot older then the neighborhood around it.  It is thought to have been built in the 11th century, probably around 1050 (according to Wikipedia).  It may have been part of a convent at some time.


We spent the first night at the Hilton, and our view of the Parthenon and Acropolis was blocked by a construction crane.  When we joined the tour group, we moved to a different hotel, much closer to the Acropolis and we had this great view f the Parthenon from our room.


Continue reading Greece – Athens, Tinos and Delos – Part 1

Peru Episode 6 – Arequipa

Our last stop in Peru was in its second largest city – Arequipa.

We traveled there from Puno by bus, not a very pleasant experience for me.  We had bought VIP Seats, since they were not a lot more expensive than the regular seats on the tourist bus.  Unfortunately, the seats were at the lower level of the double-decker bus, with very limited view outside the bus, and none towards the front.  I can get car sick if I cannot see outside.  What was worse, most of the drive was at night, going up and down mountain passes, and there was not much to see anyway!  The road turned a lot too.  So I just traveled with my eyes closed most of the trip.

We arrived at Arequipa very late and went to bed immediately after a quick dinner – we did not see much of the city on the first evening but discovered that we had found a really nice hotel, not far from the Plaza de Armas, or the main square of the city.

The following day, we woke up to a gorgeous day with sunshine and not too hot.  Arequipa is much lower than where we had been so far, only 2400 m above sea level, but it is surrounded by 5000+m mountains covered in snow.


We were amazed by the very intricate decoration of the front door of this church compared to the rest of the wall.  We had not seen that before in Peru for such a simple neighborhood church.  This is the Church de la Compania – right next to the Plaza de Armas, the main square of the city.


We visited the Convent of Santa Catalina.  This is a very large convent, or a small city within the city.  There are streets with ‘private’ apartments for people who wanted to get away from the every day life, but did not necessarily want to fully embrace the life of a nun.


The central square of the Monasterio is very colorful!


We had an excellent guide who walked us though the convent for several hours.  We walked down several small alleys like this one.


Continue reading Peru Episode 6 – Arequipa

Peru Episode 5 – Sillustani and Colca Canyon

Welcome to another installment of our (not so) recent trip to Peru.  Things keep getting i the way of my finishing this, but I am getting there.

I am now several other trips behind, but will catch up eventually, I guess.

We left you on a small island in Lake Titicaca and this episode actually starts still on the island, the morning after the glorious sunset which closed the last episode.  Before the boat brought us back to Puno, we had a chance to walk around the island some more and see more animals.


The Alpacas are still there, still as cute as the day before and not afraid of us at all.


There is bird life as well – I am not sure what this is, but I thought it had a very colorful head.


This one had just collected a seed and was probably wondering if I was about to steal it.


Rabbits too…

As we were waiting for the ferry to take us back to Puno, I noticed water birds that had a very strange behavior.  Every so often, one or more of them would start splashing around like crazy.  At first I was not quite sure what was going on, so I started to take pictures.

PeruBlog204 Continue reading Peru Episode 5 – Sillustani and Colca Canyon

Peru Episode 4: Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca

Here we are again.  Preparation for this one has taken less time that the last episode as I already had most photos selected, and the weather in Belgium has been much worse than earlier, giving me more indoor time.  However, much travel around Christmas, New Year and later in January delayed again final publication, so this one too is late!

I left you in suspense right at the entrance to the ruins of Machu Picchu, the entrance that is used only by those who have completed the Inca Trail.  Out of 2000 visitors allowed per day to enter Machu Picchu, less than 150 come in this way.

And here is the view that was immediately offered to us.


We are still quite a long way from the main portions of the ruins and you can see the road that leads to the main entrance – several switch-backs that end near a building with green roof that blends quit well into the scenery.  After coming down, we have to take the “typical” photo from a slab that overlooks perfectly the whole site.  It is mid-afternoon and we are tired and dirty and will have a whole day in the ruins tomorrow so we go to our hotel, right at the main entrance, and relax for the evening.



The next morning, Bee and I are up early in order to catch the sunrise on the ruins.  We wait in line with about 200 other people just before opening at 6AM.  Most of them have had to climb up from Agua Caliente, where most hotels are located.  The first bus to make the ascent arrives just after 6AM and therefore if you want to make it in early, you need to climb.  We were privileged as all we had to do was walk 100 m from our hotel to the entrance.

Unfortunately, the weather is not the best and the ruins are covered in clouds as we get to the vantage point we had selected the day before.


We are not alone! The llamas have been on their own for the whole night and have taken over the place, and now they reluctantly have to leave room for the tourists.  They appear to be quite used to people.


I am again able to take pictures close up.  The clouds are still dense and therefore I need to pass the time.


We have a good spot, up on top of the ruins with a plunging view.  We have such a good spot that there is this lady who is doing everything she can to take it from us… for the hour that we were there, she moved her tripod 5-6 times, constantly looking at me with this accusing look.  She has Nikon, so I felt no obligation to share my spot, until I was done with my photos.


The sun came up behind the clouds – so no spectacular sunrise and I finally let the lady have the spot she wanted for her tripod.  Bee and I went exploring briefly before breakfast and before the hordes of other tourists arrived.


We found a two-floor dwelling.  It does not look like there was room for a staircase inside, so probably one had to go outside to get to the top floor.


Yes, you are sseing things correctly – Bee is floating up in the air in this photo.  When I took her photo, I unfortunately cut off her legs, and therefore when I added her to the montage of the house, the legs did not appear – sorry! I still think it was worth having her in the picture.

We stopped at the Temple of the Condor.  If you look carefully, the triangular rock on the bottom of the temple has been carved to look like a condor, with a small head closest to the camera.


Here is a closeup of that condor.


We came back to our room just before breakfast only to find a bird that was very much angry at his reflection in the mirror.  It kept flying into it and pecking at the mirror.


We went back into the ruins after breakfast as we had a guided tour.  Here you can see the clear difference between the high class building, such as the Temple to the Moon above and the normal buildings such as the granary in the foreground.  They spent a lot more time and effort getting the stones to fit just right for the important buildings.


I call this the “Parade Grounds” even though that is clearly not what it was for.  My understanding is that archaeologists are not quite sure themselves what this space was intended to be used for.  There are several theories.


Quite a nice bird hidden among the branches.


El Templo de las tres Ventanas – the temple with three windows.  Absolutely stunning brick-work.


There was a maintenance crew busy on one of the temples.  We were impressed with the safety features that they used to do this work.  The crew seemed to be quite well organised, and I guess I was not expecting this.


The Osservatorio Astronomico, or Observatory – where the local Inca priests would look at the stars and planets to determine the season and if any serious event was about to happen.  It is told that the Incas could predict Solar Eclipses and the arrival of comets.  It probably took many years of observations to get there.


As I have shown before, we ran into several groups of young children, sometimes very young, hard at work practicing dances.  Here is a group in Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu.  We had a few minutes to kill before the train that would take us back to Ollantaytambo and eventually back to Cuzco – the Inca trail and Machu Picchu adventure is over.


On to the next one! Very early the next day, we boarded one of the highest train in the world.  The train that goes from Cuzco to Puno actually crosses a pass at over 4300 meters above sea level.

This is a luxurious train for tourists only.  The bus is much quicker, but a lot less glamorous.  There is an observation deck at the back of the train.


and a full service bar


which is used for some entertainment during the long (8-hour long) trip.  These guys were actually pretty good and at times, the four of them would play 8 different instruments!


We stopped in La Raya, the top of the line at 4313 m.  An opportunity to stretch our legs, and buy goodies offered to us.


Desolate scenery – there is quite a bit of snow here in winter, I was told.  Today, it is quite warm.


There are Incas with a baby Alpaca, charging for having your picture taken with them.


Back in the train, there is another musical session with the band.

They also had a fashion show and dancing girls.


We arrived at the hotel just after sunset – this is the view from our hotel room.  Lake Titicaca is right there.


The next day, we went to visit the “floating Islands” that Lake Titicaca is so famous for.  I was very surprised to find out that these islands have only existed for a little over 80 years! Before that, families would live on rafts and join together in this way.  However, the rafts needed to be re-built every 6-8 months and this was a lot of work.  The islands (there are over 80 islands in this area and each island is essentially one family) last 2-3 years and therefore there is less work than before.


They still build boats to move from one island to the next – this is one recent example.  They are manually operated with long oars.  We had the opportunity to go on a ride, but declines as it was way (WAY!) too touristy for us.


We enjoyed spending more time with the local Uros (the indigenous people who occupy these islands) such as this old gentlemen who demonstrated to us how they build these islands.  The actual flotation devices are the roots of the local reeds which they pull from the bottom of the lake (which is not very deep in this area).  Dried reeds are used as the top platform, and makes for a very bouncy support.  I am sure these guys never have knee problems!

The Uros are a very old people, actually pre-dating the Incas.  Most of them live in Peru, but some are still located on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca.

Each member of a group living on an island is responsible for the maintenance of his section of that island.  Our friendly instructor explained that there are severe penalties against those not carrying their own weight, including one that involves a very large saw and actually a complete separation of the offending party from the rest of the island – they are cast adrift to be on their own!


Houses are simple structures, usually just one room.  Most of them do have televisions, not flat screen TVs yet.  I am not sure what is the purpose for the tire on the roof, but in this case, it supported a very nice parrot.


The gate at the entrance to the main square of the island we visited.  All houses are built around the main square.

The community is essentially self-sustaining.  There are special islands with schools up to secondary school and some islands have restaurants and bars for entertainment (probably mostly for tourists again).


We were able to get onto an elevated platform (this was scarier than I thought at first as the platform was not very stable and built on nonexistent foundation on top of floating and unstable reeds).  However, this did provide a remarkable general view of some of the area where these islands are built.  There are two main sections, with a wide canal between these where you can see a motor boat.  Each section is made up of multiple small islands that are very close to each other, but still separated – if you look at the two yellow buildings to the left of the picture, there is probably a separation (narrow channel) between those two houses.  There is also a channel in the foreground of the picture so we are looking here at the island next door to the one we are standing on.


After the floating islands we continued our crossing of the lake towards a more permanent island, seeing local fishermen on the way.


We stopped in Taquile where there are other local people known as the Taquilenos – they speak Quechua, while the Uros speak Uro or Pukina.  This was obviously a VIP  – I saw him later in deep business-like conversation with local people.


Local weaver


And of course, a dance troupe for the tourists.  Clearly not what we were most interested in.  Before that, we had a demonstration of how they can make soap from a local herb.  Remarkably, we had a demonstration by a local aboriginal near Perth Australia in January 2016 that looked eerily similar!


Taquile is an agricultural island with many terraces where different foods can be grown.  There is no lack of water, even though it does not rain very often.


We spent our next night on a small private island near the Bolivian border, but still on the Peruvian portion of the lake, so I cannot claim that I have visited Bolivia.  The only thing on the island called Isla Suasi is the hotel where we are staying.

There are no inhabitants, but there are Alpacas that do not appear to be very afraid of humans.


This one Alpaca seemed to really like the purple flowers in this one bush



Who can resist that!


We went to the top of the island, at 4100 m altitude, to watch the sunset.  The walk was not very long, only about 2 km, and we only climbed 200 m, but we were still out of breath at the top.  I took several pictures while the sun was coming down.


As always at this latitude, once the sun is down, dark arrives very fast.  We had to hurry to get back to the hotel, but still had time for this picture.  Bee was trying to distract the Alpaca so that I could get a profile shot, and it worked.


The next day, we will be leaving the island and soon will be leaving Lake Titicaca for Arequipa.  That will be the subject of the next episode as I have not yet worked on those photos and do not want to delay further the publication of this one.