California Bill\’s Travel \’n Other Stuff

Travels and occassional rantings of an old guy.

Paradise in the Tuamotus: October, 2008

 What and where are the Tuamotus?  They are a group of about 77 atolls in French Polynesia, south of the equator, about 2,500 miles south and a little east of Hawaii.  They are some 200 – 300 miles north of Tahiti, sprinkled across 10 latitudes and covering a length of 900 miles and a width of 300 miles.  They are considered some of the most remote islands in the world, as well as some of the most dangerous to ship’s navigators.

 

They are atolls, as opposed to “high” islands.  Volcanic in origin, long ago the volcano and surrounding land mass sunk into the sea, leaving the ring reef and a languid inner lagoon.  They are home to some 400 varieties of fantastic, rainbow-hued fish and beautiful coral formations. Some are very large (Rangiroa is the 2nd largest atoll in the world).  Some are mere specks in the vast ocean.

 

Atolls generally have a maximum elevation of 3 or 4 meters, and there are stories of dead fish in trees after terrible storms.  Outside the lagoon, the ocean is thousands of feet deep; inside, depths range to about 100 feet.  Inside the lagoon, the water can be mirror calm, and feature turquoises, blues and greens that dazzle the eyes.

 

We came back to the Tuamotus in October of 2008 to rest, snorkel and relish the complete tranquility of being far, far away from everything.  We visited Rangiroa in 2002, and have wanted to go back ever since.  Our itinerary included Tikehau, Manihi, and Fakarava.    We weren’t disappointed! See our pictures at http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbillstravnstuff/sets/72157608525521115/.

 

Tikehau; The first island on our itinerary, is almost circular, averaging about 26 miles across.  It has a population of about 400, located mostly in the little village of Tuherahera, in the southwestern portion of the atoll.

 

After a one hour flight from Tahiti, we arrived at Tikehau airport and were picked up by Caroline, the proprietor of our lodging for 3 nights.  It is located on a beautiful beach very close to the airport. We loaded our luggage into the back of a Toyota pickup, and climbed up on wooden benches in the back of the pickup.  Caroline was delightful, with a quick smile and very friendly.  We loved our stay at this pension (their version of our B&B’s).  Dinners were top quality.  Fish, lobster, fresh veggies, great desserts.

 

Our bungalow was on a beautiful beach. The deck was great for looking out at the world. The bathroom was complete with a hot water shower and sliding windows and doors.  Very comfortable.

 

We went on a motu picnic, crossing the lagoon and stopping for snorkeling while the guides speared some fish for lunch. Yes, that’s right.  As you snorkel and view the pretty little fishes, “TWAK,” a spear comes hurtling by you and one of the little pretty’s is now lunch. The picnic was great, with barbqued fish, poisson cru, vegetables and the ever present Hinano Beer.

 

Manihi;

The atoll of Manihi is the farthest north we travelled, at latitude 14 south.  The Tahitian Black Pearl was farmed intensively here until a few years ago. Now only about 10 farms survive of the several dozen that once existed.  The village of Turipaoa holds most of the 1500 residents.

 

De-planing at Manihi airport, you can watch people take a few steps, then stop and fumble for a camera.  The airport is – er, ah – “quaint.”

 

Our stay here was impacted by 18-20 knot winds that stayed for three days, except for one little hour break. We were in the water for that and found a large Moray Eel right outside our overwater bungalow.  But due to the winds, all excursions were cancelled except the shuttle to the little village.

 

Fakarava: We saved the best for last.  The atoll Fakarava is part of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere global network, so beautiful is this lagoon.  It is large, second only to Rangiroa, at about 37 miles long and up to 15 miles wide.  Most of the 1,700 inhabitants live in the village of Rotoava, in the northeast corner, where the airport is located. However, we were taken by boat some 60 km,s south to Raimiti (Between sea and sky), a pension on a remote motu in the southeast.  Only 6 bungalows, no electricity or hot water; just what we were looking for.

 

The food here was incredible. Dinner was to lantern and candle light.  Fish, fresh vegetables and dynamite desserts.  Annalee was particularly impressed by the vishyswa and crab bisque. How they do it in such a remote place is beyond us.

 

Our tiny bungalow, simple but comfortable, was open to the world, with balmy tropical breezes bringing the scent of hibiscus and bougainvillea.  Trying to identify a tree, she smelled the flower.  When asked what does it smell like, she said with a sigh, “The South Pacific.”  The cold water shower was refreashing in the tropical heat.  After dinner, a lantern lit the way back to the bungalow, and was our only light until the next morning.  Quickly we were into the spirit of the location, totally relaxed and taking in the gorgeous views of lagoon colors, sunsets and night skies.

 

We didn’t meet any Americans during this trip, but we had a very fun time with the French and Italian honeymooners here at Raimiti.  We laughed and joked with each other’s language deficiencies, and had fun with national rivalries, all in the spirit of fun and comradeship.  One night, astronomy book in hand, we all gathered on the dock.  In the incredible south pacific darkness, pointing and laughing, together we learned the French, Italian and English name for the Milky Way.

 

Our snorkel trips to the pass were amazing, especially the drifts we did in the pass.  In the “fish pond” we got up close and personal with giant Napoleon Wrasse, Moray Eel, and black tipped reef sharks.  The photos will show you what I mean.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbillstravnstuff/sets/72157608525521115/

 

We had a great trip to the Tuamotus.  We will go back. It might be our favorite place on earth.

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November 2, 2008 Posted by | Travel | 1 Comment

My Year in Thailand, 1966-67

Nam Suai FloodNam Suai Floodnam-suai-flood-2.jpgnam-suai-flood-2.jpgMe and a FriendI was drafted into the US Army in Jan 1966. That month, over 100,000 were drafted. I understood that to be the highest number ever in one month. I took basic training at Fort Ord, (Monterrey) CA, then to Ft Gordon, (Augusta) GA for training in the Signal Corp, specifically, a AN/TRC24 Radio Relay Operator, MOS: 31M20 (or was it 31M40?).  (MOS = Military Occupational Specialty) When I got orders to Siam, my wife and I had to get out a map and see where that was.

See some pictures at http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbillstravnstuff/sets/72057594122629485/.

For a while at Fort Gordon, I lived in a 12 man tent, which in Georgia in the middle of summer is mostly unbearable. However the build up had been so fast, most facilities were completely overtaxed. Later, my wife drove out from California and we lived in an apartment off post. Almost my entire training class went to Germany, which we had been hoping for. However, I was held back a week because I got the measles (of all things), so I was delayed finishing my MOS training. When I finally got orders to Siam, we were given two weeks to get to Oakland Army Terminal, and we enjoyed a leisurely drive across country.

I arrived in Bangkok in August 1966 and after a night or two at the Capital Hotel, rode a military bus up to Korat. A long and rough ride up the Friendship Highway, but I got to see some of what was to be my new home for a year. In Korat, I reported to the 55th Signal Company Headquarters at Camp Friendship, adjacent to Korat Royal Thai AFB, and was assigned a hootch. At Fort Gordon we lived in tents, so I considered the wooden hootches a big improvement, especially when I found out we had house girls that took care of our laundry and lizards scurrying around the ceiling and walls that ate the bugs. I had definitely moved up in life.

I really do not remember all the technical details of the AN/TRC (TRC =TeleRadio Communications) 24. It was VHF, and since it was line of sight, relays had to be located at certain distances. Relay equipment was set up in a container mounted on the back of a deuce and half ton truck.  The radio equipment was on shelves on both sides of the inside of the container, with a narrow center isle allowing access to the equipment. Our job, as trained at Ft Gordon, was to move the truck as necessary, usually in combat conditions, set up antennae (which were extremely directional), and keep the channels open.  As I recall there were 4 channels in a typical set up.  Therefore there were 8 radio sets; an “in” and “out” for each channel in each truck.

However, in Thailand, none of the relay sites were mobile. A few were in their truck type containers, but most were in small air conditioned buildings, which contained many channels.  (One site named “Peppercorn” near Udorn, was still the in the container on the truck, on jacks, under a canopy.)  Every TRC24 site I worked had become permanent. One could tell a TRC24 site by the distinctive olive drab fly swatter type antennae.                                                                                                                                                                                     

Since mobility had ceased to be a factor, our job sites were terminal locations, where the TRC 24 fed into a wider communication network of more sophisticated equipment. There were few actual relay sites. Instead of moving sites as trained, our job became one of tediously watching the equipment hum along, perform periodic maintenance and testing, replace some parts now and then, and twist a few dials when some one from somewhere called in complaining about line interference on one of the lines. This did not happen very often. Rarely, a radio set would go bad. In that event we coordinated the re-routing of radio traffic, replaced the unit and got everybody back on line. At least we never had to reset an antenna.

It was understood that we were there to support the Air Force, but we were told often not to be curious as to the nature of our business. Any questions we had about our signals were rebuffed by NCO’s and Officers alike.  We did not know to where our antennae were pointed.  We could not listen in. Very soon I got tired of asking, and just did the job.

After a few weeks in Korat, I was sent up to Udorn to a very small Army post near, but not abutting, the Air Base. I cannot remember exactly where in relation to the base we were. It seems we turned west off of Friendship Hiway just south of the city of Udorn, and passed a Thai Police or Army post. There was a large field on which soccer was frequently played.  Our post was small, with perhaps only a couple of  dozen troops. A Lieutenant was OIC, and the NCOIC was an E6. There were wooden hootches and a single mess hall for all, to which you could come and go at will, since we all had weird work schedules. Made to order breakfast cooked while you wait. (Three eggs, over easy, bacon and toast, please. You got it buddy, comin’ right up.)

There was a small bar (beer 5 cents) and adjacent movie theater. This was shaping up to be nothing like the Army I thought I was going into. The miseries of Forts Ord and Gordon drifted further back in my mind.  My wife sent me a newspaper from the states with headlines stating that there were no American troops in Thailand. We kept that up in the mess hall for a while and got some laughs.

Our hootches were infested with termites, and when it was very quiet, you could hear them munching. In the morning, all surfaces were covered with a thin layer of sawdust. I wondered how long the buildings would last.

Our job site was a short truck ride away, known as Udorn Control, a small air conditioned building. We had two or three dozen channels, and our fly swatter relay antennae were pointed in several directions.  We were set up amongst several semi trailers in an area bristling with a wide assortment of antennae. I soon figured out that we were the low ones on the hierarchy of comm equipment technology. The stuff around us was very sophisticated. But we never saw those guys. Couldn’t go in their trailers, didn’t see them much, and when we did see them, many were in civilian clothes and only nodded at our presence. I never figured out how our equipment complimented or fit in with all this other stuff.

We worked 12 hour shifts in that little building, watching our equipment and various meters. We logged meter readings, tested, dusted, and tried to keep busy during our shifts. But late one night I remember clear as it was yesterday. I was reading a book at the desk and the phone rang. A very excited voice complained about noise on a line and virtually screaming, pleaded with me to do something quick. Jumping to my feet and finding the appropriate radio set, I pulled it out of the wall on its sliding rails, and quickly began turning the knobs controlling the signal. The voice at the other end yelled happily that I’d done it and hung up. I logged the event, and tried to settle down, but the adrenalin kept me hopping the rest of the night.                                                                                                                                     

That whole episode lasted less than 20 seconds. I have wondered for 41 years what that was all about.  I did not know the guy that called or from where he was calling. Next door, or miles away? After joining TLC (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Brotherhood), I have read more and more about what was going on up there about that time.  I want now to believe that I contributed something that night that was very, very important to someone somewhere. But I’ll never really know for sure.

The antennae pointing north relayed to an actual pure relay site up the Friendship Hiway about 2/3 of the way to Nong Khai, on the Mekong River. The Relay was manned by an E5 Sgt and three EM’s  There was a small contingent of Thai Army there, along with their wives and camp followers. The females took care of our guys’ laundry and cooked some meals.

The relay site was powered by huge towable generators. There was an outhouse and an outdoor shower served by rainwater, and several bunkers. Those antennae pointed north could have only been going to Laos, probably Vientienne, but again, hey, don’t ask.

One day some Army brass came up to Udorn to check things out, and were to also go up to the Relay. I had been up there once on a supply run, and was selected to drive a Bird Colonel and one of his entourage in a jeep.  He never said one word to me all the way north. Not one single word. He just sat there scowling, like he didn’t want to be there. (Well, join the crowd.)

About 2/3 of the way to the Relay, there is a river called Nam Suai. It was flooded. Totally covered the road for several hundred yards. There was great activity on both sides of the river, as the Friendship Highway was heavily traveled. A thriving industry of Thai long boats were ferrying people and their goods across the flooded river. I was selected to stay with the vehicles, and the rest of the party, in their finely starched uniforms piled into several long boats along with a couple of replacement radios and assorted gear. It seemed incongruous to see several high ranking sharply dressed military personnel and some very expensive radio equipment piled into a pretty shaky looking long boat.

Soon, I was surrounded by a dozen or more kids. We had a great time. Two or three would hang on my arm at a time to great gales of laughter. I would swing them around and toss them up in the air. They weighed so little, and at 6’3” I must have seemed like a giant to them. We had a little impromptu soccer game, and they all piled in the jeep, and we rough housed and laughed a lot. I spied an ice cream vendor, and bought all the kids some ice cream. Then a jolly green giant helicopter landed, and all the kids went running off toward the dust and noise. The helicopter was from the Red Cross. I talked to the RC official a bit; they were terribly frustrated with so many refugees coming Nam Suai Floodacross the Mekong River, and now the flood.

Just then I noted the brass coming back across the flooded river, and quickly returned to my vehicles, which were thankfully all accounted for.  The colonel looked at me with disdain, and I realized that my formerly stiffly starched fatigues were now crumpled and soiled with dirt, sweat, dust, and traces of ice cream.  Saying nothing, we started driving and soon passed all those kids near the helicopter. Seeing me, laughing and yelling, they swarmed around us, reaching out to touch me and the colonel with their grubby little hands and climb in the jeep. Escaping, the colonel looked at me square on and scowling, asked if they were friends of mine. I replied with a big yes, sir.  On the way back to Udorn, I thought I saw the Colonel smile a little when we passed kids, and he actually waved once or twice.  I never saw the Colonel again.

After being in Udorn a few weeks, I was sent up to the Relay to sub for a guy who had been sent to the Base Hospital with some ailment. Those guys had been together for some time, and I didn’t get a chance to fit in. This post was remote, and in addition to keeping the radios working, we had to take care of the generators. We were supplied every three or four days from Udorn.

One day a Methodist minister and his wife came into our camp. He was doing missionary work in a nearby village. His wife had made an apple pie out of a large can of apples that the guys had given her a few days before. Man, being out there in the wilderness, lonely and not quite feeling safe, that was the best apple pie I’ve ever had.

I was only up there 4 days and then returned to Udorn, where I was informed that I was going to Korat, to join a contingent of 55th Sig Co guys going TDY (Temprary Duty) to Bangkok to set up communication facilities for President Johnson’s upcoming visit to Thailand. Well, this was pretty exciting, so off I went.

We stayed for a while at the Capital  Hotel in Bangkok, but it was 8 miles away, which took about 30 minutes at rush hour. So later, we moved to another hotel, but I can’t remember the name.  We got a little tourist time the first day, then went to work every day for about 3 weeks at Borom Phimam Mansion, where the President was to stay. It is adjacent to the complex that includes the Temple of the Emerald Budha.  Our comm equipment was to be installed across from the mansion in a little utility building.  This necessitated a daily commute from our hotel to the palace, and I got my first taste of driving in Bangkok. What a hoot that was! I learned that entering one of those infamous circles was easier when you rev’d the engine and laid on the horn of the duece and half truck. It was like a parting of the waters.

There was a lot of equipment and guys from different units in that little room. But we worked well together and helped each other, working way out of our MOS’s.  I spliced cables, wired switchboards, and installed phones in the Mansion itself. Lots of channels to site in and calibrate. We got it all done in fine fashion.  Then it was just a matter of keeping it all running. We had no incidents that I know of.

The inside of the Mansion, which tourists never saw, was incredible. Intricate teak décor. Five foot elephant tusks with hanging brass gongs. We had to take our boots and shoes off inside to keep from scuffing the floor. Unfortunately, my camera with pictures from inside the mansion was later stolen.

I never saw President Johnson or much of his party. During one night shift, we had to stay inside. Secret Service didn’t want anyone wandering around. I spent a lot of time that night chatting with mysterious guys in suits and dark glasses with strange tales of far away places. Very interesting.  Night shifts were the best. No brass around. During the day, every officer remotely connected would show up and decide to exert some authority to impress the troops and Secret Service. The President’s visit ended about Oct 28. We spent a couple of days taking things down, and then I got a three day pass for some unofficial R&R in Bangkok. Then back to Korat.

I fully expected to be sent back up to Udorn, where I had felt very comfortable with some new buddies. But, it was not to be. They shanghai’d me into the company headquarters orderly room, where I spent the rest of my tour in Thailand.  At first I thought this would be good duty, but I was wrong. I soon longed to be out on a post somewhere doing something more active. I was very bored, and frankly, perhaps not a very good garrison soldier.  My first three months in country had been filled with new and exciting experiences, but the next 8 were a bit of a letdown.

Nevertheless, in March of 1967 I was selected to drive our company commander, a Captain, on a circuit route of Northeast Thailand. Why he needed to do this I do not know. I was issued a rifle and several rounds of ammo, which I hadn’t seen since Ft Ord, loaded up the jeep and off we went.

Our first stop was Roi Et, a beautiful little town that I wish I had more time to visit. We stayed there the first night in a hotel, then off to Ubon where we gassed up and got directions to the Mukdahan Army signal site. I don’t remember much of the road to Ubon, but I do remember the road to Mukdahan. It was dirt, and every bridge over every river or creek had been bombed or burned out. We had to slow down and ford the crossings. It was dry season, so I don’t remember much water.  This made us both very nervous and we had our weapons at the ready. There were no incidents but it was slow going and we arrived late at Mukdahan in the dark.

I don’t know the geography of Phu Mu and Mukdahan. The note on my Phu Mu pictures say “near Mukdahan.”  At any rate, I remember noting the direction of the flyswatter antenna, due east into Laos, and being a good trooper, didn’t ask any questions.

We stayed the night there, departing for Nakon Phanom very early in the morning. Halfway to NKP, an F 4 or 105 flew over us about 100 feet up. We saw him for about half a second. He was well in front of us before we heard the noise, which scared the hell out of us. As he disappeared behind the trees, he was wagging his wings as if to say the road is clear, you’re fine. We felt a little better all the way into NKP.

We had a great meal at the NKP Air Force mess hall, and it reminded me of the great meals I’d had at Udorn, and the not so great meals at Korat. We pressed on and passed Sakon Nakorn, on our way to Udorn, the Mekong Relay and Nong Khai.  After a night at Udorn, we drove back to Korat.

At sometime during my year, probably about Feb 1967, one of my wife’s letters announced that the B52’s had come to Thailand. She was teaching elementary school in our home town of Merced, California. Many of her kids were from nearby Castle AFB, a SAC base. One day the kids were very sad, and asking them why, they told her their daddies had gone to a place called Thailand. (I think they went to Sattahip, but I don’t know for sure.)

The rest of the time in Korat is uneventful. Somewhere along the way we moved into new barracks, and got all up tight with parades and inspections and dress uniforms and more officers. One of our lieutenants began getting us some day trips on Saturdays. I remember a major shrine at Sara Buri and a picnic place called White Falls.  In the summer I was promoted to Sargent E5, which was not well received by the other Sargents in our Company. After all, I was a draftee and I’d only been in for a year and half. I saw their point, but I didn’t turn the stripes down.

I rotated home to the 78th Signal Battalion at Ft Lewis, Washington, near Tacoma and McChord AFB. I spent the last 4 ½ months in the Army in Battalion HQ.  The Battalion Sargent-Major was very kind to me. I think I helped his work load considerably on administrative matters.  My wife and I got in several rounds of golf at the terrific Ft Lewis Golf Course.  I was discharged at Ft Lewis in January, 1968.

A few years ago, I began searching the internet for info on my time in Thailand. I wanted to know that there was some meaning to my time there. I learned more about the “secret war” in Laos and what the Air Force and other units in NE Thailand were doing.  I found and joined the Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Brotherhood and learned more about what was going on in NE Thailand at that time. I now feel some pride in my contribution during my time in Thailand.  At least I can conjure up a happy ending to that frantic call I got in Udorn on that long dark night, and have some satisfaction that I really did make a difference during our Commander in Chief’s visit to Bangkok.

I did not volunteer for the service, but when the draft notice came, I went almost eagerly. Annalee was not so happy, and says later in life she’d wished we went to Canada. I could never have done that. I was proud to serve my country, and still am.  Vietnam was a sorry mess at the end, but I believed then, and do now, that its origins were well intentioned and deemed necessary.  I did my part, be it ever so small.

August 11, 2007 Posted by | My Thailand Army Days | 40 Comments

Galapagos Islands – A National Geographic film; and we are in it!!!

Grinning Sea LionWe have seen the episodes on the nature channels. So we knew about the islands (we thought), their volcanic origins, barren landscapes, unique flora and fauna. And of course, Charles Darwin’s (or, Chuckie D, as we came to call him) famous visit.  Origin of the species, and all that. So to actually see the nature; to walk among iguanas, sea lions and hundreds of mating birds becomes an incredible experience. Topping that off with a snorkel during which we were besieged by a score of sea lion pups gone wild makes for one wonderous week.  Please view some pictures at http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbillstravnstuff/sets/72157600219089853/.

The islands are 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Even though they are on the equator, the water, fed by currents from ALand Iguanantarctica, can be cool; in our case, 19 – 21 degrees centigrade. Wetsuits required. Ambient temps were mostly in the 20’s, a little warmer away from the shore on some of the islands. Our home for a week was Linblad’s MS Islander with about 40 other travellers in search of nature. We were ecstatic most of the time, and when gathered, laughed and talked over one another at the wonders that had been seen that day.

This was not a restful or langorious vacation. Lots of work. After a wake up call at about 6, we embarked on our twice a day (sometimes thrice) excursions ashore or snorkeling. Our nature hikes were sometimes strenuous over rocky ground or pahoehoe type lava, that wanted to twist ankles and shread shoes.  Our excursions were in maximum groups of 16. We could not stray from the paths, nor go off on our own. Boats are scheduled so that too many do not arrive at a given sight at once.

We never walked very fast. Too much to see. Every few steps something to gaze at, photo and wonder about. We stepped over sea lions nursing theiSoaring Albatrossr young. Stepped over and around nesting boobies and albatross. We were toe to nose with iguana, both land and marine.  Our guides were excited, extremely knowledgeable and committed, and always very interesting.

One morning, about 0830, all hands were invited to the bridge. We were about to cross the equator, which is a big deal on the ocean. Annalee happened to be standing at the right place, and the captain told her to blow the ship’s horn. We all watched the GPS count down, and when it hit 00 degrees, 00 minutes, amid great cheers and whoops, Annalee pressed the button for a long blast. No one felt the bump as we passed over the line.

In the water, we swam and snorkeled with numerous fish species, but most thrilling were the penquins, sea turtles, flightless cormorants, and oh my, sea lions. On one of our snorkels we founds ourselves amidst 15 or so 6 moMarine Iquananth old sea lion pups “gone wild.” It was like we stumbled into a nursery and the teacher was gone.Blue Footed Booby

They swooped and swirled around us, blowing bubbles and teasing us with headlong rushes, swerving at the last moment. They tugged on our flippers, jumped over us, looked at us up side down, and generally went bananas, to our great delight. It was one of the most incredible snorkeling experiences we have ever had, and will live in our memory forever.

At another site, during a dry landing, we saw several sea lions surfing in the waves. The wave was back lit by the low sun. The panga (zodiak) lingered so we could watch the surfing dudes for a while. The hike itself, through tough lava, was exhilarating. Great numbers of nesting Albatross some close enough to touch (we didn’t).

Soaring frigates, albatross, boobies, Galapagos Hawk, and the beautiful swallow tail gull, among others, continued to chew up memory on  the camera card. Mockingbirds walked and ran along with us on the paths. Lava lizards watched as we almost stepped on them. Boobies and albatross with eggs and some with chicks, were in our path, or within touching distance. They ignored us and we tried not to disturb.  Finches and warblers continued to put the serious birders in gleeful bliss.  A warbler’s nestFrigatebird with feeding chicks was eye level along a path. Frigates with their red pouches inflated trying to attract Ms Right. Boobies and Albatross in their intricate, beautiful courtship dances, bills clicking and clacking.Swallow Tailed Gull

On one of our walks, we crossed a low saddle to a very private beautiful beach. We saw sea turtles and their nests, with the tell tale tracks of tiny turtle foot prints as they scurried to the ocean, probably the previous night. In the nearby surf, swarms of sharks and rays congregated for that night’s anticipated meal. The circle of life, I guess.  The babies hatch at night, people are not allowed there at night.

On a beach we walked amid dozens of sleeping and nursing sea lions. A mother would come out of the surf barking loudly. A small pup would rise up from slumber, yapping wildly. They would hear and run towards each other, where the pup began nursing.

During the week, a fun guy from New Zealand, nick-named Scruffie, filmed our escapades. The DVD was available at the end of the cruise for $50. We have watched it 4 times now, and it is loaded in the DVD player. It is our own National Geographic episode, and we are in it!!

On board the Islander, we enjoyed wonderful food and several educational presentations. But mostly, we enjoyed getting to know many new friends, all of us in wide eyed wonder about the fantastic things we had seen.  A Galapagos trip is not for everyone. No laying around on fine sugary beaches with drinks with little umbrellas in them. It is intensely nature oriented in a fragile area strictly regulated by the Galapagos Park Service. If you love nature, this should be on your list.  You can find a much more detailed report of the week at http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=6&tid=34998911.

May 17, 2007 Posted by | Travel | Leave a comment

Backyard Birding on a Cold Weekend

Great Blue HeronOn this January weekend, we find ourselves with binoculars and bird book in hand, peering through the back windows at our personal Nature Channel.  The lake is a-swarm with birds; flying, swimming, swooping, diving.  People drive hundreds of miles for scenes like this. Amazing.  Though they seem close, even with a 400mm zoom my photo efforts are pathetic.  For a collection, see http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbillstravnstuff/sets/72157594490138708/.

It is cold and clear.  24 F is not unheard of here-abouts, but still considered unusual.  It is crystal clear wheEgret on Boatn it is this cold; no inversion layer.  The citrus crop is wiped out. 

The birds?  Oh, yes, the birds.  Well, the action starts about an hour after sunrise, as light comes to the water surface.  The Egrets and Great Blue Herons, permanent residents of the river down below, fly in to hunt along the banks of our lake for breakfast.  Wading in the shallows, or preening at their perch on docks, they are beautiful large birds.  Both Egrets and Herons will stay on our dock, pervaying the buffett below.  An Egret seems to like the top of our boat.  They seem quite aware of our presence as we move about in the house; over the years becoming more comfortable in spite of the movement.  They are skittish though, and crane their long necks in watchful alertness at any noise or movement.  Trying to get close is futile.  The Herons, especially the green Heron, are very hard to film.  My Green Heron pictures are from a resort in Phoenix. 

                                                                                                                                                                  

Of course we have our year-round resident population of mallards, now bastardized by years of in-breeding, but Feeding Melee Takes Flighttoday, on this cold January morning, we are blessed with a variety of migratory friends.  A large flock of cormorants, perhaps 50 or so, low-slung in the water, swim from one end of the lake to the other, as with a purpose.  They frequently dive, sometimes in unison, for food.  This flotilla is accompanied by mergansers.  Flock of Seagulls  (background: a badly out-of-tune punk guitar, please.) swarms above, swooping and diving as the cormorants surface, hoping to steal a meal (Mine! Mine!)  It resembles a wild melee, and several sea gulls will dive on a surfacing cormorant if he should perchance come up with a fish in his mouth.  This flotilla stays discreetly out in the middle of the lake, not too close to either side.  Human movement on either shore speeds them along their way, or sends the entire group into frenzied flight.

 

The little Ring Necked ducks dive the shallows for weeds. While not numerous, they can get very close to the shore, and I was able to get fairly close to this one, but not for long.Ringed Neck Duck

 

Perhaps up to 1,000 coots (mud hens for those of you in Rio Linda) move in smaller groups to various lawns, finding this year’s grass to be pleasing to the palate.  We hope a group stays on our yard.  A few years ago this happened, and in the spring our lawn was the greenest it has been in years.  When not on a lakeside lawn, they are diving in the shallows for various weeds.  I think seagulls are not vegetarian, so they leave the weed eating coots alone.  These two allowed me to get close, but a grazing multitude of perhaps 100 flees at the slightest sound or movement.

Coots on Lawn

The seagulls have come here weeks ago, coming down from the mountains, maybe as far away as Mono Lake, on the first storm of the season.  They winter in the lakes and rivers in the foothills, and at twilight they can be seen in large flocks returning to their nesting areas for the night.

 

The little buffleheads are a particular favorite.  They are so colorful against the dark water. They stay under water for long periods of time, surfacing a surprising distance away from the point of submersion. The buffleheads have been here about a month, and will soon leave and return to central Canada for the summer.  They don’t get very close to the shore.                                                                                                                                                    

 

Today we think we identified some blue winged teal diving for weeds.  If so, that will be the first time we have seen that breed.  They normally prefer the wooded river bottoms in the foothills and avoid human population.      woodduck003.jpg

This Just In:  Jan 21 first Wood Ducks seen on our Lake.  Outstanding!  Really a thrill.  About 6 or 8 pairs. 

Theyarebeautiful!!                                                                                                                       

The first of the Common Mergansers appeared a day or so ago.  Today only a few are present.  Within a few days, there will be up to 100 here.  Like the cormorants, they feed for free on our planted fish before continuing on to their summer grounds in western Canada. They are voracious eaters and fly incredibly fast only inches from the water surface.  The large flock makes a distinctive whooshing sound as it speeds past in tight formation about 20 or 30 Common Merganseryards out from the yard. Very fun to watch.  The female’s red head is remindful of Woody Woodpecker.                                                               

 

We have many other feathered friends here, but enough for now.  This will be a work in progress. We’ve been watching this nature channel for 20 years, it’s about time I recorded some of it.  I know some of the photography isn’t that great, but, hey, this ain’t National Geographic.  You can see many pics at http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbillstravnstuff/sets/72157594490138708/.

January 20, 2007 Posted by | Family | Leave a comment

Target – St Petersburg, Russia, with many stops along the way!

Nyhavn, CopenhagenOk, this was our first large ship (1600 passengers, 700 crew) cruise and we were a little trepidatious about it.  On previous trips, we avoided contact with those “cruise hordes” and planned daily activities around them.  Now here we were, part of “them.”  But we should not have worried.  It was fantastic.  We were on the Celebrity Century, a ship that supposedly maintains a higher than normal level of service. Service was superb.To view pictures of this trip, please visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbillstravnstuff/sets/72157594258507060/ .  There are 108 pictures, but if you wanTallinn's Viro Gatet to see a couple hundred more, I’ll be glad to oblige.Amsterdam Canal

Our target was St Petersburg, Russia, which we have wanted to see for some time.  The itinerary also took us to Copenhagen (Denmark), Stockholm (Sweden), Helsinki (Finland), Tallinn (Estonia), and Oslo (Norway).  We sailed from and returned to Amsterdam, so we got to return to a city we liked very much. They were celebrating Rembrandt’s 400th birthday. We enjoyed the Scandinavian capitals, especially Copenhagen, where we lunched (above) on Nyhavn, near Hans Christian Anderson’s home, and Stockholm, where there were scores of children out and about.  Tallinn was a medieval jewel to behold.

As for the ship, well all that we had heard about the vast quantities of fine food still did not prepare us for the daily gourmet dining experience.  It was truly amazing.  Thankfully, they had a wonderful gym; otherwise they would have needed a crane to debark me.  (Debark – a nautical term for getting off the boat.)  I actCenturyually debarked a few dollars FROM THEM in their small but efficient casino.

We had been mysteriously upgraded from the engine room to a stateroom with a sliding glass door to a cute little veranda. Magical.  The ocean and the bourbon were both smooth. Three of the dinners were formal, requiring tuxedos, etc., three others coat and tie, and, well, you get the picture.  We loved it.  Baltic Sea Midnight

Shortly into the cruise it dawned on us (excuse the pun) that it really never gets dark. We awoke with sun streaming through the curtain, and jumped up fearing we had overslept our shore departure time.  Throwing open the curtain, we saw sunlight on the tops of trees and houses on the island in the Swedish archepelago we were passing.  Looking at the clock, it was only 4 am.  The sun had been up for about ½ an hour.  It didn’t set until 11:30.  It never really got dark.  We were at 60 degrees north, and stayed around that latitude most of the trip.

St Petersburg is said to be mOnion Domed Church on Spilled Bloodore European than Russian. Peterhof, with all of its fountains and gardens, rivals, and some say exceeds, the grandeur of Versailles.  Catherine’s Palace is remarkable, even more noteworthy in that most of the rooms have been restored after WWII, when the retreating Germans inflicted horrendous damage on the buildings and their contents.  The churches are stunning with their onion domes and ornate forms of architecture.  In St Peter and Paul Cathedral, we got a special treat in a separate room when 4 priests sang a Capella for us, bringing tears to our eyes.  All very impressive.

We saw Swan Lake ballet in the evening.  We had a Russian feast of a lunch, complete with vodka that tasted more like pure grain alcohol.  And the Hermitage, the world famous museum, while a glorious thing to behold, was way too crowded to truly enjoy.  Our little tour group of 11 became instant friends, and we had a lot of fun with our guide Elena.

With all the grandeur of the attractions we saw, there were no children. (“Oh, no, they gPeterhof Fountainso to the country for the summer!” said Elena.) And  maybe it’s just us, but we didn’t sense that the Russians were a very happy lot.  And getting in and out of the dock area was pure  cold war – esque.  We felt friendship and warmth in all of the countries we visited, except Russia. 

We saw many wondrous things, and visited cities we we will never return to, including St Petersburg.  But we would like to return to Sweden and Norway some day.  They seemed a very happy lot with some wonderful looking countryside to see.  Hopefully we’ll make it.

We finished our trip off with North Sea mussels in a white wine cream sauce in the Gran Plac of Brussels.  For desert, Belgian waffles with ice cream and chocolate sauce.  Then home.  We have lots of wonderful memories after a really great trip.

August 29, 2006 Posted by | Travel | 4 Comments

Finally, a little about our New Zealand Trip!

I know, you’ve been on the edge of your seats waiting for this.  Well, I am not totally organized on this stuff.  I just got around to putting some pictures up on Flickr (please see http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbillstravnstuff/sets/72157594209116164/).  In the meantime, we’ve been on some other trips, including New York, Las Vegas, and a Baltic Cruise, which is my next blog/flickr project. So if I get organized, maybe I’ll have the Baltic thing up by Christmas.  Don’t hold your breath.

So you all know that we went to New Zealand in Feb/Mar of 2006. Bill came off the ice in February, and he and his Antarctic friends were hanging around various parts of New Zealand getting used to colors, particularly green, and smells, after being at McMurdo for 5 months or so.  We were fortunate enough to meet several of these wonderful people, and consider it an honor.

So Bill and friends showeBill drives a Hagglundd us around some, leaving us on our own for part of the time.  He met us at the Christchurch airport where we toured the Antarctic Center.  He proved a wonderful guide, as he explained the exhibits in great detail only because of his first hand knowledge.  Our ride in the Hagglund was special, as he drives this vehicle at times on the ice fields of McMurdo.annalees-merino.JPG

Akaroa is a special little seaside town that has a unique charm.  A short trip out of Christchurch.  Many “ice people” were de-toxing there.  An idealic retreat from the world.  We visited the Arts Center, Christchurch Museum, and Botanical Garden whilst in Christchurch.  Then we took  off in our rented car for The Wilderness Lodge in Arthurs Pass. (No, it was not particularly hard to learn to drive on the left.  We just don’t talk about a few little events.)

Up on  Arthur’s Pass, we had an encounter with an operating sheep ranch, and Annalee adopted one.  on-top-of-fox-glacier.JPGWhen they are held correctly, they go completely limp.  The dogs are incredible to watch.  From there, to the west coast town of Hokitika and southern alps village of Fox Glacier.Doubtful sound

We helicoptered Fox Glacier and hiked to its terminus, where Bill retrieved some 1000 year old ice. (It didn’t taste any different).  The helicopter ride was awesome and we flew over two glaciers; Fox and Franz Joseph.  We landed on the neve of Fox Glacier for photo ops.

Then over Haast Pass to Queenstown, where fortunately, the wind caused a halt to bungy jumping.  Otherwise, I would have been challenged.  Our next few days was spent in Fjiordland, a magical, mystical place of fiords and sounds and snow capped mountains and thousands of waterfalls.  I think the highlight of our trip was the overnight on Doubtful sound, where it was so quiet you could hear the dolphins talking. 

Later in Dunedin, and the Otago Peninsula in SE New Zealand, we saw Royal Albatross and Ooops!molting penguins and very curious rocks and gorged on scrumptuous meals, one after another.  After two weeks on South Island, where we endured cold, rain, and wind, we flew to Auckland, and drove north to the Bay of Islands.  At last, warm again. 

Our apartment in Pahia was terrific, overlooked the bay and Russel.  We toured Cape Reinga, the northern most point of New Zealand, where the Tasman and Pacific Oceans meet.  It is also the place where the souls of Maori depart for their mythical home land.  Our jaunt on 90 mile beach was great, as was the boogy board ride down a 60 meter sand dune.  Mom and I did it once; Bill went up and down thrice. The surf is dangerous, and rental car companies don’t want their cars on the beach.  We dug up Pipi’s, a mussel like shell fish on 90 mile beach, and dined on them back at the apartment that night.

We ended our trip in Auckland, where we took care of some business and Bill got his suit for the big wedding that has since ocurred.  We loved New Zealand. We loved the humor and character of the kiwi spirit.  We loved the natural beauty and wild feeling of South Island.  We want to go back.  Three weeks is not enough.

For more pictures, just click on the flickr link to the right, or click on http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbillstravnstuff/sets/72157594209116164/.  You might also want to check into Bill’s blog, www.elementarypenguin.com.  He will be starting his third season in August.

July 23, 2006 Posted by | Travel | Leave a comment

Where in the World is Parkfield?

Parkfield, California.  PopulatiCity Limitson 18; Elev. 1,580 feet.  The Earthquake Capital of the World. 

Says so right here on the combination newspaper/menu at the Parkfield Café.  There have been four editions of this newspaper/menu since 1989.  Things don’t change much in Parkfield.

A few miles west of  I-5, at the junction of State Routes 41 and 46, there is a little road that goes off straight to the north.  “Parkfield, 15 miles,” says the sign.  Another sign warns of roaming cattle.  The first thing you see is a cattle guard crossing the singlWatch for Cattlee lane road.

(This junction, of course, is famous.  Or infamous, more appropriately.  It was here in 1955 that James Dean met his tragic death in an auto accident that has never been fully explained.  There is a sign nearby:  “James Dean Memorial Junction.”  I’m kind of sorry he got a junction named after him.  I mean it could have been a highway or bridge or something more significant.)

The road goes straight north for about 8 miles through absolutely flat grazing land.  According to the map in the Parkfield Café Newspaper/Menu, you are driving exactly on top of the San Andreas Fault, the most famous fault line of all, I suppose.  This fault line is traced from down Mexico way all the way up past San Francisco, and of course is the fault that produced the famous San Francisco earthquake of 100 years ago April, and more recently, Loma Prieta, in 1989.  As you drive the road, you realize that on your left is the Pacific Plate, advancing inexorably north ever so slowly.  On your right is the North American Plate.  Off a short Peaceful Faultdistance on both sides are low hills, still tinted green from a very wet spring, and covered with majestic Live Oak trees.

This little valley, The Cholame Valley, was settled in 1854 by settlers from nearby coastal towns who shared the unfenced valley with a myriad of wildlife, including grizzly bear, so says the newspaper/menu.  The cattle ranches established then are pretty much unchanged 150 years later.  In the summer, the hills turn brown and the daytime temperatures are stifling, many days over 100.  Jackrabbits carry canteens, say the locals.  But now, in the afterglow of spring, it is beautiful.  If you were to sell your ranch, you need to dGoing Ino it in the springtime.

The road actually has a center line for a while after it crosses intoMonterey County, but soon reverts back to single lane as it winds its way into low but rugged hills.  The Oak trees are very thick.  It is peaceful and beautiful. At a bridge, with Parkfield ½ mile away, a sign announces that you will be leaving the Pacific Plate and entering the North American Plate.  Watch your step, please. The little stream, with a trickle of water in it, looks tranquil enough.  And then you are in Parkfield.                                                                         

The Parkfield Café, as you might guess, serves up a variety of burgers, steaks, and ribs, all with great helpings of beans and fries.  Apple pie ala-mode is their house specialty.  A sign hanging from the ceiling says, “If a quake starts to shake, get under a table and finish your steak.”  In addition to the café, there’s a 4 room Parkfield Inn, a 1 room Parkfield School, not much left of the Parkfield General Store, and a well-maintained Rodeo Grounds, around which most of the campers stayed, including me.  I was here for the

9th Annual Mothers Day Weekend Bluegrass Festival.

There were scores of campers, RV’s, tents and other assorted vehicles centered around the rodeo grounds.  There was a rodeo two weeks ago, and the aromas left by various forms of wandering livestock lingered in the air and in the grounds.  Watch where you step, Luther, I heard one mother admonish.  But there were flush toilets, an unexpected luxury, and incredibly, a free public shower, not necessarily hot.  Nailed uLost Highwayp on a beautiful Valley Oak was a hand-painted sign that said, “Park under a tree at your own risk.  Limbs do fall.”

Bands played hourly on stage from about 10 am to 10pm daily from Thursday thru Sunday.  (I was only there Friday and Saturday.)  But the real reason one goes to one of these things is the jamming that goes on most of the day and night in the campgrounds and parking lots.  Yes I watched a few bands, especially Lost Highway, my current favorite group (well, except for Alison, of course).  And of course I slept and ate.  But there was jammin’ until well after midnight and into Saturday morning.

What is jamming, bluegrass festival style?  These campgrounds are inhabited by hundreds of really good musicians (and not so good ones, like me) playing acoustical instruments such as guitars, banjos, dobros, mandolins, fiddles, stand up bass and a few other weird looking things. Please, nothing electric.  They congregate in scattered little groups around a trailer, tent or lantern and just play.  You can walk around, guitar in hand, wander up to a group and start playing along.  It goes on for hours.  You might hear a few first names as people acknowledge your presence with a nod, but its just play, play, play. Not much is said between tunes (A tune is a song without words).  Somebody starts pickin’ and everyone just picks it up and joins in.  If you know words to songs, you are encouraged to sing out, which I do. Conversation goes something like this:  “Gravel Yard. G.”  “In C?”   “No, G”  “Got it. D.”   “No, G!”  or  “You came in a little early on that A minor.”  “Well, at least I came in.”

About 2 am I lay down in my SUV.  The still night air carried the far off sound of banjos and guitars playing sometimes recognizable tunes.  Every so often, in the way-off distance, a cow in the adjacent field bawled out loudly.  The light from a full moon filtered through the Oak trees, casting a shadowy blue lunar glow to the surroundings. The faint odor of the rodeo grounds worked its way into the van.  I smiled myself into a peaceful sleep, only vaguely conscious of the distant music.

About 9 am, after a pre-dawn walk featuring a conversation with a couple of horses, and a post dawn nap, I finished off two really thick peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a beer from my cooler, ran into the fiddle player from last night and struck up a tune. Soon we had drawn other sleepy eyed but eager-to-play jammers.  Life is good!

Click on http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbillstravnstuff/sets/72157594213179590/ to view pictures of my Parkfield trip.  The jammin’ pictures are from some Saturday night jam sessions I go to accassionally. Didn’t seem right to try a flash photo at our late night Parkfield sessions. Thanks for viewing.

June 21, 2006 Posted by | Travel | Leave a comment

In my foot steps, 40 years later!

Forty years ago, 1966-67, I spent a one year tour of duty in Thailand with the US Army Signal Corps. Duties there sent me from BangkoMe with Monk 66k to the Mekong, with most of the time spent in Korat. As you might know, I was not there as a tourist, but we did get to see some sights. My year there will hoepfully be a subject of many future blogs, with pictures, etc., as soon as I get the time to do it. I mean there’s a lot of stuff going on in my life right now, what with golf, and guitar work and cleaning out the garage and stuff like that, not to mention my real job. But I digress.
The reason for today’s entry is I just received an email with some pictures from our son. He has spent two seasons in Antarctica, and as mentioned previously, we met up with him in New Zealand recently. When we left him in Auckland, and returned to California, he departed for Australia, thence to Thailand. We have followed with great interest his travels via his web site
www.elementarypenguin.com , where you can also get caught up on his travels.
Ok, so here’s a couple of pictures. The first one is me in 1966 or 67 Son with Monk 06with a monk inside a wat (temple). I believe this was in Korat. The second is a picture of our son with his very own monk meeting, forty years later. He is in a casual conversation with two monks in Cambodia. Way to go Bill. H
e said that he had long discussions with the monks, who spoke wonderful English. I won’t say anymore, as this will probably end up with more detail on elementarypenguin, I hope. I know that my monk spoke no English, and there was very little conversation, except that he was happy to accept a few baht in order to allow me to have this picture taken.
Anyway, I thought the two pictures to be pretty neat, and wanted to share.

April 24, 2006 Posted by | Family, My Thailand Army Days | 1 Comment

Why California Bill?

For my very first blog site, I chose the name “California Bill.” Why?
Let me back up. I have wondered about doing a blog for some time, but like many, wasn’t sure what I wanted to accomplish. I didn’t want to get into political or social commentary. Plenty of people do that already. I did want to somehow share our travel Meet California Billadventures with friends, family and other interested travelers.
Then there was the technical issue. I mean I can find my way around a keyboard ok, but tech wizard I am not. Then I learned about WordPress, and here I am. At least this is the first excursion into cybertalk. I hope there’ll be many more. We’ll see.
One of the first things they ask you is your blog name. That is a serious question, not to be answered lightly. So how’d I come up with this name? We recently returned from 3 weeks in New Zealand. I intend to file trip reports and pictures on that trip later. But for now, lets stay on point. Which is the name.
We arrived late one soggy afternoon at the west coast town of Fox Glacier Village after a long, wet drive from Arthur’s Pass, via Hokitika. We checked into the Te Weheka Hotel, and were directed to our room. What?!? The sign on the door said “The California Bill Room.”
Ok, so I’m Bill and I’m from California. Boy, this hotel is alright. Pretty nice. Then we noticed that the other rooms were also named. And the names had the ring of local historical figures. Could it be that there was a California Bill in Fox Glacier Village’s past, and the room was coincidentally assigned to me? Ummhhh!
I checked with the desk clerk, who seemed to be genuinely surprised at the connection. Coincidence? Well, maybe. So who was California
Bill, anyway. Here is an excerpt from the written blurb we found in the room.
Many of the gold diggers who rushed to the West Coast during the 1860’s were known to each other only by nicknames, based upon their first names plus references to physical attributes, occupation or place of origin. Among them was California Bill, known for his earlier experience on the California goldfield which distinguished him from Liverpool Bill, Maori Bill, Bill the Packer and all the other Bills who followed the rushes.
As the gold resource dwindled late in the century, California Bill laid down his pick and shovel to take up oars and become a ferryman. He chose one of the worse places possible, near the mouth of the Cook River where water from the Fox Glacier finally reaches the sea. The river was often flooded to a dangerous level and Bill’s boat was always leaky, but he earned a reputation as a ferryman who could be relied upon for a safe crossing, day or night.
So ok. California Bill of Fox Village, New Zealand, c. 1880, got around. He was resourceful, and apparently reliable, leaky boat and all. OK, I like that. A tip of the hat and a lift of the glass to the Fox Glacier California Bill of years ago. I hope his worldly travels were as rewarding as mine have been.

April 23, 2006 Posted by | Travel, Uncategorized | 2 Comments