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Loomatic Asylum
Yesterday morning, I woke up with the itch to take some pictures. I got ready, thinking I would head over to the northern end of Lake Quinsigamond, but while I was driving, I remembered Jordan Pond. A few weeks ago, I had dodged down a side street, trying to get away from traffic. I came across a small pond with a few benches and a path. I knew then I would have to come back with my camera. Since it would be a little quieter than the lake, I recreated my route and found the pond. I expected to take a just a few pictures (for me), since the leaves were past their colors, and most of the trees were bare.

When I got to the pond, I found a small parking area, with a paved path heading around the pond in one direction, and a short, unpaved dead-end road in the other. I definitely envy the people who live on that road! Most of the pond had trees right around it, and even the places where there were houses had trees between the houses and the pond.

I headed down the paved path and started seeing a variety of brightly colored berries. They were lovely framed by the vivid blue sky. If the leaves were still on the trees and bushes, I probably would not have seen them. I don’t know what they all are, but some were rose hips (can’t wait to see all those rose bushes in bloom!)

and others were bittersweet, with a lovely mix of red and yellow.

I ran into a guy fishing and stopped to chat for a few minutes. He said the town had bought the land all the way around the pond, but that paved path only went halfway around. The other half had a dirt road (there is a power line tower that the road provides access to). The town stocks the pond with trout every spring. He also pointed out a flock of ducks in the middle of the pond. He said they are buffleheads, and that they are only there for a few weeks in the fall. They are very shy, so I didn’t get any good close up pictures. I'm not convinced they are really buffleheads, though. The coloring seems off, and the head shape seems more like a merganser. But I'll just keep calling them buffleheads.

I did though get some decent pictures of a flock of mallards,

and of course I managed to find and photograph a heron.

I even got some pictures of a red-tailed hawk that came circling around. Of course I took about 25 pictures of the hawk. Some of them even came out!

Not having the leaves to photograph, I instead found some wild and crazy twigs and branches instead. Some of them twist and twine, some twirl. One even made a complete circle.

I also took the opportunity to practice taking pictures of birds in flight. Besides the hawk, I had 3 very helpful seagulls to work with, and a flock of ducks took off from one side of the pond to the other. Unfortunately, by this time my hands were so cold I had my gloves on, and my focusing was a little slow. I did get some pictures of the heron fishing. One time it came up with a leaf instead of a fish, but the second strike got it some breakfast. And I got some stalkerazzi shots of the mallards.

They aren’t as shy as the buffleheads, so I got some decent shots of them, including some nice ones of several lined up on a log to bask in the sun.

I started out expecting to take just a few pictures, not realizing just how much there would to see. I took about 250 pictures to start, but I’ve deleted about 100 so far, that were not very good, or were where I took multiples of the same thing and only kept the best one. I still have another few passes through to do, and will be able to get rid of some more. If you're a glutton for punishment, you can see them all here: http://s1199.photobucket.com/user/Loomatic/library/Jordan%20Pond?sort=2&page=1 Not bad for almost no leaves. And of course I did manage to find a few leaves.

Current Mood: Happy

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It's New Years day. New Year, new resolutions. Some old ones, too, though. Diet and exercise, blah blah blah. I signed up for MyFitnessPal, and they've got a fun little ap for smart phones. It lets us add things by scanning the UPC codes. So tracking what you're eating is much easier. I'm doing a weight-loss challenge with some friends, and I don't want to let my team down.

I held out on getting a smart phone for a while, but now that I have one, I'm really having fun finding ways for it to make life a little easier. So my next thing will be keeping a to-do list on it. First thing on the to-do list: find other fun aps.

Another change for me: I'm sort of getting a roommate. At least temporarily. My friend K, another Central NYer who landed in Central Mass, is in need of some temporary digs, so she's moving into my guest room. It's going to be different. I haven't had a roommate in 13+ years. But I'm looking forward to seeing how it shakes up my life. I've been in a rut, so this will help get me out of it. She'll probably be here for a couple weeks, so we'll see how it goes.
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I've been working on adding some plants to the new beds, and also adding some beds in areas where mowing is problematic. Friends of mine from back home in CNY told me a quick and easy way to create new beds. You edge the area, then cover the grass with newspaper, and then put mulch over that. The newspaper helps kill the grass, and is easy to cut through when you want to add plants. So far I've added a lovely bed to one side of my shed. It's a shady area so the grass was only growing kind of meh there, plus it was awkward to mow, due to a lilac bush being sort of in the middle of one section. I curved the bed around to end in front of the lilac, and now I won't have to mow there any more. A coworker is giving me some hostas, so I'll have something to plant over there.

I started planting veggies, and realized that instead of a 12X12 garden, the landscaper only put in a 6x6 garden. I'm going to have to call him and ask him to make it bigger, because 6X6 is not going to cut it. But I did put in some radishes, carrots, and scallions. The radishes take 23 days to mature, so I put in 1/3 of a row. I'll plant another 1/3 next week, and then again the week after. Then I'll be able to harvest one batch, and replant that row. I'll have radishes for a while that way. I also planted a half a row of carrots, and will plant the other half in a couple of weeks. The scallions should be interesting, too. One kind matures in 120 days, but it says you can pick the baby ones at 60 days. So I planted a whole row of those, expecting to pick half at 60 days. The second kind matures after 90 days. I did a half a row of those, and will plant the rest of the row in a week or two. I have to put together a calendar so I keep it all straight!

Up in the raised beds on the side of the house, I put in a bunch of herbs, including some chives, and then some spinach and lettuce. Yum yum, can't wait to eat a salad right out of my own garden. For a lot of the rest of the veggies,I'll probably go with plants, and not seeds.

Don't know how much garden time I'll get in during the rest of the week. We're supposed to get a lot of rain, which will certainly do my plants good!

Current Location: the garden!
Current Mood: cheerful cheerful
Current Music: birds

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In the name of expediency, I used my tax refund to pay for some help with the landscaping. It was worth every penny. I now have beautifully manicured beds around the front lawn, my 2 raised beds on the side of the house cleaned out and mulched, a small forest of bamboo removed from the side yard, a ton of overgrown weeds removed from the hillside,and the whole lawn dethatched, seeded and aerated. They did this all in one day. it probably would have taken me all season to get the beds in. Oh, and they rototilled the veggie garden for me, including adding compost and working that in. I'm so thrilled with my yard now. The sheer amount of work was daunting for one person. Oh, and they pruned the 2 big crazy-out-of-hand rose bushes for me.

So now comes the planting! I did have the landscaper put in a couple of bushes in the front, a cypress and a globular blue spruce, which is supposed to stay fairly small and grow slowly. In the beds on the side, I have phlox, hydrangeas and apparently peonies. Didn't know I had peonies, so that was a fun and exciting find.

This weekend I hit up the gardening shop and got some stuff to plant. The 2 raised flower beds have a walk between them, and there is a trellis going from one to the other. I decided to plant clematis on each side. So I bought 2, one dark purple and the other white with purple stripes. Then I bought some dahlias (red, of course), irises, astilbe, and some veggie and herb seeds. Sunday night was really cold, so I didn't plant anything.

Yesterday, I got home from work around 6, and figured I'd see what I could accomplish. It was dark and dreary and threatening rain, but I was excited to get going. I was so looking forward to a nice relaxing hour or two communing with nature. First step, get out the tools. I grab my little tool bag, which had my gardening gloves in it, and find that the mice nested in it over the winter, and ate holes in my gloves. Sigh. Well, ok, no problem. I don't mind getting my hands dirty.

I get my tools, and a 5 gallon bucket and head out to the bed. I put the dirt from the hole into the bucket as I was digging, and added some peat moss to it before using it to back-fill the hole after putting the first clematis in next to the trellis. So far so good. The clematis came attached to a little mini trellis stuck in the pot. After planting it, I tried to detach the clematis from the trellis, and instead the upper part of the plant detached from the roots. Seriously? Seriously. Nature 2, Amy 0. I know the plant will send up new shoots, but still, a disappointment.

Since I still had a good amount of the garden soil-peat moss mix in the bucket, I used that to replace the soil in one of the window boxes. I went back to the beds to plant the second clematis, and there was a big splat of bird poop on my kneeling pad. Sigh. I washed it off, but then the pad was too wet to use right then. Luckily, I was working in the raised bed, so sitting on the edge of that wasn't as awkard as sitting on the ground would have been. I did get the second clematis planted with no problems, and got it started up the trellis. After that I cleaned everything up and went inside to eat. I figured I'd had enough nature for one day.

Current Location: garden
Current Mood: amused amused
Current Music: birds, the breeze, cars driving by

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Today is the last day of our tour, and we're getting another boat ride in the morning, then driving back to Ho Chi Minh. The boats we were on the first two days were a little nicer, with a raised floor and chairs with backs. They kept us up a little bit higher. Today's boat, we are sitting down in the hull, on bench seats. It gives us a water-level view. We rode around a fish farm, which consisted of dozens of house boats, where the fish pens were under the house part. The front porch area had hatches that were opened to feed the fish. These were family businesses, with the family living on the boat, often with chickens or ducks, and pet dogs. We got to go on one and feed the fish (and the dogs, who wanted to eat the fish and corn meal pellets that we fed the fish). Once the fish are big enough to sell, a big boat comes to the area, and all the farmers sell their fish, and load them into the big boat, that then takes them to the processing plant.

Next we went to a Cham village. The Cham people are an old society that used to cover much of the coast of Viet Nam. They have 2 predominant religions, Buddhist and Muslim. We got to see a Cham weaver which of course was a highlight for me. Her loom wasn't that different from mine. The Cham houses are all built on stilts, to keep them above the river's high level in the rainy season. There are raised walkways from house to house, and out to the main roadway of the village. The animals live below the houses most of the year, then are brought up to the house level when the water level rises. Mostly we saw chickens, with a few pigs and one goat. In other places we saw cattle and water buffalo, but we didn't see any at this village.

After leaving the village, we returned to the car for the long ride back to Ho Chi Minh. We did stop for a delicious meal at a very pretty rest stop, and admired the scenery. Even though it was a 5 hour ride, Juliana and I had no trouble filling the time chattering and asking questions of the driver.

Right now, we are again in a marvelous hotel, laying by the pool, relaxing before our flight back to Hong Kong. It's hard to believe our visit is almost over. Viet Nam has been a wonderful place to visit. The people have been friendly, the food amazing, and the scenery a delight to the eyes. I would deftly recommend it to anyone looking for a place to vacation.

Current Location: Ho Chi Minh City

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We started our tour by being picked up by the driver and guide in Ho Chi Minh City. We drove for about an hour and a half and got to just sit back and enjoy the countryside. Everything is so vividly green here. We drove by a lot of small houses, all only one or two stories tall, but occasionally ther would be one very tall narrow one jutting up from the rest, four stories tall with a roof deck. Some of them also had Buddhist shrines. We saw tons of motorbikes, but unlike in China, very few were overloaded. For the most part they just had one or two people on them, a few had a guy driving and a woman on the back holding a child. Once in a while we'de see one with some kind of cargo, but not very often.

We got to see a lot of tropical fruit trees, fields of various grains, even corn, and of course rice. The rice fields are the most brilliant green. I'm afraid the pictures won't do it justice. We would occasionally see scarecrows, or people working in the fields, wearing the traditional conical straw hats. Some times the people would be carrying baskets balanced on a pole across their shoulders.

The guide told us that the Mekong is the 10th longest river in the world, and the 3rd widest. It starts in Tibet. Our first day on this tour, we stopped in My Tho city, and got to boat around seeing many different aspects of life in the area, including going down several offshoots and channels. We walked around a village, and down paths through the jungle. We saw so many trees with fruit on them: betel nuts, coconuts, mangos, Jack fruit, pomelos, and something called lonegan(I think) that look like lichee fruit. We also saw durian, which are big like watermelon, with spiky outsides, and smell like rotting meat. You could smell those from a hundred yards away. There were also water coconuts, which don't have milk in them, so are smaller than regular coconuts, and grow in clusters like big brown flowers.

We stopped at a honey tea shop, and the girl working there pulled a tray of honeycomb out of a hive of bees with no protection of any kind. Juliana even touched the comb, but being allergic I didn't want to get that close. We drank honey tea, which is delicious, and bought some dried fruit. We continued on our walk through the jungle, passing handicraft stalls and fruit stands. The handicrafts were a mix of textiles and things carved from coconut shells. The coconut items were typically either carved animals, or useful things like combs or utensils, all a lovely rich brown, highly polished.

At one point we got into these very narrow boats, that were propelled by women with oars, one at the front, one at the back. We rode for a while through a narrow, winding waterway, occasionally passing boats going the other way. It was so very peaceful and quiet.

Another jungle path led to a coconut candy factory. We got to see the coconut shredded, made into paste, spread into long cast iron tube-shaped molds, then cut and individually wrapped by hand. Of course it was for sale.

After lunch and some more time on the river, we were dropped off at the hotel, where we flopped down by the pool to swim and rest. The service at all of the hotels we've stayed at has been amazing. We get waited on and pampered, with delicious food and amazing Vietnamese coffee. I must say that this is one of the most amazing places to vacation.

Current Location: My Tho
Current Mood: pleased pleased

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I'm sitting by the bank of the Mekong River, in this lovely old French colonial hotel. It is 6:00 am, and I'm waiting to take pictures of the sunrise. Five minutes ago it was pitch dark, but it is already getting light. The river is wide here. I can hear birds, and a couple of small motor boats.

I'm going out of order a little bit. We did a lot on Friday and I don't know that I have time to do it justice. Today we'll be getting an early start so we can visit a rice plantation, a fish farm, and a silk weaving factory.

Yesterday we had a lovely boat ride at a city called Can Tho, just 3 hours of relaxing and seeing the way of life of people on the river. There were a lot of boats, mostly fairly small, a few that were human powered, but mostly motorized. The river was lined with houses and businesses that can all be accessed by the water. We did go past a floating market, but it wasn't for tourists. It was a wholesale market that sold produce from larger boats to smaller ones. The smaller ones belonged to people who then took the produce to sell in the markets. The larger boats advertised by tying a sample of their product to a bamboo pole and raising it high above the boat. So there was a forest of poles with pineapples, root vegetables, papaya, mango, Jack fruit, and things we didn't recognize. Some boats specialized in one thing, and so only had one item on their pole. But others had a variety, and would have 5-6 things on the bamboo pole. The 2 parties would negotiate a price, then the larger boat would put the produce in a big bamboo basket on a scale. After the money changed hands, the produce would be handed down and stowed on the smaller boat. The women took charge of the money. Even if a husband paid directly on the larger boat, when he got back to his own boat, he'd hand the change to his wife.

We continued on up the river for a while, before turning around and heading back. When we passed the market, we stopped on one of the fruit boats and had some freshly cut up pineapple. It was the freshest pineapple I've ever had. It had probably been picked no more than a day or two earlier.

Current Location: Mekong River
Current Music: boats and birds

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Flying from Hong Kong to HCMC definitely illustrated the difference between US and Asian airlines. We were given dinner, even though the flight was only 2 and a half hours. Juliana had ordered us each a special meal, vegetarian for her and Kosher. for me, even though I don't keep Kosher any more. When you get a special meal, you get your meal first, and you don't have to worry about them running out of the stuff you like. With the Kosher meal, they brought it to me sealed, and had me unseal it, so that I could be certain of it staying Kosher.

Once we landed in HCMC, it only took us a few minutes to get through Customs and immigration. We didn't have to fill out any forms, either. It was all computerized, which is much more modern than we expected, since even the US makes us fill out forms still. Then I visited the ATM for some spending money, and took out a million dong. It made me feel very rich, until I did the math. At 20,000 dong to the dollar, a million is only $50.00. But everything is super cheap here. Most of our cab rides have been 20-30,000 dong, so all less then 2 bucks each. For an awesome lunch for both of us, we spend 220,000 dong, or $11 dollars. And that included a ton of food, plus the proprietress spoke English and explained what all the food was and how to eat it.

We went to see the Reunification Museum, which used to be the Presidential Palace for the president of South Viet Nam. We were able to join a tour being given by an English speaking tour-guide. Much like our White House, it acted as both residence and office. It was beautifully furnished, of course, in a mix of Eastern and Western items. And like a lot of Western museums, people can rent out parts for events. The living quarters included a movie theater, and a roof top party room with a bar, band platform and dance floor, as well as out door terraces.

The basement had the operations center from the war, with map room, offices (complete with 70's telephones and teletype machines). There was also a large room with photos and news clippings that outlined the country's history from the time the French colonized the area until the Reunification. It was very moving and disturbing at the same time. Two of the people in our tour group were US Navy veterans who had served in Viet Nam. There was no indication of any hard feelings toward them at all.

So now we are going to be picked up by the guide for our 3 day tour. It will be partly by car, and partly by boat up the Mekong River. I am so excited that I woke up at 5 am, so I figured I'd blog and be completely caught up. I'm not sure what Internet access I'll have for the next few days. The hotel we'll stay at Sunday night only says Internet access, so it probably doesn't have wifi in the rooms. The hotel in Beijing only had wifi in the lobby, and that was only intermittent. As in China, I can't get into Facebook. But in both places I can get CNN. In China, I could not get to the IMDB movie website, but I can get it here in VN. Not sure what that was about!

Current Location: viet nam
Current Music: birds I don't recognize

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My second day tour in Beijing, we started with a jade "factory". We got a lesson in how to tell the difference between fakes, lower quality quartz and real jadeite (they all sound differently when tapped, and real jade has a cloudiness when held up to light). We also got to watch people at work carving the jade. Then we were given plenty of time to browse the showroom.

Our next stop was the Underground Palace of the Ming Tombs. Like the Egyptian pharaohs, the Chinese emperors built elaborate tombs for themselves, stocked with everything they would need in the afterlife. The Ming tombs are where 13 of the 16 Ming dynasty emperors were buried. The one we got to see is the only one that has been excavated. The rest are being left alone, because of the unacceptable rate of deterioration that was occurring when the first tomb was excavated. Much of this palace is not ornate at all. Instead, it's very simple. But it included a chamber where the coffins were left during the funeral, and the actual burial chamber. One of the stairways had a ceiling decoration of a dragon, with a large pearl hanging under it. We were told that one of the emperor's thrones had one like it on at the ceiling above it. If anyone other than the emperor sat on the throne, the dragon would drop the pearl, killing the intruder.

Next on the tour, the Great Wall. And it really was great. We were at a section called Mutianyu, in a very mountainous area. Because it is such a long and steep climb to the wall itself there, they've installed a chairlift up to the base of the wall. At this point in my tour, there were only 3 of us, so we stuck together and rode up the chairlift, then climbed the stairs onto the wall itself. For a few minutes, we just stood there trying to absorb the fact that "holy cow! We're on the Great Wall of China!!" From that point, the wall climbs the mountain in either direction, disappearing over the topos of the mountains. There's a fair bit you can walk on, but some of it is really steep, with worn and uneven stairs. We walked to a couple of the stations, which are the square buildings every few hundred yards. And we climbed onto the roof of one of them. The views were just amazing. We of course all took pictures of each other with the wall in the background. On the way down, instead of the chairlift, the guy in our group took the toboggan ride down, which is like the alpine slide for any upstate NY people. He said it was ok, but he didn't go very fast, and it was still over too quickly. Plus, there wasn't the great view we had up in the chair lift, and no chance to take pictures.

Once we were back in Beijing, we went to the silk factory. Another really fast demonstration, followed by time to shop in the silk showrooms. I've seen silk reeling before, but I did still learn that some of the silk cocoons have 2 worms instead of one, and the 2 threads are wound around each other, making it impossible to separate the threads. Those cocoons aren't unwound. Instead they are just stretched bigger and bigger, and used for filling quilts. Each cocoon can be stretched to the size of a quilt. Then at least a hundred stretched cocoons are used to fill a quilt. They're sold by weight, so different ones have different numbers of cocoons. After another hard sell, we escaped with our wallets intact, and headed back to our hotels.

The next day, Monday, I headed back ago Hong Kong, and on Wednesday, Juliana and I flew to Viet Nam. We head out onto our tour tomorrow, which will take 3 days.

Current Location: Ho Chi Mihn City
Current Mood: excited excited

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After the Forbidden City, we walked to Tienanmen Square. It's huge, the biggest city square in the world. It has Mao's portrait at one end, and his mausoleum at the other. There are buildings on the other side, but other than that, it's basically a big open paved area. I had such mixed feelings going there, but once there, there isn't any sign of what has happened there in the past. Because it is winter and very cold, there weren't many people at all. A this was a good thing in most of the places I visited, but not here. It felt like a space that should have been crowded with people.

The next place we visited on our tour was the Temple of Heaven. Many of the temples I've seen have been Buddhist, but this one is Taoist. It was built for the emperors to use to pray for good harvests. Like the palaces, this also has a lot of symbolism, in shapes, numbers and colors. Here the roof tiles are blue to represent the heavens. And different structures are either round, to represent the heavens, or square to represent the earth. The whole balance represents the relationship between the heavens and the earth. There is a tall round building that is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The roof of the building has 3 tiers of roofing, and was build on a 3 tier marble base. Other than the base, it is made completely of wood, with all dove-tail construction and no nails. As with the Forbidden City, everything is very ornately decorated inside and out. The Temple of Heaven is 3 times the size of the Forbidden City, because not even the emperor is as important as the heavens.

Next we got back on the tour bus, to head out to the Summer Palace. But first a stop at a pearl factory. This type of visit is always included in these tours, and treated like a special extra. There really isn't much factory though. There's a short demonstration, then plenty of time to browse the show room, where you are stalked every minute buy a saleswoman with the most hopeful face imaginable. But I did learn that there are differences between fresh water and sea water oysters. The sea water ones are more oval shaped, and produce only one pearl at a time. These pearls are much harder than fresh water pearls. Fresh water oysters are more triangular, and can produce dozens of pearls at one time.

After the pearl factory, we were on to the Summer Palace. We elected to skip the palace itself, since it is very like the Forbidden Palace, and just walked around the grounds. The palace was used as a summer residence, because it was on a lake and cooler than the Forbidden Palace. The lake was enlarged, and the dirt used to create Longevity Hill, where the main palace at the site was built. The one thing that made us laugh the most was that people were skating and fishing on the lake, going right around signs saying to stay off the ice. The lake wasn't even frozen all the way across! We walked out to an island across the 17 arch bridge. It has 17 arches so that the middle would always be arch number 9, for the emperor, no matter which side he started across from.

To be continued...

Current Location: Viet Nam
Current Music: scooter horns

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