"" Writer's Wanderings: February 2014

Friday, February 28, 2014

Jellyfish - Upside Down

Along the shallow area next to the dock in our Florida complex the water is often crystal clear and you can see what appear to be circular "flowers" on the sandy bottom. They are called upside down jellyfish. The jellyfish lay on the bottom with the tentacles pointing upward. There is algae that actually grows in the bell part of the jellyfish and it feeds off of the extra growth of the algae.

In the sea grass near the jellyfish we often see crabs and as I was reading about the jellyfish, I found that the crabs sometimes toss a jellyfish on top of their shell when they are in shallow waters as protection from predators since jellyfish usually carry a sting to other marine life.

When it's time for the jellyfish to move, it flips over and pulsates like regular jellyfish do to get from one place to another. That's what we saw and captured in the video posted here as we were kayaking one day. It's quite fascinating to watch.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Stuffing The Suitcase

Do you roll or fold your clothes? Make use of that expandable suitcase feature? Do you stuff your shoes? What about those bags that you can use to vacuum pack your clothes? All of these ideas are what float around the travel sites for suggestions on saving space in your suitcase.

I'm still not sure if rolling or folding your clothes is best. Some say that rolling them keeps the wrinkles to a minimum but a lot depends upon how good you are at rolling them. At least if they're rolled, when the suitcase is on its side, the clothes don't shift like they do when folded creating more wrinkles. I do roll a lot of things like bathing suits and items that I can stuff down in between my folded clothes to keep them from shifting.

Definitely stuff those shoes with other things. Mostly I do this with socks. After all, they're going to go in those shoes eventually anyway. Other small items can slip inside as well just be sure that if you put liquids or gels in them you use a plastic baggie.

I've often wondered about those bags that you can suck all the air out of to pack bulky clothes in less space. Trouble is, where would you get a vacuum when you're traveling? The same people do make travel bags that don't require a vacuum. They would work on large items but I find that even ziploc bags help just as well with smaller items. You can squeeze a lot of air out and make them compact.

Probably the best method to packing doesn't even involve the actual stuffing of the suitcase. Lay out all the things you think you will need. Then reduce them by one-third. We always tend to take more than we need and most of the world does have a laundry or at least a sink to rinse things out.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Manatees - Florida Bay's Gentle Giants

Last year we were out kayaking near our rented condo and happened upon a baby manatee with its mother. We were totally surprised and thrilled as they swam back and forth beneath our kayak enjoying their afternoon snack of turtle grass. This year we were eager to have an encounter again. We weren't disappointed.

The first encounter occurred while Bob was out kayaking with our visiting grandson. They spotted the two just near the entrance to the lagoon we've explored several times. Our daughter-in-law caught a glimpse of a tail once while out there but that was it until someone told us about a marina where there was a fresh spring that fed into the salty waters of the Florida Bay.

While manatees don't need fresh water daily to survive they do enjoy imbibing and so a family of five manatees has taken up residence among all the boaters there. It's a little hairy I'm sure trying to maneuver your boat out safely with manatees popping to the surface for air every five to fifteen minutes. The manatee is a mammal and must surface to breathe like whales or dolphins. One of the gentle giants (grown manatees are about 10 feet long and weigh between 800 to 1200 lbs.) we observed had a scar on its back probably from getting too close to a propeller.

Manatees are herbivorous and feed mostly on the turtle grass on the bottom of the Bay. You can tell when they've been around feeding because as they bite off the sea grass, it uproots and there are pieces of it floating in the area where the manatees have lunched.

The manatee is a rather bulbous shaped creature with a fanned tail and two forward flippers. From what I read, they are distant relatives of the elephant. That relationship is evident in the snout which is almost trunk like although very short. The snout of the junior sized manatee found our kayak an interesting object to explore. We were surprised when junior surfaced and swam to us to put his snout on the side of the kayak. We're still not sure if he thought we were a toy or something to suck on for juice (our kayak is orange) or water.

Entertainment was provided us as one boater began rinsing his boat off and the manatees all scrambled (I use that term loosely as they move very slowly) for a spot at the back where the water drains through the scuppers. They put their mouths around the scupper and drank to their heart's content. The boater explained that they seem to know instantly the sound of the hose when it goes on and they are right there.

We spent a whole hour just bobbing around the marina and taking in the manatee entertainment. It was a beautiful encounter--one that we will return to when we can.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center

On this visit to Florida, we wanted to take each of our Florida grands out on a day of their own where they could have one-on-one time with Grandma and Grandpa. We made the choice for our little 3 1/2 y/o redhead and took her to Theater of The Sea (a much smaller version of Sea World with no orcas) in Islmorada. We'd been there with everyone last year but she was so little I didn't think she'd remember it.

When it came time for our older granddaughter (6) to stay with us, she also chose to go to Theater of The Sea so just to make her visit different than the others and give her something to talk about that they hadn't seen, we visited the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center that's just down the road from the condo where we stay. We hadn't been there before so it was new to us too.

While it wasn't the fanciest place going but it was interesting. There were lots of pens with quite a variety of birds. Hawks, owls, pelicans, a falcon, songbirds, parrots, the list goes on. All of the birds have been rescued and are being rehabilitated for release if it is possible. The Center was begun by Laura Quinn who spent 35 years in her mission to rescue and rehabilitate wild birds. She died in 2010 but the work goes on with dedicated people who see the value in preserving the beautiful creatures.

The boardwalk extends past all the pens and goes out to the Florida Bay where healthy pelicans abound--probably waiting for their friends and family to get out of rehab. White egrets strutted freely around the compound showing off their gorgeous lacy tails.

We followed the boardwalk along the shore to a pond or inlet that had a blind set up so you could watch the water birds without disturbing them. There was a great find among them. A roseate spoonbill! They are a beautiful pink like a flamingo with a flat spoon-shaped bill, thus the name.

Passing by the main pens again, we crossed the driveway to look at the pens with parrots and songbirds. Another boardwalk wove its way through the mangroves beyond these pens and we followed it. While we didn't see any birds, we did come upon a good sized yellow land crab that scuttled back into its hole when we stopped to look at him. Unfortunately I had turned off my camera and couldn't get it back on in time.

It was a nice morning walk and an interesting look at some birds we wouldn't have seen otherwise. Well worth the $5 donation--especially when you know it is going to help this wonderful mission.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Gold Coast Railroad Museum - A Boy Dreams

When we asked our eight year old Florida grandson what he wanted to do on his day out with Grandma and Grandpa, there was no hesitation. His eyes lit up and he yelled out, "The railroad museum!" We knew which one he meant. When we went to the zoo with him and his siblings he had jabbered on about how great it was. The Gold Coast Railroad Museum is right next to the Miami Zoo.

We arrived shortly after it opened and were pleasantly surprised to find that our AAA card got us in for free. Unfortunately one of the things he wanted most to do doesn't happen during the week. On the weekends, there are train rides available on a large train but during the week they only run what he called "the baby train." The train is actually called the Edwin Link Children's train, a 24" gauge locomotive powered by an air compressor. Its cars are large enough to seat adults as well as children and for $3 you get about 15-20 minute long ride.

Before our train ride, we wandered around the railroad grounds and went in all the train cars that were open to us. We entered another world of train travel from the past. Fascinating sleeping cars equipped with toilets and sinks, lounges that were quite chic in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and a US Army hospital car that was built in 1945.

Of course the most impressive pieces on display were the large engines--steam and diesel. Our grandson led us around the locomotives explaining the difference between them. We were quite surprised at his knowledge.

Another building held layouts built by local model railroaders. Unfortunately those were not running during our visit either. We decided we were really glad we hadn't had to pay for our visit.

On every third Sunday beginning in March, admission is free and the only things you pay for are the train rides and a special tour of the Ferdinand Magellan, the Presidential Rail Car. It was built in 1928 but pulled from general service to be refurbished as a car for President Franklin Roosevelt and presidents to follow when they traveled.

Before we left, we purchased tickets for our grandson to ride in the locomotive. When the big train runs on weekends, there is room for 4 or 8 people (depending upon the locomotive) to ride with the engineer. It'll be a great treat for him and his dad.

For railroad buffs, the place offers all sort of treasure to be explored. For us it was just a wonderful day to watch a young boy dream.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Have You Seen The Green Flash?

Sunsets are a beautiful ending to the day when the sky isn't overcast and rainy. The colors can be absolutely spectacular and no two sunsets are ever alike. Sometimes the most dramatic part of the sunset happens after the sun has actually gone below the horizon. Pinks, oranges, yellows light up the clouds and then they turn to soft shades of purples and blues. We've always enjoyed watching the sun set and especially when  we spend time in the Florida Keys. People there take the time to sit and watch the glorious changes that take place.

The most anticipated event however when watching the sun set over the water is the green flash. For a long time I thought it was a myth. A way for my husband and sons to trick me into believing that there was such a thing. And then I saw it!
No green flash here.

We were on our way back to our cruise ship from a diving excursion and the sun was setting. (Yup, the ship was waiting for our return because it was one of their excursions.) As we cruised along toward the ship the sun took its final dip and I saw a spot of green. Now, we'd been watching it for a time so I figured that it was just my eyes playing tricks since I'd been staring at the sun.

I finally did some research and yes, there is a phenomena called the green flash. You have to have an unobstructed view of the sunset to see it and no clouds on the horizon. It all has to do with how the light is refracted through the earth's atmosphere and the colors that are blocked as the sun nears the horizon. You can read about the green flash at Universe Today. They have some great pictures. I haven't been able to capture it yet but not for lack of trying.

Bottom line: Yes, the green flash exists! It's one more dynamic to all those beautiful sunsets.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Those Nasty Hitchhikers - Bedbugs!

Thankfully in all our travels we have never encountered bedbugs. Ants on occasion but never bedbugs. They haven't been in the news much lately. I guess other issues have pushed the nightmare of bedbugs into the background but it can still be a real problem for those of us who travel. So what to do to prevent one of these little hitchhikers from getting a ride home with you?

The first thing to do is check out the room where you are staying before you bring in your suitcases. Look in the dark places. If you see insect shells (bedbugs shed their outer casing) or dark brown spots on furniture, you want to stay somewhere else or get a room several floors removed from the infested room. Report it to the host immediately and move before you move in.

Now I should take my own advice and I do give rooms a cursory look but we follow some other rules as well. We keep suitcases off the floor as much as possible using those handy luggage racks usually provided.

When we arrive back home, the suitcases never make it past the mud room which is just outside my laundry room. They are unloaded there and the clothes, clean or dirty, go into the laundry immediately. Dry cleanables are shaken and set aside for the dry cleaners.

As I unpack, I keep an eye for anything suspicious. Some people have suggested vacuuming the suitcases and then putting the vacuum bag in a sealed plastic bag before disposing of it.

There is a website online called the Bedbug Registry. I'm providing the link but understand that it is user-supported so I'm not sure how reliable the reports are. You never know if the competition is using it to bring down its competitor. Still, it might give you a little more comfort to know your hotel isn't on the list if you are really paranoid about those nasty hitchhikers.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine Greetings!

Happy Valentine's Day to all the sweethearts and sweet hearts--
big and small.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Books For The Road - The Quaker and The Rebel by Mary Ellis

Remember Scarlett O’Hara? She is still one of my favorite characters from the books I’ve read. In The Quaker and The Rebel by Mary Ellis those days of the Civil War come to light again. Ellis has made her female protagonist the antithesis of Scarlett. Emily is a transplant to the south and coming from a Quaker background, she is bound to get in trouble.

This is a romance. No doubt about that but Emily finds herself at odds with what she perceives to be the unmovable belief in slavery of her employers and their extended family which of course includes the man who charms his way into her heart, Alexander.
Alexander is leader of a group called the rangers who plunder Union trains to obtain food and supplies and money that can be used by the Confederate Army.

Emily involves herself in the Underground Railroad and begins helping slaves cross the nearby border into Ohio and Pennsylvania. Though she fights her feelings, she falls in love with Alexander and he with her. And of course there is lots of trouble along the way for both of them.
In the telling of their story, Ellis gives us glimpses into some of the attitudes of southerners who owned slaves but let them work for their freedom as well as southern customs and a look at how the Underground Railroad worked.

The Quaker and the Rebel is a sweet read with lots of excitement along the way. A good book for the road.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Kayaking in Key Largo Bay

One of the things we like to do when we escape the winter up north and come south to Key Largo is to kayak. Last year was the first year we attempted the feat and let me tell you, the first try at getting in was not pretty. We were so glad there was no one around to see us. We both ended up in the water. But since then, we've learned balance and poise--well balance anyway.

This year it was a little too chilly to get out on the water the first week we were here. We made it out several times the second week and started checking out all the spots we'd paddled to last year. North of our complex is an arm of land that extends into Key Largo Bay or Bayside or Florida Bay. We've heard lots of different names for it. Just a little ways out there is a canal that runs along the arm and is a nice quiet place to paddle around in. The mouth of the canal is also the place where the local manatees are often spotted munching on the turtle grass below.

Our first foray out, we headed for the canal and as we paddled through the entrance, we watched for the large lizard we'd spotted last year sunning on one of the rocks. No lizard. No manatee. But we enjoyed paddling up and around--until we spotted the alligator.

On a large flat rock or piece of cement near the water's edge sat an alligator in the sun. He really didn't look to be laying on the rock like most we've seen when they sunbathe. He was a bit on his haunches and had his mouth wide open. He never flinched so we paddled a bit closer. He was as still as a statue. So much so that we laughed thinking perhaps the home owners had placed it there to ward trespassers.

We paddled home and thought little more of it until our second trip into the canal. This time we were armed with a waterproof camera to catch the statue of the alligator. Both of us just gaped at the spot where we'd seen it. There was no statue and surveying the spot where it had sat, we could see no way for anyone to get to the spot to place one there.

I laughed nervously and said, "Well, maybe they only put it out when they are home so no one will steal it."

"Sure, honey," came the response.

Not a good picture but the iguana is in the circle I drew.
"Well at least we're in a kayak and not on a paddle board like those people." Ahead of us were a group of paddle boarders who had turned around and were headed out again. We never got close enough to warn them. But warn them of what? A real alligator or a statue that disappears?

On our way out through what now seemed to be a very narrow entrance to the canal, I heard a rustling in the mangroves that line the channel. From the sound of it, I knew it was bigger than the little annoying lizards that scurry around down here. I looked up just in time to see a three foot iguana jump up into a tree. I don't want to think about what he may have been trying to get away from.

Monday, February 10, 2014

How Fast Can an Alligator Move?

A couple of weeks ago we struck out for the Everglades with our son and his family only to have the rain move in as we arrived. Now normally in Florida, it rains a bit and then the sun comes out but this day it was more like Cleveland or Seattle. One of those fronts had dipped down far enough to bring us some rainy--not snowy--weather.

We drove around a bit but decided the kids were going to get too restless waiting for the rain to stop and it wasn't promising anyway. As we started for the exit to the Everglades Park, we noticed some wood storks just off the side of the road. My son turned the van around and my daughter-in-law and I rolled down windows and took pictures through the pouring rain. We looked at each other and said at least it wasn't a completely wasted day. We started up again.

Suddenly Lori shouted to Ron to stop! There in a puddle not far away from the storks was an alligator and he had something in his mouth. Ron patiently backed the van up and we rolled down the windows again. Trying to keep our cameras dry, we zeroed in on the alligator but couldn't tell for a few moments what he had in his mouth. He sat, mouth clenched for a few minutes and then threw his head back trying to get a better hold or maybe trying to crush his prey. That's when we realized it was a turtle.

The turtle took its opportunity to seek freedom and tried to scurry off--as much as a turtle scurries. That's when the alligator made its amazing move. He propelled forward a couple of feet in a blaze of fury to recapture the turtle. I cannot think of what I can reference his speed to--superman speed?. In the blink of an eye he was upon that turtle again.

Fortunately for the turtle, we think, got away. Perhaps it wedged under something. While Lori captured a picture of the alligator where you can make out the turtle, I did not. I now have lens envy. Stunned and amazed at what we had just watched, we put the windows back up and wiped up the rain from our doors and cameras. This was definitely not a wasted day in the Glades.

By the way, when we returned on a sunny day, we happened past a turtle that had two prominent holes in its shell. Too far from where we saw the encounter to be the same turtle, we knew what those holes meant. And we totally kept a respectful distance and a careful eye on the alligators that lined the path on the Anhinga Trail.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Books For The Road - The Redemption of Caralynne Hayman by Carole Brown

In 2008, local officials raided a cult ranch in Texas and removed all the children putting them into protective custody because of reports of abuse and underage marriages. The Redemption of Caralynne Hayman by Carole Brown brought to mind all those news reports as the Texas story unfolded. Brown's story is fiction but glimpses what a cult of that sort might look like from the inside.

Caralynne Hayman is a strong woman forced to endure abuse all in the name of religion. Women must be taught submission says Elder Simmons who sanctions and encourages the abuse. Her eldest daughter dies during her "breaking in", the ritual to prepare young girls
for marriage. When Cara's abusive husband has a heart attack, instead of giving him his medicine she allows him to die. Enter Dayne, the new minister who was sent to seminary only to return with a new perspective on what the Bible really teaches. Dayne was Cara's first and only love. Together they try to change the cult's ideals and rules but each approaches it from different directions. Cara seeks revenge. Dayne seeks salvation.

This is a suspenseful read--a page turner. It's a sensitive topic handled well by Brown, one that could make your travel time pass by quickly.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Going Once, Going Twice, Sold to the Passenger in Coach!

Our trip to New Zealand in October of 2013 was on board Air New Zealand. We knew to upgrade to a preferred seat which gave us a little more leg room. It didn't cost a whole lot and you have to do it early in the game because they go fast.

The other thing Bob found was the opportunity to bid on an upgrade to Premium Seats which were like a business class. He loved the site where you placed your bid because it gave you odds on whether or not it was a good bid. He did some calculations on what it would cost outright to upgrade and halved it and bid just a little under that. We didn't get upgraded on our way out to Auckland but received notice as we were ready to leave that our bid was accepted going back home. A look around the cabin we were in told us Bob could have bid less. The seats were only half full.

Now I see that American Airlines is trying out this idea. You can now bid for an upgrade to first class on their flights. You go to the American Airlines site and enter your offer. You must give a credit card number but it will only be charged if your bid is accepted. Then they will notify you within 24 hours of departure if your bid is successful.

Who's next? Going once, going twice. . .

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Circadian Clock - A Traveler's Curse?

Reading through some helpful articles on jet lag I ran across a reference to the discovery of a gene that regulates the adaptation of the body to a new time zone. If scientists can discover how it works and how to get around it, they may be able to come up with a medication to eradicate or at least improve the effects of jet lag. It all involves something called the circadian clock. Huh?

The circadian clock is a 24 hour cycle that tells us when to wake or to sleep. Most life forms operate by it. When I read that, I thought about migrating birds. Maybe that's why they always go north-south. There's no time change involved there.

The internal clock responds to light and when we cross several time zones in a hurry as we do when we fly by plane, the clock gets out of whack. To quote the article in Business Insider, "The circadian clock is governed by an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), which in turn receives information from a specialised system in the eyes which detects environmental light, according to the report in the journal Cell."

The scientists were able to tinker with some of the genes in mice that respond to light and one in particular that would reset the circadian clock. The mice responded well when the scientists blocked the one gene. Much more research is needed of course but I'll bet those mice will be much less jet lagged than the rest of us.
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