Thursday, October 31, 2013

Embera Children Playing In The Rain

If the eyes are the window to the soul, then children are the mirror for the soul of a culture. Wherever I travel, observing children supplies me with more information about a place than any guidebook. The Embera are one of 7 indigenous cultures in Panama and they maintain traditional villages with raised, thatched-roof huts with no walls. Peeking out from one of the huts, I watched children play in the rain. No adult cautioned them or called them into a hut, as they squealed with the delight of feeling the raindrops splatter on their little bodies. The joy and unrestricted freedom to play and explore (We caught a few peering through a hole in the village outhouse as we took turns using rain forest facilities.) that these children expressed reveals a lot about Embera culture. They are clearly valued and encouraged to discover the world around them. Although the children only spoke their native dialect, they communicated their happiness to me very strongly.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Galena Getaway

I love exploring the globe and experiencing different cultures but sometimes, a different world can be discovered just a few miles outside of your home. Galena, Illinois is only a few hours drive from my home but it offers another lifestyle of laid back, small town, living. A charming spot in Northwest Illinois known for 18th century architecture and as the hometown of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, Galena is just plain pretty. Covered with rolling hills, green valleys and bluffs, I seem to relax as soon as I step onto the cobblestone streets.

Voted one of the ten best small towns in America by Forbes magazine, Galena was also named the second friendliest city in the U.S. by Conde Nast Traveler and I understand exactly why. It may be a cliche but small towns really do nurture caring and helpful attitudes. My favorite place to stay in Galena is Cloran Mansion Bed & Breakfast and the owners, Cheryl and Carmine, are masters of Galena friendliness. Homemade cookies and an anniversary card awaited my husband and I when we recently celebrated our wedding anniversary at Cloran Mansion. Besides the elegance of the 18th century architecture, pictured above, the grounds of the mansion are just as inviting.

This heard shaped arch that leads to the garden and gazebo, is my favorite place to sit in the sun. There's a fire pit for cool nights and loungers and chairs to while the day away.

In the back, a pond covered with lily pads and rimmed with flowers is a favorite hangout for butterflies and birds. Apple trees and the heady scent of magnolias make this my favorite place to sit in the shade.

All of the rooms and suites are named for Cheryl and Carmine's relatives, we stayed in Sara's suite, where I stuffed myself with Cheryl's homemade fudge in this cute nook.

Not that I had any business indulging in anything but water at Cloran Mansion. The breakfast part of the term bed and breakfast, is taken extremely seriously by Cheryl and Carmine. We awoke to a spread that filled two tables and kept us stuffed until the next day. Omelets cooked to order, freshly squeezed orange juice and bacon, sausages and fruit were just the starters. Cheryl perfected a new recipe of cinnamon swirl pancakes above, that made me swoon.

Strolling the scenic streets of Galena was my remedy to working off that breakfast. These are the same roads and avenues that Lincoln and Grant once walked and it looks pretty much the same as it did then. Narrow roads that used to feature horses and carriages, Victorian houses and a hilly terrain make up downtown Galena. You feel the history on every corner and most of the buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Galena is also noted for its vineyards and Galena Cellars is an award-winning,  family-owned vineyard and winery that spans three generations. The winery produces 40 wine varieties, although I don't recommend trying to sip them all during the vineyard wine tastings.

The vineyards sprawl out over lush hills topped by dreamy blue skies.

Bottle trees featuring color-coordinated Galena Cellars bottles dot the landscape.

I especially enjoy fruity, sweet wines so I scooped up the fruit wines in peach, rhubarb and the apple wine with a label that I couldn't resist, shown above. Whenever I need a quick getaway, Galena is my go to destination. No matter how many times I visit, I always uncover another appealing aspect of this quaint river town. What is your favorite local getaway?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Visiting The Panama Canal

I confess, I'm not usually excited about visiting huge tourist attractions but the Panama Canal proved the exception for me. Everybody heads to the site whenever they touch down in Panama and now I understand why. Viewing one of the most difficult engineering feats ever established is an awesome sight up close. The experience begins with a stop by the Miraflores Visitors Center, which supplies four floors of extensive history and interactive displays about the Panama Canal.

Miraflores Locks is the tallest of the three sets of Panama Canal Locks, measuring over a mile long.The Panama Canal unfolds for 48 miles between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans so you can only view a portion of it at Miraflores Locks but it's still a jaw-dropping sight. Looking down from the observation deck, I witnessed a ship enter the waterway.

Gatun Lake forms part of the Panama Canal, carrying ships across the Isthmus of Panama. I watched as the canal gates gradually opened and closed for the massive cruise ship.

I stared as the ship was raised 87 feet above sea level, all through gravity. The passengers waved as they glided through the canal and I stood amazed at the spectacle I had been lucky enough to observe. The mechanics of the canal are intricately explained at the visitor center but all I remember is the image of that sprawling ship being gently raised and guided through the canal's passage, like it was a toy boat.