Yucatan Sightings

Always with my environmental hat in tow, we explored the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico’s last spring. As in past years, there was litter strewn about throughout; although the touristy Playa del Carmen did have a few “litter crews” grooming the beaches and parks, making them much more pleasing. I’m guessing all that retrieved litter is a combination of surf offerings and sloppy beach loungers.

Playa del Carmen beach, Mexico

While visiting Progreso, a more obscure beach town frequented by Mexicans, litter crews didn’t exist, so we picked up along a mile stretch of the beach. This was obviously not typical of tourists as we received varied responses – stares, thank yous, and a couple children even helped us! Although a valiant effort, we eventually just concentrated on the worst offenders – all things plastic – straws, bottle caps, 6-pack rings, forks, and plastic bags. At least for a period of time, those birds won’t mistake plastic as food along that stretch!

Progreso, Mexico

Some of the more touristy cities offered public recycling; otherwise, it appeared recycling opportunities were limited.  Although, recycling appears to be happening, as it was common to see older women or men digging through the trash harvesting recyclables. Drinking tap water is questionable, so we always buy bottled water in Mexico. Given the dearth of recycling opportunities, at least while we traveled by car we toted along a returnable 5 gallon container of water, filling our smaller bottles. We also noticed, when beer bottles weren’t twist-offs, those bottles were returned and refilled.

As for wildlife, while it was quite different to not see squirrels, rabbits or deer, other animals filled the void.  We saw our first coatis from the raccoon family, camouflaged iguanas throughout, and many colorful birds. One highlight was boating through the mangroves along the protected bio-reserves where we saw flocks of Caribbean Pink Flamingos – thousands of them! They were even more mesmerizing when I relinquished the camera! We embarked on this amazing experience from Rio Lagartos where many guides await to fill their boats with nature enthusiasts every morning.

Caribbean Pink Flamingos near Rio Lagartos, Mexico

The bio-reserves boat trip included a chance to experience a Mayan mud bath.  Of course, I was all in.  First we floated a bit in a salty water reserve to open our pours, then we lathered ourselves with mud, and garnished the look with a mud crown and mangrove leaves. I was promised I would then look much younger!!

Mayan Mud Bath, Yucatan, Mexico

We enjoyed a vast variety of colorful fish along with beautiful sponges, corals and fan while snorkeling off a beach in Cozumel; experiencing the second largest barrier reef system in the world. The Meso-American reef system spans between the Gulf of Mexico and Honduras – almost 175 miles. As for beach walking, the white powdery sand and the clear turquoise waters went on for miles!

Beach on the East side of Cozumel, Mexico
Wonderful snorkeling off of the beach at Sky Reef, Cozumel, Mexico

Interestingly, there are no above ground rivers on the Yucatan peninsula since the upper layer is soft limestone.  Instead there is a large web of fresh underground rivers forming caves and cenotes, natural pits or sinkholes formed when the limestone bedrock collapses, making for great swimming holes. Mexico is filled with amazing Maya archaeological sites. While there are many amazing Yucatan archaeological ruins, most notable the largest Chichen Itzas and the beautiful coastal ruin of Tulum, we had already seen them so this year we just visited a small ruin we happened upon the way – Xcambo, a major salt provider for the Mayan Empire.

Xcambo Ruins, Yucatan, Mexico

While traveling around Mexico, we typically travel by public bus with the locals, but this year we rented a car for a spell so we could take a closer look at the coastline, countryside and colonial villages. Mexican villages always have a local gathering point in the middle of town – the central plaza bordered by a block-long massive ancient church on one side and their municipality building on another. During the evenings, the plaza always buzzes with activity; people watching at it’s finest.

As always, we enjoy sampling local culinary fare. We enjoyed pescado (fish) almost daily, fresh squeezed orange juice, avocados, mangos, lime peanuts, and Mexican pastries.  We always visit the local Central Mercado overflowing with fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds, spices, cornmeal, and everything imaginable. While big box stores are slowing gaining a foot-hold throughout Mexico, there are always ample shoppers swarming the Central Mercados and small Tiendas (small corner stores) about. Sadly, once quite common panaderias, neighborhood bakeries, are becoming harder to find. Central plazas and beaches are generally filled with merchants selling a wide variety of food and such. Some balance a tray of goods on their head, while others have carts propelled by muscle power or a small motor. It appears the economy is doing much better as we notice nicer cars and now it’s less common to see small children sell Chiclets for a few Pecos.

Although we enjoy eating outside, at times we retreated inside for air conditioning.  We are thrilled smoke-free dining is becoming common-place all throughout Mexico. While visiting Holbox Island, we thanked a cigarette butt picker-upper, diligently digging through the sand capturing those toxic butts. He proudly, and sadly, showed us several two-liter bottles filled with butts. As it turned out, he had a small restaurant, as in a small shack and modest outside grill, where he whipped up one of our tastiest meals of the trip!

Wonderful grilled pescado dinner, creation of the chef in the next picture!
El Changarrito, right on the beach, Holbox Island, Mexico. We saw this guy picking up cigarette butts and enjoyed his wonderful grilled pescado – Give him a visit and thank him!

While Mexico is trying desperately to protect their heritage, corn, there is much pressure to accept GMO corn. Mexico has much to lose as corn originated in Mexico and the Mesoamerican region. At risk is their biodiversity and cross contamination, more than 60 indigenous varieties. Corn is central to Mexican culture; corn tortillas or chips are served with every meal. After two years of 93 appeals from the Biotech Industry, Mexico’s 2013 ruling banning GMO corn was sadly overturned last fall, now in the appeal process. Opponents have many concerns – loss of biodiversity, culture, and health concerns due to pesticide exposure in their air, food and waterways.

Pemex gas stations dot the landscape, Mexico’s state-owned energy provider. While Pemex has been the only company allowed to develop their oil and gas for years, just recently this industry has opened up to private sector investors. Mexico’s goal is to generate 35 percent of their total electricity from clean sources by 2025. Roof-top black passive solar water tanks are quite common, but we didn’t see any windmills and only an occasional solar panel. Perhaps they are conflicted, as I have read Pemex provides one-third of their federal funds.  Given Mexico’s apparent abundance of wind, solar and geothermal potential, renewables could be a boon for the economy, environment and people alike.


International Meals on the Road

Last fall we were so excited to score fresh scallops harvested from the seashores of the Outer Banks in North Carolina.  We generally travel on the cheap preparing our own meals, so I was exhilarated when we scored my favorite fish at the local Seafood Market in Ocracoke.  Further up the road we replenished our fresh veggies at The Fresh Market, anticipating a wonderful “local” meal.

As I was cooking, I decided to see exactly where our food came from.  After all, pretty much everything is at arm’s reach in our RV.  Local meal? Not so much. First our salad – cherry tomatoes were from Peru, the romaine lettuce and baby carrots from California, and cauliflower from Canada. Our balsamic salad dressing was from Connecticut and my favorite balsamic glaze was a product of Italy. Fortunately, later in the trip we ran across several Farmers Markets so we then enjoyed local, fresher and tastier salads.

As a side dish we had my favorite – asparagus.  We were in a hurry, it was reasonably priced and not packaged in Styrofoam so I grabbed it and ran.  Turns out it was a “Fairly Traded” product also from Peru. We also snagged a locally baked wild berry pie, which was wonderful!  Although we had already eaten most of the food I brought along, we complimented our meal with nine grain bread from Uprise Bakery from close to home.

Looking closer, for lunch we had wonderful red pepper humus from Asheville, NC, from earlier in our travels, organic blue tortilla chips from Texas, Planter’s Mixed Nuts from Illinois, and Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered espresso beans (our traveling companion) from California.

For breakfast we had Chiquita bananas from Guatamala, along with Kashi 7 Whole Grain Nuggets and Trader Joes Multigrain O’s Cereal from California, covered with yummy honey from Walther’s Farm south of my home town and organic milk from Wisconsin.  To wake us up, we drank Altura Organic Fair Trade Columbian coffee with organic half & half from Oregon.

Although we strive to eat healthy foods, in one day we managed to eat food from six countries – Canada, Columbia, Guatemala, Italy, Peru, and the United States from California, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, Oregon, Texas, Wisconsin and just a couple local foods from North Carolina.  Now that was a carbon intensive day! I’ve read food typically travels an average of 1500 miles before reaching one’s plate.  Seems mine could have been even further! Seems we need to be more diligent both on and off the road!




Mount Bierstadt Summit

We immensely enjoyed exploring northern and central Colorado during our travels this summer.  Given the beautiful mountains and the cooler weather, we hiked more miles than usual.  While enjoying all the sights, we were also in training as we had a goal in mind – hiking our first 14er. We drove up Guanella Pass in the Mount Evans Wilderness Area where we caught the Mount Bierstadt trailhead.  This was Sunday and a popular hike, so we had plenty of company, although much younger than us!

Initially we hiked through the willows down into the valley, soon starting our upward trek, upward and upward.  Glad to finally reach what we thought was the saddle, the most challenging section of the trail came into view, a lengthy set of relentless switchback.   Upward and upward, many hikers returning from the summit encouraging those laboring up the mountain, one step at a time.  Here I finally understood hiking etiquette – the person hiking up the mountain has the right of way.  As I became more fatigued, my vision remained downward willing my feet around the impending rocks. When I had the energy, I demanded the right-of-way!  We set our sights on a rock or vantage point up ahead where we would again stop to catch our breath, noticing the oxygen becoming thinner as we continued upward.  All along the way the views behind us were astounding.  Multiple mountain ranges emerged and all the while HaRVy (our RV) was visible far in the distance – a tiny shiny white rectangle. Finally we conquered the grueling switchbacks. Next we saw a snow patch and a boulder-filled peak in front of us.  We scrambled up through the rubble, when dizzy stopping to adjust to the elevation gain.  Forging ahead, we soon made it to the top!  Once there we savored our ceremonial gorp and apple, while watching a marmot positioning himself for food scraps.  After we captured our moment on camera, a couple asked me to take their picture.  I said “I would be honored”, well knowing what it took to get there.  Much to my surprise, after the summit picture, the guy pulled out a diamond ring, proposed and she said “yes”.  I made certain that special moment was well documented.

One is advised to not stay on the summit for long due to unpredictable lightening storms, so we soon headed down.  What we thought would be a quick return was also challenging traversing down the slippery, sandy slope, down, down, down the switchbacks. Along the way, we were excited to come across two bighorn sheep goats calmly grazing along the mountainside.  Foraging ahead, we watched our progress as HaRVy slowly grew in size, glad to be back “home”.  7 miles round trip; 2770 ft. elevation gain; Summit 14,065 ft.

South Korea Sightings++++++

While South Korea wasn’t on my bucket-list, my daughter is there teaching English so I enjoy visiting.  This year’s trip was especially exciting, as I met my first granddaughter!  While I would love to write about her, I will keep my environmental focus, sharing sightings and other topics that required further research. With every culture, environmental awareness and actions vary greatly.

My daughter’s family lives in the busy, vibrant coastal city of Busan.  There you find small neighborhood business areas throughout.  I filled our refrigerator with produce, frequenting local vendors. Seasonal vegetables and fruits were plentiful, produce being sold from the back of pick-ups, piles along the street, in alleyway markets or huge outdoor markets. Interestingly, with all these offerings, there was little variety, as in just one kind of apple, fortunately a tasty variety. Here too I visited one of the largest fish markets I have ever seen, curious looking fish of all shapes and sizes. Via the local bus, I sometimes shopped at E-Mart where there are a few imported produce options. Fruits and vegetables are grown everywhere. Valleys are filled with gardens and greenhouses while terrace gardens hug hills and mountains, no soil unturned.

Although fast foods have crept into their society, a typical Korean diet consists of a bowl of steamed white rice, a soybean-paste vegetable soup, kimchi along with side dishes of steamed or seasoned vegetables, pork or fish; sometimes chicken or beef; and a broth type of soup.  Kimchi is a pungent, usually hot mixture of fermented and/or pickled vegetables, most often made out of Chinese cabbage and daikon radishes.  Koreans consumes an average of forty pounds of this revered national dish per year.  While eating out, it’s quite common to sit on the floor and eat at a low table, using a spoon and chopsticks.  As for ordering take-out, they place bowls of food in a hot box attached to a motorcycle, once delivered we enjoy our food served with kimchi, then we return our empty bowls placing them outside our door for pick-up.  In South Korea, they don’t eat on the go as it is more of a social activity. It is their custom to sit down and enjoy food together, focusing on that activity alone.

In South Korea recycling is huge.  Not only is there a strong social pressure to recycle, it’s free, whereas they pay to dispose trash.  I enjoyed recycling day at our apartment complex. All day long, the dwellers hauled their recyclables onto the elevator and contributed to the growing piles, absolutely huge at the end of the day.  They also have a “give away” system in place. If the item doesn’t disappear after a period of time, disposal fees are applied. With such a system come risks. I noted a lot of litter and random displaced bags of trash scattered about as public recycling and trash bins were uncommon.  I only saw public bins when visiting public beaches, parks and some educational facilities.

Hiking is a favorite cultural pastime in South Korea with scenic mountains cover 70% of the terrain.   My daughter and family live on the side of a mountain, so anytime I went anywhere, I either walked up or down the mountain.  My newborn granddaughter resisted daytime naps, so we spent hours hiking while she snoozed in a front pack. We always headed up the mountain, along with the locals, to a beautiful trail overlooking Busan. Green area is quite common and popular, many times including fitness equipment scattered along the path.  Before my visit was over, I finally summitted the mountain.  Unfortunately, views off in the distance were usually obscured as smog is quite common.

After the Second World War, South Korea made a shift from agrarian to industrial; 75% of the population lived in the rural areas; according to World Bank, now 82 percent live in urban areas. Housing is very concentrated, most living in small high-rise apartment. Something common and quite lovely, Koreans typically have a heating system called ondal.  Since it’s a Korean custom to sit and sleep on mats or cushions on the floor, they keep the floors warm by installing pipes under the concrete and circulating hot water through them.

Face masks are quite common in South Korea and East Asia. This tradition began in Japan due to a massive pandemic of influenza killing between20-40 million people around the world. While this practice ended in 1919, it resumed again in the 1970s due to the industrial related rampant air pollution. Residents are now more frequently advised to wear masks during dust advisories as ultrafine dust travels hundreds of miles from the expanding deserts of China filled with lead and arsenic, creating thick smog. They also wear masks to contain germs. Back in 2012 all the masks were white, but this year I saw masks in a wide variety of colors.

The government is pursuing new and renewable energy to secure more independence and reduce their carbon emissions. They are implementing compulsory renewable installation systems to create the demand for new and renewable energy and promote private investment.

In an effort to reduce smoking, South Korea passed a country-wide smoke-free ordinance January 2015.  Still 36% of the men and 4.3% of the women smoke.  Attempts to decrease smoking include smoking bans almost everywhere, price hikes, mandatory warnings on packaging, advertising bans, along with financial incentives and medical help to quit. When walking through neighborhood parks in 2012, I continually dodged groups of older men smoking.  This year I was thrilled to experience much less smoke second-hand smoke.

While South Korea has banned the cultivation of GMO crops, given their low domestic production of soybeans and corn, they are a major importer of GMOs grain. Now they are concerned about pollution threatening their local ecosystem due to GMO seed spill. Consumer groups are requesting GMO product labeling similar to the European Union.

Reforestation efforts increased in the 1970s and a few of the remaining old-growth forests were protected in nature reserves.  Now South Korea has 20 national parks. Interestingly, one of the world’s most interesting wildlife sanctuaries is the DMZ (demilitarized zone), 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, untouched since 1953.

Now back home, I always pay a self-imposed carbon tax.  This trip’s recipients are Missouri River Relief and The Environmental Working Group.

National Parks Anniversary

I’m a big fan of March 1, 1872; that was the day the US Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant designated Yellowstone as our first National Park. This land was set aside “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and placed under control by the Secretary of the Interior.  This one action led to a new world-wide trend, now more than 100 countries have set aside some 1200 national parks or preserves.  In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service to protect 35 national parks and monuments.  In 1933 the National Park Service also assumed stewardship of 56 national monuments and military sites.  Now more than 84 million acres are protected, so much to enjoy!

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Travels Southeast Bound

One January, we were chilled to the bone so we hit the road, heading south. Always aware of the environment, here are my sightings.

Our Mississippi State Park campground was absolutely beautiful but there were no recycling bins.  Anti-litter signs are prevalent – “Pick It Up Mississippi” along roadways and “Adopt-A-Highway America” along the Interstates.  It appears these signs are effective, as we didn’t notice much roadside litter.  As for local cuisine, I wasn’t much interested in fried chicken on top of waffles, boiled peanuts, or fried pies but I was glad to see the produce stands emerge as we traveled further south.  Overall, Mississippi is quite beautiful.  Much of the land is sparsely populated and filled with healthy forests.  While logging does occur, we didn’t notice clear-cutting scars.

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Greece Travels and Giving Back

While in Italy, we took a two week excursion into Greece.  Here too we found fresh produce abounded, recycling a bit less prominent, feral cats everywhere, and again the wonderful Mediterranean diet with no GMO tainted food – Greek Salads and fluffy Greek yogurt strewn with local honey were our favorites.  Small family businesses covered the spectrums of our needs – restaurants, stores, hotels, and more.  Diminishing our pleasure a bit, we struggled with second-hand smoke; of all the countries, Greece has the highest smokers per capita. Fortunately, inside dining was customarily smoke-free.

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Italy Sightings

Although struggling with the carbon footprint of flying, our traveling curiosities won out and we flew to Italy, embarking on our first European travels.

As we travel, our eyes are always wide open, taking in the sights, smells and sounds that surround us.  Viewing the beautiful countryside was quite easy given their extensive train system powered by electricity. While large wheat fields in the plains meet their pasta needs, it appears most of their food comes from small farms and residential neighborhoods as they flourish with produce, vineyards and olive tree groves growing everywhere.  With their tradition of cooking with fresh local food comes wonderful cuisine – the Mediterranean Diet – much to our liking! And it’s GMO free! Like most European countries, Italy has banned GMO (genetically modified organisms) products.  We loved all the fresh produce, pasta, seafood, olives, and pizza, and topped off most meals with a new flavor of Gelato, after all, it has less milk-fat than ice cream!

Remarkably, I didn’t see any Styrofoam (polystyrene) food containers. We were served to-go food in paper sacks or #1 plastic containers and coffee in paper cups. Petrol isn’t subsidized by the government which makes it more expensive; wonder if Styrofoam isn’t used for that reason?  As for grocery bags, I rarely saw reusable cloth bags. Instead single-use plastic bags were rampant in the stores and littered the countryside and waterways.  As for plastic water bottles, they too were rampant.  While dining out, the only water available was bottled water.  Hydration is essential, so I had to lift my plastic-water bottle ban.  As for recycling, public recycling was quite common with ever present co-mingling of trash and we noted ample recycling opportunities for the locals with larger recycling bins along multiple alleyways.  Feral cats fended for themselves everywhere.

We especially enjoyed hiking from village to village along the Cinque Terre National Park mountain pathway overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  The fertile Tuscany valley and fortress walled cities are stunning, the Amafi Coastal area and architecture in Florence beautiful, the ancient ruins of Rome and Pompeii  thought-provoking, but it was in captivating Venice where we gave pause.  We clearly saw the challenge of this city over 1500 years old, threatened by rising ocean levels from glacier melt and warming ocean thermal expansion of the Northern Adriatic Sea.  Sadly, their recent multi-billion dollar system of floodgates around the city will only delay the inevitable.

Reset, back in Boonville.  After weeks of bone jarring hikes along cobblestone streets and concrete walkways, we are so happy to be back on the Katy Trail.  So happy – we even broke out into a jog!

4-22-15 Orvieto, Italy (2)
Tuscany Small Farms