Saturday, September 24, 2016

Nashville, Tunica, Biloxi, and back

Once we got a place to live and a car to drive, we took off on another journey in the US. This was a circular trip, going to Nashville, Tennessee; Tunica, Mississippi; Biloxi, Mississippi; and returning to Silver Springs, Florida. It was an awesome trip, and the scenery was much prettier than I remember it.

We stopped for breakfast at Krystal in Georgia. I had to get a shot of the model missile while we were waiting.

Bruce doesn't drive through Atlanta, so there aren't many shots through Georgia. The Atlanta skyline was lovely, but he was sleeping, so we'll have to get those shots some other time. He had awoken by the time we hit Chattanooga, TN, though, and he got some nice shots of the Tennessee River as it winds through Chattanooga.

As we were heading down the road, the Geezermobile let us know that traffic patterns had changed, and she suggested we take a secondary road. We thought that was an excellent idea, especially after we checked out some of the views.

We were back on the interstate (with Bruce driving) for Monteagle Mountain. Somehow it just didn't seem so big, and that grade didn't seem quite so steep anymore! Wonder why …

We finally made it to Nashville, where we met up with a friend for a couple of days.

East Nashville is being gentrified. The old houses that had such character are either being renovated or torn down and replaced. The renovated homes are looking good. The new homes that are being built just aren't my cup of tea, though. My jaw spent way too much time on the ground for me to be able to get pix. This is removing a lot of affordable housing from the Nashville area, as East Nashville was always an affordable area. Housing costs have skyrocketed in the area now, though, and there are tons of little hipster shops. Shelby Park is still around though, and I had an excellent time getting photos of the train tracks. I wonder if the kids are still crazy enough to try to walk those tracks, hoping a train doesn't come along. I sure hope today's kids are smarter than yesterday's.

We made a short trip up into Franklin, Kentucky. How do you know you're in Kentucky for sure? I haven't had one of these for a long time. It was very refreshing!

When we left Nashville, we headed for Tunica, Mississippi. We decided to take some back roads. It's all about the journey now, though the destination still matters. The first thing that popped into my head when I saw them working on the lines in the cherry picker was, “Ecuadoreans just need a ladder, a pickup truck, and some tree branches to do that!” This is a whole lot safer, though.

The countryside was lovely, but it appeared to be mostly used for hay. There were very few animals grazing, which surprised me quite a bit. There were a few fields of what appeared to be soybeans and others of corn, but mostly it was hay. There were a couple of impressive fields of kudzu, too.

Then, we came across the big city of Pocahontas, Tennessee. The Post office was built on the site of the Battle of Davis Bridge, one of many Civil War battles that were fought in the area.

The town appears to be turning into a ghost town. There were some houses in good repair, but most looked similar to these.

There is a place in Mississippi where they still play donkey basketball! I know my friends from high school remember donkey ball!  Bruce has never seen it, though!

Then, we made it to Tunica. Bruce has always been fond of Hollywood Casino in Tunica, so we came up here to check it out and see if he could still get as lucky as he used to. At one time, it was “good to be Mr. Adams” there. While there, I decided to meet up with a long-time internet friend, too. We had a very good visit. Too bad, Bruce's time at Hollywood wasn't as good. Apparently, Tunica has had difficulty bouncing back after the recession. They had removed a large number of slots and not replaced them. On a weekend, there weren't enough patrons to run all of the table games, and I heard something I had never heard in a casino before: An invitation for any player to join a game in the poker room. Usually, there are so many people wanting to get into the poker room that there is a waiting list soon after they open. I've never been in a casino when that waiting list has been exhausted, opening the next seat for any available player. I heard it this time, though. I visited a different casino when meeting my friend, and it didn't seem to be much different than Hollywood.

As far as the hotel, it still had the same décor as before, but it was definitely much more worn. It was clean, though. They had bolted the sliding doors closed so that I couldn't access the balcony. I was a bit disappointed in that since I like to spend more time on the balcony working than in the casino, not being much of a gambler myself. In the middle of our stay, the ceiling of our room sprang a leak, so we had to pack everything back up and move to another room. The hotel management felt that inconvenience was only worth a $10 credit. I thought that was a slap in the face. Really, the only thing positive I can say is that the seafood buffet was good, though it used to be much better. Also, one of the wait staff at breakfast was from Senegal, and he let me know that it should be safe to visit Madagascar so long as we fly onto the island and don't take a boat to or from the mainland. So, Madagascar is on our list of places, and Tunica is off.

This little guy wanted to go, too!

The Mississippi cotton field were ready for harvesting.

We decided to see how things were going in Biloxi before heading home. I wanted some Darwell's, and there are awesome pictures to get there! So, off we went. On the way down, we saw a sign for the Little Red Schoolhouse. We decided that since we were Travelin' Geezers, we really didn't have anything better to do than to get off the highway and see the Little Red Schoolhouse. It's really a lovely building. It was closed on Sunday, so we didn't get to go inside. Admission is generally free, and you get a guided tour with that admission fee. We'll just have to go back!

After just a few hours, we make it to Biloxi and the Treasure Bay Casino.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit, Treasure Bay was on a pirate ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Katrina wasn't a fan, though, and the pirate ship was destroyed. It is now across the street, and I believe, it is 100% on land now. I can't be certain, but I think the laws were changed to allow gambling on land in this area after Hurricane Katrina hit. Anyway, even on a Sunday night/Monday morning, Treasure Bay was hopping. All of the tables were open with plenty of players. I was able to play some of my favorite old penny slots before retiring to the room to sit on the balcony working while enjoying the view from the cheaper rooms (parking lot view).

For dinner, we drove to one of my favorite restaurants. Darwell's is in Long Beach, hidden away several blocks from the main drag and behind the railroad tracks. It's got some of the best cajun food I've had and some really unique décor. Bruce had the seafood gumbo and I had a blackened Snapper on a bed of bismati rice, covered with Darwell's famous crawdad etoufee and topped with blackened gulf shrimp. Nom, nom, nom. They twisted my arm just enough to convince me to take a pineapple brownie home for dessert. Deeeeelectible! The kid behind the counter is from Poland, and we talked about various places to visit when we go there to visit.

I got a few nice shots of the Mobile skyline. The thing about the Mobile skyline that always stick with me is that you can only see it from one side. Coming from Florida to Mobile, I have never seen the city skyline unless I turn around and look when we come out of the tunnel. If you didn't know what was going on, you would never know you had just driven under part of a major city.

We decided to stop and check out the Florida Welcome Center, which was a good call. They had free shots of orange juice that we sampled. We also picked up a lot of tourist information. The best part, though, was a little photo kiosk. We had a blast playing in that. I love the pix they sent me in my mailbox. I think I want to go back and take some more!

We made it home to our little crash pad in the pouring rain, just in time to notice that the neighbors have a gibbon swinging from their tree! I DO still have monkeys close!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Leaving Ecuador, Arriving Florida

We had an awesome send off by friends before leaving Puerto Lopez.  Those friends will be missed very much, too.  Most of our things were given away - old clothes and rubber tubs to the orphanage, acetaminophen (Tylenol) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to doctors for giving to patients for free, spices to various expats, etc.  We did sell the cars and some other items.  We didn't take anything that wouldn't fit in four suitcases, though.

After getting everything together and very tear-filled good-byes with our neighbors and their girls, we headed to the Victor Hugo for one last lunch in Puerto Lopez and to meet our cab to take us to the airport in Manta.  The horse that chases dogs on the beach came by to give us one last farewell.  He was at our send-off lunch, too! 

Our cabbie didn't take the coastal road, which would have given me one more opportunity to see the monkeys.  Instead, he took the inland road, through Jipijapa, which gave me one last look at the creepy statue of the woman bending over with what appear to be a basked full of boobs!  Since we were going to Manta instead of from Manta, we only got the back and side shot this time! 

When I flew into Manta a few years ago, on my first visit in the country, I remembered the airport being a concrete building, like many of the buildings in Ecuador.  Apparently, those buildings were damaged with the earthquake.  Now, most of the buildings are tents or made from shipping containers.  It's all very orderly and well put together, though.  I was expecting a puddle hopper, but apparently, air traffic between Manta and Quito is pretty brisk.  It was a full-sized airbus, and it was full!  They didn't charge us for our extra bags, which was really cool!

When we arrived at Quito and checked in for our next flight, everything went smoothly again.  I had difficulty getting the flight sequence I wanted booking the entire trip, so I booked them separately.  Flying from Manta to Ft. Lauderdale as a package would have required we stay overnight in Quito.  Booking separate flights, I was able to only have a 3 hour layover, plenty of time to retrieve our bags and recheck them.  This was also my first time flying Jet Blue, so I was interested in how much room I would have for my extra leg.  (Let me know if you don't get the reference.  I'm not sure how long those commercials ran.)  This flight was full, too, and since I didn't do online check in, they initially had Bruce and I seated apart from each other. We agreed to take the emergency row, though, so we could sit together.  I do like Jet Blue.  Lots of room to readjust my legs multiple times during the flight without kicking anyone.  The seats were comfortable and roomy.  When I had to go to the bathroom, it wasn't the normal exercise in contortionism that I've become accustomed to.  (To you grammar nazis, I'm aware that I ended a sentence with a preposition.  "To which I've become accustomed" just isn't very comfortable to me for informal speech, though.)  They don't give you free alcohol like Copa (I think), but it's a pleasant enough flight that you don't need it!

We landed a little early in Ft. Lauderdale, even though our first approach had to be aborted.  Apparently, there was a grounds crew out cutting grass around the runway we were supposed to land on.  They didn't respond to the tower, and our pilot apparently wasn't comfortable doing his own mowing down of people that didn't belong on the runway at that time.  So, we left the wheels down, but ascended again just before touching land.  After circling, our second approach was successful.  We gathered our bags, cleared customs and immigration without even a second look, and stepped outside.  OH MY GOD!  THE HEAT!  THE HUMIDITY! IT WAS ONLY 5:30 A.M.! This would never have been tolerated in Ecuador!

The air conditioning was good in the rental car, though, so off we went in search of breakfast.  We were looking forward to a real American breakfast, not desayuno Americana.  In Ecuador (and much more of Central and South America), desayuno Americano consists of two eggs, a piece of toast or roll of some type, some butter and jam, instant coffee or tea, and juice.  Folks, that is not an American breakfast.  This is an American breakfast, courtesy of Denny's. Eggs, meat, potatoes, bread with butter and jam, juice, and brewed coffee.  I like my eggs poached, please.  The orange juice was Minute Maid, which doesn't even compare to Supermaxi, but the breakfast was heaven, otherwise!

After breakfast, we headed up to Silver Springs where we had a lead on a little trailer in a snowbird park inside the Ocala National Forest.  It's less than we were used to in Ecuador for more money, but we plan to spend much of our time travelin', and we really just need a cheap place to crash when we're sitting still.  This fits the bill.  It's also in the forest, so there's nature.  So far, I've seen several hawks, herons, and other water birds.  

The lake is full of turtles.  They tell me alligators, deer, and bear are common signs, but I haven't seen any of those yet.  I'm hoping for a sight of the elusive Florida panther, but I'm not holding my breath.  Once everything gets settled and we have more time to walk and stuff, I'll see more stuff.  Bruce was just so happy not to have the rooster crowing in the wee hours of the morning.  The Sandhill Crane Serenade comes after the sun has been up for a while.  

Place to live.  Check.  We'll have to finish the paperwork, but it's found.

While looking at the trailer, I stepped in an anthill.  The Florida fire ant isn't elusive, and they find me quite tasty, indeed!  At the top of the shopping list - Ant killer dust!  Them buddies have got to go!

On our way down to Lakeland the next day, where we had a lead on significant price cuts on a new car - buying new cheaper than we could get used - the temperature light came on on the rental car.  We pulled over and let it cool down, and took off again.  We got to the dealership without incident.  There, we found the Geezermobile #3, a Nissan Versa SL with built-in navigation and a rear camera.  Deep dealer discounts and financing incentives were in place, just as we had thought, so we drove out with it.  A much bigger and better car than the Spark for close to the same as we paid for the Spark in Ecuador.  I can still take pictures over the top of the car while Bruce drives, though!

We left the rental parked at a friend's house since the temperature light came on again while we were driving there.  We rented this care from EZ Rental Car.  When I called them, they told me that if they pick it up and take it to the dealer, and the dealer says there's nothing wrong with it, I would be responsible for the fees for towing, etc.  So, I made sure they were aware that if I drove it, and the engine blew on my way there, I would just be leaving it on the side of the interstate, calling them to let them know the nearest mile marker.  I would not be staying with it in the heat, and I would not be responsible for any damage that happened to the car for driving it after the temperature light had come on.  They accepted that risk and waived the drop fee for me to deliver it to Tampa instead of Ft. Lauderdale since the car was currently in Plant City, and Tampa was the closest place for it.  The light came on and went off a couple of more times while I was driving down I-4, but the engine didn't blow up, so I kept going until it was delivered to their Tampa location.

For reasons known only to my right foot, it decided to start swelling and hurting and bruising around the big toe.  It got to the point that I couldn't walk.  I iced it and put it up, and the next morning it was somewhat better, so we went out again.  By mid-morning, it was starting to go again, and I was afraid it was going to get really bad again.  So we headed to the local VA clinic, where the doctor didn't think it was gout because there was no heat, but he didn't know what it was.  He sent me to The Villages for an x-ray.  We set the navigation system to the address, and what did we find?

A dirt road!! I can do it everywhere!  Bruce said this one was okay, though, because it wasn't on the side of a mountain with half of it falling off a sheer cliff.  Also, he had good visibility because we weren't in a cloud forest.  I'll have to see what I can do about that!

Anyway, the doc said neither my labs nor my x-rays explained my foot, though it did show a deformity that could potentially be causing some problems.  The problem went away on its own, though, and I'm up and going again.  Apparently, this is snowbird central here.  The doctor actually suggested that we get our records transferred and get our intake/annual appointments done "before the rush" when the snowbirds come down!  We actually have things that are closed for the season right now.  Living in Tampa before, we never experienced that.  Tampa had snowbirds, but it also had a constant population.  That doesn't seem to be the case up here.  It's pretty dead right now, which suits us just fine.  It's a sleepy little place.

The closest post office is inside the local hardware store.  I wouldn't have been surprised to see Mr. Drucker appear!

There are "fresh egg" signs at the ends of several driveways.  We haven't gotten any yet, but we will.  There are dirt roads.  You should be careful to dodge the squirrels, raccoons, and opossums as they cross the road.  The signs say to watch for deer and bear, too.  The population is a little on the elderly side and electronic mobility scooters can be treated like vehicles.

Yesterday, we even scoped out the local mercado/cholo mall, also known as the farmer's market/flea market.  This one's bigger than the one we went to in Tampa and has more things.  We spent a few hours wandering around it.  Prices on vegetables are better than in the stores.  We can get a basket of peppers for $1.50, with about 5 peppers in it, and other produce is similarly priced. Even the cubano peppers that we got 3 for a quarter in Puerto Lopez are also in the basket for $1.50.  There will tend to be 6 or 7 in those baskets, though, because they're smaller than the normal bell peppers. Local honey with the comb is priced about the same as in Ecuador, buying it on the way to Montecristi.  There's a farmer's market closer to us, in Silver Springs.  We'll check it out, but it's sponsored by Whole Foods and has many non-local vendors, so we expect the prices to be higher.  Regardless, we'll be buying our vegetables on Saturdays, hoping they'll last  a week.

Looking at meat prices, we were pleasantly surprised.  At Save-A-Lot, we could get a rack of pork ribs for $3.25/lb, just a quarter a pound more than we paid in Ecuador, and they have various deals on mixed cuts of meat for $20.  At Sam's Club, we found lean ground beef for $2.75/lb and many reasonably priced cuts.  Some things were more, and some were less, but if we're careful, we shouldn't spend much more on meat.  Seafood is a different story, though! Good thing I like bass since that's what's mainly in these lakes! We picked up a couple of nice T-bones at Save-A-Lot for $7.  Nice and tender!  Not as flavorful as in Ecuador, but much easier to chew!

We're still getting settled in and haven't had a chance to see many of our stateside friends yet.  We haven't even let some of them know we're in town yet because we know we aren't going to be able to see them before we scoot out again for a little while.  The newness of being back is beginning to wear off, and we're starting to settle in.  The basic needs have been met, and I now have time to write.  I've seen several places that I want to explore more and take some time to get some good pictures.  We haven't found the trail heads and the awesome springs that are supposed to be here, but we haven't had the opportunity to look for those yet.  To busy getting set up for living back in the US.

The park we're in is kind of run down, but it keeps the wildlife coming in, and the view from the porch is awesome!

As we explore more, both close and far, we'll post more!