Cecilia M. Miller

When the time came for me to write of my Cozumel experience, I could think of nothing better than purchasing a box of crayons. A dash to the market brought the purchase of a box of 96 rainbow hued sticks. In opening the box, the aroma of kindergarten began dancing around me. It became an instant permission for play and I delved right in. In doing so, I found myself right back in the mindset of luxurious Cozumel.

A recent vacation to the enchanting isle of Mexico’s Cozumel left me searching for words and ways in which to describe the life in Cozumel’s many colors. It was a time I wanted to encapsulate in my memory, and its greatest glory, I knew, would be in finding ways to communicate to others the verve in each hue.

As a travel writer I have been known to describe the essence of beautiful places, the solemnity of holy places and the sorrow of places whose bliss was disturbed, yet on this journey the beauty of the colors seemed to clear the slate in my mind and leave only awe behind. I decided to allow the wonder to overtake me, so I might experience this setting, and worry about the writing of it at another time.

Our opulent Carnival cruise ship pulled expertly to the pier of Cozumel and our disembarking was smooth, never betraying that we were breaching both water and land. In no time at all I realized my experience here would be one of complete Fiesta.
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We were greeted by guards soberly dressed in sterile looking white uniforms with black leather sashes holding their guns in place. Their dark eyes scanned each vacationer like their eyes were x-rays to our souls. As we passed the guard station we were greeted by young, beautiful natives dressed in authentic Indian costumes from years gone by. The colors of the costumes were a psychedelic mixing of colors; only somehow it wasn’t garish. The enactors were lithe and copper skinned with gleaming black eyes and hair with bright white toothy smiles seemingly shouting, “Fun!” Their wardrobe was one of brick red, yellows, greens, blues and gold, all pieced together in the most enchanting way. Others were posing while swathed in a faultless mixture of yellow, scarlet, olive green, copper, yellow green, robin’s egg blue and granny smith apple. It was a dazzling visual sight.

As the indigo heavens lazed overhead we met with Hector, our tour guide for the day. Hector had caramel-tinged skin, ebony eyes, an accent disguising his knowledge of English and a ready smile to make our day an event we would long remember. For the first leg of our tour, he pointed us toward a razzmatazz colored jeep. My husband decided he was best equipped to do the driving, herding the stick-shift grinding vehicle into the disorderly and narrow streets of the city, while attempting to keep track of Hector in the lead vehicle.

While traveling through the city we passed through a scrambling of people, sounds and aromas. The city was a visual carnival of tourists, natives milling about, people of all ages hocking items in the streets, and the everyday people living their lives in the midst of tourisms pull. There was a din of multinational accents, revved up engines and beeping horns in the snarl of traffic, as well as dogs barking and the shouts of vendors hungry for US dollars. The olfactories were bombarded with seawater brine, perspiration of those eking out a living, the pungent odor of chickens cooking and emphasized under the heat of the noon sun.

It wasn’t too long before we pulled off onto a dusty dirt road the color of tumbleweed. Hector signaled us to follow him and then raced ahead, hitting every pothole in the worn road. Apparently this was exactly his intention too, as when he stopped after a while to check on the drivers he asked, “Enjoying our ‘Mexican massage?” All this he found terribly funny, I might add. I could tell by the way his grin reached from ear to ear.

As this seemed a providential time, my husband alerted Hector our jeep’s gas gauge was on Empty and our ‘check engine’ light was a glaring dandelion color. To our concerns Hector stifled a chortling laugh as he replied, “Si Senor, Welcome to Mexico”, before once again speeding off. In hot pursuit we continued past brush, grass and trees, all a blur of forest green, inch worm, green yellow and yellow green all covered in road dust.

Just as our internal organs were about to start swapping places, he jolted to a stop in a small parking lot we’d come upon. At first all you could hear were our moans as we clawed our way out of the jeeps. One look at the beach however and our jovial spirits were renewed.

Hector escorted us to a beach where we were scheduled to take a boat to a private island escape. What we saw were sinking and half submerged boats aligning a bit of shore. One hearty lady in the party actually began to board one of these holey barges before Hector could laughingly say, “No Senora, the boat she is coming”, while pointing towards a speed boat quickly approaching the nearby dock. Once aboard the shamrock hued boat we were jetted across the sea green water to the awaiting leisure of Passion Island, truly an adult version of a child’s sandbox.

The Carnival Cruise line owns this island and reserves it for their customers. The island has no theft, a point I’m sure the cruise line adamantly demands of their employees. Carnival also guarantees there will never be more people on the island than what there are lounge chairs on the beach. It’s created to promote nothing but leisure and fair-weather days.
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Passion Island was everything a private island in tropical waters should be. We were shown to changing cabanas with bright mustard walls and thatched roofs in shades of tan and copper. Inside there were mannerly employees to escort us to available areas for changing and storing our clothing. We then entered a paradise of white and silver sand and a pure periwinkle sky only divided by the gulf waters. The water had layers of color depending on the depth of the sea in each area. The welcoming shallows were a sea green. By the time you waded in to your neckline, it was a robin’s egg blue. Further out the water became a turquoise blue. And, when your eyes hit the horizon, the water was a solemn cadet blue. The water was not as warm, as buoyant, nor as clear as Caribbean waters we’ve experienced, and yet it was as mesmerizing and sensual as any fantasy.

After bathing in the caressing waters and basking under the near equatorial sun we were fed by the guides who’d brought us here. Hector was at our beck and call plying us with food and drinks. They offered a range of sodas as well as ‘safe’ water and ice. If you cared to imbibe, there was plenty of liquor at your disposal. The meal was dry barbequed chicken, baked fish, rice, fresh fruits, chips and salsa and a fresh garden salad. We found this same meal at each port and excursion from the cruise line and decided it must be ‘the foreigner’ special.

After all we could eat and drink, Hector introduced us to the island’s wild life. Our first visit was to a young raccoon who dallied in a nearby palm. The raccoon had been brought here by a land bridge that had later washed away. The little raccoon was injured when he first appeared to the guides and in return for their care, he became additional entertainment. Hector handed me a wedge of the juicy watermelon left from lunch and encouraged me to draw near to the ‘coon and proffer it. The little creature was timber wolf in color with a tan tail and a sepia mask. He eagerly stretched his nimble paws out to graciously accept this gastronomic gift he was obviously quite fond of. It made for a great ‘Kodak moment’.
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Next Hector walked with us to a small inlet with olive green water and pointed out an asparagus colored crocodile that appeared to be about five feet long. Hector was able to coax the croc’ toward us with the sight and smell of leftover chicken from our lunch. True to all we’d seen and heard the croc’ seemed to amble as we first approached but when the chicken was produced he took on an Olympian’s momentum. While my husband stood a few feet from this feeding frenzy, I kept a greater distance between myself and this young water demon. I knew I was plenty close enough when from where I stood and photographed I was clearly able to hear the crunching of brittle chicken bones in the wrath of crocodile teeth.
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Then, to make genuine our Mexican experience, we were ready for a siesta. The island is covered in colorful serapes hanging between the palms, forming hammocks among the trees. We willingly let our satiated bodies sink into the folds of the cloth and allowed the breeze to gently rock us into an even greater stage of relaxation. Sighs of contentment could be heard all around. I simply cooed while my husband declared, “This is heaven.” Fronds swept the skies in adulation above us until sleep took us captive. Awakening in paradise it was a most difficult task to return to the mammoth cruise ship and raucous good times awaiting us that evening. I couldn’t bring home the Caribbean sky, seas or sand, but nothing can ever take away the memory of the slice of serenity we experienced in colorful Cozumel.

 

 

If You Go:
Cozumel is Mexico’s only Caribbean island and can be found 12 miles off the country’s shore. It is well-known by divers for its reefs and ranks among the five top dive locations in the world. We can thank Jacques Cousteau for bringing Cozumel to the attention of the general populace in 1962, when he made a TV documentary there. It’s a popular port for cruise ships because of it’s diversity of water sport and seaside activities.
There’s no boredom on Cozumel, unless that’s your dream vacation. For those who enjoy being active there are many opportunities for fun. Those who are water inclined have options to: snorkel, catamaran, go to caverns, kayak, deep sea fish, swim with dolphins, power boat, swim and relax on the beach. For those interested in other endeavors you will find: biking, shopping, jeeps, ATVs, hiking, horseback, golfing and both the cooking and tasting of Mexican cuisine.
There are Mayan ruins on the island though not nearly as spectacular as the ruins you can tour a few minutes away on the mainland. Ancient Mayan women came to the island of Cozumel on boats to worship Ixchel, the goddess of fertility.

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Whether you are a family looking for an outing, an animal lover, an Alpaca owner, a prospective Alpaca business associate, or any combination thereof, you will be assured an unforgettable visit if you arrange a tour of an Alpaca ranch.

My family’s experience began on a postcard perfect Saturday morning in early June when my family visited a southern California Alpaca ranch for our first ever introduction to this branch of the Camelid family. The day could not have been lovelier had Hollywood scripted it. The sky was baby-quilt blue with fuzzy cotton-candy clouds lazily draping themselves over the distant mountain range. Oranges and lemons peeked through the greenery of the nearby orchards and generously permeated the air with the zesty tang of citrus.

Our first lesson was that Alpacas are not llamas and llamas are not Alpacas. They are both in the Camelid family however and can, and do, live peacefully together. There are two types of Alpaca and the difference is in their fiber type. Huacaya are known for the crimp in their fleece. Suri are noted for their tight spiraling locks. In the United States, Huacaya represent the majority of Alpacas though the Suri are gaining ground.
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Our experience that warm summer day taught us that the tales we’d heard of Alpacas being ungainly and having a propensity to spit at humans were all wrong. These were elegant darlings vying for your limelight of affection and in whose eyes you could quite readily fall in love.

We found the Alpacas to be clean, safe, quiet and intelligent. They communicate through a combination of body language and a gentle humming. Their eyes are giant, chocolate-pudding orbs with sweeping lashes that luxuriously fan their delicate faces.
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The infant Alpaca is known as a cria. After a gestation of approximately 11 months they have a life span that ranges from 15 to 25 years. These native South American animals are largely raised for the value of their high quality fiber, that is amazingly resilient and hypoallergenic. The fleece is harvested in an annual shearing.

We’ve witnessed the decline of the multi-generational, self-sufficient family farms of yesteryear where my grandparents lived out their days. In many places those farms have given way to the innovation of hobby farms. By modern definition, the hobby farm largely consists of smaller land blocks where young families in the ‘off’ hours from their careers can pursue activities of relaxation and varied interests yet share in the peacefulness that country-life aspires to. Alpacas seem to be the perfect accompaniment to the farms of these times. A general rule of thumb is 5-10 grass eating, cud chewing, Alpacas per pasture acre, which makes them ideal for the smaller farms that are so popular today. Alpacas are docile and easily handled by children, which is another selling point in the current market. Alpaca are known for the ease of manure cleanup, as they tend to make their deposits in one chosen area of their yard. The manure is pellet-like, adding to the ease in removal, and is an excellent organic fertilizer for the gardens and plants that are also often found on today’s farms.
Alpaca owners enjoy a strong and active national organization, known as AOBA (Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association). AOBA features national committees that address every aspect of the Alpaca industry, host shows, educate, offer support for breeders, and promotes this growing trade.

The Alpaca Registry (ARI) is a state-of-the-art system documenting bloodlines and using rigorous screening for the health and quality of imports. They work in union with AOBA to insure animals populating the United States, and in their shows, are safe, healthy, and well cared for.

After a magnificent day of Alpaca introduction and contact on the ranch, we left there both captivated and charmed by these doting creatures and wanting to learn even more. We chose to follow that adventure with a visit to a local Alpaca show in the Midwest. As self-proclaimed veterans of county and state fairs that have included raising livestock for 4-H project purposes, we were extremely impressed in so many ways at the Alpaca show.

The show we attended was held indoors. The animals were in pens with beautiful sod covering their floors. The lighting was so great that we didn’t need a flash for our photographic efforts to be successful. There was no appreciable manure smell at all. There was the genteel hum of Alpacas throughout and not the ear piercing sounds that other livestock shows so often entail. The people were extremely helpful and friendly and everyone there seemed to be wearing a vast and authentic smile. We found that many educational opportunities are provided at these events, and best of all, you can make new friends who share your enthusiasm for Alpacas.
Alas, for the perfect day of sensory delights, family bonding, business opportunity, lesson in global economic commerce, or just good old fun, I urge you go see an Alpaca today!

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If I were Kansas’ Dorothy my yellow brick road would be Interstate 35 and I’d be headed to Bloomington, Minnesota instead of the Emerald City. I’d be looking for the Mall of America, though, and not for the Wizard of Oz.

Mall of America
Photo Credit: Greater Minneapolis CVBWelcome to the Mall of America, an amazing metropolis within itself. This story began in 1982 when Minnesota’s professional sport teams, the Twins and the Vikings, moved from Met Stadium in Bloomington to downtown Minneapolis’ Metrodome. Such a huge loss could have created devastating panic. But it didn’t, and so this story becomes that of an underdog’s bounteous success. The City of Bloomington became a visionary fit for longevity. They dug their heels in and have showed the world that indeed, there’s no place like home!

Bloomington suddenly had 78 acres of Met Stadium-white-elephant on its hands. The property is located 1-1/2 miles from the airport and has four major highways that intersect the area. They recognized the development potential in this primo piece of real estate. They came up with four major proposals, which were: 1) office complexes, 2) condominium/residential use, 3) new convention and visitor center, and 4) mixed use for retail and entertainment. Fortunately once they decided on that fourth option they held to the vision even amidst the rampant skepticism of local media.
The Mall of America opened its doors in 1992 after construction costs that exceeded $650 million. It’s a gargantuan shopping bonanza with more than 520 stores that are over 98% leased.

The Mall employs 11,000 year-round and 13,000 during summers and holidays.
It has proved itself as a lucrative economic presence bringing nearly $1.6 billion annual economic impact on this northern state. Tourism accounts for four out of every ten visits with the tourists bringing additional new businesses to the area as well. Research has found that for every dollar spent at the Mall an additional 2-3 dollars are spent in the surrounding community for gas, lodging, dining, transportation and other attractions that add more than an additional $1.2 billion in economic gravy to Minnesota.

On a national level it’s impressive to note that the Mall of America is our nation’s largest entertainment and retail structure. It has become the most visited destination in our country as each year it attracts more than 42.5 million people. That’s right … each year. A 1997 National Parks Service report listed the Mall as the most visited destination for US travelers.

Meanwhile the Mall attracts visitors from around the globe with international visitors accounting for 6% of annual Mall traffic. International shoppers are most noted from Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom. The New York Times claimed the Mall attracted more visitors annually than Disney World, Graceland and the Grand Canyon COMBINED.

The Mall of America offers more than just shopping, though. Mall visitors will find that it offers a plethora of multi-generation entertainment. The Mall boasts an aquarium, Lego Land, Camp Snoopy, 22 sit-down restaurants, 27 fast food restaurants, 34 specialty food stores, 8 nightclubs and 14 theater screens among its attractions. It’s also notable that more than 2,500 couples have ‘tied the knot’ at the Mall.
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The Mall has shown its propensity for innovative thinking in numerous ways.
Climate: Minnesota’s weather is known for it’s annual extremes in temperature but regardless of whether it’s too hot or too cold outside, the Mall remains a superior destination. During the frigid northern winters, Mall visitors and miles of interior lighting produce enough warmth to keep the entire structure efficiently warm without the need for heating. Health: Walking distance around one level of the Mall is 0.57 mile. More than 3,000 individuals participate in the practical Mall Walker program. The Mall Walker of the Year in 1996 melted away 140 pounds with this window-shopping exercise program.

Waste Management: The Mall illustrates its commitment to being a good neighbor in part through its recycling program where more than 50% of annual waste is recycled each year.
Parking: The mammoth parking structures are plentiful and free. When the chill of winter sets in, the entrances from the parking garages are heated. They’ve creatively accommodated expectant mothers with near the door Stork Parking. Parking is also available for handicapped and motor coaches.
Guest Services: Safety is a Mall priority and you’ll find patrols inside and out. The Mall also uses around-the-clock closed circuit TVs in parking areas, common areas and Camp Snoopy. Furthermore, the Mall is equipped with call boxes, help phones and pay phones with direct lines to the Safety Center.

The Mall also sponsors an ingenious Mighty Moms and Dedicated Dads program whereby teams of actual parents work in conjunction with the security officers on Friday and Saturday evenings. The parent’s job is primarily one of visibility. They greet kids, advocate following the Mall rules and if needed serve as intervention. This type of responsiveness on behalf of the Mall assures that all guests are welcome and safe in this environment.

In addition, the Mall added a Parental Escort Policy in 1996 so that guests under the age of 15 must be in the company of an adult 21 years or older on Friday and Saturday evenings after 6 p.m. The Mall has spelled it out that during those times one adult may escort up to 10 kids aged 15 and younger. It’s one more way that the Mall has reached out to it’s guests in a welcoming embrace of inclusion for shoppers of all ages as well as the Mall tenants.
· In need of a brain? You’ll find all sorts of educational value located under this gigantic roof.
· Looking for a heart? You are going to notice a sense of community and an avenue for reaching better health.
· In the market for courage? You won’t need it with the great security coverage and your success at being able to find nearly anything that you’re looking to purchase.

Okay, maybe this isn’t Oz, but one thing’s for sure, when I reached my destination I found a place to buy some gorgeous ruby slippers!

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A warm early summer day found us leisurely driving north on California’s Highway One between San Luis Obispo and Monterey. The roadway follows the bays, points, valleys and canyons that trail alongside the Pacific Ocean. It is a byway of a bygone era as it necessitates a slower pace and ease in your driving that is not favored by the masses these days.

On this road the primary goal is the journey, not the destination. The day we most recently traveled this path, the hillside pastures were a khaki brown and the sky was a gentle baby blue that met the Pacific at the western horizon. The color of the Pacific water here is different than that of other Pacific areas. The water appears as a magical liquid sapphire that lovingly rushes to the 14-karat gold beach line.

As we cruised north of San Simeon, in northern San Luis Obispo County, we happened on to the most amazing of experiences…truly Pacific Serendipity! Our curiosity drew us to investigate a gathering crowd huddled on the sand. In all of my obsessive-compulsive travel planning I had never even come upon information that would have led us here. Maybe that led us to appreciate our circumstance even more.

The view before us looked like a giant deli tray filled with huge bratwurst all lined up in a row. A local docent was in the midst of the group and busily answering the questions of our fellow on-lookers. Quickly we learned that what we were viewing was in excess of 200 molting sub-adult male Northern Elephant Seals.

Later research told us that the females of this species tend to appear feminine and demurely smiling. An adult female will tip the scales at anywhere from 900-1800 pounds and be 9-12 feet long and will live about 20 years. Their young, known as pups, are pudgy babies with strikingly large round eyes. The pups suffer a mortality rate of 30-50%, suffered at the hands of other adult females and their rapid separation from their mothers.
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Pups nurse for about a month and then are weaned when their mothers abruptly return to the sea, leaving the pups behind to teach themselves to swim and begin searching for their own food sources. Males can reach 3000-5000 pounds and 14-16 feet long and have about a 14-year life expectancy. The males boast their notorious Jimmy Durante noses from which they’ve derived the name of Elephant Seals. When a male reaches about 4 years of age they are considered a sub-adult and begin to develop an interest in breeding as well as begin to develop their trunk and shields. The shield is scar tissue that builds up around their necks as a result of battles of dominance. The proboscis is a secondary sexual characteristic of the males and can reach an amazing 2 feet in length. The males are not considered a bull until they reach about 9 years of age.

Bulls establish dominance through fights, though only about 1% of the time is there true physical warfare. The majority of their superiority is gained through shows of vocal and visual assertion. They toss their trunks and use it to resonate the growling challenges described as snorts, grunts, belches and gargles.

We learned that the great beasts we were watching were the sub-adult males as their molting season falls in May and June. The females and youth of the species take to the beaches to molt in April and May, while the adult males molt during July and August.

Molting is their natural phenomenon of replacing old skin and hair. Unlike other mammals, humans included, who shed hairs year-round, the Elephant seals molt all at once and therefore it is referred to as a catastrophic molt. They return to the breeding site of their colony to perform this ritual each year. During this time they slough off the entire surface layer of hair and skin to reveal a new smooth coat underneath. The entire process takes about three to four weeks.

We had the pleasure of viewing the rituals of the sub-adult males during their molting. They were mostly quite sedentary though on occasion they would throw some sand up over their backs. Occasionally two would rear up and challenge each other. This was quite a display of their gutteral sounds and the crashing of chests though neither would seem too interested in expending too much energy on such activity.

These massive creatures once numbered in the hundreds of thousands before hunting for their oil and skins in the 1800’s plummeted their population to what appeared to be fewer than 100 animals in all. An impressive recovery of this species was made through protection by the Mexican government and later also the Unites States. These marvelous beasts are now estimated to number approximately 60,000. We were graced by the viewing of this relatively new colony known as the San Simeon Elephant Seals.

We were so enamored to be in the presence of these captivating creatures during this moment of happenstance. If the time comes when you are lazily cruising the roadway of the mystical Pacific I encourage you to be on the lookout for an opportunity to congregate with these pinnipeds. When present on the sandy beaches they are easily visible and accessible.

I urge you however to remain respectful of this amazing population and to allow their sanctuary to be unblemished by humanity. Please view from a distance and do not disturb their colony. Allow the Northern Elephant Seals to enchant you and show you the wonder of Pacific Serendipity.