With a long overnight delay in the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport we discovered Grapevine, Texas, the terrific hidden jewel of a small town nearby. (In December remember Grapevine is the official Christmas Capital of Texas.)
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Grapevine Shuttle runs from the Grand Met Hyatt Hotel at Termina D, and many moderate priced hotels in Grapevine have their own free shuttle service to and from the airport with car parking included while you fly. We selected Tolbert’s Restaurant for terrific food with a Texas atmosphere. It is owned and operated by the daughter of Frank Tolbert, a long-time famous Texas journalist. Their specialty is A Bowl of Red (chili).
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For city folks who have few opportunities to visit a farm, spend a couple of hours at the historic Nash Farm, where you will find one of the early pioneer homes beautifully restored and the old barn recreated and housing antique farm machinery. There are a few farm animals and examples of crops. Throughout the Christmas season and during many other times of the year children can create adorable crafts here and proudly take them home. We watched little ones make gingerbread men and Christmas trees from paper and glitter, string cranberries and popcorn, make peppermint candy Rudolphs and more.
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Another farm homestead from the 1800’s is a popular venue for weddings, corporate events, parties, meetings and family reunions. Formerly the Doris-Briggs house of L-construction in pioneer days, the house now is the center for the wine tastings for the Cross Timbers Winery. You can enjoy wine by the glass and sample many varieties with cheese and cracker. You’ll want to purchase here bottles of award-winning Texas wines from Don Bigsbee’s vineyards in West Texas.
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Grapevine Mills Mall, one of the largest malls in the state, is where you’ll find almost any national store or brand factory outlet. Your family will love spending several hours at the newest attractions here: Sea Life Aquarium with over 5,000 beautiful marine animals of over a thousand different species. Glass walkways take you beside, on top of, or beneath the water, and in some you even feel as if you are in the tank. Go Behind the Scenes for the full educational experience.
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Just across the Mall hallway is Legoland Discovery Center, where you will be amazed at what has been created with those little building blocks: a miniature re-creation of the DFW airport and the main buildings of Dallas and Fort Worth. Children can play in many different areas building an earthquake tower (which shakes and falls down), building and racing little cars, and playing with enormous Legos on which they can climb while large Leggo animals look on. For lunch or dinner be sure to have a fabulous meal at the Love and War in Texas Restaurant near the Mall. The food is fabulous; I recommend the crab cakes and portabella mushroom combo, delicious!
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There is always so much to do in Grapevine. The small town feeling and convenience in a very sophisticated atmosphere is what you will find in perhaps no other place in the United States. For a great family vacation stay one or more nights at Great Wolf Lodge, where kids of all ages can have a blast year-round at the fabulous water parks, one indoors and one out-of-doors. They can play interactive or arcade games to their hearts’ delight, enjoy excellent foods and snacks, compete in the Magic Wand scavenger hunt, have special treatment at the Kids’ Spa (while their parents are pampered at the Elements Spa).

From January till November the Historic Vintage Railroad train will take you from Grapevine to the Fort Worth Stockyards (about 45 minutes) for several hours of exploring a favorite Texas historic landmark in a street of authentic cowboy fame and fun. You’ll see a real cattle drive, discover western shops, eat Texas fare, and return in the luxury of the comfortable first class train experience. In holiday time for November and December the train becomes the North Pole Express with treats and fun for families.
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On return to Grapevine you can enjoy a nightcap at another winery on Main Street: Cork It! which offers over 100 selections of Texas wines. Or go to the convenient and modern hipster Sky Bar at the nearby Vineyard Steak House. In the daytime return here to honor the memory of the airline crew and personnel who lost their lives helping comfort others during the horrific 9/11/2001 bombing of the Twin Towers in New York City. The local funds for this very appropriate 9/11 Memorial were raised by people in Grapevine, and this memorial is especially touching if you read the explanatory plaques there.
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The Glass Cactus Bar, near the Gaylord Texan Hotel, features live music Wednesday through Saturdays and many special event concerts throughout the year. There is never a cover charge for Gaylord guests, nor for anyone before 8 p.m. All the restaurants in the Gaylord are excellent. And even if you are not a paying guest you can spend hours in the gloriously decorated hotel central area, where a million lights twinkle at night during Christmas. But any time of year this huge foyer is beautifully decorated and you can walk through a recreation of some of Texas’ most famous landmarks.
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For a moderately priced overnight or business stay, we chose the lovely Residence Inn DFW North/Grapevine in walking distance to many of these places. We enjoyed the large suites with stove and refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker and full hot breakfasts included, and even light evening meals on Sunday and Thursday nights. A convenient Conference Center makes this the perfect place for your business meetings in the metroplex, and you can relax or workout at the fitness center or outdoor pool. Just across the street is the huge and always fun Bass Pro Shop for all your outdoor needs, Bass Pro is an experience in itself with indoor waterfall, river, fish tank, preserved wild animal trophies, restaurants, bar, shooting range,and more to enjoy while shopping. Grapevine will be our stop every time we go to DFW now.

It was a field experiment. I would take six taxis to and from the airport to Wenceslas Square in Prague to test the `honesty’ principle of the cab drivers in the city known for questionable taxi pricing to tourists. With five of the six test rides the fares were consistent or reasonably so. However, on my sixth ride when I tried to lock in an actual price or approximation, the driver gave me a shrug and a vague response, saying `Meter, meter price.’ When I asked again he shrugged again and pointed to the meter. I smiled and nodded knowing that the game was on. I was about to be taken for a proverbial ride. As the taxi wound its way through the busy city streets I watched as the meter seemed to be running at a faster pace. Sure enough, when we arrived at the same exact destination over the same route and at the same time as the other taxis I took in the testing process, the driver wanted twice the going rate.

When I questioned him about the price and said it was kind of high, he said it was `Meter price.’ Then when I told him I needed a receipt to show the hotel clerk or perhaps a police officer, the taxi driver hesitated, and then lowered the meter price by two hundred crowns. When I asked for a receipt a second time the driver tossed me a small slip of paper and hurriedly drove off into the night. The slip of paper was a printed ad for a tourist entertainment venue. I had just been scammed which was part of the experiment to determine if it actually happens or is it just another traveler’s tale. It cost me a little to get this story but hey, it was well worth it to test Prague’s taxi scam theory. Rip offs still happen. But not to worry, think of it as a `We do the work so you don’t have to’ program and perhaps as a small cautionary tale.
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Here’s the bottom line: Most taxis in Prague will offer you good, honest service. When it comes to taking cabs in the Czech capital you can figure to legitimately pay, at least as of this writing, 650 to 800 Czech Crowns) for a one way ride from the airport to Wenceslas Square. At the airport there are several taxi companies that will give you fair rates and service, but if you decide to venture out on your own then it’s best to negotiate with the driver for the price before you go. Get him to commit to a fixed price and if he can’t give you a price that falls within the acceptable pricing guidelines then find another cab. You can pay with Dollars or Euros but the drivers seem to prefer to Czech Crowns and keep in mind the exchange rate between the currencies may not always be the best you can find.

Prague is a beautiful Bohemian city and well worth a visit just keep in mind that like anything else in life, you pay for what you don’t know.

Most tourists enjoy the various attractions in Atlanta, Georgia, such at Cyclorama (the three dimensional portrayal of the Civil War Battle of Atlanta), the fun shopping and nightlife and restaurants of The Underground, and the lovely Stone Mountain (famous for the bigger than life carved figures of Confederate Generals of the Civil War), and Atlanta Braves Games and much more, developed specifically as tourist attractions and family fun. We have enjoyed all these in the past, and we found a grand campground for RVers at Stone Mountain, where entertainment for the whole family abounds. We also discovered the convenient Jones RV Park at Norcross, just outside the #285 By-Pass Northeast of the city, near the beautiful Forum Shopping Center.
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But on this visit we were there for a quite different purpose, the 30th anniversary of the Open Door Community, a haven for the homeless people in Atlanta. Ed Loring and Murphy Davis and Nelia and Calvin Kimbrough and other volunteers are in charge of the most inviting guesthome for those who have no welcome elsewhere. This sparkling clean, large old apartment building at 910 Ponce de Leon Avenue is one of the most peaceful and loving atmospheres we have ever entered. The temporary guests are the down and out people who are given refuge here and whatever aid they need: a telephone so as to find a job, a mailbox so as to receive letters and checks, clean clothes, hot meals, and a sympathetic ear for psychological needs. They serve three meals a week at Open Door, have a Soup Kitchen, showers, clothes closet every Tuesday and Wednesday. Every other Tuesday night doctors have a women’s medical clinic and every Wednesday night they have medical clinic and a foot clinic for sore feet which have trodden miles without care. Some guests they host stay on living there on a voluntary serving basis, helping share the work in this hospitable and welcoming community.
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The center prepares breakfast and and hot soup lunches for about 250 people at Open Door. They publish a monthly newspaper, Hospitality which has a large worldwide circulation, with articles that create awareness of the poverty everywhere and how we can help alleviate the suffering of those near us. The Open Door Community also is a training center for volunteers from all over the United States and the world who wish to learn how to run a center for the homeless. The Open Door has operated on a tight and efficient budget for three decades meeting all these needs and so much more by faith and have always received just what they need when they need it. Murphy Davis leads the ministry on death row, and many other community members visit and correspond with condemned prisoners, offering friendship and hope. All of the members of the community participate in actions opposing the Death Penalty, which makes murderers of us all.
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Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

The nearby Carter Center is a totally different environment, serving other kinds of needs the world over. Housing the Library of President Jimmy Carter, the beautiful state of the arts Conference center and exquisite park grounds were built and developed by President and Mrs. Carter after he left the White House. The focus of their amazing work for over three decades has been to treat diseases which are not addressed by other charity organizations but which have dessimated millions of people in the poorest countries of the world. The work of the Carter center doctors and scientists has succeeded in almost completely erradicating the Guinea worm worldwide by teaching people how to have clean water to drink by using specially developed straw filters for villages where no pure water is available, by building sanitary latrines, and by educating people with other sanitation habits. Treatments and prevention for these crippling and devastating diseases have alleviated the pain of millions of people, whom President and Mrs. Carter personally visit in the most heart-breaking conditions around the world. The Carter Center also focuses on monitoring free elections for countries which ask for their help in striving for freedom from dictators. And President Carter meets with important figures in many countries, at their request, as an ambassador for peaceful solutions to the most difficult controversies of our times. He also writes a book each year, the proceeds of which help support the Carter Center initiatives.

Nearby also is Ebeneezer Baptist Church, the home church of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his family. Visitors are welcome for services and to honor and remember this great pioneer for social equality in the United States.
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When you visit Atlanta, take time to have your spirit lifted and be awakened and inspired by visiting these places: The Open Door Community, The Carter Center, and Ebeneezer Baptist Church. You will be very glad you did, and you will take with you a greater feeling of deep satisfaction than any typical tourist attraction can give you. And your donations through the websites listed are most welcome and will be used with utmost care to make them 100 percent of help for those who need it most.

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Planning a weekend retreat in Monterey County, California, I couldn’t imagine how many discoveries were waiting at every turn of the road. Sunday was a prime time to taste some wine along the gorgeous Carmel Valley Road (www.montereywines.org), and the drive itself was a treat. Chateau Julien Wine Estate in Mid-Valley (www.chateaujulien.com) is a real chateau with castle towers, stained glass windows, rose gardens and noble wines. I liked 2006 Black Nova II – a full bodied proprietary blend of 60% zin and 40% syrah, produced in limited amounts of 300 cases and distributed only on premises.
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However, my favorite was Carmel Cream Sherry – a sweet blend of Palomino, Tokay and Madera grapes fortified with brandy and thoroughly indulgent – also produced in limited quantities of 100-150 cases, and also distributed only at the winery. Bernardus Vineyards & Winery in Carmel Valley Village www.bernardus.com) is best known for its excellent Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noirs but takes special pride in estate Bordeaux blends, named Marinus (the owner’s middle name).

At Joullian Vineyards Tasting Room, also in Carmel Valley Village (www.joullian.com) we compared very different but equally pleasing 2009 Roger Rose Chardonnay and 2009 Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay from the cool Salinas Valley and then tasted some estate 2007 Sias Cuvee Zinfandel, made of grapes growing 15 miles from the tasting room.
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At 1833 Restaurant (www.restaurant1833.com) opened in Monterey only a few months ago, Executive Chef Levi Mezick creates little miracles with the season-inspired menu. His Jerusalem artichoke soup, braised lamb shank served over a light version of cassoulet, and grilled pork chop, complimented by creamy grits, were all stellar in preparation.

The place is also famous for its rich history. Built in 1833, the two-story adobe house belonged to an English sailor James Stokes, who was a self-taught doctor and pharmacist. He liked to socialize with the local celebs, treated their ills, and eventually became a mayor of Monterey. They say the doc killed only eight patients during his career, which was not that bad, considering…

In his late years, Mayor Stokes hired a live-in pianist and a fellow party-lover, Hattie Gragg, now long dead, who is said to still arrive in the house as a ghost to slam doors in her former bedroom and put salt into wine glasses.
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In the dark, my husband and I headed for the night to Safari B&B at Vision Quest Ranch (www.visionquestranch.com) in nearby Salinas. Charlie Sammut, the proprietor, manages several establishments on its territory, from EARS (Elephants of Africa Rescue Society) to Wild Things – an exotic animal training facility.

We slept in an authentic African bungalow, though comfortably furnished and equipped with all the modern conveniences. At night, we heard a lion’s roar, and in the morning we met all the wild things there were.
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Butch, the elephant, delivered breakfast croissants to our tent. He thoughtfully brought along some row potatoes and carrots, so I could treat him in return. Later, we sipped our coffee on the deck, watching him play with his buddy zebra.
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Nadia, the Siberian lynx and Bamboo, the squirrel monkey, came to visit, accompanied by Vision Quest animal trainers. Then my husband raced Fred, the African ostrich, along the fence. That was not intentional. Yuri went on his morning jog, and Fred, a rather competitive and territorial creature, dropped everything and just took on running after him back and forth.

Before checking out we joined a tour of the 50-acre facility. Wild animals tours are offered to the public daily at 1 p.m., and anyone can join them. Gracie, the resident cat, followed us all along the tour, visiting her extended family – lions, tigers, puma, leopard, and ocelot. We drove to Carmel by the Sea, and made it to the Carmel Wine Walk (www.carmelcalifornia.org) before closing time.
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Galante Vineyards Tasting Room (www.galantevineyards.com) is famous not only for its estate pinots, merlots, and cabs, but for the fact that the owner Jack Galante’s grandfather founded Carmel! In sinc with the family tradition, Galante was the first tasting room to open in Carmel in 2006.

Caraccioli Cellars (www.caracciolicellars.com) a newly open chic facility with contemporary design, showcases its sparkling wines – 2006 Brut Cuvee and 2006 Brut Rose, the latter subtly enhanced by 2% of still pinot noir, and also some crisp chardonnay and silky pinot noir.

Wrath (www.wrathwines.com), on the first level of Carmel Plaza, is the newest winery, just a couple of months in existence. Its facility is shiny-new and elegant, and its pinot, char and syrah come from sustainably-grown estate fruit and from other vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands.
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My favorite taste was of the Noble Wrath late harvest sauvignon blanc – sweet as honey, but with a distinct aroma of grilled green pepper on the nose.

To round up our wine tasting adventure in Carmel by the Sea, we headed to Figge Cellars (www.Figgecellars.com) – an innovative tasting room sharing a space with Winfield Gallery of contemporary art. The winery is well-known in San Francisco, as Figge wines are being served at Gary Danko, Fleur de Lys, Garcon, and other upscale restaurants, and the gallery represents a number of SF Bay Area and Monterey County artists.
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At Little Napoli (www.chefpepe.com) steps away from all the tasting rooms, we tried Chef Pepe’s Famous Garlic Bread, made after a 100 y.o. family recipe; fresh seafood Zuppa di Pesce; Sierra Foothills lamb chops, and my perennial favorite, Eggplant Parmigiana.

A short drive to the town of Marina brought us to the Sanctuary Beach Resort (www.thesanctuarybeachresort.com) for the night. A place like no other, Sanctuary Beach Resort occupies 19 acres of succulent-covered sandy dunes of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.
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The bungalows of the resort are located practically on the endless beach – home to several endangered species of birds, reptiles, insects, and plants. To make their survival easier, the resort asks its guests to leave their cars in the parking lot, and use golf carts to move throughout the property.

Next morning, walking on the beach, I couldn’t help but feel that the sanctuary extended to us, humans, as well as to other species. The serenity of the place made me feel calm and protected and well-rested – as if here, in Monterey County, was my true home.

More information: www.Seemonterey.com.

One of California’s best places for snow much fun is Big Bear Lake, California. We love it more each time we go. There’s so much to do once you arrive on “Big Bear time.” Even though Big Bear has some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the state, with virtually no lines, the pinnacle of our most recent trip was a 8 wheel drive off road adventure. It was more than spectacular to experience the back country of the San Bernardino mountains from a heavy duty off-road vehicle. Our tour with Big Bear Off Road Adventures was nothing less than fabulous and absolutely unforgettable, taking us to breathtaking vistas and allowing us a behind the scenes perspective on the beauty that is so unique to Big Bear. Our guide/driver Eric was the best.
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We even got to “off-road it” and explore an area where Bonanza was filmed many years ago. The abilities of the off road vehicle allowed us to traverse thick, virgin powder and to see winter wonderland sights that were literally inaccessible to anyone else. It’s not just a ride; it’s an adventure!

Right before we went off-road, we even stopped at Maggio’s Pizza and got the best “to go” salads and calzones we could have ever dreamed of. Fresh, delicious ingredients made our lunch stand out as truly memorable.

We love skiing at Big Bear. Friendliness and no stress are what make skiing at Big Bear a sheer delight. Much more than just a skiing and snowboarding destination, it has all the bases covered when it comes to an all inclusive snowy destination that rivals Tahoe or Vail. Snow Summit and Bear Mountainvisitors will appreciate the unique flavor with beautifully manicured slopes, friendly and competent instructors, and the feeling that you’ve stepped back in to a simpler day when a couple could spend more time skiing and less time waiting to have fun.

Moonridge Park is a wonderful zoo/animal park open all year so a couple can really enjoy seeing animals in their natural winter environment. It’s exhilarating to actually see a snow leopard romping in the snow. or a bear family frolicking in fresh powder.

Try a beginners snow shoe tour at the Big Bear Discovery Center, or an afternoon on the Alpine Slide or tubing. The “snow much fun” options are virtually endless.
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Before you retreat back to a comfy cabin, you’ll want to explore the wonderful dining in Big Bear. Again, lots of choices. Sonora Cantina serves great food and ambiance at reasonable prices, and with good portions.
The Himalayan is the only restaurant in Big Bear to offer Indian and Nepalese food. It is outstanding. With delicious sauces, warm and delicious Naan, Tandoori entrees, and using only the freshest herbs and ingredients, this place is healthy and wonderful. We loved every bite. It’s family operated and provides great food with exotic flavors. It’s the perfect place to warm up with remarkably good and filling food after a day in the snow.

Mountain West Vacation Rentals provided us the ideal location from which to get the most out of our delightful Big Bear Adventure. Our cabin was clean, cozy, well-appointed and central to all the fun.
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We enjoyed games, movies, a telescope, a wonderfully stocked kitchen, extra blankets, and nice, rock fireplace. It truly felt like a home away from home. That’s so important when you travel as a couple and are go, go, go with lots to do and see. The folks there were friendly and helpful. It’s a top notch vacation rental operation.Take note that Big Bear Lake is less than two hours from Disneyland and LAX or Orange County airport. When visiting Big Bear Lake in the winter, remember that mountain weather can change quickly so stay informed of chain control warnings. For road conditions call: 1-800-427-ROAD

The beautiful parrots were bantering back and forth; giant palms obscured light from above; large leaf exotic plants obstructed the path. I felt like a Lilliputian in a land of overlapping green giants, each one poised to grab me should I dare to slow down a bit to gawk. Yet the diversity and unfamiliarity of the plants and trees make it hard not to gape. The only question remained: How did this tropical rainforest end up in Nancy Forrester’s backyard in Key West, Florida?
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Billed as Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden — and indeed located as it is at the end of a hidden, narrow dirt lane, it well deserves its moniker — the story behind its creation is as intriguing as a stroll among its many trails. It all started some 40 years ago, when painter and photographer — and currently self-described eco-artist — Nancy Forrester’s keen eye saw some promise in the then-undesignated city dump. Once she and her family moved in, “we just cleared up the debris and started gardening. It evolved into a rainforest almost by design, as my artist friends and I planted mostly tropical exotic shade plants at random.”

Asserting that “the natural world has always been my teacher and the theme of my art,” she credits her love of nature and a simple basic style of living as inspiration to protect the land from overdevelopment.

As the last remaining undeveloped wooded acre in the town, it now houses 100 different species of palms, ferns and orchids and vast quantities of lush aroids (the aforementioned giant foliage), set amidst 100+-year-old fruit trees. Many are rare and endangered, and have developed into a select gene pool that can keep a species alive. And although I don’t know what an angiopteroius fern is, I was impressed when Nancy claimed she has five different varieties and that hers is the only garden in the country to have them. Not to mention that her endangered cycads date from the time of the dinosaurs. That’s good enough for me.
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The plants are not the only endangered species around; so are some of the 22 parrots that call the forest home. Many of them are being lovingly nursed back to health from a variety of parrot ailments. The garden doubles as a non-profit humane society, at one time housing 100 birds, although Nancy has since limited her brood to 22: “We have to make sure we can safely evacuate them all in the event of a hurricane,” she explains.
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And these are no ordinary birds; they each boast a definitive personality of their own. Imaginative write-ups list their origin, vocabulary — some of which is quite extensive — their history, favorite treats, likes and dislikes, foibles and frailties. Well, okay – maybe not so much. But beautiful Ara, for example, sings opera, eats pizza, and loves shoes and dancing, and happily spreads her wings upon request. Mr. Peaches, a handsome screaming white cockatoo, is a rescue from New York City where he frequently rode the subway, likes broccoli, dislikes pecans and is especially fond of salsa and chips. Choo Choo, formerly Chatsworth whose favorite meal is breakfast, actually sneezes just for fun, and Rock, a high-energy Hawk-headed parrot, is the star entertainer who flirts with everyone, whistles, sings, does a fabulous wicked witch impersonation, and insists on bathing in his water bowl even on the coldest days of the year. His “Hi Baby, whatcha doin’?” is a frequent refrain.

As Nancy entertains visitors with tales of her garden and animal escapades, her prized blue Brazilian parrot, Baby, often hangs upside down on her perch, swinging and doing calisthenics. Nancy’s devotion to her pets and plants is contagious, and her conviction that we are “morally obligated” to save “Earth’s life forms” heartfelt. “Here, art is experience,” she enthuses. “Come to be inspired. Draw, paint, and write poetry. Sing and dance. Help celebrate 40 years of green living and sustainable behavior.” The fact that it’s in the heart of Key West is an added bonus.

As Amanda Albert of New Orleans crowed: “It makes me so happy to come here. I return every year. It’s so rare to see such wonderful birds — and to think, you saved them all.” But given the expense of maintaining such a special world and the fact that the few visitors who are actually able to find the garden have diminished recently due to the downturn in travel everywhere, pleas for donations are in evidence at almost every turn. But the sense of imposition is offset by their sense of whimsy.
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Upon entry, where the admission is $10 per human, one is greeted by a sign proclaiming: “If I am not in the garden to greet you, it is because I am underfunded, short-staffed and working to stave off development.” Further down a small graded nook: “Imagine this area gone and in its place 9.1 residences each with a parking space for 2 cars.” And intermingled among the parrot lairs: warnings not to pay attention to the `screaming’ white parrots: “No eye contact; No smiling; Turn your back and walk away” — but essentially, please leave something behind for their care.

There is much to see in Key West itself, a city where anything goes, where everyone feels comfortable. It’s a city of contradictions. It’s a city that’s part New Orleans, part island getaway. A town where honky tonk sits comfortably with tropical vegetation on the same barstool. Where man-made tourist attractions thrive beside the intrinsic culture, history and lifestyle of the island. These are the things that draw people to Key West.

And Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden provides a private haven of its own, a chance to reflect upon the history that is still Key West today. Let the serenity transport you to another era when life was a lot simpler, streets a lot safer, and the pace of living a lot slower. And you’ll also want to return, as so many others have, year after year. I just hope it continues to survive long enough for that to be possible. For more information, call 305/294-0015 or visit www.nancyforrester.com.

Gloria Morales Pérez spent most of her life in Anaheim, California, living what for many Mexican immigrants is the American dream – hard work, resulting in a lifestyle that included going to the show and out for Chinese food on weekends as well as taking the children to Disneyland and spending the occasional evening in a Latin nightclub. But on September 23, 2010, the 25-year-old Zapotec native returned home to the tiny municipality of San Bartolomé Quialana, Tlacolula, in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. Gloria shed her blue jeans for customary regional garb of colorful satin dress and brightly embroidered apron, left her two California jobs to spend virtually every waking hour raising her children, and gave up the anonymity of urban living together with the freedom to do as she pleased in favour of tolerating traditional indigenous normative behavior.

 

The bright, attractive and fully trilingual (English, Spanish and Zapoteco – locally referred to as dialecto) Oaxacan, resides with children Juan age 6 and Daniel age 3 and mother-in-law Mariana in a one bedroom brick and cement house tucked away at the end of a spacious dirt-floored courtyard, part of an extended family compound. Husband Benito owns this particular portion of the homestead. He plans to also leave California, in about three months, to reunite with the rest of his family.

 

The answer to why Gloria gave it all up and returned to her cultural roots, a daunting transition for most, lies in understanding the circumstances leading to her family’s initial emigration when she was only six years old, examining the role her parents played in determining the twists and turns her life took while living in the US, delving deeper into her California lifestyle, and learning a little about San Bartolomé Quialana.

 

 

San Bartolomé Quialana, Tlacolula, Oaxaca

San Bartolomé Quialana (“San Bartolomé”) is a 10 minute drive from the city of Tlacolula de Matamoros, capital of the district of Tlacolula. Tlacolula is noted for its Sunday market, attracting both merchants and buyers from the city of Oaxaca, as well as from towns and villages within Oaxaca’s central valleys and further beyond. Aside from the broad array of goods available for purchase at the market, the tianguis, as it’s commonly termed, attracts tourists and Oaxacans alike because of its color and pageantry, attributable in large part to the large number of Zapotec natives in attendance from villages such as San Bartolomé and nearby San Marcos Tlapazola, noted for production of terra cotta pottery.
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Founded in 1422, almost 100 years before the Spanish arrived in Oaxaca, according to 2010 census statistics the village has a population of 2,471. Sixty percent is female and 40 percent is comprised of minors. Eighty-five percent of residents over five years of age speak dialecto, most of whom also speak Spanish. Of those 15 years of age and older, 441 are illiterate. Of youths 6 – 14 years of age, 70 have not attended school despite the fact that the village has five schools, one of which is officially bilingual (Spanish-Zapoteco). Half the population has not completed public school. The closest high school is in Tlacolula.

 

There are 524 households in San Bartolomé, 265 of which have dirt floors and 27 of which consist of only a single room. Construction materials are predominantly clay brick, cement and adobe, with laminated sheet metal often used for roofing. Most but not all households have electricity and indoor plumbing. Eight residences have computers, 75 have washing machines and 413 have televisions.

 

San Bartolomé has a health clinic provided by the Mexican national health care plan (IMSS), although only 27 residents are paid participants in the broader program. The village has a small daily marketplace, Tuesday being its official market day when vendors from a couple of surrounding villages ply their wares. There are six variety stores where one can buy clothing, tacos and other simple, freshly prepared small meals, as well as packaged snacks, beverages and household goods; but residents generally do their shopping in Tlacolula. It costs only 5 pesos (about 45 cents) to there by sharing a moto taxi (tuk-tuk).

 

There is a small police force serving the municipality’s 50 square kilometres (which includes farm lands surrounding the village proper). The municipal government coexists with indigenous customary law known as “usos y  ostumbres”, not uncommon in towns and villages throughout southern Mexico.

 

The predominant economic activity of San Bartolomé residents is subsistence farming, although according to statistics less than a quarter of the population is engaged in any remunerative enterprise. Animal husbandry and cultivating herbs, vegetables (mainly corn, beans, squash),agave (or maguey, used in the production of mezcal) and some fruit are the primary activities, supplemented by hunting. There is also some cottage industry with some manufacturing employing sewing and hand- embroidering as well as basketry using a bamboo-like river reed known as carrizo and hemp – like twine known as ixtle, derived from agave leaves. Production of corn-based foodstuffs for sale in Tlacolula such as tortillas, tlayudas, tamales and atole round out the list of some of the most frequently encountered activities. Building trades are also represented (i.e. carpentry, iron works, electrical, and of course bricklaying).
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The Morales Pérez Family in San Bartolomé Quialana Prior to Emigration to California

Gloria was born in San Bartolomé on February 21, 1986. She has three siblings. Sister Lidia (age 21) and brother Miguel (age 26) were also born in San Bartolomé, while Miriam (age 17) was born in Anaheim. While in San Bartolomé, their mother Emilia eked out a modest existence by sewing and embroidering, and selling hand-made tortillas. Her father Luis was never really a wage earner in the village. He left at age 14 and returned only periodically, of course long enough to marry Emilia and father the children.

 

Luis left the family more or less for the final time and moved to Washington state when Gloria was three years old, becoming a documented immigrant during a period of amnesty. He entered into a conjugal relationship with another woman and had a child. But when word filtered back to him that his wife had “been” with another man, he returned to Oaxaca. But in fact, someone had tried to rape Emilia, she defended herself with a knife and the aggressor ended up in the hospital. Luis didn’t learn the truth until arriving back in San Bartolomé. But that was enough for Luis to make a unilateral decision to relocate his family to the US. He selected Anaheim because San Bartolomé villagers before him had tended to migrate to Anaheim or other nearby California cities. This pattern of emigration is extremely common in the state of Oaxaca and other Mexican states, and in fact internationally as is born out in the anthropological literature.

 

For those first six year of Gloria’s life in San Bartolomé, she grew up in a Zapoteco-only speaking household, and accordingly learned very little Spanish given the more general makeup of San Bartolomé’s socialization and education of a Young Female Oaxaca native in Anaheim,California. The first couple of years for any immigrant transplanted from a foreign culture are difficult, but for Gloria life was particularly arduous. Not only did she not know a word of English, but she lacked Spanish, a working knowledge of which would have put her in good stead for socializing with other Latin Americans, school children in particular. In her case, however, it was family dynamics which played a more significant role than for perhaps most in her position:

 

“At that time my mother had to work two jobs, so I was responsible for looking after my younger sister and even my older brother. I hardly saw my mother for those first couple of years; and since my father has always been irresponsible and a heavy drinker, he couldn’t be relied upon. My parents were always fighting because my father was unwilling to provide for the family, in large part because of his alcoholism.”
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Luis had always found employment in the gardening and landscaping field, but his brushes with the law, which landed him in jail (i.e. impaired driving), and his unwillingness to acknowledge his obligation as a major financial and emotional contributor to the family, resulted in significant challenges for Gloria, her siblings, and of course their mother. Emilia was the rock of the family, often working two jobs, invariably in a hotel housekeeping capacity. But money was still tight for the family: “Occasionally we would get to go to Pizza Hut or Chuck E. Cheese, but in those years we didn’t really have the opportunity to enjoy leisure time; we would never go to the movies, out to the mall, or even for walks.” Gloria enjoyed going to school and learning. She had attainable career aspirations. Her parents, however, played a significant role in determining whether or not Gloria would ever achieve her goals, adversely impacting on the choices available to her and how she would react to their dictates.

 

Gloria was active in extra-curricular soccer and cross country. But it was her junior army class in Grade 11, JROTC (the US federal government Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program in high schools) which motivated her the most: “I really wanted to be in the army. I liked everything about it from what I had read and what I was learning in JROTC. In fact I was the sergeant of my troupe. But my parents didn’t want me to join the armed forces because it would have meant moving away. They made it clear to me that they would refuse to sign my enrollment papers. My joining the army would have helped me with my immigration papers.”

 

[Gloria, her husband, her mother and her Mexican-born siblings are all undocumented immigrants; only her father was “legal.” However, his status was revoked as a result of his criminal record, and he was deported toTijuana. He cleverly managed to use his earlier immigrant papers to return to California in January, 2011.]

 

Immediately after her parents had made their decision regarding the army, Gloria’s grades dropped, and she promptly became pregnant by her boyfriend Benito. Because her pregnancy was high risk and she required early hospitalization, Gloria had to drop out of school four months shy of graduating from grade 12. Nevertheless, Gloria did not lose her motivation to achieve a career once her dream of entering the army had been dashed. Of her own initiative she entered the North Orange County Regional Occupational Program (ROP), a career-technical training program, with a view to becoming a medical assistant. She passed the first three-month semester, but was not permitted to continue because of her immigration status.

 

 

A Oaxacan Quince Añera Gets Pregnant, Married and is Finally California Dreamin’

Life changed dramatically after Gloria met Benito. They initially became acquainted at her quince años celebration. He was also born in San Bartolomé. In Anaheim he had been living with Gloria’s aunt. Like her father, he was employed in the gardening and landscaping field, but their similarities stopped there. He was kind, supportive, motivated to earn a living, and as Gloria subsequently learned, a caring husband and father.

 

By the time Gloria and Benito had met, both Gloria’s English and Spanish were excellent, but her Zapoteco had begun to wane. She credits Benito (as well as her mother) with helping her out, as words, phrases and grammatical structures in dialecto got garbled or simply forgotten. Gloria and Benito married in Las Vegas but subsequently had an Ahaheim church wedding. They initially lived with her aunt but moved in with her mother when she was six months pregnant with Juan.

 

When the baby was 10 months old, the three of them returned to San Bartolomé for an eight week visit In Gloria’s 17 years in Anaheim this was the only time she returned home for a visit. When Juan was a year old, just after the family’s return to Anaheim, Gloria began working as a supermarket cashier. She then quit in favour of taking two jobs, working at a fast food chain and at a gas station as the owner’s assistant. She maintained both jobs for five years, earning about $400 per week, until returning to San Bartolomé with only one brief hiatus in the interim towards the end of her pregnancy with Daniel.
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After Daniel’s birth the family moved into their own two bedroom apartment. It was the first time that the children were able to have their own bedroom, with Gloria and Benito having their own private quarters. The family began leading what Gloria terms a middle class lifestyle. They went out and bought themselves a car. They had three steady incomes and did not have to contribute to the living expenses of the rest of her family, particularly burdensome when her father was either not around to help out or was spending a considerable portion of his income on alcohol.

 

The couple enjoyed going dancing from time to time. They would go out with the kids every weekend, going to the movies and then a restaurant for lunch or dinner, walking around and shopping downtown and even spending a day at Disneyland; Gloria had friends who worked there, and accordingly she would receive free family passes from time to time. There was even disposable income available to buy modern electronics (a laptop and stereo system, for example) and the occasional special toy for Juan.

 

 

The Decision to Return to San Bartolomé Quialana, Oaxaca

As much as Calfornia dreamin’ had indeed become a reality, a subtle sense of uneasiness eventually began to weigh upon Gloria’s psyche. Perhaps it had always been there. It wasn’t as if she had made the decision to migrate to the US and then had her dreams crushed. In her case aspirations developed as they do with American-born children, in the school playground, watching TV, learning from teachers, classmates and their families, and even participating in a lifestyle characterized by conspicuous consumption, leisure time and recreation, albeit to a limited extent; yet it was enough to create fantasies, more attainable than through buying lottery tickets.

 

Gloria’s parents played a major part in stifling the realization of her career potential and thus her ultimate decision to return to San Bartolomé. Gloria opened her own doors to a future, and her parents firmly shut them. They both refused to sign for army enrollment. Her father’s positive immigration status rather than at least easing the ability for Gloria to become documented and proceed with a professional career was revoked as a result of his criminality. While working two jobs was difficult, Gloria’s workplace employment significantly contributed to the ability of the family to live comfortably. “But there [in California] you have to work, work, work to have that lifestyle,” Gloria confesses, “and here [in San Bartolomé] people don’t have to work as much to get by.”

 

After much discussion, a greater understanding emerges of why Gloria returned, a thought process through which she had apparently not previously gone. As much as Gloria professes to having led a middle class lifestyle, by most accounts it would be considered working class, a difficult working class existence relative to life in San Bartolomé. It bothered Gloria that in California, at least within the context of her employment at the time, “work, work, work” would never lead to home ownership and being able to literally build a future. In San Bartolomé they can improve their own home, with much less effort, and work towards accumulating some of the material goods of a middle class lifestyle. In Anaheim it would always be working to pay the rent and get by, albeit with leisurely Sundays and Disneyland.

 

That all-pervasive, anti-Mexican racist sentiment, which permeates much of the US, was felt be Gloria and subtly worked on her. Notwithstanding her immediate family’s income, her linguistic skills, and development of her social and employment networks, while living in sunny CA there would always be a lingering sentiment of feeling out of place, removed from one’s roots and ethnicity. How it would have manifested had Gloria ended up proceeding in one or those two career options, one will never know. “Benito didn’t want to go back,” Gloria admits. “When Mexicans like us return home with our American-born children, the children tend to get sick, and as a consequence the family returns to the US,” she explains. “Benito didn’t want to go through all that expense of coming here and then going back.”

 

In June, 2010, Gloria decided to return to San Bartolomé with their children. What had been in the recesses of her mind promptly came to the fore; she still cannot identify a precipitating event, comment or thought; the time had come.Gloria arrived in Oaxaca on September 23, 2010. Benito plans to follow, in October, 2011. He says he’ll stay for 3 – 4 years. Upon Gloria leaving Anaheim with her children, her parents moved in with Benito. The entire family subsequently moved into a different two bedroom apartment.

 

 

Lifestyle of an American Woman & Her American Children in San Bartolomé Quialana, Oaxaca

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Gloria awakens to the sound of Juan’s four chickens and dog Frisky howling away in the courtyard, together with the early morning sounds of the street and her neighbors’ chatter and activities. She feeds the children. Their grandmother goes about her business getting her herbs and vegetables ready to take to market in Tlacolula. Gloria, accompanied by Daniel, walks Juan to school. Juan struggles with Spanish. He grew up learning mainly English, with no Zapoteco. Daniel, by contrast, somehow managed to master Spanish, and that remains his most comfortable speaking tongue.

 

Several extended family members live in and around the compound, and village friends and other family are in close proximity, dropping by throughout the day. Gloria holds court either outside or, when the sun is beating down or it’s raining, in her main indoor living space. It contains a large dining table and chairs, a couple of smaller tables with clothes piled on top, assorted other chairs, a fridge and stove, and a tall contemporary-styled wooden, glass front china cabinet with drawers at the bottom. The adjoining bedroom has two beds, one for Gloria and Juan and the other for Daniel. Their grandmother sleeps in the same room but on the floor, as has been her custom throughout her entire life. Gloria’s brother-in-law bought a bed for his mother, but she wouldn’t use it, because she never has.

 

When Gloria and the children moved into the house last September, it had a dirt floor. With the assistance of her extended family, she has slowly been making the modest abode more comfortable. It now has a concrete floor. The washroom has been built but is still an outhouse. For showering, the family goes next door to Gloria’s brother-in-law’s home.

 

From Benito’s weekly income of about $500, he wires $100 to Tlacolula for Gloria to cash; he occasionally sends $150. It’s enough to get by and helped a great deal with the initial improvements to the house. To get the money Gloria must go to Tlacolula every week. Sometimes she goes with the children to the Sunday tianguis to shop; sometimes she goes during the week, if only to pick up her money from the storefront wire service.

 

Most days Gloria dresses in traditional regional clothing – a brightly embroidered apron over a locally made, long colourful satin dress. “In 17 years of living in Ahaheim,” Gloria asserts, almost boasting,” I wore a dress only twice: once for my quince años and again for my wedding.”

 

Gloria is often pressured by her mother-in-law to wear only traditional dress, but she now puts on “normal” clothes when she feels like it. But she admits, “I’m now comfortable wearing this kind of clothing, but it took a while. Now I wear what I want and I won’t yield to pressure from anyone in the village.”

 

San Bartolomé, not unlike other villages in Mexico, or even in small town USA, is a rumor mill. When Gloria has had visitors from California, if there happened to be a male amongst them, the looks, innuendo and suspicion would begin. And even if the group was strictly female, “cavorting” out of the house in the evening was unacceptable. But Gloria has gotten used to it and has found her own inner means of coping. Gloria gets to Oaxaca every 6 – 7 weeks but no more. It’s usually to go shopping with the children in a large American-style supermarket (Soriana) and to the movies. She’s taking the children this Saturday so that Juan can buy a special game from Soriana that his father promised. Benito is wiring an extra 285 pesos, so earmarked.
Benito speaks with Gloria three or four times a day. He has a long distance phone plan for which he pays $60 a month. It enables him to make unlimited calls of unlimited duration to Gloria’s land line. Gloria and Benito also text one another throughout the day.

 

Monday Gloria begins working ten hours a week at a Tlacolula commercial mezcal factory and retail outlet. The owners value her ability to communicate well in Spanish, Zapoteco, and English. She’s not entirely sure exactly what she’ll be doing, but has been going in from time to time to learn about the functioning of the operation. She has no idea about the pay.

 

 

Epilogue: Gloria’s Future in San Bartolomé Quialana, Oaxaca

By most accounts, while living in Anaheim Gloria was a working class American woman of indigenous Mexican decent; fluent in English and working two jobs, she and her husband are raising two American-born children in a single family household. Their lifestyle was not all that different from that of working class urban whites with a bit of ethnic flare.

 

The dashing of Gloria’s hopes is not that unusual, either, in terms of parental control of decision-making over minor progeny. Her immigration status (to only a minor extent) and the strong sense of Zapotec indigeneity and the allure it apparently continually held for Gloria were, together with that subtle American racism, determinative of Gloria’s life path, at least to date.

 

On balance, Gloria and her family will return to Anaheim some day. She’s concerned about schooling for her children:

 

“School here is okay, but in order to attend a good school, you have to go to a private school and that costs a lot. And to go beyond high school, you have to go to Oaxaca [or further abroad], and it’s very expensive. And of course American schools and colleges are better. I want the children to have a good education. Eventually we’ll return to the states, but it’ll be to better the chances for our children to get a quality education and have good careers.

 

“To get into the US when I was six, we took buses to the border at Tijuana. There were five of us, and I think the coyote charged us $400; but it was stressful and took close to ten tries. But getting back into the US again? No, it’s not an issue; we know we can do it and will do it if we want to; the issues are how long it will take and of course the cost, but for us, the ability to get back to Anaheim will never be a concern.”

The now famous UFO crash site of 1947 has become the International Research Center and UFO Museum. Go for the fun of it! The museum, located in an old movie theater on Main Street, is open daily from 9 – 5 and attacts visitors from all over the world. Admission is free, and you are encouraged to take photos and use your video camera.
You’ll find some very simplistic displays, movie sets, photographs, and drawings of every kind of unnatural or inexplicable occurrence you have ever heard of, from aliens to crop circles.
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There is a world map which lights to show where sitings of spacecraft, sitings of aliens, and pieces of UFO’s have been seen or found. There are hundreds from every continent except Africa.

One of the most frightening displays is a manikin doctor staging an operation on an alien figure, but it is from a movie set. One of the most convincing displays is of the quotes about alien space craft sitings from U.S. Presidents, and Army officials, and Astronauts.

Be sure to read the first-hand accounts of the local Roswell citizens who were actually involved in the finding of the 1947 crashed UFO. The most convincing story is from a nurse who told about personally tending the alien beings involved in the crash. Ironically, she was immediately re-located abroad and died mysteriously within two years. The undertaker’s report is the most convincing of all. There are newspaper accounts of the news report the day after the crash was found, and the following week the Army debunks the report and says the “craft” was a weather balloon.
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Although the little museum is obviously not highly funded, there are fascinating stories and reports from all over the world. If you are a UFO enthusiast, plan to spend hours reading them all. You can also do computer research or file your own report of sitings there in the library.

If you are a non-believer, go for the fun of it. The gift store is worth the visit just for some most unusual gifts.

“Grandma, why are you so pale?” Six-year-old Emily asked as the jet roared upward toward the clouds.
My palms were wet, my throat dry and my knuckles white as I clutched the arms of the seat.
Emily relaxed and looked out the window to observe Earth growing smaller. “Look how little the houses are,” she said, excited about her first flight.
My ears closed. I swallowed.
“Can you see Westerville?” Emily asked.
My eyes shut, I took a deep breath and sighed.
“Where’s Clintonville? I wanna see my house.” Her forehead was against the window.
“It‘s down there.” My voice trembled.
“Why don’t you help me find my house?”
I swallowed hard. I didn’t want to scoot over and look out the window, I might tip the plane.
I felt the plane level off and opened my eyes. The pretty flight attendant was giving her little speech on how to get out of the plane in case of an emergency.
She smiled and her voice was cheerful as she pointed to the emergency door.
“We step onto a cloud?” I asked beneath my breath.
“You’re funny, Grandma,” Emily said, giggling as she unfastened her seat belt.
“And the seats become floating devices,” the attendant was saying.
I thought.
I continued to sit stiff, my seatbelt snug as I clutched the arms of the seat in a death hold.
“Would you like coffee? Or a soft drink?” The flight attendant stood above me.
“No thank you,” I said. How could I hold on to the arms of the seat and drink a cup of coffee?
“You think we could see an angel?” Emily asked, looking out the window.
“I hope not!” I believe seeing angels is for the next life.
The attendant noticed my seatbelt was still fastened. She smiled, raised her eyebrows and gave a shrug to another attendant.
The plane shudderd.
“We’re experiencing a little weather,” the pilot’s voice came from the speaker. “Please remain in your seats, seatbelts fastened.”
I smiled smugly at the attendant as she returned to her station.
“This is fun,” Emily said. “Just like a carnival ride.”
It was only a short time and the plane ride became smooth once more.
“Feel free to move around. We’ve passed over the weather,” the pilot announced.
“Peanuts?” The attendant was standing over me again.
I carefully reached up for the tiny package. “Thanks.”
Emily was munching on her peanuts. “They’re good. I’ll eat’m if you don’t want’m.”
I slid them toward her.
There were happy conversations all around the plane.< Don’t they know how far we are from the ground? Don’t they know one wrong move and we’re doomed?>
Emily continued chatting happily and looking out the window.
“Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for landing.” The pilot’s voice again.
“Weeee!” Emily said as we began to descend. “Everything’s getting closer. Isn’t this fun?”
I closed my eyes and breathed a deep prayerful sigh.
“And we get to fly home, too!” She shouted happily.
What ever was wrong with trains? I wondered, clutching the arms of the seat.
the end