Travel

Wilsall, Montana

Never heard of it?  Neither had I till the lack of any baseball between Sioux Falls and Portland caused me to look for alternative diversions.  Lo and behold, Wilsall is the site of an annual rodeo, which just happened to coincide with my arrival in Livingston (gateway to Yellowstone – from the north).  So of course I had to attend.

The rodeo grounds covered more area than the rest of the town, but the setting was spectacular, with the snow-covered mountains in the background and the green hills leading down to the Yellowstone River.

I arrived just a few minutes late and the place was packed.  I had to park about three blocks away and from the area I covered, my vehicle was the only one from out of state.  Lots of families and it seemed like everyone knew each other.

But the action is the story.  The calves won the calf-roping contest, with only two out of about ten actually being lassoed.  The most exciting event was the women’s barrel racing, in which the horse and rider must circle three barrels, then race to the finish line, the winner being the one with the lowest time.

I loved watching the cutting horses and their riders who coaxed the bucking broncs, the skittish calves and even the horses whose riders jumped off to rassle a calf to the ground or tie it up after lassoing it.  Those horses and riders were as one, knowing just what to do and where to go.

A piece of America that we don’t see in the city.

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Eats, Minor Leagues, Oddity, Travel

Davenport, Iowa

We took a fairly easy drive (after getting out of St. Louis) north through the cornfields of Illinois, mostly on back roads. It is remarkable in such a populous state how few folks you see in its extreme western part.
Our destination was Davenport, Iowa where the Quad Cities River Bandits were scheduled to play in a Single A Midwestern League game against the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The Bandits are an affiliate of the Astros and the Kernels of the Twins.
When we arrived in town, we went directly to the stadium to buy our tickets and were told that there were none for sale. My jaw dropped and the clerk quickly explained that they had all been purchased by the Modern Woodmen, an insurance company whose headquarters are directly across the Mississippi River from the stadium and after which the stadium is named. The clerk said that the tickets would be given away free an hour before game time.
We were a little late for that and the parking lot was filling up fast. We stood in the ticket line only to be told to go to the gate where we would get them. The two ticket takers insisted they didn’t have tickets, but we had to and that we had to go back to the ticket window, and only after a couple of rounds of fruitless explanation that we were denied tickets there did a young lady step up (she’d been no more than five feet away during the exchange) to offer us tickets. Goofy!
The Modern Woodmen Park enjoys perhaps the most spectacular setting for a ballpark that I’ve ever seen, positioned as it is at the north end of the Centennial Bridge, right on the banks of the Mississippi. We enjoyed watching the pelicans fly up and down the river. It also had the unusual feature of a permanent ferris wheel in left field.

The Quad Cities include Bettendorf and Davenport in Iowa and Rock Island and Moline in Illinois, and there’s a fairly long history of minor league baseball in the area.
Unfortunately, a very typical Midwestern shower arrived just as the game was about to start, so it was delayed by an hour. That, coupled with the need to make tracks tomorrow and the River Bandits 5-0 lead in the fifth caused us to leave after the game was official (five innings).
We did see one player who probably won’t be with the Bandits for long. A Cuban named Yordan Alvarez was big, had an easy swing and had three hits, including a long home run, by the time we left. In style and movement, he reminded me of the young Vladimir Guerrero, but with greater plate discipline and less wasted motion.  Keep an eye out for him.
And finally, the eats. The Bandit Dog, better described as a chili cheese dog with onions, seemed the most promising, but about the only thing it is likely to deliver is late night heartburn.

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Eats, Major Leagues, Travel

St. Louis vs. Milwaukee

Our trip to St. Louis last year ended in frustration as we sat, waiting patiently, watching radar images on the Jumbotron that seemed to portray an impending deluge, yet found no confirmation in the sky over Busch Stadium.  In the end, the radar prevailed and the game was rained out.  So, of course, we had to come back.

To get there, we drove through rural western Tennessee, through a bit of Kentucky and into Illinois at Cairo.  It is ironic that I’ve been to Cairo, Egypt (pronounced “kigh row”) many times but never to Cairo, Illinois (pronounced “kay row”).  I was shocked.  In all my travels around this country, I have never seen a town so depressed.  It is seemingly one bankruptcy short of a ghost town.  At least two thirds of the businesses were boarded up and there was just nothing going on.

Busch Stadium, on the other hand, was bustling.  When we checked into our hotel, we learned that the Cards and Brewers were playing a double header (making up a prior rainout), so there was a lot of activity around the stadium when we bought our tickets.  This year, the skies were clear and the weather warm.

We also made a return visit to Pappy’s Smokehouse, a highly regarded BBQ place west of downtown.  We enjoyed it last year, but tried to go to Bogart’s, only to learn that is open just for lunch four days a week.  Go figure.  In any event, we got one full side of ribs and split it, which was more than enough for the two of us.  The ribs were superb, the sides (slaw and potato salad) adequate though not memorable, but the meal was well worth it (14 very meaty ribs for $25).

The Cards won the first game and we speculated whether the veterans would have played that game or been saved for the night game.  I would have played the old guys in the (marginally) cooler evening game, but Manager Metheny did the opposite.  Several of the younger players wore these fancy socks.

 The Cards took an early lead, the Brewers caught up and then went ahead, the Cards caught them, but lost out in the end.  Despite that, it was a good game and now Busch Stadium is authentically in the book.

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Travel

The Lake District

We recently had a very pleasant stay in the Lake District of England, perhaps one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen.  

We were there on what the English call a “walking holiday.”  We stayed at Monk Coniston, formerly a monastery and later part of the 4000 acre estate owned by Beatrix Potter, now a part of the National Trust domain.  Here’s the view from our room.


Our holiday was hosted by HF Holidays, which operates many similar properties, mostly in the UK but in other countries as well.  Each day, we were given a choice of an easier, medium or hard hike, each led by an experienced, essentially volunteer, guide.  The easy walks were generally 5-6 miles, mostly through the valleys in the area, taking in villages, pastures and the intense greenery of the region.  The medium walks were a bit longer with more elevation gain and the hard ones longer and tougher still.

Pictures really don’t capture the beauty of the Lake District.  The hills (western Americans just can’t realistically call them mountains) present real hiking challenges that can include use of hands climbing and descending, but the view from the ridges is spectacular.  In addition, walking is such a part of the culture in the UK that walking paths are a given – everywhere – on ridges, through pastures, towns, over hill and dale. 

Brexit presents a serious problem for the region, since many of the farmers receive EU subsidies for their efforts (it’s tough, if not impossible to make a living there just raising sheep).  There has recently been a World Heritage designation for the area, and that may ease the pressure a bit, but the housing is too expensive for most to survive on traditional livelihoods.

Two interesting side notes.  Since there aren’t many fountains in the woods, folks pound copper (only) coins into fallen trees for luck. 

 

Also, since most walks include crossing pastures containing sheep, gates are a necessity.  The common type there (which I’d never seen elsewhere) is called a “kissing gate,” which will only allow one person through at a time.

Oh, and did I mention sheep?

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Travel

Timor Leste

I recently traveled to Timor Leste (East Timor) to look at the work Mercy Corps is doing there, meet with staff and beneficiaries and government officials all in order to get a better picture of the broader program.
The first thing to say is that it is not easy to get there. I flew from Portland to Tokyo, then to Singapore where I had an overnight layover. That enabled me to catch the twice a week flight to Dili, all of which encompassed about 22 hours of actual flight time. The country is on the east side of Timor Island, part of the same chain of islands that makes up Indonesia. Knowing that, one might logically conclude that there would be regular flights from Jakarta, but, for whatever reason, the major carriers don’t serve that route.

The second thing to say is that it is a very unusual place. It probably shouldn’t be a country at all. The population is only about 1.1 million and most people get by on subsistence farming. That wouldn’t set it apart from many countries, but what does is the fact that about 90% of its GDP comes from oil. There are significant undersea oil reserves between TL and Australia. Years ago, the two countries made a deal that drew a boundary between them and put in place a revenue-sharing arrangement under which TL got almost 95% of the revenue from the oil produced in its area. The problem arose when, later, they realized that the line had been drawn close to TL, and the far greater volume of oil was on the Australian side of the line. So that agreement has now been scrapped and new negotiations are underway to redraw boundaries and square things up.

Unless that goes well for TL, its oil revenue could dry up in ten years or less. That would leave TL in dire straits. It could be planning for that, looking for alternative bases for its economic growth and development, but that doesn’t seem to be happening in a realistic way. For example, instead of focusing on the development of its people through programs aimed at reducing a very high rate of malnutrition and stunting, and on education for the next generation, the government is instead working on roads and other infrastructure.

MC is doing some interesting work in TL. In a bid to both increase incomes and alleviate malnutrition, it assists fish farmers (with help from a government-run hatchery) in growing and marketing tilapia, a quick-maturing freshwater fish that provides a much needed source of protein. Ironically, despite being on an island, TL doesn’t have much of a fishery or marine heritage.

In the very mountainous interior (which easily captured the number one spot on my BRI – bad roads index), MC works with villages in what is essentially a community organizing effort. The usual starting point is forming a village savings and loan association (VSLA) of 15-20 people who each contribute a modest amount, say $10 (TL uses the US dollar as its currency), to get started and then a similarly modest agreed amount each successive month. Once there’s a decent sized kitty, a few of the members can take a modest loan. The money is kept in a box with three locks, the key to each being different and each key being held by a different member of the group, so all three must be present with their key to open it. One member will keep the books and as loans are repaid (with 15% annual interest, a very modest rate by developing country standards). Eventually, the pot is divided among the members and they either start over, reform into a new group, or go their separate ways.


One of the members of one VSLA I visited used her loan to buy local produce, transport it to Dili, sell it, repay the loan and put the profit in her pocket.

MC has started over 200 VSLA’s in just one region there, and in varying degrees, that initial organizational effort has led to other community development activities, such as keyhole gardens (to demonstrate composting and watering best practices), manufacture and distribution of small metal seed storage units (to prevent rot and pestilence of seed stock for the coming year) and more efficient cook stoves that use less wood, create less smoke and are easier to use. All modest steps, but taken together, ones that improve incomes, enable more kids to go to school and improve diets.

Seed storage container

A different approach was taken by a man named Nixon Galucho. A former police officer, he was shot by the Australians during the civil unrest and spent a couple of years in jail. He decided to focus on his community and his first target was the hill behind his village of government-subsidized housing. He and his friends set to work to terrace the hill so as to prevent erosion in the seasonal rains. That also gave them more space to plant crops. Nixon is a passionate man who left behind the turmoil of politics to engage with his neighbors and has even shown other communities how to organize in order to achieve community goals.

Nixon Galucho

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Major Leagues, Travel

Spring Training – Cubs

My friend Ira and I drove two days from Portland to bask in the Arizona sunshine and, more importantly, start the 2017 season right.  Ira is a lifelong Cubs fan, having grown up in Chicago, so it was only fitting that we begin with a Cubs game.

But first we had to get there – to Mesa, that is.  We drove south through Oregon on I-5, which is okay after you get past Salem, but not entirely inspiring.  So after we convinced the border guards in California that we were not vegetables (good thing they didn’t ask some of our family members!) and therefore not subject to confiscation, we turned east just past Mount Shasta and headed towards Nevada.  That went pretty well – beautiful and not too many people.  But the second day wasn’t so great – some traffic in Las Vegas and a one-hour halt south of there for road construction put us off our schedule.

Because of the winter that the west coast has had this year, Nevada and Arizona, which are congenitally brown, were eerily green everywhere we looked.  There were even wild flowers growing beside the road.

But I digress.  We went to Sloan Park (sadly, the Cubs no longer live at Hohokam Stadium for spring training) early to watch BP.  You may wonder how hitting 60-70 mph pitches can really help hone a batter’s skills.  I don’t know the full answer to that question, but as you can see, the BP pitcher is almost halfway to the plate from the mound, so the batter has to decide pretty fast.

We were joined by my son Eli to watch as the Cubs played the Brewers on a beautiful, if hot, day (game time temp was 91 degrees, and the field announcer took great delight in pointing out that it was 22 degrees and snowing in Chicago).  Nearly all the Cubs stars started the game and Kris Bryant got it off to a good start with a dinger.  The Cubs dominated, despite three caught stealing, and led 6-2 at one point.  But the Brewers came back and, thanks to a throw from left by an unnamed rookie that was airmailed into the stands, went ahead 7-6 in the top of the ninth.  Cubs tied it with another homer in the bottom of the ninth and that’s the way it ended.  Can you imagine –  they don’t play extra innings in spring training!

One interesting feature in spring training is the mixture of veterans and rookies.  Typically the veterans start and play a few innings before the rookies get a chance to show their stuff.  You can tell who’s who by their numbers – rookies have high numbers and, at least for Milwaukee, don’t get their names on the back of their jerseys.

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Travel

Mali

Mali is a land-locked  country in Francophone West Africa that is among the ten poorest in the world.  It is second only to its neighbor, Niger, in having the youngest population at a median age of 16.2 years.  I visited there recently in order to meet with Mercy Corps staff and to get a better sense of the work being done there to help folks climb out of poverty.


The situation in the country is difficult.  Shortly before I arrived, there was a large attack on a military base that left 60-70 people dead and many more wounded.  The northern part of the country (you’ve maybe heard of Timbuktu) is host to a variety of armed groups, ranging from jihadists to bandits.  It’s not safe to go there, so Mercy Corps has to rely on national staff, managed remotely, who have developed a strong community acceptance as the basic mechanism for security.

Mercy Corps programs focus on providing aid to those suffering the effects of conflict, displacement and drought, but doing so in a way that helps folks develop a longer term capability to withstand such stresses on their own.  So, for example, if drought has reduced their harvest and caused them to miss meals (it is common for women to skip meals and give their portion to their kids), Mercy Corps helps them get drought-resistant seeds that will alleviate that problem next time.

Similarly, Mercy Corps works with communities and their leaders to develop conflict management techniques that can be used to mitigate the effects of the divisions in the community that sometimes lead to or foster violence.  Naturally, conflict is very disruptive and contributes directly to hunger and poverty, so if it can be avoided or managed, the chances of avoiding such problems go up.

Another program provides safe spaces for women and girls, which has seen remarkable results in extending and often restarting education for them.  That has a direct effect on delaying marriage (60% of girls in Mali are married before age 18), which in turn tends to reduce the birth rate (currently among the highest in the world), thus helping to decrease the level of poverty.

Security is a major concern throughout the country.  Unlike most country programs, Mercy Corps Mali does not have marked vehicles and there’s no sign outside its office.  I stayed at a hotel in Bamako, the capital, that likewise has no sign, but does have locked gates and full-time guards with metal detectors at the ready.

Between my room and the Niger River, there is an area of land that is flooded during the rainy season but available to squatters to cultivate once the floods recede.  Every morning, the fishermen were out on the river in their narrow boats, seeking their living in an age-old way in the very middle of a teeming city.



Others carry out the daily chores of cooking food, washing clothes, gathering what they can to stay alive.  Africa’s economy, as a continent, is growing faster than most in the world, but it started so far behind that the reality for those in the “bottom billion” is little changed.


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