Friday, May 28, 2010

A (short) road trip

On Wednesday, I went with some knitting friends to Mineral Point, a small town in southwestern Wisconsin about an hour from Madison.  In the 1830s the discovery of lead here caused the first "mineral rush" in the U.S. It's unusual in Wisconsin to have so many buildings made of stone, the legacy of the Cornish miners who settled here.
Mineral Point has many galleries, bed and breakfast places, and little shops but mid-week it's pretty quiet. So quiet that our first two choices for lunch weren't open—I should have checked the days of operation as well as the hours. We did find a place to eat lunch and more importantly, the yarn store we came to see was open. It's called La Bella Vita.
We fondled many skeins of yarn and each of us (except Mr. Rududu) found something to purchase. We loved the way the yarn was arranged by color.  I almost bought some beautiful vintage buttons but I settled on a little cashmere (!!) and some deep eggplant purple alpaca to go into my alpaca collection.

The countryside in southwestern Wisconsin is hilly because it was not reached by the last glacier and the drive from Madison is scenic. It's hard to capture the rolling hills in photos, but I love how big the sky looks when you are up on a ridge. On the way home the sky was full of dramatic clouds just before we had a brief summer shower.
There's more to explore in Mineral Point. Next time we will go on a Friday or weekend so more restaurants are open and perhaps go to Pendarvis, a museum in 6 cottages built by Cornish miners. So far it has fallen into the category of places that are so close we don't get around to them, even though other visitors come long distances. One project for this summer is to enjoy some nearby adventures.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Farmers' markets both grand and intimate

Madison has 8 farmers' markets throughout the week in various locations. I usually go to the market right in my neighborhood, held on Tuesdays afternoons. There are no crowds and I can get all the veggies I need plus butter and cheese in about 10 minutes. That includes having time to chat with my favorite vendors or friends I bump into. It isn't crowded, but still has extras like a musician.
Madison also has the largest producer-only farmers' market in the US. (That means the people who grew the food are selling it.) It's Saturday mornings around the Capitol Square. There are crowds.
It's big! It's an event and a tourist destination and if you go all the way around, it's about a mile. A mile of farm vendors—so it has everything imaginable that grows in Wisconsin. This week we got wild hickory nuts, all shelled and ready to put into pancakes. (They are to very difficult to shell but delicious.) And, as a special treat, we spotted these wood sprites.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Today is brought to you by the color orange

This dates me, but I remember when Sesame Street was brand new. I was a stressed, overworked university freshman in 1970 and sometimes I went to the student union to watch Sesame Street to unwind. Color TV was not all that common either... but I digress. I wasn't the only student watching—the show was new, fresh and exciting, even for those of us who had already mastered our counting and colors.
I loved how they would say "Today's program is brought to you by the color ....."
I've often found orange too in-your-face to really enjoy but when I decided to take some color-themed photos this week, I ended up with an emphasis on orange. Orange seems to be everywhere and I fell back in love with it.
Yesterday I went back to the UW Memorial Union Terrace with a friend for coffee. The colorful metal chairs they've had since the 30's are frequent photo subjects. Flash to the past, part 2—when I was a little kid, the Terrace had two styles of metal chairs. One had a springy seat that was fun to jump up and down on. I would guess that's why they didn't last but the State Historical Society says it was due to rust. You can read more about the Terrace chairs and see a picture of the springy version of the chair at this site.
Now they have this giant chair and you sometimes have to wait in line for your photo op. It makes me feel tiny.
 I did my laundry today and my basket is one of the few orange things I own.
I'm starting to look around and appreciate the oranges in my life.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Alone in the woods

Perfect spring weather is here in southern Wisconsin this week. We spent Sunday afternoon tromping around in the woods in the Baraboo Hills, some low hills that are remnants of an ancient mountain range. We visited Baxter's Hollow Preserve, a preserve of over 5,000 acres (over 2,000 hectares) protected by Nature Conservancy.
Baxter's Hollow is a popular place with birders, but but we didn't arrive until after lunch. We all know that birders should get out there early, preferably at the crack of dawn. Dawn doesn't happen to be my favorite time to go anywhere and an experienced birder told me once that warblers don't even become fully active before 9 a.m. So there. Our birding companions Al and Barb have jobs that keep them up past midnight so they are excellent birding buddies for us lazy bones. I'm sure there were lots of birders there early in the day, but we had the entire preserve virtually to ourselves. We saw a few cars but no one else walking. I like seeing other people out communing with nature, but there is something magical about being alone in the woods.
  The paved road into the preserve parallels Otter Creek. It's a dead end road and great for birding in any foot gear. It would be an excellent place to take someone with limited mobility or in a wheelchair. There's almost no traffic and excellent birds and wildflowers to be seen. The sound track is the burbling of the creek and no man-made sounds. It's my idea of heaven. By the way, for other ideas of birding in southern Wisconsin for those with limited mobility, check out this article.
We saw Blackburnian warblers, Yellow-throated vireos, lots of American Redstarts, Blue-gray gnatcatchers, Rose-breasted grosbeaks, and a Veery, just to name some highlights.
After we had birded the road a while we had the elegant little snack with tea that Al and Barb brought along.
 Then we went hiking on the trail the Conservancy accurately describes as "very primitive." Al and Barb had wisely suggested wearing rubber boots which made it fun to walk along the path even where it was underwater or very muddy. It reminded me of how much fun I had as a kid going through puddles in my boots.
 More than 40 species of birds nest in the preserve, so even a visit after spring migration is over is worthwhile. The peace and quiet are there all year round.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Our mushroom hunt

Because we returned so early from Costa Rica this year, I was looking forward to getting morels, a delicious mushroom that can be found in the Midwest. By definition, morels are wild; so far they have not been domesticated.
 Unfortunately, from the morel procurement point of view, it was very warm earlier in the spring and the morel season was mostly over by the time we got here. In past years we have gone to the Muscoda (pronounced MUSK-a-dee) Morel Festival. I called Mushroom Headquarters earlier in the week and learned that any mushroom seekers would be advised to arrive early on festival weekend. However, mushrooms were being sold daily at the Muscoda village hall. We decided on a preemptive mushroom foray on Friday since frankly none of us is that good at getting up and going places early. So my mom, sister, Russ and I went on a little car trip, hunting mushrooms. We arrived in downtown Mucoda.
I had reserved a pound when I called but not knowing how much my mother or sister would want, I assumed that even if supplies were limited they could get some. Wrong. There was one bag there in mushroom headquarters and it had my name on it. A test of my character (a morel dilemma?) loomed as I wondered if I was able to share my morels. We decided to walk around the village in the hope that more mushrooms would come in. First we looked at the entrants in the morel contest. (Not for sale.) These were entered in the "smallest" category. How did the mushroom hunter find them? Even spotting a normally sized one isn't that easy.

Muscoda is a quiet village but there was a certain buzz in the air as people prepared for the festival starting the next day. We met Captain Dirty Bad Bob selling books and cracking jokes. Since we have a pirate ancestor (and actually own a book to prove it) we felt we had a lot in common.
Bad Bob pointed out it was difficult to be descended from a pirate since many of them didn't live long enough to have offspring. I guess we were lucky—our pirate ancestor was captured in the American colonies and went straight in exchange for his freedom. He produced legions of descendants eligible to join the DAR as my grandmother did. After our walk around town and several garage sales, we checked back at Morel Central and were happy to find that a few more mushrooms had come in. As we rode home through the Wisconsin countryside we enjoyed the general lack of traffic and the excellent condition of the roads, as well as the beauty of the spring hillsides.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ode to my socks

We arrived home in Madison to some cool spring weather. Highs in the low 50s are a shock, but it does give me a chance to wear some of my sweaters that I haven't seen in months. On the trip home I finished a pair of socks which helped keep me cope with the cool weather. They reminded me of Pablo Neruda's poem about socks.

Ode to My Socks

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder's hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

Poem info
I found this poem and many more on on this poetry site. They have over 310,000 poems on their site! I'm looking forward to exploring it more.

Sock info
Poems Sock yarn from Wisdon. Size 0/2mm needles. Pattern based on Discovery Sock from Personal Footprints for Insouciant Sock Knitters by Cat Bordhi.  You would think after thousands of years of sock knitting there was nothing new to discover, but Cat Bordhi has invented a different way to knit a sock. She's a genius.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Frozen in the frozen food section

We're back in Madison after a couple of non-eventful flights—my favorite kind. I'm looking forward to seeing my mom and friends and enjoying our home here, which now seems immense after our casita in Costa Rica. First, I have to get through the annual reverse culture shock. (After I get over the fact that this cool rainy spring day is colder than what they call winter in Costa Rica.) I have many common reactions to being back in the U.S. including how big people are—I'm no longer a giant among men. But most of my culture shock happens at the grocery store.
In Monteverde, our little neighborhood store has everything we need and most of the things we want. Eggs, yep—one kind. Milk? Yep—about 4 choices including dried. Butter? One kind, plus margarine and a mix of the two. Our small neighborhood store in Madison has the vast array of butter and spreads shown above. It looks like about 28 different varieties but I have a favorite kind so that's easy. Harder is the pizza.  In Monteverde there is no frozen pizza or delivered pizza but I like making pizza or we can go out to one of a few restaurants that makes it. When I confronted this freezer section of just pizza last night, I found it pretty mind boggling and it took me about 10 minutes to pick one.
To prevent total mental gridlock yesterday, I chose the theme of buying food I couldn't get in Monteverde. This is my haul. My favorite: dried cherries from Wisconsin. Or maybe it's the super smooth and rich local ice cream. Or the wonderful fresh baked rolls...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Life is full of surprises

We're in Tampa, Florida for the weekend visiting our friends Tryg and Joanna. Joanna introduced Russ and me so she holds a special spot in our hearts.
We had lunch at a nearby Thai Buddhist temple called Wat Mongkolratanaram that sells food every Sunday as a fund raiser. Their temple is ornately beautiful and some people were inside chanting.
Even the decorative fruit is ornate.
There were lots of people there; the food is delicious and inexpensive. (The food is donated and prepared by volunteers.) Check out these huge woks of boiling oil to make fried bananas. These people are very cheerful considering how hot it was.
We had spring rolls, pad thai, fried veggies and some fried tilapia that reminded me of Lelo's in San Luis, Costa Rica. It was prepared the same way and tasted just as good as his.
Wat Mongkolratanaram is open Sunday mornings from 10 a.m. to about 1 p.m. 5306 Palm River Rd., Tampa, Florida. 813-621-1669

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Roast'em out

   Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most visited places in Costa Rica and we finally got there. We will no longer have people look at us and say in a shocked voice: "You've never been to Manuel Antonio?!?"
  The beaches are incredibly scenic just like everyone says.

 This is the Year of the Tinamou for us—the 2 Great Tinamous we saw in the park made it two species of tinamous we saw in the last month. They approached us were so closely that we didn't need binoculars to see them well. It was a magical birding moment. (OK, they look like large dull chickens, but they have an air of mystery because they are so hard to see.) In this photo, they were too close for Russ to get them all in the picture taken through his telescope.

   We also saw a sleeping Common Potoo. They are called the pajaro estaca (stick bird) and are very hard to find because they look like a broken off tree branch during the day.

  Manuel Antonio is a fairly small park with one entrance, and even in low season, we were certainly not visiting alone. The word hoards comes to mind. I think visiting even later in the rainy season would be better because usually it usually only rains in the afternoon. Unfortunately we didn't see the park's famous squirrel monkeys but we saw lots of howler monkeys and White-throated Capuchins.  

I have a tradition of taking Russ places that are hot for vacation. I planned our first trip together via Joshua Tree National Monument and realized after we got there (in August) that it's in the Mojave Desert.  Whoops. A psychologist friend told me it's called trauma bonding. It rained the first night we were in Manuel Antonio so the next day it was very humid and the locals said it was particularly hot. We both had to pour water on our heads while we were hiking to keep from keeling over. We're used to being in the mountains where it's cool.

Nittty gritty travel details
We liked where we stayed: Hotel los Almendros. It's only 50 meters from the park entrance so it's perfect for travelers without a car. The same family has owned it for 30 years; because it's an older place it has a big open area between the buildings with a lovely pool and some palm trees.

The rooms are simple but everything is well maintained, the bed was firm enough, the sheets and towels thick enough, the AC quiet and there was even a reading light.
   To get to Manuel Antonio we took a Quality Transfers shuttle van, a company owned by friends in Monteverde. As usual, it was a comfortable and low-stress way to go. To get to the airport we took a local taxi arranged by the hotel.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Among the happiest people

   Costa Rica often makes the news for being a country of very happy people. Most of the ticos I have asked about this subject have declared unequivocably that they are happy. A good summary of who says ticos are happy and theories about why are in this article in the New York Times. I have a few theories of my own.

  1. It's usually considered inappropriate to say things aren't great. If a Costa Rican tells you that things are "más o menos"(more or less) it's a good idea to ask what's wrong. He or a near relative might be gravely ill. Otherwise, the most common response to "¿Como está?" is "¡Muy bien por dicha!" (very well, luckily) or "¡Pura vida!" (pure life, a general purpose comment that means almost anything positive from life is great to don't worry about things.)

2. Ticos are very non-confrontational. They rarely complain about problems like noisy neighbors or slow service. This keeps life smooth and easy, if a bit noisier and slower.

3. When you are surrounded by smiling people who never complain and are always telling you how great things are, it just makes you feel better. The opposite of a vicious cycle. Scientific proof is found in this article. The authors analyzed long-term data from the Framington Heart Study and concluded:

People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.

4. Most people are in the middle, economically. There's not a huge gap between the very rich and other people. True, there are rich and poor, but compared to many countries the divide between the extremes is less.

If you want to feel happier and can't come live in Costa Rica, you might want to check out the Happiness Project here. Pura vida.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Brownies: a recipe for making friends

I have turned quite a few of our tico friends into brownie fiends.
Once they have experienced brownies, they are shameless hint droppers along the lines of "Why don't you bring give me some brownies?" It makes me feel very appreciated. Ticos do very little baking and brownies aren't part of their tradition although they all seem willing to change that. I've given brownies as gifts to various workers, taxi drivers, or people who have done me a kindness and they are always very well received.
   Baking chocolate in bars are not available here in Santa Elena. (I've seen it elsewhere in Costa Rica.) Luckily, cocoa is usually available. So I started with the recipe on the box of Hersey's Baking Chocolate and modified it so it uses cocoa and extra butter. And after a few years of tweaking and taste tests, I came up with my recipe.
Our friend Lucas recently asked me for my recipe and since I believe he has never baked anything in his life (although he cooks), I suggested he come over for a lesson. It was great fun making the brownies together. Here is Lucas mixing up the batter.

Russ always helps me by cutting the brownies.

My favorite way to eat a brownie is hot with a dab of ice cream, but eating one along the trail while birdwatching is good too. And some friends like to gobble them while still frozen. (Keeping them in the freezer prevents ants getting at them.)
Here is my recipe. Enjoy.

Carolina's brownies
Melt 2 sticks of butter. Turn off the fire and mix in 2 cups of sugar. Then add 3 eggs and 2 tsp. of vanilla.

In another bowl, mix 1 cup flour, 3/4 cup cocoa and 1/2 tsp. baking powder. Stir really well to get rid of any lumps in the cocoa and to make sure the baking powder is mixed in.

Add the butter mixture to the dry ingredients. If desired, add 1 cup chopped walnuts or macadamia nuts. You can also add 1/2-3/4 cups of unsweetened coconut along with the nuts.

Grease the pan with a lot of butter—2 tsp. or so. Bake at 350F (180C) until the edges of the brownies have pulled away from the pan and the middle looks shiny and has some resistance to your finger gently pressing on it. Don't overbake—these are fudgey brownies.  Baking time depends on the size of the pan. I have a pan that is 9" X 12"(24cmX29.5cm) but today we used Lucas's pan that was 7.5" X 12" (19.5cm X 30cm) and it worked great. Baking time is between 25 and 35 minutes.
Hint: we put our pan of brownies in the freezer for a while before we cut them so they aren't as crumbly. After cutting we wrap them in twos in plastic wrap so they are ready for us to take along on a hike or to give to people.