All posts by brucegk

Living in Harmony with the Earth

We are visiting our daughter Carrie, her husband Joseph, and their sons Moss and Alder. As you might guess from the names of the boys, they are very focused on living in harmony with the earth and minimizing their impact on the earth. I think the lifestyle they have chosen is interesting and admirable.

They live in a house they began building in 2004 and is still a work in progress. The house is a mixture of cob and straw bale construction. They designed the house themselves with no formal training other than a one week course in building cob houses. They did all the work themselves with help from friends as needed. Cob is a mixture of sand, clay, and some straw. You make a think mud mixture and shape it into a wall 18 to 36 inches thick and about 24 inches high. After the mud dries enough, you shave the sides to square them up. You continue to add height to the wall in 24 inch increments.

The north side of the house is built of straw bale to improve the insulation properties. In straw bale construction, you build a wall of straw bales about 18 inches thick and cover the inside and outside with a mud mixture similar to the cob mixture. The roof is metal with large wood pole rafters. The cob walls are load bearing and support the outside roof rafters. Cob structures have an indefinitely long life if properly maintained.

The house also has many interesting environmentally friendly features. All the electricity is provided by solar panels and the electrical energy is stored in a battery system. Most of the solar system and all the windows of the house are from salvage further reducing the environmental impact. They installed a grey water system where the drain water from the kitchen sink, tub, and washing machine is used to water their fruit trees. They have a solar oven which is used for baking. You put cake batter into the oven for 5-6 hours in the heat of the day, and you will have a perfectly baked cake for dinner using only solar energy.

The house is heated with a wood stove they call a rocket stove located in the entry hall/tub room. The flue gas from this stove passes under some stone stairs and through a stone bench before being exhausted through the roof. The flue gas thus heats these stones which hold heat and release it into the kitchen and living room. The efficiency of the system is demonstrated by the fact the exhaust flue pipe is always cool enough to touch. Due to the thickness and the large mass of the walls plus the fact some of the house is below grade, the house is inherently energy efficient. The design creates what is known as a thermal flywheel where the house is slow to change temperature inside despite a large change of temperature outside. The stone used in construction of the house was scrounged from the side of the road.

In addition since they have some land to work with, they are able to provide an estimated 75% of the food they eat from their crops, domestic animals, hunting, and foraging. They grow most of their fruits and vegetables in a green house and garden plots. They raise chickens, goats and sometimes turkeys. They get milk, cheese, oil, meat and compost from the goats. They have four bee hives for honey. The main things they buy from the grocery are grains, rice, beans, oils and coffee. They have a wood burning stove and cooktop which they use primarily in winter. They also have a propane stove/cooktop and water heater. All kitchen scraps are recycled to the chickens and goats.

Other environmentally friendly things are driving diesel powered cars and using biofuel whenever possible. They also homeschool their children.

They recognize that their lifestyle is not for everyone. They say their motivation is both ecological and to have more control of their own destiny. I for one really admire them for what they have accomplished and for doing what they can to make the earth a better place to live for future generations. I hope their example encourages all of us to do what we can to make the earth a better place.

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The solar oven being used to dry leaves and flowers for tea.

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The interior roof structure

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The flue gas from the rocket stove passes through the steps on the right of the picture and through the bench before being vented to the atmosphere through the vertical pipe on the left of the picture. The kitchen is up the steps on the right.

Last Frontier

Susan and I are presently visiting our daughter and her family in Crawford, Colorado. Crawford is located on the western slope of Colorado between Montrose and Grand Junction. It is best known as the home of Joe Cocker and for Needle Rock. I personally would not know Joe Cocker if he bit me on the ankle, but we frequently see Needle Rock.

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On Friday we flew from Charleston to Denver and then drove to Crawford. It was a five hour drive starting at about 4 PM. The traffic was bumper to bumper through most of Denver and then we headed west into the slowly setting sun. We left I70 as the sun set to head southwest over McClure Pass with several warnings to look out for deer fresh in our minds. Fortunately, we only saw two deer: one that sauntered across the road in front of us as we were stopping at an intersection and one standing beside the road. About 9:30 PM we arrived tired but safely at our home for the next four nights – The Last Frontier Lodge.

The lodge is located on a hill overlooking Crawford State Park. This is the view from our deck when we woke up this morning.

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Not too shabby! The yellow trees are cottonwoods which are spectacular this time of year. Their leaves shake with the slightest breeze similar to the quaking aspen which is only found at higher elevations.

The lodge was built in the 1980’s and can best be described as rustic. We have stayed here twice. The first time we were the only occupied room and this time there is one other occupied room. The lodge would seem to appeal mostly to hunters, but the proprietor told us they often have European guests also. I am somewhat impressed that Europeans would ever find it.
This is a picture of our room.

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I didn’t know they even had chip board in the 80’s! The exterior walls are logs. Anyway, the breakfasts are great and the views are wonderful. The picture of Needle Rock was also taken from the lodge.

One More Thing

You may recall that I was the victim of a pickpocket in the Paris Metro. That is not really the end of the story. We held off telling the rest of the story partially out of embarrassment and partly because we were worried that you might think we were in over our heads. We believe that we were just very unlucky on two different occasions. I thought I would post this story as soon as I got home; but for reasons totally unclear to me, Susan loves telling the story and didn’t want me to steal her thunder. I told her she could have a month, and then I was going public.

Two days after the pickpocket incident, we took a train from Paris to San Sebastián, Spain. We put three of our suitcases over our heads and one in the luggage rack about two rows back. Near the end of the trip, I looked back at the luggage rack and the suitcase was still there. I then looked overhead and my small carry on suitcase was missing. Susan had slept for much of the train ride and I could not remember one of the previous stops. I believe the man sitting across the aisle from me saw us take our two iPads out of that suitcase, thought there might be other goodies in it, took it from directly over my head when I fell asleep, and got off the train.

I notified the conductor and we made a search of the train together to no avail. I tried to leave a lost luggage report at the train station in case it was taken accidentally, but they said they would refuse to take the luggage back if someone tried to return it. At this point, I essentially wrote the luggage off and started trying to deal with it. I had lost my camera, all the tools for recharging electronics, all my drugs and toiletries, my iPod, some clothes, all the documents we needed for the rest of the trip, my SD cards, and my passport!

For several hours we were ready to pack it in and go home, but we soon pulled ourselves together and went to work on how to deal with it. The first priority was the ability to recharge our electronics. Without them, we were out of contact with the world and researching what to do would become infinitely harder. Fortunately, there was an Apple dealer nearby who sold a neat recharging kit for all common electrical outlets.

Next priority was my drugs. Maria at the local pharmacy spoke a little English and was soon my best friend. There were two prescription drugs that I had to replace. Fortunately, I knew the concentrations and I was able to buy them without any prescription. They cost about a third of what they would have cost at home without insurance. The non prescription drugs were harder to get and cost more. I would show her the website of the drug on my phone, she would look it up on her computer, and come up with the nearest equivalent. I saw Maria every day for about four days until I got everything I needed.

The iPhone has been my only camera since I arrived in Spain. It is not nearly as good for night shots, indoor shots, and zooming; but it is decent otherwise. I am not too upset about the loss of the camera as it is a good excuse to get a new one. The iPod was an early model and had a cracked screen, so again I welcome the excuse to get a replacement. The rest of the things I could live without.

The biggest worry was the passport. Fortunately, we were going to Madrid so I tried to make an appointment with the embassy to get a replacement. Remember this was when my only wifi was at a bar near our apartment, which made everything very difficult. At first the State Department web site indicated no appointments were available when I would be in Madrid and offered me little hope. Things improved when I was able to talk to a real person and I got my appointment.

Then, about four days before we left for Madrid, to my total surprise and amazement, I got an email from the Paris police that they had recovered my luggage and it contained an umbrella, eyeglasses (spares), men’s clothes, and my passport. Now I really didn’t know what to do as I didn’t know how to collect it from the Paris police. Going back to Paris would be more expense than the value of what I would likely recover. The police made it clear that they would not ship it.

I tried contacting an American I knew in Paris, but for a variety of good and valid reasons, they were unable to help. In desperation, I contacted my landlord in Paris and he just took charge of the situation. First, he found a company that would pick it up and ship it, but again the cost was way more than the value. The luggage was being held very near the apartment he rents, so he said he would pick it up and send it to me when he was at the apartment in about a week. It turns out he sells things on eBay so he had all the packing supplies. He helped research shipping options and came up with the best one. He also wrote out in French what I needed to write to the Paris police to authorize him to pick up the suitcase. To my total relief, I received my suitcase and passport about halfway through the stay in Seville at a total cost less than replacing the passport.

It turns out the suitcase had a lot more than first reported. The only things lost were the camera, the iPod, and the SD card case which contained the SIM card for our US phone. It gave me a tiny bit of satisfaction that the thief had neglected to take the charger for the camera batteries.

After these two incidents we were totally paranoid on future train and bus trips. The main lesson learned is that sleeping on trains is not an option!

Site Organization

I have created a new “How To” section on the site. This section contains a new page on packing plus old pages on planning and coping with problems. If you want to read the new page on packing, click here. You can find the “How To” section in the menus below the picture banner on a computer or by tapping the “menu icon” (the three horizontal lines) on a tablet or phone.

Home Sweet Home

We got an early start for our thirty minute drive to the airport. There was a brief moment of panic when the Hertz GPS lady couldn’t find the Hertz drop off at the airport. Again it was Google maps to the rescue. We flew out of Dublin and to our surprise we went through US immigration and customs there. You first check in and go through Dublin security where you can leave your shoes on. Then you head to US immigration where you go through security again and get to take your shoes off before going to the immigration line. The immigration agents in Dublin appear to be US citizens stationed there.

Our agent just wanted to talk college football. Penn State is playing in Dublin in two weeks and he somehow thought we were Penn State fans. There was a brief moment of panic when he asked us “Are you still on probation?” Everything was cool when we realized he was talking about Penn State instead of us. Also somewhat surprising, he showed us a picture of our checked luggage and asked us to confirm it was ours. The whole thing from arrival at the airport to gate took about 75 minutes. As a brief editorial comment, if you set out to design a transportation system that is as unpleasant as possible, I don’t think you could do a better job than what TSA and the airlines have done.

We arrived at JFK on time and got out quickly since we didn’t have to go through customs. We decided to take the shuttle bus to Laguardia to catch our flight home. The man selling the bus tickets was what Susan called a stereotypical New Yorker: abrupt, abrasive, and bossy. It made us yearn to be back among the friendly Parisians!

And then we arrived at Laguardia. Up until then I thought JFK was my least favorite airport. There is a sign at the entrance to the terminal that they are building a new terminal but in the meantime they are improving this one to “give you what you deserve”. Apparently we don’t deserve much. I guess flying puts me in a critical mood. Our Spirit flight was an hour late leaving the airport because of a broken arm rest. After an attempted repair with duct tape, they asked for a volunteer to leave the full plane. When that didn’t happen, the captain came out, inspected the offending arm rest, pronounced it OK, filed a report with the FAA, and took off.

We thought you might be interested in the luggage we used for our four months in Europe so we took a picture in the Aer Lingus check in line. We were able to fly carry on with Spirit Airlines with this luggage. The one thing that is a little misleading is Baggallrini is missing from the picture. Longchamps is a new addition to the luggage and replaces Bagalini for long distance trips. I would like to say a few kind words about Baggallini. She is perfect for carrying metro tickets, maps, umbrellas, and all the important things you need walking around town. And the best part is Susan is the one carrying her!

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We went to the beach this afternoon with great anticipation. The weather was warm and sunny. The ocean temperature was warm but refreshing. The beach was not overcrowded. The bad news? There were jellyfish in the water and anyone who went in the water was getting stung. Bummer!!!

All Good Things Must Come To An End

After eight countries, three apartments, eleven hotels, one cruise ship, 71 blog posts (I know it must have seemed like more to you), and 115 days, our adventure comes to an end tomorrow. We have traveled by cruise ship, plane, train, bus, taxi, tram, subway, boat, ferry, bike, rental car, and most of all by foot. We have seen innumerable churches, museums and castles. We have tried to experience as much of the culture of each country as we could. We have particularly enjoyed sampling the cuisines of each country. We have had fun, we have learned a lot about the countries we visited, we have met nice and interesting people, and we have had a few stressful moments.

Susan is ready to go home and hit the beach. I am willing to go home, but would be just as happy to keep going. I have enjoyed writing the blog. I originally thought I would be writing every third day or so, but I got so into it that I ended up writing nearly every day. I sincerely thank everyone who has followed our adventures and we really appreciate everyone who has responded to the blog. It really meant a lot to us.

I will post picture pages of our Seville side trips and Ireland sometime after we get home. Other than that, I won’t be posting much until we leave for Mexico on New Years Day, 2015.

Northern Ireland

When we were ready to start out for Northern Ireland on Wednesday, I try to enter our destination in our trusty Hertz GPS and it can’t find our destination. I try something easier like Belfast, and it can’t find that either. I then see there is a little Irish flag in the corner, so I tap that to change the country. I get a choice of virtually every country in Europe except Northern Ireland, Britain, England, or Great Britain. So that is how Susan became the new GPS lady.
To understand the significance of this, you need to understand that she is directionally challenged. We used to park in the same spot in the parking garage every time we went to the symphony. When we got off the elevator after the symphony, Susan would always turn right when are car was always to the left. There are numerous other examples of this phenomenon. Since you have a fifty percent chance of being correct in this situation and she turns the wrong way more than 75% of the time; there is some directional dyslexia going on here. Needless to say, this made me uneasy about my new navigator.
We were able to program our destination into Google maps on the iPhone, but the Google lady was using strange names and route numbers for the streets and was also very shy about talking. We used our road map – you do remember those don’t you – and circled the logical routes and the destination towns for those routes. We didn’t have any way to mount the phone so I could see it while driving, so Susan sat with the map on her lap and the phone at her side. She told me the next turn Google wanted or the direction to go out of the roundabout. She kept track of the cities to which we were headed on the map. Long story short, she did a great job and we reached our destination with only one minor wrong turn which is somewhat better than my record with the Hertz lady.
We are staying at a beautiful bed and breakfast on the Antrim Coast. When we checked in, we had a nice conversation with our host and a woman from France who arrived at the same time. Two things became clear from that conversation: Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain and has no cultural or other relationship to Ireland (at least among the Protestant majority) and there is considerable unhappiness with the EU among the more prosperous countries. They were complaining bitterly about excessive regulations and too many immigrants. Hmmm, do I remember those same complaints at home???
Today we explored the Antrim coast. It was Susan’s favorite day of the Ireland trip because of the magnificent scenery combining sea, cliffs, and green fields. It would be in my top two days along with the Connemara area. We went first to a rope bridge used by salmon fisherman to access a small island where the fishing is best. The bridge is quite sturdy and neither of us found it scary.

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Our next stop was the Giant’s Causeway. This is an area where the volcanic rock made hexagonal columns when it cooled.

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Our final stop was the ruins of Dunluce castle build right on the edge of the headlands.

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At this point, we estimated we had walked about five miles; so we retuned to our B&B for tea and biscuits.

And Now for Something Really Old

Yesterday we drove from Clifden, where we had spent the last two days, to Donegal. We left Clifden via the scenic Sky Road and stopped to see the ruins of the Clifden castle. The castle was built around 1818 but has been uninhabited since 1894. It is a nice walk through pastureland to reach the castle.

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The Sky Road had many nice views and many flowers blooming beside the road. The heaths and/or heathers (I don’t know the difference between them) are also in bloom now.

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But 1818 is not really very old. We also stopped at the Carrowmore passage tomb complex near Sligo, Ireland. These tombs are five to six thousand years old. They typically have central stones as shown that are surrounded by a circle of stones. There are about thirty tombs in the complex, and you can see more scattered on the surrounding mountains.

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We are now on the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland thanks to expert navigation by Susan. Why Susan is navigating rather than our very British GPS lady is a story for another day.

Connemara

Tuesday we had a wonderful day in the Connemara area of Ireland. We are staying in a castle hotel. We have a huge room with a terrace on the turret of the castle. The room is bigger than some of the apartments we have stayed in. The queen of the castle is there to greet you at the front door.

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And this is a picture of our room.

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And the view of the front of the castle from our turret.

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We first went for a hike in Connemara National Park with wide open views of the land and the sea.

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Our next stop was Kylemore Abbey which is beautifully situated on a lake at the base of a mountain.

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A highlight of the Abbey is their walled Victorian garden. The have planted it in the Victorian manner using only flowers from the Victorian era.

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Coming from the Carolinas, we consider the rhododendron as a beautiful plant that we like to go to the mountains to see in the wild. In Ireland, they consider it an invasive species that is killing the native vegetation. It is certainly thriving in the woods around the Abbey – more so than in the Carolina’s. I don’t see how they can possibly eliminate it especially since they don’t want to use chemicals.

Killarney

When we drove into Killarney, we were surprised to learn that our neighboring city of Myrtle Beach, SC is a sister city to Killarney. We talked to the innkeeper about it this morning and we theorized they might be sister cities because they are both golf meccas. We didn’t want to spend another full day driving the Ring of Kerry after driving around the Dingle Penninsula the day before, so we decided to spend the day exploring Killarney National Park. The park has it all: a castle, a manor house, a waterfall, mountains, and lakes.

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Sunday night in Killarney we went into town for dinner and some Irish music. We listened to a Clancy Brothers tribute group. They played another of my favorite songs, The Dutchman, though it never seemed Irish to me.

The weather in Ireland has been interesting. Most the time the sky is a mixture of blue sky, white clouds, and black clouds. The rain comes in the form of brief sprinkles; and almost every time it has been raining, we can see blue sky somewhere. So far the weather has been relatively pleasant.

Monday we had a long drive from Killarney to the Connemara area via the Cliffs of Moher. I have a new definition of a good road – it is any road with a centerline on it. By that definition, about ten percent of the roads the GPS takes us on are bad roads. The problem is that the GPS likes to take a lot of shortcuts on “unnamed roads”. By contrast, Susan’s definition of a good road is any road with a berm. By that definition, less half the roads are good roads.