Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Gulf’s déjà vu of seven years ago

It was seven years yesterday since this writer got her wisdom teeth out. No…that’s not the significant part of this story, but it was part of it nonetheless. You see I was laid up in a recliner still on heavy painkillers as I watched hours of television coverage regarding the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina…and could not believe my eyes.

Images like those are not easily forgotten. It would be like trying to forget what the Twin Towers looked like shrouded in smoke and flame. This anniversary of Katrina evokes many emotions in our citizens across this state, the country and the world. And now Hurricane Isaac has approached our gulf’s shores.
Jackson Square in New Orleans

“Prepare. Don’t Panic. Pray.” was the message on a Gulf Coast sign that accompanied a Yahoo News article about the coming hurricane. I agree with it. If there is anything Louisianans should have learned since Katrina, I believe it is summed up well in that brief statement. We must pray for safety, prepare for anything and not panic.
The issues of safety and preparation are not only on the minds of those along the coastline, but also here at home. God Bless all and be careful.

Near Jackson Square in New Orleans


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Diamonds and Teepees

This writer nearly shot an arrow through a peacock in April. I have had some strange and wacky weekend retreats, but I must say my weekend in Murfreesboro, Arkansas has to be at the top of my most entertaining getaways.
This outdoor weekend almost didn’t happen. My friend, Caroline, and I had originally planned it for Thanksgiving Day 2010. Then, she caught the flu, so we had to cancel. We had re-scheduled it for November 2011, but she ended up going to New York City and I went to Germany. April we decided would be a good time.
I left on a Friday after work and headed to her house in Shreveport. Saturday morning, we headed north across the Arkansas line. The weather was perfect—sunny with a light breeze. The skies were clear and blue. We stopped in Ashdown to shop at one of Caroline’s favorite antique stores. Then, we completed the nearly three-hour drive to Murfreesboro.
The town’s center was quaint, shaped in a square and lined with various souvenir and antique shops. We passed through and headed to our lodging for the night at Diamond John’s Riverside Retreat…to our teepee. Yes, a teepee. I’ve stayed in some odd places, but never a teepee.

The campground was beautiful—built on a hillside next to a slow-moving river with a scattering of leafy green trees and ground covering of lush clover. A myriad of animals roamed the campground: peacocks, geese, two Shetland ponies, goats, cats and a dog. There was a massive wooden main house, where the family resides and then there were several small cabins and even a treehouse cabin to rent.


We had let one of the four teepees. They were set up off the ground on decks. Inside, there was a futon and a queen-sized bed, a microwave, mini-refrigerator, a TV with cable, a heater, a fan and an air-conditioner. The place even boasted free wi-fi—though the signal did not reach our teepee. That’s what I call roughing it! (Ha.)



After checking in, we headed back to town to do some shopping. In one of the shops, we met a local diamond hunter. He has found several diamonds at Crater of the Diamond State Park, including several over three carats. I asked him for some tips. He said that since it had rained recently, the soil would be turned over, so we should look on the surface area for about 30 minutes. Then, he said we should sift dirt at Canary Hill—a section farthest away from the mining field entrance. The hill is where a huge canary diamond was discovered.
After town, we enjoyed an afternoon at the campground. We paddled in a canoe on the river and relished the peaceful current, sunshine and sounds of trickling water and chattering of squirrels and birds overhead. Next, we took off to hike the nature trail along the river except it was blocked by barbed wire.

I’ve recently gotten back into archery, so we set up an old board in the woods and shot my recurve bow and arrows. The owner okayed it, but each time the arrows hit it echoed like a muffled gun shot—which brings up the peacock comment.
The Huntress

The possible target

Later, we had a nice dinner at Buddy’s Ranch House Café in town with Caroline trying the half-pound chicken fried steak.
That is just too much food, Caroline! :)
Then, we settled in for the night. The temperature had dropped and it was quite cold. We had to keep the fan going to drown out the occasional cry of a peacock in a nearby tree. I spent the night curled up to keep warm and tried to stay asleep as the peacock sounded. I was tempted to send an arrow through him by morning. Once asleep, the bird did not bother me, but I kept waking up from the cold. It was a rough night. I should have brought earplugs and thermals, but regardless I was glad for the one-night teepee experience.

The peacock did live—though we were tired. We slept late, watched the ponies run round and round at full speed around the yard and then checked out. We borrowed a sifting screen and shovel and went to Crater of the Diamonds State Park. The park is our nation’s only diamond mining site open to the public. It’s finder’s keepers. Besides diamonds, there are a load of minerals to discover such as quartz, barite, jasper, among others. There are live demonstrations, but we watched the instructional video. The mining area consists of a 40-acre field with rows of dirt.

Digging in the dirt, Part One

It is inevitable to get dirty, so we came prepared. I wore an old pair of army green pants, a T-shirt, rubber boots and a cap. It’s also good to think out what equipment to bring. Besides the shovel and screen, we had a bucket, two trowels, two pairs of gloves, a kneeling mat and my archeology kit with brushes and chisels.

Equipment can be purchased or rented at the park and even with a simple spade and bucket, there can be things found. I loaded my backpack with bottles of water and snacks. After talking to a park employee, she told us to head right at the entrance to search a part of the park that had recently opened for searching. We heeded the advice, but after dry sifting the ground for minerals Caroline only came away with a nice sized quartz crystal.

Digging in the dirt, Part Two

My finds! But no diamonds... :(
Canary Hill was our next destination. On the way there, we walked through the middle fields and surface spotted a lot of minerals—though no diamonds. I turned over clumps of dirt with my boots and we searched the ground for anything that sparkled. The hill search was fruitless, but at the days’ end we had quite a collection. I had found pieces of jasper, quartz, lamproite, barite, volcanic tuff and hematite. The whole trip was educational and fun. The weather was gorgeous and being in the outdoors provided the peaceful retreat we needed from everyday life. For more information about the park, visit www.craterofthediamondsstatepark.com and our lodging - www.diamondjohns.com.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

WORLD FOOD DIARY: TAKE TWO - Texas Steak

Steak - Texas's signature dish

I love a good steak...don't get me wrong, but 18 ounces was a little much for me! That's what my personal challenge was at The Big Texan Steakhouse in Amarillo, Texas. I was heading west on a road trip with a friend on the old Route 66 when we spent one night at the Big Texan. The steakhouse is actually famous for the 72 ounce steak challenge,which includes the completion of the steak and four sides: large salad, baked potato, three jumbo fried shrimp and a roll in one hour. I was not about to attempt that monstrous amount of beef, but I did find a better option.

The 18 ounce steak and baked potato
On the menu, I noticed that there was a Big Texan 50th Anniversary Man vs. Food challenge for a fourth of the 72 ounce steak and all the regular sides. A fourth of the steak was 18 ounces, which was plenty big enough for me to attempt to handle. I had to try something out of the ordinary for me, especially since they were out of fried rattlesnake. (Dang!) So the 1/4 steak challenge in an hour it was...and I finished all the sides, but left two measly ounces of steak on my plate. I mean I did eat 16 ounces! The thing is though, when you eat that much steak it didn't matter that it is the best steak you've ever had, but that you just get tired of the taste and chewing. It was definitely a fascinating experience though! Don't think I'll do it again. :) But if you're ever at the Big Texan stop on by and give it a try...or perhaps go for the big dog: 72 ounces!

Salad in a frying pan

Huge fried shrimp and rolls
Almost quitting time for me and the 18 ounce steak

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How I Became a Reporter

The following post is actually the first column that I wrote at the newspaper. I thought I would post it to explain a little bit of how I came to work as a reporter/photographer at my local small town newspaper, where I've been since 2009.
"As I crossed the stage at Louisiana Tech University’s Thomas Assembly Center a few years ago I was not sure how I would implement my journalism degree as my career. I, of course, have always loved to write, which is evident from the hoards of journals I have kept since childhood and the many short stories I have penned. Therefore it was a completely natural decision to enter journalism. I have been documenting everyday events, quotes and trends of my family, friends and community all my life. I was just not positive in which direction my training would take me.

"Journalism provides so many career options and possibilities. I could do broadcast, work for a magazine or even dip into the public relations side. Though most people who know me thought and still think I should be reporting live for CNN or FOX News while dodging explosions in Iraq or Afghanistan. (No, thank you.) There was one thing I knew after graduation though. I was not planning on working for a newspaper.
Me in my office
"Do not get me wrong. I have always loved print journalism, especially the newspaper industry, but I was convinced it was not for me. I had interned at a daily newspaper during my junior year and had thoroughly enjoyed myself. I even became the only student intern to write a weekly column, which was a great experience. Despite the enjoyment, I did not feel suited for the fast-paced, get the story out in 20 minutes lifestyle that came with the newspaper world, especially a daily. But when my current boss called me to speak about a job possibility, I was all ears.

"I worked for this newspaper during my senior year of high school to get a real-life perspective of journalism before I declared it as my major. I cannot explain how great the staff is here. I wish every newspaper was run like this publication. It is definitely one of a kind. After graduation, I was offered a position as a reporter for a small newspaper outside of Dallas but after speaking with the editor I would not even consider it. I knew I would not strive in the atmosphere and I would bottom line: be pretty miserable away from my family at the mercy of an editor I knew nothing about.
"Prior to my boss’ phone call, I had worked at a local nursing home for the past seven months as the Ward Clerk. The job was totally out of character for my degree and background but I knew I was there for a reason. The medical field was a whole other world I had never experienced or expected to experience. But I fell in love with the residents and interaction with them was a highlight of my day. The staff there was also great. God has greatly blessed me in the co-worker department, among thousands of other ways.

"After my college graduation, I was fortunate to enjoy a summer in Europe and the Middle East. I backpacked through the United Kingdom for three weeks with my best friend and headed to Jordan for two months to study Arabic with a group of students from around the country. I had plans to work as a journalist and ministry assistant for missionaries out of Mississippi, but when I returned from Jordan in August the job ended up not working out due to the economy. I was left with my Plan B, which was to work with my grandmother at the grain elevator until I could find a “career.” Yet with the horrible weather that central Louisiana experienced in early fall the crops in and around the area was almost completely destroyed. There was no need for me at the job.

Looking very reporter-ish (lol) while on assignment...
"I had no idea what I was going to do and what God had in store. It is so hard for me not to know what is going on or to not have a million backup plans for life situations. But God does not operate like that and I am sure he has great amusement over “my plans.” But looking back on all the plans now I know God had wanted me here all along. I just had to be kept busy for a little while until the opportunity came up. And here I am sitting in “my office” at the white distinguished building on Third Street."

Here are some job highlights from my first two years with the newspaper:



My first photo assignment for the newspaper
 



How'd that one get in there?!? (lol)
I won a 2nd place award for Best Sports Photo in our press state division for this photo.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Travel Tip - One

I think one of many reasons that more people do not travel is that they are inexperienced with all that comes along with a trip and how do we expect to gain experience without traveling to learn. All that to say, I will post personal travel tips for time to time. I am no expert, but I have been a part-time travel agent and have traveled quite a bit. So my advice is a take it or leave it type of thing. Feel free to ask questions.
Here is my first travel tip...it's a bit long so bear with me. Thanks! Hope it helps!
Travel Tip One:  
Don't be scared to stay in hostels!

Litton Lane Hostel in Dublin, Ireland (converted music studio building)
I know the word itself may give you "hostile" thoughts (sorry, couldn't let that one go...) or make nightmare-ish flashbacks of the movie, "Hostel," pop into your mind, but don't believe them. I stayed in numerous hostels while backpacking for three weeks in Europe - some of which were more like boutique hotels. I mean anything bad can happen anywhere, it doesn't have to be at a hostel... it could be at NYC's Plaza Hotel. With hostels though, you just have to know how to pick'em.
Me in London after my first hostel stay

Sheila's Hostel in Cork, Ireland
Here is what I do:
1) I go on http://www.hostels.com/ and look up options for lodging for what city/country I want to visit.
2) When I look at the options, I only consider the ones that have prices, info, maps, photos, amenities and reviews to look at on the individual hostel's page.

3) Then after that narrowing down of my selections by Step #2, I look for the best priced ones, then read the reviews and look at the photos.

4) If the reviews are recently posted (within the last year) and good and the photos look nice, then I look at the map/location of it. At this point, I look up the area in that city/town and see if it may have a huge crime rate or be by a lot of rowdy bars, etc. If you're looking for extra safe locations, you'll not want to stay at one near bars and wild nightlife, etc. (Ex: Don't book a hostel on or near Bourbon St. in New Orleans...)

Generally, if a hostel is near famous landmarks, town centers or museums, they are most likely to be the best locations with the most security around and other tourists too. You just need to know as much about the areas as possible before making your decision. (You could even possibly call the hostel and talk to someone about it or call the city/country's local tourism information office to ask their opinion of that area.)
5) Be aware of the pricing and room booking though, most hostels have mostly large dorm rooms with several rows of bunk beds for male only or female only or mixed gender rooms, but there are usually private single bed rooms as well as double bed rooms too. The prices are amazing! When we traveled we stayed in a few private double twin bed rooms and then several female dorm rooms with anywhere from four beds to 16 beds in them. We did not have any problems and most likely each bed will have a bin or locker to lock your belongings up in (so you'll need to bring a padlock or combination lock with you).

If you want to travel and want to cut down on costs, utilize this nice affordable lodging option by keeping hostels in mind and following my above guidelines. While I can't make a 100% assurance that everything will be perfect, you know you'll have an adventure regardless. The possible risks and thrills of adventure are what we unknowingly face everyday.
If you have questions or I did not make something clear in this post, please leave a comment below. Thanks! Happy Traveling!
My arrival in Paris from London via the Chunnel!!!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My "Pins" on a World Map

Travel is one of my passions. Anyone who comes to my house and work office would know that from the dozen pieces of world memorabilia sprinkled on every surface. I have six wooden monkeys from Costa Rica linked together that hang from a curtain rod, two watercolor paintings of the tranquil Serbian countryside and a stately bust of King Tut that I bought in Egypt, which regally sits on top of a bookcase, to name only a few.
Myself & a friend on a cruise to Mexico

The most noticeable feature of my office though by far is the large world map containing the “infamous” colored tacks which mark where I have been and where I would like to go. Over the years, I've changed quite a few of the tacks from going to gone.

One of my mottos is a quote by St. Augustine: "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." I want to make sure I've read my fair share of its pages. Several people have encouraged me to create this blog. Yes, it will mainly be about travel, because it's a large part of my life. But it will also be about the random hobbies I pursue, profiles of fascinating people I meet, crazy endeavors of my career and a whole lot of other things I deem interesting...and I hope you do too.

Mostly what you will find on this blog will be columns that I have written and published in our local small town newspaper, where I am the reporter/photographer. I really enjoy my job. I mean who do you know that gets to go to library storytime, brush shoulders with mayors and the governor, go on drug busts with local law enforcement, enjoy free train rides and luncheons, attend etiquette and art class, be in the sideline action at sporting events, head backstage at concerts...and it's all part of their job. Yep, it's pretty great. God has blessed me so much!

In my work office with my world map in background
To quickly explain about me...I call myself "reckless cautious." I am an adventurous person, but I also a planner. It's really a contradiction. I enjoy planning elaborate trips, but I also love spontaneous opportunities and the times that plans fall through the cracks. A lot of people call me reckless for traveling across the world and country by myself to meet up with people I barely know, but I call it reckless with limited risk because I always take the safest approach in a given situation with an air of caution, a head full of logic and the thrill of adventure.
My office map: all the pink pins are where I've been :)
Well for the people who do know me and for the ones who do not, I hope you enjoy accompanying me on my past adventures and on the many more I have to come as I add more pins and "pens" to my world map...
HERE'S A PEEK AT SOME OF THE POSTS TO COME...

Holiday in the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore

Camel Trekking in the Middle East

Road Trip down the Mother Road

Scuba Diving in the Caribbean

Acting up in Jolly Ole England

Meeting Country Music Stars in Vegas
AND MUCH MORE...

Saturday, August 4, 2012

WORLD FOOD DIARY: TAKE ONE - Mansaf

Mansaf - the national dish of the Middle Eastern country of Jordan ("al-Orden" in Arabic)

I think every now and then I will post a food diary entry. It will highlight one of the odd or simply delicious foods I have eaten in the U.S. or across the world. Here is the first entry!

This was my first introduction to the national dish. I was leery I must say. I mean "mansaf" means "the destroyer" in Arabic, so that can't be good.

What I have learned throughout my travels is that you either tend to hate a country's national dish or absolutely love it. This one in particular consists of: rice (not so bad), thin bread (okay), pine nuts (tolerable), yogurt sauce (sickeningly sour) and boiled lamb (makes me queasy now thinking about it). I am not one to be rude and not try something, but this dish just did not look or sound appetizing and in my opinion...it wasn't.

I have to be honest. I really did not like it, especially trying to stomach the tangy, sour yogurt coating the rice, bread, pine nuts and the very odd texture of boiled lamb. I'm sorry Jordan. I loved several other local foods, but this one was not a favorite. It was part of the cultural experience to try it though and I'm glad I did. I also had to not only try it once, but twice because another friend we met insisted on making us the Palestinian-version, which sadly tasted nearly exactly the same, but without the yogurt being extra soupy.


Has anyone else tried this dish? What did you think?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Olympics hit home as alums compete

On the walls and shelves of my office, there are various framed photographs and travel memorabilia, but the most meaningful object to me is my framed diploma from Louisiana Tech University. My alma mater is near and dear to my heart. The university has come a long way, even since I graduated a few years ago.
 
I applaud the university’s numerous advancements and its garnering of national acclaim through not only academics, but also athletics. I now can extend this praise to celebrate on a global level— for three Louisiana Tech graduates are competing at the 2012 Olympic games in London.

 
New Orleans native and long jumper Chelsea Hayes is the first Louisiana Tech graduate to participate in the games for Team USA. Jason Morgan will represent Jamaica in the discus and Ayanna Alexander will compete in the triple jump for Trinidad and Tobago. Alexander won a silver medal in 2010 Commonwealth Games and silver and bronze medalist at the 2010 CAC games.
 
If making it to the world stage of athletics isn’t enough, Hayes and Morgan have both overcome personal tragedies and hardship to achieve their Olympic dreams. On top of being a world’s top discus thrower, Morgan has a wife, a son and a full-time job. He lives and trains in Ruston. He qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, but a mixup in his travel documentation prevented him from traveling to China. After losing his mother, Morgan now can fulfill the promise he made to her when he was 18.
 
Hayes enters the Olympics ranked third in the world for long jump. Hayes’ story unfolded right before her senior year of high school when Hurricane Katrina hit. She spent the years following the catastrophe moving to different states, finishing her high school education and signing to a junior college in Texas.
 
Hayes is currently a graduate student at Louisiana Tech. She is only one of seven track and field collegiate athletes headed to the Olympics out of 140 total track and field Team USA athletes. She earned her place on Team USA with her final long jump attempt, which ended up her personal best and made a new WAC record.
 
She is the 2012 Joe Kearney Award recipient as the top athlete in the WAC, which is the first time for a Louisiana Tech athlete to win the award. She also was named the 2012 Louisiana Field Athlete of the Year. She is a 14-time WAC champion, 15-time first team All-WAC and the 2012 indoor long jump national runner-up.
 
The opening ceremony was on July 27 with its closing on August 12. The following dates are for the qualifying and medal round for each sport: women’s long jump – August 7-8, men’s discus – August 6-7 and women’s triple jump – August 3 and 5. I have always loved watching the Olympics! I can't wait to see my fellow alums in action!

The Tower Bridge - I walked down the enclosed walkway up high
My best friend & I backpacked in the U.K. & France


To see Hayes' Tech athletic profile, visit:
http://www.latechsports.com/sports/c-track/mtt/hayes_chelsea00.html
Or check out her Olympic profile at :
http://www.nbcolympics.com/news-blogs/track-and-field/chelsea-hayes-bio.html