Thursday, March 29, 2012

Olympia Artesian Well mosaic beginnings

I will be honest; I'm a little bit nervous.  Last weekend, I attended Laurel True's slideshow presentation about her most recent project in Haiti.  It is a 140 s.f. mural that took 3 months to complete, with a dedicated crew working long days, 6 days per week.  The surface area of the Artesian Well project is also about 140 s.f.  I will begin adhering the design at the end of April and it is supposed to be completed by mid-May.  The original time frame was not to exceed 2 weeks, but the City is giving me a bit of leeway to make sure it is done with integrity.  Laurel also had a large budget and a giant pallet of colorful tiles to work with.  I have no idea what I will have at this point.

But, mine is a very different kind of project and I think everyone understands that.  The design will be guided by what I am able to get from the community, both in materials and labor.  It will be fun, full of texture and different materials, so that people visiting will find little surprises throughout. 

I feel extremely lucky that an Evergreen student happened to request an internship for this quarter, and he happens to have a background in community organizing, so he will be my Olympia liason, helping with materials acquisition and many other aspects of the project.  What a great gift!  An assistant!  I can't tell you how happy it makes me.  So, you will hear more about Lisandro as I continue to document this process.

Here is how it will work:  I will provide simple fish templates and clear contact paper.  The contact paper will be placed, sticky-side up, over the design.  Participants will stick pre-nipped pieces of similar colors onto the design.  We then use one of two different methods to hold those pieces in place; one is tile tape (for relatively flat mosaic) and the other is cheesecloth soaked in a flour paste (for mosaic with different thicknesses.)  Once the fish are sandwiched, they can be stacked and stored until I am ready to place them into mortar.  At that time, I can easily peel the contact paper off of the bottom and lay the fish right into a bed of thinset.  After that, I'll work on the blue/green background, putting it directly onto the concrete, and after curing time, it will be ready to grout. 
My daughter made this fish from glass scraps.  It is sandwiched between contact paper and tile tape.
I hope to have a lot of warm colored tile, glass, broken dishes and other solid materials to incorporate.  Glass gems are great for bubbles and eyes, big beads can be mixed in, fused glass would be a great addition.  I encourage any artists working in high-fired pottery or fused glass to make some smaller (say 6" and under) fish to place between the larger ones.  If you have big fish beads, or want to buy things like this to contribute, I would really appreciate it. 
I've been fusing little fish out of my scraps. I'm totally new at fusing, so I'm winging it.

The complete budget for this project amounts to $13 per square foot, which is not nearly enough to cover materials, let alone all of the incremental expenses.  So, I am keeping my fingers crossed that people will help out by donating to this project.  Just imagine the pleasure of stopping by the Artesian Well to fill your jugs, and spotting that Fiestaware that you never did glue back together or the tile that was part of your shower before the remodel.  Also, if anyone has connections to a flooring or glass supply company, please bring any colorful overstock to Furniture Works.  If you don't have materials, just stop by the Well during Arts Walk weekend and help piece some fish together.  It's going to be fun!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Navigating the Public Art Process

This exterior panel was made to commemorate the new Food Bank, which is supplied in part by the organic garden at the Senior Center.  They rock.
Having completed a handful of very modest public art projects, the largest being a 4' x 2.5' mosaic panel for the Federal Way Senior Center, I didn't think this project could be much more complicated.  The budget is very, very small, barely more than I've been allotted for much smaller projects.  But, it is more formal and complicated.

For one, this is permanent.  It is going directly onto concrete forms, and is designed to last a lifetime.  Next, I have to do the work on site.  In the past, I've done most of the work in my studio, then had it installed, usually by -or in collaboration with- a contractor.  And finally, it involves community participation, which not only brings up liability issues, it also ensures unpredictability.  I don't know what the materials will be.  I don't know who will be helping me.  Anything can happen, and probably will.

So far, Ken, the owner of FurnitureWorks has graciously agreed to accept and hold the materials as they come in.  He is located right downtown, easy for everyone to get to, and it will be a short trip when the time comes to move it all to the project site.  So that is awesome.

I had to purchase a City of Olympia business license, which is technically required every time an artist operates business within the city limits.  I do exhibits and events several times per year in Olympia, but it has always been too painful to pay the $95 for the license, considering how small my annual budget is.  This time, there is no getting around it.  So, I'm legal now, and $95 poorer.

Next, I am required to carry liability insurance to do this project.  So far, one agent has estimated that it will cost me about $500.  This is far more than I had expected, and I'm still researching my options.  Some of my friends have business insurance for closer to $300/year, but I don't know if that covers general liability in a situation like this.  While researching, I am realizing that I really should carry insurance for times when I'm delivering artwork, installing the mosaic on scaffolding or mechanical lifts, and teaching workshops.  I'm a little bit embarrassed that I don't have this in place, but, in my defense, I mainly manufacture the work in my studio or work as a contracted employee of the contractor in charge.  Besides, my business is so sporadic, this (and the stair risers I'm currently finishing) could easily be the only installation I do this year.  And next, for that matter.  So, it's a huge investment when I earn so little.  Most of my budget goes right back into the business, and I have had to claim a loss almost every year.

All of this, and I haven't even seen the contract yet.  I was told to send an invoice for an initial payment so that I can start purchasing tools and materials, so I concocted my usual written invoice in the word processor program that came with my computer.  Right away, I was asked to submit an actual "Invoice" with my UBI number and correct format.  That's a bit embarrassing.  I googled how to create a real invoice, and found this site:  I was able to make a nice, professional invoice and email it directly to my contact.  You can print, save, download, whatever.  So easy, and FREE. 

I have been applying for public art projects for years, frustrated that I never have the required experience to land anything that could make my business solvent.  This project seems like a nice introduction to a real public art project, with contracts and coordination with several City departments.  I am getting a lot of enthusiastic support from every direction, and I know that, while I've never done something quite like this before, it is well within my ability.  With luck, this will be a foot in the door to some bigger projects in the future.

P.S. Over the next couple of weeks, I get to finally meet and learn from Laurel True, one of my heroes in the world of mosaic.  For many years, she has been helping communities to rebuild and recover with mosaic.  Check out her work:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Olympia Artesian Well Community Mosaic Project

Before leaving for that long stretch of travel and adventure last month, I received a phone call to let me know that I had been chosen as the artist for a new public space in Downtown Olympia.  As long as I can remember, there has been an Artesian spring bubbling out of an old pipe with some concrete pieces stacked around it in a decrepit parking lot downtown.  As I understand it, it is one of the last of some 95 Artesian springs that once gurgled happily throughout town.  Olympia's motto is "It's the Water," and it has been considered a great resource for the City.  There is a constant flow of people filling containers from the well, so you would think it would have been graced with a more fitting environment before now.

But, there is finally a little "park" installed around the well, honoring the fresh spring water that constantly flows up from deep underground.
Olympia's Artesian Well
My proposal is to collect scrap tile, stained glass, found objects, broken dishes, etc. and, during the Spring Arts Walk weekend, the community will be able to create mosaic fish on contact paper that I will later incorporate into a design that will become a permanent surface treatment for the concrete forms.  They don't look like much, but they measure out to about 140 square feet of surface that needs to be covered.

I am very excited to be a part of this project.  I moved to Olympia in 1988 and I love the city and the community.  The people who collect water from this well feel innately connected to it, and they have a protective attitude toward it.  I think involving the community in the project will support that sense of ownership, and I hope people will enjoy returning to the well again and again, seeing something new in the mosaic each time, and always feeling proud to know they had some part in the creation of the artwork, whether they recognize shards from that broken dish they donated, or they see the fish they pieced together out of bits of tile and stained glass.

Friday, March 16, 2012

February travels part four; Joy, Mosaic, and Tornados in Kentucky

After riding through 7 states (and back one) on a series of Greyhound buses to get to Lexington, I arrived at the conference hotel at about 9:30am in clothes I had been wearing for 3 days straight and in an altered state due to sleep deprivation.  I slept for 2 hours straight, dreaming of missed stops and rude bus drivers.  When I woke up, Krystie Rose (my roommate) was off cavorting with mosaic artist friends, so I was able to enjoy space alone, something I need a lot of in order to maintain my sanity.  I showered and felt all of the stress of the trip wash away.  When I looked out our window, we had a great view of downtown Lexington, which was surprisingly charming.  Best of all, I could see a Starbucks just across from the hotel.

So, I bought a bagel and coffee and used my Nook to access their free wi-fi.  Every sip of quality (not bus station) coffee was more delicious than any I had ever had.  That was the BEST bagel I've ever had.  I could hardly contain my euphoria, having arrived, being comfortable, knowing I could look forward to a week of mosaic immersion.  There was something else, too; a sense of triumph.  I felt like I had come through a rite of passage, stepping out of my comfort zone, facing adversity, and I was just fine.

Granted, when I think about it now, it seems a bit overblown.  I wasn't in mortal danger, I did not witness a tragedy, I didn't survive anything all that serious.  If I had, I would have been traumatized.  But, as a very quiet person who avoids social situations and prefers solitude and home to raucous fun and adventure, it was a transformative experience.  I felt changed.

I used my internet to find a coin-op that claimed to be a very short walk from my location, so I collected the clothes I had been wearing through tropical areas the previous week (stinky!) and started walking.  I had to stop several times to ask strangers directions.  I finally found it in a rougher section of town.  And, once my clothes were clean, I was even more filled with gratitude.  Clean clothes!  Whoo hoo!  I spent the day getting some much needed exercise and made it back in time to have dinner with Krystie Rose.

I had to rush back to a volunteer spot at registration where I learned that my Greyhound story was spreading like wildfire.  People said, "That was YOU?"  It was a great conversation starter, and I was feeling about 10 times more outgoing than usual, so by the end of this year's conference, I had about 10 times more mosaic friends than before, and it was a great experience.

For those who don't know, the Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA) holds a summit each year in a different city.  About 400-600 mosaic artists attend from the U.S. and abroad.  By attending these conferences, I have been exposed to innovative techniques, a wider variety of materials, different applications, and motivation to find my unique voice and seek to execute the highest quality mosaic art that I can muster.  To be honest, I sometimes regret it.  I wish I could just go back to blissfully making crafty, fun mosaic with no sense of how much I need to improve.  Opus what?  Mosaic grammar who cares?  Hammer and hardie, who needs it?

Ali Mirsky & Bonnie Fitzgerald
I never take the workshops.  The cost of getting myself there and staying in the conference hotel is already more than my business can absorb.  But, I always glean good information and inspiration from the seminars and presentations, and those impressions have guided me in my work.  I would not be doing what I do now if not for SAMA.  This year, I enjoyed a presentation by Rachel Sager about using hammer and hardie to break open rocks and stones for use in mosaic. Another by Laurie Mika and Jeannie Houston Antes addressed the topic of narrative mosaic, which I found very timely, considering I've been making a series and teaching workshops on commemorative mosaic panels, which are essentially narrative.  Another presentation by Bonnie Fitzgerald and Ali Mirsky described the collaborative process in public art, detailing the process of completing this gorgeous project: (Well, I seem to have no control over where the image goes.  It should appear somewhere on the page.)

Every SAMA conference is accompanied by an international exhibit featuring juried mosaic art from all over the world.  The exhibit is open to the public, and helps to inform the public that mosaic is more than an ancient art form and more than a fun craft activity.  The possibilities are infinite and every exhibit is more amazing than the last.

I was pleased to be able to volunteer as an assistant in Carol Shelkin's workshop.  I took her workshop last summer and I'm still practicing with using color and value to create dimension in mosaic, so it was good to have a review of the information.  Besides, Carol is a delightful person and it is a joy to spend time with her.
This is my practice piece from Carol Shelkin's workshop.
Another conference activity is a mini-salon, where participants pay a small fee to display their own small mosaic, and everyone comes to check it out, and many bid on and purchase the artwork.  My piece "Second Thought" sold, which is great because it helps offset the cost of my trip.
Another activity that takes place at each conference is the Mosaic Marathon.  One person designs and leads in the creation of a mosaic that is completed by SAMA members in shifts throughout the conference, and donated to a local nonprofit organization.  This year, the mosaic was designed and managed by the intrepid Christine Brallier (see her blog about the conference here  I love sitting side-by-side with other mosaic artists, working with materials I am not accustomed to.  I always get to meet people I've heard of and whose work I've admired, so it is a great experience.

There is so much that I'm missing, if any mosaic artists are trying to live vicariously.  But I especially enjoyed the keynote address, which was the director of the movie "Who Does She Think She Is?" which follows a group of women artists who are trying to juggle career and family.  It was an emotional day for the predominantly female SAMA members, and I left with a new sense of resolve.

The most exciting part of the conference, however, had to be Friday afternoon, when we were all ushered into the storm shelter of the Lexington Center while a tornado passed nearby.  It didn't touch down, but a friend caught some of it on video on her iphone, and it was pretty scary.  It made this conference one that none of us will soon forget (except Martin Cheek, who told me that, when alerted that a tornado was imminent, he thought it best to take a shower.  By the time he was finished, it was over.)

Well, I'm told that I've been hogging the computer, so let's just say I was happy to come home and start catching up on all of my normal household duties.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

February travels part three; Greyhound and personal transformation

Having spent a week relaxing on a cruise ship, I felt ready for 27 hours of mild discomfort.  Everyone warned me that the Greyhound trip from New Orleans to Lexington would be grueling, so I braced myself.  After an emotional good-bye to my family at the New Orleans airport, I paid a taxi driver $33 to drive me to the bus station.  In retrospect, I would have spent a few more hours at the airport, because the bus station was not an ideal place to spend five hours waiting for my departure.

The station did not have any visible security, and seemed to offer shelter for people in need.  The crowd included people with clothes barely holding together, a man who looked like he had been hit by a bus, a lot of sleeping bodies, and one woman wearing a blanket and flip-flops who asked me for spare change several times in the first half hour.  When I pulled out my stash of snacks, I offered her a bag of chips.  She declined, but asked if I had any candy.  I still had some fair trade 70% dark chocolate I had been savoring since Valentines Day, so I offered her the last of it.  In my peripheral vision, I saw her taste it, make a sour face, and sneak it under her blanket.  Then, she slowly walked to the garbage can and surreptitiously dropped it in.

There was a Subway in the station, and I became hungry for more than dried fruit and pita chips, so I bought a footlong, saving half for the road.  While I ate my sandwich and read a book, there were several violent altercations in Subway; two targeting employees.  The most alarming was a man who apparently came in intending to convince his ex-girlfriend to reconcile.  She stood her ground, accusing him of being a violent drug dealer who had mistreated her.  There was a lot of shouting, and I wondered if I should slip out, but didn't want to draw attention to myself.  There were a couple of other shouting matches, but then a police officer ordered a sandwich and took his time eating, so all was quiet and peaceful until it was time for me to check my suitcase.

When my bus arrived, the passengers got off for a break.  When it was time to go, they lined up to reboard.  I got into that line until I was sent to a different one for new boarders.  So, it looked like I might be stuck sitting at the back of the bus, something everyone warned me to avoid.  However, a person with dwarfism had chosen a seat near the front of the bus, and all of the other passengers avoided sitting next to them, so I was happy to be their seatmate.  The little person soon fell asleep and snuggled against my shoulder for the first few hours of my ride.  Unfortunately, they weren't going far, and my next seat-mate was far more challenging.

From about midnight to 3am, I was subjected to dogmatic, conservative diatribes from a Harley-driving door-to-door food salesman who is self-educated via talk radio.  When he asked me to explain the science behind climate change, I couldn't resist.  My initial willingness to engage in debate was punished with three hours of inane conversation, including a 45-minute iphone slideshow of his beloved chihuahuas.  I was extremely relieved when he got off the bus and I was able to start drifting in and out of something resembling sleep while we drove out of Louisiana, through Mississippi and Alabama, seeing the sun rise in Georgia, stopping several times, and having to sit in a terminal at one point while the bus was cleaned and refueled.

In Atlanta, I had a 4.5 hour layover.  Why is every greyhound station in some remote, industrial area with no cafes, stores, or even parks nearby?  I didn't want to go wandering the city with my giant suitcase, so I sat there reading, writing, and eating my soggy half sandwich for breakfast until my butt was aching.  Then, I finally boarded my next bus, which turned out to be a newer one with wi-fi and comfortable, reclining seats.  Best of all, my seat-mate was a nice, quiet woman my age with two grown children and her own e-reader, and she was traveling beyond my final destination.  We never exchanged names and we didn't talk much, but we watched out for each other and sat together for the final stretch of my trip.

In Knoxville, we switched buses and drivers after another long layover.  It was around 9pm as we pulled out of the station, and I was excited knowing I would be in Lexington by 11pm.  My conference roommate was waiting there, and had learned that the hotel would pick me up for free before midnight, so I knew I would soon be in a bed, sleeping comfortably. 

But, alas, the bus broke down as we left the station.  Initially, the driver was in good spirits, joking that "all the hot ladies on the bus made it shut down!"  But, we were ushered back into the transit station, now with the concession stand closed, and we were told nothing while we waited for two hours.  By then, many passengers knew they would miss connections, including two mothers traveling with young children.  I realized I wouldn't get a ride from the hotel, but Krystie Rose had sent me the number for a Lexington taxi service.  People were getting anxious and angry.  By the time we boarded a different, older bus, tension was growing. 

Worth noting is a conversation I had with a transgendered man I met in the station who was returning from his mother's funeral in Florida.  He found that he had been completely erased from her records, as if he didn't exist.  He was processing loss and heartbreak.

Other conversations taking place between other passengers involved how to function without a drivers license, how to avoid child support, what to do when you face a judge and have a criminal record, who is raising your kids, and the affordability of various anti-psychotic medications.  I realized that the people on Greyhound generally have no other transportation options.  I was told several times by people who use it a lot that they could write a book about Greyhound experiences.  I believe it.

I tracked the bus's progress by following the itinerary on my ticket.  We made a stop in a dark parking lot and a few people got off the bus.  The driver didn't say anything, except to tell smokers there was no time for a break.  We were running late.  This should have been London, KY, by my records.

Soon after that, we pulled into a gas station and the driver turned off the bus.  He turned around and said, "I'm out of hours."  No further explanation.  Passengers were ready to riot, many shouting that the driver "broke the bus again" and others yelling, "Talk to us!"  But, he was reticent.  My seatmate explained to me that the drivers have devices that track the amount of time they have been on shift, and after their limit, the bus automatically shuts down.  Ok, that is a good safety measure, but couldn't that have been anticipated?  You would think they would send another driver to take over or have an override.  I felt held hostage.  I knew we were close to Lexington, and I thought of trying to get the driver to let me off and get my suitcase out so that I could take a cab the rest of the way.  Another woman tried that, but he said no, it was against policy.

Incidentally, there was an overturned semi and emergency vehicles right next to us while we waited.

Finally, he turned the bus on, people were rounded up, and we pulled back onto the freeway.  As we did, I noticed through the foggy window a sign pointing toward Lexington.  The opposite direction.

It took a few minutes for me to come to terms with this reality.  How could this be?  I re-checked my itinerary, and it didn't add up.  I asked people around me if they were going to Lexington.  Almost everyone responded, "Kentucky?"  I went to the driver and expressed my concern, and he said that I was supposed to get off at the last stop.  I said, "But you didn't say we were in Lexington!  There was nothing there, no station, no sign, nothing!"  He was silent.  I asked, "What do I do now?!"  He said, "You go to Cincinnati."  People at the front were yelling at him that he never announced that stop, and that it was his fault.  But there was nothing to be done.  My stomach was churning and I was close to tears.  I considered calling 911 and saying I was having a panic attack and needed to get off the bus.  I spent the rest of that ride brainstorming what to do in Cincinnati.  My faithful conference roommate was awake in Lexington, texting back and forth with me and trying to help from there.  Could I rent a car and drive back?  How much would it cost to take a taxi from Cincinnati to Lexington?  Finally, I tapped into my Zen reserves and accepted my situation.

In Cincinnati, I bought a blanket and made myself a sort of bed on one of the horrible benches they put in these stations.  I fell fast asleep for a couple of hours.  It is disconcerting to fall asleep in one crowd of people, and to wake up surrounded by completely different and unfamiliar faces.  It is humbling to sleep in a bus station, with your coat for a pillow.  Greyhound, the great equalizer.

I was able to have a new ticket issued at no extra cost.  The ticket guy told me that the Lexington station was dark because it is outside of the city and by that time, the terminal had closed.  He suggested that it might have been better for me to miss the stop because I would have been left alone in a dark parking lot, and the other people who got off there probably had rides waiting.  I didn't bother to argue that I had the number for a taxi and a concerned friend with a rental car.  He may have been right, after all.

So, I got on another bus at 6:30 am, believing I would be in Lexington in just over an hour.  The sun was up and shining in a blue sky.  Cincinnati looked quite nice in that light, as we rolled along the freeway.  I had scored again and was sitting in the very front seat with a pleasant woman with dwarfism.  And wouldn't you know it, the bus broke down again!  Back to the station, unload the bus, board and load up a different bus, and then we really were on our way.  I arrived at the Lexington station (truly in the middle of nowhere) and immediately hired a taxi to take me to the conference hotel.  I had planned to call the hotel for a ride, but at that point, I didn't care about price.  The meter read $9.25, but I had $15 in my wallet so, overwhelmed with gratitude, I handed it all over.  (I am not known for generous tipping, usually.)

The man who checked me in seemed to know what I had come through.  He came from behind the counter to put the room key in my hand and said, "My name is Peter.  If there is anything you need, let me know."  He held my hand for a long minute and I almost cried with relief.  I staggered up to our room where I found Krystie Rose still asleep, fell into my extremely comfortable bed, and immediately fell fast asleep.

Stay tuned for my week at the mosaic conference in Lexington, including unfathomable gratitude for comfort and abundance and TORNADOES.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

February travels part two; Caribbean Cruise

Sometime last winter, I had mentioned to Mike that I hoped someday I would visit a tropical place.  Our vacations seem to always involve travel to a foreign country where the exchange rate is to our advantage, on the off-season, with inclement weather, struggling to figure out the language and transportation system.  It is fun in its own way, but not exactly relaxing.

One night, he called me to the computer and asked how I felt about taking a cruise?  I said, "I don't know.  Are we the kind of people who go on cruises?"  He had seen an offer that seemed incredibly affordable and we decided to go for it.  I was excited to finally go on a tropical, relaxation-vacation.  But I was also anxious that it would be way too contrived and luxurious for me, and that I would regret it.

The ship was humongous!  That thing had a 12-story elevator and a water slide!  There were rooms with vaulted ceilings and balconies in that ship.  It was overwhelming at first.  But then, we were out on the sea.  For days.  And the ship suddenly seemed quite small.  I felt small.  All of my anxieties about life and the future seemed insignificant.

Yes, we were managed, and sometimes the pomp and circumstance was a bit much, but mostly, it was funny.  For seven days, I did not have to clean up after anyone else, and I was not only NOT required to cook, I was SERVED!  That alone is a huge value.

I did realize quickly that the reason they can offer a great deal on the cruise is by charging an arm and a leg for every single thing possible.  I managed to get on the internet for about 3 minutes, just long enough to tell everyone I would not be reachable for a week, and the charge was $22!  My first cocktail cost $13.25, and it was weak.  I only ordered 3 drinks all week.  If you know this going into it, you can actually just enjoy what they do give you for the low price of admission, which is great service, lots of food, basic beverages, and decent entertainment.

Our first stop was Jamaica.  It cost $38 for us to get from the ship to Montego Bay, and $5 each to spend time on the beach.  Everyone asks for tips, saying the money doesn't really go to the employees - they get by on gratuities.  We spent a few hours on the beach (me hiding under an umbrella because I have no melanin to speak of) and the water was a rich turquoise like I've never seen before.  Then we walked around town, finding that it was all tourist shops filled with Bob Marley knickknacks, pot leaf memorabilia, and rum.  We wanted to visit the "craft market" having heard that we would find locally made arts and crafts.  This market turned out to be a maze of small spaces packed together full of more knickknacks, carvings, jewelry, and t-shirts, owned by local people all desperate for customers.  We bought a few things -more than we wanted - and then tried to work our way out of the labrynth.  At each turn, someone was coaxing us to come to their booth.  "I don' charge fah lookin', mon!"  We were glad to head back to the ship soon after that, and after a nice, cold rum cocktail.  Neither of us has any inclination to return to Jamaica.

Next came Grand Cayman.  Again, gorgeous water, but the town was full of upscale, duty-free shops.  It was all jewelry and watches.  We were booked for an excursion to a sea turtle farm, which was educational and fun, and Anouk had a blast.  We held baby sea turtles and snorkeled in a huge man-made "lagoon" with turtles and exotic fish.  Also, we bought a 5th of Bombay Sapphire for only $13, though liquor has to be delivered to the ship and held until the cruise is over.

Our last stop was in Cozumel.  We had booked an excursion to the mainland, so we didn't experience Cozumel at all.  We headed straight for the Coba Mayan Ruins.  Most of our day was spent getting there and back, but our Mayan guide was very well-educated, and told us a lot about Mayan history and culture on the bus.  We had a nice, long hike through the jungle to the main pyramid.  (Anouk wasn't feeling well, so Mike hired a bike-cart to carry the two of them.)  Mike and I climbed the pyramid, which is taller and steeper than it looks.  The view from the top was outstanding.  We are already researching a trip back to that area sometime in the future.  There are so many amazing things to do in the Yucatan.  There are underground rivers to kayak and beautiful coral reefs.  Our guide made the trip more interesting by giving us extra information on the way in and out.  On a side note, he mentioned that guides are paid only $15 per day by the cruise line.  They also provide a snack, which turned out to be a tiny bag of chips, a small bottle of water, and a cookie.  For a 7-hour excursion that cost $150 per person.  How about that?

Of course, there was much more to the cruise than I've written here, but that about sums it up.  I'm still not sure that we are the kind of people who go on cruises, but it was a nice, relaxing week.  After getting back on land in New Orleans, Mike and Anouk were on their way home.  I had a greyhound bus ticket leaving at 9:25 that night to go to Lexington, KY.  But, I'll leave that for part 3.

February travels part one; Mardi Gras

The trip we took in February had so many stages, I think it will take several installments to record it.  However, I think it is well worth retelling, so today I'll write about experiencing Mardi Gras for one weekend, with a child.

Luckily, our hotel was located well outside of New Orleans, and we rented a car, so we had the freedom to steer clear of the French Quarter at night.  We wanted to get a taste of Mardi Gras, but avoid some of the seedier aspects of the celebration, so we decided to go to the Bourbon St. area to look for breakfast.  This was a mistake.  There were not many people downtown and those we saw appeared to be stumbling home after a rough night.  Many already (or still) had drinks in hand.  People were completely thrown off by the idea of a restaurant serving breakfast and everyone suggest looking in a different area.  We finally found a cafe with King Cake and bagels.

I was excited that this first stop featured an exhibit of mosaic art made of Mardi Gras beads by "Stephan." 

Beads were EVERYWHERE, on fences, in trees, and piled in gutters and drains.  If I lived there, I know I would also make bead mosaics.  I thought this artist managed to do it in a way that is tasteful and in the spirit of Mardi Gras.

We then found the French Market, explored some galleries, voodoo shops, and admired the church in Jackson Square.  Later in the day, we found parking in the Garden District and waited for the parades.  We had heard that this was a good area to take kids to the parades, and it didn't disappoint.  We stayed for two of three parades and we were shocked at the amount of beads and toys thrown from the floats.  The first parade had very impressive floats, all based on Greek mythology.  Between floats, school bands and drill teams marched and danced, so it was loud and festive.  Anouk was overjoyed, riding on Mike's shoulders to make contact with the masked people on the floats.

The following day, we drove outside of the city to visit a Creole plantation.  We took a tour and learned about an important aspect of our nation's history.  The Creole people are a mix of French, Native American, and African descent, and they are culturally very unique, down to family structure, home construction, and social etiquette.  I only recently learned that, until the 1850s, Louisiana enjoyed racial equality.  There was slavery, but it was based on class, rather than race.  When the Louisiana purchase took place, it took a long time for Americans to force racism on their new territory.  I actually learned a little bit about this part of our history reading American Girl books to my daughter (we are reading about Cecile, one of the historical characters, an affluent African American girl living in New Orleans in the mid-1800s.)

Later that day, we headed back to the Garden District for one more parade, because we didn't have enough plastic crap to bring home already.  We had to buy two new carry-ons to accommodate all of the Mardi Gras stuff we collected.

On Sunday, we returned our rental car, caught a shuttle to the airport, and took a taxi to the cruise ship terminal.  And there begins the second segment of the trip.