Great Circles

We’re back on the blog and off to New Zealand tomorrow  to celebrate the wedding of Steve and Poonam in Hamilton.  Then we’ll explore.

New Zealand seems to be far away, indeed over 18500 kms away. Did you know that the quickest route is north of Russia via the Great Circle?  Do you remember them from school?


Jan had never heard of them but then she did give up geography at age 14.

I like maps but they do distort the appearance of the Earth, a globe.  A straight line on a flat map is not the shortest distance between two points on the Earth.

I have taken advice from Anne, the best geography teacher ever, who has given the simple mathematical proof:-

Consider the class of all regular paths from a point p to another point q. Introduce spherical coordinates so that p coincides with the north pole.

Any curve on the sphere that does not intersect either pole, except possibly at the endpoints, can be parametrized by\theta=\theta(t),   \phi=\phi(t),   a\let\leb provided we allow \phi to take on arbitrary real values.

The infinitesimal arc length in these coordinates isds=r\sqrt{\theta’2+\phi’2\sin2\theta}dt.

So the length of a curve\5gamma from p to q is a functional of the curve given byb\sqrt{\theta’S[\gamma]=r\int a2+\phi’2\sin2\theta}dt.

According to the Euler-Lagrange equation,S[\gamma] is minimised if and only if\sin2\theta\phi’\sqrt{\theta’2+\phi’2\sin2\theta}=C,where C is a t -independent constant, and\sin\theta\cos\theta\phi’2


Simple isn’t it?

We are not going that way but via Hong Kong.

Next time we’ll report how the journey went.

La Bastilla Ecolodge

Finca La Bastilla is a huge coffee growing estate in the Datani el Diablo Nature Reserve.  Twenty kilometres from the town of Jinotega it took about an hour to drive from Estelí to reach the entrance to the coffee estate. The Ecolodge was 5km further on up a steep, bumpy road – thank goodness we were in a four-wheel drive!

The Ecolodge is owned by the La Bastilla Technical Centre for Agriculture and tourism. It was set up by the coffee estate in 2009 to teach practical and business skills. According to the website 100% of the profits are reinvested back into the education of the students all of whom come from local low-income families.

The accommodation is in pleasant, spacious timber cabins  constructed in pairs with wide balconies overlooking the cloud forest and the coffee plantation.  They have ensuite bathrooms with solar- heated showers.There are also camping platforms and a dormitory.

We hoped to enjoy the views, see lots of birds and enjoy the diverse menu of  international dishes and traditional Nicaraguan food in the restaurant, as suggested by the website.

Not all our hopes were realised!  It was lovely sitting on the balcony admiring the view but we were disappointed to see how many trees had been felled to make space for coffee. Although the coffee is shade grown, we were offered a printed explanation of how much clearance is necessary to secure growth on the very steep slopes.  It’s a shame even so to see so much deforestation immediately adjacent to a national Nature Reserve.

There were fewer birds than we expected and far less than we saw at Finca Esperanza Verde at the same time last year.But we did see the Emerald Toucanet – no picture how ever.

The food was disappointing and monotonous with very little choice for anyone. No fish although as we drove to Jinotega to get the bus we drove alongside the massive Lake Apaña where everyone beside the road had fresh fish for sale! A typical Nicaraguan breakfast of gallopinto (rice and beans) with eggs, cheese and fired plantain is nice, but not every day!

We have to try new places or how do we know what they’re like?  But on this occasion we won’t be recommending La Bastilla to anyone!

Here’s some photos anyway.

The next (and last) post of this trip will tell you all about the last 10 days at La Mariposa and what fun we had with Janie and las chicas when they visited for the weekend.


The artists of Coyoacan

Freda Kahlo is probably Latin America’s most celebrated woman artist. Born in 1907, she became disabled as a result of childhood polio and again following a tram accident as a teenager. Bedridden for months following the accident she took up painting.
Despite her physical sufferings and numerous operations, Frida went on to have an extremely successful life both artistically and socially.
She married Diego Rivera, the foremost Mexican muralist of of the early twentieth century. Together they met and entertained many outstanding cultural figures and artists from all over the world.
They made their home at Casa Azul (blue house), Frida’s childhood home. The house was transformed to reflect their shared passion for all things Mexican including traditional folk art and Diego’s growing collection of pre-Hispanic antiquities.
The house was modified further in 1937 when the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky and his wife, came to stay as exiles from Stalin’s Russia. Land was purchased to enable a wall to be built to shelter them from Stalin’s spies.
In due course Frida and Leon embarked on an affair which made shared living impossible for the two couples. The Trotskys moved to a house nearby where he was assassinated by an artist bearing an ice axe. That house is also open for visits – you can read about it in our blog from 2010.
Frida and Diego’s relationship remained tumultuous and at times he left Casa Azul. In 1940 he started planning a new property, Anahuacali. Using local materials including volcanic stone Anahuacali was designed as a showplace for Diego’s collection of items from Mexico’s ancient cultures. It was built in a style reminiscent of the monumental buildings the ancient past. Frida is said to have commented that the building of Anahuacali dealt with Diego’s desire to sleep surrounded by his idols! The part we were able to visit was more like a museum than house but possibly there are other, more domestic sections.
Sketches are on display for some of the murals Diego painted in Mexico and the United States. A mural commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to depict the television industry was destroyed following misunderstandings over the inclusion of the Bolshevik leader, Lenin. The American capitalist entrepreneur and the Mexican communist were unable to resolve their conflict!
Diego and Frida married twice and, despite various affairs, remained together until her death in 1954.
Dolores Olmedo Pinto, a Mexican businesswoman, was Diego’s friend and patron. She must have been fabulously rich. After Diego’s death she both funded completion of Anahuacali and ensured that Casa Azul was preserved as a memorial to Frida. It opened as a museum in 1958 and is now the most popular destination in Mexico City. As the guide states ‘every object in the Blue House tells us something about the painter….’
Dolores Pinto’s extensive home, set in beautiful grounds, is now a museum too. It houses a large collection of works by Frida, Diego and their contemporaries. When we visited the 25 works by Frida were on loan to another gallery but in their place was a fascinating collection of photographs from her life – Freda’s father was an important photographer of the early twentieth century.
In their lifetimes Diego was by far the most famous but in recent years his fame has been overtaken by his wife’s celebrity. This may be as much due to her life story as the quality of her art.

The last two pictures are by Diego, including a self portrait as a young man.

Now we’ve moved South to Nicaragua. The next post will be about animals and birds at La Mariposa Spanish School




Coyoacan, Mexico City

Once upon a time Coyoacan must have been a town outside Mexico City. Now it has been absorbed into the massive urban area but it still retains a very individual character which attracted us when we visited for a day seven years ago as part of our big Mexico/Mayan trip. Coyoacan has been the home of artists and intellectuals for a long time.
We stayed in a quiet residential area with lots of mature trees. The buildings are mostly 2 storey, some built from adobe, many brightly painted. Most are in the Spanish colonial style which means the outer walls surround shady internal courtyards and gardens invisible from the street. On the short daily walk to the centre we craned our necks round any open gates and doors to get a glimpse of the interiors – some very splendid, others quite homely.
Our tiny apartment was furnished with individual items collected by the owners with not an IKEA item in sight! The hosts are studio photographers, collectors and also run a small cafe in a converted ground floor cafe. We enjoyed dropping in every day to relate our experiences and make plans for the next day. Sadly the person who painted the cafe sign could not spell ‘garage’ in Spanish or English.
So far so idyllic, but if we turned left instead of right outside the door we came up against one of the realities of life in Mexico City. Outside the paediatric hospital parents and relatives were gathered at all times of day and night sitting on the benches provided or on the pavement. At night some erected small pop-up tents but the majority huddled down where they were under a blanket. By the way, due to the altitude, the nights are very cold at this time of year even though the days are sunny and warm. We never saw anyone from there in Cafe Garash, their needs were met by the cheap fast food stalls on the corner.
The name Coyoacan means something like ‘place of the Coyotes’. This piece of history is celebrated by a fountain in the centre where two interlinking squares are busy all the time. They are pleasant shady places to rest populated by hawkers and musicians including a very unfortunate sounding barrel organ!
The food in Coyoacan was a delight after our previous Mexico City experience. The restaurants were good but we especially enjoyed eating very cheap lunches at stalls in the covered market.
Coyoacan has had some very famous residents, more about them in the next post!

Sorry to say the photos will have to wait as after several attempts they refuse to upload!

Las Mariposas Monarcas

img_2109.We decided to travel to Nicaragua via Mexico to avoid transit through the United States (wisely as recent events have shown). The rest was serendipity! We first learned about these wonderful butterflies through reading Flight Behaviour, a novel by Barbara Kingsolver.

In late summer millions of monarch butterflies migrate 3000 miles from Southern Canada to Mexico where they overwinter. The following Spring they return North. It takes three generations (each with a lifespan of 2 to 6 weeks) to complete the return trip. The fourth generation returns to Mexico in the autumn. Other similar routes are taken by other colonies of monarchs.

From Mexico City it’s 2.5 hours to the Sierra Nevada where the overwintering takes place. So, jet-lagged and still acclimatising to the altitude of 2,240 metres, we got up at 5.45am to join a trip to see this natural wonder.

We visited the Piedra Herrera National Park where the butterflies literally hang out in the tops of the highest trees at the highest point. It’s 3 kilometres uphill from the car park, a tough climb whether you walk (Alan) or pay £7.50 to go on horseback (Jan).

It was an unmissable sight. The butterflies, thousands of them, wings closed, were clustered together in great black clumps beneath the branches. Some broke away to warm themselves in the sun and feed on the milkweed flowers and that’s when we saw their lovely colours and markings.

img_2770The rest of the day passed in a blur – we visited a waterfall, not too impressive after Iguazú!  Then we went on to a rather lovely lakeside resort, Valle de Bravo, where we ate fish in a floating restaurant.

Next time we’ll tell you about Coyoacan in Mexico City where we are staying for a week. 

The Pope, Maradona and Eva Perón or Birthday in Buenos Aires

This trip started with a wish to celebrate Alan’s significant birthday in Buenos Aires, a city we’d never experienced but had been highly recommended as a top place to visit.
So, after 5 weeks travelling, we reached our destination, ready to party!
BA is an enormous, cosmopolitan city with a very ‘European’ atmosphere and, in fact, nearly everyone we met claimed to have an Italian grandfather! It’s comprised of 47 barrios, or neighbourhoods, each with very different characteristics.
Our five days were pretty well non-stop as we explored and experienced as much as we could.
We took a walking tour into La Boca, the original port and main point of entry for various groups of immigrants, including the Italians who arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. La Boca continues to be a poor area – we saw signs of current deprivation alongside the colourful shacks that were home to earlier generations, many of them still occupied.

Argentina’s three great celebrities are present here – Maradona, Eva Perón and the present Pope, Francis, who was born in the city and served as it’s archbishop before his elevation to Rome.

The fourth character here is General Belgrano, a nation hero.

La Boca is also the base of one of Argentina’s most popular football teams, Boca Juniors, so we joined the admiring crowds outside the stadium.

From the waterfront we admired the high rise blocks of the modern city on the opposite bank of the Rio de la Plata (River Plate), the exact translation is ‘river of silver’

To get around, we learned to use the cheap and efficient metro, but most of our exploration was done on foot.

On Sunday we visited the famous San Telmo Street market, originally a flea market, now expanded to include a wide range of artisan products, arts and crafts. Formerly a residential area of impressive colonial and nineteenth century mansions, the barrio of San Telmo is now a lively centre of shops, art galleries and bars. Described by one guide book as ‘seedy’, it seems to have become desirable and fashionable in recent years.
Our small ’boutique’ B and B was in the attractive residential area of Palermo although at first these adjectives didn’t seem to fit with our view of a car park, football ground and railway track, complete with graffiti. But it was great to enjoy a sundowner in the rooftop terrace and, much later, walk out to a different excellent restaurant or bar. In BA dinner is served seriously late, we learned not to even set out until 9.30pm!
We walked the grand boulevards admiring the impressive architecture, reminiscent of European capitals, then toured the recently restored marvel, Teatro Colon, said to be one of the world’s greatest opera houses. We were astonished when our rather dour guide broke into song to remind us of various classic productions!  The streets were full of flowering jacaranda trees.

Following the footsteps of everyone who ever visited Buenos Aires we made our way to to La Recoleta cemetery where Eva Perón lies in her family mausoleum which seems to be a place of pilgrimage for locals as well as tourists.

Street art is imaginative here – we especially enjoyed the sculptures of the popular cartoon character, Mafalda and the Formula One champion, Juan Fangio.

Apart from Evita probably the two things Argentina is most famous for are beef and tango. For Alan’s birthday treat we signed up for a day out in the pampas experiencing gaucho life – the guachos were the notorious Argentinian outlaws, later cowboys, who spent their lives on horseback raiding, or tending, the huge herds of cattle. The day didn’t go quite as planned. By the time we reached the charming town of San Antonio de Areco, 100 kilometres out of the city, the thunder was rolling round and heavy rain started falling. It continued for the next 5 hours. Arriving at the estancia (farmstead) we waded through the mud, had a distant glimpse of horses and headed inside for refreshments. We were looked after very well as coffee merged into lunch with as much beef and other meats as anyone could eat. The power went off and we were treated to a short song and dance performance by candlelight from the modern day gauchos. Afternoon tea quickly followed and then it was time to leave. From the four wheel drive security of the estancia’s retired US army truck we looked on in horror as other visitors in cars slid around, were towed out of the mud and, in one case, slipped sideways into the ditch as we made our way down the farm track.

Back in BA, of course, it was a warm dry evening, so we headed out for birthday drinks at the lovely Rey de Copas bar in Palermo. Maybe not the day we’d planned but certainly a memorable one!
On our last evening we went to Cafe Tortoni, said to be the oldest in the city and certainly a grand and venerable establishment. One of the tables is still occupied by some of it’s most distinguished patrons – Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Gardel and Alfonso Storni, we’ll leave you to find out who they were!

In the atmospheric basement theatre we watched a classic tango show.
Phew! Buenos Aires is indeed a stunning and vibrant city, a great place celebrate and end the trip.


We came home at the end of November and, almost immediately it seemed to be Christmas.
This post is longer than usual but it seems a good idea to get to the end of this trip before 2017.
Thank you for reading and commenting………and, if you’re still interested, it’s just four weeks until we set off again for Mexico and Nicaragua.
Until then Happy New Year to all our Readers!!

Parque das Aves

The bird park is just outside the Brazilian National Park.  We wouldn’t normally have visited but it was so highly recommended that we decided to take a look and we’re glad that we did.

Half of the birds there have been rescued from mistreatment including trafficking. After rehabilitation, where possible, they are released back into the wild. The park runs conservation  and environmental education programmes and participates in breeding programmes to preserve endangered species.

The gorgeous tropical species there are marvellous to see.

Next time we’ll tell you about Buenos Aires and how celebrated a big birthday!