Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015: It Was a Very Good Year

No doubt about it, 2015 has been one of the best years of my life. And as I usually do around this time of year, I like to look back and see what events or turning points made the previous twelve months so special. Not that it's always been easy to do so. Some years the best I could say was, "Well, I survived!" Other years have been so filled with goodness it was difficult to keep my list down to a manageable number. 

2015 definitely falls into this last category, with the top twelve being (and in no particular order):

1. My trip to Taiwan. I can't say enough about how much fun this trip was, or what it meant to me: Life-changing, to say the least. I wrote several blog posts about my trip, starting with my Taiwan Trip Diary, Days 1 and 2. For the holidays I recently was sent a link to this lovely little video about a group of young people traveling to many of the same Taiwanese sites I visited and I can't stop watching it. I hope you enjoy it too!

2. My trip to Portugal. I never really expected to travel to two countries in one year, but somehow I got there! Portugal couldn't have been more different from Taiwan, but in retrospect I find myself remembering the trip with an equal amount of fondness. In case you haven't seen them, my Portuguese blog posts start here.

3. Finding a new direction in my artwork. Until Taiwan, I pretty much was what you could call a major "dabbler." In other words, I rarely found an art supply I didn't want, or a technique I didn't want to explore and experiment with. I had enough materials and sketchbooks and papers and brushes to open a small store. My only goal seemed to be "do it all!" Now, eight months later, I have donated 90% of my "stuff" to the library and an art center for the disabled. I've been left with what really speaks to my heart: a small set of watercolors and my favorite pencils in graphite and pastel, as well as limited sets of colored and water-soluble pencils. Pencils and drawing seem to be "it" for me and where I want to stay. I also discovered that I resonate the strongest to an Asian-Expressionist style, something I never would have known had I not gone to Taiwan and "found my art-self."

4. Keeping a daily sketchbook habit. Another great benefit of traveling. I took sketchbooks with me to both travel destinations and now I can't go anywhere without one in my purse. A day without a sketch of something is a day lost to me, and I've come to love daily sketching as much as daily writing.

5. Blogging. I wasn't as frequent a blogger as I had hoped to be this year, with long gaps in between posts, and many of my posts being about travel rather than writing (which is really meant to be the focus of this blog . . .) but, hey, I hung in there! I did have fun writing my posts when I had the time to sit down and write them, and it has been a pleasure sharing my adventures with you all. Thank you everyone so very much for reading and being there for me. Next year I'll try to get back on track with more posts on writing and creativity (although I must say it's gone through my mind how much I'd enjoy being a dedicated travel blogger, too! Maybe sometime in the future??)

6. My wonderful groups: writers, artists, sketchers . . . I don't know what I would do without my inspiring and helpful groups. I have a schedule of five to six meetings a month with all of these talented people and I couldn't be more grateful. 

7. Reading Paul Scott's entire Jewel in the Crown series, including the sequel: Staying On. For some reason in January, I became obsessed with this series and had to read every single word--sometimes twice. It dominated every minute of my limited reading time to the exclusion of not reading very much else this year. The particular volume I bought had ALL of the books in one gigantic paperback that just about broke my wrists holding it upright, but I was glad I stuck with it. 

8. Beading at last, with lots of new beads from Taiwan and Portugal. Last Christmas I was gifted some professional-quality beading tools and this year I made good use of them, resulting in some new and original jewelry for myself and others. I've still got a lot to learn, but it sure helps to have the right tools and supplies.

9. Finishing my novel, The Abyssal Plain 101% to my satisfaction and submitting it. In many ways this was probably my most important achievement. I had hoped to have had the manuscript finished last year, but then kept seeing changes I wanted and/or needed to make every time I thought I was through with editing. Well, now I am finished and I've even sent it out to some agents. Let's see what happens!

10. Our first year in the new house we spent all of 2014 renovating. Can't believe I lived through this episode, but here we are with nothing left to paint, repair, or replace. The back yard is still a bit of a work-in-progress, but we're regarding that as a "hobby for fun and entertainment" rather than "We can't move in until (fill in the blank) is fixed/finished." It feels good to now only have routine housework on the to-d0 list, as opposed to things like "buy new doors."

11. Cleared out my bookshelves to an absolute minimum. In the same manner I de-cluttered my art supplies, I emptied my bookshelves down to the bone. They're now very bare, very lean, and hold only some pottery and the books I refer to again and again. Anything else I want to read comes from the library. 

12. Discovering that I want to concentrate on writing short stories. This has been a very new discovery, like only about a month ago. And it's also been a "homecoming." When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, many years ago, I wanted to write short stories. Then I learned two things: a) I tended to write very long pieces. In fact, they were so long they weren't short stories at all. They were novels.  And, b) print magazines were disappearing at a rapid rate with very little openings to publish short stories. 

A lot has changed since then. Not only has the Internet provided hundreds if not thousands of new opportunities for publishing short pieces, but I have reached a point in my life where I'm ready to be more succinct. It may have something to do with the fact that I have four more novels in first-draft mode ready for editing and rewriting and I'm in no mood to write a fifth.  Yet I don't want to stop writing altogether just because I have manuscripts to edit. Short stories feel like the perfect answer: a good way to keep my creativity flowing, and a good way to stay in touch with publishing while I continue to revise one novel at a time.

So that was my year in review. How about you? Any special highlights you'd like to share? Leave a comment! In the meantime, Merry Christmas and I'll see you next year. Stay warm!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Adventures in Portugal: It's a Wrap!

Ericeira. I love this shade of blue.

Happy December, Everyone! How did NaNoWriMo go (assuming you signed up)? For all those who gave it a miss this year, I hope you had a wonderful November all the same. For my part, I'm happy to report I made it the full way to 50K with a few words left over, finishing around 7.00 PM on the final night. My secret strategy was to get up half an hour earlier, go to bed half an hour later, write through most of my lunch hour, and then have a massive marathon session over Thanksgiving. Somehow this seemed to work. I won't be editing or revising the results for a very long time, but they'll be there in their shiny new binder for when I'm ready to do so. One day.

In the meantime: back to Portugal!

Our next stop from where I left off in my last post was Ericeira, a charming surf-town, full of long scenic walks and beautiful sea views. I especially loved the residents' use of the color blue which matched the sky and sea exactly:

The town square made for a great rest stop:

Before we came across this stately inn right on the beach where we decided to stay for the next two nights:

I especially loved my room with a view where I could easily curl up on the window ledge for reading and sketching:

Our first morning in town we awoke to fog and clouds, but we were still eager to wander the grounds after breakfast. . .

. . . and to then take off for a day-trip to Sintra, a place famous for its fairy tale palaces and villas and Byron's accolades describing the city as the most beautiful place in the world. I'm sure he didn't have the same amount of tourists and traffic to contend with that we did, but the despite the crowds the town center still managed to retain a romantically gothic ambience that I loved right away. We even found a sweet place to park (for free!):

As soon as the car was safely stowed, we started walking through the twisty-turny neighborhoods:

And then saw the sign to The Moorish Castle. Out of the blue, my husband decided he couldn't live without seeing The Moorish Castle. As he put it, this would be the only chance in our entire lifetime to see one. Ever.

I wasn't one-hundred-percent convinced that it was the best place to spend the day, but I agreed to give it a go, so off we went. As with many of the signposts in Portugal (e.g., the famous monoliths), there weren't exactly what you'd call directions on the signage, or any description of how long or treacherous this walk/hike might be. All we knew at this point was it would be uphill, and involved cobblestones--serious cobblestones that must have been there since the time of the Moors from the looks of their uneven surfaces. 

Undaunted, we began the ascent. After about fifteen minutes, we began to wonder where the castle was. Surely it was up here somewhere? More climbing. An hour later we met some people coming down the hill.

"Is the castle up here?"we asked. They gave us what can only be described as looks of deep pity.

"You're about a quarter of the way there," one of the men said.

Uh-oh. Decision time. Keep going, or give up? We kept going. The cobblestones turned into steep stone stairs designed, I'm sure, to keep marauders at bay. An hour, or two, or three, I have no idea anymore, we got there. Almost. We still had to buy tickets costing the equivalent of about twenty dollars to get in. I couldn't have said "no, too expensive" if I'd wanted to because by now I was ready to absolutely perish. I was desperate to eat and drink something--anything. We asked where the tea rooms were. "To your right." Off we go--nearly to our deaths as we followed the ticket seller's directions and carried on up and up the castle ramparts. Where there was nothing but sheer terror. No railings, no real or level steps; nothing at all until I refused to go an inch further. 

"There are NO tea rooms on castle walls!" I told my husband. "They didn't build them that way." By now he had to agree with me. The only trouble was, how to get down and out of here? I clung to the rail-less wall with my fingertips and dared one quick photo to prove I'd made the trek:

Legs shaking, hearts pounding, we got down to the castle courtyard. And guess what? The tea rooms were: TO THE LEFT. THE LEFT. Not the right. And they were out of tea. We were grateful for the coffee they did have, and the fact we could grab the last two muffins in stock before preparing for our descent back into town. This time we took a different route used by the tour buses, which was both shorter and far more dangerous as we had to avoid being run over every few minutes by the biggest buses I have ever seen

Finally back in town, we emerged onto this wonderful sight. The Quinta da Regaleira and what will forever remain The Place I Would Much Rather Have Gone To, but it was too late in the day and we still needed to get some real food. Castles behind us, we found a great little outdoor restaurant serving vegetable spaghetti that was so good I've made it at home twice already.

We drove back to Ericeira for a second night, and then we were off to Lisbon, the final stage of our journey:

Lisbon was one of the places where I had pre-booked a hotel and in a very clever place (if I say so myself): right across the street from the airport. We planned to be in Lisbon for two nights, and because our flight home was scheduled for 7.30 AM, it couldn't have been a better spot. Best of all, we didn't need our rental car, didn't have to worry about parking, and we were able to use the airport metro to get into town in a matter of minutes. A real win-win. We were also able to buy tickets in the hotel lobby for two days on a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus which truly was the very best way to see Lisbon with its steep and narrow cobbled lanes:

Great views from the top of the bus!

The bus traveled far and wide, taking us to so many places we could never have seen on our own.

Best of all, just before we hopped on for the first leg of the ride, I discovered a bead shop--the only one I saw in the whole of Portugal. It was incredible--exactly what I had hoped to find. I bought all kinds of little silver charms of ships and starfish, enameled bunnies (no idea what I'll do with bunnies, but they were super cute), as well as several hand-blown glass "focal beads" that will look great matched with something else some day! 

When we did get on the bus, we found it came equipped with ear buds and a recorded commentary (in English and a dozen other languages) interspersed with Fado music--the Portuguese national soundtrack. What a way to travel--I completely zoned out and absorbed the music, the sun, and the colorful city-scape. 

We explored the city this way for two days, hopping off when we wanted to eat lunch in an outdoor cafe or have afternoon tea in an upstairs Art Nouveau bakery. On our last evening, we thought we'd take a break from the bus in exchange for a river cruise. There were many, many choices of ferries, yachts, and mini-ships, but the Arca was the one for us! 

Unfortunately, by this time my camera batteries had died, so I've had to borrow a photo from Trip Advisor to show you why we loved this little craft: 

The Arca is a replica of an ancient Polish vessel of the type that sailed through the rivers of Europe with cargoes of wine, sardines, and other supplies several centuries ago. Feeling like Pirates of the Caribbean, we sat outside on purple velvet cushions close enough to the water to dip our hands, and were served with great conversation with the captain and our fellow passengers, along with our choice of complimentary wine or beer. And because this was the last cruise of the evening, the captain extended the trip so we could watch the sun set on one side of the boat while the moon rose over the other. He turned off the engines and let us drift while we all sat in total awe and silence. I will never forget how pink the sky was, or the sound of the water lapping the hull as a soft breeze blew overhead. It was a beautiful way to end our trip. I don't have photos, but I do have my sketchbook:

Lisbon sunset.
Lisbon moon-rise.

And then it was back to the hotel to pack. The next morning I was up at 5.00. We simply walked to the airport, had a breakfast of croissants, juice and coffee, and then learned:

We couldn't go home!!!! We still don't know what the problem was, but for some reason we couldn't get onto our flight. The best we could do, the airline said, was go to Madrid and figure it out from there.

Long story short: we flew to Madrid only to learn there were no flights to Albuquerque for two days. At first I went into total panic mode, but then when the airline said they would put us up in a 5-star hotel, provide food vouchers for our meals as well as our transport, we were like, heck, yeah! Who wants to go home anyway? We even had several, still unworn, changes of clothing suitable for the much-cooler Madrid weather.

Peeps, this was the absolute best surprise trip ever. The hotel was in a quiet neighborhood, our room had a balcony overlooking a park with a fountain, and the metro station was only a short walk away. The first thing we did after resting up was head into town and the Prado--a place I have dreamed of visiting ever since my university days when I majored in Spanish Literature (bet you didn't know THAT about me, LOL!).  After seeing as much art as possible, we next found the Madrid equivalent of the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus and crammed in as many sights as we could. Without my camera, and being far too busy to sketch, my only pictures of the city are some postcards. (One is of a goat in a stone barn. Not exactly "Madrid" but I liked it.) The rest will have to stay in my memory until it makes its way into a few paintings, sketches and stories for the future.

After two full days, we then flew home with no further incident. Guess the universe really wanted us to see Madrid!

So that was my trip to Portugal and very unexpectedly, Spain. Thank you so much for reading. Until next time, Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

My Portugal Adventure Continues: Part III

From my Portugal sketchbook:
Sardines Galore!
Hello, everyone! Here we are at the next stage of my Portugal journey. I had meant to post this entry much earlier, but the recent tragic events in Paris and the rest of the world drove me into retreat-mode. I have been sad.

Paris has always been special for me, as I believe it must be for a lot of people, and my heart and mind are very much with the people of France right now. Which also means I was initially reluctant to write a blog post about European travel. It felt frivolous. Then I was reminded of something a good friend said at our last writer's group meeting: keep traveling. Don't give in to fear. Support the small businesses and people of the world with our tourist dollars and by appreciating all the goodwill travel has to offer. It's a great attitude, and one that encourages me to keep dreaming, keep planning, and keep my suitcase handy. So in that spirit we'll keep going through the wonderful land of Portugal.

One quick aside before we go to the cork forests, though: before leaving home I was so busy with my day-job and all the rest of my life I didn't have the chance to get to an art supply store to buy a Stillman and Birn sketchbook, the brand I took to Taiwan. Instead, I had to dip into my trusty storage container of new, but unused, sketchbooks that I have either bought on impulse because they were on sale, or had been gifted over the years. (I promise this isn't hoarding, just "saving things for a rainy day." And this was the rainy day.)

The one I chose was a 5 1/4" x 8 1/4" Global Art Travelogue Handbook. I had been wanting to try out a horizontal format for awhile, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I used my now-favorite Faber-Castell watercolor pencils, but instead of a waterbrush, I took a travel watercolor brush--it's just like a regular paint brush, but part of the handle comes off so you can tuck the bristle end into it to keep everything a) dry, and b) compact. To be honest, I thought the brush was a little over-priced and I'm still not sure what I think of it. On the other hand, after reading several on-line negative reviews of the Handbook, I have to say I totally disagree with the nay-sayers--it's a nice little book! The paper is good quality, I liked the way it stayed open on a table or my lap even though it was stitch-bound rather than wire-bound, and once I closed it and secured it with the built-in elastic band, any pages that had "curled" while I was painting them returned to their original shape and stayed that way. So, I like Handbooks a lot and recommend them as good travel companions. They come in a variety of sizes, and the one I took was just right for keeping in my purse all day.

So with that covered . . . northwards we go and on to: Arraiolos! Stopping first for Portugal's famed cork trees:

Aren't they sketch-worthy? Too bad I was in a hurry at the time and could only snap a few pics. I was particularly surprised to see some of the trees stripped down to their bright red "naked" trunks (I don't seem to have any photos of them, sorry). Later on I learned that the cork bark must be harvested from the trees at regular intervals to keep them alive. Good excuse to drink more wine--every time you open a bottle you're saving a tree, LOL! I was also surprised to discover how many uses the Portuguese have for cork, from making shoes and handbags, to covers for journals and i-phones, to . . . well, you name it, you can find it made out of cork. (And new cork shoes might make you a much wiser steward of the planet than too many bottles of wine in the long run.)

After viewing various parts of the forest I then saw a sign saying that just up ahead would be an entire maze of prehistoric monoliths. I just HAD to see the monoliths. I mean, they were prehistoric! The only trouble was the signage didn't say exactly where, or how far, so after about ten miles of driving down endless dirt roads searching we gave up and headed back for the toll road and our planned destination of Arraiolos.

We chose Arraiolos for its famous carpets. I had my heart set on something small and pretty for my entryway back home, and as I read to my husband from the guidebook: "Everywhere you look there are people making or selling carpets in this charming town, even from their doorways." Okay. Doorways. Yes, I see them. But they are closed. Charming. Yep. Very pretty town. But the carpets . . . um, where did you say they were?

Unfortunately, and very much like hunting down the monoliths, we couldn't find a single thread or scrap or even a human being. The town was so quiet I couldn't even hear someone vacuuming a carpet! There were NO carpets. But there was a castle:

And a view:

And in that view there was a grocery store. Except when we got down there, it was closed. 

We peered through the windows and saw the owners eating their lunch. It looked delicious, but, they shook their heads: no, you can't come in. Okay. No carpets, no lunch. 

In search of some food, we then found a mega-mall that we were sure would have a restaurant. Hahahahaha. Lots of stereo equipment, garden furniture, and children's bedding, but no food to be had. Certain we would pass out around now, we managed to drive to another beautiful mountain town, Santarem (a city, actually) and there we found a little hole-in-the-wall of a bar where they made us a wonderful feast of Super Bock, boiled egg and salad sandwiches, coffee, and cake. Which meant we now had the strength get to the eastern coastal town of Nazaré and a beautiful modern hilltop hotel for the night. We could see both the swimming pool and the sea from our room:

The next day we explored the village (where everything was wonderfully open!) and I bought one of my few souvenirs: a lacy, embroidered tablecloth. It's not a carpet, but it's sweet and will forever remind me of a happy day. 

The morning ended with more sandwiches and more Super Bock on the beach and a view of the fishing boats:

And then we were off to the surf town of Ereceira, of which I will write much sooner than I have these other posts. In the meantime, may you be safe, may you be inspired to go far and wide, and Let There Be Peace on Earth. Thank you for visiting and to my US readers: Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Adventures in Portugal, Part II

From my Portugal sketchbook: Roman Temple of Diana 
ruins in Évora!

Hello, everyone. Anybody signed up for National Novel Writing Month 2015? Me! (Much against my better judgment.) So far, so good--I'm actually enjoying myself, making me wonder what's wrong, LOL. The title of my WIP is The Calling, and I have no idea what it's about, which is fine--writing for the sheer pleasure of writing is really what #Nanowrimo is all about, don't you think?

But before I get back to today's word quota I wanted to take some time to continue sharing my Portugal journey, so here goes:

I ended my last post in the seaside town of Quarteira. From there we headed north and inland to our chosen destination of Évora, billed in our guidebook as a walled medieval World Heritage City and the home to an ancient university. Driving there we went through what our guidebook described as "the golden plains of the Alentejo" (very golden, very desolate, and very beautiful):

passing more castles on our way:

By the time we reached Évora, I couldn't wait to start exploring, the only problem being where to put the car. Spaces were practically non-existent, and nowhere near any hotels. At this point of the trip we didn't even know where the hotels were or where we would stay as we hadn't booked anything in advance. However, after creeping up and down the minuscule winding lanes (never designed for cars) we at last found an approximately 6-inch slot in which to park. Best of all it was right next to the vending machine where you put in lots of money and got a little slip of paper verifying your parking space. Wonderful! 

Next step was lugging our suitcases toward the local posada, a lovely old former convent now turned into a state-run luxury hotel with, naturally, luxury prices. Like, um, really, really expensive. We weren't sure we wanted to spend so much money, so suitcases still in tow, we headed down the cobbled lanes to where we thought there might be some place to stay, and found this adorable little family-run inn:

I loved the old-world charm (as well as the old-world pricing). After unpacking and freshening up (listening to our neighbors' rooster while they worked in the kitchen and watched a Portuguese soap opera--noisy. but homey and real) we went to see the sights and have a late lunch in the square:

(A shot of our outdoor restaurant under the umbrellas. As usual, I don't know who these people are in the foreground--I tend to just take photos without thinking too much about where I am,  and end up with all kinds of strangers tagging along.)

After traipsing down more hidden lanes and admiring the architecture, we thought it was time to go check on our car and possibly put more money in the machine. The parking was free at night, but we wanted to be sure we'd paid enough until the cut-off time. We got to our car, and lo and behold, a parking ticket! Bummer! We couldn't read what it said, but I was able to decipher something about the price being 300-500 Euros which made me want to faint on the spot. The police station was right around the corner so we went there with our paper showing we had paid, the time hadn't run out, so why? What? How could they do this to us?

The police officer we approached was very nice but he didn't speak English and couldn't explain anything other than saying we hadn't paid. But we did! Honestly, officer, we have the proof! He smiled, shrugged, and told us as best he could we'd have to go to the traffic department in the morning. Ugh. 

We then spent the rest of the afternoon trying to find where that building would be so we could be there nice and early. We walked, and walked, and walked . . .

No, this wasn't it . . . 

Nor these places either . . .

Nope. Couldn't find it. Eventually we decided to just go back to our hotel and collapse. But after about five minutes inside our room my husband got all antsy and said he wanted to move the car to outside the city walls. On his own. He then promptly disappeared, leaving me to fret and invent terrible scenarios of ending up in the Évora dungeons for non-payment of parking fines. Eventually I got so carried away imagining horrible outcomes I think we were being burned at the stake by the time my husband returned and said the car was safely in a public zone outside the city walls. He thought. 

Doing our best to put it all behind us, I concentrated on the beauty of the evening:

The cathedral view from our window:

Followed by one of our best meals at the luxury hotel for dinner. If we couldn't stay there, we could at least have a wonderful meal:

The chef prepared a special vegetarian leek, cheese, and potato dish for us, complete with a huge selection of breads and olives, Portuguese wine, and of course, a sampling of Port to finish the meal with dessert. Delish! We were the last people to leave, hence the empty tables.

Stepping outside, we came right to this amazing sight: the ruined temple floodlit against the dark sky.

The next day after chocolate croissants, fresh orange juice and lattes for breakfast, we set out to deal with THE TICKET. Within minutes we found the traffic department offices set within a gorgeous eighteenth-century building that could easily have doubled as a museum (probably why we had walked past it a dozen times without realizing what it was), and showed the receptionist our ticket. She didn't speak English, so she sent us to a colleague, and guess what: he laughed and said, "Oh, this is only a warning. You were in a government parking spot. It's okay. Just don't park there in the future. Have a nice day!" Whew. No wonder the police department had been so easy to find--we'd poached one of their own spaces. On that high note we decided to leave town while we could. My husband went to get the car, leaving me to wait with our suitcases and to people-watch outside the cathedral.

The horses were nice, but I was glad when my husband finally drove up and we loaded the car, ready to leave for the next stops: the towns of Santerem and Arraiolos--but I'll save those for my next post. In the meantime, Happy Nanowrimo-ing, and "Have a nice day!"