What you can do with time and money


Lotus goddess/princess (?) holding lotus flower at Lotusland


A quick trip last weekend to Santa Barbara.  Besides visiting family, we were going to visit Lotusland, the mind boggling garden begun 79 years by an ex-patriate Polish opera singer in one of the most beautiful, and expensive, cities of California, Montecito.

Madame Ganna Walska purchased the 37 acre property in 1940 with her sixth husband, expecting to create a refuge for Tibetan monks.  The marriage, and the plan, faltered and the newly single mistress of the estate proceeded to create one of the most spectacular gardens in the world.


Walska designed everything.  The house, the gardens, the artwork, the interior design, she was intimately involved with every detail.

There’s a lot more to this gardening than I would ever imagine.  Turns out that there are collectors who want one of every kind of plant in a specific area, and will spend tens of thousands of dollars for a rare cutting. Lotusland contains many of those plants, astonishingly rare specimens, some of which no longer exist in the wild.

I don’t know much/anything about plants.  Here are some that I saw.

The garden as a whole is divided into smaller specific gardens–aloes, the Japanese garden, the cactus garden, etc.  You can’t have a Japanese garden without a waterfall; this place has two of them.

I said that Madame Walska was an opera singer: she had an outdoor auditorium to put on recitations:

The area is decorated by a horde of trolls brought over from her estate in France.  I found them fascinating.


There is a garden of topiary, whimsical creatures formed out of sculpted plants:


Some more plants I liked the look of:


Our trip was organized by the Ruth Bancroft Garden, and we brought along their curator, Brian Kemble to explain the intricacies of the plant world.


This pool is decorated with abalone shells and giant clam shells:

These are sculptures decorating yet another pond:

These are the trunks of palm trees that resemble elephant legs walking through the jungle:


Lotusland is not easy to get into.  You cannot just drive up and see it.  Because it is set among the multi-million dollar mansions of one of the richest communities in the nation, it faces particularly onerous use permit restrictions.  They are limited to only 15,000 visitors a year.  There is very little parking–we had to arrive in a bus and were not permitted to bring even one extra vehicle. Tickets must be purchased in advance.  There is nothing casual about a visit.

One more photo–Madama Walska was a collector of many things.  This is a magnetic meteorite.


Gardening is not a big interest of mine, and yet I found Lotusland captivating.  I can’t recommend it enough.  If you are ever going near Santa Barbara, make a reservation and go.  You will be amazed and awed.  I was.



Along the Malecon


_DSC2974Last day in PV.  A quick trip to the dentist to have some stitches removed, and I’m through for this visit.  I have to come back in 5+ months to have the final crowns installed, after the implants grow into the bone properly.  The dentist office wants me here for 10 days for that process–about 8 more days than I’m interested in.  We’ll see how to negotiate that when the time comes.

Having half a day to fill before flying home, I drove into town, found a scarce (and probably illegal) parking space, and walked along the maleçon.

This is the waterfront, but not with a beach.  Pretty much in the center of town, it is where  tourists come to see the bay, get pestered by all manner of salespeople and take pictures to prove to the folks back home they were here.


Gotta get the kids in the picture

There is a strange vehicle running up and down the waterfront, powered by the people who sit sideways and pedal.  It’s free, and I don’t understand it, but people seem to like it.


Everyone pedals; the guy in the red hat steers.

The place was covered in these large hearts, painted to have meaning and support various communities.  My Spanish isn’t good enough to really understand what they stand for, but I sure like the look of them.

The restaurant on the top floor in this picture represents Puerto Vallarta–US, Mexican and Canadian flags decorating a Mexican restaurant atop Carlos Murphy’s.


The last thing I noted is completely inexplicable.  Fittingly, the building it is attached to is closed up tight.


And that’s what I did on spring break.  Some major dental work, a bit of bridge and lots of sightseeing.  I heading home to Gail and Claudia.

Strolling the old town


If you only know 1 person in town, that’s who you should have dinner with. Tonight I met Melinda deep in the old town where she is staying with friends.

It really touristville–this is the area with cutesy hotels and lots of beachfront condos and restaurants.  All the people you see are gringos.  I was the only guy in long pants, but Gail says I’m not allowed to go out to dinner in shorts.  She hasn’t been to PV.


This is also the only place I’ve seen dogs, especially dogs on leashes.  The Mexicans don’t seem to do that, just the Americans and Canadians.  Since I’m missing Claudia, it was nice to see some of the four-footed friends around.


There is something special about this restaurant–there was quite a line waiting to get in, while other local establishments had empty tables.  Is their food the best?  The cheapest?  I don’t know.

The little girl hanging on to the payphone (remember those?) was selling trinkets.  I hope she had a parent nearby selling something else, but you can’t be sure.

There are street buskers here.  This was a group that set up a music system and then broke into a dance routine.  All but one of them had matching shirts.  Was the other guy new? Was his shirt just dirty today?  I wonder things like that.

You can’t have a tourist area without selling junk, and in large quantities.


Right on the waterfront is where you find the nice condos to sell to the ex-pats:


We wandered into a small place for dinner, a couple of blocks from the beach.  Great guacamole.  I had a sofrita habibi–which turned out to be pork and melted cheese on pita bread–the owner is Arab.  It was tasty but required more chewing teeth that I have at the moment.  Melinda had a pork taco that was so good she ordered another just to take home.  For dessert, there was a marzipan cheesecake covered in caramel.  With a couple of gin and tonics and a glass of iced tea, the bill came to a whopping 553 pesos, or about $27.  They don’t take credit cards so Melinda ended picking up the check with her petty cash.  It’s hard to go broke on food around here.

Tomorrow I have a quick check-up at the dentist’s office then return check out of the hotel, return the car and head home for about 8 hours and Friday morning we are all (including Claudia) heading to Santa Barbara for the weekend.  Life is good.

Puerto Vallarta Bridge Club


Go to old town Puerto Vallarta, find a parking space and climb the stairs to the second floor of the Lions Club, and you’ll find the PV Bridge club.  Open games Tuesday and Friday, 199’rs on Wednesday.

Today, they had 24.5 tables.

I called last night to tell them I needed a partner, and today I played with the club manager, Mary.  I didn’t play well, which I’ll attribute to dental work.  Or jet lag.  Or the change in water.  Anything to avoid taking responsibility for being lost in the ozone and playing like a dope.  My partner carried me in to a 52% game and I get to go home with 0.28 masterpoints.

The club is nice, but not luxurious.  Table fees are a mild 100 pesos, about $5.50.  There are snacks, and something you don’t see at home:


Mary says nobody drinks during the game, but they like to stay after and sip a bit while going over the hands.

The club is full of American and Canadian snowbirds, along with some who live here permanently.  Here’s one of them:


Yes, it’s Sunglasses Al Goldspiel, formerly of the Bay Area, now a local resident.

There was someone else I recognized.  Melinda Hall, who is down here for the very same reason I am, going to the same dental clinic.


This is the high season for the bridge club; the snowbirds will go home soon and table counts will fall.  They just close in the summer, there isn’t anybody around.

Last week they had a lecture series by the pro player Robert Todd.  Next week is a sectional.  They have a well attended Regional earlier in the year.   This is a thriving bridge community.

Come to get your teeth fixed, stay for the bridge games.  Sounds like a plan to me.


Off to the Dentist



I’m back in Puerto Vallarta, this time to get the implants started.  I had 5 of them this morning, in a 90 minute session that wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.  You see me here getting one of the innumerable shots of Lidocaine that kept the ordeal mostly painless.

They cut into the gums, drilled out a hole and then screwed 5 posts into the jaw bone.  Six or seven months from now I’ll come back and they will attach crowns to the posts and I’ll have a decent set of permanent molars for the first time in decades.


This is Kirk, owner and manager of DentoAmerica, the clinic where the work is done. His wife is the dentist who started the operation.  There are quite a few dentists working there now, most of them female.  I like female dentists–smaller hands, just as much skill.

Today’s dentist was a man, Oscar.  Perfect English, excellent work, had the stereo playing The Girl from Ipanema on a loop until I told him it had to go.  Then he switched to Frank Sinatra.

After the surgery, a nurse came in to give me shots of pain killer and an anti-inflammatory.  So I left the dentist with the biggest pain in my throbbing tushie.  Life is strange.

Everything has an upside, I guess.  There is a gelateria right next door to the clinic, and I’m not allowed to have hard food for 24 hours, so this was my lunch:


Salted Caramel ice cream, hazelnut on the bottom.  I had two of them.  For dinner I had 4 more scoops.  I’ll get back to healthy food soon, but it’s nice to be able to OD on ice cream with no guilt once in my life.


Another side benefit of having your teeth fixed in Puerto Vallarta.

Tomorrow I’m going to the local bridge club.  We’ll see how that goes.


Hope spring eternal



It’s spring.  Although we’re a long way from March 21, the official first day, there are robins in my trees, it’s 74° outside and everything is either in bud or already blooming.

Today, there is finally a bit of good news from Washington.  Four senior Department of Justice attorneys have resigned in the wake of trump interfering in the sentencing of his crony Roger Stone.  The DoJ is not supposed to be an arm of the executive branch, but Bill Barr is turning out to be the most corrupt Attorney General in history.

Following in the wake of Mitt Romney developing a conscience, this is a good sign for the nation. I hope the trend continues.

Traveling to the beat of a different drum


Spring, 1968.  I’m a 17-year-old high school senior.  Every day after school, I drive to the north of Orinda to work on a deck I’m building for some crazy psychiatrist.

And every day, just as I turn onto Miner Road, listening to KYA radio,  the same song comes on.  “Different Drum”, by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys.  Fifty-one years later, and I can still hear every note in my head, just the way they sounded coming out of the cheap speaker of my 1961 Plymouth Valiant.

This all comes up because we saw Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice this afternoon.  It’s spectacular.  Delightful.  Heartbreaking.  Eye-opening. Wonderful.  Not to be missed. A pleasure for the ears, eyes and heart.

Linda was a much greater talent than I ever imagined.  Capable of singing in virtually every genre, from rock to country to comic opera.  In English and Spanish.

Born and raised in Tucson, Ronstadt was surrounded by music all her life from both of her parents.  At 18, she left for LA to be a star.  That worked out well for her.

Buckets of awards.  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Multiple-Platinum albums.  A few mature high-profile relationships, notably with Jerry Brown.  No problems with drugs or alcohol.  Two adopted kids, kept well out of the spotlight.

Then, disaster.  Parkinsons disease, the same thing that killed her grandmother. She is no longer capable of singing.  Her final concert was in 2009.

Ronstadt is still here, still able to talk and work and make an impressive movie that will find ways to move you to tears without a shred of self-pity or whining.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.  Showing in Berkeley.  You’ll love it.

That’s some good fish


Silas and his mom in the hot tub. Photo by star iPhoneographer Kate

Grandkids are in town, with the great-grandson in tow.  That means we are all going out to Sushi Ran in Sausalito, the best sushi place I’ve ever seen.  The Michelin Guide rates it a “Bib Gourmand”, which is just below one star.  The joint is worth visiting.

We ate outside, because Marin county is very particular about bringing dogs inside unless they are actual, trained service animals.  Claudia is my idea of the perfect dog, but Marin County has another opinion.  Outside it is. Not that it’s much of a trial to enjoy a lovely evening on the sidewalk watching the beautiful people in their beautiful cars going by.

I started out with a glass of Sho Chiku Bai sake, a very traditional unfiltered sake which is pretty sweet.  OK, I have the wine tastes of a 13th century Japanese peasant.  I like the stuff.


The 6 1/2 of us ordered a variety of plates, not many of them the classic raw-fish nigiri sushi.  I did have to have this one though: hashimoto toro, a fatty tuna piece that may have been in the Tokyo fish market the previous morning. It is delicate, rich and smooth. There really isn’t anything in western cuisine to compare it to.


As far as everyone else is concerned, the star of the menu is the salmon citrus–perfectly fresh raw salmon, Japanese cucumber, avocado and lime. It’s simply perfection on a plate.   And it’s art, too.  We order 2 of these.


One always wants to have one’s veggies, so we can’t pass up a plate of tempura.


There are vegetables here I can’t identify,  dipped in incredibly light tempura and quickly fried.  Is this healthy death food?  It looks good, tastes good and I choose to believe it’s good for me.

Another choice is the tempura shrimp roll, with a fried shrimp joined with asparagus encased in rice, seaweed and some other exotic mysteries.

The service is impeccable, the bill is significant.  Sushi takes exotic and expensive ingredients, prepared by trained and skilled chefs.  You get what you pay for, and at Sushi Ran you’re paying for the best.  It’s worth it.


The true Mexican tourist experience

When I told Gail I was renting a car, she said to be careful.  The Mexican police are infamous for stopping tourists to collect a bribe.  She was right, sorta.

Out exploring yesterday, I was pulled over by a cop on a tiny scooter.  Since I’m driving the tiniest possible Nissan, I don’t think I look particularly touristy, but there he was.

It turns out I had run a red light, making an illegal left turn across the busiest highway in the area.  I really did it, and I deserved. to be stopped.

He said the fine is very high, 800 pesos (the symbol for peso is also $, so writing $800 would be quite confusing).  That’s about 42 dollars, which is maybe a tenth of what it would cost me to run that red light in Lafayette.

They don’t just write you a ticket, because they know you won’t pay it.  They keep your driver’s license until you go to the police station to clear it. I said I was leaving in a day and that wouldn’t work.  He said I could pay him.  I offered 500 pesos, and he said yes.  So I got out of the experience for $27 US, learned a bit about how the traffic lights work around here and got a good story out of it.


Driving around just to see things, I noticed all the partially completed buildings.  You don’t get a mortgage to build around here, you buy a piece of land, go to Home Depot for some cinder blocks, and start building.  When you run out of money you stop, save up some more and start again.  Eventually, in a year or 2 or 20, you have a completed, paid-for house.  I think this house has been waiting for some love for a very long time.



Appearances seem to mean much less here.  I see hundreds of tiny businesses with crudely hand-painted signs.  In fact, there is only one sign I see frequently that is professionally created;



In the afternoon I went for my dental appointment.  It seems strange to go to a dentist in a mall, across the aisle from Walmart. (Walmart is the largest employer in Mexico), but there I was.

It’s a large and well-appointed place, with 10 dentists drilling away.  I met the manager, Kirt, a very tall Canadian who fell in love with Puerto Vallarta years and decided to stay.  I was assigned to my dentist, a young woman with a decent command of English.  She examined the teeth and took x-rays as much as my gag reflex allowed, then we went upstair to take a 3-D panoramic x-ray.  My teeth are a ghastly sight, but will be better in 8 to 10 months.

Today I’m going wandering again, paying special attention to the red lights.  Then late this afternoon I’ll go back and have what’s left of the 3 completely broken teeth extracted.  Probably not going out for a big dinner tonight.

More tomorrow.

Not a pleasure trip

Outdoor bar at the entrance to the airport. Party until your plane is boarding

I’m in Puerto Vallarta. Not for a tequila and Corona infused spree, I’m just here to see the dentist.

My teeth are in lousy shape, and the amount of work I need would be staggeringly expensive in Walnut Creek.

Winnie and Jerry have a condo here, and get all of their dental work done in Puerto Vallarta. They find the quality of the work is every bit as good and the price is perhaps one fifth. So I have come down here to begin the process.

This isn’t a glamour trip. I am staying in some very simple hotel for the princely sum of $44 a night. I’ve rented at tiny car which was supposedly seven dollars a day, but then they stabbed me 20 bucks extra for insurance, which they claim is mandatory. I’ll be having a chat with priceline when I return.

I went exploring the neighborhood where my hotel is and found a tiny outdoor restaurant where they sell hotdogs, hamburgers and tacos. The cook looked like he was 14, the waiter was more like 12.

Nothing gourmet here. I opted for two hotdogs which came with tomatoes and onions. I passed on the jalapeños in deference to my stomach. Fries of course. The Diet Coke had to be purchased from the minimart next door.

Tomorrow afternoon I have my first appointment with the new dentist. There will be x-rays and examinations; we will have to come up with a plan to reconstruct everything that is wrong with my teeth. I expect that over time it will take four or five more trips down here to get everything completed. Then I will have the teeth of a young lion. At least something about me will be young lion-ish.