Barton Creek Cave

Wednesday, 27 March 2013
The Mayans were known to believe in the Upper World (like the Christian heaven) and the Under World (like the Christian hell). When they discovered underground caves that usually started or ended with a stream of some sort, they believed they had found an entrance to commune with the Under World gods. One such space is Barton Creek in the Mountain Pine Ridge area (Cayo District).

Why does the cave have such a Western name? It was first discovered by a Mennonite man when he purchased the land in the 1970s. Because the Mennonite religion doesn't allow followers to enter caves,  he later sold the land to a Canadian named Mike. Mike alerted scientists to the location and the cave is now a protected place. While scientists were studying the location, they found numerous Mayan artifacts.

We had the opportunity to go through the cave in a boat with just the two of us and a guide. It was very quiet moving through the water. James held the light and took photos at the same time giving me a chance to capture a few great shots. I was especially interested in the formations that came from the ceiling via the dripping of water through the mountain onto limestone. 

In this particular cave, there is evidence of the Mayans sacrificing people. Scientists found 28 sets of remains and an infant skull is visible from the water (I tried to capture a picture - see below. The skull is facing eye sockets to the ceiling with the jaw and upper teeth exposed). Keep in mind the people who gave their lives did so voluntary because the Mayan believed in reincarnation.

The cave is cool because it also has proof of blood sacrifice. The low temperatures inside the cave and level of humidity have preserved bones and even clay pots over thousands of years. The clay pots were filled with human and animal blood and left for the gods. Several of the pots are still there. I was able to get a picture of one example. If you look at where the light is pointed just above the jagged edge of the rocks, you can see the pot.

James and I really loved this tour because it was cool inside the cave (bonus) but it was also quiet which allowed us to imagine the Mayans drifting through their "Under World" centuries ago. We also studied insect bats found in one of the crevices deep inside the cave. They clung together like bananas on a tree and somehow moved fluidly to flee the assault of our light. 


On our first full day in Belize, we went to Tikal, an ancient Mayan city in the jungle. It is in Guatemala so we had to cross the border and pick up another guide whose job it was to tell us all about the site.

It was hot but in the jungle, surprisingly, there is a bit of a breeze. We started out at the "four pyramids" where one of the pyramids has been restored. This is where the Mayans were thought to study astronomy and make predictions about their calendars based on the stars. James and I and our two guides climbed to the top and the view was pretty cool. While we were on top, we saw a Tucan flying.

The most unique part of the tour of Tikal was going to the top of Temple 4. I wish I would have been able to take more pictures but we were so high up (the structure is man-made, no machines!!) that I was afraid and even feeling a bit dizzy. This is the view from the top of Temple 4 looking across the jungle...

Our guide was very knowledgable and explained that the Mayans created rock quarries out of the limestone that makes up the ground in this part of Guatemala and Belize in order to gather stones to build their temples and housing areas. After they dug the quarries to build the temples, they filled with rain water. This was the perfect arrangement until the people begun serious deforestation (to clear land for more structures) and it stopped raining as much. Because they Mayans believed in the rain god, they began to sacrifice more people and the cycle continued with many Mayans moving to the highlands where there was more water and therefore more of a chance to grow sustaining crops. The population began dying out or moving out. Why did some of the Mayans settle in the the jungle (lowlands) anyway? The Mayans somehow knew that in the lowlands there was less of a chance to suffer earthquakes which would likely topple their impeccably planned structures. 

The most interesting part for me was the restoration of the monuments. The University of Pennsylvania came in to the area in the 1970s to restore some of the structures. Only 20% of Tikal has been restored. And that was an impressive amount. I took a picture that shows how the restoration works:

Part of the steps have been restored by archeologists or students. The other part looks like a green hill just sort of growing up over the structure. So, as we walked through the jungle our guide pointed out tall hills that were really covered over Mayan buildings. Fascinating. A picture in one of the conservation areas showed how workers had to slowly and carefully remove trees and tree roots from the mounds that had grown around the pyramids over the years.  

It is slow, tedious work and in more than 30 years only 1/4th of the city has been restored. With more cash, workers could do more. James and I stopped in the jungle just after seeing and watching Spider Monkeys to have a drink of water and admire a huge Cedar tree (the roots stretch out behind us). Our guide said one root looked like a crocodile head as he snapped a few photos. 

Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize

Sunday, 24 March 2013
We arrived at Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize on Thursday. It wasn't difficult to get to Belize (short flight from Atlanta) but traveling to the lodge involved a two and a half hour ride to a dirt road turnoff and then an hour ride on a bumpy, rocky dirt road. That's because Blancaneaux is in the jungle! We even stay in little huts that have thatched roofs and no air conditioning. It is hot but the breeze off the river is amazing.

The lodge is designed by Francis Ford Coppola so the restaurant serves his wine (we had the 2008 Director's Cut Pinot Noir last night) and it also has an organic garden that supplies the restaurant so the salads, herbs and vegetables are amazingly fresh.

The lodge also composts and has hens on the premises for fresh eggs. I had the spinach and egg omelet this morning and it was wonderful!

Time Flies

Tuesday, 19 March 2013
This semester has flown by. I cannot believe we're already ready for Spring Break. James has arranged a special trip for the two of us to Belize. We are going to spend half of the week in the "jungle" and half of the week on the beach. We'll be visiting Mayan ruins and going on a snorkeling trip. The best part? We're staying at Francis Ford Coppola resorts so the food and wine will be glorious! 

My research team is working on a great research paper with an April 1st deadline for AEJMC so I'll be spending a few hours each day working on that as well as another research paper but I think the setting will encourage productivity. Here's why: apparently the wifi only works in one part of the resort so I won't be distracted by Facebook and Twitter. Avoiding social media and email can be half the battle when trying to write.

I hope you are having a great week.

Po Doesn't Disappoint

Wednesday, 13 March 2013
I recently finished the memoir, Heat, written by Bill Buford (a writer at The New Yorker) about working in a NYC restaurant environment. He convinced chef Mario Batali to allow him to volunteer in his kitchens, including the Italian restaurant Po in Manhattan (West Village). At the time, Batali worked in Po and helped start the eatery but now runs places such as Babbo and Del Posto in NYC. I tried to get reservations for all three places and scored a table for two at 7pm at Po on Saturday evening.

It's funny when landing a restaurant reservations feels like winning the lottery but I was so excited to get into Po.

We took a taxi and enjoyed how busy the Village was on the drive over. So many people were crowding into lounges, window shopping and walking to dinner. The energy in Manhattan is incredible on the weekends and the weather was lovely so the evening wasn't too crisp. When we arrived at Po, we could tell even from outside that the place was crowded. There are two window seats on either side of the door and the couples seated there looked chic and happy.

Inside, the space is surprisingly small. There were about 25 diners seated and four diners at the bar. The head of the house, Fredi Romero welcomed us and showed us to a great table in the middle of the restaurant, next to the wall. (All tables are toward the walls and waiters walk up and down an isle in the middle serving patrons.) The small space made me feel privileged to have a reservation and special to be dining in such a sophisticated but warm space.

Our waiter was friendly but unobtrusive and recommended a lovely bottle of Pinot Noir: Poggiobello for dinner. I had the beet salad for a starter (roasted beets, endive, artichokes, watercress & taleggio crostino) and James ordered the salad on special. For dinner he had the freshly made gnocchi which comes with a spicy tomato sauce (Gnocchi della Casa All Amatrician, spicy tomatio sauce, guanciale & red onion) and I ordered the special pasta that evening which was homemade. It was so delicious that I had to stop myself from finishing the dish because I was getting so full. Yummy!

Compliments to Executive Chef Lee McGrath. It's one thing to enjoy the atmosphere and service of a restaurant but when it is paired with surprisingly perfect food, that's a winning combination (and worth the cab ride from East 50th Street and the persistence to get the reservation). 

NYC 9-11 Memorial

Saturday, 9 March 2013
James and I met in New York this weekend (he had meetings and so did I but couldn't get there in time on Friday because of snow). Last night we ate at The Palm with his parents and family friend. The steaks were perfectly prepared and the signature cocktail list is very inventive. I tried the "Palm Refresh" (muddled fresh basil, citrus infused vodka, cucumber and agave syrup).

After breakfast this morning, James' family left for the airport and we made our way downtown to see the 9-11 Memorial at the World Trade Center. Patrons wait in line for a short while and then snake their way through security and construction. (There is still a LOT of construction going on at ground zero.) Tickets are free but a donation of $5-$10 is recommended per person.

The memorial includes two huge memorial "pools" that were built on the footprints of where the World Trade Towers stood. The pool is a surrounded by waterfalls and the water trickles down into a well and then cycles through again.

The sound of the rushing water is very peaceful and if my loved one was last alive at this spot, I would find it as a suitable resting place for their remains. The grounds are clean and reverent with victims' names listed on platforms surrounding the pools. 

My favorite feature of the memorial (the museum hasn't opened yet) is the Survivor Tree. Some of the construction workers found a tree at the site under rubble in 2001. The tree (originally planted in 1970 outside the World Trade Center) was still alive but in bad shape. After someone cared for it and brought it back to life, it was replanted on site. 

Today, tiny buds were forming on the branches against the backdrop of the new World Trade Center building. It was comforting to consider the symbolism: another tree survived the winter and was stretching toward the sun. 


Thursday, 7 March 2013
It is supposed to get up to 50F degrees in Knoxville today but I have my doubts. Today was one of those mornings that I was thankful I'm no longer a news reporter. It was freezing while walking from the commuter lot to the Communications Building. Eeeks. I underestimated the chill in the air.

This weekend we "spring forward" for daylight saving time and the glow of dusk will last longer into the evenings. Every time the seasons change, I feel a quickening of my heart. I love experiencing four seasons and cherish each one for different reasons. I must say, though, springtime is my favorite time of the year. All of nature is waking up after a long snooze and there's such energy in the air.

The birds around my house seem to already be celebrating the anticipation of warmth. They flock to my feeder and I've noticed more varieties than usual. Of course the silly grey squirrels are there, quirky as ever and getting fatter by the day on the bird seed I put out for the birds.

Bringing in the trash cans and recycling cans this week, I looked at the front of my house from the street, imagining what I'm going to do to the front flower beds. I envision new, fresh red mulch, green ornamental grasses and maybe even lavender bushes. Spring just smells good and the slight heat from the sun soothes the soul.

Green Tea and its Fabulousness

Tuesday, 5 March 2013
When you brag about something then usually whatever it is you're bragging about goes away. Oh well. Here goes: I didn't get a flu shot this year and I haven't gotten sick.

Any medical professional will roll their eyes at this because I have asthma. High risk folks are supposed to get flu shots but I never do. Instead, I drink two cups of green tea almost every day. I believe in the power of its antioxidants (for me) and I also buy into the research that says green tea helps burn fat.

(I usually buy Bigelow Organic because Sam's Club sells it in the huge boxes. How very capitalistic of me.)

Yes, green tea is an acquired taste but if you can get used to it, there are some proven health benefits. As Julie Edgar wrote in a WebMD article, "It's difficult not to gush about green tea."

My dear grandmother got me hooked on green tea. She drinks it (as well as many other varieties of tea) and believes in the health benefits of teas and herbs. I think THE BEST green tea is "oriental style" green tea and it can be difficult to find in Knoxville, Tennessee. Luckily I brought a bit back with me from Japan.

From the WebMD article: Green tea's antioxidants, called catechins, scavenge for free radicals that can damage DNA and contribute to cancer, blood clots, and atherosclerosis. Grapes and berries, red wine, and dark chocolate also have potent antioxidants.

Red wine and dark chocolate - perhaps we should add those to the diet too - just in smaller doses. :)

A must-have in the kitchen

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Photo from Eurofresh Evesham Ltd.

I've decided that everyone who cooks should have fresh flat leaf parsley on hand at all times. It should be as readily available as skim milk and extra virgin olive oil. I have a flat leaf parsley plant but even indoors it has been growing slowly this winter because it is a bit cold in the mud room. So, I purchased a bunch of parsley for just .78 on Monday and have cooked with it every day this week.

I've used it for:

A pasta dish with peas, shrimp and a cream-based sauce. Parsley helps with any bloating that might come with eating a huge plate of pasta.

Steamed salmon and mushy peas (steamed with garlic, onion and processed with a bit of butter and sour cream)

Omelet with a dash of salsa

Tuna salad with sweet corn and fat free mayo and dill pickles.

It's also amazing with a dish I learned from a cooking show by French chef Jacques Pepin. (He does a fabulous show called "Fast Food My Way" that teaches you how to do French recipes without taking hours and hours.) He suggests trying this: rinse a can of butter beans, add lemon juice, minced garlic, salt, fresh cracked pepper and parsley. It is delicious and easy! 

It's getting easier...

Friday, 1 March 2013

Two days ago, I presented original research at the UTK Communication and Information Research Symposium. I also presented at the same symposium last year and after it was over I kept thinking about what difference a year makes.

Last year, in order to prepare for the presentation, I donned a suit from my broadcaster days, dug out a pair of heels and spent an hour on my hair and makeup. I practiced the presentation by making notes and going over the slides of my Power Point religiously. I was horribly nervous and afterwards the woman I was researching for at the time told me that I needed to loosen up! Since then, I've presented three times (once internationally) and I know how the process is supposed to go.

This year I was nervous while presenting but not intimidated. Two people asked great questions after it was over. I was able to think to myself slow down while I was speaking and brainstorm ways to present the research in a clearer way. I feel like I'm learning and progressing quite a bit as a PhD student. Thank goodness.