All Aboard!

I am not exactly sure how old I was when I learned about the existence of the Grand Canyon.  Probably much older than I should have been.  And I did not have the opportunity to see it for myself until I was almost 50!  So it is really no surprise, I suppose, that I was as equally unfamiliar with the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico.  Here I was again feeling completely overwhelmed by all I did not know in the world.

IMG_6366When I heard that my good friend, Ruth, had a trip to the canyon planned for early spring, I begged and pleaded with Steve to go.  The begging and pleading was necessary because of his status as the only male in the group the last time… and the shopping.  In fact, the strongest argument I made was that since we were traveling by train, small suitcases were recommended.  And small suitcases seriously limit your shopping load.  It did not even occur to me to point out that the Copper Canyon is four times bigger and ten times deeper than the Grand Canyon or that it is home to the Rarámuri Indians, known for their long distance running abilities.

Ruth has a passion for the history of Mexico, and I knew we would learn a lot from her.  In addition to being a historian, Ruth and her husband Rudy own and operate one of the best bakeries in San Carlos.  Steve knew he had made the right decision in joining the trip when minutes into our van ride to El Fuerte, Sinaloa, Ruth showed us how the Sierra Madre Occidental were formed using her delicious banana bread to demonstrate the shifting of the plates.

The town of El Fuerte was once the capital city of Sinaloa, Sonora, and Arizona. It is IMG_6370named for the Spanish fortress, El Fuerte, built in the early 1600’s after Mayo Indians destroyed the first Spanish settlement.  General Diego Martínez de Hurdaide was responsible for its construction after being sent to the area to quell further uprisings. Hurdaide was cruel and ruthless.  He believed that Indians had no souls.  And he actually had them baptized… before he killed them.  After silver was discovered in the Copper Canyon, the fort served to protect Spanish mining interests.  The Camino Real runs through El Fuerte to Alamos in Sonora.

Our hotel, La Posada de Hidalgo, was a combination of several old homes, including the mansion of former mayor and trader, Rafael Almada.  The Almadas spent five years building their home at a cost of 100,000 gold pesos.  It was considered the finest home in El Fuerte at the time.   Pine wood used for ceiling beams was shipped from Seattle, Washington, and Rafael’s wife, Rafaela, originally planned to cover steel columns in the center courtyard with gold.  The government refused her design, as it was a blatant abuse of wealth.  I was glad to hear the government was against some abuses after all.

IMG_7047It is also believed that Don Diego de la Vega, El Zorro, was born in a small home that is now part of the hotel.  In fact, Steve and I actually stayed in the very room where he may have been born.  Never mind “believed” and “may have been”.  I was certain I was standing in another spot where history was made.  And even though Don Diego moved to California long before he became El Zorro, I still zipped around the room making Z’s with my pretend sword and basically annoying the hell out of Steve.  And when Ruth mentioned we would be seeing a Zorro show… Whew!  You cannot buy that kind of excitement and take it home in your suitcase!

 

Beautiful, brightly painted, colonial buildings surround the main plaza.  The walkway to the gazebo is lined with palm trees, gifts from Cuba and California.  The church and municipal palace are also located on the main square.  Visitors can ride a small train throughout town checking out the sites.

Wait.  A little train?  It took me a minute to figure that one out.  Yes, it most definitely should have been obvious.  El Fuerte is the first stop on the El Chepe railroad line running east into the Copper Canyon.  And the reason we were there to begin with!

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We Can. We Will.

To say that Guaymas and San Carlos have a little trash problem would, sadly, be a gross understatement.  For the majority of the population it is not for lack of trying.  Each morning, I see shopkeepers take to the streets and sidewalks in front of their stores, sweeping up debris and gathering trash that has accumulated overnight.  Hoses are turned on and drives and walkways are sprayed down in an attempt to keep blowing dust in its proper place.  Garbage is bagged and set in or near cans, barrels, and dumpsters.

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Photo Credit: David Pozos

Unfortunately, those cans are not always emptied in a timely fashion.  As I understand it, a former mayor decided that once he took office, garbage collection would be contracted out to a private firm.  City trucks were repurposed or sold.  And when a new mayor was elected, and money for private trash collection ran out, Guaymas experienced a bit of a crisis.  Realizing they were not going to be paid, Promotora Ambiental S.A. (PASA) stopped collecting trash.  While citizens continued to responsibly clean up their messes, the trash piled up and became an easy target for animals and nature.

Citizens persisted and found creative ways to deal with the problem.  Bags were tied to IMG_7461 2fences, out of the reach of animals, and garbage was delivered to the front steps of the municipal government building.  Neighbors worked together to keep their blocks as neat as possible, rebagging daily after dogs, cats, and strong winds did their best to undermine their efforts.  Yes, there is a landfill; however, dumping can only be paid for with a credit card.  Many families in our area do not have a car or truck for hauling, never mind a credit card.

Slowly, the mayor is rebuilding the city’s fleet of garbage trucks. In the meantime, winds continue to blow and animals continue to forage.  And the PASA strike certainly does not explain the piles of beer cans left on the beach each weekend or the snack wrappers and plastic Coke bottles floating in the Sea of Cortez.  It does not answer for the groups who leave their cookout messes on the patios of their vacation rentals.  It does not excuse the carload of kids, who drop an Oxxo bag full of trash out the window of their car, as they speed down the highway.  Fortunately, there are concerned citizens attacking these areas too.

Clean Up San Carlos, a volunteer group of Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans, meet each week and pick up trash in a designated area:  on the beach, the main thoroughfare, or in the desert.  Bandidos de Basura brings educational programs about littering, recycling, and responsibility into the local schools.  Universities, high schools, middle and elementary students join Clean Up San Carlos or sponsor their own clean ups.  Aqua y Más, an orphanage, participates in local beach cleans.  There have even been international efforts between students in Arizona and Guaymas.

IMG_7146 2This past Saturday, BAE Systems, a global aerospace company located in the Rocafuerte Industrial Park in Guaymas, was proud to contribute to the efforts to keep our community clean as well.  In a belated Earth Day celebration, our small but mighty group of employees, spouses, girlfriends, and children met at 8:00 in the morning.  After the obligatory selfies, we donned our gloves and masks and set out to clean the highway in front of the park, or as much of it as we could before a) we ran out of bags b) we ran out of dumpster space c) the heat did us in or d) all of the above. 

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  Umm, I suppose that all depends on your definition.  Little Alonso was thrilled when he found a golfball.  I was more startled when I discovered the man sleeping in the culvert.  It also seemed odd that I found so many Q-tips.  Like is it really a thing to clean your ears while driving down the road?  And let me add  that plastic bags truly are the devil- -anywhere, but especially in the desert.  They attach themselves to the spiky, sharp trees and plants.  Trying to remove them makes an even bigger mess.  (Shameless but necessary PSA:  Please strongly consider toting your snacks, beer, soft drinks, and Q-tips in a canvas bag from here forward.)

And actually, the more we found, the more obvious it became that this was not necessarily litter.  (As in “No, Amy.  No one cleans his ears while driving down the road.”)  It was trash that had been blown from trucks or garbage receptacles.  And as gross as it was to have to touch some of it, even with gloves on, I was  happy to see that not much of it was recent.  Slowly but surely, the message of caring for the environment is spreading.

During our crawl down the main drag, our group was joined by five city employees and 409f3f74-1a55-44a9-b052-a3e683125a4aone random citizen, who just wanted to help.  We were honked at a lot by people who were happy with our efforts.  Of course, they could have been appreciating the view of 20+ people bent over along the road.  In spite of the heat, the dust, and, yes, the trash, I loved working side by side with such a great group of people.  I am a tad jealous that my husband gets to spend his days with them.

Change in behavior and attitude does not happen overnight.  BAE Systems is just a small cog in the wheel of the community service and pride taking place in our communities daily.  One chip bag, one bottle, one Q-tip, one new garbage truck at a time. 

The World May Be YOUR Oyster, But the Oyster Is the World to Guaymas Pearl Farmers

I tend to be an over planner when we have visitors to our home in San Carlos.  I simply want to highlight all of the attractions in our community that make Guaymas/San Carlos such a special place.  I also want my guests to look beyond the unfinished building projects and the trash blowing around in vacant lots.  Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier to see the negatives than the positives, and it is important to me that friends and relatives are given the opportunity to see past what may be right in front of them.

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One of my very favorite places to take visitors is La Granja de Perlas del Mar de Cortez, the Pearl Farm.  And no, it is not because I am hoping they will thank me for my hospitality with a necklace or a bracelet.  I am most definitely not a jewelry person.  I typically wear the same pair of earrings for at least six months before it even occurs to me to change them.  It is the story behind the success of this business:  the history, the science, and the sheer will and patience, that makes this a must stop on any Guaymas tour.  The jewelry just happens to be an incredible bonus.

That story begins in the 1600’s, when Spanish conquistadors first arrived in this area of the Sea of Cortez.  They could not help but notice the beautiful pearls worn by the Seri and Yaqui Indians.  At first they were content to trade for the gems, but eventually, as demand increased, the Spanish enslaved the Indians and began fishing for the pearls “”themselves”.  The Yaqui were known to be the best pearl divers, and the Spanish took full advantage of their skills.  By the 1800’s, the oyster beds between Kino Bay and Guaymas were completely wiped out.  The Spanish simply moved across the sea to the Baja peninsula.  In 1940 the Mexican government  completely banned pearl fisheries, hoping to preserve the oysters that remained.  It looked like the end for the Sea of Cortez pearls.

Fortunately, two students at Tec de Monterrey University in Guaymas had other ideas.  Douglas McLaurin, a biochemistry engineering student, and his partner, developed a business model based on their belief that the cultivation of Sea of Cortez pearls was possible.  Based on his own research, their professor had little faith that their endeavor would be successful.  The pair earned a “C” on the project.  They did not let the mediocre grade deter them.  In 1991, they began experimenting with the Rainbow Lipped Oyster on the campus of Tec de Monterrey and in Bacochibampo Bay in Guaymas.  

IMG_1510The intricate and time consuming process is detailed here.  In short, it takes four years from start to finish for a Sea of Cortez Pearl to grow.  The oysters are moved four different times, as they develop, starting out in “kiddie condominiums” and eventually graduating to individual “apartments”.  Their shells need to be cleaned every eight weeks, as barnacles andIMG_1505 other sea creatures can attach to them and cause damage and/or death.  Talk about labor intensive!  The team today still relies on the expertise of the Yaqui people in providing care to the oysters as they grow.

At the age of two, the oysters are strong enough to handle the introduction of a nucleus.  A 30 second operation is performed, where a spherical nucleus is implanted into the mantle of the oyster.  A hemispherical pearl may be cultivated by cementing a flat-sided nucleus directly onto the shell.  The shell is opened just enough for a very small tool to be inserted inside.  Quick, steady, and precise.  The grain of sand myth is an insult to the skill required of these men.  And there are no guarantees.  The oysters go back into the water for another eighteen months!

Today, Douglas and his partners, Enrique Arizmendi and Manuel Nava, farm one square hectare with 200,000 oysters under cultivation.  Their process has been honored with a Full Product Integrity Rating from the Fair Trade Gem Federation- -the only pearl farm in the world with this designation.  This is due to the fact that their pearls are not processed with chemicals, bleach, or by burning.   They are merely rinsed under tap water once harvested.  The owners also recognize the importance of being good environmental stewards and promoting a respectful labor environment.

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La Granja de Perlas typically produces about four kilograms of pearls a year, making them the rarest in the world.  Any pearls that do not meet product standards are returned to the ocean.  And those that do make the cut are used in the design of some of the most beautiful jewelry in the world.  The partners work with artists in the creation of very unique pieces, all available for purchase on site.  And I have to admit, each time I visit, I become more of a jewelry person.

I scheduled a nine o’clock tour for my aunt, uncle, and myself.  The two of them looked at me like I was crazy.  Fortunately, Perlas del Mar de Cortez offers multiple tours daily to accommodate all guests, even those who like to sleep in!

 

The Clean Team

IMG_7045At first I was incredibly excited when my dad told me that, finally, after nearly two years, he had convinced his brother and sister to join him and my stepmom on a trip south to visit us in San Carlos.  Then I got a teeny bit nervous.  I love my aunt and uncle dearly.  But.  They are two people who happen to be very particular about their surroundings.  

I am not judging them.  I admire their organization, and it is a pleasure to be a guest in their homes.  If I drop a chip on the floor, I know, without a doubt, it is safe to eat.  I am never going to find someone else’s hair on the soap in the shower.  And freshly ironed sheets are pretty amazing.  But my super obsessive compulsive clean gene was somehow switched out with a “meh, it looks fine” one.  

I am not a complete and total slob, and I follow a cleaning schedule.  But honestly, there is probably something sticky on one of my refrigerator shelves right now.  There most definitely would be a “five second rule” debate in my home.  I am also pretty good at ignoring toothpaste spit splatter on the mirrors until “clean the mirrors” day comes around.

Not only do I have genes working against me, but I also live in a desert that ends thumbnail
where a beach begins.  So I am constantly battling dust and sand on the floors.  We have never had a scorpion in our home, but what in the hell IF one showed up while our guests were here?!  I am pretty good at pretending that taking a shower with a two and a half inch cockroach is no big deal, but something like that could cause my aunt to never want to shower again.  Or worse, disown me!  It was very, very important to me that my aunt and uncle felt comfortable in our home

And certainly I wanted my parents to feel that way too.  It is just, well, they know all about my slacker ways and come and visit me anyway.

thumbnail-1So basically, I cleaned for a week straight before they arrived.  Thus proving to myself that I do have a super obsessive compulsive clean gene, and I am just really good at overcoming it most days.  I followed Steve around with a broom and a bottle of glass cleaner.  I washed all the sheets and towels twice. I crawled around on all fours looking under beds for dead cockroaches and live gekkos.  I used an eight foot plumero to wipe down all the fans, curtain rods, and ceilings.  I sat down inside as little as possible, not wanting to dent or dirty my fluffed and vacuumed sofa cushions.  It was pretty scary.

And then they all arrived!  I stashed my dust rag in Steve’s underwear drawer before opening the door to greet them with big hugs.  I am sure they all wondered what new scent I was wearing.  Had they asked, I would have told them- – Fabuloso.  After the family put away their suitcases (I had even cleaned the closets), we all hung out on the terrace- -as in outside.  And we basically stayed there anytime we were home! 

But we were not home much.  We visited the brand new San Carlos sign and the newly IMG_2721opened mirador.  We toured Guaymas and the pearl farm.  We kayaked and did a little shopping.  We even took a sunset cruise on the Sea of Cortez and were entertained by dolphins.  The delicious food of our area agreed with everyone.  (Thank heavens because my super obsessive compulsive clean gene would have drawn the line there.) IMG_2127

It was a wonderful visit full of many exciting adventures and new experiences.  Most special to me were our heartfelt conversations.  These things matter so much more than passing the white glove test any old day, and my family knew it.  I loved sharing our home with my parents, aunt, and uncle.  I am hoping they plan a return visit next year.  Mostly because I am sure my house will need a another good cleaning by then.

And thankfully, even the cockroaches cooperated in making this a great visit.  Steve spotted one scurrying across the kitchen the day after everyone left for home.  Whew.

Eyes Wide Open

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Juárez Theater

Ugh.  I spent two and a half hours writing yesterday and decided just before clicking “publish” to delete it all.  If you want to know about the Juárez Theater, Jardín de la Union, Basílica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato in Plaza de la Paz, The University of Guanajuato, The Mummy Museum, Callejón de Beso, and Diego Rivera’s childhood home, you can look them up on the internet.  No more boring history lessons from me on this trip!  Don’t get me wrong.  All of these places were beautiful and absolutely amazing and make Guanajuato the unique and special place that it is.  Historical facts just do not adequately express how much I loved being here.

In fact, I was so taken with the city that I soon as I returned home, I immediately started fantasizing about returning to enroll in Spanish classes.  Never mind that I have a teacher here in Guaymas.  Or that Steve would probably miss me for the two to six months I planned to be gone.  Or that it would cost a lot of money that we do not have.  Or that we had family coming to visit, and they were expecting to see me.  My dad suggested that Hermosillo, a bit closer to home, might be a more realistic option for my Spanish immersion. It was not really about the lessons.  I wanted to be back in Guanajuato: exploring the nooks and crannies, mastering public transportation in the tunnel system, enjoying festivals and performances, sampling every flavor of ice cream offered in the corner shops, and then maybe, improving my Spanish.

 

I loved stepping out of a narrow alleyway into a small plaza, surrounded by brightly painted homes and businesses.  I was constantly making that little surprised “ohh” with my mouth and murmering “wow”.  The blues, purples, pinks, greens, and yellows added a depth to everything I saw.  I have tried to describe what I felt using words.  I just cannot.  The city was vibrant.  It was cheerful.  The cobblestone streets made me feel as if I had stepped into the past.  I saw more people walking than I saw cars.  I excitedly followed the curves in the streets as they wound their way between buildings and eventually became staircases, climbing the hillsides.  Papel picado was strung between the balconies of homes across the street from each other.  I loved that as Guanajuato grew, no one attempted to change it- -make it move in organized, right angles or straight lines.   Being on the streets made me happy.  I felt lighter here.

It was impossible for me to photograph what I was seeing well.  I mean, honestly, I

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University of Guanajuato

struggle taking good pictures of Caleb opening his presents Christmas morning, never mind doing justice to what Guanajuato offered.  I tried though.  I really did.  And I was incredibly grateful for the stranger who reminded me to put my camera down, to look- -with both eyes and remember.  “Your memories are better pictures,” he said.

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Callejón de Beso

Before this trip, I had no idea just how many beautiful places there are in our world that I had never seen.  I mean I did, but I was not spending a lot of time thinking about it.  It is funny in a way.  Guadalajara, Chapala, San Miguel de Allende, Atotonilco, and Guanajuato have been here all this time.  Had I not been gifted with this opportunity to live in Mexico, would it ever have occurred to me to visit these cities?  How lucky I was!  What else is out there waiting to be discovered?  What other surprises will I find that I am not expecting?  Do not worry.  I am not going to start a list- -that actually might depress me.   But I am definitely going to use both eyes a lot more once I get there.

 

The Cost of a “Silver” Lining

So standing on top of the scenic mirador, all of Guanajuato spread out in front of me, it was pretty obvious that one day would never be enough to experience all the magic this city held.  Heck, a lifetime might not even cut it!  It was for this very reason I was so grateful that we had come with a group that included “professionals”.  They gave us a place to start, and well, honestly, provided us with a driver who knew his way through the tunnels!

Our first stop was La Bocamina San Ramón.  This was one of Guanajuato’s smaller silver mines and part of La Valenciana system.  (La Mina Valenciana was the wealthiest of all mines in and around the city.  80% of all silver mined in Guanajuato was produced here.)  From the site of Bocamina San Ramón, we had an stunning view of the surrounding mountains, responsible for giving Guanajuato the nickname “City of Frogs”, as some of the mountaintops resemble them.

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We were able to descend about 60 meters through an old shaft into the mine.  Today there is a a well-lit staircase that makes this a little bit easier.  In the 1500’s, miners, some as young as 14 years old, relied on candles to light their way, as they made their steep descent over rock and dirt on a tree trunk fashioned into a ladder.  All work was done with a sledgehammer and/or a chisel.

Climbing out, even with a lighted staircase, was somewhat strenuous.  There were 60+ steps, some much higher than others.  I kept myself in check by thinking of the young boys and men who shimmied up a tree trunk, often times carrying more than 70 kg of rocks.  Children much younger than 14 worked outside of the mine, carrying buckets of water and sorting.

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Needless to say, the life span of a miner, in or out of the mine, was short.  Serious injury and death from falls, explosions, and cave-ins were frequent.  Others developed respiratory and vision problems from the dust floating around in the air.   Many miners were maimed during accidents with the chisels, drills, and dynamite.  Believe me, I felt a little silly wearing a hard hat to protect my head just in case I bumped it on the rock wall while climbing the stairs.

The Spanish owned the mines and benefitted from the silver produced.  This may explain why the first battle of the Mexican War of Independence was fought in Guanajuato.  Infighting long after the War of Independence contributed to the continued inactivity in the mines.  Porfirio Diaz, president in 1870, is credited with reactivating the industry.  He invited French, British, and Americans to invest in mining.

While the money generated led to incredible cultural advances in Guanajuato, the working class and poor were truly paying for it.  They were not allowed to take advantage of many of the improvements either.  It is no real surprise that production completely stopped again during the Mexican Revolution.  (And ironically, the very first statue of Padre Don Miguel Hidalgo was erected in the historic lake district, where once, only the wealthy of the city could enjoy boating and picnics.)

Today there are 16 active mines operating in and around Guanajuato.  They are run by Canadian companies.

So, I had been to the very top and to the very bottom of the city.  I was restless to get to the middle!  But that group I was so grateful for before we started?  They were now insisting we take a break for lunch!

Having a “BOWL” in Guanajuato

You know that saying, “saving the best for last”?  That is exactly how I felt about Guanajuato, the final city on our central highlands tour.

Guanajuato was a silver boomtown.  It was discovered almost by accident by a group of men moving through the area.  They stopped to rest overnight during their travels.  They built a fire to keep themselves warm.  In the morning, they found molten silver under the rocks they had used in their campfire ring.  Word quickly spread, and the city grew like mad, as everyone wanted in on the riches silver mining could bring.  

IMG_0876It was that seemingly overnight growth, a city planner’s nightmare, that gives Guanajuato its rich character today.  Separate communities were built around each of the mines, complete with their own churches and plazas.  Where one town ended, another began. As a result, there are many areas of the city where there are no streets – -just alleyways or sidewalks – – connecting the neighborhoods and making a lot of places throughout the city completely inaccessible to cars.  Miners designed elaborate tunnels under the city to move their silver, not roads

And today, believe it or not, that tunnel system is the road system!  (So maybe the miners built roads afterIMG_0863 all…)   Every time we needed to move from one side of the city to the other, we headed underground.  I was utterly amazed to see cars parked along the curves of the old tunnels, as their drivers waited for buses to bring them to the surface and drop them off as close to their destinations as possible.  Had I been driving, there is no doubt in my mind that I would still be down there.  The majority of tunnels/roads are unlit and signage is at a minimum.

To better appreciate Guanajuato we headed to the scenic mirador.  We were greeted with the most impressive view.  The city is shaped like a narrow bowl.  The bottom is filled with churches, plazas, schools, museums, and theaters, while homes and buildings in every shade on the color wheel creep up the mountains which make up the sides.  Most of these homes are reached by steep staircases built into the side of the mountains.  Of course, living in a bowl has its downside, particularly during the rainy season.  The Guanajuato River used to flow under the city, leading to very frequent flooding.   A dam was built in the 1960’s that finally put a stop to this.  Today, Calle Miguel Hidalgo, one of the underground roads built using the mining tunnels, follows the river’s original course.

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The scenic mirador is also the site of the statue, El Pípila, in honor of a local hero during Mexico’s War of Independence.  Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro, el Pípila (so nicknamed for his freckled face) was a miner originally from San Miguel de Allende. IMG_5917 Shortly after Don Padre Miguel Hidalgo rallied Mexicans to rise up against the Spanish, the first battle took place in Guanajuato.  The Spanish barricaded themselves (and all their riches) in a stone grain warehouse.  Their fortress had one weakness; a wooden door.  Legend has it that el Pípila strapped a stone tablet to his back for protection from musket fire and snuck up to the door of the granary.  Once there, he tarred the door and set it on fire, clearing the way for the freedom fighters to gain entry and bring defeat (and death) to the Spanish hiding inside.  I did not locate any of the 260 “Road to Independence” markers on this trip, but I am certain they are there.

Standing above the city, I could not help but fall in love.  Gunajuato looks like I feel most days:  chaotic (in a good way), creative, and festive!  I finally pulled myself away from the view.  I was ready to take my chances in those tunnels again.  Ah… to stand in the middle of the bowl, and to add my own colors to the mix.