The Old Silk Road

To begin, let’s see if we can handle these names: Xi Jinping and Nursultan  A. Nazarbayev. Xi is  President of The People’s Republic of China, Nazarbayev is President of Kazakhstan. They are in the news because only last week they signed trade and finance accords worth $30 billion.  President Xi said he wanted to create a contemporary version of the Old Silk Road that crossed the ancient plains of Kazakhstan on their way from China to Europe.

Come on Xi, we know it’s all about oil. But what gets me is that 21st century China, only 65 years after Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists chased Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists off the mainland, is able to talk about $30 billion as if it were a bag of rice.

So how did that happen? I have blogged before about events in China leading to where we are – it began with Charlie Soong in 1876.



Blue Soup – A Little Something For The Kids



The eight German tourists, tightly packed into the large white Toyota van, drew in their collective breaths, and became very quiet as they watched the driver settle into his seat and light a cigarette. Cesar Romero switched on the engine, jammed down the clutch, threw the vehicle into gear, and lurched onto the highway in front of his Rancho Corcovado Lodge near the Arenal Volcano somewhere near the middle of Costa Rica. As quickly as he could get into high gear, with the help of an agile left knee to steady the wheel, he exceeded the speed limit in his hurry to get the touristos to the Caño Negro Biological Reserve, close to the Nicaraguan frontier, 50 miles away. What got the touristos’ attention was that Señor Romero only had one arm. It would have been small comfort for them to know than don Cesar has been doing this sort of thing for almost 30 years, ever since he was sideswiped by an overtaking vehicle when he was driving with his left arm propped on the open window. One minute the arm was there, the next it was gone, don Cesar tells the story with a rueful smile.

Don Cesar has always been a high-risk sort of guy. The accident ended his airline pilot career, but he soon discovered to his surprise, that he had a talent for making money, probably not inherited from his father who was a Costa Rican cocoa farmer for more than 70 years. Don Cesar went to Mississippi to buy a truck, and after driving it back to Costa Rica, sold it for a nice profit. He returned to Mississippi and bought two trucks. And so it went. Two years ago he opened the Rancho Corcovado Lodge, five miles from Arenal, the most active volcano in the world, and one of the fastest growing tourist areas in Costa Rica. Just after sunset, he likes to load his van, at $10 a head, and take the curious to the very slopes of the volcano where there is a good chance they will feel the ground tremble, hear the roar of an eruption, and see sparks and fire in the night sky. Is it dangerous? Of course it’s dangerous, but one who stood in awe as warm ash began to fall, said to his companion, “I think we’d better get out of here,” then, as he looked back at the towering, cone-shaped volcano, cried, “Do it again.”

The Rancho Corcovado is a family business …daughter Agnes and her gringo (from Brooklyn) husband Sonny run the restaurant. Agnes went to school in the U.S., graduating from Livingston State College in Alabama. She and Sonny, along with their one and three-year old children, came home last year when things got tough in Brooklyn. Now Agnes has stories to tell about the clients from all over the world who come to her table knowing how to order a beer, but not scrambled eggs. She can say thank you in German and Japanese. She complains about long hours, and a shortage of thrills. “The biggest thing around here,” she says, “is to take your date to the volcano.”

Don Cesar laughs a lot these days, and can hardly contain his joy when the little ones come to sit on his lap. In all directions around the rancho you can see healthy green stands of cassava plants, evidence of a thriving export business, mostly to Estados Unidos. He lights another cigarette, sighs contentedly, and says, “I will work for a few more years, and then turn everything over to the kids.”


At Hacienda Los Inocentes, in the Guanacaste region of north Costa Rica, only 15 miles from Nicaragua, high on a short list of things to do, is sitting in a rocking chair on the open-air deck watching cloud formations shift across the top of the Orosi Volcano, five miles away. Except along the river, the landscape in mid-April, shortly before the rainy season begins, is bleak … shades of brown stretching for miles. Sad to think this was once Ficus and Eucalyptus forest. The wind is almost violent, and it blows all night.

Also near the top of the list is hearing the stories of people from far away places … George, “Just call me Bing,” Cherry, is from Tecumseh, Ontario, not too far from Toronto, and he is disgusted with Canada. “Canada is a big giveaway,” he snorts, “they just say, sure, come to Canada, we will take care of you. So what happens? Everybody who can’t make it in other parts of the world comes to Canada for a handout. And who pays for it? People like me.”

Bing Cherry is Vice President of a Bulk Waterborne Freight Company with a fleet of ships on the Great Lakes. This is his second trip to Costa Rica. Last year, he and his new wife (they both have grown children from first marriages) spent a week on the beach at Tambor where the Gulf of Nicoya opens into the Pacific Ocean.

Cherry stops to light a cigarette, and take three gulps from the Imperial he clutches in his left hand. “Can I buy you a beer?” he asks. “You wouldn’t believe the taxes we have to pay to support the Canadian welfare state, and I’m sick of it.”

In the morning, Dennis Martinez has the horses saddled for a three-hour ride along the river trails, where we see spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and giant anteaters in the soaring canopy, along with Keel-billed Toucans, Elegant Trogons, and a Great Currasow, a large black bird with a yellow knob on its bill, and a crest that looks like a lady in hair curlers. Dennis has a sore back because his horse is not amused by the two dogs yapping at his heels, and kicks fruitlessly at his tormentors.  Dennis knows the monkeys … he cups his hands over his mouth and produces a high-pitched yipping medley that brings curious and acrobatic spider monkeys scrambling through the trees. When Dennis spots a group of howler monkeys, he claps his hands loudly,
bringing an immediate chorus of low-pitched hoots and howls from the agitated monkeys. The howlers fall silent, and stare in disbelief when Bing Cherry tries to imitate their hoots.

Heading for the barn, don Bing draws his horse alongside, and smiling happily says, “I really love this, you know. What I want to do is invest in some land down here, and start an export business. I could build it up, and have something nice to leave for my kids, and grandkids. You know what I mean?”


A map of Costa Rica looks like a big crab, the claw on the left is the Nicoya peninsula, the one on the right is the Osa peninsula in the south. The Pacific beaches of the Nicoya peninsula, 30 minutes by small aircraft, and 3 to 4 hours by car from the International airport near San José, are sprinkled with luxury hotels, to the dismay of environmentalists, and the delight of the Ministry of Tourism which promotes “ecotourism”, and beginning in 1993 saw income from tourism soar to near a billion dollars, passing banana exports as the number one source of foreign currency in the country. To drive to the beaches you can take the Pan-American highway to Liberia where you will see the most important four-way stop in Costa Rica, proved by the presence of a large Bomba (gas station) on each corner … the usual suspects … Texaco, Esso, Shell, and 76. While filling our tank, we noted the passing of a large white trailer-truck sporting the label, Pepperell Mills, West Point, Georgia. For a moment we thought we were back in Alabama. You can’t get to the beaches from Liberia without passing through Filadelphia, but that takes only a minute. There is also a place called Vientesiete Abril (translation – April 27th), so small that if you go through on April 14th as we did, you will not even know you passed through. What you mostly see here, in this very dry time of the year, is scrawny cattle nibbling on dusty scrubs, and evidence of cleared and burned sugar cane fields. Still, the land looks like it would flower with a few good rains, or maybe a good irrigation system.

You can cut an hour or two off the ride from San José to the beaches by taking the Tempisque River ferry; the river flows south and widens into the Gulf of Nicoya. The ferry is big enough to hold three trailer-trucks, and about 20 cars. The trip costs $3, and takes about 20 minutes. Passengers leave their cars, and stand on catwalks or sit on benches above the main deck. You have to speak loudly to be heard above the rumble of the engines, and the squawks of the Gulls who ride free on the lead ramp.

Overheard on the 11:30 ferry . . .

“How long will you be here?”

“We’re going back tomorrow, we’ve been here a week. You live here?”

“Yeah, I export ornamental flowers.”

“No kidding? How’s business?”

“Business is good. I have fifteen acres of private beach; it’s for my kids, you know.”


Costa Rica is a small country, about the size of West Virginia, and about as close to heaven; at its widest part it is only about 150 miles from the Caribbean Sea in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. The population of just over 3 million is about what you might see on an average day on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia.  From sea level at the eastern Tempisque river ferry landing to the Monteverde cloud forest at 5,000 feet is only about 50  miles, but let me tell you about the last 26 miles. How bad is this road? This road is so bad that chickens refuse to cross. This road is so bad that birds fly around it rather than over it. This road is so bad that at the top there are three muffler shops, two tire stores, and a junk yard for ruined cars. The mother of bad roads is the daughter of this road. So why do tourists brave this road to come to Monteverde? Not for the cheese, which is pretty good. Maybe for the chance of seeing the Resplendent Quetzal, or the Three-wattled Bellbird with its resounding gong that echoes through the forest, and startles you with its loudness if it settles in the canopy 100 feet overhead. Maybe it’s for a stroll through the awesome cloud forest where you can hear, but not easily see, the Black-faced Solitaire with its song that sounds like a squeaky hinge or a rusty gate, but with style. On this trip we uncovered one of the best kept secrets of Monteverde … the mating dance of the Long-tailed Manakin; the Quaker founders would be shocked.

Some people might come to Monteverde just to sit and watch the sun set. Perhaps on the deck of a cottage at the Sapo Dorado Lodge … Monteverde at one time was famous for Golden Toads, but nobody has seen one here for years. From the Sapo Dorado the view of the Nicoya Gulf and Peninsula 50 miles away is spectacular … it looks like a gigantic map of Costa Rica. There is also the night sky. On a clear night at Monteverde you can’t count the stars, but you can see the Southern Cross, rising at its cockeyed angle in the southwestern sky, and Venus dotting the exclamation point of a crescent moon. One can feel at peace on nights like these.

A man calling himself Gary breaks the peace. “Tell me about Costa Rica,” he said. We first met this guy three days ago at Los Inocentes, and now here he is at the Sapo Dorado. He is from Vancouver, Canada, and is here coupling a holiday with business. “I have this friend who is interested in buying some property here, and starting an export business… He wants to do it for his kids.”

As we start the slow descent down the grandmother of bad roads, I am thinking out loud. “Maybe we should buy a cocoa farm, I’m sure we could make it profitable … it would be kind of fun, and we could have something to leave to the kids.”

Liddy is silent. I steal a glance without turning my head. At last she speaks. “Why don’t you just write A Little Something for the Kids?”

Cacao in the Philippines

Her name is Liann; she is Liddy’s day shift nurse, and she loves to talk. It turns out she has a lot to talk about. She received nurse training in her native Philippine Islands and came to the U.S. ten years ago. She works three 12-hour shifts a week at Woodbury Inspira Medical Center where Liddy remains in room 671B. But listen to this: her parents are still in the Philippines and they own a large amount of land where they grow rice, sugar cane, and mahogany trees. They also grow cacao though apparently not commercially. “Liann,” I said, “why don’t we change that? I know everything there is to know about how to make a cocoa farm profitable, I learned it when I worked at the Center for Tropical Agriculture in Turrialba, Costa Rica. Liddy knows, too, she was part of our research team; we could come to the Philippines and show your family how to grow cocoa for profit.”

Liann’s eyes light up; she is ready to go.

Liddy is a different story; she and I have had this conversation before, and besides she is still recovering from her back surgery; rapidly I should say – in her therapy session yesterday she walked the length of a room with the aid of a walker. And I can’t remember seeing her smile so much; except when the conversation turned to cocoa farms.

Stay tuned.



The Luminous Liddy is down. Down but not out; far from it. Two days go, an Irish spine surgeon named O’Brien spent five hours working to fix the problem with Liddy’s back that had been causing her so much pain over the past couple of years. When  finished he phoned to say, “she will feel like a million bucks.”

Twenty four hours after the surgery, Liddy heard the Physical Therapist say, “Your legs are strong, you can stand.”

And stand she did. Remember the Unsinkable Molly Brown? Not only did she stand, she took a couple of sideways steps, smiled in her way, returned to the hospital bed and began to read Sharon Penman’s LIONHEART on the Kindle.





Dixie Sue

They bumped across the dusty railroad tracks in the oven-hot August air on North Gay Street in sweet Auburn, and headed up the hill toward Toomer’s Corner in the center of town. Halfway up the hill Susan put her hand on Flapper’s leg, and for reasons she did not try to understand picked this time to tell him something she had known since before they left St. Louis. “I’m pregnant,” she said.

Flapper, intent on his driving, still not convinced the other drivers in this curious land were entirely reliable, heard the words, and was instantly overwhelmed by a torrent of thoughts that threatened to drown him in hot, bubbling emotion. To his great surprise he said, while keeping his eyes on the street, “Our children will be born in Alabama.”

Susan, struggling with her own emotions, and looking out at a store window sign that read EAGLE HARDWARE, to her great surprise found herself repeating Flapper’s words, “Our children will be born in Alabama.”

Flapper eased the car into an angled parking space at the top of the hill and cut the engine. He turned to look at Susan, and found her looking at him with wide, and he thought, perhaps a little frightened, eyes. They stepped from the car, and walking hand in hand, soon found themselves on the Alabama Polytechnic Institute campus, where they sat on a shaded bench and began to unravel their tangled thoughts. The sudden realization of impending parenthood caught them both by surprise. They knew they should be happy at the prospect, but they were faintly uneasy and strangely apprehensive.

Flapper thought, but hesitated to say it, I’m not sure I’m ready to share Susan.

Susan thought, I’m going to be a mother.

Flapper turned his head slightly to look closer at Susan. She was dressed for travel in shorts, sandals, and T- shirt, her dark brown hair pulled back in a ponytail against the heat. Small beads of perspiration formed above her upper lip. She didn’t look any different. “How do you feel?”

“Hot,” she answered, then added, “A little stiff from the driving . . . maybe we could find a court and shoot a few hoops.”

Flapper shifted to face her and said quickly, “No hoops for you Doctor Jackson.”

“Ping pong?” she offered. “I really could use some exercise.”

“I don’t think so.”

They sat quietly for a while before Susan said, “It must have been the champagne.”

“If it’s a girl we’ll call her Dixie . . . what do you think?”

Susan nodded. “DixieJackson . . . Good. I like it. If it’s a boy, how about Homer Junior?”

Flapper shook his head vigorously from side to side. “Oh no, not in a thousand years. Why don’t we name him after you. What do you think of Sue?”

Susan looked at him in astonishment. “A boy named Sue?”

“Why not? Anything is better than Homer.”

Susan looked at Flapper, but he avoided her eyes. She knew he wasn’t serious. She looked closer. She was pretty sure he wasn’t serious. She changed the subject. “So. Here we are in the heart of Dixie. It does feel . . . ” she paused, considering how it felt. “ . . . Hot.”

In the mid-August heat, the early afternoon sun blazing, the campus was empty except for a few maintenance men drowsily working around shrubs and flower gardens, and cleaning up around the messy magnolia trees. They sat near a fountain in front of the Ross Chemistry Laboratory, a stately three-story brick building with four tall Greek-style columns spread across its wide portico.

Susan sniffed the air, trying to place the faint odor. “Do you smell anything, Flapper?”

He nodded. “It smells like goats.”

Susan agreed. “Yes, goats.  . . . It’s caproic acid.  That must be the chemistry building . . . unless there are some Gingko trees around here.” She looked but saw only magnolia trees framing the square.

Susan had more than a passing interest in that chemistry building because in a little over a month she would be teaching biochemistry there. It had happened as suddenly and as unexpectedly as Flapper finding the notice about the Presidential Academy in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It was a six-line ad in the Job Opportunities section at the back of SCIENCE magazine.

ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF BIOCHEMISTRYTenure track position. Nine month appointment.               Successful applicant will teach undergraduate and graduate biochemistry to pre-med and chemistry      majors, and will be expected to initiate a research program. Salary commensurate with experience.             Send curriculum vita and three letters of reference to Professor Achilles Demimelius, School of                 Chemistry, Alabama Polytechnic Institute, Auburn, Alabama.

Susan was surprised to receive a job offer less than a month after submitting her application. So there it was. She would teach at API, and Flapper would teach at Tuskegee. They would live in Auburn; Flapper would commute to Tuskegee, only 20 miles away.

Susan stood up and said, “Flapper, let’s go take a look.”

Flapper was uncertain. He looked at Susan in a funny way and asked, “Is caproic acid good for Dixie Sue?”

Sweet Auburn

The background for Blue’s new novel COUNT was unfolded more than 10 years ago when the novel FOR THOSE IN PERIL ON THE SEA was published by Publish America. Here in 2013, Max can’t resist the opportunity to recall some of that background, given the invention of the Blog. Inevitably, Max himself is gaining some insight from this exercise – in many ways that novel is almost a diary of what Max and Liddy experienced in the first years of their now 57 year marriage. Attention Max and Liddy’s children and grandchildren: if you have interest in the circumstances of your being here, read FOR THOSE IN PERIL ON THE SEA, which will also help you  understand the new novel COUNT.



Heading south from St. Louis in their two-toned green Chevrolet Powerglide, Susan and Flapper, flushed with a sense of adventure, picked up state route three in Red Bud, Illinois, and nosed along the eastern edge of the Mississippi River to Cairo, where they stopped for lunch at the KIM Cafe. Everything they owned was piled into the trunk and back seat of the sturdy Chevvy. They learned from the waitress that KIM stood for Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri, three states that touched here at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. They also learned it’s not a good idea to order lobster in a river town where all they know how to cook is catfish, 1,500 miles from the nearest ocean. When they crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky, Flapper had the odd feeling they had just leaped from the safety and comfort of a cozy airplane cabin into the uncertain and turbulent air of a strange and unfamiliar land, where water fountains and public restrooms were labeled WHITE or COLORED. When Susan reached for his hand he knew she too was feeling strangely disconnected.

Five hundred miles to go, through Jackson, Tennessee; nicking the northeast corner of Mississippi at Corinth, and into Alabama where they wondered at the oversize billboard greeting from the large smiling face, vaguely reminiscent of a horse.




They moved on through Birmingham and down to Auburn . . .  “Auburn, sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plains” straight into the heart of Dixie, and a new life. Flapper and Susan squeezed each other’s hands, took deep breaths, checked their parachutes, and did not look back.

The Butler

The Butler is the name of a currently popular movie; Liddy and I went to see it yesterday, expecting, on the basis of newspaper and TV reports, to see a story about a black man serving as a White House butler, and wondering at the reports that President Obama shed some tears while watching the movie. Full disclosure here: Max had trouble controlling tears through most of the movie. Liddy and I were not prepared to see virtually all of our married life unfold in two and a half hours through a series of short sketches depicting many of the outrageous attacks on Civil Rights marchers that for us were background as we struggled to complete graduate school in the heart of Dixie from 1956 to 1962.

It’s a perfect blog-in to Max’s novel COUNT. The novel, disguised though it is, tells how Max and Liddy, in all their innocence, followed Max’s brother Jaybird’s lead and left Peoria, the heart of Illinois, to pursue higher education in the heart of Dixie at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API) in Auburn; it was 1956. They scoffed at the idea that a segregated society could be a dangerous place for a young married couple, especially when the wife was half Chinese.