Pennsylvania Coal Region

Oliver with a piece of anthracite coal

I am getting in touch with my family roots here in Pennsylvania. Both sides of my biological family are from Pennsylvania’s Coal Region, located in the north east part of the state, in the Appalachian Mountains. The largest cities in this region are Wilkes Barre and Scranton. It is the location of about the only place in the USA where anthracite could be found. Anthracite is the purest form of coal, consisting of 92-98% carbon. From the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century, this was a big industry here, peaking in the 1920s. Today there are a couple of small specialty mines still in operation, but for the most part, the industry is dead, with most of the good coal gone and competition for other countries and other forms of fossil fuels, most notably natural gas making it unprofitable. This triangle of 5 counties helped fuel the industrial revolution in America, propelling steam engines and producing steel in the big foundries in Bethlehem. Waves of immigrants came to work in the mines, most notably Irish, but also my ancestors from Eastern and Central Europe. The Molly Maguires a 1970 movie starring Sean Connery, portrayed the radical Irish group, the Molly Maguires, who fought for mine workers’ rights in an age of exploitation. The stories of mining accidents, low pay, and the struggles of these immigrants to make a living are sad and often tragic. Although many of their ancestors benefit today from life in America.  My son Ollie (photo above) found this piece of anthracite coal in an old strip mine, just outside the town of Freeland last week.

The industrial revolution was an environmental disaster for the region however. First, as in many places in the USA, including my home region in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the land was clear cut of the majestic white pines and hemlock trees that covered the mountains here. Canals were dug and railroads put in to transport materials to the cities on the east coast and steel plants in the Lehigh Valley. More than 70 years later however, the Appalachians (this part of the chain is called the Pocono Mountains) are making a comeback. We rode the 25 mile bike path from White Haven to Jim Thorpe in the Lehigh Gorge State Park this weekend. I was proud of the kids of making the whole way. The views were stunning! We took an old tourist train through the valley and rode down. There are also lots of whitewater rafting and hiking in the park. I hope to explore more of it while I am here and glad that an area that was once a denuded, polluted, “super highway” is now going back to nature.

The mountains, although not the size of Rockies or Alps, have their own stunning beauty and it does remind me of the Great Lakes Region of Northern Michigan. In mid-summer, the sheer walls of green, the brown rapids of the Lehigh River, and the bright bloom of Mountain Laurels, makes for a pleasant place to relax and recharge.

The view from the bike path of the Lehigh River.

I will be exploring more of the Pennsylvania Coal Region this summer and exploring my family’s past here as well.


Hike in Nescopeck State Park

Today we went for an afternoon hike in the Nescopeck State Park, which is very close to Freeland, Pennsylvania, where we are staying this week. The 3,500 acre park is located between Mount Yeager and Nescopeck Mountain in Luzerne County. The valley is special because it is one of the few areas here in Pennsylvanian coal country that was not mined for coal. The park does not have spectacular waterfalls or dramatic rock formations, but it is a just a nice, forested, relaxing area. We hiked along the Nescopeck Creek and it had many beautiful old, Eastern Hemlock trees along the banks. The kids were playing hide and seek. The trees and ferns along the creek, gave it the look of the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which we saw last night. We could imagine the monkeys swinging through the trees attacking humans.

It is a newer park and I am glad the state was able to purchase and preserve the valley. So many people have moved out of towns and cities to build their 2 acres of paradise, that there are precious few unbroken forested areas left. Most of the park has a secondary forest feel however, but in about 50-100 years, it will look more impressive. They have a nice environmental education center. There are a couple of small lakes, many wetlands, and the Nescopeck Creek running through the valley. With a wet spring and all that water, the mosquitos and bugs were a bit bothersome, but overall it was another great day. I really love getting out into wilderness and showing my children the beauty and wonder of nature. As Nadia wrote on her Facebook page, I am in heaven!

Pocono Mountain Beauty

We went for a hike today in the Hickory Run State Park, located in Pocono Mountains of north eastern Pennsylvania. We walked the Shades of Death trail, which meandered along the Sand Spring Run (a run is what the Pennsylvanians call a creek). The Pocono Mountains are part of the Appalachian Mountain chain here in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States. Early pioneers called the area Shades of Death because it was full of swamps, hills, rocks, and thick, Laurel bushes that made travel through the area difficult.

The Hickory Run park was started by the late Allentown millionaire, General Henry C. Trexler, who bought the land and wanted to see it be a park where families could come and enjoy wholesome recreation, which we certainly did today. No one knows where the term “Hickory” came from as there are no Hickory trees in the area. The kids and Nadia and I were enchanted with the dark, misty, and green forests alongside the creek. It was prime time for the Mountain Laurel flower, the state flower of West Virginia and an icon of the Appalachians. The run had a couple of damns on it and in hotter weather, would make for a perfect swimming hole. I did go swimming at Hawk Falls, in another part of the park later on in the day. We had a nice picnic lunch and walked back to the park headquarters, which was a Manor House in the old town of Hickory Run.

The kids loved running along up and down the rocky trails. Ocean was thinking that a gnome or fairy would be seen in the misty, dark woods. Later on we drove to another part of the park to see Hawk Falls. It was pouring rain by the time we got there but that did not stop us. We ran back after swimming in the ice cold water. It brought back memories of the Bolivian jungle for Nadia and I! We hope to explore another park tomorrow in the Poconos.

Back in the USA

Ollie pets a goat at the Kutztown Folk Festival

For the second consecutive summer I am studying here at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA. It is better this year to have my family with me! I love seeing Nadia and the kids when I get back from my classes. The class I am taking has been very stimulating and it is nice to spend time with family. I really love the atmosphere of a university town and the Lehigh Valley in particular.

We were here for the 4th of July celebrations although we kept it low key. We did watch the fireworks display in Bethlehem and say Happy 238 Years to the USA. We also went to the Kutztown Folk Festival in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. This is the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch (German settlers to the USA) and Mennonite/Amish country in eastern Pennsylvania. The festival celebrates farm life (agriculture/livestock) and the “olden” days of America settlement. The kids watched a sheep shearing demonstration, saw many old engines for pumping water, sawing wood, husking corn, etc. I read to them a couple of books in Laura Ingalls Wilder series, and we particularly liked Little House in the Big Woods which is set in 1870s Wisconsin. I highly recommend the series for children and to see the stories come alive for them at the festival was really interesting. We also had some old fashioned kettle corn and sasparilla root beer.

One impression of the USA is the amount of space here for everyone compared to Europe. There is a lot of land for not that many people! As you can see below, the sports facilities of Lehigh University, which can be used by the public, are immense. I can just see the sports fanatical Serbs going crazy here with all this room to move. Nadia runs the cross country loop on the grounds while the kids play soccer.

Farewell Santa Cruz

I write this in the Panama City “Tocumen” Airport as we are in transit on our way back to the USA. It was another great visit to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. We were very lucky with the weather, with only 2 days of surazo, the rainy, cold fronts, coming into Santa Cruz from the south. They are common in the southern hemisphere winter, but we had mostly sunny skies and warm weather.

It was great to spend time with family and friends and their warm hospitality was well received by the Kralovec family. Special thanks goes to Nadia’s cousins, Christian, Sabine, Claudia, Patricia, and Gabriela for hosting us. Tia Ge Ge always has great food, and it was nice to see Tia Babi and Tio Mincho. I would also like to thank friends Gabriela and Pablo, Ximena and the “campeon” Leo, Roxana and my sister-in-law Marita, for spending time with us.

The city of Santa Cruz continues its rapid growth. In 1970, the year Nadia’s father, Hermes left for Germany, it had a population of around 100,000. When I lived there from 1997-99, the population was around 1 million. Today, in 2014, it is over 2 million. Most of the growth is coming from migration from the Andean cities of La Paz, Cochabomba and other places in Bolivia to Santa Cruz. It has the strongest economy in the country. Every year we come, there seems to be new buildings, roads, and businesses. This time we had a nice time at the Hard Rock Cafe, which is part of the new Ventura Mall (see photos). There were also new tall apartment and office buildings going up all over the city. This is good for my father-in-law’s scaffolding renting business. While we were there, his entire stock of scaffolds (andamios in Spanish) was rented. Rumor has it that some of this growth is coming from drug production and trafficking, but I don’t see the violence one sees in Colombia and Mexico. I doubt that significant sums are coming in, but I do see more Porsche and Hummers than I did before.

The View from the Ventura Mall (This is Santa Cruz???)

Much of Santa Cruz’s growth is across the River Pirai, the river that runs by the city. A bridge was put in several years ago and the area on the other side of the river, Urubo, has hundreds of new land developments, both big and small. Several of our friends have homes in the area and they are so much nicer than the other side of city. There is much more green space. Sadly, I see this side of river turning into the same, busy, scene as the old Santa Cruz. We spent a nice afternoon (see lead photo) in Urubo, at the Casa Del Camba Restaurant. “Camba” refers to the people of Santa Cruz and the eastern lowland region of Bolivia. As you can see from the photos, it is a beautiful, tropical garden setting and delicious food.

View from Casa del Camba restaurant

I really want to buy some land over there. I would prefer closer to the Amboro National Park as I have always wanted to own an “eco-hotel” bed and breakfast there. Nadia and I would like to have a nice retirement income like my father-in-law Hermes, some small business that brings in living allowance, but does not require a lot of work. The whole of Bolivian lowlands is really off the tourist track and is spectacularly beautiful. We are planning a trip next summer to head east out of Santa Cruz towards the Paraguay and Brazilian borders to visit the forests, savannas, and Christian missionary churches in the land of the Chiquitano Indians.  Nadia’s family owns a big ranch outside of San Javier, which we visited when I lived there in 1998. The weather is great, although it is too hot and humid for some people, and easy living with affordable domestic help available. It is also good to be fluent in Spanish. I totally understand Latin American culture and can communicate freely. I forgot how nice it is to greet and say goodbye to friends with a kiss (females), and the Camba shake-bro hug – shake with men.

Cathedral at 24 de Septiembre Plaza

The negative points about Santa Cruz are the poverty, lack of education, and crime. Everyone lives behind large walls and security. Many of our friends have been victims of mugging or theft. It is not as bad as other Latin American countries, but it is a concern. There is a lot of corruption and incompetence in government. Evo Morales, the first indigenous leader of Bolivia, is doing a pretty good job, compared to past Bolivian presidents, but there is still a long way to go. One acquaintance of mine, a building contractor, was telling me of his work constructing government schools and other buildings for the government. He sees a lot of money wasted in corruptive practices. Articles in El Deber, the largest daily newspaper of Santa Cruz this week, had articles about the horrible water quality of Samaipata, a town near Amboro, the wasteful spending of natural gas revenues of the mayor of Villa Montes, the large number of children needing medical attention from attacks from stray dogs, and the sad plight of street children in the city. One evening we were playing soccer in the park in front of my father-in-law’s house, and the children from the local orphanage (hogar) came to play. It broke my heart to see the over 30 children, without sufficient parental care.

I have so much nostalgia for the city as it is where Nadia and I fell in love. Many streets and places bring back so many fond memories, that it will always have a special place in my heart. I hope to spend some more time there next summer. Viva Santa Cruz!

Hanging Out With the Cousins!

Santa Cruz Journal: June 26, 2014


World Cup Soccer Fever Hits the Kralovecs

We can’t get enough of World Cup! It has really reignited my love of soccer. I always was attracted to the passion and pageantry surrounding the sport. This started back when I was in high school and longing to see the wider world. I remember watching the 1982 World Cup on tape delay on PBS, the only US network covering the cup. How things have changed 32 years later! In recent years I have been a bit down on soccer because of the lack of scoring, the dull passes back and forth, and most especially, the flopping or falling of the players attempting to get penalties.

But this World Cup has had goals galore and aggressive, attack-minded style of play. There still has been some of the usual suspects (Uruguay/Italia/Spain) of “weasel flopping” which is defined as a player falling purposely to deceive the referee in order to get a either a penalty kick or free kick. I regard this as worse than biting, and I don’t understand why FIFA doesn’t come down harder on floppers. I also think fans should voice their displeasure more on players that practice this. The games and characters have been so exciting, from the Netherlands destroying Spain, to Luiz Suarez’s biting attack, to the Team USA win against Ghana and near win against Portugal. I hope the knockout rounds are as entertaining as the group stage has been.

Soccer is king in Bolivia as it is in much of Latin America. They do not much have much success however in World Cups. I am not sure why because they have a population of 10.5 million which is decent size, but they just can’t seem to produce great players or teams. Neighboring Chile, 17.5 million, does much better on the world stage. In the photo above, Luiz, one of the neighbor kids joined us for a game.

Santa Cruz Bolivia Journal – June 23, 2014

Ollie has caught World Cup Fever!

It is nice to be back in the tropics (18 degrees south latitude) of Santa Cruz, Bolivia  and seeing the lush vegetation, especially palm trees again! I have much nostalgia for this place because this is where Nadia and I fell in love! Seeing all of the places brings back specific memories of our courtship. The fall of 1997 until the spring of 1999 will always hold a special place in my heart. I spent a good portion of my life in Latin America (13 years in Colombia, Bolivia, and Venezuela) and as I get older, I like Latin America in only small doses. We come here to be with Nadia’s father, Hermes, who is a wonderful host and the best father-in-law one could ask for, so it always makes our trip enjoyable, not only for me and Nadia, but for our children to spend time with their beloved grandfather, as they affectionately call, Popa. I don’t think we would come here if it was not for him.

Santa Cruz is the richest city in Bolivia and the capital of the eastern lowlands section of the country. The people in this, and neighboring departments, are known as Cambas and it has a distinct culture and feel. It is more similar to the culture of Paraguay than the altiplano Bolivia, but slowly, the city is being taken over by Andino immigrants. I am always impressed with the rapid progress commercially and economically Santa Cruz is making. Every time we visit there are more businesses, highways, housing estates, especially on the other side of the River Pirai. The city has changed much since we last lived here 15 years ago.

Santa Cruz has a unique cuisine with its Amazonian/Chaco fruits and native dishes. I will be blogging on life here for the next week and a half and will be featuring several of these foods. The first is the most refreshing fruit juice I have tasted, Lima. The lima is a member of the citrus family but I am not sure what is the species or variety. As you can see in the photo below, it is yellow in color but looks and feels more like an orange than a lemon. It tastes like a moderately sweet laundry detergent. I know that sounds unpalatable, but it is truly refreshing and different. I would expect the acidic bite of a lemon or orange, but it is really smooth. On a hot day, there is not a better drink than an ice cold lima juice. The fruit juice is made from the peels in a blender. I am posting a video on Youtube. You can also eat the fruit itself and it has a more bland sweetness than detergent taste.

In trying to figure out the species, I did a quick search on the internet and my research is inconclusive. In the supermarket, there are several kinds of lemons/limes. That is another issue is the Spanish translation for both lemon and lime is limón. Some think that it is the Palestine Sweet Lime, but I would like for an expert to tell me.

Latin America has not changed with its sexist advertising, as you can see below in this advertisement at the local supermarket. Tomorrow is the Feast of San Juan, traditionally known as the coldest night of the year. San Juan is the patron saint of the nearby village of Porongo, and people in Santa Cruz celebrate the event with roasting hot dogs (salchicha). I will make a BBQ tomorrow night for the kids and we might even shoot off some fireworks. The sexually suggestive advertising does not offend me, but I would like to see a bit more intelligent and creative advertising than the same old woman ready to swallow a hot dog.

Finally, I went for a run this morning with Hermes’s dog, Lulu, We enjoyed the run, but I am disappointed in the design of cities here in Bolivia and throughout Latin America. They are not made for runners or bikers. The sidewalks in Santa Cruz are the responsibility of the individual land owners, not the city, so they are not uniform and have many elevations, making it impossible to ride a bike. It would also be dangerous to ride a bike with the amount of traffic and the disregard for traffic laws in many of the drivers here. There are no designated bike lanes or paths. There are many parks, however, they are self contained and more in the Spanish design of sitting on benches with semi-manicured gardens and very small walking loops around the park. There are many gorgeous mango trees that provide shade. As regular readers of my blog know, a big criteria I judge cities is in the quantity and quality of bike/running areas. Santa Cruz would be very low on that account.

It is really nice to be on holiday with the kids. We are totally into the World Cup, watching the games and then playing in the cancha in front of Popa’s house.