Tag Archives: history

Royal Caribbean Cruises: Mayan Cacoa Company Excursion

20191231_143345-1In my last blog, I wrote about our fantastic shore excursion to the Mayan ruins at San Gervasio in Cozumel, Mexico. While I loved exploring the ruins and got some amazing pictures, for me the highlight of the trip was our stop at the Mayan Cacao Company. There were a couple different shore excursions coupled with the ruins and when I saw this one that also included a chocolate tour…I was hooked. History and chocolate? Take my money and sign me up!

The Mayan Cacao Company is clearly a happening place to be. It was hoppin! I think half the island may have been there when we arrived, but our amazing guide Edwin got us right on a guided tour of the operation. It began in a room (which was thankfully air conditioned after our rather sweaty time at the ruins) dedicated to the history of chocolate. There were some replicas of Mayan statues, actual cacao pods for us to smell, written and pictorial explanations of the history and chocolate making process and some small artifacts from early chocolate making. Our tour guide gave us about a five minute talk on the cultural significance of early chocolate making.

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Next, we headed down a shaded path, where a beautiful red parrot sat squawking at us. Our guide led us to a thatched hut-like building where people were making a chocolate based mole sauce for us to try. We learned about the process and the importance of mole in Mexican cooking and then got to try a small corn tortilla with the homemade mole on it. Although only the briefest whispers of cocoa were present, I thought it was quite tasty. My husband and son both loved it too. My daughter, the insanely picky eater took a bite, made a face, and handed it over to me. Her brother was eyeing the extra portion so I gave it to him.

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We continued to wind down the path and our guide stopped to show us some cacao trees and explain how they are nurtured and cultivated. She also showed us actual cacao pods on the trees and explained a bit about how they are harvested.

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Along the path we passed another gorgeous parrot. This guy was green and even more talkative. I’m not much of a bird fan, but after their earlier interaction with parrots (they got to hold and play with one), they wanted to stop and talk to these birds too. I took pictures, which was really pretty brave of me!

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The next stop on our tour was the demonstration room. As we shuffled inside, we were handed a little wooden spoon with some not quite liquid, not quite solid chocolate on it. Our presenter explained that it was fresh chocolate which had just been made during the last demonstration. It was DELICIOUS! My daughter, who at least loves pretty much all things sweet, devoured that sample, which was a shame because I definitely wanted another one!

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The demonstration was really pretty cool…and not just because we were in another wonderfully air-conditioned spot. The presentation was about 10 minutes long and explained the entire chocolate making process. The Mayan Cacao Company is true to its roots and at least the initial process hasn’t changed in centuries. Unlike the Mayans though, now the cacao is served in delicious bar form and not as a very watery, very bitter unsugared drink. As we watched, he pounded and ground the spices together to make the samples of chocolate for the next group.

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After the presentation (you can watch thefull version here), we got a chance to try the original Mayan cacao drink if we wanted. Of course my husband, son, and I grabbed some. There was a little station where guests could add some spices like cinnamon to the drink. Man, it was bitter! I cannot believe people actually enjoyed it at all. But I drank it up, even if it made me grimace a bit.

Luckily right next to that cacao station was a bar with frozen chocolate drinks for sale! I guess they also served non-chocolate drinks, but why bother? My sister, husband, and I each grabbed one. Although they all looked pretty much the same, we each tried a different flavor of liquor! I got a chocolate daiquiri, my sister got a chocolate margarita, and my husband got a mud slide. Of course we had to taste each other’s drinks! I think I liked the mud slide the best, but my daiquiri was pretty good. The drinks were made with HUGE chunks of the Mayan Cacao Company’s chocolate. My only complaint is that the chunks did not get blended enough so the bottom of my cup was basically a solid chunk of chocolate.

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As with pretty much every tour I’ve ever been on, it ended in a gift shop. And this was a glorious gift shop! They had samples of each and every one of their chocolate bars (about two dozen). They also had samples of some of their jams. Of course we had to try them all. I was surprised by how much I actually liked their dark chocolate. I don’t know if I’m just slowly becoming a dark chocolate convert or if theirs is just really good, but most of my favorite ones were dark chocolate! However, I ended up buying my favorite bar which was milk chocolate with cranberries, almonds, and grapes. My kids got the milk chocolate and hazelnut bar to share, although they had a hard time agreeing on one bar. My daughter thought they should probably sample all of them twice, but I made her commit to a bar after only one round of sampling!

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As a chocoholic, it’s no surprise that I loved this part of the excursion. If we ever find ourselves back in Cozumel (fingers crossed), I definitely plan to stop by again. If you are cruising the Caribbean and get a chance to stop in at the Mayan Cacao Company, it is a must visit!

 

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Royal Caribbean Cruises: Mayan Ruins at San Gervasio

20191231_123858I’m a sucker for history. I always have been. Not in a “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can” sort of Great Gatsby way. I’m more of a let’s learn all about the past so that we can actually learn from it and also keep a portion of it alive sort of girl. When I was a kid and we went to DC, I was mesmerized by Ford’s Theater and later Gettysburg, even though I am profoundly anti-violence and anti-war. Even as an adult when I found myself visiting a friend in DC and realized he lived a few blocks from Ford’s Theater, I dragged my best friend who was visiting with me over for a tour.

So when we were considering shore excursions on our most recent Royal Caribbean Cruise, I really wanted to visit Mayan ruins during our time in Cozumel. I visited different Mayan ruins on my honeymoon cruise and found them beautiful and fascinating. When I found out that we could explore the ones at San Gervasio on this trip, I definitely wanted my kids to be able to see them. It didn’t hurt that the trip to the ruins was combined with a stop at the Mayan Cacao Company.

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We got off the ship and headed down to find our guide. His name was Edwin and he was spectacular! Since not only lives in Cozumel but also works in the archeology department at one of the colleges, he was full of great information. He was also funny and just so nice! We all loved him, which was good since we spent about 3 hours with him.

To get to the ruins we went on a scenic drive which took about 20 minutes. I’m not sure if it was the most direct path to get there, but it did allow Edwin to tell us quite a bit about life in Cozumel. I had no idea that basically everything in Cozumel has to be shipped in from the mainland and that tourism is basically the only industry on the island. I was also amazed that such a small island (you can drive from tip to tail in about an hour) has three universities/colleges. Even more amazing is how much of the island is uninhabited because it is covered by lush mangrove forests. There are parts of the island that humans aren’t allowed on and that is pretty cool.

We arrived at San Gervasio, which didn’t initially look like much. Edwin gave us our tickets and we headed in. There is a very pretty little courtyard at the entrance. There are some fountains, a small restaurant and a few shops selling mostly jewelry and native crafts. Edwin was leading our tour and wanted to get us in before larger tour groups came through, so there wasn’t really a chance to look around. He did point out the people offering to spray visitors with bug spray for $1 each. I thought this was a bit strange…until I got into the ruins and got more than my share of bug bites. We went in December when Edwin said the bugs weren’t too bad. I cannot imagine what it would have been like had it been June! If you ever visit the ruins, either bring bug spray OR pay the $1. It would have been money well spent and it is my only regret from my day in Cozumel.

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The ruins themselves are interesting. They aren’t as complete or elaborate as the other ruins I visited in Mexico, but this was a much smaller Mayan settlement, so that makes sense. We did see what would have been the king’s palace, the well where their water came from, the altar, the plaza, the big house, the arch, the small house, and the tall house. Of course, we only got to see a portion of the actual ruins. There are actually four “districts” that the ruins are in and only portions of one of the districts is open to the public. The ruins are also part of a wildlife sanctuary and full of iguanas and other lizards. We saw tons of small lizards roaming around the ruins.

You can watch a video of our exploration here.

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My favorite part of the ruins was a structure that I think is referred to as the Murals because it used to have murals decorating its walls. Although these are no longer visible, what I liked was the really cool tree that is growing up through the stone and has burst through the thatched roof overhead. There is just something so beautiful about nature reclaiming something man made.

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I also really like the Las Manitas, which was the residence of the Mayan ruler. It gets its name from the red handprints that are visible on the back wall of the structure. Originally it was an outer room that served as the ruler’s home and an inner sanctum reserved for his personal shrine. Visitors can still make out the two different areas and it’s pretty cool.

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Another really cool part of the ruins is the original stone road that runs through it. Edwin told us that the road actually many miles not only through all of the ruins, but out into the city itself. Apparently it is about 12 miles long and there are people who try to follow it (and sometimes get lost) every year.

We also learned some cool information about why the steps on the altar are so skinny. It’s not that people’s feet used to be smaller. You were not meant to walk up the steps the way we walk up them–forward facing the top of the altar and our back toward the space we left. Instead, you were supposed to walk up them sideways (and at an angle) so that you would always be facing where you were going as well as never turning your back on where you’d been. For the Mayans, it was a sign of respect. When walked the correct way, one foot perfectly fits the steps.

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Despite visiting during the “cold” season, it was still in the mid-80’s and since the ruins are largely unshaded, it was hot! We were all withering a bit by the end. Thankfully we got a bit of time at the end to explore the shops. The older I get, the less I want to fill my house with little objects de art, so I don’t really buy souvenirs much. I skipped the stores and went straight for the small restaurant. I needed some more bottled water (we’d exhausted the two bottles we brought in with us). On our arrival, Edwin had mentioned that if we were looking for some authentic Mexican tacos that the restaurant’s were great.

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Now, it wasn’t much of a restaurant. It was open-air with a roof to shade the five or six tables, cooler with drinks, and small counter to order from. There were only two people working. One took orders and one made tacos on a small griddle-like cooking service right behind the counter. The choice was chicken, pork, or the special. I figured I had to go for the special. It turned out to be a combo of egg and pork with some pico-like veggies on top. You could get one taco or three. My son and I were the only adventurous ones in our group. I added some of the green tomatillo sauce to mine and he ate his two just the way they came. They were absolutely delicious and if you get a chance to visit San Gervasio, I suggest you try them.

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Heat and bugs aside, this was a great excursion and I cannot recommend it enough. My family learned so much, we got some wonderful pictures, and got to try some truly delicious food.

Oh, and while I was in the restroom, the rest of my family ran into a man with a GIANT bird who was offering to let people take pictures with it for a small fee. Both of my kids had to do it, so my husband paid the fee and our kids got to play with the bird. I am not really a bird fan, but my kids adored it and love to talk about their friend the parrot.

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If you are looking for a truly fantastic shore excursion in Cozumel, I highly recommend the Mayan ruins and Mayan Cacao Company combination.

 

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Travel Thursday: Irish Hunger Memorial

Irish Memorial fullOn our second night in NYC, we had a group dinner scheduled at El Vez. We had about an hour between our work day and our group dinner and while I definitely wanted to go back to the hotel to drop off my laptop and work bag, I didn’t want to spend the time sitting in my hotel room, so I went out with the intention of exploring.

Well, first I made sure I could find the restaurant. Then I turned around ready to explore. The first thing I saw was this strange little garden-like oasis in the middle of the city. It seemed so odd and out of place. People were walking up it, but I could not see any purpose for their walk other than to get to the top of it. It didn’t connect them to anything else. It was far too small to be a park. And, although it was garden-like, it was a bit unkempt and seemed sort of sad.

I was fascinated and had to know more, so I hurried across the only non-busy street I’d found in the city to check it out.

Irish Memorial namesIt took me a bit to find the entrance as there is a bit of a fence in front of it, so  you can’t just walk right on to it. I had to walk around to the back of it, which was surrounded by this strange wall that had strips of metal on it. When I looked closer, I could see the metal had names on it, so I realized this had to be some sort of monument or memorial. I had no idea what it was to, but my interest was peaked. Trying to find the entrance made me even more confused about what this could be memorializing.

When I finally got to the back of it, I entered a slight tunnel and heard a disembodied voice. Finally the mystery was solved: this was the Irish Hunger Memorial. Turns out, it is a park…of sorts, just a sad, reflective one.

Irsish memorial cottageThe voice that fills the tunnel explains the purpose of the monument, to pay tribute to those who died due to the potato famine. The monument itself contains stones from all 32 counties in Ireland. It also has vegetation and soil from Ireland. In the middle of it, completely hidden from the outside, are the remains of an Irish cottage. The cottage actually belonged to the Slack family. While I’m not quite sure how long people actually lived in this cottage (I’m assuming it had a roof at some point), it wasn’t abandoned until the 1960’s. The Slack family donated the cottage to the memorial builders as a testament to all of their family members who moved to America and did well here.

After I found my way out of the small cottage, I began climbing the little trail that lead to the top of the monument, something that is also not visible from the street. The path cuts back and forth in a bit of a serpentine pattern up the smallish hill. On the path the voice from the tunnel can no longer be heard. Neither can most of the noises of NYC since it is a bit secluded near the end of Battery Park. The climb is surrounded by wild grasses and limestone. It’s a pretty if a bit somber climb.

Memorial viewAt the top there is a rather spectacular view of the water. I found myself looking out and enjoying it for quite some time. I was the only person up there and it was such a quiet spot in such a bustling city. It’s one of the things I really enjoyed about this trip. I kept finding these quiet, reflective places in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world. It was calming and made me feel a little more at home in the really big city.

I love the fact that on this trip to NYC I got to see a very different side of the city than I saw in my 20’s. Aside from viewing the Statue of Liberty, not a single other sight on this trip was a duplicate. I wonder how many more times I can visit and still see completely unique wonders.

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Travel Thursday: The tree that owns itself

Tree that owns itselfAthens, Georgia is one of my favorite vacation spots. True, it has no beach or theme park or plethora of dazzling museums. The weather is always a bit unpredictable in March, so there is no guarantee it’ll be warm. What makes Athens such a great place for me to visit is the fact that my best friend lives here.

To be honest, any place my best friend lives will become one of my favorite vacation spots. Anchorage, Alaska in winter? If she is there, I am there. The Mojave Dessert in the middle of summer? If she’s got a house there, so am I.

Thankfully, it turns out that Athens is also a pretty cool place, even if she didn’t live there. Of course, if she didn’t live there, I’d never have known this.

My kids and I just returned from a wonderful week long visit where we got to spend time in some of our favorite Athens locations. We went to several of their amazing parks (World of Wonders and the park next to the Bear Hollow Zoo are our two favorites). We played a ton of board games at The Rook and Pawn. We spent way more money that we should have clothes shopping. And we had some pretty phenomenal food at some of our favorite places (Cali N Tito’s, Pulaski Heights, and The Grit).

My best friend and I also got to try some place brand new (to us): Donna Chang’s. While I know this amazing little place would have been totally lost on my kids, my BFF and I adored it. My best friend is a vegetarian and although her husband is pretty accommodating, since Donna Chang’s is “family” style and there is only one full veggie item on the menu, he was not too keen on going. We didn’t actually even try that menu item since they have a bunch of really tasty small plate items that are vegetarian. My absolute favorite was the dry fried eggplant. She fell in love with the bouncy peanut noodles. We finished the meal off with some simply fantastic ice cream (lemon curd and ginger). It was glorious.

Another first on this trip was a drive over to see the Tree That Owns Itself. Yes, you read that correctly, there is a tree that owns itself in Athens.

When my BFF told me about this wonder of the Georgian world, I thought she was kidding. She definitely was not. However, despite all of our trips to Athens (this is our 7th or 8th visit), we’d never been to see it. While we were out and about driving one day, she suggested we hunt for it.

She’d actually only been to see it one other time, when another friend was in town. It took us a few minutes to find it, not because it’s hard to find, but because she forgot exactly where we are going. I had to plug it into my GPS. Turns out she’d only missed it by a one road. After a drive up an incredibly steep hill that I think would be absolutely treacherous if there was even a hint of ice, we found ourselves facing a rather large tree with a plaque in front of it.

The actual tree is set off by a little bricked “garden” area. The plaque announcing the tree’s origins and bequeathing the tree it’s “freedom” sit in front of it. On either side there are houses and it’s pretty clear the owners get a lot more traffic than they might like as they have signs reminding people the bit of brick “road” on either side of the tree is not public land. Only the small patch the tree sits on is owned by the tree.

The tree is a quirky little bit of history that I think speaks volumes about the kind of quirky town of Athens. If you are ever in Athens, it’ll take a minute to see, but it’s definitely worth it.

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Free Reading Friday: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Immortal LifeThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks floored me. Everything I thought I’d known about the medical industry was upended in these pages. I still find it hard to believe that the concept of informed consent it not just something new in my lifetime, but specifically in my adult lifetime. I cannot fathom how this is possible.

I’m not sure what is more upsetting, the fact that Henrietta’s cells were taken and used without her knowledge or consent, or the blatant disregard for Henrietta and her family the medical community has had since had since they harvested her cells.

Skloot’s research into Henrietta’s background, family and the medical research that has been done using HeLa cells is extensive. Thankfully her writing never gets too technical. It’s clear that she had the Lacks family, none of whom had any understanding of the research done on her cells, in mind when she wrote the book. Skloot makes it clear that while she was determined to tell Henrietta’s story, she wanted to make sure that unlike the multitude of doctors who used Henrietta with little to know care for her as a person, she had the family’s consent and blessing. She wanted to tell Henrietta’s story in a way that would make her children proud and still ensure the world learned about the woman who unknowingly changed the face of modern medicine.

I appreciate the focus Skloot gives to the ethical issues concerning not only Henrietta’s unknowing contribution to science, but also the modern debate about how tissue samples should be handled. While courts have yet to rule on a great many issues relating to these murky waters, they are issues that as a society we should be thinking about. One of the most important aspects of this book is the way Skloot explains just how little control people have over their tissue. While patients may have to sign consent forms in hospitals or doctor’s offices which tell them their tissue may be used for future medical endeavors, I had no idea that any tissue sent off for biopsies or sent in for paternity/DNA/geneology testing could also be saved and utilized in anyway the collectors deem appropriate. Considering how easy it is for modern science to identify people based on DNA samples, it’s kind of scary how easily patient confidentiality can be completely breached with these stored samples.

Skloot brings up some really important questions in this book. Should patients be informed about what will happen to any tissue they have removed from their bodies any time it is removed? Should companies have to compensate donors for their samples? Should companies be able to make millions off of people’s biological donations? Should companies be able to patent gene research information for things like breast cancer, thereby limiting the amount of testing and research that can be done? Should tissue be donated to medical causes the patient would be against from either a moral or religious standpoint? These are all important questions that members of society should be pushing to have answered.

One very positive outcome of this book is the closure the Lacks family was able to get because of it. While they have every right to be bitter and angry, I’m so glad the process of helping Skloot with her research not only helped them understand what happened to their mother/wife/aunt/cousin, but also helped them get over some of their resentment and bitterness toward Hopkins and the doctors who harvested Henrietta’s cells. I’m glad the journey to tell Henrietta’s story helped them find someone from their family who had been lost to them.

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Throwback Thursday: Ghost tours

full graveyardI am a sucker for a ghost tour. Not because I believe I’m going to see any ghosts on the tour, but rather because I like exploring new cities after dark and hearing all the sordid tales that live below ground and don’t get told during the nice orderly guided tours through museums and official buildings. I like hearing the hidden history of places almost as much as I like the fact that ghost tours are almost always walking tours that let me explore parts of the city I might otherwise have glanced over or missed entirely.

I was introduced to my first ghost tour when I took a group of high school students to London. As part of a lovely tradition called May Term, students finished their finals in mid-May and spent the last two weeks of the year taking mini-seminar courses over topics ranging from the films of Alfred Hitchcock to orienteering to Asian literature. These courses, which ranged from 2-6 hours a day, gave students a chance for intensive study, often in a very hands-on way. During my 6 years at that wonderful school, I got to lead two May Term courses on trips to England.

It was during the second trip (which my best friend got to go on with me) that we all decided to take both a Jack the Ripper tour and a Haunted London tour. Both tours took place just as twilight was setting in. Even though we saw no ghosts (not that I thought we would), as we moved through crooked cobblestone streets and dark alleyways, I found myself giving into the “spook” and having a great time. There may not have been any jump scares, but picturing myself in Victorian England with the Ripper on the loose was fun. Our guides were very entertaining and could really spin a good yarn.

A few years later, I got another taste of ghost tours when I lived in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in America. I lived on historic St. George street, right next to the St. Francis Inn, which is one of the oldest inns in the country. St. George street is a mess of  brick road that is always filled with either tourists or horse drawn carriages. I can count the number of times I was able to turn onto the street and make it all the way to my apartment without getting stuck behind a carriage on one hand.

Although the carriages drove me absolutely bonkers, living in the heart of such a historic city, especially one with so many fun tourist attractions did guarantee there was always something to do, especially during the summer. While I never went on an official ghost tour while I lived there, many nights as my husband and I were walking back to our apartment after getting some ice cream at Kilwin’s or having dinner at The Columbia Restaurant, we would find ourselves walking behind one of the many ghost tours that haunted our street. It was impossible not to get caught up in some of the tales.

While leading students on another trip, this time to Scotland in 2015, our guide offered us a chance to go on a haunted catacomb tour. The stories weren’t really that creepy, but being down in the catacombs had its eerie moments. Especially while our local guide was telling us the story of a young boy who had perished in the tiny room we were all scrunched into (it was lit by a single candle). It wasn’t the story that made me jump and scream. It was the ginormous football player I’d brought on the trip who had snuck up behind me and grabbed my leg during the story that had me wanting out of that room.

All in all, my experience with ghost tours, while not even remotely spiritual, have been pretty darn fun.

small graveSo, when 9 of my dearest, if not geographically nearest, friends and I got together for a vacation in Charleston, SC a week ago and they asked what there was to do in the area (I’m the “expert” as I visit Charleston every year), one of my first thoughts was ghost tour. Since everyone was pretty keen on the idea, another friend found a tour company, bought tickets and we were on our way.

Unfortunately, since several people also wanted to visit a gastro pub and spend the night on the town, she booked us on the 6 pm tour. Even in September, 6 pm is not only well before the witching hour, but also well before it even gets dark. Unbeknownst to her, it was also the family friendly version of the tour. Our haunted look at Charleston, which our guide kept reminding us didn’t necessitate going into actual graveyards since the entire city is basically built on top of a graveyard, was not exactly spookified.

Even though the tour wasn’t even remotely scary, our guide was charming and had some great historical information to give. Unfortunately for him, he had a group of English majors, one of whom has her PhD in Victorian literature, so his story claiming that Edgar Allan Poe wrote Annabelle Lee based on his romance with a young Charleston girl (who supposedly still haunts the house they courted at), did not fly. And since we are such big geeks, we spent quite a bit of time after the tour looking up “facts” he gave us. Turns out a lot of them were sketchy at best.

Still, he did take us into a really cool graveyard at the Circular Congregationalist Church, which is the city’s oldest burial ground. He wasn’t supposed to. Apparently only one tour company has permission to give tours in said graveyard. But we promised to pretend not to know him if anyone questioned us. He told us some great stories in that graveyard and we got to see some super neat old graves, some of them dating back to the late 1690’s. On our way back to the meeting point, he also took us past St. Phillip’s Cemetery where the famous ghost of Sue Howard Hardy was supposedly caught on film mourning over the grave of her son.

While a few of my friends thought the ghost tour was a bust, I had a great time on it. I loved being out, walking the city with my best friends. I may not have been scared and I may not have seen a ghost, but I got to spend time with people I love and that’s all that I really wanted.

 

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