Sunday, April 5, 2015

CLOSER TO THE BONE, THE SWEETER IS THE MEAT

Some of our California friends wondered what possessed us to take a trip to Texas. They might have asked the same question if we had said we were going to Arkansas or West Virginia because these U.S. states are not our usual destinations. Most of the time we take long overseas flights to experience unusual sights and exotic cultures, but this time we could accomplish the same thing by just going to Texas.

We had been advised that the 20 minute drive from Austin out to Lockhart for barbecue at Kreuz's was worth it, so we went. Now I know why my friend laughed when I asked if we needed reservations. From the outside, Kreuz's reminded me of a big-old-fashioned dance hall, like the kind we had in New Hampshire in the 50s and 60s, when I was growing up. It was 7 pm when we arrived, and because there were a series of large empty rooms, none of which looked much like a restaurant, we weren't sure where to go or how to order. Eventually we found ourselves in the smoke room where there was a large chalk board listing the meats sold at prices between $14 and $17 per pound.





"We're out of everything except pork chops and sausage, and maybe a couple of beef ribs," said the tired-looking woman standing next to the scales. "We're out of beef and chicken and brisket. What a crazy day." Granted it was Good Friday and the start of a busy weekend, but there were only a few trucks in the parking lot (like big hair, big trucks are ubiquitous in Texas) and the cavernous dining room looked pretty empty.








"I'll have a pork chop and a sausage, " I said. "Me too," said Bruce, and a couple of pieces were thrown on to several thick sheets of brownish pink butcher paper, wrapped loosely, and tossed our way. "You can git drinks and sides through those double doors over there," the tired lady said, as she weighed the meat, rang up twenty two bucks, and pointed in the direction of the doors. Once on the other side, the woman selling sides and drinks said they were out of potato salad, mac and cheese, and coleslaw but still had red cabbage and pinto beans. "Ok, two beans and two cabbages and a couple of beers," we replied, wondering why their supply was so limited at 7 pm. "Maybe people eat early in Texas," I said, as I looked around the nearly empty fluorescent-lit dining hall, and saw only a few families eating pork chops and sausages too. Oh and I mustn't forget. There were no plates. You ate off the butcher paper and there were no forks. Only plastic knives and spoons, which meant we ate Tom Jones style, although the spoons came in handy for the sides. In addition, the large role of paper towels was a perfect substitute for napkins, but I could have used some dental floss too.









The adventure continues............



Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

TEN DAYS, TEN POUNDS

There are certain words, names and images that come up when I think of the State of Texas.  Thinking positively, there was Molly Ivins, the great newspaper columnist and political commentator, Ann Richards, an outspoken feminist and the 45th Governor of Texas, the movie Giant, an epic portrayal of a powerful ranching family starring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor,  Big Bend National Park,  my first birding experience with Lynne Aldrich when she lived in Houston, and the Tex-Mex town of El Paso, where my mother-in-law used to live. 



Big Bend National Park (with thanks to National Geographic for the photo)


 Unfortunately most of my negative thoughts about Texas are politically based:  George Bush, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Ron Paul, legislation to ban gay marriage, and a hardline stance on immigration, gun control and abortion.  Just typing these words gives me the heebie jeebies.

And yet, when I get on a plane tomorrow, I'll be heading east and landing in Texas.  We are not staying long.  Just time enough for a quick breakfast in the state capitol, see and photograph the famous Blue Bonnet wild flowers made famous by Lady Bird Johnson, give a big hug to Lea, an Australian friend, who is riding her bicycle across America and just coincidentally will be in Fredericksburg, Texas the same night we will, and to have dinner in San Antonio with a wonderful friend I went to high school with in Maine.  



Blue Bonnets of Texas



After Texas, we'll fly to the Big Easy,  the famous city of New Orleans, Louisiana where, along with good friends, we will see as many sights as we can cram into two days, eat as much shrimp, oysters, crawfish étouffée, jambalaya and beignets as our stomachs will hold, listen to great music like lil Red and Big Bad at the Balcony Music Hall, Marcia Ball banging away at those keys, and checking out the NO Music Exchange on Magazine Street.  

And after NOLA, we'll drive north along the Cane River to a city whose named is spelled Nachitoches but pronounced Nakateesh, where they are known for their amazing southern hospitality and their empanada-like meat pies.  We'll find time to tour the famous Tabasco factory on Avery Island, attend the annual Strawberry Festival in Ponchatoula, and a blues festival in Baton Rouge. 





I'm telling you this now, so you can keep an eye out for some photos and descriptions of what's to come.

Stay tuned.  The adventure continues....................

Friday, March 13, 2015

HIKING IN THE PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK

I have traveled all over the world, but why is it that I've never been to one of nature's greatest gifts that sits in my own backyard?  

This is something one of my Facebook friends asked when I posted a photo of Bruce and me hiking at the Pinnacles National Park. Although the newly-designated National Park is only a two hour drive from our house, neither of us had ever been there, and I've lived in California for close to fifty years.




Located just south of Hollister and east of Soledad, the Pinnacles National Park consists of eroded leftovers of an extinct volcano that over thousands of years moved almost 150 miles from where it was originally sited on the San Andreas Fault to where it now sits near  the Salinas Valley.  The park can be accessed from both the East side and the West side, but the only way you can travel within the park itself is on foot, hiking on beautiful trails through a series of large boulders and huge colorful rock formations that in some ways reminds you of our country's beautiful Southwest.  As you will see in the pictures included with this post, some of the trails are scary, precariously sited on the steep edges of rock formations, especially if you hike the famous High Peaks Trail.  









Ever since last summer when hiking became a weekly activity for me, I have wanted to organize a group trip to the Pinnacles, but choosing the right time of year to go is critical.  Spring is definitely the best time, if you want to see an abundance of wild flowers.  The air is cool and perfect for hiking.  Also, if you are fortunate enough to visit during a rainy winter season, when we are not in a drought like we are now, you would witness multiple waterfalls cascading down the beautiful red and black volcanic rock.   However, summer months can be brutal as temperatures often climb into the high 90s, and since there is little shade within the park, hiking can be quite uncomfortable and even dangerous. 



photo by Bob Yee



Finally, last week Bruce and I plus a group of six friends arrived at the Pinnacles for a hike led by Lynette, a veteran Pinnacles hiker, whom I was fortunate to meet last fall at a travel presentation.   When she talked about her extensive hiking experience,  she also mentioned her love for the Pinnacles.  I told her of my interest in getting some friends together to hike there, so she generously offered to be our leader and take us through a maze of trails, so that we could have the best hiking experience that the Pinnacles has to offer.   We also hoped to see the adult and juvenile condors that live within the park, but since early morning and sunset are the best times for viewing, we weren't sure we'd be so lucky to see them on this trip.  



Leslie

Bob and Shannon

Connie



Photo by Bob Yee


The weather on March 10th was ideal for hiking, especially since our very dry winter and now dry spring has also been unseasonable warm.   Luckily for us the sky was overcast, and the temperatures ranged in the low 70s.   After discussing our hiking options, we all agreed to take on the challenge of the High Peaks Trail, knowing that if we couldn't climb those rocks this year, we probably would never do it.   I had watched a YouTube video of some folks climbing the High Peaks Trail, and it looked pretty scary, especially for someone, like me, who has a fear of heights.  On the other hand, I knew that it was just mind over matter, and that as long as I held on tight to the iron railing bolted into the rock for protection, and if I walked slowly and carefully, I'd be o.k.   

Around 10:30 a.m.,  we began our ascent on a dirt but slightly rocky trail that was not as difficult as I expected, especially since Lyn warned us that the first half mile was pretty steep.   Although we were just a little ways out of the valley, the views looking out were beautiful.  I thought this might be a trip I'd blog about, so I took out my small point and shoot camera and began snapping away.  After taking about 20 nondescript photos, I was stunned to see the message out of memory show up on my camera screen.  Since I don't use this camera that often, I charged the battery the night before and even noticed a message that said no images in camera.  What the hell? I thought.  I looked inside my camera and saw that the chip slot was empty.  I couldn't believe I'd been so dumb, beating myself up as I saw one prize-winning photo opportunity after another, but couldn't take a picture. It seems that the twenty or so photos, most of them pretty bad, were captured on my camera's internal memory, and the internal memory doesn't have much space.  And stupidly, it didn't occur to me to erase the twenty lousy pictures, and capture some better scenery along the way.  Fortunately, other people in our group kindly agreed to let me use their photos in this blog. Thank you Bob Yee and Bob Ende. Anyway, enough of this camera crap talk and back to the hike.  



Photo by Bob Yee 





After walking uphill for about an hour, we came to the scariest section of the High Peaks Trail -- the portion I'd been really dreading -- climbing up the sides of pinnacles and boulders, either on medium-sized rock steps that had been placed one after the other on a steep trail of smaller rocks and then more steps that had been carved deep into the sides of the rock where we could take one small step at a time.  With each high step and each deep breath, I hung on to the iron railing that was securely bolted into the solid rock and looked straight down at my feet as I carefully ascended one step at a time.  I wanted to make sure that each foot was firmly planted on a rock step or placed squarely in the dugout step before continuing on.  




All climbing photos by Bob Ende


It wasn't as scary as I thought it might be, but it did remind me of the first time I discovered my fear of heights.  It was a few years back when I found myself standing precariously on a narrow ledge while hiking in Zion National Park.   I panicked and froze until I was brave enough to inch my way to safety with Bruce inching right behind me.  He wasn't any braver than I was, which made me happy that I had someone to share my fears with.   I was also reminded of the time I was driving solo in an ATV (all terrain vehicle) in Namibia, Africa at the precipice of one of the steepest sand dunes I'd ever seen and the guide telling me that there was only one way to get back to the camp and that was for me to take that mother of an ATV down the steep side of that soft sand dune.  When our guide saw the tears on my face and heard that god-awful wail, he knew that the only thing he could do was hold on to the back of my ATV with his hands and dig his feet deep into the sand to  slow my steep descent down that bleep bleep sand dune.    Compared to the fear-of-height experiences in Zion NP and Africa, climbing the High Peaks Trail at the Pinnacles was a piece of cake.




Once we reached the top, similar rock steps took us down the other side.  Again I held on to the iron railing until I reached safer ground, but the descent was pretty easy compared to hiking up.      Once we made it to a large ledge that offered safety and a fabulous view, we took out our home-made sandwiches from our packs and enjoyed our well-deserved lunch.   I'm sure the others had the same glorious feeling of accomplishment that I did, not to mention a sigh of relief -- the same sigh of relief I felt when I reached the bottoms of the canyon at Zion and the sand dune in Namibia.



image1.JPG
Photo by Bob Ende




After descending the precarious high peaks, the trail led us through tunnels of boulders and around green and red lichen covered rocks. While some hikers brought poles to assist them with steep pitches, I left mine at home thinking that a stick would only create problems for my already fragile shoulders.  That was a good decision because when Lyn gave me her second stick thinking it might be helpful, I realized it was more of a hassle than a benefit, especially when I needed two hands to keep myself steady. 

None of us knew what to expect in terms of the wildflowers.  We wondered whether our three years of drought might impact the abundance or perhaps we were too early or too late to get the flower show that others have raved about?  There were some beautiful flowers, but not a huge amount, but I did enjoy seeing a new flower called a shooting star which I had never seen before.  We came across a reservoir filled with water and walked through narrow rock tunnels and sulphur-smelling caves.  We also saw some young climbers hanging on the sides of steep pitches with their ropes and pitons.  We wished them well as we headed back down to the parking lot for a total of 7.5 miles of hiking.  We weren't able to assess our elevation gain, but my Fitbit said we'd climbed 181 floors.




















Tuesday, February 17, 2015

HAIL MARY, FULL OF GRACE

Friends, it has been almost two months since my last post, which sounds a little like Father, it has been almost two months since my last confession, a reminder of the two years I spent in a Catholic school, although my family was not Catholic.    

Since my birthday is in the month of January, my mother worried that I would lose out if I waited until I was six and a half to begin first grade; therefore, she enrolled me at St. Rose of Lima, a private Catholic school in our town, when I was five and a half.  Fortunately, St. Rose didn't have an age requirement for starting first grade like the public school did, so my mother seized the opportunity to get me started a year early.   You see, back in 1949 there was no such thing as nursery school, pre-school or kindergarten, at least not in my town at that time.

Sister Paula, whom I adored, was my first grade teacher at St. Rose.   Although the person in this picture is not her, this is the type of clothing she wore -- a long black dress, black scarf which covered her back and all of her hair, and a white starched collar that came down to the middle of her chest.   





Sister Eunice taught me in second grade, and I remember loving her too.   Nuns were very kind as people, but tough as teachers.   I remember we all dreaded the black strap that was kept inside something called the blue box, which was a device we were threatened with.  Luckily, I never saw the inside of the blue box, but I did receive a few knuckle wraps with a wooden ruler for talking too much.  Punishment for this trait will not surprise any of my good friends.

I wanted to be a Catholic so badly, even knowing the negative feelings my parents had about Catholics generally.   I knew that any comments from me about this would upset them and could risk my being pulled out of that school.  It seems that there had been some discussion at home about whether enrolling me at St. Rose was the right thing to do.   We, as a family, never talked about religion or anything that smacked of God or a life hereafter, and the words heaven and hell were used only to describe the taste of a lemon meringue pie  or our reaction to a 12 inch snowfall in the middle of May.   In 1949,  my parents were only thinking of my academic education and not my religious one.   

Every morning at St. Rose,  we put our right hand over our heart and pledged allegiance to the flag.  We also recited Hail Marys, and read the Lord's Prayer until the words were memorized.   My parents were willing to go along with all of that, but nothing more, although I don't think they knew about the Hail Marys.  On Friday afternoons when the entire class was escorted across the street to attend confession at St. Rose of Lima church,  I sat quietly, alone at my desk and practiced my penmanship on paper, making sure my capital letters filled the space between the two black lines and the small letters only half way.  Every Friday I envied my Catholic classmates, who confided small blunders they called sins to a faceless priest, who sat enclosed in a box and promised God would forgive them.  I didn't understand what confession was all about because Catechism classes were taught outside of the classroom.  But I loved the idea of this regular religious ritual, and I really wanted to belong.   


Rose Marie Norman was my best friend at St. Rose of Lima



Then there were the shiny rosary beads.  Not only did I want to go to confession,  I also wanted to have my very own rosary beads, since I coveted the ones that my Catholic friends had.  Since I'm going back 60 plus years, my memory is a little fuzzy, but I do remember either finding or stealing some Rosary beads and calling them mine.   Unfortunately, I didn't have the beads for long because one day as I knelt down with beads in hand and began reciting Hail Mary, Full of Grace, my mother came in my room and caught me.   She snatched the beads out of my hands,  grabbed my arm, and yanked me downstairs to face the music. "Where did you get these beads?" she shouted at me.  "Where?"   Her face turned bright red when she said,  Your father is going to be very upset when he sees these." "Janie Roddy gave them to me," I replied, knowing that my lie was a sin that wouldn't get the forgiveness it deserved.  Janie and her five siblings came from a devout Catholic family who lived down the street, so she was the first Catholic person I thought of.  I whimpered I'm sorry to an unsympathetic mother.   She knew my father would not only be angry with me, but even angrier with her, after all enrolling me in Catholic school was her idea not his.  Daddy had little patience with the Catholic religion, which he saw as hypocritical, and, therefore, all practicing Catholics were hypocrites too.   Later, when I was old enough to understand, he often mentioned a Catholic couple he knew who went to confession on Friday, took holy communion on Sunday, but then the rest of the week they sinned like crazy, knowing that the following Friday they would confess and be forgiven again. 

  
By the time mother finally calmed down, I was begging her not to tell Daddy because even though I hadn't seen the inside of Sister Paula's blue box, I had felt the flat side of my father's big hand, and I didn't want to feel it again.  In those days the topic of whether to spank or not to spank was not written about or discussed in advice columns.   It wasn't that my parents didn't have a choice as to what type of punishment to impose.   It just seemed that spanking was more timely, and therefore the results would be immediate.  

Rightly so, my mother didn't believe the Janie Roddy story, but she didn't tell my father either.  Instead she decided the best punishment was for me to personally return the beads to Sister Eunice and tell her face-to-face how sorry I was.  It was not a pleasant experience, but I did it, and learned a good lesson as a result.

It was not a surprise when I transferred to the local public school and said goodbye to all my good friends at St. Rose.    Going to a new school didn't scare me because I was fortunate to have the beloved Mrs. Nutbrown as my third grade teacher, and making new friends was pretty easy for me.  Around the same time, my mother decided to send me to Sunday school at the Congregational Church, so that the thoughts of owning a pair of rosary beads and the words to Hail Mary could be extinguished from my little head.   My attendance was short lived because eventually I found church boring, and my mother did too. 

I don't know exactly why my father had these prejudices.  It wasn't just  about Catholics.  He had concerns about other religions and religious concepts as well.    As I have mentioned in previous posts, my father, who came to this country from Greece all by himself at the age of 14, didn't have any formal exposure to religion  except for the Greek Orthodox Church, which is about as close to Catholicism as you can get.   Although he never referred to himself as an agnostic or an atheist, I think  he saw religion as a kind of hocus pocus,  and the whole idea of there being a God who created the world or even a Jesus, who rose from the dead, seemed ludicrous to him.  However, a few months after he was diagnosed with cancer and only a few weeks before he died, he finally agreed to let the Greek priest in town come for a visit.  My mother said Daddy decided that if there truly was an afterlife, it was probably time to get in the queue.   Looking back and thinking more deeply about the lives of my immigrant parents when they were adults,  I wonder if their ill-conceived judgments were engendered by the prejudices they personally experienced as Greek immigrants living in a rural town that was filled with New England Yankees.  I was never told any specific stories that related to my father, although I'm sure there were some.  On the other hand, I do know that my mother was blackballed and denied entrance into the Eastern Star organization for reasons we were never told.  I'm sure my mother was terribly upset and hurt to be rejected so publicly.   When I heard this for the first time, I was grateful because I knew that neither African Americans nor Jews were allowed membership in the Eastern Star, which is a secret society for women associated with the Freemasons society for men. 

I know religion is a topic that we are told not to discuss because we might upset our friends.  When I started to write this blog, I had no idea what I was going to write about, but after the first two sentences, the words and stories came pouring out.  While I hope I don't offend my Catholic friends and family, like cousins and my grandchildren, I have found fewer and fewer Catholics who have remained steadfast to their religion, and some who have even left the church completely.   Although the weekly confessional is probably not on his list, I'm happy to see that Pope Francis is finally beginning to make changes in some of the defining elements of the Catholic church. 


Saturday, December 20, 2014

I MARRIED PHILEAS FOGG

I just put my husband on a plane to South Africa, where he will meet and travel with his youngest daughter, who has a two-week vacation from her refugee work in Kenya.  Although I was invited to go along, I opted to stay home and do something for myself, i.e.  take a break from travel.   Some of you who don't know Bruce will probably be surprised that a husband would leave his wife over the Christmas holidays,  but those of you who know him appreciate his love of travel, and how much he adores his kids.   And as I have written in a previous post, Christmas is not a big deal for us.   Christmas, Hannuka, Kwanza, Whatever. 



Compulsion or passion?

A friend recently emailed and mentioned that Bruce seems to have a compulsion to travel.   I wouldn't use the word compulsion to describe Bruce's desire to travel.   Instead, I would call it his passion.  The depth of his knowledge about art and history, and his curiosity about cultures and customs has always impressed me, so much so that I often feel I'm riding his coattails, both figuratively and literally, as we travel the world.    I often tell people I married Phileas Fogg, and for those who don't know the story, Around the World in 80 Days, by Jules Verne, the joke is lost on them.  

How did his passion start?

Bruce caught the travel bug when he and three of his college buddies spent 81 days touring Europe after graduation.   That whirlwind adventure whetted his travel appetite, so when there was some extra money, he used it for a trip somewhere out of the country.   His early working years didn't take him to exotic places. He went mainly to Germany where he had business relationships.  However, in the 1980s he had an opportunity to get involved business wise with a tall ship, a 165 foot, three-masted schooner called the Sir Francis Drake.  Built in 1917, the Drake was later reconfigured to function as a charter ship and sail throughout the beautiful Caribbean Islands.   Bruce's involvement in the business, doing accounting and some legal work, was very part-time, so rather than pay him a salary, the owner gave him free trips on the Drake.   That's when the notion of exotic travel began boring a little hole in his already travel-filled head.  



THE SIR FRANCIS DRAKE

And what about me?

In the '70s I made several trips to Europe with my ex-husband, using Frommer's famous guide book Europe on $5 a Day.  It was not quite backpacking, but close.  After those trips, most of my travel was back East to visit family and short trips around the West Coast, which was the most I could afford at the time. Although I felt quite worldly from the Europe experience,  traveling didn't affect me in the same way it affected Bruce.  For me it was a vacation, a time away from work, time to clean out my head.

 In 1999 when I met Bruce, I had just returned from a solo trip to New Zealand, where I biked part of the South Island and kayaked in the Tasman Sea.  I wanted to prove I could travel by myself.  This trip was so fun and rewarding that on my return flight, I made a list of other places in the world I wanted to go.  Of course, the countries I identified first were the usual ones in Europe:   Italy, Spain, Holland, the places I hadn't visited before.  It never occurred to me to consider far-out destinations, like West Africa, the Sepik River of Papua New Guinea, the Arctic Circle or Borneo.  I'm not even sure I knew where those places were, with the exception of the Arctic Circle.  That's the same as the North Pole, right?

What was our first trip together?


After a few weeks of dating, when I could tell Bruce was just a little bit smitten,  he asked if would I like to go sailing with him on a tall ship in the Caribbean.  My response to that invitation was the same answer I gave him two years later when he proposed marriage -- Are you kidding?  HELL, YES!   The trip also included two of his three daughters and a new son-in-law, which gave me insight into the close relationship he has with his girls.  We were dropped off at secluded beaches and small coral atolls you could swim around. We dropped anchor in island countries like St. Vincent, a volcanic island in the Southern Caribbean.  Most people have never heard of St. Vincent, but besides its tropical beauty, it's history is complicated --  first a French Colony and then later a British Colony, until its independence in 1979.   This trip exposed me to the Afro-Caribbean culture, their people's history, unusual food (think jerk chicken and conch soup) and the music of reggae singer, Bob Marley.



Bob Marley reincarnated




St. Vincent 



How did travel affect our relationship?

Long before the marriage proposal, but a year into the relationship, we took a two week driving trip in Italy.  Bruce saw this as a way to spend quality time with the woman he loved.  I saw it as a way to know whether this relationship was going to work out for the long term.   When couples have been in a relationship for at least six months, I offer this advice.   If you want to see how compatible you are with someone, take a trip together for at least two weeks.  By that time, the pretenses have fallen by the wayside,  little idiosyncrasies become apparent, and red flags pop up.   If you can make it through two weeks of 24/7 without pulling out your hair, then there's a pretty good chance the relationship will last. 

How do we get along 24/7?  

So,  another question is:  how much do Bruce and I have in common on the travel front?   Let's start with museums because there were plenty to see in Rome, Florence, and Venice.   As I've said before, Bruce has a high pain threshold for museums.  I enjoy museums too, but not six to eight hours a day.  This is some times a problem.   On the other hand, I have the ability to talk to people six hours a day, and while I wouldn't call it a problem per se, it's only because Bruce is a very patient man.  The other problem area relates to when we are driving because navigation is not my forte. While Bruce is patient about most things, my navigational skills, or lack thereof, is not one of them.  

On the positive side, Bruce is my history and art teacher.   I've learned more on the road with him than I ever did in the classroom.  Bruce credits me for giving him the gift of new friends, since I have no problem talking to strangers, and we've come home from a trip having made some really good friends.    Other positives:  We both enjoy traveling to out-of- the-way places, where only travelers go, not tourists.  When driving, we often take back roads because there's a better chance of seeing the unexpected.  We drink local brews and wine and seek out regional music in local bars and clubs, where we can hangout with townspeople.  We prefer to eat in small restaurants that serve authentic traditional  food.  We also enjoy the best restaurants in town, but a Michelin Star is not important because from our experience  Michelin food tends to be too precious   We also like soft adventure, but we like to know we have a place to sleep each night.   Searching for exotic treasures, like art, artifacts and local crafts, is also a shared interest, so much so our friends call our house a museum.  




The unexpected in NW Argentina



Bruce had an iron stomach in China 


An antique treasure we bought in Myanmar



Funny bathroom stories

On several occasions while traveling in Africa, we've had a bathroom with only a bucket and sponge for washing up,  but at least there have been Western toilets and not a hole in the ground.  I think the funniest bathroom situation was when we were in a hotel in China.   When Bruce was in the shower, I noticed a large gap in the tile and saw water pouring out onto the bathroom floor.  I yelled at him to turn the water off, and then together we tried to mop up the water with the only two towels we had.  When we realized we had a small lake in our bathroom,  I went to the front desk to report the problem and to ask for more towels or to have someone help us.   Frustrated by the fact that no one could understand or speak English,  I repeated slowly in pigeon English what it was we needed.   Finally, a woman nodded her head, but I quickly realized she wasn't getting my drift, so I took her to our room and showed her the standing water.   She looked down at the floor and nodded her head and then she left.  I assumed she was going to get help or at least get us more towels.  Ten minutes later she returned with a big smile on her face, and instead of towels, she  handed me a hair dryer and a shower cap, nodding as if to say will these help?   We were so amazed that there was nothing for us to do but laugh.  

Compromise?  Or do it my way

Neither one of us consider ourselves high maintenance, which is a good thing because someone who needs frequent attention wouldn't travel to some of the places we've been.    We have walked off our buns and scrambled over rocks to see important sights.  We both like to take pictures.  I take stills and Bruce takes video.  We are both interested in learning about different cultures and visiting places on the brink of change.   What is important and works for us is being flexible, spontaneous,  fairly easy going, adventurous, and having a good sense of humor.   There is one area that still gives me consternation.  I need to leave for the airport in plenty of time, just in case something happens along the way, and we are delayed.  I despise feeling rushed, and I some times worry I will miss the plane because of a backup on the freeway.  Bruce is much more casual about this and prefers to have about 10-15 minutes before boarding, so he can grab a cup of coffee.   Now that Bruce has experienced my airport anxiety, we do it my way.  



Scrambling down the Bandigara Escarpment to reach Dogon Country in the West African Country  of Mali


More Trips

After Italy in 2000, a wedding and Caribbean honeymoon on a catamaran in 2001, we took another giant step and did a safari in Southern Africa in 2003.  The American tour company we used made a couple of serious goofs in our itinerary, which could have complicated our trip if we hadn't noticed the inconsistencies in advance.  When we expressed concern, i.e. complained,  they upgraded us in such a major way that we stayed in ultra-luxury lodges run by an upmarket company called Wilderness Safaris (rack rate $1000 per night) and flew from camp to camp in their small private planes.  This experience would have been completely out of the question if it hadn't been for the goof.   Sadly, the tour company went out of business the following year.   We hoped our luxurious trip wasn't one of the reasons why.

After our safari, a young woman we met in San Francisco said, "Well, if you liked Africa, you should consider a trip to Papua New Guinea."   I knew of  PNG because I was acquainted with someone who had traveled there.  She showed me some amazing pictures,  and a few of the local treasures she brought home.  This background information was what inspired us to investigate and find a tour company that did trips there.   In 2004 we flew to Papua New Guinea and with a small group traveled up the Sepik River, visiting remote villages, experiencing an exotic culture, and meeting tribal people, who lived in primitive conditions in areas that are still difficult to get to today.   This trip exposed us to something truly out of the ordinary, and because of it, we wanted to do more.   Then we met other travelers who craved the same adventure and also wanted to explore remote areas of the tribal world.  This is how our soft adventure travel life began.  


PAM AND BRUCE IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA 2004


I have really benefited from Bruce's passion because I can now say I have traveled the world, although it's not about bragging rights.  I think I'm a different person because I have seen the world.    I am more adventurous and willing to explore countries and cultures that some people are afraid of or would never think of going to.   The trip to Papua New Guinea was definitely the first step in opening the door to a new way of thinking about future destinations.   Adventure travel is exciting, that's for sure, but we also covet our relaxing time at an all-inclusive called Club Med with family and friends, and believe it or not, we are actually talking about taking a cruise some time, but we have agreed that it has to be to somewhere exotic. 









Sunday, November 23, 2014

IT'S NOT ABOUT NEED


With the holiday season and the infamous black Friday shopping day almost upon us,  I am publishing a piece written several years before "Biker Chick Gone Crazy" was established.   While I took some creative liberties, the story is true.  

  

IT'S NOT ABOUT NEED

     When I saw the sign posted in the upscale store window, I put on the brakes and stopped to take a look at the colorful poster that read:  Shoe and handbag sale 30-50% off.   

     As I walked through the front door, a well-dressed woman greeted me with a big smile, as her eyes took in my casual style. Based on my attire -- flip flops, rolled up khaki pants, and a well-worn tee -- I'm sure she thought I was in the wrong store.  

     I wandered over to the designer shoes on sale: Manolo Blanik, Taryn Rose, Donald Pliner, Stuart Weitzman, and more.  Some were clunky, chunky, and others so pointy you could use them as a weapon, if you had to.  Other leather shoes were embellished with Swarovski crystals, classic grosgrain bows, and dressy metallic trim with varying heel heights, from stubby to spiked.   I didn't see any designer flip flops, but something else caught my eye -- a pair of  hot pink, suede-quilted ballerina flats.  "Hey you," one of the pink shoes called out to me from the rack marked size eight.   
    
"Who me?" I responded, turning to see where the tiny voice came from. 
     
"Yes, you, pretty lady.  You in the flip-flops.  Over here.  Try us pinkies on for size.  We’re cute, versatile and we'll take you everywhere."   

 They were definitely cute and the right size, but I questioned their versatility.  I turned over one of the shoes and looked at the price sticker.   Awfully expensive, I thought,  but I tried them on anyway.   My foot slipped into the pink flats for a perfect fit, but even on sale, the pinkies were still more than I wanted to pay.

A hot-looking salesman dressed in an Armani-like suit walked over to me and said,   "If you like the pink, quilted-suede ballerina flats, there’s a matching bag on sale as well."    I stared at the gorgeous hot pink quilted purse hanging from his arm and thought  How sharp.  My quick answer was something like, Oh, thank you, but I'm not the matching bag and shoe type.   I said this because it was Mister Armani's  job to sell two expensive accessories to someone who didn't need them.   Need?  I questioned.    Remember Anne Hathaway who was Meryl Streep's glamorous secretary in the film "The Devil Wears Prada? "  She looked stunning in every designer outfit that she probably didn’t need either.   I did some quick calculations in my head, and then reluctantly placed the pinkies back on the rack.   They glared back at me.  The matching pink bag scowled too.

     I avoided eye contact with Mister Armani, but his subliminal message was sinking in.   You want the hot pink shoes and matching handbag.   They are a good deal.  You know how much you want them.   

     "No, I’m not buying today,"  I said.  "Just looking."   Mister Armani was no rookie.  He was a graduate of the Dale Carnegie School of Slick Sales.   He had taken special courses in how to respond to a Thanks- I- don’t-need-them-I’m- just-looking customer. There are advanced techniques used to persuade fickle women like me to make a purchase regardless of need.  Using highly-honed skills in neurolinguistic programming, he turned up his receiving antenna and picked up my unconscious signal that said catch me if you can.   

     I abandoned the shoe racks and wandered over to a table piled high with gorgeous bags, also on sale.  My fingers slowly caressed the textures of these beautiful accessories – the fine grain of creamy leathers, supple and fuzzy fibers of suede, and the smooth, shiny metals like silver and gold.   Suddenly my hand touched something that felt exquisite.  Was it suede? Was it fur?  Was it real?   It was a Salvatore Ferragamo satchel with a stunning design of black and brown wavy stripes of soft camel and zebra hair.  The bag was trimmed in black suede and had a refined look.  Inside there was a rich, creamy silk lining that screamed EXPENSIVE!   I slid the bag over my shoulder and tucked it comfortably under my arm.    

     "Oh, I love this bag," I cried out, but when I saw the gleam in Mister Armani's eye, I quickly covered my mouth with my hand and thought  Bad girl, bad girl, bad girl.  
     
 Then I looked at the price tag.  Originally this bag cost $1100, but was on sale for $750.   Not in this remaining life time, I thought.  Besides I’m retired now and don’t have a need for such a dressy bag, I quickly put the purse down, but before I could walk away,  Mister Armani rushed over to the table and met me face-to-face.

      "A remarkable purse at a great price, don’t you think?" he said.
     
     "Well, that might seem like a good price to you,"  I said, "but I can't afford a $750 handbag."
      
     "$750, huh?"  he responded.   He turned over the tag and looked at the price.  
    
 Then he leaned closer to me and whispered,  "I’ll let you in on a little secret – just between you and me.   Beginning tomorrow, all the purses on this table and the shoes on those racks will be reduced  70%,  as our summer sale only lasts another four days."
     
     "70% off?" I asked.  "O.K., then how much will this bag cost?" 
      "About $300," he boasted. 

     "$300 for an  $1100 purse?" I questioned again. 
     
      "Yes," he said.  
     
I looked over at the pinkies and the matching bag.  Their glare had vanished.  Now they were smiling and winking at me, as if to say, "please, please take us home." 
    
       "And those?" I asked. 
  
        "Yes, the hot pink suede quilted ballerina flats will be 70% off too."   

    I ran the new numbers in my head.   I slipped the pinkies on one more time and swung the matching purse over my shoulder to see how they looked.  I felt glamorous even though I was not wearing the appropriate clothes.  Although I'm not the matching shoes and purse type,  I was tempted.
       
  
    I reached for the elegant Ferragamo bag, turned it over a couple of times and unzipped the main pocket.   I removed all the bulky paper stuffed inside and replaced it with my wallet,  cell phone,  and sunglasses.  Everything fit with room to spare.   

     Mister Armani had cast the bait, and I was hooked.    He had me in his line of sight as soon as I walked in the door.  He hoped I’d be driven by price and buy something on impulse.   He was right.  I’m a sucker for good deals – shoes, purses, Persian rugs, whatever.  Even the black flip-flops were a deal. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a need or not.  I handed him the Ferragamo bag and asked,    "Will you take plastic and hold everything until tomorrow?"  
    
He replied with a wink,  "My pleasure,"  he said, knowing we were both winners in this deal.  He arranged the smiling pinkies in a shoe box,  packed the two elegant purses in cloth covers and put them in a bag with a "Hold for Perkins" tag stapled on the front. 

      "I’ll be back tomorrow when the sale begins," I said.    As I walked out the door, I patted myself on the back and thought wow, what a good deal.  

                                               *****



N. B.  I wore the pink ballerina flats only once because I rarely wear pink.   The matching purse is still in my closet.   The Ferragamo purse was too dressy for my casual lifestyle, so I gave it to my step daughter, who loves it.   This is a perfect example of buying purely on impulse because the shoes and purses were a good deal.   But only a good deal if I wore them.   When I dropped off the pink ballerina flats at a second-hand store,  I thought I could hear them cursing.   Here is a picture of the pink quilted purse in case someone is interested.






Thursday, October 23, 2014

BOB'S YOUR UNCLE AND FANNY'S YOUR AUNT



There is only one American I know who has heard of The Kimberly, so when I told friends we were going there, they asked where it was.  "It's a huge area of Northwestern Australia, bigger than the size of Texas," I answered, "And it's considered one of the most ecologically diverse and pristine wilderness areas on our planet."



Visiting Australia has never been high on my priority list because I used to say that when I get off a plane, I want to feel like I'm in a foreign country.  To me Australia seemed too similar to America, but exploring the rugged Kimberly Coast on a small ship sounded more like taking a walkabout with the Aborigines in the Outback.  In other words, this trip seemed appealing.  Although I was not ready to make cruising our style, I thought that this would give me a preview of what it will be like to travel in my eighties.


THIS WAS OUR ROUTE UP THE COAST


Upon our arrival in Australia, we had the same reaction we did when we visited Canada this sumer.  How come we know so little about this country -- its geography its history (other than it was a place that England sent its criminals), its politics, or any details about how the government is run.  It was kind of embarrassing not to know the name of the Prime Minister.  Despite our ignorance about a lot of things Australian, we patted ourselves on the back for knowing that Nicole Kidman and Olivia Newton John were Australian, but what we didn't know was that they were victims of what Aussies call the "tall poppy syndrome."  This means that, unlike America, it is difficult for an Australian to make a name for himself or herself or to gain fame in their homeland.  Usually, they must leave the country to become successful.  The reasons for this are not exactly clear, although one passenger said that there has always been a tendency for Aussies to want equality for everyone and dislike countrymen (or countrywomen) who flaunt their success.

Let's face it, as Americans, we pay little attention to what goes on in Australia.  In a book I read, it said that in 1997, there were only 20 articles in The New York Times about Australia, whereas in the same year, there were 120 articles on Peru, 150 on Albania, and 500 on Israel.  Most Americans don't even know that in 1967 the Prime Minister of Australia plunged into the surf while strolling on the beach one day and was never heard from again.  All of this might be acceptable if this country was like Belarus or Benin, but the fact is Australia is one of the largest countries in the world by landmass.



ONE OF THE KIMBERLY BEACHES



Our need to get a visa to enter Australia completely escaped us.  "Where is your Australian visa?" the young agent at the airport in Bali asked, as we were checking in for our flight to Perth.  "Americans don't need visas for Australia,"  Bruce  replied with conviction.  "I'm afraid you do, Sir," the female agent behind the counter said in a polite voice, not authoritative like the bellowing voice from the man standing behind him who repeated, "Yes, you do."  We shook our heads.  "No, we don't," we repeated.  "Look, I don't know where you got this information, but you do need a visa and that's simply the way it is," the man answered back.  "Who are you?" I asked, assuming he was another passenger who wanted to butt in.  "I'm from Immigration," he answered brusquely, "and I'm in the middle of something important, so let's just get on with it and try to get you a visa on line, if we can."  He turned to the agent behind the desk and whispered something that sounded like keep an eye out for fake passports from Jakarta, will you?

After finally connecting through a maze of networks, it took about fifteen minutes to fill out the forms and pay for the visas online.  But once we received them electronically, we were on our way, expressing gratitude to the patient agent.  You would think that after our visa debacle in Argentina, where we thought we could obtain visas at the border, but couldn't, we would have researched this visa issue more thoroughly.

A few days later, we boarded the Coral Princess ship with 46 other passengers, mostly Australians, near the frontier town of Broome on the West Coast.  The Coral Princess is a handsome, twin-hulled boutique catamaran, designed for maximum stability and comfort.  Most of the time you feel like you are cruising on a private yacht.  We were guided by their highly professional staff to our comfortable stateroom, where we eagerly unpacked for the highly anticipated ten day trip.




THE CORAL PRINCESS

After successfully donning our life jackets and going through the required emergency drill, we went down to the bar and dining room for cocktails and dinner with a fixed menu that sounded absolutely delicious.  Except for the purser handing out anti-nausea pills to all passengers when we boarded, there was no significant warning of what was to come.  Just as we were sitting down for dinner, the ship began to heave a little and then more rocking and rolling.  I don't usually suffer from motion sickness so I wasn't worried initially, but after a few minutes, this type of turbulence began to affect me.  

Pretty soon the dining room was almost completely empty, as people ran or crawled to their staterooms to lie down, except for a few brave souls, like Bruce and me.  I thought I'd be ok if I ate a little something since I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast.  My stomach was a little queasy and my head was spinning too, which reminded me of the only time when I came really close to losing it -- throwing up, I mean, because of motion sickness.    I was in the spinning teacups ride at Disneyland, and forgot to keep my head up and my eyes focused on the horizon as I had been told by the man collecting tickets.  If the ride hadn't ended when it did, I might have done something awful to upset my six-year old niece who was having a grand time spinning round in the teacup and sitting beside me.   So here on the ship I kept a smile on my face, ate a small dinner role and a couple of bites of chicken, all the time watching Bruce consume the entire meal, including dessert, and not feeling a thing.   Fortunately in the middle of the night the boat stopped heaving and apparently, so did everyone else.  





Since Bruce and I are not used to cruising, we forgot that the view outside our cabin window constantly changes, which in The Kimberly means you either see white sandy beaches, massive red and black sandstone cliffs or major outcroppings of rock which are usually exposed only at low tide.  But there are other things that never change:  bright blue sky, gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and oppressive heat and humidity.  Fortunately, the Coral Princess was well air-conditioned, but when you went outside, it felt like you just opened the door of a 400 degree oven.  I used to say that the hottest place I ever traveled was Papua New Guinea, so no wonder we sweated like pigs.  We were about a thousand miles from those shores.
















THE EXPLORER AT A WET LANDING
Sharing daily details about exploring The Kimberly would take too many pages.  It can be summed up best by saying our twice daily excursions in a smaller, zippy boat called the Explorer offered the opportunity to explore the incredible scenery on foot.   We experienced natural surroundings that are far different from what we have seen in other parts of the world.  Geologically, the Kimberly was created almost two thousand million years ago and transformed into its present landmass by major geological upheaval also, over a period of millions of years.  We were struck by the brilliant colors of the sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rock.  There was a sampling of marine life, like dangerous saltwater crocs, sea snakes, and one day we came across a small-scale bearded dragon that even our guest lecturers had never seen before.  




OLIVE PYTHON
One of the crew discovered an olive python sleeping on the Explorer excursion boat, which was a little creepy, especially since he seemed to think it had been on the boat for several days.  In the water, we saw an occasional whale and several pods of dolphins.  One day a large, but friendly tawny nurse shark came to our boat to be hand fed small fish, a mid-morning snack that the shark remembered from previous Coral Princess visits. 



















On Montgomery Reef, Australia's largest inshore reef, we experienced one of the lowest tides ever and enjoyed a spectacle of spectacles as we watched cascades of white water pouring off its ragged edge.  The best way to see the reef, exotic coral and unusual marine life was on a zodiac.



MONTGOMERY REEF






THIS WAS NOT ONLY A WET LANDING BUT A MUD LANDING
We had wet landings and occasional dry ones.  Some of our walks were rocky and quite steep, under a blazing sun with almost no shade.  Others were flat on hard sand and soft, through mud flats and sharp spinifex grass.  


We climbed over boulders and took cool dips in several natural plunge pools.  

A NATURAL POOL FOR A NICE COOL DIP ON A HOT DAY




OSPREY NEST


Binoculars weren't required to spot the large osprey nests built on top of uniquely carved rocks, and although we never saw a bower bird, we did see its cleverly camouflaged nest under a tree and in the sand.  The hundred-year-old family grave sites were an indication that a few had tried to build a community here, but failed due to the harsh climate and the inhospitable land.  One day we explored the site of a well preserved DC3 plane wreck that crashed in the bush during the war in 1942, but amazingly, all the crew survived.


A BOWER BIRD'S BOWER (A NEST ON THE GROUND)






YES, IT'S  WEIRD TO HAVE A PHOTO OF YOURSELF
IN FRONT OF A WRECKED PLANE



WALKING ON WATER OR MAYBE MUD?




As we walked on the beach, hundreds of fiddler crabs ran for cover in their well protected sand holes, but I was still able to get a photo.  


FIDDLER CRABS HAVE ONLY ONE LARGE CLAW


One of the highlights for many was an exciting zodiac raft trip down the famous Horizontal Falls, an unusual water phenomenon made possible by a fast rising tide.  








Fortunately, we had several opportunities to see the famous Wandjina figures, the Aboriginal name for ancient rock art, created by tribes thousands of years ago.  Some paintings required us to lay on our backs and look up at the low ceiling in order to see the details.







When we weren't exploring by foot, we were cruising down mangrove-lined rivers, narrow gorges or deep canyons.  On the ship, experts lectured on topics like Australia's original settlers, rock art, and the mysteries of sharks and crocs.  








Food was never a problem. In fact, that's an understatement because we had an amazing gourmet chef named Travis.   There was morning and afternoon tea, where you could enjoy freshly baked scones, served with berry jam and real whipped cream.  The staff on the ship were extremely professional and yet at the same time they loved cracking jokes and making good fun with all the guests.



PAM AND JACK, WHO WORE MANY HATS



(L-R) EMMA, JOANNE, AND BRITTANY



One morning some of us paid dearly to get a bird's eye view of The Kimberly with a helicopter excursion over the famous Mitchell Falls, but we were so late in the dry season that the falls were pretty skimpy and could almost be called non-existent.  It didn't really matter to me because what I wanted was an overall perspective of the rugged landscape below.   Here we were thousands of miles from anywhere and in the middle of nowhere.


















Very early on the trip, I knew the passengers would be as interesting and colorful as the scenery, because Aussies are so much fun.  


SUE FROM MELBOURNE

Whether you consider Aussies gifted communicators or not, I have to admit that they certainly have an unusual vernacular.  It took a while for us to understand what they were saying because they often shorten words that have more than two syllables, even calling themselves Aussies instead of Australians,  Sunglasses are sunnies.  Universities are unis.  The word temporary becomes tempy, and my favorite is pressies for chrissy.  Figure that one out?  A bloke is a man, and a sheila's a girl.  Bob's your uncle and Fanny's your aunt means don't worry mate, everything is going to be ok.  Some expressions need no translation like, pushing shit up the hill with a pointed stick,  point percy at the porcelain, and my other favorite is If your auntie had balls, she'd be your uncle.

For more than a decade now I've been very fortunate to visit many places of extraordinary beauty, and The Kimberly ranks pretty high on the list.  But making friends with a wonderful bunch of Aussies is what made this trip really special and worthwhile for me.