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Journeys

Our happy isle.

I recall once publishing a list of the places where Mercy and I had spent time or lived, but probably it was a simple list with no commentary. This is what I now remember: some dates may be wrong, or events out of order, and some things you may already know. Our travel companions know many other details but are reticent.

Mercy probably had an exact chronology with gritty details buried somewhere. (Dear Diary, he was a great hairy thing again today...) Things have changed in most places in so many ways since we were there. I also gloss over many details; we might be days, weeks, or months in any particular place, but I was working or otherwise distracted. See also the Dramatis Personae, Journey’s End, Travel Philosophy, and Footnote appendices.


A Sojourn Begins

One of the nicest and most memorable experiences about which I can tell was we four sitting in an open bus shelter in Papeete. Some cab drivers sat down beside us with their guitars, and began playing and singing some local melodies. Seems that’s how they take breaks in the islands, living a very mellow life filled with shared song. It was a marvelous and golden hour.

Ghost orchid of the Everglades.

USA

Circa 1975, East Tennessee, Cumberland Plateau, Cookeville specifically. Mercy and I set up our first abode at an apartment just outside of town. Nice place, cold in winter, much snow. A mile or so away was the best pizza place at which we’ve ever eaten, run by a couple of Greek brothers. Actual brothers, not Witnesses. Mercy had her first Bible study there, with a pioneer sister named Margaret Overholt. (Only recently have Catholics begun to do any lay study of the Bible; Mercy knew absolutely nothing...)

Circa 1977, Alabama, Sand Mountain, Albertville specifically. We had new jobs, I at a little media empire (newspaper, AM and FM radio, and advertising) and Mercy with Arrow Shirts. Funny incident occurred while she was there; one of the sewing folk knocked over her own purse and a pistol skittered out across the floor. Management was totally unimpressed. (Secure those holsters, girls and guys.)

Canada

Circa 1979, having tried our ‘luck’ in the South, and being rather ill-paid in pretty country with many friendly and kind folks, Mercy and I went to Toronto. We worked at many different jobs, while I worked my way up the IT ladder. First job doubled my pay, and after that the raises and responsibilities rained hard and heavy. Mercy worked in first some sewing factories, then as a manicurist in a fancy city-center salon, then after getting some academic credentials, in couturier salons. (But her final job in Toronto was with Epson Computers; she could walk to it from our Markham house.)

Toronto, seen from Ontario Place.

For abodes we went from an East York low-rise cockroach-farm (liked the place anyway) Briarcliff apartment to a Scarborough two-story townhouse (Bridletowne Circle) to a two-story suburban ‘link’ house in Markham. (A ‘link’ shares its basement pit with a neighboring house, but aboveground they’re some three feet apart.)

Nice locale, 44 Tiffany; if we still owned it, the taxes alone would force an immediate sale. Markham is a small city just north of Steeles Avenue, so it was like being still in Scarborough. While driving along Steeles, looking left and right, visitors won’t see any distinction.

Mercy went to vocational school around 1981, and met Mei Ling Leung (means ‘Little Flower Dragon’, Leung being the family name). She helped us move from the apartment to the townhouse, and traveled around southern Ontario and to Quebec and Spain with us for some years. Nice girl; sad story I won’t go into here.

Hawaii

Circa 1982, Oahu specifically. We spent a few days at a Waikiki hotel. Beach crowded with Japanese tourists. Hired a car, drove around the northeastern end of the island, visiting Diamond Head, Hanauma Bay, the central farm-country valley (State Route 99, down which Japanese dive bombers had flown during 7 Dec 1941), past Pearl Harbor, and to the then end of State Route 93 (SW road), where some cattle ranches and astronomical observatories are located. Most places we just drove by, stopping here and there to visit whatever was easily accessible.

Waikiki Beach at night.

Diamond Head is an extinct volcano. There’s a car tunnel into the crater, which is a park of sorts. Above the Bay, there’s a cliffside memorial at Nuuanu Pali Lookout to the warriors a Hawaiian king killed when he ‘unified’ Oahu. Apparently he had them shoved, or they leapt, over that cliff. Unless you go out to the USS Arizona site, there’s not that much to see at Pearl. We also walked around Honolulu a bit; had to see that infamous State Street, plus at least one of the museums.

We visited Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific on our way to the Pali heights, and the day we walked around Honolulu, Bishop Museum, and the Aliiolani Hale building in front of which is one of King Kamehameha’s statues. (Alii is the Polynesian word for ‘noble’.)

That was when my father died. On our return to Toronto, Mercy and I had then to immediately fly down to Florence to attend his funeral.

Montréal

Circa 1983, we went to Quebec by train; had a compartment. Mei Ling accompanied us, stayed awhile with us there, was joke-mistaken for our daughter, rode the subway for half-price. She returned to TO (had to work), and we went on a day-trip to Quebec City.

Sometime during the late Seventies or early Eighties we had gone to Montreal for a week to attend a WTS assembly, and stayed at an old-town hotel, Manoir le Moyne. So we stayed there again, and enjoyed corner-store French wine and crusty baguette with a natural cheese once more. Often country folk know how to live well yet simply.

Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico

Circa 1984 was our first ocean sailing trip with Dave and Estrella. We went sailing for ten-twelve days in the British and American Virgin Islands on a sloop made in St Catherine’s, Ontario.

There was a flight stopover in Puerto Rico, so Mercy saw some places there. We and the Dynamic Duo got to see a flamenco dance in a cafe, the famous Loquillo (Luquillo) Beach on the north side, and the El Yunque Rainforest Park. The park centers around a mountain peak of the same name, which is a dormant volcano’s core. Many Caribbean islands resulted from volcanos, and a few are still active.

We also got to explore San Juan Viejo, and El Morro, which is a Spanish fort like that at St. Augustine (Florida), which Mercy got to see later. El Morro is much larger, since it was on the 'plate' (plata Spanish term for silver) fleet's route from Central America.

Anyway, at El Yunque Mercy got to see many tropical plants, big waterfalls, and spring waters crossing the roads, since rains and mists are always hanging around the peak. As usual, I did our driving around the northeast corner of Puerto Rico.

We sailed from Virgin Gorda BVI north around Tortola down to Charlotte Amalie AVI, then back across through Drake’s Passage to the VG marina. Very easy and wonderfully scenic sailing, anchoring each night at a different island cove. (Recommend BVI to anyone; however even then, the AVI were unsafe.) At one isolated anchor, Salt Island, the water was so clear our boat appeared to be floating in the air.

Charlotte Amalie, like all other Caribbean cruise ports, is a tourist trap. The first few streets nearest a Caribbean port are always set up to extract the maximum from people on the ships. We saw the Queen Mary anchored well outside CA Harbor; she was then too big to fit. The harbor has been since deepened and expanded. Her shore boats were bigger than our 38’ sailboat, and our food wasn’t as sumptuous, but I reckon we had much more fun than the cruising folk. We surely experienced more nicer beaches, coves, islands, and company.

Mexico, first time.

Circa 1985, Cancun, Mexico, with Dave and Estrella. Nothing much to Isla Mujeres, although the others splashed about in very clear waters. Then we rented a car and drove a slow circuit for two weeks around the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula. One to two days at each stop, maybe a day’s drive between each. Lots of impressive ruins, very steep stairs on those pyramids. You’ve seen the magazine pictures and video travelogues.

We ran a counterclockwise route, going through Valladolid to the Chichen Itza ruins, thence to Mérida, then a side trip to Progreso on the coast, visiting a freshwater cave nearby. After that we ‘progressed’ down to the Uxmal ruins, and after a day there, made a long jaunt over to Filipe Carillo Puerto back on the east coast. During that leg, I saw someone with leprosy. From FCP, then up to the Tulum ruin. There was a fine beach cove with an interesting ruin painting above on a cliff.

Playa del Carmen at that time was very small bananas, so we parked and ferried over to Cozumel Island. Frankly there wasn’t much to see/do there either, aside from some gated communities for retirees and drug dealers. Refreshing frozen daiquiri at a walk-up bar on the central square. There’s now a cruise-ship dock there, and the ‘turista effect’ has changed everything.

A storm arose while the enclosed ferry was returning to the mainland. Motorized catamarans aren’t steady platforms, so nigh everybody but Mercy, Estrella and me were heaving their cookies all over the place. The smell was horrific. Once ashore, we got out of there, and found a small resort patronized by the locals. It was OK.

(Seems ‘climate change’ ended the Mayan ‘civilization’. Climatologists allege it stopped raining as much as before for a few years running. Must have been all those motor-cars and coal-fired electrical plants circa 1000 CE? I ironically quote civilization because most Central American kingdoms featured continual wars, and barbarities such as human sacrifice and semi-ritual cannibalism. Unlike those in Southeast Asia, the vast stone cities of Mexico exacted truly huge human costs. Cities are bad.)

The Yucatan coastline was rather natural when we were there, but now it’s all built up with tourist hotels and resorts. Retiring baby boomers of North America and Europe have had huge effect on any number of once-quiet places around the Earth. The state capital, Mérida, then had a Spanish-style ciudad central. Very nice traditional courtyard inn with spacious rooms but no closets.

Spain

1986, Costa del Sol, Torremolinos (windmill towers) specifically. Many British tourists. Mei Ling was along this time. We spent some beach time, there and at Marbella. Gravelly beaches, with healthy girls playing ‘topless’ volleyball and doing other stuff like showering beach-side. Most Americans would go blind and crazy. We took a train between T and M a few times, eating the local fare, seeing flamenco dances, and ourselves just walking about seeing all the free sights. People once used windmills to grind their grain all around the Mediterranean coasts. Very efficient.

We explored some Martello towers, and castles. Piracy long a problem in the Med, so every place had an old castle or citadel. Local bus to a small mountain town called Ronda; narrow terraced streets, whitewashed houses, no cars, many cats and bright flowers. Very scenic locale. Then, day tours to Gibraltar and northern Morocco. High-speed ferry across the Med to Ceuta. Crowds of importunate and clinging ‘rug merchants’. Mercy and Mei unimpressed with Berber snake-charmers.

(Mei was game enough to get a snake draped around her neck for a picture. Mercy has a panic attack if she merely sees a snake in a zoo; goes berserk when one is crawling across a yard or she sees one in a tree.)

We rented a crude Spanish Fiat (Seat - See-aht) and took the coastal highway over to Malaga. Very scenic drive. Another really large ruined citadel, but an industrial/fishing port. Wore Mercy and Mei out climbing the citadel’s mountainous site behind the town. Girls just sit down when they’re tired of ‘getting ruined’. Once back to Torremolinos, then a bus tour to Grenada, where everyone should go at least once in their life. Verdant gardens with fountains big hit with the girls.

Aside from the beach scenic wonders, the high point of the visit was the Alhambra. Moorish sultans knew how to live; wonderful gardens, impressive architecture. (Harem is Brit mispronunciation of the Arabic word haram - forbidden. Noisy Brit tourists are still nosy impolite guests.) You’ve seen the pictures, and can see more in books and on the ’net, but being there is a must-do. About the only comparable Spanish structure is the huge Escorial palace-fort much further north.

St. Maarten and Saint Barthélemy

On the sailboat, St. Maarten, FWI.

Circa 1987, sailing again with D and E, this time around St. Maartin, which is a French-Dutch condominium island. ‘Topless’ and nude beaches; some people should wear small tents. A few others could be in Playboy videos. Super beachfront restaurant on the Dutch side (Chez Ketty?), with a few little crabs scuttling around our sandy feet picking up whatever fell from the tables.

French sailboat; maybe a Beneteau. Rudder too small. The anchor chain got wrapped around a coral head or a sunken aircraft. Then an engine-control link broke and had to be fixed. The repair guy had a great way of traveling by tiny seaplane, it carrying just him, his toolkit and some spare parts. There at least two wrecked aircraft ashore on the isle we were visiting, so probably a drug-dealer rendezvous.

Anguilla Suite, near St. Maarten, FWI.

We also visited an Anguilla Island. (There’s more than one in the Caribbean.) Nice relaxing place, but with a dangerous reef. We took a catamaran ferry to St. Bart’s, which is a French island. Great food, spectacular ‘scenic wonders’. Very hilly island; drove a tiny car about the island, stopping at various scenic and snack spots. One road was nigh 45° vertical; instead of doing switchbacks, the builder had just gone straight up. Felt like we were going to tip over backwards and tumble head over tail down one hill.

(Incidentally, on all our trips, I did all the rental-car driving. Seems I was the official driver and bodyguard, since I carried no luggage except mine own. And the guys with assault rifles often wanted to search me and my bags, even when I was coming out of an airport.)

We probably went somewhere overseas every year between 1981 and 1988, but I may have forgotten a journey. Or maybe we did a ‘stay-cation’ one year or two, and did some sight-seeing in Niagara or southern Ontario. Mei would sometimes go down with us to visit Mercy’s brother Art and his family (and his wife’s huge clan). We took various folk with us to such places as “St. Marie Among the Huron”, to Lake Simcoe’s beaches, and for Fall photographic forays. Back when gasoline was 40 cents a liter and 67 cents a gallon, you could go places by car.

USA

Circa 1989, the people of Ontario had elected a socialist government. I got worried, so found a job in Mobile. Not very exotic, except for it being the first North American Mardi Gras site. Weird vibe to the place; it’s like people are angry all the time under the surface. Nice house, again wish we still owned it. However, people on our street have died of various cancers; maybe something bad in the water? Asbestos-clay pipes?

Circa 1991, we resumed traveling with D and E again. As if we’d ever really stopped. Week-long trip to Atlanta for a COMMON (IBM mid-range systems), then showed them the sights and places around Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island, and Pensacola. I’d been to business meetings before in Toronto, but Atlanta was a bit excessive. (I’ve rarely seen tweenie whores infesting hotels, even in Third World places. Only Krung Tehp as bad.) Underground Atlanta then OK; nice subway to the airport. But we’d driven this time.

Costa Rica and North America

Lake Jackson, TX

While we were in Mobile, we went to Texas to visit Mercy's cousins and do some sight-seeing. One of her cousins is a medical doctor who had been in the US Air Force. We flew into Houston and her cousin's husband kindly picked us up and later lent us his small Pickup truck. Mercy saw San Antonio’s Riverwalk and The Alamo. Then I took her on a short tour of South Texas to places such as Corpus Christi, so she could see a bit of the West. She also toured a famous big cave someplace in central Texas - forget the name now. Mercy also visited Houston Space Center, where she grabbed up a jalepeño pepper from my cafeteria plate, bit it, and discovered how really hot my tastes are. She was changing colors there for a while. Had to show her how to quench a raging mouth fire.

Washington, DC

Circa 1992, we went to DC by Amtrak. Mobile then had regular train service. (I may have some journeys out of order.) Anyway, Mercy got to see the whole US capitol and museum district, along with a side drive down to Mt. Vernon and Annapolis. (It’s all free admission. Take binoculars or a zoom lens if you want to see the inside of the Capitol Rotunda. They ask for contributions at Mt. Vernon.) We didn't visit Monticello because it was too far away and time was limited.

One day we visited George Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon. Mercy was surprised to see that his mansion was actually made of wood, but his kitchen was separate and built of brick. I explained that kitchen fires were a constant danger in former times. The mansion’s outside was made of boards carved and painted to look like stone blocks; it was rather humble compared to some other houses we have visited. We then visited John Paul Jones’ crypt on the Naval College grounds. After returning to DC, mostly we rode the buses and subway, and got sideways glances from the mostly black denizens. Guess they figured I’d found her in Vietnam.

Costa Rica
San Jose park, Costa Rica.

Winter 1995, we went to Costa Rica with Dave and Estrella. Bus from San Jose to the Pacific coast. A long trip through very hilly coffee country. CR has many volcanoes, both active and inactive. Flying into San Jose, you'll see a few dead calderas, partly filled with very colorful mineralized waters.

Near SJ, on the side of a dead volcano, is a wonderful orchid garden established by Raymond Burr (played Perry Mason in a TV series). Apparently he had had a vacation villa nearby. Then, we traveled to the Pacific coast, and stayed in a village inn, and spent some beach time. Later, after riding a bus for many miles, we visited a tropical rain forest, where Mercy got to see a sloth or two. (They don’t do anything interesting...)

Near the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Volcan Arenal is a Stromboli type, so it’s muttering and exuding magma all the time, but no really big recent eruptions. Wonderful volcanic-spring baths. One of the few times my constant muscular ache truly left me was when we soaked in those hot mineralized waters. Costa Rica would be a good place to retire for North American pensioners. You must be willing to speak Spanish.

Vancouver

Circa 1994, just the two of us traveled by Amtrak. Unfortunately no compartment this time, but much more comfortable than buses and cheaper than aircraft nonetheless. Long journey however; five days there, and then another three returning. Outbound, the train hit a deer in south Texas. We went via Phoenix and SoCal, with a side driving trip to see the Grand Canyon. South Rim, plus a stop at an Anasazi ruin.

Strangely ran into Mei Ling’s sister Fong Lan in one of Vancouver’s Chinatowns. All of us thousands of miles from where we’d first met. Their mother had just died, so we fed Fong some pot-stickers while she agonized about whether to fly back for the funeral or not.

Vancouver is a nice city in many ways. Great setting; expensive real estate. Lots of authentic Chinese food. Fine museum. Downtown streets teeming with drunken Indians. We walked into a video being shot for some TV show. Or maybe it was just a school project? We visited a bijou Chinese walled garden in the downtown that’s often used as a film setting.

South Pacific

1995 was the ‘grand tour’ year. With Dave and Estrella, Mercy and I went around part of the South Pacific for a month. I’ll name the stops first. Tonga, New Zealand, Rarotonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, then back to Los Angeles. We walked around Beverly Hills on the return, and saw some fancy and expensive real estate.

Tonga

Honolulu was just an overnight thing, and we flew out during the wee hours to Tongatapu. Only independent kingdom remaining in the Pacific. We motor-sailed a sloop around Tonga’s northern archipelago for a few days, saw some simple and some elaborate native dances put on for tourists (Real dances were performed ‘topless’.). Food charcoal-cooked underground while wrapped in leaves.

Nice place, Tonga. Lots of fat sea slugs; export income opportunity for a retiree since Chinese love to eat fresh and dried slug soup. (Not really a slug.) Sea snakes among the coral heads. (Dancing panic attacks from Mercy, much viewing-with-alarm from Estrella.) Snakes uninterested in people; just don’t step on them.

Back at the main island, rented a small car, and drove a circuit. Geyser-like blow-holes on one coast. Big fruit bats hanging in trees. People often bury their dead in their front yards. Passed the crown prince’s McMansion on a hill just outside of town. Walked all over the downtown and past the old king’s waterfront gingerbread house. (He would occasionally ride his bicycle around town even though he was immensely fat.) We again ate some food cooked in pits, and one item gave me a real belly-ache. Maybe that ‘fresh’ seaweed last night in Tongatapu.

New Zealand

Then to the area just south of Auckland, where I sweated out the misery while Mercy and the dynamic duo saw things I didn’t. An elaborate Maori stage show for tourists, which wouldn’t have interested me anyway. Can still do without the belly-aches.

Anyway, we all visited the North Island’s ‘mud-pit geysers’ area and took a boat ride through a glow-worm cave. We hired a car, and then spent a week or so driving a circuit around the Coromandel Peninsula. (The map lied; the entire road wasn’t paved.) Some locals like to tail-gate at 100kph. Lost the idiots once we got to the very scenic winding mountain roads.

Incidentally, in a few places, like New Zealand, I drove a right-hand-steered vehicle while shifting gears with my left hand. No big deal for me, but driving in left-lane-lands is one thing that worries most Americans. (Driving an English-style auto on a left-lane road past a clothing-optional beach might get quite a few killed in car wrecks.)

Finally we came to Auckland proper. A nightmare city in which to drive, for streets change names mid-block, as with London. Take taxis or buses if ever you go downtown. Nice town otherwise. I regret us not seeing the tropical peninsula just north of Auckland, but the city’s museum is good. NZ is another good place to retire, if you don’t mind some cold weather and rough seas. English spoken. Lord of the Rings outdoor scenes filmed there. Great and cheap seafood. More sheep there than people.

Rarotonga

Sunny little island out in the middle of nowhere. 300 meter hill in the island’s middle. Mercy only climbed part-way with me; the others chickened out early. Coconut palms, scuzzy beaches, little shows for the tourists. Surprisingly cool at night. Again folk burying their family members in their front yards, and thus causing Dave much anxiety.

Fiji

I had some more tourist tummy, but Mercy and D and E did more tourist-trap stuff and had a catamaran tour to a party isle. Snorkeling and all that. We sometimes took local open truck-buses to get around Pacific islands.

Society Islands

Tahiti itself is pretty much a Frenchified tourist island, but the further you get away from Papeéte the more naturally Polynesian everything gets. We circuited the island, visited the Gauguin museum, Mercy and Estrella bought some black pearls, and then we left for Moorea and Bora Bora. (A flawless fully-natural spherical 8mm black pearl then cost circa $1,000, but Estrella seems very happy with her toy.)

Incidentally, the year we went to French Polynesia, the French government had test-exploded a nuclear device somewhere in the area. Locals were severely peeved; one ran a bulldozer through part of the airport building, and an indoor shopping mall aimed at tourists and French residents got burnt out. The South Pacific isn’t a real paradise; perhaps not too far from being one, but Western thugs are always callously trying to ruin things wherever they go.

Moorea was nice, but for some reason Estrella took a dislike to the beach site, or maybe just wanted more time on Bora Bora. Couldn’t argue that point, because Moorea was then mostly a large cattle ranch. No lagoon yet very scenic. One beach also featured one of the most beautiful wahinis I’ve ever seen, showering ‘topless’ with her boyfriend. (No, haven’t taken many ‘scenic wonder’ pictures; often impolite and perhaps dangerous.)

Island folk want to get to know you somewhat before posing for pictures, so grab shots are not appropriate. But yes, girls and women do still undress for the climate and context when tourists aren’t around. Depending on whether the Mormons or some like group haven’t messed with their minds.

Visiting neighbor girls around the lagoon.

Bora Bora pretty much lived up to its rep. At least paradisaical for tourists; locals might have a different take. But I could see living on one of the nearby atolls. Very difficult to get residency permit. There was at least one American living there since he’d married a local girl. He ran a catamaran tour that circled the island and gave people the Blue Lagoon experience, plus a ‘wading with many sharks’ one. Not my speed; I stayed up on the reef and kept my cameras dry. Everybody enjoyed swimming with the huge manta rays. (He was also very fluent in Parisian argot; engaged in a long discussion with some French visitors. Popping nukes in other people’s back yards was a topic.)

Sunsets over a shimmering lagoon. Moon-lit paths in murmuring seas. Trade wind gently rustling among the palm fronds and in thatched roofs. Tahitian dancing. Semi-clad girls everywhere, including our own seaside villa. Mel Gibson’s Mutiny on the Bounty without any of the conflict.

French Polynesia must have been truly wonderful right after the human sacrifice, petty warring, and witchcraft stuff got stopped, but only Catholic missionaries and French copra dealers lived among the natives. Unfortunately it was already heavily changed and was being bowdlerized when we visited, for Windjammer Cruises had arrived. (Seems British and American tourists lack self-restraint, and may try to molest girls displaying bare breasts? Sad.)

Morocco

Circa 1998 we usual four toured Morocco proper with a small Canadian group. Mercy and I were in Wheeling (Chicago suburb) while I worked a contract; we took an Amtrak train from C-town to Toronto, then flew to Casablanca. Van tour for two weeks from ‘White House’ through Fez, Rabat, Atlas Mountains, and a number of desert towns on the northwestern edge of the Sahara. A retirement possibility, if you’re willing to speak French, Arabic, and/or Berber. Some English spoken in the cities.

We visited a few palaces, both extant and ruined. Saw one of the king’s Arabian stallions up close in its exercise yard. Arabs love horses. More kasbah with harems, and walled towns (kazar). Some folk lived in those mud-brick fortified towns; may still do. We had wild mint tea with one family in their cave. Actually a village in the rock, with families living in ‘improved’ caves throughout the hillside. A common thing around the Med; D and E saw folk living in caves in Turkey, and there were some in the Grenada area when we were there too. A TV antenna above a cave is an odd thing to see.

The foothills of the Atlas are really beautiful. The deserts aren’t so nice, for there’s details videos and films leave out. Like a chronic disease very like ringworm carried by biting flies. Plus blowing sand and grit gets into everything and everywhere. Hotels without air-conditioning but with impressive lobbies and palm-shaded oasis swimming pools. Interesting geology and fossils.

Had a joking (?) offer of 5 camels for Mercy, but told them 500 camels was the bride-price. (Dave might have accepted less than 500 right then for Estrella.) Speaking of camels, Mercy got to ride a real camel on the edge of the Sahara Desert. There’s a canyon (siq) very like Petra (Jordan), but with no buildings or aqueducts carved from the living rock.

Mexico, Guerrero and Tequila states

Circa 1999 we all went back to Mexico, and found yet another retirement possibility. Maybe it has since changed for the worse, considering the drug problem the USA has fostered on Mexico. Anyway, another driving circuit from Puerto Vallarta down the Pacific coast highway. We visited a place where some scenes in Night of the Iguana were filmed and had soup on a terrace overlooking the ocean.

(Dave enjoyed himself during all these trips with side activities such as white-water rafting and horse-back tours, not just photographing/viewing ‘scenic’ and other wonders. While I’ve spent a few hours on horses over the years, my idea of fun is usually more sedate. Things such as relaxing in hot-water spas and photography. Some hill-climbing and ruins-exploring while towing complaining girls. Plus I did all driving and some map-work, with various plots against my peace of mind from Estrella. Mercy was always up for any scheme not involving snakes or climbing mountains, and enjoyed herself immensely.)

So we traveled some good Mexican highways south from PV, then northeast to Lake Chapala. Apparently E had read that Americans were retiring there to nice villas, and that proved true. Although the lake itself was sadly shrunken and clearly in trouble. Then up to Guadalajara, which was a better retirement locale, if one chose a suburb and would speak Spanish. I could live there; eternal sunny Springtime.

There’s a spectacular valley north of Guadalajara. Almost a Grand Canyon, but with forests. Lovely countryside. Finally we drove back toward Puerto Vallarta, through the Tequila farming area. Mile after mile of maguey cacti growing near a superhighway. PV had had so much rain we had to wade hip-deep to get our luggage to the airport. Can’t recommend Mexico’s actual Pacific coast, for it gets hurricanes, and also PV is now a tourist trap filled with timeshare places and salesmen, and unsafe to boot.

Estrella visiting us in Miami. Mercy and me in Ft, Myers.

Miscellaneous trips.

Circa 2000 Estrella went to a meeting in Miami, and then visited with us. We went around South Florida with her for a week or so, going clockwise through Naples, Charlotte Harbor, Sarasota, St. Armand’s Circle, St. Petersburg, Tampa, Orlando, then back down to Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. She treated Mercy and me to Disney’s Wild Kingdom, and we stopped all along the way to show her the more-obscure corners of West Florida. Not that many Canadians have seen Englewood or Placida, Florida. (Yet both places are mentioned in Wikipedia.)

Mercy swinging in St Armand's Circle.

After 2001 we couldn’t afford to travel any longer, because I was no longer getting any assignments. We needed to save our money for strict necessities. However, in October 2008 we returned to Canada, and lived there in north Scarborough and North York until Mercy died in October 2012. (See Journey’s End below.)

Miscellaneous

Almost certainly I’ve left out some journey or place. Or have gotten events out of order. There was one trip to visit Mercy’s cousins at Lake Jackson in southeastern Texas. (Tejas could easily be a country all by itself; Rhode Island is just a city called a ‘state’.) We’ve made many shorter trips, such as to Orlando, when I had a contract nearby and we had some spare time to go and see. We visited Asheville, North Carolina, and toured the French chateau built by an American robber baron. It, its gardens and vineyards made Mount Vernon look like a suburban tract house.

I recall stopping by many graveyards, which Mercy wasn’t enthusiastic about. The thing is, the history of a place is often told or implied by such memorials. Or a larger aspect of history may be hinted at in some way. So she got to see the giant military graveyard above Honolulu, and John Kennedy’s grave amidst all the others at Arlington. While we were visiting Florence one time, I took Mercy to see an hidden ‘clan’ graveyard on a lonely hill near St. Florian. There's a Revolutionary War veteran buried there, and sad evidence for the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic.

Mercy was always more interested in today and tomorrow, while I’m often interested in how today came to be. So she tolerated many museums and ruins in our travels, and may not have understood the significance of some things she saw. If we were with Dave and Estrella, or Mei Ling, Mercy might be busy plotting our next meal or accommodation stop with Estrella or Mei.

We’ve had beignets and coffee in the French Quarter the day after Mardi Gras. (Came over from Mobile after the madness was over.) This was well before Katrina, so N’awlins had its true nature on display. Famous patio cafe in an alley off Bourbon or Royal Street but the name escapes me. (Cafe Soule? Cafe Beignet?) There’s small wine regions in central Missouri and northern Florida that media outlets don’t acknowledge. So many places, but without my pictures and Mercy’s diaries, who can recall it all?

For work purposes, I’ve visited many places in North America, either with Mercy and the cat, or on quick trips by myself. Sometimes for just a day, sometimes for days, weeks, or months. Let’s see how many I can recall: Winnipeg, Montreal, Concord (ON), New York City, North Ridgefield and Paramus (NJ), Waukegan, Jacksonville, Dallas, Houston, Austin, St. Louis, Nashville, and Miami. Almost certainly there have been others. Many times Mercy came with me.

Mercy and Estrella in Ft Myers, Spring 2000.

Miami was a very memorable place for many reasons. We lived in green and pleasant Coral Gables, not far from South Miami and Coconut Grove. Estrella visited. Calle Ocho introduced Mercy to Cuban coffee and sandwiches, and me to fine cigars. Worked with a Cuban who had fitted out a closet as a walk-in humidor, and then discovered he couldn’t smoke as much any longer since it caused acid reflux. So he’d give me magnificent cigars. It’s really odd to hear Asian folk speaking liquid rapid Spanish.

Miami was also the last place where I had regular IT work. After eighteen months with Burger King’s parent company (Pro-Source), a year’s contract having been extended another six months, seems I became invisible. After the Florence imbroglio, I really wanted to go back to Toronto, but apparently there aren’t any IT jobs there either for many over fifty. Mercy got a pretty good job helping to make window treatments in Cape Coral, so we lived aboard our sailboat Paru Paro until 2008.

I know I’ve forgotten something, since between 1980 and 2001 I would sometimes fly in, do a job or an installation, or take an interview or interviews. then fly right back out the same evening or the next morning. Or a gig might be only driving distance. Sometimes I might return to a site, since a job isn’t really done until you’ve trained a local yokel how to use the gear and/or software. (The said LY might not be available when I was first there, for often the busiest person gets something more piled on, or she’s a control freak channeling everything across her desk. Or I was too busy to do training.) The interviews could be either me interviewing people (fact-finding) or them interviewing me.

The Dynamic Duo.

It may seem we were constantly on the go, yet we haven’t traveled nearly as much as Dave and Estrella. Their 'been-there' list also includes places such as Tibet, Nepal, Mustang, northern India, much of internal China, Australia, Europe (almost all countries), Chile, Peru, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Turkey, Greece, various Balkan lands, Egypt, and I’m sure some other places they’ve never mentioned or I don’t recall. They once traveled for some six months straight. I know they’ve taken a few cruises. I recall Dave complaining about how hot it was inside the Cheops pyramid. Hmm. Maybe they’re jet-setting international spies?

Estrella on Mykonos in the Aegean.

I don’t believe they’ve have been to Syria, Palestine, Norway, Sweden, nor central-south Africa or Asia. You never know; there was talk years ago about caravaning through central Asia. They have been to Kenya and/or neighboring countries since 2001. I recall seeing pictures of them at Petra, where the “Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail” movie was filmed. And some while standing beside those giant 500-metric-tonne ashlars in a Baalbek temple platform. Plus a picture from Timbuktu.

Proportional to the respective populations, Canadians travel far more than Americans. Maybe looking for a place to retire that has less taxes and is warmer? Americans mostly just go places where they kill folk. Or take cruises in crowds, where they’ll never experience a culture beyond seeing some fake shows put on for tourists.

Conclusion

(Maybe our uncle Stanley was more traveled than us, for Chrysler has sales and production units all around the world. On the other hand, maybe he never left the USA except for his military service.)

Too many of the Earth’s more intriguing places are now very dangerous to visit. Such as Central Asia. Vale Imperium Americae! (Irony.)


Dramatis Personae

Estrella and Dave in Kathmandu.

Dave’s from Hong Kong (Guangdong); his clan was originally Chiu Chou, so he understands Cantonese and English. He spent some years going to college in San Francisco. He worked for IBM for many years, and got bought out during one of their redundancy drives. Forcibly retired around 55. Quiet guy most of the time. Once very actively sports-minded; maybe he visits his mistress(es)? Joke — he's been messing about with learning to play musical instruments of late.

Estrella’s Fukien Chinese (southern province down the coast from Taiwan) whose family had moved first to the Philippines and then to Quebec. I suspect the Maoist mess started that migration, then Marcos put the cherry on the sundae. She really likes orchids and has mini-greenhouses on their home.

Her father, a chemist, had two wives, full sisters. She has ten or so half- and full-siblings, now scattered across Canada. She understands circa six or seven languages; Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog (Mercy’s native tongue), English, French, and a smattering of Spanish. She cared for her parents in her home until they died of extreme old age, with little help from other siblings aside from Charles (see below). She loves to argue, mostly about IT technicalities. (Dave would say she loves to argue about everything...) The name with which her father dubbed her is different; could be translated Paladin.

How Dave and Estrella met, I’ve never heard. Maybe she snared him at some university party in Montreal. Family fix-ups may not cross tribal lines. Her full brother Charles, Mercy’s ‘family physician’, has a double doctorate, one in chemistry and another in medicine. He speaks four languages I know about: Cantonese, Fukienese, English, and some French. May understand some Tagalog too. He doesn’t speak the Mandarin dialect.

Neither of Mei Ling’s parents ever spoke English in our presence. She and her four or so siblings were pretty well Canadianized, which isn’t an encomium. By no means bad kids, but the father was always working multiple jobs and the mother was crazy. Crazy enough that younger ones like Mei got fostered out with suburban white families. Fine girl, but always wanting and needing a real home. Heard a rumor that she finally married; hope she’s OK.


Journey’s End

Transient joys, permanent sorrows.

Mercy and Linggo in Miami.

On Sunday, 7 October 2012, the day before the Canadian Thanksgiving, Mercy died at 22:30. She looked at me as I sat vigil by her side, smiled gently, and passed on. I have recounted her story at length elsewhere, headed as A Life of Mercy — Maria Mercedes Tapiador Viola Jones. She always wanted to do the right thing, and was the best wife a man could have. She deserves life in Paradise, and chapter 31 of Proverbs was written about such as she.

Our cat Linggo accompanied us almost everywhere we went in North America for twenty years. She wanted to be a ‘daughter of the house’, and to ‘observe the proprieties’. Really, if there’s a Paradise, it should be a haven for such ones as Mercy and Linggo. Cats enjoy living aboard sailboats and eating fish, which is quite odd since naturalists allege their origin point was in North African arid lands.

There are Web pages about Mercy that a search may yield. If you use the full search string ‘Maria Mercedes Tapiador Viola Jones’ my pages may be found. I will add more images to my pages as opportunity affords. Some Internet sites may contain recollections by other folk.

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Travel philosophy

Some may wonder how we might afford so much travel. It’s mostly a question of spending priorities. Plus DINK. Watchtower conventions can begin or end foreign tours. We bought less furniture and other consumer goods, and Mercy sewed our clothes, curtains, quilts, and pillows. She was the grounds-keeper and gardener too. I’ve always fixed most household stuff myself except for the cars. Even so, I can change air filters and spark plugs, and do other simple things. You can save much money if you stay away from mechanics and doctors. Her income we used for travel or invested. Except in Mobile, we always had only one vehicle.

At a median income level, with no spending on nonsense such as changing vehicles or furnishings every few years, and some intelligent parsimony (but no skimping on scanties, sexy sandals, and camera gear), it was possible before the ‘war on ordinary folk’ (© JMGJ) to travel. But we also had to walk a lot carrying some 22 lbs (10kg) of travel gear each. We went using what Estrella calls the ‘Visa plan’, not the ‘American Express’ one. Often even cheaper than that. Having polylingual companions who help pre-plan each journey and stay-point makes a big difference too.

We almost always stayed in the same places in which a local ‘middle class’ might stay. The chiefest cost is airfare, yet empty tour-group seats were often available. (You fly with a tour group, but not as part of the tour, and then go off on your own. The current ‘war on ordinary people’ may may make this option now improbable unless you’re really working for the Criminals In Action...)

We generally avoided venues clearly aimed at foreign tourists. Tour buses and very large parking areas are tip-offs. Renting autos and staying in country towns is often much cheaper than being in cities. One of the aims of traveling is to see people as they truly live, not just when some are acting up for paying audiences. I’ve seen a few staged performances, and was always bored and yet repelled. So, local cooked food, local entertainment when you have time, and few notorious tourist sites.

A sad fact is most people in North America don’t know how to live happily. For example, wonderful crepes are cooked fresh on the Papeete waterfront each Saturday. Many places have traditional open markets rather like ‘farmer’s markets’, but with all sorts of other activities.

Anyway, use iodine tablets for all potable water, and drink, and brush your teeth using, the local fire-water or beer. I’ve had fewer stomach attacks than Dave because I habitually drink the local beers and hooch; good beer won’t be made with bad water, since the yeast croaks. But carry Pepto Dismal (Mercy’s word) and Imodium with you too.

Some alcohol (Arabic word, BTW) I avoid because it has trace stuff that causes headaches or it’s distilled using lead-brazed radiators. You absolutely don’t want any of the local pop-skull made in India or Southeast Asia. Except to brush your teeth with.

Vicious mosquito populations in every jungle, so we often took anti-malarial pills. In many mainland tropical places, bloodsuckers are waiting in any shady spot. Including the toilet and shower, and a room may also feature a gecko lizard or two. Don’t run screaming naked from the shower over some giant hairy spider; neither the spiders, lizards, nor crabs are at all interested in you. Don’t stick your hands or feet under furniture without first looking; scorpions or snakes may be waiting for the lizards and bugs. Bang your shoes upside down every time before putting them back on.

Mercy always wanted some little memento, but these may had cheaply someplace away from the tourist traps. Dave’s passion was cheap T-shirts. Oddly, sometimes a fancy souvenir may be had later for peanuts in a US or Canadian charity store. Our storage had lots of little trinkets but Mercy never paid much for anything, even her black pearls. Estrella usually didn’t buy much, but when she did it was relatively expensive or heavy. Often heavy stuff may be shipped directly back by the store.

A few sites are must-see, so we got in the cheapest way, bought nothing there, then left as quickly as possible. Avoid capital and financial-center cities like the plague. You may need to land in one, but you don’t need to stay there. If there’s a museum etc. you should visit, taking a local bus or train from a hinterland villa or inn is way cheaper than a city hotel room. Plus rural folk and places are often much nicer, and the rides into town interesting. Off-season village resorts may be plush yet inexpensive, except in Japan. (There you may need to mortgage your house to fund a ryokan stay.)

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Mercedes Jones, at our country cottage near Albertville 1978.
Author’s note: Most of the above was written while Mercy was yet alive, during what proved to be her last two months. It was originally intended for a select audience of our immediate families and friends. Later I realized it could be part of a memorial for Mercy. © James Michael Gerard Jones 2012 (If anyone wishes to also contribute their recollections, or help correct my faulty memory, I will gladly consider including those offerings with any desired attribution. All pictures were either taken by me, by family, or by one of our friends.)