Saturday, December 27, 2014

This Week: Virgin Gorda, BVI

Boats and Billionaires

The roosters had no sense of time. The cawing echoed in my ears intensifying my already aching head. The chicken cacophony was in complete contrast to the gentle chirps of the tree frogs. The beasts sounded like they were right below our balcony and I couldn’t close the windows, because there were no windows, only screens open to the world outside. I thought roosters only crowed at dawn. Didn’t they know the sun still had three hours’ sleep?


The previous day had started early. Awake at 6:30 AM San Juan time; that’s 4:30 AM in Colorado. We had an 8 AM island hopper to catch, but this wasn’t our first rodeo. We had ridden island hoppers before. At least we had two pilots this time. The Seaborne Airways flight was uneventful, just as it should have been. Several thousand feet below us the islands of the Virgins passed, St. Thomas, St. John, Tortola… there’s Jost on the left. There’s Norman Island and the Willie T on the right. With these islands we were familiar. Then an oblong patch of green with a white rock border came into view and the plane went into a banked curve before approaching a dirt runway. This was it. An island we had not stayed on before:  Virgin Gorda.


 “Welcome to Jumbies,” said Ali the bartender. A round black man with black polo shirt and khaki shorts, he handed us a laminated drink menu. I ordered a Painkiller and Christian ordered a Rum Punch. Then we asked if he served food. Ali handed us a laminated food menu. Ali asked where we were from and did not like our answer.

“Colorado? Mon, how can you stand all that snow?” he said making a face like he’d just bitten into an onion.
“How would you know ?” asked Christian. “Have you ever seen snow?
“No mon,” said Ali. “I’m an island boy. Don’t wanna see snow.”
“Are you from here?”
“No, I grew up on Barbados,” he said. “But I’ve been here for 14 years.”
“Why did you come here?”
“To bartend,” said Ali.
“Oh, so that’s what you’ve always done?”
“Yeah, been bartending for almost 20 years.”
“Why did you leave Barbados?”
“Had a friend here and he said come on over. Been here ever since.”
 “So, do you know Rhianna?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” said Ali. “She lived in the same parish as me, but she’s a few years younger so we weren’t in the same classes or anything like that. She was pretty cool though. And we knew she could sing. Oh, mon, even back then you knew....” and he trailed off because now we all know she can sing.

A group of two gentlemen and two women, with two small boys playing in the sand behind them, began chatting about something; I didn’t hear what, but Christian heard them.

“Hey, where you guys from?” he butted in.

“Fort Collins.”

“As in Colorado??” The guy nodded. In all the years we have been coming to the Virgin Islands we rarely met anyone from west of the Missouri River and had never met anyone from our home state of Colorado. His name was Jimmy and he was quick to offer up his story:  He had been laid off his job, but received a nice chunk of severance change and while trying to decide what to do next with his life, he and his family were spending the month of February renting a boat and sailing the Virgin Islands. Jimmy, his wife and two kids had just spent the first two weeks with family on the boat. Then the family went home and now his best friend from college and his wife here for the next two weeks. He was thrilled to be able to spend this time with his boys who were running around between us. During this conversation, Ali asked all of us if we wanted to reserve seats for that night’s show.

"Yes!” Jimmy exclaimed.

“What show?” we asked.

“You don’t know about the pirate show?” Jimmy gasped. “Let me fill you tell you!”

Pirate Michael Beans performed every happy hour, or as he called it “Happy Rrrrrr.” From October to April Pirate Beans ruled the Leverick Bay sunset with songs, stories and a joke or two. Bartender Ali added that he drew 100-150 people a night so a reservation came highly recommended.  Jimmy told his boys to get to the dinghy as they had to get cleaned up before the pirate show started. We traded our expensive cocktails for cheap beers and headed to our assigned seats to wait for the party pirate. Even though it was still early, several tables began filling up.

A few minutes before 5 PM, the dastardly pirate himself made his way from the resort building. He was barefoot, his puffy pirate shirt was tattered, and he had an unkempt beard and a black pirate hat on top of his head. He held a guitar in one hand and a conch shell in the other and he greeted each guest as he walked through the tables to his tiny stage at the far end.

After leaning his guitar on a stool, he took the conch shell and stood on the stonewall that separated the bay from the bar. He put the conch shell to his lips and blew a mighty trumpet tone across the water. As he blew people began to roust from their boats. They climbed into their dinghies and motored to the dock. One of those dinghies held the Ft. Collins family. When the Jimmy docked his two boys jumped out before it was even tied and came running over the tables. They were decked out in pirate gear complete with hats and white shirts; they even had eye patches. Pirate Beans came over to greet them as they found their reserved table right next to the stage.

“Ahoy, maties!” he cried as he gave each boy a hug. “You look ready for the show!”

As the boat people took their seats, Pirate Beans began. He strummed a guitar, blew a harmonica and stomped his bare feet on a wooden box below his stool. He sang traditional songs like Drunken Sailor and The Grog Song and told jokes between each one. Then it was time for audience participation No 1. On every table were several plastic water bottles filled with sand and rocks. Our purpose was to shake the bottles like a Polaroid picture.  I fulfilled my role with gusto as Pirate Beans sang Yellow Submarine.

We were seated at a long table with a several other couples. Our server Doreen with her broad white smile took care of us. Realizing we needed some food after all the beers we drank we asked her for a menu. The guy sitting next to Christian tapped his arm.

“Hey! We already ordered a pizza,” he yelled over the music. “You guys can have a slice!”
Pirate Beans took a break about halfway through his two hour show and we were able to meet our tablemates. The couple that ordered the pizza were Steve and Debbie from Canada. Then there was Jeff and Kelly from Nova Scotia and Jeff and Katie from Wisconsin. The first thing Katie asked was…

 “So what boat are you on?”

After some um’s and ah’s we pointed to the hill behind the bar and said we had a room at the resort.
“They have rooms here? We didn’t know that,” everyone exclaimed.

We were surrounded by boat people. Steve and Debbie were renting a boat and sailing around the VI’s for a month. Jeff and Kelly had sailed here from Nova Scotia and were on a six-month journey that would take them to the lower West Indies. Jeff and Katie were the boatiest of the bunch. They were sailing a boat they had spent the last several years restoring at their lake house in Wisconsin. Then Debbie, after 25 years of teaching, and Jeff, after 25 years of construction, and with two grown sons finally out of the house, left their jobs, sold their house and then sailed through the Great Lakes, down the Hudson, down the east coast of the United States to the Virgin Islands. After sailing through the Caribbean they planned to eventually end up at the Panama Canal, where two more people would join them for sailing across the Pacific in late fall. For them, boating was a way of life.


After his break Pirate Bean returned and announced it was time for a conch shell blowing contest. All four men at our table headed for the stage, along with many other people. Each person was given a practice blow and a little instruction from Pirate Beans. After a woman tried a practice blow on the conch, he handed it straight to the next woman.

“Don’t worry, honey. Just take a swig of rum if you want to kill the germs.”

After each contestant had a practice blow, it was time for the real deal. Whoever could blow the conch the longest would win a six-pack of Carib beer and a Carib hat. Once again audience participation was a must. We had to count out how long the contestants could sustain the note. Most contestants didn’t get past the count of two.  However, our new friend Jeff went over 40 digits. Christian, who went right after him, got to 30, but faded. Jeff was the winner. Before continuing on with the music Pirate Beans had everyone raise their glass for a toast.

“There are good ships, and there are wood ships, and ships that sail the sea, but the best ships, are friendships, and may they always be."

After the show, each of us took turns buying rounds of rum drinks with our new friends. Christian and I forgot we were at sea level and consumed way more than we normally would, hence the hangover that the roosters kept interrupting. Cock-a-doodle-doo was stuck on repeat.


The next afternoon we found ourselves once again at Jumbie’s Beach Bar happy hour and another Pirate Beans show. Our boating friends had already arrived and saved us some seats. Pirate Beans walked by in his bare feet just as we sat down. In front of us a group of boaters were all decked out in pirate gear, but these weren’t young boys; these were full-grown adults with hats, stick-on tattoos and eye patches. One guy had a stuffed parrot propped on his shoulder.

Also joining the show tonight was a large group of young, rather good looking men and women who corralled two long tables together. They sang with gusto and each person had a different foreign accent, British, Australia and Dutch. According to our boating friends, the group belonged to the crew of the giant yacht that had pulled into the bay earlier and they had all been drinking since they arrived. Some of them began heckling Pirate Beans.

“Where you guys from?” Pirate Beans asked them.

Each person yelled out their home country making for a confusing jumble of answers.

“Are you all from the big boat?” he asked. This time they all yelled in unison as they held their drinks high over their heads.


After Pirate Beans’ show we were hanging out with our new friends listening to their sailing stories. Listening was all we could do because we didn’t have any of our own. Then suddenly, one of the handsome young men from the yacht crew came over and asked us how we were doing. He introduced himself as Dave. Katie, who had had a few rum punches, immediately grabbed his arm for support and plied him with questions.

So where are you from? “England.”

What is your position on the ship?  “Second Mate”

Where did you sail in from? “Gibraltar.”

How long did it take you? “A little over two weeks.”

Who owns the boat?  “I can’t say, but he’s a Russian billionaire.”

Oh, com’on. “I can’t say.”

It’s not like I know a lot of Russian billionaires. “Nope.”

“Is it the guy who owns the Nets?” Christian asked. Dave laughed. “No, not that guy.”

“So, how does one become a Second Mate on a billionaire’s yacht?” asked Katie. “Oh, I took some classes, worked my way up from deck hand, the usual,” he said.

“I don’t know what the usual is so please explain.” He then explained how he had been working on ships since he was 16, starting as a deck hand and learning the ropes and taking navigation courses between boat gigs. He had worked on a millionaire’s yacht before moving up to the Russian billionaire’s.

“So how old are you?” asked Katie. “27.” She just about fell over, although she may have fallen over at any answer, with all the rum punch she drank.

“So what’s it like working on a billionaire’s yacht?” Kelly asked. “Do you sleep in the billionaire’s bed when he’s not on board?”

“Oh, hell no. We’d get fired. Very strict.”

“Why are you in the BVI?” asked Kelly’s Jeff. This was the story we got:

It was for the Russian Billionaire’s son’s 10th birthday.  The Russian had sent the boat ahead to the BVI and hired some “Hollywood producers and writers” to travel with it. The boat and crew were to spend the week traveling the islands checking out restaurants, coves, activities and beaches. The job for everyone on the boat was to find the best places to moor and the “Hollywood producers and writers” were going to put together a “script” for the 10-year-old and his cousins. “The Script” would be a pirate story and the kids would be involved in finding pirate treasure on their voyage.

We all cocked our heads to the side. “No really,” he insisted.

“So how much does it cost to run a boat like that for one week,” Christian asked.

“About 250,000 dollars US, including food for the crew, cleaning, fuel, salaries…”

“So,” said Christian, “He’s already spent $1 million and he hasn’t even had his vacation yet.”

“Ah, yeah, I guess that’s one way of putting it, but that doesn’t include the Hollywood people. I don’t know what that costs.”

“So how many kids are coming?” asked Katie.

“Oh, I dunno, 7 or 8.”

“Who are these cousins?” Katie’s husband Jeff asked. Dave just laughed.

“Most of them are the billionaire's illegitimate children. We call them cousins.” Now I almost fell over.

At some point during this most fascinating discussion, a DJ arrived and set up shop near the tiki bar and began playing dance tunes so everyone moved to the sand dance floor next to the bar.


Such is life in the Virgin Islands. A life filled with singing pirates, career bartenders, unemployed dads, sailors of all ages on boats of all sizes and even the one percent. It’s a place where everyone belongs. On this night the cackles of the roosters wouldn’t wake me up.


If anyone doubts the validity of the Russian Billionaire, then I suggest you read the November 2014 issue of Islands Magazine, starting on page 32, Chasing Time by Jad Davenport. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

This week: Tucson, Arizona

The $14 Cocktail

My husband likes air conditioning a little too much. The room was downright chilly. I opened the balcony door to our Ritz Carlton hotel room and the early morning heat of Tucson felt wonderful on my goose pimpled skin. I made myself a cup of hotel Starbucks coffee, put it in the Ritz logoed cup and sat on the balcony drinking and breathing in some warmth.

I had arrived in Tucson the previous afternoon. My husband arrived the day before that. He was attending a business conference. I was on vacation. My husband would be done with his meetings by noon and we had planned to do some hiking, but until then the morning was my own and I planned to fill it with some reading-by-the-pool time. Even though the sky was cloudy from Hurricane Odile, the air was warm and getting warmer as I headed toward the resort pool.

The Ritz Carlton at Dove Mountain is a true resort. Nestled on the edge of a desert canyon surrounded by Saugaro cacti, the lobby of the Ritz is filled with fine Southwestern art, along with bell hops and lobby ambassadors who greet you when you walk past. Framed like a picture window, the back of the lobby opens up to the hills behind it from a patio with soft seating and large fire pit. In the distance is an infinity pool with umbrellas, the bright blue of the pool a distinct contrast to the browns and tans of the desert. I had to cross a cement path to get to the pool, giving the pool an oasis feeling, separate from the rest of the resort.

As I rounded the corner to the pool’s gate, two pretty young girls, one blonde and one brunette, both said good morning to me in a cheery tone. They were writing in colored markers on the pool information board. In the top left corner of the board it said “Drink of the Day.” Below it in curly letters that the girls had just written it said Turquesa Dream followed by a list of ingredients. The first two were Bacardi and Malibu.
“Is it too early for the drink of the day?” I asked.

“Hmmm, I don’t know. The kitchen doesn’t open for another hour, but if the bartender is here I think we can get you a drink.

“Ya know, 9:30 probably is a little early,” I said. “I can get one later. That’s fine.”

The brunette followed me through the gate and grabbed two towels from the towel stand. Another young girl was also standing there. I was expecting her to hand me the towels, but instead she asked me where I wanted to sit and began to head down the steps to the pool. I followed and pointed to a chair in the middle of the pool past a woman who was already settled on a lounge chair with a book in her hands. Rain from Hurricane Odile was in the forecast so I picked a chair under an umbrella. The brunette placed one towel on the seat of the lounge chair and the other towel she draped over the back.

“Just let us know if you need anything else,” she said as she walked away.

I had barely sat down when a different blonde girl walked over and said she heard I was interested in the Drink of the Day.

“Uh, sure,” I said. “Why not.”

She left and I put my feet up on the lounge chair and gazed over the infinity pool to the resort building. Then I reached for my smartphone in my bag when a handsome young man came over. He wore khaki shorts and a white polo shirt. He introduced himself as Joel and asked if my umbrella was OK. I said it was fine. He said if there was anything I needed, to just let him know. I thanked him and he walked away.

I went back to my smartphone to pull up the book I had downloaded on it. Then another handsome young man came over in white shorts and a black polo and introduced himself as Anthony and offered his hand to shake, which I did. He asked if my umbrella was OK or if I wanted him to move it. I said it was fine. He then said if I needed anything at all, to let him know. I thanked Anthony and he walked away. As he walked away I could see the pretty blonde girl returning with a glass on her small round serving tray. As she walked by the other woman reading her book, that woman perked up and asked the blonde what she was holding. I could see the blonde talking to the woman, but with her back to me I couldn’t hear the words. However, I did hear the lounging woman say that she wanted one too. The blonde then walked over to me with my Turquesa Dream.

Through the clear plastic Ritz Carlton logo cup, I saw the cocktail was a surprising grass green color and topped with a bit of froth. My first sip was rummy deliciousness with a fruity, creamy finish. As I sipped I noticed ripples from a light rain making rings in the pool. Since I was under an umbrella, I didn’t feel any drops and was content to sip my cocktail. However, another handsome dark-haired man wearing khaki shorts and white polo shirt approached.

“Are you OK or do you need me to move this umbrella?” he said as he started to reach for the umbrella’s stand.

“Ah, no, it’s fine.”

“OK, but if you need to move it, just let me know.”

“OK,” I said as he walked away. How many different people work here anyway?

Again, I picked up my smartphone to read my book. I had downloaded Mark Twain’s book The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, his tome about an excursion to Old World Europe and the Holy Land. He was somewhere in the Middle East traveling the desert on horseback. He was not impressed by it, the heat, the food, the endless rocks and the barren villages filled with the poorest of the poor. He found it overwhelming and insufferable. I too was in the desert, sitting next to a pool with a cool beverage and an umbrella to shade me from the sun that was still behind some Odile clouds and keep me getting wet from occasional rain drops.

I finally had some uninterrupted time reading and drinking. After many minutes I left Mr. Twain somewhere near the Sea of Galilee and decided to pay for my cocktail. What the wait staff didn’t know I was took a Diet Coke from the 12-pack we purchased at a grocery store yesterday and brought it with me to the pool so I wouldn’t have to pay pool prices for soda. Clever, right? I grabbed my wallet from my bag and did some estimating in my head. A regular cocktail at a regular pool would be $7-8, right? But a cocktail by the pool of a Ritz Carlton would be more, I guessed $10-12. However, this particular cocktail was the “Drink of the Day” so it must have been on special. Hmmm. This cocktail could be anywhere between $8-12. I grabbed a ten dollar bill and a five dollar bill from my wallet and put them under my now empty glass.

As if on cue, the blonde server returned and asked if need another cocktail or anything else. I said no, please tab me out and she had to leave to go get my ticket. That was unexpected. I had another five minutes to myself. She returned and handed me a receipt and said I could pay whenever I was ready. Fortunately for me she turned and walked away because my jaw hit the concrete when I saw the bill. The “Drink of the Day” was $14; with tax it was $15.63. A $14 cocktail? And this was the “Drink of the Day?” I quickly and hopefully discretely put my $15 dollars back in my wallet since it wasn’t enough to pay the bill and grabbed a $20. I had three guys and two girls visit me this morning and I wondered if the tips were spread among the pool staff. I decided to just give the server the $20 and let her keep the change and hope it was distributed among the rest of the pool staff. I went back to reading my book and the pretty blonde came and picked up my $20.

“I’ll get you some change,” she said.

“Oh, no that’s not necessary,” I said. She thanked me very much and left. I had many more minutes of uninterrupted reading time. That was followed by some hot tub time and another few minutes of lounging on the in-pool lounge chairs before the intermittent rain finally chased me away.

Later that evening my husband and I attended a dinner hosted by the organization running the conference. This was after my husband and I spent the afternoon on a NINE-MILE HIKE through Dove Mountain Canyon, which is a story I will save for another blog. The dinner was held at a restaurant at the Ritz’s golf course and had spectacular views of the valley. The clouds of Hurricane Odile had a wonderful effect on the evening’s sunset. The organization held an open bar reception before the dinner where we mixed and mingled with other couples attending the conference. We also chatted with a fellow from Canada who worked with my husband.

“Hey, how was your afternoon,” my husband asked him.

“It was great,” he said. “It was nice to relax by the pool.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I did this morning.”

“Yeah, it was great, but man, things sure are expensive here,” he added. “I paid $18 for a burger.”

“Did you have the’ Drink of the Day’,” I asked.

“I dunno, but I had some cocktail that they told me was on special. “

“Was it green?” I asked.

“Yeah, it was,” he said. “It was good, but it was….”

“Fourteen dollars!”  I said with him in unison.

“Wait, you bought a $14 cocktail?!” my husband asked while giving me the stink eye. I shrugged.

“What is it with these resorts and their exorbitant prices,” asked our friend. “That’s crazy!”

That’s why they call it ‘the Ritz.’

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

This week: Albany to Denver

When things go right

Nobody ever talks about when good things happen at the airport. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has a bad airport story. Stranded in Green Bay with the internet down. Stuck on the runway on a hot Phoenix day for two hours. Caribbean airport food that causes one to go through three air sickness bags. Yeah, we’ve been there.  The airport gods rarely smile on anyone and when they do, they can easily take it away. Hence, we all try to top each other with stories about the bad, but never, ever do we speak of the good, when things go right when they should spiral completely out of control. Well, I dare to talk about the best possible experience we could have had while flying.

We had just spent a wonderful week in upstate New York to celebrate my husband’s cousin’s wedding. The whole thing was beautiful. The outdoor wedding was bathed in sunlight under a clear blue sky. The children blew bubbles around the happy couple. The bride was gorgeous, the groom funny, the cake too pretty to eat. Alas, the whole fairytale had to come to an end and my husband’s mother drove us to the airport in Albany where we would begin the long journey back to Denver via Washington DC. The trouble began at check-in.

Unbeknownst to us as we feted, there had been a terrible afternoon storm front that ran all the way from New York City to Atlanta and our flight was unable to get to Albany. It would arrive well after our connection in DC left for Denver. The ticket agent said he would reroute us and began looking up other flights…all of them in and around Baltimore and DC, where it was still raining. All of them involved an overnight stay.

“Wait a minute,” my husband said. “Why do we have to go through DC? This is United. Why can’t we go through Chicago?”

“Oh, yeah. I didn’t even think of that,” said the agent. My inner voice screamed so loud at that comment I'm pretty sure the agent heard it. 

It took only a few key strokes to find the solution. A plane was flying was to Chicago and from there we had a choice of three connecting flights to Denver. However, the Albany flight was going to start boarding in 20 minutes and we still had to go through security. As we took our tickets and gathered our bags the agent said he would call the gate to let them know we were coming, but we ran to security anyway and then afterward on to the gate in case that call didn’t get made. Fortunately, we only had carry-ons.

The flight to Chicago had just starting the boarding process as we arrived so we made it onto the flight and it left without incident.

We arrived in Chicago completely unprepared for the chaos that was happening. The violent rainstorm on the East Coast had wreaked havoc on flights across the country and it seemed to me that the entire flying public was stranded at O’Hare. From the moment we emerged from the plane’s walkway the gate was packed with people. As we wove our way from the gate to head down the terminal to our connecting flight, we could see lines everywhere, at the gates, at pay phones, at the ticket counters, at the food counters. An endless sea of people and bags and cell phone charger cords to trip over. As we half walked, half jogged to our next gate we could hear people yelling in the distance over the steady drone of hundreds, maybe thousands of people talking to each other and to their cell phones.

We arrived at the gate of our Denver flight, which was at the end of the terminal where several gates came together. The place was packed. People filled the seats and spilled onto the floor or stood around the perimeter. Just then two people got up from a row of seats right next to us and left. We took their spots. Finally able to relax, my husband took the tickets out from his jacket pocket to examine them. He looked at the tickets, then at his watch and then at me.

“It says on the tickets that the flight to Denver lands at 9:30.” He paused a moment and looked at the tickets again. “That is a whole hour earlier than our original flight from DC would have been.”

I looked around at the crowd of people around me, all of whom were wearing weary scowls on their faces. 

“Don’t say another word,” I told my husband. “You don’t want to jinx this.” He nodded and put the tickets away. We sat silently for the next 30 minutes; my husband checked his emails while I read a magazine. Finally, our flight was called. I don’t think I exhaled until the plane was in the air.

The flight was uneventful, just how I like them. We landed in Denver at 9:30 PM, right on time. We were home in time to see SportCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day. We have never spoken of this flight since. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

This week: Geneva, NE

The best and worst interviews ever

What seems like 100 years ago, but has really only been 23, I worked for a small county newspaper in the middle of south-central Nebraska. The town:  Geneva. The Paper:  The Nebraska Signal. Geneva is about one hour south of York on Highway 81 in Fillmore County. I was hired as a typesetter, one of only seven employees, but with a degree from the University of Nebraska, I was soon reporting and writing stories. During my year writing about the people and places in this slice of small town Americana, I met many interesting people and learned a lot about public service and community. It was also during this single year that I had the best interview I’ve ever had and a few weeks later quite possibly the worst interview ever.

Let’s start with the best. In May of 1992, Dr. Charles F. Ashby of Geneva had been practicing medicine in Fillmore County for fifty years. Take that in for a second. FIFTY YEARS. Half a century. The Superbowl hasn’t been around that long. The Nebraska Medical Association was giving him an honor for his 50 years of service and I was scheduled to interview him. We met at his expansive home on the outskirts of town after both of us finished work, a one-story ranch-style home. The home had a large open floor plan with living room, dining room and kitchen all together. At the back were floor to ceiling windows that framed the backyard. A cement patio was there, but I don’t recall seeing any patio furniture, however, the grass beyond the patio was perfectly thick and green and beyond that was a forest of tall trees. Mrs. Ashby welcomed me into the home and invited me to sit at the dining table and look out the window to see if her adopted wild turkeys were roaming the back yard. They were. Dr. Ashby, who wore suspenders with his dress shirt and pants, came into the space and sat at the table with me.

To my total surprise, the first thing Dr. Ashby did was light up a cigarette. I’d never met a doctor who smoked before or since. He caught me staring at the cigarette and told me he started smoking in the Navy and since he wasn’t dead yet, didn’t see a reason to stop. When I asked him how medicine had changed over 50 years, he said the biggest change he saw was something I took for granted; the change in Penicillin. When Dr. Ashby started Penicillin was a dark and unpurified liquid and a lot of it was required to work. Penicillin was only given by injection and had to be injected every hour. Not the drug we know today.

During this interview I had two significant distractions to fight against. The first were the two turkeys in the backyard. Every now and then the male would display his beautiful tail plumage. Not every day you see a live turkey wondering around. 

The other? During the interview, Dr. Ashby held the cigarette in his left hand with his arm resting on the back of the chair. As we talked, the ashes on the end of the cigarette kept getting longer and longer. It got to the point where I was watching the cigarette and not listening to the doctor anymore. I was pretty sure the ashes were going to break off and fall onto the floor. Then his wife came over, grabbed the ashtray off of the dining table and held it under the cigarette. She tapped his hand with her fingers and the ashes fell into the tray. She placed the tray on the table and walked back to the stove where she was cooking dinner. The doctor kept talking without missing a beat. This mini-drama would play out one more time during my visit.

The hour and a half I spent at the Ashby’s was enjoyable. Dr. Ashby told hilarious stories about his mischievous youth growing up in Fairmont (his wife said the town pretty much raised him because his father, also a doctor, was too busy to do it), tales from his time at Delta Upsilon fraternity in Lincoln and tales from the Navy. Most of these stories were “not ready for prime time” if you get my meaning, and didn’t end up in the article, which is too bad, because I felt like I had this wonderful experience that I couldn’t share with any one. Sadly twenty years later, I have forgotten what those stories were; I just remember my stomach hurt when I left because I was laughing so hard. I also remember his wife invited me to stay for dinner. I wish I had.  


A few weeks, maybe a month, later I received a phone call from a woman at the Assembly of God Church in Geneva saying that one of their members had just returned from a missionary trip to Columbia, South America, and had given a presentation of the trip at the church. The member thought that other people might find it interesting and asked if I would interview him. At the time I’d never been out of the country and the thought of traveling on a mission was intriguing. I wanted to know more so we set up an interview.

The gentleman’s name was Chet Frey and he spent 10 days in Palmira, Columbia (Population 400,000). The church sent a group of 11 men who came from various Nebraska towns to Columbia, as I was told by the woman on the phone, “to build a school.”  This was the information on which I based my questions.
We met at the church and the interview was in the office. Frey wore jeans, cowboy boots and a denim shirt to the interview, your basic Fillmore County farm attire. He looked very humble and unassuming. The first few questions I asked were simply fact gathering. Where are you from, what do you do for a living, how long were you there, the usual. Then I asked what Frey did on his trip (these are NOT direct quotes).

So, I was told you helped build a school.
Yes, well, it was a church, but there will be school rooms along with it so the kids can go to Sunday school.
Um, OK. Do you have any construction or building experience?
Uh, Ok. How did that work out?
Ok, I guess.
So what did they have you do? Hammer nails, drill holes?
Oh, no I didn’t do any of the construction.
Umm, OK, well then who did?
Oh, they had some locals they hired to build the school.
So, what did you do then?
I led the prayers with the children.
Oh, so you speak Spanish?
No. They had an interpreter who would translate the Lord’s Prayer to the kids.
And what else did you do?
I passed out literature.
Anything else?
Nope, that’s about it.

At this point, I just wrapped up the interview, said thank you and basically tried to get out of there as fast as I could.

In my head I remember this as being one of the shortest articles I wrote for the paper. However, I pulled a copy out of my archives and it is actually much longer than I remember. After re-reading it, I’ve decided I’m a better writer than I thought I was, only because I got a lot of mileage out of very few words, not because the story was any good.

I felt deceived by the woman who called me. I had visions in my head of someone who went to physically build a school. I thought he would be hammering nails into walls and putting in windows and doors, you know, sweat equity. What they were really doing was proselytizing and it made me extremely uncomfortable. The fact that they didn’t speak the native language made the article read like a comic opera. Here is an excerpt:

Frey’s job was to hand out literature and go door to door meeting and talking to people. Not an easy thing when the population speaks Spanish.
“It was frustrating ‘cause I didn’t know any Spanish,” said Frey. “Some of the fellows had taken some Spanish courses and were able to converse with them a little bit, but it was difficult.”

I felt I was fair in what I wrote. I stated the facts and used Frey’s words as much as possible. Unfortunately, this interview and the resulting article have always left a bad taste in my mouth even after all this time. I don’t blame Mr. Frey. I got the impression from his body language he was shy and didn’t want the attention a story would bring. He didn’t want his photo taken either. He was just doing something he believed in and felt he made a difference during his two weeks there. I have no problem with that. My distaste is with the Assembly of God church for sending a group of people to a foreign country simply to increase their congregation’s numbers and the woman, I don’t recall her name, who misled me about the trip’s purpose. There are people in organizations, many with religious affiliations, who are doing extremely hard work building wells, schools and hospitals, and providing medical care, food and education to people in need around the world. This story didn’t do those people justice.

Funny how these two completely different interviews happened in the same year, for the same publication and took place over 20 years ago. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

This week: Fraser Valley, CO

I would like to share one of my rare paid writing assignments. I had a feature article about Snow Mountain Ranch in Fraser Valley published in the May/June issue of TravelWorld International. TWI is the magazine of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) of which I am a member. I didn't get paid much, but this magazine has a lot of reach with professional travel journalists and editors from around the country and I was thrilled to be a part of this issue. The theme for this issue is "family travel" and Snow Mountain Ranch, a part of YMCA of the Rockies, is one of the best places to vacation in the state. The variety of things to do and places to stay is almost overwhelming. You'll see what I mean when you read the article. If you enjoyed reading it, please share with online . Hopefully this article is the beginning of more articles for many magazines and websites to come. 

My article is on Page 41. 

Thank you for you time and happy travels!

Direct link:


Sunday, May 11, 2014

This Week: Gringo Trails (the film)

Watch the thought-provoking documentary film Gringo Trails

Back in 2000, I took my first trip to Maui, Hawaii. It was a dream trip. We snorkeled, drove the Hana Highway, and ate more seafood in one week than I had I my entire life.  However, on the last day of our stay, we met a couple on their honeymoon. They told us about an amazing experience they had that morning. They rode a bike the down Haleakala volcano. Quite animated, the wife told us how they got up at 2 AM for the drive to the mountain, how they watched the sun rise at the top of the volcano and the beautiful scenery of Maui as they lazily coasted down the mountain. The ride finished at a beautiful beach. I was in awe. I decided if I ever returned to Maui, I would have that experience for myself.

Obligatory cheesy photos taken by our guide.
Ours was among four bikes tours using this roadside turnout. 
In 2013, I got that chance. It was my turn to get up at two in the morning and was picked up by a large van filled with eight other people. We saw an amazing sun rise over the rim of the crater; something we will always remember. The rest of the tour, however, we would like to forget.  There were at least a dozen other tours with eight to ten people also heading down the mountain and there was only one road. Our instructor made us hurry so we’d be the first ones down the hill. I found out why about half way down. We stopped at a park building for a bathroom break and to remove our jackets as the air temperature rose. When we emerged from the building, the parking area was surrounded by bikes, trucks and trailers and a line of people waiting to use the facilities. Then on the ride itself, we had to straddle a fine line between coasting down the hill safely, but not going too slowly because our guide didn’t want us to impede local traffic. We were told the locals who lived on the mountain did not like the continuous lines of bikers riding down the same road they used to get work in the morning. On top of the bike tours, there were many people who rented bikes on their own and road recklessly down the mountain without a guide at breakneck speeds passing those of us in the tours. After the ride was over and we were heading back to the hotel, our guide admitted that these bike tours were a source of contention in the community. It’s a popular activity that draws a large number of tourists so it is a big revenue producer for the island. However, with only one road to ride down, that road is getting increasingly congested with both cars and bikes. There are those who want the activity banned and those who make a living off of it. On our way up the volcano before the ride we received a heavy-handed lecture from our guide about safety. However, our safety wasn’t really his first concern. His concern was if anyone died, the state would step in and shut it down and he would be out of job. And the beautiful scenery the wife mentioned back in 2000? Well, our guide told us not to look at it because if we didn’t pay attention to the road we would crash. It was not my finest travel moment.

I was reminded of this misadventure after watching an incredible film about tourism gone wrong. GringoTrails by Pegi Vail and Melvin Estrella is a new documentary that looks at the travel industry, specifically the backpacking travel industry, and its effects on natural habitats and the native people who live there. It is an eye-opening and thought provoking film.

In one of the film’s most compelling stories, there once was a beach on an island near Thailand that was pristine; A paradise with a mile-long beach, a bay with sky blue water, lush vegetation and not a high rise in sight. Fisherman and their families lived here, just as they had for decades. Then in the late 1970s an American backpacker arrived and stayed for several weeks. He also took some photos. Then he told some other backpacking friends about this amazing beach. So those backpackers went to visit and they told some more backpackers who then told some more and so on. Then in 1984 the man who originally photographed this amazing beach was reading the New York Times and on the back page was photo of that very same beach. Only the photo wasn’t like the ones he took. This photo showed the beach packed with hundreds of people.Flash ahead another 30 years as backpackers arrive on this island in droves. Then mainland Thais arrived to sell things to the foreigners, things like hotel rooms, trinkets, alcohol, drugs and sex. On New Year’s Eve 2010 some 50,000 people packed its shores to party like it was 1999. The scene the next day was of plastic and glass bottles smothering the beach as the tide rolled in while people were passed out on the sand.

The back packer who “discovered” Haad Rin Beach on Koh Phangan island in Thailand was Costas Christ, now Editor at Large for National Geographic Traveler. It was not his intention to overrun that beach with drunk, littering backpackers on a hedonistic New Year’s Eve. Nor was it Yossi Ghinsberg’s intention to send hundreds, even thousands, of backpackers to the jungles of Bolivia when he wrote and published a book about his survival in the Amazon after being swept away from his friends by a flood in 1981. His book, Back from Tuichi, which is a tale of life and death, has since become a Bible for those who wish to follow in his footsteps.
The film looks at how backpackers travel, where they travel and what happens when so many show up in the same place. This look at the downside of backpacking culture is what makes this film especially intriguing. As a travel writer myself, I have read, seen and heard the arguments made by those who lament the luxury travel set as mega-hotels, destination restaurants and golf courses rise up in various unspoiled settings. Never had it occurred to me that those who travel with only a backpack would do so much damage to the places they visit. However, a Bolivian resident in the film makes the point that backpackers can be the worst kind of tourists when it comes to setting up infrastructure, mostly because they are the first to arrive in places that don’t have any tourism infrastructure to begin with. They don’t require luxuries or even everyday comforts which makes it easier to build places for them to stay and eat, infrastructure without codes, environmental standards or any control for growth.

Why does this happen? One of my dearest friends has an environmental studies degree and spent many years working for the National Park Service in the forests surrounding Vail, Colorado. She makes the point that when people go camping [or traveling], they are going to [camp] where it’s easiest for them to do so. People need water so they camp near a river or stream; they need a flat spot for their tent; they collect rocks for a fire pit. The next person who happens that way sees an inviting spot and decides to camp there too; and the next; and the next; and so on.

In a way, this happens with back packing. Back packers in particular have a desire to find a place that no one else has been too, a place where they can raise eyebrows at home with the mere mention of a city (Timbuktu is an example in the film).  A small group of backpackers find such a place and perhaps encounter friendly locals. They tell their friends back home or fellow backpackers they meet on the road. Usually those stories become embellished (who among us hasn’t done that?) and then others want to go. The backpacking community (just like the cruising community or the bird watching community, or the wine lovers looking for that elusive bottle) probably read the same blogs and the same guide books so even more people learn about a place. Eventually it becomes so crowded the location reaches tipping point. But can we return from that tipping point?

The answer is no…and yes. My friend told me that the Park Service actually sections off areas of parks and declares them “sacrificial,” so people are allowed to camp in a specific area and the park service keeps people confined to that spot (through natural barriers, fences and signs), allowing campers to degrade that spot and then close it down for rebuilding the next season. In the film, there is the example of Bhutan. The country, famous for its “Gross National Happiness” measurement, imposes a charge to visitors of $200-250 a day per person (This fee does include accommodations and transfers, but can be complicated. Visit the Bhutan Tourism Council to learn more.). The policy is called “High Value, Low Impact.” This produces a different type of traveler, one who has to really want to be there because it takes extra money to do so. Is that fair? Or is that the price paid to keep us from destroying the places we love?

“No matter how small, every person leaves a footprint wherever they go,” my friend reminded me.

Those of us who travel, whether we backpack or not, need to remember that we are the visitors and that the places we visit do not belong to us. We are only there temporarily, whether it’s for three days or three months, whether it's 30 miles away or 3000. We need to remember that there are people who live there who will continue to need a place to live and work long after we’re gone.  I encourage everyone who has the chance to see this film, which is currently being shown at universities around the world. Follow Gringo Trails on Facebook and Twitter to find cities where screenings will occur or find screenings online. General release will be later this year. My viewing of this film was made possible by

This sunrise was worth getting up at 2 AM, but the tour that followed was not. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

This Week: Maui, HI

For my latest blog post, I'd like to direct you to my new piece on driving in Maui that has been posted to Go World Travel. Based in Colorado this online magazine features some of the best travel writing on the planet. They also pay the writers who contribute to so if you could give them just few minutes of your attention, you'll be helping writers like me continue to do what we love; share our joy of travel with others. Thank you!

Click to view all my posts at Go World Travel.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

This Week: Singapore

Basset Hound meets Buddha

Moving with a pet can be difficult. Now imagine moving halfway around the world with a dog in tow. Sandra Goodman of Lakewood, CO, found herself in that situation in 2006 when her husband, Bob Schafish, received a 3-year work assignment in the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore. An avid world traveler, Sandra was ready to go, but wouldn’t leave her beloved Basset Hound Emma behind. Getting Emma into the Lion City proved quite a task.

"We learned it's much easier to get a person into Singapore than it is a dog," Sandra laughed. They even hired a ‘pet handler’ to help. Sandra said the foreign community that lived in Singapore was so large, several companies provided relocation services to help navigate the county’s strict laws. These companies helped families get children into schools, leased apartments, and even brought in pets. The company, Pet Hotel, made sure Emma’s medical records and other documents were in order.

Paperwork was one hurdle. Another was the 30-day quarantine enforced by the government’s Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority. The Authority told Sandra that Emma had to arrive on September 5, Labor Day weekend.

"I wasn't happy about that," she said, "but it had to be within 3 days of that date or Emma's paperwork would get put back at the bottom of the pile." Airlines were also an issue. Dogs weren’t allowed on direct flights so they had a stopover in Taipei. Emma was in her crate for almost 24 straight hours. Then came the quarantine, or doggy jail, as Sandra called it. In October 2006, Emma became a free dog in her new country.

According to Sandra, Singapore was dog friendly, but daylight hours proved unbearable for walking to both dog and human because of the overwhelming heat and humidity. Sandra went jogging in the dark of morning and walked Emma late at night. The late walks proved useful because midnight in Singapore was 10 a.m. in the US so Sandra could make her family and business calls. The heat also led to medical issues. Dogs were susceptible to heat rashes and Emma developed several. However, Sandra said Singapore had excellent veterinary care so Emma recovered quickly.

Sandra also learned about Singapore’s pet culture. Dogs, while loved and adored, were also a status symbol in this wealthy financial capital. The bigger, more foreign the breed, the higher the status. A family with a Siberian husky had a lot of money, she joked, because they could afford to run their air conditioning all day. German Shepherds were also quite popular. However, most families preferred small breeds because they were easier to handle, especially when living in tiny Singapore condos.

Sandra enjoyed taking Emma to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The gardens were shady and large and allowed dogs, even in the outdoor restaurant. They met many new friends there, canine and human, expats from England, South Africa, Australia, and France. Sandra’s only problem was Emma would pilfer the food offerings locals left for their ancestors at the many Buddhist altars around the city. Sandra hoped the ancestors would forgive Emma.

From their new home, Sandra and Bob traveled all over Asia, including China, Thailand and Indonesia. Both experienced SCUBA divers, they enjoyed their free time diving in the beautiful reefs around the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, Emma had to stay behind. Sandra discovered a boarding and dog care facility called Action for Singapore Dogs (ASD). More than just boarding, ASD was a non-profit organization that provided care and adoption services for Singapore’s stray cats and dogs and to help raise funds they boarded dogs for traveling owners.

"It was a wonderful place and Ricky Yeo (ASD Founder and President) was great," Sandra said. They even put photos from one of Emma's stays on the ASD website. She said the ASD had many great stray animal programs and she and Emma were glad to help support a local organization in their adopted new country.

Returning home in February of 2009 was much easier for Sandra and Emma. All Emma needed was proof of her rabies vaccine. Back in Colorado lounging in her favorite chair, 12-year-old Emma was quite content. For Emma, home was wherever Sandra was.


Sandra is a friend of mine and one of my first interviews when I began the International Pet Examiner at The article was originally printed there, however, this version is a condensed one I used to enter a writing contest. It didn't win, but I still like the story. Sandra also helped me contact Ricky Yeo at ASD for my next IPE story. Those two interviews really established what I wanted to do with the column and made it what it is today. Emma was a wonderful dog. She passed away just over a year ago, but lived a long and content Basset Hound life. I still see Sandra when she gets her weekly coffee next door to the frame shop and she has two new pups, Truman and Toby. Sandra still travels the world to go diving too. The smaller dog in the photo next to Sandra and Emma belongs to a Singapore friend. See more of my work as the International Pet Examiner by using this link: 

Singapore Botanic Gardens
Action for Singapore Dogs