November 20, 2018

I just finished my toughest test ever!

By John Guy LaPlante

With 2 photos

Morro Bay, CA – It was California’s written driving test.  Pass it and I would continue to drive. Fail it and I would be grounded. Imagine! Well, I did pass it but by just a hair.

In fact, this was a retake. I flunked it the first time.  So humiliating! What anxiety that created!

The tutorial. Notice how it’s dog-eared. That says a lot.

Now consider the following. With 20 years of formal education behind me – kindergarten through graduate school – I’ve never, never passed a test with less distinction.

I knew sure some people taking it had just a GED – you know, a general equivalency diploma because they never graduated from high school — and  were passing it on their first try. Yes, embarrassing!

As most of you know, I now live here in California. California says I must now have my Hyundai Sonata with Connecticut plates registered in California. Well, I did that.  I also must have a California driver’s license, this though my Connecticut license was good till 2023. No ifs, and, or buts.

Registering my car here turned out to be a snap.  I had to buy California insurance coverage. That was a must. I got several quotes. An AAA policy turned out to be the best deal.  And through AAA I could also arrange to register my car at their local office instead of  at a CA Department of Motor Vehicles office.  That cut through what I was sure would be much red tape.

Unseasoned drivers here must pass a behind-the-wheel test with a CA DMV examiner aboard. But as a licensed driver, I would be spared that. All I had to do was pass the written test. No problem. Or so I thought.

After all, I have been driving for more than 70 years. I just did a quick calculation and have figured I’ve driven more than a million miles.  Maybe two! Have lost track of my many cars. I have crisscrossed the USA time and again. Have driven through five provinces of Canada. Some 15,000 miles through Mexico. In half a dozen countries in Europe.

I taught my wife-to-be to drive. Also my three children. I’m proud of their skill.

In all those years behind the wheel, I’ve had a few accidents. Of course. Remember, some of that mileage was through snowy and ice-slick winters. A lot on tough roads and in tricky situations. But never an injury to myself or another. And never have I been arrested. Nobody manages that without a lot of good luck. Still, I do have hefty bragging rights.

Not that I took the challenge of the written test lightly. The tutorial for it covers 114 pages. I went through the tutorial page by page. Made notes of tricky items. Plus the DMV offers a number of online practice tests.  I took every one.

Then off I went for my appointment to the local office in San Luis Obispo, the county seat 15 miles south. And brought all the requested paperwork. It included my birth certificate, proof of my residence here, my current driver’s license and a few additional docs just in case. And my credit card in my wallet.

It was my first visit to a CA DMV office. It’s a whole building. The parking lot was full. I have a handicap placard. But all

Every possible situation gets explained. The wording of  some questions is a problem.

the handicap spaces were occupied. The only space I finally found seemed 75 yards away. That’s a challenging walk for me now, even with my walking stick.

I made it inside. It was jammed. More than a hundred customers, I estimated.  Long lines. Nearly every seat in the waiting area was taken. This will take forever!

Not so. I was lucky. Thanks to my obvious old age, I got red-carpet treatment. All senior citizens get it, it seems. Well, decrepit ones. I was directed to a special desk just for us.

A pleasant young woman got me through all the formalities. Took a thumb print of me – not the finger-printing of all 10 fingers that I went through when applying for my Peace Corps service—on an electronic gizmo. Just my right thumb. And in a minute she had my whole file up on her computer. She scrutinized all the documents I had brought. No problem. That was a relief.

She made me take a vision test. I had my glasses on. I passed it. My license would say I must wear glasses

She asked if I wanted to be registered as an organ donor. I said yes. My license would show that also.

What I was applying for was a Class C license. That’s the usual license for most drivers. There’s also a Commercial License and a Motorcycle License and several others.

Now for the test. An assistant ushered me to a computer and showed me how I could warm up on it with a few sample questions.

There would be 36 questions. I had to get 30 right. Every question would have three possible answers. All based on info in the tutorial. No nasty trick questions. Only one of the three would be correct. If I answered one wrong, the computer would announce “Error!”

I was uptight. Definitely, absolutely I wanted to continue driving.  Giving it up was unthinkable. But I felt I was ready for the test. I started it in earnest.

I got questions one, two, three, and four right.  This will be a snap. After my fifth question, “Error!” What?! I thought I had answered it right.

I continued. I was doing fine again.

But after my ninth, ”Error!” What?!

I began reading every question twice, three times. In all my schooling I had graduated from every phase with honors. I wanted to “graduate” from this with honors.

Well, on I went.  Then ”Error!”  And another.  My confidence soured. I wound up with seven! Awful.

The whole test had taken just 15 minutes or so.

But not all was lost. The computer reset again. I found out I could take the test again. Right now.

I started again. Proceeded with the greatest care. I’m embarrassed to tell you so, but I failed this one also. I was shocked. Appalled.

At the desk I was told, no problem.  “Just come back and take it again.” I drove home in a very dark mood.  I decided I’d do the re-take in three weeks.  I had other important things to do.  And I wanted to ace the test the next time.

So of course I went through that tutorial with a fine tooth comb. And the online sample tests also.

But suppose I fail again!  That thought kept coming up. Suppose I fail again!

Even in bed at night. Sppose I fail again!  What will I do then?

I consoled myself. It won’t be the end of the world. Heck, no!

After all, I still had my completely valid Connecticut license.

My daughter Monique and her hubby David at times took me along on their shopping trips. They’d be glad to expand that, I was sure.

I could keep my car and find somebody to drive me, for pay.

Truth its, these days I did all my routine “driving” on my trike. I lived close to downtown. Used my trike every day – pedaling to the library, the post office, the supermarket, the coffee shop, on and on. Pedaling was great exercise. In fact, the only real exercise I got now.  And great fun. Sometimes I’d go a whole week without starting my car!

Some folks saw me so often on it that they knew me just as “that old, old guy with the three-wheel bike.”

And a friend came up with a terrific suggestion. “John, use Uber” I’m sure you’re familiar with that—the taxi service provided by ordinary men and women using their own cars. You summon one with an app on your computer or cell phone.

He said to me, “Think about it, John! You could sell your car and pocket the money you get for it. Cancel your insurance. Give up the registration. No more annual tax. No more gasoline to buy. No more routine maintenance expenses.  No more car washes.  No more worrying about being stopped by a cop. Or having an accident. Hey, think of all the money you’ll save!”

A brilliant idea, I thought.  Kept it in mind. Finally decided I wanted to keep on driving. A driver’s license spells independence. Freedom. And I felt my honor was at stake.  All I have to do is pass that damn test!

I got back to work on that tutorial and the sample tests.

One of the problems, I was convinced,  was that the testing has little relevance to everyday driving.  Many drivers – most, I dare say –go on and drive with little knowledge of and little respect for the fine points made by California DMV.

Examples:

Do we really have to know that anyone over 21 found with an alcohol level of more than 0.08 percent is in big trouble?  And under 21 with a level of more than 0.01 ditto? Of course not. All we have to know is that a suspicious police officer can insist we take a sobriety test. And if we fail it, trouble indeed!

The whole point being that it’s risky to drive and drink, and much smarter not to drink.

Do we really have to know that the only vehicle that must stop at a railroad crossing is a truck carrying hazardous materials?  All others must slow down, look left and right, and never attempt to cross if they see something on the tracks or just beyond it preventing complete passing.

That if we abandon an animal on a highway we can be fined up to $100? Even also be sent to jail for up to one year? No. All we have to know is that doing that is illegal and we will be be fined severely.

Do we really have to know that we must pass a bicyclist in a bicycle lane by at least 36 inches, and not the other margins mentioned as a possible answer. No. Just that we make sure to pass safely.

That the most dangerous time to use our brakes is not during a routine rain, but when a rain just starts? No. What’s important is that we must slow down and use extra caution.

I studied hard. Returned for the re-take. Felt I knew the material cold.

Surprise, the clerk asked me if I wanted to take the paper test or the computer test. I had thought every test was on the computer. “Which is easier?” I asked. “Paper,” she said.  “I’ll do paper,” I told her.

She sat me down at a table and handed me the test.  Same format. A question and then three choices. Check the proper one.  But no “Error!” warning now.  I was confident of my answers except in three  questions. I re-read them.  Still I was unsure. Just because of their working. They were ambiguous. Whoever  composed them never got an A in logic or sentence structure.

Bottom line: I got four wrong, so I passed! But I was disgruntled. I went to a clerk and insisted on seeing my mistakes. Upon examining them I concluded I could make a righteous complaint that three of my answers were valid.

So I did ask to speak to a supervisor about those questions but was told , “Impossible, sir! You have to get in touch with Sacramento.” Sacramento, as you know, is the state capital. She gave me a form to fill out and mail. I took it home.

Maybe I will. I have sound objections. I would like to argue my answers were correct. But maybe I won’t. It probably wouldn’t change a thing.

Finally I asked to take my graded test home.  I already I knew I would blog about this experience.  I could include the exact wording of those troublesome questions and my answers for you to decide for yourself.

“Sorry, not allowed,” she told me.  Of course! Because I could have made a bundle selling them to people worried about passing the test!

And oh, before I was handed my new license, I was asked for my Connecticut license, yes, with still four full years left on it. The clerk punched three holes in it.

Remember how I thought I could continue driving with that license if I had failed the California test? Not so. That would have been illegal. Well, I’m saving it as a souvenir.

Then a nice surprise. I had my credit card out to pay for my retake. “No, no,” she said. “You paid the last time.” I smiled – my only smile during the entire miserable experience.

I was joyous on my ride home.  Joyous – that’s the right word. But my “errors” rankled.

And extremely careful now how I drove. The experience did teach me the importance of safe driving. I’m serious. I drove more carefully now. Strove to drive exactly as specified in the tutorial.

The fact is, I did not have a right to drive. I had a permit to drive! I had forgotten that.

At the same time I was amused by how many drivers on the road with me were routinely and blissfully ignoring the legalities they had to know to get their license.  Scandalous!

DMV officials must go nuts observing this when they are out driving routinely.

Yes, I lost a lot of sleep over that test.  But given my age it is sure I’ll never face another. Ever. A nice thought. Comforting. But not so nice in another way.

……..

As always, I look forward to your comments. Thank you in advance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Have you had narrow escapes, close calls?” Me?

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA – Yes, I have.  Several. Scary close calls.

This came up when I spotted a poster on a bulletin board.  Glance at the photo.

Interesting, don’t you think?

That outfit called The Reboot was announcing its upcoming meeting. A strange name, The Reboot,  but that wasn’t explained. The Reboot is all about what it calls ““Storytelling Re-Imagined.”

The Reboot has been around for a year but this was the first I heard of it.

Its storytelling theme changes every month. For May it would be “Razor’s Edge. True stories  would be told,  without notes, of narrow escapes, close calls, flirting with disaster, taunting fate, and laughing in the face of danger!”

Anybody wanting to tell a story could send in an email saying so.

Well, definitely I’ve had narrow escapes and close calls. But I never laughed in the face of them. No, sir. Too scared!

I was fascinated. The Reboot is a club, well sort of. The storytellers – all amateurs– stand up and tell stories. Applause is all they get for it. Admission is free.  You can go once or every month.

It meets every third Friday of the month at the Top Dog Coffee Bar on Main Street from7 to 9 p.m. A friend told me they get a full house every time. “John, better get there at quarter of!

Hey, maybe the Top Dog hosts it for the PR value of it and the business it generates.

I read the poster one more time. I can do that!  I decided on the spot. I shot off an email saying to count me in.  But it turned out I was one volunteer too many. They had already filled their slate.  Well, I’ll blog about my close calls!  And here I am.

I thought and thought and settled on two close calls for you. The first I’ll tell you about is “Gwalior.” That’s the city in India where it befell me. The second is “La Carretera del Diablo,” which is deep down in an offbeat corner of Mexico.  That’s Spanish for “The Devil’s Highway.”

Gwallior is little known to us Americans but famous to Indians for its huge and historic and important fort. Lots there to look at and think about and learn from.

This was some 30 years ago. I was on my first trip to India. Two dear Indian friends here in the U.S., Sulekh and Ravi Jain, were going back for a visit. Sulekh was a PhD engineer.  How we became friends is a wonderful story but for another day. I’m pleased to say our friendship is still very much alive.

Anyway, now and then Sulekh would say, “John, one day Ravi and I will l take you to India!”  Ravi is his wife. I thought that was just well-intentioned hot air.

But one day off I flew to India with them. A whole month, as I remember it. We toured far and wide. A spectacular adventure.  At one point Sulekh and Ravi were going to be tied up for a couple of days. Sulekh suggested I take the train to Gwallior. “Fantastic!”  he said.

He arranged to have a young relative accompany me. He’d me my guide and helper. Nice fellow. I don’t recall his name. I’ll call him Suraj.

It was a train ride of four hours or so. Suraj got me to the station in good time.  It was jammed with Indians, men in turbans and women in saris. In that great throng I spotted a lone white man. About 30, tall, in dungarees and sneakers, a huge backpack on the floor by his feet. An American, I’ll bet. I walked right over.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m John. From Massachusetts. Taking the train to Gwallior with my friend here.”

Yes, he was an American. He told me he was taking the same train. Had just finished a full hitch in Peace Corps and was going home the s-l-o-w way. Loved foreign travel. Solo. I marveled at that. I had no idea that one day I too would serve in Peace Corps…and would find out that most Volunteers have a genetic streak to adventure-travel. Just as he was.

The train pulled in.  Many cars.  In one way trains in India are like trains in Europe. A long corridor runs down one side of each car. Not down the center. The cars at the front are first class — they have cabins for four…well, six skinny Indians. The cars at the rear are second class.  Just row after row of wood benches, Suraj told me.

We all got aboard. Suraj and I had a cabin. My new friend headed toward the rear.

Two big toots and we started. There would be several stops. We had the cabin to ourselves. I sat by the window, facing forward. Any others in the cabin would have been traveling backward. Suraj sat by my side. I spent every minute looking out the window. So interesting.

Oh, Ravi, bless her heart, had warned me never to drink faucet water.  Always boiled water, always!  Told me  to buy hot tea from vendors. That way it would be safe. She had given me a bottle full. No longer hot, of course. I took a sip now and then.

About half way, we made a scheduled stop. I spotted a lot of young men outside demonstrating. Wow! They were focusing on our train. Why, I had no idea. Suraj had no idea.  Lots of angry yelling, big scrawled placards, clenched fists. Awful. Scary. We were safe inside.  But some kept coming close. Very close. I saw two approach right below our window. They were trying to crawl under our car. I saw one pull out a wire he had yanked free. The other did the same thing.

Things quieted.  The demonstrators had backed off. Still the train didn’t move. Many minutes went by. Thinking of the ripped out wire, I wondered if other demonstrators had done the same thing. Have they disabled the train? Suraj said he’d go out to the platform to try to find out what this was all about. My bottle was empty now. He would buy me a refill.

I sat alone.  I was worried. How long will we be stuck here?  A long time went by. No Suraj.  Things had quieted a lot. I decided to get off, too. I wanted to check on my Peace Corps friend. Is he okay?  A lot of the demonstrators were still around. They had congregated on the platform side. No yelling now. No chanting. They stared at me, an obvious foreigner. Were muttering.  I was nervous but walked on to the end of the train. No sign of my friend. Saw a big log had been placed across the tracks! Couldn’t spot my friend.

Now 15 or 20 of them appeared and surrounded me. Were yelling something. Angry words. They glowered at me.  The leader, hefty, frowning, came right up. Stuck his face within a foot of my nose. Was yelling something. Shook a fist. His buddies were yelling something. Were making fists. Will one of these guys hit me?  Drive a knife into my side?

Suddenly an older man made his way through them. Waved them back. Spoke angrily to them. They stepped back. He took me by the arm and walked me back to my car. They followed me with their eyes.   I stepped aboard and returned to my cabin. I was so grateful to my Good Samaritan.

But no Suraj! Where the hell is he?!  I sat and waited. It was supposed to be a 10-minute stop. More than an hour had gone by.

Suddenly tumult at the back of the car. It seemed one or two of the demonstrators had gotten aboard.  I didn’t dare look out the door. Were banging on the doors as they came forward. Every door, it seemed. Are they looking for me? The white man? I bolted the door.

They were coming closer. Yelling.  Banging on every door.  They came closer. One banged on mine. I didn’t make a sound. Hate to say so but I was huddled in a corner, my arms coiled around myself. Terrified. He tried my lock. It held. He moved on.  They were still yelling and banging. Then quiet. Seemed they had gotten off. Thank God!

Finally Suraj popped in and handed me my bottle of tea. I yelled at him. “Where have you been?!” He said he had had problems. Was worried about me. Took his seat. I calmed down. Time went by.

Suddenly, with not a toot, the train started. A miracle! I thought of the youth ripping out the wire. I thought others might have been doing the same thing. Thought of the big log across the track. But what about the Peace Corps Volunteer? I never found out.

We had another stop before Gwallior. No demonstrators at this spot. But I was still worried. I told Suraj we were getting off and taking the next train back. He protested. I insisted. We had to wait a long time for a returning train. Got on. No problem. Demonstrators all gone. We made it back safe and sound.

So, I never got to see Gwallior.  A big disappointment. Later Sulekh told me the agitators were demonstrating because state universities were shutting them out. India is made up of rigid social classes. They were in a lower class. Were fed up. This demonstration was state-wide. Never found out if they got any satisfaction.

Well, that was back then. Things have improved. I did go back to India some years later on my around-the-world trip.  No Sulekh and Ravi with me this time. I crossed the whole country from Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta) to Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Nearly all of it by train.

Through Delhi the capital again, of course. Went north all the way to ancient Varanasi on the great and sacred Ganges River. No problem. Not a single close call. A great trip.

Hey, maybe my close call on my first trip would have been too long to tell about at The Reboot.

Close call No. 2 — “La Carretera del Diablo”

The Devil’s Highway. Have you heard of it?  Well, l traveled it. If you drove it, you’d recall it, too. It’s a narrow, scary, dangerous road across craggy mountains from Durango to close to Mazatlan on the Pacific. No wonder it’s known as the Devil’s Highway.

This was some 10 years later. I was on my second big solo tour through Mexico. On this one and the previous one I rolled up 15,000 miles down there during two consecutive winters. Winters are mild down there.

Again I was driving my wonderful VW microbus. Sightseeing. Meeting Mexicans well to do and poor and chatting with them in my pitiful pidgin Espagnol. Snapping pictures. And sending back reports to a paper in Connecticut, which was my home sweet home then.

The VW was my wonderful little home on wheels. I’d make and eat my meals in it. Well, most of them. Write up my day’s doings and details in my journal on the same little fold-down table I ate on. Sleep in it.  Quite comfy. Perfect for me.

I was pushing along on the narrow, cliff-hugging blacktopped highway between those two cities.  Alone on the road much of the time.

Now and then I’d pass through a town. Then the highway would become its  main street. That was blacktop, too. All the side streets seemed to be dirt.

In the evening I’d see the lights go on in the humble houses.  Just plain bare bulbs most of the time. This was not touristy Mexico. Anything but.

I’d strike up a little chat whenever I ran into a likely person and they would be as interested in me and my strange wanderings as I was in them.  My Spanish was awful but nobody complained. I thrived on it.

I came into a bigger town with a Pemex gas station. All gas stations were Pemex stations. The government ran them. No competition.  (Just recently private enterprise has been allowed.)  I checked my gas gauge. Was all set. Pushed on. Left all houses behind and found myself on the same two-lane carretera, going uphill now on the narrow, winding road.

The sun was getting low. By one bad curve I spotted four small white crosses. Four persons had been killed in a vehicle accident here. I was familiar with such crosses. They are common on highways in Catholic countries.

Just beyond the crosses, on the same side, I saw a black slope coming down toward the highway. Black because it was solidified lava from long ago. That’s perfect for tonight. I drove in a hundred feet or so – drove up I should say. Turned off the engine, cooked my supper, scribbled in my diary, and readied my bunk.

Then I walked down to look at those crosses. Two men’s names and two women’s. Same date on all four.  Two vehicles must have collided. How awful!  Returned to my VW. It was dark now. Slipped into my sleeping bag and called it a day.

In 30 or 40 minutes I heard a vehicle pull in! I looked out. Its headlights focused on me. And I saw a bright flashlight walking up toward me. And whoever it was had  a revolver pointed at me.  My God! A bandito?! A hard rap on the driver door. What to do?!  I was in my shorts . I scrambled up and sat in the driver’s seat. I had locked the door, of course. Opened the window, but just a hair. Tried to mask my fear.

“Policia! Abierte la ventana!”   I opened it a bit more.

A big guy. Forty or so. Big black mustache. I saw his uniform. Not a bandit. What’s this all about?!

He asked for my driver’s license. “Uno momento!” I said. I had to go back to my pants and pull out my wallet.  I showed him my driver’s license and registration. He focused his flashlight on them. Asked what I was doing here. Put his gun away. I told him I was heading to Mazatlan. Was spending the night here.

On the floor by my seat I had a three-ring binder. It had copies of travel articles I had published. I showed it to him. Pointed to my byline on several. It was the same as the name on my license and registration. He flipped through it. He understood.

“Muy pelligroso, Senor!” He told me.  I understood that — Very dangerous! He explained. Yes, there were bandits around. Thieves. Hungry, grasping fellows who might see me as easy prey. I had to get out of here. “Immediamente!” Right now!

No, I could not continue west. Curves. Cliffs. Too dangerous at night. I had to go back to the town I had just passed.  “Go to the Pemex station. Stay there for the night. You will be safe.”  He looked at his watch.  “But hurry! They will lock up in 50 minutes.”

I thanked him. Felt like giving him a hug. Rushed and dressed. Pulled out. He had started his cruiser. Was waiting for me to leave. Making sure.

I drove as fast as I could down that twisty road. Got to the Pemex.  I explained to an attendant. The only one. He nodded. Told me where to park. Said he was about to put up and lock the chain for the night. No cars could enter. People, yes, but no cars. I’d be chained in too, of course. Said he would then go home. The chain would be taken down at 6 a.m.

I drove as far back in the station’s lot as I could. Didn’t want to attract anybody! Finally went to sleep. I was still worried. Will some bandito walk in and come check me out? Two banditos?  Sleep overtook me. I woke up at dawn. The chain was still up. The attendant showed up. Same guy.

I didn’t need much gas but I tanked up to show my appreciation. And I put a couple of dollars – real American dollars – in his hand. You should have seen his grin! Heard his ”Gracias, Senor, Gracias!”

I started up the long, twisty highway again. Passed those four tragic crosses. Glanced up at my brief campsite and drove on. Silently thanked that officer who had somehow spotted me and checked me out. Warned me. And told me what to do. A very good guy.

Hey, if he hadn’t done that, maybe I too would have wound up with a white cross of my own down there on La Carretera del Diablo!

Well, I didn’t get the chance to talk about this close call either at The Reboot. Maybe the audience would have enjoyed hearing me. I hope you have.

~ ~ ~ ~

Again I look forward to your comments. Do you have a close call of your own to tell me about? I’d like to hear it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Weirdest New Year’s Day Ever

o   Property Transfers in Old Lyme 2017Property Transfers in Lyme 2013

Yes, Durban is huge. And the beaches so long and beautiful. No idea which is the one I went to. But such a throng heading to it! And how I stood out among them! — Photo from Google.

 By John Guy LaPlante

Scary, in fact. I lived through that New Year’s 13 years ago. And I’ve never experienced anything like it since. It was a unique experience.

By the way, this account was published back then. I am posting it now because I think you’ll find it interesting and may learn something about prejudice from it.

All my life, like you probably, I have celebrated New Year’s Day in winter—most often in a cold, icy, snowy winter. Not in a short-sleeves Florida or Arizona or southern California winter.

Winter arrives on Dec. 21, of course, and New Year’s Day 11 days later, on January 1. My saying this seems silly, but I say it for a reason.

Yes, seeing  the New Year arrive has often meant stepping outside into freezing cold and then suffering in my frigid car tlil the engine begins blowing in hot air.

For many decades this was too often the way I experienced New Year’s Day.

With just one big exception.That was when I traveled around the world alone for five months.  Four and a half months of it by myself—147 days, 20 countries, 36,750 miles by plane, train, and short legs by bus. And for only $83 per day, with everything included, right down to every snack and phone call and all the visas required. Visas can be expensive. That trip was my present to myself for my imminent 75th birthday.

It was a grand adventure. More than that, an odyssey. It led to my book, “Around the World at 75. Alone, Dammit!” It’s a book still selling, and in fact, one that got to be published also in China in Chinese—well, Mandarin, which is the principal language.

I crossed the Equator, a big deal for me. When you do that, the seasons are just the opposite from ours. If we’re in spring, down there it’s autumn, and if summer, winter. Then I crossed it again to return north, and same experience.

Well, as New Year’s Day approached, I arrived in Durban, South Africa. That’s nearly as far south in Africa as you can go, and I had come a long way, all the way from Cairo in Egypt on the  Mediterranean.

I arrived in Durban on Dec. 28, just seven days after the start of winter and three days before the new year dawned. But it was summer there, with long daylight, short nights, shirtsleeve temperatures, even bathing suit temperatures. How remarkable. How wonderful.

Durban is a big city. An impressive city. And I was there to enjoy it. I was staying in a nice hostel right downtown, the Banana Backpackers. I repeat. Not hotel. Hostel. I was using hostels because they were cheaper (hotels for five months can get expensive) and I got an experience more true to my purpose.

Don’t ask me why that name, Banana Backpackers. I never found out. And I was making friends. And I was making the most of the city, taking in everything I could—its bustling downtown, its historic and tourist attractions, its museums. It’s all in my book.

New Year’s Day was a great celebration there, too. It’s a big day all over the world. I read everything I could in the big Durban daily about activities coming up. English is the official language. There would be all the usual merry-making. I was looking forward to it. Planned to enjoy it as much as I could.

New Year’s Day rose, bright and sunny and warm and beautiful. But none of my senses told me that this was New Year’s Day. This was so dramatically different. But my brain did.

Durban is right on the Indian Ocean, just north of where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans merge below Cape town. Durban has great beaches. I had not glimpsed them yet, but I knew they were gorgeous. I intended to get to them today. They were not far, at the end of a broad avenue that nosed right into them. A cinch. I could get to them in just a few blocks.

But imagine my surprise. My stupefaction. Thousands of people were planning to do the same thing. I noticed that the minute I stepped out of Banana Backpackers. People jammed the boulevard, walking in from various directions.

So many. Amazing. The boulevard was closed to vehicles for the day. People were heading south on it in a broad torrent. They crowded the whole width of the street. All going the same way, toward the salt water. Some on bikes but most hoofing it. Carrying all the usual stuff—towels, picnic baskets, folding chairs, parasols, toys. Many with children in hand.

Instantly I saw they were all black! Durban is a typical South African city. It has the usual mix of blacks and whites, but the blacks were there first and predominate. In fact, apartheid had been the law of the land until quite recently. Apartheid mandated the enforced separation of the races, the same as in many places in our U.S.A. when I was young, but even more severely in South Africa, I had read.

I could not see any whites! Of course, white people like nice, warm, sunny beaches, too. Why this river of people was all black, no idea. I speculated. Sure, apartheid had finally been outlawed. But habits die hard. Black people traditionally went to the beach this way. White people took another routet o a different beach. That’s the way it was and the tradition lived on.

No way could I walk with these blacks! I should drop out. That was my first thought. I gulped hard. I was so disappointed. But then I braced up. A main reason for this big and crazy adventure of mine–I knew some people thought it was crazy–was to visit other countries, and the more different the better. I wanted to see what they were really like. I was deliberately staying clear of the heavy tourist areas. I wanted to see the real people in their real everyday life.

So how could I chicken out now?

Uptight I was, but I stepped forward and slipped in among the blacks.  Back home in Connecticut, blacks were quite few. I saw dark eyes studying me but I looked straight ahead and walked on. I was uncomfortable. Nervous. Apprehensive. I admit it and am embarrassed to say so. Though what I was doing was no longer illegal.

I was tempted to drop out and head back to Banana Backpackers. What I was experiencing, of course, was plain, classic culture shock. I never considered myself prejudiced and was proud of that, but I was reacting prejudiced.

My head was battling with my emotions. My head was telling me that 99 percent of these people were good, fine, no-problem people. I knew that this was true of people all over the world. Yellow, brown, red, black, white, mixed. In every country the bad ones—the malicious ones—are a tiny minority. True, too, in our U.S.A.

The only thing these folks had in mind was getting to the beach for a fine New Year’s outing.

My heart made me fearful, insecure, borderline panicky. But I walked on. I was feeling this way because they were so many and they were all black and I wasn’t used to this and there was no other white person around. But on I went.

I wasn’t going to the beach to sun myself or swim. I did like these things back home. I was going because I wanted to see the Indian Ocean and smell the sea air and be part of the fun and observe everything going on and get some exercise and see what a New Year’s Day was like in this country and how folks enjoyed it.

We got to the beach. A great big, broad stretch of sand. The Indian Ocean stretched out ahead, clear to the horizon, with not even a tiny island in sight. A few pleasure boats, yes.

But know what? The Indian Ocean didn’t look a bit different than many other expanses of salt water I have gotten to see. The only reason I knew that this was the Indian Ocean was because my map told me it was, period.

What I noticed was the great numbers of people. Right away I thought of Coney Island. Who isn’t familiar with Coney Island? I’ve never been to Coney Island. But I’ve seen the photos of the packed crowds on the Fourth of July.

For sure this huge turn-out would rival Coney Island in the Guinness Book of World Records. And of course all these people were black. But they were behaving just like white people would.

I became more relaxed. I began walking around. I roamed the beach. I made my way between all these people. Families in tight clusters. Kids frolicking and romping and tossing balls. Couples making out. People reading, snacking, applying suntan lotion, snoozing.

I attracted a lot of looks. Plenty of stares. But not a single person took a step toward me. Maybe my age was a factor. I was an old man, so considered harmless perhaps. Anyway, I relaxed a bit.

Not easy to walk in that loose sand. I made my way down close to the beach and walked along the shore on the packed sand, moist from the outgoing tide. Some people were in the water, swimming, splashing, floating, but quite few. Which is typical at any beach anywhere.

I walked a long way to the left, then a long way back and to the right. All along, people looked me over. Many followed me with their eyes. Most people were too busy.

I had my camera and I began sneaking pictures. I learned long ago it was not smart at times to face whoever I wanted to photograph and snap a picture.

I had developed a different way. I would spot someone I wanted to focus on. Then I would turn 90 degrees and face in this new direction. While looking in this direction, slowly I would turn my camera back 90 degrees. Very stealthily. Yes, all while gazing straight ahead. And click the shutter. Sometimes I missed the shot. But often I got the good candid shot I hoped for. Rarely did anybody catch on.

Now I got bolder. I even walked up to some people. Made sure I smiled. And asked if I could take their picture. Nobody said no.

It was all pleasant. I was happy to be part of this. But this was a film camera. And of course my roll of film got used up.

In all this, I did not come upon another white person. With apartheid dead, I was surprised some whites had not begin coming to this beach.  Then I thought, would there be blacks at the white beach now? I didn’t get to find out.

I quit long before the others did. I was happy I had not caved in to my apprehensions and had had what turned out to be a pleasant experience, in fact memorable.

Back at the hostel, I found practically nobody around. That evening I ran into a couple of people and mentioned my visit down to the black beach and what I experienced there. Well, a wee bit of it. . But they were foreign tourists, too. Whites like me. They were interested. But they had few comments to make.

Later I had another thought. It was about black people in the U.S.A.  Black men and women of all ages born there and grown up there. Like me. Just as much an American citizen as I. And I thought of the many times when for sure they must find themselves alone among whites. Must feel as awkward and isolated and apprehensive as I felt on this New Year’s Day. Probably a common experience for them in my neck of Connecticut, where blacks are still a small minority, although the situation is changing a bit. I suppose they get used to it, adapt to it, and develop a certain comfort. Just as I did in South Africa.

I felt these disturbing emotions just for a few hours on just one day. Some of our blacks back home must feel it frequently, in fact day in and day out, all their lives.  How awful.

That New Year’s Day in Durban made me more understanding. More sympathetic. I learned a powerful lesson. And the lesson has stuck. We’re all much alike. Little reason to be nervous among strangers. 

I haven’t had a weird one since then. Hope I never will.

I’d like to include some of the photos I took that day but they’re not at hand. Sorry.

Happy New Year to you, one and all, wherever you are!

~ ~ ~

Please leave a comment. Your comments are my only payback. I read them all, good and not so good. Just email it to me at  johnguylaplante@gmail.com. I’d appreciate that! 

                      

My miles, not all good, riding Greyhound

 

By John Guy LaPlante

A Greyhound bus cruised by me on I-95 here in Connecticut. And what terrific memories that stirred up. I used to ride Greyhounds a lot. And liked it.  Most of the time.

I began a Greyhound rider after I retired. I rode Greyhound all across the country and back, and up and down and crosswise, too. Many trips. Long ones. Short ones. Thousands and thousands of miles. A marvelous experience, by and large.

Who hasn't seen a Greyhound! They're an every day part of our Americana. Millions of us ride them. Yet it's surprising how many millions more don't and never will. Are you one of those?

Who hasn’t seen a Greyhound! They’re an every day part of our American life. Millions of us ride them. Yet it’s surprising how many millions more don’t and never will. Are you one of those? Maybe my experience will change you. I hope so.

But first, something I must tell you, dear readers,  A good chunk of what follows comes word for word from an article of mine that the Christian Science Monitor published way back in 2001. I have beefed it up with some extra thoughts.

I have three children, adults all, and they live in Florida, California, and Washington State (Mark now lives in Wisconsin). I like to go see them, but my frequent mode of travel worries them. It also bothers my friends. They speculate about me, and frown. I live in the Northeast, but I don’t travel those great distances west and south by train or airplane. I take the Greyhound.

Right now I’m on my way to see Mark in Seattle. By Greyhound. (Remember, this was back in 2001.) It’s 6 a.m., before dawn. We’re in Oregon, but I can’t make out the countryside. I love these early hours. The bus is dark, and everybody else is asleep. I feel meditative.

I left home a month ago. I stopped to sightsee in Philadelphia for five days, then eight days in Washington, D.C. – wonderful. Two days in St. Louis, a week in Dallas. Then a long leg – nearly two whole days – to Los Angeles. Finally, five hours up the coast to beautiful San Luis Obispo, Calif., for 10 days with my daughter, Monique.

I don’t get bored on the bus. Honestly, I don’t. I look out the window. There’s lots to see, even on prairies or deserts. I read. I write. I talk with my seatmate, if I have one, though I prefer an empty seat next to me. Or I talk with the driver, if I can.

I like the drivers. They’re helpful, and excellent at what they do. We’ve had three women drivers on this trip. We have one right now. She’s short and tiny, but she handles this big baby easily. I’ve been driving 50 years, but I’ve learned many of driving’s finer points by observing Greyhound drivers. No spurts of speed, no sharp braking, no lane-hopping, no tail-gating. Anticipate! Always anticipate!

In the past four years, I’ve crossed the country four times this way. Last year I made a complete circuit of the United States – some 13,000 miles in 75 days. A nice adventure.

In past years, I drove myself around the country. Now and then I began taking the famous Greyhound message to heart, “Leave the driving to us.”

“Why don’t you fly?” people have asked. I do. In the past 12 months, I’ve flown across the Atlantic six times. And I’ve flown around the world, and in the U.S. innumerable times. The best things I can say is planes are fast, and safe. Period! I won’t mention the bad things. No need. You know them.

“Why not ride trains?” I’ve ridden numerous trains. Once I rode a train for 37 hours straight across a big chunk of India. A few years ago, at the end of a long train trip, I rode the rails into Los Angeles. Know what? For an hour before pulling into the station in L.A., all I saw were the backyards of tenement houses, factories, warehouses, junkyards, and vast railroad yards. Not the prettiest real estate in the City of Angels. That’s typical of rail approaches in most big cities.

I’ve never found a train that could take me high into the mountains, or down into a lovely valley, with many splendid views along the way. A Greyhound can. Trains take the flattest, straightest route possible, interesting or not. Usually not.

But the Greyhound often would take me into small towns and big ones and cities, too, of course, and maybe right up their Main Street. I loved to size up everything through the big windshield and the big windows on both sides. Because the bus is so much higher than cars, I could even see over any SUVs.

In Sacramento, for instance, our bus drove right up the beautiful main drag. The impressive California State Capitol was straight ahead. How exciting.

I have a triple reason to travel by bus. I want to get to my destination comfortably, of course. And I like a bargain, which buses usually are. But I also want to enjoy the trip. Remember the old saying? “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” Robert Louis Stevenson said that. Like him, I want to see everything. Cities and towns, farms, ranch lands, forests, rivers, big manufacturing companies.

I’ve taken the bus to many big cities: Baltimore and New Orleans; Phoenix and San Diego; Vancouver, British Columbia; Chicago; and many others. I’ve seen smaller cities like Tulsa, Okla., and Tallahassee, Fla. I’ve seen Annapolis, Md., El Paso, Texas, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

And plenty more. Seal Beach, Calif., and Roseburg, Ore., Butte, Mont., Las Cruces, N.M., and Lubbock, Texas. And Lake Charles, La., and Kalispell, Mont. I could go on with a long list. Practical geography, I call it. It helped me understand our country.

I’ve seen the Ohio, Mississippi, and Colorado Rivers. Bts of the Great Lakes.I’ve crossed the Great Smokies, the Rockies, and the Sierras. I’ve ridden through the Great Plains and the Mojave Desert. I’ve seen the vast lettuce fields outside Yuma, Ariz., and the huge strawberry fields on the central coast of California. I’ve seen huge wind farms, with their countless great turbines – the power-generating technology of tomorrow. And huge reservoirs and dams.

I believe I’ve seen something else. Something more important: I’ve seen what the United States is today, and what it is becoming – a smorgasbord of races, nationalities, religions, and lifestyles whose diversity is richer than ever, and assuredly becoming even more so. For sure we’re the most multi-everything nation the world has ever seen.

It’s been good to see all this through my own eyes, rather than through television, newspapers, or the movies. I’ve been able to reflect upon it, to feel current about what’s happening.

In a small way, I see this incredible mix right here on this bus. After all, who rides the bus? Minorities: African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans. People without much money: college kids, young soldiers and sailors and Marines, single mothers with children, grandpas and grandmas.

And who hasn’t seen a movie or read a book that tells of somebody just released from the penitentiary who was given a bus ticket to get home? Maybe there’s somebody like that on this bus. No idea.

I’ve had countless pleasant encounters. One time I had an old Mexican field worker sitting to me. Still in his bib overalls. Our language problem was a big one. Come noon he opened a brown paper bag and offered me part of his lunch. I said no. He absolutely insisted I have a piece of his grinder. I took a piece. I’ve experienced that kind of goodness time and again.

But for sure Greyhound customers are not representative of all the up and down social dimensions of our people. No argument about that. But it’s good to get a view of some of our less privileged folks we’d never get to see up close otherwise.

Sometimes on these trips my white skin has put me among the minority on the bus. This was a shock at first. I became comfortable with it.

And Greyhound’s service isn’t perfect. Some seats are better than others. For food breaks, often we stop at a greasy spoon. And it’s always a shock to pull into a terminal at 2 or 3 a.m. and we’re all drowsing and suddenly the driver snaps on all the lights and barks, “Hey, folks! Service time! Everybody off! We have to fuel up and clean up this baby.. You can get back on in 45 minutes.” Try that at 3 a.m.!

Bus travel has an image problem – it’s not cool. I admit it. Some of the terminals are terrible. Their sandwich shops can be awful. No way to reserve a special seat on the bus. I had a suitcase  stolen in the Greyhound depot in Washington, D.C. Another time I lost a suitcase–an attendant put it on the wrong bus–but Greyhound tracked it down and got it back to me. It took three weeks.

Yet, all this said, I have great respect for Greyhound. It deserves that.

Another thing, very important: I’m no longer fearful – automatically, instinctively fearful – of others just because they look different. Or because they’re strangers. Most of us live isolated lives, in neighborhoods among many just like us. For me, bus travel has been a grass-roots lesson in tolerance. Isn’t that a good thing?

It may also interest you that I have also ridden Greyhounds in Canada and Mexico. Know what?  In Canada, long-route Greyhounds often tow a box trailer. With the same Greyhound markings on its side. For freight, I was told. A sort of UPS, it seems. Never see that here.

In Mexico the major bus company has a Spanish name, and it’s not their word for Greyhound. But that company is a Greyhound affiliate. Part of the Greyhound family. I know, too, that there are Greyhound buses on the road in South Africa (I saw them), and in Australia

Truth be known, many of our regional bus companies in the U.S., with names of their own, are also Greyhound affiliates. You would never think that. So, Greyhound is much, much larger than you may think.

I have also ridden buses in Europe. Many times. Many destinations. Many countries. Not Greyhounds. The big company over there – and it is very big, in fact, it is international, blanketing Europe, is Eurolines. Excellent. Before long I decided Eurolines did a better was better than Greyhound, as good as it is.

The big exception is in Great Britain, where the big company is National Express. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s also part of the Greyhound family. Or of Eurolines.

Greyhound serves millions of riders. Yet it’s surprising how many folks would never think of taking a Greyhound. Unfortunate. But Know what? After a big airline accident, with front-page headlines about many dead and injured, lots and lots of people flock to Greyhound. But that’s just temporary. Back to the planes they soon return.

For my first big trip by Greyhound, I boarded a bus in Manhattan and rode it all the way to San Francisco–3,000 miles. The price was $129, I believe. Quite a bargain. That was back in 1990, I think. That was for a three and a half day ride from the Atlantic to the Pacific. On and on we rode, hour after hour, with just a half hour or an hour stop now and then for toilets and meals.

Greyhounds do have a toilet at the back, with stainless steel everything, and it’s clean. Usually. But the swerving and braking make it difficult. So it gets used only in desperation. But that toilet was an enormously important innovation. For both passengers and drivers. No longer did drivers have to put up with passengers pleading, please, please, for an emergency stop.

That first long ride of mine reminded me of the fabled Pony Express 150 years ago or so. Each rider– they were all very young fellows– would gallop along on his horse with a bag of mail for eight hours or so. A new rider would be waiting for him with a fresh mount. He’d grab the bag and speed on for the next eight-hour leg. Finally, California!

The big difference now is you don’t switch buses. It’s the same bus all the way. But as in those olden days, a fresh driver comes aboard for the next shift. Of course, the drivers are men and women now. All proud professionals. Those old jokes about woman drivers no longer apply.

On that long trip, I soon found out not everybody was crossing the country like me. Most folks were just making short hops, from one city or town to another. We wound up just half a dozen of us going the whole way.

But I used Greyhound for short hops, too. Here’s an example. I would be flying to California every late December for Christmas and New Year’s with my daughter and son-in-law in Morro Bay. I would land in Los Angeles, and then hop a Greyhound for the six-hour ride up to San Luis Obispo. Just 12 miles from Morro Bay. Monique and David would be waiting for me. Two weeks later they’d put be back on the Greyhound going south.

To be honest I had some rough moments on Greyhound. I remember in Oregon when we were crossing a mountain one stormy winter night. Awful night. All traffic got stuck half way up. Nothing going up. Nothing coming down. The driver kept the bus running so that we had heat.

We sat there in the bus and fidgeted for close to three hours. A lot of grumbling, of course. Some passengers kept bothering the driver, asking when? When? If anybody had a right to complain, it was that poor guy. Imagine if his family was expecting him home by a certain time. But he stayed pleasant.

A big, good-natured black fellow, every half hour he would put on his hat and jacket, pull up his collar and button up tight, and trudge up to a state trooper on the job up there for info. He’d come back and tell us, “It won’t be long! Won’t be long!”

Hah! By now the line to the toilet at the back was long. In fact, I was in it. Finally we got started again. Traffic had backed up a couple of miles in both directions, we found out.

Another time I missed a bus! We were up in the state of Washington. I was on my way to Seattle to see my son Mark. He was finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Washington. We made a 15-minute stop in a small town for a toilet and smoking break. I don’t smoke. I went to the john. A busy place.

I had been sitting right behind the driver, with the seat next to me empty. I had made friends with two ladies sitting across the aisle. I left my stuff on the seat when I got off the bus. When I returned to get on the bus, it was pulling out! I couldn’t believe it.

The drivers are supposed to take a passenger count at each stop. How come he hadn’t noticed I hadn’t come back? Also, how come the two ladies hadn’t noticed and alerted him? What to do?

Frantically I ran to the clerk at the Greyhound counter inside. “Sorry, sorry,” he told me. “But the bus will be making another stop 42 miles up the road.  It will be a meal stop. 50 minutes. You’ve got time. You can get back on up there.”

But how to do that? Long story. Finally I called a taxi. The driver was an old woman. She had her grandson riding with her. “You’ll have to hurry, hurry!” I told her.  She pursed her lips. “Sorry, sir. I can’t break the speed limit!”

It was nearly 10 p.m. Very dark out. Well, she got me there. What a relief to see the parked Greyhound. I was in time! Inside the restaurant I found the bus driver alone at a table. He was finishing a piece of pie. He saw me coming. “I know! I know!” he said.  “I’m sorry, buddy!”

On the bus, my stuff was still on the seat where I had left it. The two old ladies saw me but had no comment to make. I managed to keep my mouth shut.

One awful incident changed Greyhound drastically. I don’t remember the date. Just a routine trip. A male passenger got up, walked up and attacked the driver, who lost control. The bus ran off the highway. Don’t ask me how many dead and injured. I don’t remember.

But within a couple of months, every Greyhound had a protective cage newly installed around the driver’s seat on its hundreds of buses. Furthermore, the two front seats on the right side, the best on the bus, were no longer available to passengers. Drivers started keeping their jackets and luggage on them. To keep us off them!

That was bad news for me. I used to show up early to get one of those seats. I loved the clear view ahead. And I enjoyed chatting with the drivers, and it was a rare one who didn’t enjoy it, too. I got to learn so much about their way of life.

By the way, as some of you old-time readers of mine know, I was also doing a lot of solo travel around the country in my wonderful little VW camper. That was a completely different kind of travel, of course, with wonders and problems of a different kind.

Take my word for it. I enjoyed Greyhound. Well, most of the time. But riding through the night on a darkened Greyhound is no fun. It’s hell. Can’t wait for dawn to break. The only fun is telling about it later. As I’m doing with you right now.

Hey! If you’re ripe for a new little adventure, try a Greyhound trip yourself. Not for a thousand miles. Start with a hundred miles or so, staying at least overnight, then back home. A small test trip. You might surprise yourself and like it

~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

 

CHINA: more glimpses of life hereabouts

By John Guy LaPlante  / with photos

First, a little note.  My computer has taken a little fit again. For one thing, I can no longer get it to print a question mark or exclamation mark. The only way I can print a capital letter is by depressing the caps key…so quite tedious. Thank you for understanding. Now down to business. What is so interesting about being in a strange land like China is that it’s impossible to get bored. The days are rich with unusual pleasures, big and small. Here are just a few.

Feeding her chickens

I saw this lady every day from the picture window of my room at my hostel  in Guangzhou. There were public toilets across the street…yes, squat toilets, but very clean, thanks to her efforts. That was her job. She did the job conscientiously. This was the end of the line for several different buses, and it was a rest stop for the drivers, for one thing. Anybody could use the toilets. No charge. We should have as good in our cities!

She had a little sideline. She had two bamboo chicken coops on the sidewalk. With about a dozen chickens in them.  Throughout the day she would take 3 or 4 of them out to walk around. They would all enjoy this breather.  She spread corn on the sidewalk so they never roamed far. And each had a string attached to one leg, about 18 inches long. They dragged that string along wherever they went. It made it so much easier for her to catch one. She’d simply step on the string!

But why. Well, a customer would come along and decide this beauty was just the one she wanted to serve to her family for dinner tonight.   A quick twist of the neck took care of the matter…and the customer would quickly head home with her chicken in a plastic bag. If you’re going to eat animals, in my opinion the Chinese are much more logical about it.  We are much more selective …usually we eat only some animals, and only certain parts.  The Chinese will eat anything that walks or flies or crawls or swims, and every part of it that’s edible.  Except people, of course.

At dinner at home with a Chinese family on one of my previous trips here, a nice big fish was put down on the table. And everybody picked at it with their chop sticks, and with gusto. Finally only the head was left. And the old man at the head of the table picked it up and chewed every bit of flesh off it. I could see he considered it a special treat. Especially the eyes.  Well, why not. Food is food.

Of course, Chinese cuisine is recognized world wide for its great variety and abundant imagination.

That said,  as some of you know, I have been a vegetarian for quite a while.

– – – – –

my room Gu hosel

By the way, this was my room at the hostel, and it’s from that wonderful balcony that I looked down at the chicken lady and the many other fascinating glimpses of neighborhood life.

I have stayed at many in numerous countries. They are always my first choice. It is extraordinary to find one with private rooms, especially as nice as this one. This doesn’t show my nice big bed or the desk  that I wrote this at…or the fine bathroom.

I always looked forward to a bunk in a dorm for the often interesting chance encounters.  Methinks I have outgrown that. Not nice encounters, though.

– – – – –

ladies mah jong

 These ladies were playing mah jong. It was a hot afternoon, and they were sitting in a shady corner in an alley. They were having such a good time. With the game, and with one another. Totally ignored me. I have seen people playing it everywhere–it seems a card game, but with squares instead of cards. Men, too.  Yesterday I walked by a hardware store. It was mid-morning. There were four men playing at a table in there…a couple of the clerks with a couple of customers, it looked like. Quite a nice way to mix business and pleasure.

–  –  – –

 

Bus driver instruction How  do you go sight-seeing when alone in a strange land. Well, what I like to do is ride city buses. Without getting lost. I asked the desk clerk to write me a note that I could show bus drivers and she did. It says, ‘Please let this gentleman from the USA ride on your bus to the end of the line…and then come back.  Even if all passengers have to get off at the end of the line, let him know he can stay on. ‘  Anyway, that is what I asked her to write. But, it did not work.

I showed it to one driver and he would not even look at it.  To another and he shook his head…no, no, no. Talk about frustration….

So I went back to that nice young desk clerk. And asked her if she could come with me on an interesting bus ride in her free time and she said yes. We did it.

Instead of riding to the end of one line, I suggested we ride three buses on a triangular course. And she could choose it. That way I would get to see more, and that triangle would bring us right back to our starting point. It worked out fine. At the end I slipped money into her hand. She was shocked. ‘No. No. We are FRIENDS now.’

I have used city buses that way in many cities around the world. It is a great way to take a break after lots of walking. The double-deck buses in London were a special pleasure–on the upper deck, at the very front seats, when available, right above the driver, to the end of the line and then back. It was helpful to be able to use English, of course.

Subways are wonderful to get someplace fast. But an awful way to get the feeling of a city.

–  – – –  –

SHOES for sale

Take your pick. This vendor has thousands of pairs to choose from–you may have a hard time finding your size, but he will be glad to lend a hand. This is typical of street vendors of all kinds. Be careful…you maybe over-charged. He will recognize you as a tourist in a flash, and human nature is human nature. It may be too trivial to bother with.

On the other hand, it’s satisfying to protest, just for the principle of the thing.  It is surprising how the price may get dropped if you show indecision, and act as if to walk away. Prices generallyare low.

But not for vegetables and fruits–I have found them shockingly high, as high as in the USA, and their incomes are much lower on average, of course. This may explain why the Chinese favor noodles and dumplings and flesh.

– – – – –

Barack n Putin

Some news is news all over the world, of course.  This newspaper’s front page is an example. You don’t  need to understand a single word to understand what it’s about. But it’s interesting to see how the news is treated, as in the case of the Ukraine confrontation between Obama and Putin. I thought the cartoon treatment was terrific.

Recently i was at a dinner at home with a remarkable couple–a TV anchor lady and her husband, an engineer. And the subject of newspapers came up.  They are all government run or controlled, they assured me. Yes, all.

Naturally, I asked, ‘Well, how can you believe them.’

They howled. ‘Nobody does.’ Lots of laughter. Then,  ‘Except the weather report.’ More laughter.

This is such a total contrast to us in the USA, where a free press is considered to be essential to our way of life.  Sure, we have our share of junk journalism, but thank God we also enjoy responsible and truly professional journalism.

[Read more…]

China: Glimpses of life in my neighborhood

By John Guy LaPlante  /  with  photos

     Sorry for the  delay in getting this to  you. Blame my big computer / Internet problems here.

    I write this in Fangcun, which is a small section of huge Guangzhou, population 16 million. No way can I see that whole immense city. But what I see here in my backyard, so to speak, gives me a good idea of what life is like in much of Guangzhou, even China, I believe. And I see lots of interesting things.

1

But first, this above is my home here. It’s the HI Riverside Youth Hostel. Hostelling International is truly international. I’ve stayed at numerous HI hostels in country after country because of their high standards and quality. Youth Hostel is a misnomer. That’s how HI started. Today its hostels welcome “youths” of all ages, even a rare octogenarian like me. What’s important in hostelling is a youthful spirit, I like to think.

Few youths here in this season. They are all in college. Many Chinese and foreign guests. This morning I met Alexandrine, a lady from France, doing some kind of study here. Yesterday Albert, about 45, from England. He told me he has been in 52 countries. Hasn’t lived in England for years—much too expensive. Told me it’s easy for him to find work here.

Anyway, I have the very nicest room, a big private with excellent bathroom, a huge bed, a couch and comfy chairs, nice lamps, even a desk. It’s all quite luxurious by hostel standards, for $45 a night—very high for a hostel.

My room is on the second floor (out of sight in this photo) but like the one just to the left of the vertical sign. I love my balcony. I look down on the boulevard, then a pretty park, and right behind it, the big, broad Pearl River, with ships going up and down. All the street activity right below is totally fascinating.

It’s an easy and interesting walk to the ferries that criss-cross the river, to the Metro, and to the busy downtown area. I’ve hit it lucky here.

~ ~ ~

2

This mural is at the ferry dock nearby. This mural fronts a store there. It’s a panorama of the Pearl River with Guangzhou sprawling behind it—in fact, on both shores of it.

The minute I saw it, I thought, “This is wonderful! Everybody will see what a big and modern and dynamic city Guangzhou really is!”

I find it as impressive as many of our big cities in the U.S.

I knew nothing about Guangzhou just a few weeks ago. Now I can have you appreciate it a little bit, too.

~ ~ ~

3

It’s warm here, sometimes hot, even now. This is the southwestern corner of China. Similar to Miami and San Diego, say. There is a busy, busy, busy street life. Hundreds of tiny shops sell everything imaginable, and the sidewalks are crowded with all kinds of tiny businesses that set up just for the day, then return for the next day and the next.

This is a cosmetician doing her thing, one of many offering the same service. Why is she wearing a mask? Not sure. I know many Chinese are germ conscious.

~ ~ ~

4

This bicycle parking lot tells the story. Automobiles are becoming much more popular, but millions ride bikes the way we drive cars.

The bicycles make sense. They cost little, last for years, don’t require gas and oil, are easy to pedal in this flat area, can be comfortably ridden 12 months a year, and are good exercise. True, some riders move up to bikes with tiny motors, and others to motor scooters and motorcycles. In that way, they’re just like us Americans.

By the way, this is a secured bike lot—there are thieves here, too.

I rode a bike for years. If I were a bit younger, I’d be riding a bike here for sure.

~ ~ ~

5

I’m on the ferry heading up the Pearl River, and having a grand time, as you can tell. That spectacular skyline behind me is Guangzhou’s left bank. The right bank is just as dramatic. And the skyline gets more spectacular as we move ahead. It’s a long parade of office buildings, hotels, government buildings, apartment houses.

Both shores are lined by splendid esplanades. People can walk, relax, get fresh air, enjoy looking at the river traffic.

I’ve taken this ride every day, in late afternoon. So enjoyable. It’s five stops…about 45 minutes…to the university, which is the end of the line for this ferry. A huge and impressive campus, by the way.

There, a 30-minute wait, and another 45 minutes back. Two yuan each way—about 35 cents. Camil took this photo. He’s my friend the Canadian photojournalist who is here for a long time, he keeps telling me. Because he likes it so much.

~ ~ ~

6

Camil and I with two brand-new friends, both students at the University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The two of us were having lunch outdoors at a nice little restaurant on an island across from our hostel. They came along, and with great big, irresistible smiles.

“Hello!” they said. “Where are you from?” Well, we asked them to join us at our table and the four of us talked and talked for an hour and a half.

That’s a common ploy for Chinese students, by the way—to butter up to American tourists. The kids study English—make that American English, please—watch American movies, dream of getting to the U.S.A, and are dying to practice their English and make American friends.

It was Saturday, so no school. These two wonderful gals traveled an hour and a half by Metro to reach this island, which is famous for attracting tourists. So smart kids and in more than one way.

Sorry, as much as I’d like to remember their names, I can’t. But they all take on American names. It’s a popular thing. So I’ll call them Robin, in front, and Sara, in rear. They were endearing. And wonderfully spirited.

I asked them why they wanted to become doctors. Sara told me, “I want to help old people. I love old people. Love them, love them, love them!. That is my dream!” Of course, both of us were aware she was talking to a very, very old man.

Camil was chatting with Robin mostly. I found Sara so sweet and I had a grand time. I asked her tons of questions.

She talked about serious things. “Very difficult to get higher education,” she told me. “Costs much money. My family is very poor. But they do everything they can to help me.”

One of her comments surprised me. “You two,” she said, pointing to Camil and me, “have been so kind to us. Most tourists say to us, ‘Go away! Go away!’ Or they will not look at us. All we want to do is be nice Chinese students and be friendly.”

That made Camil and me feel pretty good. She’ll be a wonderful doctor, I’m sure.

~ ~ ~

7

China has a population of 1 billion, 300 million people, and it’s growing. What do do about that? Severe restrictions on family size, for one thing, but relaxing now. And mass housing like this. Small apartments, but adequate, and with good plumbing and heat.

Notice the laundry drying. That says something. Notice all the plants. It reminds me greatly of Ukraine. Thousands of buildings like this. True of the whole Soviet world.

After the huge destruction of World War II, millions of people needed good, cheap housing fast, and such buildings were the solution.

During my hitch in Peace Corps, I lived with two families in buildings like this. And I found little to complain about. No elevators in buildings up to five floors, by the way. Walk up and walk down, with groceries, baby carriage, bicycle, whatever. Not surprising that I lost weight.

No obesity here that I’ve observed. For an American, that’s a startling contrast to our situation back home. On the other hand, so many of them seem to be chain smokers—despite a huge tax on cigarettes. Camil smokes a lot and he is the one who told me about the tax.

~ ~ ~

 8

Early one morning I looked out my window and was surprised to see a huge 18-wheel truck piled high with bags of something or other. Four men were unloading it. By hand, mind you. It was all one man could do to toss one off the truck, and for another to pick it up.

One man would load nine of them—exactly nine—on a two-wheel hand truck, and haul it away. Each man would do the same thing. Deliver the load somewhere nearby, then come back for another. I thought it would take them most of the day to unload the truck. They got it done in an hour and a half!

I found out the bags contained some kind of vegetation. It was all going to some kind of chemical factory in the neighborhood.

Back in the U.S. one man with a fork-lift truck would have done the job. There’s still an awful lot of old-fashioned manual labor going on here. With China having such a huge pool of labor, I guess it’s cheaper to use people rather than machines.

When these men got through, they looked fit and ready to unload another big truck. But that one truckload was it for the day.

~ ~ ~

Got to tell you it’s one fascinating sight after another here. No time for boredom! I hope to send you more “glimpses” shortly.

 

 

 

 

Well, what do you know…I’m back in China!

By John Guy LaPlante

         I’m as surprised as you are. This is my fourth time over. At my age I never thought there would be a fourth time.

         Speaking of age, I’m going to turn 85 during my month over here. But this is the right place to be old.  The Chinese venerate old people.  They tumble over one another to be of service to us. It’s just the opposite of the attitude in too many other countries.

         I love being venerated. I step onto a crowded subway car—bingo, somebody jumps up to offer me a seat.

         I’m in China to visit two friends. Camil in the huge and gorgeous city of Guangzhou. And then Wu Bin in famous and bustling Shanghai. Two weeks more  or less with each.

         I’ll fly back to California May 2 for a reunion with Monique and David, my favorite daughter and favorite son-in-law, in Morro Bay on the central coast.

         (That’s a little joke that I enjoy—I have only one of each! But I am awfully fond of them. Just as I am of my two sons and daughters-in-law.)

         And in mid-May I’ll be home finally in Deep River, CT.  After months away!  God willing, as we say.

         What the heck am I doing here on the other side of  the Pacific? A good question.

         Camil invited me.  He is a Canadian…a Quebecois, so French-speaking.

         I met him at a hostel in Trois-Rivieres up there. Total strangers, we shared a room.  That’s the way it can be in hostels. I love hostels–I could write long and enthusiastically about them.   He had an IPad. He’d lounge in his bunk and give it his rapt attention.

         Curious me, I asked him what movie he was watching.

         “Non! Non! I was a photojournalist here for two big newspapers. My whole career!”

         Yes, we spoke in French. Not a problem for me. In fact, I love having a go in my mother tongue. I consider it all-important to keep it alive in me.

         He continued, “I have thousands of my photos on here.  I just retired. I like to look at them now and then. So many memories!”

         Of course, I mentioned I was a journalist, too—but a word journalist, not photo–with years on a big paper. Often I teamed up with a photojournalist for assignments. So we had “beaucoup” to talk about.

         Then, he surprised me. “I’m going to take a trip around the world.  In stages. Over six or seven years, most likely. And you bet I’ll be taking these along with me!” He indicated his IPad and his camera nearby. “I’ll be putting them to good use.”

         So of course, I mentioned to him I had traveled around the world. Also alone.  In one big swoop of six months—36,000 miles, across the Equator, on some 20 airlines, plus bus, train, and boat. But at 75, not at his age. And had written a book about it. So we talked and talked and talked.  Became friends.

         Then we each went our way–I home to Connecticut, and he to Vancouver to visit one of his sons  before hopping over the Pacific to China, his first destination.

         Well, you don’t really hop over it. It’s a 14-hour flight.

         By the way, going westerly around the world was a tip I gave him. Rather than easterly.

          “Oh?” he said, much interested.

          “Yes, traveling with the sun will be much easier on you. You would find going around the world against the sun awfully difficult. You shouldn’t do it that way.”

         Well, he loves China! And the Chinese!  Has been here for many months. I wouldn’t be surprised if he stayed here a very long time.

         Oh, he’s made side trips to Cambodia and Vietnam and Hong Kong. Always with his camera. Once a photojournalist, always a photojournalist, I guess. He’s passionate about that.

         But he always  returns to China. And he has thousands and thousands of photos to document what he’s seen already.

         He emailed me that he was going to have a big exhibition of some 25 of his four-star photos—an exhibition six weeks long–at the Four Seasons Hotel in Guangzhou. It’s one of China’s top hotels. Just as Guangzhou is one of its top cities.

         And at the show’s  debut,  he would introduce his new book–“Life in China,” yes, by Camil LeSieur–as seen through his artist’s eye. I’ve seen some of his photos and he really is an artist deep down.

         This will be the Chinese edition, with the text in Mandarin, the big language in China. But in this section of southwest China, the big language is Cantonese. In fact, Guangzhou at one time was called Canton. The Mandarin / Cantonese situation is much like the English/Spanish reality in our country.  It makes sense for him to do it Mandarin.

         But there will be an English edition of the book, too, and a French edition.

         He asked me to write  the preface. Also some texts. Quite an honor. I’ve gotten most of that done. He wrote the many photo captions in French, of course.  He asked me to put them into English, which I’ve done, but with some still to do. 

         Translating is a tricky challenge. I wanted to give him not only a very faithful translation, but one that would catch his style and persona as well. And it’s my English version that is being used for translation into Mandarin. So my English version has to be excellent.

         But why me doing the translating? Well, there are many Chinese translators who translate from English but relatively few who do it from French.

         I do plan to keep you abreast of all this as it develops.

         By the way, getting to Guangzhou here wasn’t easy. In fact, it was close to being more than I could handle. I’ll tell you all about that in an upcoming blog.

         From here, I’ll be flying back to Shanghai, where I arrived.          Wu Bin, my other dear friend over here, lives in Shanghai and planned to greet me at huge Pudong Airport there. But everything on that flight over the ocean got so tangled that that became impossible.

         But he was there to greet me on two of my three previous visits to China, and what a delight that was.

         I met Wu some 10 years ago in Nairobi, of all places. That is the huge and bustling and in some ways very modern capital of Kenya, with skyscrapers, mind you. (It also has huge slums, by the way.)

         As with Camil, we met in a hostel.  He was young—young enough to be my grandson—but we hit if off. For one thing, he was eager to practice his English, and I was eager to meet another Wu. 

         In college, one of my pals was a Chinese youth  named Wu.  Yes, from China. Unfortunately, that young friend and I lost track over the years, and we were very close. I hoped my new friend Wu might be related to my young friend Wu (who would now be as old as I, of course). But in China, the name is as common as Smith or Cohen in ours, so to speak.

     But my friendship with my new friend Wu didn’t dry up once back from Nairobi. That often happens even among friends with strong common interests. It thrived, thanks to the Internet and email.

         Wu was a tourist in Nairobi, like me. He had brought over a stock of very advanced pocket cameras, all digital and all Chinese, of course. And he was peddling them around to camera shops. They were amazed by what he had to offer them. He made numerous sales. And that helped him to finance that expensive vacation of his. I was so impressed.

         No surprise to me today that Wu is the marketing director of a high-tech digital company here,  making a range of products. He often flies abroad to bring back orders. Not long ago he was in Germany. Just before I arrived here, he had just returned from Istanbul. I’m positive someday he will be the president.  I wish I could buy stock in him.

          Well, when I completed my world trip and wrote and published my book about that incredible feat–well, to me it was– I got an email from him. He had been receiving frequent blogs from me as I traveled around the globe.

         “John, your book should be published in China,” he told me.

         “What?! In China! Why in China?”

         “Things are getting much better for us here.  Now we can take vacations abroad.  We’re like you Americans—we love to travel, too! And there’s another reason. Nobody in China will believe that a 75-year-old man can travel around the world, and all alone.”

        And what he said next took my breath away. “I will buy the rights to your book.  And I will get it published in China!”

         And that did happen! It was a marvelous, incredible event in my life.

         Remember, please, that he could have bought one copy from amazon.com, say. Had had it translated and published. And I never would have known a thing about that. But he’s above such shenanigans. He truly paid me for the right.

         I came over for the book’s publication. It was a snazzy event in a fine hotel with lots of publicity. My sister Lucie came along for me, so a very proud moment. I also came over when he got married, and milady Annabelle was with me then. That was a spectacular event, too.

         I have gotten to know his father and mother and other relatives, and a number of his friends.  All very wonderful experiences.

         Of course, this time I alerted him that I was coming to see Camil in Guangzhou.

         Immediately he emailed back. “John, please come to see me. Come for two weeks if possible. I will be at Pudong International Airport to meet you.  I will be holding a big sign, ‘Welcome, John Guy LaPlante!’”

         I was thrilled.  Hey, who wouldn’t be? Remember, I thought that trip to China five years so was my last time to China!

         By the way, I was in Peace Corps in Ukraine then, but Peace Corps gave me permission, and  I flew to Shanghai all the way from Kiev, the capital,  and easterly, not westerly, across Asia to do it. But I made it.

         What was very interesting was that I invited Annabelle to attend the wedding also. She lived in Los Angeles. And she flew west across the Pacific to Pudong. So, I went around in one direction, and she in the opposite direction! And we met there at that vast airport only70 minutes apart. And Wu was there to pick us up!

         So you can understand how I am looking forward to seeing Wu in Shanghai and sharing a bit of his life again.

         I’ll be telling you all about that, too.

         Oh, I got up in the dark to write this.  Now the sun is up very bright and promising now. This is still winter, but it’s as warm and pleasant here as in southern California or Florida.

         So, it’s time for me to shut down my computer and enjoy Guangzhou. And there is so much to enjoy here. I’ve got to make the most of it.

~ ~ ~

Two old men — strangers brought together by fate one night. And what happened.

By John Guy LaPlante

Oxnard, California – I had a wonderful day, better than expected, in this fair-sized city on the Central Coast.  Well, till late evening, anyway.

All day, golden sunshine. Short sleeves and shorts in January! What a contrast to my cold and frosty Connecticut.

No wonder so many people have flocked here. including from Connecticut.

I started out by cruising along Oxnard’s beautiful harbor. It was framed by palm trees. Big white clouds made it more beautiful.

Then I explored the enormous flat countryside that surrounds this city on three sides. Amazing to see how vast bountiful vegetable acres spread on and on right to the horizon.  So huge!

Back downtown, I stumbled on the city’s small but fine Carnegie Art Museum—originally the Carnegie Public Library and that will mean a lot to you library lovers.

Anything notable going on in there, I wondered? Yes! An extraordinary exhibit, small but memorable. But so different. I went in and loved it. I’ll fill you in about it another time….please forgive me for teasing you this way.

Then, with my walking stick in hand—I’m using it more and more—I walked to the new and much bigger library just two blocks away. Well, you know how libraries draw me like a magnet. I just can’t resist.

It’s no longer called the Carnegie, unfortunately.

And there I had the good luck to come upon two great finds, the Christian Science Monitor Magazine and the National Catholic Reporter. Few libraries carry them, sad to say.

The Christian Science Monitor, as you may know, is a small, long-established, and very fine newspaper. global in its coverage and subscription list. With a small circulation, unfortunately.

Two years ago, it shut down its long-time presses and went digital—our first national newspaper to take that dramatic step.

But it launched a weekly magazine–a print magazine! To appease upset readers who love paper and ink, I’ll bet. It’s called CSM Magazine and it’s excellent.

The CSM has special meaning for me. Fifteen years ago or so, it bought an essay I had sent in on speculation.  About sea gulls, of all things. Strange but true.

The editor who bought that piece of mine was Owen Thomas. Now he’s the deputy editor of the new CSM Magazine. A very talented guy!

Now about that other publication, the National Catholic Register. Why do I enjoy it? Because it’s such a fine paper in a special way. A weekly. It provides impressively objective coverage of all things Roman Catholic, good and not so good. From the local parish level right up to the Vatican.

It is not published by the church, but laymen who are professional journalists. Which means that there is no bishop or cardinal to make sure it toes the line. Which I find so refreshing. I was raised Catholic and am now a wayward son but am still enormously interested.

Well, guess what? I finally walked out of the library  when it closed at 8! Night had fallen, of course.

But what happened after that is what made this day so memorable.

The streets were deserted now. Walking stick still in hand, I returned to my van two blocks away. The street had been so, so busy when I managed to find that rare parking spot.  But now the street was so still. All the shops were closed, their signs and lights off.

It was a wide street, with cars to be parked nose to the sidewalk. My van was the only vehicle on the whole block.

Forty feet away, I noticed a bench on the sidewalk. Like my van, it was perpendicular to the sidewalk. A man was sitting on it, a big man, his back to me, but for sure an old man. I could make that out. There was nobody else around. Not a soul.

I unlocked my big side door and rolled it open and as always it squealed. The man didn’t turn around to look.

Inside I got organized and then looked out at him again.

The high heat of noontime had passed and now it  was cool. And at 4 a.m. it would be cold—definitely cold. I knew that by now. Well, he was prepared.

He had a thick old-fashioned overcoat on and a big felt hat with the brim pulled down tight all around. A satchel stuffed absolutely full was by his side on the bench. .  His cane rested close to his right hand.

It seemed he was there on that bench for the night.

I made my supper. I enjoy my simple but complete meals. Both preparing and eating them. I make just about all my meals. I’m a total vegetarian now and by fixing my own I have a wider choice and I enjoy variety.

And frankly I no longer enjoy eating in a restaurant alone and getting a meal with everything pre-set—what’s on the plate, and how much of each thing, and being waited on.

I took another look out as I ate. I noticed him eating, too. I was sitting in my marvelous captain’s chair, enjoying my nice hot meal freshly cooked.  And I saw him grubbing into what seemed a paper bag. And eating whatever it was with his fingers. For sure it was not hot, and maybe not even fresh.

After finishing and cleaning up, I glanced out again. He had finished, too. Now his head was slumped against his chest. Sleeping, it seemed.

Not a soul had passed. We were all alone.

I asked myself , Why am I so interested? The answer was simple. He was so old. So alone. Those worn clothes. That beat-up satchel. I speculated he was sitting there in that dropping temperature because he had no better place to go to. He seemed so pathetic. I felt bad for him.

I returned to my easy chair, leaned back, closed my eyes and mused. Yes, it had been a fine day for me, and I was tired, but nicely tired.  Bu again I glanced out.

Now he was slumped over to the left. His head was nearly on his shoulder. His hat was squished and off center. He was very still.  In a very deep sleep, it seemed.

I hoped he was enjoying a very nice dream—the reality of this night out in the open was grim. Yes, better a nice long happy dream.

But how could he be comfortable in such an awkward position? All through the night?

By now I had decided I would spend the night in my  van right here. As you know, I’ve modified it as a little camper for myself—my little heaven on the road. Very comfy.

Staying here would save me from looking for a Walmart or such. This was a nice quiet street. Shouldn’t be any problem.

I brushed my teeth. Got ready to change into my pajamas. Looked out again. He hadn’t moved. For sure he’d need a chiropractor in the morning to fix his neck. The poor fellow.

Now and then I looked out the window at him. We were both old. Both totally alone here. Both on the way to somewhere else. Well, I was. Not sure about him.

I watched him dig into his paper bag and find something to push into his mouth. I finished my own supper, right out of its still hot pan.

Now he had finished eating. Now he was bent over far to the left, his head hanging heavily over his beefy shoulder. Looked so uncomfortable.

Not once had I seen him turn toward me. Maybe he was deaf.

I felt I should go over and say hello. One old man to another old man. Opened the door. It squealed again, of course.  I should really oil it. He didn’t move. I walked to him.  Now I really saw him.  The street light helped.

Yes,  a very old man. Old like me. Big, thick beard, growing every which way. A lot of white in it. Battered hat. Heavy old jacket, collar pulled up high all around.

Had a shawl over his knees and legs. No, it was a big towel, but that would help keep him warm. Heavy shoes, scuffed with age.

Surprising how cold it was now.  I rubbed my hands together. Didn’t want to linger here long.

His hands were bare. I was surprised he didn’t have them in his pockets, or under the towel.  He was motionless. I hoped he was deep in some very nice dream. At home somewhere, nice and warm, with a loving family, maybe a nice dog, too.

His hands had done hard work. I could tell. They were side by side, just an inch apart. His thumbs touched his index fingers, forming a tight loop.

I opened my wallet. Hard to see. Finally found the dollar bill I was looking for.  Curled it up and placed it in that loop between his thumb and index finger of his left hand. He didn’t notice.

The bill was safe there—if somebody didn’t come along and grab it.

I returned to my van, closed the door. Another squeal. He still didn’t stir.  Amazing.

I washed my teeth, changed into my pajamas, pulled my ski cap down over my ears…this was my nightly ritual . Nice warm days, cool night…that’s winter here!

Snuggled deep into my wonderful sleeping bag, How I hate stepping out of it in the cold of early morning!

I thought about him, of course. And myself, too. We were both way up there in years. He had his cane. I my walking stick—I felt my stick made me look less old than a cane.

Both of us were here in this spot on our way somewhere else. But he not vey far probably. Maybe he’d be right back on this bench tomorrow night.

Yet we were so different. In so many ways. I in my comfy bunk in my little camper. He out there on the cold, wide-open street. I could lock my doors!

Didn’t he worry about what a bad person could do to him out there? Or a police officer rousing him with his stick?. Suppose it rained? How about the morning dew? What if he had to use a toilet?

Well, that could happen to me, too, but I had a neat solution . (I’ll write about that for you some day.)

Why was he forced to spend the night this way? Why?

I had one more thought, Tomorrow I’ve got to hop up early and drive off before the street starts humming!

 

Well, I got up at dawn. Immediately I thought,  What will he think when he finds that money in his hand? \

I pushed the curtain aside and looked out.

The bench was empty.

~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 years ago, around the world I went, alone. I am still amazed!

Startling, incredible Shanghai, city of extreme contrasts--only one of the great cities I got to see.

Startling, incredible Shanghai, city of extreme contrasts–only one of the great cities I got to see.

 

By John Guy LaPlante

How many miles is it around?

Well, at its maximum circumference, the world is 26,000 miles around. I traveled 36,750. I zigzagged so much, as always. You can circle it in far less. If you circle it at the latitude of my state of Connecticut, say, it will be thousands of miles less. Some make the circle without going below the Equator.

I went way down below, and stayed down for quite a while, which meant visiting South Africa and South  America, too.  Then came up and kept on The basic idea was not to go to places I knew. Not to Europe. I had been there 10 or 12 times. Not to Mexico nor Canada. I had crisscrossed them both. It was to see new places.

I was gone five months. I had many wonderful encounters and experiences, as hoped for. And two or three bad ones, which is to be expected, I suppose. I got back in one piece, thank God, and wonderfully satisfied with my adventure despite a surprising and nearly devastating start. I talk about that below.

I did it for only $83 per day. Everybody tells me that was fantastically cheap. True!

Up to then, that trip was my greatest adventure. But then I did have another great one. That was my full hitch of 27 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. That, however, was great in a dramatically different way.

On the trip I sent back many newspaper reports. But the minute I got home, I wrote it up in detail. And that became my book. “Around the World at 75. Alone, Dammit!” — 354 pages of 10-point type with many photos. It was published as both a print book and an e-book. True of all my books.

Many people dream of a big trip…a great big once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Well, for them l crammed in as much practical info as I could. I wanted to encourage them, show them how to travel safer, save them money and make it go further, and squeeze the max out of their trip, in what they learn and the pleasure they reap. So, it’s a thrill for me to hear from people who tell me they got their money’s worth out of my book. All my books, for that matter.

Know what? It’s just a few days ago that it came to me that this is my 10th anniversary of that  trip. How should I mark this anniversary, I wondered. Well, a good way was to share that experience with you now, 10 years later. So below is my final chapter from that book. It gives you a good wrap-up of my trip, I believe.

In it I mention a special 53-page section I made sure to include at the back of the book. It’s called “My Backpack.”You know how we squeeze everything possible into a backpack. I called it Backpack because I squeezed in everything I could to help you to plan and enjoy any big trip. Not only around the world.

I believe it’s important to have adventures.  They teach us so much and add so much spice to our life.  I’ll be starting another very soon. Lucky me! I urge you to try one or two. They don’t have to be humongous, by the way.

I have made a few modifications, but only for clarity. The photos are from the book, so that’s why they’re black and white and not color.

I’d love any comments, of course. Just email them to me at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com. Now here is that final chapter.

Chapter 33   Amen!

Now home, I add up all those miles, all the security checks, all the strange beds. Was it worth it?

 In my many stops around the world, I always thought of home, of course, and found myself making endless comparisons between home and wherever I was. I liked some things; I didn’t like others. I preferred some ways here; but some back home were definitely better. A normal process.

          But now back under the Stars and Stripes, I was tempted to get on my knees and kiss our good, old American terra firma. I did not do that, but yes, for a moment I thought I should. I recognized that the U.S. is like every other country I had seen – imperfect. But less imperfect. No wonder people everywhere dream of coming here. Finally I opened my suitcase for the last time. I had been on the road 147 days. Had visited 29 major cities in 18 countries – in Asia, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa, South America, and Central America.

          I had skipped Europe and other parts because I had been there a lot.I flew close to 40,00 miles by the time I got back home to Connecticut, on 21 airlines, with another 3,000 miles by bus and train. And yes, of all those airlines, as I’ve already mentioned, only two were American – in fact, they were American Airlines and Southwest.

Others were well known, such as Japan Airlines, Indian Airlines, British Airways, Varig, and Malaysia Airlines. But others were unknown to me: Dragonair, Garuda, Silkair, Bangkok Airlines, Jet Airways, Gulf Air, Egyptair, Kenya Airways, Pluna, Tam Mercosur, Lan Chile, Aero Continente, and Copa Airlines.

 At each stop, I wondered: what is the next airline going to be like? They all turned out to be satisfactory, and on none was the service bad. Some had wild color jobs – I wish I had a picture of every plane! Regardless of the airline name painted on the side, most of the planes were American made – Boeings and one McDonald-Douglas. I rode Airbuses several times. Very nice. And two Fokkers. And one ATR Turboprop.

They all got me there, effortlessly. I never felt unsafe – in fact, I thought I would like to learn to fly some day.

 It seemed the big foreign airlines always had their own native captain and first officer in the cockpit – or flight deck, as they say nowadays. But the smaller airlines seemed to favor American pilots. It would be interesting to interview some of these pilots and find out why they fly for these foreign outfits – probably money, interest in that country, adventure, a problem back home. But flight attendants were always local.

 Most impressive for quality certainly was my first airline, Japan Airlines. Outstanding. Others were excellent – Malaysia, Indian Airlines, and British Airways.

          Announcements on all planes were always made in the local language, then in English – English is the official airline language around the world. In some cases, the English announcements were difficult to understand because so strangely accented.How do people who can’t understand English make out? It has to be a major accomplishment for someone to fly around the world who has grown up in Morocco or Romania.

People are people. The airline uniform the attendants happened to be wearing was insignificant. I think the nicest attendants I met were two black ladies on Kenya Airways. Thoughtful service plus lots of fun. In fact, I still get occasional e-mails from one.

        I had written more than 65,000 words and taken 1,500 photographs. This was an ongoing, every-day effort. I kept a detailed journal which I wrote out every evening before bedtime – on some evenings it was hard. I was so tired. I had to force myself.I wrote 32 articles, each with thousands of words,  and all churned out in spurts – whenever I could get to a computer, although I scribbled sections here and there on a big pad as free time came up. The work was difficult beyond description, not because of the writing, but the computer difficulties.

I worked on all kinds of computers, renting them by the hour in computer shops here, there, and everywhere,, and many were borderline junk.

In some places, the machines were crammed together – just no place to put down a notebook or open a reference book. My elbows would nearly smash with those of the people to my left and right. Sometimes it took a lot of searching to find a decent shop. I am sure I used more than 200 computers along the way. On some days I worked at two or three.

 If this aspect of my trip interests you, take a look at the Backback section of the book I wrote about it. That was the section where I crammed in all kinds of travel tips I picked up and impressions that I felt I should share.

 And several times, despite my best efforts and determined back-ups, I lost complete articles through technical glitches. In all modesty, I consider my 32 articles a major accomplishment from the physical point of view – the blood, sweat, and tears that work took out of me. There is something to be said for old age and maturity. I am positive that if some of these difficulties had assailed me when I was 25, say, I would have quit. Yes, would have given up.

 I am sure some of you are thinking, “John, why didn’t you take a laptop with you?” I considered doing that. It would have been a big, big mistake. Many reasons. Again,  go look at my Backpack.

 My most satisfying writing occurred on the long flight across the South Atlantic on Malaysia Airlines–  nine hours from Cape Town at the bottom of South Africa to Buenos Aires, the must-see capital of Argentina. I had decided to write a final article tentatively entitled, “Around the World at 75 – A Survivor’s Report.”

 I was far from the end of the trip, but already I had much material. I planned to hand-write the first draft on this flight. And I did. I wrote and wrote hour after hour. Yes, in good old handwriting. I got off in Buenos Aires elated. That’s the right word. Now back home, that’s what became my Backpack.

 es, I had a fabulous trip. I saw some of the greatest wonders of our world, man-made and natural. I saw the Great Wall of China, the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the Temple of Venus in Lebanon, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the magnificent temples of India, ancient and long-forgotten Machu Picchu in Peru, and the Panama Canal! Those are just a few.

 I saw the deserts of North Africa, the incredible landscapes of Africa all the way south to Cape Town, the pampas of Argentina, the Andes Mountains, Iguassu Falls, the lakes of south-central Chile and nearby Argentina, the jungles of Central America. Again, that’s a short list.

 I saw the great cities. Tokyo. Beijing. Hong Kong. Singapore. Bangkok. Calcutta, Delhi, and Bombay and Madras in India (remember, those two have new names now, Mumbai and Cernai. I got to see Beirut, Cairo, Nairobi, Cape Town. Sao Paulo, Rio di Janeiro, and Santiago in South America. Plus others. Wow!

 I had a thousand wonderful experiences and just two close calls. A car drove over my right foot in India, and I came close to breaking a leg on a stairway in Bangkok. Yes, I was very lucky.

 I lost a wallet in Panama City, and I foiled a pickpocket in Montevideo. At one hostel, somebody stole my essential anti-malaria pills, but I managed to replenish them. Taking that pill was my most unpleasant moment each day. Thirty minutes later, I felt so nauseous. I was not ill once otherwise. No diarrhea. No food poisoning. Not once did I consider aborting the trip, except for that moment when Keith told me he was quitting.

Everything considered, I was very lucky.

 I was lucky to have good friends here and there, and I have mentioned them at the front of the book. What a joy and solace they were.

Truth is, I started out with a pal. How could I possibly go on a trip like this all alone? Impossible. His name was Keith, about my age. We had traveled together before. It had been fine. “Sign me on, John” he told me. We agreed we’d stick together the whole way. It was going to be “all for one, and one for all.”
It was a lot harder than we expected. In Hong Kong, our third city, less than three weeks into the trip, Keith wasn’t doing well. For one thing, he had a painful toe. But something else was bothering him, too. He never explained. He announced, “John, I am going home!” My first word out was, “Dammit!” For sure this meant the end of the trip for me, too.

But then I resolved to try going on. It would have been so embarrassing to face people. And I had agreed to send back newspaper articles. The trip was so important to me. We had spent months getting ready.

Soon I found out I could do it. In fact, I was better off.No more discussions about whether to eat in this restaurant or that one, or go to a museum or a ball game.  We had spent every minute together. Now alone, I was reaching out to other people and meeting them. I enjoyed that.

So that’s why I wrote “Alone, Dammit!” on the cover of my book. Now what I say to myself is, “Alone, Hallelujah!”

 I spent about $12,500 for everything. And I mean everything. Visas, medical shots, all travel of whatever kind, and food and admissions and amusements, plus lodging.

My purpose was to see those places and countries and their people as they really are. So I kept clear of most places that attract Americans. So, no fancy hotels or restaurants. Besides, that would have made the trip unaffordable, of course. I used hostels as first choice, and if not available, then small local hotels. I never felt a bedbug, by the way. And I had such a good time in doing it that way.  

 I think that $12,500 was cheap. I could have spent more money, well, up to a point, and made the trip a lot easier. But I didn’t want it to be too easy, and I wanted it to be rich in everyday human encounters and experiences, and so it was.

 It broke down to about $83 a day. I’m not bad at rationalizing.  When I came up with that total, I thought for a minute and concluded that many people spend that much in the depreciation of a new car in just a year or two. Isn’t that so? I considered it money well spent. Furthermore, as you know by now, I looked at it as an investment rather than an expense. 

 Good investments pay off.  This was a good one.

 My whole purpose was to see the world as it is. I wanted to travel as an ordinary person, relying more on serendipity and a friendly and adventurous spirit than a fat wallet.

 I learned a lot about the world and its people. And about myself, too. Which was very, very good. Already  I notice differences in how I think and feel about some things and places

 I admit I was very scared a couple of times. All in alI, I had a grand time. That’s the plain, honest truth. I wouldn’t change much if I did it again.

What did I miss? I promised I would tell you. Having more changes of clothing. Having more time to relax. It was always go, go, go. Having a good reading light next to my bed – excuse me, it was a bunk and not a bed most of the time. Small things.

 But the computer work was exhausting and discouraging. I am repeating myself, I know. It shows how tough it was. I am glad I did it, however.

 I encourage you to travel around the world. Travel is getting easier and cheaper, yet a trip around the world for fun is still a grand adventure. And we say the world is getting smaller. Well, we think that. But it is still a mighty big place. You don’t realize how big until you start out.

 It’s definitely not that difficult to do it my way. There’s a simple test that I recommend for you. Board a bus to your nearest big city with an airport, then make your way to that airport by public transit—by bus or trolley or subway. Not by taxi. Doing it by public transit like that is important. Then find a place to sleep. Then buy a ticket and fly to another big city in the U.S. Then get downtown again by public transit, then find a place to sleep. Do that returning home, too.

 To experience foreign travel, do the same by going to Montreal in Quebec, say, or Guadalajara in Mexico. They’re nearby. So interesting. Won’t take too long. Will cost you far less than crossing an ocean. Again the same way.

 That will give you the additional experience of entering another country and dealing with a different culture and language, different food, different money. If you can handle a trip like that, wonderful!

 Then you can make it around the world. Going around the world just entails completing that cycle a number of times.

 Of course, be realistic. Don’t be surprised when some little things go wrong. Maybe something big will go wrong. That’s life. Something big can go wrong at home as well, of course. If you have the spirit to undertake such an adventure, you have the spirit to confront whatever comes up.

 Beware of the worst terrorist of all. It’s the mosquito! And remember that all hotel rooms look the same after the light goes out. That’s a joke, but it’s an illuminating joke.

 Each of us has one or the other of the following two basic viewpoints as we go about our life: the bottle is half full, or half empty. I know how I look at the bottle, and I hope you look at it the same way.

 And when we set out to travel, we find we react in one of two ways as we encounter strangers. We can view a stranger – any stranger, regardless of his passport, complexion, clothes, or language, whether he eats with a fork or his fingers, or uses toilet paper or finds some other way, or travels by public transit or hitchhikes – either as a potential enemy or a potential friend. I’ll let you decide which way you lean on those choices.

 I hope it’s the first way. The worst disease of all for a grand adventure like this is a mental one. It’s xenophobia– the unreasonable fear of strangers.

 Let me again just pass on advice that my father gave me when I was a boy. He told me, “Jean-Guy (that’s my French name) if you smile, everybody will smile right back.” It’s true. It works. It makes a big difference.

 I certainly want my grandchildren to make a trip like mine. I believe in higher education to the ultimate, but I believe that such a trip would be the best part of their education. I hope that they won’t wait as long as I did. Again, such a trip shouldn’t be viewed as an expense. It should be viewed as an investment.

 I am happy to say I was able to carry my own luggage all the way. And I think I have enough breath left to blow out those 75 candles on my birthday cake very soon. That’s a lot of candles. (Remember, I wrote this 10 years ago. My breath is still pretty good.)

 I made many friends. (Some that I am still in touch with.) And I hope no enemies, of any race, color, creed, or political belief.

 “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”  That’s one of Mark Twain’s terrific insights. I have found it true. International travel is important for numerous reasons. This is one of the prime ones. We lose some of our prejudices.

 I hope you will circle the globe, in one loop or in stages – after all, that’s the way some people hike the Appalachian Mountain Trail from Georgia to northern Maine. The whole thing or by sections over a period of time, even years.

 Yes, I was late in achieving this long-nurtured ambition of circling the globe, which some people considered crazy. Well, better late than never! That’s how I feel. And when all is said and done, not “Alone, Dammit!”  It turned out to be “Alone, Hallelujah!”

Bon voyage to you.  Don’t let your dreams slip out of your fingers.

 (I ended each chapter with an aphorism, one that I thought up myself. Below is the one that I closed this Chapter 33 with.)

 We make a lot of our own luck in life, good and bad.  Sometimes when we set out, we leave bad luck behind and find good luck ahead. Hopefully not vice versa.

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My oh my, what a sport Jacques Istel created!

Another group goes up high to float down so gently. But the cost of it!

Another group goes up high to float down ever so gently. But the great big thrill isn’t cheap.

By John Guy LaPlante

Orange, Massachusetts—Some 50 years ago I came here to write a magazine article about something brand-new—strapping on a parachute and jumping out of a plane for the pure thrill of it.  It would become a big sport, I heard. How  crazy! And about Jacques Istel, its daddy.  What in the world possessed him?

I came, I met him, and I saw his rough and tumble operation on the back side of the tiny airport here.  He was my age, a short, muscular guy, and he was a Frenchman with the accent to prove it.

He was teaching a small group of novices. All young guys. He was a pleasant fellow but a demanding teacher.  He’d explain a bit about the physics of jumping through the sky hanging on for dear life under a big parachute. How and when to pull the rip cord.  How and why to pull this line of the parachute or that one. And so on. They’d practice jumping off  a barrel and tumbling.

At the end of all this,  they’d strap on their bulky chutes, get into a small plane while doing their best to veil their jitters, and fly up to a certain spot and altitude. At a command, they’d leap out one after another and hope for the best.  And they’d pay good money for this fun!

Safely on the ground, they’d beam with satisfaction and pose for photos.  They could have chickened out at any point, no problem. But few did, if any.

When I showed up, I was asked if I was here to jump. No, no, no, not me!

My piece was the big story in Feature Parade. It was the magazine of the Worcester Sunday Telegram. It attacted a lot of readers because of the dramatic topic, of course.

The Telegram was the morning paper.  My paper. Its companion in the same company was The Evening Gazette. Each had its own editorial staff. We’d compete against each other.A few weeks later on the front page of the Gazette,  I read a story by Carolyn Foisy. She was a young writer for the Gazette’s women’s pages.  She had read my piece, contacted Jacques Istel, signed up, and made a jump!  I believe she was the first woman in the U.S. to do that. I’m sure absolutely everybody read her story. Quite a writer and quite a woman, Carolyn!

I don’t remember why Istel chose Orange for his first school. Just as it was the first sport-parachuting center in the U.S.  I believe my story was the first by a big paper.

He went on and started jump centers here and there.  Made a name for himself. Proved that this new sport could be safe—well, reasonably safe—and in time came up with the term “sky diving,” which is what it’s called now.  He is recognized as the founder of the sport.

Anyway, all that faded from my memory long ago. Last week I was driving through here on my way north toward Quebec when I noted a sign, “Jumptown!” It showed a parachutist coming down. Jumptown meant nothing to me but the parachutist did. The sign had an arrow pointing left.

I snapped to attention. I took that left. The little airport had been out of sight.  Within three minutes I was back at the very spot on that little airfield where I had come to see Istel and his fledgling operation!

Surely this was the same hangar. A dozen cars were parked there. This was a Thursday. All those cars impressed me. And I could see people in the hangar, and around it.

My timing was perfect. This was now Jumptown’s whole operation—the office, the training room, parachute rigging center, pre-jump lounge, even a cozy little eatery. Out front, just a few paces away, was a twin-turbine plane. Far  bigger than the tiny plane Jacques Istel used back then.

I was just in time to see some 15 people fully outfitted and waiting to jump. There seemed as many women as men, which surprised me but it shouldn’t have, things have changed so much. Some were young and some not so young.

I’m sure they were quivering inside and struggling not to show it. Human nature doesn’t change much.  Some  were kidding and laughing. Some were totally quiet.  There were other people around, too. Friends and family, I’m sure, and a few bitten by curiosity. Like me.

In the office, I saw two men and a woman behind the counter. Very busy. A guy in his 50s and a guy and gal around 30, I’d say.

Aloud I said, “Does anybody here remember Jacques Istel?”  The older guy nodded but didn’t pick up on it. Just kept working. The other two just shrugged and kept working. They gave me scant attention.

Finally the gal broke down and asked if she could help me. About 30, very pretty, in T-shirt and shorts—I was amazed how many tattoos she had, and all on her legs. Oh, well.

“I came here a long time and wrote a newspaper story about what you’re doing here. That was brand-new in the country.” Mentioned I might like to write an update.

“Great!” she said, but with no enthusiasm. I got the message. She—and the two men—were used to seeing writers like me coming in and taking a lot of time asking questions, not to sign up and plunk down money, but to walk out with a good story.

She answered some basic questions and when I prodded gave me details about herself. She was the “manifest person.” I had never heard that expression. I got the feeling she was the Gal Friday. This was more than a business, she emphasized. It was a club run by a board of directors.  It was open Thursdays through Sundays and on holidays, spring through autumn.

She dropped the tidbit she herself  had made 400 jumps, but that really wasn’t much. Some members had jumped a thousand times, even more. Finally she picked out a couple of brochures for me.  “You’ll find everything you need right in these,” she said. And went back to what she was doing.

The older guy was very busy. He finished his numerous tasks and hurried into the room where the jump group was waiting for their big moment. She told me, “Billy is the pilot. He’s going to take them up.”  And she added nicely, “Go out to the fence out there in the front. You’ll get to see everything. Take pictures if you like.”

She was right. A perfect view. There were 8 or 10 onlookers there, waiting. It was a gorgeous day. Blue sky. Nice sunshine. Big fat clouds drifting by.

The airport had a lot of acres, but that was a mowed field out there right in front of us. About the size of a football field. I asked a lady next to me and she said, “Yep. That’s where they’ll land. The whole deal up and down will take about 20 minutes, tops. It takes them just a minute to come down.”

A guy about 50 had sidled up next to me. White hair. Sunburned. Hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. Wearing a Jumptown T-shirt.

He said pleasantly, “I heard you asking about Jacques Istel.  I knew about him. I’ve been here a long time…since I was a kid…but he was gone by then. Was a legend.”

This guy’s name was Danny and he was on staff here and he did just about anything that needed doing, except flying people up for their jumps. That’s the impression he gave me.

He loved jumping, he told me.  “I’ve made about a thousand jumps, but that’s not much compared to some others.”   I had heard the same thing just a few minutes earlier

Danny was terrific. He took it upon himself to brief me. I asked hardly a question. He kept giving me one interesting detail after another.

This group would fly up to about 14,000 feet.  Gosh, that’s two and a half miles up—much, much higher than those early groups. True, he told me, but this gives jumpers a better ride down and more control. Which makes jumping safer.

Some in that plane were experienced jumpers, he said. Credentialed. They’d jump alone.  Others—the beginners—would jump tandem, meaning with an instructor, both under a single chute, with the instructor doing everything and the novice looking and learning.

Of course I asked Danny whether he had ever seen anything bad happen.

“Oh, these days, maybe a twisted ankle. But that’s rare. Way back I did see a couple of fatalities.  The reason being they did

A first-time jumper lands with an instructor under a single paachute. It looks so easy!  But my, how different the chutes look now.

A first-time jumper lands with an instructor under a single parachute. It looks so easy! But my, how different the chutes look now.

something wrong, well, that’s my opinion.

“Now the training is so much better. So are our procedures.  And so is the technology. The parachutes are incredible.  Much smaller. You can fly them down, so to speak. A little bit like a plane.  You can’t make them take you up higher, but you can steer them and control your speed and adjust your slope to land where you want to.

“Those folks up there will jump one after another. This is a big, big field, but they’ll all land right there,” he said, pointing. “Right in front of us. Watch and see. It’s quite a sight.”

I saw a young fellow dressed to jump but with a big camera get on the plane.In fact, the camera was mounted atop his helmet.

 “He’s our photographer,” Danny told me. “He’ll take pictures as they come down. That’s an optional service we offer.”

I was interested in this money part.

“This is an expensive sport!” Danny said. “There’s no way around that.  There are different plans. Basically a  first jump will cost $220.  We provide the jumpsuit and helmet. If you sign up for a lesson plan, you’ll face many expenses.  Have to buy your helmet, gloves,  jumpsuit, other stuff.  Have to pay the club membership. Just driving here can set you back a lot. Some people come a long way. So can the time you take off from work.

” A beginner’s parachute will cost $6,000. And you can pay a lot more. You can even buy a gizmo that will open your chute for you at any altitude you decide—no need to pull a cord.  That’s terrific if somehow you don’t get to pull the cord! Or if you’re  busy taking pictures.”

Now the plane was up so high I had a hard time spotting it. So tiny. Danny had to keep pointing to it  for me.  “The first jumper is out!” he said.  “And there goes another!”

I couldn’t make them out. Finally I saw a parachute open. Very small. It was much farther down in the sky than I expected. It had dropped a long way fast! Then I made out several floating down.”

The lady at my left was excited.  “My son’s is one of them up there!” she told me.  “This is his 25th jump! He’s getting his first certification.  That’s a big deal.”

And she kept talking—she saw I was interested. “He  goes to college but this is what he lives for.  It’s so, so expensive! But it’s worth it  to him. But I help him as much as I can. What can I say?”

  She was so enthusiastic.“Do you jump, too?” I asked.

“No, no, no!  Never! But I come here and watch. It’s so  important to him.”

Now I saw the first jumper land. It was nice and easy. Very quiet. Nothing dramatic. Right there in front of us, as promised. And the plane had been way over there in the east when the drop began. I found that amazing. These jumpers could really steer themselves down.

Then a tandem pair landed.  One landed on his feet, the other fell onto the ground–you know which one as the rookie. Then the others landed. It was all very calm  and routine, or so it seemed to me.  The lady next to me had been right. Just one minute to come down!  I whistled when I thought about how much that one-minute thrill had cost.

The jumpers scooped up their parachutes and walked toward us. They were all smiling.  People were yelling to them, “How was it? Did you like it? Were you scared?  Was it worth it?”

The jumpers nodded and waved back and gave us a thumb’s up. Except the instructors who came down with them. This was just routine. Normal business.  The gal in the office had told me four plane loads would jump today. More on weekends, of course. These instructors and the videographer would have a full day.

Most were young, but others, as I mentioned, not so young. Two women came by, smiling and chatting excitedly, their arms heavy with gear. Danny told me, “They’re mother and daughter!”

“I wonder how many were  very nervous?” I asked him.

“Every beginner is nervous! Plenty nervous! If you’re not nervous, there’s something wrong with you.”

The videographer strode by.  He seemed in his young 30’s.  “They all did great!” he yelled to us. “Just great!”

“It’s all in the day’s work for him,” Danny said. “Nothing to it.”

And I thought to myself, If only Jacques Istel could see this!

It was over. I had been there about 45 minutes in all. I said goodbye to Danny. Gave him a pat on the back. He had made it all so much more interesting for me. And went on my way.

Later I looked up Jacques Istel online. I had lost track of him, of course. He was still alive. I learned some things I never knew.

He was born in Paris. His family moved to the U.S. in anticipation of Germany’s invasion in World War II. He went to high school here. Went to Princeton and graduated with a major in economics. Served with the Marines in Korea.

Became interested in parachuting then. Visiting in France in 1955, he saw how some jumpers there were doing it for fun and getting very good at it. Felt inspired. Took it up seriously. Became its big missionary. Made it his business for a lot of years. Started numerous jump centers.  Got many people jumping. Organized national and even world competitions.

Then quit and became an investment banker. Made a lot of money. Married a Chinese lady. They settled in California. And when he retired, he started a tiny city way out in the desert there.  Called it Felicity, for his wife. Became its mayor. It’s all so interesting.  Sorry, if you want to learn more, Google him.

Oh, one more important detail.  Not long ago, the U.S. Parachute Association—the sport’s big organization that has become so powerful in every aspect of it—gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award. He certainly deserved it. If anything, it was overdue.

I’m so glad I spotted that Jumptown sign!

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