Why I Write

What makes a person want to write?  That takes time, inspiration, research…..and “seat of the pants” work.  I have now completed six novels, the Briana Fraser series, and thought I’d share some of the “inspiration” part with you—in case you might want to write or wondered why I did.

My writing partner, Sharon Owen, writing as Sharon St. George, has penned a series, published by Camel Press, in part featuring Northern California medical facilities, eastern cities, and travel to the Azores, in search of the truth about an injured young man, then for a lost girl, and into a string of dangerous accidents, including a mysterious death. The titles so far: Due for Discard, Checked Out, Breach of Ethics, and Spine Damage.  She was careful to have characters with particular skills, employment abilities and difficulties, plus challenging relationships with each other, including a romance, making her novels realistic. I liked what she’d done with her website; I asked if I could “imitate” her site. She agreed.

As a voracious reader of mysteries, especially those placed in dangerous locales, I have written a series about an Ashland, Oregon bookstore employee and Shakespeare Festival volunteer, who reluctantly signs on to assist the U.S. government with “problems” in foreign nations. (The titles so far: “Argentine Assignment”, “Belize Barter”, “China Caper”, “Peru Paradox”, with “Mexican Marimbas” and “Russian Ruse” following in short order.)

My main “hero” characters aren’t saints, nor geniuses, but they love their country and take dangerous risks to complete “assignments” given to them by their government to help make a difference for that country. Even my anti-heroes, except in the Mexican novel, aren’t intrinsically evil, but they won’t win any cheers; maybe a bit of sad recognition or understanding.

Important to me was to develop novels that portrayed at least my vision of, respect for, and appreciation of the people of the countries in which I placed the action, including the problems the people of those countries face—poverty, power, anti-law attitudes, pride—even the religious goals of a group of nuns in Peru! Other action includes a bull fight, a contest that perhaps portrays human struggles to succeed in a dangerous world! (And I have spent considerable time in these countries.)

Other struggles are faced by the human characters in the novels, all presented in the culture, climate, church affiliations, courage, and conviction of the characters as they fight to fulfill their assignments.  Ashland gets a big “plug” because of my love of the town and for Shakespeare. And for the deer who each spring make national news as they flood into the small town (and in my yard when I lived there!) by the hundreds.

My hope is that readers will enjoy and appreciate some of the “atmosphere” of the countries mentioned earlier, as much as I did in reliving the days, weeks, even months I’ve spent in those wonderful places. But it’s always nice to come home!






Road to Puerto Escondido – Part 2

The solitary hotel we’d noticed earlier was not listed in any travel book/magazine. After we crossed—via planks—two open sewer ditches in the courtyard, the cautious owner put us in the new section, with a minute railing along the three-story open corridor. That added fillip to our stay, as we hugged the wall to prevent any accidental slipping to the hard ground below.

But the dining room was the highlight. A very small room off the kitchen, it was also the office and bar.  Card tables, centered with glasses filled with paper napkins, provided the only furnishing.  My younger son found a live rooster in the kitchen (things were a bit informal) and ran around with it, through the dining area, out over the two sewer ditches, and back through the kitchen.  Two turkeys wandered through the dining room and the handsome rancher seated next to us cheered me up.  (It’s better to laugh—and flirt—than to cry.)

The next morning, another decision—return to the “toll bridge” (AAA, how could you?) and hopefully drive on to the two Puertos, or defeated, drive back to Acapulco and Mexico City, or cut across what the map showed as a black line of road to the junction with the Pan American Highway, then go on down to Oaxaca.

Backtracking steps is not my favorite way to travel if there is an alternate route. Pinotepa to Oaxaca it would be.

That decision was problematic. The first few miles were blacktop, made of triangle-shaped metal beams placed alternatively. I failed to see how the tires could ride between the ridges or on top of them.  A government truck, the back filled with workers, stopped behind us. The men, rather gleefully, I suspected, urged me on with “pase, pase.”  My cheerful spirits hit a rapid low.  I yelled back, not diplomatically, “I’m not going to ‘pase’.”

With forced dignity, I climbed down from the VW and walked over to inspect this bridge. The workers jumped from the truck to help, but only succeeded in deepening my embarrassment.  I was absolutely terrified to go over the bridge.  They were late for work.  But I refused to turn back.  I looked around the group of men, picked the one who looked the most capable, handed him my keys, and said “you drive it over.”  He did.  No problem.  I had trouble even walking over the metal struts.  My 15-year-old son apologized later for not helping me. “You understand, mother, I couldn’t help you in front of all those men.”  The macho idea doesn’t take long to pick up.

This all happened about 9 a.m.; by late afternoon, we’d seen exactly three cars. Sometimes, I could only go 8 mph, slipping into ravines, then crawling out, only to find another ravine in a few hundred feet. It was the longest stretch of “bad road” I’d ever driven. And despite having driven the old Alaska Highway and the McKenzie Highway, this one was “difficult.” The Mexican government promised to build a wonderful highway across the stretch.  I’ve not gone back to check.

But, as usual, we found fun adventures also. One was to drive into three small villages where women were making attractive colorful long dresses unlike those we’d found anywhere in Mexico.  A dress cost about $12 in the villages; later I saw the same dresses in a shop in Mexico city’s Zona Rosa—the dresses were $70.  But this drive was a hard way to find a bargain.

There may be a new road by now. If not be certain to get gas in Pinotepa, because there was only one station along the bad road and not one from the Pan-Am junction to Oaxaca. Last word is that the toll bridge on Hwy. 200 is again visible, operative, and all the good words, but prior to leaving Acapulco for the two beautiful, but under-developed ports, be sure to check.

You would prefer NOT to take the road less traveled by.

Road to Puerto Escondido – Part 1

Two roads parted and we, like Frost, took the one less traveled. And it made, as he promised, a terrific difference.

Most people fly or bus from Mexico City to Acapulco; a few rent cars, even fewer have their own autos. So our California plates attracted attention long before we reached the resort.  Many Mexicans think all tourists come from California—and they’re nearly right.

In Acapulco, our two-toned VW bus caught some curious stares. (VW buses made in Puebla, Mexico at that time were in solid colors), but when we began our drive on the southern third of Mexico’s Hwy. 200, we became a real rarity.

Few Americans travel this relatively new road, preferring to believe the bum raps given to the twin destinations of Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel. From Oaxaca, the road to these future little Acapulcos fade out to scattered dots on the map, but it showed the road from Acapulco as a strong black line.

We filled up with gas at every Pemex station—not too many nor too close here—and were doing great until we were stopped by a federal patrol, looking (we found out later) for a bandit who had kidnapped the man who later became the governor of the state. With the soldiers was an elderly woman.

“Would we give her a ride?” “Certainly.”

She climbed in and we took off in a welter of Anglo-Mexican good fellowship. That faded after nearly two hours of driving. (Attire and woman hadn’t been bathed recently.)  I worried that we had passed her town, but that she was too polite to tell me that.  But she kept yelling “Acoma,” which meant nothing to me. (Turned out to be the name of her village.) My Spanish, which had seemed adequate in the rest of Mexico, hit rock bottom along Hwy. 200.  Every question I asked her received the same answer—loud prayers and hand-wavings, all directed towards heaven.

I was beginning to feel like Hitler with a kidnap victim, when a small sign indicated we were somewhere near her village, at least from her excited mutterings. I stopped the car, invited her to leave it, and wait for another ride down the dirt road to our left towards a small town.

That elicited verbal nuclear reaction from her. She refused to budge.  Reluctantly, not knowing how far this detour would be, I turned the VW onto the dirt.

My son commented that we couldn’t go too far because of the worsening road. I gritted my teeth, and informed him we would likely go anywhere our still-shouting passenger wanted to go.  (I’m an ideal study of the non-assertive personality.)

Things went from dirt to rock to gullies, and finally we jerked to a stop in a tiny plaza. After I gave her five pesos to buy a drink, she climbed down from the car, and without a backward glance tottered off. She was easily the most memorable hitchhiker I’d ever had.

Farther down the main road, we went through Pinotepa, rattling over the bumps. I noticed one tiny hotel and two non-restaurants. Less than an hour later, we came to what my AAA map indicated as a toll bridge.

The only evidence of a bridge was a timber piling on the other side of the wide Rio Verde. Two buses, several cars, and a dozen cows were ahead of us, all apparently waiting to cross.

It was unbelievable what they were waiting for—three canoes lashed loosely together with a few planks crosswise. On top was a car, driver steering precariously with tires threatening to slip off.  Men on our side vigorously dug at the sand, trying to make a landing incline.

Despite the noisy confusion, we discovered the bridge had disappeared some time ago and been replaced by a government ferry, which now had broken down and was off somewhere being repaired.

Motor-driven canoes pulled the cows, protesting, across the river. I looked at the water-sloshed planks.  Did I dare drive down the crumbling, steeply-pitched sand onto the planks?  I kept thinking of Puerto Escondido.  I really wanted to see this fantastic, uncrowded resort my Mexican friends said was so great, I shouldn’t miss it.

The bus passengers had crossed long before; finally the cows were across; but now the “ferry” decided to close down for the night. We had to choose—camp on the bank, sans any facilities, hoping for a quick repair of the government ferry.  (I heard later that it took several weeks to repair.) Or we could go back to Pinotepa.  Recalling the loose cows and horses on the way down, I didn’t want to get caught on the highway after dark, and the sun was already the deeper color of approaching sunset.

I bit the bullet. Return to Pinotepa we would.  And we did…

Part 2 to come…

Peace Corps Visit to Africa

A recent ad in my International Travel News magazine caught my eye—one huge advertiser was advertising trips to Mauritania with the slogan “New.” I settled in for a memory trip as I paged through the article, wishing I’d written it.

I made a trip to that West African country 25 years ago to visit my Peace Corps son stationed in that almost unknown land.

Then my trip really started as I had watched our school’s French teacher disappear down unlit stairs with three police escorts—because he’d refused to get the required shots before going to this out-of-fame country.  I refrained from saying “I told you so,” but it kept repeating in my mind.  I’d warned him that he needed the shots, but in typical French fashion, he’d waved off my advice.  I didn’t see him again until we were both back in Tulare, CA.

To describe the trip from Senegal’s capital on a small airplane only marked the differences, challenges, and even some concern that I found.  First of all, I had two large suitcases, really large ones, filled with peanut butter, boxes of “add water” meals, son’s clothes he’d asked me to bring, as well as my own possible needs, and anything else I thought I’d need, the names and quantities beyond admitting to now.

Seated next to me on this dangerous-looking airplane was a nice man from the United Nations.  He was to work on a plan to bring needed supplies of varying kinds to the medical facilities that were next-to-absent in Mauritania.  The conversation was interesting, but it didn’t calm my concerns about my ability to adapt to this country for the two weeks I planned to be here.  A few days in my son’s town, then I planned to take him to Senegal for a few days’ R and R, then we’d part there, and he’d fly back to his duties in the small village a long taxi ride from where his site was into Mauritania’s capital city. He’d decided that a trip by “taxi” from Nouakchott to his village would not be very comfortable for me, so he took a few days’ “leave” to join me in the capital.  Right off the bat, the taxi situation was almost funny, but more on that later.

When I climbed down the swaying steps of the wobbly ladder placed against the side of the plane, the wave of heat was almost overwhelming.  Yes, I knew it was summer, but that was the only time I could travel; school duties kept me tied at home.  After a brief hug, we picked up the two heavy suitcases, took a ride on some sort of mechanical vehicle that wouldn’t quite fit the name “car” in order to get to the home where he had stayed when he first came to the country.

It was a comfortable home, but that was probably the last time one would use the word “comfort” in any of its forms for those living here.  Introductions became the byword of any time I was in public.  The most fun was when we visited the family with whom he’d spent most of his time.  Two late-teenage daughters were delighted to check out my clothing, my shoes, my haircut—then we all ran out of things to talk about.

I’d noticed the girls had colored lines on their arms and legs, so I inquired about them.  Thinking that I was “taken” by these, they asked if I wanted them to color my hands and legs, too.  Of course, I agreed; conversation picked up right away.  (Those lines—henna art—remained with me for several weeks, creating considerable conversation at home.)

Mark had responsibilities that my visit couldn’t interrupt, and rightly so.  One day the phone rang.  It was the embassy, I guess, warning me to remain inside and everyone in the house should stay inside; there was to be a demonstration.  That sounded interesting.  Soon a ramshackled truck began passing the house, with white-garbed men (this was a Muslim society, so women didn’t count; I think that has changed a bit since then) yelling and waving sticks and some things that didn’t look like sticks.

One day, a French fellow who knew Mark asked if I’d like to drive out to a fishing village.  Of course, I said, I’d be delighted, since I could tell Mark was feeling some stress from trying to entertain me (when there was nothing with which to entertain anyone) and do his work.  I also had some packages to deliver to other Peace Corps volunteers, packages from their parents who had learned via the Peace Corps grapevine about my trip.

The pickup needs no describing; I couldn’t do it justice anyway.  The driver, Franz, seemed delighted to show me all the sights on the way to the fishing village.  I had one package to deliver on our way back, but I didn’t want to leave it in the pickup, which obviously had no way of locking the doors in case we got out to walk through the village.

Franz assured me that no one would steal the package. “Just leave it in the pickup,” he said.

“But someone will take it and it’s not mine; it’s from the parents of one of the volunteers.”

“No one will take it.”

I wondered if this was what they called a standoff. “But,” I kept insisting, until he finally said,

“Here’s why no one will take it. A thief gets his hand cut off.  And they have to make sure which hand, because one hand is for shaking hands and the other is for wiping oneself.”

It took me about two seconds to realize what the one hand was for. And I knew that hand would never be used for shaking hands with others or for eating. But I couldn’t resist asking, “What if the thief stole again?”

He shrugged, always a Frenchman.  “They cut off the other hand.”   Then I realized how awful that would be.  The man wouldn’t be able to work—nor to eat—nor to wipe himself. And, equally serious, would instantly be identified as a thief….even with just one hand gone, but now with two.   A thief had more problems than I’d ever imagined.  How did he earn a living without hands, I asked Franz.

He shrugged; the French do that a lot. “His family has to take care of him….and he’s disgraced within the family. So he dies sooner than he would have.”

I decided to leave the package and go watch the fishermen bring in their catch.  And that was truly something.  Huge waves, tiny boats, extra-large fish, blue, white-capped waves, and the bright sun overhead.  Where was a camera when I needed one?  But my son had forbidden me from taking pictures, because in the old tradition, something that was true in some U.S. Indian tribes, the taking of a photo meant “stealing one’s soul.”  No pictures.

And no one stole the package either.

I met some other volunteers and gave the rest of the packages to the right offspring.  I went to bed early that night.  Sometime during the night, evidently someone entered the house and stole several thousands of dollars from the owner of the house.  But no one seemed upset about it the next day, when the theft was discovered. I thought we should take up a collection to make some effort to return some funds to the woman.  That idea was shot down so fast, I thought my head would swim.  I never knew the reason.  Had she lied? Was she hoping I’d take up a collection for her?  Was everyone afraid?  Who knows?

We went back to Nouakchott, where I found the days to be too long, so I asked if I could help out in the embassy or whatever it was called.  I spent two days compiling some sort of lists, which even to my math-challenged brain, didn’t add up. So I told whoever was my superior there that there was a $250,000 discrepancy in the fund report.  He shrugged.  I wasn’t asked to return the next day.  Hmm.

The heat was terrible.  I decided to take my son down to Dakar for a few days, and he rec’d permission to do so, where he’d then put me on the plane home.  So, we flew (yes, again) to Dakar, stayed in a lovely hotel, ate food I could recognize, which hadn’t always been the case in Nouakchott, did some shopping, and my son lazed around the pool.

When we were away from the hotel, however, he took on a different persona.  Watchful, more guarded, careful….not because of me, but because of possible theft.  We saw a case or two of that while we walked around the city.  This city had been one of the major departure places for African slaves being shipped to the U.S. and probably to England.

There were some things I noticed, which may have changed by now.  I love to bring home from my travels things that the people in the country produce for sale to visitors.  None there. When driving outside the city, there were signs that intrigued me:  Train crossing ahead. (There was no train, period.) Watch for autos merging or merging traffic. (No autos; no traffic). Stadium ahead.  No stadium in sight. (There may have once been a stadium, donated by Spain?) But there were no trains, and few autos.  It was as though someone, with a kind heart, had rounded up signs we might see in the U.S. and Europe and “donated” them to Mauritania.  And one didn’t want to ask questions, because that might have been seen as being critical.

This all was at least 25 years ago; things may have changed by now.  My son met and married another Peace Corps volunteer, Judith, and they have two wonderful children: one is a French (yes, of course) teacher; the other is nearing the end of law school. At my son’s wedding, several parents of Peace Corps volunteers came up to thank me for taking the gifts to their own children.

If anyone is considering volunteer work, which is needed everywhere, but one wants a foreign experience, nothing beats the Peace Corps.  And one doesn’t have to eat worms any longer, as we thought was once a requirement.  Just a good sense of humor, patience (lots of that), and a desire to help others in some way…..look into the Peace Corps.


A Border Crossing into Mexico

On a year’s sabbatical from teaching, I planned to drive my VW bus, loaded for a six-month stay, into Mexico, where I’d attend a nearby university in a small town south of Mexico City, a short drive away.  I was renting a room with cooking appliances, so piled pots/pans/ and dishes/towels/etc. into the van along with our suitcases of clothes.  When one is taking two children and self for a six-month stay somewhere, “must have” items begin to pile up. That van was jammed to the gills. I was well-prepared for the border stop, had my Sanborn’s travel book to help us drive south safely, and had made money arrangements.  What could go wrong?

Things seemed normal, until a tall, well-medaled officer puffed his way up to the car.  I was standing outside it by now, somewhat concerned about the delay.  He demanded that I completely empty the car so the boxes and bins I had could be inspected.  I wanted to cry.  I had so much junk piled into that car, it would take an act of Congress to get it all back inside. I looked at Mr. Mighty.  I sighed.  Then I began what I’d often used before when in Mexico.  In broken Spanish, I started a string of sentences:  “I am a teacher.  I am going to go to college in your wonderful country. Mexico is beautiful, your people are so friendly, and so welcoming. The land is so lovely, I’m going to show my children, my young children, around your country.”  This went on and on; he just watched me stammer over the language divide.

A new officer came, obviously wondering why the hold-up of traffic.  I began my litany of praise for Mexico again, thanking a literary heavenly being for making some words very similar in English and Spanish. Within seconds, the new officer turned to the first one and read him some sort of riot act, apologized voluminously to me, and apologized a third or fourth time and waved me on. With a big smile on my face, I didn’t look at my sons but just drove south. Mexico, here I come!

for Chloe's post

How to Get a Job on a Cruise Ship

The first part of this story probably isn’t recommended action, but it’s a part of the story of how I became Destination Lecturer on 30 cruises on Norwegian Cruise Line. On an earlier trip to England, Northern Europe, and Russia, I went in to hear the D.L. since I’d forgotten some history lessons about Norway and Sweden.  I was calm. (That’s a clue.)  His talk was terrible; he had one slide but it was so black all one could see was a red line that ran through it. He said it was a river.  I began to simmer, then stew, then got mad. (That’s the part I don’t advise that you copy . . . unless you want to.)

His talk got worse; I became more angry. Finally, he was finished and I headed for the ship’s lobby where I bounced up to the desk, and demanded: I need to talk to the Cruise Director. (No one should ever ask to talk to the C.D. I must have looked “desperate.”)   The young woman behind the counter waved me around a corner.  I knocked on the door. “Enter,” a voice said. I was still “steamed.”  Poor fellow.

“How do I get a gig like that one I just saw in the lounge?  I could do better than he did with my arm behind my back.” (I never said I was original.)

He calmly (they practice that on cruises) told me to contact “To Sea With Z” out of Florida. (She, Z, has now retired.)  When I got home, I did just that. She evidently checked me out and decided I wasn’t a threat to any life, so we began a several year relationship. (Recently, I wrote to NCL, gave them my background with them, and asked about being the D.L. on a ship in 2016.)

Alaskan cruise ship

Alaskan cruise ship

When I first started “talking” it wasn’t required that I use an overhead, but by my last talk on NCL, they wanted the speaker to use overhead displays along with the talk.  (Btw: on a 10-day trip, I usually had a 45-minute talk for maybe four days of the cruise. That’s pretty good “pay” per hour . . . do the math.)

Oh . . . pay.  My trips for myself and one other person of my choosing were “complimented,” so we stayed for free in a room that was usually (I checked) $4,000 for each guest . . . roomy, windows, etc.  So, I took friends, my daughter, some grandchildren.  Visits to the shops and spas, and bars (if one went there) etc. were charged to us, but our meals, of course, were not, since that’s included in the room cost.  You foot your own bill for transportation to the dock and back home.

Besides being D.L., there are other similar “employees” on the ships, in case you are interested.  For example: how to fold linens (once, the “folder” became flustered, and Sally, my roommate that trip, took over); a class in genealogy by a Mormon retired FBI agent; a writing workshop; holding card games; supervising dancing and exercise programs—whatever your talent/interest, it might be of interest to a cruise line . . . not just NCL. There are many other lines.  I was lucky; no one demanded that I have outstanding expertise; some lines do.  I had a wonderful time.  People kept chasing us around the ship, to ask questions, etc. Sally said, “Even if we hide in a lifeboat, they will find us!” We (whoever was with me) went to Germany, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, England, Argentina, Alaska, Central American countries, and other South American countries, and Mexico.

I tried to make this short, but failed. If you are interested in sharing your skill or background or ?, write a professional-looking inquiry to the ship line, ask them who their agent is for that type of employment, then contact the agent, and then . . . have a great cruise.

How to Volunteer with Global Volunteers – And make a Difference World-wide and in the U.S.

One of the most inspiring, helpful, enjoyable, and worthwhile things to do in one’s life is to become a volunteer in some activity—there are many avenues.  One such avenue is an organization, Global Volunteers, which has for several decades offered such uplifting—and downright personally satisfying—opportunities.

Brief background:  a young couple—two lawyers—were getting married, and the wife-to-be was given the task of planning the two-week honeymoon.  The husband was dreaming of lolling on a beach somewhere; the wife had slightly different ideas.  “One week for “lolling” she said, the second week “for helping other people who needed help”—but she allowed it could be in a foreign country.

Years later, their fulfilled dream is Global Volunteers, sending volunteers of all ages to countries around the world and to places in the U.S. where help is needed.  Not an easy task.  You will recognize places as holiday travel for many of us, but China, Hungary, Honduras, Mexico, among many other countries, now became a two-week, a three-week, or a month home for Americans eager to help with farming, schools and colleges, orphanages, clinics, hospitals, foreign government agencies…..now wherever a need is, GV wants to be there.  Today, there are new programs to Vietnam and Cuba! (I am so tempted with the latter!)

Age is never a factor.  Teams with high school students, (Mexico), teams with an 81-year-old woman, (Hungary), teams with the wide variety of ages between those two, and with a similar variety of skills, and of interesting cultural or business backgrounds to share in the evenings over dinner.

Even the training program in Minnesota was fun.  The wife, mentioned earlier, demonstrated something by using a large black frying pan and an egg.  I now don’t remember what the scene meant, but laughed at her energetic abuse of that egg.  And we learned! (I didn’t want to be hit with the frying pan!)

A fellow Hungarian volunteer at least a decade ago, is still a good . . . no, a great . . . friend of mine today. A fellow volunteer in Mexico, now a retired special education teacher, is still a wonderful friend. We’re talking many years. Besides the children and the others we met—and fell in love with—we grew to appreciate the happy energy of our American colleagues.

Let’s talk cost.  A volunteer pays:  program cost depending on length of program which includes all housing and meals and in-country needed transportation. Volunteer pays the cost of transport to and from home to volunteer site, and personal incidentals, of course.  (The transport cost may…may…be deductible.  It used to be, but always check with your tax person….maybe today even part of the program cost is deductible. Note use of “may.”)

An attractive new catalog has just been published, which has great pictures of the places included for the upcoming year.  As you browse it, think—besides of the great good you could do—of the cultural, historic, and visuals that you will learn and see—no cost for that!

I could talk forever about GV.  Also, they do not know that I’m writing this, nor have they asked that I do any “recruiting” for them.  This is just my own experience with the 8 programs I’ve been on with them.   Their address:  Global Volunteers 375 E. Little Canada Road, St. Paul, MN, 55117-1628     Think about it!  Chloe  

Chloe digging with Global Volunteers

Chloe digging with Global Volunteers