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…

Angels Protect the Young and the Foolish?

One year, I had the bright idea of taking my two eight-year-old grandsons to Ireland, Scotland and England. (We all survived, despite the odds being against that!) The cousins were amiable enough and were good travelers.  Then in Ireland, I went into the shop of a line so expensive that I only had one piece of their famous dishes.

Right away, I knew I’d made a big mistake.  The first clue: there were no other children in the shop.  Other parents were smarter than this grandparent obviously was. The second clue was that the two boys suddenly appeared to have grown, not just in height, but in width.  The latter quickly became a slight problem, since the aisles were somewhat narrow.

The third clue was a combination of things:  a clerk became visibly aware of “the Matt and Zach.”  A second clerk joined in that awareness.  I was blissfully roaming through the shop, greed, jealousy, and avarice (worse greed) finding a home in my emotions, until I noticed two clerks were trailing us.

Then the ball fell.  I knew what the problem was:  my two boys.  Just their physical presence, even if they stood absolutely still with their hands in their pockets, was enough to worry clerks in this store. (I am deliberately leaving out the name of the store.  Just think of the most expensive one in which most of us dream of shopping.)

I caved first. “Boys!  I’ve seen enough wonderful things, so let’s leave now and drive on in to Dublin.”  The sighs of relief that were almost obvious told me more than loud shouts would have—that my decision was the right one. The boys, who hadn’t been even slightly interested in counter after counter of beautiful trays, bowls, glasses, dishes—ran for the car.  Yes, for the car that had been new, but now had lost one outside rearview-mirror.  I wondered if it had the same reaction when the boys approached as had the store clerks. And I didn’t blame either faction.

It’s a wonderful thing to expose children to broader fields than the ones here at home, but one should really “pick one’s fight” in choosing which field to plow.

Shopping South of the Border (And Elsewhere)

I can’t speak for Canadians, but U.S. Americans never think about “bargaining” for a purchase they want to make. We pay the bill or the tab, believing that if we start to “barter” that we will be seen as “skinflints” or “cheap” or “strange.”  But south of the border, in most countries bargaining is not only rampant, but expected, except probably in “high end” stores. (This is also true in many African countries.)

I’ve spent considerable time in Mexico and Central America and my shopping information came from the wise lips of the Oregon State Dept. man who was the leader of my first group of high school students.

“Bargain. Be reasonable. Be polite. You can look pathetic, if you wish. Know that the seller won’t sell if it cuts too far into what might be called his ‘profit margin’ if he lived near New York’s Wall Street instead of in a very simple small home here.”

In fact, I found bargaining to be fun—a long way from my earlier thinking about it. We U.S. Americans never want to look “cheap” even if the hole in our pocket long ago dumped our last penny into the street.  But, here’s the script.  You see something you really are interested in.  Don’t show that interest. Walk on. Then return. Compliment the object. Here’s one of my examples.

I was in one of Mexico City’s parks when a large painting (probably 36 x 36 or so) caught my eye….a painting of a bullfighter and his target.  I complimented the artist for his skill, asked his price.  Looked wistfully at the painting, sighed, shook my head, and walked away.  I wanted that painting. So I came back, did the same routine again, but this time I told my own sad story about having children which took all my funds, but……  He told me about his numerous children; his story topped mine.  I shook my head again after he refused my latest offer and walked away.  Each time we played this little scene, he lowered his price; I raised mine.

Soon we were mentioning competing challenges to our funds:  I told him I had many children who were very expensive and left me with little funds to spend on things other than food and clothing.  He countered; he had more children than I did, and they were very needy. He lowered his price again; I countered by raising my offer.  He shook his head. I walked away.

(This bargaining business can take some time.  Also, don’t show interest too early…appear as though you need to be “coaxed” into buying the object—usually jewelry, material, clothes, or paintings. In “regular” stores, bargaining is not a shopping method, although you can try it there. The owner may have wanted to “get shet” of what had caught your eye, and begin lowering the price.  Each side always looks “regretful” and “appreciative” whether in the parks, along the sidewalks, or in “regular” stores.

The artist and I couldn’t come to terms, so I shook my head (by now my brain was rattling) and, sighing heavily, walked away.  My U.S. conscience started to bother me.  Maybe he did have all those children.  Fight that reaction!  And, by now, I dearly wanted that painting. I went back for the third time. He lowered; I raised. He lowered. I raised. My sighing nearly created hyperventilating on my part. (I’ve done this routine more than this once; by now I was expert, but not always successful. And always, when it came to other objects, unsure as to their intrinsic value.)

But this painting sang to me. A siren’s song. I plodded back to the artist.  Mexico City has a high altitude problem…..which means one walks slowly anyway, because of needing to breathe. The artist, who probably knew he had “a fish on the line” welcomed me back. We did our song and dance again—and to save your eyes, I bought the painting.  Never thinking about how I was to get it back to the U.S.—since he obviously “didn’t ship”—but via train, bus, and ultimately safely home, I managed. I ignored the scathing looks of the students and our leader. The rough frame it had been in was replaced and I was happy with my purchase.

This has been a long story, but most U.S. travelers complain about the high cost of “tourist items”—and one finds out they didn’t “bargain.”  Don’t take the “sticker price” on anything (except, again, in high end stores) as the “final price.”  And, you will “lose” some purchases, but you will at least have the knowledge NOT to pay the price that’s listed, without giving “bargaining” a chance.  It becomes fun. And friendly. And, if you can’t bargain successfully, at least leave the owner with a compliment and a smile.  (And that regretful shake of head.)


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.

Be Sure to Visit Hungary!

We were an odd lot of people to be the first team into Hungary, ranging in age from an admitted 79 years to early 20’s people. One volunteer couple who owned a winery in California looked forward to learning about famous Hungarian wines. What Sally Swartz and I knew about wine was that we enjoyed drinking it, but we were assigned to a high school.

What a delight the students were. Eager, smiling, welcoming, with enough mischief to make them fun…..but they were also smart, Hungary - 2003 008well-behaved, and open to learning, unlike my then-current clutch of U.S. high school students. One morning the Hungarian students came into my classroom, all excited. (In this small European country, everyone knew “stuff” in the news, far exceeding typical U.S. interests, unfortunately.) What had excited them today? The election of a governor in a state in the U.S……yes, in California and it was Arnold Schwarzenegger—who they instantly claimed was of Hungarian descent. Now, what U.S. student would know where Hungary is located, much less who the leader of that country was? I was learning more than I was teaching.

Hungary - 2003 003The teachers took us on weekend day trips, visiting small towns with big histories—walking through cemeteries with centuries-old dates of burial, the fallen in some long-forgotten war; visiting fabled churches with soaring vaulted ceilings and walls showcasing Hungarian artistic talent; strolling past statues, some funny, some respectful of people in Hungary’s past. That past included a cruel Nazi invasion before the U.S. was involved in WWII, but we felt the anger and sorrow shown by our Hungarian friends as they told stories of unbelievable German brutality, particularly as it focused on the large Jewish population of the country.

Hungary - 2003 005But we had time to visit the markets, filled with food and other items that we didn’tHungary - 2003 004 even recognize. We walked the streets, admiring all those statues that showed the talent of Hungarian artists. And, we happily ate the plethora of food—especially the mashed potatoes one young lady ladled onto my plate. And, Irish or not, I couldn’t possibly eat all those potatoes.

If you haven’t been to Hungary—put it on your visitor list. Food, festivals, friends….and then to top it with a visit to Budapest, the two-pronged city divided by a lovely river.Hungary - 2003 006