What If Our Golden Years Aren’t So Golden?

Of all the terrible words in the dictionary, the “C” word ranks up there as one of the worst. When Mercy was diagnosed in July 2011 with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma I was shocked. After all, she took care of herself. How could SHE be sick? But cancer and disease in general and as we would learn life’s trials don’t discriminate and this was our new reality. As I went about removing my golf clubs from my car to stow them in the garage in preparation for my new job as caregiver I quickly learned that although our lives would be changing forever it wasn’t going to be in a bad way if Mercy had anything to say about it. My golf clubs were ordered back to my car and we began five rounds of chemo, each with its own ebbs and flows. She was not in the mood for any pity and had no plans to let this happen to her. As if NHL wasn’t enough toward the end of the treatment plan Mercy was diagnosed with a separate and completely independent Thyroid Cancer. It would have been so easy to hang our heads, but instead we became advocates for local cancer patients even as we dealt with our own issues.

After radiation therapy for the Thyroid Cancer was completed we had no idea what to expect from the cancers or the side effects from the treatment plans. By October however, with permission form her doctors Mercy and I travelled to Zion National Park to get away from everything for a few days and just enjoy a days together away from what had become our new routine. Make no mistake, when it was all said and done Mercy got me through her cancer. She was a great patient and a fighter. Now, none of us know what’s around the next corner, but as for us we kept our faith in God as the beacon that would guide our way, whatever the path, however long the journey. Zion turned out to be just what we needed. I recommend if possible that if you ever go through a major (or minor) health issue getting away for a weekend can be some good medicine. In the photo below Mercy is wearing a stylish wig that was pretty hot for her to wear in Southern Utah in October.

Zion

Fast forward less than a year and were booked on an Avalon River Cruise on the Danube River from the Black Sea in Romania to Vienna, Austria. This was our second trip to Europe and we excited and apprehensive given what we had just gone through and what in some ways we were still going through. Each test and each doctors visit gave us pause, but we know that fear and hope or doubt and faith cannot occupy the same space in the same human mind at the same time. So we chose the latter and carried on. Eventually the good days outnumbered the bad.

River cruises, unlike ocean cruises, are small and intimate. Our ship, the Avalon Imagery, had about 150 passengers, no big variety shows, no casino, and no 24 hour dining options. Instead we had local folk entertainment, on board lectures in small groups, and open dining. Unlike many ocean cruise liners everything is included, including drinks and excursions. The service is first class and it’s really quite nice. I highly recommend them for empty nesters, and couples and singles 40+.

We took a couple pre-days and explored the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania on our own. After arriving in Bucharest we did a self-guided walking tour of the city followed by a more comprehensive and more restful overview of the city on the hop-on, hop-off bus. Ten we hired a guide and a driver through our concierge and off we went to explore, Bran Castle (of Vlad the Impaler, aka Count Dracula infamy), the Citadel in Rasnow, Pele Castle, and the Germanesque Village of Brasov. If you woke up in the Carpathian Mountains you might guess you were in the Sequoia’s. Just beautiful.

On day three we’d begin our journey on the Danube beginning in Constanta at the Black Sea and would make our way through the locks as we gained elevation moving from east to west across Eastern Europe. Our ship would take us through the Iron Gates (Gate of Trajan that forms the 83 mile boundary between Romania and Serbia), stopping in Veliko Tarnov, Bulgaria; Belgrade, Serbia; Vukovar and Osijek, Croatia; Pecs, Budapest and Szentendre, Hungary and finally Vienna, Austria. Some photos from this trip:

Now, why did I write about this? During our cruise, like I said earlier, we had open seating in dining. At breakfast one morning we spotted an elderly couple seated in the corner of the dining room and decided we’d ask them if we could join them for breakfast. They kindly asked us to sit down and we began to introduce ourselves. The wife, the more talkative of the two, made an observation that we looked too young to be retired. We assured her that we were both in fact still working and just enjoying a vacation. Then across the table came here boney pointed finger dancing first in my direction and then Mercy’s, “you two are smart”, she said….. “you’re golden years might not be so golden, do what you love now!” We thanked her for her sage advice as she had no way of knowing what we’d just recently gone through or that the beautiful hairdo on my wife’s head was a wig. This would be our mantra moving forward.

Do what you love NOW!
Your golden years might not be so golden!
Retirement is wasted on the elderly!

For us it’s travel and a combination of other things that excite us about life and what we enjoy doing together. I suppose there was a time when we said “one day” or “maybe next year” or “we can’t afford that” about travel and other aspects of our lives. If travel is what you love then you can probably find a way (there is a way) and make it a reality. Like with all other things there must be balance and I believe that there’s a way for just about anyone who truly wants to live now and not dream of retirement “one day”. For us it’s travel, for others it may be another hobby or moving to a different part of the country, or spending more time with family, or volunteering more, or a combination of all those things. If our lives are in order and we plan and we set out to become what we dream of everything is possible. And sometimes life throws an event your way to remind you. My Mother taught me, just as millions of mothers taught their children across the globe, “tomorrow never comes”.

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Lessons From Soweto

I travelled to South Africa for the animals and they were grand and did not disappoint. When I return it will be for the people first, then the flora and fauna. I found them genuine, welcoming and overtly friendly. Whatever you do, if you travel to this beautiful place take in the history and take in a guided tour of Soweto.

In writing about it I couldn’t possibly do any justice to the subject of apartheid and what the people of South Africa endured under its brutal policies. I’m not qualified to draw too many conclusions or express any worthy opinions. One thing that I find amazing however is how far the people and the nation have come in just 23 years since free elections were held (one man, one vote) and Nelson Mandela was elected President.

During our brief stay in Johannesburg Mercy and I had the opportunity to visit Soweto and then the Apartheid Museum. It’s important to do them in THAT order so when you visit the museum you have context. I never got impressionist art until I visited Monet’s Garden in Giverny, France. Only after seeing the garden and the water lilies in their natural landscape did they manifest themselves in the panoramic canvasses in the oval of the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris. So, go to Soweto first. Hire a guide and go.

I could write pages about the history of Soweto and surrounding areas. The legislation of apartheid began in 1948 when the National Party came into power, but many restrictions on the black majority (whites made up 20% of the population) began in the late 1800s. Dutch settlers invoking a right to the land given by God saw no reason to surrender what they believed to be theirs.

Nearly half of the black population were living in cities and worked for low wages for on farms and in industry, including the significant mining industry. Their labor was the engine that allowed the country to prosper. While white workers wages were protected by law employers could pay black workers whatever they were willing to work for. This is the pretext for what would spawn the uprising that would lead to the freedom enjoyed today throughout the country. This is probably a gross over-simplification; for the sake of brevity and my limited knowledge on the subject I’ll defer the details to the experts.

As recently as fewer than 25 years ago black citizens were not allowed to participate in the voting process. The cities were very similar to how I imagine some parts of our American South in the 50s and 60s. There were separate entries, water fountains, transportation, and schools. Everything was segregated to the point that every piece of the country was designated as belonging to one group or another. The whites, the blacks, the coloreds, and the others (mostly Chinese and Indian immigrants). Blacks were forbidden to own homes in the cities and were in only tolerated as necessary transients for the purpose of their labor. They could not move freely within their own country. Speech regarding their plight could land them in jail. Working conditions for many were deplorable.

By the early 1950s the African National Congress began to rally blacks to oppose the laws that governed them and in so doing large numbers participated in boycotts, work strikes and organized civil disobedience. The threat of strikes by mine workers for better wages and conditions was met by the government with the threat of bringing in tens of thousands of Chinese as replacement workers. Thousands of blacks and a smaller number of colored and white sympathizers were arrested further exasperating or more correctly mobilizing the people against the government and its supporters.

By 1956 Nelson Mandela and scores of other opposition leaders were indicted after the ANC, joined with the Communist Party of South Africa, issued the “Freedom Charter” with the primary assertion that South Africa belonged to all who lived in it, black and white, and called for the freedoms found in the United States Bill of Rights. A critical moment came in 1962 in Sharpeville when police fired into a crowd killing 67 and wounding 186 including many women and children. Blacks were being murdered in the streets for assembling or for being out after their curfew. The timeline is long and writ with thousands of details that describe what it was like to be black and South African. Mandela was finally found and sent to prison for life, narrowly escaping the death penalty in 1963.

With the world now on their side the people of South Africa persisted over the next 30 years. The government offered shallow concessions but the people wanted simply equality. Nothing short. With increasing pressure form inside the government and the international community, but as recently as 1989 4,000 deaths were reported as a result of the brutal apartheid laws under the leadership of Prime Minister PW Botha and scores of others were tortured, imprisoned, or simply disappeared. With Botha retiring and giving way to Frederick W. de Klerk in August, 1989 the stage was set for the release of Nelson Mandela and the reveal of the ANC. So many details are left to learn.

Knowing all of this, if all of this came to a head in 1994 how is it these people are some of the friendliest and industrious I’ve ever met? You cannot enter a shop or eatery or even pass a stranger on the street without receiving a warm and genuine smile and greeting. Where is all of the hate and just bitterness? Have they forgotten? Certainly not as it was explained to us by our guide, but they have forgiven.

Soweto is still a black township. Everyone is welcome. Some have left for the city or other areas and many have come. Every economic status can be found there. As we drove and walked around Soweto we saw people of every economic status carving a life out of whatever talents and abilities they were given by God or had developed. Nowhere and not once did I hear a negative thought or some notion that anyone was privileged over an other. The poorest of the poor found a way. Beggars who could do something and those who are able-bodied seeking to solely survive off the work of others are not looked upon with much favor and seem few. It was explained to me that if a man can find an old ironing board one day he had the start of his business. In the following days or weeks he could find a mismatched set of wheels or casters and perhaps another day a large burlap bag and a rope. Then he could tow his homemade vehicle around the town and collect recyclables and trade them for cash. The crime is low and people help each other. There’s an amazing sense of community no doubt solidified by the mass resistance that led to their freedom. Even the poorest of the poor, and there are plenty, seem to have pride and self-determination. The government provides plenty (some say not enough), but everyone finds a way to cobble together some way of earning money and being self-reliant. You just don’t see people making excuses for their birthright or lack thereof. They work and they work hard. It’s no wonder they beat the atrocity of apartheid and truly made South Africa a country that welcomes all. The will of the people to work and be independent is fierce. Most that I spoke with don’t like their President, Jacob Zuma, a black man.

Anton Lembede, a lawyer with a master’s degree in philosophy, preached self-determination and self-reliance and called his philosophy Africanism. This Africanism championed by Lembede struck a chord with Mandela, who had witnessed the many humiliations meted out to black people in the city. Incredibly, I saw nothing of a people casting blame or making excuses or complaining that their birthright didn’t allow them to succeed and prosper.

There is no passion found playing small and settling for life that is less than the one you are capable of living.
~ Nelson Mandela

The Freedom Charter

The people shall govern
All national groups shall have equal rights
The people shall share in the country`s wealth
The land shall be shared among those who work it
All shall be equal before the law
All shall enjoy equal human rights
There shall be work and security
The doors of learning and culture shall be opened
There shall be houses, security and comfort
There shall be peace and friendship

African Penguins

It’s difficult to pick a highlight when everything is new, but the African Penguins really made us happy. One wonders if these comical birds are aware of the entertainment they provide to visitors to their habitat or if we’re simply an intrusion into their ‘busy’ lives. It’s difficult to watch them scurry about building their nests, taking shade in the brush, or playing in the calm waters of Boulder Beach and not think that they’re on a stage for us lucky humans able to visit them. Then I suppose that with or without us they’d be doing their thing, looking cute, and enjoying their folly.

Near Simon’s Town on the Cape Peninsula is Boulder’s Beach. It is a picturesque area with inlets sheltered between granite boulders. Surprisingly, at least to me, the penguins settled here recently in 1982 beginning with just two breeding pairs and do not migrate. This is their permanent home. Today the colony has grown to number over 3,000. Apparently the anchovy population is sufficient to sustain the colony and given the scenery I’d like to live here too!

The South African Penguin is also known as the “Jackass Penguin” for its donkeyesque braying calls. They definitely have a marine smell that you notice as soon as you emerge from you car in the parking area. After a short walk along the trail you’ll enter the conservation area where you are physically separated from the penguins by a boardwalk just a few feet above the beach and the friendly black and white locals. The adjacent beaches are designated for swimming a safe distance from the colony.

All along the boardwalk you’ll encounter the penguins in various states of nesting, slumber and play. The photo opportunities are endless. Some seem to be sunning themselves on the smaller boulders. Others rest in their shallow nests. Some scurry about fetching dry materials to improve their nesting areas, while others, I’d like to think the teenagers, run (waddle) in and out of the water. As much as they are hilariously clumsy on land they are swift and graceful in the water. The Cape Town area provides plenty of variety as well. Plan to spend an hour just watching the African Penguins and you’ll have a smile on your face all day.

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Cape Town, Part I

This is my first trip to South Africa and this is the Cape Town was my first stop. Thanks to the internet and guidebooks it’s easy to plan visits to foreign destinations. Still, there are times when we want to have a local guide. With so many ways to travel from group coach tours to completely independent travel it’s nice to mix it up and for that reason with destinations we’re unfamiliar we prefer semi-independent travel. Let me explain: With semi-independent travel we have a local guide meet us at each destination. In this case that was the airport in Cape Town. Our guide Carlton met us with a sign and a smile, introduced himself, and escorted us to his air conditioned van and off we were to our hotel. The first benefit we gained from our guide was his introduction to his city. He told us about the history, the architecture, the restaurant scene, and how to stay safe while visiting.

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After checking in to the Westin Hotel we took a walk to a twenty minute walk to the waterfront for dinner. Yes, after nearly 36 hours of traveling we went for a walk. I agree with every expert that’s ever said no matter how tired you are after traveling, if it’s noon, go have lunch. If it’s the middle of the afternoon find something to do. Don’t take a nap. Get your body and your mind adjusted right away to your new times zone by doing what you would normally be doing and avoid jet lag.

The next day after some much needed sleep Charlton picked us up and off we went to Table Mountain, part of Table Mountain National Park. Table Mountain is a level plateau about 2 miles wide from side to side, that serves as the backdrop for Cape Town with its amazing shear cliffs. The plateau tops off at an elevation of 3,563 feet. The mountain is often obscured by clouds, but we had a bright sunny morning for our visit. The way up is via a very steep cable car lift. Alternately you may choose the 3 hour hike up the narrow rocky trails. We chose the cable car. It’s noteworthy that we visited in July (their winter)
and the crowds were light and there was no wait to ride the cable car.

The top cable station offers viewpoints, curio shops, a restaurant and walking trails of various lengths.The cable car rotates during its ascent giving everyone packed inside a chance to see the amazing views from every angle. The best views however are waiting on the top. On a clear day you are rewarded with panoramic views of Cape Town and Table Bay, Robben Island off in the near distance and beyond to the Cape Point and Cape of New Hope.

There are some wildflowers on the mountain, but with the seasons opposite ours in the Southern Hemisphere you can expect amazing flora in November and December along with hoards of visitors. We did see some evidence of wildlife in a hyrax or “dossie” as they are locally known.

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This was our first stop on a long wonderful day in South Africa and by itself it was worth the trip to Cape Town. We found the people welcoming and friendly and the scenery beautiful. But, this was just the start to our day. We’ll meet the penguins in Part II.

Stretch DC-8 vs. Boeing 787-9

IMG_1588We’ve Come a Long Way From the Stretch-8

My first international flight was on June 13, 1980 from Los Angeles to Okinawa, Japan. I remember it vividly. I was on a Military Airlift Command (MAC) flight that originated at March Air Force Base and after picking up a large group in Los Angeles it’s route, known as the “milk run”, went first to Midway Island, then Yakota Air Base near Tokyo, and on to Okinawa where I was joining Naval Mobile Construction Battalion THREE (Gold Team) who was already deployed.

The plane was a DC-8 or a Stretch 8 as this airframe’s variants were known. It was long and narrow with a single narrow aisle, three seats in a row port and starboard. The plane was built from 1958 to 1972 by Douglas Aircraft to compete with the Boeing 707. The hallmark of the stretch 8 was supposedly a fuselage that reportedly flexed in flight, although I don’t recall seeing it do this. Although this plane was flying a MAC mission it was charters by the military and had civilian pilots and flight crew or stewardesses as they were then known.

The stewardesses then gave safety instructions. Now corny videos are played on the tv on the back of the seat in front of you.

Then there was a non-smoking section, which was interesting because in this smoke filled tube it didn’t really matter which section you sat in. Now, no smoking anywhere.

Then in-flight entertainment was a magazine or newspaper and maybe a movie played on a single screen perhaps thirty feet from your seat. Now, a smorgashboard of movies from nearly every genre, sports and news and television programs, music of every type, games, destination guidebooks, sky map show you where you are, seat-to-seat texting in case the person sitting in 27C catches your interest. Best of all now there’s in-flight internet. For a nominal fee or free on some carriers you can be attached to your electronic leash as you were at home. And on my Virgin Atlantic flight I can plug into a USB port to keep my devices charged all the way from Los Angeles to South Africa. Maybe I didn’t actually need to pack those two pickup battery mophies.

The the engine noise was inescapable. Now I have noise cancelling headphones and I can’t hear the engines at all.

Then the food was really bad. “Would you like the chicken or the beef?” Now the food may be better. But some flights now don’t use carts. This is great news for those of us who have had an elbow or shoulder plowed into by one of these tanks. Now, you may on some carriers order form you own in-flight entertainment center when and if you want something and it’s simple brought to you. Today I have an actual paper menu on nice folded card stock. The main meal includes Man n Cheese, Korean Chicken or BBQ Pulled Pork.

Then there was really just coach and First Class. Now there is economy and premium economy and business class and first class, depending on who you’re flying with. For a price, or points, you can improve your flying experience exponentially. I like to fly Premium Economy when the price is right.

The seats are far better now on long haul flights again depending on the carrier. I recommend going to seatguru.com for the actual details on every seat in the fleet.

Back in 1980 flying seemed a little more exclusive. The airports weren’t near as congested as they are today. My limited research on this topic indicate the amount of commercial passengers between 1980 and today has increased five or six fold annually. The shear volume of people moving through the airports in the United States, Europe and China is mind boggling.

The biggest difference between then and now for me is the reason I was/am traveling. Then it was all business. It was exciting. My first time out of the country. I was going to go do some real construction work in an exotic place for the Navy SEABEES. And it was exciting. Now, I travel mostly for pleasure. I like all of these amenities, but I miss some of the old school service and mystery of air travel.

This Boeing 787-9 is no DC-8.

Keep the Blood Flowing

One of the downsides of long flights is that they can be a little unhealthy if you don’t take care of yourself in-flight. Because you’re sitting (unless you’re in Business Class or better) for very long periods of time, often times with little room to move around your circulation may not be at its optimum.

To combat this I always choose an aisle seat so that I can get up and walk around whenever I want and I do this every two hours or so. I also like to stretch out my legs and do some simple exercises. Very hour, or whenever I think to do it, I roll my ankles ten circles each direction and also raise my foot up and pint it down the same number of repetitions. When up walking around I’ll take the opportunity to do a couple deep knee bends as well.

One of the potential perils of bad circulation is the possibility of Deep Vein Trombosis (DVT). DVT if left untreated can lead to a pulmonary embolism or other issues related to blood clots and that’s not too good.

Another way to combat DVT and to just feel better while flying is to wear compression socks. Now these things aren’t going to go with your shorts and flips flops (nobody wants to see your bare feet on an airplane anyway) dress appropriately for flying and go shopping for these socks. When you first put the things on they seem to not fit, are too tights, and at a minimum of knee high, just can’t be comfortable. While there is a little work involved in coaxing them over your ankles and up your calf they are amazingly comfortable once in place. I put mine on hours before traveling and don’t remove them until hours after arriving at my destination.

The idea is to optimize the blood flowing to and from your heart. You can get these things at your local pharmacy, but its important that they fit you correctly. Also check the compression rating. They should be rated at a minimum compression rating of 15-20 mmHg. The higher the number the more compression and the more difficult to put on and take off. Look for socks that have graduated compression that are the tightest at the ankle and become gradually looser (but not loose) at the knee.

Your might be surprised to discover that these socks retail for about $25/pair, but you just need one pair and they’re a good investment and will help make your trip more comfortable and worry free.

passport

Vacation Eve

Well, we’ve got this down to a science. Not! It’s vacation eve and its after midnight and I’m still up. I love to tinker with things that many folks might overlook, like optimizing packing, but no matter how much I tinker I still find a way to be up late thinking of how I can lighten my load, reduce my footprint, and ease my shoulder pain. Hauling camera gear presents a challenge because its just heavy. I marvel at the tourists dragging suitcases the size of a Smart Car over cobblestones in Europe. There’s a better way. I can usually manage out of a hand carry and a backpack for 2-3 weeks. Here are a few tips that I’ve adopted for trips ranging from one to three weeks:

Shoes: One paid on my feet and one paid in the bag. The one in the bag is usually flip flops depending on the time of the year and destination. If I can go casual and comfortable I’ll err on the side of leaving the dress shoes behind. They’re heavy.

Clothing: “They” say the average woman packs 6 outfits she never wears for a two week long vacation that she never wears. The average man three to four. I like to pack lightweight wash and wear clothes that can be easily packed and more importantly easily washed and hung to dry in my hotel. If you can ladies (heaven forbid) wear the same outfit more than once you can lighten your load considerably. Jeans are out unless I wear a pair for the flight. Too heavy and take forever to dry.

Toiletries: I guarentee that the local convenience store at your destination will have 90% of the stuff you pack, so don’t pack it. Just get it when you arrive.

Heavy Layers: Wear it or carry it on the plane. Once boarded stuff it in the overhead with you small carryon.

Method: To roll or not to roll. To compress or not to compress. To fold or ……,. experiment and figure out what works best for you, not only as you pack, but as you unpack and start looking for that favorite concert t-shirt.

Passports: Make a copy of your passport and stick its in each of your bags. While you’re at it take a picture of your passport on your SmartPhone and retain it. Never know when you might need that.

Paper: If you’re packing maps, paper itineraries or paper anything (including books), DON’T! They’re heavy. If you can, use your phone or tablet to photocopy or access important documents, including Rx labels, and your eBooks. I understand some folks love to turn pages and I get that.

International Data: Call your cellular carrier and let them know you’ll be traveling. If you plan to use your device while you’re gone especially for data (gps, internet remote of wifi, checking in at the cool statue you discovered, etc.) you’re going to want to buy an international data plan. Each provider has several options so call them to discuss. They may sound a little pricey, but they beat a $2K phone bill in your mailbox awaiting your return.

Where I go heavy besides my camera gear: Electronic stuff. I can’t help it. I have the phone, the iPad, the Bose nice cancelling headphones (which BTW completely drown out the engine and screaming babies noise). I also have international power adapters (two) with you AC and USB plug ins, Mophie backup power, and spare camera batteries, and a 600 lumens flashlight used for both emergencies and throwing some artificial light at night scenes with slow shutter speeds.

I think that’s all for now. I just need to find my compression socks. More on that later.