Tuesday, February 23, 2010

CHAPTERS 9, 10 and 11 of An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel


My husband has read my manuscript to this point and thinks I haven’t told you enough about myself.
Although one’s self is often one’s favorite subject, I thought it over and decided this is merely a matter of misery loving company. Dick has to listen to all my woes, and has lived through many of them with me, so he thinks it would be easier for him if half the western world shared his misery.
I don’t think so.
You can tell I’m an unfittie if you can imagine a family doctor, a gerontologist, a rheumatologist, a gastroenterologist, three ophthalmologists, a podiatrist, a massage therapist, and a denturist; and if you know the pharmacist recognizes the old guy in the referee shirt as “Kay’s husband coming to pick up her meds.”
You don’t need to know the gory details. You probably have enough gore of your own.


Q. What about sex?
A. Not on airplanes.


Don’t let a bad experience with one form of travel prevent you from trying it again.
Huh, you wonder, this from a woman forever forswearing 20- or even 9-hour plane flights?
That’s right. From me, because in this case it’s my husband who won’t try it again.
I’ve always loved train travel. It’s the only way to fly, as far as I’m concerned, so when we planned to be in Miami but also wanted to go to Tampa to visit friends, I suggested Amtrak. I showed Dick the schedule and the price, and he agreed. We arranged to have my friend Sheila meet us at the Tampa train station, and made our reservations.
We’d just (we thought) pop up to Tampa, visit Sheila and Walter for a weekend, then return to Miami in time for a cruise. Train travel would allow us to get up, walk around and stretch our legs, walk to the restrooms, walk to the dining car, then we’d reach Tampa all relaxed and happy.
We thought.
But we were wrong.
Little did we know Florida is the only state in the contiguous 48 wherein Amtrak doesn’t own its track. In Florida, freight trains have the right of way, and passenger trains are constantly being shunted onto sidings to make way for the more profitable freights.
We were hours and hours late, and Dick was fretting frantically because I had made a mistake when writing down the number for Sheila’s cellular phone. Sheila, meanwhile, knew what was happening all the time, because she was at the Tampa train terminal, with plenty of staff to provide updates.
Dick says we’ll never do it again, no matter how many miles of track are owned by passenger trains in whatever state or province we visit next.
For our return to Miami, we cancelled our southbound train reservations, rented a car, and drove down.
Did I say “sigh”?
Give me a train with a dining car and a sleeping car, with the rhythm of the rails lulling me to sleep, and I’m one seriously happy camper, but I guess I’ll have to travel without my spouse.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chapter 8 -- One Step at a Time

   I have to check the weather before agreeing to a vacation.
  I don’t like to go to hot places when they’re hot. Even at home, I don’t go out much in the heat of a prairie summer, because I melt. My face gets bright red. Everything, including my hair, perspires. I’m completely miserable, so I like to stay in the house with closed curtains and air conditioning because I’m too old to be running around under the sprinkler in the back yard.
  My husband’s employers used to hold a week of business meetings in a sunny climate in February, with spouses invited along for the ride. That was fine with me, but when they decided instead to go to Miami at the end of May, I suggested Dick take one of his daughters with him and leave me home. Andrea had a wonderful time and I didn’t have to suffer from heat exhaustion. Same thing a year later: another hot-weather destination, another daughter. Whew, saved again, thanks to Monica this time, and she loved the laid-back ambience of the Dominican Republic in June.
  When we went to the Galapagos Islands, we had thought we were being quite travel-savvy, allowing a few days in Quito so I could rest before our flight to Guayaquil and from there to the islands, but we were wrong. By the time I got through the first day of the journey – the first long, long, very long day – I was beyond exhausted. We had flown via Houston and found ourselves waiting in the airport for hours before our flight to Quito. Excruciating. We should have stayed overnight in Houston, we realized later.
  When we went to Costa Rica the following December, with a change of aircraft in Florida, we arranged to spend two days in Miami between planes. I was able to rest, yet we still had time for a Miami Heat basketball game on the way down, plus a tour of the Florida Keys on our trip home.
  Yes, if at all possible, break up your travel into four- or five-hour segments. It really helps. The next time we go to Europe, for instance, I want to fly to the east coast of Canada or the US, stop there for a couple of days, then fly to our destination.
  Unfortunately, however, if you book a guided tour complete with airfare, you don’t get the chance to plan anything yourself. When we went to China, we knew we’d have to get ourselves from Medicine Hat to Seattle, which was then the nearest gateway city, but the "airfare-included" part of our tour involved a short flight to Vancouver the next morning, to wait and wait and wait for (get this) Air Canada’s 9-hour flight to Beijing.
  No amount of pleading “We’re Canadians. We have relatives in Vancouver. Can't we pick up the flight there?” could budge the arrangements, which had, apparently, been carved in stone (probably jade) and therefore could be unset only by the exchange of a considerably large sum of money.
  As it happened, I was already in the Vancouver suburbs visiting my sick father, so I took the Amtrak bus to Seattle to join Dick, who had flown there from Calgary. We spent the night in a hotel and, as part of our tour package, flew to Vancouver early the next morning. There we waited, and waited, and waited for our flight to Beijing, just to keep us on the tour company’s schedule.
  If we return to the Orient, I want to stop in Hawaii for a week first.
  If Dick and I ever go to Australia, though, I want to break the trip into several segments.
  I flew Vancouver-Sydney-Brisbane and return, when I was a whole lot younger, and swore I’d never do it again. Now I would want to fly from Calgary to San Francisco, overnight there; from San Francisco to Honolulu, overnight again; from Honolulu to Tonga or maybe the Cook Islands for another night or two, and finally to Sydney, arriving bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, not looking as if I’d been pulled through a prickle-bush backward.
  To tell the truth, I’d rather get to Oz by sea. One cruise company showed a trip from Vancouver to Honolulu, followed immediately by another from Honolulu to Sydney on the same ship. It would take a month, and would cost a fortune, but I’d sure be well-rested.
  A less expensive alternative would be traveling by freighter, but freight lines have restrictions against unfitties, discriminatory and unfair though that may appear to us. They say we have to prove we’re fit.
  Too bad, because a freighter voyage sounds like it would be wonderfully restful. There’s nothing to do except show up at mealtimes. Crew members don’t sing or dance or expect passengers to do the same, there are no Las Vegas-style entertainers, no shore excursions on camel-back, nada. I’d love it. Reading, listening to music, watching the ocean, chatting with other passengers every day or two if necessary – my idea of a good time.
  Sigh. It’s not to be.
  Freighters, it seems, have no passenger elevators, and they keep their freight elevators well hidden. I don’t think I could get our doctor to write the necessary letter about my health. “Dear Captain X, this is to certify that my patient, one Kay L. Davies by name, can go up and down four flights of stairs four times per day on a ship with no doctor, chiropractor or massage therapist on board.”
  Nope, not likely. Unless, of course, I go up and down ex-treme-ly slow-ly, stopping to rest, one step at a time.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Consulting an Umbrella Expert

Oh, the trials and tribulations of an unfittie with photosensitivity issues, ending up in a hot Shanghai summer, seeking shade under a black umbrella (photo by Richard Schear). On a cruise to Alaska, Dick's blue and white golf umbrella hid him from the rain in Juneau (photo by Kay Davies) while in the Galapagos Islands, the big beige umbrella hid both of us from the sun at the equator (photo by Karina Lopez). Now the author has decided to consult an umbrella expert, Penelope Puddle, who lives on the wet west coast of Canada and can do wonderful things with the help of her umbrella. Perhaps Auntie Kay can learn to do the same.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Look again

You may remember this picture from Chapter 6 but, unless you clicked on it to enlarge it, you might not have realized this crowd in China's Forbidden City contained me, your faithful scribe, under that black umbrella, in a wheelchair being pushed by the man in the white shirt with striped sleeves, in the foreground, just to the right of center. Did I have a pretty pink parasol? A blue umbrella to match the sky? A white one to keep the sun's rays from turning the skin on my face and arms to pizza but still keep me cool? No. I wasn't that smart. I didn't even wear a hat, although my husband did.
For details, see Chapter 7, below.

Chapter 7 — Nearly Fatal Attraction


I screamed as the rented wheelchair carried me out into the traffic. But my slim young helper was stronger than he looked, and he pulled me back immediately.
Neither his English nor my Mandarin was particularly good (in fact, my Mandarin is pretty much nonexistent) but I understood him to say I’d be perfectly safe crossing eight lanes of Beijing traffic to get to Tiananmen Square, then from there to the Forbidden City, former home of the emperors, their wives, concubines, and children.
“No,” I said, gesturing toward an opening in the sidewalk a half block away, through which my husband and the rest of our group had disappeared. Again, bilingual waving of hands and shaking of heads got the message through to me: No ramp, just stairs leading down to a tunnel underneath the road.
“I can walk down the stairs,” I insisted, but my pusher wasn’t about to let me out of the chair. I knew I could walk down the stairs, but he would have to carry the wheelchair. So we had reached an impasse. An impossible impasse. As our guide Arnold had promised, there had been wheelchairs for rent where our tour bus stopped, but Arnold's ‘big strong man to push it' had failed to materialize. Instead, I was left with this slim young man, while everyone else had abandoned me by the roadside.
Soon, however, a large group of Beijing citizens gathered on our side of the road, and indicated to me with gestures and words, both Mandarin and English, their ability to provide a great wall around my wheelchair to escort me safely across the street.
Thus, the impasse passed, the traffic stopped to let me by with my entourage and, in Tiananmen Square I met up with our guide, our group, and also my husband, who cavalierly dismissed my adventure through eight lanes of speeding traffic with “Oh well, at least you’re here.” Easy for him to say, after he had crossed beneath the street where there wasn’t a car to be seen.
So there I was, with my heartbeat gradually returning to normal, sitting in a wheelchair with a black umbrella to hold over my head so I wouldn’t break out in hives from exposure to the sun, contemplating a three-hour trip through China’s Forbidden City.
If you’re an unfittie such as I am, able to walk, but not very far and not very fast, by all means rent a wheelchair because there is much to see inside those walls. Along with the Great Wall, the Forbidden City is the iconic picture that calls to mind the country of China. It is the most famous attraction in the city of Beijing. But be sure you negotiate in advance with the person pushing the wheelchair. Start right now saying, “I can walk up and down stairs” in a firm tone of voice. Learn to say it firmly in Mandarin if you can.
Then have your traveling companions or, preferably, your guide, confirm this, to be sure the message gets across. Because, although there are ramps in the Forbidden City, they are not wheelchair ramps. Anyone who has seen the animated movie Mulan or its sequel will know that. They were built as ramps for the Emperor’s horsemen, with ridges to make the footing more stable, as it were, for the horses.
Those ramps are not made for unfitties to be pushed up, after a running start, in a tilted wheelchair, by a young man whose enthusiasm outweighs his strength. Trust me on this one. It is scary and it is painful. Being pulled down the ramp on the other side, with the wheelchair tilted backward again, is scarier still. And there are many, many buildings, with many, many horse ramps.
If you’re ever in Beijing in the summer, take another tip from me. Before you get to the wheelchair-renting spot, which will probably be where your tour bus stops, on the far side of the road from Tiananmen Square, be sure you are carrying a light-colored umbrella or a pastel parasol. Even people without photosensitivity problems can sustain some serious sunburn. But, although black might be fashionable for most occasions, it is not, I assure you, for this one.