Thanksgiving in Tucson

I have to admit that Tucson Arizona wasn’t on my top ten list of places to visit. However, Tucson has one thing or should I say one person no other place has; my mother. It had been a while since we’d seen each other. I thought a pre-Thanksgiving visit would bring us together near enough to the holidays to enjoy the celebration yet allow us to avoid escalated holiday airfare rates. I invited a family friend to join me and I arranged for the flight reservations.  Complimentary “transfers from and to the airport” by private car were included, provided by our hosts. No small bonus feature since I opted against a connecting flight to Tucson and arrived nonstop into Phoenix, two hours away from Green Valley, my final destination. My mother and her husband have a beautiful Spanish style home in an active life-style gated community. Fortunately for me, the home has a comfortable extra en suite bedroom. That’s a fancy way of saying that the bedroom has its own private connected bathroom. It also meant no hotel bill and no need to request early check in or late departure times. Twenty four hour privileges were granted due to my V.I.P. status with the owners of the residence. As a bonus, this “luxury resort” vacation included satellite TV options, fresh towels daily and two delightful petite canine companions. Combined, the dogs didn’t come close in size to the one German Shepard who shares my New York residence. However, what the dogs lacked in height they more than compensated for in personality and anticipation of walks around the neighborhood. I was happy to comply.

As with most all-inclusive hacienda away from home resorts, this package included cooked to order meals, unlimited snacks, beverages and as a bonus, complimentary sightseeing. We travelled by private car as the only passengers tended to by a dedicated driver who also doubled as tour guide. Indeed, my mother’s husband was gracious, patient and enthusiastic at sharing the local attractions and it appeared as though he enjoyed visiting the sites as much as we did. On our first jaunt, we headed straight for the border for a little town called Tubac. If you’re wondering what’s in Tubac I can tell you there’s very little to do. However, it is an amazing artist’s colony with pottery galore and all things Southwestern. The caveat here is to not become too enamored of any piece that will either not: A. fit in your luggage or B. match your New York style decor. It’s best also to not make an impulse buy that will later have you wondering what you were thinking when you purchased that hand painted metal cactus with matching warthog.  The gifts I chose, conveniently fit into my pocketbook. I like to think that this is further proof of my experience as a traveler. Walking through kitschy souvenir shops and authentic artisan collectives is sure to work up an appetite and serve as inspiration for a midday meal. Our driver/guide knew an authentic and interesting place to have lunch and we decided to go with his suggestion. When you first approach Wisdom’s you are greeted by a 12 foot chicken. I’m not sure what the oversized hen represents, but clearly and cleverly, it does catch your attention and perhaps, that’s all it needs to do. Both my mom and her husband a.k.a., our chauffeur, assured us that this was the best “South of the Border” food we would find between here and Phoenix. The atmosphere in the cafe was casual and rustic and the margaritas were served in hefty mason jars as 2 strolling musicians serenaded us. We ordered lunch and enjoyed the mess as re-fried beans spilled out of our oversized burritos. Since there’s no better indulgence than dessert in the afternoon, and after all this was a vacation, we finished with fruit filled burritos smothered in vanilla ice cream.   As a novice regarding Mexican cuisine I have nothing to compare the quality of the food with. But, I enjoyed myself, as did my dining comanions and I definitely didn’t leave hungry, so I would give it high marks.  We hadn’t actually crossed the Border but were still required to pass through an Immigration checkpoint as we began our return to Tucson. I would like to commend Border Patrol for the patience and humor they displayed while this enthusiastic tourist snapped photos of the Officers at the checkpoint. They seemed to appreciate my delight at watching the patrol dogs in action. No questionable people were detained during our brief drive through.  Since we had the time, and it was on the way to “home’’, we decided to change the day into a touring double header and drove into Madera Canyon. It’s located in the Coronado Forest and tucked in between Mt. Hopkins with an elevation of 8500 feet and Mt. Wrightson with an elevation of 9800 feet. The canyon is best known for bird watching but the only birds I saw were engaged at a feeding station set up at the Santa Rita Lodge. No smart bird would turn down a sure meal and we were rewarded with seeing wild turkeys hanging out with hummingbirds and Mexican Jays providing an international aviary experience. It was a full yet fun day that reminded me that there are so many places in this world to explore and so little time. I rarely revisit a destination no matter how much it was enjoyed. However, the lure of family and fun is sure to bring me back to Tucson again and hopefully soon.



Veteran’s Day

I was fairly young when the U.S. entered the Viet Nam War but the daily reports on the evening news made an impression on me.  Too young to fathom the reasons for the conflict I was still old enough to understand that people were dying and children my age were losing their fathers and older brothers. I was also aware enough to understand the concept of “P.O.W.’s”, Prisoners of War and in an effort to show support, ordered a P.O.W. bracelet and wore it proudly. Each P.O.W. bracelet was inscribed with the name and rank of a soldier and the date of his capture. It never left my wrist, not even during bath time. To say it was a contentious war would be kind. The manner in which the soldiers were sometimes treated upon returning home was a shame. We as a nation were so focused on why we didn’t want the war that we forgot to say thank you to those who fought the war. It was a long time coming but the Veterans of the Viet Nam era were finally publicly recognized in 1982 for their service and sacrifice, with the completion of the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial Wall. However, public opinion did not favor the somber, stark design of a black slabs inscribed with the 58,000 names of those who lost their lives or were still M.I.A. Missing in Action. According to Wikipedia the Wall was designed so that “When a visitor looks upon the Wall, his or her reflection can be seen simultaneously with the engraved names, which is meant to symbolically bring the past and present together.” One portion of the Wall points toward the Washington Monument and the other portion in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial meeting at an angle of 125° and stands 12′ at its tallest point.  Clearly, careful and creative consideration was involved in the design in order to pay tribute to the soldiers and honor the deceased. Despite the earnest intentions the Memorial Wall was not widely accepted and it was decided that a more traditional statue would be erected. The new piece would be dedicated during an unveiling ceremony that would take place November 1984 on Veteran’s Day.  Thus, when I was approached by a local Veteran’s Group that wished to travel to Washington D.C, for the unveiling of the monument, I was eager to help. I was still new to the travel industry and it was one of the first group trips I organized and the first one that I escorted. I chartered a bus and arranged for hotel rooms. After a late day departure, we arrived in Washington D.C. after midnight. The Veterans and their spouses, previously in a raucous party mood grew somber and pensive as we approached our destination. We delayed our arrival to the hotel and headed straight to the Memorial site. These Vets and their families had waited far too long to be properly honored and despite the late hour not one person on that bus wanted to wait another day to visit the tribute site. For many, it was their first visit to The Wall. You could see the men scrolling through the inscribed list of soldiers, searching for former comrades in arms and crying quiet tears when they found a familiar name. Some took “rubbings” of names they wished to remember by placing a sheet of paper over a name and softly rubbing a pencil point back and forth, thus capturing the image. Others just hung their heads, lost in memories or sadness or both. I stayed back at a respectful distance giving them both time and space but if we were to be rested for the ceremony later that day we needed to get to the hotel. I finally succeeded at getting everyone rounded up and back on the bus. We arrived at the hotel at approximately 2am and the manager on duty greeted us and meted out keys for the assigned rooms. One by one we got everyone sorted out. Each traveler reclaimed their luggage and headed up to their accommodations to reflect and get some sleep in anticipation of the day’s events.

I always try to be the first person in the hotel lobby when I’m escorting a group. It seems to be proper form to greet your guests and let them know that you’re available and ready to help. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when I got to the lobby and saw almost half the group assembled for breakfast, but I was. Last night’s quiet reverence was replaced by rowdy anticipation. Today was their day. Today they would be honored and their “brothers” would be remembered. We boarded the bus that would take us back to The Mall. The Memorial Wall was built opposite the Korean War Memorial located closest to the Lincoln Monument and the new monument titled “Three Soldiers” was erected near The Wall.  President Reagan was scheduled to address the audience in the late afternoon. We had arrived hours earlier to secure a good spot but thousands of others had arrived ahead of us. We joined the crowd that eventually swelled to an estimated count of 300,000, an intimidating number when you’re in the middle of it. It was even more intimidating when you realized that if you left your place for a bathroom break or any other reason the odds against you rejoining the group were not in your favor.  It was an emotional day filled with pride at being acknowledged as heroes, sorrow for the loss of friends or family and remembering those who did not return. Lastly, there was joy at finally being able to release the anguish of fighting a war that few supported.

On occasion I would access the database that listed the status of those names issued on P.O.W. bracelets. Each time I would hope for a positive change in the status of “my” soldier, but each time I was disappointed. After almost 40 years of hoping for the safe return of a man I never met, I decided to honor him in my own way and buried the bracelet that bore his name in my own yard.

Post Script:  Later, on Veteran’s Day 1993 a 3rd monument would be added to salute the role of Service Women during the war. Today, I personally would like to acknowledge and offer appreciation for the risks our military personnel faced and still face, each and every day. Their sacrifices ensure my freedoms, one of which is Freedom of Speech, a freedom I enjoy each time I write an article for this column. Happy Veteran’s Day!

Party of One

My first trip to the island of Antigua came by way of special invitation to celebrate and help inaugurate the opening of a new hotel called The Royal Antiguan. In the hopes of clearing up a common misunderstanding, let’s start with the correct pronunciation of the island name. While most Antiguans have an African heritage due to being brought to the island as slaves, the island was settled in 1632 by the Brits. Thus, the pronunciation of the island’s name is the distinctly British, Ann-tee-gah instead of the more commonly used Spanish pronunciation of An-tee-gwah.  Antigua is easy to reach, is not over developed and their claim to fame is that the island has 365 beaches, “one for every day of the year.” I’ll have to take the Tourist Board at their collective word because I have yet to meet anyone who conducted a count.  The beaches that I did visit were very nice and I probably visited fewer than ten but I would attribute that more to lack of time than lack of curiosity. If you ever get the opportunity, one of the beaches you I recommend that you visit is Rendezvous Bay. I promise, the trek will be worth it. The Royal Antiguan Hotel was located in a quieter area on a beach known as Deep Bay and was the first hotel on the island with the distinction of being more than two stories tall. Their Grand Opening was in January 1988, perhaps not coincidentally on Super Bowl weekend and I was invited to attend. As part of the promotion and as the center of their festivities, a group of professional football players were invited to be the extra special guests of honor at the hotel kick off. I hope you noticed that I used a football term here. I assume they accepted the invitation because they weren’t invited to the actual Super Bowl. Either that, or the free vacation and bevy of models were enough to entice them. I imagine it would be enough to entice any man. I arrived on January 30 and the” Big Game” was scheduled for the next day on January 31. It was the Denver Broncos vs. the Washington Redskins. The pre-game party was scheduled for the night I arrived. After changing out of travel clothes and into festive attire I joined the raucous group down in the lobby. I should confess that I’m not a sports fan. As a matter of fact if there’s a name for the opposite of being a “fan’, that would be me.  All I remember is that there were very, very large, men, all of whom were wearing Super Bowl rings with an inappropriate number of very tall model-like women surrounding them, vying for their attention. We did have something in common though. We were all visiting the same island and the same hotel to celebrate the grand opening of the resort but that’s where the similarities ended.   Barely cresting at 5 foot 3 and to my knowledge having never been mistaken for a supermodel, I felt more than a little bit out of place. Unable to talk even semi-intelligently about Football, or truthfully, any other sport, I decided it would be better to seek entertainment elsewhere. Given a choice between a sporting event and doing almost anything else it’s a pretty sure bet that I will choose something else every single time. I was travelling with an older woman who happened to share my lack of enthusiasm for sporting events. We decided to strike out on our own and see where our curiosity would lead us. Nelson's_DockyardWe drifted towards the downtown area looking for something to do that was of mutual interest.  Since you’re never too far from sea or ocean when on an island, we eventually found ourselves by the waterfront of English Harbour at Nelson’s Dockyard. As expected there was a selection of shops, bars and restaurants to choose from.  Loud dance music could be heard coming from several doorways but my travel companion was not much of a dancer and understandably felt out of place venturing into nightclubs packed with twenty-somethings. We decided to head towards the sea and walked out on the dock to visit some of the vendor stalls. The music from the clubs seemed to follow us and I noticed that all of the vendors had boom boxes, most tuned to the same radio station.  If you’re a fan of the music from the 80’s, you’ll have no trouble recalling Rick Astley’s song, “Never gonna give you up.” If you’re asking “Rick who?” all you need to know was that his music was very dance-able, very popular at the time and it became the unofficial soundtrack of this particular trip. I heard it several times a day, every day. As a matter of fact even today when I hear it, I want to get up and dance.  It was the eighties. We all had big hair and a penchant for wild colors such as turquoise and flamingo pink. It was the era of Don Johnson and Miami Vice, jackets with shoulder pads, men wore their pant legs rolled up and without socks. Girls wore plastic bangles, pink hair and lots of garish makeup. I was one of those girls although my hair was partially purple. The music was fun and the beat addictive and I soon found myself dancing under the moonlight on the pier. My travel companion looked on with a wide smile as other tourists joined me on the impromptu dance floor. It was a moment I couldn’t have planned but one that I’ll never forget. The lesson here is that you make your own fun. I left the island clueless as to who won the Big Game but, in the quest for accuracy, I did some research. The Redskins won 42-10 and the hotel is currently known as the Grand Royal Antiguan Hotel.

Photo from Wikipedia

It was 50 years ago today…

“It was twenty years ago, today. Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

They’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.

So, may I introduce to you, the act you’ve known for all these years…..”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, The Beatles!”

It was actually more than 20 years ago when the song and album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band made its debut, but it was 50 years ago when the Beatles first landed on our shore.

If, like me, you’re a true Beatles fan you’ll notice that I combined the lyrics of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with Ed Sullivan’s now famous introduction of the original British boy band to America. Even if you weren’t a fan, you couldn’t escape the hysteria that accompanied their arrival  at JFK airport. Back in 1964 I was too young to appreciate or even understand the impact the “mopheads” from Liverpool would eventually have on our music and even on our pop cultural landscape. My mother was more of a Trini Lopez fan but we did have a Beatles album in the house. However, it wasn’t until the Beatles broke up that I took notice of their music. Prior to that, I was too enthralled with a band called The Monkees. I assume that they were America’s attempt at a copy of the Beatles and they were fairly successful. But, just like a child who wants what they can’t have, once the Beatles dissolved, I craved their music. I came to have a new appreciation for their songs that was fed by constant tributes and all-Beatles’ weekends on radio stations. I was inspired by their melodies and what I previously lost in time, I later made up for with enthusiasm. I laid claim to my mother’s copy of ‘Something New’, a Beatles album released only in the United States. I later went on to collect about 100 records which were a mix of British and American album releases on both the Parlaphone and Capitol and eventually Apple labels. I also sought out picture discs (albums imprinted with photos instead of being traditionally all black), and assorted other language albums, compilations and a few 45’s of some of my favorite single releases. I was a regular at Beatlefests where other Beatles fans joined together to trade souvenirs, albums and tributes to what we considered to be the Greatest Band of All Time. So, it seemed right that when I took my very first international trip, that it would be to England. Actually, it was more than a trip. For me, it was a pilgrimage. I have previously written about this trip and my unsuccessful attempt to meet veterinarian/author Dr. James Herriott. Fortunately, my visit to Liverpool was more successful. No, I didn’t get to meet any of the “Four Lads Who Shook the World” but I did get to see the sculpture bearing these words on Matthew Street in Liverpool paying tribute to John, Paul, George and Ringo. Matthew Street was the location of the original Cavern Club, the place where the Beatles got their start. At that time, the Cavern Club was permanently closed but just to be able to stand there and touch the bricks of the building and imagine the energy of those early days was heady stuff, indeed. Next, I visited Strawberry Field which inspired the song “Strawberry Fields Forever”. It came as a surprise that Mr. Lennon was not singing about an idyllic park, but instead about an orphanage called Strawberry Field. The ornate gates still stand and the orphanage still operates and people still post Beatles related graffiti on the gate posts. From there, I headed to Menlove Avenue, John Lennon’s boyhood home. The house is still there but visitors are greeted with a sign that reads NO Trespassing, clearly stating the current occupant’s desire for privacy. I’m sure I’m not the first fan with a desire to knock on that door but I didn’t want to intrude or worse be thought of as a “cheeky American”. Completing the pop culture tri-fecta, just a few blocks away you find Penny Lane, a fairly busy intersection. Despite the ordinariness of these locations they were magical as I stood there hearing the music “in my ears and in my eyes”. Meanwhile back…in London the most iconic of all destinations is the famous crosswalk by the Abbey Road Studios. I have to tip my hat to that famous British show of good manners. I imagine it must be fairly maddening to be late getting to work only to have to wait for zealous Beatles fans attempting to recreate the famous album cover shot. It’s the photo where John, Ringo, Paul and George cross the street, evenly spaced, all but Paul in step. The tourist playing “Paul” must be out of step and barefoot to accurately portray the scene. The locals are fairly patient about the whole situation but you do hear an occasional horn toot. I imagine it’s only funny the first 50 times or so and then you just want to make your way to wherever you’re going. Since I was only part of a party of two, with no one else to take the potential photo, it remains a missed opportunity. Today’s London bound tourists are most likely to be interested in another mophead called Harry Potter. London Tourism has done a marvelous job recreating some of the fictional landmarks frequented by the young wizard and his schoolmates. Downton Abbey is also drawing scores of fans eager for a tour of the house and grounds of Highclere Castle, where the program is filmed.  Ultimately I did get to see a Beatle. Paul McCartney was touring with his wife Linda and his band “Wings”. I had seats about as far back from the stage as possible without being behind the counter of a concession stand. I paid several times the face value of the ticket. But, there he was, a former Beatle, on stage, singing a few Beatle songs. I may have missed the first British invasion, but now, this was my time. As I sang along to all the familiar lyrics I found myself screaming for Paul with the earnest idolatry of a 16 year girl way back in 1964.