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Angling and adventure greet our intrepid traveller on Padre Island

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By Gerry Feehan, award-winning travel writer and photographer. Here is his latest story, Padre Island, Texas.

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“…I peaked through a stack of chili-flavoured pork rinds, past a battered flag of the Lone-Star State hanging in the dirty window, and into the parking lot. Smiley was staring storeward… waiting….”

 

Padre Island Texas is a long spit of sand dunes guarding mainland Texas from the destructive tornadoes and winter storms that pound in from the Gulf of Mexico. Between this narrow barrier island and the mainland lies Laguna Madre, a shallow hyper-saline sea renowned for sensitive sea grass and world-class fishing.

Padre Island Texas

The end of the road on South Padre Island.

On some Padre Island beaches, camping is free. South of Corpus Christi, at Padre Island National Seashore, free boon-docking extends for over 100 kilometres. But the sandy entrance is also the only exit. So, after you bite off as much of the hard-packed seashore road as you can chew and you’ve had your fill of remote surf and turf, a tight U-turn and a long return drive up the beach is required to get back to civilization.

It was shoulder season, so we and our RV had the whole shoreline to ourselves.

Padre Island Texas

Now that’s remote camping!

The other campers were all outfitted for fishing. “When in Rome,” thought I and asked the park ranger if he knew of any local fishing guides.

The weather was atrocious: 3°C with a 70-kilometer north wind. Only a Canuckle-head would beach in such conditions; five meters from the raging ocean and sideways to a Gulf gale. The van was a rockin’ all night.

In the morning the weather cleared, the sun shone and the wind ebbed, portending a fine day on the Laguna Madre. We drove back across the causeway to the mainland, toward Arroyo City and a lovely campground along a canal fronting the ocean. We chose a site protected by live oak trees in case (heaven forbid) the weatherman’s prognostication was inaccurate and the wind began to howl anew. As per our typical MO, we arrived at dusk, sans reservation.

The other campers were all outfitted for fishing. “When in Rome,” thought I and asked the park ranger if he knew of any local fishing guides.

“No, I sure don’t,” he said. “Y’all could check with the live-bait store back in town. Look for the big sign – a redfish – out front. They may have a’ idea.” I asked Florence if she’d mind hanging solo for a day while I went angling. “No, go ahead. I’ll spend the day relaxing, reading and knitting.” I wandered down the road.  When I saw red, I stepped in. The shop smelt. After baiting the proprietor with fishing small-talk, I asked, “Do you think you could find a guide to take me out tomorrow?”

“Well, I know of a fella lives right by,” he said, chewing uncertainly on a pork rind, “but it’s kind of late and I doubt he’d be available on short notice. I could call if you like.” He picked up the phone.

Padre Island Texas

Captain Smiley

Five minutes later ‘Captain Smiley’ was walking in the door. He shook my hand and arrangements were made to tackle an early morning. The sun had not yet risen when the Captain putt-putted up to our riverfront campsite and welcomed me aboard. Minutes later, dawn greeted us as we cast our first lines into the shallow, glassy waters of Laguna Madre. A fat red drum hit on my second cast; a fighting day was upon us.

I had a great time with Smiley. Affirming his moniker, he laughed and joked all day long in his charismatic Tex-Mex accent.

The night before I had warned the Captain that I was short on greenbacks and would need to pay by cheque. He hesitantly agreed. When we arrived back at dock he expertly prepped my red-fish “on the half-shell” for grilling. Driving me back to our campsite he diverted his battered pick-up truck toward the bait shop. Pulling up he informed me that there was an ATM inside. Evidently he preferred cash to a cheque written on the reputable but foreign Royal Bank of Canada. I smiled, opened the door and headed into the store.

I had no bank card, just a US Visa. Uncertain if I could withdraw cash or whether my PIN# would work, I shoved the card in, chose English over Spanish as my language of preference and, after agreeing to an unreasonable fee for using the bank machine (“in addition to whatever other charges your financial institution may impose”). I prayed silently as I entered my personal security particulars. The machine sat quietly for a time, made some distant interior rumblings and eventually announced: “Request Declined.”

Padre Island Texas

Roseate spoonbill

I peaked through a stack of chili-flavoured pork rinds, past a battered flag of the Lone-Star State hanging in the dirty window, and into the parking lot. Smiley was staring storeward… waiting.

I checked to see if there was a back exit. The wary owner eyed me suspiciously. The rear door led through a heap of fish offal into an alligator-infested swamp. Preferring embarrassment to an awful death, I thought I’d again ask the Captain if he would accept my cheque. I took a last baleful glance at the ATM and noticed a message: “maximum withdrawal $120.” I had requested too much dinero. I started the process anew, punched in my PIN, agreed to pay the usurious fees and crossed my fingers. The machine slowly spat six tattered twenties at me. A full day of guided fishing is not cheap. I repeated the process a few times. Eventually the tired machine coughed up enough cash to retire my piscatorial indebtedness.

I handed the dough to Smiley. He smiled and asked, “Do you want to fish tomorrow?” I couldn’t envisage enduring another ATM debacle and, in any event, it was time for us to move on from this arroyo.

“No thanks,” I said, “we need to hit the road tomorrow.”

“Aw, that’s too bad,” said Smiley. “Tomorrow’s my day off and what I do on my day off is… go fishing. I’ll take you out on my dime.”

Padre Island Texas

A great blue heron eyes the fishing.

I saw my calendar clearing.

I called Florence to ask leave. She concurred, delighted. (Apparently, one day away from her beloved was insufficient to create any overwhelming desire to be reunited in the confines of our small RV.)

I had another great “caught my limit” day of fishing. As I fried up a delicious speckled sea trout that night, Florence asked, “Are you going fishing again tomorrow?”

“Naw,” I said. “Smiley’s got a customer lined up for the morning.”

“Gee, that’s too bad,” she said, “this fish is incredible.” She was eyeing her knitting.

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Close up shot of writer Gerry Feehan

Gerry Feehan

Hope you enjoyed your trip to Padre Island Texas.  Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer.  He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC. You can read more of his stories here.

Thanks to these great local sponsors for making this feature possible!

 

Read Gerry’s excellent tale – The Long Road to Texas.  Click below.

 

 

 

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“India? Are you nuts?” Join Gerry for Part 1 of his series on India.

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Feature Image India part 1

This is the first in a four-part series on India

“India. Are you nuts?” an incredulous friend remarked. “Why would you want to go there? It’s dirty, crowded, smelly and full of stray cows.”

So, I was anxious as I stared out the window of the Dreamliner 787 on descent into New Delhi after a 14-hour flight from Vancouver. But Delhi was nowhere to be seen. The worst smog in the country’s history had enveloped India’s capital. Visibility was near zero.

Man carrying basket on head

Smog in India

The late-night ride to the hotel was a dystopian dream. With the twelve-hour time change we were in a trance-like state. The streets were eerily quiet. An acrid smell hung in the air. As we drove through dense smog, the moon made a futile effort to silhouette India Gate, Parliament House and the Prime Minister’s residence.

“What’s happening?” we asked the clerk at check-in.

“Diwali,“ he smiled.

Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival that pays tribute to the victory of light over dark, good over evil – and a highlight of the annual celebration is the setting off of fireworks. When Delhi’s 22,000,000 inhabitants simultaneously ignite firecrackers and other pyrotechnics, the sub-tropical air becomes thick with the stagnant refuse of gunpowder. Add to this the exhaust of 9 million vehicles, smoke from burnt stubble fields in nearby Punjab, plus a temperature inversion – and you have unimaginable, eye-searing air pollution.

“…At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium…”

Schools were closed. Construction was halted. Roads were sprayed to keep dust down. Farmers were threatened with fines for illegally burning rice stubble; all to no avail. The particulate index climbed, from just over 600 when we arrived, to 964 three days later. This level is 15 times the “safe” limit in India – and 60 times what would be considered hazardous in Canada.

Women selling wares

Street Vendors during Diwali

Then the currency crisis hit. In an effort to weed out “black money” – cash hoarded through corruption and counterfeiting – Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetization of all 500 and 1000 rupee bills. That’s like cancelling all our $10 and $20 bills.

India’s 1.3 billion people were given a fortnight to exchange old rupees, after which the old bills would become worthless. The bank lineups were horrifying.

India’s is a cash economy and many people don’t even use banks. The country was in chaos. But surprisingly, most people we met – guides, drivers, shopkeepers, restaurant employees – were sick of the endemic corruption and in favour of this Draconian strategy.

Our tour group consisted of my wife Florence and me, together with our fun-loving travel-mates Kim and Simone from Victoria and Joe and Carla from Saskatoon. We struggled through these pollution and currency crises from the comfort of an air-filtered, credit card-accepting hotel. Meanwhile out on the streets the locals coughed, lined up and resolutely carried on life in 21st century India.

school kids some wearing masks

Air quality is an issue

But for me more astonishing and unfathomable than the choking smog and worthless bills was India’s overwhelming, perpetual traffic congestion.

The “sub-continent” has 54 cities with more than a million people. Four of these urban agglomerations have over 20 million souls. And even the smallest Indian village is a clogged spoke of trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles and foot traffic. Pecking order is determined by size. Bicycles give way to motorcycles, which give way to rickshaws… ascending up to the big Tata transport trucks.

 

full bus carrying men

Traffic is insane

Buses overflow with humanity – arms, legs and heads spilling from every door and window. A moped transports an entire family – and their belongings. The lowly pedestrian occupies the bottom of the traffic heap, flirting death with each wary footstep.

At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium.

people watching cow in street

Cows rule.

This may come as a somewhat of a surprise but Indians are fantastic drivers. In what can only be termed functional chaos, traffic actually moves. Roads designed for two lanes harbour four – in each direction. The tiniest opening in traffic is immediately filled by the largest object that fits that space. India abhors a vacuum.

Horns blast non-stop in a cacophonous chorus, used not in anger but to convey a message. A little beep means, “Hey, I’m here.” A resolute honk indicates, “I’m filling that gap.” And an extended blast from a bus states unequivocally, “Coming through, out of my way.”

The first two weeks of our month-long stay in India were spent in the company – and under the watchful eye – of guide Anoop Singhal and driver Devinder Singh. Each morning Singh Ji, a soft-spoken Sikh, greeted us with a colourful turban and a contagious smile. (“Ji” is an honorific, used to show respect – and we happily started referring to one another as Kim Ji, Anoop Ji, etc.)

kids with balloons

Despite the culinary curry shock to my digestive system – and the occasional experiment with street food – I managed to avoid “Delhi belly.” I credit my intestinal well-being to a daily dose of local yoghurt. But even with the use of air masks, we all eventually succumbed to the dreaded Delhi cough.

White palace on water

The Lake Palace of Udaipur

After “seeing” the capital, we travelled a few hundred kilometers southwest to Udaipur to begin an exploration of the fabulous architecture of Rajasthan. Vast palaces built by fabulously wealthy Maharajas in the 17th century still dominate the landscape. The Lake Palace of Udaipur, the White City, is a stunning snow-white jewel set in a liquid surface.

In Jodhpur, the Blue City, we looked down on a jumble of turquoise buildings from the heights of Mehrangarh Fort. The last in the colourful triumvirate of Rajasthan’s famous towns is Jaipur, the Pink City, where in 1857 Maharaja Ram Singh ordered his palace painted pink to impress the British overlords.

India is a photographer’s paradise. No need to search out photo ops; simply plunk down on any curb and start snapping: a vendor hawking fruit, women in crimson saris haggling over spices, a cow imperially chewing its cud, children laughing, beggars begging. All day, every day the flavour, colour, texture, sound, energy and urgency of India unfolds spontaneously, unrehearsed.

On the last day of our stay in Rajasthan, we stopped in at the famed camel festival of Pushkar where local dromedaries are auctioned annually. I nearly closed on a fine one-humped specimen but was outbid by a clever camel herder from the Punjab. Just as well; probably would have been tough to squeeze a grumpy dromedary into my suitcase.

Next time: Taj Mahal and the Sacred Ganges.

Thank you to these great local sponsors who make these stories possible!

If you go: Explore India from Vancouver B.C., www.exploreindia.ca, capably and professionally handled all aspects of our private month-long tour – air and land travel, hotels, meals, guides, drivers, entrance fees and activities – for one all-inclusive price.

Click below to read about some of Gerry’s other great travel adventures.

 

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Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells – even the names sound hot

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Death Valley, California. Hotter than Hades.

Sans reservation, we arrived at Furnace Creek Campground, 268 feet below sea level. The park ranger informed us unequivocally that the campground was FULL. ‘You’ll have to turn around.’ Feigning a U-turn, I drove in – and immediately found a vacant, primo spot. I sauntered back to the entrance booth and slapped down my 22 bucks.

The light you are seeing left that galaxy over 2,000,000 years ago.’ At this revelation, one family became visibly agitated – and abruptly left the group. As they departed I heard the matriarch exclaim, ‘2,000,000 years. Hasn’t he read the Bible?’

‘Gee, you were lucky,’ the ranger said. ‘Yup, lucky,’ said I. Coincidentally, precisely the same thing had occurred the night before at Stovepipe Wells campground, 30 miles up the road. And, ironically, it was the same lady whose instructions I had disregarded. Fortunately, I am a rather nondescript fellow and she didn’t thwart my advance. I wandered back to our site and set up the BBQ, although I probably could have fried the chicken directly on the searing pavement.

Late, after dinner, as the desert air began to cool, we heard a chewing noise outside the RV. Thinking it might deter intruding varmints, Florence instructed me to pee around the perimeter of the motorhome. A job I was up for. In the morning all was clear. No chewed hoses, flat tires or leaking parts. Feeling secure, we packed lunch and embarked on a stunning, strenuous hike to the summit of Wildrose Peak, 10,000 feet above the salty Death Valley floor. Late in the afternoon we returned, exhausted, to a camper full of… mouse turds.

Turns out our nocturnal intruder was not an external varmint, but one living amongst us. Before bedding down for the night, I set a trap under the sink. After midnight a loud ‘snap’ sounded. One dead mouse. I stepped out into the moonlight and discarded the stiffening carcass. And, my bladder being full, I gave the exterior one last precautionary piss.

The next night we attended an astronomy program outside the Furnace Creek visitor’s center. The topic was the speed of light. ‘For instance,’ the speaker explained, ‘it takes about 8 minutes for light to reach us from the sun. The nearest star is a couple of light years away. Our galaxy is over 100,000 light years across. And that,’ he said, pointing to a small fuzzy patch in the dark sky, ‘is Andromeda. The light you are seeing left that galaxy over 2,000,000 years ago.’ At this revelation, one family became visibly agitated – and abruptly left the group. As they departed I heard the matriarch exclaim, ‘2,000,000 years. Hasn’t he read the Bible?’

After the talk we stayed behind and shared our binoculars with a curious young couple from India. I pointed out some constellations as we chatted. He was a cardiologist, finishing his internship in Pittsburgh. The Indian government had funded a large portion of his education. I asked him if he intended to return to India after completion of his studies – or whether he might remain in the US to mine the riches of America’s fecund medical system.

‘Ah, this is the difficulty,’ he said. ‘Were I to stay, I shall certainly become rather wealthy. But if I return home, I can help a great many people. But there are also some drawbacks. In India the equipment is quite inferior. Also, oftentimes when a doctor operates and the outcome is poor, or perhaps the patient does not survive, the angry family beats the surgeon mercilessly.’ Then, looking up at the magnificent Milky Way and its billion myriad of stars shining onto a California desert, he said, ‘I shall have to ponder this.’

After my rendition of Peaceful Easy Feeling, Nathaniel stood up, stepped behind an enormous eroding rock, and began to weep. After a few minutes, he re-joined us at the fire and approached me for a thankful hug. ‘Sorry, man, but that was so emotional. I haven’t cried like that in forever.’

Out of the dark, a shaggy middle-aged American couple emerged. They introduced themselves as Chuck and Moonbeam. They had just completed their daily sun salutation. Chuck excitedly regaled us with his notion of the universe. ‘I’m an earth, moon, sun type of guy. But Moonbeam, she’s more outer planetary.’ I thought this description odd, given his wife’s moniker, but decided not to quibble over such minor galactic details.

‘Did you know the earth’s magnetic poles are reversing today?’ Moonbeam asked. I tried to explain that any wobble in the earth’s axis would take thousands of years and it would be difficult to note a reverse in polarity, even in a thousand lifetimes. Undeterred, she revealed excitedly, ‘Just this morning my daughter called to say she too felt the vibe.’

We returned to camp. I took out my ukulele. A 30-something fellow scooted by on his long board in the darkness. When he heard me playing, ‘Andrew’ stopped and asked us to join his group at their fire. We acquiesced. Andrew’s friend Nathaniel sat perched on a cahon, beating a deep primeval rhythm to the desert sky. Their female campmates, clad hippie-style in ponchos, danced and twirled, silhouetted by the flickering mesquite blaze.

I struck up a few tunes. After my rendition of Peaceful Easy Feeling, Nathaniel stood up, stepped behind an enormous eroding rock, and began to weep. After a few minutes, he re-joined us at the fire and approached me for a thankful hug. ‘Sorry, man, but that was so emotional. I haven’t cried like that in forever.’

When the evening ended, they all bid us adieu with hands clasped, a bow and a ‘blessings upon you.’ Andrew added, ‘May you have vivid, happy dreams all the night.’ Then we all enjoyed one last hug.

I stumbled back to the trailer, guzzled a beer, and promptly passed out.

None of this is bullshit.

Gerry

We hope you enjoyed Death Valley, California – Hotter than Hades.

Thank you to these great local sponsors who make these stories possible!

Click below to read about some of Gerry’s other great travel adventures.


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