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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.

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


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India Part 2- Terrific photos! Experience the Taj Mahal and Ganges

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India Part 2- Terrific photos help you experience the Taj Mahal and Ganges. This is the second in a four-part series on India

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. Constructed of ivory marble inlaid with semi-precious stones, the Taj Mahal is described as the world’s most perfect building. The Taj does not disappoint.

the Taj Mahal is described as the world’s most perfect building

The grand mausoleum is best viewed in the early morning light, but some important foreign politico was in town so the grounds were closed to us plebeians. We had to view the edifice from Agra Fort, which lies across the Yamuna River.

sharing the Taj Mahal with friendly locals

Still, the ancient site in the hazy distance was stunning, with its four tall minarets framing the gigantic domed tomb. In 1658, after a succession battle, Shah Jahan’s son had his father imprisoned in the Fort. The elder Shah was forced to live out his existence with a distant, tantalizing, maddening view of his beloved wife’s final resting place.

cows come first in India

 

a boy selling funerary votives

The Taj Mahal grounds re-opened to the great unwashed later that afternoon – affording us the opportunity to avoid the morning crowd. As the sun set, we were able to quietly enjoy this architectural wonder with an intimate gathering of… about 10,000 souls. Did I mention India has a lot of people? (see Part 1 of the series.)

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

 

 

What’s the scoop Anoop?

Every morning, before he could open his mouth to explain where we were going and what we’d see, eat and do that day, we’d greet our guide Anoop Singhal with a preemptive, “What’s the scoop, Anoop?” Then he’d regale us with the remarkable things we were to consume – visually and gastronomically – that day.

A family happily camped in the streets of Varanasi.

And throughout the adventure, with ceremonial kirpan rattling by his side, driver Devinder Singh navigated us safely through the byways of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, his horn a constant presence, firmly announcing our arrival in every hamlet, village and town.

Varanasi Pilgrims

When we flew to Varanasi to visit the sacred waters of the Ganges, Singh Ji drove through the night, met us at the airport and safely delivered us to our luxurious accommodation.

It was on the short drive into Varanasi that we saw our first corpse.

Supplicants bathe in the sacred GangesIt is the desire of every devout Hindu to be cremated along the banks of the Ganges River, ashes then spread into the sacred water. Such a fortuitous departure from life enhances the deceased’s opportunity to be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of reincarnation, rebirth.

What we had seen on the way into town was a body, brightly wrapped in funerary attire, drawn in an open cart and bound for a wooden funeral pyre.

Funeral Pyres on the banks of the Ganges

Late that afternoon, after navigating Varanasi’s warren-like alleyways and descending the stone steps of Manikarnika Ghat to the riverbank, we rowed quietly out into the soft Ganges current. Orange flames danced from a score of burning pyres, each mimicking the brilliant Indian sunset.

an offering for the river gods

Downstream, supplicants released floating offerings of lit candles set in yellow marigolds, while men and women – pilgrims from all over India – stepped into the water to cleanse themselves and sip the holy elixir.

garlands of marigolds

Despite encouragement from the locals we did not partake in the ritual of drinking directly from the blessed Ganges. A Canadian doctor I met on a scenic point overlooking the river warned that to do so was to invite, “the 30 day, 30 pound diet.”

As darkness descended we drifted silently, watching a growing multitude of funerary blazes illuminate the shore. The effect was ethereal, apocalyptic.

In the morning the mood at breakfast was somber. Our time with Mr. Singh and our wonderful guide Anoop was over. We were headed to Mumbai to begin the next leg of our journey. Before we left for the airport, Anoop Ji surprised us with a private yoga session in the garden of the Taj Gateway, our fabulous Varanasi hotel.

a colourful scene on the Ganges

 

end of along day

After a lot of “ohms”, some deep breathing and much stretching, the yogi insisted we finish the session with a laugh – literally. So, we all forced a grin that morphed to a chuckle and eventually became a contagious guffaw. Soon the whole group was howling with a genuine, fall on your yoga mat, belly laugh.

The mood had swung and we were all smiles as we boarded the plane for Mumbai.

Next time: the slums of Mumbai.

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.

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

Turks and Caicos – The Road Less Travelled

 

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COFFEE WITH CAM – JAN. 23 – STOLLERY CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL RADIATHON

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