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Todayville Travel: The Long Road to Texas

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  • by Gerry Feehan

    You would not want to go on an RV trip with me. Plans are inevitably last minute and unpredictable. An innocuous road sign may result in a quick U-turn – and a two-day detour to places unknown.

    In early fall we packed our modest motor home and slowly, circuitously ambled from Red Deer southward toward Texas. While impatient snowbirds zoomed by on the interstate en route to a quick, warm Arizona fix, we meandered the back roads, stopping to smell fall’s decaying flowers.

    The road to Texas began circuitously, with a detour through Invermere, BC

    Our destination was the Texas Gulf but we ultimately took more time getting there than we spent in the Lone Star state.

    There’s always time for fishing!

    We had no reservations, just a vague malleable plan that, malleably, seemed to change every day. An open travel agenda often leads to pleasant surprises, particularly if one foregoes the freeway for those tranquil country roads. In every backwater town knowledgeable locals are anxious to share wisdom about local pearls. Preconceived plans may go into the rubbish bin but… c’est la vie.

    That’s how we stumbled upon Great Sand Dunes National Park. As usual, we had eyed the map one morning, fired up the RV and started to wander. We were lost, headed down the Arkansas River in south Colorado. It was late afternoon. I pulled over and asked directions from a local lady walking her dog.

    “Excuse me,” I enquired apologetically of the woman curbing her canine. “I’m a little displaced. Do you know of any campgrounds near here?”

    She looked at me, astounded. “Don’t you know that one of America’s great treasures is right there?” She pointed toward a distant, sandy pile fronting the Sangre de Cristo Mountains: Great Sand Dunes National Park.

    Great Sand Dunes National Park

     

    We rolled in just as lengthening shadows crept over the vast dunes in a remarkable, rippling display. We set up camp as a bloodshot sun set on the Sahara-like landscape. Coyotes howling at the moon lullabied us to sleep.

    In the morning I stepped out into the crisp mountain air. The sand was now shadowed from the east.

    We enjoyed our cup of morning joe as dark images, reversed from the night before, played across the dunes. After breakfast we huffed and puffed a thousand feet to the summit of the sand; then ran, child-like, down to the flat plain.

    At the visitor center I told a Park Ranger that we were headed toward Texas and asked if there were any other such magical places along the way.

    Have you ever been to Palo Duro Canyon State Park?” she asked, pointing to a map of Texas.  Palo Duro was directly in our path to the Gulf.   Perfect. That afternoon we descended from a Colorado Rocky Mountain high to the bleak, flat scrubland of west Texas. We stopped for the night at “Happy Plains” RV Park in the sleepy town of Texline. We were the only guests. The proprietress, a lonely retired schoolteacher, was happy to shoot the breeze during check-in:

    “You’re from Canada? Well, welcome to Texas. My late husband and I drove through Canada once on our way to Alaska. Very friendly people. What’s the name of that National Park? Barff? Great food there, not too spicy.”

    I averted my eyes. Florence yawned in an effort to speed up the check-in process. The old gal continued undeterred:

    “But Canada was just a little too clean for me. I’ve never been happier than when we finally got to Alaska and saw all the cars jacked up on blocks. Made me feel I was home again. Don’t get me wrong,” she continued, “there is no reason for you to feel ashamed. In fact I believe there is no reason why we wouldn’t welcome you to join us and make one big country.”

    “Good idea,” I responded. “We could call it Canada.”

    She looked at me quizzically. It hadn’t occurred to her that Canadians might actually cherish their northern independence, that we might like our clean, polite wasteland and that we enjoyed our bland dishes, even if they were served up in “Barff”.

    In the morning we hastily broke camp and tried to sneak out the Happy Plains gate. But there stood the lonely matron, blocking our escape route, a basket in hand. She handed me a fistful of chocolate bars. It was Halloween.

    Pronghorns near Texline eye the road warily

    “I’m sorry about that nonsense last night,” she said, “sometimes I say silly things. ”Don’t we all, sister.

    Late that evening we descended into Palo Duro – the “Grand Canyon” of Texas – near Amarillo. Palo Duro is famous for its spectacular red-rock vistas and endless hiking and biking trails. As usual we arrived without reservation. It was a busy weekend. The ranger greeting us was a mountain of a man. His nametag said simply: “Moose”.

    “Geez your lucky,” he said. “We’re full up but just had a late cancellation for one of the finest spots in the park.” I shrugged happily. As I affixed the park pass to the windshield, Moose remarked: “Sometimes it pays to travel by the seat of your pants, last minute like.”

    Yup, it does.

    Palo Dur0- The Grand Canyon of Texas

    Travel during the shoulder season means you have entire vistas to yourself – and great weather!

    Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

    THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.

    Proverus LLP

    Riverview Insurance Solutions

    Kennedy Wealth Management Group


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    Turks and Caicos – The Road Less Travelled

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  • Turks and Caicos – The Road Less Travelled

    I once had political aspirations. It was the early 1980s. A federal election was brewing. At the same time a tiny chain of British islands in the Caribbean – the Turks and Caicos – had expressed interest in forming an association with Canada.

    What a great idea: Canada’s own warm, winter destination. No more currency exchange swindles or fighting with hefty American tourists in a Cancun buffet line-up; just a happy bunch of Canucks soaking up the sun in our own polite corner of tropical paradise.

    I would make political hay by running for office on this simple, single platform: promoting a union between Canada and the Turks and Caicos. It seemed a worthwhile diversion from Alberta’s traditional campaign issues: complaining about Quebec and letting the eastern bastards freeze in the dark.

    Alas, I didn’t run and my nascent political ambitions, like the election, came and went. The Turks and Caicos dream faded into the blue yonder; our Prime Minister went back to exclaiming “fuddle duddle” in Parliament and the West returned to detesting the East over trivial issues such as who was going to get Alberta’s gazillion petro dollars. And instead of milking the federal treasury I ended up in law school and eventually Red Deer where I practiced law for a quarter century before concluding that life was too short to spend behind a desk – even if it were in the corner office.

    Coral reef surrounds Providenciales

    But some people follow through on that early opportunity to chart a different course. Bruce Twa, a law school buddy, had lawyered through a few cold Alberta winters when a chance phone call offered him the prospect of practicing warm-winter law – in the Turks and Caicos. Bruce jumped at the offer. He has now been resident in the “TCIs” for over twenty-five years, transacting real estate deals on behalf of wealthy, sophisticated, discreet clients – when he’s not boating in the azure-coloured waters or snorkeling amongst parrotfish and turtles in the coral reef surrounding the islands.

    Conch Vendor

    I had promised (threatened?) to visit Bruce on numerous occasions over the years. Finally, arrangements were made. We’d see the tropical paradise Canada had snubbed and find out how my naïve 1980s political ambitions may have panned out.

    My wife Florence and I learned even before clearing customs at Providenciales airport that the TCIs still maintain a quaint “small-island” feel. Bruce and his wife Darlene had graciously offered to host us during our stay but the border guard wouldn’t allow us entry. We didn’t have Bruce’s home address. The officer shook his head many times, threatening us with expulsion, before calling in his superior.

    She looked at our paperwork, “Oh, you staying with Bruce? I just give him a call and get his house number.” She dialled and five minutes later we were standing on the curb, throwing our stuff into Bruce’s pickup.

    We had only four days in the TCIs; a wise use of time was paramount. I wanted to evaluate whether Canada had blundered or done right in spurning the wishes of this British Protectorate. A quick but thorough analysis of the culture, economy and history was in order. I’d keep a tally of the positives and negatives. We began our research in a calculated, scientific fashion: so we went for beer and seafood, stuffing ourselves with fresh conch and island brew. The conch fritters were fantastic but the local beer (Turk’s Head) was awful. Score: one/one.

    Darlene, nice. Turk’s Head, not so nice.

    In the morning Bruce offered us the use of his beater truck so we could explore the island. I was a bit nervous about driving a standard stick shift in a strange country. “Don’t worry,” said Bruce, “Provo (that’s what the locals call Providenciales) is small, you really can’t get lost”. I felt better until I turned out of his driveway onto the main highway and realized everyone was driving on the wrong side of the road. I geared down and careened into the steamy Caribbean chaos.

    Our methodical investigation continued… with lunch by the sea at Grace Bay – named by Condé Nast as one of the top beaches in the world. The fish was delectable and the beer (Presidente, imported from the Dominican Republic) palatable. The score was starting to favour the unionists.

    That afternoon Bruce abandoned his clients to take us on an insider’s tour of his small island. The TCIs are a string of Cays (“Keys”) located at the eastern end of the Bahamas chain. The capital is Grand Turk, an island 100 kilometers from Providenciales. There are numerous small Cays – mostly uninhabited – between these two major islands. Due largely to the influence of Canadian ex-pats, Provo has evolved to become both the commercial and tourism center of the TCIs.

    Bruce drove us through the high-rent district. If you are in the market for a multi-million dollar beachside home, Provo has plenty to offer. And if you change your mind and decide to sell, there is no tax payable on any gain in value. In fact there’s no tax of any kind in the TCIs: no tax on income or capital gains and no annual property tax on your house. But import duties and the cost of living are painfully high. Duty can be as much as 45% of a car’s value. And when you buy your dream home in paradise there is a one-time stamp fee payable equal to 9.75% of the purchase price. On a $1,000,000 property the fee is almost $100,000! Ouch, that’s a lot of postage.

    These punishing import duties have led to some clever avoidance strategies. For example, the Turks and Caicos has many, many churches… all exempt from duty. Thus, even the humblest pastor usually drives a shiny new SUV.

    We also toured the low-rent district, a stone’s throw from where the millionaire’s reside. The poor area, dubbed Five Cays, is where the immigrant workers – primarily Haitian – live.

    The unmaintained road into Five Cays is almost impassable. This explains the abandoned vehicles we encountered – some converted into makeshift shelters; and many of the shanty houses here are a work-in-progress.

    Home sweet home

    “We build piece-piece,” the locals explain. Bruce often does free legal work for the poor of Five Cays. He should be careful. This kind of attitude could bring an end to lawyer jokes.

    There are a number of different, confusing categories of residency in the TCIs. We arrived on a temporary (30 day) permit. Bruce and his wife are permanent residents. The Haitians rely on work permit residency.

    Then there are the “Belongers”. Only those persons born on the islands (with island ancestry) are true citizens, entitled to vote and hold office. Bruce and Darlene have been permanent residents of the TCIs for over two decades but can’t vote. They’ll never be Belongers.

    This bizarre restriction on citizenship has led indirectly to a major challenge facing the Turks and Caicos: a legacy of nepotism and corruption. One afternoon Bruce took us snorkeling. We boated past the palatial home of ex-premier Michael Misick in the Leeward neighbourhood of Provo.

    Michael Misick’s mansion

    After building his mansion Mr. Misick leased it to the government. Then he moved in – as tenant – and collected $10,000 a month in rent from government coffers. The same day we cruised by the house, Interpol apprehended Mr. Misick in Rio de Janeiro on an international arrest warrant on charges of corruption and maladministration. Michael Misick apparently lacks neither cash nor gumption.

    The tally was thickening. Would it really benefit Canada to get into bed with these types – even if the bed was a hammock swaying in a tropical breeze?

    Bonefish put up a helluva fight!

    Time was running short. To judge matters objectively I needed more first-hand data… so I went bonefishing with “Bar”, a local guide. Wow! The fight presented by these fish is absurd. If you are a fly-fisherman put this adventure on your bucket-list. One moment I was admiring a juvenile nurse shark hovering in the shallow waters beneath Bar’s flat-bottomed boat and the next the line was spinning uncontrollably outward. It was ten minutes before I had that slippery little devil in my hands.

    Motoring back to Provo we trolled past Bruce Willis’ house on Parrot Cay but the place looked deserted. Perhaps he was over at Demi Moore’s place having an ex-spouse, ex-pat spat.

     

    I owed Bar $500 for the morning’s fishing (I told you the TCIs are expensive). We agreed to meet at a bank up the road – but as we pulled in it was being robbed. “What happened?” I asked the security guard next door. “Sketchy… it happen piece-piece,” he answered cryptically. Crime is not really an issue in the TCIs but, embarrassingly, the Provo Police Station had also recently been burgled. Thieves made off with guns, ammo and drugs held for pending court cases; adding insult to injury the police force’s new uniforms ended up at a local pawnshop.

    Then there’s the “Potcakes” – Provo’s stray dogs. Packs of barking Potcakes roam the streets of this little island at night, stealing sleep from rich and poor alike. Unfortunately, the government funding for a much-needed sterilization program came unleashed amid allegations of… corruption.

    Bruce retrieves an AWOL Biana.

    Bruce’s dog Biana is a former Potcake, now fully civilized. During our boating afternoon Biana grew seasick but jumped overboard rather than vomit in her master’s vessel. Bruce cut the motor, dove in and brought his AWOL canine back aboard; then she threw up.

    The final tally? It’s difficult to say. On our last night any negative karma evaporated when I stepped onto Bruce’s deck, into the sultry Provo darkness, and smelled the air. Have you ever encountered night-blooming jasmine? The fragrance is difficult to describe but should I ever again detect its beauty floating on a tropical evening breeze, the recollection will return like scented déjà vu.

    Perhaps it’s best to let the Turks and Caicos dream drift away, unfulfilled. Like most things in life – politics included – things aren’t so simple as may first appear. Still, it sure would be nice to see the Maple Leaf fluttering over a tropical sunset.

    About the author:

    Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

    THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.

     

     


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    Marriott security breach exposed data of up to 500M guests

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  • NEW YORK — Hackers stole information on as many as 500 million guests of the Marriott hotel empire over four years, obtaining credit card and passport numbers and other personal data, the company said Friday as it acknowledged one of the largest security breaches in history.

    The full scope of the failure was not immediately clear. Marriott was trying to determine if the records included duplicates, such as a single person staying multiple times.

    It was also unclear what hackers could do with the credit card information. Though it was stored in encrypted form, it was possible that hackers also obtained the two components needed to descramble the numbers, the company said.

    The crisis quickly emerged as one of the largest data breaches on record. By comparison, last year’s Equifax hack affected more than 145 million people. A Target breach in 2013 affected more than 41 million payment card accounts and exposed contact information for more than 60 million customers.

    Security analysts were alarmed to learn that the breach began in 2014. While such failures often span months, four years is extreme, said Yonatan Striem-Amit, chief technology officer of Cybereason.

    The affected hotel brands were operated by Starwood before it was acquired by Marriott in 2016. They include W Hotels, St. Regis, Sheraton, Westin, Element, Aloft, The Luxury Collection, Le Méridien and Four Points. Starwood-branded timeshare properties were also included.

    None of the Marriott-branded chains were threatened.

    For as many as two-thirds of those affected, the exposed data could include mailing addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and passport numbers. Also included might be dates of birth, gender, reservation dates, arrival and departure times and Starwood Preferred Guest account information.

    “We fell short of what our guests deserve and what we expect of ourselves,” CEO Arne Sorenson said in a statement. “We are doing everything we can to support our guests, and using lessons learned to be better moving forward.”

    Marriott set up a website and call centre for customers who believe they are at risk.

    The stolen information could be used by criminals to create fraudulent bank accounts.

    It isn’t common for passport numbers to be part of a hack, but it is not unheard of. Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific Airways said in October that 9.4 million passengers’ information had been breached, including passport numbers.

    Passport numbers are often requested by hotels outside the U.S. because U.S. driver’s licenses are not accepted there as identification. The numbers could be added to full sets of data about a person that bad actors sell on the black market, leading to identity theft.

    And while the credit card industry can cancel accounts and issue new cards within days, it is a much more difficult process, often steeped in government bureaucracy, to get a new passport.

    But one redeeming factor about passports is that they are often required to be seen in person, said Ryan Wilk of NuData Security. “It’s a highly secure document with a lot of security features,” he said.

    Email notifications for those who may have been affected begin rolling out Friday.

    When the merger was first announced in 2015, Starwood had 21 million people in its loyalty program. The company manages more than 6,700 properties across the globe, most in North America.

    While the first impulse for those potentially affected by the breach could be to check credit cards, security experts say other information in the database could be more damaging.

    The names, addresses, passport numbers and other personal information “is of greater concern than the payment info, which was encrypted,” analyst Ted Rossman of CreditCards.com said, citing the risk of fraudulent accounts.

    An internal security tool signalled a potential breach in early September, but the company was unable to decrypt the information that would define what data had possibly been exposed until last week.

    Marriott, based in Bethesda, Maryland, said in a regulatory filing that it was premature to estimate what financial impact the breach will have on the company. It noted that it does have cyber insurance, and is working with its insurance carriers to assess coverage.

    Elected officials were quick to call for action.

    The New York attorney general opened an investigation. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, co-founder of the Senate cybersecurity caucus and the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the U.S. needs laws that will limit the data companies can collect on its customers.

    “It is past time we enact data security laws that ensure companies account for security costs rather than making their consumers shoulder the burden and harms resulting from these lapses,” Warner said in a statement.

    Marriott has had a rocky process of merging its computer system with Starwood computers. Members of both loyalty programs have complained about missing points, glitches with stays crediting to their accounts and problems with free nights earned from credit cards not appearing.

    The company is still trying to phase out Starwood systems, Sorenson said.

    ___

    Chapman reported from Newark, New Jersey.

    Michelle Chapman And Mae Anderson, The Associated Press










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    december, 2018

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