French Barge

   First-time Bargers 
           Find A French 

On a hot, sunny day in a small medieval square 
in the south of France, Sarah, our tour guide, 
furtively inserted a huge iron key she had gotten 
from a local friend into an ancient church lock. The 
large wooden door swung open, revealing a cool, 
dark interior. Shepherding the five of us inside, 
she quickly relocked the door. 

The 12th Century Catholic church in the tiny fortress village of Minerve was a simple affair of unadorned stone walls, but it held a 5th Century altar that’s reportedly the oldest in Europe. With our hands touching the cool marble slab, we heard about the Cathar, a regional religious order that felt the wrath of the only Papal crusade against fellow Christians. In one brutal incident outside the church, 140 Perfects were tossed into a fire by Simon de Montford, who preached in the church immediately afterwards. 

Sarah explained this was no forgotten event. “When the town closed the church to the public,” she said, “they put up a sign saying it was due to lack of respect by visitors. Soon after, someone added ‘Due to what happened here in the 12th Century, this church doesn't deserve to be open.’ 

“In this region,” Sarah continued, “the past is very much a part of the present, and the people, called Occitans, see themselves as different from the rest of France.”


                                                     That special moment was just one of many that my wife and I experienced 
                                                     while b arging through France’s Languedoc region. Because of the crew’s
                                                     local knowledge and intimate access, we came to know and appreciate
                                                     Languedoc, and think of her as a kind of Cinderella – an undiscovered
                                                     princess overshadowed and bookended by her two nearby sisters: Bordeaux
                                                     and Provence. But Languedoc compares favorably to her siblings -- during
                                                     our week aboard the eight-passenger Anjodi, we browsed local markets,
                                                     explored little-known towns and historical sites, cycled in and out of
                                                     picturesque villages, and sampled excellent local wines, cheeses and

                                                     Truthfully, though, we were a little apprehensive as we started the week at
                                                     the pickup point, the Chateau Lignan Hotel just outside the interesting town
                                                     of Beziers (pop. 80,000) six hours train ride south of Paris. As first-time
                                                     bargers, we wondered: What would the six other passengers be like? Would
                                                    the barge be comfortable? What would the crew be like? Would the region
                                                     hold enough interest for an entire week?

Through booking luck, there were only two other passengers -- Mic
and Jen, a friendly 50s English couple who turned out to be perfect 
traveling companions. The international crew of four included two 
young and enthusiastic women, Sarah from Canada and Jennifer 
from South Africa; a wonderful chef, Helen from Cornwall; and the 
captain, Duncan from England. Both Helen and Duncan (in their 
mid-30s), had been on the Anjodi for years and knew well 
Languedoc’s people, history, culture and culinary treats. 

The canal we were on was the Canal du Midi, which is part of a canal 
system that connects the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. At 300 years old, Canal du Midi is one of the oldest in France and seeped in history, including an American tie – Thomas Jefferson became the first “tourist” when he took the wheels off his carriage, placed it on a barge and cruised up and down studying the locks.

                                                                      Our accommodations were definitely better than Jefferson’s. The
                                                                       Anjodi, which is the largest vessel on the canal (98 feet long by 12
                                                                       feet wide), is an 80-year-old commercial barge beautifully refitted 
                                                                       for passengers. Inside, the bedrooms are done in dark, polished 
                                                                       wood  and are small (twice the size of a train compartment) but
                                                                       comfortable, with an upper and lower berth, two small windows
                                                                       and a good-sized bathroom. The lounge area doubles as a
                                                                       diningroom and was perfect for our small group (although with
                                                                       eight it might feel crowded). Up on deck, amid an array of potted
                                                                       flowers, are chairs and a table, chaise lounges, a Jacuzzi, and
                                                                       mountain bikes. 

During the first night aboard, as we sipped aperitifs, Duncan told us we’d be cruising
from our berth near Carcassonne back to Beziers. “If there’s a group on board,” he 
said, “we can usually go where they want. If it’s individual couples, as you are, then 
we take you to what we consider are the best parts of the canal.”

Thus began a fantastic week of truly slowing down -- literally and figuratively. 
Traveling t a sedate four miles an hour, we covered just over 100 miles and 
negotiated little  more than two dozen locks in a week. 

More important than distance was how the journey effected us. Relaxation never felt 
so good. We spent every day meandering down a narrow waterway so still it reflected 
all it saw. Most times the sycamore-like plane trees lining both banks created a leafy 
cathedral ceiling that kept us cool. In the distance, on low hillsides or spread out in 
wide valleys, the land was a tidy mix of cultivated fields and vineyards accented by 
red-tiled dollops of stone villages. On the canal, smaller pleasure boats and other barges would pass by, their occupants waving and calling out greetings in French. At the various locks, Duncan would spend time chatting with the lockkeepers or translating when our limited language skills failed. The only stress came while up on deck when we had to occasionally  bend down for low bridges.

                                                                                                  Meals were culinary events. Helen used all
                                                                                                  natural, local ingredients. Breakfast was a simple
                                                                                                  continental affair highlighting freshly baked
                                                                                                  breads and pastries.

                                                                                                  Lunches were light, cool dishes of fresh
                                                                                                  vegetables,salads, fruits, meats and cheeses.

                                                                                                  Dinners were gourmet wonders. At each evening
                                                                                                  meal Jennifer pesented local wines, including
                                                                                                  Blanquette de Linioux, said to be the first
                                                                                                  sparkling wine produced in France, and  Berloup,
                                                                                                  a dry red reputedly grown on the royal vineyard
                                                                                                  of Louis XIV. Cheeses were also an important
                                                                                                  part of meals. Helen explained the local
                                                                                                  ones she served were as richly varied as the

One night, while presenting a Camembert, she told us how locals test to see if the cheese is ripe. “The older ladies say a Camembert is ready when it has the same feel as your closed eyeball.” We all dutifully put one finger to an eyeball as we squeezed the cheese with the other hand. 

If anyone had squeezed us, we would definitely have been ripe -- barge living suited us perfectly. We could sit for hours just watching the scenic, idyllic world unfold before us. Or we could step off at any time for a bike ride or walk along the tow path into quaint little villages. Each day we also had at least one guided excursion -- many of which turned out to be memorable events.

At Carcassonne, Sarah showed us around Europe’s largest double wall fortress that boasts nearly two miles of ramparts and 52 towers, and was used in Kevin Kostner’s Robin Hood movie. While a 19th Century reconstruction wasn’t exactly true to medieval design, it’s nonetheless a visually stunning place. Today, behind its massive walls are a wide array of stores, shops and restaurants catering to summertime crowds. 

In Narbonne (pop. 47,000), we toured the partially completed cathedral that includes an ornately carved choir section and massive pipe organ. Outside, shaded from the warm summer sun by tree-lined streets, we spent a few hours wandering through the town’s vibrant and very active weekly market of clothes, crafts and food. 

One night, as Sarah played host, we were taken out to a meal at a cozy French restaurant. A small doorway led down into a cool stone-walled room crammed with a handful of tables. Candles and linen tablecloths, fines wines and gourmet food, a friendly waiter and good conversation all added up to a wonderful experience.

“For those who come here only for the barge trip,” Duncan said, “we want them to experience a french restaurant -- small, intimate and with the Southern French ambiance that’s so delightful. So we do one dinner out every cruise.”

In the tiny village of Olonzac (pop. 300), we spent a fascinating morning wandering through the weekly market. As the social event of the week, everyone was there: Gray-haired ladies in flowered sundresses and pearl necklaces; Chain-smoking older men with white moustaches; Proud young mothers with babies in strollers. Around knots of chatting, laughing people vendors hawked everything from crafts to shoes, fresh fruit to paella, the regional dish of shrimp, chicken, and mussels on a bed of saffron rice.

As my wife and I wandered though those ancient, charming streets, observing a scene that had been playing for centuries, we were pulled up short by an image in front
of a cheese stall. There before us was an elderly woman 
touching one eye as she squeezed a block of cheese. 

We smiled to ourselves. Because of Helen, Duncan, Sarah,
Jennifer and their incredible barge, we knew what the 
woman was doing. For just a quick moment in time, we 
were no longer international tourists...we were insiders 
who knew the scene unfolding before us. 

If You Go -- (Info. NOT checked)

Getting There: It’s easiest to fly first into Paris, which is served by numerous international carriers, including American Airlines. From Paris’s Gare de Lyon train station, it’s a quick and easy train ride to Beziers on the comfortable French TGV trains (direct and connecting schedules available). From the Beziers train station it’s a short taxi ride to the pickup point at the Chateau Lignan Hotel. 

When to Go: While the climate in Languedoc is usually mild, it can be chilly and rainy even in summer, as well as close to 100 degrees on a few days. The heaviest tourist seasons are June through mid-July and September through mid-October. 

Where to Stay Before or After Barging: In Paris, recommended for its tree-lined street location near the Arc de Triumphe is the four-star Hotel Royal Elysees, 6, avenue Victor-Hugo, 75116 Paris, 01-45-00-05-57, fax, 01-45-00-13-88, email [email protected]); Beziers has numerous hotels, including a few three-star ones. They can be found on the French Government Tourist Office website listed below.

The Barge: Weekly trips start on Sunday afternoon and end Saturday morning. Prices do not include airfare or train fare but do include full board -- all food, drinks (including sodas and alcohol), bicycle use, all guided tours, and local transfers. Reservations: 1-800-217-4447.

Further Information: European Waterways, 1-800-217-4447; or; French Government Tourist Office: 1-410-286-8310 (M-F, 9-7, EST), or

                                                                                                                                             Back to the Top
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Archived Travel Articles
                                                     find a French Cinderella 
During my 13 years as a freelance travel writer, I wrote nearly 150 different articles about places near and far. Below are a few complete ones that reflect my style of writing. I also hope they will entertain and possibly inform interested readers. Note of Caution: In most cases these articles were written  many years ago. While most of the experiences and scenery described will not have changed significantly, any hard facts such as prices, contact information and web sites will have. With these archived articles, I don't have the time to go back and correct such information. Please read them for pleasure, not for accurate current information. 
  • Swimming with Manatees -- Gentle giants let you scratch their bellies and touch your heart.                               
Close Encounters of the Watery Kind

Through our masks, my wife and I scanned the murky Florida water with some apprehension. Our breathing came quick and shallow in the snorkels, and the wet suits couldn't stop an occasional shiver. 

Bill, the tour guide, had said they could come from any direction, straight out of the silt and algae clouds like ghosts. But these weren't ghosts, they could reach up to 13 feet long and 3,000 pounds.

Treading water quietly – they don't like loud noises and overactive swimmers – I felt vulnerable and very small. My eyes strained to see into the foggy water. I knew my wife must be getting nervous when I felt her nudge me in the back. 

Turning, I found myself face-to-face with one of the beasts – twice my size.
Any trepidation disappeared the moment I looked into the gentle, curious face of the manatee just inches away. The big, bulbous snout came closer and the tiny black eyes looked me over. I reached out with one arm, palm open, as I had been instructed, and rubbed under one of its flippers. The massive gray creature began a slow roll onto its back, exposing a large blubbery stomach. The little eyes did a slow roll of their own into the back of its head. One of the flippers gently but insistently moved my hand to just the right spots, and I swear I heard a sigh of contentment.

As I rubbed the big guy's belly, I suddenly remembered my wife. Looking around, I spotted her making friends with her own manatee, while another inched forward hoping for some attention.

With a look of a Pillsbury Dough Boy and the personality of a friendly dog starved for affection, manatees in the wild actually seek out contact with humans. They touch and want to be touched. And it's all truly amazing.

"When you think of it," Bill said as we were heading back to the dock in Crystal River, Flab., "it's incredible. Here's an animal in the water that chooses to be around you."

At times, manatees don't look so much like animals as they do people dressed in thick, lovable Halloween costumes. At one end is a huge squared off head and bulbous snout; at the other end is a flat, wide tail that
                                                      moves up and down. They have no shoulders, so their backs merge into their
                                                      heads like old TV wrestlers gone to seed. There are no fins and only two front
                                                      flippers, which cover human-like arm skeletons that include elbows, wrists,
                                                      four fingers and a thumb. All of which give the impression of human hands
                                                      inside heavy mittens when the manatees move their flippers. 
                                                      Ancient mariners – with vivid imaginations and poor eye-sight, no doubt –
                                                      mistook the gentle, air-breathing mammals for mermaids. Today, in the
                                                      United States, manatees congregate in Florida during the winter, with one of
                                                       the highest concentrations in Citrus County, where warm, spring-fed waters
                                                       create a friendly environment.

                                                     Citrus County is on the Gulf Coast – less than two hours drive north of Tampa
                                                     or west of Orlando. It's also a world away from the mouse with the big ears. In
                                                     fact, Citrus County is completely different from most peoples' perceptions of
                                                     Florida, which is usually of endless miles of white sand and highrise hotels, or the swamps of the Everglades.

Citrus County is neither. Approximately 50 to 100 miles north of "Tropical Florida," it has rolling hills covered in thick forests of pine trees, cabbage palms, red cedar, scrub oak, and hickory, many dripping with the gray lace of Spanish moss. The moist air is laddened with the sounds of thousands of birds, including seagulls, pelicans, cormorants, herons, ospreys and the ever-present circling turkey buzzards. 

Close to the Gulf, the land flattens, the forests thin, and numerous rivers and springs create a huge estuary of inlets, canals, bays and islands. Large expanses of chest-high grasses move with the wind and tides. The only beach is a manmade strip a few hundred yards long at Fort Island Gulf Beach.
Since the mid to late 1800s, Americans have carved thin ribbons of roads through the thick vegetation and founded communities such as Crystal River and Homosassa. In many places, rows of houses back up on canals. Fishing is the major industry, although in the last 10 years tourism has grown – due in part to the manatee. 
With a last count of just over 3,200 in Florida, and many dying every year from careless boaters, manatees are an endangered species that attracts thousands of tourists a year. Visitors can go out in rental boats, but the best is to go with an established tour operator who knows the area, knows where to find them, and knows the laws governing contact.

Each tour operator is supposed to play the U.S. Fish and Wildlife video, "Manatee Manners," which details proper interaction: One-hand, open-palm petting only; no swimming after them or riding them; no getting between mother and calf; and no disturbing those feeding or sleeping on the bottom. Manatee rules are also posted along many of the waterways.

My wife and I went out on two different days with two different tour operators, Bill of Bird's Underwater, and David from American Pro Diving Center. We learned from both of them that manatees are warm-blooded mammals that live in fresh and salt water and come up for air every few minutes. In the winter, they stay around natural springs for warmth. Eons ago, they were land animals and share a common ancestor with the elephant. Similarities include the prehensile lips like those on an elephant's trunk, fingernails on the manatee's flippers, and a leathery skin. Both tour guides showed a deep understanding, respect and concern for the manatees.

"Manatees are a touch oriented species," David said. "They like to be touched and they like to touch. But it needs to be done properly and gently."

Dave took us to the headwaters of Homosassa River. The actual spring that feeds the river is in Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park and is off limits to boats and swimmers. When we anchored at 10:30 a.m., most snorkelers had already come and gone – manatees are most active in the early mornings. We took our chances and slipped quietly into the clear water. It was only three or four feet deep in most places and the bottom was sandy with lots of sea grass. 
Immediately, we saw five or six manatee eating or sleeping on the bottom. As we watched, one frisky manatee began disturbing the others as if looking for a playmate. When there were no takers, he spotted us and headed over. For the next hour we played with, rubbed and were touched by this mischievous creature.

On the tour with Bill, we went to Kings Spring, where buoys and
lines keep swimmers and boaters away from the actual spring. 
Arriving at 7:30 a.m., we found lots of playful manatees, but the 
water was deeper and visibility was poor. There were few 
snorkelers when we arrived, but by the time we left there were 
numerous boats, swimmers, and many noisy, rowdy people 
unfamiliar with how to act around these gentle creatures. The 
manatees have learned, however, to swim across to the other 
side of the buoy lines when they're tired of human contact.

Sadly, every manatee we saw had numerous and pronounced 
scars – strings of straight white gashes running parallel across their backs where motorboat propellers had dug into their flesh.  

We learned why they have such trouble with motorboats when we visited the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. Each day park personnel hold periodic manatee educational programs which will definitely enrich any snorkeling experience. The ranger explained that unlike dolphins and whales, manatees don't have internal sonar and find it hard to determine the direction of sounds. That makes it difficult for them to avoid speeding boats.

All of which means that humans have to be the caretakers of manatees. This is especially true because they have no natural predators, except for man – an Alaskan variety of manatee was actually hunted to extinction in only 27 years.
After learning about the manatees at the park, and swimming with the trusting and gentle creatures, we hoped that the same fate doesn't befall America's manatees. It's a sure bet that anyone who does swim with them – rubs their bellies and looks into their lovable faces – will want to do everything possible not to let that happen.

If You Go (info. NOT checked)

When to Go – Traditionally, the season used to be 
October through May, but now you can swim with 
manatees year round. Because weekends are 
crowded, it's best to go on weekday tours. In summer 
there are less manatees, but less tourists – 
guaranteeing a good experience anytime.
Getting There – Citrus County is less than two hours 
drive from Tampa or Orlando, which are served by international air carriers such as Delta Airlines, U.S. Air, Continental, and American. 

Before Swimming With the Manatees – visit Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park for the daily educational programs on manatees.  Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, U.S. 19, Homosassa; (352) 628-5343 on weekdays, (352) 628-2311 anytime for recorded information; .

Swimming With the Manatees – Various snorkel operators are located in Crystal River. Two recommendations: American Pro Diving Center, 821 SE Hwy. 19, Crystal River, FL 34429, 1-800-291-DIVE; Or Bird's Underwater, 320 N.W. Hwy 19, Crystal River, FL 34428, (352) 563-2763; Both tour operators offer morning swims to various spots year round, seven days, along with complimentary hot chocolate and an optional video of the swim. Make reservations and go on weekdays to avoid crowds.
Accommodations – There are 21 lodging options in Citrus County, including resorts, condominiums, a hotel, a bed & breakfast inn, motels, cabins and campgrounds. Crystal River is the largest town near the coast and has numerous options, while Homosassa Springs is smaller but also offers lodging. Recommended for its river ambience is the Riverside Inn Resort in Homosassa, (352) 628-2474.

Further Information – Contact the Citrus County Tourist Development Council, 1-800-587-6667; 

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Starts of Numerous Past Articles

Editor's Note: I've included the first few graphs or first page of various travel articles so you can get a feel for my style of writing, the varied destinations I covered, and how I covered them. If you'd like to see any of them as complete articles, please contact me at [email protected] and I'd be happy to send the complete version. Please keep in mind that some of these articles could be 10 or 15 years old. All of them, though, could be updated for any editors who might be interested in publishing them. 

Travels with Tonka: 4 Wheeling In 
Australia's Red Center

Clambering up into the huge 4-wheel-drive on the first day of our Australian self-drive desert exploration, we felt like characters in a Mel Gibson road warrior movie -- nothing between us and the harsh Outback but our machine. With a turn of the key the diesel throbbed to life, vibrating me and my wife like a magic fingers bed.

The vehicle would get five grunts on TV's Home Improvement. 

They don't call it a "landcruiser" for nothing -- giant tractors have smaller tires, earthmovers have fewer levers. We were told the "bull bar" bolted to the front was in case we hit any water buffalos -- any what!? 

We named it "Tonka" (said in two grunts).
Later -- deep in the Outback -- the jokes died as we grew to appreciate our substantial, hard-working friend. But on the dry, paved roads of Alice Springs, it was hard to imagine we'd ever need such an all-terrain monster.

When we decided on a self-drive 4WD adventure into Australia's Red Center, it was obvious Alice Springs (pop. 25,000) in the Northern Territory was the perfect jumping off point. Located near the exact center of the country and the only major town for 500 miles in any direction, Alice not only offered a good base for day trips but a major tourist attraction -- Ayers Rock -- within a day's drive.

While Ayers (Aboriginal name, Uluru) and its companion the Olgas (Kata Tjuta) lived up to their advertising, it was our "discovery" of three special places accessible only by 4WD -- the lush and prehistoric Palm Valley, the peaceful and sacred Ewaninga Aboriginal rock carvings, and the astounding formations and dramatic cliffs of Kings Canyon -- that made our trip memorable. 

Houseboating -- in Colorado!?

"You feel mighty free and easy and
comfortable on a raft."
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

If Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were alive today they'd be houseboating. Those two consummate floaters would be amazed at how modern technology has converted homemade rafts into palatial barges, while not touching the idyllic peace and relaxation found in floating down a river or across a lake.

But Huck and Tom would probably need a new place to drift  -- the Mississippi ain't what it used to be. And while there's always the famous houseboat mecca of Utah's Lake Powell, Huck and Tom would no doubt want somewhere less populated and more off-the-beaten-trail.

They would find their houseboat heaven on little-known Navajo Lake in Navajo State Park, nestled in the southwest corner of Colorado. Straddling the Colorado/New Mexico border 315 miles southwest of Denver and 45 miles southeast of Durango, Navajo State Park is like an uncut diamond -- it's rough edges hide a dazzling heart. 

One warm June day, two friends, my wife and I -- in the spirit of Huck and Tom -- set out from Denver to see what Navajo State Park had to offer, and if Mark Twain was right about rafts. 

Look Who's Cruising The Mediterranean?!

Many people perceive Mediterranean cruises to be the exclusive domain of rich, retired seniors -- little gray haired men and women rarely going ashore, preferring instead to play bingo or shuffleboard. 

If a recent 12-day "Grand Mediterranean" cruise my wife and I took aboard the Pacific Princess was any indication, the reality is something all together different. Active seniors and middle-aged couples set a furious shore-excursion pace to see every gothic church, ancient ruin and shopping bazaar possible. 

The biggest surprise, however, was the number of families with pre-teen and teenage children. Nearly 100 of the total 640 passengers were under the age of 21.

Why take kids on such an extended European cruise?

"Cruising opens up exciting new worlds for children," said James G. Godsman, president of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 26 major North American cruise lines. "When school resumes in September, 'What I Did On My Summer Vacation' essays will take on a whole new tone." 

Peter, a middle-aged Colorado father on our cruise with his wife and two teenage children, had a more down-to-earth outlook. "A cruise is a no brainer," he said. "It's a great way to give the kids a sampling of Europe in safety and comfort. And with the food situation -- my kids won't try anything new -- the ship's American-styled food is perfect." 

Peter is not alone in his thinking. CLIA says 14 percent of all cruisers bring their children, and that figure is expected to grow substantially over the years. According to CLIA, nearly 20 million people, representing 31 percent of the cruise prospect market, are "Family Folks," who travel mostly with their kids. 

In Search of Uncrowded Venice

The small medieval square rang with the laughter of two Venetian children playing soccer with their father. Beneath a lone shade tree, an elderly man sat on a bench, his cane propped up beside him, a newspaper on his lap. He seemed more interested in the goings-on around him than in the paper. Two stories up, a middle-aged woman leaned out her window, hanging her laundry. 

Off in one corner of the square, my wife and I sat at a tiny cafe table, basking in the warm sunshine, sipping our cappuccinos, and absorbing the local scene. The handful of other cafe patrons looked like residents.

Here we were in Venice, in the middle of July, and not a tourist in sight. 


Five months before, I had wondered if I could beat the high prices, hordes of tourists, and heat and humidity of summertime Venice. In my wife's eyes, our vacation and my reputation as a professional travel writer were at stake. 

Leaving the heat and humidity to the weather gods, I attacked the problems of prices and tourists. 

Gadding About With Gaudi

The dead tour guide was one of the best my wife and I ever had. Admittedly, we missed the usual tour-guide banter, but where he led us couldn't be beat -- and he was never rushed for time.

On a four day trip to Barcelona, we chose Antoni Gaudi (1852 -1926) as our guide. His credentials were impeccable: Barcelona's favorite son and an internationally-renowned architect. 

So what if he was dead? We would chart our course using his monuments and buildings as points on our touring compass. 

The decision turned out to be a good one: Following in his footsteps, we experienced the city's laid-back cafe society of tapas bars, enjoyed its playful, whimsical nature, and observed its religious side. Altogether, we became immersed in a vibrant, independent culture that barely concedes it's part of Spain. 

Talking Turkey in Turkey:
What to Buy and How to Buy It

During a "Grand Mediterranean" cruise on the Pacific Princess, I had the quintessential tourist-shopping experience. Walking from the ship to a tour bus that would take our group to Turkey's famous ancient ruins of Ephesus, I was approached by a man selling books about the site.

 "Nine dollars," he said, handing one to me. "Great book for great place. Only nine U.S. dollars."

The book looked good. I wanted it. I would have paid $6-$7 at home. "Five dollars," I said with more confidence than I felt.

The man wailed, but kept pace with me. "I must feed my children, sir. I must make something from sale." The bus was getting closer. "Seven dollars. Only seven, sir."

I wanted the book as much as he wanted to sell it. "Six dollars. It's my last offer."

"Sold!" my new found friend said with a toothy smile. Dollars changed hands as I boarded the bus. When I turned to wave goodbye, the man was already approaching someone else. No matter, I sat down next to my wife feeling excited and confident about my first competitive shopping experience.

My euphoria didn't last long. At the entrance to Ephesus the same book was going for $2-$3 U.S. To add insult to injury, two hours later at the exit I heard someone hawking one for $1 U.S.

That's when I knew I was way over my head. It was time to talk to some experts.

"Two principles should be remembered when shopping in my country," said Abdula, a Turkish tour guide in the summer and a university professor the rest of the year. "First, you can go in and out of any shop without buying something, it's okay. It's not required to buy something. 

"And second, we bargain in shopping in this country. It's a way of life to bargain. This is a regular thing, not something done especially for tourists. It can save you a few dollars...and give you great experience for buying a used car in your country."

But how much can bargaining really save you?

Beauties, Beasts, Cowboys and Indians:
The Navajo Nation's Fair and Rodeo

Burt Parks would be shocked. The contestants would probably refuse to do it -- even if they knew how. The audience would probably refuse to watch.

But here, in a forest clearing at 6 a.m. on a chilly September morning, with the sun flowing golden over a small group of spectators, none of the seven young ladies vying for the title of Miss Navajo Nation seem to have any misgivings when it's announced they must butcher a sheep as part of the contest.

I, on the other hand, am not so sure how I'm going to react. I consider myself a relatively strong supporter of animal rights. I also know I'm less strong in the stomach department. Should I have a donut and coffee now, or wait to see how the whole thing sits with my innards?

I take the cautious approach -- although I need not have worried. It might be hard for some to believe, but what I saw that morning was not the brutal slaughtering of sheep, but a sacred and reverent ceremony performed in traditional, tribal ways that go back hundreds of generations.

That major shift in perspective is what I continued to experience the entire weekend I spent at the Navajo Nation's annual fair and rodeo, in Window Rock, Arizona. I found it's more than a fair and rodeo, it's a celebration of a culture I knew little about. At once familiar and other times mysterious, the events of the weekend stretched my thinking and perceptions. Even physically, as a blond-haired, pale-skinned, bearded American, I found a healthy self-consciousness about being in the minority. 

In the Shadow of Giants

The morning mist clung to the river like a new born to its mother. The wooden canoe barely rippled the water as it glided inland on an incoming tide. Directly above, a bright blue sky was bookended by towering coastal redwoods and Douglas firs that lined each bank and kept the Big River in cool shadow. Off to the right some cormorants dove for breakfast, popping to the surface like bathtub toys. A 100 yards ahead a fish jumped, followed a moment later by the flash of a sleek seal in hot pursuit. 

Suddenly the forest resounded with a rumble that quickly turned into a roar. On the far shore a fully-loaded timber truck barreled out of the woods as it headed for a mill on the coast. In a moment it was gone, with no more reminder of its passing than the settling of the dust cloud trailing behind. 

It was just another example of the drama between nature and man, preservation and progress, constantly being played out on California's Mendocino Coast, 150 miles north of San Francisco. 

For those who want outdoor recreation sprinkled with a dash of lumberjack history and a pinch of environmental/logging debate, the Mendocino Coast has a lot to offer. Using as a base either the picturesque artist town of Mendocino or the bustling Fort Bragg, visitors can take a few days and explore the rugged 80-mile Mendocino Coast in a variety of ways, including canoeing on the Big River, driving one of the best small roads in America, and hiking through redwood stands.

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