Elinor and Fred Clarke love to share their experiences of life on all seven continents
Seventy-four year old Elinor Clarke leads an aerobics class for seniors at the Grand Bend Legion Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays starting at 8:45 a.m., with classes resuming the first week of September. Participants pay $3 per week, regardless of how many days they come, and all funds go to charity. “It’s very important to be in shape,” Clarke says. “It’s not just keeping in shape but we work on balance, flexibility, strength, and cardio. We stretch to begin with. We walk. We lift weights. I’m up to five pounds in each hand. That’s the max I’m going to go. I’m exercising far more now than I was 10 years ago. When I first joined this group they were exercising for 40 minutes. When I start at 8:45 we don’t stop until 10:00 at all.” It’s hard to pin the Corbett Line resident down; finishing with a trip to Antarctica this year, she and her husband Fred have visited all seven continents.
As told to Casey Lessard by Elinor Clarke
I think I was born with an itchy foot. My father had an itchy foot too. Until I reached Grade 10, I never went to the same school two years in a row. We moved continuously. As a child I lived all the way from California, Oregon to North Bay. I ended up at high school in London, and then lived in London for a long time. When I was 17, my grandfather was going to England and wanted a companion. I said, “Sure, I’ll go with you.” That was sort of the beginning of really travelling. I love learning about different cultures, and in the 1950s England was a different culture compared to Canada. Fred and I believe in traveling with our children. When they were very tiny we traveled North America and in 1967, we took our first big trip overseas to Europe.
In 1983, Fred and I were watching PBS and we saw the movie The Flame Trees of Thika. Fred said he’d like to go there. We had no idea where Thika was, so I went and explored and it’s in Kenya. He said he’d like to go, so I started looking and I thought we should go from one end of Africa to the other. We’d start in Egypt, because I always wanted to go to Egypt, and we’d travel all the way down. Well, Fred said there was no way he could go away for that length of time because he was still working. He said, “Let’s just zero in on one thing.” In one of the books it had ‘Safari.’ A two-week safari. This was in Tanzania. That looked pretty good to do. Well, turning the page over, there was another trip you could tack onto the safari – climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. So I said, “I’ll go on a safari and sleep in a tent and all the rest of it if you climb Kilimanjaro with me at the end.” That was the first big trip by ourselves to do something like that. Of course I took a lot of pictures. When I came home I started showing these slides. I’ve got cheetahs and wild dogs. I’ve got some good pictures. When we were climbing Kilimanjaro, the guide who helped me reach the top was asking me if we had somebody that could send them clothing. The borders were closed in Tanzania at that time and there was nothing in the stores. We went into one shoe store and there were three pairs of shoes. No children’s shoes at all. When I showed my slide presentations people would ask what my fee was. I’d say, “Bring me used clothing – good used clothing – and let me sell my etchings of animals, so I could raise the money to mail this stuff.”
Just before Fred retired, he came across this article in the London Free Press, and it said, ‘Are you looking for new direction for your life? Would you like to volunteer overseas?’ There was going to be a talk at the London Library that evening. I asked if he was going, and he said he thought he would. I asked if he was going alone. He said, “I kind of thought maybe you’d come with me.” So we went. The young fellow that spoke had just come back from doing some work in Swaziland. This was Canadian Crossroads International – a university organization. So we applied. When we first applied it was really for university people. But then they sort of had a change of thinking and decided that newly retired people had stuff to offer too as well. They got back to us and that’s how we ended up going to Swaziland. You have to raise your own money and it has to raise public awareness. I used one of my etchings on a T-shirt. We sold T-shirts and I sold hasty notes and this sort of thing. We were supposed to go to Zimbabwe. Just before we were to leave – we were to leave New Year’s Day – we got a call saying we weren’t going to Zimbabwe because a missionary family had been killed. But Christmas Eve they phoned and asked if we’d be wiling to go to England and wait there until they find us a country to go to because they’d already paid for the plane ticket to England. So we went to England. We were in England for a month not knowing where we were going. While we were in England we got a phone call towards the end of the month saying we were going to Swaziland. We had no idea where Swaziland was. (It’s in the southern part of Africa.) Off we went. You don’t know what you’re going to do. I’m a craft person; I knit, I sew, I do all those sorts of things. Fred’s hobby is carpentry. He was to teach carpentry in English. I was to teach dressmaking and bookkeeping as well. We were there for five months.
Papua New Guinea
Before we went to Swaziland, we had already applied to the Anglican Church to volunteer overseas. When we came back, they wrote us asking if we were still interested. We said we were, so they said, “Would you like to go to Uruguay or to Papua New Guinea?” Fred said he’d always been interested in Papua New Guinea. We’d read Margaret Mead. (The reason we went to the Arctic in 1987 was because Fred had always wanted to go the Arctic. He’s read all about Frobisher. He knows all about it so then you want to go and experience it.) So we choose Papua New Guinea. We were there for over two-and-a-half years the first time, living in the bush. We got to where we were working by Cessna 206, which would fly Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, weather permitting. To do my grocery shopping I would fly out on Monday and fly back on Wednesday because it only came once. I managed a Westpac bank agency, and I was the village postmistress and paymaster. We had a small airstrip and health center and school. The teachers would get paid by cheque; then, of course, I would have to cash the cheques. I was the secretary for the station, World Vision committee and all these sort of things. Fred maintained the airstrip. He was advisor to trade-stores. He looked after an airstrip that was flying time away or two days walk (he never walked there). He built the water system. He built two houses and he tore one down. We were administering an Anglican mission station, which was in an expatriate’s house. We were living in a bush house a ways. Some rascals broke into the office. They didn’t get the safe out – they just broke it so we couldn’t get it open. We figured out how to get it open, so now I can add ‘safe cracking’ to my résumé. So then of course I had to fly out to buy a new safe. When I went out to do grocery shopping I would also have to do my banking. I’d have to take all my paper work and all that sort of thing. My first stop would be at the bank. It was only open from 10-2. There were three big grocery stores. I would keep a list on my kitchen counter top of what I needed because I only grocery shopped once every six or eight weeks. I would go to all the grocery stores and price the items because there could be a difference of $3 or $4 on a pound of butter. Then I would go back and buy at each store what was a reasonable price. (Cont. on p. 4) (From p. 3) If there was something that you saw, and you mi ght not need it now but you might like it for Christmas, you bought it. I would take it on my head or in a pillow back to the mission home where I was staying. They would freeze my meat. I would do this between Monday and Tuesday. Tuesday I would pick up my banking stuff. And then Wednesday somebody would take me out to the airport at 7 a.m. and I would sit there until the airplane was going to the Jimi Valley. I might get home at 2 p.m. I might get home at noon. If it was raining in the Jimi Valley I might not get home at all. There were two places you could buy a safe. Burns Philips and the Christian bookshop. I went to both of them and I looked them over. The one at Burns Philips had a dent in it. But the one at the Christian bookshop was a bit cheaper, so I bought that one. Fred had to make arrangements to borrow a truck, and it was a three-and-a-half hour drive over three mountains to get this safe and bring it back. On Easter Monday they broke in again. This time they got the safe out and rolled it down the mountainside and broke it open. Our passports and our traveler’s cheques were all found in the mud on the side of the creek. Bartholomew, the headmaster, took it and wiped it all off and dried it and brought it all to us. We did lose all the stamps for the post office. Some of the money was found dug underneath a beer club. We got a little over two thirds of the money back. The bills when I had closed the bank on the Saturday at noon were still all folded, all the 50 Guinea notes, all the 20 Guinea notes. All the rolled coin was broken up. That upset me because I hated rolling the coin. There was about 1300 or 1400 Guinea. That’s about $1500. The police came and they said to the villagers that we will be back next Saturday and if you haven’t got the money they’d ‘cook em house and kilim pek’ which means burn their house down and kill all your pigs. By the next Saturday they had collected all the money. Some of it was in cheques from the fathers of the rascals, who were health workers. Things were stolen all the time. They didn’t think of it as stealing. If you weren’t using it, you didn’t need it. So it was beneficial to anybody else. I almost lost my shoes. If you left at the back of the church when you went in they’d be going down the mountainside. So I’d say, “I need those shoes. Give them back.” One time we had the only broom and dustpan and hoe and hammers and things like that. Fred would lend things out to his workers to do something. Then he would say, “I need my hammer. Where is it?” “I lent it to so and so.” Of course he’d lent it to so and so. Fred would just say, “I NEED MY HAMMER.” And the next day it would be back. Anyway, they paid me the balance of the money with cheques. They were signed and I just sent them all out with the police officers. The police weren’t above suspicion either. I could have lost it all. But I didn’t. They honoured me. We lived on the side of a mountain. Fred was doing heavy manual labour, digging ditches, building houses; he was not a young man. We felt we needed something, an ATV or something. We found this Mitsubishi Pajero, which is like a Jeep. That was really useful because it also became an ambulance. Several times Fred took people out. He took a pregnant lady to Tabibuga in the rain at night. We lived on mountainous roads that were treacherous. There was one time when we were taking some people up to a village and it started to rain. It was like coming down the back of a greased pig. I almost jumped out of the vehicle I was so scared because of the precipices and all. Not easy. Land slides. When you give of yourself you get back in friendship. It broadens your life, your world experience. I also worked in Thailand by myself for about five weeks. The camaraderie I had with the women, and what they do for you too.
When we went back to Papua New Guinea in 1995, after we built this house, we went back for six months because that’s all OHIP will cover you for. To buy health insurance for these sorts of things is expensive. So we went back and we were working in Lae in a small city. Fred renovated five buildings. I spent five months going through 11 filing cabinets that people had been putting stuff for the church in since 1961. It wasn’t in any order. So I had to go through everything and read it and decide whether it was archival or whether it was currant or whether it could be burned. When I emptied all these filing cabinets Fred took them all apart and I sanded and primed. I put two coats of paint on them and he put them all back together again. We gave about six of them away. This was in Lae, which is a costal city. While we were there the people of Koinambe, where we were working before, made the three-day trip down to see us. Three days. That’s with walking over mountains. John Pin brought little Fred (several of the children there are now named Fred or Elinor). One of my sewing girls came with her father just to see us. Then we went back to Koinambe for a Christmas holiday and slept in our old bed in our old house.
Fred’s oldest niece was a nurse in the Arctic. She was in the eastern Arctic first then she moved to Saks Harbour on Banks Island, which is right in the Arctic Circle. It’s the furthest northwestern settlement in Canada. She asked to come visit, so we went for a month. We had time in Inuvik; we went to Tuktoyaktuk. I took slides of Ontario into the schools and showed the kids. I also took my African slides and showed them. We lived in the community. Although we were only there for a month, we did everything they did. I drove a snowmobile – I had never driven a snowmobile before in my life.
When we come home from one trip we’re already talking about the next one. Some of the trips are on the spur of the moment; Peru, for example. We were at the Santa Claus parade in Lucan just before Christmas and my daughter said to me, “Can we come and stay in your house over the Christmas holidays?” They wanted to refinish some floors. I said yes. When I mentioned it to Fred he said, “Good. Now we’ve got a chance to go away for a holiday.” I asked him where he would like to go. He said he’d like China or Peru. I said that I wasn’t going to China in the wintertime. It will be summertime in Peru so we’ll go to Peru. That was just before Christmas and we left Boxing Day. Fred wanted to see Lake Titicaca, which is the highest navigable lake in the world. I found everything on the Internet and booked it out of Miami. We had tours of Lima. We also had time to walk the streets ourselves. We went to Lake Titicaca. While we were there part of what we had organized was to go out to an island where the Indians still live and stay overnight in an Indian home. The toilet was a hole behind a wall down through a potato patch. We ate our dinner by a candle – literally a candle. The food was Peruvian Indian food. I really enjoyed staying with an Indian family. We took a bus trip through the mountains to Cuzco and from there we took a train before hiking two days to Machu Picchu and sleeping in a tent. As we were traveling from Puno from Lake Titicaca to Cuzco, the bus stopped and there was a herd of llama and one of them giving birth. We stopped and I have pictures of this baby animal not quite born yet.
The first time we went to China was in 2001. We went with our daughter Pam to bring home a Chinese baby. We have ten grandchildren. One was born while we were in Swaziland. One was born shortly after we came home from Papua New Guinea. Pam has two children of her own and wanted more. They weren’t coming. So they decided to adopt and felt there were girl babies in China that needed homes. It takes almost two years to get your application through and get over there. We got this picture of this little round-faced, spiky-haired child when she was about six months old. Robyn was 13 months when we got her and she was absolute ly beautiful. Just beautiful. She still is. A precocious seven-year-old going into Grade 2. Very, very smart. She reads chapter books, as she calls them, and has been writing since she was about four. In that trip we flew to Beijing and overnight flew down to Guanjo. We got the babies that day. We had four days in Guanjo. We were taken on a bus tour back to the orphanage where she came from. We met the woman who runs the orphanage, which she runs in conjunction with a senior citizens’ home. The senior citizens look after the gardens and talk to the babies and that sort of thing. It was a nice orphanage for a baby to come from. When we got back from Guanjo we had to go back to Beijing. We had about six or seven days because we had to go to the Canadian Embassy and through medical tests. On the trip, only six of us went for three babies. It wasn’t a big group. We had five-star treatment. We stayed in a five-star hotel with these three babies. Normally one parent will do the sightseeing and another parent stays with the baby in the hotel, then vice versa the next day. But all these parents wanted their children to go with them. So we had one day where we did the Great Wall of China. We had one day where we did the Forbidden City and the summer palace and all these things. The days in between that should have been tours were free. Mothers went off shopping. Fred and I put Robyn in the stroller and we walked the streets of Beijing. We would go through parks and we found that in the parks there were mostly grandparents looking after grandchildren. So we were part of the local scene. We went to school. We saw senior citizens. This is like daycare. We again were experiencing the actual culture of the people in the city. And that’s what we like to travel for.
When we went back to China in 2002 we drove in a Jeep across China. There were five of us – Fred, myself, Tony the guide, Mark the other driver and a mechanic. I have a Chinese driver’s license, but they wouldn’t give Fred one because he was too old, (but the guys let him drive anyway). The other man was supposed to be a mechanic, but when we had a flat tire he didn’t know anything about cars and he couldn’t speak any English. I think we were paying a person’s salary. We were there 28 days. We started in Beijing. We went to Xi’an to see the warriors. We stayed in everything from one-and-a-half-star hotels to five-star hotels to a Taoist temple on the top of a mountain. We ate in everything from five-star hotels to truck stops to little cafes where we sat out on the sidewalk. We ate all the local food. Tony would order what he thought we should try. We ate 1001-year-old eggs. We figured they were 1000-year-old cause they were a year past their prime. (Ew!). We ate everything. Shrimp with the total shrimp, eyes and all. I have a whole list of everything.
We’ve also gone on working freighters. We were the only passengers and I was the only woman. There may be a crew of 22 or 24. The first freighter went out of Florida, across the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal. We stopped in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. And all those places coming back again. We made 13 stops all together. (Cont. on p. 6) (From p. 5) The second one was out of Long Beach, California. We went to Tahiti and the Samoas. That is also experiencing another culture. The culture of a working freighter. You’re sharing food with the workman. We didn’t even help with any of the work. They did call Fred ‘Navigator’ because he had his GPS and he would check that we were still on course and all this sort of thing. But that is another way of experiencing a culture.
Going to Antarctica was a spur of the moment thing. Actually we just got something in the mail that said ‘Antarctica’ and Fred said, “I think we should do this.” It was the one continent we hadn’t been to. We’ve been to all seven continents now. Why did we go to Antarctica? (Laughs) To experience another culture. Again this is the only cruise we’ve ever gone on. A cruise ship is another culture again. And Fred has said that he wouldn’t do that again. That’s not our cup of tea. My highlight is when you get to Deception Island, which is an extinct volcano, and the harbour is inside the caldron of the volcano because the wall is broken in one place. It’s considered the safest harbour in the world. But on the outer wall, ships run aground including the sister ship of the one we were on. When you get there, and this is right on Antarctica, you have the opportunity to swim in the Antarctic Ocean if you would like. So I did. The water temperature was 2 degrees. The air temperature was 2 degrees. It was 8:30 at night. The sun was starting to go down. They have a contest. It’s based on the number of people per country. There was one person from Argentina and he swam. So they got 100%. There were 16 Canadians. We had I don’t know how many Americans. Well over 100. We had 16 Canadians and 11 of us swam so we came 2nd with 69%. I was one of the 11. Fred is one that didn’t so he wrecked our percentage. (Laughs).
I’m in a quandary over global warming. I still think we are a global world now. Television brings it right to us. It can be a bit of a guilty thing to think about travelling, but I do it anyway. By travelling to these places I think we do enough good that it balances it off. A lot of people travel and they take their own baggage with them. That I don’t agree with. As Fred says, we ate in the streets of Irian Jaya. We’ve slept on rusty camp beds. That’s what the people there do, so that’s what we did. I’ve tried to educate the people back home about how other people live. And how they are. Not everybody is as fortunate as we are. When we were in Papua New Guinea we had quite a bit to do with World Vision, and we sponsor a World Vision child. It’s a question of putting your money where your mouth is, I guess really. When I was in Thailand I taught a sewing skill to village girls so that their families wouldn’t sell them into prostitution. Going to Antarctica I have tried to talk about global warming in that. Global warming and travelling is one thing, but if you notice, I don’t have my air conditioning on. We haven’t run it all summer. We haven’t run it for about three years. Conservation starts at home. I took my garbage out last night. From three weeks I have one (grocery-sized) bag. I compost. We compost in the field and in the garden. Fred says we built this house with a lot of the stuff he has saved over the years and used up. If he has to cut trees down he makes boards out of them. He made the tops of my compost box out of lumber that he’s made. We do our bit. We don’t rake leaves. We don’t rake grass. It composts.
I was showing slides of Newfoundland to a group of people one time and a man in the audience recognized his grandmother’s house. That really makes you feel good. I will show my slide shows to anybody, anytime; all they have to do is ask. We have done them in private homes. People hear about it. And they say they’d like to see the Antarctica ones. So we go and do them. If people would prefer an evening here at my home we have a sort of projection room upstairs.
People are the same the world over. You can be in Papua New Guinea and there’s a little old lady that reminds you of Auntie Winnie. If you are friendly and put yourself forward they will be friendly back. We’ve walked the streets of Cairo. We’ve climbed Table Mountain in South Africa. We climbed Kilimanjaro. We hiked to Peru. People asked us if we are afraid. If you treat people well, they will treat you well back. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you really.
To contact Elinor and Fred Clarke regarding their travels, slide shows or Elinor’s exercise classes, call (519) 294-6499.