Nature’s little surprises when you’re on vacation

It sounded like a heavy truck rolling down the street.

But instead of the truck passing our friends’ house in Santa Monica and the sound receding, the noise got louder and louder and the house began to shake.

The first trip that my hubby and I took together, to visit family friends in California while I was on my university Christmas break, started off benignly enough with nice sunny weather. The scent of eucalyptus from the trees lining the streets filled the hazy air, and for breakfast we enjoyed fresh-picked oranges from the tree in our friends’ back yard. I was so excited to see palm trees and the ocean.

We had an adventurous New Year’s Eve at a club in Santa Monica (too crazy to describe in this article), and then got up early to go to Pasadena for the Rose Parade. After the parade we returned to our friends’ home and everyone else settled down to watch the Rose Bowl on television while I, still recovering from a bout of strep throat, lay down for a while in our bedroom – only to be woken up soon after by the earthquake and everyone running into the room yelling at me to get up.

It wasn’t a major quake – only 4.6 on the Richter scale – but enough to shake us up. It’s very unnerving to have the normally solid earth beneath you start moving around. One of the first things our friends did was run to hold up their china cabinet in the dining room, while my hubby and I wanted to find the first available airplane/helicopter and lift off.

In addition, you don’t know how big the quake will turn out to be. Visions of giant cracks appearing in the streets danced in my head.

Aftershocks can sometimes be worse than the original event. After our brief quake, rumblings and aftershocks continued throughout the rest of the day. I remember sitting, trying to relax, but spotting the ornaments on our friends’ Christmas tree start to swing in my peripheral vision. At one point the entire house shifted with a loud bang, as if a giant had come and kicked it!

Several months later, on our honeymoon in the US Virgin Islands, things went south again in a much larger way with a Category Five hurricane followed closely by a tornado that ripped right by our resort. No one could call us on the island afterward, but we were able to call out and reassure our frantic families that we were safe and healthy. Normally I love storms, but that one was a doozy, and a history-maker. For months after we got home my shoulders tightened every time there was a high wind.

A year after that, when Mount St. Helen’s erupted, friends of my in-laws actually called them to see if my hubby and I were in the vicinity! (absolute truth)

Over the years, with many more occurrences that seem to follow us wherever we go, we’ve become accustomed and have learned to go with the flow. Not everything has been one of Nature’s treats – we had to change a trip completely at the start of the Arab Spring, changing from Egypt to Kenya, and on the very first day we took my mother-in-law to England we were exploring the British Museum when it was suddenly evacuated and we lost my hubby for about half-an-hour (that was the most unusual, but not the only thing, to happen on that trip).

We’ve also found ways to stay prepared.

With the advent of the internet, mobile phones and instant news, there are many ways to cover your bases. I’m not sure my hubby and I are that unusual anymore in unusual vacations – global warming is causing all kinds of changes and surprises in weather patterns, and political tensions can erupt unexpectedly – so it pays everyone to understand their options.

A recent case in point in our lives:

We were on an innocuous trip to Williamsburg, Virginia last fall. The weather was hotter than expected, but manageable. We spent an entire day exploring the superb Colonial Williamsburg, got our creeps on at Busch Gardens’ fantastic Howl-O-Scream event, enjoyed history and the sunset on a schooner cruise on the York River, and bought more sandals at an outlet mall to cope with the intense heat.

Waiting for our carriage ride at Colonial Williamsburg.
Sunset cruise on a 3-masted schooner
Howl-O-Scream is one of the best Halloween theme park events we’ve ever been to

We’d finished a round of golf at an area club on Tuesday, and the staff were helping us pack up our clubs when the ranger asked if we’d be coming back for another round. We said we planned to return on Thursday; he replied, “Well, you’ll have to play that by ear. There’s a hurricane coming our way.”

Someone living along the Fords Colony golf course in Williamsburg has a Halloween-themed sense of humour

There’s a what now? Not that hubby and I aren’t used to hurricanes (this would be our fourth), but Hurricane Michael popped up with almost no warning.

Watching the weather reports in our hotel room

Here’s how we handled it:

  1. Kept an eye on the evolving situation. Hurricanes are notoriously changeable, so if it looks like you’ll be in the path, you can at least keep on top of developments.
  2. The local weather station recommended downloading the Red Cross Hazards app. You can enter your current location and receive any alerts that may come out, as well as look up preparedness info for a variety of different scenarios.
  3. We rejigged our activity plans for that Thursday; it helps to be flexible in these circumstances. The storm was projected to downgrade to Category 3 and reach our area by about 2pm. We had planned to visit the Yorktown Battlefield that day, which is located along the York River, not far from Virginia’s Atlantic shore – not a place we wanted to be when the storm hit due to repeated warnings about storm surges and flash flooding. We were going to be heading towards home the next day, though, so we hit the road early in order to see the Battlefield in the morning and be back in Williamsburg on drier land by lunch.
Storm clouds gathering as we drive to Yorktown

We kept an eye on the skies as we toured the Battlefield. They were darkening and a few drops began to fall as we drove back to town. We had lunch at a Red Lobster restaurant across the street from our hotel (very short travel time if the storm came in during the meal). It started to rain while we ate, intermittently heavy; outside the window, there was a little pebble garden where we watched water gather into a little stream, then a larger stream, then a small pond.

Mortars and cannons from the Battle of Yorktown

From there we picked up a few emergency supplies – battery-operated candles (in case of power outage), extra bottles of water, and snacks – and by 3pm we were safely battened down in our room, watching television and remaining relaxed but alert. I texted my brother about the hurricane, and, having received numerous similar messages from us over the years, his reply was typical: “Gee, what a surprise.”

By dinnertime there’d been spotty rain only, but we made some tea. We had some leftovers in our room fridge from dinner the night before. and our Vanilla Cheesecake at lunch was so delicious that we’d brought two pieces back to our room.

The storm hit in full force after dark, with driving rain and wind rattling the window. The force of the storm actually pushed some rain in along the top corner of our ‘sealed’ window, and we put a towel along the sill to absorb the water. The hotel parking lot and the streets were lightly flooded. We heard reports of tornadoes touching down in several places around the area, and did receive one tornadoes-in-the-area alert from the Red Cross app. The lights flickered a few times but never went completely out.

Hurricane rain driving in sheets outside our hotel room and trees tossing violently

That was the worst of it for us, but our hotel was on a main street, and we’d seen a number of people out driving around during the worst of the storm – I hope it was something urgent to make it worth risking their lives. Sadly, five people who ignored the warnings to stay inside died when they were swept away by flood waters. So preventable.

  • We checked the road reports on Friday morning to see what was open/closed. There were 1,400 road closures in that county alone, but none of them along the route that we would be taking to visit the Luray Caverns that afternoon. The roads that were open were strewn with debris and downed trees.
Slow traffic and lots of debris on the roads that were open the next day

Could we have avoided this scenario entirely by not going south during Hurricane Season (June to November)? Certainly, but we had considered Virginia to be a lower-risk area, and there hadn’t been any intimations of an impending storm. Events like earthquakes can’t be reliably predicted – although, in another absolutely true story, a nun in September of the year we first went to California had predicted that there would be an earthquake around New Year’s Day, and I spent the next three months convincing myself that it was hogwash, so what can one make of that?

You can’t entirely predict what Mother Nature will throw at you, so if you do find yourself in the midst of one of her surprises, follow the local advisories and stay safe. Never  think that ‘it won’t happen to me’ – based on extensive personal experience I can confirm that s*** does happen.

To learn more about how to be prepared in the event of the unexpected, our Canadian government has a useful website for Emergency Preparedness. In particular, check out the sections on Using Technology During a Disaster. The stats also make an interesting read.

A new edition of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook was released this April, with some updates about things like drone attacks and spotting fake news, but you may find the book’s Travel version more useful. Hopefully you’ll never have to things like Stop a Runaway Passenger Train, but I have personally been on a Runaway Camel! (It ended up stopping by itself after a wild ride down a hill when it got back to its corral and before reaching the river, thank goodness.)

And if you ever experience an earthquake, find a spot with the most structural soundness — doorways are good, and bathrooms are excellent. (If in California, don’t go outside — flying clay roof tiles can be deadly.) And be kind to Mother Nature — there may come a day when you want her on your side 🙂

An Ounce of Humour is Worth a Pound of Aggravation

photo of guanaco with its ears back as I try to make friends with it
A sense of humour with animals is essential — this guanaco at the Awana Cancha textile cooperative in Peru clearly wanted nothing to do with me

A friend and I were discussing the importance of having a healthy sense of humour the other day. She was having a stressful day, so I regaled her with one of the absurd stories from my travels with hubby. It made her double over with laughter and broke that cycle of escalating frustration that happens to us on rough days.

When something annoying happens, we can choose to either work ourselves into a lather, or find the funny side of it. My hubby and I are currently renovating our main bathroom, so we’re in that major-disruption zone of life at the moment; thank goodness we both share the same sense of ridiculousness.

It has served us well over the years – mostly when we travel, for two big reasons:

  1. When you’re on a journey, you’re away from the safe and familiar, and (at least in our lives) things don’t always go according to plan
  2. Hubby and I have some kind of weird vibe which means that strange things happen whenever we go anywhere.

While the list of those events is far too long to share in a single blog post, I can tell you about the series of incidents that made my friend laugh so hard.

They took place in Florida, of all places – land of sunshine, beaches and the Happiest Place on Earth. Hubby Mike and I had just moved into our first house shortly before we took his uncle up on his offer to use his condo in Clearwater for a couple of weeks.

Mike’s uncle suggested that we avoid the higher prices of normal car rental by finding one of the many ‘Rent-a-Wreck’ places in the area. He assured us that the cars were older but fine, and much cheaper. Well, the nearest Wreck place we visited lived up to its name – the cars weren’t really fit to drive. Friends who had joined us at the condo had picked up a car at the airport (we decided on separate cars before departure), so they drove us to a regular car rental service.

An hour or so later, Mike and I were driving a good car – or so we thought.

The next day was cloudy and drizzly. I don’t recall what our friends decided to do, but Mike and I thought we’d check out a linen outlet store to buy some towels for our new home. Things began to go south when we encountered the invisible train.

The outlet store was, for some reason, 30 minutes out into the countryside. About halfway along, we were approaching a railroad crossing, also in the middle of nowhere, when the lights began flashing and the crossing barriers came down. We waited for the train to come along. Five minutes went by and we were still waiting. We could see for miles in all directions and there was no train anywhere in the vicinity. A few minutes later the lights stopped  and the barriers raised. We looked in both directions, shrugged our shoulders, and continued on our quest.

As we got nearer to our destination the rain began to fall steadily. Mike turned on the windshield wipers, which managed a couple of swipes and then flew off the car. One disappeared off into the firmament, while the other fell straight back down and jammed the entire wiper mechanism.

Since we could see the store in the distance, we carefully proceeded there and made our purchases, then carefully drove back to the car rental place.

The nice man behind the rental desk looked as surprised as we’d been. He riffled through his list of available cars in the same price range and asked, “Do you mind using the air conditioning all the time?”

Mike and I looked at each other and said, “No problem, it’s hot out. Is there a reason why, though?”

“Well,” the man said somewhat sheepishly, “I only have one car available at this moment, and it has a little quirk.”

“What’s that?” we asked.

“If you roll down the driver’s window, the door opens. As long as you don’t open the window, though, you’ll be fine.”

Hmm. We gave it some thought and decided we could live with that. We took the car. We’d forgotten about the road tolls. Every time we came to a toll booth (ubiquitous in those days), we had to either roll down the window just a couple of inches and fling coins into the mesh toll basket from a distance, or open the door entirely and get out.

Ultimately we found it amusing, and went about our vacation. That night, though, when we returned to the condo after dinner, there was a rather frantic-sounding handwritten note on the condo door which said “Please bring your rental car back to the office as soon as possible”.

The next morning we duly returned to the rental agency for the third day in row. The only staff person on hand was the regional manager, who apparently hadn’t been left any notes about our situation. He dragged his fingers through his hair, checked the office logs, and said, “Well, how’d you like to go in style for the rest of your vacation?” Sure, we replied. The only car on the lot that day was one of their premium rentals, a Chrysler Le Baron, which he gave to us at no additional cost.

As we parked it in the condo parking lot, we remarked that if any of the neighbours had been watching, they’d have seen us show up in three different cars in as many days. We spent the next 10 days enjoying all the features of our high-end car and waiting for someone to comment.

Two weeks after we returned home, a Ziggy cartoon showed up in our local paper that involved the windshield wipers flying off Ziggy’s car. I whispered to my hubby, “Jeez, is somebody watching us?!”

Whether in our travels together, or just in daily life, my hubby and I have found that humour is really the best medicine. We try to laugh as often as possible!

Seeking mellow

I believe that spas are one of the best things ever invented.

If we have time on a journey, I love to check out a spa in a different location. The best massage therapist I’ve ever had works out all my kinks and knots at a great spa within 15 minutes of my house, but there’s something so relaxing about checking out of life for a few hours in a location far, far away. It feels extra-removed from all the minute little cares and irritations back home.

While all my travelling spa experiences have all been great, visiting a spa in a foreign location can be an eye-opener.

My first travelling spa adventure took place at the Boulders golf resort in Arizona. Our long-weekend package included one activity per day for each of us. My hubby elected to play golf each day, while I alternated between rounds of golf and either sleeping in and having fresh coffee and blueberry pancakes delivered to my casita, or having a spa treatment — so much more relaxing! At the time the treatments were based on Ayurvedic principles, and I lay blissfully on the massage table while warm herbal oil was drizzled onto my skin and infused into my pores during a 20-minute wrap.

I wanted to have try out the spa at our beach resort in Bali, but we underestimated how strong the sun was just two degrees south of the equator and got burned out body-surfing, even with sun screen. Instead of a massage I spent most of the evening in a wicker chair under the ceiling fan trying to bring some coolness to my fiery shoulders.

The most unique, and strangest spa experience I’ve ever had was on the island of Mauritius. Our resort package included a complimentary spa combo of a coffee scrub, using coffee beans grown right on the island, followed by a massage.

Let me start out by mentioning that Mauritius spent 95 years of its history under French rule, and it still retains a strong French influence.

Entrance to the spa at Legends Resort, Mauritius
The Source Thalaspa entrance at the Legends Resort in Mauritius

I happily trotted over to the spa one afternoon. The serene entrance had intrigued me from our first day checking out the grounds. The spa was small but lovely. I was given a locker and a fluffy white robe — nothing unusual there. Then I was led to my treatment room and introduced to my therapist, a lovely woman who gave me a pair of tiny paper panties to put on and told me to lie down on the table face-up.

Beg pardon? Where was my cover sheet to hide my no-longer-20-year-old body?? I hesitated, but this seemed to be standard practice, so I did as asked, trying to appear nonchalant when the therapist returned. She then proceeded to scrub all of my exposed skin from the neck down with what seemed to be coffee grounds in a light oil. I looked and smelled like a giant coffee bean by the end of it, and cringed internally when she told me to put my pristine white robe on and return to the change room to rinse off. Well, I thought, it’s their laundry budget, so off I went back through the gardens to the change room.

When I arrived there, the two shower stalls were in use, so one of the attendants suggested that I could use the shower in the courtyard instead of waiting around. Having seen men wandering through the courtyard earlier, I asked “Is it a private shower?” Well, no, she replied. I refrained from saying “Are you nuts?”, because that would have been extremely impolite, and merely replied that I didn’t mind waiting.

After I rinsed and returned to my treatment room, I was given a short but very good massage with nothing more surprising than some different positioning of my arms as the therapist attacked all the knots in my back. The coffee scent faded quickly, and my skin was incredibly smooth for days afterward.

The spa at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in the Andean cloud forest was arguably my favourite spa experience. We didn’t hike the Inca Trail — not physically feasible for either of us — and instead we took the train to Aguas Calientes, the small town along the Urubamba River that serves as the base for most people visiting the compelling ruins at the top of Machu Picchu mountain.

If you ever have the chance to stay at this hotel, set into the cloud forest that surrounds Machu Picchu, I highly recommend it. Unfortunately since we visited the hotel has become a National Geographic Stay of Distinction and the rates have gone up considerably, but it is a wonderful place.

After several strenuous days adjusting to the high altitudes in Peru, I thought a relaxing massage was in order. The hotel makes all of its own botanical products from plants right on the property, and I’d already tried out some of the soaps and lotions in our casita.

Soaps and oils at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Peru
Toiletries in our casita bathroom at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Aguas Calientes, Peru

The spa was located in its own white-walled casita surrounded by the lush cloud forest. I took a few photos of the treatment room, softly lit with candles, with the floor covered in a springy rush matting, so that every step was like walking on a rush-strewn cloud.

Treatment room at the Inkaterra hotel, Aguas Calientes
Treatment room at the Inkaterra hotel, Aguas Calientes

My massage therapist then proceeded to work her magic — for a petite lady she had lots of strength to knead my tight muscles into mush, working those scented oils into every pore amid the soothing sounds of the jungle.

While I haven’t been able to manage a spa visit on every adventure, the explorations have been as fascinating as they were therapeutic. The spas all seemed to run on similar rules; if you need to bone up on spa etiquette, read this handy article by Trip Savvy — but go with an open mind and be prepared for some interesting surprises the further you get from home.

A few of my favourite things about…Canada

Like citizens of most countries, we Canadians like to gripe about our home turf, but the more we travel the more we realize how fortunate we are — a stable government, a great health-care system, many freedoms, and so much more. In honour of our national holiday coming up in a few days, here is a pictorial look at a few of the things I love about Canada:

Canada GeeseDSC01507

I love these beautiful, majestic birds, despite how much they poop — they are a gift!

Farmers’ MarketsDSC01462
Fenwick Berry Farm displays some of the lush produce we are truly fortunate to be able to grow and buy

Supper Markets
DSC01460

These delicious outings have become popular in recent years

Welland CanalDSC01561

An amazing piece of engineering that has been lowering ships from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie for over 150 years, and that continues to fascinate visitors from all over the world

The Great Lakes
P1160385
These lakes are so large that friends who visited from Australia asked if they were lakes or oceans!

Maple TreesP1160258
They shelter us, provide maple syrup, and turn vivid colours in the fall

Autumn Colours
P1160554
Autumn is our most spectacular and enchanting season, IMHO

A rich Indigenous heritage and culture
DSC01537
The Indigenous Garden at Niagara College, Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus, showing the  harmony and respect for nature that permeates Indigenous life

An abundance of bees
DSC09085
I’m always happy to see bees in our ecologically troubled times

Halloween
IMG_0104
Halloween is my personal ‘happy place’, and I’m even happier that this wonderfully wacky holiday is celebrated so widely

A love of Breakfast
IMG_0588
We can enjoy this most basic comfort meal at a wide number of restaurants

Gorgeous winter scenery
DSC00499
Even while we curse at winter storms, we can’t help but admire the scenery, as well as…

Mother Nature’s ice sculptures
DSC00449
Poetry brought to life

Music
DSC01469
Outdoor concerts are everywhere, and are a great way to enjoy a nice summer evening

Craft beverages
DSC01471
Artisanal wineries, breweries and distillers are livening up our food and beverage landscape

Miles of open road
P1160364
Thousands of miles of good roads to explore, like the Trans-Canada Highway

…There are far too many things to list here — these are just a few that I happen to have photos of. I invite you to share your own personal favourites with me in honour of Canada Day!

Candles in the wind

This week’s post is a short one and is dedicated to the families of two friends who died much too soon — last week our long-time dog sitter, only 47, from a heart attack, and three months ago one of my husband’s coworkers who died very unexpectedly on vacation abroad. My hubby spent the past two days clearing out his coworker’s locker and returning personal items to the family, a task that was hard for him because they’d been friends as well as workmates, but which he undertook willingly to help the family achieve a little bit of closure during such a difficult time. We’ve lost too many friends far too soon, and if we’ve learned anything over the years it’s that life is often much too short, and that we need to appreciate every moment, even the less-than-stellar ones, because the fact that we’re still here to have them is a profound gift.

The importance of blue

I’ve always loved being near water. I grew up along the banks of the Detroit River; before it got built up, I have fond memories of playing in the waterside parks, of my parents taking my brother and me to the water to watch fireworks on holidays.

My very first trip by airplane brought me to California, and I was so excited to see my first palm trees, and my first view of an ocean.

My travels have often taken me across oceans, to oceans, onto oceans. These glistening bodies of water are so important to our planet. As we celebrated World Oceans Day this past weekend and continue to enjoy the benefits of the sources of 91 percent of our water, we need to acknowledge the damage that we’re inflicting on one of our most precious resources.

Our oceans give us…

botswana safari 2007 card no 6 004

…beauty

botswana safari 2007 card no 6 084

…safe harbour

P_B1 730

…delicious food

P_B1 874-001…remarkable vistas

P_B1 840

…homes for a myriad of creatures above and below the surface

botswana safari 2007 card no 6 141

…serenity.

Help save our oceans. Learn more about World Ocean Day; donate to organizations like World Animal Protection, which is running a donation-matching program until June 30 to support our oceans’ creatures; find out 10 Things You Can Do to Save the Ocean. We humans are killing the oceans, so it’s up to us to fix it!