How can we love a world that’s in such turmoil?

Pestilence, fires, plagues of locusts and political chaos – one might be forgiven for thinking that the Four Horsemen are loose!

But none of that has changed the fact that our world is a beautiful, fascinating place.

We are a global family. Maybe we’re as dysfunctional as regular families often are, but we are nonetheless all linked together in a world-wide ecosystem. We need to stay connected to each other on a deep personal level, to understand, to help, to educate.

We need to preserve our global home, which as humans we have resoundingly trashed, there’s no doubt about that. People are afraid for our future, and so some extreme solutions are being proposed.

There has been a lot of travel shaming recently, with suggestions ranging from don’t fly to don’t travel at all. While the coronavirus situation will certainly have an effect on our travel decisions until it’s over, I think the environmentally-prompted messages to stop travelling completely are completely wrong.

Travel is one of the greatest educators we have available to us. I don’t say ‘tourism’, I say authentic, respectful and responsible travel. There is simply no substitute for visiting another place and experiencing it first-hand –  talking to the people who live there, sharing their food, seeing the wildlife in its own natural habitat, getting a feel for what another culture is truly like.

The slipyard where RMS Titanic first took shape

My husband and I were fortunate to be able to travel to Ireland and Northern Ireland last fall. I’m a huge Titanic buff, so the opportunity to stand on the slipway where the epic ship was built in Belfast was an amazing experience, but so was the Black Cab tour that we took to gain an in-depth understanding of the Troubles. Belfast is a lovely city with lovely citizens who were so warm and welcoming, but we could feel how fragile the peace is, and how worried everyone was about the repercussions of Brexit.

Going on an adventure teaches you resilience, and often a lot about yourself at the same time. Visitors to Africa often find it a transforming experience on many levels, and TripSavvy lists a safari as one of their 10 Most Romantic Adventure Trips You Can Take.

Samburu Reserve

On a trip to Kenya we spent some time in remote Samburu reserve, where tall giraffe and red-tinted elephants wander among the thorn trees nearby and purple hills roll away into the hazy blue air for as far as the eyes can see. We stood on the rust-coloured ground, and I had the most profound feeling of having stepped back in time through eons to when the world was new, and we might have been the only creatures upon it. It was an extraordinary experience, and I wasn’t alone in having it.

Some of our best and most memorable experiences have been the unscripted interactions with local life.

One night in Bali, after suffering from a migraine all day, I asked my hubby if we could just go up to the restaurant on the roof our our beach resort. It had a Mexican theme, which was oddly the rage in the main city of Denpasar at the time, and our eating there was more a matter of convenience than expecting great food. It was a hot, humid night, but the cooler air on the rooftop was soothing. We were the only patrons, and the entire restaurant staff trickled slowly out to chat with us as we enjoyed the truly excellent Mexican meal they made for us. They pulled up chairs around our table and asked us all kinds of questions about Canada, including “What do you do when it snows?”, to which we replied, “We go to work just like usual.” They were flabbergasted that we would drive in the snow. It became one of the most memorable nights of our trip through southeast Asia.

In the town of Chivay in the Andes, our tour stopped for lunch before lurching up to the top of Colca Canyon to watch the huge condors fly. The restaurant owners kept a pet alpaca in the courtyard, which my hubby and I were immediately drawn to. For some reason the friendly little camelid decided that my hubby’s hiking pants looked really appetizing, and we laughed as it tried determinedly to snag a bite out of one pant leg.

Staying at home teaches you nothing. Staying at home stunts our burgeoning sense of connectedness.

Staying home will only promote insularity, xenophobia and fear, and people do terrible things when they’re afraid. When we travel, we begin to understand how alike we are to other people on our planet. We share the same joys and the same pains, the same desire to share life with someone special, the same need to leave some small legacy behind. The differences in how we approach these are what makes each culture so rich and fascinating.

There’s no substitute for sitting in a restaurant overlooking the lights of Hong Kong harbour at night, trying to look elegant while attempting to spear your slippery scallop with a jade chopstick. In a small town about half an hour away from Vienna, my mother’s best friend embraced her as they reunited for the first time since  nursing together during WW2 50 years before, then served us rich coffee and a delectable Austrian torte in her flower-filled house. In Cairo we ate mezze in a dim restaurant filled with the aromatic smoke from huge pans of sizzling falafel. We had afternoon tea in New Zealand while watching, and feeling, Tongariro volcano rumble in irritation on the near horizon.

The wonder of standing in the Temple of Heads at Tiwanaku, one of the most enigmatic archeological sites in the world, where an ancient civilization flourished so high in the Bolivian Andes that they were above the tree line and had to invent new techniques to grow food, is something you have to experience in person. As is having breakfast in the morning sunlight as the mighty Zambezi river flows swiftly by just a few feet away..

What we need is for travel suppliers to find more sustainable ways to provide their services, and as travelers it’s equally our responsibility to be good guests. That means:

Many suppliers are indeed looking at improving their environmental footprint. Expo 2020, taking place in Dubai from October 20 2020 to April 10 2021, will include a climate-focused event that “looks to further advance the conversation, and encourage action on climate and sustainability issues that are leading to an increase in natural catastrophes.” As citizens of the world, let’s do our part and be responsible travellers.

Peace at heart, peace with our global home

In three days, on September 21, the world will be observing the International Day of Peace. This year’s theme, Climate Action for Peace, is multi-layered, calling for us to recognize that human conflict and environmental negligence will impact our lives and those of future generations, and that they are tightly interwoven.

Imagine if there were no pollinators. Bees around the world are in dire straits.

How would we grow enough food for our exploding human population without bees, and how would plant-eating animals survive? In a global food shortage scenario, who would have access to the limited supplies of food? Would it be the average person, working to make ends meet, just like you and me? Likely not.

What would happen to the flowers that fill our gardens with beauty, the balm of nature that can ease our stress and bring joy to our lives? What if there were no roses to stop and smell?

Outdoor sports as we know them might disappear, like your favourite golf courses.

While things like golf courses may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, they are just one of the many, many pleasurable things in our world that we take for granted. Imagine a world where there was no green space to play in.

Each year, since 2001, the United Nations asks all nations and all of us for one day “to put down … weapons and reaffirm their commitment to living in harmony with one another.” There are many days when that seems like a really tall order, but amazing things have happened when enough people get behind a movement. Governments don’t change until the people of those countries start to speak up.

For each of us personally, let’s get back to a social climate of kindness and respect, for each other and for all the other creatures and plants that share the only home we all have.

Here are some of my favourite photos from around the world, both near and far — I hope they inspire you to realize how badly we need to protect the climate that allows these beautiful places to exist. It’s an unnervingly fragile balance.

Samburu Reserve, Kenya
Lake Naivasha, Kenya
Andes Mountains
Floating reed islands, Lake Titicaca
Royal Botanical Gardens, Ontario
Lake Muskoka, Ontario
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Lake Pukaki, New Zealand
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Sugar cane, Mauritius
Linden tree in bloom, my back yard

Exploring outside the box – Andean cloud forest

Machu Picchu is one of those superstar archeological sites that people want to tick off on their bucket list, for good reason. It is an amazing site — the photos you typically see don’t come anywhere near what it’s like to be there in person.

A lot of people want to get there by hiking the strenuous Inca trail, but the tours I see offered most often are quick one-week excursions that give you a couple of days in Lima, Peru’s capital city, a day or two in Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, and a quick day trip to the Machu Picchu site by train to the engaging little town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly called Aguas Calientes, where trekkers tend to base themselves and buses leave for the winding drive up the mountain atop which sits the ancient citadel that was lost and forgotten for many years until Hiram Bingham made his famous discovery in 1911.

But Machu Picchu sits amid the Andean cloud forest, a truly wondrous habitat that almost no one ever stops to look at.

When we went, we opted out of the 4-day Inca Trail hike and chose to spend two nights at a magical place called Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, set at the edge of Aguas Calientes in its own 12 acres of beautiful and peaceful cloud forest.

Now, normally my hubby and I eschew costly high-end accommodations, which we often find to be glossy and unauthentic, in favour of smaller places saturated with atmosphere and in great locations for exploring.

For this trip, there were a lot of places we wanted to cover — there’s so much more to Peru than just Machu Picchu. I found an adventurous, budget-friendly 3-week tour that included all our must-sees, from the Ballestas Islands to the Nazca Lines, to Colca Canyon to see the massive Andean condors to the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca and finally the mysterious and rarely-visited ancient city of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

All the lodgings were basically 3-star, clean, basic but well-chosen for their proximity to area sights, They were all very authentic; we felt like we were embedded in Peruvian life.

Our hotel in Lima, Hotel Maury, had an unprepossessing exterior. The rooms were unremarkable, but the bar off the lobby was woodsy with wonderful murals that made us feel like we’d stepped back in time to the glamorous era of Eva Peron.

The location was fantastic — just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Mayor, where most of the main sights in Lima were ranged around, with pretty parks and a wide assortment of delicious restaurants. One morning we heard music drifting in from outside while we were at breakfast, and went out the front doors to find a parade passing down the street right past the hotel. All we had to do was stand on the sidewalk and watch (no idea what the unusual costumes represented, but it was fascinating to watch).

In the little town of Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, our overland truck shoe-horned itself down a narrow side street and burped us out in front of a tiny yellow-walled place that looked more like someone’s home from the outside.

The interior climbed up a maze of staircases around a small central courtyard, and was decorated in wood and Peruvian textiles.

The rooms were basic but comfortable enough and clean. Off the main lobby there was a wonderful little restaurant that gave us our first taste of a Pisco Sour.

As Pisco is on the ocean, there was fabulous fresh seafood to eat for dinner.

But once in a while you stumble across a place that’s truly magical and worth a splurge. That place was the Inkaterra hotel below Machu Picchu.

Sitting along the banks of the Urubamba river, the hotel consists of several buildings tucked into the lush cloud forest. As you can see from the photo above, the property is not flat, so for anyone with mobility issues, this might not be the ideal spot.

If you can manage the walking, though, you’ll be treated to your own cozy casita furnished with hand-made Peruvian wood furniture and warm woven blankets for the night chill.

The hotel makes its own toiletries from botanicals on the property.

You can book a privately-led tour of Machu Picchu with one of the hotel’s excellent guides.

But after that mainstay, leave yourself some time to explore the hotel’s cloud-forest surroundings, a rare treat.

The hotel has a wonderful little spa that you might want to visit to work out some high-altitude kinks.

Meals at the hotel are delicious. They also make an excellent, if very potent, Pisco Sour, by the way.

The hotel even has its own small tea plantation, and you can drink its teas during your stay, as well as visiting the plantation and making your own bag of tea.

There are birds everywhere — although snagging a photo of a zippy little hummingbird is a challenge.

If you can, visit in November. Why? Because it’s orchid season, and the hotel has 372 species of wild orchid on its grounds. Wild orchids look nothing like the cultivated varieties you see in florist shops. The wild varieties come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes.

Orchid walks are a complimentary activity at the hotel, led by knowledgeable guides who will show you all the wonders of the orchid kingdom.

Inkaterra has also runs the Spectacled Bear Project, rescuing South America’s only native, and endangered, bear from the pet trade and rehabituating as many back into the wild as possible.

The rescued bears spend several months at the Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel, learning how to forage for food and all the other skills they need to survive in their natural habitat. You can visit the resident bears with an onsite guide as they get their tutorials within a large enclosure (visitors have no actual contact with the bears). They are adorable.

This past April veterinarian Dr. Evan Antin visited the project on his Animal Planet show, Evan Goes Wild.

The Inkaterra hotels in Peru continue to win awards, and since we visited in 2012 they have become part of National Geographic’s Stays of Distinction, which unfortunately has roughly tripled the stay rates over what we paid. Nevertheless, I would rate a stay at this hotel a very worth-it splurge. You might also want to check out Inkaterra’s volunteering opportunities.

If you can only manage a week in Peru, so be it, but do your very best to spend more time and research all the fascinating sites beyond its most famous landmark.

World Elephant Day

When you think of Africa, what animal do you think of most? A good bet that it’s an elephant – their distinctive shape with widespread ears is such an iconic symbol. There are Asian elephants as well, which have smaller ears and a large twin bump at the top of their heads.

This is a special early post this week in honour of World Elephant Day.

African elephants are a wonderful sight in the wild. These massive creatures – they can weigh up to 12 tons) can be surprisingly silent when they choose – we have spotted them emerging from the bush unexpectedly without us even having been aware that they were moving about.

When watching them on safari, they are remarkably laid back as long as you don’t impinge on their personal space. A good safari guide knows how close to get without making them feel threatened.

If you do get a little too close, they will usually mock-charge by running towards you with ears flared and trunk raised, perhaps even blaring through their trunk. In certain situations they can get quite pissy, however.

There’s a large resident herd in Chobe National Park in Botswana, and most safari-goers embark on a short cruise on the Chobe River to see them trudge en masse down to the river for a drink and a bathe. There’s also a large and rambunctious resident troop of Chacma baboons. On one occasion we were watching the elephant herd peacefully roaming the river’s edge when the baboons decided to join the party. The baboons were making lots of noise and running all over the place, which really irritated the elephants, who proceeded to stamp up and down the river front, blaring loudly and shaking the trees with their trunks. The baboons were unrepentant, scampering around and creating chaos for several minutes. Eventually they seemed to tire of the game, leaving the elephants in peace once more.

In Kenya in Aberdare National Park, at a wonderful treetop lodge called the Ark, we watched animals at the watering hole while we were having afternoon tea in the lounge on the second level. We were highly entertained watching the water buffalo do end runs behind the back of a feisty teenage male elephant who seemed to feel that the watering hole was his and his alone and tried to evict them, with little effect.

As placid as elephants can be when you’re viewing them from a safari vehicle, any time that baby elephants are present, the adult elephants will be more protective, and male elephants in musth (heat) are essentially hormone-crazed and very dangerous.

If an elephant is in the road you’re travelling on, it owns it for the duration. Don’t ever try to bypass the elephant (as this tourist in Kruger National Park found out the hard way back in 2014).

It is amazing to watch them in the wild, doing what they do naturally, whether congregating for a sunset drink, bathing in a muddy puddle, or wading through the water to tear up great mouthfuls of vegetation for breakfast.

Elephants – in fact, all animals – are a gift, and we are privileged to be able to spend a little time with them in places like Africa. You can find out more about one of the world’s most majestic and enigmatic creatures, and how you can help ensure that other generations can continue to be amazed by them at the World Elephant Day website.

If you’d like to travel to Africa yourself and would like more information about where these images were taken, or about going on safari, please email me at liontailmagic@gmail.com.

Luray Caverns – Mother Nature Wins!

Hi folks — feeling a bit under the weather today, so this week’s post is a celebration of Mother Nature, who IMHO always wins the contest for artwork. Case in point: Luray Caverns in Virginia. The Caverns were discovered in 1878 and became an overnight success (after millions of years of formation, of course). Although not the largest cave system in North America, Luray is very walkable and superbly lit for visitors to enjoy the many spectacular formations.  I hope these photos inspire you to visit!

DSC00295-001The caverns range from small to massive

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Formations, some dry, some still wet and forming, come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. This one is called The Fish, for its resemblance to a string of caught fish at a market.

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This odd formation is called The Eggs.

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There were so many fascinating formations we couldn’t recall the names of all of them.

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Many formations are still dripping, and have formed large pools below. They form stunningly perfect reflections in the still waters — so perfect that you have to look really closely to understand that the bottom part of what you’re seeing is a mirror image.

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One of the really cool things is a cave organ. It plays a slow and soft electronic tune which resonates through the chamber by…DSC00322-001

…small armatures that gently strike some of the stalactites. Visitors have to be very still to enjoy the soft music.

Visit the website for more information about this wonderful adventure.

Rainforests — Rescue Me!

You know you’re having a true jungle moment when a monkey sits on your head.

P_B2 074Maria the spider monkey (names have been changed to protect the innocent) loves to steal visitors’ plastic water bottles. She lives on Monkey Island, a sanctuary in the Madre de Dios river in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. She is an inquisitive and agile monkey.

Our group was gathered around a feeding platform as Maria eyed us all curiously and our guide talked about rescuing Amazonian primates from the pet trade. I was leaning casually near the small plank scattered with food bits while Maria played with a plastic bottle, when unexpectedly she scampered across the plank and decided that my head would make a good perch. In a flash my vision was blocked by black fur, and a long, very strong tail wrapped snugly around my neck – so snugly, in fact, that I had to wedge a finger between her tail and my skin to be able to breathe. I could hear cameras going off all around me.

Well, like I always say, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a monkey’s butt on the top of your head. After a few minutes on my head, Maria decided she needed a different viewpoint and climbed onto someone else’s hair.

A once-in-a-lifetime experience. And in a few decades, a never-in-anyone’s lifetime experience. Our rain forests are being deforested at such an alarming rate and so many species are dying out completely that nations around the world have declared an international Climate Emergency.

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Coming in for a landing into Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon, it wasn’t hard to spot the scars of clear-cutting.

It’s making the news in a big way now. You may have been seeing some of the headlines, such as Nature crisis: Humans ‘threaten 1m species with extinction’.

According to Rainforest Rescue, we are, on average, losing an appalling 150 species each and every day! If you were to think of that in terms of ‘man’s best friend’, dogs, that would be roughly the equivalent of every single dog on the planet being wiped out in three days.

When I was a child, I mourned the loss of famously extinct species like the Passenger Pigeon and the Dodo bird, which I would never see because of the stupidity of earlier humans who didn’t understand the impact of what they were doing. You’d think that, as we evolve as a society, we’d have learned something.

Every species on this planet is critical to the ecosystem that it lives in as well as our global ecosystem. The disappearance of these thousands of species will have an impact that continues well into the future.

Animal species also help keep our plants alive by pollination, dropping fruit pits to germinate in new areas, and transporting seeds in their fur. Without this continuous regenerative cycle, we are doomed.

Rain forests are majestic and magical places. Ancient remedies climb over each other in the undergrowth, bananas and mangoes grow wild, tree trunks transmit sound so far that local people use them as geolocators. To walk through the forest is to immerse yourself in the lungs of our planet as they breathe and pulse around you. I’ll let some of my photos speak for themselves.

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A butterfly investigates my husband’s hiking boot.
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The rain forest embraces our Amazonian jungle lodge.
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Let’s play ‘Spot the parrot’!
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Lush wild banana trees

Rain forests are in severe danger, as are all of their inhabitants, from millions of plants, animals and insects to the many tribes who’ve called the forests home for centuries. We have no right to take that gift of life away from them.

You can help. You can visit these incredible treasures to understand what they mean to the world ecosystem, and to all your children who’ll have to cope with the wreck we are making of this planet, and you can sign petitions to pressure governments to stop mining interests and rapacious developers.

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Local people as well as corporations destroy riverine habitats through indiscriminate mining

Petitions work. One such petition needs 200,000 signatures quickly: “UNESCO World Heritage: tell the palm oil barons to back off!” All it takes is a few moments of your time to make a difference. The, maybe one day in the future, your children will be able to find their own wild and incorrigible Maria monkey to have a close encounter with.