Signs Part 3 — Poignant reminders

Taking a mental health break during pandemic lockdown in March

There’s a box of three-ply surgical masks on the stairs in our entryway, and another box on the console in my hubby’s truck. We never imagined the day that we’d have that necessity.

Two weeks ago we had our first Covid-19 vaccine shots, in a big arena with row upon row of chairs for people to sit during their 15-minute post-inoculation wait period. My hubby and I have had many inoculations over the years for our travels, delivered one-on-one by our family physician most of the time, but at a small travel clinic for the Yellow Fever shots needed to go to Kenya and the Amazon Jungle.

(If you’re wondering, I’m pretty sure we’re not radioactive or sending out electronic signals to governments since the shot 😉 )

After months of flaring virus cases across Canada, our numbers are thankfully falling again amid thousands of people getting their shots, and most of the provinces are talking about their reopening plans. We’re not out of the woods yet, but just like the odd mild day in March heralds the advent of spring, we can look forward with hope toward the point when the pandemic is no longer such.

There are a lot of signs we’ll remember when we look back – Curbside Pickup Only, Takeout Only, If You Have Any of These Symptoms…, Only xx People Allowed Inside at One Time.

Signs have been put up over the centuries to commemorate significant events. They’re poignant reminders of a time when history was made, usually not in a good way. Will our governments erect signs related to the pandemic, do you suppose? I guess time will tell.

We’ve seen many such signs on our travels. Reading them is a solemn activity as we acknowledge the pathos of the event they refer to.

This sign is at the Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania, a tribute to the thousands of men who fought bravely on either side and gave up their lives for what they believed in.

This exhibit sign inside the Gettysburg Museum of History highlights the impact of the war and what it was being fought for.

One of the most poignant wall murals in Belfast is this image of a giant quilt highlighting the voices of women in the ideological conflict. The mural contains a softer message than the more violent artwork it replaced, offering instead words for peace, love and hope.

A small white and red luggage tag represents the baggage loaded onto the SS Nomadic as passengers and cargo were transferred by tender out to the RMS Titanic at Cherbourg, France. The Nomadic is the only remaining original White Star vessel, dry-docked permanently in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. Visitors can go aboard and imagine the happy faces of the passengers as they set off on what was to be a great adventure on a great ship.

Here’s a sign from last fall, when we visited a Halloween-themed attraction during the brief window when there were enough facilities open for us to take a short vacation break. The historic site that hosted the attraction, Upper Canada Village, was closed to visitors during the day; it only opened at dusk to limited numbers. We waited in line, separated by six feet from other waiting groups of varying sizes, and allowed to enter only after the previous group had completely cleared the ticketing area. I missed walking around the village during the day, but the flip side was that the evening attraction was really cool to visit without crowds. I could take as much time as I needed to capture the wonderful light displays after dark with a little monopod. Silver linings 🙂

I’m not sure many visitors to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles notice this small memorial to one of the most famous actors in movie history. The little Cairn Terrier who played Toto in The Wizard of Oz will be forever remembered by generations of movie fans, though.

I don’t know if this billboard is still up. When we visited Botswana in 2010, AIDS was still a major problem in the country, although scrupulous safari operators made sure that guests had nothing to worry about. Botswana is one of the most progressive countries in Africa, and had mounted an aggressive campaign to educate its citizens about the dangers of HIV, while many other countries still refused to acknowledge the issue.

You may or may not recognize this bus, with its number “2857” and route sign “Cleveland Ave.”. It’s the bus on which an ordinary black seamstress in Alabama refused to give up her seat for a white person, and changed the course of history. She took great personal risk in doing so, and decades later her battle continues in a different form, but she demonstrated that even ordinary people can have the power to change something unjust.

Large and small bits of history give us pause to think, to look through a window onto what it was like to live through those times, and to remember those who did.

All photos by me and all rights reserved.

Celebrating World Earth Day – beautiful Samburu in Kenya

The more my hubby and I travel around our planet, the more special we realize that it is. We’ve also seen what’s been lost already — creatures already extinct, more headed there now, and entire habitats destroyed by humans. If humans aren’t careful, within our lifetime there may be no more lions, no more elephants, no more orangutans, no more polar bears.

And the loss of each species degrades the entire ecosystem, until a point where it may threaten all life on earth — even ours.

Many people around the world are working very hard to keep that from happening; you can read about some of them on the Earthday.org website.

And to show you how special our global ecosystem is, I want to share with you one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. It’s not on the standard safari-tourist track, which is both a shame and a blessing. This is a longer read, with lots of photos; I hope you enjoy it.

Located more or less smack-dab in the centre of the country on the fringe of northern Kenya, Samburu is about a 7-hour drive north from Nairobi, along paved highways that pass through numerous small towns holding fascinating slices of Kenyan life.

Our safari vehicle was essentially a van with big slider windows, as well as a pop-up top; this had to remain closed while we were on the main roads. However, as soon as we turned off onto the reserve property, our guide opened the top up to allow us amazing views as we rode through the ruddy landscape.

Our lodging for two nights on this mobile safari was the Samburu Sopa Lodge, and although it’s only a mid-range lodge, it remains one of my favourite places in all of Africa.

The lodge is fairly remote, surrounded by miles of wilderness in all directions. Thatch-roofed buildings blend into the landscape, and have a casual feel, as if you’re staying at your own second home. The rooms are simply furnished but comfortable, with full bathrooms and electricity for part of the day (typical for remote lodges like this), which means you can use some small grooming appliances and charge up your camera batteries when needed.

The rooms each have their own walled patio looking out onto the surrounding bush — lovely places to sit in the morning or at dusk…

…and often a great place to watch wildlife meander past. Our room was visited every morning by a very inquisitive Yellow-billed Hornbill, which would perch in a nearby tree and squawk loudly.

The main areas of the lodge were atmospheric and authentic without being pretentious. The photo below shows the walkway from the lobby to the dining room.

The dining room was one of my favourite places to spend time, overlooking the wide acacia-studded savannah. We’d often see animals grazing in the distance while we were eating a meal — Baboons, Dik-dik and more.

Game drives start early in the morning, just as the sun is making its way over the horizon.

Samburu is located in the drier northern part of Kenya, so there were many standard African species of animal as well as some specially adapted for arid conditions. We were there in the dry season (late February), which was actually a fantastic time to go. Most people go in our summer to see the Great Migration, whereas we practically had the reserves to ourselves, and the dried-out landscape allowed us to have wonderful views of the animals. It was easy to see this tiny Dik-dik, one of the smallest types of antelope, in the shade of a thorny bush.

On the other hand, you can never miss the raucous Olive Baboons, quarreling and romping as if they own the place.

Secretary birds are common in eastern and southern Africa, with their spiky headdress picking up the morning light.

There is a lot of bird life in Samburu, including some species we hadn’t seen before, making it a bird-spotter’s paradise for creatures like these spectacular Vulturine Guinea-fowl…

and the sleek Eastern chanting-goshawk.

The East African Oryx, or Beisa Oryx, is well-suited to the dry landscape, able to retain water by raising its body temperature to avoid perspiring.

Two unusual species that are found here and hardly anywhere else are the gorgeous Reticulated Giraffe — the photo below shows one grazing just yards from another group’s safari vehicle —

— and Grevy’s Zebra, which lives in only in northern Kenya and Ethiopia, and can survive up to five days without water. It is strikingly beautiful, with narrowly-spaced stripes that cover its face and extend all the way down to its hooves. (The standard zebra that you’ll see in most photos is Burchell’s Zebra.)

One of the most unusual antelopes we’ve ever seen lives in Samburu as well — the Gerenuk, also known as the ‘giraffe-gazelle’. It not only has a much longer neck than most antelopes, but can also stand up on its hind legs, stretching its body into the higher portions of trees to graze where other antelopes can’t.

Elephants in Samburu have the same grey hides they do elsewhere, but bathing in the reddish dust has given them their ruddy hue.

Even the termite mounds are red-tinted, making them look like strange alien growths against the dry grey shrubs.

Just as in other parts of Africa, roads through the reserve are minimal and make for quite an interesting ride as you bounce and sometimes tilt sideways along the way. Roads back home in North America aren’t nearly as much fun!

Of course the big cats make a home in Samburu. Leopards are here, although we didn’t spot any, but we did see this cheetah family out on the prowl…

,,, and these lion cubs chowing down on their evening meal in the shade with their mother.

Lions are stunningly beautiful out in the wild. Because of habitat loss and diseases caught from being forced to turn to livestock for food, they are rapidly reaching endangered status. It would be heart-breaking indeed to lose these magnificent creatures.

Samburu Reserve runs along the banks of the winding Ewaso Ng’iro river, which was almost completely dried up during our visit. Nevertheless, it had a lush, primordial beauty, fringed by riverine forests sprinkled with multi-branched doum palms (seen in the photo below). This is what I have always imagined the Garden of Eden looked like.

In fact, as we stood on the red sands of Samburu, I had the most remarkable feeling: as if we’d stepped far, far back in time to when the world was created. There was no sound except the breeze rustling through the trees and the animals walking through the bush. The land seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, beyond the blue hills and devoid of any other humans or the stamp of civilization. The land felt ancient and untouched.

The Samburu people, who are believed to have migrated from the areas around the Nile, have a village near the river, and we had the opportunity to visit it.

They still live in a very traditional way, in huts constructed of tree branches and other found materials. They keep the lions out at night by closing the gap in a thick perimeter fence made of thorn branches.

As a semi-nomadic people, they hunt but also keep cattle, let out for the day to graze.

Women wash their clothing at the river, even during dry season.

Children do chores and play, as all children do…

… while the adults put on their colourful robes and performed traditional dances for us. They make beautiful beaded jewellery; I bought a necklace from the woman who made it.

We also saw a demonstration of how to make fire in the old way.

The provision of a school by the government has curtailed their nomadic existence, and we also saw the odd cell phone around the village.

A word of warning should you ever go to Samburu and make a point of visiting the village: take lots of water and cover up well. We spent two hours in the hot sun, and as fascinating as it was, by the time we returned to the lodge I had some heat exhaustion, relieved by beverages and a long dip in the cool on-site swimming pool.

Sunsets in Samburu were glorious as our guide brought us back to the lodge; in Kenya, as in many African countries, night drives are forbidden because the spotlights used disturb the animals.

One of the most amazing stories to come out of Samburu — you probably saw it somewhere in the news media in 2002 — was the wild lioness who, instead of killing and eating a vulnerable baby oryx, decided to adopt it. You can read more about it on the African Wildlife Foundation website.

No one knows why the lioness decided to adopt the little antelope, whose mother was still alive and would stop by to feed her baby — perhaps it’s just the magic of Samburu.

As always, all photos are by me (unless otherwise specified) and all rights reserved.

Less heel-dragging, more doing the right thing

St. Catharines, Ontario 7 Day Weather Forecast – The Weather Network

Yesterday, April 7th, was World Health Day, and I think we can all agree that this initiative has never been more topical. More than a year after the first Covid cases were recognized, the world is still struggling to turn the tide.

Here in Ontario we’ve all been put back under a stay-at-home law as the province grapples with the biggest wave of infections so far. I think I can speak for all of us who’ve been diligently following the rules in saying that we’re getting pretty frustrated. So it’s time to face facts, even if we may not like them:

A) Vaccines prevent disease and save lives. You have only to look at the freedom we have now from diseases that once decimated the population — smallpox, diphtheria, polio, tuberculosis — to understand the truth of this.

B) Preventative measures — wearing mask, washing hands and keeping our distance — prevent infection and save lives. If you or anyone you know ever had surgery, you can be grateful that the OR doctors and nurses followed this practice.

Granted, our governments have not done the best job with this situation, but as citizens we also have to do our part, or this pandemic will just drag on and on and on, as it has already.

Yesterday, I went for a drive to take advantage of the last free day we’ll have for the next four weeks. A lot of other people had the same idea, and I was happy to see everyone following the rules!

First I visited my favourite garden centre to pick up some planters of flowers; if my hubby and I are going to be sitting around the house, at least we can look at something cheerful. The centre was full of plants that needed a good home.

Although I don’t plant geraniums, this lovely Martha Washington was a temptation.

After some exploration of side roads I haven’t taken before, I found myself back at my favourite relaxation spot, our local botanical garden, to see what changes have taken place in the past couple of weeks.

Masses of daffodils have been spreading all over the place…

,,, and the trees all have leaves bursting out.

I spotted a Downy Woodpecker searching for lunch on one of the trees…

… and a pretty Mourning Cloak butterfly that was kind enough to perch on a plant label long enough for me to get a photo.

Large clumps of Glory of the Snow had also popped out all over.

My hubby and I will continue to make the best of things, and to everyone getting frustrated, please stay strong and take care. If you develop symptoms, stay home and avoid spreading. And don’t believe what you read on social media; all medications have a risk of an adverse reaction, but those are rare. As I mentioned in a previous post, my hubby and I have had numerous vaccinations against all the diseases in less-fortunate countries that we no longer have to worry about in North America, and those vaccines have allowed us to travel safely all over the world without becoming ill. If you’re interested, read this excellent and very blunt article about vaccines vs. the fear-mongerers, and do the right thing, for the good of your own health, your family’s, and all the rest of the people you know.

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.

What lies ahead?

Twenty years ago my husband and I celebrated New Year’s Eve with family on the cusp of the new millennium. It was a momentous turn of time’s great wheel. We brought out the china and crystal; I made a special dinner with beef tenderloin; our aunt suddenly manifested signs of a winter virus just after dinner when she vomited in the bathroom, and she had to go home before we cracked open the expensive champagne at midnight. So, a fairly standard wacky holiday meal.

We all wondered what the approaching century and millennium would bring as half the world seemed convinced that our own technology would doom us as soon as the computer clocks ticked over to a year with a new configuration. We even had acquaintances who sold a profitable business to live completely off the grid.

Hubby and I weren’t as convinced of impending disaster, although we did prudently stash a small stock of supplies in case the electricity system failed for a few days – all things that we could use anyway if nothing happened, which is exactly what happened. Arguably the greatest non-event in history.

It didn’t take long for the 2000s to become tumultuous, and we’re now in a time of great uncertainty about the planet’s future.

Having grown up on Star Trek, I prefer to keep that positive vision of the future, but here are trends I’ve noticed that aren’t helping anything:

  • Overpopulation – our planetary ecosystem can’t support our current level of population growth
  • Rampant profiteering – we can’t continue stripping our planet of critical natural resources, so (among other things) someone has to put a stop to big corporations who don’t seem to care that that they’re destroying the future of their own families along with all of the rest of us
  • Divisiveness – we all need to become truly global citizens, tolerant and accepting of everyone, every life form on this planet, and the planet itself as our magnificent and precious home
  • The “it’s all about me” attitude that seems to prevail now – we need to return to values of kindness and consideration for others, and to understanding that all of our actions have consequences and that we’re responsible for those consequences
  • Unbridled materialism, which I believe is a symptom of deep cracks in our society that no one’s addressing, along with things like increasing rates of depression, anxiety, irritability and stress-related illnesses

I think people around the world are frightened, but letting our fears govern our actions isn’t the answer.

If more and more people resolve to put the welfare of each other and the entire planet on a par with themselves, to become the light-filled beings we have the capacity to be, I think we can turn the tide. If you feel the same way, let’s start something!