Summer doldrums

Summer is not my favourite season — I often find it enervating. I’m really an autumn person.

Sometimes I just hide inside our house, but the outdoors always beckons. According to a recent article in the NY Times, scientists have quantified how much time spent in nature is optimal for our health (trust scientists to nail an actual figure, I say with amusement because I have a degree in Biology), and it’s 2 hours a week.

I generally manage that much just going out for my weekly round of golf, but a few days ago, on a really hot day with my head aching, I dragged hubby out to Lake Ontario to try to capture photos of a storm over the lake.

The storm never really materialized, but the outdoors still worked its magic. Here are a few shots I did capture. Sometimes summer has its moments.

The startling split sky when we left the house
Monarch butterfly on a milkweed pod along the shore
A cormorant perched on the masting of a wrecked boat
Pair of darners on the water
Summer colours in the harbour
This gorgeous German shepherd pooch was having a great time exploring the dock
Driftwood log having a frolic in the waves
A gull and I share a peaceful moment as the sun begins to set

A little mystery is good for us

Shadowy haunted bridge outside Gettysburg, PA

In 1937 Amelia Earhart disappeared off the face of the earth in what was purportedly the first attempt to fly all the way around the world.

Earhart was a glamorous 1930s personality. She became an icon of intrepid explorers, and vanguard of women who chose to pursue a different path than mother/homemaker. Around 22,000 miles into the flight, somewhere past the Nukumanu Islands near Papua New Guinea, confusing messages by Earhart came across the radio…and then nothing.

No substantiated clues have ever been found of either her body, that of her navigator’s, or the plane they were flying. Rumours that the flight was in actuality a government mission have added to the mystique.

For the past 82 years people have been searching for clues as to what happened to Earhart, and now famous explorer Robert Ballard, who found the Titanic wreck in its deep watery grave, has made it his own mission to find her plane. It will be fascinating to see what he comes up with.

We humans are fascinated by mysteries, and are driven to try and solve them, although there’s a certain romanticism in not knowing, in leaving the truth to our imaginations.

Along with legions of people, I’ve always been fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic – the tragedy, the mystery surrounding what should have been a stellar maiden voyage of a great ship, the Edwardian glamour of the ship itself. I even delivered a special two-hour evening presentation about the event for our local public library to honour the 100th anniversary. This fall my husband and I are traveling to Ireland, and I’m very much looking forward to visiting the Titanic museum in Belfast and seeing the original dry-dock site.

We love mystery so much that it became a literary genre in the 1800s when Edgar Allan Poe introduced a detective in his story Murders in the Rue Morgue. The first time my hubby and I visited England we made a beeline for the Sherlock Holmes plaque at 221b Baker Street, enjoyed the Holmes silhouette on the wall of the Baker Street tube (subway) station. We also had lunch at the atmospheric Sherlock Holmes pub in Charing Cross, where there’s also an upstairs dining room full of memorabilia. Great Britain is so associated with mystery, crime and spy novels that, to be honest, we both wore trench coats during our entire trip!

Fans of Conan Doyle’s stories were so devoted that when the author had tired of his detective hero and decided to kill him off, the public outcry was so great that Conan Doyle had to miraculously revive the character. (BBC online has a great retrospective about the influence of one of our greatest fictional detectives.)

My hubby and I are devoted to several good mystery series. We’ve watched every iteration of Sherlock Holmes, thoroughly enjoyed all the wonderful Hercule Poirot with David Suchet and many others on PBS Mystery. A couple of years ago we got into the excellent Canadian The Murdoch Mysteries, as well as Miss Fisher from Australia, the Brokenwood Mysteries from New Zealand, and Death in Paradise.

We have, of course, watched almost every Agatha Christie story ever produced. I was really tickled when an episode of Dr. Who revolved around the real-life mystery of Agatha Christie’s own ten-day disappearance in 1926.

The entertaining 1978 movie version of Death on the Nile, with one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen and amazing cinematography, inspired me to fulfill a lifelong dream to go to Egypt, and is still one of my all-time favourite movies.

I have the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories in print, which I love for their period atmosphere, and for the same reason my absolute favourite mystery series is the Lord Peter Wimsey stories by Dorothy Sayers, set in the 1930s.

Why do we love mysteries so much? It’s not just humans who relish them, either – dogs, for example, are universally curious about everything. When our two dogs were still alive, our male’s favourite game was to play hide-and-seek with me: I would hide myself somewhere in the house and call his name in a particular tone of voice, and he would delightedly spend the next few minutes trying to find me. It’s one of the things I miss the most since our dogs got old and moved on to their well-deserved doggie heaven.

There’s a great article on the Psychologies website about why we all love mystery, and why it’s important in our lives. It shares the story of an artist, John Newling, who went so far as to ask British insurance company Lloyd’s of London in 2006 to insure him against ‘loss of mystery’. His comment was “Mystery is a predisposition to search, enjoy, play and wonder”. I think that’s a great summation of the appeal of mystery in our lives, and I can empathize with his feelings that mystery is disappearing is our increasingly structured world.

Statue of David Livingstone at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

I would have loved to be an explorer in the 1800s to early 1900s, when most of the world was still a mystery. The search for Amelia Earhart reminds me of one of the greatest searches ever undertaken, to find out whether the great explorer and missionary David Livingstone was still alive. He had travelled to Africa in 1865 to search for the source of the Nile, one of the greatest geographical questions in history, and hadn’t been heard from in several years when the New York Herald newspaper sent Henry Morton Stanley off to try and find him.

The sense of mystery and not knowing what might lie around the next corner is a critical part of adventure travel. Even though most of the world has been charted by now, for all of us modern adventurers there’s still our own personal exploration of something yet to be seen.

True adventure travel is never planned to be perfect or completely structured – there should always be a certain amount of uncertainty, and some opportunity for off-the-cuff exploration.

The adventure is in the mystery of what you’ll discover about a new place, a new culture, and about yourself in the process.

Some of the best experiences my hubby and I have had have occurred when a journey has derailed a bit, or something not on the original itinerary came up and we ran with it.

Botswana traffic jam: we had front-row seats for watching a group effort to get a truck unstuck from a flooded road

We had a hilarious camel ride through the Sahara in Egypt, as well as a visit to an authentic camel market where our group’s arrival stopped everything in its tracks. Once the local traders had recovered, however, one man eyed me for a bit and then offered my hubby 1,000 camels for me, which at about $1500 per camel amounted to a considerable sum of money. My hubby joked that if he thought the fellow actually had that much, I might have remained in Egypt. Like Queen Victoria, I was not amused.

If you’re interested in being a true modern adventurer, follow this blog for ongoing information and inspiration, and for news about my upcoming Adventure Travel 101 online course, currently in development.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what your favourite mysteries are, whether novels, television/movies, or real-life!

Stormy weather

Rain falling on a juniper branch

I love storms.

After my previous post about hurricanes and earthquakes, you might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at that statement, but I grew up with storms, and I’ve always enjoyed both the drama and the feeling of being safely tucked inside my house.

As I write this post, there’s a fabulous summer thunderstorm raging around our community. The skies are dark, the rain is sheeting across the streets, and thunder is rattling the windows of our house.

Tornado warnings have been posted for parts of Ontario, and even though there isn’t one where I live, our area is prone to them and I have my Red Cross Alerts app updated to my current location.

The week that I’m writing this has been brutally hot and humid. I don’t do well under those conditions, and even though I’ve been hiding inside with the air conditioning, watching the televised drama of the Open Golf Championship, I’ve had a pounding migraine for three days. Today has been the worst – although my medications have blanketed the pain for now, I can feel it lurking like a monster waiting to pounce.

Since the storm hit, though, the pain has eased and the nausea has dissipated, which is often the case for migraine people – see, another reason to love storms!

Thunderstorms give me an excuse to light candles – just in case the power should go out, you understand. I’m sipping some light Keemun tea while I eat a few crackers with goat cheese and tomato slices to keep my stomach settled.

(On a side note, did you know that acidic or tart food is one of the best things to combat nausea? I learned this in Egypt from one of the staff in our hotel in Cairo, and while I wouldn’t recommend eating one of their very bitter lemons as I was told to do at the time, whenever I fly I always have a glass of tomato juice to ward off airplane sickness.)

We actually have a transformer on our street, and it has blown impressively a few times, plunging our entire neighbourhood into darkness until the city crews can fix it, so I do have reasonable cause to take lighting precautions.

My early childhood took place in Windsor, Ontario, which at the time had some deep (for a child) storm gutters, and after a good rain my mother would let me take my shoes off and wade in them. I could spend hours splashing about happily – cheap entertainment, and my mom had only to look out the door from time to time to see that I was okay.

When I was five we moved to northern Ontario, where the weather is extreme and spectacular. I can recall my dad having to pull the truck over to the side of the road many times when either fog blanketed the car or rain was falling so heavily that we quite literally couldn’t see anything beyond the front bumper. Our farm included a hill where the passing gravel road curved up and around, and the road surface could turn into a river of muck in minutes – we would see truckers try to make it up that hill, lose traction and slide backward to the flat part. My parents would invite them in for some hot coffee while they waited out the storm.

Winters meant several feet of snow on the ground consistently from November to March or April. Plows would come by from time to time, but all that snow had to be pushed aside somewhere, usually into ten-foot high drifts at the end of our long driveway. Temperatures could plummet far below zero – I remember a record-setting -42oF on one day, when no one went outside if at all possible (fortunately we didn’t have any farm animals to be concerned about, but I’m not sure what friends of ours did with their cows, horses and chickens).

Spring thaw was a relief, but it could be treacherous as all of that deep snow melted. A trip to town to buy groceries could be fine on the way in but impassable a couple of hours later if one of the small lakes along the roadside flooded over. I remember our parents taking my brother and me out into the bush for maple sugaring one weekend. The path through the woods crossed a fresh, cold rivulet of water on our way to the site. We spent several hours there watching the trees being tapped and the sap being boiled down in huge vats. By the time we decided to call it a day, though, the rivulet had turned into a rushing stream and my dad had to carry me safely to the other side.

By the time we moved back to southern Ontario the year I turned eight, my love of dramatic weather had become ingrained, which has turned out to be a good thing in light of the strange relationship my hubby and I have with it.

We almost got hit by lightning on a golf course once while we were still dating – we were being careful, waiting for the stormy weather to recede by the time we set out on the back nine. Thunder was rumbling faintly far in the distance when a lightning flash out of nowhere speared the stand of trees on the fringe of the hole we were playing. We instantly flattened ourselves on the ground for at least a minute and then grabbed our carts and fled back to the clubhouse as fast as we could.

Our first dating anniversary was celebrated during an unexpected blizzard. We’d just been seated at the restaurant when the power went out. A bottle of champagne held the fort while the management fired up an old wood-burning stove to cook everyone’s meals. Probably the most entertaining parts were visiting the bathrooms by the light of kerosene lamps as all that champagne got metabolized. The power came back on two hours later just as we were finishing our meal.

The list of our weather events is long and distinguished, so perhaps the universe is giving me treats from time to time.

lit candles on a fireplace mantle

The storm has ended. It’s still comfortably overcast outside, though – glaring sun and a migraine don’t go well together – and the heat has let up a little, with a nice breeze riffling through the trees. My headache is gone, at least for the time being, and I’m enjoying the respite however long it lasts.

I think I might go and make some dinner. Meanwhile, the candles are still flickering away in their holders around the house, because, well, you just never know…

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!

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 pleasures of golf?

It’s spring in North America and time to commence the annual ritual of the royal and ancient game of Driving Yourself Crazy, aka Golf.

I blame my husband for introducing me to the game when we were dating. Little did I know what I was getting myself into!

To people who don’t play, golf can be a ridiculous-looking game where you attempt to hit a little round ball with a weighted stick, and then chase down the ball wherever it may have landed, only to hit it away from you again.

Robin Williams had an extremely funny (and R-rated, for language) bit about the invention of the game in his Live from Broadway show; my favourite line is about the flag pin at the conclusion of each hole: “They put it there to give you hope”.

Novice golfers are excited about the game until they discover that having a great round on one day doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to even hit the ball the next time you go out.

Veteran golfers have a love-hate relationship that varies in degree. Golf is to a large extent a mental game:

  • being able to concentrate and remain steady through at least 72 swings at the ball over an 18-hole round, on terrain that’s constantly changing
  • trying to curb your frustration when you make a bad shot that should have been an easy one
  • tweaking your swings and strategy in an attempt to achieve consistency (which is pretty much a pipe dream – even the pros can’t manage it)

The game also plays with our heads by, no matter how bad a round we’re having, allowing us at least one great shot that encourages us to come back. It’s quite evil, really.

One of the things I like about the game is the opportunity to enjoy nice weather in beautiful surroundings. (Men will play in any weather, and that’s another story entirely, but women have more sense.) My hubby and I really enjoy playing golf in different locations, and often incorporate a round in our travels if it’s feasible. Every location has its unique fingerprint, and challenges. But that’s half the fun!

For our 15th wedding anniversary we stayed and played at the gorgeous Boulders resort in Arizona. It was so great we could have happily stayed there for a month. The comprehensive service took a little getting used to initially – from the moment we arrived and our car was swarmed by staff, everything was taken care of for us – but the acclimatization took less than 24 hours and then we were soaking it all in.

Our first round took place the afternoon that we arrived, and we completely psyched ourselves out about playing on a championship course – in short, we were terrible. We did enjoy the resort-course layout: frequent yardage markers to help you check your distances, drinking fountains and a washroom building every third hole, a cart with not only both ball and club washers but also a cooler with ice for our beverages and a little nozzle to spray water on our hot faces whenever we needed to refresh. The start times were spaced 10 minutes apart, so we were never crowded by other players.

We returned to the club house, dejected. But this was resort golf, an entirely different animal! The cheerful, laid-back staff told us not to worry about our scores and emphasized that they wanted us to enjoy ourselves. Their attitude was so relaxed that it allowed us to relax, and we thoroughly enjoyed our next round.

We embraced desert golf, where divots disintegrate, made of grass on sand; there’s no retrieving your errant ball out of the rough (full of cacti called ‘Jumping Cholla’ because they hook onto your skin and break off in large chunks!); and the bunkers are really diabolical (some with cacti and even big boulders in the middle, as if trying to hit your ball out of a deep pot bunker isn’t enough punishment for landing in there).

Arizona is gorgeous, though, and our package allowed my hubby to play four rounds while I played two and visited the fabulous spa in between. It was such a hardship, I just can’t tell you.

There’s something for everyone at The Boulders – we even booked a night hike with night-vision goggles that gave us a spectacular view of the Milky Way – so it’s a great all-around vacation spot.

A couple of years ago we golfed the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama, a bucket-list item for a lot of golfers. The Trail was created in the 1980s as a way to bring in revenue to shore up the state’s retirement fund, and it’s worked brilliantly. There are 26 courses in 11 different locales running along a roughly north to south line through the state. Hubby chose the four courses he wanted to play, and as the first one was located in Mobile, just 2 hours from New Orleans, we drove down to that great Louisiana city first for a weekend to enjoy the food, history, ghostly legends and wacky Halloween Parade, then worked our way north along the golf trail.

When we arrived at our hotel in Mobile, the concierge approached me and asked if we’d had any trouble finding the hotel.

“No”, I replied, a little mystified by the question, “we just used our GPS.”

“But did it give you ‘Southern’ directions?”, he asked.

“Well no, I don’t think so,” I said, still at a loss.

“Well you see, this is how we give directions in the South”, he told me. “We say: ‘You go down the road a piece, then when you see the house where Old Blue’s sittin’ on the porch you turn right, then you go down the road another piece…’ ” My hubby and I laughed delightedly, and that exchange has become one of our most treasured memories from the trip.

The hospitality was exemplary, the courses were lovely and the Southern food delectable. One of the places we tried, based on a recommendation from the staff at the Hampton Cove course in Huntsville, was the Blue Plate Café. It’s such a faithful replica of a 1950s café that you assume it’s much older than it actually is. Created by two sisters who cook with their grandma’s old recipes, the café serves up wonderful comfort food. If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, you must stop there and have the fantastic fried chicken!!

The RTJ Trail has dedicated staff to help you plan your journey. They’ll book your tee times and even book hotels along the way if you want them to.

P1030392
It’s hard to take your game seriously when a family of warthogs is your peanut gallery

A nod to Africa for offering our most unusual round of golf to date. It took place in Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls. We rented clubs, and had planned to rent a cart as advertised on the course website but not actually available. The round was most memorable for the wildlife – crocodiles lurking in the water hazards for the unwary, impalas sprinting around the holes, and on one hole I had to wait for an entire family of warthogs to finish staring at me and wander away before I could tee off.

Unfortunately the weather was very hot, we had to walk the course, and there were no refreshments available during the entire round, so I had heat exhaustion as a result and slept for 14 hours. Nevertheless, I don’t know too many people who can say they had to face off against warthogs!

The most important piece of equipment you can have for taking up the sport of golf is a sense of humour. It keeps players sane. As the great Arnold Palmer once said, “I have a tip that can take five strokes off anyone’s game: It’s called an eraser.”