Days well spent

A year ago around this time my hubby and I were finalizing our September trip to Ireland, and I was looking forward to taking lots of photos for this blog. A year ago we weren’t all living the pages of a science fiction novel.

We never know where life is going to take us, do we?

While we wait out this odd limbo we’re in, we think about what ‘afterward’ is going to look like. No one knows what the future will be, so to my mind let’s make the most of the unexpected time we have on our hands in the present.

Here in Ontario home renovations are booming – all those projects people have been wanting to get to but never had enough time.

There’s a bonanza of flowers and plants at one of our local nurseries, rows and rows of gorgeous colour and texture to explore like a yard sale in the Garden of Eden. I could have wandered through there for hours, but I wanted to get home with my treasures: a glorious flame-red canna lily to plant next to our moody purple smoke bush, and a vibrant pot garden.

I have very little skill as a gardener (didn’t get my mother’s green-thumb gene), but I love plants and I needed to add these two bursts of energy to the front of our house. I needed to add some brightness to what feels like a faded version of our world these days.

This is a great time to stretch yourself, to discover new things. In the ‘afterwards’, things will have shifted. I suspect we’ll be labelling things as “pre-“ or “post-“ COVID, and like any major upheaval the most successful survivors will be the ones who were most adaptable.

You’ve probably seen a TV show about the rambunctious troops of macaque monkeys that have taken over the city of Jaipur in India. National Geographic produced two entertaining series about these hardy little survivors called Monkey Thieves. The macaques and their rivals, the grey langurs, have been driven out of their normal wild habitat by the expanding human population, but they’re making the most of their new city homes. Macaques are extraordinarily adaptable – clever and resourceful, they’re willing to eat just about anything and sleep almost anywhere. Rather than dying out, they’re thriving in Indian cities to the point of becoming nuisances.

Koala bears, by contrast, are critically endangered. They eat only eucalyptus leaves, and of the 700 varieties of eucalyptus in Australia, they’ll only feed from a tiny percentage. We humans have backed them into an ecological corner which they may not survive.

So this is a great time to, like the wily macaques, explore and find out what you can make use of. Try things you might not have considered before – who knows what you might find you like and are even pretty good at.

Early into our home ownership, as a young married couple in a bad economy (mortgage rates were as high as 18%) we couldn’t afford much in the way of Christmas decorations. I saw a beautiful grapevine wreath in a store that I just couldn’t swing, but we had a home-crafting store called White Rose that carried all the basics, and I thought that maybe I could make my own wreath for a fraction of the cost. I had no idea what I was doing – no inkling of things like glue guns, even – but my version turned out just as pretty as the store-made version, much to my surprise. Making my own holiday florals has been a passion of mine ever since – I hunt through different sources to put together very personalized wreaths and table arrangements to compliment our house colour scheme, and tweak them as I find interesting new objects I’d like to add or swap in. I did actually sell custom-made creations for a while, which was fun but not my ultimate goal so I didn’t keep it up.

A fresh Christmas arrangement that I put together every year

One of the things that did stick professionally was photography. During a summer job while I was in university that involved mapping a local conservation area for visitor use, I was asked to take some photos and put together a promotional brochure – not my forte as a biology major, but my brother had loaned me one of his cameras and I got some good photos of a Great Blue Heron on the edge of one of the ponds. I never had ambitions of becoming a professional, but over the years I’ve taken photos for a real estate agent, the college I worked at, and of course thousands of travel photos that allowed us to show the rest of the world to our non-travelling friends and family. I love to take photos that capture all the cool little parts of a place that are rarely portrayed in the destination marketing, all the personal experiences that have brought a place alive for us.

This photo of a pair of stuffed faux llamas decorated in all their finery in the artsy little city of Arequipa in Peru is one of my personal favourites. Arequipa is one of the coolest places in Peru but most tours unfortunately skip it. It’s full of culture and colour, though, as well as delicious food, an amazing convent complex that’s a small city on its own, and even the famous Ice Maiden herself, found at the top of Andes a few years ago. (More about Arequipa in an upcoming post!)

One of the biggest changes to my life occurred after I decided to get over my fear of public speaking. It has empowered me and transformed my life in ways I would never have foreseen.

Burdened with one of the most common fears people have, I was able to practice avoidance strategy until I began working at our local college and found myself having to say things in meetings. I absolutely dreaded even introducing myself. After a while, though, I got tired of dodging opportunities. One of the vice-presidents at the college had started up a chapter of Toastmasters and an acquaintance of mine who was already a member recommended that I join. Finally I got up the nerve to do it, although I lurked silently in a back corner of the meeting room for weeks. The members were kind enough to give me that space – otherwise I probably would have bolted in the first few minutes.

Eventually I started working on the speaking projects and got used to getting up in front of the room with the entire group of members focused on me alone. I wasn’t a natural by any means and I had to work hard at learning the basic skills, but I achieved my primary goal, to be able to say something in a meeting without freezing like a deer in headlights.

About two years into the program I was unexpectedly contacted by our local public library to come and do a presentation about Kenya – they’d seen some media about a trip that I’d run to Kenya for the college. My first instinct was to duck out of it, but I’d joined Toastmasters for a reason and I wanted to take this next small step. I was still pretty novice and quite nervous, but I had great photos and stories from the trip. I found myself enjoying the experience, something that I would have laughed at skeptically just a handful of years before that. When some of the attendees came up to chat with me afterward and told me that I was a good storyteller, I jumped a hurdle I’d never banked on.

I’ve done many talks for the library and other organizations since then. One of my favourite stories: all the while that I was doing a later presentation about Peru and Bolivia, a fellow at the far end of the front row was tapping into his cell phone. He wasn’t disturbing anyone, so I left it alone – all the other attendees seemed to be getting a lot out of the presentation. During Q&A at the end of the talk, I assumed that he’d be the first to bug out, but he startled me by asking if the remote temple of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian Andes would be accessible from the town of Copacabana, which he was going to visit in a few months. I’d only included a handful of photos from the site in my presentation, as the brief finale of our trip on the way to our end destination of La Paz, but they’d made such an impression on him that on the spot he decided to see Tiwanaku himself.

When you can get up to talk to people and have a personal impact on their lives, that’s an amazing feeling. By the time I’d served on our regional board and also on the international team that developed the updated Toastmasters program in the past decade, I’d become a different person – comfortable in any situation, confident, well-spoken even in a pinch. Pushing myself to overcome the fear has opened a lot of doors and taken my life in so many new directions.

Dare to imagine what else you could be. Most people have time on their hands now, and there are plenty of opportunities to try out something different. Even if those different things don’t become your passion, at the very least they’ll have expanded your skill base, and in the best-case scenario they may send you on your own amazing journey to a new post-COVID life.

In the meantime, they’ll also serve as a multi-purpose way to pass the time, especially to take your mind off the news. At a virtual photography conference I attended last month, one of the speakers, Caroline Jensen (a Sony Artisan), talked about “Stress Relief in Your Own Backyard” through macro photography. This technique of focusing in on the close-up details of a flower, a butterfly, or any other pieces of nature, keeps you completely absorbed in the moment for hours at a time. She even recommends it as a way to help children cope with their own anxiety.

It opens up a new world in the familiar places we’re all currently restricted to. I live near the Welland Canal, and walking alongside to watch a fascinating ore freighter chug by the other day, I spotted a variety of pretty wildflowers growing along the banks, small enough that most walkers probably passed them by. Great practice for a photographer though 😊

Nature is one of our best sources of therapy during challenging times, and for the most part it’s free to access, especially if you don’t happen to have a back yard of your own to spend placid time in. On any walk in your local woods, you might spot a bright little chipmunk, or admire the sculptural forms of a fallen tree.

If you’d like to try out some macro photography yourself, you can find Caroline’s Quick Start guide here, along with some of her wonderful examples.

I’d like to leave you with a great short TED talk, just a little less than 10 minutes, that was mentioned during the photography conference. Louie Schwartzberg is a renowned photographer who’s spent his career taking time-lapse videos of flowers blooming, and what a magical gift it is to watch them do their thing. His talk includes wise words from a Benedictine monk that, although the talk was done in 2011, couldn’t be more applicable to our present confusion and uncertainty. It’s about how to appreciate nature and the world around us, and to take comfort in each day as the gift that it is.

The surreal coastline of Peru

This week really got away from me! Hubby and I were watching a two-episode show on Prime video called El Dorado, an ‘archeological’ adventure made in 2010 to capitalize on the impending ‘end of the world’ in 2012 (according to the Mayan calendar). The show played pretty fast and loose with archeology – even the supernatural parts – but the scenery of Peru is spectacular. Then hubby pointed out to me that it’s Thursday!

So, this blog post is a bit seat-of-my-pants, but it will give you an idea of the strange and often other-worldly coastline of Peru, where the Andes mountains dip their feet in the Pacific Ocean, creating some hair-raising roads that hug the mountainsides alternating with lunar-looking desert and verdant farms that demonstrate that modern Peruvians haven’t lost their skill at agriculture.

Leaving Lima very quickly shows you Peruvian life outside of the one-percenters. Ramshackle towns perch between the highway and the beach.

You are travelling along the famous Pan-American Highway, an ambitious concept designed to stretch between both tips of North and South America. The United States had a vision of cooperation among all the countries in the Western Hemisphere, and held the First International Conference of American States in 1890. Delegates from 13 countries attended, and among numerous political discussions one of the ideas proposed was a railroad that would stretch along the entire western coastline. Several decades into the new century, when road transportation began to dominate, the highway was born, and it was quite a thrill to be riding on a portion of the South American network.

Life is very basic outside Lima, almost a throwback to another time, with plaster or mud brick homes mixed with shop stalls selling modern goods like open-air convenience stores.

The road weaves in and out along the coast, sometimes moving inward through hills on which the Peruvians, echoing the ancient desert carvings on the Nazca Plateau toward which the highway is leading, have inscribed gigantic advertisements into the dirt.

The roadside is also dotted with odd little shrines and memorials in isolated places.

Within a handful of hours we’ve arrived at our overnight destination, the little city of Pisco. The word “pisco” means bird in the old Peruvian language of Quechua, which has been in use for hundreds of years, long before the Inca Empire. Pisco sits amid the remnants of the ancient Paracas culture, which flourished over 1000 years before the Incas. In modern times this section of coastline is part of the Paracas National Reserve, a protected area that straddles both arid coast and the deep blue aquatic biosphere off shore, where thousands of birds and other sea creatures live on islands strewn across the waters.

The moisture in the sandy soil allows vines to flourish, despite the heat and dryness, and one of the products to come out of those grapes has made the town famous: Pisco brandy, used to make the delicious Pisco Sour.

After checking into our quaint hotel scrunched in at the edge of one of the streets in the middle of the city, where the rooms were basic and clean, we went down to the main square to explore a little of the area before dinner.

Pisco is in an earthquake zone, and in 2010, just two years before our visit, an 8.0-magnitude quake destroyed about 80% of the city, which was still being rebuilt. From the pretty central park, filled with funky topiaries and pretty gardens, we could see signs of the damage in the severely cracked bell tower of the Cathedral, which was so bad that they had to construct a new church next door.

Nevertheless, the people of Pisco are resilient, and many relax in the park as the day winds down or stroll the delightful open-air market.

With such a long coastline, Peru specializes in fresh seafood, and we returned to our hotel for a fabulous meal that began with the beverage we’d been holding off on trying until we could sample it in its home base — the amazing Pisco Sour. It reminded me of a sweeter Margarita, but smoother and more refreshing.

We followed that with a huge bowl of chicken and vegetable soup topped with a fried egg — pure Peruvian comfort food!

Some of our group opted for the fresh seafood paella, which looked fantastic, although I’m not a big seafood eater myself.

It’s a short drive from Pisco to the town of Paracas, the jumping-off point for cruises out to the Ballestas Islands, an animal sanctuary out in the ocean formed of a series of rocky outcrops amid the Humboldt Current, which brings many creatures to these little outposts in the water.

Paracas has a nice little waterfront that you can stroll as you wait for your boat, with cute little cafes strung along the promenade.

The ride out to the islands is smooth and pleasurable. On the way you get an excellent view of a strange and massive figure cut into the desert sands approximately 2,200 years ago by the Paracas peoples! It’s been named El Candelabro because of its shape, but no one knows what it really represents. Although it’s hard to tell from the water as you pass by, the figure is 595 feet tall, and was cut two feet into the soil, allowing it to last for over two millennia and be seen 12 miles away.

You can spot the Ballestas Islands from some distance, pretty grey mounds sprinkled through the deep blue water.

Your boat will take you quite close, and if you’re at all prone to seasickness, let me warn you that the remainder of the cruise is going to be quite unpleasant while you get spectacular views of the wildlife. The waters are very choppy as they swirl around the rocks, and the bobbing up and down of the boat mixed with the strong smell of boat fuel as your pilot stops at each outcrop is intense.

I’d taken an anti-nauseant before we boarded, and had to hurriedly swallow a second one while we were out there, neither of which helped very much. I’m not sorry we took the cruise, but I paid for it for several hours afterward. Fair warning should you choose to go 🙂

The closeup views of the wildlife are worth the effort, though. These islands are often referred to as the mini-Galapagos for a reason, but unlike those more famous islands, here visitors are not allowed on shore, which is non-existent anyway.

Numerous sea lions basking on the rocks
The pretty Humboldt penguin
Beautiful Inca terns

Happy to be back on land a few hours later, we had the opportunity for either more adventure or some R&R at the Huacachina Oasis farther inland. The oasis looks straight out of a 1930s Hollywood movie, laden with palm trees and a circling promenade made for languorous strolling — balm to my unsettled stomach.

However, Huacachina is most well-known for its dune buggy rides across the towering sand hills that surround the oasis. I wasn’t up to it, but my hubby went and really enjoyed it (although he did tell me that it wouldn’t have been a good idea for me at the time).

From the oasis the road enters an increasingly surreal landscape that makes you feel as if you’re on another planet — strange white rocks emerging from the sands, long empty stretches of sand edged by mirage-like golden hills in the distance, with the highway snaking back and forth surreptitiously through all of it.

This road takes you to one of the strangest places in South America: the mysterious Nazca Lines. Some of us would be taking a flight over the Lines to see them from where they were seemingly designed to be viewed, high above the plateau on which they were inscribed, but no advance reading could prepare us for what we were soon to experience. More to come in the next Peru-themed blog post in two weeks!

N.B. all photos are by me and all rights are reserved.

The Monkey’s Tail

How many types of birds do you typically see in your back yard? I’ve counted maybe a dozen at different times – blue jays, cardinals, wrens, robins, pigeons… – the usual urban North American coterie.

In the Amazon rainforest there are 1,300 species and counting.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, of all the known species of creatures on the earth, 1 in 10 are found in the Amazon basin – “40,000 plant species, 3,000 freshwater fish species, and more than 370 types of reptiles. Over 2,000 new species of plants and vertebrates, including a monkey that purrs like a cat, have been described since 1999.” It’s mind-boggling.

The first thing you notice walking through the Amazon Jungle is a battle for life – layers and layers of plant life climbing on top of each other, growing on each other, feeding on each other. Jostling for every nutrient they can wring out of their complex environment.

Parasitic vines will eventually choke the life out of a tree

You look up through layers of green to catch a glimpse of the sky, or downward to a dense layer of new, old and decaying growth littering the ground. Nothing goes to waste in a rainforest.

Layers upon layers cover the forest floor

The jungle is home to myriad creatures as well – carpenter ants carting massive pieces of leaves like banners, spiders clinging to tree trunks, huge butterflies flitting in and out, secretive capuchin monkeys clustered on branches.

A black tarantula ventures a couple of legs out from its burrow near the top right

To celebrate World Rainforest Day this week on June 22, this blog is kicking off a Peru travel series with a peek at exploring that very jungle.

In Peru, typically visitors access the jungle along one of the Amazon’s tributaries, flying from Cusco to one of the jungle’s great frontier towns, Puerto Maldonado. From the Andes mountains your plane swoops down over masses of dense green-ness, sadly patched with barren brown pieces of denuded land, to a murky river snaking through the thick jungle growth.

How fantastic it must have been for the first intrepid explorers to be faced with the undisturbed masses of vegetation, and how daunting to explore for months slowly moving through unknown and difficult terrain.

We arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, easily, landing in muddy, ramshackle, colourful Puerto Maldonado, where any useful supplies for a trip into the jungle can be bought and loaded onto your transportation to the river dock.

Once at the bare-bones wooden dock, we boarded a long motorized canoe that zipped along the Madre de Dios river for just an hour and a half, past steep banks dotted with wrecked wooden canoes and the odd small cabin, residents cruising by in their own motorboats bringing supplies back home from the town, and people using illegal gold-dredging methods that destroy the river ecosystem.

Transferring to our motorized canoe in Puerto Maldonado

The river banks look the same, I imagine, as they must have for the early adventurers, but the river traffic is a modern concoction. The river is wide and flanked by tall green walls of trees – palm, wild papaya and mango, and many other kinds that we didn’t recognize.

Illegal river mining

Eventually we were brought gently up to a jetty peeking out of a clearing in the green wall – the access point to our comfortably rustic lodge, the Eco Amazonia. No hacking our way through the jungle – porters collected our baggage and led the way on raised walkways to the main lodge to check in. Had we arrived a few weeks later, the river would have risen right up to those walkways – the lodge even thoughtfully provides racks of loaner rubber boots for its guests.

Arriving at the lodge

The lodge wasn’t one of the luxury versions, but I loved its green-meshed and wood-sided buildings strewn amongst the brilliant red- and pink-flowered ginger plants with vivid green leaves.

Colourful meals were served in the large dining room – our first lunch led off with a fresh avocado salad, followed by a mysterious banana leaf-wrapped packet that, once we untied the string, revealed a delicious chicken and vegetable rice pilaf.

Our raised cabins were ranged in rows along the grounds, past brilliant green lizards, little brown agouti and parrots lurking in the palm trees. Here we finally heard all the sounds you expect to find, from insects and birds and monkeys in the jungle that surrounded the lodge property, just a short bridge-walk away.

A small agouti roams across the grounds

The accommodations were basic but quite comfortable, straddling the line between civilized and adventurous. Steps lead up to a screened porch, then a large sleeping area with several twin beds, and a dimly-lit bathroom that intermittently had warm water in the shower. At night we could hear the preliminary light rains spattering down on the corrugated tin roofs, and the insects humming safely outside the walls.

There are a lot of things to do in the jungle after a meal and a cup of the thick, dark, concentrated Peruvian coffee that has to be thinned with water to be drinkable.

On our first afternoon we were taken across the river to the lodge’s Monkey Island, a sanctuary for primates rescued from the pet trade. There are golden and brown capuchins, and a particularly cheeky female spider monkey who loves to pluck plastic water bottles from visitors and bite off the caps. I was standing next to a small feeding platform, taking a few photos, when she decided to run across, climb my shoulder and sit on my head, wrapping her long prehensile tail around my neck for balance so tightly that I had to wiggle my finger in between to keep from choking. I could hear cameras going off furiously while I tried to see past a screen of black fur. After a minute or so she’d had enough of her perch on my head and uncoiled herself to see who else looked interesting.

Our spider monkey visitor

As evening fell and we made our way back to the canoe, we could see the deep tracks of a caiman in the cracked dry earth of the river’s edge. Some of us took the opportunity to do a night canoe ride by paddle on the river in the hopes of spotting a black caiman or two along the banks, their eyes gleaming in the darkness. It was eerie and silent, gliding softly through the water under hundreds of stars – that was when I felt closest to the early explorers.

Our long hike through the jungle itself was led by a genuine Amazonian native, Marco, who’d grown up in one of the traditional villages and knew the forest like the back of his hand. He showed us some of the many plants that the villagers have used for a long time to promote fertility, heal maladies, even to send messages – one of the trees makes such a loud, carrying sound when it’s hit with a piece of wood that people would use it as a locator signal.

This tree holds the source of extracts for both male virility (the purplish protrusions) and female fertility (the green vine winding up the trunk)

We ducked under fallen trees, crossed weed-choked streams, took photos of each other dwarfed by just the roots of towering jungle trees. And yes, you can actually swing on the vines.

Our guide demonstrating the proper vine swing technique

Our main destination was an oxbow lake well-hidden by wild papaya trees. There’s a tall viewing platform that some people climbed, but we chose to be paddled around the small lake in a canoe, watching ducks swim along the fringes and a black-collared hawk look for prey from its perch on an old branch. Back on shore, butterflies of all kinds flitted around us and landed on our gear. We felt miles away from anywhere.

In the evenings after dinner everyone congregated in the bar and explored the many intriguing cocktails created by the staff. I believe I sampled an Anaconda and perhaps even a Jaguar, perfect after a day in the jungle.

Our three-week adventure to Peru and Bolivia included just two days in the rainforest, so we weren’t able to catch sight of the area’s most famous residents, like the elusive jaguar or the giant river otters, but it was a window into a mysterious green world that forms one of the greatest natural wonders of our planet. Even today we know so little about it, a place with over 16,000 species of trees alone, and a staggering estimated 2.5 million species of insects!

The sight of a big, bright blue Morpho butterfly landing delicately on a leaf in front of you is a magical thing.

There are numerous rainforests around the world, all rapidly dwindling because of our greed. To learn more about these biodiversity hotspots and how you can help save as much as possible, check out the Rainforest Rescue website.

All photos by Erica Jurus and rights reserved.

Those who garden can, those who can’t enjoy someone else’s

I have many qualities, but a green thumb isn’t one of them. I can manage to get things to grow, but most of the results are short-lived, except for a Peace Lily I brought home from my work office that’s survived for more than a year, amazingly; a Curly Bamboo my hubby gave me in a fit of optimism that must like the light in our living room; and assorted shrubbery outside the house that survives without much assistance from me.

I grew up on a farm, though, surrounded by nature, so I have a love of plants in all their forms. My mother had more skills than me, and we had glorious hollyhocks blooming every spring in the front of the farmhouse, and even a small vegetable garden in the short northern summer. No matter where we lived she always had an assortment of plants in the windows, something I tried to reproduce in my own homes after I got married but failed so miserably that long ago I resorted to nice-looking artificial plants which people often mistake for the real thing.

In university, studying biology, I even took an entire course in Botany, so I can tell you a lot about plants and flowers – I just can’t grow many myself.

Instead, I really enjoy exploring gardens around the world, including our own little corner of it.

Pond of Giant Amazon Lilies at Sir Seewoosagur Rangoolam Botanic Garden, Mauritius

Gardening, as a form of manipulating an outdoor space, began over 10,000 years ago when early humanity began to nurture useful food-bearing plants and eliminate the ones they didn’t want. As some people began to accumulate wealth and position, they created formal gardens for their own enjoyment, like the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. There were also medicinal gardens for ready access to plants with healing properties, and temple gardens for producing offerings to the gods.

A quiet shady path meanders through the Japanese Garden at Powerscourt Estate, Ireland

Gardens reflect the cultures that created them, and I find the different styles fascinating. My personal favourite are Japanese and Chinese gardens – I find them soothing to the eye and spirit, places of serenity and quiet contemplation.

The other day I needed to get outside the walls of my home, so I visited our local Butterfly Conservatory. The buildings are closed, but the grounds are open to enjoy. The sun was shining and the air was fresh and not too hot, but there were just a handful of us enjoying this pretty spot, one of the pluses of being in this situation I suppose.

The grounds are fronted by an allée of shade trees and potted plants leading to a gleaming metal sculpture which punctuates the natural world all around it. Although at first glance it might seem out of place, as you get closer to the sculpture, you can see complexities of colour in the metal that pull it into the surroundings.

Most visitors throng the main building to walk among the 2,000-plus butterflies, as I’ve  done myself when I was giving someone a tutorial on animal photography. The gardens don’t dominate the eye – just a few benches and trees to begin with, with some flowers edging the lawns – but as I explored an unobtrusive pathway they began to unfold a soft beauty meant to be enjoyed quietly and slowly.

I took photos as I walked, so I can remember the feeling of sun on my face, a frog croaking in a pond, beautiful flowers bobbing and riffling in the light breeze. And to forever capture the fleeting splendor of nature’s artwork. I hope you enjoy them as well, especially if you can’t get to a garden yourself.

I’ll be profiling other gardens in future posts, and once we’re all able to travel again, I hope to set up garden tours to some of the many lovely paintings-in-landscape around the world.

Serene little pond along the path
Magnificent irises alongside the pond
Downloading photos, I love how they often capture tiny details that my eye didn’t pick up
The perfect spot to rest your legs
I liked the textures of this bird bath
A spectacular red Oriental Poppy in full bloom…
..and as the flower wanes
A dramatically shaped tree trunk in monochrome

All images by me and rights reserved.

Loving the unpredictable

What kind of personality type are you?

Do you like everything planned out, in sequential steps and in every detail? Are you more of a free spirit who  prefers to wing it all or most of the time, embracing life as it comes along? Likely you’re some place in the middle, and you recognize there are situations that work better with some planning while others are more enjoyable in their spontaneity.

There are a variety of personality-typing systems to help you understand that your preferences aren’t an anomaly or a personal quirk – that there are in fact all kinds of people in the world just like you in how you handle life.

In my work at a local college for many years, I had access to analysis several times. If you know yourself fairly well, generally the results won’t surprise you, but they’re interesting to read. They also help you understand people around you and how you can interact with someone without pushing too many of their buttons.

One of the simplest personality profiles is the True Colour system. I’m very Green – both analytical and intuitive. I always want to know why something needs to be done, for example – the reasoning behind it. It helps me understand a task and give it my best effort. However, I imagine it was a challenge for my parents, teachers and managers at my different jobs 😊

There’s a part of me that really enjoys planning, but another side that loves the adventure of spontaneity. The result is that I tend to think like a mind map – central concepts with spokes all over the place as related ideas pop into my head, and then ways that those ideas hook up with others.

My husband used to be very Gold – very structured, hated surprises. He joked that he enjoyed ‘planned spontaneity’. I planned a surprise party for his 30th birthday before I understood personality types well, and you can imagine how that turned out – I had a stiff neck for days both before and after!

During our journey through life together, we’ve balanced each other out well; he keeps me on track, and I’ve cajoled him into all kinds of crazy adventures that he’s grown accustomed to. (Truth be told, they make the best stories!)

More than that, we’re very good at handling the unexpected and thinking on our feet, which has been a great asset in the past couple of months.

As the world moves forward into the unknown future, things are going to change. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there are many reports of lessening air pollution and wildlife rebounds as a result of decreased human impact.

For the past couple of decades, people have been absorbed in thinking about themselves and the next exciting thing to come along, instead of the long-term effects of materialism and endless self-promo on social media. Life has for too long largely been about the next quick fix.

But that doesn’t help you grow as a person. It doesn’t teach you anything about resilience when a major shift comes along.

It’s time to develop the skills that will carry us through whatever the ‘new normal’ may turn out to be. Everyone in the world has suddenly been ejected right out of their comfort zone, and those with tiny, restricted comfort zones have fared the worst, I think.

What skills are going to serve you well in the future?

Adaptability – it’s critical to get comfortable with change, and to understand that the best laid plans are not always going to work out. It’s a given on adventure travel, and we rather like that sense of not knowing entirely what’s around the corner. One of my favourite mantras is from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Keep calm and don’t panic. Be flexible. View the unexpected as an intriguing fork in the road, not a dead end.

Willingness to learn new things – you may need to learn some new skills for your résumé so that you can be available for types of employment you haven’t done before. When I used to help university students put together their job-hunting packages, I always advised them to develop as broad a skill-base as possible. These days, you never know what may become useful. You’re never too old to learn – you’re only too close-minded if you decide to stop.

Embracing a shift in thinking – there’s always a different way to look at life, something which has fascinated my hubby and I on our travels. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll have had a taste of life in other parts of the world and how much fun it is to explore the differences! In the near future, we may all need new ways to find fulfillment, in how we work, how we play, what really means something to us.

This past weekend, my hubby and I took an impromptu walk along the Welland Canal, which happens to be not too far from where we live. People come from all over the world to see the Canal system, watching the big Laker ships pass through the lock system that raises or lowers them between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. I’ve even spent a day on one of the ships as part of my work. We drive by it a lot but rarely stop because it’s been a part of our lives for decades.

It wasn’t the nicest day – the sky was filled with clouds, tinting the canal waters a steely blue, and rain was threatening, but we were able to get in a nice walk. There were a few people out, carefully distancing. We watched Canada geese parents hiss at walkers who got too close to their fluffy younglings, and I started taking photos for a series I’ve been thinking of doing about the Garden City Skyway that dominates our skyline. We walked below one of the lift bridges and got a closer look at the structure (we’re both construction geeks). I found a solitary buttercup, a flower that used to line every sidewalk when we were kids – we would pick them and hold them under our chins to tint our skin yellow — but for some reason have all but disappeared now.

As raindrops started to fall, we crossed the Canal to a local country diner that’s been a fixture for years here. They were still serving only through a takeout window, so as my hubby waited for our order – a chili cheese dog for me, a Whistle Dog and onion rings for him – I took some photos of the blossoming fruit trees as well.

We took our food treasures back home to eat in warmer surroundings. It was a relaxing, fun afternoon – a very off-the-cuff exploration of our own ‘backyard’. There’s value in small things these days, in things that we thought we were too busy for before. My hubby, who doesn’t actually like walking so much as a pastime (now put a golf fairway under his feet and it’s an entirely different story), remarked that he’d really enjoyed himself. There’s still a whole world out there; we just need to adjust our perspective a bit.

The Skies of Africa – Part 5, Victoria Falls

Our final morning in Serondela was bittersweet. Ahead lay the spectacle of Victoria Falls, one of the greatest natural wonders in the world, but it meant that we had to leave behind the safari staff who had come to feel like family. The night before, one of our fellow travellers remarked that he’d been nervous about visiting Africa before the trip began, and now he had a completely different opinion of the continent. Africans are well aware of how much bad press their home receives, and they are incredibly grateful to be able to show the genuine side of their countries to visitors. I hope that our fellow guests don’t mind my posting this photo, which expresses so clearly the depth of our bond with our Botswanan friends.

Victoria Falls is the result of the Zambezi River tumbling over about a 330-foot-plus drop as it straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Our Botswana safari guides drove us on the main road, edged by farms and women carrying goods on their heads, as far as the Kazungula border post and steered us through Customs.

We sadly said our goodbyes and crossed into Zimbabwe, where we were picked up by staff from Matetsi River Lodge for the approximately 45-minute drive to our home on the banks of the Zambezi River for the next couple of nights.

Matetsi for me was the epitome of a romantic African lodge in the wild. I loved it so much that on a return trip we made a point of staying there again, renewing our acquaintance with Obert, the lodge manager at the time. I say ‘was’ because several years ago & Beyond renovated it into something more sleek and upscale, so sadly you won’t be able to stay at the beautiful place in our photos.

Upon arrival at the Matetsi Reserve, we were dropped off at the entrance, given some refreshing cold drinks and cold wet washcloths to freshen up with, and loaded into safari vehicles for the drive through dense bush to the lodge.

The main building houses an open-air lounge, bar and round table, on a hillside overlooking a terrace very close to the water with a larger dining table and a round barbecue.

Our blue-tinted cabins were tucked away along the river’s edge, each nestled into its own private shrubbery, with a big bedroom and separate bathroom area, joined to each other by a small covered area that led out to a stone deck and a private plunge pool.


The bedroom and bathroom each had their own lockable door to keep out marauding monkeys, and there was even a slingshot handily draped on a hook should we need to scare some off. We never saw any near our cabins, but there was a big monitor lizard that visited several of our lawns, lumbering peaceably through the grass in the late afternoon.

There was also a small pavilion with a gift shop, where you could buy jewellery, mud cloth and clothing. Everything was tucked quietly into the bush, connected by sunny stone pathways which we were allowed to wander during the day, but when dusk fell we were escorted by lodge staff – we were in the midst of Matetsi’s large private game reserve, after all.

After lunch, we were taken into the town of Victoria Falls for the main event. Vic Falls town bustles with travellers out for adventure. There are a wide variety of accommodations for most price points sprinkled throughout the town and sprawled discreetly along the Zambezi. The Falls sit within two protected parks, one in Zimbabwe and one in Zambia, so you can see the Falls in all their glory in pristine wilderness, unlike Niagara Falls which slinks its way past hotels, casinos and tour buses.

Inside the visitor centre, we were given rain ponchos and an orientation to the river and falls. Then we were led along a path that brings you to the statue of David Livingstone, the official discoverer of the Falls, even though the native peoples had been living in the area for years, and even other Europeans had been there previously. It was the romantic figure of the Scottish missionary and explorer – who named the Falls after his queen and became really famous after being lost in Africa for several years and then found by Henry Morton Stanley, an intrepid American reporter – who captured the public imagination and got the credit.

Even at the statue, we couldn’t hear much, and I was truly wondering how impressed I was actually going to be – until we caught our first sight of Devil’s Cataract and heard the deafening roar of 3 million gallons of water churning over the precipice every second! I stopped dead and stood there with my mouth open. I’d never seen anything like this!

It was April, the tail end of the rainy season, and the Zambezi was in full flow.

The Lozi tribe had given the Falls the name Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders, and so it did!

As it flung itself over the Falls and crashed into the bottom of the gorge, it created multiple rainbows, and a mist that billowed over 1,000 feet into the air, making nearby tall palm trees look like little ants. The mist falls as dense rain and creates a strip of tropical jungle in the midst of a dry African savannah. It can be seen from over ten miles away. Even with ponchos we all got soaked to the skin, which wasn’t unwelcome in the hot sun.  

Hubby and me, in our intrepid Tilley hats at the Falls

Exploration on the Zimbabwean side takes a while, as there’s a long trail to see the different gorges and very close to the bridge between the two countries that carries the rail line built by Cecil Rhodes, who made his fortune in the diamond fields of South Africa before stripping Rhodesia (the former name of Zimbabwe) of much of its resources and endowing Oxford University with its most famous scholarship.

One of Rhodes’ dreams was to build a railway from the Cape of South Africa to Cairo in Egypt – commemorated on this flag post on the ground of the elegant colonial-era Victoria Falls Hotel.

The busy bridge has lanes for foot traffic, motor vehicles and rail. if you don’t mind heights, the walk across has great views of the Zambezi and all the human life around it.

Back at the lodge we all took full advantage of the full bathrooms – while hot bucket showers in the bush are fun, there’s nothing like being able to take your time in a proper shower or a hot bath.

Evenings at the lodge start near the bar, where an assortment of liquors wait to be mixed into whatever drink you like. Visitors usually welcome the opportunity to use blow-dryers and put some nicer clothes on – nothing overly fancy, but a little up from bush garb. We all chuckled at our transformation.

Delicious meals were cooked on the big round grill and served with linens and delicious wines. It was so dark that we couldn’t see much beyond the terrace, but the torches kept any animals away. Then it was off to our wonderful netting-draped beds for a well-earned deep sleep.

Breakfast overlooking the Zambezi was a special experience, with cereals, juices and fresh fruit in the cooler morning air while we watched the water lazily flow by before it gathered speed 25 miles away.

Victoria Falls is one of the adventure capitals of Africa and of the world. If you’re a bungee-jumper, it has to be on your bucket list. We elected to take a helicopter flight over the Falls and surrounding area, which allows you to see the deep gorge that the river has carved through the landscape over millions of years, and to see the Falls in their mist-filled entirety – although if you go in low-water season around October or November they will look much different.

The bungee-jump station straddles the bridge at the exact point where Zimbabwe and Zambia meet – apparently so that if any jumper is injured, neither country will have to take responsibility. Two of our fellow travellers decided to do the jump, and as the rest of us stood on the bridge looking over the dizzying long drop to the raging waters below while they got rigged for the jump, most of us thought they were insane!

At that time of year the rapids were so strong, up to Category 6, that white water rafting was cancelled. The zip lines were open, but some people chose to go shopping while a few of us decided that golf in Africa was not to be missed.

At the time, the economy in Zimbabwe was still quite depressed – we were able to buy souvenir money in completely devalued trillion-dollar denominations for a couple of US dollars – so the golf course at the elegant Elephant Hills lodge wasn’t getting used much.

We were given the services of two caddies, but we had to walk nine holes in 90oF heat, with no beverages anywhere out on the course. We saw a few animals – herds of impala, and I had the unique experience of waiting to tee off while a family of warthogs had a leisurely meal – and the water hazards were not to be messed with.

By the time we finished I was suffering from a pretty good case of heat exhaustion. I don’t remember much of the bus ride back to Matetsi, but we arrived back at the lodge to find that the staff had prepared candle-lit and flower-strewn bubble baths for us! I made it through dinner and then crashed in bed for 14 hours.

Victoria Falls has the main airport in the area to catch flights home via Johannesburg, but there’s also an airport in the town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of the Falls. Viewing the Falls on that side is a more intimate experience, as you can sit on a boulder right alongside the edge, and a little further along there’s a side area that’s shallow enough to wade in – a favourite activity of the local residents on a hot day. There’s a decent museum in Livingstone, and plenty of shops to replenish camera supplies and buy crafts.

On our first safari there, we only had one night at Matetsi, and elected to stay on the Zambian side for a couple of nights to be able to do more activities.

The Zambezi Sun lodge is a pretty adobe-pink mid-range hotel set inside the national park, so zebras frequently wander through the grounds and visitors are advised to keep their doors and patio windows shut and locked at all times or the monkeys will invade and destroy everything you own as well as the room you’re staying in. From the hotel it’s a short walk over to the Falls, so near that you can always see the spray shooting over the rooftops.

We did our helicopter ride on the Zambian side. The flight centre was 11 miles from the Falls and the mist was clearly visible from there.

We also took a sunset cruise on a boat named the African Queen – for anyone who’s a fan of classic movies, that was an irresistible choice. Everyone goes on a cruise to watch the sunset over the Zambezi, but it’s a lovely peaceful ride with a glorious sunset at the climax.

And so, at some point it becomes heart-breakingly necessary to leave Africa, to me the most magical continent on our planet. We had amazing photos and souvenirs to bring home – an Angolan harvest mask we bought at a gallery at an upscale hotel in Zambia, a hunting set from Botswana, baskets and mud cloths and handmade copper bangles – but we’d found a second home 8200 miles away that we didn’t want to leave.

The hunting set in the cowhide bag, all baskets, the carved wood box and the long red and white necklace are all from Botswana. The beaded collar necklace is from the Samburu tribe in Kenya. All of these were bargained for and purchased on our travels in those countries.

In this blog I’ve only managed to skim the surface of our amazing journeys. A trip to Africa, if done authentically and immersively, changes your life.

Before we’d left the first time, at a party a family friend named Leo, who was a class-A pot-stirrer, decided to needle me about why we would want to undertake hours of flying, and then all the dust and heat and discomfort of being there live, when we could just watch all about Africa on television from the easy comfort of home. I just smiled and said that places were meant to be experienced live, that nothing on television could ever capture the feeling of being there in person.

A few weeks after we returned, we put together a photo presentation with dinner for much of the same group of people. Leo was surprisingly silent through the entire two hours of photos and videos – no snarky repartee, not even a smile. As our guests were stretching their legs and getting ready to leave, I was standing by the front staircase chatting when he came towards me. Uh oh, I thought, what is he up to – has he saved all his gibes for last?

He stood solemnly in front of me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Thank you. That was amazing! Now I understand why you wanted to go there in person.” Even through just the lens of my camera and our stories, we’d managed to share our transcendent experience with other people.

When this pandemic is over and the opportunity to travel is available again, if you love our planet at all you must go to Africa – cradle of civilization and so beautiful you’ll never forget it. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All I wanted to do was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” I know exactly what he meant.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this lengthier look at going on safari and that it’s transported you for a little while through the magic of the mind’s eye. If you would like to ask me any questions about these places and about how to put together a good safari, please post in the comments or email me directly at liontailmagic@gmail.com.

Tsamayang sentle.