The Skies of Africa, Part 1: Nxabega

How is everyone doing? Interesting times, and it can take some determination to block out most of the media frenzy so that it doesn’t rub off on you. I love this article by Smarter Travel, Tips from Italians on Handling the Lockdown with Grace and Style — lots of things that made me smile.

I’m always up for a little escapism when I’m stressed, and a recent email from one of the safari companies we’ve travelled with gave me the idea for this extended blog post.

Going to the continent of Africa is a transcendent experience – a visitor will come back changed. It’s believed that Africa affects us so deeply because, going back hundreds of thousands of years, it’s where all of us – our species as human beings – originated. There’s certainly a feeling of great age there.

My hubby and I have been very fortunate to have been to Africa several times, so over several weeks I’m going to take you on a virtual journey to beautiful Botswana in southern Africa.

These are long reads, so get comfy.

First, prepare yourself some tea or coffee – preferably served in a metal cup, stainless steel or speckle ware, such as you might use on a camping adventure – and a plate of cookies (any kind will do, but feel free to have an exotic flavour if you like). If you need to eat gluten-free food, on one of the safaris the camp chef made us delightful gluten-free corn muffins. If you can’t have caffeine, get yourself some Rooibos tea, a hearty herbal tea that we enjoyed on our first safari.

Next, if you have an old-fashioned oil or kerosene lamp, light that up for atmosphere, and imagine yourself in the orange and lavender African dusk as we journey together.

Getting to Botswana is an adventure in itself. We flew from Canada to London, England, then 11 hours to Johannesburg, South Africa, then a smaller jet to Maun in Botswana, where our safari guides met us and loaded our baggage onto small bush planes with propellers. There’s not much room on the bush planes, so your luggage must be compact, soft-sided and lightweight. My hubby bought a duffle bag for the purpose, but I found a great backpack-style bag with lots of pockets and a small set of wheels. When I’m getting up at the crack of dawn deep in the African bush and trying to dress myself in near-darkness, I want to be able to locate the various parts of my outfit!

As we chugged along just 1,000 feet above the Okavango Delta, Botswana’s famous wetland and the location of our first bush camp, we could see small bits of island dotting the vast shallow floodplain. Our guides pointed out channels made through the swampy waters between some of the islands, made by elephants and hippos as they wade through and graze on the water plants.

The Delta is created by waters from the Okavango River, which, instead of emptying into the ocean, dumps itself into the northern part of the Kalahari Desert, creating one of the largest wetlands in the world. The deep blue waters are always there, although they swell and shrink from one rainy season to the next, so the Delta is the permanent home for all kinds of wildlife. If you’re a birder, it’s an absolute paradise!

The flight to our first bush camp lasted about half an hour, and then we were coming in for a landing on a tiny strip of sand in the middle of nowhere – the bush airstrip used by several camps and lodges. Our baggage was transferred into a couple of waiting open-sided safari trucks, into which we all piled in for the roughly 90-minute ride through the bush to our camp.

The first thing you notice in the Delta is the salty, pungent scent of wild sage in the warm air. The landscape is filled with sage bushes, tall and short palm trees, and high slender termite mounds studding the deep sandy  Kalahari base. The mounds are the genesis of the islands themselves, as termites start gluing together soil above the waters, and seeds germinate on the fertile exterior.

The few roads wind through the Delta, skirting trees, tall mounds and shrubbery – they’re meant to be minimally invasive – and we rode along with all of our senses engaged as the trucks bounced along the deep sandy surfaces, drawing our breaths in as we began to see wildlife! Your first sighting in Africa is typically a herd of impalas, the antelopes with the buff coats, pretty ears and striped rumps. These antelopes are so successful a species that, despite being the favourite prey of the big cats, they can be found on much of the continent. The first time we went, we were delighted to see them all, until after a few days and many sightings later, someone would say excitedly, “Look, over there, I see some…oh, it’s just more impalas.”

Safaris through the wettest part of the Delta often involve crossing from one island to the next. Sometimes there are log bridges, sometimes your safari truck will just wade directly through the waters.

The vehicles are specially designed with exhaust pipes that snorkel upward above the hood to keep them dry. It can feel a bit like the parting of the Red Sea – on one game drive I was sitting up front next to our guide and had to quickly raise my feet above the water that came rushing into my seating area (thankfully not as high as my seat itself).

After going on safari, driving back home isn’t nearly as much fun!

When we finally arrived at our bush camp in the Nxabega section of the Delta, the camp staff all came over to welcome us, show us to our assigned tents, and lead us gratefully to a delicious lunch. Here the camp is set up overlooking the permanent floodplain in the Delta, set more-or-less safely back from the water (one morning the meal table had to be hastily moved).

The tents are a wonderful combination of comfort and exposure to nature. On our first trip to Botswana we were in 9′ x 9′ dome tents with just our 2 comfortable cots, but the same safari two years later featured three-part tents with a large sleeping section, a middle section open to the sky so that a canvas bucket could be hung overhead for our showers along with a table with a metal sink and water pitcher, and an enclosed toilet section with a flushable toilet connected to a canvas cistern outside at the rear.

After lunch and a bathroom break, we had a chance to explore the camp and settle in for the next two days.

We had embarked on what’s called a mobile camping safari, spending two nights in each of four camps in different habitats in Botswana.

Safaris typically follow a format created by the earliest commercial safaris:

  • Rising at dawn for a full or continental breakfast and then heading out on a morning game drive in the cool of the day when the animals wake up and are active
  • Mid-morning break for tea/coffee and biscuits in the bush
  • Return to the camp around lunchtime. The day has usually gotten hot by this point, so the animals are often hiding in the shade, so it’s an opportune time to enjoy lunch and relax in the camp, perhaps writing in your journal or playing cards with a gin and tonic.
  • Afternoon tea, a holdover from the early British days of safari, followed by
  • A late afternoon game drive when the temperature is dropping again and predators are often out on the hunt
  • Return to camp at dusk for showers and dinner around the campfire.

The camp chefs are expert at creating some amazing meals over a wood fire – even cakes are possible. Wine and beer are generally included on safari, while hard liquors can be arranged. Some passengers will bring their own supply; Johannesburg airport won’t sell liquor to non-nationals, but Maun has a “bottle store” (aka liquor store) and you can arrange with your guide to make a quick excursion when you land.

After dinner we sat around the table with our guides, chatting, listening to the tinkling sounds of tree frogs and fruit bats all around us, watching the sky turn indigo and purple, then black, and all the stars coming out to twinkle overhead.

The campfire stayed lit all night, and lanterns were hanging outside our tent flap, to keep the animals away (mostly). After a busy day in the fresh African air, bedtimes are generally early and well-earned.

Our first night as we lay in the tent, just some canvas and mesh separating us from the African wild, listening to all the night noises, we experienced such a thrill of excitement at being so immersed in that legendary continent.

With a permanent source of water, the Okavango Delta is a treasure-house of a wide variety of both land and water animals and birds. We saw elephant herds with babies, long-necked giraffe grazing in the tops of the thorn trees, troops of Chacma baboons rooting through the long grasses, zebra and tsesebe well-camouflaged in the shadows, saddle-billed storks…and lions.

The first sighting of a lion in the wild is sensational. We spotted this female lounging in the shade just a few feet off the road, watching us with her great, beautiful golden eyes. The animals seemed surprisingly relaxed around safari vehicles, but it’s essential to keep quiet and seated, especially around the big cats. Our guide told us that the animals see the vehicle and all its occupants as one big ‘animal’, but if the guests start making too much noise and moving around, the lions and leopards will recognize that there are several ‘prey’ inside and will attack.

This is the critical part of safety on safari: always do what your trained and experienced guide tells you to do. It will keep you alive – not that safaris are overly dangerous, but you can get yourself into trouble if you don’t follow the rules.

The guides are extremely knowledgeable about all the animals and how safely they can be approached, where the different animals like to hang out, how to read tracks in the sand and follow other clues (like a large concentration of vultures watching from a tree) to where a cat has just made a kill and is feeding.

One unique adventure in the Delta is a ride in a traditional canoe, called a mokoro. These canoes were the sole means of transport through the vast delta waterways for a long time. All of the guides on our safari were native to the area and had grown up poling a mokoro around the waters. In the cool morning air they drove us over to the muddy boarding area a short drive from our camp and helped us step carefully into the canoes. As they poled us out into the shallow floodplain, we glided silently and softly among the water grasses and sunlit lilies, slowing down to look at painted frogs, stick insects and exotic spiders on the stems of reeds, or watching monkeys cavort in distant palm trees.

For our morning tea break, our guides pulled into a small scrubby island and set up a table with thermoses and tins of cookies. Across the water, a big bull elephant waded up to another island and noisily tore up great chunks of grasses for his own breakfast.

There’s a section of the floodplain that’s deep enough to host hippos and crocodiles, and for that part we were taken out in a motorboat through avenues of papyrus and night lilies to watch the sun set in amber serenity over the still evening waters.

On our final morning in Nxabega, enroute to the little sandy airstrip to fly to our next camp, our guides spotted a lion hunt in progress and we stopped to watch.

It was an absolutely brilliant piece of strategy. A mother lioness (who happened to be collared as part of a wildlife study) prowled through the tall buff grasses, slowly but inexorably driving a young warthog toward the dirt mound that her daughter was perched on ready to pounce. When the warthog was close enough, in a flash the younger lioness had leapt and captured it. Then came the hardest part of the experience, hearing the heartrending cries of the little warthog, its own mother watching helplessly from a distance. This was nature in its most primal form, the cycle of life as one creature gave up its life to feed another – easy to recognize but difficult to witness.

After that piece of high drama in the grasses, we moved on to the airstrip to continue our adventure in a drier section of the Delta, the beautiful Khwai reserve in Moremi, on the other side of the floodplain.

Join me in two weeks for Part 2: Khwai. Next week we’ll embrace the playfulness of April Fool’s Day and look at the whimsy of board games, another great way to pass some of the time we currently have on our hands.

In the meantime, the excellent safari company that we used, &Beyond, has posted a playlist of African music that you can download from a selection of online music apps.

If you’d like to make an authentic African soup, here’s one of my favourite recipes, which I believe I got from an issue of Gourmet magazine many years ago (although I’m not positive). It’s quite easy to make in a couple of hours, and makes a good-sized pot of hearty, delicious soup that also freezes well. An important note: include all the fresh ingredients as stated (both colours of peppers, fresh garlic, etc.), or the soup will not taste as good. You can substitute water and some raw chicken thighs for 4 cups of the broth and the cooked chicken at the same time as the canned tomatoes – I prefer to do it that way instead of adding cooked chicken at the end. I also add extra chili flakes for a little more heat. If you’re vegetarian you could try substituting sweet potato for the chicken – I’ve never tried it that way but I think that might be an interesting flavour combo.

African Peanut Chicken Soup

serves 8 to 10

  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1 lg red pepper & 1 lg green pepper, each seeded and chopped into approx. ¾” chunks
  • 3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tbsp peanut or canola oil
  • 28-oz can chopped tomatoes with juice
  • 8 cups chicken broth
  • ¼  tsp. dried hot red pepper flakes, or to taste 
  • ¼  tsp black pepper
  • ½  cup long-grain rice, uncooked
  • 1½  cups diced cooked chicken
  • 2/3 cup creamy peanut butter

In heavy pot cook the onions, peppers and garlic in the oil over moderate heat, stirring, until the onions just begin to brown; add the tomatoes with the juice, the broth, red pepper flakes, and black pepper, and simmer the soup, covered, for 1 hour.

Add the rice and the chicken and simmer the soup for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the rice is tender. Add the peanut butter, stirring until the soup is smooth. Serve hot with biscuits, rolls or fresh bread. This soup can be doubled or tripled and also freezes well.

A bit of the green

Not a drop of Irish in me, but I’ve always looked forward to St. Patrick’s Day as a harbinger of spring and some much needed green in our northern climate.

I always thought it would be great fun to spend the holiday in Ireland, where it’s part of a five-day festival that showcases Irish culture and food. This year, though, the annual parade in Dublin has been cancelled as part of a world-wide effort to curtail large-scale gatherings that could potentially spread the coronavirus. I swear the news is giving me an ulcer!

It’s so important during these uncertain times to find ways to maintain your sanity. Take a break from the media as often as you can, and celebrate life as much as you can. Since we’re all being encouraged to stay close to home, take a little virtual trip to Ireland with my hubby and I, who were just there last fall.

Ireland 2019 – a bit more adventure than we expected!

We flew Aer Lingus, who was having a great flight sale, and arrived in Dublin at 5:30am. The cab ride to our hotel, the Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge, was quick and scenic. The hotel is in a fantastic old building on a quiet piece of property a little away from the city centre but within easy reach via public transport..

Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge

Our room was, of course, not ready at that early hour, but the Front Desk stored our baggage and we walked down the sweeping lobby staircase to have some breakfast.

The hotel has a nice breakfast buffet, and our first surprise in Ireland was that all menus label each food offering as to what allergens the dish contains. For anyone, like myself, who has multiple food allergies/sensitivities, that’s a real boon. The down-side, though, is that more than half the food in the buffet contained items I can’t eat, which made meals in Dublin quite a problem for me, and I’d already stepped off the airplane with a migraine from the food on the flight.

I did manage a nice breakfast anyway, and our next, more pleasant, surprise was that the Irish like their tea ‘sturdy’! When I checked our teapot to see how much was left, I was astonished to see three tea bags in it – a far cry from the generally insipid tea served in North American restaurants.

We spent a couple of great days in Dublin, enjoying the architecture, pubs and beautiful green spaces. Dublinia, the Viking museum, was fascinating, as was the interior of Christ Church cathedral, especially the rock-walled undercroft with its store of treasures.

Christchurch Cathedral undercroft

Neither hubby or I are fond of crowds, so we enjoyed a brief excursion to the famous Temple Bar district, where I found an excellent meal of chicken breasts with a tomato, pepper and olive sauce followed by a delicious lemon meringue parfait.

Strolling the streets of the Temple Bar district

Dublin counts many famous writers among its residents, and has decided to celebrate its more goth heritage with a new attraction called Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula. It’s basically an illusionist show that’s very well done and very entertaining, and the building also features a lot of memorabilia from the author’s life as well as his legendary novel and the movies it inspired.

The easiest way to get around Dublin is to buy a pass for the hop-on, hop-off buses. If the weather is mild enough, sit on the open top deck and enjoy your driver’s entertaining commentary, get a bird’s-eye view of more wonderful architecture, and wave at the popular Viking-themed buses that go buy frequently.

Leaving Dublin, we returned to the airport and picked up our rental vehicle. We’d chosen to drive ourselves around, just as we’ve done in a number of other countries around the world, so that we could visit some sights not on the standard group-tour itineraries. A word to the wise about this: Irish roads are much narrower than ours, and hemmed on both sides by things like stone walls and hedgerows, with essentially no shoulder to speak of. Some of the roads we travelled on are purportedly 2-lane but really just a lane-and-a-half, with a few pull-over spots periodically so that oncoming traffic can pass safely. Self-driving in Ireland is NOT for the anxious driver.

Our first stop on the road was the Neolithic tomb at Newgrange. The site is accessed by shuttle bus from the visitor centre several miles away. The skies had opened up, so we sheltered as much as possible while we waited for the next shuttle, warming up with a bit to eat and some hot tea. The site is fascinating, surrounded by its own small stone henge. The entrance and passageway to the interior chamber are low and narrow, but the chamber is the prize at the end of the discomfort. Photography isn’t allowed, but the chamber consists of a central area under an incredible cantilevered stone roof – a masterpiece of engineering 5,000 years ago –  with three side chambers, one of which contains a bowl-shaped rock, and some mysterious swirled designs cut into the walls. Archeologists speculate that Newgrange was a burial site, but they still don’t know for sure.

I managed a few exterior photos while trying to keep my camera sheltered under my rain poncho, which the driving rain and wind quickly destroyed.

From there, rather wet, we went on to the Hill of Tara, where my hubby refused to get out of the car. I was determined, though, to see the ancient seat of Irish kings, so I braved the ongoing rain and wind. There didn’t seem to be anyone at the visitor centre, but the gate was unlocked, so I trudged up a little dirt path to a dismal-looking little grey church with a tiny cemetery. There was another gate at the edge of the trees at the churchyard perimeter, also unlocked, so I ventured onward. As soon as I stepped onto the grassy field beyond the trees, a cloud of white-beaked rooks rose from the tree branches and swirled raucously above my head. I felt like I was crossing the threshold to the underworld.

Rooks apparently guarding the threshold to the mystical Hill of Tara

I continued onward, up and down slippery grass slopes, until I couldn’t go any further for fear of injuring myself in the mud (did I mention that I broke one of my toes less than two weeks before we started the trip!). Also, I was worried that my hubby might be getting somewhat anxious because he’d lost sight of me as soon as I got to the church – and he was – so I headed back, passing another intrepid couple who’d also decided to battle the elements. The rooks went bananas again as I returned to the churchyard; I may have flipped them off in response.

Now truly sodden, we made our way to our overnight stop, the small town of Carnbeg, where we stripped off our wet clothes and had hot showers. My soggy socks had been completely destroyed and went in the trash. The hotel was cozy enough and had a decent gastropub on site, so we stayed in and warmed up over dinner.

The next morning we’d missed breakfast, but the helpful woman behind the Front Desk gave us a suggestion on where to eat, which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things on the entire trip!

The garden shop at Standfield, on the fringes of Carnbeg, may be hard to find (we found the signage in Ireland to be as mystical as the country’s ancient history), but it’s worth the effort for the wonderful breakfasts they also serve in an extension filled with a whimsical assortment of old chairs and tables and crockery. The lush oatmeal, studded with fruit and berries, and served with tea and craggy country toast, was perfect for a cool fall morning.

Then it was on to Belfast, the legendary and troubled city which has only been safe to visit for the past couple of decades. Belfast is famous for two things: the Troubles, which dominated world news for three decades in the latter part of the 20th century, and as the city where the tragic RMS Titanic was built and launched.

As you may have already read in this blog, I am a big ‘fan’ of the Titanic story, so the opportunity to visit the slipyard and museum was a big bucket-list item for me. We decided to splurge a bit and stay right across the street from both at the wonderful Titanic hotel.

The Titanic Hotel is designed to capture the nautical ambience of the legendary ship
Our elegantly nautical room at the Titanic Hotel

That evening we booked a Black Cab tour of the sites of The Troubles. Visitors can explore the sites on their own, but we wanted an authentic and personal tour to help us understand what went on and how things became so tragically extreme, and the Black Cab tours are the best way to do that..

There are poignant reminders of the many lives lost, both young and old.

Belfast feels calm and peaceful, but you can sense the deep currents running underneath the surface and how fragile the current peace is even while it’s so desperately desired. The people have expressed their feelings in their wall art, and some of the art encourages young people today to avoid getting ensnared by old animosities, to instead create better futures than their predecessors.

The next day was devoted entirely to the Titanic story, from the excellent museum build in the shape of the a ship’s bow…

…to the only remaining ship’s tender for the Titanic, used in the port of Cherbourg that was too shallow to allow the massive liner to actually dock and necessitating transfer of the passengers and luggage out to the ship by small boat.

Belfast is a warm, pretty city to visit, with incredible history — I hope that the peace holds and that many more people will be able to explore its charms. Can I just take a moment to mention the weird and extremely tasteless proliferation of “Car Bomb” cakes I’ve been seeing on Pinterest under “Irish Food”? Having been to Belfast and feeling its deep wounds, I can’t imagine anyone from Northern Ireland who would endorse such an appallingly-named dessert.

From Belfast we headed north to the Giant’s Causeway as Hurricane Lorenzo began to make landfall. We managed to walk around a fair bit of the site before the rain hit.

With the arrival of the rain, we decided to warm up with a tour and tasting at Bushmills Distillery.

We overnighted in Portrush at a delightful B&B, venturing out in the rain for dinner at a local restaurant with one of the most delectable dessert cases we’ve ever seen!

The next morning it was time for a quick look at Royal Portrush golf course, venue for last summer’s British Open Golf Tournament, the first time it was held in Northern Ireland in something like 50 years. Then we cut across the country toward the west coast, unavoidably missing some of the reputedly spectacular north coast scenery but enjoying the road scenery nonetheless, with a stop at a roadside food truck in the middle of nowhere for a fabulous cinnamon bun and coffee!

We saw a lot of things, far too many to illustrate here, and enjoyed the incredible warmth and generosity of the Irish people throughout. A few highlights:

Our favourite small town, Donegal
Driving along all the small, winding roads of Connemara
Kylemore Abbey is stunning…
…but even more magical is the Abbey’s setting on the lake…
…and the walled Victorian Garden
Enigmatic Poulnabrone Dolmen, an ancient portal tomb over 5,000 years old
The magnificent Cliffs of Moher, rising out of the mist and pounding waves
Lovely Killarney National Park
Ross Castle, stronghold of the O’Donoghue Clan
The ruined Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel, where St. Patrick converted the King of Munster to Christianity in the 5th century
A labyrinth at Glendalough
The magnificent gardens at Powerscourt Estate
Traditional Irish Stew in a pub

I hope that this little taste of Ireland has given you some ambience for your own celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and all the wonderful things our world still has to offer, even though a lot is on hold for now as we stay safe and wait things out. All things pass, and we’ll weather this just as we always have, with grace, humour and perseverance. Next posting: some great ways to snuggle up in your home and make the best of things! Much love and best wishes to everyone around the world.
Erica

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.

A year of light

A new year, and a new decade. Let’s hope that the world becomes a better place — lately it’s been feeling like we take two steps back for every step forward.

New beginnings are always hopeful things. I prefer to be optimistic, and so, while everyone worries about climate change, I’d like to share this charming article with you about sheep in Scotland who have been consuming more seaweed and are belching less methane as a result. It’s a start 🙂

With the growing trend of ‘flight shaming’, here’s a cogent look at approaching reducing carbon emissions in a less confrontational way. I believe travel is a powerful force for understanding and peace, and would argue that there are millions of people around the world who depend on the travel industry to make ends meet. While a lot of criticism has been levelled at travellers, there are industries that have been degrading our environment for decades and need to be examined. Clear-cutting, mining and monoculture farms in the Amazon and other jungle regions have caused an enormous amount of damage, for example.

However, I do love train travel and road trips. We were in Tennessee for the holidays, visiting a cousin, and if you’re looking for a place to spend your holidays in 2020, you might want to consider the Nashville area. We attended two light displays:

  • GLOW Nashville at First Horizon Park, a magical light display with skating rink, tubing slides, shops, and more, and
  • Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood Estate, where the magnificent Cheekwood Mansion is decorated to the hilt, and after dark the grounds turn into a holiday wonderland.
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood

I can also recommend a great Mexican restaurant in Nashville, Uncle Julio’s, where we could have made a meal just of the scrumptious queso appetizer, and we all enjoyed our entrees — I had a fantastic salad with smoky grilled shrimp.

We also ordered a chocolate pinata for my hubby’s birthday. It comes out on a big tray with a wooden baton for cracking it. Our excellent waitress recommended hitting it from the top so that all the goodies inside — fresh strawberries, churros and chocolate empanadas — land gracefully on the tray (instead of spraying sideways onto the hitter’s lap). It was great fun and very delicious. Stop in if you’re in the area!

Personally I don’t like making formal resolutions, but for 2020 let’s all incorporate dreams, imagination, serenity and kindness into our lives. That’s a good start too.

Chills and things that go bump in the night – Live!

Calling all Halloween aficionados: there are all kinds of places that are happy to creep you out around the world.

I really got into this kind of travel a few years ago when I discovered that Sleepy Hollow is a real place! The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a classic eerie tale by Washington Irving, has always been my favourite Halloween-season story ever since watching Disney’s delightful animated version called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Washington Irving was inspired by a real ghost story in what was then the wilds of Tarry Town, New York, along the Hudson River, where Irving had spent some of his youth.

Irving became arguably the most famous American writer of his day. He was a multi-talented man — architect (he built his own house, Sunnyside), diplomat for the American government, mentor to many other contemporary writers. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which you can tour, and his memory is so revered in that area that his headstone gets rubbed constantly by visitors and has had to be replaced more than once.

Montgomery Place Estate, Hudson River Valley

The Hudson River Valley was the summer recreation spot for the wealthy of New York City, as well as a hub of the American Revolutionary War and the inspiration for the Hudson River School of painters, so there’s a lot of history to be visited. The entire area has also embraced Irving’s gothic legacy and becomes a Halloween-themed playground every autumn. One of our favourite places is the Headless Horseman theme attraction, rated one of the best in the U.S. There’s a 20-minute hayride through monster-filled woods, a dark and creepy corn maze, several haunted houses, several shops full of Halloween treasures (the first time we went, my hubby took one look at the shops, parked himself on a hay bale and gestured for me to go and knock myself out), cafes, magicians, music, stilt walkers — this place is truly amazing!

Of course, Disney always does a bang-up job of Halloween. We particularly liked Halloween at Disneyland in California. It’s not nearly as big as Disney World in Florida — if you stay at one of the onsite hotels at Disneyland, you walk out the door into essentially a giant street party that extends into the two parks, plus you get to dress up in costume and enjoy adult trick-or-treating, photo ops with your favourite villain, dance parties and all the rides.

However, last fall we did the Howl-O-Scream evening at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg Virginia, and I liked it even better. During the day you can see all the wonderful spooky detail throughout the park…

… but as dusk starts to fall, fog begins to creep through the air, and the park turns into something delightfully eerie.

Each zone of the park has its own creatures, from the medieval French version of creepy clowns,

to Jack the Ripper in England, who held a wicked knife to my throat, and responded, “Possibly” in a charming British accent when I asked him if I was going to survive my photo op.

Giant menacing pumpkins oversee shadowed cemeteries,

and walkways become murky trails into the unknown.

Howl-O-Scream is a wonderful combination of fun for kids and eerieness for adults, and there’s no extra admission for the event — you enter any time with your day ticket and you’re good to stay as long as you want.

For all of us Halloween enthusiasts, there are many places, both in North America and abroad, to enjoy some pretend terrors. Watch for details about a new spooky adventure in Ireland next week!

We are sorry…

Waiting for a flight, Heathrow

You’ve probably seen the many headlines. With those words, 144-year old travel company Thomas Cook announced abruptly on Sunday that it was closed for business, leaving about 600,000 travellers around the world in the lurch and a lot of employees suddenly looking for work, including airline pilots.

How could such a thing happen to the most veteran travel company in the business? Rumours of sky-high executive salaries are rife, and a gigantic reality show will play out over the next while as investigations get underway and some dirty secrets likely see the light of day.

Along with the vast personal and economic repercussions, it’s a sad time in the travel industry as we watch this once-great company die. Thomas Cook, the founder, led his first escorted tour in 1841 — about 500 temperance campaigners, if you can believe it, to a rally. He continued organizing a variety of tours around the British Isles, and within four years was taking people to Europe.

1922 Thos Cook poster, By 90 years old advert, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32011543

He officially opened shop on Fleet Street in London in 1865 and began making connections abroad that allowed him to, with his son as a partner, form the first commercial touring company. He made tours to exotic lands, like Egypt, accessible to the masses.

In our early days of travel, it was one of our pre-trip rituals to buy some Thomas Cook travellers’ cheques, until better forms of travel money came along.

It’s my feeling that in a situation like this, the travellers already abroad should be taken care of before any other legalities, but until/if that ever happens, here are two things you should always do to prepare for overseas emergencies:

  1. Buy travel insurance, both for trip cancellation and possible medical needs. We were all set to go to Mexico with friends in November a number of years ago, when a hurricane swept through the Gulf in September and took a number of resorts with it, including the one we were booked at. Afterward the clean-up and repairs, the resort was supposed to reopen the day we were due to arrive, but we had our suspicions about how good the facilities were going to be (having seen first-hand how quickly things often got done in the Caribbean back at the time), so we cancelled and in short order got our money back with no difficulties.
  2. Make sure there’s room on your credit card for emergency expenses. Many of the travellers in the current crisis have suddenly found themselves being charged by their hotels just to avoid getting kicked out — although, frankly, if a hotel I was staying at didn’t handle the situation with due tact and consideration, I’d be giving it a very bad review.

In all cases, don’t panic. Contact your travel agent for assistance — they will likely already be aware of your situation and be putting plans into place. You can also check in with your country’s local embassy (find information for Canadians here).

Livingstone airport, Zimbabwe

Beyond that, keep yourself comfortable and safe while you wait to return home. I was leading a trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe when the volcano in Iceland erupted in 2010. We were able to complete our safari as planned (and had a fabulous time), but as we were getting ready to leave Livingstone in Zimbabwe for our flight to Johannesburg on the first leg to return home, we heard that the damn volcano had gone off again and we might not be able to get past South Africa for a few days. My travellers were getting nervous, but I told them, “Look, if we’re stuck in Jo’burg for a night or two, I know a really nice hotel attached to a mall with great shops and restaurants — we’ll just remain comfortable there until we can fly again.”

As it turned out, the volcanic plume drifted eastward out of our flight path and we were able to make it home with little trouble.

So how can you avoid a travel problem like this Thomas Cook fiasco? You can’t, sadly — one of the most established names in the business tanked unexpectedly, at least to the rest of the world. Where there warning signs before that? Apparently not where most of us could see them. The best you can do is, like the old Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared. Don’t let something like this put you off travel — it should always be a great adventure!