Signs Part 3 — Poignant reminders

Taking a mental health break during pandemic lockdown in March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos by me and all rights reserved.

Blossom time in Niagara

This week we’re celebrating blossom time in the Niagara region, which is Nature’s sign that spring has truly arrived.

Every May fruit trees all over our farmlands cover themselves in gorgeous flowers. The blossoms don’t last long, and the timing is tricky if you want to see them — like fall colours, it’s all dependent on the weather. This year, with plenty of mild weather, sunshine and rain showers, the blossoms have arrived right on cue, and I thought I’d share them with everyone who can’t come and see them in person during the continuation of the pandemic.

Our sublime May light makes the blossoms look almost incandescent — rows of glowing colours in orchards, lining our parks, and dotting our city streets.

In the photo below, cherry trees line the fringes of a historic site called McFarland House, built in 1800, and the thick showers of pink blossoms contrast strikingly with nearby red maples also flaunting their best spring outfits.

The resplendent clusters of pink flowers pop against the trees’ craggy grey-green bark.

I believe these are Japanese flowering cherries; here’s a closeup of the blossoms and new leaves for anyone who might have a better idea than I do.

It’s not just fruit trees that are livening up our landscapes; here at Queenston Heights in Niagara Falls, vibrant tulips are showing off their best colours. This historic site, which commemorates the first major battle in the War of 1812, is also the southern terminus of the Bruce Trail, the famous hiking trail that runs for 900km (about 560 mi) from Niagara northward to Tobermory on the shores of Georgian Bay.

I’m partial to variegated tulips…

…but all of the flowers were putting on a grand display of their lush petals and intriguing variety of reproductive configurations.

Niagara Falls also boasts quite a pretty 10-acre lilac garden.

The garden is free to visit; you can spend an entire morning or afternoon there, inhaling the wonderful perfume of the flowers…

,,,and admiring the different varieties. There were a handful of us getting some outdoor exercise on a lovely day, although rain was on the horizon.

I loved the pretty variegated leaves on this shrub.

Turning back toward Niagara-on-the-Lake, I found numerous pink-strewn cherry orchards…

and white apple orchards lining the roads.

Clusters of white apple blossoms were bursting out on all the branches, their sprays of delicate pistils making them look like lace.

Even the other trees are sporting froths of bright new leaves. I love this time of year, when the air is fresh and invigorating, and the sunshine begins keeping its promises.

Heading to the Fonthill area, numerous farms are studded with the stubble of last year’s corn stalks.

Even though the region is starting to drown under the weight of wineries (over seventy in about 700 square miles), if you take the time to wander the back roads you can still find pretty farms tucked away.

In fact, a leisurely wander is the best way to see the region’s spring beauty when you have a chance. You might even spot some of the area’s wild turkeys searching a field for lunch. There used to be one that patrolled an intersection near where I live, stopping traffic for the better part of an hour as it strutted up and down the road. (If you’ve never seen one for yourself, they’re huge birds, up to four feet tall and rather ornery.)

Hiking trails abound; this section of the Bruce Trail is twinned with a trail project in South Africa, surprisingly enough.

Even here the trails were luminous in the afternoon light.

At some time in the future, when life has returned more closely to normal, you may want to visit the Niagara Region in the springtime, when it shows all of its prettiest colours. In the meantime, I hope you have some lovely areas to explore and let Nature work her magic.

Signs all around us – Part 2

This week we’ll look at signs that touch you on an emotional level. They may make you chuckle, scratch your head, feel a pang, feel trepidation or its opposite, relief, or even make you hungry/thirsty (often because of where they’re located).

Let’s eat/drink!

The photo below reminds me of a fantastic place where we had breakfast in Ireland. We’d missed the breakfast slot at the hotel, but the front desk staff recommended this place on a local farm, whose name refuses to stick in my head. However, I can always bring up this photo with the place name thoughtfully imprinted on bags in which to cart off loaves of their fresh, crusty bread.

Our lodge deep in the Amazon jungle along the Madre de Dios river, served up a wild assortment of irresistible cocktails. I believe I tried the Anaconda 🙂

On a trip into eastern Ontario last fall, when the pandemic situation on our province was still largely contained, we visited a farm market that’s famous in the area but danged hard to find, even with a GPS. We’re glad we persevered, though — a dazzling assortment of homemade and gluten-free products listed on the sign behind the counter. We’d tucked a cooler in the back of our pickup truck in case there was anything we wanted to come home with; we filled that up and stuffed a couple of paper bags full of fruits and vegetables in between the golf clubs on top of that!

A little libation of the colonial variety with a flight of beer, helpfully labelled, at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Something every hot and thirsty traveler wants to see, a roadside stand offering fresh tropical fruit juice.

Signs of delight

I loved this bumper sticker so much I had to take a photo of it, in the town of Sleepy Hollow in New York State.

Knowing is half the battle 😉

A hiking trail through some woods had a section created especially for all children of all ages.

This vervet monkey in Kenya clearly needed its morning java.

Head-scratchers

Clearly this fellow would be the solution to all of life’s problems 😉

Of the ‘what the heck’ variety. This sign could also fall under the ‘induces trepidation’ category. We saw a number of signs like this in eastern Tennessee. Really, why would anyone need to rent a machine gun?!

This sign only fell into this category after we drove round a mountain for over an hour trying to find the spot, unsuccessfully, followed by blowing out a tire as we went back down the mountain, put on the spare on the side of a steep and narrow road and limped the rest of the way down to our bed-and-breakfast. Let’s just say that signage in Ireland lacks a lot of pertinent information and frequently stumps the GPS in your rental vehicle.

A wave of nostalgia

I grew up in the Woodstock era. I was much too young to be allowed to go, but the scrappy little music festival ended up making history and defining a generation. When we found out a few years ago that the site had been restored and was available to visit, we had to go — to stand in the place that was such a big moment in our youths and to share in that moment even if only in retrospect.

We also grew up with the Charlie Brown comics. One of the annual Christmas-season events in our house is a viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas — we never tire of it. It remains a popular show to this day, but I’m not sure more recent generations realize what a time capsule it is — children walking around by themselves after dark, lots of wide snowy undeveloped spaces and frozen ponds to skate on, the popularity of metallic trees… We’d been down to the fantastic ICE! show at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville once before while spending Christmas with one of our cousins, and on a return visit as soon as I found out that the theme that year would be A Charlie Brown Christmas I booked the tickets! It was a chilly blast from the past to walk through the entire story done in larger-than-life ice sculptures.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has always been my favourite spooky story, with the big bad as a dead Hessian soldier on his jet black horse with a flaming pumpkin for a head! In another aha moment, as soon as I found out that the town of Sleepy Hollow actually exists (originally called North Tarrytown but adopting the name from Washington Irving’s most famous story out of affection and marketing value), I knew we had to go. The entire area is Irving country and replete with all kinds of Halloween events. But most important of all, you can walk across the modern incarnation of the bridge that helped inspired Irving in his 1820 tale of terror in the wilds of Westchester County.

Although this style of signage was iconic of an earlier generation, when you stumble upon one now it’s a perfect little time capsule of a bygone era when post-war life was good, the economy was booming and North America was full of innocence and optimism.

Shiver me timbers!

As a devotee of haunted attractions, I love the creativity in signage used to intrigue us and make us wonder if it’s safe to go on.

Of course, this photo is of one of the least-frightening Halloween attractions around, but it’s an opportunity to turn into a five-year-old again for a few hours.

Busch Gardens in Williamsburg does a little eerier version — not too frightening, but lots of atmosphere!

Signs throughout the park during the day promise thrills after dark.

Here in Ontario, Fort Henry in Kingston takes advantage of its built-in architecture to turn into its creepy alter-ego once the sun goes down.

Next week we’ll continue on this theme with poignant signs that give us insight into the tears of the past.

As always, all photos are by me and all rights are reserved.

Signs all around us – Part 1

No, this isn’t an alien-conspiracy theory post (sorry to disappoint). Signs of all kinds punctuate our lives — they inform us, warn us, teach us, engage us, sometimes bewilder, amuse or anger us. A lot of times people ignore them — something I see almost daily when I’m out driving! But signs tell us so much about the culture and the times. I especially find signs in foreign countries fascinating, and the ‘fire gathering place’ sign from my post two weeks ago reminded me of that as well as inspired today’s post.

I started out taking sign photos on our travels as place markers, really, although to my hubby’s dismay I remember the location of 99% of the photos I’ve taken, as well as details and how to get there. But after a while, some signs began to catch my eye because they were intriguing in their message, or off-the-wall, or so emblematic of a place/time. I have hundreds of photos; this is just a tiny selection.

Signs that make a statement

As our small safari tour was leaving Nairobi to head towards our first game reserve in Kenya, this sign jumped out at me. The university was clearly making a very strong stance about corruption. This trip was a last-minute creation, after the original adventure I’d put together for Egypt had to be cancelled due to the Arab Spring revolution throughout many parts of the Middle East, so I didn’t have time to learn a lot about Kenyan politics before we arrived. I looked the subject up as soon as we got home, and found that corruption had become rife in Kenya, particularly in the government, a sad state of affairs since the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1963.

As you enter Colonial Williamsburg from the Visitor Center, you journey back through time along a walkway paved with stones that highlight what your life would have been like in certain eras. You might have to read this one a couple of times to understand its import. Unfortunately, 156 years later, slavery still exists.

We’ve seen many billboards like this on our road trips through the central-southern part of the U.S. Interestingly, on the opposite side of the highway we’ve also seen big boards advertising a chain of sex-toy shops, so one might wonder about the chicken-and-egg sequence.

Although the Troubles in northern Ireland flared up over two decades ago, they’re still very fresh in the minds of the people, and there are still strong feelings on both sides. Peace is fragile there; when we were there two years ago, Brexit was looming large and threatening to start things all over again. You can take a Black Cab tour with a guide who’s both knowledgeable about what went on and sensitive to the people who still reside in areas like Shankill Road, one of the most violent hotspots at the time. Many walls are painted with either commemorative artwork, or messages like this one that encourage the young adults now to avoid getting caught up in hostilities.

Helpful signs

If you like to drive yourself when travelling, directional signs are a godsend, of course. Here we were entering the Skyline Drive in Virginia from a midpoint — there are a limited number of access points — so this sign helped us determine which direction we needed to go in.

There are several hop-on/hop-off bus routes in Dublin, Ireland, and signs like this are dual-purpose: they help you find your way when you disembark, and they list both the traditional Irish name for a place as well as the English-language version, thus keeping an ancient language alive and vibrant. It’s entertaining to try pronouncing the Irish versions.

You don’t see many of these anymore, a row of clocks telling you what time it is currently in different parts of the world — useful if you’re a business person or want to torture yourself with jet lag by reminding you what time your body might still think it’s in. They were a fixture in black-and-white adventure movies from the 1930s and 1940s. This one was located in our hotel in Lima, Peru.

Iconic signs

Some signs become famous in their own right.

Some are iconic because they represent a location that’s world-famous,

Others capture an entire culture in their visual structure.

These are the entrance gates to Buckingham Palace. There’s no verbal pronouncement of the location, but there doesn’t really need to be, does there? If you’re standing in front of these gates, through which visitors may not pass, you’ll be duly impressed by the lavish stonework of the supporting columns and the magnificence of the crests, indicating that what lies beyond is the preserve of one of the last remaining monarchies in the world, as well as all the history and pageantry associated with it.

Warning signs

Shush!! Evidently impatient truck drivers passing through this crossing between districts in Peru are wont to blow their horns when they get tired and fractious.

The safari lodge we stayed at in Livingstone, Zambia, is located inside Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. If you stay there, you’ll have wild animal encounters every day — zebras wander around the grounds drinking from water drainage troughs along the paths (not that it rains much, but the spray from Victoria Falls shoots high up above the lodge’s roofs and falls as a form of rain), monkeys that will tear apart your room and all your belongings if you make the mistake of leaving a window open, and crocodiles lurking in pools of water. No touching, please. We saw one brainless tourist narrowly avoid getting kicked in the head after he tried to pet a zebra, despite the warning signs.

This may not look like a warning sign, but it is for anyone who’s gone to Africa to bunji-jump in one of the most famous locations in the world. The sign indicates the exact spot on the Victoria Falls Bridge where the Zambian side of the Falls and the Zimbabwe side meet, and this is where the bunji-jump station is located. Why does that matter, you may ask? Because if a jumper has an accident while they’re flinging themselves off this perfectly good bridge, neither country has to claim liability.

These instructions at the remote archeological site of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian Andes are also clear as a bell, even without words.

I think it’s fair to call this TV screen a warning sign. We’d just found out the day before that a Category 3 hurricane, which had appeared out of nowhere, was heading directly for our vicinity. It had pounced on Florida as Category 5, but had thankfully downgraded by the time it reached us. All we could do was keep an eye on the news, download the Red Cross alert app onto my phone, rearrange our touring plans, and hunker down in our hotel room with some dinner in the fridge and battery-operated candles on the dresser.

That morning, after a hurried trip to see the Yorktown Battlefield, we did spot some helpful signs like this one, should the need arise:

Not-so-helpful signs

Some signs do try, but they’re just not much in the way of real assistance.

This wall sign at one of the convents in Peru may have meant something to the residents, but for tourists, trying to figure out where we were in the maze of winding streets and rooms in the little city-within-a-city in Arequipa was not aided by looking at this.

When signs don’t exist

There are times when the absence of a sign imparts a lot of information…

In the display window of this store in Lima, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.

The lack of a sign may also be either a deficiency on the part of the powers-that-be, or the lack of an infrastructure through which to sue if you’re injured. Here our group is scrambling down one of the most terrifying staircases (I call it that loosely) we’ve ever descended, at Machu Picchu in Peru. There was no railing to prevent us from falling several thousand feet down into the Urubamba river gorge on the right of the stairs, and only a sheer rock face on our left to use for some dubious comfort as we felt our way down the worn rocks stuck into the ground. We dared not take more than one step at a time. I wanted to kiss the ground when we got to the bottom.

What was really aggravating was watching the locals scamper down as if it was nothing.

Come back next week for more on the subject of the wild and crazy world of signage. All photos are by me and all rights reserved.

Blog coming tomorrow!

As I was sorting through my photos to pull material for this post about all the signs that teach us, direct us, amuse, send a message, keep us safe, and all the myriad uses for this informational medium, I realized that the task was so much larger than I’d anticipated. Please join me tomorrow, April 30 2021, for a fascinating look at all the ways in which signs connect with us in our lives!

Celebrating Earth Day Part 2 – Lake Nakuru

Countries in Africa all seem to abound with amazing, varied landscapes, and Kenya is no exception. The country is split horizontally by the Equator, and longitudinally by the massive tear in the earth known as the Great Rift Valley. The widening divergence of the two tectonic plates has given rise to a string of soda lakes — shallow salt lakes where masses of algae bloom, which in turn attract masses of flamingos that throng the waters to feed. Lake Nakuru, about three hours northwest of Nairobi, is one of those, and it’s a fascinating place to visit.

Approaching the Lake Nakuru National Park in the dry season, we were in for something of a surprise. An ominous white plume stretched across the sky. I asked our guide what it was. “Just a bush fire,” he replied serenely. “It’s not near the lodge, so nothing to worry about.”

Sure, I thought. As he checked us through the park gate and we drove the winding road towards Lake Nakuru Lodge, our home base for the night, we were surrounded by charred bush on both sides of the road, with flames still dancing in spots.

He hadn’t mislead us — the lodge property was intact in its beautiful Kenyan landscape, and the air fairly clear, although we could see great billows of smoke across the hills from the area down by the swimming pool. The fire was definitely still burning away in parts of the park.

Wildfires can happen from about November to March north of the equator, and may start from a lightning strike, but they’re also sometimes set by the park to preempt larger fires. I’m not certain why this one started, but judging by the sign on the lodge grounds, such fires are a common-enough occurrence.

They can often be beneficial for the ecosystem, eliminating old dead trees and clearing space for new growth to thrive. We’d spotted numerous wildlife, like the tawny eagle and black-backed jackals above, prowling through the haze to search for the fire’s bounty in the form of small wildlife who hadn’t escaped the flames or smoke. Nature has a cycle of constant renewal that’s much wiser than anything we humans have done to the planet.

The lodge is tucked into a hillside above the lake, set in a pretty garden-scape filled with native plants.

We noticed this sign outside the restaurant, and there were a number of native Kenyans in traditional garb walking about to chase off the pesky primates.

It didn’t take us long to spot the troupe lurking at a dried-up little pond just beyond the lodge’s perimeter fence.

After lunch it was time to head down to the area around the lake. We were treated to the sight of the rare and very endangered Rothschild’s giraffe along the way. Lake Nakuru Park is one of the few protected areas where you can still see their beautifully-delineated spots and white ‘stockings’.

This Thompson’s gazelle watched us carefully on the flat grasslands. We had stopped just close enough that we were encroaching on its safe zone — often animals won’t even pay attention to visitors, but if you’ve gotten their attention it means that you’re getting too close. Any closer and the animals will do one of two things: bolt, or charge the vehicle. A pretty gazelle will only flee, but there’s one animal you don’t want to push the boundaries with.

Cape buffaloes are huge and cranky, and when they take a run at you they mean it. They are extremely dangerous.

Evidence of the lake’s salinity is visible as you near the shores: thick incrustations of salt coat the sand and scrub.

Animals often go down to the lake for that very reason — a huge natural salt-lick.

We even had our one and only sighting of the almost-extinct white rhino. They’re not actually white — their name comes from the Afrikaans’ word weit, which refers to their wide mouths that are made for grazing along the ground. (Black rhinos can be distinguished by grazing higher up among the shrubs.) We’ve seen no rhinos on any other of our safaris. The few remaining white rhinos in Kenya are watched around the clock; I hope this mother and son are still alive.

Many types of birds spend their time at the lake, including cliques of fishing pelicans, who swim in groups and by some unseen signal all dunk their heads to fish simultaneously.

The dry season at the end of February wasn’t peak time for the Lesser Flamingos, so while the populations on the lake can rise to the millions, there were far less when we were there, but it was still something to see – several thousand of the birds turned pale pink by the pigment in the algae they scooped up from the alkaline water. Groups gathered to do the strange choreographed dances you may have seen on television, shuffling along and swinging their heads in unison.

As the sun began to sink and our guide headed back to the lodge, we came across another rowdy bunch of Olive baboons, which are much fluffier than their Chacma cousins in southern Africa. This group was busy grooming and getting ready to settle down for the night.

Back at the lodge we watched another glorious African sunset cap off another amazing day in the wild.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these peeks at two lesser-known marvels of Africa, and that they’ve provided some insight into how precious such places are. We humans are the caretakers of the planet, and we’re failing at the job. If things don’t change, the children of our nieces and nephews may never get the same chance to see the wonders of nature.

All photos, unless otherwise specified, are by me and all rights are reserved.