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!

Peace at heart, peace with our global home

In three days, on September 21, the world will be observing the International Day of Peace. This year’s theme, Climate Action for Peace, is multi-layered, calling for us to recognize that human conflict and environmental negligence will impact our lives and those of future generations, and that they are tightly interwoven.

Imagine if there were no pollinators. Bees around the world are in dire straits.

How would we grow enough food for our exploding human population without bees, and how would plant-eating animals survive? In a global food shortage scenario, who would have access to the limited supplies of food? Would it be the average person, working to make ends meet, just like you and me? Likely not.

What would happen to the flowers that fill our gardens with beauty, the balm of nature that can ease our stress and bring joy to our lives? What if there were no roses to stop and smell?

Outdoor sports as we know them might disappear, like your favourite golf courses.

While things like golf courses may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, they are just one of the many, many pleasurable things in our world that we take for granted. Imagine a world where there was no green space to play in.

Each year, since 2001, the United Nations asks all nations and all of us for one day “to put down … weapons and reaffirm their commitment to living in harmony with one another.” There are many days when that seems like a really tall order, but amazing things have happened when enough people get behind a movement. Governments don’t change until the people of those countries start to speak up.

For each of us personally, let’s get back to a social climate of kindness and respect, for each other and for all the other creatures and plants that share the only home we all have.

Here are some of my favourite photos from around the world, both near and far — I hope they inspire you to realize how badly we need to protect the climate that allows these beautiful places to exist. It’s an unnervingly fragile balance.

Samburu Reserve, Kenya
Lake Naivasha, Kenya
Andes Mountains
Floating reed islands, Lake Titicaca
Royal Botanical Gardens, Ontario
Lake Muskoka, Ontario
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Lake Pukaki, New Zealand
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Sugar cane, Mauritius
Linden tree in bloom, my back yard

Nature’s little surprises when you’re on vacation

It sounded like a heavy truck rolling down the street.

But instead of the truck passing our friends’ house in Santa Monica and the sound receding, the noise got louder and louder and the house began to shake.

The first trip that my hubby and I took together, to visit family friends in California while I was on my university Christmas break, started off benignly enough with nice sunny weather. The scent of eucalyptus from the trees lining the streets filled the hazy air, and for breakfast we enjoyed fresh-picked oranges from the tree in our friends’ back yard. I was so excited to see palm trees and the ocean.

We had an adventurous New Year’s Eve at a club in Santa Monica (too crazy to describe in this article), and then got up early to go to Pasadena for the Rose Parade. After the parade we returned to our friends’ home and everyone else settled down to watch the Rose Bowl on television while I, still recovering from a bout of strep throat, lay down for a while in our bedroom – only to be woken up soon after by the earthquake and everyone running into the room yelling at me to get up.

It wasn’t a major quake – only 4.6 on the Richter scale – but enough to shake us up. It’s very unnerving to have the normally solid earth beneath you start moving around. One of the first things our friends did was run to hold up their china cabinet in the dining room, while my hubby and I wanted to find the first available airplane/helicopter and lift off.

In addition, you don’t know how big the quake will turn out to be. Visions of giant cracks appearing in the streets danced in my head.

Aftershocks can sometimes be worse than the original event. After our brief quake, rumblings and aftershocks continued throughout the rest of the day. I remember sitting, trying to relax, but spotting the ornaments on our friends’ Christmas tree start to swing in my peripheral vision. At one point the entire house shifted with a loud bang, as if a giant had come and kicked it!

Several months later, on our honeymoon in the US Virgin Islands, things went south again in a much larger way with a Category Five hurricane followed closely by a tornado that ripped right by our resort. No one could call us on the island afterward, but we were able to call out and reassure our frantic families that we were safe and healthy. Normally I love storms, but that one was a doozy, and a history-maker. For months after we got home my shoulders tightened every time there was a high wind.

A year after that, when Mount St. Helen’s erupted, friends of my in-laws actually called them to see if my hubby and I were in the vicinity! (absolute truth)

Over the years, with many more occurrences that seem to follow us wherever we go, we’ve become accustomed and have learned to go with the flow. Not everything has been one of Nature’s treats – we had to change a trip completely at the start of the Arab Spring, changing from Egypt to Kenya, and on the very first day we took my mother-in-law to England we were exploring the British Museum when it was suddenly evacuated and we lost my hubby for about half-an-hour (that was the most unusual, but not the only thing, to happen on that trip).

We’ve also found ways to stay prepared.

With the advent of the internet, mobile phones and instant news, there are many ways to cover your bases. I’m not sure my hubby and I are that unusual anymore in unusual vacations – global warming is causing all kinds of changes and surprises in weather patterns, and political tensions can erupt unexpectedly – so it pays everyone to understand their options.

A recent case in point in our lives:

We were on an innocuous trip to Williamsburg, Virginia last fall. The weather was hotter than expected, but manageable. We spent an entire day exploring the superb Colonial Williamsburg, got our creeps on at Busch Gardens’ fantastic Howl-O-Scream event, enjoyed history and the sunset on a schooner cruise on the York River, and bought more sandals at an outlet mall to cope with the intense heat.

Waiting for our carriage ride at Colonial Williamsburg.
Sunset cruise on a 3-masted schooner
Howl-O-Scream is one of the best Halloween theme park events we’ve ever been to

We’d finished a round of golf at an area club on Tuesday, and the staff were helping us pack up our clubs when the ranger asked if we’d be coming back for another round. We said we planned to return on Thursday; he replied, “Well, you’ll have to play that by ear. There’s a hurricane coming our way.”

Someone living along the Fords Colony golf course in Williamsburg has a Halloween-themed sense of humour

There’s a what now? Not that hubby and I aren’t used to hurricanes (this would be our fourth), but Hurricane Michael popped up with almost no warning.

Watching the weather reports in our hotel room

Here’s how we handled it:

  1. Kept an eye on the evolving situation. Hurricanes are notoriously changeable, so if it looks like you’ll be in the path, you can at least keep on top of developments.
  2. The local weather station recommended downloading the Red Cross Hazards app. You can enter your current location and receive any alerts that may come out, as well as look up preparedness info for a variety of different scenarios.
  3. We rejigged our activity plans for that Thursday; it helps to be flexible in these circumstances. The storm was projected to downgrade to Category 3 and reach our area by about 2pm. We had planned to visit the Yorktown Battlefield that day, which is located along the York River, not far from Virginia’s Atlantic shore – not a place we wanted to be when the storm hit due to repeated warnings about storm surges and flash flooding. We were going to be heading towards home the next day, though, so we hit the road early in order to see the Battlefield in the morning and be back in Williamsburg on drier land by lunch.
Storm clouds gathering as we drive to Yorktown

We kept an eye on the skies as we toured the Battlefield. They were darkening and a few drops began to fall as we drove back to town. We had lunch at a Red Lobster restaurant across the street from our hotel (very short travel time if the storm came in during the meal). It started to rain while we ate, intermittently heavy; outside the window, there was a little pebble garden where we watched water gather into a little stream, then a larger stream, then a small pond.

Mortars and cannons from the Battle of Yorktown

From there we picked up a few emergency supplies – battery-operated candles (in case of power outage), extra bottles of water, and snacks – and by 3pm we were safely battened down in our room, watching television and remaining relaxed but alert. I texted my brother about the hurricane, and, having received numerous similar messages from us over the years, his reply was typical: “Gee, what a surprise.”

By dinnertime there’d been spotty rain only, but we made some tea. We had some leftovers in our room fridge from dinner the night before. and our Vanilla Cheesecake at lunch was so delicious that we’d brought two pieces back to our room.

The storm hit in full force after dark, with driving rain and wind rattling the window. The force of the storm actually pushed some rain in along the top corner of our ‘sealed’ window, and we put a towel along the sill to absorb the water. The hotel parking lot and the streets were lightly flooded. We heard reports of tornadoes touching down in several places around the area, and did receive one tornadoes-in-the-area alert from the Red Cross app. The lights flickered a few times but never went completely out.

Hurricane rain driving in sheets outside our hotel room and trees tossing violently

That was the worst of it for us, but our hotel was on a main street, and we’d seen a number of people out driving around during the worst of the storm – I hope it was something urgent to make it worth risking their lives. Sadly, five people who ignored the warnings to stay inside died when they were swept away by flood waters. So preventable.

  • We checked the road reports on Friday morning to see what was open/closed. There were 1,400 road closures in that county alone, but none of them along the route that we would be taking to visit the Luray Caverns that afternoon. The roads that were open were strewn with debris and downed trees.
Slow traffic and lots of debris on the roads that were open the next day

Could we have avoided this scenario entirely by not going south during Hurricane Season (June to November)? Certainly, but we had considered Virginia to be a lower-risk area, and there hadn’t been any intimations of an impending storm. Events like earthquakes can’t be reliably predicted – although, in another absolutely true story, a nun in September of the year we first went to California had predicted that there would be an earthquake around New Year’s Day, and I spent the next three months convincing myself that it was hogwash, so what can one make of that?

You can’t entirely predict what Mother Nature will throw at you, so if you do find yourself in the midst of one of her surprises, follow the local advisories and stay safe. Never  think that ‘it won’t happen to me’ – based on extensive personal experience I can confirm that s*** does happen.

To learn more about how to be prepared in the event of the unexpected, our Canadian government has a useful website for Emergency Preparedness. In particular, check out the sections on Using Technology During a Disaster. The stats also make an interesting read.

A new edition of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook was released this April, with some updates about things like drone attacks and spotting fake news, but you may find the book’s Travel version more useful. Hopefully you’ll never have to things like Stop a Runaway Passenger Train, but I have personally been on a Runaway Camel! (It ended up stopping by itself after a wild ride down a hill when it got back to its corral and before reaching the river, thank goodness.)

And if you ever experience an earthquake, find a spot with the most structural soundness — doorways are good, and bathrooms are excellent. (If in California, don’t go outside — flying clay roof tiles can be deadly.) And be kind to Mother Nature — there may come a day when you want her on your side 🙂

An Ounce of Humour is Worth a Pound of Aggravation

photo of guanaco with its ears back as I try to make friends with it
A sense of humour with animals is essential — this guanaco at the Awana Cancha textile cooperative in Peru clearly wanted nothing to do with me

A friend and I were discussing the importance of having a healthy sense of humour the other day. She was having a stressful day, so I regaled her with one of the absurd stories from my travels with hubby. It made her double over with laughter and broke that cycle of escalating frustration that happens to us on rough days.

When something annoying happens, we can choose to either work ourselves into a lather, or find the funny side of it. My hubby and I are currently renovating our main bathroom, so we’re in that major-disruption zone of life at the moment; thank goodness we both share the same sense of ridiculousness.

It has served us well over the years – mostly when we travel, for two big reasons:

  1. When you’re on a journey, you’re away from the safe and familiar, and (at least in our lives) things don’t always go according to plan
  2. Hubby and I have some kind of weird vibe which means that strange things happen whenever we go anywhere.

While the list of those events is far too long to share in a single blog post, I can tell you about the series of incidents that made my friend laugh so hard.

They took place in Florida, of all places – land of sunshine, beaches and the Happiest Place on Earth. Hubby Mike and I had just moved into our first house shortly before we took his uncle up on his offer to use his condo in Clearwater for a couple of weeks.

Mike’s uncle suggested that we avoid the higher prices of normal car rental by finding one of the many ‘Rent-a-Wreck’ places in the area. He assured us that the cars were older but fine, and much cheaper. Well, the nearest Wreck place we visited lived up to its name – the cars weren’t really fit to drive. Friends who had joined us at the condo had picked up a car at the airport (we decided on separate cars before departure), so they drove us to a regular car rental service.

An hour or so later, Mike and I were driving a good car – or so we thought.

The next day was cloudy and drizzly. I don’t recall what our friends decided to do, but Mike and I thought we’d check out a linen outlet store to buy some towels for our new home. Things began to go south when we encountered the invisible train.

The outlet store was, for some reason, 30 minutes out into the countryside. About halfway along, we were approaching a railroad crossing, also in the middle of nowhere, when the lights began flashing and the crossing barriers came down. We waited for the train to come along. Five minutes went by and we were still waiting. We could see for miles in all directions and there was no train anywhere in the vicinity. A few minutes later the lights stopped  and the barriers raised. We looked in both directions, shrugged our shoulders, and continued on our quest.

As we got nearer to our destination the rain began to fall steadily. Mike turned on the windshield wipers, which managed a couple of swipes and then flew off the car. One disappeared off into the firmament, while the other fell straight back down and jammed the entire wiper mechanism.

Since we could see the store in the distance, we carefully proceeded there and made our purchases, then carefully drove back to the car rental place.

The nice man behind the rental desk looked as surprised as we’d been. He riffled through his list of available cars in the same price range and asked, “Do you mind using the air conditioning all the time?”

Mike and I looked at each other and said, “No problem, it’s hot out. Is there a reason why, though?”

“Well,” the man said somewhat sheepishly, “I only have one car available at this moment, and it has a little quirk.”

“What’s that?” we asked.

“If you roll down the driver’s window, the door opens. As long as you don’t open the window, though, you’ll be fine.”

Hmm. We gave it some thought and decided we could live with that. We took the car. We’d forgotten about the road tolls. Every time we came to a toll booth (ubiquitous in those days), we had to either roll down the window just a couple of inches and fling coins into the mesh toll basket from a distance, or open the door entirely and get out.

Ultimately we found it amusing, and went about our vacation. That night, though, when we returned to the condo after dinner, there was a rather frantic-sounding handwritten note on the condo door which said “Please bring your rental car back to the office as soon as possible”.

The next morning we duly returned to the rental agency for the third day in row. The only staff person on hand was the regional manager, who apparently hadn’t been left any notes about our situation. He dragged his fingers through his hair, checked the office logs, and said, “Well, how’d you like to go in style for the rest of your vacation?” Sure, we replied. The only car on the lot that day was one of their premium rentals, a Chrysler Le Baron, which he gave to us at no additional cost.

As we parked it in the condo parking lot, we remarked that if any of the neighbours had been watching, they’d have seen us show up in three different cars in as many days. We spent the next 10 days enjoying all the features of our high-end car and waiting for someone to comment.

Two weeks after we returned home, a Ziggy cartoon showed up in our local paper that involved the windshield wipers flying off Ziggy’s car. I whispered to my hubby, “Jeez, is somebody watching us?!”

Whether in our travels together, or just in daily life, my hubby and I have found that humour is really the best medicine. We try to laugh as often as possible!

The importance of blue

I’ve always loved being near water. I grew up along the banks of the Detroit River; before it got built up, I have fond memories of playing in the waterside parks, of my parents taking my brother and me to the water to watch fireworks on holidays.

My very first trip by airplane brought me to California, and I was so excited to see my first palm trees, and my first view of an ocean.

My travels have often taken me across oceans, to oceans, onto oceans. These glistening bodies of water are so important to our planet. As we celebrated World Oceans Day this past weekend and continue to enjoy the benefits of the sources of 91 percent of our water, we need to acknowledge the damage that we’re inflicting on one of our most precious resources.

Our oceans give us…

botswana safari 2007 card no 6 004

…beauty

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…safe harbour

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…delicious food

P_B1 874-001…remarkable vistas

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…homes for a myriad of creatures above and below the surface

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…serenity.

Help save our oceans. Learn more about World Ocean Day; donate to organizations like World Animal Protection, which is running a donation-matching program until June 30 to support our oceans’ creatures; find out 10 Things You Can Do to Save the Ocean. We humans are killing the oceans, so it’s up to us to fix it!

Rainforests — Rescue Me!

You know you’re having a true jungle moment when a monkey sits on your head.

P_B2 074Maria the spider monkey (names have been changed to protect the innocent) loves to steal visitors’ plastic water bottles. She lives on Monkey Island, a sanctuary in the Madre de Dios river in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. She is an inquisitive and agile monkey.

Our group was gathered around a feeding platform as Maria eyed us all curiously and our guide talked about rescuing Amazonian primates from the pet trade. I was leaning casually near the small plank scattered with food bits while Maria played with a plastic bottle, when unexpectedly she scampered across the plank and decided that my head would make a good perch. In a flash my vision was blocked by black fur, and a long, very strong tail wrapped snugly around my neck – so snugly, in fact, that I had to wedge a finger between her tail and my skin to be able to breathe. I could hear cameras going off all around me.

Well, like I always say, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a monkey’s butt on the top of your head. After a few minutes on my head, Maria decided she needed a different viewpoint and climbed onto someone else’s hair.

A once-in-a-lifetime experience. And in a few decades, a never-in-anyone’s lifetime experience. Our rain forests are being deforested at such an alarming rate and so many species are dying out completely that nations around the world have declared an international Climate Emergency.

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Coming in for a landing into Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon, it wasn’t hard to spot the scars of clear-cutting.

It’s making the news in a big way now. You may have been seeing some of the headlines, such as Nature crisis: Humans ‘threaten 1m species with extinction’.

According to Rainforest Rescue, we are, on average, losing an appalling 150 species each and every day! If you were to think of that in terms of ‘man’s best friend’, dogs, that would be roughly the equivalent of every single dog on the planet being wiped out in three days.

When I was a child, I mourned the loss of famously extinct species like the Passenger Pigeon and the Dodo bird, which I would never see because of the stupidity of earlier humans who didn’t understand the impact of what they were doing. You’d think that, as we evolve as a society, we’d have learned something.

Every species on this planet is critical to the ecosystem that it lives in as well as our global ecosystem. The disappearance of these thousands of species will have an impact that continues well into the future.

Animal species also help keep our plants alive by pollination, dropping fruit pits to germinate in new areas, and transporting seeds in their fur. Without this continuous regenerative cycle, we are doomed.

Rain forests are majestic and magical places. Ancient remedies climb over each other in the undergrowth, bananas and mangoes grow wild, tree trunks transmit sound so far that local people use them as geolocators. To walk through the forest is to immerse yourself in the lungs of our planet as they breathe and pulse around you. I’ll let some of my photos speak for themselves.

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A butterfly investigates my husband’s hiking boot.
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The rain forest embraces our Amazonian jungle lodge.
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Let’s play ‘Spot the parrot’!
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Lush wild banana trees

Rain forests are in severe danger, as are all of their inhabitants, from millions of plants, animals and insects to the many tribes who’ve called the forests home for centuries. We have no right to take that gift of life away from them.

You can help. You can visit these incredible treasures to understand what they mean to the world ecosystem, and to all your children who’ll have to cope with the wreck we are making of this planet, and you can sign petitions to pressure governments to stop mining interests and rapacious developers.

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Local people as well as corporations destroy riverine habitats through indiscriminate mining

Petitions work. One such petition needs 200,000 signatures quickly: “UNESCO World Heritage: tell the palm oil barons to back off!” All it takes is a few moments of your time to make a difference. The, maybe one day in the future, your children will be able to find their own wild and incorrigible Maria monkey to have a close encounter with.