Inspire Me! blog

Grounding with traditions

Growing up with a thirst for travel, to be honest I was never overly into celebrating Canada – all the exciting stuff seemed to happen somewhere else.

But over the many years of our travels, we learned as much about our own country as we did about others. While we’ve enjoyed and admired the pace of life in other places, we can come home to a lot of things we love: changes of season (there’s nothing like a crisp autumn day surrounded by gorgeous leaf colours); a cosmopolitan food scene that allows us to recreate some of our favourite dishes from our travels; the opportunity to own a home with a yard where we can enjoy summer barbecues.

Our history hasn’t been spotless and we’re still working out the fallout/reparation, but during this time in particular we are grateful to have great medical care available to everyone. The son of a friend of mine contracted a very serious case of Covid and our local hospital saved his life without anyone having to worry about the cost.

So for several years now my hubby and I have been celebrating Canada Day in various ways, and this year I noticed that a lot of people in our neighbourhood have done the same. Our government has done a good job of steering us through the pandemic and I think most of us feel as safe as we can be under the circumstances.

While I’m more of a free-form person than someone who likes routine, this year our national holiday made me think of how traditions can help provide a sense of stability and continuity. in times of uncertainty especially, celebrating things we care about helps ground us to normality, whether it’s a daily ritual of afternoon tea, a weekly trip to a bistro for good coffee and pastries as my brother does, or reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every December as another friend does each year for her family – whatever brings a smile your face.

So this July 1st, we braved the heat and humidity to fire up our barbecue for some good steaks, corn bread with cheese, and a layered salad, followed by a highly-tweaked banana split that took advantage of the wonderful fruit we have available: fresh in-season strawberries macerated in sugar and Drambuie over vanilla-bean ice cream, peaches sautéed in a butter/brown sugar/cardamom sauce over salted caramel ice cream, and chocolate sauce over coffee ice cream.  

I hope that, wherever you are, there are traditions that can help keep you grounded while we wait for whatever normality comes out of this eventually.

The Monkey’s Tail

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

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

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

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

Parasitic vines will eventually choke the life out of a tree

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

Layers upon layers cover the forest floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transferring to our motorized canoe in Puerto Maldonado

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

Illegal river mining

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

Arriving at the lodge

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

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

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

A small agouti roams across the grounds

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

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

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

Our spider monkey visitor

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

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

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

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

Our guide demonstrating the proper vine swing technique

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

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

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

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

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

All photos by Erica Jurus and rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All images by me and rights reserved.

How to have a road trip that doesn’t drive you crazy

I’m sure that, at some point on my childhood travels with my family, I must have annoyed my parents. I remember passing the time by playing road games with my brother in the back seat – things like spotting Volkswagen Beetles (very popular at the time), or all the red cars, or red barns, or any other countable item we could think of.

Midway picnics were a welcome break. I also remember having reluctant naps that interfered with my trying to see everything new and interesting. Nevertheless, no doubt at some point we got impatient to reach the end of the journey. Highway scenery can only amuse so much – and that’ just as true for adults as for children.

A good road trip requires:

  • A road-worthy vehicle
  • Some planning around pit-stops, rest breaks and food, and places to stay overnight on multi-day transitions from your point of origin to your ultimate destination
  • Ways for your travellers to keep occupied on lengthy drives, and to stay comfortable
  • A sense of humour
  • A good navigator who’ll stay calm when something inevitably goes wrong

Road trips are special adventures. They feel so much more relaxed, even if you’re flying to another destination to hit the road. There’s freedom in wandering about a countryside that reminds me of the early explorers – getting your bearings with a map or a GPS instead of a sea chart and astrolabe, eating food at interesting ‘ports of call’. We have a cousin in Tennessee, and every time we drive down for a visit we always stop overnight in Polaris, Ohio so that we can have a cozy, delicious meal at our favourite on-the-road restaurant, the Polaris Grill.

Seeing a place from your road-ship is a much more intimate experience – you get to see everyday life, not just the highlights.

At special sites, like museums and historic places, you can build in time to explore at your leisure. Last year we visited Gettysburg, and spent a day-and-a-half following the battle trail with the aid of a DVD guide that we bought locally. The site is huge and so well-preserved that it was easy to envision the different parts of the battle. We also had time to play a round of golf, have Easter Brunch, see some wildlife and take part in a night-time ghost hunt.

Road prep

  • If driving your own vehicle, unless it’s brand new, check it out thoroughly before you leave. While a breakdown on the road isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, it will take up valuable time that’s better spent doing fun things, and will cost you.

    Sometimes accidents just happen, though, and you just have to make the best of them. On a high, narrow mountain road in Ireland another tourist car passing us in the opposite direction cut into our lane, forcing my hubby over onto the rocky shoulder on our side. We bounced off a rock and damaged both the undercarriage and a tire. We tried to limp back down the mountain, but the tire completely flattened out before we got more than a mile or so. We found a safe spot to pull over, and put on the spare. The next morning we were able to get everything repaired, at a reasonable price, and we continued on our way without too much disruption.
  • Depending on the bladder-capacity of your travellers, it’s a good idea to look at your route and plan for stops. In North America there are generally plenty of roadside stops, well-marked in advance. Things can become problematic if any of your party have special requirements like gluten-free meals, but there are ways to accommodate different needs.

    Picnic lunches are really fun to do, but here are some pointers:
    • Buy a nice blanket to sit on. That way, you can find cool places to enjoy your meal, like a big rock under maples and pines in the autumn sun.
    • Make food that will keep well, and is easy to transport and eat without making a mess. I like sandwiches, and they don’t have to be fancy. For one of our fall trips, I made fried egg and bacon on baguettes. Just about anything is delicious in the open air. My indulgence was some rather decadent pumpkin whoopie pies with marshmallow buttercream filling. Together with a thermos of hot tea, it was a perfect fall picnic.
    • Have a secure container to transport everything in, some paper towel for small cleanups, cups and plates, even some nice paper napkins if you want the atmosphere. Personally I prefer to pack food that doesn’t require utensils – remember that everything you use will need to be washed at some point on your journey, so keep the mess to a minimum.
  • Comfort is important on long drives. I like to take a lap blanket and small pillow – my hubby prefers to keep the temperature inside the vehicle on the cooler side, so the blanket is perfect to keep myself warm, and I can take short naps if I get sleepy riding along. (He likes to do the driving – finds it boring to be the passenger, although I can easily take over if he gets tired – and I’m a great navigator.)

    Have a pouch handy with bottled water (the air gets dry inside a vehicle), a couple of rolls of toilet paper (for roadside bathrooms that may have run out), some snacks in case it takes a while to find somewhere to eat, and napkins/paper towels/wet-naps to quickly clean fingers coated in potato chip salt or Cheezies dust.

    Traffic jams or spots of bad weather – I can’t tell you how many times we’ve run into unexpected fogs/rainstorms/short blizzards, and if you’re heading south to Williamsburg VA avoid the vicinity of Washington DC unless you want to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours  – can be wearing on the nerves. We’ve found it really helps to distract your mind a little from worrying by listening either to an audio book or a radio play.
  • Common sense prevails – don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home. Keep your baggage out of sight while you’re stopped, doors locked, don’t flash large amounts of cash, keep an eye on the people around you. One of the last things you want to be is victim of a crime. We’ve always had good encounters on our trips, but that’s at least partly due to not being an easy target.
  • Be a good guest. Don’t litter, be polite and friendly, obey the rules. When we were driving around New Zealand we’d often not see any other vehicle for the better part of an hour, so the radar warnings on the GPS seemed a bit pointless, until we saw someone pulled over for speeding quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
  • Don’t overpack, but do have gear for different types of weather. I know it may be tempting to just throw stuff in the back of your vehicle, but remember that what goes in must be sorted through while on the trip and then taken back out at the end of it. Also, you’ll want to leave some room for whatever you buy on the trip. Do have clothing handy that you can layer in case of a storm or change in temperature. And footwear that will be comfortable during hours seated inside a moving vehicle.
  • If you’re travelling during peak season, book accommodations ahead of time. We’ve seen people show up unannounced at hotels that we already had a room at and watched them panic when there wasn’t any space to be had. After hours of driving, it’s great to know that you have a place to lay your weary head.

A great sense of humour and ability to not panic will be your secret weapons on any road trip, because things rarely go completely according to plan.

Keep an eye on news and weather reports. No matter how much you prepare in advance, Nature can still surprise you.

When we drove down to Virginia a couple of years ago to see explore the area around Williamsburg, we got a real bombshell. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, on our second day there, after we finished our first round of golf we were chatting with one fellow where we turned in our cart and he asked how we liked the course and if we were going to play again. We said we thought we’d do another round in a couple of days, which he advised might not exactly be possible because of the impending hurricane.

The what, now? Usually you start hearing about a hurricane days ahead of time while it’s still a tropical depression, but this one popped up out of nowhere. By the time we returned to our hotel after dinner it was all over the news, already bearing down heavily on Florida and due to head our way in less than two days while still Category Three.

We’ve been in worse, but with more shelter than we had at our hotel in Williamsburg. Luckily we were staying inland as opposed to out along the coast. That evening we did some rejigging to our touring plans for the week and kept an eye on the storm’s progress. Since tornadoes were also in the projected path, I also downloaded the Red Cross app to my phone so we could receive alerts. We made it through safe and sound, and still had an enjoyable trip.

Make a general itinerary but leave room for flexibility

Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens

Often the unplanned things you encounter become highlights of your trip. It’s essential to know opening and closing times of the important things you want to see, and then enjoy time in between for impromptu exploring.

We love to go to upstate New York along the Hudson River Valley in the fall, and we’ve had so much fun meandering around small towns and farm markets, where we’ve had amazing chocolate milk, pumpkin butter, baked goods and great ambience on a beautiful fall day. On a golfing road trip through Alabama, we had fabulous barbecue and southern food based on recommendations from golf course staff.

Based on years of our own road trips, those are my tips to make your own version really enjoyable. Beyond that, safety and comfort are the solid underpinnings, and a little research and planning, plus some common sense on the journey, will go a long way. If you have your own tips or insights, please share as well.

The Return of the Road Trip Vacation?

Views from the road on the western side of Ireland

I retired from full-time work last week, and at an online celebration for me a lot of my co-workers all asked me the same question: Where do you plan to travel to next, now that you’re retiring?

I didn’t have an answer for them. I know that after years of hearing about my escapades in foreign countries with my hubby, they were hoping for something wild and wonderful, but no one knows what the future is going to hold in terms of possibilities.

There are still quite a few places on my bucket list – Antarctica (our 7th and final continent), seeing Petra in Jordan, more of Africa – and I’m sure they’ll become available again at some point in time. What the conditions will be is a whole other story. My hubby and I love to get out from our hotel or resort and explore the local landscape, poke around local shops and bargain for treasures to bring home, chat with people. In Tahiti we went to one of the Food Truck nights along the waterfront in Papeete. It was pouring rain so not very busy, but the trucks all had awnings up to shelter diners, and we sampled all kinds of fabulous food. At one pirate-themed venture all the staff came out – in their pirate hats and striped t-shirts – and chatted with us for about half an hour – thank goodness my rusty French was up to the challenge!

Will those types of intimate interactions be possible in the future? It’s hard to say, but in the meantime, I think the type of trips that my parents used to take my brother and me on when we were kids are going to make a reappearance: the Road Trip.

My parents met in Canada after the Second World War, and, typical for the time, they didn’t have much money. Nor did many people, and road trips comprised the standard vacation for many families. Driving along Ontario’s highways and byways, shady pull-off spots with picnic tables were a common sight, along with some better-or-worse roadside diners and a variety of basic motels to rest weary heads for a few hours.

Our family friends moved up to northern Ontario when I was around four years old, and for the next dozen years we made an annual summer trip to visit them on their farm. There weren’t any high-speed roads north of Toronto for many years, so the journey was an all-day adventure.

The northern Ontario roads that were once gravel are now paved

Even in those days the traffic around Toronto was awful, so my parents would rouse us from our dubious sleep around three in the morning, bundle us and all the baggage into the car, and in the still of the night we would clandestinely slip off to parts far away.

I was always so excited to begin these trips – a feeling that has stayed with me throughout my life. That building sense of anticipation for days in advance, packing up clothes for the trip, my mother making sandwiches and a thermos of coffee for our mid-trip break, and then the hushed setting out on the actual journey with who knew what might lie ahead!

Setting off before daybreak, 2013

(My first exotic trip, to Egypt with my hubby for our 10th anniversary, was so amazing to me that I was bouncing off the walls from the moment we paid the deposit on the tour. I suspect I drove my co-workers crazy for the next seven months, and possibly my hubby as well.)

My dad was usually rather uptight until we safely made it out of the Golden Horseshoe. The first hurdle was a god-awful highway cloverleaf around Hamilton with very poor visibility – drivers took their lives in their hands trying to traverse it, and thankfully it was removed several decades ago. Next I remember my father trying to find his way past all the crazed interchanges on the outskirts of Toronto, with only some unimpressive road signs and a map bought at the gas station to help him navigate.

Pumpkin whoopie pies on a fall picnic at French River a few years ago

The sun would be up by the time we got to a place called French River, where we always stopped for a break and something to eat. Hot coffee and Spam sandwiches sitting in the fresh morning air on a picnic table overlooking the river were the best things in the world in those moments. My parents would always give us a little time to walk around and explore, and I still remember one wet day when I discovered a fairy pond – a tiny gap no larger than a lunch plate in some moss on top of the granite undersurface where rain water had collected. I was enchanted.

After a quick ‘constitutional’ in the woods – no handy toilets – with full tummies and empty bladders we were on our way again.

Northern Ontario was pretty wild and untamed back then, except for Sudbury, with its factories and mines belching smoke into the air. From Sudbury we turned due west along the TransCanada highway, along deep blue rivers and towns selling things like smoked whitefish, until we got to Iron Bridge and left paved roads behind. The farm communities north of Iron Bridge were strung out along dirt and gravel roads that undulated and curved with the rolling landscape, edged by wildflowers and grey split-rail fences.

Split rail fences still in use

The first time we drove up there I remember arriving after darkness had fallen and a thick fog filled all the dips in the road. There were no roadside lights and we had only the car’s headlights to pierce the complete and utter blackness. Thinking back, I marvel at my dad’s fortitude in cresting each hill and driving down into a well of fog which could have been bottomless for all we could tell from the top. Finally, in the distance we could see the welcome glow of the lights in our friends’ farmhouse, and they would usher us into the warmth of their kitchen, safe and sound, amongst the gleaming fireflies that flitted through the fir trees around their yard and the lonely calling of loons somewhere in the distance.

My hubby and I have taken many road trips together, and it’s still one of our favourite things to do. There’s a timeless feel of adventure in hitting the open road. Sometimes I’ve packed a picnic, sometimes we just stop at places that look interesting.

On the road, South Island, New Zealand

We visited New Zealand by road trip, and it was a grand and intimate way to see the country. We rented a car in Auckland, and I’d bought a guest pass to the Top 10 group of holiday parks, where visitors can stay in anything from their own campervan to some pretty nice rooms with all the facilities. It was off-season, so we didn’t prebook anything – just followed the itinerary I’d mapped out and pulled up at the nearest Top 10 for the night (or two). We saw jade-green rivers, gold-dusted mountains, smoking volcanoes, iron-gray ocean waves and vivid turquoise lakes. We hiked to see Mt Aoraki, where Edmund Hillary practised his mountain climbing before attempting Mt Everest, and had tea in the Mountaineer Café he created.

You can road-trip almost anywhere – one of our favourite places is upstate New York in the autumn – and since it’s only you and your companions in a vehicle, staying in hotels or motels that can be disinfected and perhaps having tailgate-style meals in a restaurant parking lot, I think this style of laidback, carefree travel may make a comeback. Next week we’ll look at some tips on how to have a great road trip!

Leisure in the time of Coronavirus

Finally some nice weather is here, and my hubby and I made a beeline for a golf course. It was a still, humid evening, so the air was very heavy, but we chose our tee time at 6pm, past the midday heat and hopefully hordes of fellow golfers.

It turned out that the course was almost empty. It was a little eerie – normally on a weekend the course would be very busy – but the relative quiet was nice, and we enjoyed playing the round at a more relaxed pace without having to worry about either crowding a group ahead of us or having someone come up behind us.

The golfers we did come across on nearby fairways, in a range of ages, all seemed happy to just be out getting exercise in the fresh air for a couple of hours.

Mark Twain once famously described golf as “a good walk spoiled”, but during this pandemic a golf course is one of the easiest places to play at safe distances from other people.  

On the flip side of the outdoors coin, our local news service reported that 300-plus youths crowded onto a lakefront beach on the weekend, making physical distancing impossible.

The hard truth is that, as much as we would all like our lives to go back to normal, they aren’t going to. COVID is going to become a permanent fixture, and, like the increased security in airports and on flights ever since 9-11, the ways that we’re going to mingle with other people will change.

There are upsides to this scenario, though – less crowding at public attractions, for one thing. The last time we were at Disney World, for our nephew’s destination wedding, the park seemed determined to jam in as many people as possible. It was a good thing hubby and I had been there many times before, as we weren’t able to get onto a single ride. We did actually spend 45 minutes shuffling through the long line for the Haunted Mansion, only to have the overused ride breakdown just as we were getting close. Walking around the massive parks, you would have been hard pressed to find any unoccupied pavement, which thronged with harried parents bashing their strollers into everyone’s legs, sugar-hyped children running amok, seniors trying to stay out of the worst of the traffic.

The scenes were a far cry from the video clips on all the shuttle buses that showed happy, smiling families laughing and enjoying themselves.

Universal Orlando park is set to reopen late next week, and one of their primary safety measures is to limit attendance. Prices don’t seem to be very much higher than pre-pandemic, but even if they rise, the trade-off will be greater enjoyment when you’re not cheek-to-jowl with other visitors.

We have the opportunity now to rethink how we want to spend our leisure time.

The Baby Boomer generation, which I’m part of, is arguably the best-positioned generation to weather the pandemic because we grew up without all the electronic gadgets that provide easy entertainment in the 21st century. I know – the horror of growing up without computers and the internet!

Our parents encouraged us to get out of the house, expecting us to more-or-less amuse ourselves from breakfast to dinner. We became very creative at finding ways to play. My childhood neighbourhood edged a large wooded area running along both sides of a river, and we could disappear there for hours! Lots of hiking, ropes strung from trees to swing on, masses of wild roses and plenty of wildlife to hunt for.

In my back yard there was a very large willow tree at the base of which my brother and I constructed a tightly-woven branch-fort that kept us dry in the worst rain. In the winter most back yards had homemade skating rinks and snow forts.

These days I consider our entire region to be my ‘back yard’ – we’ve been exploring nooks and crannies we hadn’t bothered with before when we concentrated on exploring thousands of miles away.

The internet has been a boon while we’ve been quarantined in our homes, and has so many opportunities for trying out new things. You can take online courses in just about any subject, whether just for your own interest or to maybe develop into a new job.

As I write this blog, I’m also watching a show I just discovered on our Netflix stream called The Big Flower Fight. I’m mesmerized by the stunningly beautiful and creative flower creations – on Episode 1, a gigantic and gorgeous floral moth; on Episode 2, breathtaking fairy godmother gowns made of things like orchids and leafy fronds. I can’t wait to see what else the contestants come up with.

I have very little of a green thumb – everything that survives around our home has to be pretty self-sufficient – but if I were a gardener, I would be so tempted to try making a similar creation in my own garden. You could really let your imagination run wild with some wiry supports and an assortment of textures and colours!

Maybe you’ve got a memoir tucked inside of you that’s dying to see the light of day – that happens to be one of my own upcoming projects about some of the wonderful adventures my hubby and I have experienced on our global travels.

I also love photography, and there’s plenty to practice on within a few miles of home, as well as baking, and I finally have the opportunity to try out the hundreds of recipes I’ve clipped over many years. Tea and baking are bosom companions, and I continue to get invitations to do tea-themed talks for our local organizations – I’m booked to do one in October if the situation allows.

Years ago I joined a local Toastmasters club just to learn how to speak at meetings without freezing up. I was a terrified little mouse lurking at the back of the meetings for several weeks, but slowly I learned the techniques of polished public speaking, and with regular practice I overcame my fears about standing up front at a lectern.

Ten years and many talks later, I’ve discovered that I love exploring fascinating topics with enthusiastic audiences. At my tea tastings, one of my favourite things to do is to walk among the attendees, finding out how they like the different teas and food pairings, looking at their favourite tea cups (which they bring to sample the teas with), and hearing their personal tea stories.

I’m so grateful that my hubby and I got to so many of the places in the world that we wanted to see before last December. It’s hard to predict how many more places on our bucket list that we’ll be able to manage while destinations figure out how to welcome visitors again safely, but there are quite a few that we can do within our own country.

When the easy options become limited, it’s time to open your mind up to all kinds of new possibilities. And for those of you who think chasing a little ball across acres of land is absurd, as Mark Twain did, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

What new things have you tried, or are thinking about trying out? The results might surprise and delight you 😊