Inspire Me! blog

Help everyone to have a safe holiday

Yesterday we got word that our friend’s 21-year-old stepson was killed in a car accident. A life unfulfilled, a family destroyed in just a few moments of someone’s careless or reckless driving.

I don’t know the details about how the accident happened, but in our area there seem to be serious accidents on almost a daily basis, and watching how badly people drive I can understand why.

Today I spotted a woman in an SUV leaving the parking lot of one of our malls who ran every stop sign, and at a very busy intersection she sped through a light that had already turned red. It was frightening to watch her.

Another driver, a parent dropping their child off at school, pulled into the property right across my front bumper, even though there wasn’t another vehicle behind me for several blocks. All they had to do was wait for 5 seconds. I don’t know whether the driver was an idiot or just not paying attention – neither was a good scenario.

People, your vehicle is a 2-ton killing machine! If you’re not driving properly, what on earth makes you think your fellow drivers are?

If you’re doing any of the following things while you drive, you’re a danger on the roads:

  • Not even slowing down for stop signs; bottom line is that you should be stopping
  • Running red lights
  • Texting
  • Fixing your hair
  • Passing someone on the on-ramp to the highway
  • Changing lanes without warning or checking if there’s room for you to move over: YOU DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY when moving into another lane!
  • Not signaling turns or lane changes
  • Not checking the speed of the traffic coming along in the lane you want to turn into
  • Tailgating – if I can’t see your headlights in my rearview mirror, you’re too close! This is especially bad if there’s water or snow on the roads, as your stopping time will be significantly reduced if the vehicle in front of you has to jam on the brakes or loses control
  • Dodging in and out of traffic
  • Breezing past a long line of cars and forcing your way into that lane
  • Moving across more than one lane of traffic at the last minute to get to your exit
  • Driving with your pet on your lap
  • Not cleaning the snow/ice off all of your windows – how are you going to see a 3-ton van that’s lost control and is heading straight for you?
  • Not cleaning the snow/ice off your roof – your snow is blowing off into the face of the driver behind you
  • Sliding: if your car is sliding on a snowy road, YOU’RE GOING TOO FAST FOR THE CONDITIONS
  • Paying attention to something other than the road

Driving is a cooperative activity – we all have to drive properly for it to be safe on the roads. If you decide you’re going to cheat, some day you’re going to deprive a family of one or more of its loved ones, and you’ll have to live with that for the rest of your life – if you’re still alive yourself.

The holiday spirit

Poinsettias at the Mara Sopa Lodge, Kenya - photo by E Jurus
Poinsettias at the Mara Sopa Lodge, Kenya – photo by E Jurus

The Christmas season can be challenging. Visions of dysfunctional family get-togethers, guilt-laden commercials asking for donations, neighbours who don’t know what Christmas-light overkill is, shopping mall craziness and sad songs that make me cry dance through my head.

I think anyone who gets giddy over the holiday season hasn’t yet experienced it after a deeply personal loss, or suffered through years of tense family occasions, and I envy them. For the rest of us though, there are strategies to cope.

Losing a loved one, whether human or pet, can wipe out whatever Christmas spirit you might have had. For those of you who may be scoffing at being so sad after losing a pet, get over it! Pets become an integral part of a family, and are loved and taken care of just like any other family member, so losing a pet is devastating.

For our first Christmas without our male dog, who’d been with us since he was a puppy, I couldn’t stomach anything glittery in the house – it seemed like too much of a celebratory atmosphere, and we certainly weren’t celebrating anything that year. We also dispensed with a standard Christmas tree; I just put a few white branches in a pot and a minimal amount of ornaments. Keeping everything low-key helped, and we got through it. The following year we lost our female dog as well, but in recent years we’ve been able to return to a fairly normal Christmas. It’s never been quite the same, though, and I’ve come to terms with that.

Sometimes we’re in a position to help others through a similar crisis.

One November, after many years of Christmas meals where the interpersonal tensions among some family members were thick enough to cut with a knife, if they even showed up, Mike and I decided we were tired of it.

We were on the same wavelength that year. I’d been watching a great old Hepburn and Tracy movie called Desk Set, and the scenes of Christmas merriment at Hepburn’s office really struck me – I hadn’t experienced that kind of celebration for years. When I mentioned it to Mike, he said he’d been feeling the same way, and he suggested that we do something revolutionary: hold Christmas dinner and invite everyone, regardless of who was speaking to whom. Everyone would be welcome!

I agreed, and we started planning. After some thought, we decided to have a brunch, which tends to be a more relaxed occasion than any other type of meal, in an open-house format to allow everyone with extended families a good window of time to drop in. Hot food would be out on the buffet table from noon to 4pm, and people could come and go as they needed.

We were just going to start making phone calls to everyone when the unthinkable happened – at the beginning of December one of our uncles died riding in the car with his wife. He’d had heart issues for years, but no one knew that anything was imminent. We debated what to do, and decided that we would go ahead with our meal, and that because time was short we needed to extend the invitations while we could catch everyone during the funeral weekend. It was a difficult choice to make, but it worked out – the idea seemed to be a bright spot in everyone’s mind.

We didn’t ask people to rsvp, just to come if they could, even if it would only be to share a holiday beverage. The only comment I made to Mike ahead of time was that if anyone brought trouble into the house I’d throw them out, and I meant it. This was to be a Christmas of harmony, even if only for a day.

Several days ahead of the big day I began cooking a selection of dishes I thought would sit well in warming pans for four hours, and then I kept cooking and cooking. My brother, who stayed with us on Christmas Eve and offered to help, asked me what the heck I was going, and I remember replying that I couldn’t seem to stop making food!

Christmas Day arrived bright and sunny. By 11:30am everything was on the buffet table and we waited with baited breath to see if anyone would actually show up to help us eat the huge amount of food I’d made!

We must have struck a chord with people that year, because people began to show up with smiles and much more good cheer than we expected. The warming pans worked brilliantly and I didn’t have to do anything other than relax and enjoy myself for the rest of the day.

It turned out that the buffet concept was a great idea – people who weren’t on good terms could just politely wish each other a Merry Christmas and then sit anywhere in the house (no room for big tables, so all the food was manageable on a lap plate).

Everyone was intrigued by the food and kept returning to the table to try out something else – turkey tenderloin in a cider cream gravy, cheese blintzes with cherry sauce, honey-mustard sausage bites, sour cream & onion bread are a few of the dishes I recall now.

There was a very benevolent and peaceful atmosphere that day, and we saw people who hadn’t really spoken in years having actual conversations together. Perhaps the best part was that it turned out to be a decent Christmas even for our newly-widowed aunt: she spent it with all her sisters together for the first time in quite a while, and without a formal table seating I think it wasn’t so painfully obvious that her husband wasn’t there.

No one came and went – everyone stayed for the entire afternoon and into the evening, eventually trickling out in good spirits. It felt like a Christmas miracle, and although I can’t tell you that everyone made up and lived happily ever after with each other, for that one Christmas (and a few afterward) everyone genuinely had the holiday spirit.

When you’re planning your holiday meals, remember that the spirit of Christmas is generosity – a genuine welcome for everyone. Forget putting on a grand show or trying to make everything perfect – what really means something to your guests is how welcome you make them feel. Without that, you may as well not bother.

Memories of travel food

Lunch at a bush camp in Botswana - photo by E Jurus
Lunch at a bush camp in Botswana – photo by E Jurus

One of my favourite things about travel is the cultural immersion, and a large part of that consists of the food we enjoy in different countries. What we’ve consumed has provided some of my most powerful memories over the years.

I can’t tell you much about the 400-year-old pub we had lunch at in Stratford-upon-Avon many years ago, apart from the creaky floors that dipped alarmingly on the second floor where the washrooms were, but I can recall in great detail the incredible chocolate cake we had – three layers of intense dark chocolate goodness piled with a velvety chocolate frosting, and drenched in rich pale-yellow pouring cream. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

In Egypt, on chilly nights on the top deck of our boat on the Nile, after dinner the crew would bring out an enormous battered steel kettle of steaming hot tea, which they served with hot frothy milk and lots of sugar. There was nothing better than being bundled up in our blankets, sipping this wonderful tea and eating digestive cookies at the end of an amazing day of sightseeing.

On the island of Bali, we hired a vehicle and driver to take us to see the rice terraces that were currently under cultivation – a spectacular experience, like being inside a giant emerald – and after a long day of touring with still over an hour to get back to our resort in Denpasar we asked him to find us a place to stop for dinner. He asked us what we like to eat, and then after a few minutes he pulled up in a tiny town at a place that looked like an old mechanic’s garage. We were a bit startled, but Wayan assured us that the kitchen was clean and the food was safe to eat. We decided that it wouldn’t be beneficial to him to kill off his customers, so we went in with him and let him order for us. We were the only non-Indonesians in the joint, which had only one big table where we were slowly joined by a few men from town who trickled in. We had a very spicy vegetable stew, rice and some bottles of pop. The men from town paid us some attention, but mostly chatted amongst themselves. At one point Wayan stepped out to buy a live chicken caged in chicken wire, which he put in the back of his small van. The entire meal for all three of us cost $8. The mother who was cooking and her daughter came out to meet us, so we asked Wayan to tell her how delicious everything was, which earned us a big smile.

Our camp cooks in Africa have been able to produce some of the most amazing food on a tiny stove rigged up on top of pop cans over an open fire way out in the bush. We’ve had everything from cheddar and bacon pizza to steak to pears poached in red wine with chocolate cake. Eating out in the open, under the African stars, with the sound of hippos bellowing in the distance, is an incredible experience.

You can’t plan for experiences like this – you stumble upon them, and they stay with you forever. They represent an entire culture on a plate. Forget tracking down a MacDonald’s or something that reminds you of home; that’s not why you’re there. Enjoy a memory that will make you smile on a cold winter day when you need some cheering up, and even better, bring home the recipe from that distant land and make it that day!

A slow boat up the Nile

Our first view of the Valley of the Kings - photo on slide by E Jurus
Our first view of the Valley of the Kings – photo on slide by E Jurus

Have you ever had one of those days where you wished you were somewhere else, doing something wonderfully exciting instead of sitting at your desk? Today was one of those days for me. I found myself dreaming of being back in Egypt, on a slow boat chugging up the Nile River. I’m not sure what made that pop into my head today, but I tend to wax nostalgic about trips I’ve been on during the months that they took place, and in November 1989 I was in Egypt.

That trip was the first big adventure that my hubby Mike and I undertook, and it was quite a journey. Our tour company, Transglobal, gave us a lot of information ahead of time about what conditions would be like, how to pack, etc., but we still had no idea what to expect about actually being there.

Cairo was chaotic, noisy and fun. To see King Tutankhamen’s famous gold mask in the Egyptian Museum was like a dream. We spent a day out on the Giza Plateau — touring the very first pyramid at Sakkara, gazing at the enigmatic face of the Sphinx, frog-walking up the Grand Gallery inside the Great Pyramid and wondering what all those strange passageways were designed for – and then visited a papyrus-making enterprise, where Mike and I bought one painted with the statue of Anubis just like the one we’d seen in the museum.

We rented striped cloth shoe-covers to explore the magnificent mosque at the Citadel, overlooking the jumbled rooftops of Cairo, and had lunch in a dim restaurant where the smoke from huge frying pans of falafel patties wafted upwards to form clouds on the ceiling.

We had a day to wander around by ourselves, so Ron from Holland joined us to explore the crazy, exotic Khan-el-Khalili Bazaar, up and down the dusty stone-floored passages filled with spices, coloured skeins of wool, perfume, leather goods… Mike and I bargained over bottles of pop (sharing a beverage with the owner was an essential part of bargaining in Cairo) for a brass hookah in a murky shop at the end of a lane – then had to try to find our way back out of the maze of streets again.

But it wasn’t until we stepped onto our small boat on the Nile that we felt we were slipping the bonds of time and voyaging through history. We watched scenery that seemed unchanged from thousands of years ago pass by along the river – boys leading donkeys laden with bundles of reeds along the sandy banks, men casting fishing nets from shallow canoes, thin stretches of palm trees beyond which the endless rolling dunes of the Sahara stretched away toward the horizon.

After lazy hours of chugging up the river, we’d pull over, tie up and visit an ancient temple, or a camel market. At night we’d enjoy dinner on the open top deck, wrapped up in blankets against the night chill, and attempt stick-dancing with our crew. One night we sat around a fire on the beach and sang songs under the stars with a local farmer. It was a truly magical experience.

Halfway through our wild camel ride in the Sahara at Aswan - photo on slide, property of E Jurus
Halfway through our wild camel ride in the Sahara at Aswan – photo on slide, property of E Jurus

We did many more incredible things on that trip – seeing the hills of Valley of the Kings for the first time was breathtaking, and we watched the rising sun gild the massive statues of Ramses II that guard the entrance to the temple at Abu Simbel. We rode a camel out to a long-abandoned monastery in the desert at Aswan and held on for dear life, laughing hysterically, when our  mount decided to charge back down the sand dunes to the waterfront.

Going to Egypt was our first taste of real adventure, and we’ve been hooked ever since. On days when I’m stuck doing paperwork, I remember that amazing journey and travel back there in my mind for a little while.

Great opportunities

Walking with lions at the African Lion Encounter, Zimbabwe - photo of E Jurus
Walking with lions at the African Lion Encounter, Zimbabwe – photo of E Jurus

Our modern world is so full of opportunities! You can live out just about anything you might want to put on your bucket list, or try out any type of job experience.

Although it wasn’t originally on my bucket list the first time I went to Africa in 2007, as soon as I came across the opportunity to do a bush walk with lions in Zimbabwe near Victoria Falls, I jumped at it. We’d be spending 9 days on safari first, looking at lions from the safety of a game-drive vehicle, but to actually be able to touch a lion!

It was an intense and absolutely amazing experience. I can’t describe to you what the sensation was like of being able to interact and even touch these powerful, regal beasts. The lions that you walk with aren’t completely wild — they’ve been rescued as small cubs and habituated to humans — but there are strict rules to follow, and you never forget that they could destroy you with a paw swipe if they so chose. To be able to safely get that close is a rare privilege.

Both times that I was lucky enough to be able to do the Lion Encounter (click here for more info), I observed volunteers working with the staff — yes, you can go to Africa and spend weeks with the cubs, helping to feed them and conduct behavioural research.

There are many organizations around the world that offer volunteer experiences, both with people/communities and with animals. Many opportunities are just for personal growth, but there’s an organization called Worldwide Experience that offers some fantastic opportunities for work that would look stellar on a resume. One of their newest packages is the Wildlife Veterinary Programme: 21 days working with the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust. You’ll combine adventure and some unbeatable work experience! Visit the website for more info on this programme and all the other terrific opportunities they offer. As with any such opportunity, do your research to make sure it’s a good fit and that the organization resonates with you, and send me a message if you need any tips about travel to Africa.

Happy Halloween!

Pix from “Halloween at Greenfield Village”, taken at Greenfield Village, Dearborn MI, on October 12, 2013, for your Halloween enjoyment! If you decide to visit next year, though, a word of caution: this event is not friendly for those with mobility issues, and when I complained to the management I received a decidedly unhelpful response.

Attendees begin arriving in costume for the 8pm entry time - photo by E Jurus
Attendees begin arriving in costume for the 8pm entry time – photo by E Jurus
An eerie Grim Reaper stalks a field  - photo by E Jurus
An eerie Grim Reaper stalks a field – photo by E Jurus
The event 'mascot' looms menacingly over one of the walkways  - photo by E Jurus
The event ‘mascot’ looms menacingly over one of the walkways – photo by E Jurus
One of the main squares is lit by string lights  - photo by E Jurus
One of the main squares is lit by string lights – photo by E Jurus
Fans wait to have their fortunes told  - photo by E Jurus
Fans wait to have their fortunes told – photo by E Jurus
The opportunity for a 'ride' on a witch's broom in the mild night air  - photo by E Jurus
The opportunity for a ‘ride’ on a witch’s broom in the mild night air – photo by E Jurus
Yours truly with one of the many costumed characters available for photo ops  - photo by E Jurus
Yours truly with one of the many costumed characters available for photo ops – photo by E Jurus
The charming grandstand becomes a haunted place at night  - photo by E Jurus
The charming grandstand becomes a haunted place at night – photo by E Jurus
A ghostly woman haunts a widow's walk  - photo by E Jurus
A ghostly woman haunts a widow’s walk – photo by E Jurus
Entrance to the Sleepy Hollow haunted forest  - photo by E Jurus
Entrance to the Sleepy Hollow haunted forest – photo by E Jurus
A young cowgirl checks out the Halloween ornaments for sale in one of the barns  - photo by E Jurus
A young cowgirl checks out the Halloween ornaments for sale in one of the barns – photo by E Jurus
A tree haunted by grinning jack-o-lanterns haunts the end of the journey  - photo by E Jurus
A tree haunted by grinning jack-o-lanterns overlooks the end of the journey – photo by E Jurus