The search for peace

I remember exactly what I was doing on September 11, 2001. I imagine that most people do. Some events are so impactful on a global scale that they are forever etched in our collective memories.

I was sitting at my desk in a common area at our local college, working away, when someone came out of an office and said, “There’s something going on in New York.”

The internet was still in its early days as a news source, but several of us crowded around our colleague’s live stream to watch, stunned, as events unfolded. I can recall watching the second plane fly into a tower; it was so surreal that it was hard to absorb.

Word spread quickly and I think most work ground to a halt as the Library set up a big TV screen in the lobby. No one knew what to do. This horrific event was unfolding before our very eyes, and all we could do was watch.

The 9/11 tragedy had ripples for a long time afterward.

The skies were eerily quiet for days while a no-fly rule was in effect. Friends with relatives in New York City were glued to their television sets. Everyone wondered how the aftermath would play out.

I live in a community close to the Canadian-US border, with hydroelectric plants and a number of big factories, so most people that I knew experienced some anxiety over the possibility of our own attack – although I suspect that scenario was on most people’s minds in North America.

In the height of irony, astronauts on the International Space Station, a cooperative venture bringing nations together far above us, could see the smoke plumes and struggled with their own sense of helplessness – you can read their poignant point of view in an article on Space.com.

Six years later, when my hubby and I went on our first African safari, airlines still had considerable restrictions on what travelers could bring on board, and we became very creative at packing economically.

9/11 changed our modern landscape, and there has been endless speculation about why it happened. Like most historical events, we may never know all of the truth, but I think we can agree that global peace continues to be a series of forward steps alternating with backward steps.

I believe that the root of conflict is a lack of respect for someone else’s right to hold a different point of view, and I believe that one of the ways we can work toward global peace is to travel.

It’s really difficult to hold another place or culture at arm’s length, to put a psychological wall up, when you’ve been there in person and met the ordinary people who live there, work there, try to provide for their families, laugh, feel pain, feel sorrow. It’s hard to turn away from animals and environments in need when you’ve walked among them.

We have met so many wonderful people on our travels. We have seen the magnificence of places like Africa and the Amazon Jungle, and know how critical they are to life as we know it.

Life thrives in the quiet places of our planet. Beauty and harmony are there. Find those places and their inhabitants, and understand why all the parts matter.

As a counterpoint to the sadness of 9/11, and the many ongoing conflicts in the world, one movement we can embrace is Forest Bathing. The name may sound silly, but bear with me on this.

Forest Bathing is a Japanese practice that promotes wellness by spending mindful time in a forested area. Nature is healing. Buildings, as beautiful as some of our constructions can be, are artificial environments, surrounded by cities that often don’t include much green space. Our increasing urbanization is separating us from the planet that has nurtured us for eons.

September 7th, this past weekend, was International Forest Bathing Day. The practice is really catching on world-wide, and there is likely at least one certified guide within fifty miles of you. Of course, anyone can do forest bathing for themselves, but you need to be able to do it slowly, taking the time to notice all the beauty and enjoy the serenity.

Find your centre, your inner core of peace and connectedness. I’d love to hear about it.

Seeking mellow

I believe that spas are one of the best things ever invented.

If we have time on a journey, I love to check out a spa in a different location. The best massage therapist I’ve ever had works out all my kinks and knots at a great spa within 15 minutes of my house, but there’s something so relaxing about checking out of life for a few hours in a location far, far away. It feels extra-removed from all the minute little cares and irritations back home.

While all my travelling spa experiences have all been great, visiting a spa in a foreign location can be an eye-opener.

My first travelling spa adventure took place at the Boulders golf resort in Arizona. Our long-weekend package included one activity per day for each of us. My hubby elected to play golf each day, while I alternated between rounds of golf and either sleeping in and having fresh coffee and blueberry pancakes delivered to my casita, or having a spa treatment — so much more relaxing! At the time the treatments were based on Ayurvedic principles, and I lay blissfully on the massage table while warm herbal oil was drizzled onto my skin and infused into my pores during a 20-minute wrap.

I wanted to have try out the spa at our beach resort in Bali, but we underestimated how strong the sun was just two degrees south of the equator and got burned out body-surfing, even with sun screen. Instead of a massage I spent most of the evening in a wicker chair under the ceiling fan trying to bring some coolness to my fiery shoulders.

The most unique, and strangest spa experience I’ve ever had was on the island of Mauritius. Our resort package included a complimentary spa combo of a coffee scrub, using coffee beans grown right on the island, followed by a massage.

Let me start out by mentioning that Mauritius spent 95 years of its history under French rule, and it still retains a strong French influence.

Entrance to the spa at Legends Resort, Mauritius
The Source Thalaspa entrance at the Legends Resort in Mauritius

I happily trotted over to the spa one afternoon. The serene entrance had intrigued me from our first day checking out the grounds. The spa was small but lovely. I was given a locker and a fluffy white robe — nothing unusual there. Then I was led to my treatment room and introduced to my therapist, a lovely woman who gave me a pair of tiny paper panties to put on and told me to lie down on the table face-up.

Beg pardon? Where was my cover sheet to hide my no-longer-20-year-old body?? I hesitated, but this seemed to be standard practice, so I did as asked, trying to appear nonchalant when the therapist returned. She then proceeded to scrub all of my exposed skin from the neck down with what seemed to be coffee grounds in a light oil. I looked and smelled like a giant coffee bean by the end of it, and cringed internally when she told me to put my pristine white robe on and return to the change room to rinse off. Well, I thought, it’s their laundry budget, so off I went back through the gardens to the change room.

When I arrived there, the two shower stalls were in use, so one of the attendants suggested that I could use the shower in the courtyard instead of waiting around. Having seen men wandering through the courtyard earlier, I asked “Is it a private shower?” Well, no, she replied. I refrained from saying “Are you nuts?”, because that would have been extremely impolite, and merely replied that I didn’t mind waiting.

After I rinsed and returned to my treatment room, I was given a short but very good massage with nothing more surprising than some different positioning of my arms as the therapist attacked all the knots in my back. The coffee scent faded quickly, and my skin was incredibly smooth for days afterward.

The spa at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in the Andean cloud forest was arguably my favourite spa experience. We didn’t hike the Inca Trail — not physically feasible for either of us — and instead we took the train to Aguas Calientes, the small town along the Urubamba River that serves as the base for most people visiting the compelling ruins at the top of Machu Picchu mountain.

If you ever have the chance to stay at this hotel, set into the cloud forest that surrounds Machu Picchu, I highly recommend it. Unfortunately since we visited the hotel has become a National Geographic Stay of Distinction and the rates have gone up considerably, but it is a wonderful place.

After several strenuous days adjusting to the high altitudes in Peru, I thought a relaxing massage was in order. The hotel makes all of its own botanical products from plants right on the property, and I’d already tried out some of the soaps and lotions in our casita.

Soaps and oils at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Peru
Toiletries in our casita bathroom at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Aguas Calientes, Peru

The spa was located in its own white-walled casita surrounded by the lush cloud forest. I took a few photos of the treatment room, softly lit with candles, with the floor covered in a springy rush matting, so that every step was like walking on a rush-strewn cloud.

Treatment room at the Inkaterra hotel, Aguas Calientes
Treatment room at the Inkaterra hotel, Aguas Calientes

My massage therapist then proceeded to work her magic — for a petite lady she had lots of strength to knead my tight muscles into mush, working those scented oils into every pore amid the soothing sounds of the jungle.

While I haven’t been able to manage a spa visit on every adventure, the explorations have been as fascinating as they were therapeutic. The spas all seemed to run on similar rules; if you need to bone up on spa etiquette, read this handy article by Trip Savvy — but go with an open mind and be prepared for some interesting surprises the further you get from home.

A few of my favourite things about…Canada

Like citizens of most countries, we Canadians like to gripe about our home turf, but the more we travel the more we realize how fortunate we are — a stable government, a great health-care system, many freedoms, and so much more. In honour of our national holiday coming up in a few days, here is a pictorial look at a few of the things I love about Canada:

Canada GeeseDSC01507

I love these beautiful, majestic birds, despite how much they poop — they are a gift!

Farmers’ MarketsDSC01462
Fenwick Berry Farm displays some of the lush produce we are truly fortunate to be able to grow and buy

Supper Markets
DSC01460

These delicious outings have become popular in recent years

Welland CanalDSC01561

An amazing piece of engineering that has been lowering ships from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie for over 150 years, and that continues to fascinate visitors from all over the world

The Great Lakes
P1160385
These lakes are so large that friends who visited from Australia asked if they were lakes or oceans!

Maple TreesP1160258
They shelter us, provide maple syrup, and turn vivid colours in the fall

Autumn Colours
P1160554
Autumn is our most spectacular and enchanting season, IMHO

A rich Indigenous heritage and culture
DSC01537
The Indigenous Garden at Niagara College, Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus, showing the  harmony and respect for nature that permeates Indigenous life

An abundance of bees
DSC09085
I’m always happy to see bees in our ecologically troubled times

Halloween
IMG_0104
Halloween is my personal ‘happy place’, and I’m even happier that this wonderfully wacky holiday is celebrated so widely

A love of Breakfast
IMG_0588
We can enjoy this most basic comfort meal at a wide number of restaurants

Gorgeous winter scenery
DSC00499
Even while we curse at winter storms, we can’t help but admire the scenery, as well as…

Mother Nature’s ice sculptures
DSC00449
Poetry brought to life

Music
DSC01469
Outdoor concerts are everywhere, and are a great way to enjoy a nice summer evening

Craft beverages
DSC01471
Artisanal wineries, breweries and distillers are livening up our food and beverage landscape

Miles of open road
P1160364
Thousands of miles of good roads to explore, like the Trans-Canada Highway

…There are far too many things to list here — these are just a few that I happen to have photos of. I invite you to share your own personal favourites with me in honour of Canada Day!

The pleasures of golf?

It’s spring in North America and time to commence the annual ritual of the royal and ancient game of Driving Yourself Crazy, aka Golf.

I blame my husband for introducing me to the game when we were dating. Little did I know what I was getting myself into!

To people who don’t play, golf can be a ridiculous-looking game where you attempt to hit a little round ball with a weighted stick, and then chase down the ball wherever it may have landed, only to hit it away from you again.

Robin Williams had an extremely funny (and R-rated, for language) bit about the invention of the game in his Live from Broadway show; my favourite line is about the flag pin at the conclusion of each hole: “They put it there to give you hope”.

Novice golfers are excited about the game until they discover that having a great round on one day doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to even hit the ball the next time you go out.

Veteran golfers have a love-hate relationship that varies in degree. Golf is to a large extent a mental game:

  • being able to concentrate and remain steady through at least 72 swings at the ball over an 18-hole round, on terrain that’s constantly changing
  • trying to curb your frustration when you make a bad shot that should have been an easy one
  • tweaking your swings and strategy in an attempt to achieve consistency (which is pretty much a pipe dream – even the pros can’t manage it)

The game also plays with our heads by, no matter how bad a round we’re having, allowing us at least one great shot that encourages us to come back. It’s quite evil, really.

One of the things I like about the game is the opportunity to enjoy nice weather in beautiful surroundings. (Men will play in any weather, and that’s another story entirely, but women have more sense.) My hubby and I really enjoy playing golf in different locations, and often incorporate a round in our travels if it’s feasible. Every location has its unique fingerprint, and challenges. But that’s half the fun!

For our 15th wedding anniversary we stayed and played at the gorgeous Boulders resort in Arizona. It was so great we could have happily stayed there for a month. The comprehensive service took a little getting used to initially – from the moment we arrived and our car was swarmed by staff, everything was taken care of for us – but the acclimatization took less than 24 hours and then we were soaking it all in.

Our first round took place the afternoon that we arrived, and we completely psyched ourselves out about playing on a championship course – in short, we were terrible. We did enjoy the resort-course layout: frequent yardage markers to help you check your distances, drinking fountains and a washroom building every third hole, a cart with not only both ball and club washers but also a cooler with ice for our beverages and a little nozzle to spray water on our hot faces whenever we needed to refresh. The start times were spaced 10 minutes apart, so we were never crowded by other players.

We returned to the club house, dejected. But this was resort golf, an entirely different animal! The cheerful, laid-back staff told us not to worry about our scores and emphasized that they wanted us to enjoy ourselves. Their attitude was so relaxed that it allowed us to relax, and we thoroughly enjoyed our next round.

We embraced desert golf, where divots disintegrate, made of grass on sand; there’s no retrieving your errant ball out of the rough (full of cacti called ‘Jumping Cholla’ because they hook onto your skin and break off in large chunks!); and the bunkers are really diabolical (some with cacti and even big boulders in the middle, as if trying to hit your ball out of a deep pot bunker isn’t enough punishment for landing in there).

Arizona is gorgeous, though, and our package allowed my hubby to play four rounds while I played two and visited the fabulous spa in between. It was such a hardship, I just can’t tell you.

There’s something for everyone at The Boulders – we even booked a night hike with night-vision goggles that gave us a spectacular view of the Milky Way – so it’s a great all-around vacation spot.

A couple of years ago we golfed the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama, a bucket-list item for a lot of golfers. The Trail was created in the 1980s as a way to bring in revenue to shore up the state’s retirement fund, and it’s worked brilliantly. There are 26 courses in 11 different locales running along a roughly north to south line through the state. Hubby chose the four courses he wanted to play, and as the first one was located in Mobile, just 2 hours from New Orleans, we drove down to that great Louisiana city first for a weekend to enjoy the food, history, ghostly legends and wacky Halloween Parade, then worked our way north along the golf trail.

When we arrived at our hotel in Mobile, the concierge approached me and asked if we’d had any trouble finding the hotel.

“No”, I replied, a little mystified by the question, “we just used our GPS.”

“But did it give you ‘Southern’ directions?”, he asked.

“Well no, I don’t think so,” I said, still at a loss.

“Well you see, this is how we give directions in the South”, he told me. “We say: ‘You go down the road a piece, then when you see the house where Old Blue’s sittin’ on the porch you turn right, then you go down the road another piece…’ ” My hubby and I laughed delightedly, and that exchange has become one of our most treasured memories from the trip.

The hospitality was exemplary, the courses were lovely and the Southern food delectable. One of the places we tried, based on a recommendation from the staff at the Hampton Cove course in Huntsville, was the Blue Plate Café. It’s such a faithful replica of a 1950s café that you assume it’s much older than it actually is. Created by two sisters who cook with their grandma’s old recipes, the café serves up wonderful comfort food. If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, you must stop there and have the fantastic fried chicken!!

The RTJ Trail has dedicated staff to help you plan your journey. They’ll book your tee times and even book hotels along the way if you want them to.

P1030392
It’s hard to take your game seriously when a family of warthogs is your peanut gallery

A nod to Africa for offering our most unusual round of golf to date. It took place in Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls. We rented clubs, and had planned to rent a cart as advertised on the course website but not actually available. The round was most memorable for the wildlife – crocodiles lurking in the water hazards for the unwary, impalas sprinting around the holes, and on one hole I had to wait for an entire family of warthogs to finish staring at me and wander away before I could tee off.

Unfortunately the weather was very hot, we had to walk the course, and there were no refreshments available during the entire round, so I had heat exhaustion as a result and slept for 14 hours. Nevertheless, I don’t know too many people who can say they had to face off against warthogs!

The most important piece of equipment you can have for taking up the sport of golf is a sense of humour. It keeps players sane. As the great Arnold Palmer once said, “I have a tip that can take five strokes off anyone’s game: It’s called an eraser.”

Finding that authentic experience

Samburu tribesmen demonstrating how to make fire the traditional way - photo by E Jurus
Samburu tribesmen demonstrating how to make fire the traditional way – photo by E Jurus

My travel sources have lately been reporting a surge in people looking for an “authentic” experience in places like Africa.

Let me begin by saying that one of the biggest obstacles for finding something ‘authentic’ is a traveller’s preconceptions. If you’re looking for a time capsule, you’re not going to find it – there are very few places untouched by modern civilization.

Trying to plan something authentic actually to some extent defeats the purpose. You can’t stage-manage this type of experience; you can arrange for a tribal visit, for example, but you must proceed on it with an open mind and no expectations about what might or might not happen.

A case in point is a visit to a native Samburu village that our safari group enjoyed in Kenya a couple of years ago. It wasn’t on our scheduled itinerary, but our guide suggested it and we were all immediately on board.

Just the fact that the tribe lives in a village is a change from their traditional way of existence – the Samburu were originally nomadic, but a few years ago this tribe received a schoolhouse so that their children could be educated and they’ve had to stop moving around in order to be close to the school.

In many ways the tribe still lives very traditionally, though. The village consists of huts with a frame of tree branches held together with mud and covered in whatever materials they can scavenge – old cardboard and paper, bits of cloth… The huts are an extraordinary sight, surrounded by a thick ‘hedge’ of thorny tree branches that’s too wide and dense for predators to penetrate. During the day the tribe opens up the hedge to go in and out, and at night all the animals (mainly cows) are brought inside and the gaps are closed.

Samburu village surrounded by thorn hedge - photo by E Jurus
Samburu village surrounded by thorn hedge – photo by E Jurus

The villagers dress in colourful robes and jewellery for visitors, but we did see women down at the dry bed of the Ewaso Nyiro River doing laundry in t-shirts and loose skirts. Near the Masai Mara reserve, we saw Masai people dressed in a mix of traditional and modern, often incorporating bits of modern clothing, such as pants and tops with a brightly-coloured cloth as a shawl. Regardless of how much of the Samburu robes were for our benefit, it was a joy to see the wonderful clothing that remains from ancient times.

Bits of modernity have crept in as a result of the tribe staying in one place: the villagers offer tours and sell crafts to bring in money, and our guide had a cell phone to communicate outside the village.

The visit was a fascinating experience, though – the villagers demonstrated some native dances and how they made fire, we sat on benches under a tree where they hold their village meetings, and we sat inside one of their huts to see how they live on a daily basis. The Samburu are known for their elaborate beaded jewellery, and I treasure a necklace that I bought from the hands of the woman who made it. My husband bought a great spear from one of the men – the spear with the tufted leather guard on the blade in the photo below.

Traditional Samburu dances - photo by E Jurus
Traditional Samburu dances – photo by E Jurus

Yes, we paid for the tour and were hit up for donations to the school, but if I’d known in advance that the tour would be available I would have likely brought school supplies as a donation anyway.

As we finished the tour we were steered down a path lined with villagers selling their crafts, and they were a bit aggressive, but they were just being entrepreneurs. Obviously the tribe is aware that visitors like to buy jewellery and spears, and we were happy to buy something on location as opposed to in a shop in Nairobi.

Authentic experiences require interacting with local people in however they live their normal lives, not expecting a historical moment frozen in time. This usually means getting a bit down and dirty, so to speak – avoiding luxury accommodations and getting out into the streets to walk around.

If you truly want a real African safari, e.g., go camping in the bush! I’ve stayed in luxury lodges as well, and while they are lovely, save that for a couple of days at the end of the trip as a treat after roughing it. There’s nothing like being immersed in the African bush for a week or so, as in the days of early safaris. With a good safari operator, you’ll be quite safe, and you’ll experience the magic of sitting under the great African sky at night listening to the sounds of animals settling down for sleep, sleeping yourself snuggled under duvets while the chilly night air fills your tent, waking up to the raucous call of birds, and eating delicious meals cooked over wood fires. It’s an amazingly exciting and peaceful experience at the same time.

Safari tent, Okavango Delta, Botswana - photo by E Jurus
Safari tent, Okavango Delta, Botswana – photo by E Jurus

When we were in Egypt many years ago, for the first couple of days in Cairo we felt like we were in a fishbowl riding around from sight to sight in our tour bus. It wasn’t until we had some free time and walked to the museum and the market from our hotel on the Nile that we really began to feel a connection to the people and their culture. Never fill your leisure time on a tour with back-to-back excursions – leave some time to just walk about, sit in a sidewalk café or restaurant, and watch the ebb and flow of life around you.

One of the best experiences we’ve ever had took place on our last day on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. We were flying out that night, so we arranged with our resort to have a driver guide take us on a tour of some of the island before we headed for the airport. We visited the botanical gardens, some wonderful Hindu temples, a sacred lake, a jungle waterfall, the Seven Coloured Earths of Chamarel (naturally coloured sands), and ate fresh guavas handpicked for us by our guide Roger. Since our flight wasn’t until late, we inquired about somewhere to eat dinner other than at the airport, so he took us to a little place he knew on the side of the road across the street from the ocean. We sat out on the front porch and had a fantastic spicy chicken curry with rice while we watched the traffic go by and were waved at by the passersby. It was the perfect way to end that trip.

If you want authentic experiences, you need to get away from the luxury spots and obvious tourist traps and truly interact with the locals – walk where they walk, eat where they eat, and genuinely engage them in conversation. See how they really live, not how you’d like them to. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn about the world by accepting it for what it is.

The new Samburu village school - photo by E Jurus
The new Samburu village school – photo by E Jurus

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!