The Kindling of a Flame

As a kid, I always loved the return to school every September. I missed a lot of my friends who I hadn’t seen all summer. I couldn’t wait to go out shopping for a new outfit for the first day with my mom. I knew that fall colours and Halloween were getting closer. But most of all, I loved the buzz of learning.

I started school a year earlier than most children because my brother, five years older than me, had been going to school for a while and I wanted to go too, pestering my parents enough that they finally gave in and found a private kindergarten run by nuns that was willing to take me on.

By grade one I’d taught myself how to read and was so excited to go to the big school with my brother, who I’d guess wasn’t tickled to have me in tow on the walk to and from. I loved grade one so much that I chattered constantly, until I was reprimanded by my teacher. On the flip side, I was a good reader, and several times during that season the school hauled me around to higher classes to read to them, which I thought was pretty cool but which likely didn’t impress the older kids who had to listen to it.

What I actually remember the most was sometimes going to the factory where my dad was a security guard. I’d do the rounds with him, at night when everything was shut down, and all the machinery, hulking and shadowed, was like an intriguing alien city. Machinery fascinates me to this day.

When I was six we moved to a farm in northern Ontario, where school became a wild adventure. Elementary school took place in a classic little brown one-roomed schoolhouse, heated by a wood stove.

Once paved roads were put in, the school districts were amalgamated and the old schoolhouse torn down – someone bought the property and built a home on it

Autumn was wonderful there, long walks to the school past our friends’ farms, surrounded by gorgeously-coloured trees and goldenrod waving along the roadside, the tang of woodsmoke scenting the cool fall air. I think that’s where I irrevocably fell in love with autumn.

Scenery for walking to school doesn’t get much better than this, still looking much the same as it did when I was a child[ my brother and I used to toboggan down that hlll

There was a crab apple tree flourishing in one corner of the school yard that provided ammunition for friendly wars during recess, and across the road a small hall that the school used for special projects and our annual Christmas ‘play’.

The little old hall still exists, with a fresh coat of paint

Winter presented a challenge, with several feet of snow blanketing the roads from November to April, and temperatures that could drop well below zero. Sometimes our teacher, who lived in a small town about 30 minutes away at the best of times, couldn’t make it to work, typically because ice had knocked out the bridge crossing the river that separated the wider world from our little hamlet, but just as often because we’d had a major snowfall and the roads were impassable from our farmhouses. One of our neighbours had a snowmobile, so sometimes he’d make the rounds picking us all up – I remember huddling in multiple layers of clothing against the extra chill from the wind in my face as we zipped over the snow.

Spring was always welcome, with sugaring season and the first bits of green peeking through the snow, although trips to town for groceries could be dicey with sudden flooding from snow melt. Summers were long and full of wildflowers, whip-poor-wills calling to each other at dusk, and swimming in a local lake.

It was a glorious place to be a child, entwined with nature and wildlife. I missed it desperately when we first moved to southern Ontario when I turned eight, but Halloween saved the day – I was finally old enough to go trick-or-treating without my parents, and we lived in a city where the houses with candy were all next to each other in walkable blocks instead of a quarter-mile apart. There was even a lady who made popcorn balls!

Since then I’ve never stopped learning. Travelling with my hubby, the whole world has become a fascinating classroom. Every culture has had something to teach us, and with each trip we’ve grown both personally and as global citizens. And we’ve had a blast doing it.

My mother-in-law for many years couldn’t understand what the appeal was; as part of the post-war generation, her vision of adult life was to settle down in a big house (with a big mortgage) and fill it with kids. But then she finally came with us to Europe, on a sort of ‘tale-of-two-cities’ adventure to London and Paris.

Houses of Parliament, London England

I still remember the look on her face when we took her to the massive Houses of Parliament overlooking the Thames in London – she was blown away by the age, the history and the incredible architecture. By the time we returned home – after exploring the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, seeing Princess Diana’s gowns at Kensington Palace followed by delectable afternoon tea in the Orangerie, prowling through all the shopping halls of Harrod’s, watching street performers in Covent Garden and eating great home-cooked food in historic pubs, cramming in as much of the Louvre as we could before having afternoon tea in a Paris tea salon, looking at the grim prisoner cells at the Conciergerie and the medieval tapestries at the Cluny Museum, having chocolat chaud Viennoise piled with whipped cream on a blustery day at the Eiffel Tower and chocolate mousse at every bistro we visited, along with a superb cassoulet just down the street from our funky little boutique hotel in the Left Bank – she’d become an utter convert and couldn’t stop talking about the trip for months afterward.

Travel is one of the best educations available, but everything should remain a wonder and a gift to our minds, big or small. Never lose your curiosity and your willingness to invite something new into your brain – it’s what gives richness and stimulation to our lives. Don’t ever let your kindled flame go out.

To celebrate Labour Day this year, even though I’ve retired from full-time work at a local college and this fall have had no need for a new outfit to kick off the academic year (hey, any excuse for going shopping works for me), I cooked something nostalgic for dinner. Memories of food have always been tied to my learning adventures, whether it was trading lunch items in elementary school or sitting down for Sunday roasts on the weekend, dumping our pillowcase full of Halloween candy out on the carpet to sort through in order of desired eating, or having our first Chicken Satay in a little restaurant in the hills of Bali. My mom excelled at making meatloaf, so I tried out this online recipe from Bon Appetit, served with classic fluffy mashed potatoes, basic onion and mushroom gravy and some buttered tender-crisp asparagus. Perfect!

A year of light

A new year, and a new decade. Let’s hope that the world becomes a better place — lately it’s been feeling like we take two steps back for every step forward.

New beginnings are always hopeful things. I prefer to be optimistic, and so, while everyone worries about climate change, I’d like to share this charming article with you about sheep in Scotland who have been consuming more seaweed and are belching less methane as a result. It’s a start 🙂

With the growing trend of ‘flight shaming’, here’s a cogent look at approaching reducing carbon emissions in a less confrontational way. I believe travel is a powerful force for understanding and peace, and would argue that there are millions of people around the world who depend on the travel industry to make ends meet. While a lot of criticism has been levelled at travellers, there are industries that have been degrading our environment for decades and need to be examined. Clear-cutting, mining and monoculture farms in the Amazon and other jungle regions have caused an enormous amount of damage, for example.

However, I do love train travel and road trips. We were in Tennessee for the holidays, visiting a cousin, and if you’re looking for a place to spend your holidays in 2020, you might want to consider the Nashville area. We attended two light displays:

  • GLOW Nashville at First Horizon Park, a magical light display with skating rink, tubing slides, shops, and more, and
  • Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood Estate, where the magnificent Cheekwood Mansion is decorated to the hilt, and after dark the grounds turn into a holiday wonderland.
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood

I can also recommend a great Mexican restaurant in Nashville, Uncle Julio’s, where we could have made a meal just of the scrumptious queso appetizer, and we all enjoyed our entrees — I had a fantastic salad with smoky grilled shrimp.

We also ordered a chocolate pinata for my hubby’s birthday. It comes out on a big tray with a wooden baton for cracking it. Our excellent waitress recommended hitting it from the top so that all the goodies inside — fresh strawberries, churros and chocolate empanadas — land gracefully on the tray (instead of spraying sideways onto the hitter’s lap). It was great fun and very delicious. Stop in if you’re in the area!

Personally I don’t like making formal resolutions, but for 2020 let’s all incorporate dreams, imagination, serenity and kindness into our lives. That’s a good start too.

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:

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

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

Supper Markets
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These delicious outings have become popular in recent years

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

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

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

A rich Indigenous heritage and culture
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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
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I’m always happy to see bees in our ecologically troubled times

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

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

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

Mother Nature’s ice sculptures
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Poetry brought to life

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

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

Miles of open road
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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.

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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.”