We are now 10 months into the pandemic and the numbers continue to rise worldwide. In August we had 19 million cases, today we have over 100 million cases and just over 2 million deaths. The numbers are staggering and difficult to wrap our heads around. In perspective, the number of cases represent nearly three times the population of Canada. The death number, the entire population of both Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The vaccine has arrived though the roll out is slow. There is not enough to go around. The scarcity has each province prioritizing who gets the vaccine. There are two doses needed so more people are vaccinated leaving a shortage for the second dose which may not arrive in time. This is stressful for many and adds to anxiety that is at an all time high worldwide.
I’m fortunate having received both doses though feel guilty for the gift and wish everyone who wanted had the same opportunity. I have made myself available as a Respiratory Therapist to be useful, to give back for the gift I received.
I have been deployed and in a full circle moment find myself working in a hospital where I received my education over 30 years ago. Never did I imagine I would return to hospital work. I hope I can be helpful, not get in the way, be a burden. My new coworkers are a mix of people I’ve known forever and people I helped train. We share stories of back in the day. The first few shifts completed I am encouraged that perhaps I can be useful?
At the beginning of the pandemic our borders were closed. Canadians tried to find their way home and many waited for Canada to save them to bring them safely home. The borders have never fully opened and yet folks continue to travel for a variety of excuses. This is not the time for a holiday as many unwittingly bring the mutated strains of the virus home with them. We are not certain if the current vaccines will be able to cover the new strains. It is a full circle moment where the first cases were linked to air travel though soon became community spread. Have we learned nothing?
Our politicians enjoyed their warm destinations though they were not alone as the flights were full of Canadians who fled the winter and enjoyed sunning themselves on a beach. As we packed up our Christmas tree and decorations that only we enjoyed and that were up for over a month to bring some light into the dark, we became angry at the selfishness of people. Although we did not need the government to tell us the right thing to do, it appears as though many, including the government needed the government to tell them what is the right thing to do in a pandemic. The irony is not lost on us.
Christmas has come and gone. The weather has turned colder and we stare out the windows at the bleakness of winter. We have sacrificed so much, though it appears as though some people have sacrificed nothing as the numbers continue to rise. Our next family holiday, Easter though we have no joy in our hearts as nothing has changed and the cheerful events we have enjoyed in years past will likely be cancelled for the second year in a row.
The conspiracy theories continue though most are ignored. This approach is best as we scroll on by. It appears as though they have joined a cult as they tote out the same words and lines. My compassionate self feels sad for them and hope that they gain clarity and understanding someday. I hope that more are not dragged into their vortex causing more damage. Time will tell.
Our government may impose more stringent rules regarding air travel and perhaps people need the government to dictate their lives and tell them what to do. It will be predictable as this opens the opportunity for people to protest and march and vent their anger as they adjust to the rules that the majority of us have been following since the beginning. The simple truth remains, all we can do, is all we have been able to do since the beginning, do our part, help where we can, not be a burden, wash our hands, wear our masks and limit our contact with people. For the love of God, do your part, hold the line.
We are now 9 months into the pandemic. Our former lives have faded. We have adjusted as best as we can to our new world. Our species is resilient and have proven this over millennia. We will survive, of this I am certain.
New restrictions have been imposed twice in the last few weeks. The lockdowns heralded by speculation, causing panic buying, queuing at the stores. I stand in a long line, the panic palatable around me as we wait to pay for stuff. I look down at my cart and mentally go through my inventory at home. I don’t need to be here. Still,I remain, my rationale self a whisper.
I listen to the news on the way home waiting for the announcement from the province. The radio station fills the waiting time with fluff, no one listens. I wonder if anyone will listen to the new restrictions or will interpret to suit themselves.
The announcements come, restrictions predictable. The backlash from the public will follow.
What an impossible task for our leaders. I did not vote for all the current leaders, though this is not the time to bash them, to try to over throw the government. At their core, they are human beings trying to navigate us through a crisis, trying to keep us safe. They are balancing every aspect of our life, health, safety, wellness and the ability to support our families. Not just for the day, but for all the days that will follow. The backlash is cruel at times and although Politicians and leaders are likely used to not everyone agreeing with their policies, the constant attacks on their personhood must chip away at the tough skin they wear. We need to get behind them or better yet do the right thing to help each other. We don’t like our medicine though it must be taken. Years from now we will pick apart each decision with our 20/20 hindsight, but for now we do not have this in 2020.
The constant debates about everything is exhausting. The protests have me shaking my head. My compassionate self wonders how difficult it would have been living in the pandemic with no knowledge or any understanding of what science is or proper research. I think during the time of the great plagues how everyone must have felt frightened, trying to fight an unseen foe. I cannot separate myself from what I know and understand, gleaned over a lifetime. clocking over 30 years as a Respiratory Therapist and growing up in a family of health care persons. There never was a before.
My Mom a Nurse told me about how her career began with the polio vaccination and how that vaccine offered Hope where there was none. My career began with the AIDS outbreak, how amazing when treatment arrived. I still see some of those young men in my mind and carry with me their frightened faces as they died, many without their friends and families and only healthcare people to witness, offering comfort where we could. Initially we did not know how Aids was spread, people were afraid. The world attacked the people who were infected. There were many cruel things that were said in the media, to their faces. They needed us and we failed them.
We have been planning for this pandemic for most of my career. We knew it was coming, the when was the wild card. We prepared the best way we could. The proposed field hospitals, redeployment of staff, bringing back Retired healthcare personnel, cancelling surgeries was always part of the plan. It is not poorly thought nor is it grasping of straws or the fault of the present government. It is the harsh reality.
I am in awe of the vaccines that are providing an early Christmas present to many. How incredible is science and how different is this pandemic than previous ones that tried to annihilate our species. Every bright and brilliant mind has been working on finding a vaccine and now we have several with likely more to follow. This was the only thing that they worked on, this was their focus, they were given all the resources they needed, and were successful in their task. We should be applauding their work. I shake my heads when folks speak of how rushed this was and then how uneducated folks immediately jump to the conclusion that it is not safe. I loved how the first person, a 90 year old lady inoculated in the UK said that she was doing this for England. I will be happy to take this vaccine just like every other one I have received in my lifetime. How fortunate are we to live in this country.
I worked in intensive care units and during my time only once were we not full. During y2k we cancelled surgeries and our normally full unit had only a few patients. Every other day it was full or bursting and always short staffed.
As the numbers of COVID patients increase in our Province, many are cared for in hospital and in Intensive Care units that were full and now are overflowing. The staff test positive leaving dangerous levels of staffing left to do what must seem like a herculean task. I think of my colleagues and my daughter, a Respiratory Therapist and worry for them. How difficult it would be working in these high paced environments where there is not enough of everything, trying valiantly to do their best shouldering the responsibility of people’s lives, while the public protests about anything and everything. How nice to have the luxury to complain, point fingers and take no responsibility.
I think of people dying back in the early days of my career and how if their family wasn’t there, I would sit at their bedside while they died firmly believing no one should die alone. I know I’m not alone and many health care professionals share this belief. I do wonder now without family in many cases the toll this is taking on the staff, sharing a phone so a patient can call their family to say goodbye and then sitting by their bedside to witness their last breath, then moving on to the next patient. We are human. The vitriol surrounding health care is unnecessary though I understand the term essential worker is a hot topic. Financially we have weathered the pandemic better than most, our jobs reasonably secure though our souls are tattered, our anxiety at an all time high and we too worry about our families, friends and co workers daily. We try to educate the public, though learn no one is listening. Perhaps their education will come later with the lens of time?
Historically, we have always had protesters, nay sayers, conspiracy theorists, folks taking a germ of truth and twisting it to suit their own narrative. History largely makes no mention, it takes some digging to find out present society is not unique. What is unique today is social media and the internet where this information is stamped forever. I think about folks who spoke against masks during the Spanish flu, vaccines during the polio epidemic or the war effort particularly during WWII. They were wrong, though I suspect they sanitized their own history to their descendants Today this is not possible. I remember my parents often quoting , “Life is like a field of freshly fallen snow, be careful how you step because every step will show.” Today more than ever.
My life has not changed much since the beginning of the pandemic. I go to work, come home and buy groceries from time to time. I wear a mask and have done long before the government mandated. In the summer we saw some friends, a couple at a time. Since the rising cases my husband and I see only each other at the end of our day and breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the week. We are content to be free from wearing masks for the weekend as we hunker down at home. Perhaps, we made it another week without being infected we hope.
I see patients who had “mild cases” who wonder when life will return to normal. Their shortness of breath, lack of smell and exhaustion persist. The virus lives in them and we do not know the trajectory. I hear of patients who died from this virus and send a prayer to the heavens for their soul and for the people they left behind.
Christmas is coming. I wait for this time each year. We will not be able to see our friends and family. The tree and house are decorated and have been for a month. The outside Christmas lights are never turned off, they provide light and joy to us though perhaps they also provide light and joy to someone else? I know that our neighbours lights have me smiling remembering Christmas’s past. I think into the future where there will be so much to celebrate. My favourite part of Christmas is witnessing the miracle of the season. It is a time when for at least a short time, people stop caring only for themselves and instead look to help others’. In my entire life I have never failed to witness this miracle. I send my wishes to the heavens that in this year of incredible change that this one thing will remain constant.
We are seven months into the pandemic. At the beginning our losses were daily and difficult as we navigated the new world that changed overnight and then again and again until the world was not familiar. Today, nothing is as it was before, we have adjusted. There is nothing that is off limits anymore, though there are limits to everything we do. We can shop, but need to wear masks, we can travel if we are willing to have testing, isolate and then test again. There are some work places that insist on a longer isolation on our return, though this could change. There is no travel insurance, though we have heard that there is insurance and wonder about the cost. We fantasize about a warm country where we could lay on a beach and wonder whether it’s worth the hassle and risk. Our logical brain takes over. We think of how stupid we would feel sick in another country with our tan. The world is in the middle of a pandemic, safety is closer to home, not in some country that is grappling with their own struggles. There are no jumbo jets in my near future, though the jumbo sized hand sanitizer welcomes us into the shops, the shortage of hand sanitizer a distant memory.
In some stores we still need to follow arrows as the aisles are too narrow. I still find myself walking in circles, back tracking and getting annoyed. I prefer stores where I can walk freely. I wonder though about the viability of small stores as I’m likely not alone in my annoyance. I deal with the annoyance at times to support these stores hoping they do not have to shut their doors completely.
We do not have to line up outside at the majority of places as the restrictions to the number of people allowed is no longer small. I hope it remains this way as the cold north wind blows and waiting outside is no longer pleasant.
The mask use is universal. The mask debate is no longer news and everyone who needs to buy something or engage wears one or are denied entry. The masks are mostly properly worn with the face covered, though at times we still see them under the chin or with the nose hanging out. These are rarer instances and allow for something different as opposed to a sea of covered faces. Its interesting to see all the different colours and styles and in this manner, it shows personality, individuality and humanness.
My mind jumps from one thing to another, the difficulty is staying in the moment and concentrating. I think I’m waiting for the next change and bracing and preparing to avoid being blindsided as I was in the beginning. My fight, flight is still clicked firmly to the on position. I get irritated easier, loud noises cause me to jump. Deep breathing and relaxation help. I know I’m not alone. We watched the first few flakes of snow out our windows, the bleakness of winter stared back, our anxiety notched up.
Today after I completed my errands, I trudged back to the car, sadness blanketed me. I wondered why? It occurred to me that the very thing that is missing everywhere is smiles, interaction and children How many times did we smile at one another before the pandemic? How many times in a given day did we reach out to each other, chat about the weather, ask the age of a child, or about an item we were about to purchase. I used to make funny faces at little ones while they sat in their shopping carts. Some people have learned to smile with their eyes, though this is not universal. Most people don’t even look at one another and if they do it is wary rather than warm. We can do better.
At the local McDonalds drive through the lady serving me had a mask, I did not. I thought of how nice this must be for her to see faces and smiles everyday. The distance greater than 6 feet, the worry less, though the need for human contact fed with each customer.
At the off leash park, the parking lot is full mid day and mid week. There are no masks needed, the vastness of the park makes social distancing easy. Everyone is smiling, the dogs, the people, and I smile back, a grin pasted on my face easily making the transition to my eyes too and lightening my heart.
I passed a man and briefly we stopped and chatted. I said I think that this is the last happiest place on earth. He smiled and said he had not thought of it this way, but perhaps I was right.
As my dog and I were leaving the park we met up with another dog and her owner. We chatted about the things our dogs do that made us smile, how old they were, how much they enjoyed this place. Our pace slowed to allow her dog to catch up, though she was barely moving. The lady smiled and said that her dog always walks very slow as she nears the exit of the park, wanting to savour the moment, to have it last. I decide to find my joy where I can too, as I slow my pace to linger just a little longer today.
There are many ways to approach the pandemic. The news bombards us daily with divisive headlines, mask debate, school debate, political debate, riots and protests. It seems as though the world has lost its moral compass as everyone struggles to find center ground again. People blame the government, their neighbours, strangers, finger pointing is rampant and yet none of this changes the very simple fact. COVID-19 has hunkered down and will be with us for awhile. Of course there are debates on how long that will be, the headlines today suggest the “cure” is just around the corner, or that it is all a hoax, somewhere therein lies the truth, though the water is muddied by the volume of “news”, the message lost.
We watch the headlines as the numbers of people infected nears 19 million, the death toll remains high, people queue to be tested, still others are off on a holiday and a chance to feel normal again, though soon find that COVID-19 is everywhere and reminds us that the holiday we yearn for is not the same, the masks a constant reminder that we have changed nothing, just the locale.
People struggle with masks, some say that they cannot wear them for health reasons, though this seems at odds with the reality. Some wear them beneath their nose, under their chin, on top of their head and we shake our heads. I learned how to properly don and doff PPE over 30 years ago. I remember back to the beginning of my education and how many errors I made while learning. Compassion and education is needed, gentle reminders, perhaps even videos while we queue in line? There are so many opportunities beyond laughing and shaming. We laugh at folks who wear them in their cars and yet perhaps they have many errands to run and wearing the same mask helps to conserve? We must not judge especially when we do not have all the facts. The lesson is compassion for our fellow man if we choose to listen.
We have hunkered down at home and life has returned to my youth, a slower pace. We have less desire to keep up with the Jones’s and more need to find joy in simpler things. We finally get to the list of projects around the house. We build and develop our own yard to create our in house holiday destination. No masks, no social distancing needed and no reminders that the world is in turmoil. We have not distanced ourselves from the news, though spend less time reading the political spin. Our days consist of going to work and then coming home, no stops required. We buy what we need and no more. We no longer browse and buy for the sake of buying and are happier and richer for the change.
We have backyard BBQ’s though the guest list is limited to a couple at a time, the night rich with laughter, talking and listening and really spending time with each other. How different from previous parties where we scarcely had time to say hello to our guests before we were saying good-bye. The mountain of dishes waiting to remind ourselves that we had a good time.
We see facebook updates where people have chosen as their holiday destination remote areas where they hike, bike and swim. How different from previous where a drink on the beach was the preferred photo post. How amazing to see our own Alberta backyard and appreciate all we have without constantly striving for what we believe must be greener grass on the other side.
We read labels and try to buy local when we can. We no longer strive for exotic goods instead are content to support businesses who struggle under the mounting cost of PPE, cleaning supplies, reduced staff and reduced hours. We want them to remain viable and are loyal. We shop at farmers markets, the taste reminding us of our youth, when a raspberry tasted like a raspberry. We planted our garden and now enjoy pea pods, kale and spinach The sweet taste of a warm tomato just off the vine says summer to us. We sit on the porch with our popsicles and savor the simple pleasure of this iced treat.
We grow our own mint and perfect the mojito, the price much less than the cost at a restaurant without the risk.
We talk more with each other, our relationships key. We have learned to live in the moment and then the next. We look for the silver linings that this virus has forced us to learn and although we wish for the world we once had, we are cautiously optimistic for the future. The silver lining is always there if we choose to look and on this subject we still have choice.
At the beginning of the pandemic, glued to the news reports, stunned silent by the changing world. We watched with horror as the number of cases and dead ticked upwards. There was no time for the political spin, the data raw, truth, while the words not spoken shouted, “what next?” Our answer, we don’t know and our anxiety notched up.
Stores shuttered, the world’s population on lock down, shaking our heads as we wrapped around the reality that this was the entire world, the entire world. We stand in lines yawning into oblivion, patiently learning the new way of the world, apart, though together in our quest for hand sanitizer, food, toilet paper, human contact.
As essential workers, we dressed, showered and went to our places of work constantly aware of touch surfaces. Was it yesterday that we touched seemingly everything without a care? Our hands raw from sanitizer though wondering is it really enough to ward off our unseen foe? We worried at ever turn that we were exposed, exposed someone else. The virus, invisible, though lurking at every corner. We longed to be home. Outside my office window, the world had stopped. The normally busy avenue reduced to a couple of cars.
We imagined the non essential workers at home, safe, though with more time to spend looking at the news, paralyzing themselves with fear. Every day the fear of the marketplace stronger, worried if they would have a job again one day and then trying to live on the government money offered and wondering when that money would end.
We watched with horror as our Prime Minister gave away daily our children’s children’s money and wondered how the future would look? How we would pay it back? How many generations would bear the burden? We think about people in developing countries with no money from the government, their income stopped, how would they survive?
The news our lifeline, “What is happening in Italy?” “USA?” “Europe?” Blindsided as we were by the beginning, we didn’t want to be caught unaware and so devoured everything on the pandemic. Would we ever travel again? We watched with terror our hard earned investments tumble, making us poorer, the future uncertain and the thought of any travel unlikely. Our borders closed, our thoughts turned to Canadians trying to make it home without success, stranded on cruise ships bobbing along in the ocean without a safe port.
The stores we used to frequent not available, restaurants offering groceries for sale, we sometimes took the risk though were left with the fear that in our quest for normalcy we exposed ourselves, exposed others.
With every sneeze, cough, sore throat we wondered if we had the disease, if our affairs were in order. We wondered if we did get the virus, would our life be spared, would the people we loved be spared? How many of us would be alive at the end? When was the end?
We baked and cooked more, bread, cookies, sweet treats and indulgent dinners laden with cheese, fat, and carbs, while our waistlines expanded. Exercise videos and new gym equipment had us thinking we would emerge better, healthier people, then quickly tossed aside as our thoughts were crowded about whether we would ever have our lives back as they were, then wondering if we really wanted all the parts of our former lives, then eating more bread and comforting ourselves again.
Our hair grew, our roots exposed, we took to cutting and colouring our own hair sometimes with disastrous results. Our best results we shared on social media. The worst hidden for now in the cocoon of our homes.
We communicated online with photos of us in happier times, family photos, vacation photos, graduation photos from before and memes where we would find the humour in the situation. Most days it was a reminder of what we had lost.
We imagined harried parents of school aged children, setting up zoom meetings for their kids, teaching without training and trying in the face of fear to shield their children from a world of no touch, uncertainty, while wondering if they could pay their bills, would they lose their homes?
We thought about the young adults that would graduate this year without celebration. Their friends so important at this time of their lives, reduced to face time and facebook updates while they sheltered with their parents, their planned summer jobs on hold, the future uncertain. This was likely not how they imagined this milestone year.
We thought about couples who planned for a wedding in 2020 and how those dreams ended overnight, postponed until next year without a certainty that next year will be any different. We think about couples that married anyway in small ceremonies without their grandparents, friends and families to witness.
We wondered about people who are homeless throughout the world and how sheltering in place is not an option. People whose homes are abusive and staying home means more time for abuse without end. We thought of marriages that were barely hanging by a thread unravel completely, the first order of business, divorce.
We imagined life in nursing homes, with no checks and balances, their occupants wondering if they truly had been forgotten. The disease ravaged through, the death toll ticked upwards. People who had forgotten many things, and soon would forget the people that they loved, the window closing. We brought flowers and chocolates and glimpsed them through a window, our heart full, our fears allayed, for a brief moment, though wanting more and leaving sadder wondering if we would ever hug them again? Would they know us if we did?
We thought about people admitted to hospitals alone, then dying alone all across the globe though especially where the disease had a stronghold, their final breaths not witnessed, their last moments fearful as they left this world unlike they came into it, alone.
We thought of the funerals, the loved ones left without comfort while they grieved, standing at the grave site and then going back home to be alone in their grief.
We thought of the many developing countries we had visited and with growing understanding realized their fate much worse than ours, bodies stacked in the street, healthcare non existent, dignity gone, while the disease devastated.
We watched movies and recoiled as we saw on the screen, groups of people and were fearful for them until we chided ourselves, its just a movie from before the virus, social distancing was not needed. How quickly we had changed.
We hear, “the new normal,” though know that this is not normal. We are unwilling to accept this as our way of life. Normal will only be when this is over we decide, though we are unable to see through the labyrinth of possibilities as to how this will end or when.
We hear about how a vaccine is just around the corner and though we wish we had the naivety to believe just for a moment, we know that this is not the case. The narrative created to provide us with false hope, though hope all the same.
We watch people using masks incorrectly, wear them in their cars, stores, and hate the masks and what they represent. The gloves drive us crazy as they and their mask counterparts are littered in parking lots. The rules in the stores change, the plexiglas screens go up, the arrows tell us which way to walk. We forget something, try to back up, but its no use, we walk to the end of the aisle, then to the next aisle, then back again, where we again forget the item and abandon the idea completely. The store shelves bare and we panic wondering if we too should be buying up the place, our rational selves take over and we walk on, though hesitate and wonder if we should walk back.
The lock down is lifting. I travel to work, my commute longer, the parking lot crowded. I travel in the elevator with another passenger, the first in many weeks, we avoid conversation. I expertly use my knuckle to press the button, avoid touching my face and then use hand sanitizer once I leave the elevator. Outside my office window, traffic accidents, sirens and the cacophony of sounds from a bustling world are heard. Traffic snakes and slows through road construction, tempers flare. The silence is missed. My coworkers and I discuss our plans for the evening, the week-end, our options greater, something to look forward, to not take for granted. The myriad of choices yawn though we choose the safety of home. The virus remains, our present normalcy could end abruptly just as it began, or it could change into something worse. Still, I shall hang onto the words of a good friend who said at the beginning of the pandemic, “happy days will return.” We can still hope.
We reluctantly leave paradise discovered for our return trek to Reykjavik. John and I decide we would have liked several days in Landmannalauger to further explore this unique landscape. Sadly the decision is not ours and we reluctantly board the vehicle.
We bump along the lava highway and gradually return to civilization. Today we will see the Golden circle. It is what most people see when they layover in Iceland for a day or two. It is easy to find and follows a predictable route. The roads are tame, though glutted with tourists.
Each stop is surrounded by gift shops selling their wares for prices that are not fathomable. We browse, not to buy but to win the game of finding the most expensive/least valued item. The quality is excellent though the stickers leaves us shocked.
We stand in a circle around a large geyser then snap pictures along with the rest of the crowd. Predictable oohs and awes surround. We quickly bore of this and try to get away from the throngs in search of something unique, though everywhere we go, more people follow. We see beautiful waterfalls, though the crowds make pictures difficult.
We decide there isn’t much to see though we have a generous amount of time to kill. We peruse the menu of offerings each more expensive than the other. We decide to have a coffee and a cup of soup and pay $45.00 for this luxury. The soup is good, the coffee good, though we shake our heads at the cost, savouring every bite and every sip.
We have signed up for a caving experience through a lava tube and have the opportunity to walk the way the lava once flowed. Others in our group have opted for a snorkelling experience and still others decide to explore on their own.
We don our hard hats and turn our lights on, careful to not look directly at one another with our blinding beams. Kommi leads the way. I stay close behind to hear all the highlights. The footing is tricky and twisting an ankle is a real possibility.
We arrive at a spot and wait for the group to catch up. Kommi notices a boulder perched precariously and encourages quick movement through. The stragglers, oblivious to the danger continue their leisurely pace, taking photos and enjoying the experience without the knowledge. At this moment it occurs to me that walking through a lava tube is quite dangerous and perhaps a foolish risk. I’m reminded that Iceland is an active volcano and begin to assess the danger, a little late. I conclude safety would have me on terra firma above. There is only one way out and I don’t know the way. I decide to put one foot in front of the other, and not think. My feet are on their own as I cannot see them, though feel the uneven ground with the soles of my feet. Each step has careful consideration before its execution. Kommi asks which way we should go, as we stand at a fork. I point one way, though am wrong. I think of how terrifying it would be if I were alone searching for a way out. Panic would reign supreme I decide. My main goal is to shadow Kommi for safety, slow my breathing and not make a spectacle of myself.
We stop and wait for the rest of our group. Kommi has us find a spot to sit. I look over at John and smile, he looks stressed and grimaces in response. I’m puzzled then it occurs to me I’m seeing fear in John for the first time. If John is scared then I’m panicked. Kommi then has us shut off our lights and we plunge into darkness. I close my eyes slow my breathing and settle myself reminding myself that soon we will leave the earth and the feeling of being buried alive for light.
The exit eventually arrives and we crawl out of the earth and stand on solid ground. John is rattled. We discuss the experience and decide this lava tube is both our first and last and we mentally tick off the experience from our virtual list.
We arrive back in Reykjavik. Predictably, the place looks like different, though I know it is the same. We have changed for the richness of our experience
We awake early, enjoy breakfast and gather our stuff and find our seats on the bus. The days have become routine, though the scenery constantly changes. We set off for Landmannalauger deep in the highlands.
We stop at waterfalls leaking from the hills surrounding. The landscape in Iceland is unique. It is a country that is constantly changing, its surfaces rough and wild with a beauty that continues to evolve. It is difficult to stop taking photos. At every turn something demands attention, a closer look, a record. At home, our landscapes have a more polished look, touched by man and decorated to suit, beautiful in a been there seen that sort of way.
The road quickly changes to a path where the curves have us trusting the process without seeing the whole picture.
Soon the road deteriorates and we travel on a path where a volcano spewed its contents. The flow hardened and became the road. We off road over pot holed roads with boulders and rivers to cross at every turn. I look out the window straining to see where we are going though there is no discernible route. It is a rodeo ride that gets tiring as we bounce along. I sit up alert believing on some level my focus is helping Eric drive.
We arrive to sparse development. We are away from the crowd and this place is the only place we have seen since our motel this morning. It would be impossible to have a typical hotel here as the logistics of bringing everything needed across the road we just drove is not possible. It is a minor miracle there are any structures here at all.
The mountain hut is new fitted and well built. We are told we will stay here. The place is locked, and I take the time to walk around the building, looking in the windows to see what is available. My expectations high, they begin to become more realistic. There are a few separate rooms, so it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
We enter the structure and are instructed as in all Iceland dwellings to remove our footwear. We oblige and are further directed to a room. We walk in and see group bunk beds on each side. There are 8 thin, narrow mattresses on each top and each bottom, making this a hopeful space for 32 people. I think about tents with their pie in the sky pronouncement–sleep 6, when 3 is more realistic. There are wooden hooks on the walls where we can hang our packs and small shelves above the mattress for gear that needs to be more accessible. We learn that all 28 of us will sleep in this room. It is a lot to take in at once. Now I understand why Kommi felt a need to advise us to lower our expectations. I claim an upper bunk by the edge of the structure. John takes the space next to me, so I will have a familiar body next to me. We all know each other through hiking and travelling, though sleeping together is not something we have done before. How fun something like this would have been when we were all several decades younger. Still, our age has us knowing that we can survive this, it is one night and will add to the richness of the experience and memory.
We share this mountain hut with several groups. There is a central cooking space complete with a long table for sharing. There is no washroom in this building though it’s a short walk away. There is a natural hot spring another short walk away. Behind the mountain hut, the hiking trails beckon.
There are a variety of trails to choose. It will all be new to us as we set off. The terrain is rough in places, at times narrow. Soon we arrive in another world. The hills are green, not covered in moss or foliage but rather the stone is green. Soon we spy a purple one and inspect. It seems other worldly. Eric tells us its obsidian or dragon’s glass. It seems as though we have walked through the pages of a fantasy book.
I love looking at shapes in rock. Here, everywhere I see trolls. It is believed that Trolls only work at night and must hide before light. If they do not they become immortalized in stone. I can see several examples of dawdling by trolls.
We climb to see hot springs and bubbling cauldrons, of rocks that beckon us forward. We summit to the top and I can not believe my eyes. Everywhere I look is beauty, the mountains appear painted, 360 degree body slamming beauty. I take photos, though also take time to imprint the memory and to see.
We descend, the weather slightly colder, the ground wet. It is tricky getting down, we wait for everyone, no man left behind. We trudge along, the scenery pretty though the bar is raised considerably after what we just saw.
We arrive and shiver as we pass people in tents, our warm hut beckons. We enjoy a dinner cooked by our guides, then a relaxing soak in the natural hot springs complete with natural jets as the water pulses through an opening just at the level of my lower back. I settle. John and I lean back and look at the night sky dotted with stars. We imagine Northern lights completing the picture, though the moment is perfect without this cherry on top.
We dress for bed and brace ourselves for the night to come. A hopeful young girl in our group cheerfully says, “well as long as no one snores”. I decide she will find out soon enough and let her enjoy hope for a little longer.
Lights out and the next moment it seems I’m awake to the light of day. I’m surprisingly well rested. Around me people are stirring, some look like sleep passed them by last night. John tells me the snoring was a symphony, and that I joined in the fray. Perhaps this is the key?
We travel and all civilization falls away, we seem to have the country to ourselves.
We arrive at our lodging for the night, a motel type affair in the highlands. We are advised that we will be two to a room. We are fine with this as we always share a room. We secure our key, find our room and take a deep breath. John opens the door to a dormitory type affair, two single beds and not much else. Still, it will only be us tonight. I’m giddy with the thought of finally getting some sleep.
Single showers and bathrooms are just down the hall though privacy is possible. We have brought a pack towel, a washcloth sized affair which makes drying ourselves a lengthy venture. Perhaps if we were the size of a small cat this would be more effective? John speaks to the front desk and learns that we can have towels, bedding and slippers for $50.00 USD each. We ask if it is possible to get just the towels for a reduced rate. We are told that this is not possible, it is all or nothing. It seems extravagant and I tell John my thoughts. He is adamant and draws his line in the sand, dying on the hill that includes a towel. I relent and we pay the fleecing rate of $100.00 for two thin towels, housecoats, scratchy duvets and nail salon slippers. The slippers we are told are ours to keep. How exciting, I cattily whisper to John. Still, I decide I will take them home. Normally, I wouldn’t give slippers such as these a second thought, but they are likely the most expensive slippers I’ve ever owned and will serve as a reminder to this extravagance.
We treat ourselves to a hollywood shower and luxuriate in the hot spray. It is a treat I decide. It is not worth the cost we paid, though at this moment while I dry off and slip into the robe and don the slippers, the experience is a bargain at twice the price. My frugal self tries to justify by deciding it will be our souvenir of Iceland and imagine peppering future conversations with this firm example of the expense of Iceland. The true gift is a reminder of how we take simple things such as these for granted at home and a reminder to be thankful. Money well spent I conclude.
We enter the dining room and discover that a special dinner has been prepared for our group tonight. It is a sit down meal and features wine and a variety of courses. The entree is lamb and I quietly advise the waitress that I will be happy with the soup, salad and bread. She asks if I like fish, I state that I do and shortly a beautiful salmon dinner arrives for me. This was so unexpected, though such a wonderful treat.
Kommi tells us that tomorrow we will be going deep into South Iceland to a very special place. He advises us to lower our expectations. He tells us that Icelandic children are taught to have low expectations and are fed a diet of folklore stories passed from generation to generation. The stories reflect the harsh natural environment that Icelanders face and serve to teach their children how to live in an unforgiving wilderness. The children learn to respect both the spirits of the land and the natural environment, where earthquakes, volcanos, and extreme weather conditions constantly pose a very real and tangible threat.
This is so different from my childhood experience, where around every corner something wonderful was about to happen. I still live like this, well most days, the eternal optimist.
I wonder about the accommodations tomorrow that would have Kommi telling us this tonight. I decide that we will be surprised with something truly amazing and surely he must be kidding with his grim talk.
Kommi tells us a bedtime story to drive home his point of low expectations. Everyone dies, there is no Disney Prince swooping in at the last moment but rather the last bit of hope when the hero arrives, ends with him killing anyone left. Makes me wonder how the story could be told with no one left standing. Reminiscent of Grimms fairy tale we are left unsettled.
John and I enjoy our glass of wine and retire to our room. It is nice to have privacy as we chat about our amazing day. No sleeping bags for us tonight as we snuggle down deep. We decide sheets are a welcome change and we don’t miss the added exercise of getting into and out of the bag. Settled we listen to the quiet, though a few moments later, John begins to snore, making up for lost time when he was kept awake from everyone else snoring. My silence shattered, I sigh and turn on the white noise.
We wake without sleep, surround sound snoring disturbed our slumber. I nudge John repeatedly throughout the night only to discover in the morning he did not participate in the melody. I eagerly pack to leave this place certain that the next place will be better.
We begin the familiar queuing for the bathroom then pack our belongings. I remember to keep my charging cord available. We board a new bus, our bus taken in the night for another group, this one appears to be a downgrade, lacking both the latte button and the USB ports. My charging cord is rendered useless and my phone desperately needs a charge from last nights white noise serenade. I take a deep breath determined to have a great day, then chuckle. My goodness I’m in Iceland seeing things few people will ever see, I am with great friends and my wonderful husband. The day seems brighter with my attitude shift.
Eric tells us the word of the day is foss and it means waterfall. We traverse the path covered just a few days before. We find a young couple with a standard car trapped in the water and sinking with each spin of the tires. We implore Eric to stop and help. He does though there is nothing he can do, help is on the way. The car is destroyed and the couple face thousands of dollars in costs for abusing their rental car with the hubris of youth. We are thankful for our transport and wisdom of our years though recall similar instances where we had to learn the difficult way.
We arrive at a place where it seems we have left the waterfalls behind. I’m not sure what the highlight is though we scamper off the bus to find out. We are directed to a tiny cave. It is small at first, though enlarges as we move through. The smell of moss permeates. The sound of water running is deafening. It is a tricky trek, the slippery rock has us concentrating. The first waterfall comes into view and we exclaim at the beauty. Just beyond, another waterfall demands our attention, though this one will require work and courage. Eric and Kommi let us know that we can return back if we do not feel up to the second waterfall. John and I look at each other, no words are needed as we take this as a dare and move forward. There are chains embedded into the rock to hang onto, though more haphazard than a Disney experience. I’m scared, not of hurting myself though that weighs heavily on my mind, but more worried about taking someone with me. I hopscotch across and soon am helped up to the upper ledge where a beautiful waterfall waits. We snap pictures, pose, take more pictures and too soon it is time to leave. Eric advises that the trip back is harder. I wonder to myself why he felt a need to say that as my nerves kick to higher level. I am too careful with my footing and fall, sliding until the sharp stone scrapes my knee, slowing me down until I stop. I shake off the pain admit I’m fine, no wounded gazelle here and keep moving. I have a little chat with myself reminding myself to plant my feet for the uncertainty of footfall is far more dangerous. Like a goat I cross the remainder of the rocks to safety.
Our next waterfall is hidden, though more accessible than the one with chains. A few steps into a cave, we are treated to a beautiful foss cascading down from the cliffs above. The power of the mist soaks our fancy waterproof jackets their first chance to prove their promise. We remain dry, money well spent, though still look like Smurfs.
Our next foss is a quick walk out of the vehicle. It is unusual and is called helper falls. The name is perfect as it looks like one waterfall is helping the other. I think about healthcare and how we help people in our daily work. How important to make certain that we also help ourselves, I think as I watch the larger foss with help from above. I also notice how the smaller falls contributes and how much we learn from the patients we serve.
Our final foss is at the site of a Viking homestead. The waterfall is not impressive when compared with the other waterfalls we saw today, though I can imagine how important it was to provide water for the family and livestock that once called this spot home. We marvel at the workmanship and how the structure complements and blends with the earth. I think about how far removed we are from this building sense as the majority of our homes are built for their size without a care for the land they will occupy. We seem to care more for what is inside than what is outside.
A rainbow rounds out the day as we travel to our lodging for the night. I silently hope that the accommodations are at least half as wonderful as the day.
We are giddy with our day of trekking on the glacier. Satisfied we look forward to our lodging for the night.
We off road and soon the road is not obvious as we lumber along in our top heavy vehicle. It reminds us of the safari in Africa where we lurched along the bumpy roads. This we decide more of a Disney ride, though we are glad we are not driving. There are various streams that we cross with our fancy vehicle made for this terrain. Eric gets out to check the stream before crossing and we are thankful that he also values his life. We relax knowing we are in good hands.
We arrive and negotiations begin, though it is not clear what is being negotiated. I read the body language just outside and try to determine what is happening. Soon we learn that the majority of us will be in one lodge with two rooms to share between 16 of us. We will sleep in bunk beds, eight to a room.The remainder of our group will share a cabin with 4 people each. It is disappointing and our excitement of the day falls away while we try to process the logistics of sharing a washroom with 16 people.
We gather our gear and remain hopeful as we explore the space. It will be dry we decide on the plus side, that side remains with its solo item as we list the many negatives of the arrangement. We leave for dinner determined to make the best of a bad situation and decide it could always be worse. That night we learn worse as the cacophony of snoring keeps us awake all night. I download a white noise app and decide that the cost is worth the few minutes of rest obtained. Too soon it is time to wake and we queue for the bathroom and some privacy to get dressed and ready for the day.
Our friends on the opposite bunk begin their day with a coffee and sit cross legged on the bunks next to each other as they begin the day with a smile. They are clearly better at making the best of a situation and there is much to be learned.
We eat breakfast and then begin our hike into the hills. It is straight up with relatively few switchbacks, our breath pumping we climb. I prefer the quick up even with the work of breathing as in no time we summit and marvel at the view. I decide to stay very close to the front as it seems there is always time for a break. If I travel closer to the rear, by the time I get to where the rest is, we are on the move again. Eric has an easy gait and it is easy to follow close. He points out vegetation, sites, and information on the area. Kommi, our other guide brings up the rear.
We arrive at a cave and we all crowd in to listen to stories of Huldufólk, the hidden people or Elves. It is interesting to hear and I think how nearly every culture has these types of stories to keep children in line or safe. We are told how there was an area in the farm where Kommi grew up. He was told it was a place for the Elves and he could not go there, so he did not. I wonder as Iceland is a volcano if there was instability in that area of the farm. My speculation matters little as generation after generation of his family never ventured to that area. The small houses we saw earlier make sense now as they are the homes for the Elves and are throughout Iceland. It is serious for the people of Iceland much like our superstitions are to us, black cats, ladders and cracks on the side walk come to mind.
We leave the cave and trek back, wide open space abounds. We are tired from our day and look forward to falling deep into sleep in our cramped quarters. Perhaps it will be better we decide as we try hope on for size.
Our group of 28 wakes early to begin our trek to hunt the Northern Lights. There is much excitement at the Foss hotel as we view our rides with their larger than life tires. People pass by and gawk, at our too large carbon footprint.
I still have not wrapped my head around what is expected of us for this leg of our journey. The vehicles have me puzzling as I had thought we were trekking from place to place. Still this country is vast with not much in between places. We have been told to pare down our gear and over half is separated and will be placed in storage. Now begins the all too familiar game of trying to figure out where item A is and if its in the stuff to go or the stuff that is now in a warehouse. I sigh, perhaps it won’t be needed? Our small backpack holds the essentials for the day, I hope, and we are off. Eric expertly navigates and soon we leave the big city of Reykjavik for vastness. I look behind at where we were, knowing we will be changed when we return.
The vehicle has plugs for our phones and I dig like a dog for my charger that I sadly discover is in one of two places, the warehouse where I will see it again in a week or piled at the back of the bus inaccessible for the foreseeable future.
Eric, our driver draws our attention to an odd button and says it is for lattes, then laughs, everyone else laughs too, though I remain hopeful waiting until no one is looking and press. Nothing happens, I look out the window, wondering when our hike will begin and hoping I am up for the challenge.
We arrive at a waterfall. I hoist my pack, secure it to my back and sigh as I disembark. John is close behind. We are told we will have 30 minutes here. It should be enough to climb to the top, look around and come back. We are off, though not alone as we queue to ascend. Some folks are making a day of the climb, we scamper around them, the time tick ticking. We arrive to the top and are treated to view the top of a beautiful waterfall complete with rainbow. I happily snap pics though also take in the view. We quickly descend as my eye is on the picture prize of the waterfall from below.
We scamper down the stairs and rush over to stand in queue. I breathe in and out loudly as the long queue snaps one selfie after another, the time tock tocking until finally our moment arrives. I snap a few pictures, then we rush back to the bus on time though we cool our heels while the stragglers catch up.
We make a plan to stay in the moment and will see what is possible as opposed to everything available. This plan we believe will have us much more relaxed with chances to see and experience the scenery in real time instead of at home when we scan through the pictures, removed from the place, at our leisure.
We wake early and collectively clean the Airbnb rental, our many hands make the work light. The property looks better than found and we are pleased to leave this representation of who we are as people.
We venture to downtown Reykjavik, its a small area, though in comparison to the suburbs where we have been staying, its a busy, happening place.
Chaos reigns at the Foss hotel as we arrive en-mass with our too large luggage and too many questions. The hotel staff are patient and kind, calmly addressing our concerns and answering our questions.
We opt out of the city tour, culling ourselves from the herd and opt in for time together. We are giddy with the knowledge that we can explore the city, lingering as desired or speed through the boring bits in favour of what is around the next bend.
We are drawn to the water and happen on the Reykjavik version of, “sealed.” This is where lovers seal their love with a lock. The scarcity of locks have it looking like twelve people lost access in stark contrast to Amsterdam where masses of locks declare love abounds.
We find a beautiful, octagonal building and join the crowd taking photos of this artistic building, from every angle. We browse the high priced, tchotkes and the prices decide we are not in a buying mood.
We amble in and out of shops, browsing. I choose a too pricey Icelandic pony Christmas ornament and hand it quickly over to John to pay before I change my mind. John is fascinated with the Christmas story of the Elves and we buy a copy for our grandchildren. It is always fascinating how different cultures celebrate Christmas. There does seem to exist a commonality in that the traditions all seem to be designed to keep children in line.
We decide to visit the Mariner Museum, John is excited to see ships and artifacts from long ago. We pay our fee, the self directed tour begins in the gift store, odd as it usually ends thus. We set off.
Quickly we learn the museum is dedicated to the fishing industry, interesting, though not interested we glance at the items in glass cases and try to get into the tour by listening to the audio. We both put on a brave face, moving through the museum quickly. We eye the fish skin shoes and boots, perhaps they have gone too far, I decide.
The tour ends and we spill out into a restaurant. We quickly try to find another way out, we are trapped, the only way out is through. We decide the cost will break our budget, though wait, I hear only Icelandic voices and spy a buffet of fish, vegetables–a complete meal. We inquire as to the cost and are surprised by the reasonable price. The food is excellent, made in small batches and features an array of fish cooked perfectly tender. We high five our good fortune and pronounce the Mariner’s Museum a highlight of our self directed tour as we sit back and eat like locals.
Our group of 28 wakes early to begin our 5 day trek. We enjoy breakfast and most excellent coffee before returning to our rooms to stuff the remaining items that have spilled out into our too large bags. We have needed to cull our gear, paring it down to a small bag and sleeping bag for each of us. We are not clear on the type of accommodation, though have made certain to have everything on the list provided. I think into the future and wonder which item I will wish I had and which items were not necessary. There is always room for improvement in packing.
Our group has hired Arctic Adventures. Our drivers and guides are Eric and Commi and have briefed us yesterday, answering the majority of questions. We are picked up in large Mercedes buses with huge tires. The vehicles are impressive and create quite the spectacle as strangers snap pictures of our ride. I’m concerned about where we are going that we will need such a ride, I kick myself mentally for not researching more. I wonder if we will be trekking from point A to B, our luggage trailing behind us in these fancy buses. This country feels vast and I wonder how many hours we will be walking daily. I decide it’s a little too late to worry about it now.
We board the bus. Eric, our driver points out the latte button. A chuckle ripples through the bus, though I test it anyway, wouldn’t want to miss a chance for a latte. Sadly the pushing of the button is futile and it still is not clear what the button does.
We travel to Skogafoss waterfall and John and I sit back and enjoy the ride. The bus is top heavy. We list across the road, crossing the centre line and then Eric regains control and the vehicle sways as it sorts itself out in the proper lane, only to repeat the process again a few moments later.
We arrive and are provided with a time limit. It is just enough time to climb to the top of the waterfall, take photos, climb back down, walk to the base of the fall and then back to the bus. We move quickly. The waterfall is breathtaking complete with a rainbow.
Our next stop is Gigjokull glacier. We don crampons, are fitted with a harness and helmet and grab an axe. We walk a short distance, stop and attach our crampons. We listen intently to our easy to listen New Zealand guide as he explains potential dangers.
Its tricky at first walking with crampons, though our Guide provides us with two visuals, “Walk like a gangster,” when walking down an incline and plant our feet like “a baby dinosaur stomp.” Perfect visuals that easily are recalled when we start to lose our balance. We remain upright.
There are many small and some larger crevices. Our Guide explains that crevice is a French word that means, “Big bloody hole” We are mindful of where we step though are mindful we lack the expertise to read the snow and ice correctly. We rely on our Guides to keep us from falling into the abyss.
Our axes though super cool to carry are idle as other Guides chip stairs for us to ascend and descend. We thank them as we pass, and walk on the stairs making our journey easier and safer.
The landscape is like walking into a black and white world after living in technicolor. It looks like a charcoal drawing, complete with smudges.
We climb to a high spot where our guide slams two axes into the snow traversing a small stream. He demonstrates how to drink water like a Viking. John gives it a try. I wait, not wanting the audience and waiting for our group to lose interest. I know that my plank will sport a swayed back, though I want the experience. I drink the sweetest water I’ve ever tasted. John and I look at each other then dump our water bottles in favor of this water. I wish I could take more. We are informed the water is approximately 500 years old. I wonder if all water tasted this sweet all those years ago. I know I will remember this taste for a long time.
Our Guide has found some mud and John and I don this soft mud under our eyes, like the Warriors we are. We then dinosaur stomp and gangster walk our way back to the vehicle. This experience has us feeling like children. We arrive back to the beginning changed. Our smiles and eyes bright, I wonder if there was something even more special about the water. We pronounce this day one of our very best days, a terrific beginning.
We wake early with a plan. Our group of eight is a well oiled machine, eating, showering and tidying in shifts. I save time by not coaxing the finicky fancy coffee maker for a beverage. It mocks me, I avoid eye contact and drink out of the community carafe and enjoy my morning skyr.
We venture to a waterfall where we have the opportunity to walk behind the falls. The ground slick with rocks and mud, every step is calculated. It’s a busy, happening place where long lines snake the route. We stop for photos, jumping out of line then continue nose to tail through the predetermined route.
We finish then patiently wait for our friends as we sip a $10 coffee. We troll the gift store, a kings ransom for nearly nothing. Our new game is to find the most overpriced item. A hat wins, $90.00, it’s nice though not worth the amount.
After a delay our friends arrive. They have ventured to two other falls while we cooled our heels. We are annoyed and I voice our displeasure. We decide on future time limits to keep us all on track.
We set off for the ocean and black sand beach with its amazing cliffs and caves flanking the sides. We have read about sneaker waves and John and I take photos solo while the other is charged with vigilantly watching . The ocean is powerful though some people didn’t get the memo as they climb the rock structures away from land. Its always interesting how people foolishly think there is always a net for them.
We listen to the pounding of the waves, mesmerized. The timing of the waves becomes predictable as we set up our next photo learning to watch the water and soon learning to notice the build of waves before they crash on land.
I look for seaglass though am not rewarded. I suspect it’s there though closer to where the waves break. I would need to risk life and limb for pretty garbage and decide its not worth the risk, though I spend some time wondering if its possible.
We leave after our predetermined time to our next destination where our car navigates a twisty road. It has no shoulders and barely enough room for two complete with steep drops off on either side. At times we shift forward in our seats urging our little car that it can.
The view is worth the effort as we happily snap photos before beginning the journey down
We arrive in Vik, a small quaint town surrounded by jaw dropping landscapes and spy the sea just beyond. The restaurant, Sudur Vik is predicatably expensive like all food in Iceland. We have had several days to get used to the money we will spend on this lunch.
I open the menu and as always have sticker shock. I have the money, though can’t spend $45.00 for chicken opting instead for a couple appetizers a bargain when compared. John asks if I want wine. I point to the price, he orders me a glass anyway, perhaps I need it I decide. The food is fantastic, though I suspect the high price influences our taste buds.
We leave, tour the town and find a gift store where the prices shock us anew. I buy a small book on Icelandic horses telling myself I deserve this luxury due to my frugality at lunch
We begin the journey back to Reykjavík. Gilles keeps an eye out for Icelandic ponies and I’m touched. We pass many ponies, not enough, too far away. I’m disappointed though not destroyed as I scroll through the beautiful pics I already have on my phone and leaf through my beautiful pony book.
We round a bend and a field of ponies awaits complete with a rainbow, there is something for everyone. Our small group is patient while I snap pictures, pet and shake my head in disbelief as the light intensifies, the ponies appearing golden. I feed them grass for their efforts.
We leave a crowd behind us who have stopped to spend time with the ponies and return to Reykjavík satiated with all we have seen.
We booked a kayak tour. Our group splits into two groups, morning and afternoon. I’m happy to be part of the afternoon group and enjoy sleeping in a little longer. I begin my day fighting with the fancy coffee maker and enjoy a latte for my 30 minutes of effort. I sit at the table and enjoy my crime brûlée skyr, a cheese type product, its consistency similar to Greek yogurt.
Our group decides to tour a nearby lighthouse though arrive too early, the tide still out making the journey not possible. We salvage the moment by scavenging the beach and soon are rewarded with sea glass.
We journey to a nearby park and stop for a walk. We spy a beautiful waterfall and hear excited children’s voices as they enjoy a last day of summer. It’s raining, we bundle up against the cold and shake our heads at the Icelandic children, clad in bathing suits playing in the water. I wonder if it’s a hot spring? We check and find it cold. Little Viking children we declare.
We leave to arrive at the kayak site, a small bay where we will need to portage our kayaks a distance. Hordur, our guide is friendly and despite his years, stronger than all of us as he pulls our crafts into the water, one after another. The kayaks are narrow, able to track fast though tippy as a result. We mention this to Hordur who simply states you will get used to this fact. He is right as the alternative is getting wet in the frigid water. We weigh our options, an Eskimo roll, beyond our capabilities or removing the spray skirt upside down if we upturn as we are wearing the boat. Survival instinct takes over as we glide through the water, balancing the craft with our hips
We are off on this grey day hoping to see seals, or puffins or something else equally as cool. We paddle around easily and then fight a current to cross to the other side for no other good reason then to get to that side. There are many seabirds, flying above, leading the way to our obvious direction. We learn the puffins have left for the season and the seals that were here this morning have also left. I enjoy the paddle anyway, it’s cool to be kayaking in Iceland I tell myself. Soon there is excitement as Carol spies a seal. There are many such citing and I seem to miss them all. It is time to get back. Reluctantly I leave, then look behind where a seal has decided to follow me, making certain my kayak experience is memorable. I decide to take no photos and instead snap off a few photos for my memory where when recalled is certain to make me smile.
We wake early, the house already stirring with our friend’s morning activity. The kitchen is cramped with its too large table. We make it work eating in shifts. I fight with the fancy coffee maker and am victorious for my efforts. I try for a beverage for John, the coffee maker says no can do and I give John my hard won coffee and enjoy one from the community carafe.
We have rented two cars and today will travel to Western Iceland. John and I are with Maxine and Gilles, the married couples, the other car with the 4 single girls, Carol, Coleen, Laura and Maureen. We have wifi in each car and can communicate. We set off to explore the magic of this country.
We follow each other, then a stop needs to be made and we twirl around, lose each other, frantically text one another and find one another again. We still have not left Reykjavik, though finally we find our way out of town, Gilles expertly navigating the traffic circles that come one after another. Traffic calming devices that do little to calm.
John and I sit back, relax and allow Gilles and his co pilot, Maxine to expertly guide. We have a large itinerary today, each vista more beautiful than the last. I can’t stop taking pictures and even take pictures out of the car window, a practice I never do though the scenery begs for a photo and I happily snap away and comply.
We stop at Snaefellsbaer and I begin looking for sea glass. John finds the first piece and the game is on as I search for more. Maureen shows me her finds, more than me, now I have competition. Soon, Carol and Maxine are hooked and now the small amounts of glass on the beach will need to be shared with the growing group of sea glass aficionados, eagle eyes necessary, I employ John’s sharp eyes for my team.
We spy some pretty horses and stop to take photos. They are lovely with their don’t care, long hair and remind me of friendly puppies as they amble to the fence for petting. The Vikings brought this breed of horse to Iceland. They are the only horses that are permitted in Iceland, thus the breed remains pure. Their pretty hair with their perpetual baby look at odds with their strength. All the horses are owned, though they appear wild except for their friendly manner. I learn that every summer the horses are set free in the highlands where for several months they are free to be their own community. In the fall, the owners band together to gather the horses, sort and return them to their owners. In this manner they stay wild, though strangely relaxed. I think about the horses at home, high strung, perhaps they could benefit from this practice?
We stop for lunch in Arnarstapi and opt for a tailgate party of homemade sandwiches. We huddle behind the car eating out of our kitchen trunk and save money not eating fast food fish for $25.00 each where we could huddle outside stand up tables in the rain.
The area is beautiful, scenery surreal, it appears as though we have walked into a postcard. I spy a lion in the stone with his grassy mane. The scenery beckons and I comply. I no sooner take one photo thinking how beautiful when the next photo presents itself and wins the prize. We reluctantly leave the area, check the time and realize that our set itinerary was too ambitious. We negotiate between two sites, majority rules and we set off for Saxholl crater.
We arrive and are greeted with stairs yawning towards the heavens and I’m thankful for the stair training I have done, happy to not shame myself. The rise and run is off though gradually sorts itself out. The view is stunning and we take in all 360 degrees, happily snapping photos. Soon we are satiated and decide everyone should count the stairs on the way down. It’s comical as we all come up with a different number.
It’s late as we return to Reykjavik with its never ending traffic circles we twirl even certain of our destination. It has been a great day I decide as Maureen and I compare sea glass and I scroll through today’s cache of photos.
We arrive in Iceland. The view from the plane depicts a small village with not much going on, such a contrast from Amsterdam. Perhaps it has secrets to explore we muse?
Our friends have arrived early this morning from Canada and kindly wait in Keflavik to chauffeur us to Reykjavik and our rental where eight of us will share the space.
Soon we are zipping along the highway trusting the GPS navigation to lead us to the correct place. We twirl around, get lost, found again and arrive. We haul our too large bags in and settle into our spacious room where it appears we have won the bedroom lottery.
A few of us venture to a nearby grocery store to buy provisions. We rely on the GPS unable to argue and blindly follow directions and turns that seem to come too soon. “Turn now,” I implore as Gilles going straight has to make a hairpin turn to keep up with my directions.
The store is our first look at prices in Iceland. Despite what is said about the high costs in Iceland, nothing prepares, a king’s ransom for nearly nothing. We bite the bullet and buy less than we might have, had the prices been reasonable. We have to eat we decide. Coleen strokes the chocolate bar she has chosen for herself and I wonder if we will learn that less is more in Iceland.
We return to the rental. John and I have brought cheese, meat, crackers and wine from Amsterdam to share with our friends, pricey though after the grocery store trip, much less than Iceland. We sit back, relax with each other. Our conversation begins where we left off, the way it always is with great friends.
Carol has bought Brennivin, also known as black death, or burning wine. It is 40% proof, a unsweetened schnapps considered to be Iceland’s signature drink. Generally it is served on special occasions and taken as a shot. Today is special as it marks the beginning of our newest adventure together. Carol pours each of us a large tumbler. A small glass of wine leaves me tipsy, so I decide to sip. It is smooth and reminds me of the sipping gin John’s grandfather drank. I decide the sipping method works better for me as I would like to remember tonight. John with his higher tolerance, drinks like a Viking all at once. “Skal,” we shout as we clink our glasses and announce the beginning of the adventure.
I smile, sit back, let the couch swallow me whole and relax while I think about how we met. We answered an email about an adventure to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and trained for a year, physically and mentally preparing ourselves for our assault on that great mountain. We were victorious. Although we thought we knew one another, the experience itself cemented our friendship in a way none of us could have imagined at the outset. Since that time, we have included others’ into our group as I look over at Maureen who I’ve known for 19 years and Carol’s sister Coleen who sat out the Kilimanjaro climb and enjoyed the Safari that followed. Coleen has earned her Iceland stripes and our gratitude by researching the best places to see in Iceland in our relatively short amount of time. We are blessed I decide, as I remember countless evenings just like this one, drinking wine, eating great food, laughter talking about our shared experiences. Life is always sweeter when its shared I decide. I wonder what we will experience in Iceland that will have us reminiscing years from now, on a cozy night just like this one.
We wake early and begin the process of packing. I’m always surprised that eventually it all gets into the bags though at the outset it seems like a tall order. I look over and see John sweating as he forces his kit bag shut, then point to my hiking boots and asks him if he has room. He looks at me incredulous, smartly says nothing and begins the process anew.
Marieke and Nelda have prepared coffee and breakfast for our last morning and will drive us to the airport. We are thankful for all that they have done to create a perfect trip to the Netherlands. We hope that one day we will be able to create a memorable time for them in our country. It was a leap of faith for them to open their home to us, not knowing much about us save for our wedding photo circulated through the family and a few anecdotal stories about John along with memories of his last visit 20 years previous. From the first night our fears and hopefully theirs were put to rest as we were talking and laughing as if we had known one another forever.
We haul our too large bags to the elevator and then into their car. An elderly gentleman rides the elevator with us, then hops on his bike and zips out of the parking lot. John and I look at each other and shake our heads at a sight that we will likely not see for some time.
We arrive at the airport expecting to be dropped at the entrance, instead we are escorted to the correct airline. We are touched at this extra effort to ensure that we will not waste time twirling around. It is time to say good-bye. Thank you at moments like this always seem inadequate, good-byes sad. We will miss them a great deal.
My bag is overweight, though the lovely girl says she does not notice as she slaps a heavy sticker on its side. Security has me standing on a podium as I am searched for nothing. John says its because I look shifty as he clears security without a second look.
Our next stop is Iceland and we are excited about this next experience. We will enjoy the first few days with 6 of our friends. We sit back, relax and smile at the faux northern lights display on Icelandair.
We leave the Van Gogh museum and are shocked to discover that we have spent nearly six hours. Our plans for a return to the Rijksmuseum dashed, we venture to the boats where we can enjoy a canal tour.
The tour is relaxing, we sit back to listen to a history of Amsterdam through our head phones. The homes are stately, the ground shifting beneath them has my carpenter husband constantly tilting his head to make them square.
We complete the tour, find the metro station, and wait for the wrong train. We have learned as John questions our choice, asks a helpful young lady and soon we are on the right train zipping to Nelda and Marieke’s home.
We have been invited for dinner at Aunt Emmy’s home in Zaandam, just north of Amsterdam. It is a perfect ending to our trip to the Netherlands. Aunt Emmy visited us in Canada a few years previous and sparked our desire to visit the Netherlands, it is a full circle moment. Marieke and Nelda have bought sunflowers as a hostess gift, fitting after our day at the Van Gogh museum.
We arrive to Emmy’s bright, cheerful home and are treated to a tour of her cozy home. She has prepared a wonderful dinner for us. We begin with avocado and tuna as a mousse and enjoy with lettuce. The main course, “gourmetten” has us interactively cooking our own fish and vegetables in small pans at the dinner table. It is a sociable, relaxed experience. The food is to our taste as we cook it ourselves adding condiments and spices as desired. This method of cooking is popular at Christmas in the Netherlands, a cozy, family experience and we are touched that Aunt Emmy has gone to all this trouble for us.
After dinner we enjoy coffee and look at photo albums. The photo albums have been lovingly created and are shared with all family members by a rotation schedule. John enjoys seeing photos from the times that he visited the Netherlands as a child and young man and seeing photos of his Dad as a young man. We hear stories about John’s late father and learn more about him. John finds it interesting to hear a different perspective about the father he knew and loved and the people who loved him.
The hours zip by, night has fallen as we begin the journey back to Amsterdam. We speak about the amazing trip that we have enjoyed, all the things that we did, our desire to come back, our hope that many family members will visit us in Canada. We have been here for only 8 days, though it seems like months as each day filled with family, experiences and love. We are truly blessed.
Too soon it is our last full day in Amsterdam. We have created a large agenda and set out early. We have booked a time slot at the Van Gogh museum, a trip back to the Rijksmuseum, a canal tour and will finish as dinner guests at Aunt Emmy’s home.
We take the tram to the museum square, arrive early and use the time to chill. There is no need to queue as we will all be gained entry at the same time.
The museum is dedicated to the work of Vincent Van Gogh and his contemporaries. We embark on a journey through his career, his unravelling and untimely death.
Van Gogh’s early work is quite dark and at odds with what is typically known as his style. “The Potato Eaters,” a darkly coloured painting depicts its subjects as caricatures. Van Gogh received harsh criticism for this work, listened and changed his style dramatically. His paintings became cheerful, colourful with sunny yellow prominent. I can’t help but wonder if the darker pieces are what he truly felt, though was forced to give the world its cheery preference.
Vincent was not a wealthy man and could not afford models, so he used himself to work on techniques. Each self portrait depicts a sad man, lacking in confidence, telling in how he saw himself and at odds with the cheerful colour palette.
Van Gogh dreamed in his later years of an artist colony at the yellow house in the south of France. He was excited for Gaughin and other artists of the time to create their art together, a Utopia. Gaughin did come to the yellow house and stayed for nine weeks. Initially all went according to Van Gogh’s plan, though it ended badly with an argument, Gaughin leaving and Van Gogh cutting off his own ear.
It is unclear of Van Gogh’s malady, some speculate bipolar disease, others have thought epilepsy or poisoning. In any case, his actions were not the workings of a sane man.
He admitted himself to a mental institution after the “ear incident” where on good days he painted prolifically, on bad days he barely moved. His paintings were bright, colourful, seemingly at odds with his state of mind. One of his famous paintings, “Starry nights,” currently located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was painted from the view he saw outside of the asylum window.
Van Gogh’ breakdowns became more frequent and he died several days after a self inflicted gun shot wound. I feel sad at the completion of the tour. At the beginning of the tour, I knew his outcome, though his cheery paintings had me naively hoping for a different, better end. I wished that somehow his dreams would be fulfilled and perhaps his hopeful paintings are telling, Van Gogh did as well.
We venture to the Rijksmuseum. I’m excited to see the actual paintings that I studied in University, as opposed to photos in books.
We arrive to a stately building, with at odds architecture, Neo Gothic meets Renaissance that somehow works together to create a cohesive building.
The most charming feature is a bike tube through the museum, the only one of its kind in the world. Bicyclists can travel through the museum, there is no art on the walls of the tube, the bikes are the art and quintessential Netherlands. During the last major renovation, the architect wanted to change the space to a courtyard, the tube nearly lost. Thankfully, there was much protest and the bike tube remained.
The majority of the museum is dedicated to 17th century Dutch masters. Notable paintings are, Vermeer’s “Milkmaid,” Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” and Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait.”
John and I decide on a “highlights” tour where the major works will be seen. We use the Rijksmuseum app that we downloaded at home and set off. There is so much beauty everywhere that it is difficult to remain focused. The building, stained glass, even the floor compete for my attention. I focus, John is distracted and not moving through as quick.
We decide to part ways as our museum strategy differs. This is John’s second trip to the Rijksmuseum, he wants to absorb. My approach is quantity over quality, wanting to see as much as possible. We both agree we would need months rather than the day allotted to do the place justice. Our strategy, divide and conquer.
It is freeing to explore on my own at my own pace, I suspect that John too feels free without me breathing heavy and pacing. I miss him at times when I want to look at his expression or ask him what he thinks of a particular painting.
I smile when I see Vermeer’s, “The Milkmaid,” more vibrant than imagined. The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn grabs my attention, such an odd perspective and the first acquisition by the museum, purchased for 100 guilders. The newly married couple and their relaxed stance and grins has me grinning back. Van Gogh with two ears looks so very sad and of course this sadness is part of his story.
A queue is noticeable at the end of the hallway. I know that it is the main event, “The Nightwatch.” I can wait and enjoy all the paintings, some famous and some my new favourites as I amble along.
The Nightwatch, Rembrandt’s masterpiece is in a room of its own. The painting is massive. Its current size is 143” x 172,” though at one time it was larger, the original size 156” x 192.” The painting was trimmed to fit a hall where it hung before moving to its present destination, Its unimaginable to think that Rembrandt’s masterpiece would be trimmed, though this was the practice at the time. I wonder what Rembrandt would think, I don’t think that he would be pleased. There is a trap door in the room to remove the painting in case of fire. This was used during WWII to save the painting. The Nightwatch was removed from its frame and rolled up where along with other major works was hidden until after the war. I think about the brave souls who during such a dark time, saved the beauty. They were successful as only a few minor works were lost. I cannot imagine if it was all lost.
I find a room of doll houses. These were not created for children but rather were a rich woman’s hobby. The cost of the dollhouse was the same as a canal home at the same time. The attention to detail is extraordinary and I wonder about this woman and how little she had in her life that she spent such time and expense on this folly. I think about my craft room and the thousands of dollars invested in supplies and decide to keep my thoughts to myself.
John and I meet again and he is excited to show me the ship room where he has spent the majority of his time, his eyes are lit with enthusiasm. We see Michiel de Ruyter’s portrait and a beautiful model of a ship. John says he could spend all day in this one room.
We are meeting Nelda and Marieke for dinner and have to leave. We vow to return one day. Music catches our ear and we see a band in the bicycle tube with a growing audience forming. The instruments are unusual, the music unique. We enjoy the ambience as the bicyclists cycle by.
We walk out of the tube, the garden catches our attention. Everywhere we look we see beauty and art. I wonder what it would have been like to grow up here with all this, would I have taken it for granted? I think of our own museum with its dusty dinasours and our art gallery with its impressive architecture trying to make up for its lack of content. I wonder if someday our museums in our relatively new country will be like this? Perhaps someday art currently hanging in our gallery will garner the crowds that surround the Swan and perhaps hundreds of years ago someone wondered if the Swan was worthy of a gallery and the cost? We have to start somewhere I think.
I am excited today. We have purchased the 48 hour Amsterdam pass which allows us entry to museums, metro and a canal tour. There are many museums to choose from, though with limited time we focus on the main events, Anne Frank house, Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museum.
We have booked our time slot at Anne Frank house. For the first time in Amsterdam we have a deadline. We have allowed for an extra 30 minutes for getting lost and found and are prepared with a map, map app, and a rudimentary knowledge of the city.
We arrive at the train station, get on the correct train and soon are zipping towards downtown. We are impressed with ourselves and marvel that just the other day we were twirling around trying to figure out the right train, right platform and failing at this task.
We arrive at the main station and begin walking to our destination. I am fascinated with doorways and burn through our time cushion snapping one photo after another. John, ever patient waits until I’m satiated.
We arrive with minimal effort and on time, a small queue has assembled. It matters little as we hand over our time slot, we will all gain entry at the same time. As we stand in line, the West church chimes the quarter hour. During Anne Frank’s 25 months hiding in the attic she heard these same bells every 15 minutes signifying freedom gained.
I read the book as a young girl and related to her struggles as a young girl, her sister was bossy like mine, her parents didn’t understand. It is curious that I do not remember the war part, though likely it is because I had no frame of reference. I read the book again as a young adult and was horrified for the injustice, the need to hide, though was happy that there were people that helped to keep them hidden and provided necessities at great personal risk. My faith was restored in humanity in the second read. I read it again as a young Mother, this time with a knowledge of that dark history and cried that they were so close to surviving and wondering who betrayed them. I felt deep sadness for her father as the sole survivor, though awe at the resilience that had him create this place as a museum. I hope that he found peace. When reading WWII accounts, the sheer number of people murdered gets lost, though the story of this one girl provides an opportunity to understand the immense loss and extrapolate to all the lives that were lost.
The tour is difficult. It is very emotional for both John and I. We are not alone in our sadness. We look around , many tears are shed.
There are no photos that are allowed for much of the tour and for this I am thankful. This is a time for thought, absorption, and reflection. This is not a time for distraction. This happened, it is real and we must all be vigilant to make certain history does not repeat itself.
We complete the tour silent and stumble outside to sun and freedom. The bells chime. We feel heavy hearted as we walk around the neighbourhood and imagine the time, with the Nazi’s in power, not so very long ago. We talk about the daily fear in the attic, the need to keep quiet. We speak of how terrifying it would have been when they were found. We think of how close they came to surviving. We wonder how they were betrayed. We talk about Anne’s hope during this dark time, the impact she might have made and the impact that she made. Despite all her hardships, she still believed in the goodness in people and perhaps this is her greatest legacy.
We venture today to my friend’s hometown, Rotterdam. Marianne immigrated to Canada many years previous though I’ve been interested in visiting her hometown.
Rotterdam has a sad history. On May 14, 1940 it was bombed, the fires devastated the town and after the war few buildings were standing. It has been recreated with fascinating architecture and interesting ideas. Resilience is strong in Rotterdam.
We take the train though we make this interesting by hopping between the two platforms trying to figure out which one is correct. Two tries later we are off. It is pouring rain today and through raindrops we look out the window at the scenery. The train ride will take one hour from where we are staying. This is nothing for us and we both wonder how great it would be if we could get around easily by train and metro.
The landscape quickly changes to rural and soon we see the familiar Dutch wooden windmills. We marvel at the work it would have taken to build these structures that are still in use today.
We arrive and need to change to station blaak as Marieke has told us. We twirl around march up the stairs so we can see a good view of the station and the lay of the land and figure out where we need to be. We get on the correct train and a few moments later we arrive.
I wonder how far to the cube houses as I walk out and look around. They are here with the market in front of us exactly as Marianne described.
The rain has stopped. We spend time looking at the cube houses and a curious sculpture. We marvel at the outside of the market, it beckons us inside.
The market is a busy, happening place with tons of shops and restaurants. It is curious as it’s inside of a courtyard or rather is the courtyard for a apartment building. The people in the building can look out their window at the hubbub of activity or choose to draw the drapes. It’s interesting, unusual and artistic.
It is difficult to choose a restaurant though we settle on poffertjes and strop waffle to start. The poffertjes are melt in the mouth goodness and calories do not count on holidays we remind ourselves
We walk outside and find retail shopping nearby. We browse though quickly abandon this pursuit as we are not in a buying mood. We instead decide on a ride on the Ferris wheel for another perspective.
We ride and snap pictures of the city. John spies the maritime museum and we decide to go there next. I notice an old church and wonder how it managed to survive the bombing. We are offered another perspective of the cube houses pencil building and bridge. The architecture is unique and beautiful though I can’t help but feel sad for what was lost.
John enjoys the maritime museum with its outside and inside options. The Harbor is protected and we muse that this would have been important for the Nazi’s during the war. How different today when there is a relative peace with water lapping the shore and workers carrying out their daily duties.
I find a bullseye that makes a sport of flicking butts into the receptacle. Only a few stray cigarette butts miss their mark so it appears to be working.
We find the statue representing the destruction of the heart of Rotterdam during WW II and marvel at the resilience that recreated the city from those ashes.
We venture back to the market in search of dinner. We are overwhelmed by choice though settle on a restaurant where we enjoy charcuterie and wine.
We wander a bit more to find coffee and dessert with a perch over the market providing yet another interesting perspective. We relax and enjoy the atmosphere.
It is late as we walk to the train station, only one misstep and soon we are zooming back to Amsterdam. We have learned much during our short visit about Rotterdam, and the resilience of its people.
We arrive back to Nelda and Marieke’s eager to share our day.
Marieke has made a traditional dish called boerenkool stampot (mashed kale and potatoes) served with sausage. This is typically served in colder months and is a comfort food. There are a few different ways to eat this either with vinegar or with stock. We try both and like Switzerland declare them both tasty. Nelda wonders if we should hand in our Smit card and it does cause a stir that we also like the vinegar way. We are touched that Marieke went to this trouble for us.
We decide on a walk around the Amstel river with Nelda. The river is so pretty at night with houseboats flanking the sides, warm, cozy lights aglow, outside lights reflecting. Boats amble down the river. On the shore a path circles with runners, bikers and walkers sharing the space, enjoying the last of summer. We enjoy a beverage with a view of the Amstel and take in the ambience.
Tomorrow we will spend some time with John’s Aunt Ann. Tinneke and Don have graciously offered to drive.
We wake early and prepare for the day. Tinneke and Don arrive and we are off. It is raining today though we cannot complain as the weather has been perfect. Whenever it rains we are indoors, when we venture out it stops.
We arrive at Aunt Ann’s and are surprised and pleased to discover Marjo and Eric will also join us. We hear Bach in the background creating an elegant atmosphere. The large window allows for maximum light despite the rain.
We enjoy a wonderful lunch of smoked eel, salted herring, cheese, bread, cold cuts, so many wonderful things to eat. We sample everything and I’m surprised to discover I like eel and herring.
After lunch we retreat to the lounge to chat. Ann has prepared a list of memories to share with John about his late father. We enjoy a cozy, rainy afternoon listening to stories and learning about John’s Dad as a young boy and man. Ann says that John looks like his Dad and it is both sad and happy at the same time for her.
We spend a lovely afternoon listening to stories from the past, sharing our present lives and plans for the future.
Today is our first solo day since our arrival. We feel ready to conquer the city, having learned much from family.
Marieke showed us how to use the metro. Don and Tineke provided information on how the streets are named and Nelda marched us around the city high and low to obtain our bearings.
We begin the day the Dutch way with strong coffee, old Amsterdam cheese and bread. We tidy, pack our camera and set off for the train station.
We arrive, twirling around trying to remember how to buy a pass, though soon we are victorious.
Passes in hand we climb to the platform. Confusion reigns and we march down after deciding we are on the wrong one, then march up to the next platform, read the map and settle knowing we are correct. Good thing there were only two platforms, we muse.
We decide to get off one station early to experience something different. We exit pop our heads above ground and determine where we are. It is familiar though different. We start walking and soon we are in Chinatown. The shop windows are interesting with strange herbs in bottles and the lucky cat waves as we walk by, I wave back.
We continue to look at the objects in the windows and quickly they change to racier items with a large selection of male anatomy for sale in a variety of colours and sizes. I ask John for his thoughts as 15″ seems rather large. He adds nothing to the conversation, head down, blind and focused on a way out of the area.
Soon we are back in wonderland with fresh coffee, bakeries we tuck into a bright shop with a chandelier made of tea cups. The pastry delicious, the coffee strong and good we watch the world go by through bright sunny windows.
We discover a sculpture of a Volkswagen Beetle and wonder how it was created.
We set out again and decide to venture to Rembrandtplein for lunch. This is a tall order and we walk up and down the cobblestone streets searching for familiarity, stopping to consult the map or resetting the gps. We are always mindful of the bikes, looking both ways, then running like we are on fire across the street.
We pass the flower markets and I remember Marieke and I laughing as each is same same, selling identical products though somehow making a living. We are close I declare and soon we are victorious. Our rule, we cannot dine at the same place twice so choose an Italian restaurant. The food excellent, our chairs turned boldly facing the square for maximal people watching.
Our next plan is to find a flea market at Waterlooplein and we set out. Some twists and turns, wrong turns and we arrive. The market has much to sell though we are not in a buying mood. We continue wandering and stumble on Rembrandthuis, my favourite artist. We decide to pay for a tour.
The house is unique and bright compared to its neighbours. It is narrow with tight staircases where crawling is the safest way. I think that most staircases in Holland would not pass code in Canada.
We learn that Rembrandt painted here and purchased the house for 13,000 guilders, a princely sum. He was at the height of his game and the same year he received his contract to paint, “Nightwatch.” He was a talented artist, though poor businessman and went bankrupt forcing the sale of the house and most of its contents.
We learn how to mix paint as was done in Rembrandt’s time and how he made copies of his sketches. We marvel at the furniture and admire the paintings. We listen to descriptions and gain a deeper understanding as we walk through this beautiful home.
We leave to find the metro. Rush hour has arrived and a steady stream of bikes clog our route across. We time our bolt, state after the guy with the hat and run across. We find the metro and uneventfully find our way back to Nelda and Marieke’s.
We scan our passes to leave and are denied. We try again and again, insanity reigns with no exit gained. We read and understand there are two exits, one for the train, the other for the metro. We move to the metro exit and the doors swing gleefully open. We are victorious.
Don and Tineke have offered to drive us back to Amsterdam to Nelda and Marieke’s home. This saves us much time and confusion to navigate our way by bus, ferry, bus and train. We are so very thankful.
They arrive and we bid Paul goodbye and thank him for his hospitality. It has been a memorable experience that we will both remember with fondness. In a lifetime of days,yesterday was the best.
We begin the journey to the ferry. As we drive onto the ferry, Els waves. She has ridden her bike to see us off. She will ride the ferry across and back, then bike home. We are so happy to have a chance to say goodbye.
We sip coffee and enjoy the short drive back. Don and Tineke invite us to their home and we happily say yes. It is nice not to have to say goodbye so soon.
Their home is warm and cozy with large windows. Their life in books, pictures and art surround. The room draws us in and immediately we are comfortable.
We chat about Canada and Tineke produces a scrapbook she made after her trip to Canada with her parents and brother, Hein. It’s interesting to see the pictures from that time. We welcome them to visit us in Canada and hope they will.
We learn about their other home in Portugal that we hope to visit one day. We learn they met each other when they were very young, they both lived a lifetime, then met and began another. How lucky they found one another, though life really does happen exactly as it should.
We enjoy cheese, crackers, wine and beer before venturing out for dinner. The neighbourhood is a vibrant community with interesting architecture and large, bright windows.
We arrive a short distance later to a round orange restaurant. It’s cozy inside with a central fireplace and bright windows for 360 degree viewing of people.
We share drinks and enjoy a wonderful meal of bread, fish, mussels and steak. Strong coffee and dessert round off a most excellent meal. Conversation is easy and relaxed.
Don and Tinneke drive us back to Nelda and Marieke’s. We pass through the museum district, see a large bathtub claiming to be art, along with The Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museum. It’s good to be reacquainted with the lay of the land as tomorrow we are alone.
We thank Don and Tinneke for a wonderful dinner and day and make plans to meet again. We arrive at Nelda and Marieke’s assume our seats as the wine is poured and we pick up exactly where we left off.
Reluctantly we pack to leave this beautiful island. We both agree to return, rent a beach house and explore the island’s secrets.
Today there is a sheep market. John’s father told us about this weekly event where the farmers would bring their sheep to Den Berg to be sold. It is no longer weekly, but rather annual and our timing is perfect, for today is the day. The sheep are auctioned, some fetching as much as $25,000 euro. The majority of the sheep have arrived for a chance to win a ribbon.
We bike the distance, my butt screams, though I discover third gear and share this information with Paul. We ride together when the path allows, Paul explains this is done so chatting is possible. It is very relaxing, like riding in a car, though better.
We arrive, expertly lock the bikes having learned the secret. We then remove the key with one try and walk to the market. Everyone has arrived, a busy, happening place. The sheep are in open pens, an auctioneer is shouting, food is available and a farmers market completes the scene.
John and I enjoy fried kibbeling, fish breaded and fried so tasty then finish with sweet poffertjes, tiny pancakes with butter and icing sugar, yum.
We meet Tinneke, Els and Don in the crowd and walk around admiring the sheep though unaware why one received a ribbon and another did not. We celebrate a random sheep with a picture so he doesn’t feel bad for not winning.
We ride back and I discover 4th gear. The ride is now easy. I excitedly tell Paul of my discovery. He says in response, now you can lead and I do.
We wake early to help with clean up from the party. Family arrives and in no time the cleanup is complete. Els, Theo, Carla, Paul, John, Tinneke, Don, and myself make the many hands to create light work.
John’s cousin, Carla has brought a bike for me to enjoy while we are here. John’s Grandfather biked around this island well into his 90’s, though this practice is not unusual in the Netherlands. Still, I wanted to have this experience and today is the day. Paul, Karl, John and myself set off. The bikes are different, touring bikes as opposed to mountain bikes. It’s like biking as a child. I sit high on the bike though it’s comfortable and nice not to hunch over.
The paths are paved and mostly flat. We are not alone, there are many people biking young and old though considerably less volume than Amsterdam.
We work our way to the beach a short ride away. We arrive lock our bikes easily with a lock installed on the tires, the key remains in until used. How wonderful to not fuss with combinations and search for keys.
We walk the short distance to the beach and find the sand dunes John’s dad described. How amazing, so tall and majestic they flank the entrance. There is a restaurant, requisite supply store though my eyes are drawn to the water. I continue.
The water is cool though quickly I adjust and enjoy the soak. Children play on the sandbar, sea birds swoop playing with the wind. Seashells cover portions of the beach. There are beach houses that can be used for the season providing a more permanent structure to enjoy the summer at the beach.
We enjoy the space and begin to walk back. I just want to stay here. We opt for lunch at the restaurant to continue to enjoy the ambience. The food excellent, local beer cold, perfection.
We hop back on the bikes and continue. Paul shows us the Polder lands, new land reclaimed from the sea. When the industrious, clever Dutch run short of land, they just make more.
There is a lighthouse in the distance. Paul tells us about about an annual walk around the island.
We turn around though each time we get back on the bike it hurts a little more as our butts become accustomed to riding. Paul tells us he is getting us tough for our trek through Iceland so we don’t embarrass ourselves or the family name.
We arrive back and decide on dinner at a nearby beach restaurant. Tinneke, Don, Els, Theo will join Paul, John and myself. Paul explains if we bike he can enjoy a drink though if he takes the car he will be the designated driver. Reluctantly, we opt for the bike ride though our butts scream their protest.
The bike ride is beautiful, flanked on both sides by tall stands of trees. I discover second gear and marvel to Paul that I had no idea the bike had more than one. Paul casually smokes a cigarette while he rides, John and I focus on the task at hand.
We arrive and walk the short distance where we are greeted by the others’. The meal wonderful some have hake(fish), others’ have steak. The waiter errs our order despite its simplicity. The sunset beckons and demands its photo, I comply.
We enjoy each other’s company, the conversation switches between English and Dutch and John and I begin to follow the conversation using context and body language, coupled with a few words we have learned.
Too soon it’s time to leave, the sky dark. We figure out the lights on the bikes, the moon and stars light the sky and we begin the ride with Paul leading the way. How cool to ride a bike at night. Mentally, I decide to remember this moment, though my butt declares it will be sometime before I forget.
Today we travel to Texel for the family reunion. I’ve heard so much about this place, my expectation high. I attempt to curtail my enthusiasm to avoid disappointment.
The first time I met John’s parents they showed me pictures and a book about Texel. John’s dad spoke about the sheep market, dunes and the beauty of the beaches that he declared rivalled any beach in Hawaii. From that moment this was a place I needed to see and today was the day.
We travel a great distance to the ferry with Nelda and Marieke pointing out the sites. We pass small quaint towns even one whose name roughly translated means ditch, Slootdorp. Marieke and Nelda laugh stating some day when they retire they will live in this town. We pass a town where each house is decorated with flags as today is a celebration we don’t know what they are celebrating so speculate, perhaps it’s because we have arrived we joke.
Soon we arrive at the ferry. I learn the crossing will take 15 minutes, hardly enough time to collect our thoughts. Still we have a chance to come upstairs, look at the sites, peruse the souvenirs and take photos. I stand on the deck and the seabirds swoop and dip leading the way to Texel.
Too soon we arrive and begin the journey to John’s cousin, Pauls’ home, the scene of the family reunion. We first stop at the site of John’s Grandparents homestead, The home consisted of a house, a summer house and a carpentry shop. The summer house remains though the rest is gone making way for row homes. Still, I close my eyes and imagine them in their later years waiting for the bus to arrive and their children and grandchildren to visit.
We set off for Paul’s home and I prepare myself to meet the relations. A group is gathered, though we are given our space initially with a chance to take in their sheer volume before joining in the fray. John and I are touched as the reunion is every two years though they have added another this year because of our visit.
Gradually we meet them all, a lovely bunch, friendly and welcoming. They all speak English well, thankfully, as my Dutch is limited with only the ability to ask for salt and pepper and I have no need for either so it would be awkward.
We drink strong coffee and enjoy Gevulde Speculaas cookies. The almond taste is lovely, I enjoy two and a second cup of coffee.
We eat fried fish to remember John’s grandfather who would trade sausage for small flat fish. The fishermen would be tired of fish and happy for the sausage. The fish were small and not saleable. Win win all around. The fish is flash cooked in oil with no breading and is melt in the mouth goodness. I enjoy two and part of Johns’ too.
We look at the pictures that have been assembled, so much work. It depicts John’s grandparents followed by their 12 children and their children and grandchildren. I marvel at what is created because two people fell in love.
John’s remaining Uncles and Aunts chat with us. Ann, Jan, Nely, Emmy, Els and Tinneke. We hear stories about him, his youth and how difficult it was for him to be away from home when he arrived in Canada at the tender age of 18. We learn how his Mother would sit down once a week to write her eldest son. I think about how difficult it must have been for John’s grandparents to say goodbye to their oldest son when he journeyed to Canada. Travel so different then and the length between visits uncertain.
We continue visiting and meet everyone, learn about each other and enjoy the beautiful weather in Paul’s yard. John is reminded how he longed for a McDonalds during his last trip to the Netherlands. Chickens and a rooster weave in between creating a tranquil peace despite the crowd. Don plays piano and accordion and sings including a Canadian song for us. The song is not familiar in words though the music is east coast.
The family gathers for a picture, organized chaos ensues though like a well orchestrated system within minutes everyone assembles, the moment is forged. Day turns to night, Indonesian food arrives, we indulge.
At intervals family members leave to catch the ferry, some opt to not say goodbye as it’s likely to take too long to go through everyone and the ferry will be missed. There is a mad scramble to catch the last ferry, the frenzy ends.
The night quiets and all that remains are those who will stay the night on a Texel. A circle of chairs is assembled around a warm inviting fire and in a time honoured tradition we stare into the flames. Tineke strikes up the ukulele and Don harmonizes with the accordion. Together they sing. We listen to the conversations around us and pick up the gist.
The family disbands and soon we are three, John, Paul and me. We retreat to our room in his home, sink deep into bed and reminisce about the day. John states he can’t believe he’s related to all of them and marvels that not everyone is here. He wonders how different his life might have been had he been raised here. I think about my expectations that have been surpassed. We both agree we are very blessed.
We finish our beer and Nelda asks if we would like to walk back to her home. This seems like a tall order as we have been walking for hours and the prospect of walking to her home instead of riding the metro seems daunting. The plan is for Marieke to take the metro, arrive home to retrieve her bike, then shop and return home. It’s decided we will all arrive home at the same time. I stare longingly after Marieke wondering if she needs help with the shop then begin the walk home with John and Nelda.
Nelda is very familiar with Amsterdam as she has lived in this beautiful city for many years. She begins to expertly navigate us through a series of rabbit warrens, pointing out landmarks, historical homes and telling us the history of the area. We learn to watch for bikes, cars and move quickly across streets. We stop at beautiful canals the buildings reflected, their beauty doubles. Quickly the city falls away and communities take over
We walk through an area that was owned by a manufacturer of diamonds, a large building dominates surrounded by large and small buildings depending on the role in the company. We walk past a central bath house for the community. Nelda explains it was used until the 1980’s. I try to imagine this life, then say a silent prayer for my private bath.
The windows of the homes are large and brighten the spaces inside, even the smallest building appears spacious. Large courtyards provide a place for children to gather and play, creating a community.
We learn about building styles, Amsterdam school style of architecture where creative techniques are utilized to create beautiful homes. We learn about Dutch golden age architecture that flanks the majority of canals. I decide I could live in one, though shudder at the upkeep. The ground shifts and many are considerably less than square. My carpenter husband angles his head repeatedly trying to make it right.
In no time we arrive back at Nelda and Marieke’s the distance short from downtown and our expert guide, Nelda ensured our travels were not convoluted. I realize I had over estimated the distance initially as we had seen so much in a short span of time that the miles seemed great.
Marieke has beat us home but only just. We enjoy a glass of wine together and continue our conversation, laughter soon takes over. Dinner follows a delicious curry engages all our senses . We chat well into the early hours. Sleep takes time as my mind remains active for a time with all I have seen and experienced.
We wake ready to tackle our first full day in Amsterdam.
Our breakfast is excellent bread, an amazing selection of cheese and cups of strong coffee. We indulge and both agree we could get used to this type of morning start.
Nelda and Marieke suggest a tour of Amsterdam and we happily agree. We walk to the train station and receive an in service on how to buy tickets and read the schedules. We are fortunate as we have 3 lines available to take us downtown. Within minutes a train arrives, spacious, bright and clean we settle ourselves for the short trip downtown
We arrive and expertly Marieke and Nelda lead us to the correct exit, good thing as my instinct was to go in the opposite direction. We see cheese wheels in a shop dedicated to this pursuit, flowers for sale and the smell of baked goods encourage us to stop, though we continue moving.
We begin to exit the station oblivious to a commotion behind us. The train station is being evacuated. Nelda is concerned as she has heard the announcement. John and I have no idea until we are safely outside and Nelda explains. We later learn a Belgium citizen in retaliation to a controversy involving a Politician’s statements randomly stabbed several people as he exited the train. He was later shot by Police. This would be a main news story for several days. John and I comfortable in tourist mode with only a few words of Dutch between us continued to ooh and awe at the sites.
We marvel at the bikes, bikes, bikes everywhere. People of all ages ride, owning the road, pedestrians beware. We watch for cars, though are focused looking for bikes as they weave in and out. We wonder how anyone finds their bike at the end of the day. There are huge garages dedicated to storing the bikes, bike theft is a problem which seems bizarre when there are so many. Still it is the best way to get around and the people are fit. I think about home where we bike until we get a car and then most Canadians never bike again. Nelda tells us that abandoned bikes are a problem and at times they are marked and picked up. We also learn 13,000 bikes are removed from the canals annually.
We take the ferry for a short trip to arrive on a small island with a large building. We ride to the top and are treated to a 360 degree view of the city. This allows us to really gain an understanding of the city. We point out landmarks of places we would like to see, Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank House, and Marieke points out their home. There is a chance for swinging from the edge of the building though we decline and opt for gawking instead.
We find a great spot for lunch before continuing our tour of the city. We take pictures of the canals with the beautiful homes on either side, the quintessential picture of Amsterdam and I learn there is more than one street with a canal. In fact at every turn beautiful architecture exists. There are hooks at the top of these narrow homes to haul furniture through the windows as this is the only method that would work. These homes were built during the Golden Age when Holland was enjoying a boom. No expense spared though narrow and tall to avoid tax which was based on the width of the building.
We stop at the Rembrandtplein to admire the 3D model of the Nightwatch, Rembrandt’s famous painting. Our feet tired and demand respite we sit at a nearby open cafe. I smile as there is no pretence, all chairs are facing towards the sidewalk for maximal people watching. When in Amsterdam we think as we sip our Amstel radlers and join in this popular pastime.
We arrive in Amsterdam after a long night and day of travel. We are greeted at the airport by John’s cousin, Nelda and Aunt, Emmy. Such a welcome pleasure and so very different from other trips where we arrive without knowing a soul.
We enjoy a coffee and beer at the airport and collect our thoughts before continuing our journey. We find the lighthouse marker where we find Nelda’s car and relax while she expertly navigates the car to her home. I reflect on other trips where we frantically search for the rental agency and then twirl our way out of the airport, brows furrowed as we find our accommodation sleep deprived. I decide I like this experience much more.
We arrive at our destination, a beautiful, spacious apartment with a view of the Amstel river. We set our bags down in our room and visit for a few moments before exhaustion settles in and our eyes’ blink rate slows. We crawl into bed for a nap with a planned wake up call a few hours later to break the jet lag.
The knock on the door arrives and we peel ourselves away from the comfortable bed to the dining room where we meet Marieke, Nelda and Emmy for coffee. Soon dinner arrives without our effort and we indulge.
Satiated we decide on a walk around the neighbourhood. The light dims, the river shimmers as we admire architecture, each building unique and beautiful, all favourites its too difficult to choose. Nelda points out important landmarks, the train station, trolley and bridges. We get our bearings.
We arrive back, drink wine and learn about each other. Soon we are talking and laughing, like we have always known each other, deep belly laughs and tears run down our faces to round out our first night in Amsterdam.
I have known since I was in my twenties that life is fleeting. Working in hospitals, having the honour to be at a person’s last breaths with their family surrounding them or in some cases just hospital staff bear witness to those last breaths. All the trappings of life fall away to just that moment.
There is a peace in that moment. There is the realization that things that we think are important, money, power and climbing the ladder to success, fall away. There is bargaining for more time, or a prayer to end the suffering. We hope to see the people who mattered to us in life and hope that we mattered to them too.
This knowledge has changed me. My parents both died young and still years later I think of all they missed. Sixteen great grandchildren and counting, family dinners, weddings, lazy days and busy ones too. They are always with me and in this manner, live still.
We have no guarantee as to the number of days that we have left. We live far into the future, though the ground shifts like teutonic plates. We plan for years, though in a blink of an eye, time is whittled down to seconds, days or months. Our plans shift to this new reality, and life is stripped to its basic.
We hold each other a little closer, the sky bluer, the sun brighter. We take a breath and then another because we can. Our bucket list shifts, we remove items that aren’t possible anymore and look at the list closely. Is any of it really necessary?
We hope we have made a difference, that one person breathed easier just because we existed. That we left our mark, were good people, someone to count on in a pinch. We say sorry to the people that we have wronged, accept an apology from those who wronged us and live with a clean slate.
I’ve lived this life since my twenties. I know that life is fleeting–really know. Somedays I’m better at this, somedays I fall short of the mark. Still, it is a gift to know.
We have booked an excursion with Calypso Cruises and are both excited at dipping our feet in the ocean, feeling the sand between our toes and a catamaran ride. The trip will also give us a chance to see the road condition prior to our journey to the coast the following day.
The tour begins early with a 0615 pickup at a San Jose hotel. We will need to navigate our way there as we are staying at a home in the mountains outside of San Jose. John calls the hotel to ask permission to park our rental car. He is denied. We reach out to our host, Jorge and ask if he knows of alternate parking within walking distance. He calls the hotel again and receives the same denial in Spanish. He learns there is no nearby parking. He provides the approximate cost of an Uber though John and I silently reject the option, though politely we thank him for his time. Jorge then offers to be our Uber and we are touched by his generosity of spirit and time.
He tells us he will pick us up at 0530. We are ready, though nervous as we were planning on leaving at 0430. Jorge navigates the streets expertly, pointing out landmarks from his youth. How different from our drives with our pinched faces and economy of words providing the direction of the next turn and how many meters until said turn. We regale him with the story of getting lost. He advises John that if he can drive in Costa Rica, he can drive anywhere in the world. John solemnly agrees. Jorge pulls up to the front of the hotel and suggests a coffee or breakfast to pass the time. John reads my confusion and taps his watch. We have arrived with 20 minutes to spare. We shake our heads certain we would still be twirling our way here had we driven.
Our luxury bus arrives and we marvel at the skill of the driver as he navigates the bus through seemingly narrow passages. Our guide informs us that the road we are travelling on took decades to build and work remains, though the process is sloth like as bureaucracy stalls the progress. We sit back, relax and enjoy the relative speed to the province of Puntarenas.
Our tour company has done this trip since the 1970’s and are a well oiled machine. We are ushered into the Shrimp shack restaurant for a traditional Costa Ricaan breakfast of eggs, plantains, rice, beans, fresh fruit and coffee. We are clearly on a tight schedule as our empty dishes are snatched away and dreams of a second cup of coffee are ruined. We are directed to board the Catamaran.
The sun beats down as we slather ourselves with sunscreen. We marvel at the different climate from our rental in San Isidro. John tenderly applies sun tan lotion to his frost bitten nose obtained just a few weeks ago. Happily we sit back and enjoy the ride. Soon the wake of the boat lulls and we are in holiday mode
A young lady spies humpback whales in the distance and the boat wakes as people leap from one side to another scanning the water for these majestic animals. A cry of excitement, then false alarm as a log is mistaken for a whale. Then, pay dirt as a mother and calf skim the surface to excited cries. This is repeated several times though begins to feel predatory as we pursue. It feels wrong and at that moment we retreat to our previous course, Isla Tortuga.
We arrive to a busy, happening place. There are many craft anchored here, the beach busy. We are shepherded off the boat and directed to our designated area. There are many such areas on the beach, though ours does seem especially nice with its picnic tables and combo of parachutes and umbrellas to shield us from the sun. We receive an in service on the day plan, then are quickly loaded back on the Catamaran for snorkelling.
John and I have brought our own snorkel gear, like the guy with his own bowling shoes, we prefer it that way. The rest of the group dons unfamiliar gear complete with fins. We all wear mandatory life vests. I’m excited to see the fish. We stand in line and wait seemingly forever for our turn. I jump in to a thrashing cauldron of snorkellers, chopping up the water and scaring the fish. The misuse of their foot fins kicks up the silt blinding the fish and making viewing impossible despite the special spray to clear our masks. I look around for John who is trapped on the boat waiting forever for someone to adjust their gear. His patience thins and he jumps in too. Moments later the rest of our group bails for the boat, snorkelling complete for the day. John and I wait, the silt clears and we are treated to a few brightly coloured fish and a starfish. It is dismal snorkel pickings though the swim is nice.
We travel back to the beach, enjoy our four course lunch, complete with wine. A talented trio plays music cementing the moment in our memory. We enjoy the company of our picnic table mates speaking both Spanish and English we celebrate when we discover meaning.
We wander the beach, browse the souvenir store which feels out of place, we buy nothing, instead we take photos, our favorite memento and search for beach glass, my favourite beach activity. We find only one piece on this pristine beach so different from the handfuls on Curacao just a short year ago.
We queue up for banana boat rides and hang on as we are dragged behind a motor boat. Close to shore, we are driven in a tight circle where physics wins as we capsize despite our best efforts to remain upright.
Too soon it’s time to go. Our group closes up the island and we board our craft for the journey back. I think about this, a boat ride for two hours, a bus ride for another three hours and a cab ride for the final 30 minutes. We have enjoyed 5 hours on this island and I decide it was worth every moment of travel. John and I smile at each other, the snow and cold of Canada seems very far away.
The Howler monkeys wake us early with their screams. We are happy for the wake up call, though a volume control would be nice.
Our lodging at the Ceiba tree resort includes breakfast and happily we make our way to the dining room.
We opt to eat al fresco, enjoy the morning breeze, view of Lake Arenal and the amazing Ceiba Tree. The tree is over 500 years old. I sip my coffee and imagine what it has seen. I can imagine people in various attire marching through the timeline enjoying its shelter and all the animals that have called it home.
We speak to fellow Canadians at breakfast. One man asks what we thought of the drive, it’s clear his opinion as we detect a twitch. His wife is not ashamed to say she was car sick. We sit a little straighter, perhaps we are doing okay. We learn the mountain traverse last night was not necessary and that the roads are smooth. The map app cost us an extra tortuous 60km. We hate her and are happy to ignore her for part of the way back.
John is interested in a Canopy tour, a chance to zip through the jungle like Tarzan. Wanting to be his Jane, I nervously agree. We begin our drive and stop at a shop to inquire about the tour. We learn it is mere meters away.
We arrive, park in an impossibly large parking lot, pay for the tour and browse the over priced gift store chock full of tchotchkes. No knickknacks needed, we browse our way through. We find a beautiful lodge and enjoy a leisurely coffee. It is a beautiful place with its manicured plants and sanitized experience. How different from the more authentic experience we have been enjoying, less North American, more Costa Rican. I’m ashamed at the excess that seems to be required in places like this one and happy for our rental in the mountains.
We complete the paperwork for the tour supplying our passport information and blood type. We agree we understand emergency services may take time. We are then fitted with our gear for the Canopy adventure and my heart beats a little faster. A young family arrives with a young girl of 4 years. She declares it is her first time, I admit it is mine too. We both resolve to not be afraid.
We receive an in service and soon just like Tarzan and Jane, John and I are zipping from tree to tree through the jungle. The perspective unique as we see the trees from our perch then fly over with a birds eye view.
Eleven trees later we arrive at the terminus. Our ride back is an open air affair pulled by a tractor up steep inclines and impossibly narrow roads, equally exciting it is our bonus tour.
We change gear and soak our tired muscles in a series of natural hot springs rich in minerals. Each spring progressively cooler as we descend. The view of Volcan Arenal breathtaking with its frame of lacy palm fronds. A worker directs our sight to a Sloth in the tree. We watch him for a time, he scratches and like fireworks we ooh and ahh at the movement.
We have enjoyed our time at this resort and reluctantly begin the long trek back to our lodging. We comfort ourself with the knowledge that without the unnecessary extra mountain we have only 110km to travel. We allow 4 hours for the journey.
Every minute is required as we discover rush hour has waited for us. I’m toughening up as I no longer feel the need to cry, bite my nails or grip the dash. We crawl through the final hour. The map app throws up her hands once more as she directs us in a marionette circle. We are on to her though, allowing her to yip out directions in the background while we use our memory and find our way to our lodging in the dark.
It occurs to us that the GPS signal is likely being lost in the mountains and that perhaps the map app is not out to get us as we feared.
In any case, today we have enjoyed the journey, the car ride part of the adventure though not the entire story.
We venture to Lake Arenal. Google maps tells us it will take 2 hours for this 187 km journey. We laugh at both the optimism and naivety of the map app. We plan on a more realistic 4 hours to allow for the certain twists and turns.
The road is well paved, the twists and turns relentless. Our host has told us that the road will flatten out at the end. We look forward to the reprieve. There are steep drop offs with no shoulders or guard rails. We are doing this free form. All manner of vehicles pass us on blind crests, we focus on the task at hand. John is focused on keeping our vehicle shiny side up, my task more mundane announcing the meters until the next turn. At times I look at the beauty all around, waterfalls, rainbows and every colour of green is represented. The road improves, never flattening though less curves allow our necks a rest
We pass small towns, fruit stands and interesting sights. We forego the journey and focus on the destination. Despite our focus, we near the five hour mark. The road deteriorates quickly like a bad joke, we jerk along. Dirt bikes pass as we are forced up and over a mountain. This can’t be right I lament. John doesn’t engage in this fruitless conversation as there is no room to change direction.
We near our destination a few kilometres away, when the map app throws up her hands and has us twirling in circles as we listen intently to her directions. After a few turns, we realize we are on our own and engage our tired brains to figure out the puzzle. We remember pictures of the resort with its view of the lake and move closer to the water. John spies a forgotten sign with a close approximation of the name of our resort and distance of 5km. We decide to give it a whirl. Tucked around a forgotten corner John spies an equally tucked resort sign. His voice shrill he asks if this is the name and logo. I check and excited announce that we have arrived. He shakes his head with the impossibility of finding this needle in a haystack. The entrance is very narrow at an acute angle seemingly too tight for the SUV. John expertly enters and we begin the steep, vertical climb to reception. John shoe horns the vehicle into the last remaining spot and we climb the remainder of the incline. A lovely zen couple and their children greet us, show us to our room with the view of the lake. We are still twitching from the drive.
We snap off a few pictures just as the light fades and commiserate about the trip as we wait for dinner. Our mouth waters as our Chef host tells us what we will enjoy for dinner. We have stopped for nothing, our last meal 15 hours past.
Our dinner fantastic, roasted pumpkin, potato, pork tenderloin, squash soup and cheesecake for dessert. We share a bottle of wine, relax and plan tomorrow’s adventure. We decide to stop, look and see as we learned in kindergarten. Our over arching plan to enjoy the journey, the destination will come soon enough.
It is our first full day in Costa Rica, we opt for close attractions to get our bearings.
John and I set out for San Isidro a few kilometres away, along the narrow, twisty roads. We breathe a sigh of relief as John parks the car, then a moment of panic as we notice the sharp ditches impossible to drive out of with their steep concrete sides terminating in a V at the centre.
Our mission is to exchange our USD to Colon, the local currency. We arrive at the bank and learn a passport is required and travel back to our rental to fetch the documents. We are confident in the direction and high five each other when we arrive. John trips the house alarm and frantically presses buttons to stop the ear shattering noise. The Police are called though are stopped before they arrive by calling our host.
Rattled, we set out for the town again. We exchange our money, buy a few groceries and wander the town in search of sustenance. Chicken seems quite popular, we settle on lattes and sweet treats as we plan our next move
We decide on Volcan Barva, a 27km, 30 minute trip according to google maps. We soon learn that google knows nothing about the twisty, corkscrew roads that triple our arrival time. The road is a narrow, pot holed ravaged affair with steep drops and hair pin turns. We lurch into the parking lot with 30 minutes to enjoy the park before beginning the trek down. We walk one path, take a few pictures then return. We agree that we need to get back before dark descends. The fog rolls in, mocking our plan of visibility and we creep down.
We stop at McDonalds to sort out the map, put in our location and destination and begin the 12km return trip to our rental. The map app hiccups and soon we are blindly travelling to San Jose, the major city during rush hour. Chaos reigns as scooters, motorcycles, bikes and pedestrians fill the narrow gaps left by cars, trucks and buses appearing everywhere at once. The rush is the competition for space. We lurch along stinking up the place with our overused clutch.
I look around, the map voice confident announces our next turn, my fear grows, this isn’t right as we enter a convoluted turn. I reset the map app and it begins its announcement, feebly I put my hand over the map voice, too late, she announces a u-turn is required. John loudly states, “are you f…in kidding?” I quickly explain the situation, that we are now heading to San Isidro though we have 60km to travel. John takes it in stride, the map voice strangely silent. The silence is for the best, a cooling off period is needed.
We snake through the narrow streets of San Jose. Gradually the traffic lightens as we begin our ascent up a mountain. The road quickly deteriorates. We find ourselves powering up impossibly steep grades through tight hairpin turns in first gear. Dark descends and the fog rolls in thick. Blacktop gives way to gravel, washboard with canyon sized ruts and potholes. Our little SUV struggles for traction like the little engine that could. We reach a particularly nasty incline, vertical to the heavens on a sharp crease of a turn. Our SUV says, “no can do,” as it stalls to catch its breath. John tries again, it stalls, sliding back into oblivion. The headlights shine crazily into the sky, revealing nothing useful. John tries again and I wonder if this is where it ends. Sufficiently rested the SUV hums, ” I think I might,” as it does.
The road surface gradually improves, though the twists and turns never change. The map app over her anger, announces turns, then counts down the meters to a turn that is merely a bend in the road. I prefer her silence, though she is leading us through this ordeal. We put up with the incessant chatter. For three hours we traverse the mountain via switchbacks. The moon is a curious shape, like a smiley face, it mocks.
We near San Isidro, relaxed and happy in the knowledge the ordeal will soon be over. We plan our meal despite the late hour. We arrive, panic replaces the happy feeling as we realize, like Dorothy in Oz that this is not the San Isidro from this morning.
Frantically, I reset the map and it finally allows and accepts the address of where we are staying. We learn that San Isidro is quite popular in Costa Rica and now we have visited two. Perhaps John’s cussing earlier had the map voice reek havoc on our lives. Mission accomplished, we begin the return trek with 68km or 4 hours to complete.
We are both quiet, the map voice chipper announcing our turns. John states that we better not have to go through the rough section again. I have already looked ahead and know we will. I decide to keep that knowledge to myself for now, along with the knowledge that the mountain trek was not required. The boulders and insight will come soon enough for John too.
We arrive in the correct San Isidro as our map voice announces our next turn. We look at each other and simultaneously tell her to stop talking. We have learned enough to refuse.
Home beckons and soon we arrive. John expertly disarms the house alarm. We eat our dinner at 0200. We have learned a great deal about Costa Rica and even more about each other.
The other day I was talking with my daughter about my latest ensnared drama. She politely listened, and then wise beyond her years, said, “Mom, not your circus, not your monkeys.” I chuckled at the time at this Polish proverb. She then reminded me that I have my own circus and my own monkeys.
I thought about my circus with a sigh. Despite being the ringleader, I felt a failure at dealing with my monkeys. The lure of another circus where the solutions seem so obvious, fixable and tidy draws me close.
Still, if I were to be honest, nothing is ever so tidy, it just seems thus without the facts, history and complexities that make each situation unique. While my solution may have tangible results, rarely would it be sustainable. Immersed, I feel important, critical to the show.
In a quest to help, I walk away from my own circus where the monkeys are now running amok. I rob the ability for others to learn how to deal with their own monkeys, to create their own unique solutions, where they are aware of all the angles. Its nice to help, though when we become the central ringleader as opposed to a mere bit player and in effect care more, we take away their ability to learn, to grow. Too soon, the monkeys act up and we find ourselves the ringleader of several circuses in town. Large portions of our day are consumed.
We all like to be included and part of the circus, though I’m now content to sit in the bleachers, enjoy my popcorn and learn a novel approach to tackle a situation as I watch the situation unfold.
When the lights dim, I’ll go back to my own circus, whose monkeys I’ve known so very long with a new skill. The show must go on!
After a day spent working on the house, staining, painting, gardening and building, we are ready for some relaxation. There always seems to be so much to do and much work remains as we tally the must do’s, should do’s and have to do’s and place them on our virtual list. We collectively sigh, It seems as though we have barely scratched the surface as we scan the yard. Still the summer is getting away from us and a break is needed. We load the kayaks on the car, and salvage the day by traveling to the nearby lake.
John prepares the steaks while I leave in search of Saskatoon berries. I walk a long way, my efforts unrewarded, the trees stripped of their fruit, by the weekend warriors. I arrive back as my dinner is served, the taste intensified with outdoor cooking. Satiated, we pack up our kitchen and unload the kayaks for our sunset paddle.
There are blood suckers at this beach and I ask John to launch my boat to decrease my exposure. He complies and then spends several moments picking the suckers off his own skin. Several times I feel compelled to share that the blood suckers seem to prefer him. He quietly reminds me of my limited exposure in the water.
The light is at its prettiest, the beauty doubled. In awe, we break the glass of the water with our paddles. I snap pictures hoping that the camera catches some of the beauty, though just to remember it exactly as it is, I silently snap off a few pictures to store in my memory. We share the lake with a few stray ducks on their last loop around the water before calling it a day. The night creatures are stirring and soon their shift will begin.
We loop around the pond and I lazily lift my oar and watch the droplets as they land on the water, breaking the perfection. The sun turns the water gold and the rays dance on the surface creating motion. Instantly, I am transported back to my childhood days spent on lakes like this one, canoeing and mesmerized by the water. It never gets old.
The light lessens and reluctantly we leave this beauty for now. I’m hoping that we will be able to carve out more time this year for another paddle or five, though fall is fast approaching and too soon the kayaks will be stored for another season.
We arrive back at the beach and John jumps out of his kayak to pull in my boat and lessen my blood sucker contact. His chivalry is not rewarded and he is soon covered in blood suckers. We sit on the picnic bench and John picks off the suckers from his body. He separates his toes and finds the ones with the best hiding spots. I remark that I have none. I then search my memory banks and come up empty–I have never had a blood sucker on my body, its the idea of them that I abhor, how interesting! I share this with John who looks at me wryly as he pulls a particularly attached sucker from his leg.
The light has faded and in near dark we load the kayaks. The stars make their appearance on our short drive home and I think how fortunate we are to have this place so close to our home. The house welcomes us home and the short time away has us seeing the work done with fresh eyes and we are satisfied. The break allows us to appreciate the work done as opposed to the work that remains.
I saw the movie, Herbie the Love bug when it debuted in 1968. I was very young and though I don’t remember the plot of the movie and have not seen it since, it remains etched in my history for one reason.
A Herbie replica was in the parking lot of the theatre and was being auctioned off for the price of a raffle ticket. I wanted to win the car. My Dad explained that it would be many years before I could drive the car. It mattered little to me as I liked the idea of a car waiting for me until I would be old enough to drive. I never won the car, but thought about it many times.
Eventually I would be old enough to drive, My first car was a 1980 Roadrunner, brand new with the same number of kilometres on the odometer as years I had been alive. It was beautiful, the colour changing depending on the light. Still, I would see many Beetles around, my daughters punching each other, playing the Beetle game and I would remember my first love. It wasn’t practical I would think, as I loaded carseats, children and their items into larger vehicles.
A friend had an old Beetle, not running, and one day I happily sat inside the car while he pushed it. For a moment I felt the wind in my hair, the dream realized.
The girls grew up, moved away and I found myself with the ability to choose whatever vehicle I wanted. I would dream of the car as I worked endless hours on my house, watching the house rise from the ground to be a reality where once it had been a dream. The Beetle had been relaunched and no longer did I need to be a mechanic or handy at body work to own one. Still, I decided it would be a Jetta or a Golf, practical, and would spend hours thinking of the colour, the moment when it too would become a reality.
My eldest daughter was hit by a car that summer. It was a Jetta and just like that I didn’t want one. I bought a Pontiac, and received a great bargain by having a friend that worked for GM. Still, I would see the new Beetles around town and look at them with longing for what might have been.
The newest Beetle was launched, looking more like the original. I spent much time on the internet building my dream car, tucking it into a folder on my desktop for “one day.” The day came and together my husband and I went into the dealership transferring the years of dreaming into a reality. We would need to wait while it was built in Germany and then sent on its long journey to our dealership. I could wait, could delay gratification, had been doing this for most of my life.
Five months later the moment arrived when we would pick up my car at the dealership. In the time waiting, I built a lego model of a Volkswagen, surfed the net for accessories and dreamed of that moment. I dressed that morning in a 60’s style shirt in celebration. The Beetle was beautiful, the colour perfect, it exceeded my high expectations. As I drove off the lot, the first song I heard on the radio was a song from the 60’s, it was perfect.
Everyone it seems has a dream car, this one is mine.
The other day I was at a store and a young Mom and her daughters pointed at the car as I drove by. In my rearview mirror, I watched the Mother playfully punch her children in the arm, and so it continues. Punch buggy, green, no returns indeed!
We travel to Sheta Boca for a walk on the wild side. Sheta Boca means seven inlets, each carved out of limestone and different from the other. The trek is about 10km with views of the coastline for the entire venture. We arrive early at 0900 and are surprised that we have the entire nature reserve to ourselves. A sleepy man takes our money and is not able to make change, so we tip him reluctantly.
The sea beckons and we spy a bench in the distance. We begin our journey. Within minutes the sky opens up, and we quickly look for shelter in a cave. How fortunate to wait out the storm. Nearly as soon as the rain begins it stops and we start again with the added bonus of mud and slick trails for a level of difficulty.
We are mesmarized by the power of the ocean, watching it gain momentum to a peak and then crash into the shore. Its timed and in my mind I hear Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah.
There is a hodgepodge of stairs, some rock, some wood, some stone and a curious plank with small sticks to keep it from being a slide. We adjust our gait and are mindful of falling. We are more careful for the potential risk. How different from home where our every step has the expectation of safety and if we do get hurt, then another structure is erected quickly to make certain it never happens again.
We find a sandy beach littered with cairns. It is always curious to see these structures, a proof that someone was there, when really it only matters to them that they were. On closer inspection we discover that this beach is where the turtles lay their eggs, a sign asks us not to put stones on the beach as this would make it more difficult for the sea turtles. Curacao is a surprising place with relatively few rules. There are no posted speed signs, no smoking signs or any of a dozen like signs that exist in Canada and become invisible with their frequency. This sign stands out and yet has been ignored. I’m annoyed. We decide that we will remove rocks and at least do our part for the sea turtles. We attack the homage to Sheila and feel better for our efforts.
We have saved the best for last as we journey to our final destination, Boca Pistol. Here water builds in a cavern, then like a sealed pot, blows, spewing water up to 30 feet in the air. We watch this for a long while getting excited when we know that the water will shoot high. We are not alone and like fireworks the oohs and awes surround us. We take photos and videos and finally are sated, leaving our choice spots for new arrivals.
We walk away from the water opting for a loop that has not been defined. We can see Mount Christoff in the distance. Our shoes fill with mud as we trudge along. I think about the view of water that we gave up in favour of the backcountry. It is beautiful with its many cacti, small lizards and large hills. We find our way back to the beginning surprised that several hours have passed since our start. Like the best excursions, it seems like days have passed for the experience that we now carry, though minutes as we gathered that experience.
Our plan is to kayak to a beach where we will dock, adorn our snorkel gear and swim to the site of a sunken tugboat where there is an opportunity to see an abundance of fish.
Mentally I prepare myself. I’m not concerned about kayaking though somewhat concerned with the snorkelling. I experienced a significant near drowning episodes and have worked hard to overcome, to arrive at this moment. I like to know all before venturing out. I can swim, there is no current and the buoyancy of the salt water will keep me afloat though panic is the wild card and it could all go sideways quickly.
The area is rather industrial looking with a homely ship docked. The nearby beaches are covered with garbage, the sand pummelled down and grey. Beach glass abounds as does broken bottles. There is much clean up work to be done and I wonder if there is a plan.
John and I will need to share a kayak, a dicey prospect. We are used to our own craft, so will need to exercise both patience and tact. We set out. The water is beautiful and we can see to the bottom of the sea. Soon we leave the sheltered bay for the open water. Wind is a factor, though we both hunker down and get it done.
We arrive at the beach and I begin my search for beach glass, I am soon rewarded. The Guide talks about the history of the area. I give John a look which he correctly interprets to share the information with me later and I’m liberated from the history lesson to search for beach glass. There is much black glass on this beach. It isn’t really black but rather looks thus until held to the light where the green is visible. I share my bounty with our Guide, a young girl from Massachusetts who is a beach glass kindred spirit
We don our snorkel gear and set off for the sunken tugboat. It will be a distance and I prepare myself for the journey without having a shore in sight. John and the Guide lead the way and I follow behind. It seems a long way, there is nothing to see and I begin to panic. I settle myself down, slow my breathing and set out again. We arrive at the tugboat. The fish have created a very colourful home. We see fish varieties we have not seen. It’s so cool how the boat is so close to the surface. We see divers and now I realize the draw of this pursuit. Divers see stuff like this all the time. Snorkelers see only beneath the surface and close to shore.
Our Guide suggests a snorkel out to the drop off. I remember this didn’t go well for Nemo though I’m up for the experience. There are no fish to see on our way out and as such I begin to panic again. I relax myself as I know if I don’t, we will return to shore without the experience. We arrive, it’s a clear demarcation between the light and dark blue. In the dark, silhouettes of fish float.
I think about how far I’ve come to let go of my fear of water. Clearly I remember the day that I nearly died. I had swimming lessons stretching back to my youth and earned all my badges. The day in question, I made a series of unfortunate mistakes. I had shoes on my feet and was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. I swam out to a log, thinking I could touch when I arrived. I swam against a current and arrived at the log tired. I stood up and there was no bottom beneath my feet. I panicked sealing my fate. I went down several times and like the nightmare where I scream for help, my voice was barely a whisper. No one heard. The last time I went down I saw my young daughter, who interpreted my panic for the situation at hand and began to swim to me. Instinctively, I swam away, knowing with the last clear thought that I would overpower her if she reached me. I went down for the final time and felt a peace and a realization that this is how I would die. Suddenly, I was plucked from my watery depth and brought to the surface. I gulped for air, flipped over on my back and floated, the panic gone. This has stayed with me all these years.
Years after this event, I was with a patient who had a tracheostomy tube and g-tube. We were in Hawaii. Her tube was plugged during the day, allowing her the opportunity to wade in the ocean. She signed to me to join her in the ocean. I signed back, “I’m scared.” She looked at me, put her hands on her hips, rolled her eyes and signed back, “Look at me, I have a tracheostomy tube, a g-tube and I’m going in, are you coming?” My sign language did not afford the words to explain further, and I realized in that moment that it would make no difference. I had a choice to stay in fear or to take the first dip. Sheepishly, I went with her and we waded in the ocean. This was the beginning. Gradually, I would go further, learn to snorkel and venture still further, learning to relax to keep my panic at bay. How amazing that first time when I donned snorkelling gear and saw the fish Panic melted away as I watched the fish and saw a world I would not have known had I remained on the shore, wearing the cloak of fear to keep safe.
We snorkel back to the beach and I’m proud of myself, richer for the experience. I think of the little girl who led me to this moment and send a silent thank you to heaven where she now resides.
“Face the fear and do it anyway,” has been my mantra since that pivotal day. How much do we miss when we wrap ourselves in the itchy, uncomfortable garb of fear. When we shed our fear, we are free and only then can we begin to embrace the authentic life just beyond, closer to our best selves. I know this for certain as I look at the photos of what lies just beneath the surface.
I picked up my first piece of beach glass in Prince Edward Island several years ago and instantly was hooked. For the remainder of that trip I scoured the beaches, enlisting my husband for a team effort, maximum glass and never tiring. Happily, I could do this all day long, stark contrast to my usual self of flitting from one activity to another. Beach glass collecting is my zen. The feel of the glass is soft, its sharp edges tumbled by the power of the ocean.
Prince Edward Island is not a mecca for beach glass, still we collected a handful, during our stay, travelling to many beaches to add to our collection. I would close my eyes at night and see the glass, all the colours available.
In Curacao, John bent down to pick up a piece of glass to throw away and save someone certain pain. In his hand he discovered it was beach glass. He beckoned me over and my face broke into a grin as I immediately began to look for more. How interesting to see it literally everywhere once we looked. How much do we miss when we look and don’t see? In PEI we picked up a piece about once per hour. In Curacao one per second.
Curacao beaches have an abundance of green and brown, likely from Heineken and Amstel bottles, though we find white, yellow, blue, black and even the elusive red. Each beach has a predominant colour. We get picky as we ignore the green to search for the rarer finds. We are rewarded at every turn.
I amass a collection, our bounty covering the dining table in our townhouse and I wonder what it is about beach glass that I love. I decide it’s the story that I create in my mind about its origin, transformation and eventual arrival on the shore. It is stranded before I reach down and pick it up. I think about how we covet rare gems and make them such by the value we place. The glass I hold in my hand has a harsher journey, a most uncertain future and yet to most its garbage until transformed. Beach glass does not warrant a second look for most people who eye me suspiciously as I put another piece in my pocket.
Here in Curacao there is no formal recycling. We struggle with this as it feels wrong to throw away bottles. We have spent a good portion of our lives recycling bottles and receiving a small amount for our effort. It feels wrong to throw them away. Likely the bottles will eventually find their way from the garbage to a beach where it will be transformed into something beautiful. Someday someone will walk a beach, reach down and pick up a small part of that bottle, love the feel of it in their hand and touch the power of the ocean, if only for a moment
We just returned from Curacao and though English is spoken, two other languages are also spoken, Dutch and Papiamento, the latter, a creole language based on Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and several African dialects. It is not difficult to find someone who speaks English and our ease of the English language has people asking if we are American. They are pleased to discover we are Canadian. I mention to one person how lucky to be able to converse in a variety of languages. They respond with a smile, “But you speak English and as such there is no need.” Still, I fantasize about being able to speak the primary language of the country.
During the first few days we tour the island. Seemingly everywhere are signs that say, bushalte. I wonder what this could mean. An alternate route in the bush? It makes no sense as no discernible route is visible. Perhaps it means to halt, though if it does we would be stopping every few moments and clearly as we travel at highway speeds we are breaking the law. I ask my husband if he can hazard a guess, he responds quick, “bus stop.” I look at him in a new light. As a child he travelled to Holland, his father was Dutch and in him lies a wealth of knowledge I didn’t know he possessed, my personal translator.
Wherever we go, I read the words, ignoring the English words, if they exist and then try to figure out what they might mean, before I check my understanding by reading the translation or asking my translator. In our two weeks I manage to pick up a few words, not bold enough to say them out loud, but gathering understanding by at least being able to read. My husband, speaks a few words and to my ear with perfect pronunciation. My friend taught me a few words many years previous, useful words like zout, important if you don’t like your candy to be salty. I jump on this whenever I see it, excited to read with understanding. Vis means fish, makes sense if you say it really fast. Rundvlees means beef which sounds like flesh, easy to remember Kip means chicken but makes no sense as I think about kippers when I hear the word. It catches me unaware each time.
We go to the grocery store where the words are in Dutch. We are still jet lagged and the prospect of figuring out what the items might be behind their packaging is daunting. We buy fruit, vegetables, coffee, beer and non salty candy, the rest we save for another day.
We have learned a great deal as several days later we arrive at the grocery store with a dinner plan. We read the packaging, it seems clear compared to a few short days ago. Still, we are stumped when we find a prepared salad that looks like potato though has the word, rundvlees on its package. We can’t see any beef through the clear top. We search other packaging, perhaps it’s a typo? We ask another customer who tries to explain, though something critical is lost in translation. My husband hopefully decides it’s bacon. Still, we opt for the single serving size as opposed to the jumbo family size, playing it safe.
Our favourite Dutch restaurant De buurfrauw has Dutch as its first language. They readily speak English to us though on our last visit the hostess mistakes me for Dutch and speaks to us in that tongue. She asks in Dutch if I have reservations, I respond, “Yes.” She continues in Dutch asking for our name. “Smit,” I respond moving me to the next level of conversation with my Dutch surname. We are we now in uncharted territory having moved beyond social niceties. She says something, my look of confusion is mirrored on her face, as she quickly switches to English stumbling on the words, the conversation now formal, the magic of the moment lost. I ponder how much I have just missed, how great the conversation could be if only I could speak the language.
I read the signs listing the specials. I notice Koffee en Smakje. This makes me wonder if it’s coffee with liquor, thinking to smack the coffee with liquor. Quickly I notice another sign with coffee and various liquor options, and conclude that this must be something different. I ask my husband who quickly responds that it’s coffee with a little taste. We order and I’m pleased to see a little treat on the plate next to the coffee. I take a bite, smack my lips. The word perfect, no translation required.
We decide to climb to the highest point on Curacao, Christoff Mountain. We are clearly in vacation mode and arrive at noon ready to climb. We are turned away as there is no climbing after 1100 am. We plan to try again tomorrow and content ourselves with information on the area.
We arrive early for us at 0900, pay the nominal fee to enter the park, peruse the map and drive to the base of the mountain. It is an interesting looking mountain with its pointy part at the top. We are informed it should take two hours to complete the climb one hour up and one hour down. This makes no sense to me as climbing down generally takes less time. Still we are not on a schedule and we begin.
The trail starts gentle, clearly marked with sweet little rocks flanking the sides, it’s obvious. Too soon the sweet little rocks are absent replaced by large boulders that we step and sidestep on our ascent. Unseasonably, it has rained a great deal in the last few days and the trail is washed out in places, slippery in other places. Every few minutes we stop to determine our route. There are no gentle switchbacks just a relentless up. We walk out of the shade and clearly understand in this moment why no hiking is permitted after eleven. The sun beats down, taxing our sunscreen and sucking the moisture from our skin. I taste salt on my lips. We continue and stop frequently to catch our breath, take photos, check the time. Despite our vacation mode, our pride is at stake, it’s important to complete the trek in the time suggested.
The trail takes a turn for worse as we near the top. We meet others heading down who advise us the worst is yet to come. We are told to take the gentler left path at the top as the right is more challenging I look around as I crawl on the boulders trying to find a safe ascent and think they must be exaggerating as it really couldn’t get much worse. I do like the idea of a gentle path and push onward and upward, thinking of the moment when it becomes gentle.
I catch myself at times, as I reach out to hang on, luckily noticing at the last moment that I am reaching for a cactus. I withdraw my hand quickly, saving certain pain.
We arrive at the fork close to the top. The gentle path promised is really not a path but rather a series of boulders with sharp drop offs into oblivion. Perhaps this is where we make up the time lost by falling down the mountain to the bottom? The other “path” seems a bit of a stretch to call it thus, is a collection of boulders with no navigational route, save for the fast route to the bottom of the mountain. We stand for seemingly forever, collecting our breath, thoughts, and courage before scrambling the last 50 feet to the top.
We arrive and are treated to a birds eye view of the island. The Caribbean sea beckons in the far distance. There are few places to rest so we perch and rotate to take in the beauty. We are not alone. Young girls have brought music adding to the festivities. A man makes a phone call, speaking rapidly in foreign tongue, though his excitement transcends barriers. Another man sits quietly, serene and seemingly contemplates life. We take selfies, then proper photos, then just chill, taking in the moment and recording it in our minds. I think about Kilimanjaro just a few years ago and compare. This trek just a few hours, Kilimanjaro was days. This time altitude is not an issue as we are just 1220 feet above sea level, not 19, 340 feet. Kilimanjaro was cold, this is hot. The path to Kili was gentler overall, this trek is much like the boulder area just before Gilmans. I decide that they really can’t be compared except for two commonalities, the view and sense of accomplishment. I think of this as I marvel at what we have just accomplished, snapping off more pictures in my mind to keep and reminisce when I’m too old to climb.
We begin the trek down, barely stopping though mindful of every step. We arrive at our car and look back at the mountain. It looks different to me from just a few short hours ago. I shield my eyes from the sun and look to the top marvelling that we stood there just a short hour ago. No, the mountain is the same, it is me that has changed.
We set our alarm and wake in the dark for our long journey to the other side of the island. We leave ourselves extra time for getting lost and found. Soon we are in a snarl of traffic,inch worming our way as locals dart in and out jumping the queue aggressively jockeying for position. The clock tocks, our extra time bitten away as we stand still. We worry we will miss our sailing time, though there is nothing to do but inch along.
We arrive at the dock, frazzled and late, though have forgotten to factor in “island time,” as we chill waiting for our departure. Our boat is a catamaran, the crew personable. We see flying fish, they are startled by the boat as it jumps the waves and they fly several meters before crashing into the waves
Klein Curacao or little Curacao, an island some 30 nautical miles from Curacao. It is uninhabited though a few structures exist for fisherman and day trippers from Curacao. The water is calm where we dock though the other side of the island the water beats aggressively against the rocks, its shores littered with boats who lost the battle against the sea. There are locals, Joe the turtle who swims around the catamaran, his daily work and a dog named bikini who unties string bikinis adding an aerobic factor for tourists.
The Island, historically was part of the slave trade, where sick slaves were quarantined before coming to Curacao proper. I think of this time and imagine the horror of their travel to arrive at this 1.7 km island. What must they have thought? There are many that are buried on the island, their final stop. It is a dark history.
We have a choice of snorkelling to the beach or arriving in style in a boat. We opt for the latter. The boat ride is quick We disembark into the sea and cross the coral to arrive, our feet sinking into the thick sand. The water is beautiful, every colour of blue represented. We snorkel lazily in our search for fish, our efforts rewarded immediately.
We set out to explore the island. We walk to an abandoned lighthouse and marvel that the dilapidated structure can be explored further. There are no signs, no fences, though we are sharper for the lack. We cross on a narrow board suspended between two sections, and carefully make our way. The drop wouldn’t kill us, though it would hurt a great deal. We climb to the top of the lighthouse and view the island, spying shipwrecks in the distance.
We walk to the nearby shipwrecks and wonder of the day when they docked here permanently. There is much garbage strewn, likely from the wrecks, though the volume added by tourists. It is a shame.
We return,the remainder of the day has a routine. Snorkel,dry off and repeat.
Our trip back is under sail, the ride gentle rocking us to rest. As we near Curacao, the sky opens up and we are soaked arriving on the dock like drowned sewer rats. Shivering we get back in our car, turn the heat on and begin our long crawl back. Rush hour traffic has waited for our return.
We walk a few steps from our resort to a secluded lagoon. The approach is steep, marred with potholes though it matters little. We did not come to Curaçao or this place for paved roads. The lagoon is flanked by steep cliffs on either side with a jewel of water in between. The beach is sandy though at waters entrance there is coral hard on our tender feet. We are forced down to stop the pain and float into the sea. We lazily snorkel, the sun on our back and search for fish. Our efforts are rewarded as colourful fish swim into our view. We are reluctant to leave the lagoon, dreading the pain from the coral. We scan the beach, find a sandy approach and walk erect out of the lagoon.
We are informed of a beach where it is possible to see turtles. The roads are a haphazard affair, the signage arrives at nearly the last minute. The beach inviting, the sea beckons. We stand on the pier and everywhere we see turtles large and small. A burly man next to me shouts excitedly to his friend, “look baby turtles,” then catches himself and tries to play it cool. A young family shows the turtles for the first time to their son and immediately I think of our grandsons at home and imagine their excitement. There is no playing it cool for me as I climb into the sea for a chance to swim with them. The water is silty, the after effects of a storm many miles away. We see no turtles through our snorkel masks. It matters little, we are swimming with the turtles sight unseen.
We travel further and discover another beach complete with thick white sand. The waves gently touch the shore and then retreat to gain power for the next. It is mesmerizing and soothing. There is no particular place to be, just this experience and then the next to enjoy.
Together, it is a warm word, inclusive. In this big world it really is better if we hold hands and face it together.
We learn as children to hold hands when we cross the street to keep us safe. We practice the buddy system and know that there is strength in numbers. We are a social being and life is sweeter when shared with someone else.
I’ve relished my time alone and enjoy my own company. I have loved travelling solo and experiencing the world with my own agenda. These pursuits taught me to push myself further, that there was no limit. A nagging thought pestered, something was conspicuously missing. It was the witness to the beauty or horror that I saw. Someone that saw what I saw, or perhaps saw something different and in this manner added to the tapestry of the experience. It was lonely at the end of the day, as I dined alone and wrote about the day.
I’ve enjoyed travelling with my husband, children and grandchildren and each adds to the experience. It is never lonely. There is negotiation of how the day will be spent and I don’t always get exactly what I want, nor do they. I do know that all the places that I travelled alone are now different with another person to share the experience. Together is so much sweeter.
Its just after Christmas and we are on our way to Canmore for a week long trip. We spend the first few days by ourselves and then our daughter, son in law and our two young grandsons join us in this winter wonderland.
During the off holiday times, my husband and I spend very little time together. He works nights, I work days and there are many days when we do not see one another. Technology bridges the gap somewhat, though we are from a different world where conversation was face to face and somehow the emoticons fall short. This week we spend an entire week together, relaxing and catching up with each other.
The condo we have rented is beautiful, though the blinds are curiously lowered at the top, We unpack and settle into watching cable television, a treat for us as we have cancelled our satellite service several years previous in favour of Apple TV and Netflix. The home improvement and real estate shows play a continuous loop for the duration of our stay until we are saturated and long for a break. Commercials initially are a novelty, though very quickly become annoying as a 20 minute show stretches out to accommodate all the things that we should want or desire.
The bed is very comfortable and a television adorns the wall, a novelty for us as we fall asleep watching. We wake in the morning and quickly understand why the blinds cover only the bottom half of the window. The top reveals that we are surrounded by mountains and in my cozy socks and pyjamas I marvel at the view. My heart beats just a little slower in the mountains.
Our destination is the townsite. Canmore is a town outside of the National Park and as such land can be owned. The town has had a boom in recent years and its real estate is out of reach for most people. Still, Canmore has retained its small town charm. There are no big box stores on main street, opting instead for Mom and Pop shops, local artists and coffee shops. Its a busy time, and we find crowds of people jockeying for position to park. We find a spot off the main drag and set out to walk the shops. The streets are bustling and the shops are doing a brisk business.
We find in one store chalk candy, a treat from Holland that is impossible to buy at home. I have ordered from the internet previous, though the shipping charges and wait time are onerous. We buy the majority of what is for sale, leaving a few bags for people that might follow.
It is a lazy time, where we have no particular place to be. We walk the street, peruse the shops, find something to eat when we are hungry and then retreat to our rented home for the night. We play scrabble, build lego and play card games. We enjoy our family. The boys are busy, happily playing with their lego. It is a relaxing time after much hurrying prior to Christmas.
After several days of doing nothing, we decide to snow shoe at Lake Louise. We book a tour and meet our group in Banff townsite. We are the only people from Alberta, the remainder from around the world. The drive is beautiful and off the beaten path. We are treated to fir trees dripping with snow, Elk and at every turn a photo that demands to be taken.
Lake Louise is a jewel in the mountains. The hotel sits on a perch with the lake stretching out in front. Ice sculptures have been created and people enjoy skating on the lake. There is an ice bar set up, sleigh rides and trails in every direction for those more ambitious.
We don our snow shoes and set out to explore. It is a hard climb, though the shoes make it somewhat easier. We travel what seems like a great distance, though are mindful of the time and turn back to have time for a lunch at the hotel. Earlier, we staked out our lunch destination. It is a beautiful open room with views of the lake and mountains.
We arrive hungry at our preferred lunch destination and are denied service. It is a busy time in Lake Louise and during these busy times, they will not serve people unless they are hotel guests. This seems peculiar to us as the restaurant at 2 pm is nearly empty. We are directly to a dark, dank restaurant on the lower level and for a tidy sum of over $40.00 we can have a hamburger, fries and a coffee, we decline. We are then directed to a deli where the prices might be better, but alas the food is wrapped in plastic wrap and sits unappetizingly in the display cabinets. We decide to not liberate it for its high price. There is no place to sit, and we leave the hotel in search of something else. We are directed to another hotel a short walk away. We trudge through the snow, arrive and find it closed. We trudge back. We are famished. Considering our options, we decide to wait until we arrive in Banff for our sustenance.
We find a hotel employee at the Lake Louise hotel and register our displeasure. A quick internet search shows that our complaint was not the first, though they are firm in their decision. The response from the hotel is that their guests are paying for exclusivity and as a hotel they must comply. Wow! We may not be hotel guests, but we too have paid nearly $200.00 for the tour whose sole purpose was to take us to this hotel. If you do have a chance to go to Lake Louise, leave your credit card behind, but don’t forget your granola bars.