The Golden Circle, Iceland

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.

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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

28 in the bed and the little one said, roll over…

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.

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Soon the road deteriorates and we travel on a path where a volcano spewed itsIMG_3497.jpeg 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  Landmannalaugar

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?

 

Temper your Enthusiasm

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.

The word of the day is foss

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.

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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.IMG_3316.jpeg

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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.

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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.

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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.

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South Iceland Hidden people

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Hurry Hurry Wait

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Downtown Reykjavik

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Trekking Iceland

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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South Iceland

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.

Kayaking in Iceland

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.

Western Iceland

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Iceland Roomates

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.

Leaving Amsterdam, hello Iceland

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.

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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.

Walking Amsterdam

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.

First look Amsterdam

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.

Amsterdam

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.

Isla Tortuga


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. 

 

Monkeys, Sloths, Canopy Tour and Hot Springs

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. 

Lake Arenal Costa Rica

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.

Do you know the way to San Isidro?


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.

Sheta Boca

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Face the fear

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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.

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Christoff mountain Curacao

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.SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCimg_5430

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.

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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.

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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.

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Klein Curacao

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. 

Backpacking luxury item

In response to WordPress prompt luxury

a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/luxury/”>Luxury</a&gt;

The plan was a week long backpacking trip in the Rocky Mountains. The preparation and  planning consumed many days and sleepless nights. Each item carefully considered for its necessity and double if not triple function. 

 I read countless books on the subject and considered,  albeit briefly hollowing out my toothbrush to save weight. 

I took all food items out of their original packaging to save space and weight, marvelling at the volume of packaging rendered redundant. 

The pack weighed in at 45 lbs and only one last item remained, my personal luxury item. I chose my Olympus camera to record the journey.  I’ll never forget the freeing feeling of strapping my pack on my back and knowing that every item was necessary and I truly had all I needed. It’s odd, I felt light at that moment.  

During the trip I fantasized about any number of items that would have been nice to have, a luxury at the time. A glass of wine after a long hike, a warmer coat when it started to snow, a hamburger when I tired completely of dehydrated food and good old raisins and peanuts. 

Still, as I look at photos from that trip I know my choice was right. How blessed to hike in the back country surrounded by mountains, wildflowers, and cool mountain streams. What a luxury to be able to record the moment and freeze it in time where years later,  I am transported by those photographs and remember a cool breeze, the weight of my pack and how soothing the cool mountain stream was on my sore feet.  I remember the pine bough structure we built to keep busy during a cold, wet day, the alternative was feeling bitter and cold. How lovely our home was, warm, inviting complete with socks drying by the fire. At that moment I felt as though all my needs were met, luxury indeed!

Lazy day in Zanzibar

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The long lazy days stretch out before us, yawning into eternity.

We drag our bodies out of bed and make the arduous journey of a few steps for breakfast.  The menu is limited when compared to North American standard, though the choices are less taxing for lack of choice.  The Indian Ocean is our view, every colour of blue represented. The beach has ashtray sand, though covered in seaweed.  The  bugs are drawn to the kelp and as such we are not.  Humans do not  lounge on the beach, though cows enjoy the sun and soak up the rays.  There is however much activity walking back and forth,  this is our grand plan for the day.

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We discover Dhow boats being constructed during our trek.  My Carpenter husband is enthralled with this ancient craft.  There are entire families that camp while the work is completed on the boats.  I think about my husband who travels to work and is gone for weeks at a time.  Here it is a family affair and while not everyone is working directly on the boats, having family close, eliminates the sacrifice.  How clever to have priorities clear like crystal.

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The boats are beautiful, joints seemingly invisible, no caulking required.  The work is done with hand tools, the craft passed down through the generations.  My husband recognizes the medieval tools that he has only seen in a book, here they are transferred into the 21st century.

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The boards are bent in a curious way, forced around nearby trees to achieve the desired shape, then placed in the fire to dry the inside while the outside is kept wet thus achieving the desired shape and curve required. It is amazing how the craftsmen know exactly the bend that they are trying to achieve without tools to guide the process.

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We walk slightly off the compound to peruse shops.  The items are different from what we have seen, haggling is part of the process.  We find a painting of a lion that we are told was painted by the Uncle of our shopkeeper.  It reminds us of the safari and seems a good choice.  It is taken from the frame and rolled for our long journey home.  Its interesting that there are several identical paintings of the same lion and I wonder if the Uncle is churning them out, or if a factory is doing the work.

We plan to rent kayaks.  Our friend speaks the language and we order boats for later in the day.  We arrive, western time at the predetermined hour and wait.  The men arrive with one kayak for 8 of us.  They begin the process of scrounging up more boats and life jackets. Like the Titanic there are too few of both.  They scurry up and down the beach in a haphazard way, their efforts do not increase our fleet.  A few of our group decline the adventure to free up resources.  My normally placid husband snaps and voices his displeasure, it changes nothing.

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We embark on the water with a portion of our group, some opting for no life jackets to free up the resources for those who are not good swimmers.  We paddle around and the delay has allowed us to witness the most glorious sunset on the Indian Ocean.  I’m glad at this moment we were detained. I sit back in my kayak and marvel at the beauty of the world.  There is a lesson–good things come to those who wait, or  perhaps its go with the flow? Or when in Africa, shake off the timetables, calendars and clocks of the Western world and just be…

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Grateful, Thankful and Satisfied in Zanzibar

We spend the day relaxing, lazing around our room, reading and relish in the option of stretching out on the bed or sitting on the couch, so many soft surfaces to consider. Such a change from the last few weeks where a cozy spot was not possible as we moved from one place to another, comfort just beyond our reach.

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We pop open a can of Pringles,our staple in this continent and nibble on the salty snack. We wash it down with ginger beer, a tasty refreshment that has kept nausea at bay these last few weeks as we climbed Kilimanjaro and bounced around in Safari vehicles.
Options abound for dinner, there are restaurants and choice that surround and its difficult to choose. Our group plans to dine together and we set out in our clean clothes to peruse the many options available.
The night is dark and stars sprinkle above us, lighting our way as we walk sandals in hand in the cool sand. We find a lovely spot just a short distance from our resort. A table is set on the sandy beach. We sit and our chairs sink into the sand as we hunker down for the duration. Candles abound and the soft lighting is magical. Menus arrive, we are bombarded with choice, drinks, entrees. We decide after considering all our options and I close my eyes and take in the moment. I can hear the waves lap the beach, coupled with a lively band that strums out its chords.

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The food and drinks arrive and we eat and drink relishing each sip and bite. After days of stews, Milo and unbuttered bread, our taste buds explode. It occurs to me how much we take for granted in life and only when its taken away do we realize how fortunate we are. I make a mental note to always be thankful though know that in time the memory will fade.
Satiated, we begin the walk back to our beach bungalow. How lovely to know that there is a permanent structure waiting for us, complete with a comfortable bed and the ability to sleep for as long as we choose.

We bid good night to our friends, making loose plans to meet up tomorrow. Perhaps we will snorkel, kayak, or wander the beach, its difficult to decide at this moment of relaxation. I am not interested in further adventure at this moment, liking that time has stood still for a time.
In many ways this part of the trip is a typical beach vacation and we could be anywhere in the world in our safe, gated community. As I watch the sun set over the Indian Ocean, I am in this moment and content to have the next unfold without plan.

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Hakuna Matata

We arrive at the Langi Langi beach bungalows, a charming resort perched above the beautiful, blue Indian Ocean. We will spend our final few days of our African Odyssey relaxing. The day yawns in front of us, there is no agenda, no place to be, we can finally unpack as we will spend several days at the resort.   We happily unpack our belongings, stretch out on the bed and plan our next move. 

In this moment of relaxation, I realize I’ve left my purchased spices on the bus. Frantically, I bolt upright encircling John in my panic and we propel forward and bolt out the door, relaxation shattered in the moment. We spend several frenetic minutes searching for the bus,then learn it has left. We are informed that a bag of spices was removed from the bus by one of our group members. We are given a Guide and begin walking to the next resort.  The Guide is on Island time as he slowly walks. I’m pushing the pace without knowing the destination and clipping his heels to move quicker. He stops, scans my face and effectively reads the situation. “Madam, this is the Spice Island, we do not want your spices. Hakuna Matata,” he says. His words resonate, the absurdity of my panic crystal as I chuckle to myself. 

We are reuninted with our spices and retreat back to our abode where we resume relaxing.  We sip ginger beer, munch on Pringles and plan.  We know from our walkabout that we are in a gated community, separated from the African people. We are warned of the beach boys who wander the beaches selling their wares. I’m happy the beaches remain open to the people who call Zanzibar home.  Still, our resort is off limits and I imagine the uproar this would cause at home. It is unimaginable that a tourist would have more freedom in my country.

We set out to walk the beach. Soon we are approached by a Beach boy. He has many items to sell. We listen to his pitch and politely decline. We wait for the hard sell that never arrives. He shrugs his shoulders and states, “may-be tomorrow?”  We nod our agreement and continue down the beach. It’s refreshing to just walk the beach, enjoy the scenery and not feel guilty.  Perhaps we will buy tomorrow?  For today, we will enjoy this moment and the next. Hakuna Matata indeed!

Spice of Life in Zanzibar

  

Reluctantly, we leave Stone Town. I would happily spend weeks exploring its nooks and crannies. Our bus idles outside of the Dhow Palace and we board for our tour of a spice farm, Persian baths and a home cooked meal.We arrive at the spice farm, a short drive from Stone Town. We are introduced to our guides who will inform us in words, tastes, touch and smell the reason Zanzibar is called the Spice Island.

We stop at an unknown plant. The young man cuts a piece for us to touch and smell. It is now clear, lemongrass. The tour is an education and delight. We learn that there are male and female nutmeg trees. Only female trees bear fruit; however the sex of the tree is not determined for six to eight years. I imagine how disheartening it would be to care for a tree for many years only to have it worthless. In an attempt to make up the sterility of the male tree, the female tree bears two spices, mace and nutmeg. We sample each. Mace has a slightly sweet taste while nutmeg’s is earthier.

I imagine how disheartening it would be to care for a tree for many years only to have it worthless.

We smell a plant with a flowery aroma, mlangi langi. We are told it is used to create perfumes. We carry it with us loving the scent. We sample a plant used as natural lipstick and adorn our lips. While walking, the men have been weaving palm fronds. At first I think they are only passing time until they present us with their talented creations. We are adorned with bracelets, rings, necklaces, hats and ties, a memento of this day. We are very fancy as we continue our walk through the Plantation.

  

We pass an Islamic school where the employee’s children are educated. They are as curious of us as we are of them. We take their picture and they take ours. Their families live in homes just behind the school. The plantation seems like a nice place to live, work and play among the spice, though I wonder about the isolation of this life.

We reach a small clearing and stand among coffee plants. A flash mob of vendors descend selling homemade soap and perfume. Momentarily, it strikes me as odd to buy goods in the bush, then I shrug my shoulders and move closer for a better look. Bartering exists in the jungle. We dance the haggle dance and I leave with my fair priced goods.

We round a bend and find seating. We rest and are soon treated to a remarkable display of athleticism. A young man attaches a foot rope with a loop for each bare foot and a length of rope in between. He uses the rope to inch up a large palm tree and we watch him climb about 50 feet from the ground. He barely breaks a sweat and even sings and dances. We shake our heads in disbelief. He brings down a large coconut, breaks it open and we all share the sweet milk, and soft meat. I have eaten coconut before though it’s clear that today is the first day I’ve actually tasted coconut.

We sample Jack fruit, a blend of banana and pineapple. It can grow up to 100lbs and when less ripe tastes like chicken, making it an alternative for vegetarians. It’s an odd looking plant, appealing to photograph, as I snap one picture after another trying to discover its best side. We watch the ease of Cassava planting, sticks put in the ground, the woman barely breaks a sweat as she sows the row. Cassava is incredibly versatile. It can be baked, boiled, fried, steamed grilled or mashed. We learn that it must never be eaten raw as death by cyanide poisoning will occur.

We are motioned towards an open air spice shop. We peruse the many options, haggle and buy. We likely have bought too much, though the understanding of the various spices, coupled with their fresh taste, has our taste buds dancing with the possibilities of the dishes we will create at home.

Momentarily, it strikes me as odd to buy goods in the bush, then I shrug my shoulders and move closer for a better look. Bartering exists in the jungle.

We soon arrive at our next destination, a family home. We open the gate and are greeted by the lady of the house. We are all made welcome at her home, and find a spot on the concrete patio covered in rugs. We pass around the pots of stews, rice, and naan bread and share family style. We learn about her life and the food that we are eating through our guide who interprets. It has taken several days to create this menu. We learn more about the food with its savoury broths, simple ingredients and exotic flavour. We feast on fresh naan bread, rice, meat and vegetarian stew. Gluten free options are also available.

During our Zanzibar travel time, we pass a hat to collect a tip for this meal and great service. Interesting, in Tanzania tipping for food is not common and each time seems unexpected. Yet, tipping for directions, music, advice, or any number of services that we would not tip for in North America is expected.

We walk away from the home, follow a short path and arrive at a Persian bath. These baths were built for the Sultan Said’s second wife. They were used when they were hunting in the area. Sadly, the structure has not been maintained, though it is still possible to find the typical Persian motifs of birds and flowers. There is a domed roof, massage tables and a bath to inspect.

I imagine life at that time, how dear water was and is in this country. How lovely after a day of hunting to relax in this place. Still, I wonder about the rest of the people who spent the majority of their day in search of water and how they felt about this privilege. 

Top photo by Jonathan_Stonehouse

 

Whine Anyone?

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We leave the magic of Disneyworld with a stomach bug and begin the long journey to Napa Valley, California.

I’m sick on the flight and use the convenient lunch bag located in the seat pocket in front of me. My seat mate is a Flight Attendent for American Airlines and is on her way home. She is lovely as she provides cool towels and ice chips. The working Flight Attendents view me with barely concealed disdain and are happy to not be involved.

We arrive in Sanfrancisco and follow a confusing maze of elevators, escalators and a shuttle bus to arrive at the car rental counter. We commit our first born to the complex legalease and excitedly find out what we will drive for the next seven days. There is no map available, our smart phones stuck on dumb as data roaming is a fortune in this country. We scare up a map from the car rental office and begin to navigate our way to Napa Valley using a map that looks suspiciously like a placemat at a roadside restaurant.

It’s dark when we arrive. We spin in circles around the town trying to locate our timeshare trade. It all begins to look familiar. We stop for directions, spin around a couple times more and arrive. Our credit card is required as there will be daily charges for rudimentary services that usually are included. There is nothing to do at this point but pay, the clerk appears bored with further discourse.

Our room is a mobile home with quaint trim, struggling to be a cottage and falling short.  It attempts to make up for what it lacks with too much furniture crammed inside. I spend much time stacking the furniture in a corner to save our shins and toes.

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We unpack, crawl into bed and decide to recuperate tomorrow. Perhaps our mood will lighten, perhaps wine will help.

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How far is a Marathon?

Wine, great friends and before the night was over I’d signed up to run the New York Marathon again. Misery liking its company I’d convinced my husband and a friend to sign up too. 

Generally I never do the same experience twice and yet this would be different. The first time, I taught myself, trained solo and ran the race with 45,000 new friends. This time, I’d train with my husband, and eleven Kilimanjaro friends, plus several new friends. Together we would run the race with 50,000 other people on race day.  It would be different. 

When people learn I’m running a marathon the most common question is, “how far is that?”  The simple answer is 42.2km or 26.2 miles.  This answer is incomplete. 

I began training in January. I ran through all four seasons, logging miles and running four days a week. I ran hills, cross trained by biking and walking and participated in total body workouts by attending Orangetheory for the first 6 months of the year. In total, I ran 1200km, the distance from Prince Edward Island to Manhattan. I will complete the final 42.2km on November 1st. 

I trained with the Pulse Generator group, led by Joan when I could and admired how each person transformed into fitter, leaner versions of themselves. I especially enjoyed the weekly run at my home followed by wine and great food, thanks Maxine and Gilles!  The hill training was difficult though fun when shared with the group. I’m thankful for all the words of encouragement. 

I started training early to gain strength and keep up with my speedy husband, John. In a case of be careful what you wish for, I will achieve my goal, though John will not run his best race. Surgery derailed his plans in early summer and while recovered, he is now battling bronchitis. We will run and walk and cross the finish line together, certain to remember that salient point years from now. Our finish time will not matter. We climbed Kilimanjaro together one year ago and I will never forget how John stayed with me that long night while I shuffled up the mountain. How fortunate am I to repay that selfless and loving act. 

I trained for a marathon and along the way I gained fitness, flexibility and strengthened the bonds of friendship. I learned what matters is not the time I finish but who is next to me when I do. NYC here we come!

  

Walking away from it all in Taiwan

Doc - Sep 24, 2015, 5-51 PM

Taiwan is an island and its wildness is always only moments away.  When the stimulus of the city becomes too much, you simply walk away and literally step back in time.  One hundred years ago all of Taipei was covered with rice fields, a quiet simple life, island style.  Its difficult to imagine that life, standing on the steps of the World Trade Center, dwarfed by the landscape.  The building effectively block out the sky as they rise from the earth.  In the distance, the mountains beckon.

Doc - Sep 24, 2015, 5-55 PM

A busy urban street leads to a quiet country road and terminates at the base of a mountain.  There are 1200 concrete steps, chiseled into this mountain-straight up, no switchbacks.  I begin my ascent.  People of every age pass me on the way.  Their faces are relaxed. The pace is slow.  Some twirl hoola hoops, others stretch their tired muscles.  We are all quiet as we concentrate on the effort.  Temples dot the landscape.  Graves are carved into the mountain.  Incense burns, the air is saturated with the lushness that surrounds us.  From this vantage point, I look down and observe the older women with the lampshade hats tending the rice fields and terrace gardens.  A river gently flows in between.  I need to see this up close.

I chart my course and walk to this place.  I get closer, and crawl down to be eye level with the river.  Trembling, he approaches.  His voice quakes and in halting English he states, “You take pictures.”  Nervous, I haltingly respond, “yes its all so beautiful.”  I search his eyes; passion looks back.  For what I wonder?  He gestures with his hands and encourages me to look closely at each individual plant and its individual struggle to survive.  I kneel down and gently touch a small fern.  I see its tenacity to survive.  It grows between the rocks that surround the river bed, framed by its ancestors, their trunks as large as trees.  I look at the bigger picture.  Every shade of green is represented.  Reflections create a mirror image.  The beauty is doubled.

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He continues,, “Many years ago, the people here used concrete to stop erosion.  It did, but it also destroyed the plants that the river needed for survival.  The plants died, the river began to die too.  Its better now, the concrete was replaced by this natural rock, the plants came back, the river began to breathe again. I’m a Botanist.  I have an interest in the plants.  I come here to watch.”  He draws me in further–connects as he discovers my profession as a Respiratory Therapist.  Immediately, I understand the enormity of his task.  He says, “you watch the babies get sick, you help them breathe, they get better.  It is the same with the plants.  Our struggle is the same, the end result is the same, we both offer hope for the planet.”

Movement here is subtle.  A gentle breeze waves a palm tree.  Closer to the ground, its force is softer, a small plant stirs.  The river flows, bubbling over rocks, etching the landscape, creating a well-worn route.  The river, the plants and the rocks all rely on each other for balance.  The simple truth is we are all on a path to achieve the same harmony.  At this moment, everything is as clear as the river

Lost in Taiwan

Doc - Sep 24, 2015, 6-03 PM

Armed with my guide book, I board a local bus.  My calculations tell me that allowing for the return trip, and time to explore downtown, this entire trip should take about two hours.  The bus is jammed-packed with people.  Its difficult to see.  Being an Amazon woman in a sea of tiny compact people doesn’t help.  The bus is thick with bodies.  It stops; people file off.  I try to get my bearings, but the spaces are quickly filled by a rush of people.  I’m effectively blindfolded once again.  The bus jerks along, threatening to break apart.  I’m treated to snapshot pictures from the bus window-downtown seems to be everywhere, tall buildings, bright signs and crowds of people.  The bus turns around.  Dizzy and disorientated, I leave the safety of this bucket of bolts and embark on a day and then a night in the city.

The stimulus of the city engulfs me.  I cross the street and catch the bus home.  The trip ends.  The last few passengers disembark.  The bus driver checks her rear-view mirror, makes eye contact with me, and happily announces something in Chinese.  Frantic, I look outside.  This section of Taipei is dark, unknown-its the end of the line.  Seeing my look of horror, her expression softens and she asks, “where are you going?”  I start to tell her, then realize I’ve forgotten the English and Chinese equivalent of Glenda’s address.  I’ve forgotten her phone number.  I stammer, “I don’t know.”  Her face frowns.  Her brows knot in worry.  Still wearing a look of horror, I assure her I will be okay.  She studies my face-I study hers-she isn’t convinced.

I get off the bus, plunge into darkness and try to find a way out.  Aimlessly, I walk the streets trying to recognize something.  Landmarks based on size and color turn out to be chain stores.  Nothing is familiar.  I’m exhausted, my feet demand slippers, but they will have to wait.   I sit down in front of a 7-11 and study the map-seeing it for the first time.  Slowly, I realize I need to find the center of Taipei.  From there, I need to find the bus to Neihu, Glenda’s neighborhood.

A young Asian girl asks, “are you lost, can I help?”  I tell her my quest.  She says, “Come with me, I will help you find the way.” Together we walk to the train station.  Once there, she finds an English train schedule and map.  We ride together.  She uses the time to teach me map skills.  We get off at my stop.  She deciphers the Chinese bus schedules and tells me which exit to take to find the bus that will lead home.  I thank her profusely.  She wishes me well.  Following her direction, I board the correct bus.  Neihu comes into view.  Ecstatic, I vibrate with excitement, I found my way home.  I stumble into Glenda’s home.  Fourteen hours have elapsed.  It feels as though days have passed, not mere hours.  I look in the mirror.  A different person looks back

Stone Town, last look

We have been informed that Stone Town is a great place to purchase Tanzanite, a perfect souvenir to commemorate our Kilimanjaro climb. Tanzanite is a beautiful gemstone. Its colour changes from blue to violet in different light.  It was discovered in Northern Tanzania in 1967 by the city of Arusha and Mount Kilimanjaro.  It was named by Tiffany and Company in 2002 for Tanzania where it originated.

Tanzanite

We wake early to peruse the many shops selling this stone.  In Canada and Hawaii I have seen a few examples of the stone, though here in Stone Town the options are more plentiful, the deep colours more prevalent.  John remarks that they aren’t giving them away and the price is dear.  We are worried about what we are buying as we have been told to purchase from the government where we can be certain of the quality.  It is a gamble and we decide we aren’t Gamblers.

We walk down to the water and see a group of cats waiting patiently.  They are waiting for the Fishermen to bring their breakfast.  Its comical to watch them, their fear of water overriding their hunger.  There are many cats in Stone town roaming the streets.  I suspect they keep the vermin under control and are fed collectively for their efforts by the people of Stone Town as they are not scraggly or thin.  Still, they look more street wise than our pampered cats in Canada.

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We stop at our favourite coffee shop for our final latte.  There are no chain coffee shops here and we are thankful for the reprieve.  This shop is located in a bookstore, adding to its ambience.  We peruse the dusty tomes and over priced bric-a-brac and settle into the comfortable chairs and enjoy a most excellent latte.

Too soon its time to gather our too many bags and haul them down the too many stairs.  We have enjoyed our time in Stone Town a great deal.  We wish we had more time in this magical place.  We cast a look behind, hoping to return this way another day, then set our sights on what comes next.

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Enchanted Evening in Zanzibar

We dress excited about our dinner reservation. We have booked Hurumzi, a rooftop restaurant in the heart of Stone Town and on top of the elegant Emerson Hotel.

Out of respect for the many Muslims that call Stone Town home, I’m careful to cover my arms and knees and choose a dress and shawl. I twirl in front of the mirror, loving the feeling of being dressed for dinner.

We arrive at the Emerson and marvel at the stairs, each with a different rise and run. We walk slowly, carefully and concentrate on each step as we ascend.

The restaurant is small and divided. One side has proper tables and chairs, the other features a large rectangular space with floor seating. We opt for the experience, remove our shoes and stake out our pillow for the evening. Our senses absorb the surroundings. The space has Persian rugs and richly coloured pillows of varying fabrics and textures on the carpet and backrest. There are short tables throughout the space. Above our heads a canopy of silk billows in the breeze, the air perfumed. We look over the short walls and are treated to a 360 degree view of the city and ocean.

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Our waiter arrives, dressed in a white robe and a gold hat. He washes our hands with rose water and teaches us this lovely custom. The meal is set, we only need to choose between three main courses. We sip our beverage as we await our meal. The dishes are exquisite each perfectly spiced, flavourful and beautifully presented. Our hands are washed again with rose water at the end of our dining experience.

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The call to prayer is announced. In years past, the Muzim, or leader would climb to the Minaret, a slender tower with a balcony where he would announce the call to prayer. Today this task is accomplished by a loudspeaker and occurs five times a day at specific times that change with sunrise, sunset and latitude and longitude. We listen to the last prayer of the day, the sounds melodic adding to this enchanted night.

We lean back on our pillows, shifting to find comfort and watch the live entertainment. The music is called, Taarab. It is a mixture of Indian, Arab and Swahili, the result unique. The dancer is spell binding as she elegantly moves, seemingly floating, her bare feet hardly touch the ground. She effectively draws us into her exotic world.  Bongo drums play softly in the background, the silk flutters above, stars peak on either side. Beneath, the city moves and life mundane rolls onward. Up here in the stars, magic exists on this night. I close my eyes not wanting this evening to end and commit this night to memory.

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Thanks to Gilles Chartrand for the photos of this night

Stone Town Market

We continue our tour of Stone Town.   My heart and spirit lightens as we walk away from the slave market and towards the vibrant market.

There is a richness of colour with the many spices, clothing and foods for sale. People shop daily as there is inadequate refrigeration, likely due to the antiquated electricity. I think of our home with its over sized refrigerator and extra freezer both filled to capacity for two. The contents difficult to see, too much choice leads to too much waste.

In Stone Town the food is fresh and the people close to their food. It’s disconcerting to see fish, chicken and beef still attached to its source. The fresh meat smells assault. We are removed from this at home. The animals we consume are typically pumped full of hormones. Our markets bright, meat safely stowed in a foam container, cleanly covered in plastic wrap.  Our health suffers amidst the sterility.

There are so many flies here, munching on the fish and chicken flesh. I quickly decide if I lived here I would become a vegetarian. We round the corner and I see some grapes, though on closer inspection they are covered in flies. There are no fly zones here, a keep away fly stick does its best amidst the fruit.  The fruit and vegetables seem small and less than perfect, though closer to reality. The majority of what we see would not make its way into our large supermarkets, though it would go for twice the price in an organic market, the price out of reach for most.  In Stone town, everyone eats fresh, organic produce.

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Zanzibar is the spice island. There are many vendors selling spices, the delicious smells of no interest to the flies. We linger and peruse the many options. The smells pungent, our mouths water with the possibilities. Prices are reasonable and we buy in bulk to share with friends and family at home.  We hold fresh cinnamon bark, the size of a tree limb, and learn how it grows. I think of my cinnamon dust at home, with its dear price, lack of aroma and glass jar.
We have learned so much today. We are fortunate to live where we do with our choice, clean water and reliable electricity. Still, in our want of convenience, variety and beauty I wonder what we are sacrificing in health.  There is much to ponder.