Texel, Netherlands

Today we travel to Texel for the family reunion. I’ve heard so much about this place, my expectation high. I attempt to curtail my enthusiasm to avoid disappointment.

The first time I met John’s parents they showed me pictures and a book about Texel. John’s dad spoke about the sheep market, dunes and the beauty of the beaches that he declared rivalled any beach in Hawaii. From that moment this was a place I needed to see and today was the day.

We travel a great distance to the ferry with Nelda and Marieke pointing out the sites. We pass small quaint towns even one whose name roughly translated means ditch, Slootdorp. Marieke and Nelda laugh stating some day when they retire they will live in this town. We pass a town where each house is decorated with flags as today is a celebration we don’t know what they are celebrating so speculate, perhaps it’s because we have arrived we joke.

Soon we arrive at the ferry. I learn the crossing will take 15 minutes, hardly enough time to collect our thoughts. Still we have a chance to come upstairs, look at the sites, peruse the souvenirs and take photos. I stand on the deck and the seabirds swoop and dip leading the way to Texel.

Too soon we arrive and begin the journey to John’s cousin, Pauls’ home, the scene of the family reunion. We first stop at the site of John’s Grandparents homestead, The home consisted of a house, a summer house and a carpentry shop. The summer house remains though the rest is gone making way for row homes. Still, I close my eyes and imagine them in their later years waiting for the bus to arrive and their children and grandchildren to visit.

We set off for Paul’s home and I prepare myself to meet the relations. A group is gathered, though we are given our space initially with a chance to take in their sheer volume before joining in the fray. John and I are touched as the reunion is every two years though they have added another this year because of our visit.

Gradually we meet them all, a lovely bunch, friendly and welcoming. They all speak English well, thankfully, as my Dutch is limited with only the ability to ask for salt and pepper and I have no need for either so it would be awkward.

We drink strong coffee and enjoy Gevulde Speculaas cookies. The almond taste is lovely, I enjoy two and a second cup of coffee.

We eat fried fish to remember John’s grandfather who would trade sausage for small flat fish. The fishermen would be tired of fish and happy for the sausage. The fish were small and not saleable. Win win all around. The fish is flash cooked in oil with no breading and is melt in the mouth goodness. I enjoy two and part of Johns’ too.

We look at the pictures that have been assembled, so much work. It depicts John’s grandparents followed by their 12 children and their children and grandchildren. I marvel at what is created because two people fell in love.

John’s remaining Uncles and Aunts chat with us. Ann, Jan, Nely, Emmy, Els and Tinneke. We hear stories about him, his youth and how difficult it was for him to be away from home when he arrived in Canada at the tender age of 18. We learn how his Mother would sit down once a week to write her eldest son. I think about how difficult it must have been for John’s grandparents to say goodbye to their oldest son when he journeyed to Canada. Travel so different then and the length between visits uncertain.

We continue visiting and meet everyone, learn about each other and enjoy the beautiful weather in Paul’s yard. John is reminded how he longed for a McDonalds during his last trip to the Netherlands. Chickens and a rooster weave in between creating a tranquil peace despite the crowd. Don plays piano and accordion and sings including a Canadian song for us. The song is not familiar in words though the music is east coast.

The family gathers for a picture, organized chaos ensues though like a well orchestrated system within minutes everyone assembles, the moment is forged. Day turns to night, Indonesian food arrives, we indulge.

At intervals family members leave to catch the ferry, some opt to not say goodbye as it’s likely to take too long to go through everyone and the ferry will be missed. There is a mad scramble to catch the last ferry, the frenzy ends.

The night quiets and all that remains are those who will stay the night on a Texel. A circle of chairs is assembled around a warm inviting fire and in a time honoured tradition we stare into the flames. Tineke strikes up the ukulele and Don harmonizes with the accordion. Together they sing. We listen to the conversations around us and pick up the gist.

The family disbands and soon we are three, John, Paul and me. We retreat to our room in his home, sink deep into bed and reminisce about the day. John states he can’t believe he’s related to all of them and marvels that not everyone is here. He wonders how different his life might have been had he been raised here. I think about my expectations that have been surpassed. We both agree we are very blessed.

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.

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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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. 

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Lazy Me

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Lazy Learners.”

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I’ve always wanted to learn many languages.  I dabble and can say a few words in French, Dutch, Taiwanese, Spanish and Sign language. When I travel to a new country, I learn a few simple words,  please, thank-you, adding to the  richness of travel.

Still, I love the idea of being  fluent in  many languages.  I  daydream about travelling the globe and slipping from one language to another effortlessly. I would  know when I’m being  short changed, could  haggle with the best of them, eavesdrop on conversation and know exactly what the  locals think. I could order food in a restaurant  and know what I ordered, omitting the surprise when it arrives.  I can see it in my minds eye and its perfect.

Therein lies the problem.  I studied French in school, for five  years and although I believed that I repeated the phrases perfectly, my teacher would  beg to differ.  It seemed that I never could get it perfect for her.  I’m reluctant to share my knowledge with anyone about the phrases I know for fear of being figuratively back in  French class.  This phobia seems  to have oozed into all  languages.  I’m  happy  to read and write  the words and will spell  them  out  to  people, awkward  for certain, though effective.

Seeing my excuses written down gives me pause.  The best part of getting  older is that I no longer care what other people think about me.  With  this in mind,  I  will take the time to learn another language and have my daydream become  a reality.  May-be  it isn’t too late?

Welcome to Taiwan

Doc - Sep 24, 2015, 6-00 PM

Eating noodles with chopsticks on the plane and doing a poor job, secretly wishing for a fork, but I want to experience everything.  I can see the leaf-shaped island of Taiwan.  I smile-my first solo trek.

The driver I hired is waiting.  He bows slightly and welcomes me to Taiwan.  His driving is erratic as he keeps up with the frenetic pace on the freeway.  Vehicles complete bumper to bumper for road space.  Further ahead, twisted wreckage blocks the road.  Traffic grinds to a standstill.  Emergency vehicles screech to a halt.  Momentarily, everyone pauses to gawk.  Just beyond, Police usher everyone back into the invincible rush of traffic and the competition continues.

The road narrows and the traffic intensifies.  There are no discernable lanes.  Everyone squeezes in, but there isn’t enough room.  Vehicles spill onto the sidewalk.  Pedestrians are squeezed out and forced to dart in and out of the chaos.

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Its late, but the city is awash with a neon glow.  Artistic, intricate Chinese letters adorn every store.  I am faced with a riot of color, each competes for my attention, but I can’t absorb it all.  My visual senses are saturated.  I close my eyes.  The radio croons out a song.  Inflections rise and fall.  I listen to the sound of language, the beauty of the human voice without the knowledge of words to blur the moment.

In the sanctuary of the vehicle, other sounds are muffled but ever-present, horns, firecrackers, barking and talking.  Like a mechanical toy that won’t stop, this city is never still or quiet.

I arrive at my friend, Glenda’s home. The door is unlocked.  Inside the apartment its quiet.  Simple lines of tile floors, wood ceilings with little variation in color offer peace.  Slippers lined up by the door, beg to be worn.  A couch is nestled in a corner, a blanket casually draped on its arm.  A reading lamp leans over casting a warm glow.  There is little distraction.  Clear thoughts are possible, as time slows in this place.

Glass patio doors block sound, but I’m lured by an inviting tile deck.  A brick enclosure surrounds the deck and provides a dual purpose.  It offers a peaceful transition from one home to another and a growing space for plants that are fussed over at home, but flourish here without the work.  The city pulsates just beyond these walls.

A neighbor perfumes the night with incense.  She notices me.  Her round, lightly tanned face defies age.  Like a well-worn path, her almond-shaped eyes crease into a ready smile.  She enthusiastically waves hello.  I cautiously wave back