Category: Travel

The Perils of Visiting Paris as a Senior

I thought that I knew Paris well. We spent the first year of our marriage living in a sixth-floor walk-up apartment in the Second Arrondissement just off rue St. Denis. In l988-89, during a sabbatical year as a family living in La Vallée de Chevreuse, the lush green “Silicon Valley” to the west of the city, we were in Paris at least weekly. During that year, I drove all over the city and I didn’t think twice about showing the sights to my parents and their friends who were then in their early seventies.

But I have never visited Paris as a senior… and that makes all the difference. What a culture shock that has been. The city has certainly changed in the thirty years since we last lived here. (I’ll talk about that in another post.) More importantly, I have changed. Now approaching 75 years of age (which is only late “middle age” in the current era), our recent visit to Paris has taught me much about myself, and the perils of travelling as one ages.

First, I find it much more difficult adapting to change. It’s harder to travel, and takes longer to settle into a new environment, and to feel comfortable in new situations. Secondly, there are practical perils of big cities which I must recognize and learn to deal with for my own protection. Paris may be no different from any other big city but, for these purposes, it is the city which has made me personally aware of the challenges imposed by aging.

The biggest peril is falling. I have not had a problem with falling in the past. On this trip, I fell four times. Twice occurred in the same spot on the sidewalk to the nearby RER station, with no great consequences. The friends I was with the second time realized that I had tripped on a defective grate in the sidewalk. The third time was a major tumble on the sidewalk where I walked every day. This time, I was preoccupied with our conversation, stepped into the gravelled tree well of a tree lining the sidewalk and took a major tumble. I hit my head, broke my glasses, and suffered cuts and bruises to my face, hands, wrists, arms, and knees. Some stranger had to lift me up off the ground. The fourth fall was getting onto a bus on the tarmac at Frankfurt airport on our way home. I tripped on the entry to the bus, falling on all the injuries from before. Fortunately, I broke nothing. Probably one of the few advantages of being plump. (My brother, a family doc, once commented that the Canadian Health Care system would save significant resources if seniors could be bubble-wrapped. My bubble-wrap must be built in.)

My husband is the official “faller” in our family. Whenever he falls, he breaks something. He has gone through a series of tests over the years to diagnose the cause of his falling and has used a cane to aid his mobility for at least the last year. He had three falls in Paris, two not particularly serious, the other when he fell in the door of a brasserie, had to be lifted up by someone in uniform, and suffered sufficient injury and indignity that thereafter he ceased most sight-seeing.

Now, I am using a walking stick regularly, and am trying hard to concentrate on where I walk and how. I’ve learned that the sidewalks of Paris are remarkably uneven and that any construction (which seems as all-pervasive there as elsewhere) causes major changes to the surface of the sidewalks and roads nearby. I’ve learned that trees and the areas in which they are planted can be hazards, and that publicity posters can be dangerous distractions. The huge crowds of people who fill the sidewalks in the touristy areas and the popular museums are moving quickly and constantly jostling. The public transit system is full of steps, long corridors, and publicity which distracts from the need to pay very close attention to where I am going and what I am doing.

When I was younger, I used the Paris Métro with great joy and abandon. Now, I think twice about the nature of the transit I am going to use and the qualities of particular lines and stations. Which stations have escalators and moving sidewalks? Which stations have long steps to climb? Which exits will help me avoid the crowds? Or shorten the distance I have to walk? (I will do my next post on the Paris Transit system.)

Visiting museums and attending events has become a real pain. There are long lineups for security inspections and then to purchase entry tickets. Unless you like standing in a slow-moving line in the heat for long periods of time, it is necessary to pre-purchase museum tickets. There is a variety of Paris Museum Passes available, including ones for two, four and six days, which give priority access. I bought mine on the spot at the Paris Tourism Office located in the Hôtel de Ville. One can also buy passes and tickets on the internet. My friend bought hers from home and traded the voucher she received on the internet for an actual pass when she arrived. It is not necessary to have printed tickets. One can also use priority entrances by showing tickets that are stored on one’s smartphone. The bottom line, however, is that you really need a smartphone and to know how to use it.

Even with priority access for tickets, there is still the need to stand in the security lines. Security lines exist everywhere; most are reasonably efficient, but they do require standing with no place to sit down. And, at the Louvre, for example, the line outside the Pyramid entrance is in the hot sun. When one visits a particular museum or monument now depends on how long the security lines will be at any given time of the day.

As for the museums themselves, in the summer, they are very crowded, so much so that one feels no desire or ability to see what the museum has to offer. Too often, the museums have very few places to sit, and are full of steps to climb and rooms that have been closed “for renovation.” It is remarkable how poor the cafeteria and restaurant facilities generally are: few and far between, hard to find, under-staffed, with slow service (made worse by the fact that almost everyone uses bank cards to pay).

The Louvre, for example, prides itself on its “accessibility for the disabled” and its Museum Plan. After standing in the hot sun to get through the security line, I was invited to take a small elevator downstairs to the entry level. I visited the Disability Office to get a plan of the Museum and find out where everything was. These were welcome surprises, harbingers I thought of a good visit ahead.

Alas, not true. The Louvre was by far the worst of all the museums I visited on this trip. I found it impossible to find the elevators, and staff hired to provide “information” gave contradictory directions. The elevators that do exist are small, old-fashioned and dreadfully slow. Too many escalators were out of order. Signage was totally inadequate. I soon discovered that reading room numbers high above from a distance conflicts with my need to use reading glasses for the identifying information provided in the Museum Plan. In one area of the Museum where many of the rooms are empty for renovations, there was no advance notice of a dead-end corridor which required everyone to retrace their steps back through many rooms already seen. The restaurants and washrooms were lamentable and totally inadequate for the millions of people who pass through the Louvre every year.

Better to go to a smaller place which is less popular. I will never again go to the Louvre, even though the “Medieval Louvre” with its original foundations built in 1200 and 1385 is one of my favourite spots in all of the city. Were I to return to Paris, I would gladly revisit Le Petit Palais with its permanent collection of art owned by the City which is spacious, quiet, free of charge and has lots of places to sit. Or the Rodin Museum with its lovely gardens. Or even the Musée de l’Armée which has been modernized, and offers commentary in several languages and lots of movies (inherent places to sit). Or the spectacular new L’Institut du Monde Arabe with its banks of modern elevators and plethora of comfortable white leather sofas strategically located throughout the gallery.

As an older person, my priority has become my personal well-being and safety. To enjoy a museum, having places to sit has become important, to appreciate the artefacts, rest and, most importantly, to avoid falling. Having a readily available restaurant or café, without long lineups for payment, is a necessity to satisfy medical needs and prevent dehydration. These are new criteria to think about when travelling.



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A Rental House From Hell

My husband and I spent two weeks in Halifax this past August. When in April I put my mind to our accommodation, I discovered that Halifax was already booked out for the time we needed. So I looked at Vacation Rental By Owner and Airbnb.

I discovered a house which I thought would be suitable. It was in Dartmouth, across the harbour from downtown Halifax. The promo for the house spoke of the quiet street on which the house was located and touted the wonderful view of the harbour. Since we love our “cottage” overlooking the harbour in Vancouver, we thought we would compare Canada’s two major ports. The rental price was steep, but we assumed that, if the proprietor was charging the rent he did, the house would be up to the standard we expected.

It was a modern house, pleasant enough. There was a cozy living room with a fireplace, many interesting artifacts, and a wall-mounted television. Across the hall was an open dining room and kitchen. French doors led to a patio which, indeed, had a splendid view of the Halifax harbour. Furnished with a table and chairs, the patio was a very pleasant place where we could eat dinner, watch the boats go by, and check out the success of the fisher-folk with their lines out in search of catch on the shore beneath us. The house had laundry, three bathrooms, and parking in the back. The location was close to the Alderney Centre, where I could catch the ferry that transports commuters from Dartmouth to downtown Halifax every fifteen minutes. So far, so good.

I have had little experience in using computer rental services, and, when I spoke with the owner over the telephone, I did not think to ask him about the bed. The blurb for the house had a picture of the bed which looked okay. Elsewhere in the promo, it said that it “slept two.” As we discovered on our arrival, that is code for “double bed.” Maybe Maritimers take doubles for granted, but we haven’t slept in a double bed since we left our Paris apartment 46 years ago. And this was a soft double. Since my husband is six foot four and had medical issues at the time, sleeping on a soft double was highly problematic. It took us at least three or four nights to get used to the constraints of the space. Had I realized that the bed was a double, I would not have rented the house.

But that’s not the worst part. The owner definitely did not tell me about the train directly across the street beside the water. Even if he had, I probably would not have picked up on the significance of it. We are used to trains on the CN track below our Vancouver apartment in Ambleside. There, several trains pass by daily. We sometimes hear them if our sleep is fitful, but generally we forget that they are there. They pass by and are gone. When I arrived at the Dartmouth house, I noticed what I thought was a single track across the street, and asked the owner if we would hear the trains. “Yes,” he said, “you will hear them.”

And indeed we did. During the daytime, I was at my writing course. When I returned for the evening, the tracks were quiet. Only later, the activity began. We discovered that what we thought was a single track was instead at least three sets of tracks and that the purpose of the tracks was to marshal the railroad cars parked between us and the ferry terminal. Beginning shortly after midnight, the bumping and the clanging began, as an engine backed into the closest car and began to assemble the cars that would make up a new train. Have you ever heard train cars crashing together when they are being marshalled into a train? It is horrific, a constant clatter of loud banging, squealing and clashing, repeated as many times as there are cars in the ever-growing train, a persistent staccato, over and over. I heard the train from the moment the marshalling started, shortly after midnight, until the first train was assembled and pulled away an hour or so later. It would then be quiet for a while, until about 3:00 a.m. Just when I was finally back to sleep, I awoke to hear the chugging of the engine in the distance as it got closer and closer. Before long, the clatter and banging and shrieking started yet again and continued for another hour or so until train number two was assembled. Sometimes that happened three times a night.

My husband, who takes sleeping pills every night, generally slept through the racket. I had a few pills left on my high-power sleeping pill prescription, to be used only in times of great stress. When I discovered the trains, I decided to hoard the pills for those nights before I needed to present something orally in my course. Very shortly, I finished my supply of pills, Nytol didn’t work, and I was dragging myself around exhausted. I never even thought to close the window or go out and buy ear plugs. My lack of practical problem-solving skills in this situation may indicate early onset dementia. More likely, I was just too tired.

There were other issues with the place. On our arrival, the owner advised that the dishwasher didn’t work. Okay, we could wash our own dishes. Then his wife told me that they did not have a coffee pot. Her daughter apparently borrowed the coffee pot and not yet returned it. A tea drinker, she suggested that we could make coffee using paper filters over a cup, one cup at a time. We also discovered that the kitchen sink fixtures were in poor repair. What does it say about owners who charge big bucks for rental that covers their own vacation, who have more than three months’ notice to make the repairs before their unsuspecting tenants arrive, and who do not fix the dishwasher, pay $79.00 for a new coffee pot, and have a kitchen sink in proper repair? And then there is that antiquated double bed, an anomaly by modern standards. All of these would be deductible expenses.

When I told a friend about the rental house, she advised me to write a review on the VRBO website to warn future prospective tenants. I decided that I would write a post about the house instead, and then email the owner with the link. Mr. and Mrs. owner of 72 Shore Road, Dartmouth… be warned. As for me, I will know what to ask in the future.


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Renaissance from a Forest Fire

In August 2003, my cousins Doug and Cheryl Fraser were on a fishing trip to Tofino on Vancouver Island when they received an emergency call to return home to Kelowna right away. Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park, a tinderbox of old timber and dried duff which had accumulated for decades, was on fire. The Park sits to the west of their property which was in an area subject to an evacuation alert. Officials watched the progress of the fire which was dependent on the speed and direction of the wind.

Doug and Cheryl, attracted to the Rimrock area by the thick forest on their five-acre property and the view over Okanagan Lake, completed construction of their dream house two years before. Now they faced a desperate scramble to save their home. Doug consulted local fire officials who advised him to move anything flammable away from the house. The woodpile had to go. Doug called in professional woodsmen who felled fifteen trees which were close to the house, cut off all their branches, got rid of the leaves and the pine needles, mulched them, and hauled them away. The tree trunks were left lying on the ground, denuded of all readily flammable vegetation. They put three sprinklers on the roof, and used hoses to water down the cedar soffits.

Their neighbours thought they were crazy, but the plan paid off. One week after the evacuation notice was posted, the fire swept through Rimrock. When Cheryl and Doug returned to their house after the fire, they found the house below in rubble, and the house above razed to the ground. Of thirty houses in the area, fifteen were totally destroyed. Some the fire burned; others blew up when air in the modern-insulated, air-tight homes heated so rapidly that the houses exploded. The forest of trees on their property was charred, black and standing stark. The tallest of the trees, with a thick cambium layer, survived the fire although their trunks were singed close to the ground. Travelling fast through the property, the fire apparently jumped the structure with its soaking roof and no dry plants around to fuel the flames. Their house remained intact, with only a couple of window seals broken, a few spark burns on the roof, and some shingles that had become brittle and needed to be replaced.

After the fire, professional foresters removed five logging truckloads of marketable fir trees from the property. In all: 125 dead trees taken to the local mill where the wood was made into lumber. Within months, Doug and Cheryl started replanting. A local nursery gave everyone in the area a pallet of ponderosa pine seedlings, a total of 100 baby trees each. Doug and his brother Don dug up another 250 two- to three-foot fir, pine and larch trees which were growing under power lines up and down the valley. The brothers planted the young trees in sites across the five acres, strategically placed with open spaces nearby. To the east, is a standing stump from a tree that did not survive. Doug pulled it upright and keeps it for the birds.

It has been another season of forest fires in British Columbia. The worst ever, with hundreds of people evacuated, and fire fighters brought in from across the continent. The sky remains smoky, apparently from forest fires burning in Washington State. British Columbia is an economy based on the forest industry. Fires occur naturally and can be useful to clean out the forests and renew the resource. Out of control, they can bring devastation and disaster. My cousin’s experience in Kelowna is proof, however, that, from all the horror of that 2003 cataclysm, a renaissance has come.

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***** With great thanks to Doug and Cheryl Fraser for sharing their story. *****

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A Five Star Photography Workshop

Billed as the “Ultimate Urban Travel Photography Workshop with International Award Winning Architect, Urban Designer and Photographer, Rick Hulbert,” this four-day workshop held in Vancouver last week was one of the most intense and engaging learning experiences of my life.

I’d taken a workshop with Rick years ago, while he was still working as an architect. It had been very useful and relatively laid-back. I jumped at the chance for a repeat, with a focus on my hometown. After all, blogging about Vancouver is one of my favourite themes, and improving my pictures would make future posts all the better.

Retired from architecture for more than a year, Rick now teaches photography all over the world. From his professional background, knowledge of art history, and interest in the rapidly changing neurosciences, he articulates his (perhaps revolutionary?) philosophy of photography with unbridled passion. His lectures are amazing. His own photographs used to illustrate his points, awesome. He answers all questions with equal grace, no matter how technical, controversial, or simple (as many of mine certainly were). Post-course, students receive a copy of his key point visuals, which relieves the pressure of taking notes and focuses student attention on what he says and does. Conscious of what each student wants and needs, he ensures everyone equal “one on one” time. It seems that Rick has become the platonic ideal of a photography teacher: rigorous, thoughtful, constantly learning himself, and downright funny to boot. No wonder he is in such demand.

The ten participants in the workshop were photography enthusiasts: devotees of camera clubs, journalists who use photos to illustrate their stories, a hip sound man who is a sports photographer wannabe, a busy father of four who somehow fits serious photography into his work/life balance, some who have already sold their pictures, at least one a computer tech. I was by far the least photo-experienced of the group. The workshop promo said to come and “share your skills with others.” Everyone did, most generously. One, with a camera similar to mine, helped me with my settings. A second showed me how to set up and manipulate my new tripod. Another told me that I could press the button in the corner of my iPhone screen and take pictures without even opening the phone. (I blush to admit, I’d never used that feature before. How could I have missed it?) He also showed me how to download photos onto a USB stick, an essential task in sharing photography (and much else) which I had never quite mastered. Even before the workshop began, I’d learned these two new skills which will undoubtedly change my life.

The False Creek Bubble (photo by Bruce Hawick)

The False Creek Bubble (photo by Bruce Hawick)

The promo material promised that the course was “all about taking your photography to the next level.” It warned, however, that “you need a camera that you know how to use” and that you should “read the manual that came with your camera so you will be familiar with its features.” Easier said than done. Since creating my blog, my handy-dandy iPhone has been my camera of choice. But I knew that showing up at a Rick Hulbert workshop with only an iPhone was not on. I bought a light-weight, mirrorless camera two years ago but, out of sheer laziness, I’d used it only in Intelligent Auto mode. “Read the manual.” Are you kidding? Manuals are for techies. It takes a long time to become familiar with all the features on the contemporary camera computers we can now buy, and I hadn’t used my “new” camera for at least a year.

Fully aware that Rick doesn’t teach “Camera Operation 101,” I scheduled some lessons before the workshop to learn how my “new” camera worked. I also started to use my early morning walks for photo shoots. I thought I was ready to go. But, to go “to the next level,” in my case, was a really big leap. Rick recommends shooting in Manual and Aperture modes, and primarily in RAW file format. That’s a totally different thing. Manual mode I had forgotten. Shooting RAW files, I had never done before. I had no idea what impact this would have on how I used my camera. On Day One, I floundered big time.

On the Georgia Viaduct (photo by Bruce Hawick)

On the Georgia Viaduct (photo by Bruce Hawick)

That day Rick lectured in the morning. After a late lunch, we did a “hands on” walk-about over the Georgia Street Viaduct, down Main Street, and then along the waterfront to the Science Centre and the Olympic Village at the east of False Creek. It was less than a two kilometre walk, a glorious sunny day, and we stopped often to practice what Rick had taught us, and for him to make suggestions. His promo had said that we would learn what to wear on a photo shoot. I did! And it was definitely not what I had on: a black Icebreaker sweater, a wool sweater-coat and a new camera bag too small to hold all my gear. The next day, I jettisoned this attire and came more properly outfitted. That aside, around 4:00 p.m., in the shade of a patio near a bakery, Rick talked cameras and lenses with the more experienced photographers. They were on a short break while awaiting the change of light to continue the photo shoot into the evening.

Into the evening? How do they do it? I realized that I had to pace myself. Feeling a bit of a wimp, I took my leave, rode the Aquabus to the Plaza of Nations, and found my way home. I don’t know when I have ever felt so tired. I was utterly exhausted. Why was I so sore all over? What happened to my much-vaunted energy and the fruits of my physical training? Who knew that photographers worked so hard?

Day Two was another intensive session when Rick explained his principles for successful photography and we applied them to our pictures. In “Image Review” with Rick Hulbert, we saw a master manipulating Adobe Lightroom to improve the RAW data files we’d taken. Apart from teaching us about light, how to see, what to look for, and how to get what we want, “re-visualization,” as he calls his post-production editing, is an essential tool of the modern digital photographer. He made sure we knew how Lightroom works and why we would use its many features. Day Three was a lecture on street photography, a film, and an afternoon photo shoot on Granville Island, including another walk-about to unusual sites only a photographer like Rick would notice. Day Four was an early morning (6:30 a.m.) photo shoot at Jack Poole Plaza on the harbour, with another full day of “Image Review” to further embed our skills.

After four days, others in the group were fading and even Rick admitted that he too was tired. No wonder. He gives out 100% all the time, and then some. It’s true that many of the activities he offered on the last two days were optional. But who wants to opt out when Rick is at hand to share his expertise? I may not yet be able to apply all I have learned, but I now understand the lingo and have the basic concepts firmly embedded in my brain. There is no doubt that I am many levels higher than when I started. Everyone rises to expectations, right?

Granville Island (photo by Bruce Hawick)

Granville Island (photo by Bruce Hawick)

So, how to rate Rick Hulbert as a teacher of photography? A+++ He more than delivers on what he promises, with the caveat to potential students that he deliberately pitches his program to make the best possible photos. “Learning by doing” is the name of the game. Nothing is more effective. Rick teaches a theory of photography which will stay with us forever. And the attention he pays each student makes it like a master class in photography. Listening to more experienced photographers teaches much, by osmosis. Just remember to get lots of sleep and exercise before the workshop begins, bring a water bottle and some trail snacks to keep you going. And tell your family in advance that you will be late getting home for dinner.

***** The uncaptioned photos are my RAW files of data, “re-visualized” with the help of Rick and the group. 

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“Spa in the Sky”

Have you ever felt run off your feet? Busy, busy, busy? Totally occupied with a thousand things, all of which you want to do, but which all too quickly fill your days?

That’s been me the past few weeks. October seems to have been so busy a month: family dinners, the renewal of the opera and concert season, multiple medical appointments, working out at the gym, runners to cheer for, guests to entertain, a quick trip to Vancouver, people to visit, Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, home repairs, organizing our upcoming vacation, doing some writing, getting the garden ready for winter. The list goes on. And on top of that, the persistent dreadful drone of the American election.

At the #6DegreesTO event in Toronto in September, I picked up the most marvellous little book by Pico Iyer, one of the “Framers” invited to talk about Inclusion. Iyer is a well-known essayist and travel writer born in Britain and now based in Japan and California. He writes regularly for Harper’s, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. His book is The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014, TEDBook, Simon & Schuster).

His description of Leonard Cohen at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles immediately engaged my attention. I had no idea that Cohen had spent 40 years meditating with the abbot there, or that his monastery name is Jikan which means “the silence between two thoughts.” Apparently, Cohen practices the silence of meditation as avidly as he crafts his poetry and his songs.

Iyer invites his readers to “take this book… as an invitation to the adventure of going nowhere.” He describes how he left his dream life as a writer in Manhattan and around the world to live in a tiny single room in the back streets of Kyoto. “Going nowhere… isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” When so much of our lives are lived in our heads, perspective comes not from what we do or where we have been but from how we reflect on it. A real change in life can come from changing “the way I look at it.”

Iyer writes about how freeing up the mind to “play” fosters creativity. He gives the example of Google’s headquarters where employees spend a fifth of their time lounging in tree houses, jumping on trampolines, or practicing yoga. Every building on the campus of General Mills in Minneapolis has a meditation room. Apparently one-third of American companies offer “stress-reduction programs” to their employees. And then there is the institution of the Sabbath, the traditional day of rest, which has existed for a reason and which we increasingly erode to our detriment.

He writes of his meeting with Matthieu Ricard who is known as “the happiest man in the world” and who has written that “Simplifying one’s life to extract its quintessence is the most rewarding of all the pursuits I have undertaken.” When Iyer asked him how he deals with jet lag, when he is in such demand all over the world, Ricard replied, “For me, a flight is just a brief retreat in the sky. There’s nothing I can do, so it’s really quite liberating. There’s nowhere else I can be. So I just sit and watch the clouds and the blue sky. Everything is still and everything is moving. It’s beautiful.” Iyer relates how he met a young woman on a flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles who sat down and just sat there, “apparently at peace” throughout the entire flight. When Iyer finally spoke with her she said she was a social worker from Berlin en route to a vacation in Hawaii. “Her job was exhausting… (and) she liked to use the flight over to begin to get all the stress out of her system so that she could arrive on the islands in as clear a state as possible, ready to enjoy her days of rest.” I think I will try that the next time I fly. 

It is a beautiful little book, with stunning photographs taken by Icelandic/Canadian photographer Eydis S. Luna Einarsdóttir who lives in Vancouver and travels every year to Iceland. This book is a companion piece to a 14-minute TED TALK by Pico Iyer. Also check out the TED TALK by Matthieu Ricard “The habit of happiness.”

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My Husband’s Worst Nightmare

The news out of France yesterday left my husband positively ill. The headline read “45 people trapped in cable cars overnight.” The story told of how a series of cable cars stopped working over Mont Blanc in the Alps on Thursday. Apparently, the cable cars stalled because of a “technical incident.” Helicopters rescued 65 people before darkness fell and then dropped rescue workers with blankets, food and water into the remaining cars to spend the night with the 45 tourists still on the system.

We know those cable cars. In July 1989, we spent the last weekend of our sabbatical year in Europe with the boys, camping at the winter ski resort of Chamonix at the foot of Mount Blanc. At 4807 metres, Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe. If not a skier or a mountain climber, the three-star attraction at Chamonix is the cable car ride up the Aiguille du Midi which, at 3,842 metres, provides a breath-taking view of the valley below and the mountains above. It is heralded as the most impressive attraction of the French Alps. Beyond that is the cable car which traverses Mont Blanc to La Palud on the Italian side of the Alps, a second three-star excursion.

The boys and I were keen to make the trip. Bill who is deathly afraid of heights was not. After two days of procrastination, day number three dawned bright and sunny. How could we not cross the Alps by cable car? Could Bill do it? Good sport that he is, he agreed to go up the Aiguille du Midi at least. So we set out.

Mounting the Aiguille du Midi was a three-step challenge. The first 1500 metres was an eight minute ride in a large cable car holding many passengers to the Plan de l’Aiguille. At 2310 metres, this was the jumping-off spot for hikers and skiers at lower elevations. Although the car sometimes hung 500 metres over the rock, Bill could bury himself among the other bodies on the cable car and pretend he wasn’t there. From there, it was another eight minute cable car ride up the remaining 1500 metres to the upper station. At 3,842 metres, this higher view of the valley below and the peaks and glaciers above was stunning. Bill avoided looking.

Now what? A short elevator ride took us to the station for “la télécabine de la Vallée Blanche.” This was the prize. A 35-minute, 1300-metre trip would take us over Mount Blanc to Pointe Helbronner. At 3365 metres, this was the summit near the Refuge Torino in Italy, above la Palud. The cable cars were small, holding four passengers each, arranged in groups of three along the cable which stretched out of sight over the mountain. Having come this far, Bill decided to join us for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, his decision was heroic or foolhardy, depending on your perspective.

We waited for our cable car, got in, and arranged ourselves inside. Bill and Carl chose the seat with their backs to the mountain; Ben and I looked ahead. The trip was more than we could ever have bargained for. As we rose up beside the mountain peaks, we seemed to soar above the rocks and glaciers nearby. Below we could see skiers and climbers on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Bill turned green and shrivelled up in his corner, refusing to look out the windows. Carl, feeling a little nauseous, fell into a stoic calm. Ben was looking about wildly, excited by all he saw. I was taking pictures.

What we hadn’t counted on was the cable stopping and starting en route as passengers got off and on. Each stop left us hanging in space; each start terrorized Bill and left Carl more ill at ease. The 35 minutes to Pointe Helbronner seemed forever, and then we had to return. At least, we just went over the peaks, and did not descend all the way to La Palud. Needless to say, it was a most memorable day.

Is Bill’s current state a little post traumatic stress disorder?

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A Visit to Algonquin Park

This past Labour Day weekend, my husband and I visited the backcountry of Algonquin Park. We spent the day with our son, daughter-in-law and her family picnicking in a campsite on Grand Lake, not far from where Tom Thomson painted his iconic “Jack Pine.” My earlier visits to Algonquin Park had been primarily limited to the Highway 60 corridor, so this was a new experience for me. I now get it. I now appreciate why Ontarians so love their largest and most diverse provincial park.

The Achray Lake Campground is about 50 kilometres west of Highway 17 as it skirts around Pembroke and Petawawa on the Ottawa River. It is a trailhead for several popular back country canoe trips, and a campsite set among pine trees, half of which welcomes dogs. We gathered around two picnic tables beneath shady trees beside the lake and near its protected swimming area. This was a lake beach with soft yellow sand and shallow water that went out a very long way before it became deep. The water was warm and clear, with none of the muck and reeds which I had always disliked about Ontario lakes before. When we stood still, we could see the guppies swimming around our feet and the fresh water clams as they created their trails moving through the sand. In the distance, the occasional canoe passed by, and we could spot the loons. It was a perfect sunny day and, although it was a statutory holiday, there were not that many people around. This was an Ontario lake beach at its best.

We spent the day noshing on the food and drink we’d brought in the coolers, swimming, canoeing, playing with the dogs in the water, sleeping, reading, and exploring. Sitting around the picnic table or standing in the water, I got to know members of the Filipino-Canadian family into which my son has married. One of the partners is from La Beauce in the Chaudière-Appalaches region just south of Quebec City. She is a charming French-Canadian woman who always speaks French to their 19-month-old daughter. Those of us who know some French soon realized that we could attract the attention of the infant when we spoke French. All afternoon, we practiced our own French on the toddler.

I met three families of campers who were set up among the pines for their annual weekend away. They had pushed the tables together for communal eating around a big fire pit. Their multiple tents included a huge North Face “Mountain Manor” which, apparently, has two interior rooms and a large inner vestibule to accommodate a family and a large dog in the event of rain. The very creative fathers had fashioned a climbing apparatus which allowed the several young children to move and twist between the ropes. They also created a home-made zip line from a rope which dropped on an angle to a distant tree. They’d placed a pulley on the line from which they suspended a seat to allow the children to run down the line. I learned that one of the fathers was an ex-military with search and rescue training.

When we got to talking about why my husband and I had given up camping, one of the men suggested that we get a small tent-trailer like his mother-in-law had, which provided a good bed above the ground and could be hauled by a small car. They also explained the Ontario provincial park registration system and how we would need to register on the internet six months in advance to the day, if we wanted to get one of these ideal spots by the lake on a summer weekend. I spoke with another camper who had the premier campsite on a small wooded knoll overlooking the lake. He told me that he and his wife had camped there for two weeks, that they came from Hamilton, and were planning a move to the Lower Mainland around Vancouver when they retired next year. They have two sons in Vancouver, and he has a sister in Kelowna. We spent some time discussing the pros and cons of various suburbs and small towns around Vancouver where they might choose to live. Shooting the breeze with strangers is one of the pleasures of camping. Now I am highly motivated to find a tent-trailer outlet, and I know exactly the place where we could store any new acquisition. Maybe we haven’t given up camping, after all. Maybe we just need to do it in a different way. And in Ontario.

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An Interlude on Amherst Island

For thirty years, the all-women’s law firm where I practiced as a lawyer has treasured our Annual Firm Retreat. For two brief days, the existing partners join with those who have moved on or retired to relax, reconnect and recharge our batteries. Until this year, the retreat was held at the beloved country home of one of the partners, a sprawling property at Sturgeon Point near Fenelon Falls, which provided an idyllic setting beside the Kawartha Lakes. That property was sold last year, and we had to find another that would help wean us off what we had come to cherish.

The alternative this year was a trip to Amherst Island. Amherst Island is in northeastern Lake Ontario, west of the islands around Kingston and east of the more populous Prince Edward County. Although the size of Manhattan, the island has a permanent population of only 380 people, and is totally attractive to outsiders for its low-key, laid-back country charm.

We stayed at The Lodge on Amherst Island, a most comfortable self-catering former fishing camp turned guest house, with an extraordinarily well-equipped kitchen, expansive common rooms, well-appointed sleeping quarters, and beautiful grounds by the water. Owned by Molly Stroyman of Toronto, and often used for art shows, writers’ retreats and musical events, The Lodge was ideal for our purposes. Our lavish breakfasts we enjoyed while basking in the eastern sun flowing into the family room beside the kitchen. Dinners in the screened multipurpose room gave us the sunsets in the west.

The twenty-minute ferry ride from Millhaven on the mainland transports visitors to another world, where the pace is slower, the wildlife prolific, and the vistas of Lake Ontario pounding over the limestone of the south shore stunning. The prime economic life of the island is farming, raising dairy cattle and especially sheep. There are said to be 3,000-plus sheep on the island, not including the 1,400 lambs produced each spring. Topsy Farms, on the west end of the island, allows visitors to feed the newborn lambs, and to shop for quality products made from wool and sheepskin. Feeding newborn lambs is totally engaging, but hardly conducive to putting lamb on the menu.

The only hamlet on the island is Stella, close to the ferry. The General Store (seeking new management) is beside the Post Office; there are three churches, a public school, a couple of cafés, The Weasel and Easel selling crafts and local art works in the historic Neilson Store Museum, a radio station and the remnants of a blacksmith shop. Activities on the island include the Canada Day Parade, a Farmers Market during the summer, the Presbyterian Church Garden Party the last Saturday of July, a Book Sale in August, and numerous community dinners and teas held throughout the year. Besides The Lodge, there are four bed and breakfasts on the Island. In the past, I have stayed at premises offered by the Foot Flats Farm, and can vouch for the comfort and hospitality we enjoyed there.

Thanks to photographer Helen Feldmann for the wonderful photos.


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Breakfast at the Bar Raval

Yesterday afternoon, the patio of our favourite local restaurant bar was taken out by a three-car accident at the corner of College Street and Palmerston Avenue in Little Italy. Fortunately, no one was killed. The patio was demolished, and the front window cracked, but the distinctive mahogany decor of what aims to be Toronto’s most iconic bar was undamaged. It had to close for the rest of the day, and the architects were brought in to assess the situation. According to co-owner Grant van Gameren, interviewed on the radio this morning, the decor is intact. That’s great news.

At 8:00 a.m. today, the bar was back open, with the full menu and the same smart, smiling staff on hand to greet the early risers. I decided to join them to see for myself that all is well. It’s the first time I have actually been there for breakfast and I would heartily recommend it.

Since it opened a year ago, Bar Raval has won rave reviews, including Nº. 5 on “Canada’s ten best new restaurants” list, last fall, as determined by Air Canada’s enRoute magazine. The problem for older folks is that the place is very small (only 1980 square feet), takes no reservations, and is designed for “standing up” — eating from small plates and leaning against the sinuous wood bars and round barrel tables. There are stools available inside and chairs on the outside patio, but if it is crowded, standing is the norm. In the past, I have gone mid-morning or mid-afternoon and always managed to get a stool. Now, I have learned that morning breakfast is okay, too.

So, what’s so special about Bar Raval? The restaurant was designed as a “pintxo bar, a cornerstone of social and gastronomic culture in Basque Country.” It serves coffee, wine, beer and cocktails, baked goods, tapas and pintxos (see photo of menu, below), cured meats, cheeses, hams, various exotic seafoods that come as “canned specialities” or “preserved and marinated.” Smoked Mackerel? Galician Octopus? Razor Clams? Asparagus Salad? Mushroom Tower? The regular menu is available all day, from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. For breakfast, I learned that they also offer Smoked Salmon in a croissant, Raisin and Rhubarb Scones, Polvorone (I will try that, next time) and various other baked goods. The food is served on small plates, expertly prepared, rich and totally satisfying.

And the decor is stupendous. Designed by Partisans Architects, it is “a 21st-century reinterpretation of Spanish Art Nouveau.” As the architects have noted on their website, “van Gameren charged us with an ambitious task: to create ‘an art piece’ that would become an enduring institution… the rippled — and rippling — surfaces encourage patrons to get comfortable, lean into their soft edges, and become a part of the woodwork. Raval’s molten quality fosters fluid circulation and close encounters, honouring the spirit of its Spanish pintxo counterparts.” The architects worked with fabrication partner MCM Inc. and software engineers at Masterdom “to innovate the milling process.” Using red mahogany from South Africa, the decor was designed to recall the work of Spanish-Catalan architect and designer, Antoni Gaudí. Created on a 3D computer, the creative team developed “customized toolpaths that would generate over 9km of engravings on 75 panels of wood.” Van Gameren told me last year that while the flat surfaces could be cut by machine, the curves had to be done by hand. As the owners and architects intended, “the result” is “a series of three-dimensional tattooed ‘limbs’ that enfold patrons in a warm mahogany embrace.” And, so they do. This is an iconic restaurant and bar on an iconic corner. Locals and visitors alike can thank co-owners Grant van Gameren, Mike Webster and Robin Goodfellow for creating a wonderful new destination in Toronto.

Now it will be up to Councillor Mike Layton and Toronto City Council to do something about the dangerous corner at Palmerston and College.

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Port Renfrew and the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

Last Tuesday, Nikki Bayley wrote an effusive article on Port Renfrew in the Globe and Mail. She raved about how “the awesome beauty” of the town on Vancouver Island, “at the end of the West Coast highway,” only two hours drive from Victoria, was like “Tofino 20 years ago.” It’s “pristine and untouched…” and to quote her hiking guide Drea Gibson “quiet and quaint and gorgeous.” I agree that “it’s the perfect break for city types seeking a West Coast experience without the crowds.”

Ms. Bayley visited Port Renfrew in the winter when she had “torrential rains” and “a sudden hailstorm,” and the town lived up to its nickname ‘Port Rainfrew.’ Although she describes her hike to Botanical Beach and another to visit ‘Canada’s Gnarliest Tree’ in Avatar Grove, the weather constrained her activities and her review has two glaring omissions.

The first is any mention of the two fabulous hiking trails which run north and south from Port Renfrew and which attract visitors to the area every summer. The other is that Port Renfrew may be “the end of Highway 14” but it is not “the end of the road.”

Port Renfrew is the southern terminus of the West Coast Trail which runs 75 kilometres north to Bamfield in Pacific Rim National Park. This controlled-access coastal route is one of the world’s greatest hikes: a spectacular trail on the beach, beside the beach, through rain forests, down and up numerous river banks, over many rivers, climbing ladders, riding cable cars, and hiking long moss-covered logs. It is remote, accessible only to those prepared to backpack and camp, and a challenge for even experienced hikers.

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail runs 47 kilometres south from Botanical Beach near Port Renfrew to China Beach near Jordan River (west of Sooke). It is located in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park and, unlike the West Coast Trail, is readily accessible from several trailheads, provides ample opportunity for day hiking and, should you feel so inclined, offers the chance to camp on the beach or in the midst of a west coast rain forest. Like the more well-known WCT, this trail also originated as an old telegraph line and a life-saving route for survivors of the many off-shore shipwrecks.

The last time we were there, admittedly several years ago, we paid memorable visits via three trailheads: Mystic Beach near the south, Sombrio Beach in the middle, and Botanical Beach at the north end.

Mystic Beach is close to popular China Beach, but more remote, accessible by a winding rainforest trail, over a suspension bridge, and down cut logs, about 45 minutes to the beach. At the end of the trail, the beach offers white sand, rocks, hanging waterfalls, and a rock arch one can walk through at low tide. See this video of the trail and beach (shot by van der Valk Photo and Video). When there on a Saturday night, we shared the beach with students from Victoria. The next night, we had the beach and the cold waterfall-fed pool to ourselves.

Sombrio Beach, located at kilometre 29 of the Trail, is an easy ten-minute walk to the wide, cobble-covered beach, the remnants of squatters’ cabins, open ocean vistas, views of surfers on the waves and, if you are lucky, grey or humpback whales. When we hiked from Sombrio Beach to Little Kuiche Creek, we skirted acres of clearcut, a stark reminder that, but for the park, all trees in this area might well also have been cut. It seemed utterly surreal that, as close we actually were to the clearcut, we camped above a creek in a lush rain forest, the only campers in a pristine campsite.

Botanical Beach, near Port Renfrew, is a marvel which obviously impressed Nikki Bayley even in the dead of winter. No wonder. Located at the mouth of the Juan de Fuca Strait, the beach gets the full force of the open water and the tides. Flat granite and sandstone outcroppings form shale rock formations and crystal-clear “basins like miniature aquariums” full of rich marine flora and fauna. As described on the internet, “this crowded intertidal zone has animals normally seen only by scuba divers.” To access this treasure trove of marine life, visitors walk through a network of easy forested trails. The best time for viewing is at low tide of 1.2 meters (four feet).

In the old days, a gravel forestry road ran from Port Renfrew on the coast, inland some 54 kilometres to Lake Cowichan. Locals drive forestry roads all the time; visitors may well be intimidated by the idea of running across fully loaded logging trucks on a gravel road, especially when the trucks have priority. Now, that gravel road is paved and is considered part of the Pacific Marine Circle Tour. It’s an easy drive from Port Renfrew to Cowichan and to the Island Highway which leads south back to Victoria or up island to Nanaimo.

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Springtime at the Toronto Zoo

My grandchildren became members of the zoo for Valentines. Shortly after they did so, one of the four new lion cubs was named “Harrison,” just like my grandson. There is nothing like having a namesake at the zoo to promote frequent visits. So, Easter Monday, our grandchildren, my daughter-in-law, and guests from out-of-town were at the entry, as soon as it opened, to visit the animals. We were lucky. The rain and cold wind which blew into the city later in the day held off, but the threatening weather undoubtedly discouraged attendance and we felt that we had the zoo almost to ourselves.

The Toronto Zoo is a beautiful stretch of terrain, covering 710 acres (287 hectares) and, with 5000 animals, one of the largest zoos in the world. The many domains feature animals in their natural habitat, both indoors and out. The indoor pavilions are climate-controlled to simulate the geographic habitat; apart from the animals, fish, reptiles and insects, the areas are lush with greenery, and replete with flying birds. One need not be cold at the zoo.

The highlight of a springtime visit to the zoo is the many new little ones, who are garnering so much publicity. Two panda cubs, now named Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, were the first ever born in Canada (October 13th, 2015). They are now on display, sharing their indoor nursery with their mother Er Shun. When we arrived, they were sleeping, but mama was chowing down on the 42 – 64 kilograms of bamboo which is her daily feed.

Juno, the new female polar bear cub born November 11, 2015, was romping in her paddock next to the adult polar bear terrain. Given her birthdate, the playful little bear has most appropriately been adopted by the Canadian Army and named after the Normandy beach where Canadian forces landed on D-Day in 1944.

We also saw the male Indian rhinoceros calf, under the watchful eye of his mother, Ashakiran (Asha for short.). Rhinos are exceedingly rare, and exceedingly endangered. Prized for the allegedly aphrodisiac qualities of their horns, poachers hunt them despite multi-million dollar protection programs in their home countries.

The webpage of the zoo features galleries of photos showing the new arrivals at different stages of their growth since their respective births. The pictures are fascinating. The Toronto Zoo is also on Facebook.

The Toronto Zoo is so large that no one can see everything in a single visit. We missed the four white lion cubs because there were so many old favourites to see: the orangutans, the Siberian tiger, the gorillas, the giraffes, the adult polar bears at feeding time and, of course, the otters, also when they were being fed.

My family has always been fans of zoos. Modern zoos make animals readily accessible to the public in their natural habitat, and allow us to conduct research and breeding initiatives necessary for their survival. What better way to encourage the public to learn about animals and to care about their ongoing well-being?

We love to tell the old stories of when the zoo first opened in 1974, and the early mishaps which occurred. Once, it appeared as if the lions could jump across their newly constructed moat. Another time, a scrawny penguin was said to have been placed on an island amidst some seals to see if they could co-habit without one eating the other. And then there was the time the wolves escaped from their paddock in the Canadian domain. They were gone for some time, and the Toronto Star ran a cartoon showing the wolves (outside their enclosure) taunting their keepers. No, they didn’t want steak, or a television set, but maybe if you brought in some female wolves. Eventually, they did return.

The Toronto Zoo is a great spot to entertain and educate kids and adults alike and walking around it is a good workout. Clearly, a wonderful way to spend a day.

Photos courtesy of R.A. Church. Thanks Ryan.

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Dispatches from Nepal

For the past several weeks, my cousin Don Fraser, who hails from Kelowna, British Columbia, has sent email dispatches from Kathmandu, Nepal. Don is a volunteer intern for three months at an orphanage and school on the northern edge of that city run by Child Haven International. This is his third stint there in the last four years.

The home where he lives and works provides care and an education to 203 children, and a home and jobs for 22 women. Social agencies refer children who are from birth to six years of age, destitute, and without family support. They live at the home through high school and for vocational training that would enable them to become self-supporting. The organization also supports other children living in the community, helping them to attend local schools, and it runs women’s programs, providing legal and medical help, occupational training, and direct employment.

Don’s is one of a network of five Child Haven homes in India, and one in each of Nepal and Bangladesh. The homes are available to both boys and girls, are run on principles of equality and simplicity, non-religious but respectful of the different cultural origins of the children.

Fred and Bonnie Cappuccino, from Glengarry, Ontario, founded Child Haven International in 1985. As a young couple in the United States midwest, they were inspired by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. There and later, after immigrating to Canada, they raised two children of their own and adopted and raised 19 others, all inter-racial and at-risk children from China, Viet Nam, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, aboriginal Canada and the West Indies. Fred Cappuccino tells their story in his recent memoir entitled Bonnie and Her 21 Children (Bonnie Books Inc. 2015). 

Don retired several years ago from his career in the B.C. forest industry, working in government relations and human resources. For Child Haven, he works as a tutor, educational assistant, child supervisor, general handyman, and helper in the kitchen. His dispatches tell of the effects of the massive earthquake last year: “moguls” in the roads, homes destroyed by landslides triggered by the earthquake, resettling families into newly constructed “earthquake protected” houses, the collapse of the top 50 feet of the largest Buddhist shrine in Nepal, damage to an ancient monastery now closed pending repairs, and a noticeable lack of westerners.

A shortage of fuel means that wood must be used for cooking. Some of the wood is salvaged from destroyed homes; sometimes loads of logs are delivered to the orphanage; all need to be cut, dried and stacked for daily use. Don scrounged wedges and saws and blades from the local market and from donors abroad as tools to chop the wood. He organized work parties of the bigger boys to help with the chopping and stacking. He finds that the wood cutting sessions and the tea break after are good times to talk with the senior students about what is going on in their lives. When that’s done, he helps peel vegetables in the kitchen. Tutoring students referred to him by the teachers, he is teaching basic mathematical concepts and helping students with résumés and job-seeking skills. For a local director of Child Haven who has constructed and endowed an area hospital for women and children, Don helped edit the English required for publicity brochures.

Don considers his experience inspirational beyond any of his expectations. He is totally taken by the unlimited energy and practical commitment of the Child Haven founders, and by the wonderful people they attract to work with them. He has fallen in love with the staff and students who, despite basic living conditions and horrific individual stories, show an uncommon camaraderie and generosity. As in the best of overseas experiences, Don has found that he has gained as much, if not more, than the children he works with. Clearly, Don has no regrets about how he is spending his retirement. On the contrary, it has been the experience of a lifetime.

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The “Pacific Passage” at the Vancouver International Airport

It was a long ten-hour trip by air from Liberia, Costa Rica to Houston, Texas, through US customs, and then on to Vancouver. Finally, we arrived, in the dark, at the most distant gate of the YVR US terminal. Needless to say, we were all eager to stretch our legs, get through the customs formalities, pick up our luggage, and get on our way.

But… not so fast. Between the gate and the customs hall is one of the most striking art installations in all the Vancouver International Airport. It took my breath away, so much so that I stopped to take it in more closely. I shall never forget it. And may even arrange to return by air from the USA to YVR someday, just to see it again.

Called Pacific Passage, the installation is intended as a “thematic or experiential corridor.” Its designers, AldrichPears Associates and the indigenous artists who worked with them, conceived the exhibit “to evoke the natural environment and indigenous culture of the B.C. west coast.” And so it does.

Arriving passengers pass beside a stretch of water, with pebbles under water and rocks around, green trees and dead logs, and an observation deck to allow a closer look. Suspended above the logs at the surface of the water is a carved indigenous canoe with the oars aloft. Overhead is an elaborate, brightly coloured, intricately designed, red cedar carving of an eagle. Or perhaps a raven. Other contemporary carvings of frogs, birds, totems, and masks, are scattered about. In greens and blues, browns and greys, contrasting with the bright red, yellow and black of the aboriginal art, it is an incredible welcome to the best of what the west coast has to offer.

The AldrichPears Flickr slideshow shows highlights of the corridor, together with some exhibit designs. It is worth your time to check it out (and, if necessary, to install Adobe Flash Player from their site onto your computer, so you can see the photos).

The Vancouver International Airport (YVR to locals and to others who love the airport) has the largest collection of Northwest Coast Native art in the world. Bill Reid’s bronze cast of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe (1994), in the rotunda of the International Departures level, is the second and last casting of the original Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Black Canoe (1991) at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. It is the most important of a fantastically rich collection throughout the airport and on its grounds outside.

Earlier this month, visitors were able to see new cedar carvings by Haida artist, Reg Davidson, in the Link Building Atrium, between the international and domestic terminals. The carvings include a 24-foot totem pole entitled Raven Stealing the Beaver Lake.

The Art and Architecture section of the YVR webpage includes further information about the collection, and several self-guided tours of the airport. In the old days, our family used to go to the airport from time to time just to watch the airplanes. Now there is art to see as well. Whether as a destination in itself, or to while away time between flights, the art at YVR is worth your attention.

With the encouragement of Bill Reid, the Vancouver Airport Authority in 1993 established the YVR Art Foundation, a non-profit charitable organization to encourage the training and development of B.C. First Nations art and artists. The Foundation grants scholarships and awards to First Nations artists, and provides recipients an opportunity to show their work at the airport. In 2015, the Foundation extended its programs to include Yukon First Nations artists. If part of our YVR Airport Improvement Tax is being used to support such art, it’s a good use of our money.

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Costa Rica #5: Final Reflections on “Life Changes”

Liberia Door

Liberia Door

Our recent trip to Costa Rica reminded me how little I know about Latin America.

I didn’t know, for example, that Costa Rica, with a population of 5,000,000, is a stable democracy with no army. According to Wikipedia, its national parks and protected areas cover around 23.4% of its land mass, the largest percentage of any country in the world. It is considered one of the greenest countries on earth. With a literacy rate of 97.8% and a life expectancy of 77.7 years (ranked just ahead of the United States), it has the highest standard of living in Central America.

We learned that this small country welcomes over 2,500,000 visitors per year. These are tourists and expats from North America and Europe, as well as agricultural and service workers from Nicaragua. January is their long summer school holiday and we saw many “tico” families enjoying the beaches. We also saw farm workers cutting sugar cane in the fields with machetes and loading huge sugar transport trucks as big as the lumber trucks we see in British Columbia. Apart from the luxurious villas closer to the coast, people outside the cities tend to live in small well-kept homes, many painted in bright colours, on little lots surrounded by walls or fences. There are modern air-conditioned “mega mercados” selling all the products we know from home, plus wine and beer, and, in Liberia, huge discount warehouses analogous to Costco. There are also itinerant farmers markets selling fruits and vegetables we have never seen before. We learned that Costa Rica is diversifying from their traditional agricultural economy based on coffee, bananas and pineapple, to manufacturing, services and tourism. As one friend (who spends her time in a totally different part of Costa Rica, in the south on the road to Mount Chirripo) says, Costa Rica is “an amazing country.” It certainly is now up there on my radar screen.

On another level, after a lifetime of travel primarily as a couple, this recent trip has reaffirmed the advantages of travelling with others. We shared this trip to Costa Rica with Sandra and Justus Havelaar, our in-laws from Campbell River in British Columbia. In many ways, their company was like an immersion seminar in lifelong learning. Spending two weeks with them on the balcony, I wanted to take in like a sponge all that they knew and I didn’t.

Just one example: Justus has been working with computers for years, ever since he first introduced them into his high school, way back when. He and Sandra came with a new laptop and a new iPad. He, unlike me, prunes his photos as he goes along, as professional photographers recommend. Watching my brother-in-law so readily manipulate his photographs on his new laptop raised my expectations. When I returned to Vancouver and found my 2008 vintage MacBook too slow to even download my pictures, I realized that I had “run it into the ground.” The new operating systems had long since displaced my old hardware, and it was time for a new laptop. Right away, I went to the Apple store, got a new laptop, and have been attending workshops there ever since. My life as a blogger just got 1000% easier.

Everyone was into ebooks; Justus his Kobo, Sandra her iPad, my husband his Kindle. When I’d finished the hard copy books I had brought with me, and was wondering where I could find a bookstore that would sell English language books, Justus used Apple’s AirDrop feature to send a couple of appropriate books from his eLibrary directly to my iPad. Now I understand the utility of AirDrop.

More important, I now see why ebooks are so popular. Another friend who spends considerable time in Mexico every year downloads books from the Toronto Public Library to her iPad before each trip. I have the TPL app but have never used it. My Costa Rica experience has given me an incentive to do so in the future. And my relatives told me about and, where books out of copyright are available free of charge.

They also told me about the Petrucci Music Library, where all classical music in the public domain is available free of charge, and where copies of scores can be obtained, downloaded, and printed at home. Musicians undoubtedly know of this resource. I certainly didn’t. It’s amazing what you learn from fellow travellers.

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Costa Rica #4: Touring the Northwest Beaches

Seen one beach, seen them all? Not so in Costa Rica. The ones we saw were all different. The interior I-21, which runs from south of Nicola to Santa Cruz and then to Liberia, is the spine from which numerous side roads head west to different beach areas. These main roads are paved, but access roads to many more remote beaches are not, and a 4WD is necessary to negotiate gravel and dirt roads, some surprisingly rough.

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The vast Playa Grande is across the estuary from Tamarindo and, apart from the surfers offshore, has practically no one on it. Crocodiles and caymans are said to live in the estuary and, as the beach and its hinterland are part of the protected Parque Nacional Marino las Baulas (Leatherback Turtle Marine National Park), development adjacent to the beach is prohibited. According to Lonely Planet, the area is one of the world’s prime nesting beaches for these leatherback turtles, which can live for 50 years and weigh up to 400 kilograms. Apparently, they come ashore at night to lay their eggs, which later hatch on the beach, and then go out to sea. We didn’t see any, but friends have.

Thirteen kilometres south is Avellana, a broad white sand expanse of remote beach with high waves and good breaks for advanced surfers. It was here, and at nearby Playa Negra, that Bruce Brown filmed his classic surfer film, Endless Summer 2, in 1994. Apart from the excellent surfing, the leading attraction is Lola’s bar and bistro, named after a succession of porcine mascots. It is an idyllic spot in the sand under the palms, great for good food and leisurely lounging. Those who don’t surf spend their time at Lola’s.

We made several trips north. Not far from Tamarindo is Playa Flamingo, Playa Potrero and, at the end of a more remote road that rises high above the coast, Playa Danta. Flamingo has a broad protected bay ideal for yachts, and another white sand beach along the open sea. On the beach, locals stretch colourful materials between the trees to stake out their space, I guess, and get a little shade. The sand at Potrero, dark coloured and apparently rich in marine life, attracts vultures and pelicans dive-bombing into the water for their food. Danta is a charming beach in a narrow little bay. Apart from the sand, flat rock shelves extend out of the water. Lucio recommends the area for snorkelling. At the moment, the bay is used almost exclusively by locals. There is, however, a huge high-rise development being built just inland from the beach. Once finished, this little local paradise will be inundated by occupants of the new resort, a classic example of the conflict between the natural beauty of Costa Rica and ongoing development for tourism.

On another trip further north, we spent some time at Playa Hermosa, considered one of the quieter and more beautiful bays in the area. Hermosa Bay is utterly delightful, a narrow semi-circle of water and grey sand with tall trees providing ample shade along the shoreline. There is no surf here, only water splashing into the bay. The scene seemed so inviting that I decided to wade in. Within minutes, a huge wave over my head surged in, totally swept me off my feet, and, before I knew it, my glasses were swept away. Silly “gringo.” I should have gone wading at the far end of beach where the “tico” children were swimming and playing on a more protected shelf of sand.

Losing my glasses meant that I could not drive. I had brought a spare pair which were at the apartment. But that prescription is 20 years out of date, so driving with those spare glasses was not possible. When I returned to Vancouver, I immediately saw an optometrist to get new glasses. She found cataracts I never knew I had. Now, I am waiting for an appointment with an ophthalmologist and, likely, cataract surgery. There is an ophthalmologist here in Vancouver who could see me in early March and do the surgery in late May. I’ve been seeking options back in Toronto. Who would have thought that a vacation in Costa Rica would lead to interprovincial negotiations between Canada’s health care systems? Moral of the story? Pay attention where you enter the sea in Costa Rica. And always travel with an extra, up-to-date, pair of glasses.

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