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A Gentle Giant and a Madman

I woke from a light sleep to a melodious chime and a pitch-black room. My hand fumbled along the bedside table until I found my cellphone and switched off the alarm.

“Time to go,” I called to my travel companion, who had yet to make a move.

With the blood thrumming through my veins, I yanked opened the door to our modest abode where I was greeted by the gentle ebb and flow of ocean waves. I peered along the beach, a smile of anticipation on my face, hopeful for a glimpse of the gentle giants we had travelled so far to see. But the night was pitch black, the sky overcast. No starlight illuminated the long stretch of sand; no moon cast a silvery trail upon the water. I hugged my arms, wishing I had thought to bring a light sweater. The night air was chillier than I would have expected of the tropics.

We slipped on our shoes and left the Mt Plaisir Estate Hotel, the former headquarters of a cocoa estate, now a refurbished 12-bedroom beachfront dwelling in Grand Rivière, a remote coastal community in the northeastern tip of the Caribbean island of Trinidad. After a short walk, we joined other visitors in a room of the Nature Guide Association where instructions in turtle watching etiquette and headlamps were handed out. With our tour guide in lead, we trooped out into the darkness and headed down to the beach.

Growing up in Trinidad, I missed out on seeing the giant leatherback turtles laying their eggs at night. Back then, with no accommodation on offer, you had to undertake a two-hour drive to arrive at the beach before midnight, which was when female turtles emerged from the sea to haul themselves up the beach and lay their eggs in the sand.  After taking your full of this magical sight, you then had to turn around and drive the two-hour return trip (longer depending on where you lived), an undertaking only the really adventurous were up for. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised when I learned, while on a recent visit to the island during the prime laying season of March to September, that there were hotels (a euphemism as it turned out) where one could spend the night, eliminating the dangers of night driving through remote countryside.

As we trudged through cool sand with the consistency of brown sugar, we learned that Grande Rivière is the second largest leatherback turtle nesting site in the world. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago are two of the world’s most important turtle nesting grounds, not only for the leatherbacks but the Hawksbill, green turtles and several other species. Each year, more than 10,000 leatherback sea turtles travel across the Atlantic Ocean from as far as northern Canada and southern Africa to nest on Trinidad’s eastern beaches. The largest of all turtle species, the seven-foot-long, 1,000+ pound females drag themselves from the sea, lumber up the sloped banks of the beach and make their way to dryer sand. Here, using their rear flippers, they dig holes and lay up to 80 eggs a night, a process they repeat as many as twelve times during breeding season. Two months later, baby turtles dig themselves out of their nests and scuttle their way to the water. Few survive but the female hatchlings that make it to sexual maturity, return to the same nesting sites to produce their own offspring. Males spend the rest of their lives at sea.

Lady luck was not on our side that night. Instead of a beach swarming with hundreds of turtles, as it had been a night or two ago, there were no more than a handful of the gentle giants; perhaps because it was an overcast night, numbers usually greater during the time of a full moon. Still, careful not to shine any light in the turtles’ faces, we got to see pearlescent, spherical eggs, about two times the size of a table tennis ball, slipping from the female’s cloaca into the cool sand below.

 

Next morning, clouds still blanketed the sky and mist hung low and heavy amongst the tropical landscape. Taking an early stroll along the beach, we saw a knot of people congregated in one area. As we ventured closer, we saw a lone leatherback, still in the process of laying her eggs. Respectful of the gentle beast, we took pictures as she covered up her clutch, then watched as she lumbered down the slope and slipped into the surf. Within a blink of an eye, she disappeared, swept away by a wave.

 

 

Humbled by nature’s awesome beauty, my companion and I ventured to the dining area for a late breakfast. We hadn’t been seated long when we heard a raised voice. Glancing in the direction of the beach, we saw a shirtless, muscular young man sporting dreadlocks, waving his hands in the air as he circled another leatherback straggler. Turning to address the diners on the covered patio, a mixture of locals and foreigners, he ranted at great length about the exploitation of the turtles, of mother nature, that there were too many people who came to the beach, and so on and so forth. At one point, he mounted the turtle and stood on its back, much to the distress of the onlookers. The owner of the hotel was eventually able to move the disturbed young man along, but the incident was unsettling, to say the least, the morning’s serenity broken by the man’s crazed rant.

But his words stuck with me and I began to wonder. Did he have a point? Was ecotourism a selfish exploitation of mother nature? Flying around the world, exuding carbon emissions, ticking off bucket list items, stockpiling stories to impress our friends with all we had seen and done.

I later learned that through the efforts of local conservationists to educate the thousands of local and foreign visitors to the islands’ turtle laying sites, poaching of these giant sea creatures, once rampant, is now rare. Restricted access to these nesting beaches, particularly Grande Rivière and Matura, also reduces poaching and allows the turtles to nest and the young hatchlings to emerge undisturbed. Income from visitors is used to hire local guides and help fund research, while housing and feeding visitors provide jobs in the local community that would not otherwise exist, reducing the need to rely on turtle meat as a source of food.

As in all things, then, a double-edged sword, where we’d like to think the good outweighs the bad. The hope is that through education and conservation efforts, more hatchlings will be born, increasing the numbers that survive natural predators such as birds, fish, and marine mammals, as well as manmade threats from fishing nets, plastics, and warming ocean temperatures, ultimately allowing us to one day take these gentle giants off the endangered species list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lift Thine Eyes unto the Hills

During a recent trip to Barcelona, Spain, I decided to forsake Gaudi’s city for a day tour into the surrounding countryside. With no prior knowledge of the destination, I made my way from my hotel on La Barceloneta to the meeting point next to the Palau de la Música Catalana, an art nouveau concert hall known for its ornate facade and opulent auditorium. Blithely following the tour guide, I traipsed through the alleyways of the upper Gothic area, ignorant to the fact I was walking the streets of Daniel Sempere’s neighborhood, the young protagonist of one of my favorite books, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

On our arrival at Plaça de Catalunya, the central hub of Barcelona, we boarded a bus and headed north toward a prominent rock formation that rose from the surrounding landscape, stretching high into a blue sky feathered with wisps of cloud. Our destination was Santa Maria de Montserrat, a Benedictine abbey founded in the 10th century, located on Montserrat, Catalan for ‘serrated mountain’. Forty minutes later, as we began to wind our way up into the rocky range, the mountain’s distinctive geology soon became apparent. As with a child who sculpts a castle from a mound of wet sand, the mountain range looked as if a giant hand had dragged its fingers down the mountain face, digging deep into the substratum to leave behind a heavily scored façade. According to our guide, these towering columns had been the inspiration for the towers of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s famous Basilica, started in 1882, yet to be completed.

The abbey lay nestled within the mountain’s towers and crags, a going concern, with over one hundred and fifty monks still in residence. Thousands of visitors make the pilgrimage to this holy site every year, drawn in part by a shrine to an image of the Virgin of Montserrat, a Black Madonna and patron saint of Catalonia. The complex also boasts a prestigious boys’ music school which showcases the Escolania, the Montserrat’s Boys’ Choir, one of the oldest in Europe. There is also a museum which houses works by El Greco, Dalí, Picasso and more; a publishing house, which has one of the oldest presses in the world still running (its first book published in 1499); and a hostel, which offers accommodation to hikers eager to explore Montserrat’s many trails, climbers hoping to scale the rugged cliff faces or pilgrims setting out from one of the lesser known starting points of the Camino de Santiago.

Not initially impressed by what looked to be a very commercialized enterprise, I paid for a ticket to one of two funiculars, the one that headed up the mountain. We’d just finished a tour of the abbey grounds, during which we learned of the sacking and near destruction of the abbey by Napoleon’s troops and the violent suppression of the abbey’s inmates during the Spanish Civil War. A quick glance at my watch told me I was on a tight time budget if I wanted to hear the performance of the famed boys’ choir in the Basilica at 1 pm.

During the funicular’s steady climb to the top of the rock formation, I wondered why it was that monasteries around the world, of varied religions, were frequently to be found at seemingly unreachable heights. To be closer to God? To demonstrate devotion by the challenge of the construction? To live high up in the clouds, secluded from the rest of society?

The views from the top soon put paid to my ruminations, as did a glance at my watch. There were two directions from which to access the maze of trails that littered the mountain top. If I wanted to explore both directions and be back down at the abbey by noon, I would have to hit the trails hard. I struck off to the right, setting a small structure in the distance as my goal to reach within fifteen minutes. Munching on an apple I had pilfered from the hotel lobby that morning, I made good time, even with quick stops to capture the views with my camera. The structure turned out to be a miniature chapel, with panoramic views of the rugged mountains and the plains far below, a perfect setting in which to commune with your God, your soul, or nature, whatever your proclivities.  As much as I wanted to explore a series of caves within sight of the chapel and which had once been a hermitage, I retraced my steps back to the funicular station. I continued past, heading left this time to a section of the trail which offered bird’s eye views of the abbey complex below. Wishing I had more time to explore the mountaintop, a perfect setting for a romantic thriller, I made the return journey down the mountain.

 

Aware there was another trail that led from the abbey to a cross at a mountain’s edge, I decided to allow forty minutes to see how far I could make it before heading back to the Basilica. I reckoned this should still give me ample time to find a seat to watch the boys’ performance at 1:00. Backpack hugging my shoulders, I set off, my sights trained on my destination, only to find myself stopping every fifty meters or so, distracted by a raft of sculptures. Made of stone, bronze or plaster, they were mostly religious pieces, located either along the track or tucked into grottos, the natural backdrops creating a whimsical blend of art and nature.  Needless to say, I didn’t make it anywhere near the cross, reluctantly turning back at the appointed time to make my way down hill to keep my date with the choir.

Hurrying through the abbey’s inner courtyard, I eyed the long lineup to see the Black Madonna, suppressing the guilt that I preferred to find my spirituality amongst the hills rather than in an image of a saint. As I stepped into the Basilica, my heart sank at the sight of a packed church. All that planning in vain, only to feel chastised, once again, that my priorities were not aligned with the faithful. Standing room only, I stood at the back, finding myself forced to brush elbows with the congregation as the church continued to fill. Letting my eyes wander around the gold gilt interior, movement in an archway, incongruously located above and behind the altar, caught my attention. Puzzling over the placement of the archway and the people filing past, it finally dawned on me that this must be where the Black Madonna was housed and that the people drifting past were the faithful paying homage to their patron Saint.

The crowd began to stir and a line of boys aged nine to fourteen walked out to form a semicircle around the alter. The Basilica went deathly quiet and after a beat or two, the voices of angels filled the air. I surprised myself when tears filled my eyes. To hear those young voices lifted in song within the vaulted ceilings of the Basilica was truly a privilege, one of those moments you know you will never forget, a magical culmination to my time spent racing around the hills of this sacred site.

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You say Tomayto, I say Tomahto.

 

It was the last day of a four-day Fall walking tour along the Jurassic Coast, the Dorset section of England’s South West Coast Path. My travel companion and I had set off early that morning from the seaside town of Swanage, a town known historically for its distinctive Purbeck marble used in many of England’s southern cathedrals, including Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, but which smacked to me of a smugglers haven and a fine setting for a future novel. Having seen our walk the day before from the vantage point of a tour boat, we were anxious about arriving at our final destination in time for the spa treatment we had booked to celebrate the completion of our inaugural walking tour.  Though we hadn’t had trouble timing our previous days, seeing one’s route laid out before you sure provided  a different perspective on the task we had set ourselves.

Under sunny skies, we trooped east along the beach and then clambered up into the hills. We were soon walking along the cliff tops, where cornflower blue skies and aqua waters offered a picturesque contrast to the white chalk cliffs of the Purbeck Peninsula. Other than encountering a buffed young man in black fatigues wielding an impressive pair of binoculars (bird watching … apparently), and briefly being joined by a lady I had encountered the day before, we had the path to ourselves. We made it in good time to Handfast Point, the most easterly point of the Jurassic Coast. From there we had prime views of three chalk stacks that formed the legendary Old Harry rock formations, named for a local pirate who, in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, scored the French and Spanish coastlines, capturing ships loaded with daily essentials such as olive oil, wine and jewels. Looking east, Studland Bay occupied the foreground, with its stretch of beaches which we soon discovered had played a pivotal role in D-Day preparations. After that, accessible only by a ferry that plied its way back and forth across the narrow opening to Poole Harbour, lay our final destination, Sandbanks, apparently Britain’s version of Palm Beach, boasting the fourth highest land value by area in the world. (Have to admit, I left the next day scratching my head as to why.) Then finally, stretching further east along the coastline was the hazy outline of Bournemouth, Dorset’s largest coastal resort town.

After our brisk start, we now slowed our pace, having only walked an hour and a half and knowing we had plenty of time to keep that all-important spa appointment. On our approach into Studland, we stumbled across Fort Henry, a WWII bunker located on a hill overlooking the bay, so named in honor of the home base of the Canadian engineers who had built it. From this distal vantage point, Winston Churchill, King George VI, American General Eisenhower and British General Montgomery had watched the beach being bombarded by live rocket fire from battleships and fighter planes of the Allied forces. Codenamed Exercise Smash, it was the largest live ammunition exercise of the whole war, which had included the landing of thousands of infantry as a training exercise to the Allied invasion of Europe.

It was a sobering experience to walk along the same beaches that 70 years before had been heavily booby-trapped with thousands of land mines against invasion (beaches now fringed with beach shacks and littered with holiday makers); to know that the inner heathland, covered that day in a sea of purple heather, had been pounded by British rocket-firing Typhoons and American Thunderbolt fighter-bomber planes.

Thoughts of wars past and present soon returned to the present as I started to notice that the family groups on the beach had given way to an older generation, a group of people who did not seem to need what most of us would consider an essential for the beach. Then I recalled a conversation I’d had with my travel companion during the planning stages of the trip, one centered on cultural differences in the use of language. She had read that a section of beach on Studland Bay was reserved for naturists. How odd we thought, that nature lovers got to have their own patch of beach. On further reading however, we realized that in British English, naturist was the equivalent of nudist. Very cultured and civilized use of language, wouldn’t you know.

Feeling decidedly overdressed, we sauntered along the beach, eyes straight ahead but still able to see expanses of wrinkled flesh of the few bathers enjoying the unseasonably good weather and warm waters of the English Channel in mid-September. It was a quick eyes-right when one particularly portly gentleman stood up from his beach chair and executed a full stretch. And though I tried not to peek, it was difficult to miss the middle-aged couple playing, of all things, paddle ball in the nude, with their bits and bobs flying one way then the next.

Once we were well past the invisible barrier for the naturist section, my friend and I plunked ourselves upon the sand. Stripped down to our T-shirts, we looked enviously at the few swimsuit clad bathers, bemoaning the fact that we hadn’t worn our swimsuits on under our clothing as I had suggested we do. I even did a quick reconnoiter of the heathland to see if there was enough privacy for a quick change but decided not to chance it. So there we sat, unable to believe that we were on a beach, in England, with a warm September sun beating down on us, but not able to go for a dip in the water.

Eventually recalling our all-important spa appointment, we reluctantly rose from the warm sand, hefted our back backs and started the final leg of our walk around the headland to catch the ferry to Sandbanks. It was only as we were getting on the boat, that the irony of our situation struck me. Trying to control my laughter, I informed my friend that we were right idiots. There we sat, bemoaning the fact we couldn’t put on our swim suits to go for a swim … on a nudist beach!

Well, we may not have been smart enough to figure out how to go for a swim on a nudist beach with no swimsuit, but when I discovered that our hotel had an outdoor pool, I insisted we take the plunge, just so we could boast that we had swam outdoors on the southern coast of England in September.

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The Magic of the Alhambra

An avid traveller, it didn’t take me long to combine my passion for globetrotting with my long-held dream of being a novelist. While a holiday in Zanzibar provided inspiration for my first novel, my second novel was conceived long before I got on the plane to visit the Spanish city of Granada. Capitalizing on my husband’s love of Spain, I had devised a driving tour through the southern regions of the country, ostensibly to visit the small town of Zafra which he had discovered while on work assignment, but in reality, for me to visit the legendary Moorish castle, The Alhambra, featured in Philippa Gregory’s The Constant Princess. As if one book wasn’t enough inspiration for me to start packing my bags, it was the recommendation that I read Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra that made me decide, even before I darkened the door of a jet, that I was going to use the Alhambra as the backdrop for my second novel.

Needless to say, it was with great disappointment that I toured the cavernous rooms of the Alhambra’s palaces, barely more than ruins, with little evidence left of the ostentation that would have befitted what was, many centuries ago, one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. Hoping for inspiration to strike like a bolt from above, all I felt was a sense of sadness that what I was seeing was but a poor facsimile of what had once been. And yet, it was this feeling, combined with a sleepless night on my return home, which sowed the seeds for what would become my second novel, Dreams of the Alhambra, a time travel tale of mystery, forbidden love and family betrayal.

It wasn’t until my second trip to Granada a year later for further research, that the magic began to happen. After mining Irving’s’ Tales of the Alhambra for a story on which to base my novel, I had settled on ‘Legend of the Three Beautiful Princesses’. It was a tale of triplets born to a king of Granada who, following the death of his wife and acting on advice from his astrologers, sequestered his daughters in a castle located in a coastal town far from the intrigues of court life in the Alhambra.

View from villa of Salobreña, with the castle built into the peak of the rock formation

Imagine my surprise when I realized that the Spanish villa in which I spent a week with friends prior to going to Granada, was located in the very same coastal town in which the Princesses had spent the formative part of their lives. Having undergone a series of name changes during its long history, Salobreña became a key setting in my novel.

After enjoying the luxury of a car rental while on the coast, my decision to continue to Granada on my own meant that I had to use the bus to journey from Salobreña to Granada. Having already taken a day trip to Granada using the modern highway that snaked up and over the hilly terrain between the city and the coast, it had crossed my mind to wonder how the Princesses had managed to make a similar journey on the backs of donkeys and palfreys.

Lady Luck was once again by my side, as I had unknowingly chosen the scenic bus route through small Spanish towns and rugged mountain passes, as opposed to the faster drive along the highway. It didn’t take long before I realized that what we were following was likely an ancient travel route, one which followed the meanderings of a river as it snaked its way from the interior to the coast, curving its way through lush green valleys shaded by towering walls of granite. Here then, was a more likely explanation of how a caravan of women and children would have made its way between Granada and the coastal city of Cora Elvira as Salobreña was then known. Once again, I had stumbled upon a setting for what became one of my more adventure filled scenes.

Comares (Diwan) Palace with reflecting pool in the Courtyard of the Myrtles

The magic continued during my stay at the Alhambra. I attended a night tour of the palaces, where white lights casted eerie shadows ripe for melodrama, and reflections of a full moon in pools of black water created settings made for romance. I was also lucky enough to tour the very tower, only occasionally opened to the public, in which the Princesses were sequestered upon their return to the Alhambra as burgeoning young women.

My most magical memory of that trip, however, was being at the Alhambra over the weekend, when it became apparent that, late in the day, locals replaced the tourists, be it joggers, families pushing strollers or people walking their dogs up to the historical complex that overlooked the city. It was a surreal moment when I rounded a corner to see a bride and groom in their wedding finery, a photographer clicking away on his camera.  Then a few minutes later, church bells pealed and a bridal party emerged from the doors of a church occupying the ground where once, centuries before, a muezzin would have called from the minaret of a mosque. High on the romance of the setting, I floated toward the parapet, drawn by the golden light of a setting sun, only to do double take after double take as I caught glimpses of a second, then a third and fourth wedding couple. Feeling as if I had dropped into a Spanish equivalent of the Thomas Crown Affair’s ‘The Son of Man’ moment, I briefly wondered if the Spanish did mass weddings. Then the penny dropped. The grounds of the Alhambra was, understandably, a very popular setting for wedding pictures. As the sun set over the Vega, I watched one of the wedding couples having their picture taken against a sky streaked with bright salmon clouds. When they moved on, a couple, with hands entwined, stepped into the vacated spot, their white hair a testament to a lifetime spent at each other’s side.

And then it hit me, that the magic of the Alhambra knew no boundaries of age, race or time. That it casts its spell over young and old alike, drawing all creeds, religions and races to its doors, a standing testament to a time when Muslim, Jew and Christian lived together in relative harmony in this fabled city. It was a magical setting that in no small way helped craft a story based on the struggle to live side by side in peace, a struggle we sadly still face today.

 

 

 

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ADVENTURES IN TRANSIT

 

Any seasoned traveller knows that if a holiday goes well and without a hitch, then you have not had an adventure. Well, the first twenty-four hours of a trip to Nicaragua with my husband and two adult children a few Christmases ago, provided enough adventure for several trips.

We, meaning I, made the strategic decision to travel on Christmas day, allowing us to partake in family events on Christmas Eve, as well as take advantage of relatively lower pricing and ostensibly lower traveller numbers at this busy travel time. Always with an eye to saving a buck where I can on our vacations, I suggested that instead of costly taxi fares, we use an airport parking garage I had tried a few months before and which had worked out quite well. A creature of habit, my husband, Craig, uttered the usual objections, (we would have to leave earlier; how far is it from the airport; how frequent were the monorail trains), which were summarily overrode.

As we approached the airport, my directions of how to get to the garage become more vague (I had only used the service once myself, after all). The tension in the car began to climb. After only one wrong turn, we approached the pay station where a panicked discussion ensued about how payment was executed. With windows starting to fog from the building steam, we proceeded to loop our way up and around the densely-packed multiplex garage, the volume of Craig’s voice increasing with each successive level until we finally managed to secure a parking spot.

After a pleasant interval in the Maple Leaf Lounge, where tempers were somewhat mollified by the gratuitous booze, we boarded our late day flight. After realizing our seats were not together because I had refused to pay the extra cost for assigned seating, I was happy enough to sit apart as blood pressure levels were once more on the rise. So, there we were, leaned back in our seats, while visions of palm trees and aqua waters danced in our heads, well mine anyway … and we proceeded to sit on the runway for at least an hour before the flight eventually took off. Prepared for the layover in Houston to be one big rush to get from one terminal to the next to make our connecting flight, we found no rush was needed, as the flight to Nicaragua was also delayed.

By the time we finally arrived in Managua, it was a hot and steamy 1:00 am. After a brief stint in customs, we dragged our tired butts to the baggage carousel, where the rest of the family plucked their luggage off the conveyor, while I stood and watched the dwindling piles of baggage going around and around. When it was past apparent that my luggage had not made the flight, I made my way over to baggage claims, wondering if my limited Spanish was up to the task. Luckily, the man spoke much better English than my sorry Spanish and informed me that my bag would likely arrive on the next flight which was coming in just after midday that same day.

Right. So, our plan to pick up the rental car bright and early the next day and hit the road for the two-hour drive to our final destination on the coast, was up in smoke, with no guarantee that my luggage was indeed on the flight.

Past tired now, with my daughter sporting a mutinous look on her face, partly the result of severe sinuous pain from to a cold she had contracted some time between leaving home and our arrival in Nicaragua, we trudged toward the few remaining taxis. When a driver rattled off the cost of a taxi ride to our overnight hotel, it took some time for my tired brain to process the rapid-fire Spanish, sure I had not heard right, given we were only a five-minute drive from the airport. My feeble attempts to argue with the man only wasted more time, as it became apparent we were not going to get to our hotel unless we met the extortionist’s demands. By the time we got to our rooms, close on 2:30 am, I was too tired and wound up to sleep.

Morning came, warm and sunny. Leaving an ailing daughter and a comatose son by a pool surrounded by the tropical palms I had been dreaming of, Craig and I made our way back to the airport for the 10:00 am pick up of the rental car, where we were courteously informed that the rental car was, regrettably, not ready, something to do with a sticky door lock. There were, of course, no extra cars, it being the holiday season and all. But they were working on it. The car would be ready by 11:00 am and they would send it over to the hotel.

Hoping to enjoy some time by the poolside with the kids, we left a message at the front desk as to where we’d be when the car arrived.

The clock struck 11:00 am, no car. Then 11:30 am and still no car and no message. By this time, the scramble was on to implement plan B, which was to find a driver to take us the 2 hours to the coast. With the plan in place, and worried Craig would wear a hole in the hotel’s flooring, I dragged him out to explore the hotel grounds.  After a pleasant interlude, during which we stumbled upon a large cage of native parrots and macaws, it was back to the airport (which I was now triply thankful was only five minutes away), to the happy news that my suitcase had indeed arrived and surprise, surprise, that the car was ready. Finally, the stars were aligning for this holiday.

We raced back to the hotel, grabbed the suitcases, shoved the kids into the car and had shifted the engine into gear, when we heard frantic shouting. I looked out the window to see a hotel employee running toward us, waving his arms.  WTF!

Seems that the bottles of water I grabbed on the way out as I gave my room number, needed to be paid with cash as they could not be added to the hotel bill.

If it had been me driving, I’m sure the tires would have squealed when we finally left the hotel driveway.

For those of you who are not aware of the Google maps offline download, those are a life saver. In a country where roads have no signage and where the written directions to get to our hotel were a series of turn left, then right, then drive straight on, I don’t think we would have gone more than five minutes without getting hopelessly lost if it weren’t for my daughter’s downloaded maps.

So, finally, there we were, the city behind us, a wide-open road ahead, chatting amiably about plans for the vacation, when a truck weighted down with farm produce merged on to the highway ahead of us. After it became obvious that the truck’s speed was not going to increase beyond its measured pace, the car grew silent again as each of us, no doubt, silently contemplated how long our two-hour drive to the coast would now take if we sat too long behind this truck.

With both hands gripping the wheel, Craig wondered aloud whether he should overtake the car. All three of us answered in the affirmative. Sure, why not. No one else on the road. When he pointed out the double lines, our son just scoffed and replied that the traffic laws were likely not that strict anyway, a remark likely based on past experience driving in another developing country, namely my native land of Trinidad and Tobago. No sooner did my husband overtake the truck and then slide back into place, when up ahead a man stepped into our path and waved us off the road to where a couple of cars were pulled over. Unable to believe what was happening, we slowed and pulled off the road to stop behind the police check point, as the laden down truck meandered past.

Well, when you are in a country where you don’t speak the language and you get pulled over by the cops, you play dumb. The man started to prattle in Spanish and when it became clear from the glazed look in Craig’s eyes that he was getting nowhere, he turned to me and tried again. Thing is, I have Mediterranean looks. Whether it be Portuguese, Spanish, Italian or Middle Eastern, they all think I’m one of them and so should speak their language. As my daughter is a mini me, the man started looking between the two of us and I could tell he refused to believe that neither of us spoke Spanish. Resorting to hand gestures, he made it quite clear he had seen the illegal overtake. He told us the fine for our transgression and able to translate the number, I counted out the money, only for him to shake his head and prattle on some more about having to take the money to a bank to pay the fine. Still playing dumb, we watched as the officer walked over to his compadre, conferred for a few minutes, then returned and waved us on our way, correctly guessing that the chance of us paying the fine at a bank would be next to nil.

The car was quiet as we drove off, the three of us no doubt waiting for Craig to explode. But the travails of the past twenty-four hours must have worn him down, for there were no reprisals for persuading him to break the law. We saw at least seven other check points before we finally made it to our destination in sunny San Juan del Sur. Seemed that the holidays were a lucrative opportunity for the police to pad the coffers. The refreshing surprise was that, unlike other Latin American countries, the fine had not been part of police shake down, with the money going into their own pockets.

A forgettable start to a holiday which ended with a memorable scorpion bite, but that is a story for another day.

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Havana: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

When people ask me how a recent trip to Havana, Cuba went, I reply with a single word: Interesting. At the very least, it has given me fodder for several blog posts.

The Good:

In its hey day, Old Havana would have been the equivalent of a world class European city, one lapped by the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. Having grown up on a British West Indian island, and visited quite a few other Caribbean islands in my lifetime, I never saw anything in the Commonwealth islands to rival Havana. Expecting a handful of modest historic buildings, instead I found a sizeable 500-year-old city filled with narrow, winding streets and stunning architecture, with many of the older buildings made from local coral limestone blocks, giving the city a unique Caribbean feel. The sense of history in Havana is palpable and one could almost be forgiven for thinking you had been transported to a city in Spain … almost.

The Bad: Havana is a prime example of how communism as a political ideal struggles to work. Unless the state is prepared to pay for the upkeep of the ‘cheap’ housing parceled out to their populace, you end up with buildings that literally start to crumble to the point where you have people living in world heritage buildings with no access to basic amenities such as electricity and running water. It was sad to peek into buildings with marble staircases leading up to apartments once as quaint or as grand as anything in cities like Paris or Madrid, but which were now piled with refuse or where multiple families live in a space that would once have housed a single family. While some buildings have been beautifully renovated, it would take billions of dollars and many decades to bring Havana back to even a shade of its former glory. One thing for sure, it would be an architect’s dream to remodel these gracious old buildings and would provide employment for thousands of trade professionals for years to come.

The Ugly: It was quite clear that Cuba is in a state of transition, with our tour guides speaking quite openly to us about the realities of life on the communist island, something they said they could not have done a few years ago. We were lucky to have tour guides who were younger Cubans and quite willing to talk about their hopes and dreams for the future, while staying grounded in the realities of life in what some may have once called a tropical paradise. With one a qualified engineer and the other a journalist, they choose to leave their professions, with the pay equivalent of $20 US a month, to join the growing number of people working in the tourist industries, where someone working as a cleaner in a hotel can make in tips in one day, what a bank teller would make in a month. Not only is this employment migration expected to create a crisis as more young people choose to work in the tourism industry instead of studying 5-7 years to become a doctor to earn $20 US a month, it has created a sentiment of open season on tourists, a situation I was assured by a regular traveller to the island, did not exist 3-4 years ago. I had been told that the Cuban people were very friendly, more so in the countryside than in the hotels. With this maxim in mind, there seemed to be any number of people in Havana ready to ‘help’ you, with the congenial opening gambit of “Where are you from?’, which as it turns out, is the first step in the shakedown. Our stories could have been worse than paying double for a bicycle taxi ride because we did not set the price ahead of time, silly us; or being taken by some friendly natives to a ‘local’ bar where we ended up paying twice as much for drinks than in the more expensive ‘tourist’ bars. But it was more the fact that the doorman at our hotel sided with the bicycle man, and that the friendly tour guide merely shrugged her shoulders when we told her about the drinks incident, that I came to the realization that this was an all for one and one for all society. You as the tourist are the target and they will get as much from you as they can by ‘legal’ means. While Havana is still a safe city to walk around any time of day or night, most likely due to very punitive jail terms for minor misdemeanors and no gun ownership laws, the seasoned Cuba traveller I spoke to said he has seen a big change in Havana and not for the better, with a prediction that it will only get worse before it gets better, ending with saying that this was likely his last trip to the island.

In addition, Havana has a unique aroma that is a blend of leaded gas car fumes, urine, open sewers and tobacco smoke. Being fairly well travelled, including time spent in cities such as Hong Kong, Istanbul and Dar es Salaam, Havana is the only place I felt compelled to wash the grime of the city off the soles of my shoes before placing them in my suitcase.

I do know however, that when all other memories fade, when I think of Havana, I will always think of music. Whether it be the Cubano bands, with their vibrant combination of Spanish guitar and percussion instruments, or a more melodious classical guitar paired with flute or violin, a Capella singing or lively salsa dancing, the city’s bars and hotel lobbies hummed with live music, day and night. But perhaps most poignant of all, will be the memory of the strains of classical music drifting over on a tropical breeze from the world renowned Cuban National Ballet School, located directly opposite our hotel. From 7:30 in the morning to as late as 9:00 at night, young ballet dancers were put through their paces, at the end of which the lights gradually went out in one of Havana’s more beautifully restored heritage buildings.

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Into the wild

I lay wide awake, too excited to sleep. A long-held dream from childhood had finally come true. We were spending our first night on safari in the wilds of Tanzania, with nothing between us and the wildlife except the flimsy canvas of our tent. My husband and I had driven from Arusha earlier that day and we were barely through the entrance to Tarangire National Park, when during the first hour, I was able to clock up an impressive sighting list that included herds of impala, a small group of waterbuck antelopes, families of warthogs, several ostriches, a small herd of elephants, a pair of lions, and at a popular watering hole, a melting pot of wildebeest, zebras and giraffes. I have to admit, that after that first hour, it rather felt like shooting fish in a barrel. However, my faith was restored when the next day, as we were leaving the park and passed the very same watering hole at approximately the same time of day, there was nary an animal to be seen. That’s when it first clicked that the lure of safari lies in the adage, ‘the luck of the draw’.

While I have no memory of what we had for dinner that evening at Swala Safari Camp, I do recall the thrill of watching a herd of elephants coming in to graze within 300 meters of the camp’s swimming pool late that afternoon.  As the chill of an African night set in, much cooler than I’d been expecting, I gratefully reached for a Masai blanket as we sat around a blazing fire and watched a full moon rise through the branches of the Acacia trees.  After an entertaining evening exchanging pleasantries with other travellers as we imbibed in our favourite tipple, we were escorted back to our tent by a Masai guard, under strict instructions not to walk about the camp unescorted or to ever leave the path. The camp manager’s stories were still fresh in my head, of people walking back to their tents to find a lion sprawled across the opening and his warnings of recent sightings of lion prints in camp.

And so here I lay, in what I’m not ashamed to admit was the height of glamping: a tent set on a raised wooden platform, large enough to hold a queen-sized bed and two small armchairs, electric lighting, running water from two washbasins and an enclosed outdoor shower. If I had to wait till my 25th wedding anniversary before I got to full my childhood
dream, it was going to be in style!

I must have finally drifted off to sleep only to be woken at some time during the night to the surreal sound of a lion roaring. I giggled. As I snuggled into my sheets, I gave myself a mental hug at the thought I was within meters of wildlife I had only ever seen on TV shows such as Lorne Green’s Wilderness back in the day. My delight only increased when early next morning, as dawn’s grey light chased away the shadows, my husband, who had worked in Tanzania, explained that the curious sound of water trickling onto the canvas overhead and dripping down on to the wooden verandah below, was a monkey peeing on the tent.

Later, as I stood in the outdoor shower under a cool stream of water, in full view of the monkeys in the trees, I acknowledged how lucky I was to be realising this dream, and gave thanks. This African safari had been worth waiting for and I knew it would prove to be a trip of a lifetime, as indeed it was.

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Call of the Dolphin


The sun was shining, the air was warm and the water was a sparkling, Mediterranean blue. I felt like pinching myself, unable to believe that it was mid September and that the blue expanse in front of me was in fact the English Channel, notorious for its stormy, grey seas.

My vantage point was the Durlston Castle terrace, a Victorian tourist attraction located on England’s Jurassic coast along the South West Coast path, just west of the quiet, coastal town of Swanage. My travelling companion and I were visiting the castle located along our hiking route, drawn in part by the Great Globe, an impressive limestone globe built in the late 1800s, situated on the cliff below the castle.

On my own for a few minutes while my friend went in search of refreshments, I found myself in the company of two women. One was middle-aged and enjoying her read in the late morning sun. The other was an elderly woman, who had a pair of binoculars draped around her neck, and a pen and paper clasped in her blue velveteen gloved hands. A pair of silver dolphins dangled from her ears.  Noticing the official volunteer button pinned to her chest and encouraged by the woman’s warm smile and bright blue eyes, I asked her what sort of volunteer work she was doing for the castle.

Her response came as a surprise.

She explained that she was counting and noting the boating activity on the water. And on those rare, special days, she got to record dolphin and porpoise sightings.

Dolphins and porpoises, in the English Channel?

With my interest now well and truly piqued, I started chatting to the woman, asking her how often she volunteered and how long had she been doing it. And out came her recent history.

She and her husband had been volunteering in this role for many years, regularly coming down for a few hours a day to enjoy the outdoors. Then last Autumn, her husband passed away. For months after, she could not bring herself to resume her routine without her husband by her side. One wintery February morning, she got a call from the volunteer coordinator at the castle, asking her to consider coming out that day. She reluctantly agreed. With cane in hand, she walked down to the terrace and looked out to sea … and saw a dolphin swimming in the bay.

She took that sighting for the sign it was and resumed her daily vigil from the picnic bench, happy to talk to inquisitive travellers and smile for the camera, making sure I took note of her name, which as it turned out was an easy one for me to remember, it being Margaret, my own middle name.

As I walked away from that remarkable woman,  I thought about the resiliency of the human spirit. That even when events and life changes threaten to pull us down into a quagmire of dark emotion, we need only to focus on life’s simple joys to help pull us out of the spiral of despair.

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STEREOTYPES

As I am between novels, I thought it time to resurrect my blog. Going back to my motto of ‘Too much world, too little time (and money)’, I thought I would try my hand at some travel writing, something I have long wanted to do, but never felt that I had any travel anecdotes interesting enough to share. That is, until I decided to plumb the depths of my memory.

I took my first solo trip at the ripe old age of forty something. With no immediate family to lean on or extended family or friends to offer a welcoming bed, it was just me, myself and I in the city of Granada, Spain, ostensibly to do research on my second novel. It was a city with which, I have to admit, I was familiar, one I had visited only the year before during a driving tour of Southern Spain, so perhaps a bit of a cheat. On that occasion, I had travelled with my husband. Our interests had been similar in intent but vastly different in scale.  While his only goal was to relive an experience of sleeping in a modest Alcazar (Moorish castle) in Zafra, Spain, my grandiose sights were set on discovering my next novel amongst the sculpted stuccoed halls and sprawling gardens of Granada’s Alhambra, the most famous of Spain’s Alcazars.

Fast forward a year, and with an ambitious story mapped out in my head, I was busily scribbling notes and taking pictures of not only of the Alhambra complex, but of Granada itself. On the day in question, I had just finished a tour of The Royal Chapel, an elaborate repository for the remains of Spain’s most famous monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the warrior couple responsible for expunging the Moors from Spanish soil, shuttling in the Inquisition to root out those Moorish and Jewish conversos who secretly clung to their old beliefs, and sponsoring Columbus’ voyages of discovery and annihilation. With my head still reeling from the ostentatious display of Catholicism that is uniquely Spanish – countless images of the Madonna and her Son, elaborately carved marble tombs and painted statuary crowding the gilded high altar – I plunged from shadowed lighting into the bright glare of a mid-afternoon sun, to join the swell of foot traffic wearing a path between the Chapel and the even more splendiferous neighbouring Cathedral.

I had taken only a few steps, when I heard a voice call out and someone stepped into my field of view. One quick look told me all I thought I needed to know. It was a middle-aged gypsy woman and she was trying to get my attention.

Now, my personal experience with gypsies was almost non-existent. On my previous trip, I had missed an opportunity to visit the popular gypsy flamenco evening shows for reasons best not divulged. As such, my only interaction with this marginalized group was at a bar one evening when I gave an aged gypsy woman some small change. Trying to refuse the sprig of rosemary being pressed upon me in exchange, I was told that I had to take the proffered herb, so that no one could accuse the woman of being a beggar.

I had however, heard numerous stories from well meaning friends and acquaintances about thieving gypsies and the need to be on the lookout for gypsy cons and scams. So, my plan, especially as I was traveling on my own, was not to engage anyone I identified as being a gypsy.

In this vein, I refused to make eye contact with the woman, even after she persisted in trying to get my attention and who, from the corner of my eye, seemed to be pointing at my backpack. Walking as fast as I could, eyes straight ahead, I finally rounded a corner and was relived to notice that the woman had given up pursuit. As I continued to walk, I began to replay the scene in my mind. Something about the woman’s insistence to get my attention made me slow my pace. Belatedly, it occurred to me that her expression and her body language was more that of someone trying to tell me something, as opposed to trying to sell me something.

I swung my backpack off my shoulder, one that closed with a drawstring and flap as opposed to a zipper. The sight of my wallet sticking out of a partially opened backpack, sent my mind into a tail spin. I usually tried to stuff my wallet down to the bottom of my pack and could only think that when I paid the entrance fee to the Chapel, I had not taken care to do just that. This then, was what the gypsy woman had been trying to tell me, that my wallet was in danger of falling out of or being plucked from my pack.

In that instant, a mantle of shame and remorse settled heavily upon my shoulders. As a visible minority in both my home and my adopted countries, I had more than a passing acquaintance with the sting, imagined or real, of prejudice. With a heated face and a trembling hand, I pushed my wallet down and properly retied my bag. Then I turned right back around and retraced my steps, hoping to see the woman and offer my thanks. But she had disappeared, swallowed by the flow of tourists, leaving me to think about how she must feel, how her attempt at doing a good deed had been thwarted by my own prejudices.

This encounter inspired me to do some research on the Roma, or Gitano as they are known in Spain, to educate myself about this little known and much maligned race, nowhere more so than between the pages of fiction. And after what I learned, I made a promise that, to atone for my insensitivity that day, I would have a sympathique Roma character in my novel, to try and share what I had learned of these people and their plight. As it turned out, in my second novel, Dreams of the Alhambra, I have no less than three secondary characters who are Roma. And while some of the interactions may seem stereotypical, I have tried to use plot and circumstance to weave their beliefs and history into my story.

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The New Face of Aging

Younger Next Year for Women                              Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You're 80 and Beyond

If you want to read one book that can radically change your outlook on life and aging, this book and the original, is it! Very easy to read and entertaining, it starts with the message that the face of aging we see today, with its litany of aches, pains, broken bones, walkers, medication side effects and mental deterioration is NOT the de facto blueprint for aging. It helps put into perspective the fact that modern medicines are increasing longevity but that no one thought to tell us how to live healthy lives into our 70s, 80s and 90s. In fact, the lives we life in the first world are intrinsically unhealthy, the impacts of which we start to see as early as our 40s and which get exacerbated as we age. So it was a refreshing and reassuring revelation to know that we can choose another option, that my mother’s advice ‘not too get old’, is in fact an option that I can choose, if I’m prepared to work at it.

The book’s main message is that we have to keep moving, that motion is what keeps the human body in prime working condition for as long as we keep moving. You stop moving, you begin to decay. That simple. We drive everywhere, many of us sit at desks or on couches for far too much of our lives and we eat to please ourselves as opposed to optimally fueling the machine that is our body. The book also highlights the importance of connectivity with humanity, that this is one of the things that sets mammals apart, the importance of the ‘pack’. It is a message we seem to lose as we age, allowing ourselves to be marginalized, to think that we don’t matter anymore, have nothing left to contribute to society, so we withdraw … to our detriment.

The book’s strength is the science behind it, it being much easier to accept and comply with a recommendation if you understand the reasoning behind the suggestions.  Chris’s enthusiasm for healthy aging is also compelling, especially as he is living proof that you can turn things around at any age and that it’s never too late to start. You just need the motivation and the message that it can be done, that it will make a difference and this book provides just that.

The book is not without its weaknesses, however. Just over half the book, 200 pages focuses on exercise, the next 83 pages are a mishmash of life style and nutrition, with only 42 of those pages specific to nutrition and about 70 pages to end on the importance of maintaining a purpose in life and of connectivity to the pack.  I know the authors are well aware of this imbalance and that it reflects their view point, particularly that of Chris Crowley’s, that exercise is the corner stone of their blueprint to healthy aging. But I would say that all three factors, exercise, nutrition and emotional connectivity, are equally important and to send a message that one is heavily more important than the others is warping the message of healthy aging.  This book can be made a lot stronger by editing out more of the anecdotal pieces and increasing the section on nutrition (not diet, but nutrition!). They also missed out an important link to remaining connected in the last section, that of hearing loss and its correlation to increased isolation from the pack often leading to depression.

Some of the negative critiques of the book are based on Chris’ unfortunate use of language at times and the born again tone of his writing. While I wasn’t a fan myself, the overall message is strong and powerful enough to overcome this.  And Chris does acknowledge his weaknesses (no one is perfect), comparing himself to a Labrador puppy i.e. a young soul. Nothing wrong with that. It takes all types and he has taken the time and effort to disseminate a message of hope that is greatly missing in our society.

All in all, I would, have and will recommend this book to all and sundry, as being a book pertinent to anyone who has reached the crest of the hill at 50 and would like to stay on top the plateau for as long as possible. But I would also recommend it to people in their 40s, as a lot of the rot starts to set in during that decade and habits get harder to change the older we get. We are never too young, OR too old to start living healthier lives.

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