Wine, Weddings and Wind

First of all, I want to clarify that the word ‘wind’ in the above title does not refer to the embarrassing bodily function (despite the 24-hour virus and resulting gassiness Tyson and I have somehow picked up over the past two days) but rather the perceptible, weather-related movement of air. I will explain this later – this story, like all, must start from the beginning.

To be honest, I don’t exactly know what the beginning of this particular story – blog entry #5 of South Africa 2018 – is. It’s been the most alcohol-intensive end of our journey (as was to be expected) and thus I believe the beginning must have been somewhere between a rosé and a pinotage. Let’s just say that by the time I read ‘…Intense flavours of fynbos, mint, and in particular, blueberry welcome you on the nose, followed by aromas of cinnamon, lead pencil and dark chocolate…’ I knew I was back in one of my favourite places in the world: Franschhoek.

A place whose character seems to be at odds with itself – one part pretentious Noosa (think white linen clothes, boat shoes and loosely draped jumpers over men’s shoulders), one part African gallery walk (showcasing local and national artists in painting, sculpture, clothing and leatherwork), one part French revival (think al fresco cafes with checkered tablecloths and confit on the menu) and one part wine-loving tourists (lots of South Africans, but otherwise mostly European) and that’s pretty much Franschhoek in a nutshell. We fell in love with this place three years ago when we first set eyes on its mountain caldera city walls, beautiful Cape Dutch buildings and incredible restaurants. And I haven’t even mentioned the wine tram!

It was this wine tram – which has, since we were last here, expanded its reach to include 26 wineries in the Stellenbosch wine region – which we found ourselves on again this sunny Wednesday morning at no later than 9:30am, and before you tell me we’re alcoholics I should remind you that when you’re trying to cover 6+ wineries of an hour’s visit each (you know, to taste wine, wander around the grounds, browse their farm shops…just kidding – just to taste wine), you need to start EARLY. It’s just about maximising the experience, people.

So anyway – there we were, just before 10am, at Allée Bleue winery (which is a weird name to me, as whichever way I look at it, it’s either a pompous way of saying Ally Blue or a description of the noise you make after tasting certain wines), learning that sometimes wine can taste of lead pencils and wondering if – now in our 30s and with somewhat of a less indulgent diet than our younger selves – we would still be able to stomach a whole day’s worth of wine jumbling. Luckily, the pompous bleurgh winery served toasted bread with its cab merlot and so I made sure my little handbag took a few extra pieces with it when we left to cover us for the next couple of wineries.

On our ramble down the winery’s tree-lined driveway, our long-haired, bright-faced wine tram guide told us that this was “the best ever place to take selfies because at night, the blue lights (told you they were all about the blue!) illuminate the trees.” Initially not sure if he was joking, I’m glad he wasn’t looking at me when I said it, because my half-frown, half-right-eyebrow-raising reaction showed that clearly there ARE differences between generations of millennials because there was no way that I was seeing the attraction of taking a selfie under a dark tree illuminated by blue light. Or maybe that idea becomes more appealing the more lead pencil you’ve consumed?

Anyway – I digress. We’re back on the wine tram. Fast forward a few more wineries and Tyson and I are sitting on the deck of another winery – Zorgvliet – this time the only people who decided to get off the tram. We’re tasting some fine drops and talking about the world and South Africa and its issues and its beauty, but I won’t bore you with that now because I’ve ranted about it enough during the last couple of blog entries. Instead, let’s fast forward again – now we’re starving, full of wine but lacking more substantial stomach-filling solids like food, because we were too busy tasting wine and discussing life’s big issues that we missed lunch. In Franschhoek, on the wine tram, that leaves you with two options: cheese platters, or unusual pairings. Resisting the urge to try fudge pairing (if it had been biltong, we could have had a deal), we decided on the former, and because that one wasn’t enough, we had another cheese platter at the next winery too. In the end, we had so much cheese and lavosh and pear chutney that we filled in most of the gaps between the wine in our belly and ended up after the last winery just wanting to sleep… and then missing the tram home. In summary, it was a day to be remembered. And yes – most likely repeated upon our next return visit.

Apart from drinking lots of delightful (and lots of not-so-delightful) wine, we also ate amazing food in Franschhoek, bought a few souvenirs a lot of things that we now have to try to fit into our suitcase, (like two pairs of shoes from this amazing South African brand that make you feel like you’re walking on clouds!) and played with the cute grunting dogs at the farm on which we stayed. As always, we were sad to leave this gem of a place and vowed to be back as soon as we could.

From Franschhoek, it was off to the Fynbos (pronounced more like the traffic infringement and less like the forward-moving-propeller of a fish) Cabin, situated on a private nature estate just 15 minutes from the seaside hamlet of Gordon’s Bay and an hour outside of Cape Town. What a stunning place this was, and so peaceful!

Well, that was until the wind started.

My friends, I have never heard such a wind as this. We felt like what people in a cyclone must experience – howling gusts through gaps between trees, branches smacking on everything, windows shuddering. We thought it was going to come inside and take all of our loosely placed belongings with it into its rage. This wind howled for most of the night, meaning we barely got any sleep (I think Tyson was more worried about a branch falling on the car than the loosely scattered belongings in the house – and to be fair, his was probably a more valid fear). Of course, this had to be the Friday night before the wedding of Beth and Ross, which ended up going until the early hours of Sunday morning. Nothing like a dance-off on no sleep and lots of wedding wine (and coffee)!

Luckily, the wind died down somewhat for the wedding – though sadly not enough for anyone to touch the lonely ping pong table that was perfectly positioned on the green lawn beside the ceremony. My hair – still recovering from the last wedding, at which it not only got covered in bird poo but also turned into a bigger-than-80s-afro mess from the wind – was pinned down strictly with bobby pins and lots of hairspray, and I’m proud to report that whilst umbrella was in hand in case of any sighting of overhead flying birds, no poo landed on my scalp on this occasion.

The wedding was fun – lots of laughter and kind words and beautiful food, and the lovely Beth, our friend, the bride, reminded me a little of myself on my wedding day – full of insatiable joy, looking relaxed, clearly in the perfect place at the perfect time, marrying her perfect guy. It was a delight to witness, and an honour to be able to share this special occasion.

After the wedding, the wind and the wine, it was time to wine down our trip (couldn’t help myself), though on the way back to Cape Town airport I managed to squeeze in a fabric jewellery making class with the incredibly talented Thandie Dowery, designer and owner of Nomi Handmade. Her use of the colourful, iconic and tradition-rich shweshwe fabric to make jewellery that screams nothing but style was another sign to me that this country – with its diversity and richness of entrepreneurs, fashion, design and creativity – is just now coming into its own.

You know, I’m not usually one to be on top of trends, but if you ask me, South Africa is a place to watch. And yes – you heard that here first.


Kuyasa nangomso.

(It shall dawn again tomorrow.)

 

 – Isixhosa proverb

 

An Ode to South Africa

‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.’

These were the words of the Afrikaans pastor at the Shofar church we decided to visit on Sunday, and it’s funny, in a way, how relevant they became for us over the coming days.

Whilst you could tell from the pastor’s emotion that he was talking about much deeper issues than those that plagued us (more on that in a moment), this petition to find joy among trials became somewhat of an ironic mantra as we spent three nights in our Tulbagh log cabin, accommodation #4 of this South African adventure.

Consider it pure joy, my travellers, when you have two plastic bags full of dirty washing and can’t access the sole laundry you will have on this trip because the door’s welded shut from the rain. Consider it pure joy when this trial means that the local farmer has to come over two days later and cut the entire lock out of the door so that you can get in.

Consider it pure joy, my travellers, when you’re at the end of a heatwave-induced 35°C day, have spent all day outdoors and have looked forward to a dip in the pool, only to find that the pin code on the gate has been changed and there’s no way you can access the inviting lagoon inside.

Consider it pure joy, my travellers, when the water goes ice cold mid-shower because you haven’t been told you had to turn the geyser on, or when a cute little dog follows you all the way home from the pool gate and ends up peeing all over the outdoor furniture.

These issues are trivial, no doubt – there will always be things that go wrong when you travel and indeed, I could write a book on that topic by now. But to hear these words – consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds – in a country that is plagued with a host of (sometimes well-documented, sometimes more underlying) issues meant that this imploration took on a new meaning for us this week.

For many who have never visited this diverse, indisputably beautiful and fascinating country, South Africa remains somewhat of an enigma. Most of what we hear at home (at least in Australia) is that the country is one of danger and crime, poverty and corruption. And it’s true – some places are dangerous, and you do need to be vigilant. There is a large gap between the haves and the have-nots and the variances in people’s living standards are clearly visible, particularly when you drive past the townships which adjoin most urban areas.

But what we don’t often hear about is the steadfastness of the South African people: their intense, deep-seated love for their country and its people and the hope they hold onto for change, despite facing what truly could be described as trials of many kinds.

Tyson and I have spent time – both on this trip and previous ones – with people from both ends of the spectrum. We’ve been in townships with locals – like when Tyson attended a housewarming party in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township a few years ago – and we’ve enjoyed absolute five-star tranquillity in luxury private game reserves. On this trip, as on previous visits, we’ve stayed in locally-run bed and breakfasts; something we believe gives you a priceless opportunity to interact with the ‘true’ South Africa, not to mention ensuring that the bulk of your money actually stays within the community.

All the while, we’ve spoken to local South Africans as much as we could about the trials this country continues to face: racial issues, crime, poverty, corruption. Some people have said that they’re fearful of what the future holds for the country, and many understand why their friends and family have emigrated to other parts of the world. But they have also said that they see hope for South Africa, and that something inside of them refuses to give up on this country – the rainbow nation, as so eloquently described by Former President Nelson Mandela when he took office after the end of Apartheid in 1994:

“Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld […] – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Our prayer for this country – one that we love, mostly for its natural and cultural assets but also, probably, for its vulnerability to being misunderstood, is that light will triumph over darkness; that the future will bring great change for its inhabitants, regardless of their skin colour, and that the people who are the lifeblood of this nation will have the strength and resilience to consider it pure joy when they face trials of many kinds, because, as the scripture goes on, they know that the testing of their faith produces perseverance and that perseverance, when it has finished its work, will mean they are mature and complete, not lacking anything.

 

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

James 1:2-4 (New International Version)

 

 

What I learned about fear from a hike through leopard territory

I’m not brave.

That’s what my head told me as I walked across the wide-open plateau of fynbos, rocky mountains stretched up to my right and to my left like some kind of life-sized version of a monkey enclosure. There was a troop of baboons that inhabited those stony enclaves, we were told. Baboons, snakes like puff adders that don’t move when you step on them (they just bite and sit there gleefully while your leg inflates to match their namesake). Oh, and a leopard.

Yes, my friends. A leopard.

Now, you’d think growing up in Australia – with 8 of the world’s 10 most venomous snakes, sharks, crazy insects and all sorts of weird-but-not-wonderful creepy crawlies – I would be immune to the fauna-related frightfulness induced upon many less regularly exposed human beings. And indeed, when I’m at home, I’m pretty chilled. I know they’re there, but unless we’re talking about cockroaches and toads (apologies in advance – my weaknesses are all coming out today), I don’t usually lose my cool.

Well, hiking in Africa is a different story, as I realised through my more-rapid-than-usual heartbeat and cacophony of negative thoughts that went something like this:

There is a leopard in these mountains. A leopard! That’s the second biggest African cat! Oh my gosh. Who the heck goes for a walk through leopard territory? This is a suicide mission! We haven’t even packed band-aids, let alone done any feline self-defence training. If I see the leopard, I will freeze. I will not know what to do, and since I’m walking at the back and I’m the smallest, it’s definitely going to be me that gets taken. If it’s not the leopard, it will be a snake – we’re walking through long grass – I was always told NEVER to walk through long grass. And these snakes don’t even move! Oh no and now I’m looking at the ground because I’m sure there are heaps of snakes but really I should be looking at the mountains because somewhere in there is a troop of baboons and I guarantee one of them is going to steal my water bottle. Why on earth did I agree to this?!?

In retrospect, these thoughts were ludicrous. Of course it was extremely unlikely that we would come face to face with the leopard, the snakes or even the baboons. Yes, the chance was there, but my fears were massively out of proportion with reality.

All of this got me thinking about fear: what it does to us, and perhaps more importantly – what it stops us from. Here’s what I realised:

  1. Fear stops you from seeing the full picture / the big perspective.

When I was hiking through the fynbos, head down, looking for snakes, I wasn’t looking straight ahead. All I was thinking about was what could go wrong – I wasn’t looking at the beauty that lay ahead – in my case, an extraordinary view over the valley.

Isn’t it sad that when we’re afraid of something, our vision somehow becomes minimised? What do we miss, by focusing on the problem at hand? And what’s the greater purpose to our current struggle? Does fire not strengthen the clay; do valleys of trial not magnify life’s peaks?

2. Fear steals your joy

Being afraid of leopards, snakes and baboons occupied so much of my brain space that morning; there was little room left for anything else. Along our hike, there were spectacular wildflowers all around us, there was beautiful, moon-like mountain scenery and a clear blue sky. I didn’t notice any of this until I consciously began to work on drowning out my negative thoughts.

How often do we let negative thinking control our brain when we’re faced with a fear, or confronted with a challenge we don’t know how to deal with? It seems easier, somehow, to focus on the bad than to turn our minds to what can bring us joy. We let ourselves get caught up in these negative thoughts and we miss out on the things that could lift us up. Are you letting fear steal your joy?

3. Fear stops you from being aware of the things that can help you.

As I marched through the long grass, my eyes barely wandered from the path ahead. If I hadn’t looked up and around occasionally, I would have missed the little stripes of blue paint on the rocks, guiding the way to our final destination. I wouldn’t have seen the little piles of rocks that others had left where the path was almost invisible, helping us to find our way back to the trail.

When we face difficulties in life, chances are, there’s someone else who’s been there. If you don’t know them, maybe they’ve written a book, or a blog post, or sung a song about it. Who is around you that could help you through the situation you’re in now? What resources are you not taking advantage of in this season of life, that could push you forward to a place where fear no longer has a place in your inner world?

Guys, I know you’ll be thinking that this blog is getting deeper every time you read it. I apologise, but I don’t. I like words – funny ones and kind ones, mainly – but also deep ones. If you know me at all you’ll know that I’d much rather a conversation about something that’s on your heart than a conversation about work or the weather (though my job and clouds both bring me significant happiness as well).

This blog was always designed as a way for me to share my reflections about the world around me – a way to open a door, if you will, to intrigue your senses so much that you’d want to come in and experience what I’m sharing with you for yourself. But it was also designed to be a conversation about important things, heart things. Things I don’t think we talk about often enough. So, thanks for sticking it out with me today.

To lighten the mood a little, I thought I’d share one of my favourite captures of our 3 days in the Southern Cederberg Mountains – the place where we went on the beautiful hike mentioned above. We had an incredible time there, actually. Once I got over my fears I completely relaxed, and by the end of our time at the Rooibosch Cottage I didn’t want to ever be anywhere else ever again. Nature’s silence – which is not very silent – was a magnificent alternative to the city hustle and bustle and the view of mountains will just never get old. I’m so thankful to have these opportunities to travel. But about that picture – and I apologise if it’s a crude way to end – here are, for your African animal photo collection, two dassies mating! You may not appreciate it, but appreciate the timing – these animals are SKITTISH, so to capture them at all is a feat. To get this intimate moment, well, we’re getting pretty close to safari-quality. And since Tyson and I aren’t doing any safaris on this trip, this is going to be as good as it gets. 😉

Speak to you soon!

Of flowers, flamingos and arriving

It always takes me a little while to feel like I’ve arrived somewhere when I travel.

It amazes me constantly, this weird duplicity that exists between home and away, between your normal and someone else’s – even when there are thousands of kilometres in between. When I’m at home, everything feels normal to me – life has its usual rhythm, that’s my everyday world. Yet when I arrive in a destination, be it a 10-hour flight or a 20-hour flight away from my little patch of the planet, life is normal there too – it has its usual rhythm, and it’s someone else’s everyday world.

Whilst I’m not really part of it, I’m suddenly plonked into this other world and can stay there for as long as I like (or can afford). In some ways, I’m an observer of this ‘other normal,’ watching with keen fascination the intricacies of a life so different to my own; but in many ways, really, I am a partaker in this other normal, living and breathing in the same way that all those around me are, going about my business as if nothing has changed.

It makes me realise that the world is small, and that although we are all uniquely different in our backgrounds and in our sense of what ‘normal’ looks like, existentially we are all the same – we are all humans, living on the same planet, spinning around the same sun, created (at least according to my belief) by the same master creator.

I know what you’re thinking: Gee, Lina, this is a little deep for a Thursday afternoon. You’re right, and you might be surprised to learn that no delectable South African wine has yet contributed to this second instalment of my 2018 Africa narrative.

But be rest assured – there is a point to my pondering.

As mentioned, it takes me a while to feel like I’ve arrived when I go somewhere. I know it sounds weird, but there’s no other way I can think to explain the feeling. It may be jetlag, lack of sleep, the number of Bloody Marys consumed since departing BNE International or an aggregate of the above, but whatever it is, I need time for it all to sink in.

Well, my friends. Let me tell you what helps with that:

FLAMINGOS.

Yes, you read that right. And don’t worry – I too thought that flamingos only existed in zoos and in the 1992 Disney classic, Aladdin. But they don’t! In fact, in South Africa’s Western Cape, flamingos exist on the side of the road.

Yes, I know. That’s not normal. But alas – here it is! In this particular instance of sighting the long-legged, pink-feathered, red-eyed wading birds, they were smack bang beside a normal residential road with houses on the other side of them, casually shuf-shuf-shuffling through the water, feeding on algae and shrimp like it was the most un-phasing thing in the world. And to be fair, to them it likely was. To me, on the other hand, it meant only one thing: welcome to Africa – I have arrived!

Ironically, it wasn’t the first time we’d caught sight of flamingos on this trip. We’d just spent two nights in Langebaan, a small seaside village about 120km north of Cape Town, and on our one-day drive through the adjoining West Coast National Park (in search of zebras frolicking in wildflowers – which we didn’t find – though we found LOTS of wildflowers), we had seen flamingos from far away. We got very excited then too, mind you – they were flamingos in the wild, no less – but it’s always going to be a bit more expected that you see weird and wonderful animals when you’re in a protected area, like a national park.

Anyway. We saw flamingos in the park and we saw flamingos by the road. In between these exciting and bucket-list ticking life moments, we ate copious amounts of seafood, discovered that ostriches also like wildflowers, realised that not all towns in South Africa are crazy about security and stuck our toes in the Atlantic Ocean. Oh, and I was told by a lady I had never met that I have such a cute face – like a doll! But those are all stories for another day, perhaps – or likely not. Mostly I’m just summarising because I know that since I mentioned wine, you’ve been dying to have a glass yourself.

I think I might join you, actually.

Cheers (to the wine, and for finishing this post) – and until my next ramble!

Why you should definitely go for a walk through Johannesburg’s dodgiest neighbourhoods.

‘Are you sure you trust me?’

It’s the first question he asks us, and while there’s a twinkle in his eye, there is some depth to our guide, Gil’s question. We are, after all, about to walk into Johannesburg’s most notorious building – the 54 storey Ponte City Tower.

The round, hollow tower is infamous for lots of things – its nickname of ‘suicide central’ for all of the people who have ended their lives through its windows high above the Johannesburg skyline; its status as a hijacked building, run by gangsters, and the 14 storey high pile of rubbish that once filled its hollow core, created by the 10,000 people who once lived in the tower with no access to water, electricity or waste removal.

It’s a part of Johannesburg that has, until 2012, been totally off-limits to visitors, and many locals would still never dream of going inside. Surrounded by some of the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods – Hillbrow, Yeoville and Berea – it’s a place that bears almost no resemblance to its former glory: in the 1970s it was Johannesburg’s most exclusive apartment building.

We learn all about its history from the 52nd floor – a three-bedroom apartment repurposed as an event venue for the local organisation, Dlala Nje (meaning just play in Zulu). Our guide, Gil, is a Congolese born South African, who moved to Johannesburg with his aunt when he was nine and spent much of his life living in the tower. Now he runs walking tours through Ponte and its surrounding neighbourhoods, the proceeds of which fund the Dlala Nje’s community centre on the ground floor, which aims to provide a safe learning and socialising environment for local children and youth.

“I am here to break down your preconceptions,” Gil says purposefully. He wants to know what we’ve heard about the Ponte tower, and then tell us the full story – from a local’s perspective.

It’s a trend that’s becoming more and more popular in tourism – real experiences, led by locals. To me, it’s a great example of responsible tourism*, and since this is both my passion and profession, it’s fantastic to experience it first-hand right here, in South Africa’s economic epicentre and melting pot of the continent’s cultures.

After being given the full Ponte rundown by Gil in the 52nd floor room with a view, we take a rather dark staircase to the rocky core of the building to get some perspective of how high the famed 14-storey rubbish dump really was. It’s repugnant to think that people living on the 12th and 13th floor had to go upstairs to dump their rubbish, as the space outside their windows would have already been blocked with waste. Even more revolting is our newfound knowledge that amongst the 14 storeys of rubbish were at least 23 human bodies, all of which were pulled out by hand – together with their decomposing surroundings – when the building was cleaned up to be liveable again in the early part of this decade.

Minds full of this knowledge and phones full of upward-facing selfies (the view to the top of the building from the inside is dizzying), we make our way back up to ground level through the underground carpark, where residents busy washing their cars greet Gil with friendly hellos.

Once outside of Ponte, Gil advises us to keep an eye on our belongings, as our walk from here will take us past many people who ‘work hard at being pickpockets.’ We walk through busy streets – Berea first, and then into Hillbrow, all the while being mostly ignored, but sometimes eyed off, by the suburbs’ many residents. It feels like rural Africa here, or a city less developed. Buildings are mostly intact but the streets are dirty; women walk by with their babies strapped to their backs and others stride past in uniforms, heading home from churches and from workplaces.

We feel safe with Gil and another Dlala Nje team member who has come along to keep an eye on things, and it actually feels like a privilege to be in this part of a city which often carries such a dire reputation. We’re taken through a local market and encouraged (but never pushed) to purchase some of the freshly washed and laid out vegetables, not because of any backward deals but because it will help the local community.

At the end of the tour we are taken to a local shebeen (pub), where we are sat down at a long table full of locals drinking beers and watching the rugby. We’re given beer bottles the size of which would make any German proud and a lunch pack wrapped in Styrofoam: it’s filled with delicious fried chicken, kale, slaw and a whole lot of other delicacies – the kind of food which tastes amazing and so foreign, you know you could never fully duplicate the flavour if you tried to ever recreate it elsewhere. As we leave, the owner of the shebeen hugs us all individually – the grin on his face, and the photos he asks us to take with him in them, speak volumes more than his words probably could. You can tell it means a lot to him to have visitors from ‘the outside’ coming to enjoy his generous hospitality.

As always in this continent, Africa’s heart beat is most clearly felt through the warmth of its people.

I love this continent’s energy, its contrasts and its vibrance. I am so excited to be back in South Africa – one of my favourite places in the world – and can’t wait to see what lies ahead for us in these next 3 weeks.

 

*Responsible tourism is based on the idea of making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit. More info here.

Did someone say food trucks?

There’s a thing you should know about us and travel.

That thing is sometimes called sashimi and sometimes called buffalo wings; sometimes pretzel dog or pizza and sometimes mac and cheese or clam chowder. This thing has a side-kick as well, which is sometimes a glass of wine, sometimes a bloody mary, sometimes a locally brewed beer and almost always a (Beanhunter-recommended) coffee.

For us, a journey is a lot about food and culture and not so much about monuments and history. Food is the fuel that keeps us going when we travel, it’s the opportunity to sit somewhere and watch the locals go by and it’s the translation of a country’s traditions and pride into something you can become a part of through taste.

As it turned out, our last stop in North America, Portland, had some pretty big bragging rights when it came to food, including a massive variety of food trucks, world-renowned donuts and beautifully-melt-in-your-mouth-buttery-based pies.

Oh my, oh my.

Before I get lost in a daydream about Portland’s food (and lose all of you who’d rather read about other things) let me rewind back to our departure from the chilled-out Vancouver Island. We were up bright (actually, it was dark) and early on our day of departure and had pre-booked a ferry (lesson learned!) to avoid the predictable multi-hour delay at the ferry terminal going back to Vancouver.

Having arrived back on the mainland nice and early, our first stop (of course) had to be food – so Maren took us to a Korean-inspired, student-filled café somewhere in Vancouver’s “Asian suburbs.” After a good meal here of fried potatoes, meat and thick slices of black bread, we drove on to Golden Ears Provincial Park, about an hour outside of Vancouver, to walk off lunch –and enjoy one last taste of BC’s natural delights.

After walking through – but not discovering the story behind the name of – Golden Ears, we made our way back to Vancouver. As the sun set over the mountains, some of them still covered in a light coating of snow, we ate sashimi in Queen Elizabeth Park and looked out over this lovely city, innerley thankful for the chance to explore it these past 10 days.

That evening we made a fire in the fireplace with no cover, drank more red wine (surprise, surprise), did ridiculous amounts of washing that took ridiculous amounts of time to dry and enjoyed our last night in Canada in Maren’s cosy basement apartment.

The next morning, we were up in the dark again (so relaxing, this holiday!?) to catch the first train to Portland. We had a table setting for four to ourselves and spent the next 8 hours catching up on sleep, looking out the window and listening the conductor over the speaker telling us that every stop we pulled into was “a jewel of the Pacific North West… don’t miss it!… Please.”

On arrival in Portland, we were greeted by hipsters and good coffee, a street full of bars and antique shops within walking distance to our Air BnB and a quaint neighbourhood that looked like Spring in a Babysitters Club teenage novel.

Our friend Sheldon (aka Sheridan) joined us shortly after we arrived, and as an awesome foursome we spent the next 2 days hiking from one hipster café to another, from craft market to mega-bookshop and from donut shop to food truck. We well and truly ate our way through this “City of Roses”, even scoring ourselves some free donuts for complimenting the server on his groovy dance moves.

We (kind of) figured out the city’s public transport system (even though that included one bus trip in the wrong direction), checked out a local church for Easter Sunday and spent our last, rainy evening drinking local beers and playing “What do you meme” until our eyes were wet from laughter.

Then, before we knew what was happening, it was time to say goodbyes and we were all sitting in our separate Ubers making our way to our next destination – Maren back to Vancouver, Sheldon to Seattle and us to the airport for our flight to LA, then home.

It has been a short holiday but a wonderful one, filled with laughter and eating and red wine and fires. I loved the ferries and the gloomy beaches, the green pine trees and the way people said “ah-huh” instead of “you’re welcome” when I thanked them.

Most of all though, I loved seeing my sister and spending time with special people. It is truly a joy and a blessing to love and be loved, and I am eternally grateful to our wonderful Father in heaven who brings us together in this life and continues to bless us, protect us and shower us with love so far beyond our comprehension and deserving.

Praise the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; His love endures forever. (Psalm 106:1)

 

Driftwood and Black Bears

If a bear shows intense interest, follows or advances toward you, you should keep the bear in view but avoid eye contact, make yourself as large as possible, talk softly at it (?!) and back away slowly. Under no circumstances should you turn around and run – you cannot outrun a bear. Oh, and if you’re attacked, just fight back.

Right. Glad that’s settled.

These signs, posted by British Columbia (BC) Parks at most national and provincial park carparks, was enough to give me temporary wildlife-spotting paranoia and put me slightly on edge every time we went for a walk.

Lucky the scenery was beautiful.

For the last four days, we have been on Vancouver Island, the much larger home of many driftwood-strewn beaches, small towns with cute coffee shops and multi-day hikes.

Our home was a tiny cabin in a place called Jordan River, surrounded by trees strung with yellow glowing lightbulbs and with the constant sound of the ocean splashing against the shore below.

It was another rustic Canadian experience – the toilet was in an outhouse, 100m from the house (with no running water and only 3 walls, so that you faced directly into open nature when doing your business) and the only shower was an outdoor one, hidden at the back of a shed at the other side of the property. Tell you what, a single digit breeze coming at you when you’re under a hot stream of water is a new and unusual experience!

It was just the three of us this time – Maren, Tyson and I, as Agust had to go back to Boston to keep fighting fires (that’s his job, not his hobby). We made sure Maren was distracted from missing her long-distance lover by providing plenty of red wine, dancing and camp fires (leading to the famous Tyson-holding-axe-photo) and Maren proudly showed us this place that she had visited a couple of times before.

The people were nicer in Jordan River – less creeper-ish than on the northern islands – and we loved enjoying local coffee (or “London Fog”) and breakfast, hiking down to beaches and through moss-covered forests and even taking a day trip to Victoria, British Columbia’s capital, for a spot (read: a few hours) of thrift shopping, some delicious seafood and even more coffee (we’re on a constant hunt to find superior tasting drip coffee substitutes).

It’s been a wonderful middle stint of the trip – thanks Vancouver Island, you’ve been a gem! Now back to Vancouver, then Portland, we go.

 

Cancelled

They were big, red letters on an electronic sign – impossible to misinterpret, but yet, none of us dared accept them as truth.

Ferry cancelled.

But why? The weather wasn’t even that crazy. And we had woken up so early to make it in time, after almost a full day of exploring Vancouver and a night dining at one of the city’s coolest restaurants. We had a long, leisurely drive ahead of us to get to our cabin on Cortes Island (8 hours, as described by our Air BnB host, though it took us until much later to realise the 8 hours may have included an allowance for getting stuck with a cancelled ferry). This long, leisurely drive was to become far less leisurely if this ferry was cancelled: we still had two other ferries to catch, four days’ worth of groceries to buy and petrol – or “gas” – to fill up.

Oh dear.

As it turned out, our ferry was cancelled, and it seemed that the two leaving before ours had been too. We never did definitively find out why. What we did find out was that we should have pre-booked our tickets, as those cars who had got to drive straight past us onto the next available ferry, even though we had been there quite a bit longer than many of them.

And so it happened that we spent almost 6 hours sitting at Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal, passing time by drinking bad Starbucks coffee, eating fast-food pizza and strolling through the local $2 store.

I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t how I’d pictured my second day in Canada.

Luckily, the main reason for our visit was to see my sister Maren; and spending time with her (and her American boyfriend, Agust) was precious time regardless – even if the view was of 700 other cars, instead of the green pine forests of the Vancouver Islands.

Alas – we finally made it to our end destination via two other islands (though we did have to include a vehicular sprint across the second island, Quadra) and arrived at our two-storey wooden cabin on Cortes Island in the dark, as sleet fell on the snow-covered road.

Did someone say this was Spring?!

For the next 4 nights, we soaked up the peacefulness of the forest behind us and the quiet Gorge Harbour in front. In the mornings, we had long, extended breakfasts (we couldn’t believe the cabin had a waffle maker!) as the birds chirped their wake-up song and oyster farmers worked methodically along pontoons spread out across the calm waters in front of our cabin windows.

The days were alternatingly wet and windy, but we made the most of the time outdoors by exploring the strange corners of this very alternative island, wandering along almost deserted beaches and checking out the local sea life beyond the long, red-painted jetties with views of the mountains.

When the last day promised rain that seemed to have no start, nor a foreseeable end, we made the call to go back to Quadra Island, the one we had sprinted through on our way to Cortes. On Quadra, we discovered a heightened level of civilization (read: not as many creepy people or junkyard-like houses) and enjoyed a wet, but beautiful, hike through ferny, mossy, pine tree forests.

As evening falls on evening five, we sit and enjoy the sound of rain on the roof, the crackling of the fire and the taste of (yet another) bottle of local red wine. I’m pleased to say, the wine’s been surprisingly good! It has also – quite possibly – contributed to our evenings being full of laughter, silly dancing, good food and (heated) board games.

Four – almost five – nights of our short Canada stint are over; seven more are to come. Tomorrow we head to Jordan River – back on the larger Vancouver Island and from there we’re back in Vancouver. A page full of memories already… I wonder what other joys are to come.

 

 

 

Phase 5. Snowflakes shaped like stars and a dream that became reality.

Latvia, you may think, was probably a bit of an off-the-cuff idea.
“Oh, those two just want to add another country to their list,” you scoff. “Who even goes to Latvia?”

It’s true. Not many people visit this tiny Balkan country, occupied throughout history alternately by the Russians and Germans. It’s a culture that’s known for its herring salad and… well…. not much else really… so I guess it was a bit of a random sounding choice.

But you’re wrong about our motivations.

You see, my husband Tyson can be quite the strategist, and there was a bit of back and forth when it came time to decide how we would spend our last four days in Europe. It seemed too far to drive to visit more relatives. Should we finally check out East Germany instead? How about Finland’s beautiful winter paradise, Lapland (I’d always had a dream to go on a dog sled through the forest)? Too expensive and probably booked out by now. Georgia? Nah – that was too far off the beaten track for aunty Christel, who was going to be accompanying us.

Tyson’s main objective was to go somewhere with a high probability of snow. Thanks to global warming (?), it always seems to snow in Germany in January these days, not in December like it used to. Thus, it’s incredibly rare and unlikely that we should have a white Christmas. Tyson, having grown up in tropical Queensland, still turns into a little boy every time he sees snow, and I get excited when I walk outside wrapped up in 10 layers and the cold air lovingly slaps me in the face. So, it had to be somewhere cold, and somewhere with snow.

Looking up a list of the top five European winter destinations likely to have snow in early January and swiftly eliminating Tallin (too many party-goers), Helsinki (for reasons stated above, plus the fact that we’d been there before), St Petersburg and Moscow (because you need a visa to get to Russia), Riga was left the last city standing – and hey, why not try a bit of that good old herring salad?

And so it was – we flew from Zurich to Frankfurt and then onto Riga, arriving in the wee hours of the morning (2am) due to ice-fuelled delays. To add to our sleepy joy (!), our luggage was last to be loaded off the plane, and so we were also the last ones left standing in the taxi queue outside Riga’s tiny international airport.

As if God was trying to cheer us up, snowflakes shaped like beautiful, intricate stars began to fall as we stood outside waiting. Little did we know that they would be just a little taste of what was to come…

When we finally did get in a taxi, our proud Latvian driver decided that 2:30am was an appropriate time as any to give us a guided tour of his capital, proudly declaring that “our shops are open until 11pm, not like you Germans, who close everything early!” Clearly shopping was a big thing here. He also pointed out restaurants and no doubt interesting landmarks, most of which I couldn’t see through my foggy, dark window.

We arrived safe and sound in our Air BnB apartment, where our host Elina (who had to work at 10am the next day) was waiting patiently. After quick chats and explanations, she left us to discover her beautiful home, which had on one windowsill a pile of beanies and socks hand-knitted by her boyfriend’s grandma. “Handmade by Latvian grandmother,” a note said. “In case you don’t have souvenir yet.”

Boy was I happy to buy one of those beanies!

The temperatures throughout our stay in Riga dropped dramatically, to a low of -21 on the day we left. To our delight, the snow levels did the opposite – on one day it even continued snowing for a whole day and at times was so heavy that you couldn’t look straight ahead when you walked.

Despite the statistical analysis of snow probability and our resulting decision to visit Riga, we hadn’t done much research (again!) beyond where we would stay, and so were happy to have Christel’s previous visit’s experience (she’d been there in summer a few years ago) and our Air BnB host’s recommendations.

As it turns out, Riga is a magical place! Europe’s capital of art deco architechture, about 60% of the city is said to be built in this decorative style. The old town, with its majestic churches and cathedrals, is made up of small, cobbled streets of shops, galleries and cafes, many of which served soup for lunch as this was clearly a hearty and delicious way to warm up in the winter. Elegant, proud-looking women in fur coats meandered through the little Christmas market stalls that were scattered throughout the town squares, drinking hot apple cider, talking to each other in Russian and admiring all the other Latvian grandmothers’ handmade mittens and socks. In the huge indoor central market, dried herrings were stuffed into buckets like pens in a cup and ladies with grumpy faces sold rye bread so brown you wondered if they’d get a heart attack if they saw the white bread we ate in Australia.

The food and coffee of this unexpectedly varied little city surprised and impressed us, and the people we met – from the taxi driver to our Air BnB host to the elderly lady who gave us a private, guided tour of the city’s pharmacy museum were warm, genuine and not at all the staunch, hard-faced type you sometimes imagine when you think of (former Russian) eastern Europe.

And as if lovely people, good food, beautiful surroundings and great coffee weren’t enough, Latvia was to totally blow my mind when I discovered that we could go dog sledding just half an hour outside the city.

WHAT!!!

This was a dream I had had for many years, but never taken that seriously because I thought I had to go to Canada, Alaska or somewhere in the north of Finland to make it happen. When I made an enquiry with the tour company online, I tried not to get my hopes up as we were booking with only a few days’ notice.

Yet it must have been meant to be because my dream came true the very next day as I found myself sitting on a bus driving out to a forest on the outskirts of Riga. When we arrived, the dogs were already waiting for us eagerly, barking and wagging their tails. I’d been worried about the ethics of dog sledding for tourism (a lot of animals used in tourism are mistreated) but had done my research and upon seeing the dogs was even more satisfied that these were animals that loved the snow, loved to run and were healthy and happy. We were allowed to play with them for a while and, well, what can I say – it was love at first sight.

Somehow I ended up being the one to be the ‘musher’ at the back of the sled, in charge of steering and putting the breaks on the dogs if I needed to (in case you’re wondering, this “simple” manoever is done by jumping from the two narrow wooden planks at the back of the sled that you balance on onto the steel bar in the middle which clamps into the ground … This all sounded very technical to a dog sledding novice!) with Christel sitting in the front as my passenger. We had eight dogs in front of us and Tyson, with a sled to himself, only had four. Before we knew it, we were off, and the dogs, excited to be allowed to run, took off at full speed. As we came around the first corner, my feet detached from the wooden planks, but not in order to put the breaks on – somehow I had slipped and was suddenly hanging on for dear life as my legs raced behind the sled and my hands held on.

“This is it,” I thought. “My dog sledding adventure ends here.”

Knowing that Christel was not going to achieve a James Bond-style backflip onto the back of the sled if I let go and was more likely to disappear into the distance with no control of the eight adrenaline-driven huskies – and knowing that this may be the only time I would ever live this lifetime dream of mine, I managed to somehow do a few enormous running steps and land back on the wooden planks on the back of the sled.

Pfew! That was lucky.

The rest of the ride went by relatively smoothly, though Christel at times had to endure less than relaxing angles as the dogs scraped around the corners and one side of us went up onto the thicker snow. As we got into the forest and I was finally able to relax a little and take in the beauty around me, I cried a few tears of silent gratitude and excitement.

How lucky am I, I thought, to experience something as magical as this?

At the end of the 5km ride, our toes and hands were frozen numb and sore, but our hearts were glad and our faces were plastered with elated grins. Tyson had caught the whole thing (minus my almost-stack) on camera and managed to capture some amazing moments with the dogs after we got back to the car.

That night, though we spent a bit longer in the hot shower to defrost, the cold having seemingly crept into the innermost parts of our bodies after a day spent almost entirely outside in the -14 degree temperatures, we could not shake the immense joy we felt. 

What an amazing, amazing, amazing day.

My Father in Heaven, how good you are to me.

Phase 4. The house with no wifi and an Italian border crossing

“This is like the Las Vegas of Switzerland!” said Maren from the back seat. It was easy to see where she was coming from. This Italian part of the country (there’s an Italian part, German part and French part, and many Swiss speak all three languages) had a totally different feel to it: Tuscan-style mansions with big columns out the front and palm trees in the garden, flashing signs, a bit more rubbish lying around.

We were driving toward Lavertezzo, a tiny village in the district of Locarno famous for its granite rocks and the ice blue Verzasca River which flows through the valley. In summer, the region is bright green and stunningly Instagram-worthy, and in winter, it’s usually covered in snow. We’d been looking for a hut in the mountains to spend New Year’s Eve, wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and spend a bit of time in nature.

We had sunny, mild weather when we arrived, and when we drove through Lavertezzo and started ascending along the single-car width road with hairpin turns every 100 meters, we were glad that there was no snow and ice on the road. Any slip there and we would have been rolling down the mountain. Thankfully, our two drivers (dad and Tyson) did an exceptional job and we all arrived safe and sound halfway up the mountain, in a little speckling of century-old houses, some of them which looked like holiday homes and others that looked abandoned.

Being so close to the Italian border, the first day meant a day trip over to the land of spaghetti and Chianti, if for no other reason than to eat pizza and pasta. We drove around beautiful Lago Maggiore, quiet and peaceful during the off-season, and all the way to tourist favourite, Como, which apparently has all sorts of beautiful sites to see and things to do during the daylight, but by the time we arrived it was already dark. There were light shows and Christmas markets happening, and we found a lovely little restaurant down a back street, away from the tourists, to enjoy one more Italian meal. On the way back, our lovely GPS Janet decided she’d let us experience some of Italy’s best new (paid) motorways, and it seemed as if we were driving through a toll point every 30 minutes.

For the next few days, we did little but play games, enjoy the fireplace, cook, eat and sit outside in the sun for the few hours that it reached us. We set off fireworks on New Year’s eve, being wary to run quickly in the other direction if a faulty one among them whooshed our way. We went for a walk down the mountain to the blue river, taking some photos among the white contrasted stones, and on another day went for a hike further into the stunning valley, discovering even smaller villages between the mountains with no visible inhabitants except sheep and a family who’d moved back to the countryside for a change of scenery.

There was no wifi in the house and the change in everyone’s attention levels and priorities was refreshing – perhaps this is something we should try to implement regularly…