Saturday, 9 February 2019

Colombia! You've Come a Long Way Baby!

One of many graffiti-painted walls in Bogota
Question:  What made you choose Colombia as a vacation destination?
While we were visiting Costa Rica last year, we used a small family company for all our transportation needs.  Over the weeks, we became familiar with most of the family and learned that they were planning on travelling to Cartagena, Colombia for their family holiday.  Prior to that comment, Colombia wasn't even on the radar but, the more time I spent researching, the more certain I was that this was a destination we should see.  Tourism is still in the early stages of development throughout much of the country due to its long history of political instability  and drug related violence.

Question:  What was your first impression of Colombia?

Response:  When we landed at Bogota, I was beginning to wonder whether we might not have bitten off a little more than we could chew.  We were told long before we landed not to accept a ride in anything but a gov't-owned taxi and here we were, following a young man to who knows where but definitely not moving in the direction of the long line of gov't-owned taxis.  In hindsight, I give him credit; as soon as he understood our apprehension, he immediately walked us back to the line. I felt a little guilty because we would more than likely have been perfectly fine; the poor guy was only trying to make a living.  

The ride to our small, family-owned hotel in the La Candelaria district was also a bit of an eye-opener, but in a good way.  While Bogota is no different than any other urban area when it comes to homelessness, the City appeared to be very clean and well maintained.  I was especially impressed by the myriad of living walls we saw along the freeway.  In fact, Bogota boasts the largest vertical garden in the world, with 85,000 plants covering 3,100 square metres which produces enough oxygen for more the 3,100 people every single year, processing 1,708 pounds of heavy metals, filters more than 1,000 tons of harmful fumes and catches more than 881 pounds of dust! 

Question:  Did you feel safe?
Eric and I differ in terms of personal safety needs.  While I tend to remain aware of my surroundings, I have always travelled with an open mind, assuming that most of the people in the world are friends.  Eric is a little more skeptical in that regard.  Upon first arriving, we generally spend a few hours familiarizing ourselves, first with our accommodations, and then the nearby community.  We move around during daylight hours and stay to the main thoroughfares and public spaces.  Because we were meeting a tour company, we arrived a day early, putting faith in the company that the neighbourhood and hotel were well situated.  We did, however, take a few extra precautions that we haven't taken during previous travels.  Eric invested in a money belt and I invested in a well made handbag as we had both read that pick pockets and petty theft was a huge problem in Colombia, particularly in the larger cities.  In other words, we take measures to ensure we do not become victims, which seems to meet both of our safety needs. That said, I never felt threatened in Bogota or any of the larger centres.

Away from the big cities was a different story altogether.  In fact, I marveled at the locks on the doors (or lack thereof) of our various accommodations.  Seriously, I think we have higher security on our bedroom door at home.  It should be noted that, after a couple of days of itchy scratchy, the money belt found it's way into the suitcase never to be removed until we returned home.

Question:  How was the weather?
  Situated high in the Andes Mountains, at 8,500' above sea level,  Bogota is  cooler than much of Colombia but 15C felt pretty balmy to two of us arriving from Western Canada.  It was definitely shorts weather for the rest of the trip, ranging from the mid-20s in Armenia to the low 30s in Cartagena.  We didn't see a speck of rain.  We were told that January and February are generally the dryer months.

Parque de los Periodistas
Question:  What did you do in Bogota?
Bogota and, in fact, much of Colombia, is well known for its street art.  Before leaving for Canada, I signed up for a 3-hour Original Bogota Graffiti Tour.  In 2011 an Australian street artist and a Canadian graffiti writer decided they wanted to share Bogota's urban art scene.  While the tour operator is a certified guide, the tour is accompanied by a street artist who eagerly shares a passion and knowledge for this urban art form.  The tour is free but a suggested 20-30mil pesos will help the company reinvest in the community.  

Our first order of business was to find the Parque de los Periodistas, where we were to meet the tour group.  After wondering around the La Candelaria district we finally stumbled into a small square a few blocks from our hotel.  While English is not widely spoken throughout Colombia, we were able to discern that we were indeed in the right location.  We spent the next hour checking out nearby sights and people watching.

Colombia Express Itinerary, by G Adventures
The tour was great, by the way!  We learned about taggers, writers, bombing, stencils; saw pieces completed by world class artists, including a father and sons trio, and heard some powerful and sometimes tragic stories along the way.

That evening, we met with our G Adventures representative, Luis, and members of our group, for an orientation dinner.  The following morning we made a whirlwind visit to Paloquemao Market, with its myriad food stalls, flowers shops, cafes and everything in between.  They say Colombia is a fruit lover's paradise and we certainly learned why!  We sampled many exotic tropical fruits including badea, borojo, caimito, and a number of others that I can't even begin to tell you the names of!

a sample of some of the many fruits available in Colombia

Question:  How did you come about choosing a tour company?
Response:  First, we have never travelled with a tour company. We have, however, had some magnificent experiences retaining the services of a guide to take us into various parts of Mexico, in all cases either in very small groups or just the two of us.  I had certain places I wanted to see in Colombia and I really didn't know how else to do it  After doing some reading, I felt a small group tour was a better way to go as I didn't take kindly to the idea of being herded like cattle in a larger group of 30 or more. I also had some concerns about the dynamics of a large group and the impact it might have on the community.  After exploring a few options, the G-Adventures' business model aligned best with our personal travel style.  First, G Adventures is Canadian; in fact, the founder, Bruce Poon Tip, was raised just down the road in Calgary, Alberta!  Second, it embraces a responsible and sustainable model, ensuring that we are giving back as much of more to the communities than we are taking away.  Third, the largest group is 16 people, with the average being 12!  It didn't take either of us long to figure out that we made the right choice for us.

A nice way to break in the group was to
spend time relaxing near the pool
Question:  Then what did you do?
Response:  I must say, Luis was pretty darn good at getting us to the airport and onto Avianca Airlines for a two-night hacienda stay in Colombia's beautiful coffee region. The hacienda was charming in every respect.  The grounds were beautifully maintained, the accommodation simple but pleasant, and the food was ample.  On the way, we stopped at a small mercado (market) for snacks and liquor to enjoy while we relaxed by the pool and acquainted ourselves with our fellow travelers. 

I was impressed by the diversity of our group and how well we all got along.  Our youngest member was a 28-year-old Austrian woman while our eldest I would guess was a very fit and youthful 70-something gentleman. Guests embarked from Ireland; Scotland, Austria, Canada, USA and Singapore. My first thoughts was that, while this tour company clearly attracted well educated individuals, someone else aptly corrected me, suggesting that it attracted open-minded people looking for real life experiences.  A surprise for me was that couples were the minority, in fact, single women were strongly represented.  I, for one, would definitely consider G Adventures for solo travel.

A bit of fun at the coffee plantation
We were up bright and early the next morning for our tour at a local coffee plantation.  Not only did we learn about how coffee is produced, we also had the chance to dress up and pretend to be plantation workers. I know we were in Colombia but, particularly in the case of the women, all I could think of was how much they reminded me of our Ukrainian Babushkas though perhaps without the Ukrainian color.  Suffice to say, there is nothing like laughing at each other, in good fun, to break the ice and seal our fates as amicable travel companions; it worked like a charm!

The beginning of the hike into the Cocora Valley
After another relaxing afternoon and evening, we were off to Salento to hike the Cocora Valley. We had much fun in the back of 4-wheel drive jeeps, where we were ferried to the foot of the valley wall.  The walk up was interesting and our local guide was great at showing us the various plant species, including wee, tiny orchids and massive ferns.  While we searched the skies for Colombia's national bird, we weren't lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of two Andean Condors known to frequent the valley.  Standing some 60 metres in height, we had no problem finding the Quindio wax palm, the national tree and symbol of Colombia. 

Our hike was about 2.5 hours round trip though I understand there is an amazing 5 hour, 12 km hike as well. Be warned, while the ascent is pretty straightforward, the descent is a little more strenuous due to the significant grade of the grassed valley wall.  I suspect it could be a wee bit treacherous in wet conditions.
G Adventures thought of everything, including a flag representing each of us
We spent the afternoon and evening enjoying colorful Salento on our own and, in the evening some of us went to play Tejo.  There's a reason why it is referred to as Colombia's 'explosive' sport.  Originating in Salento, Tejo is something akin to a bean bag toss, however, instead of tossing a bag into a hole, you toss a heavy metal disk at a small triangular piece of paper filled with gun powder.  When the two connect, you guessed it, there is an explosion.  It was interesting and fun and our team won!

Colorful Salento
The following day was a bit of a low point for many of us as it required NINE hours of travel by local bus, from Salento, back to Armenia and on to Medellin.  We were fortunate, I suppose, in that our guide made an executive decision to keep our private passenger bus which fit our group to a T.  As we left Salento, we were handed a printout of the communities we would be travelling through but, as none of them displayed an entry sign, most of us had no idea where we were from one mile to the next.  You might ask why we didn't fly to Medellin.  We were told that there is no saving in time as we would then be required to bus back to  Armenia, catch a flight to Bogota and wait for a connecting flight to Medellin.  Needless to say, it was a long day.

Comuna 13
Medellin (pronounced Med-eh-Jean) made up for any disappointment we may have harboured from the previous  day. Colombia's second largest city, Medellin is located in the central region of the Andes Mountains and has an estimated metropolitan population of 3.7 million people. During the 19th century, Medellin gained a reputation as a dynamic commercial centre, first exporting gold and then producing and exporting coffee.  It is now important for its universities, academics, commerce, industry (including  textiles), science, health services and flower festivals.  During the 20th century the City was part of a artistic transition.

One of several Escalators 
connecting communities
An era of political instability began with the murder of a presidential candidate in 1948.  Violence spread throughout the rural areas of Colombia.  But it's real undoing was the rising through the ranks of the Medellin underworld by Pablo Escobar in the 1980s.   Due to the new found demand for drugs in places like the USA and Europe, an industry emerged. Gun battles were common, and the city’s homicide rate was one of the highest in the world. Reaching its pinnacle in the early 1990’s, the government along with the country's economy was on the verge of collapse. With the aid of the United States Special Forces, led by the Colombian government and local private forces, Pablo Escobar was hunted down and killed on December 2, 1993.

A mere twenty-five years ago, Time Magazine dubbed Medellin 'the most dangerous city on earth'.  Even 10 years ago, it was still considered pretty bad-ass. Fast forward to 2013 and it is hailed as the most innovative city in the world by the Urban Land Institute.  When the Metro was constructed in 1994, it was one of the first positive changes in the city in decades.  Today, under the leadership of several very forward thinking mayors, Medellin boasts cable cars and escalators connecting the labyrinth of barios that cling to the mountain sides of the City.

The flying of white rages eventually ended the siege
No part of  Colombia affected me more profoundly than Comuna 13.  Stories of Medellin's past history of excessive violence is mind-numbing and yet, we were greeted and welcomed into a vibrant community brimming with hope.  Comuna 13 is an over-populated low socioeconomic neighbourhood that was a pivotal centre for paramilitary, guerrilla and gang-related activity. During the 1980's and 90's, the area was controlled by groups loyal to Pablo Escobar.  On Oct 16, 2002, Operation Orion, saw over 1,000 police, soldiers and air crews in helicopters attack the community with its 100,000 +/- residents literally hunkered down under beds, tables or anything else one might consider some sort of refuge.  Nine people were killed and hundreds wounded.  The siege made it impossible to seek medical attention or even collect food and drinking water.  Community residents ultimately began flying white rags until the action finally came to a halt. Street art throughout Comuna 13 depicts scenes of violence and suffering but also of the community's spirit, beauty, resilience and diversity.

Our Comuna 13 guide, Andres, sharing the history of his community
where he was born and raised, and still remains in
What struck me the most was the sincere kindness and generosity of the residents.  As we walked through narrow streets, vendors sold fruit-flavoured ice cream from storefronts riddled with bullet marks.  Kids smile, adults nod in salutation, and life goes on, very matter-of-fact, as if their story is something not so out of the ordinary.

The transformation continue today
There is a pride in the residents of Comuna 13 that I found incredibly honest and endearing.  They may have been down, but they certainly didn't stay down.  I don't know how else to describe it except to say it is one of the most compelling stories I have heard. . . . ever. . .

Symbols of hope, prayers for peace

Later on, we joined a Pablo Escobar Tour, in hopes of learning a bit more about that period in Colombia and Medellin history.  I think it's safe to say that the tour did not even remotely meet my expectations.  I think it's also safe to say that the concept of narco tourism is not embraced by many of the Medellin's residents.  Our first stop was at an apartment building once occupied by Pablo.  We were not allowed access but instead, looked through the gates and listened to our guide explain which apartments the Escobar family held court in.  It was clear that our presence upset some of the local residents who made it clear, without a single word of English, that this tour was, in their opinion, not appropriate.  In what almost seemed like an afterthought, our guides mentioned that the building is to be demolished and a park will fill the space.  

We were then taken to the building that Escobar constructed as his own personal prison from what was originally a monastery.  The building is now used to house disabled seniors; once again, we were not welcomed.
In fact, we were met with a poster-sized sign from the Administration:  "Foundation Santa Gertrudis La "Magna" Center for Attention to the Elderly with Disability.  Mr. visitor, ladies and gentlemen tour guides please respect the facilities and we ask you to stop deceiving your customers.  Here there is nothing of the dreadful time that we lived, what you see was built with much sacrifice on the part of the administrator monk.  Do not deceive them and hopefully they will not be fooled.  PERMIT US TO REPEAT, these spaces are not part of 'narco tourism' please leave us alone.  The spaces are private property and therefore can not be violated, we are not responsible for any accidents, much less the attitudes of the different guardians of the neighbouring properties that you, through a petty and morbid desire, go through the different properties jumping and damaging the fences.  Please take care of the environment by not throwing or spilling garbage.  Where is the culture that they preach so much in their countries?  We have a police station and constant vigilance abstain from using drugs this place is not for that, respect the schedules established for entry to the place.  The Administration"

Escobar grave site
On we went, to the cemetery, where Escobar's ardent supporters still place fresh flowers on the family tomb.  I didn't even bother getting off the bus. I had my fill of dispicable Escobar stories and, while they all ended in what a bad man he was, I did indeed get a sense that he was somehow being glorified.  The icing on the cake was the introduction to one of his drivers.  Clearly considering himself somewhat of a celebrity, he was only too happy to talk about the days of drugs, women and parties.  Somehow we were supposed to feel bad that the poor guy had no education, no real job prospectics and no access to the lifestyle he evidentally missed. Sadly, now he found himself having to work for a living.  Cry me a river. 

Iglesia de Piedr
The next leg of our journey found us on a two-hour bus ride from Medellin to El Peñol and Guatape, indeed a breath of fresh air. While the colorful town of Guatape and the rock, known as El Peñol seems to be what catches everyone's attention, there is actually a small town also named El Peñol which is worth a stop. Take note of the Iglesia de Piedra (also known as the Stone Church or Rock Temple) which has been designed to resemble the region's famed attraction, La Piedra, the Stone (otherwise known as El Peñol).  There is also  replicas of some of the important features of the original old town of El Peñol, including the church and town hall, which were destroyed when the area was flooded in the late 1970s to create the Peñol-Guatapé reservoir.  

Rising some 7,000' in elevation, the Rock can be ascended by a 720+-step stairway.  While many consider it quite the feat, most of our group managed without too many hardships.  In case you're wondering, I was not one of the climbers; not only was it not something I felt driven to do, by this time I found myself with a lower respiratory infection, barely holding my own walking around the community.
Peñol-Guatapé reservoir
 Zocalos of Guatapé
The town of Guatapé was definitely on my bucket list; in fact, I considered it as a community in which we could spend a week or so in.  It wasn't a disappointment; it is every bit as picturesque as I had read it would be.   Often dubbed Colombia's most colorful town, it comes by this moniker rightfully. Guatapé is known for its brightly colored depictions of people, animals and shapes which cover the lower half of most of its buildings. While the buildings themselves are brightly painted, it's the relief panels, called 'zocalos' which set the mark well above all the other communities we visited.  While some are simply cute, others are meant to advertise.  For example, a bakery might be adorned with reliefs of loaves of bread; some commemorate history while others might mark the house of a musician with a display of instruments.

Hello in There
There was something else that struck a chord with me as I wondered through its winding. hilly, ridiculously photogenic streets.  I came across a couple, clearly too old to work, clearly with more than a few health problems and in need of a few pesos.  It took awhile to make the gentleman understand that I wanted to photograph them; in fact, I'm not sure he really did comprehend what I was about.  I finally quickly flashed off a single photo and gave them each a few pesos, for which they appeared grateful.  They reminded me of a favourite John Prine song and I just couldn't walk away.

Cartagena's Old Town
The following morning we were off to Old Town Cartagena, a Unesco World Heritage site considered  by some to be the Queen of the Caribbean coast.  I admit, it's hard not to be taken in by its narrow cobblestone streets and bougainvillea as you stroll along the City walls.Once the main port of trade to Spain, founded in 1533, Cartagena's people is as colorful as it's history.  During the colonial era Spain imported slaves used to mine Peruvian silver.  Prior to this, it was home to various indigenous people dating back to 4000BC. By the late 1500s, Cartagena attracted the attention of England which ravaged the port when it's offer of trade was rejected by Spain.  In other words, it's history is as colorful as it's people! 

A restaurant inside Historic Cartagena
At the main entrance to the downtown is the Puerta de Reloj (Clock Gate). A 20-minute walk from downtown is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, located in el Pie de la Popa (another neighborhood), the greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies. Getsemani, just south of the ancient walled fortress, has become "Cartagena's hippest neighborhood and one of Latin America's newest hotspots", with plazas that were once the scene of drug dealing being reclaimed and old buildings being turned into boutique hotels. 

We chose to end our time in Cartagena in Bocagrande, the area of the city known for it's skyscrapers and containing the bulk of the city's tourist facilities.  If truth be known, we were looking for something a little quieter, near a beach and with a pool.  The Hotel Dann met all those requirements.  Here we wiled away the last few days of our holiday in Cartagena.  It gave us both a chance to recoup our health (as I had generously passed along my illness to Eric); lounge by the pool with a good book, and reflect on our time in this beautiful country.

Hotel Dann
Question:  Any regrets?
If we could somehow recover those 4 or 5 hours spent on the Escobar tour, we would! It did not answer any the many questions I had.  While we were told the man was vile even as a child, how was it that he was able to garner the support so many Colombians and ultimately end up in a position of great power within the government?  While the guide repeatedly advised that it was the US Drug Enforcement Administration that ultimately flushed Escobar out, my research suggests that there was as much political interference from both the Colombian and American governments which literally enabled Escobar's life of crime as there is evidence these governments are what finally destroyed him.  My research suggests that it was ultimately the Colombia people, sick of the violence and bloodshed, that ultimately turned on Escobar; those that profited from him, later betrayed him.  There's an interesting article, The Afterlife of Pablo Escobar, that tells more of the far-reaching implications of the man, even today, than anything I saw or heard on the tour. 
No Colombian in history shaped public opinion as Escobar did. At the peak of his rampage, Medellin was the murder capital of the world, with more than 6,000 homicides in 1991 alone.  In the last two decades, this city has transformed itself.  I wanted to learn how it did that. I wanted to learn how the residents of Medellin continue to work diligently toward putting a dead drug lord as far from the collective mind of the World, as humanly possible.   I wanted to learn about the peace treaty signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and the Marxist guerrilla army (FARC0 a known Escobar supporter.  I did not learn these things, but I'm still searching, all the same.

If we could somehow recover those 4 or 5 hours, I would gladly spend them exploring the beautiful city of Medellin.  I didn't need my background in land use planning to recognize how innovative this City is when it comes to quelling violence and high rates of crime to bring about security, and social inclusion.  This “Medellin Lab” is the first living laboratory program in Colombia, organized by Medellin’s International Cooperation and Investment Agency, the World Bank, USAID, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities network. If I could make one small suggestion to G Adventures, it would be to add a tour and more in-depth acknowledgement of this very important, very creative, and very impressive accomplishment.

Question:  How did G Adventures rate in terms of a holiday experience?
We have been privileged to spend time with one of the most knowledgeable guides of his respective area.  We were so impressed with our first tour with Miguel that we retained his services on two other occasions.  When presented with our tickets, we were also gifted a copy of Looptail, 
Bruce Poon Tip's personal account of why and how he created a highly-successful international travel adventure company known for keeping both clients and staff extremely satisfied.  By the time my feet hit Colombian soil, I had some pretty high expectations.  Did G Adventures meet them all?  No, it did not but, once some of the human causes were factored into the equation Eric and I can confidently give G Adventures two thumbs up.  Not only would we highly recommend this form of travel, I strongly suspect G Adventures will see us back in the very near future.

It was downright impressive the way Luis, always the consummate professional, ushered us through his country, whether it be by way of subway or plane.  If we were the least bit worried about being left behind, or the whereabouts of our luggage, it didn't take any of us long to realize that we needn't be; Luis accounted for every single  person and suitcase, at every single stop.  While it may have taken us a moment to recognize our cue to get ready to move, it wasn't long before all eyes were turned on Luis, awaiting a single word, Vamous! Let's Go!

Luis with our G Adventures Group in Comuna 13
While the itinerary shows ample free time, particularly where meals are concerned, Luis always had a suggestion for us and, interestingly enough, we all heeded it.  For the most part, we took our meals and spent our free time as a collective group.  In other words, we really didn't even have to think; we simply had to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.  This was a completely new travel style for us.  While I realize that I will likely never see any of these people again, each and every one of them have been imprinted on my heart and will no doubt remain as a fond memory.

In terms of accommodation, while simple, we very please with, and would be happy to return to, all but one hotel.  Our last hotel inside the Walled City was not to our standards.  We understand there was a mix-up with our particular room which may account for some of the problem; not only was it small, but we had a few uninvited multi-legged guests.  Perhaps that is to be expected in ancient buildings but we didn't embrace the experience.  That said, the food and staff were wonderful and we were given an opportunity to switch rooms, which we declined; we simply felt it was too much bother for a single night, as we were already unpacked.  I should emphasize that this incident had little impact on our overall impression of G Adventures.  We not only recommend this company but will likely use it in the near future.

Question:  What word of advice would you pass along to someone considering visiting Colombia?
GO!  By all means, GO!  We have always been pleasantly pleased by how receptive the local people have been to us in every single country we have visited.  We tend to approach each destination with respect and a real desire to learn as much as we can from the people we come into contact with, whether they are part of the tourism industry or simply someone on the street.  We have not been disappointed.  But I don't believe I have ever been to a country with such a violent past; and such a recent past at that.  I have repeatedly used the word 'resilient' to describe Colombians but they are more than that.  They are indeed irrepressible and I can't help but admire that quality, right down to the very tips of my toes.

And manners!  Oh, what manners!  When is the last time you saw a man stand up on a bus to offer his seat to a woman?  When did you see a young woman offer her seat to an elder or perhaps another woman with a small child?  When was the last time a total stranger was waiting at the door of the bus, offering you his hand in assistance?  These were actions are not anomalies; we experienced them in every major city we travelled in! Chivalry is not dead!  It's alive, well and thriving throughout Colombia!

One last Question:  What was something that happened on your trip that struck your funny bone?
We were travelling with Andres, our Comuna 13 guide, on the cable cars.  This lovely young man didn't speak English and our bilingual guide was in another cable car with  the other half of our tour group.  Andres, an aspiring singer, was determined to entertain us.  First he showed us a video of a well known artist, singing along.  We were able to communicate to him that we would like to hear one of his own and he happily acquiesed.  Alas, Andres appeared to be a wee bit smitten with one of the women in our group who was indeed a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty with a fairly athletic frame.  She was also quite well endowed on her lower half, if you get my drift.  Well, guess what folks?  So are many of the women of Colombia!  Andres was doing his best to compliment our companion when he pointed to her thighs, held out his hands and started exclaiming, 'Grande!  Magnifico!'  No English aside, he was aptly able to communicate his admiration for her build; she would make an excellent Colombian woman!  Some would be a bit put off by having a man point out our perhaps somewhat larger rear-end but, ever the consummate lady, she took it all in stride, and accepted his words as they were intended. . . .sincere compliments.

The fact that the women of Colombia were not the twigs our North American culture seems to deify was not lost on me either.  Much to Eric's surprise, one day I stopped to photograph mannequins in a storefront in Cartagena.  Not only did many have rather plump rear-ends, they had large breasts! Having spent an entire lifetime learning to love my own ample endowments, I admit, I smiled in appreciation, not to mention gratitude.  Who knows, perhaps there is a little South American blood coursing through these veins!


Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Embracing 2019 With HARMONY

A few years ago, I was introduced to the concept of choosing one single word to help guide my actions through the coming year.  That one single word becomes the cornerstone of what's important to me without actually being a goal.  When I set goals, I seem to have an innate ability to undermine them.  It's almost as if I become determined to sabotage my own efforts, as if a goal is simply setting myself up for failure; simply too much pressure.  One single word has no such power.  Instead, it allows me to move at my own pace, while I ever-so-slowly build awareness of the little things that ultimately impact the big things in my life. One single word is all about being rather than doing; it encompasses every aspect of my life, rather than a single component of it.

Choosing one single word to live by for an entire year takes time, self examination, and reflection.  For me, it starts by focusing on a few personal traits that could use a bit of tweaking.  My word for 2017 was CHALLENGE.  I was transitioning into retirement and felt I needed to find new outlets not only for my mental well-being but also physically.    I started a bucket list and on that list was starting a Joy Jar so that I remembered to celebrate the little joys along with the big joys.   Through the year, I ticked off a number of items, including that Joy Jar.  Many items remain a work in progress. Of course, I am also adding new items and removing those that no longer feel relevant.  In other words, my bucket list is very fluid, just like life!   

CHALLENGE can be a very big topic, or at least, that's what I thought. . . until I chose my word for 2018:  BE.  While I have managed to go a little more with the flow over the past year, I still have a lot of work to do toward living in the moment without trying to control every aspect of it.   I just read the blog, 34 Life Lessons I Learned in 2018; No. 4, 'Planning is Escapism' nailed me!  Did I happen to mention that my entire 30-year career has been focused on planning?  It’s not only what I do, it’s who I am!  I don't know that I fully agree with the philosophy that making a plan is simply another technique in the procrastination arsenal, but it sure is food for thought. It's also a good reminder that it's okay not to have a plan for everything. If I thought CHALLENGE was, well, challenging, landing on BE has even been moreso!  Baby steps!

My short list for 2019 began as about a half dozen words which I successfully whittled down to two before settling on that one single word to lead me into 2019.  Harmony!  Even whispering it to myself fills my soul with a sense of Peace. Calm. Balance.  Harmony can be directed outward.  Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all the conflict in the world.  By being generous and caring towards my spouse; by spending more time with friends and family; by contributing in a meaningful way within my community, I am building the foundation to my own internal sense of harmony.  

One of my challenges is learning how to overcome differences and disagreements harmoniously.  When I was growing up, my family's communication style was not only loud but combative.  These 'discussions' as my mother liked to call them, were generally not done in anger, though they were often very heated and, yes, very loud!  While we considered ourselves to be assertive, I fear any onlooker would use the term, aggressive.  While I believe I am an active listener, I suspect many would argue that as I have yet to learn to avoid interrupting.  You see, the other lesson I learned at a very early age was, if being loud didn’t get the attention needed to assert my opinion, the simply talk right over people.  Honestly, it’s even more than a habit; it feels like it’s ingrained in the fabric of my brain chemistry.  It's as if it is on fire and, if I don’t release that flow of thoughts immediately, they will be forever lost.  Perhaps bringing a sense of harmony into my life will help me quell that raging inferno while keeping the flame alive. Baby steps!

Did I mention that my partner and I both have very strong personalities?  We have both worked very hard to build professional reputations for knowing our business and being very good at what we do.  We have both become very accustomed to running our own show with little to no interference.  This has resulted in more than a few hiccups while learning to embrace our retirement. Dare I use the word conflict?  If the shoe fits. . .   Letting go of pride, being open to compromise and bringing harmony into our relationship can only be beneficial.  Long ago, we accepted that we do not have to be on the same page, we do not have to agree on every subject, to live in harmony with each other.  We have often joked that in our 40+ year relationship, we have successfully cancelled out each other’s vote in every single election at all three levels of government!  My word, harmony, can be the touchstone I need to remind me that it’s not about control; it’s about embracing the very differences that likely attracted us to each other in the first place!

There are a few things I do that already bring me a sense of peace, joy and harmony.  A few years ago, while I was transitioning my career toward retirement, we decided to add a dog to our family.  Our little Quinn has become quite a focal point of our lives and I embraced that responsibility of caring for and training her with gusto!  But Quinn isn’t your average dog; in fact, I’m pretty sure I met myself in dog form as she is every bit as stubborn, opinionated and willful as I am!  Yes, challenging is one of the words I would use to describe our foray into dogdom but also, great joy, a sense of accomplishment and yes, even harmony.  Our daily walks help me in my personal health and wellness journey.  The physicality of hiking through pastures, bush, and cultivated fields is not only good for my body, it works wonders for my soul.  Having nothing but nature as a backdrop my mind easily shifts into something of a meditative state where the worries of the day slide away into oblivion and I can be in harmony within my own little world.

So, there you have it.  my word for 2019.  Harmony.  I must say, I'm already loving it!  

Harmony  [hahr-muh-nee]  noun, plural har·mo·nies
1.    agreement; accord; harmonious relations.
2.    a consistent, orderly, or pleasing arrangement of parts; congruity.


Sunday, 16 December 2018

Notes from the Road: Crossing Canada (Part 4) - Back on the Prairie

Thunder Bay, ON to Rosebank, MN

We spent our 34th night on the road in Pine Tree Campground and Trailer Park, on Birch River, near Prawda, MB.  A small family owned resort, it's clear to see the attraction for the seasonal campers.  It was peaceful, clean and incredibly beautiful, along the banks of the meandering Birch River.

Pine Tree Campground, Prawda, MB

It wasn't long before we found ourselves back in Big Sky Country. Montana isn't the only place with Big Sky; when we hit the wide open prairies of Manitoba, we heaved a collective sigh of relief and commented on how good it felt to see the various shades of greens and golds set against a beautiful blue expanse.  Most of us have always classed Eric as a Maritimer but, as we basked in the pleasure of a view-shed that literally went for miles, it occurred to us both that, after some 38 years of living in Alberta, Eric is, indeed a Prairie boy at heart.

When you think of Miami, you think of  Florida, right?  Did you know there is also a Miami in Manitoba?  True, it isn't as large and it doesn't have a beach.  Located some 100km southwest of Winnipeg, it's still the hub of its local area with a K-12 school, and curling and skating rinks.  It's claim to fame came just before Christmas Day, 2005, when all but one of its 45 signs were stolen. Miami was also the focal point of a prank by one of the local radio stations, which ran a contest offering an all-expenses-paid trip to Miami.  Apparently not everyone saw the humour; there was even talk of waging a lawsuit! Geez, some people just can't take a joke! Anyway, if you are by that way, considering stopping in to visit the railway museum.

The last leg of our journey home
As is our way, we stayed off of the main thoroughfares. Our plan was to skirt along the southern borders of Manitoba and Saskatchewan before turning northward, and toward home, near Red Deer, Alberta.  Our chosen route introduced us to a sense of Manitoba whimsy that we didn't know existed.  For example, did you know that Roland, MB lays claim to the world's largest pumpkin?  This supersized replica weighs 1,684 pounds, stands 12 feet tall and is 12 feet wide. 

Roland, MB
Constructed in 1990, this Giant Pumpkin even made it into the Guinness World Book of Records in 1997! I know what you're thinking; if this is indeed the world's largest pumpkin, clearly, I lay claim to the world's strongest man!

Deloraine, MB
We shared our 35th night on the road at a lovely well-maintained municipal campground in Deloraine, where we were treated to some spectacular Manitoba sunsets.  Trust me when I tell you there no scene the can rival a Prairie sunset. 

Melita, MB
While Sunny, the Banana and Breezy, the Blue Jay may have been the drawing card for Melita, it was the local Farmers Market and all its fresh produce that kept us. The area is steeped in history, dating back to the Sourisford Prehistoric Linear Mounds, remnants of the largest concentration of ancient burial mounds in Canada. The Mounds date back to 900 AD.  While the site itself is visually unimpressive to the average Joe (being us), you have to admit, that's a pretty spectacular tidbit of history. The area is also famous as the Grassland Birds Capital of the Province.  Remember that Manitoba whimsy I mentioned?  Melita calls itself ' a town with A-peel"! 

While there is a vast beauty to a horizontal landscape, there is also the downside that comes with it.  I don't know about you but being blown about like a loose tumbleweed is not my idea of a good time.  It wasn't haven't much fun in the driver's seat of my SUV as the wind buffeted our wee Winnie Drop.  As much as we wanted to skirt Canada's southern border, we decided we would enjoy ourselves a lot more if we pointed ourselves north, travelling with the wind at our backside.  

It didn't take long for Eric to realize that we were not far from his BFF's ancestral home of McAuley so we decided to check it out too. As we meandered our way down the streets, we came across an antiques and collectibles sale. Of course, Eric had to go in.  Not only did we find ourselves in a vast collection, the owner was born and raised in McAuley.  And so began our personal history lesson.  The community's biggest pride and joy was the McAuley Blazers. I know nothing about baseball but I'm told a .599 winning percentage over 21 years is definitely something to be proud of!  The team was inducted into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011; according to our host, it was the first and only time, she saw grown men, including her dear old dad, holding onto each other and crying.  Not only were these men incredibly proud, there was a tinge of sadness as some of their team mates were inducted posthumously.

On a side note, it's a good thing we were close to home because Eric managed to fill the last remaining spaces we had with.. . you guessed it. . . antiques and collectibles.

Somewhere in Saskatchewan

As we continued to make our way, I was more than a little insistent that we take a detour to Little Manitou Lake.  I had visited this community 8 years prior and was determined to return.  In fact, I'm still determined to return!  Eric was none too thrilled to be dragging wee Winnie through this community.  Not only are the streets incredibly narrow, they are also incredibly steep.  There were, in fact, times when I wasn't fully confident that my SUV had the power to get us up some of the hills.  And did I mention, the roads are not only gravel but deeply rutted?  I had visions of returning in the Corvette but I have a sneaking suspicion that isn't going to happen.  At any rate, what is to be found at the bottom of the valley, along Little Manitou Lake, is fully worth the angst. I'm not going to give you all the details because I'm planning on going back and spending some real time.  But, just in case you're curious, here is a promotional video.

By now, even though we were loving the scenery, we were getting a little antsy to get home.  On we went through Outlook, Rosetown, Biggar and Macklin after which we finally crossed the border into our beloved Alberta.  I would be lying if I said we weren't somewhat exhilarated to see that big Prairie Rose welcoming us home. I admit, it kind of made us both giddy!  Clearly fall was in the air and combines were in the field.   

What Alberta embraces:  Big Skies!  Fields of Gold! Vestiges of Oil & Gas
It's not that we didn't enjoy our road trip though, admittedly, I enjoyed it more than Eric. But, after a long time away, it's so nice to be able to crawl into your own bed, don't you think? All told, we spent 39 nights on the road.  Over 185.5 hours, we put on 12,539 kms at a total cost of $6,800.  We have spent that much (each) on a two week vacation at an all-inclusive resort!  

What did we learn?  Well, to begin with, it took us a bit of time to learn how to travel with each other and a dog.  We had a bit of a dog incident on our second night that not only left us scratching our heads but gave us some worries. Both having worked our entire adult lives, spending 24/7 with just each other is an adjustment. By the time we were headed home we were pretty much in sync, not only with the dog but with each other.   We are still a work in progress but, most days, I think we are almost 'there'. 

There were parts of our journey that we both immensely enjoyed. Trading in our big 5th Wheel for Wee Winnie was the right choice.  Our only complaint is the bed; one has to crawl over the other.  No surprise. We knew that when we bought it.  We did fine. We found, once we pared down our belongings, there is actually quite a bit of storage space.  We love the roomy 3/4 bath; even the shower isn't bad! The AC is noisy but we rarely need it. We went a full 5 days without services and could probably have gone a 6th.  As most of our local camping is off grid, that's good to know!

Walmart Camping! No muss, No fuss!
We relished our evenings and found ourselves stopping earlier and earlier.  It became the habit for Eric to set up the outside while I set up the inside, poured us a bourbon and got supper organized.  We soaked up long daylight hours on the way down; when the evenings became cool on the way home, we played a few hands of cards before settling into bed with a good book.  We have a TV but we never figured out how to get a local channel (who knew one has to turn on the antenna?).  We had movies but we never bothered with them either.  Being off the grid is not a bad thing. Quinn (the dog) kept us both active, another good thing when travelling.

We enjoyed our time with our people, limited though it was.  Certainly, we loved seeing familiar faces and thoroughly enjoyed the few new friends we made.  We found the sights, scenery and people of Canada spectacular, as always.  I think we may have even learned how to appreciate each other in different ways.
Would we do it again? I'm pretty sure Eric's response would be a resounding 'no'.  We both recognized at the outset that driving across the country is not his cup of tea. He did it 38 years ago, over 6 days, and that was good enough for him. So really, he made the trip for me.  We both understood that I would need to step up and do my share of the driving.  We would need many breaks throughout the day, many of which focused on Eric's interests.

I, on the other hand, would do it all over again!  Tomorrow!  Except for those very windy days, I didn't mind pulling Wee Winnie. While I was intimidated at the thought of pulling her through urban centres, once I had a couple under my belt, I was no longer afraid.  Eric took the time to show me how to set up and break down camp.  I think I could even go it alone. . . if only I could back into a camping stall. One day, I'll get there, I promise.

And here ends our journey.  I blog for me.  It helps me collect my thoughts and commit to memory, highlights of our travels and other things of import. That said, I hope it helps others in some small way, perhaps planning their own trip or just filling in time.    If you have questions, if there is something you feel is missing, if there is a way I can be better, please don't be shy.  

Until our next adventure. . . . I can hardly wait!