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…

Phase 3: Oma writes poetry and Germans sniff lettuce

You may think I’m joking about the lettuce part. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Well. Germans aren’t known for being normal. But I’ll come back to that later.

The last time we spoke, I think I disappeared into a memory food coma. Those pancakes were SO GOOD.

Anyway. We were in Munich. So – once we dropped Sheridan off at the airport on that last afternoon so that she could catch her flight back to the quaint British countryside city of Oxford, Tyson, Maren and I hit the road for Oehningen, a very small village about 30 minutes past Oma and Opa’s house in Gottmadingen, Southern Germany (don’t feel bad – no one else has ever heard of these places either). When we got there, mum – who hadn’t seen Tyson and I in a year since her and dad left to go traipsing around the world last December – nearly jumped through the car window in excitement at having us back.

Small talk, informalities and mum trying to feed us everything in the house aside, we – that is dad, mum, Tyson, Maren, Fynn (who’d arrived a few days earlier) and I soon found ourselves sitting squished together on the amazing Air BnB couch, drinking red wine and talking about life. How blessed I am to have family who loves each other so much!

It wasn’t until the next day that the rest of the relatives trudged on in – aunt Christel, Oma and Opa, and eventually aunt Angela and cousin Niko as well. It was to be a special Christmas this year, a rare occasion to have all of us together that happened the last time back in 2009. Pleasantly, despite increasing age (80+) and their usual loving bickering, Oma and Opa still appeared healthy and happy, pleased to have us all together but definitely glad as well that us “kids” were staying in a separate house and weren’t creating more work for them.

At Christmas, Oma recited self-written poetry of family and love and what it means to be together, and Angela sang a song about God looking out for us no matter where we are. Christel read funny Christmas stories of snow and the meaning of giving, and I tried my best to translate but gave up when Tyson didn’t laugh at my English version of the German jokes.

We didn’t do presents this year, instead playing a game of White Elephant, where everyone had to bring something wrapped up that they didn’t want anymore. Based on how the dice rolled, we were able to open and exchange opened “presents” with those around the table whether they wanted to swap or not. Amazing how attractive a little old Christmas ornament becomes when you compare it to a broken viking hat, a little Greek language dictionary or a notebook and pen someone pinched from a hotel!

The rest of our time in Oehningen was spent relaxing, talking, walking around the area and going on excursions (Tyson, the twins and I took a day out to go to dad’s university city, Freiburg and France’s beautiful city, Strasbourg). We were even brave enough to sweat it out in the private sauna on our last evening, though the amount of times we opened the door to let the crisp outside air in probably reduced the positive health effects this exercise was supposed to achieve.

Finally, it was time to head off to our next destination…. But wait, wasn’t there something about lettuce sniffing?

I kind of hoped you’d forgotten.

You see we Germans, most of the time, give off a pretty clean-cut impression. Good engineering, strong political presence, neat gardens. Sometimes we’re seen as a bit conservative, you could say. We’re strange, but we don’t often show it.

Well – that all goes out the window in the small villages.

All we wanted was a bag of lettuce for dinner. If we’d been the only ones in the corner store, we probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. But as it turned out, it was rush hour in the otherwise shop-less hamlet when Tyson and I arrived, and we found ourselves in a queue to pay behind a tall, blonde German woman who – without warning – started sniffing at her bag of lettuce. Wrinkling her nose every time she came up for breath, she didn’t wait long – nor ask permission – before sticking her blonde head in our bag too.

“Smells a bit funky, doesn’t it?” she said.

“Umm…” we replied, not sure whether to be more concerned about her head in our plastic bag or the fact that our lettuce might be off.

What made the situation even more bizarre was the man standing in the back corner of the shop, near the lettuce, who had a white, circular-shaped hat on his head that looked like it had been hand made out of cardboard for a game of train conducters with his grandchild.

Neither he, nor anyone else in the queue, seemed to find it strange that blondie was sniffing all the lettuce bags.

To cut a fascinating story short, we ended up buying the lettuce and washing it while the blonde lady did not, instead opting for the popular brussels sprouts also displayed in the greenery corner beside the strange train conductor, no doubt to the overwhelming joy of her children waiting at home.

And that was it. A little insight into the strangeness of Germans.

Welcome to my culture. 🙂