The 2,363 Kilometre Road Trip

The elephant family looked like walking boulders: grey, round, and almost still as they slowly made their way to the Dolomite Point water-hole. There had been no rain in Etosha Park for more than 150 days. This is not climate change; this is normal Namibia.

In our cabin on the rocky outcrop, we strung our freshly washed underpants on a string across the doorway. They flapped a bit and were instantly dry. The red-dust spools of sand wind hoses blew into the room and the elephant group stopped as the little one needed a nap. In the middle of the flat leafless plane mom stood firm, her shadow her baby’s tent.

The teenage elephant was bored and chewed on some dried twigs. If she had had a comic book, she would have been reading it. The kid elephant looked like he wanted to lie down too—sibling rivalry flapped its ears. And the huge matriarch stood apart, keeping her eye out for trouble brewing on the horizon. Our small group of five, made infinitesimal water-hole progress.

We chased the resident mouse out of room #18 and inspected nibbled bags of nuts and raisins, ripped-apart tissues and shredded shirt collars. Sadder but wiser, with all suitcases firmly closed, we hiked to the observation point through the white-hot late afternoon sun. The friendly python was nowhere to be seen.

The giraffes and springboks skittered off as the elephant group approached. The baby had to be pushed into his new medium, water, as mom hosed him down and gave him some drinking lessons. He was just starting to get his aim straight when grandma signalled that time was up and the family backed out of the water-hole–all except for the little one who wanted to stay. Mom gave him the old heave-ho with her massive forehead.

As the sun set, our elephant family started its long hot amble back into the bushes for the night to get a couple of hours sleep.

This is my favourite memory. Of course there were other encounters with rhinos (one fell in love with our little white car), giraffes and their calves standing tall and chewing on trees, wart hogs kneeling at the roadsides, impalas frozen in the middle of the sandy path, hippos hogging the water hole, and even a honey badger who was on an important mission so did not have time to stop and spray us.

In the park, it is the humans who are in the cages. You are warned never to get out of your car. You must not walk about outside at night. At a (rare) toilet stop on the park road you have to enter through a locked wire fence and close the gate after you. Once inside, a huge grey rock just by the entrance turned into a lone bull elephant who stood still as a statue for a time before wandering off.

There was no water in the toilets or taps. The sinks were full of sand.

 

 

 

 

Namibia Nerves

When the nightmares came to get me last night, I was being chased by a giraffe.

Now, this just might have to do with reading an article about food in Namibia. It seems the braaivleis is very popular, and ostrich, springbok and crocodile are all delicious delicacies that can feature in this mixed-grill BBQ. In the traditional three-legged hot-pot bubbling over the open fire (the potjiekos), you can find just about anything. There doesn’t seem to be much of a vegetarian option except in May and June when Kalahari truffles MIGHT appear.

There is a diverse range of opinion concerning our upcoming Namibia trip. As usual, it is home-planned. There is no group, no guide, no guru. There is a map, a tube of Cenovis and a bag of caramels. I got binoculars for my birthday.

The children, of course, think we are mad.  The grandchildren think we are lucky ducks and have asked for a manatee to be brought home.

Friends have offered various pieces of advice and practical information. Yvonne gave us the tip to smear peppermint oil up our noses to deal with the stink of the seals in Skeleton Coast. Helen said to take tons of warm clothes as she almost froze to death at night. Nick said to beware of slippery, dusty, blind corners. And Charles just took out his phone and reeled through hours of videos of galloping herds and flocks of birds.

We will rent a car and drive. And drive. And drive. All lodges are booked and people keep sending cheerful messages that they are waiting in great anticipation for our imminent arrival. They seem friendly and concerned.

The usual Namibian desert disaster is getting a punctured tire due to the gravel roads. We must check the rental for the spare, and make sure there is a jack. In Namibia there are almost no people and gas stations are as rare as hens’ teeth, so you must change the flat yourself while the zebras, elephants and antelopes look on in wonder and admiration.

But we are old hands at this. Some years back, they reluctantly rented us a minuscule car in Hokkaido, northern Japan. It was not much bigger than those toy cars you see rich children driving around in Doha airport. The tires were the size of dinner plates, and sure enough, the inadvertent sudden presence of a misplaced curb, resulted in a busted tire.

Yes, there was a spare (it was the size of a saucer) but no jack. As one of us held up the little car and the other went scavenging for rocks to hold it up, we were saved by a nice man in a pickup calling out “Jack-o? Jack-0?”

We dropped the rocks and the car and smiled warmly.

So let the adventure begin! Heat, dust, and punctures will be offset by quiver trees and wildebeests and lilac-breasted rollers. They also say that the Brötchens and the beer are delicious.

 

 

 

 

The Cottage Chronicles

Nestled in the soft bellybutton lint of the southern Ontario summer holiday fantasy, is the primordial concept of “the cottage.”  It is a crisp-aired yet dreamy place, where you escape for a week or two. It is always “up north.” Much more than a building, it is a dose of mental medicine that untangles your knotted mind from quotidian urban preoccupations and draws you back to the cry of the loon.

The cottage is built on the tranquil shores of a mussel-fresh lake. It is made of wood and surrounded by trees. There is no lawn, but rather a deep carpet of pine needles with the occasional trillium or jack-in-the-pulpit poking through. There is a stony path leading down to the boat house where there is a crumbling dock and an old canoe. The shore is pebbly. There are braided rugs and painted wooden chairs.

I vividly recall my first childhood cottage: it had no refrigerator. Instead, the iceman came with a block of sawdust-crusted ice that with a great forceps-type instrument he placed in a drawer underneath a smelly cabinet.  It took a week for the block to swelter slowly away. It was magic.

So, with great interest and excitement, I have lived the cottage life vicariously this past week, as my sister took an assortment of family members “up to the lake”.  It seems things have progressed in my absence.

A cottage now needs to have a lake in the vicinity, and, sure enough, Lake Huron was a short walk away from the bungalow that was part of a cottage development neighbourhood. However, municipal by-law rules on the beach can be a real party-pooper: no drinking, no smoking, no glass, no pets, no noise, no picnics, no games, no drones, no fishing. So, after finally getting to the wave-lashed beach with the kids, it can be quite challenging to have a good time.

In my sister’s party, no one was actually arrested or imprisoned, but it was a close call as an unmarked police car stopped the small family group on their way back home to inquire if alcohol was being consumed ON THE SIDEWALK by the adult male. Fortunately, the beer bottle had been emptied and discarded prior to the question, so it was moot. That the youngest child was being carried, screaming and kicking away from the water, was also a useful distraction.

Of course, there was the initial family squabble about who had to sleep in the laundry room. Then there was the visiting monster child who bashed through the rented cottage screen door threatening to kill people with the kitchen knives. This was followed by the teenager hogging the bathroom while a 6-year old had to go #2, and the inevitable rainy day monopoly game with smoked turkey thigh in a shrimp sauce for supper.

The cottage holiday is almost over now, and my sister assures me she, as ever, will be most refreshed and reinvigorated when she gets back home.

And so, the myth lives on.

 

 

Hit by Lightning

Well, it was the night of Canada Day (July 1st) and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse (or an Elk on a golf cart, but you have to actually be in Canada for that.)

We were settled down in the chimney corner in the Shack (old Haute Savoie farm house) and happy to be back at altitude (1100 m), on holiday, and away from the sizzlingly humid summer day we had spent in the heat-wave of the lowlands.

We had beat the black clouds of the approaching storm driving back in the evening at the tail end of the commuters who work in Geneva and live in the French Alps. Bursting with moral satisfaction after a day in charge of a highly-active, closely-related 3-year-old, we were equally exhausted and exhilarated.

As night fell, the storm broke in the valley and I was called away from the repetitively riveting French news that featured the “canicule” which kept telling viewers to drink four litres of water every day and wrap wet towels around their pets.

There was no rain, and the valley was ablaze with sheet lightning, fork lighting, blue jets, sprites, bolts, cloud-to-clouds, streamers, spiders and elves.  I didn’t see any balls, but I’m sure they were out there bouncing merrily around.

It was just as we were stepping back into the safety of indoors, that the solid, deep WOOP! of a lightning strike hit the top of the chimney and the clean cozy fireplace corner became an instant mountain of chimney stones and greasy black goop.

Just to make sure we knew who was in charge, the tornado-wind then blew off part of the roof and the rain poured in.

In case you ever need to know what to do if this happens to you, do not panic. You must immediately call the fire department (#18) and not approach the strike zone. There could be serious structural damage and a loose chimney stone could fall on your head.

We, on the other hand, grabbed flashlights and fire extinguishers and ran up two flights of stairs. The super-deluxe paddling pool with its two basins and slide bought earlier in the day would sure have been useful to collect the cascading water; sadly, the evening’s events and demands had not been foreseen.

Finally, the bed was pushed into the middle of the room, and much like the Bucket grandparents in Charlie and Chocolate Factory, we spent the long dark night waiting and hoping.

We are now back in alpine holiday repair mode. We have renewed contact with the valley’s finest stone mason and carpenter who dropped everything to help. The insurance lady remembered us from the tree-through-the-house Incident three years back and gave us her condolences. The French news is no longer covering the heat wave, but is devoting itself to the drought.

And so it goes … summer holidays in France.

 

 

The Calabrian Car Crash

Well, we had successfully motored south from Naples on the autostrada. There were the usual minor thrills: the exciting instant narrowings from two lanes to one, the huge transport trucks suddenly veering out in front to try to pass something large like themselves, and smokers (think Waterworld) tearing up from behind to stick to the back bumper flashing and honking their impatience

Just the usual uneventful Italian jaunt down to Tropea to catch a few days of sun, buy some sweet red onions and  soak up some Mediterranean blue.

During the drive we made a few interesting social observations. For example, the latest successful Calabrian businessman’s automobile-of-choice is no longer the black Mercedes, but the elegant Maserati.  (The onion business must be booming.) Also, be warned. If you pull off into a small scenic Italian village expecting lunch, you will be lucky to find yourself eating a slice of old cold pizza with a bunch of bored teenagers as all proper restaurants have closed.

About twenty kilometres from our destination, we peeled off the motorway and came to the merge of the coastal highway. And right there, there was a crunching crash.

We had been rear-ended.

By the time the police arrived, the young man perpetrator had calmed down considerably.  As he had been driving his mother’s car, there had been many urgent calls home with all the latest updates. Friends, family members, and total strangers all arrived at the junction to express distress and dismay as the sun was setting into the sea.

The young man claimed he had been blinded by the sun. This might have been true, but he would have had to have been looked backwards over his right shoulder.

The cops had been called as our car papers did not belong to our rental car. The family rejoiced and dispersed, as they thought they had won on a technicality.

The police couple arrived with their red lights flashing and parked importantly in the middle of the road.  He was standard, but his female partner was wicked. Imagine a young Cher in a uniform. Her hair was long, straight and black with bangs down to her eyeballs. No silly hat. Her lipstick was fuschia. Her eye makeup was, for sure, dark and sultry but impossible to see as she was wearing aviator sunglasses with mirror lenses. Her long fingernails matched her lips and she was studded with jewellery—bracelets, rings and necklaces. Improbably, she also wore firemen’s boots.

But her attitude was the best. She was unfazed by the small amount of damage. She seemed to care little about the erroneous car papers. She wanted to get back to where she had been before the tourists had interrupted her life. A bagattella.

The sun had long-since set into the wine-dark sea and Stromboli was puffing gently when we finally reached our hotel. Climbing hungrily up the hill to the village restaurant, our holiday had finally begun.

 

 

 

 

Dear Mr President,

My attention has been drawn to the fact that you are currently searching for bold new projects to help you quickly rebuild your church that burned down last month. As you have not contacted me directly, I thought I’d pitch you my ideas as I’m sure that you’re a fan of Swiss newspaper blogs and like to keep your English snappy (unlike our unfortunate Swiss president.)

Notre Dame de Paris is an old-time favourite in our family. My sister once stayed in a little fire-trap hotel that looked directly onto it and got some fantastic photos. And here in Geneva, of course, our very own St. Peter’s Cathedral is also filled with bells and timbers and also has a 19th-century Gothic spire. We feel a very special connection.

My personal qualifications as advisor in this matter include the following: I have suffered shocking architectural calamity; I grew up in churches; and I happen to know a lot about roofs.

About the initial shock, try to stay calm and get the very best local workers lined up. In our case, we immediately called Frank and Patrice when the log pierced our house in the Haute Savoie. (You might have heard about it, it became quite a cause célèbre in the Vallée du Giffre.)

Anyway, the mess stayed in situ for many months as the insurance companies had to figure out who was to blame. I certainly hope you had insurance for your cathedral, as did the person who inadvertently started the fire (in our case it was the loggers who had piled unsecured logs up the mountainside.) Mostly, insurance companies do not want to pay anything and try to claim that the accident was an act of God. In your case they might have a point.

About church knowledge, as a preacher’s kid in Canada, my Sundays were spent listening to Bible stories. So the proposition of a new spire being a carbon fibre and gold leaf permanent flame symbol is a really bad one. The most exciting Biblical flames are the horrifying, tormenting eternal flames of Hell. And they are really quite depressing when compared to the glorious and positive power of the sun.

Which brings me to my roof-knowledge which has been born out of our long political battle to get solar panels on our roof here in the Geneva countryside. We have finally won, but the Department of Monuments people can be a real pain in the butt. You will probably have lots of hassle with them too, but in my opinion, solar panels would really be the way to go.

Of course, they won’t let you have the normal, ordinary, ugly, Chinese, shiny-black ones, but you could try to get the new, classic, orange-clay coloured, French-made ones. They are bit less efficient, but much more beautiful. Just think, yours could be the first cathedral that is helping to save our planet. I think the idea is a real winner.

 

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Following in the old family tradition of hiking with the friendly help of buses, trains, and one-armed car-drivers, this Easter holiday we set off from the south-west corner of Switzerland to revisit the apple blossoms of the north.

It started well with dawn’s rose-red fingers lighting our way to the village bus. This connects conveniently to the commuter train into Geneva’s main station. Schadenfreude overwhelmed us, as a commuter, dressed in his banking clothes, raced madly down the hill past the vines to catch our train.

Five hours later, and restored by a light lunch at the Trauben Inn of soup, salad, liver, bärlauch gravy, sausages, rösti, and a child-sized bottle of pinot noir, we set off north, over the Ottoberg Mountain to the shores of  Lake Constance.

We were a small group of three, but our intent was clear: backpacks, cameras, binoculars and spare socks defined our touristic ambitions as we toiled up the steep slope, breathlessly admiring gardens and trees, past the Schloss, through the forest, to the little bench at the top of the hill where you could sit and admire the Appenzell Alps and the Säntis to the south.

Unfortunately, to the north, the expected Lake Constance was nowhere to be seen. Instead there were hills rolling off into the far distance, church spires and clean cows munching alfalfa.

At this point our tour leader came in for some rather sharp questioning and it turned out that when this route had been previously travelled, at the age of 14 with a bicycle, the distances were much shorter. The youngest member of the group lay down on the asphalt road, said she couldn’t walk anymore and demanded a caramel.

We set off for the closest church spire speculating that there would be a village bus that could get us to a train that could get us to the lake. We admired the huge tractors were parked at the front doors of houses. A farmer, digging post holes, chatted in his sing-song guttural language about the April heat and lack of rain and how he could only get one cut out of the grass he was growing on his north slope.

Winding and digressing lanes took us down to Hugelshofen–a village of many cars but few people.

And this is how we ended up sitting, quite happily, in the Thurgau countryside across from a closed restaurant with apple blossoms swirling around our heads, breathing the heavily manure-perfumed air of the landwirtschaft. Cars slowed down to stare at us. We drank the possibly-poisonous but cooly-delicious water from the fountain. We admired the inventive children who had built a ladder of kitchen chairs to climb a tree.

For me, that hour at the bus stop was the highlight of the trip. A stranger in my own country, muscle-sore and weary, waiting to be rescued by a bus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba #3: The Operatic Walk

There are no signposts in Cuba and you should always take a local guide with you on even the simplest of walks; otherwise, you could become lost in the fields and end up chopping sugar cane and living in a rural commune for the rest of your life.

The overture of the walk meant finding a muddy spur road at the top of the hill. The air was clean and the sun was comforting. We stepped into our first orange puddles with a feeling of calm, brave stalwartness. As the path became a lake, mild adventure took over and barbed wire fences were crossed as the path disappeared. We were mildly lost and got fearless soakers.

We were saved by a group of riders as they bumped and splashed along on their rented horses, losing objects from their pockets and grimacing in terror. We followed them and broke out onto the upper plateau: Butterflies, birds, vistas. I sang an aria that expressed my exuberance in the midst of such great natural beauty.

After the first intermission (where beer was served) the trails then converged and, suddenly, there was a plethora of horse-tourists. All politeness had vanished, and a cowboy brushed too close and kicked me in the backpack.

A word was spoken to express annoyance and the Cuban horse-tour primo uomo became deeply, darkly angry. His solo from the saddle expressed Wagnerian rage, hatred, and macho supremacy. His gesticulations became so wild (as he demonstrated the size of his own personal private parts) that he dropped his horse whip.

We continued, sadder but wiser, on our way.

We followed the deep hoof prints along the rolling river and up a steep muddy bank to find a farmer smashing beans beside his hut. We asked the way back and he gesticulated towards a far-off hill. Calm slowly returned as we slogged through the heat and the dust towards the Mirador—a shed with stools that offered us a vista, shelter, and drinks.

Nice young men (horseless) pointed out, with pride, an apartment tower rising from the tobacco fields. It had been built by Chile’s Allende back in the day in support of the Cuban social system. They found maps on their cell phones and pointed us in the right direction (6 km) through the underbrush. I gave them Swiss chocolate. They gave me plant-stem straws.

Half way down the hill, we were caught by the glittering eye of Viñales’ very own Ancient Mariner, and he showed and explained his collection of fossils, meteorites, medicinal plants, tobacco, honey and home-made liquor. He told us his tale of being a professor in Africa for the Revolution. It was poco difficile. I fell asleep.

Trudging the last few miles along the paved road, the finale was filled with testy fatigue and boredom and we sang a duet of sore feet and dissonance.

In retrospect, though, it was a most enriching, endearing and entertaining walk. Bravo!!! Encore!!!

 

 

 

 

Cuba #2: Shopping for Nothing

As a tourist, one of your obligations is to shop. You do this for yourself and for others. A delightful scarf here, a lucky temple bracelet there, and sculpted frogs wherever you find them. You quietly shop and you collect and you forget. This is tourism at its very best.

Japan is probably my favourite tourist-shopping destination. You head off to your local suburban Peacock Department Store and you are sure to find curious and unusual treasures—a dried pack of seaweed, a porcelain bowl with painted fish, a vacuum-packed octopus, an elegant ink brush or knife—all delightful and inexpensive.

In Thailand you look out for bamboo placemats and silk underpants with green elephants. In India you find intricate metal cows and beads from the Nagaland. In Egypt you buy parchment, dusty antique jewellery and camel-bone miniatures.

In Cuba you buy nothing, as there is nothing to buy. Their best cigars and finest rum are all exported, so you are left with banana-leaf cigars and run-of-the-mill, bargain-basement Havana Club.

In certain towns where the tourist groups are bused, there are millions of identical Ché Guevara t-shirts, hats, licence plates and posters. In front of bakeries and drug stores there are constant line-ups as Cubans wait patiently to see what can suddenly be purchased.

In front of supermarkets, however, this is not the case.

Our first supermarket was in Viñales—an idyllic countryside town set in the middle of tobacco plantations and picturesque rock formations. Tourists come here to relax and do a bit of horse-riding along the unmarked trails. Everyone stays in the casa particulars (bed and breakfasts) for about two nights before heading back to their beach or boat worlds.

The supermarket there was picture-perfect: shelves were filled with bottles of rum, beer and wine which sold merrily at good strong Swiss prices. There were packs of chips, cookies, and cheese and the ubiquitous (expensive) bottled tourist water.

The second grocery store was outside the city of Cienfuegos and we were quite excited when we encountered a uniformed security lady at the door who made us remove our packs and put them in a locker. This was obviously a first-class, though sadly undiscovered, store and theft was rampant.

As it turned out, all the shelves in the whole shop held the same item: miniature cartons of pineapple juice. These towered up to the ceiling along all the aisles. It was a stroll through a pineapple juice castle.

At the back of the shop was the fresh meat section. This consisted of two pigs that had been butchered, boiled, and packaged into two oblong plastic sausage cases about the size and shape of a real live pig. The colour was bubble-gum pink and there were foreign objects added for interest. This is Cuban ham.

Anticipation, exultation, disappointment, epiphany: Cuba in a nutshell. We bought enough pineapple juice to keep us in piña coladas for the rest of the trip.

 

 

Cuba: Back to the Future

In every country, a tourist has to energetically perform specific tasks within a relatively short time-frame. This is the tourist imperative. There is surprisingly little Hobbesian free will in a good tourist’s world.

For example, visiting Switzerland you have to see the Matterhorn, buy a watch, and eat a cheese fondue. In Canada you have to dine on Nova Scotia lobster, see Niagara Falls, buy a bear-bell and go walking in the Rockies. In Bali you have to run away from the monkeys, buy ikat weavings and go to a gamelan orchestra evening show. Your actions are prescribed. You spend your money and stay focused on your touristic endeavours until it’s time to get back to where you came from. It is, frankly, quite exhausting.

In Cuba this is not the case, because there are no tourists. Anyone who manages to escape from their all-inclusive resort, gets separated from their cruise-ship crowd, or is just out and about on their own is NOT a tourist. She is a “punto”.

The punto is cash-rich with wads of Euros and Francs falling out of her pocket. Most of Cuba is dirt poor but many of these people are working in the fields, living in rural communes and never have the good luck to come into contact with a full-blooded punto.  The Cuban game is to try to separate the punto from her lolly. This is not done on a criminal level so is not dangerous. It is simply a national pastime and hugely entertaining.

The punto is hauling around so much cash because there are no cash machines in Cuba and when you come across an open cambio, you have to change some of your international currency into CUC’s – the tourist pesos (worth a dollar). This must not be confused with the local currency, which is also a peso (but is only worth five cents). For example a coffee costs 5 pesos. Does this mean 25 cents or does this mean 5 dollars?

Having recently paid 8 euros for a coffee at St Mark’s Square in Venice, I know that $5 is a POSSIBLE coffee price. But sitting in the squalor of the Malecon in Havana with buildings reduced to rubble all around you, it is a highly questionable situation.

A good tourist will pay the $5, and quietly ruminate that Cuba is a very expensive place. A wicked tourist will calmly put 25 cents of local money on the table, and then start laughing when the waiter says he wants 5 tourist dollars. The waiter will not be able to resist the magnificent joke and roll around the floor laughing that a good tourist has just paid $5 (about the price of a rotten old Cuban car) for a little cup of coffee.

This is the grease of Cuba tourist life—puntos, salsa, and mojitos—a simple world free from the modern nuisances of plastic, time, and fattening foods.  And most stimulating for the wicked tourist.