Oh Christmas Tree!

by Meera Kamra-Kelsey
IMG_20191210_182935Stats show about 80% of homes put up artificial Christmas trees. Dragged out from basements and crawl spaces and dusted off, many are decades old and a bit ratty. But like at our home, easier to pull out for one more festive season. Cartons and storage bins also spew some pretty old lights, decor and tree ornaments. Ah, but they spew in return, many fond memories!
Newbies will consider their options in terms of tradition, effort and environmental concerns. Picture the quintessential family, trudging through snow to cut down a sweet little pine, cedar, spruce or fir and hauling it home atop the family auto. Or the trek to pop-up tree lots, bursting with trussed up trees to be unfurled at home. Some may deliberately seek out the spindly ‘Charlie Brown’ tree because it’s just cute! Then comes the watering, care and clean-up and hope the pets stay away. But a real tree will look and smell lovely.
Versus the tree made of plastic, foil, aluminum or other material. Sometimes pre-lit, manufactured, packaged and shipped from somewhere far away. Fingers crossed, made of recycled material and not by an exploitative manufacturer! These are convenient, reusable, low maintenance and do not shed. Plus environmental impact from the manufacturing process dissipates by amortization over several years of use.
On one hand, tradition and fragrance. On the other, a disco-pink-shiny foil one screams kitschy-cool. Eco-experts contend real trees are best. They are often raised as a crop in a green space offering animal habitat, sucking in CO2, injecting oxygen into the air, can be later mulched and returned to the earth.
As Christmas 2019 fast approaches and catches many of us off guard, supply paucity and rising price of real trees has made the news. A couple of reasons have been cited. Nostalgia seekers with environmental concerns want real. But ten plus years ago as the world grappled with a serious recession, planting evergreen seedlings was low priority. It can take seven to ten years to grow a modest tree, so do the math. Floods, slides and fires have also affected supply. Quick research shows that a five to six foot tree can cost $100 and more this year.
Rewind to 1967. My mother, brother and I shared a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a small building on busy Bedford Highway on the outskirts of Halifax. It had an all-in-one kitchen-living-dining room, backed on to train tracks and rocky shoreline of Bedford Basin. I had just turned 13, my brother was 11, my mother worked hard to give us a good life. No car and few treats but we were so happy.

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My father, then a University student in Toronto, was to join us for a few days for Christmas. It was to be our second Christmas as newcomers to Canada. My brother and I trudged out one evening in gently falling snow a couple of days before Christmas to find a tree. A few seemingly long blocks later, we found one in a tree lot just as the vendor was running low and ready to close up for the year. Brother and I grabbed an end each and, with difficulty, trudged back home with it. The tree was so tall, the tip bent at the ceiling, but was beautiful. We enjoyed decorating it (remember tossed tinsel?) and had a lovely time as a family. Some of those ornaments are still around and treasured.
Cost of the tree – $1. Value of the memories – priceless!

We Made Like Vikings

by Meera Kamra-Kelsey

I have long been intrigued by L’Anse aux Meadows, a Viking settlement by first Europeans to reach North America. Sorry Columbus. In a remote location on the northern tip of Newfoundland, it would not be an easy visit. Husband and I discussed but shelved it, as it would mean a flight to St. John’s and long bus tour or road trip.

Iceland intrigued too. A long-ago geology prof was there and photographed the 1973 Icelandic volcanic eruption, fiery images he later showed us wide-eyed students. The 2010 eruption at Eyjafjallajokull (yikes!) infamous for ash clouds that grounded most European aircraft for a couple of weeks. A few years ago, husband and two pals visited Iceland around summer solstice when days are long. They raced snowmobiles along glacier edges, played into wee hours and frolicked in a warm thermal pool like locals. As he had been there, done that, Iceland was just a dim possibility for me.

Both showed up on an interesting cruise itinerary. ‘In the Wake of the Vikings’ was a 2-week leg of an 8-month world cruise. Vikings originated in what are now Denmark, Norway and Sweden, mostly engaging in agriculture, fishing and some plundering. In the 7th and 8th centuries sails supplemented oars on their wooden plank boats which permitted further flung exploration and settlement. All itinerary countries had archaeological evidence and lore of Viking visits.

We would begin in Oslo, take a scenic train and embark in Bergen, calling at Shetland and Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, then Saguenay, Quebec and Montreal along the St. Lawrence Seaway. Long initial flights and time-jump ahead, a magical mystery tour of North Atlantic bucket list locales on the way to home time zone.

All details were arranged a year in advance. Boomers have time, desire and means for adventure travel, so slots fill up fast. Husband and I enjoy cruises, we unpack once, have interesting experiences. Service and food is usually too good, we do what each wants, plus we like full and active sea days. Flights booked, starboard cabin booked for assumed optimal scenery.

Norway:
A beautiful and scenic country of 5.25 million known for stunning mountains and fjords. Birthplace of Ibsen, Munch, Grieg, Dahl and Ullman, occupied by Germany during World War II. More than half cars are electric as indicated by ‘E’ on license plates, many are Teslas. Norway struck oil in 1969 in the North Sea, contributing hugely to the economy. Just a small percentage of annual income from the burgeoning $1 trillion+ investment fund provides universal education and health care. Norway invests around the world and in green energy initiatives.

Oslo is booming and bustling with interesting new architecture, a gleaming white opera house and many new works underway. We visited Holmenkollen, a winter sports site that is over 100 years old. It was further developed as a ski-jump site for 1952 Oslo winter olympics and since then is used for world championships. We checked out Frogner Park’s bronze, iron and granite sculptures created by Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943). Some statues are playful while others evoke human suffering and circle of life. The Viking Ship Museum houses preserved ships, burial artifacts and carvings from boat graves found around Oslo Fjord. These ships were used in sea voyages and became the final resting place of their wealthy owners.

       

We took the Oslo to Bergen ‘Bergenbanen’, the highest main railway in Northern Europe. Almost 500 Km long, a 6.5 hours scenic journey with many tunnels, longest of which is the Finse Tunnel at almost 10 Km. Stops included Voss (known for chichi bottled water), Dale (known for traditional Norwegian knitwear), Fla and Finse. Many do ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ from some of these stops, an all-in-a-day train and fjords adventure. We enjoyed calm lakes, waterfalls, snow and lovely scenery above the treeline.

Bergen, Norway’s second largest city is located on the southwest coast. Aptly nicknamed ‘City of Rain’, it can do so most days and that’s what we got. As it is always windy, discarded damaged umbrellas are common. It is, however, picturesque, surrounded by mountains and fjords. From 13th to 17th centuries, Bergen was part of the Hanseatic League’s trading and defence ‘bloc’ that included North and Baltic Sea countries. Colourful wooden buildings at Bryggen used by the Hanseatic League to run Norway are preserved as a UNESCO-listed site and are now a hotel, eateries and retail.

We embarked. Northern sub-arctic seas can be rough but we thought, bah, we do not get seasick. Well, rough seas were exacerbated by dissipating remnants of hurricane Dorian. Our first port-of-call Shetland Islands was cancelled, disappointing as we would not see fabled scenery and the wee horsies. The Shetland Islands archipelago is part of Scotland, between England and Norway, settled by Vikings in 8th and 9th centuries. We enjoyed a welcome extra sea day instead.

Faroe Islands:
We called at beautiful Torshavn, capital of the Faroe Islands on a sunny, cool and calm day. This is another sub-arctic island archipelago with rugged cliffs, many waterfalls, bird and wildlife and Faroese curly woolly sheep. With a population of about 50,000, these isles lie north of the UK between Norway and Iceland and are an autonomous part of Denmark.

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First settlers were Irish monks seeking tranquility in the 7th century. Later in the 9th century, the Faroes were a central part of the Viking territories. Occupied by the UK in WW II, a NATO radar site is still active. Locals hunt and fish (lots of Atlantic salmon), ‘salmon steps’ assist their migration to the sea. Some trap and consume the cutest seabird, the puffin. Sadly, cliff and sea birds were out to sea for the fall and winter. Scenery was spectacular. Finally a rare day we enjoyed reading on our verandah.

Iceland:
On to Reykjavik, capital of geologically and thermally active Iceland. The capital region is home to about 200,000 of a total Icelandic population around 300,000. Iceland experiences the most volcanic activity on earth. The Atlantic Ocean ridge lies through this small island where molten magma continuously flows to the surface. A third of all matter from volcanic activity on earth comes from Icelandic eruptions occuring, on the average, every four years. Wildlife includes a variety of whales. Icelanders still occasionally engage in whaling.
Cold, grey and rainy weather was not to stop us seeing the sights. We had a quick tour of Perlan (pearl), a natural history museum and rotating glass dome built upon huge water tanks that store natural thermal water. Downtown Reykjavik is a mix of old and funky new buildings and street art, including some said to be by secretive graffiti artist Banksy. Harnessing thermal steam to grow crops and generate electricity, Iceland has numerous generating stations. In recent years, some international manufacturers have relocated here to avail of this cheaper energy source.

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Thermal pools are in all neighbourhoods and folks take regular soaks. I had laser mindset on bucket list item, a hedonistic soak in the Blue Lagoon. En route, we saw miles of black basaltic lava fields topped with vivid green moss and lichen. Surprisingly blue thermal pools are gorgeous. The busy public pool site is maintained at about 38 Celsius. This was an enjoyable, worthwhile experience. We used thermal clay face masks and stayed in till pruny!

Greenland:
Back on board, we learned that the next stop at Nanortalik, Greenland would also be cancelled due to inclement weather. Size-wise, Greenland is the world’s biggest island but has the smallest population. With an area of almost 2.2 million square Km, the population is around 57,000! Located east of Canadian sub-arctic islands, much of it is ironically covered with a permanent ice sheet. It is an autonomous territory within the kingdom of Denmark, the capital is Nuuk. Given historic Norse and Danish associations, Greenland is mainly Lutheran. Greenland experiences ice melts every year but this year’s was more than usual.
We got lucky when our itinerary was altered and substituted with a leisurely day cruising Prince Christian Sound. This is a long fjord surrounded by steep mountains with countless beautiful blue glaciers, some that calve and create small icebergs. It connects the Labrador Sea with the Irminger Sea, is about 100 Km long, very narrow in spots and has one small settlement along it. Wonderful colours of lichen, scree fans and glacial striation were evident.

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Onward to Qaqortoq in southern Greenland, home to about 3,000. Evidence has been found of prehistoric, later Inuit and Norse cultures here. Unemployment is high at over 10%. Sealing, whaling and tourism are important livelihoods. Stone carvings and sculptures along the main street and in public spaces were pleasantly surprising. Many Nordic and Qaqortoq artists have contributed to the ‘Stone & Man’ project and the town is like an open air art gallery. Mindebronden is the oldest fountain in Greenland. Gertrud Rasch’s white concrete Lutheran church atop a hill was designed to resemble an iceberg, the interior is simple and beautiful.

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Oh Canada! Newfoundland and Quebec:
We reached Canadian waters off the northern tip of Newfoundland and tendered to L’Anse aux Meadows, a UNESCO World Heritage site where Vikings first landed in North America. The settlement was originally named Vinland (wild grapes were found) by Icelandic Norseman Leif Eriksson and party around the year 1,000, borne out by artifacts, local lore and Norse sagas.

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There are two parts to this experience. Believed to be the actual settlement site is now managed and archaeological evidence is protected by Parks Canada. Here is a small recreated village site. A short distance away at Norstead is a larger, more elaborate recreated site with several turf buildings and spaces, reenactments depict seaside life and agriculture back then.

We entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence via narrow Strait of Belle Island between Newfoundland Island and mainland Labrador into semi-enclosed Labrador Sea through which the Great Lakes flow to the Atlantic Ocean. After sailing between Anticosti Island and Gaspe Peninsula, we entered the St. Lawrence Seaway that allows oceangoing vessels to travel from the Atlantic to commerce-rich Great Lakes ports.

We called at Saguenay on like-named river. A city of 145,000. Once part of the fur trade, now agriculture and lumber are main industries. Intense rain-caused river flooding damaged the town and some lives were lost in 1996. Popular for whale watching and other eco-tourism. We were treated to ‘La Fabuleuse’ stage show depicting the region’s history. It is hinted that Vikings visited here.

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Next on to sunny and very busy Quebec. On the day of our stop, four other cruise ships had the same idea. Most central street traffic was blocked for a climate protest march. We walked about and enjoyed majestic Chateau Frontenac and old city environs. Plains of Abraham is where General Wolfe’s British troops defeated those of French General Montcalm in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759.

Last but not least, we carried on to Montreal. Most cruise ships can’t continue south from Quebec to Montreal because of two low bridges but we could, barely. This lovely, historic city offers gorgeous architecture, delectable cuisine and mad nightlife. It was pretty cool to take a train home!

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Onboard, I aimed for as much fish and seafood as possible. A couple cured, but most fresh, I counted and consumed 21 offered varieties during the cruise – swordfish, pickerel, cod, halibut, mackerel, salmon, Greenlandic salmon, flounder, shrimp, crab legs, lobster, scallops, mussels, clams, bream, calamari, trout , herring, sea bass, sablefish, softshell crab. I count Greenlandic salmon separately even though it tastes like salmon because, well, it was my first and possibly last time ever.

This was an intense sub-Arctic North Atlantic journey as we ticked off more bucket list. Scenery was awesome, the weather so-so. We saw many gorgeous sunrises, sets and rainbows. Colourful houses offset often dour grey skies everywhere. Some have grass growing on the roof for stability and insulation from harsh weather.

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Saw no northern lights but have seen them right in our home ‘hood. Can’t face seafood for a while!

Temples, Rice and Brutality: our journey through Vietnam and Cambodia

by Meera Kamra-Kelsey, November 2018

Planning for worthwhile long distance travel begins well in advance of departure. Husband and I enjoy moderate physically challenging itineraries that engage, enrich and remove us from our comfort zone. Off the beaten path and personal bucket list ticks are desired.

Scouring brochures and discussions with friends drove us to look at Vietnam and Cambodia. Many tour companies operate in this region. We selected an adventure travel company we had used once before, known for enhanced cultural and anthropological enrichment programs. Though one can arrange travel segments separately, we wanted everything booked and looked after by one entity. Their 18-day itinerary to and through Vietnam and Cambodia would include Hanoi and Halong Bay in Vietnam, Siem Reap, Cambodia for Angkor Wat and other temple complexes, 7 night Mekong River cruise with several stops along the way to experience nature, life and culture of locals, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City.

More than a year before our departure at the end of October 2018, basic air, hotel, and river cruise bookings were initiated via the tour company. Later, we obtained mug shots, appropriate travel visas for both countries, vaccinations, currencies, antibiotics and medications, attended to clothing. Latter became interesting as we opted to travel just with carry-on luggage. We turned to previously acquired, drip-dryable gear for most clothing, rain, foot and head gear. As there would be evenings when we would want to look ‘nice’ on the river cruise, selected items would co-ordinate, mix and match. Fellow passengers would just put up with us in what they had already seen. Essential liquids such as toothpaste, hand sanitizer, insect repellent and sunblock would be in flight-approved sizes. We obtained Vietnamese Dong from our bank (100,000 = $5, more or less). Cambodia uses the Riel but US dollars are readily accepted and welcome. We were told to take clean small denomination notes for tipping and purchases as crumpled or torn notes could be declined. Banks do not provide US notes in low denominations, so asked and received a small bundle from brother (thanks D!).

Some country background and history (source – tour guides and internet):

Both are socialist/ communist governments currently attracting much investment from prosperous neighbours and native bigwigs. Corruption is rampant. Big cities are glittering and bustling, construction cranes are everywhere, rural life is tough, agrarian. Majority of populations are under 30. Most urban travel is by scooter and motorbike, sometimes transporting seemingly unwieldy loads. Everyone driving in all directions, traffic signals and rules ignored. It works, we saw no accidents. Rice paddies, banana trees and coconut palms galore. A major use of land, large and small farms, men and women in conical woven ‘Asian rice hats’ sow, tend and harvest ‘wet’ rice in paddies dotted with burial crypts. Dearly departed are ‘planted’ right there! Rice is spread out to dry outside homes and on sidewalks. Hammocks are ubiquitous for resting and sleeping. A lot of garbage and plastic is strewn about but both countries plan a cleanup and to ban plastic in the next few years. Overhead tangled wires in all urban areas require constant maintenance. Again, there are future plans to bury wires and cables but this will require massive, disruptive effort. ‘Hello’ is ‘xin chao’ in Vietnam, ‘suasdey’ in Cambodia. Both countries were colonized by France, have been in and out of conflict with each other, France, China, USA, Soviet Union, Japan – or supported by them. Both have had long brutal civil wars. Most of these numerous conflicts are well-documented. Gentle reader, for more info than I can provide, consult your library or favourite search engine.

Vietnam is easternmost in what was once called Indochina. South of China, east of Laos and Cambodia, near Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Around 3,000 miles long and about 30 miles at its narrowest. A similar length highway runs from the China border to the south of the country. The Ho Chi Minh Trail featured in the Vietnam War to move troops and supplies south under heavy forestation cover, led to use of Napalm and Agent Orange to remove vegetation. Population about 95 million, 70% living in rural poverty. Capital city is Hanoi. Has a president and a prime minister. Religions are Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim and many are atheist. Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice after Thailand. There is current dispute with China over oil from bordering ocean waters. Place names may be shown in 2 parts, e.g. Viet Nam, Ha Noi, Ha Long, Sai Gon.

The Kingdom of Cambodia, once known as Kampuchea, people are the Khmer. Thailand to the north and west, Laos to the northeast, Vietnam to the east/ SE. Population about 16 million, 95% Buddhist. Has a prime minister and mainly figurehead king. A large exporter of rubber, peppercorns, jackfruit, tobacco, dragonfruit, pomelo and bananas.

On our way:

Some hours into the flight, just where we were headed sank in! We knew we would be surprised and thrilled by new sights, culture, food and languages. Flights and layovers totalled about 24 hours to Hanoi with a 12 hour time difference ahead of home. A minor snafu at the airport – though expected, no one to meet and take us to our hotel. Adventure began, a helpful stranger ordered up a ‘Grab’ ride, South Asia’s answer to Uber. Our first experience spending hundreds of thousands of Dong!

In our tour group of 48, the two of us were the only Canadians. All others were American. There were a few single travellers, ages were roughly late 50s to early 80s, a few with slight mobility issues. We were split into 2 groups and would have our own ‘Adventure leader guides’. Following a comfortable night in Hanoi, we departed by motorcoach for picturesque Halong Bay. Seen and learned en route – Samsung, Canon and Foxconn have huge assembly facilities employing tens of thousands. ‘Secret’ policemen’s assistants use radar and cell photos to catch speeders. It’s cheaper to pay fines under the table. Teachers make a lot of money on the side by mandatory tutoring, teachers’ day gifts. Rest room stops called ‘happy room’ stops. Houses are built on concrete stilts to protect from floods, crawling insects, termites, snakes. People and cattle stay cooler under the house in summer.

Halong Bay (descending dragon) is a UNESCO world heritage site 165 km from Hanoi in NE Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin of the South China Sea. An important 1964 marine aggression incident here escalated the Vietnam War. There is much construction in the area aiming for more tourism, hundreds of tourist and fishing boats. The bay covers an area of about 600 square miles with more than 1,600 limestone karst islands and islets, mostly uninhabited due to sheer cliffsides and dense forests. There are numerous caves. We had an overnight cruise on a lux ‘junk’, enjoyed the photogenic landscape, visited an historic fishing village, archaeologically and geologically significant Surprise Cave, did tai chi on deck, tried squidding, a tea ceremony and a cooking class to make spring rolls.

   

We returned to Hanoi for a proper lookabout. A colourful 7 Km tile mosaic wall commemorates Hanoi’s 1000 year anniversary in 2010. Architecture is interesting. Residential buildings are tall and narrow due to steep urban real estate cost. Sides are concrete-bare as abutting buildings are erected in due course. All have at least one, often steel, water tank on top. City water comes to the lower level, then is pumped up and stored for upper level use. A bridge purportedly designed by Gustave Eiffel, yup that one! Bombed by the US during the war, American prisoners were used to fix it. McCain Memorial is at the site where he parachuted in and was taken prisoner. Visited Temple of Literature. Revered and reviled, Ho Chi Minh (HCM) lies in state at his Mausoleum. Long lines, silence and respect required, HCM looks much like a wax figure having been embalmed and retouched since death in 1969. Visited a Buddhist monastery and orphanage, met with serene nuns. Explored Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a warren of narrow alleys  full of vendors, colourful and varied products and tangled wires overhead. Snails and Vietnamese ‘egg coffee’ are popular. 50-year old native son billionaire Pham Nhat Vuong made it big in packaged instant noodles in Ukraine, repatriated his funds and has built the ‘Vin’ empire – residential neighbourhoods all over SE Asia (Vincity), markets, schools, hospitals and the Vinfast auto recently introduced at the Paris Auto Show.

        
   

Next, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia for 3 days to explore Angkor Temple complexes. Astounding Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage site on the list of most-ancient wonders and considered the 8th wonder of the world. It is a vast site covering hundreds of acres. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple to Lord Vishnu, preserver and protector of the universe. The complex is surrounded by a moat which we crossed via a floating bridge made and donated by Canada! Many bas relief galleries depict daily life, wars and the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Thousands of tourists, many Chinese, visit here every day, so screens, posed snaps and selfie sticks rule! Angkor Thom, last capital of the Khmer empire. Statues of 7-headed ‘naga’ serpents and lions. Strangler fig and kapok trees, storied large roots that rise from and wind around temples, ‘tomb raider’ tree. Restoration is being funded by India. Gorgeous temple of Bayon encompasses Hinduism and Buddhism as a later king married a Buddhist. 4-faced towers depict both religions, good and evil. Four tenets of Buddhism – charity, compassion, sympathy and equanimity.

     

      

The Might Mekong River:

mekong-river-map1-20nutzw - NUS Blog 

At Kampong Cham we boarded the river cruise ship Tonle Pandaw ‘Phnom Penh’ for 7 nights on the Mekong River. It was a steep 86 steps to the river and across a rickety woven bamboo gangplank. But the ship was lovely, comfortable and service marvellous. The Mekong River (Mother of Waters) rises in Tibet, runs through China as the Lancang River then Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It has many tributaries and branches, is muddy brown with silt carried down from meltoff, terminates as the Mekong Delta. It is 12th longest in the world and 7th longest in Asia. It provides livelihood through fishing and farming but there is now much environmental stress. The water is supposedly clean but many thousands discharge effluent of their lives into it. Garbage, plastic and styrofoam float downstream from all countries it passes through. Environmental issues cause tension among neighbour countries, escalating as many dams are planned upstream. We saw dozens of large container ships dredging the river and shoreline for soil. This soil is shipped to Singapore to enlarge its land footprint. Causes immense harm to the locals, ruining fish farms and homes have tumbled into the river.

   

 

For all excursions, we carried much around our necks or in pockets – nametag, tour listening device, water, camera, hat, sunblock, bug spray, a little cash. We set out daily to observe life and culture along the river and on islands. Oxcart and tuk-tuk (Bajaj brand from India) to a school on Koh Trong island where sweet kids showed off their English skills. They want to be doctors and teachers as are aware of generations wiped out by the Khmer Rouge (KR). We planted a tree each as the plan is ‘one tourist, one tree’. Took fishing boats to view shy freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, saw around 12. Visited ‘Silk Island’ and viewed the completely handcrafted process from moth to woven products. Survivors of landmines and KR campaigns work here. Visited a dance school striving to carry on Apsara traditional dance and music.

We reached Phnom Penh, a complete contrast to the slower pace of village life along the Mekong. Took a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw with one passenger in front) tour to sumptuous royal palace and silver pagoda with a floor comprised of 5 tons of silver tiles. Just chanced upon a military parade rehearsing for the impending 65th anniversary of independence from France. Visited the National Museum’s collection of Angkor period antique Hindu and Buddhist sculpture.

   

That afternoon, we toured the Killing Fields Choeung Ek Genocide Centre and S21 Genocide Museum. A most heartbreaking experience but another one to bear witness and ‘lest we forget’. The first is a mainly undisturbed mass grave site, one of many, where Pol Pot’s brutal Marxist-Leninist Khmer Rouge regime carried out mass murder against educated intellectuals. Evidentiary tower of skulls. Fabric and bones are rising and revealed by rain and erosion. The second was once a school and later detention centre where many atrocities and killings took place. We met a survivor and some descendants of survivors. Learned that men tried to rough up their hands to prove that they were rice farmers, not teachers, landowners, educated or wealthy elite of any sort.

   

   

Pol Pot (said to be taken from ‘Political Potential’) was born Saloth Sar, studied and lived in France where he adopted Chinese and Russian communist ideology. He returned home as a revolutionary politician aiming to create an egalitarian agrarian society. He involved Cambodia in a long civil war and social engineering projects. 2-4 million lives may have been lost and and the horror of land mines continues to this day.

From Wikipedia: ‘The Khmer Rouge had a policy of evacuating urban areas and forcibly relocating their residents to the countryside. When the Khmer Rouge took the town of Kratie in 1971, Sar and other members of the party were shocked at how fast the “liberated” urban areas shook off socialism and went back to the old ways. Various ideas were tried in order to re-create the town in the image of the party, but nothing worked. In 1973, Sar decided out of total frustration that the only solution was to send the entire population of the town to the fields in the countryside. He wrote at the time “if the result of so many sacrifices was that the capitalists remain in control, what was the point of the revolution?”. Shortly after, Sar ordered the evacuation of the 15,000 people of Kampong Cham for the same reasons.’

We visited these 2 towns from the Mekong. Pol Pot was never brought to justice, died in 1998. Just 2 days after we returned home, two Khmer Rouge officials were tried and convicted by an international tribunal of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The current prime minister holding office since 1985 is said to have been a KR commander. Others with KR ideology hold government posts, so mistrust and fear continue. The PM’s Westpoint-educated son is expected to be the next PM. Communist ideology clearly clashes with the commerce, investment and construction going gangbusters.

Crossed back into Vietnam which has it’s own brutal history of genocide during the Land Reform Policy period. Hundreds of thousands died as the wealthy and landowners were wiped out in social equalization schemes. And there is the war that wiped out much vegetation and countless people in the USA/ Soviet Union proxy war. Homeless orphaned Amerasian ‘dust children’ are still around despite US ‘baby lifts’.

Continuing life on the river, we visited Buddhist temples, a Catholic church, another sweet school, floating fishing villages, spring onion and coriander farms. Coconut candy, marble statuary, clay pot, furniture and basket making communities, a grafting nursery, another silk operation, a lacquer workshop. Visited some private homes, saw a multitude of chickens and ducks, ancestral graves right in front courtyards, experienced our first torrential rainfall. We were first time tourists to ever visit some villages. 2-passenger dugout canoes through 2-3 ft wide waterways took us to a lovely bird sanctuary revealing a treetop visual feast of storks, egrets, herons, a single colourful kingfisher (photo source: Wikipedia). The next day, 4-passenger dugout canoes took us through dense Nipa palms and mangroves. Sampan boarding from our ship and shore were all tentative, some improvised using a narrow plank ‘monkey bridge’.

   

     source:Wikipedia

   

   

Our last stop was Ho Chi Minh City (HCMS, formerly Saigon), a bustling chaotic city of 12 million people and 7 million motorbikes, fewer cars. Again a shocking contrast to preceding days. Glittering skyscrapers dominate the skyline, notable ones are Vincorp’s Landmark 81 and Bitexco tower with its jutting helipad. We visited Reunification Palace with diplomatic meeting halls above, war rooms, bunkers and tunnels below. The gorgeous French colonial, still operating Post Office, also said to be an Eiffel design. Viewed Notre Dame Cathedral, the Opera house and famous CIA building where a helicopter landed in 1975 to evacuate Americans and sympathizers. Had dinner at US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.’s ‘secret house’.

   

   

   

Traffic does not stop for pedestrians. We were urged to make like ‘sticky rice’ when crossing streets. We saw graceful Apsara performers reminiscent of Indian dancers, a shadow puppet show, a water puppet show and unique musical instruments. Sweltered in high temperatures and humidity for the whole trip. Dining was interesting. Myriad tropical fruit and veggies, ubiquitous rice and noodles, ‘family style’ sharing platters, Vietnamese Banh Mi and Pho. French colonizers left both countries with a legacy of superb baking, baguettes, croissants and excellent strong coffee. Some fellow passengers experienced digestive illness, treated well at international hospitals in cities. We were all mildly affected, unavoidable due to different water and food. Light switches, taps, showers, push/ pull doors operated differently than home. We had good WiFi at hotels in cities and so-so on board ship. But look at where we were!

   

This memorable journey to and through Vietnam and Cambodia was quite demanding due to distances involved and complexity of travel within the countries. We found the required stamina. Took 15 modes of transport in all! Met some nice people in this well travelled group. Incredible jet lag has us thinking no more long distance travel, but we already know it will happen. Adventure clothing is washed and put away but within easy reach!
As Mark Twain aptly put: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

fruitful…fruitful

everywhere a sign…signs

 

Birds of Many Feathers

By Meera Kamra-Kelsey,  April 1, 2018

Currently snowbirding in Arizona, husband and I are preparing for descent and will soon return to our primary nest north of the border. The calendar says ‘spring’. In Ontario, temps are hopping like the Easter bunny back and forth across zero degrees, spring has not yet sprung.

Here in AZ, it feels like summer, with 90+ temps and hot breezes. Locals think it’s just lovely as they will face much over 100+ F in coming months! It has been another year of severe drought. Normally seen yellow, orange, blue and purple desert wildflowers are just absent, plants are sere. There are buds on some cacti but are late and we may not see these eagerly anticipated blooms. Ah well, we have memories and photo evidence.

IMG_20180331_155413Visitors to our southern home have met our wee backyard cactus family we lovingly call Peter, Pals and Murray. Peter, a cholla (perhaps chainfruit or jumping), was our first, starting as a golf-ball-sized bur with hurtful spines brought home from a hike 20 years ago. He grew into his name and is now about 5 ½ feet tall, propped by rebar and is dropping tubercles or burs that may develop into new plants. Then came Pals, two we believe are saguaros. Slow growing, especially these as they are mostly in shade, saguaros can live for many decades, branch only after they are over 40 years old. In ideal years, mature ones develop pretty halos of white blooms on top. Murray is a low-growing, blue-green-small-pad prickly pear. He began as a really small plant with a couple of pads but has spread to about 4 by 4 feet. Murray has many buds we hope to see bloom into lovely light yellow flowers with pink centres soon.

Avian reproduction is in full swing! Birdies are wooing with strutting displays, ‘doing it’, building nests, laying, later teaching offspring the skill of aviation. This is a hostile environment, so vulnerable or small birds nest in seemingly impossible places. On top of small pine cones, crevices in buildings, holes in and among spines of cacti or thorny scrub bushes. We have seen the same nests host new egg layers. Not just year after year but as soon as an occupant family flies the coop.

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cactus wren on saguaro                  hummingbird hatchlings

Symphonic, seemingly synchronized, cacophony of bird song, sometimes so loud that we wish they would tone it down so we can read in peace. We see and hear common sparrow, cactus wrens, Stellar’s jays, quail, hawks, mourning doves, mocking birds, grackles, ravens, owls, humming birds – and recently, Verdin!

But I jump ahead. Recently saw what looked like a messy pile of pine needles and branches in the top circle of Peter’s tubercles. Then saw two tiny birds entering the mess through a tiny opening with stuff in beaks, like on a landing strip. Gleaned the following TMI from the interweb.

From Wikipedia:

‘The verdin is a very small bird, one of the smallest passerines in North America. It is gray overall, adults have a bright yellow head and a sharply pointed bill. Verdins are insectivorous, continuously foraging among the desert trees and scrubs. They are usually solitary except when they pair up to construct their conspicuous nests.

Verdins are permanent residents of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, ranging from southeastern California to Texas, throughout Baja California and into central Mexico

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site:

‘A tiny, active songbird of the arid southwestern United States and northern Mexico, the Verdin is the only North American member of the penduline-tit family (Remizidae). Vocal and often conspicuous despite its size, it builds a large enclosed nest in thorny scrub.

The Verdin builds nests for both breeding and roosting; roosting nests are much smaller. The outer stick shell is constructed mostly by the male, while the female does most of the lining. The Verdin’s roosting nests help it stay warm in winter. Winter roosting nests have thicker insulation, and may reduce energy requirements for thermoregulation by as much as 50 percent. The Verdin builds roosting nests all year round. One pair of Verdins in Arizona was observed building 11 nests in one year. During the heat of the desert summer, the Verdin rests quietly in the shaded interior of a shrub, sometimes panting or spreading its wings. Nests built in summer open toward prevailing winds, perhaps to aid in cooling.’

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If Peter’s is a breeding nest, they will lay tiny red-speckled light green eggs, difficult to see from outside. We have given our Verdins wide berth, only taking snaps from a distance as we will not mess with their process. Photos are vague as bird and background are similar in colour.

Still, it has been fun being a voyeur in this natural laboratory for a while…

 

Fiddleheads Parte Due: Shrimp White Pizza

Spring!  The time of year when I hunch over in my garden, straddling struggling,  foraging and nipping off fiddleheads in early morning.  Fiddleheads are un-unfurled Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) fronds or crosiers (say that five times fast!).  Curled up tight, they resemble the spiral end of a violin, ergo the name.  Fiddleheads emerge from over-wintered stubs of the fern in Eastern North America for a short time in the spring.  Energetic fans forage in damp, musty woods.  City slickers, in their gardens or at their gourmet greengrocer’s.  Why? It’s fun to seek them, they are delicious with a wild, crunchy, earthy flavour, bright, fresh green colour and are said to be nutrient-dense.  We can all use antioxidants and possible cancer-retardant properties, right?

If store-bought, chances are fiddleheads are safe (repeat, Ostrich Ferns only) and are washed.  When self-foraged, they should snap off easily and may have brown filmy bits sticking to them.  Rub them together and wash well to remove this residue.  Fiddleheads should be cooked before consuming as they can be toxic raw.  As the availability window is brief, collect as many as you can.  Blanch fiddleheads in some boiling water for a few minutes, then plunge or rinse in cold water.  Overcooking will cause crosiers to unfurl, undesired and unattractive!  Drain precious cargo on paper towels; you will not believe how much water these soak up!  I use right away or freeze fistfuls for later use.  They are delicious sautéed in butter or olive oil as a side dish or as a cameo veg in countless recipes – pasta, quiche, pilaf and so on.

A pal encouraged me to try them on pizza.  I did, it turned out great, I share my effort with you below.  Pinch of salt here, just know, I am no professional cook, recipe creator, writer or photographer – just a lover of good food, prose and snaps.  I like shortcuts, use what I have on hand and try to use healthy ingredients. However, this is pizza and does call for cheese!

Fiddlehead and Shrimp White Pizza

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10-12 inch pizza shell – I used store-bought whole wheat

Bottled white pasta sauce – I used roasted garlic alfredo

Grated havarti cheese – about ¾ cup

Grated jack cheese – about ¾ cup

Grated parmesan cheese – I used low fat

Handful clean blanched fiddleheads

Handful cleaned, precooked shrimp, tails off – use small or medium

Thinly sliced red onion

Roughly julienned sweet red pepper

Rinsed, well drained, canned sliced mushrooms

Dried basil

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Preheat oven to 425° F or according to instructions with your pizza dough.  I use a pizza tin for ease of handling and to contain the whole possible mess.  I layered ingredients in the following order – sauce, havarti, fiddleheads, red pepper, red onion, jack, shrimp, mushrooms, parmesan, basil.  Bake the pizza in the centre of your oven for 10-11 minutes, keeping an eye on it. Finish by broiling for 2-3 minutes and, ecco!  Oh si, my Italian is severely limited.

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You may choose different ingredients than I did and perhaps layer differently.  You may opt for chicken, vegetarian or a healthier version.  No matter, I think you’ll agree that fiddleheads make this pizza look and taste unique.  In fact, husband said: ‘next time, more fiddleheads’. Gotta love this short-lived spring treat!

The Fiddlehead

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Fiddleheads

 

Ah, a walk in shady woods in spring.  Varies little anywhere in north-eastern North America.  Mother Nature decorates the tableau with unparalleled feng shui to engage all our senses.  Underfoot is a springy carpet woven from years of fallen leaves and needles.  The ceiling is speckled sky-blue and white, walls of fresh green unfurling leaves and ferns, earth tones galore.  Wildflowers and butterflies add splashes of colour, myriad birdies and babbling brooks add a soothing sound track. A musty, heady amalgam of scents, decay,  plus germination, cannot be duplicated in a spray.

ostrich-ferns-225x300For ever, folks have foraged for food in the woods.  Often for gourmet treats like mushrooms, fungi, truffles, ginger, garlic, edible shoots, leaves and berries. Up here, certain types of fern yield the briefly-available true delicacy called the fiddlehead. These are rolled up, un-unfurled fronds of either the bracken or the ostrich fern, looking a tad like the tops of stringed instruments we colloquially know as fiddles.  These cute inch-long bright fern-green (what else!) nuggets are laboriously hand-picked in mid to late spring.

Ostrich ferns

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Ready for picking – I am lucky to have ostrich ferns in my garden.  Have been spied and chuckled at by neighbours as I bend over, plucking any emergent fiddleheads in early morning.  Depending upon the weather, I gather a few a day, all I can find, for a couple of weeks.  Wash them gently but thoroughly to remove bits of dirt or filmy protective brown stuff. If I intend to use them the same day, terrific.  If not, I prep and freeze them in small batches for future use. For latter, I blanch briefly in boiling water, then plunge in cool water, drain and dry them on paper towel, then pop them in a zippered freezer bag.  I add to my precious horde in usable batches when I can.

A couple of cooking methods are best to use soon after picking.  Cook them in boiling water, akin to how you might asparagus or other delicate veggie.  Never overcook as they will unfurl and appearance is everything!  Dress them or not, again as you might asparagus.  Or sauté them in a little butter.  If from the freezer, thaw the par-cooked fiddleheads before use.  I love them in quiche, or added at the last minute to pasta in white or rose sauce.  Thus, they will remain furled and visible.

One must be sure of the type of fern involved as some varieties are carcinogenic or contain toxins (yikes!).  Ask someone, check a book or website before foraging.  As for the good stuff, I have read that they are a good source of vitamin C, potassium and all-important fibre.  Urban foragers will find them at the grocer’s or farmer’s markets.  Even the permitted safe varieties should be cooked, never eaten raw.

Fiddleheads are a tasty, fleetingly-available delicacy.  A bit of toil to gather and prep. Fun right away or as a precious surprise from the freezer in a few months.

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Over There…

by Meera Kamra-Kelsey, August 2017

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As Captain Obvious might say, international travel is truly international. Meeting folks from other places is rewarding when travelling but if you want to do and see things at a specific time, you will have much competition. Active folks from around the world have more leisure time, some have more bucks and a lust for civilized adventure. Sure, there are last-minute booking bargains, but husband and I do not have the intestinal fortitude for them. We like to plan well in advance, know most details, sometimes get airfare deals and almost always desired accommodation. Once we select an itinerary that excites us, husband gets on it!

We had been to London a few times and seen Scotland quite well by train, but not other parts of the UK and Ireland. As we enjoy cruising, Oceania’s ‘British Isles Medley’ on a 600 passenger ship called to us. We reserved almost a year in advance as a small ship of good repute books up early.

We wished to be ‘over there’ around our wedding anniversary and June weather can be good. We wanted a portside veranda cabin as travel was to be counter-clockwise along the south then up the east out of Southampton and we wanted to enjoy all possible coastal scenery. In order, scheduled ports of call were Newcastle, Edinburgh, Belfast, Glasgow, Liverpool, Dublin, Holyhead, Waterford, Portland and back to Southampton – so very many places in countries I never dreamed I’d see! We would be in the English Channel, the North Sea, past the Orkney and Outer Hebrides Islands, in the Irish and Celtic Seas, zigzagging from one country to another. Once air, sea and shore excursions were were nailed down, we fleshed out our itinerary with some tantalizing land travel. We packed as light as possible. Comfortable and cozy were our sole considerations. This was a good opportunity to check out and off some of our bucket list sights and activities.

Dateline, pre-travel: A couple of terrorist events in the UK. The Westminster Bridge vehicular and stabbing attack in March. Manchester concert bombing in late May. As it seemed this could happen anywhere in the world and at any time, we only briefly considered cancelling and prepayments were non-refundable.

Dateline May 27 – On our departure date, the UK dropped security from critical to severe, British Airline cancelled all flights from Heathrow and Gatwick due to a computer glitch, holy month of Ramadan began, almost 90,000 gathered for the FA Cup final at Wembley, causing security concerns.

Gadabout from London:

En route to another commitment, a close and much together-travelled friend met us in London for 3 days to experience a few British Heritage sites. A pre-arranged vehicle and driver/ guide whisked us outside London in grey skies and light drizzle to the Salisbury plains by the River Avon to tour mystical Stonehenge and later, historic Roman baths at Bath.

After a brief stop at ancient and interesting Woodhenge, we proceeded to UNESCO World Heritage site, mystical and mysterious Stonehenge. A prehistoric monument perhaps from 4-10 thousand years old, possibly constructed for Celtic priests or Druids over a period of 1500 years. It is a ring of huge standing stones. These ‘sarsens’ are up to 30 feet tall and weigh about 25 tons each, some topped by lintel stones and punctuated by smaller, possibly Welsh-source ‘blue’ stones. Tools, pottery fragments, animal and human bones have been found here. Theories abound as to how the stones were transported as well as their possible purposes – meeting place, rituals, sacrifices, burials, astronomy?

The surrounding plains are studded with significant ancient stone circles and rows, pits and burial mounds. Much exploration is still required. Stonehenge is a bit pooh-poohed now. It has been over exposed and one cannot routinely get near or walk among the stones except with special timed ticketing or at solstices and equinoxes.

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city of Bath was founded by Romans in the 1st century AD, using its natural hot springs for a thermal spa. The baths complex and Temple of Sulis Minerva built over the next 2-3 centuries are considered important ancient Roman structures north of the Alps. These archeological sites reveal advanced water/ temperature control and conduits. The thermal springs source and bathing pools have been well preserved and are explained with holographic displays and video. Bath prospered in Roman, then medieval/ Georgian times and is now a bustling city. We also enjoyed a visit to Bath Abbey and a delicious lunch, running between brief cloudbursts.

As this was a long ‘bank holiday’ weekend, many folks were touring and the return drive to London was busy. We had arranged this outing online, with guide to be paid in cash at day’s end. Should have confirmed the dues to be paid at the outset as the amount was bumped up when we were dropped off. No desire to argue in public, this did reduce his tip and lesson’s been learned for the future. A superb day was capped off with excellent pub grub near our hotel.

A wee bit o’ London:

We got more of our vibrant neighbourhood bearings. Our hotel was located a few doors from venerable Old Vic Theatre, near many eateries and handy to Waterloo Station for tube and train. We picked up rail tickets for later travel. Then it was a full-on London walkabout. Famous bridges over the Thames, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street, much evident security, hordes of tourists. Lunch at historic Red Lion Pub where a tavern has existed since 1434!

Highlight of the day was a ride on the London Eye. Following a recommendation, we clutched queue-jumping fast-track tickets. Amazing experience, excellent bird’s-eye views. Our companion is an adventurous foodie/ gourmand and selected fine dining for this, our last evening together in London. ‘Dinner by Heston Blumenthal’ in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge, 2 Michelin stars, one of world’s 50 best restaurants for 2017, the menu is based on olden British dishes, some sounding weird but came together delectably.

The cruise:

We took a train to Southampton for a pre-boarding overnight. A surprising walled city steeped in maritime history. The Mayflower, which later sailed to America in the early 1600s, was repaired here. Occasional summer home to Jane Austen. Doomed Titanic set sail from here. Now a very busy ferry, cruise and cargo port.

Following a delicious day at sea, our first port of call was Newcastle-Upon-Tyne near mouth of the River Tyne. Our shore excursion here was to check out Hadrian’s Wall. This was built by Roman legions and slaves for Emperor Hadrian. It once stretched 73 miles (80 Roman miles) from coast to coast in northern England, fortifying the northernmost frontier of the Roman empire. A massive complex consisting of ditches, moats, a ‘milecastle’ every Roman mile, turrets, sentry posts, gates and periodic forts. Segments of the actual wall and other ‘footprints’ have been preserved though much stone was pilfered to build homes and farm structures. Modern roads and highways have been built atop yet other segments and will be hidden forever. We saw many hikers in the beautiful countryside along the route of the wall.

Dateline June 3: Dismayed to learn that a trio of terrorists ploughed a van into pedestrians on London Bridge, then stabbed revellers in pubs and bars in bustling Borough Market on a Saturday night to have maximum negative impact. Eight hailing from around the world died, almost 50 injured.

Next we docked in Leith, port for Edinburgh. Having stayed in Edinburgh and seen it quite well before, we did not go into the city. We were pleasantly surprised to find Royal Yacht Britannia turned into a floating museum within walking distance of our dock. This was a cool, historic and informative experience on our own.

Another day at sea later, we arrived at Belfast, Northern Ireland. Delightful scenery to and along the northern Antrim coast took us to Giant’s Causeway, another magical place I have long wished to see. ‘Some day’ was this day! This is a photogenic geological formation with variations stretching quite a distance along the coast. Of course, lunch was Irish stew and clam chowder with chewy, oaten bread!

Next port was Greenock, outside Glasgow, which we had also previously enjoyed at great length. So, chose to just explore the port city on our own. A sweet little town with some interesting old architecture and friendly locals.

Help, I wanna hold your hand, we all live in a yellow submarine, Penny Lane… refrains that will never sound the same after our tour in the footsteps of the Beatles in Liverpool. Definitely a magical mystery tour that began down into The Cavern where the Beatles first played, childhood homes of John, Ringo and Paul, wonderful Beatles Experience museum full of their memorabilia. Penny Lane, Mother Mary, Strawberry Field(s) – forever will be more than just song titles.

Dublin, capital of the Republic of Ireland, is located on the River Liffey. The vibrant, bustling city has a youthful population, hundreds of churches, cathedrals, biblically significant Book of Kells and more than 750 pubs, some next to each other. The wire-strung harp symbol of famous Guinness Irish Stout, is visible everywhere. Our tour took us through the Guinness Storehouse that tells the tale of this famous beer, offers tastings and a rooftop lounge with 360 degree views. Slinte – to your health!

Holyhead, on Anglesey Island, Wales is a major sea port serving Ireland with many daily ferries. We toured its stunning coastline, 13th century Beaumaris Castle and a small town with the longest name ever. Hope I spelled it correctly but who would know? Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch or any of its shorter colloquial versions sound nothing like it appears written. Locals were happy to accurately pronounce it for us or perhaps pulled our legs!

Our call into Waterford was cancelled due to rough seas. Another relaxing sea day was much more pleasant than browsing for crystal dust gatherers. Our last port of call was Portland. We toured more lovely British countryside in Dorset and Corfe Castle built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. Seen from the bus, one of England’s famed and mysterious ‘hill figures’, the Osmington White Horse. Near Weymouth, this figure of King George the 3rd riding his horse was carved into the chalk hillside in the early 19th century. Saw many quaint thatched roofs on country homes. These come with an expensive commitment to maintain heritage – they must always be repaired and replaced in thatch. And our ship was refuelled by a tanker that pulled up portside!!

We docked back in Southampton following a lovely cruise with wonderful coastal scenery, an exciting itinerary, terrific amenities, charming entertainment and too-delicious cuisine. Then grabbed a train towards Cornwall to visit friends with a 400+ year old stone cottage they occupy as summer residence.

Our friends were gracious hosts, toured us around their environs and fed us much too well. Like stepping back in time and a different world – the narrowest of roadways, spectacular coastal vistas, charming Cornish towns with otherworldly names – Little Petherick, Bodmin, Padstow, Bedruthan, Trevose!

Dateline June 14 – The Grenfell Tower fire in London left at least 80 dead and at least the same number injured.

We celebrated our anniversary overlooking runways of Heathrow at a nice enough chain hotel. But felt we really had celebrated wondrously for nearly a month. Too many tragedies while we were over there. Sad state of the world these days. Still, we will continue to go ‘over there’ and keep on truckin’…with our yellow windbreakers, of course!