Galapagos: Boobies and Frigates

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Sally Lightfoot Crab

We hiked across Mosquera Islet seeing many birds up close, including – to my delight – the Blue Footed Boobie. We had watched documentaries about the Galapagos and were thrilled to see these birds in real life, as well as the bright red Sally Lightfoot Crabs scurrying across the black lava rocks, pelicans, swallowtail gulls and many others.

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Blue Footed Boobie!

One of the funnest animals was the sea lion, which looks exactly like our North American seals but the ears show that they are sea lions. It is amazing that all animals here have no fear of people. The seals come right at you, follow you like puppies and want to play. It is the hardest thing not to reach out and pet them… But this is a National Park and everything is highly protected – you cannot take a rock or a shell or touch anything. And rightly so.

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Male Frigate bird

Next we hiked North Seymour island where the huge Frigate birds soared overhead and young ones with white heads in perched in trees looked like bald eagles.

Iguanas live on most islands but they are different species, having adapted to life on each island. Some islands had black iguanas, elsewhere they were yellow or even pink. We also saw the swimming ocean iguanas.

img_4402We hiked across Santa Fe and South plaza Island. Being on a boat allowed us to visit more places but it also had the disadvantage of rocking and bobbing.

However, the biggest thrill for me was being able to swim off the back of the boat. Even after a few excited calls of “shark!” I couldn’t figure out why it was OK to swim when there were sharks but I trusted that our guides knew what they were doing… We snorkeled several times and it was beyond description to be in the ocean and have a large sea lion coming straight at me, like a bullet, only to veer off at the last second. At one point two sea lions swam alongside me on either side. I watched turtles swimming below me, hundreds and hundreds of colourful fishes like parrot fish……img_4431

And sharks. White tip sharks. Pretty cool.

On San Cristobal Island we strolled through the town and it was a bizarre experience to run into two friends from Kelowna! img_4332

We bought tshirts and other souvenirs, of course, and visited the Galapagos Interpretation Center. Sweat dripped of our bodies as we just stood still, reading about the violent human history on the islands. The animals really ought to be afraid of humans after they killed over 100,000 turtles and thousands of whales during the mid 1800 to mid 1900’s. Nowadays 97% of the islands is strictly protected as a National Park. All we can do is hope it will always stay this way and that Galapagos’ amazing variety of wildlife, which so well demonstrates its way to change and adapt to its natural environment, will be around for generations to come.

Reflecting back on it all, I am very glad to have been able to make this amazing trip and to see these special places on earth. But it is a very long way to travel, expensive and a bit overrated. Like ‘Serengeti’ the name ‘Galapagos’ has mysterious allure, but we have visited many places where plants and wildlife have adapted to their environment, and places like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef where we also saw giant tortoises and birds that stayed a foot away from us. If you can go, do it. But otherwise savour nature around you anywhere – nature is always incredible and forever adapting.

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Remember that all photos are Copyright ©Margriet Ruurs

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Galapagos – From Bluefooted Boobies to Swimming with Sharks

img_3948Galapagos Islands: the very name conjures up images of a mysterious paradise, of unique species of animals that have adapted to their environment is special ways.  img_4109

I am so glad and grateful that I had a chance to visit these far away islands, even thought they have now lost some of their magic for me. But the intrigue has been replaced by memories of walking among iguanas and swimming with sharks and sea lions. img_4095

When we made the decision to travel to South America there were two thing high on our wish list: Easter Island and the Galapagos. I had read a wonderful, insightful book called Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman. This book heightened my wish to see these islands for myself.

We flew from Guayaquil, Ecuador west across the Pacific and landed on one of the circa 40 Galapagos Islands (did you know there are so many islands here?!): Baltra. The humid heat hit us like a wall. Tourists can travel to the Galapagos on their own or via a planned trip. But even if you go on your own, you cannot visit the National Park areas without a guide or small tour group. We booked our trip via a travel agent in Florida that specializes in South America. They adapted the itinerary to our budget by selecting types of accommodations but mostly by adapting the length of stay. The Galapagos are not only expensive to reach, they are expensive in every way since all food and drink needs to come from far away.

A guide met us at the airport, expertly whisked our luggage away and loaded us and about 18 others onto a bus. It was only a 10 minute drive to the boat launch where we climbed aboard a bobbing dinghy.  We would repeat this exercise in agility many times in the coming days. img_3985

The dinghy brought us to a medium yacht, or tiny cruise boat. The MV Coral I had about 14 cabins and a total of 20 guests on board plus a crew of 15, including two naturalists.

We were shown our cabin: a small room below deck, with a tiny bathroom. It did have everything we needed but the closet door wouldn’t open far enough to reach the hangers inside, so we never did unpacked our stuff.

An orientation meeting told us onboard routine. Each day we would get a friendly wake-up call, followed half an hour later by breakfast. Shortly after that we had the first of two activities in the morning, then a hot lunch, a siesta and then another activity like a hike or swim. Dinner was at 7 or 8 o’clock.

img_3939That first day we visited the Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island. This is where the breeding program for the Galapagos Giant Tortoises takes place. Eggs from all over the islands are hatched here and the little Giant Tortoises (how do you call a little giant tortoise?), are raised until the age of 5 when they are released in hopes that they will survive on their own. We saw several huge, ancient tortoises as well as amazing prickly pear cactus trees that grow into huge trees over 400 years old. Unfortunately, the buildings were not open to the public and we did not see eggs or baby tortoises.

We walked through town and discovered that, like Easter Island, the Galapagos we had imagined was very different from reality. For instance, did you realize that the archipelago consists of nearly 40 islands, four of which are permanently inhabited?

img_3943And did you know that over 30,000 people live in Galapagos? I had no idea… The cities of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal have schools, stores, government buildings and much more. Two airports serve the islands. Since Galapagos was used as a penal colony by Ecuador, most houses had bars and gates as opposed by the much more friendly atmosphere on Easter Island.

The heat was incredible. There is almost no rain on these lava islands. Some are lush and green but others are a volcanic wasteland. In fact, one early explorer wrote home to describe that he had arrived in what he truly thought was hell…. img_4052

That first night we slept well in our slightly rocking bunks. However, the next two nights were though as we crossed open ocean and coped with high swells which rocked the small boat left to right and front to back. Things flew through the cabin and we ended up sleeping on the outside deck. Most of us didn’t get sea sick but we rocked for 3 days afterwards…

 

Sorry – Bluefooted Boobies coming up in the next episode!

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Island Time:Vancouver Island N + Quadra

IMG_1249After cruising around Denman and Hornby Islands (see previous blog) we headed north. The road and the vegetation made me feel like we were headed for the Yukon. But this was north on the island. Right after Campbell River there were no more towns, no gas stations, not many side roads. Just a road north. The clouds settled in low and grey. The drizzle was steady. After a few hours we managed a quick picnic at a rest area. We had not seen any stores or restaurants since we left Campbell River so we were glad to have our own food with us. We drove into Port Hardy and I was surprised at what a small town it is. Gas was 15 cents per liter more than down south. We tried a few hotels/motels and all were well over 100.- for a simple room with a bed. After a stop to the local tourist information office, we walked over to a backpackers’ hostel. A private room was 50.-. Good deal. The place was interesting since it was in a converted movie theatre. A hallway, kitchen and rooms had been build in what was the theatre part. Bathrooms had been added and everything was neatly painted and decorated. It was clean and the managers exceptionally friendly. IMG_1239

With a cheap room, we decided we had earned a nice diner in the pub next door: fresh prawn and mango taco’s. IMG_1203

The following day we drove slightly south to the ferry in Port McNeill, a small seaside town. We stopped in a small hamlet on the way,
Fort Rupert, where old totem poles lined the water front. A beautiful First Nations gravesite was full of decaying totems, carved from cedar, with proud ravens and orcas.
Then continued to Port McNeill where we boarded the ferry for a 45 minute ride to Cormorant Island and the tiny town of Alert Bay. IMG_1216This First Nations village has many beautiful totems ranging from new to ancient. We walked along the wooden boardwalk, saw the run down buildings that were a cannery, fishery and net storage. A tiny library, cute shops, even a bannock place. It felt like Alaska or the Yukon. The best place to visit was the impressive Cultural Centre with many masks and other artifacts and films about potlatches. I highly recommend a visit to this remote, unique village.IMG_1209

Back on the main island we drove just minutes out of Port McNeill, down a dirt road, to a newly developed golf/disk golf resort with a small RV park and cabins. The one room cabin we had booked online turned out to be a nice, new and quite large room with a bathroom and sitting area. We enjoyed a glass of wine outside, looking out over the water, a cruise ship chugging by, and Cormorant Island in the distance. Bald eagles glided over and perched in trees around us.

Driving south, the clouds had lifted and the drizzle was replaced by blue sky and sunshine. It seemed a different world. We made our way down the coast to Telegraph Cove. IMG_1260

We had heard a lot about this picturesque village on the northern coast but were quite disappointed. A few buildings were indeed perched on stilts in the water. But not an entire town. The cove itself was chockfull of a marina. The few buildings there seemed to all be part of the same tourist resort. It was nice to see history preserved, with old buildings and wooden boardwalks, and plagues describing the history of the original town. But overall it felt like a tourist trap, not truly worth the drive in and out.
From here we drove south in one stretch, straight to the ferry terminal in Campbell River and from there to Quadra Island, the largest of thIMG_1270e Discovery Islands. We had found it difficult to find much concrete information about facilities and accommodations prior to visiting this island. Even at the ferry terminal we couldn’t find a map for the island. We had made a reservation at a campground. Turned out to be at the Heriot Bay Inn, an old pub and restaurant. The campsites lined the cove, with murky waters but a bustling marina. At $37.- per night this was not great since it felt like a parking lots, with our neighbours less than a foot away when sleeping in our tent. We didn’t use the sewer or power in the site but still had to pay extra for a shower. The pub was fairly noisy at night. If we go again, we would likely try to find a spot at Wewaikai Campground (wewaikai.com) which had more attractive coast views and beach access. IMG_1224

We did enjoy driving every road on Quadra, from the lighthouse on the southern tip, through the First Nations village with a cultural centre, having coffee at Café Aroma, browsing at the fabulous bookstore, to exploring the rugged north end. The best part, I think, was hiking Rebecca Spit Marine Provincial Park, with the sheltered bay on one side and the open waters of the Strait of Georgia on the other. IMG_1237

Nunavut: Canada’s Cherry on Top

IqaluitTraveling from Canada’s south to Nunavut, its northern most territory, is quite trip. Twice I have been privileged to visit ‘Our Land’ as Nunavut is called in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.

The first time, Kees and I traveled north together to visit close friends who lived in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, for a few years. It was also the year of the Arctic Winter Games being held – a good reason to visit. The second trip was made possible thanks to Canadian Children’s Book Week. During both visits, I conducted readings at schools and libraries. 

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The entire light part is Nunavut!

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First I flew to Winnipeg, Manitoba where I stayed overnight. Then on to Churchill, Manitoba the next day. I had no idea the plane would stop there or I would have made plans to spend a day to see the polar bears. Churchill is famous for its many polar bears around and even right in town. As soon as I walked into the small terminal, a lady came up to me and asked “Are you the writer who came to our school in Kimmirut three years ago?” I knew then that I was back in the Arctic, a huge region but so small people-wise! 

I was met in Rankin Inlet by the librarian from the John Ayaruaq Public Library and taken in a taxi to the B & B where I would stay at for three nights, and which was run by Tara Too-Too, an impressive, busy lady. I told her I hoped to see Northern Lights. “They are best above the cemetery behind my house,” she said, “two days after someone dies.” It is an ancient Inuit belief that the Northern Lights are the spirits of the dead.

An hour after I arrived I was at a local coffee house to do some storytelling, a fundraiser for Literacy in Nunavut, coordinated by Michael Kusugak, an Inuit children’s writer and long time friend. Early the next day, we drove out “on the land” – everything outside town is called ‘on the land’, the bare tundra. My hosts showed me that many people in town have a small, square cabin outside town, often near a lake where they go to hunt and fish.

By 1:00 PM I was at the Public Library for a reading. Despite the cold (-30) and howling wind, some 80 children and adults showed up. This being late October, I had brought Halloween candies and a pumpkin (one pumpkin cost $50.- in Rankin since everything here has to be flown in). That night I enjoyed supper of caribou stew and apple pie with Michael Kusugak’s family. Michael picked me up on his dirt bike. There are almost no cars in town, everyone here rides a dirt bike. I had to climb on and huddle behind Michael’s back as we roared across town in the dark and biting wind. He said “We call this a Honda. Even though my Honda is a Bombadier, it is still called a ‘Honda’.” Everyone rides these quads around town until they can ride snowmobiles again. There wasn’t any snow on the ground yet, which worried people. The caribou do not come until the snow comes. me snowmobile

On Sunday I walked around town to take photos and buy a book at The Northern, the local department store where a loaf of bread costs around 7.- Fresh vegetables and fruit are scarce and terribly expensive. I was followed home by puppies that run rampant everywhere. Almost each house has dogs tied up to the piling (houses are built on stilts on top of the perma frost), and a qamutiik, a flat sled, next to it. Of course I bumped into people I knew (from the Coffee House) who walked back with me to buy some of my books.snowmobileOn Monday I do two readings in Simon Alaittuk School. The kids are keen and enthousiastic. The odd thing is that no one told me what time my presentations would start. Preparing for my presentations, I kept emailing and asking what time I needed to be there. Each time the answer was “When you get here…” The time frame up north is wonderfully relaxed. I started my presentation once I was all set up and my projector was plugged in. Then they called the kids down. I’m so used to rushing, racing to get it all done in time or the kids are already waiting. This was a great way to do it! I never once felt rushed or harried.

Later, Michael Kusugak picked me up on his Honda for a tour out on the land. I borrowed snow pants, a furlined parka, wore my hat, scarf, gloves and mitts. But it was still very cold. The ride, behind Michael’s sheltering back, was very, very bumpy across the rocky tundra. No snow to smooth out the bumps. My teeth clattered and my hat kept falling over my eyes. I couldn’t let go of my hand grips… But it was an experience of a lifetime so I savoured it all. We spotted a snowy owl, a flock of pure white ptarmigan and a peregrine falcon on its nest. What an impressive, haunting land. Small inukshuks guided us along the way. An inukshuk is the figure of a person, made out of rocks. With no sense of depth and no landmarks in the snow covered tundra, these can be life saving, if stony, figures.

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People do not live in igloos anymore but they still have the skills to build them.

I was glad to know that Michael (whose original Inuit name is Arvaarluk) knows this land like no other. He told me how he remembers when white people first came and told him that he had to pick a last name. They also assigned him a Christian name. He remembers living in a sod hut in summer when his family followed the caribou. The Inuit lifestyle had remained untouched for centuries until the 1960’s. When I visited Iqaluit, the capital city of Nunavut, Inuit people had built a traditional igloo. We were able to go inside, sit on the icy sleeping platform and smell the distinct odor of the burning seal oil lamp inside. We also watched traditional Inuit games such as one foot high kick and bone games. 

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Inukshuk

I had dinner of arctic char with my new Rankin friends. The whole town is out trick & treating! Halloween is a big thing here. On the news on TV I saw a report of Halloween in Churchill, where my plane had stopped. Here people parked all available cars in a tight circle around the town, headlights shining out onto the land. This was done in hopes of keeping the polar bears out of town so that the children could safely go door to door…

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On Tuesday I do three presentations in Leo Ussak Elementary School. The children are very keen and excited by my books. But the biggest hit is when I show them what else I brought: a large bag full of wet fall leaves. I gathered brown and yellow maple leaves before I left home. Their reactions, as I pull a leaf out of the bag, bring tears to my eyes. “I have never seen a leaf!” 12 year old Mary whispers, holding out her hand to touch the leaves. They are passed around by the Grade Six students as if they were precious jewels. Big, tough boys put their nose down on the leaves to inhale the smell.

After school I fly to Baker Lake, Nunavut. There are no security checks up north, no assigned seating on the planes. You just take what you need and get on. When I walk up to the counter in the terminal, Adam, the son of the people I just had dinner with, works there. He hands me my boarding pass. No name asked. Then he walks me to the plane. I’m the only passenger tonight. The run way is unpaved gravel. It’s a short 40 minute flight across dark, frozen tundra.

On my previous visit to Nunavut, I flew to Kimmirut, a tiny community on Baffin Island. The 6 seater plane buzzed over the school to alert the principal that I had arrived. He jumped on his snow mobile to pick me up at the little airport. I am thankful here that I don’t wear skirts or high heels…

nunavut girls While in Kimmirut I was invited to the home of an elder. They had just hunted a polar bear. Would I like to come and see them skin it? It was a cultural event to see the ladies sitting on the kitchen floor with their traditional ulu knives, daftly separating the thick fur from the polar bear’s flesh.

It is still dark when I climb on the back of a Honda dirt bike. Huddling behind Sue, the public librarian, I try to keep my scarf and hood around my face to protect me from the biting wind. Tied to the front of her dirt bike is a cardboard box holding my books and equipment. We make our way down the main road of Baker Lake along the shore of the frozen lake. People wave. They all know that the stranger in town is here to tell stories in the Library. It’s been on the radio many times. The radio here is used like a telephone and a message board. A song will be playing when suddenly the phone rings. “Hello?” says the announcer. And someone may say “This is Johnny. Can Marie please come see me?” And he hangs up. The song continues. Then the phone rings again. It is Sue announcing that I will be speaking at the Library tomorrow night. The song continues for a minute but is once again interrupted by the phone. George Kavaluq has a washing machine for sale…. The radio is still the heartbeat of the north.

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One of my picture books

My presentations take place in Rachel Arngnammaktiq Elementary School. Maggie, the only teacher/librarian in all of Nunavut, has prepared the students well. They are keen and curious, excited to meet the Kabloonaq (white) visitor. Maggie has been reading to them and, even though books are not part of their cultural heritage, the children love stories. 

Last night I saw dancing Northern Lights. Now a low northern sunrise paints the lake and land soft pink. There is snow on the ground here, in Baker Lake. I briefly visit four high school classes. I meet an elder who makes paintings, spend an hour in the local heritage centre to learn about Inuit history and buy a soapstone carving. I’m told that the Inuit know that white people like to barter. But they don’t always understand the concept. “It is 50 or 60 dollars” they will tell you. You decide.

Dinner is caribou stew at Maggie’s house with many friends. Then I do a presentation in the library where lots of keen kids and adults show up and stay for more than two hours, wanting to know all about my stories. Until quite recently, the Inuit led a nomadic lifestyle. This did not allow for a house full of books. They have no reading background or tradition. But they do know storytelling and treasure it!arctic On Friday morning the taxi arrives at 7 AM. We asked for a taxi to “Sue’s place.” Even though there are some 1500 people in town, the taxi drivers know all houses by name. There are no street addresses. Each house has a bright red lamp burning out front. If the light goes out, it is a signal to the water truck to come and refill the water tank.

I fly to Arviat, Nunavut where the public librarian and a teacher are waiting for me on dirt bikes. I leave my suitcase at the airport, just somewhere in a corner. One presentation in Levi Angmak Elementary School. In the afternoon I talk at the Donald Suluk Public Library. In between the librarian takes us home for a wonderful lunch which includes milk and fresh vegetables. Her husband keeps looking out the window to see if there might be a polar bear out on the ice. I am send home with a large, frozen arctic char. When I get to the airport, my suitcase is already on the plane (they knew it was mine!) but they retrieve it so I can stuff my arctic char in the front pouch so it will stay frozen.Nunavutartist

Then I say goodbye to the north… this strange, wonderful, mystic, frozen land full of warm people, warm smiles and kind friends. I hope to return some day but for now, I take memories and gifts back to the south. “Ma’na” (thank you in Inuktutut).
If you would like to learn more about the Inuit, there is a wonderful picturebook co-authored by Simon Tookoome (an elder from Baker Lake) and Sheldon Oberman. THE SHAMAN’S NEPHEW. I highly recommend it!

Check out Michael Kusugak’s books and CD’s, which include stories and throat singing: http://www.michaelkusugak.com

Kazakhstan: Between Lexus and Camels

IMG_0247Let’s play word association.

Quick! I’ll say ‘Kazakhstan’ and you say…. ?

 

Before coming here, I wasn’t quite sure what to picture. Dusty plains? Women in head scarves? Snow and brown rock maybe? How little I knew about such a huge country:

Central Asia.

The 9th largest country in the world.

The largest landlocked country.

Originally nomadic, it is a former Soviet Republic, now an independent republic.

IMG_0297I am amazed to learn that not everyone speaks Kazakh but practically everyone does speak Russian. Russian is the common language. Signs are in both languages. I am told that the Kazakh language is closely related to Turkish. After more than a hundred years as part of Russia, it is no wonder that the language stayed. “No Russian occupation,” I am corrected by my guide, “Russian protectorship!”

IMG_0289The population is half Muslim, half Christian and the country is very rich in minerals. Oil, uranium, natural gas – have all contributed to Kazakhstan’s development and wealth. Kazakhstan is now an interesting blend of Lexus and camels.

Having been invited to some international schools in Almaty, I only spend a week in one city – not enough time to see much at all. Having been to Mongolia, I thought it may be similar. But, other than people’s facial features and the fact that most people speak Russian, I don’t see much resemblance. In many locations Almaty reminds me more of a small Shanghai or Dubai. The city has close to 2 million people. Its downtown feels much smaller – with wide, tree lined avenues and apartment buildings, some beautiful ornate buildings. I found Panfilov Park with its impressive Zenkov’ Cathedral. Sparkling golden domes, ornately painted wood, an impressive interior with much carved wood and paintings, the entire structure has no nails in it.

IMG_0285This is late February. I packed a warm coat, sturdy shoes, a hat and mittens. But here I am, strolling through the park in shirt sleeves. Families are out in full force, with strollers, kids chasing pigeons and blowing hundreds of bubbles. Spring is already in the air (the day after I wrote this, it was 20ºC, the next day it snowed!)

From the park, I walk to the Green Market. Outside it is a bubbling chaos of stalls. Vendors sell local crafts such as felted booties and slippers, silk scarves and woollen sweaters. In the very first stall I fall in love with a turquoise silk scarf interwoven with felted wool. It is 3,000 tengi – under 10 dollars. I don’t even engage in the expected barter but pay the very reasonable price. In the next stall I see a similar scarf but less nice in colour. It is priced exactly double.

IMG_0256Then we go down the stairs and are enveloped in a lovely, foreign world. The food market! Along the stairs are warm breads and fresh eggs for sale. On the huge trade floor are nothing but rows and rows and rows of tables with fresh food: meat in every possible size and shape. I see an enti
re pig’s head grinning at me. IMG_0261One table has a meeting of five goat sheep, teeth and everything
in tact. I spot a row of tongues dangling off a rod. Huge roasts, horse meat, camel meat. Then fish. And poultry.

IMG_0264Cheese: curds, smoked, dried, herbal, goat, cow – slabs, balls and round of every possible kind of cheese served by smiling women in clean white coats and headscarves. Now I know I am in a wonderful exotic country.

IMG_0258There is a large spice section with mounds of yellow, red, brown and the wafting aromas of cinnamon, cumin, and many spices I don’t know.

Fruits! You name it and they are piled high here in glorious colourful mounds. Tomatoes, mangoes, strawberries, pears, apples. I buy a large bag of freshly roasted nuts and dried fruits.

I am hesitant to leave this living painting. Outside at the market, I am fortunate enough to spot an elderly man in traditional Kazakh costume. “It is rare to still see this,” I am told. The man is happy for me to take his photo, without asking for money. IMG_0394

The contrast with Café Central couldn’t be greater. This circular structure of gleaming chrome and glass serves western food, french pastries, fresh fruit drinks, culinary art… It is adjacent to a huge mall. The Esentai Mall is even more grand. With spotless marble, mirrors and lights this mall boasts stores like Armani, Stella McCarthy and Chanel. You can buy anything, including designer chocolate and out-of-this world cakes. Stylish high heeled women tote packages from Gucci to their chauffeured cars. Art that would not be out of place in a museum is sprinkled throughout the mall, the ATM is discreetly hidden under the escalators. This is Kazakhstan?index

It is an interesting blend of old and new, rich and poor, traditional and modern.

It also is a neat blend of west and east.

Elegant mirroring skyscrapers next to broken up sidewalks.

The very posh hotel has a ultra modern control panel on the wall. I’m not sure what all the symbols mean – there is one for the TV, one for temperature control, some mysterious symbols. But no matter which one I push, ALL lights in the room go either off or on. I asked the cleaning lady how the controls work but she had no idea. I asked the front desk if they could explain the symbols. IMG_0287No idea but they would send a technician. The technician looked at the panel as if he’d never seen one, scratched his head and then motioned “Open the window if it is too hot.”

The traffic, too, is a nice blend of European and Asian. Cars politely stop immediately if you try to cross the road. No one tries to run you over. But they do honk and cut each other off if the mood strikes. The most confusing thing I noticed is when you have to turn left or right. Neither one is permitted on a red light. But when ALL lights turn green, the right turn lane still doesn’t move. You have to wait for a green arrow – even though there is no red light to show this. On Friday night I’m promised to be picked up at 5 for dinner. It’s almost 7 when my friends finally make it through the dense, congested traffic.

IMG_0301One of the recommended sights in Almaty on Lonely Planet and other sites is Kok Tobe – a tall skinny tower in the foothills. The view promised to be nice so I went up to a small bus station where you buy a one or two way ticket and take a shuttle bus to the top. It was very smelly at the top. First I thought it was a sewer problem but then I noticed a sad, small zoo. Cages held ostriches and other exotic birds. I didn’t even try to look what else since it seemed sad and stank to high heavens.

There were lots of rides that weren’t open yet because it is too early in the season, but there were a few stalls with local crafts. I bought a lovely small felted doll for 2500 tengis, which seemed reasonable – less than 10 dollars. In the shop next door I saw the exact same doll for 5000 tengis….

The views were nice but be sure to go up when the sky is clear. On misty foggy days and with air pollution there’s not much of a view.

Back down at the bus station I turned to a Kazakh man I heard speak english, and asked if he knew which bus would take me into town. “Oh, we are going,” he waved to a small group of guys, “Hop in!” And that’s how I got a ride back with American, Spanish and Estonian military guys who were out on a sightseeing trip. The next day I asked in a restaurant where a certain shop was that I couldn’t find. The manager asked one of the waitresses to get her coat and walk with me, down the street, down a metro station, along some passage ways and take me right to the shop! Amazing. People was very kind here.

IMG_0350The Kazakhstan Museum is a huge building with lots of carved stone and blue domes. I spend a couple of hours roaming around. There are many displays of costumes: from peasant linens to soldier’s shields to weavings and gold embossed robes. Coins, tools, an entire furnished yurt. I like the display of women weaving best. The fabrics are gorgeous. There’s even a whole floor with dead, molted animals as well as bones, rocks and everything else that relates to a proud history. Check out the museum here:

http://csmrk.kz/index.php/en/

I worked with local teachers one day. Through a translator I shared the stories of my books, the process of writing, different genres, the publishing process and more. The teachers loved it and where full of stories. They are keen to use books and get their students excited about reading. These teachers came to school on a Sunday to listen to my presentation. To realize that a teacher’s monthly income here is not more than the equivalent of 100 dollars, is humbling. “Not even enough to pay the rent,” someone told me.

IMG_0413Perhaps my favourite time is dinner in a local restaurant. After having had French, Italian and Georgian dinners, I was delighted to visit a restaurant with authentic Kazakh food. A real yurt had been reserved inside the restaurant, complete with traditional carpet, carvings and instruments. We sat at a low table and enjoyed savoury dishes: horse meat, potatoes, wonderful warm bread. What a treat to meet the real Kazakhstan. IMG_0426

 

Belgian Backroads: avoiding all highways

Monday, October 5, 2015

One of my favorite things to do, is to have a detailed map, get in the car and find tiny little backroads to get from A to Z. Preferably without even knowing where Z is, exactly.

In Europe, everything is close by. Distances are much shorter than in North America and it’s fun to avoid the main highways that are often clogged with traffic.

So to go from Holland to Belgium, where I was to work in the International School in Brussels, we did just that. We followed tiny white backroads, slightly larger yellow roads if we had no other choice. But no red or orange highways. This way we drove through farm fields. We watch cows lazily chewing and wondering where we were going. We passed villages in the blink of an eye. Not because we were speeding but because they consisted of a church and two houses. Often we thought we’d have coffee in a village but there wasn’t even a cafe, at least not one that was open when we passed through.
Once we got very close to Brussels, we entered our hotel address in the car’s GPS but until then it was a sport to find connecting roads.
I worked in the wonderful school in Brussels and loved being able to walk back to the hotel through the woods – beautiful oak forest with autumn leaves just starting to turn.
Kees found out how to use the mêtro, explored the Grand Marché of Brussels and visited Manneke Pis. At night we had pizza (there are more Italian eateries in Europe than anything else…) or the best Belgium fries anywhere (see: Le Tram – http://www.letramdeboitsfort.be)
We really polished up our high school French in Belgium. I was pleased that we were able to ask for everything we needed, and understand the answers (!) in French. After 4 days in Belgium, we, once again, took our map and avoided all highways.
We had a wonderful time crisscrossing tiny villages in d’Ardennes. Found a lovely B & B (http://www.lacascatelle.com) La Caccatelle in Leglise. From here we drove through beautiful forests and explored the Abbey d’Orval. ( http://www.orval.be). We didn’t stay overnight in this silent monastery, but you can. Or you can sit on a patio and sip the beer that the monks brew. We roamed the 11th century ruins before taking a 7 KM hike through the woods.

Exploring Prague

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Praha.. Praag.. Prague..

No matter how you spell it, I knew we could expect amazing architecture. All I had every heard about Prague, had to do with beautiful buildings and history. It all turned out to be true. We’ve been here for a week now and walked many, many miles. The city has a great public transit system with busses, trams and metro, all accessible on one inexpensive ticket. But when you zoom from one part of the city to the next, underground, you miss the sights and you lose your sense of direction. So we chose to walk.

First we stayed on the north side of the famous river Donau. Locally, in Czeck, its name is Vltana but I have fond connections to ‘Donau’ – as a child I learned to love that gorgeous music composed by Smetena. I saw the music’s images in my mind and now I cannot call that river by any other name than Donau.
We walked all the way around a huge city park where mothers pushed strollers, where old men met friends on benches, where joggers and cyclists all spent a sunny afternoon being active. Prague is a very green city, in the old parts as well as in the new.
Then we moved into the Old City. I had spent hours searching for accommodations. We wanted inexpensive and with a small kitchen – something more than just a bedroom. I finally hit the jackpot by going to Google Maps, zooming in on the old city and then searching for ‘accommodations’ nearby. I found a restaurant/pub that seemed to offer a room. Tricky. Would it be noisy all night? But the location was great and the price was good. And we had run out of time and needed a place for the next night.
So here we are, in the attic of a small, 12th century building. The beams are ancient but everything else is beautifully new: new floor, brand new modern kitchen block, bathroom and toilet all within our half of the attic. The space is huge.
When we step outside we are in the oldest part of Prague – cobblestone streets leading to many squares. A church bell gently chimes the hours next door.
We walked along the river first and decided to take a river cruise. There are many choices and we picked a dinky old boat but it was better than the large ones loaded full of tourists and better than the tiny bathtubs that bobbed by. There was some commentary – all on the buildings, their ages, owners and struggles. Just a lovely way to see this beautiful city from the water.
Then we walked to the main squares, including the one with the clock tower. Everything is so old and ornate. Every building, famous or not, is crafted with statues and curls and gold. Prague looks like a large candy shop full of beautiful pastries… Pink, light green, yellow houses with angels and flower boxes under each window. I hadn’t realized it but the reason there is so much history in Prague is that it was never bombed. So many European cities lost their historic centres during the wars. But Prague was occupied and never bombed. That explains why there are more naked, overweight men and women in this city than I’ve ever seen – all carved from stone.
We strolled across Charlesbridge – an ancient pedestrian bridge packed with tourists and artists: musicians, painters, and sellers of all sorts of made-in-China memorabilia from Czech Republic.
One of our favorite, free activities is to sit on a square and people-watch. Like tonight, when we watched a street sweeper make people on benches lift up their feet so he could sweep the cobblestones…

We are not your average tourist in that we don’t do guided tours where you have to follow a guide with a flag on a long stick. We also no longer pay to see more insides of churches or castles. So we probably miss out on a lot. But we can handle only so many castles and churches and so we choose to spend our money on something outstanding that we haven’t seen before. Like the Hallelujah Concert that was advertised for Thursday night in the Spanish Synagogue. The Spanish Synagogue turned out to be an innately painted dome – every inch of the inside was painted with different colours, mosaics, pillars and carvings. It was glorious and rich with history. Add to that a small audience of maybe 50 people and an orchestra of violins, cello, bass and trumpet and a soprano with a voice that could, but didn’t, shatter the stained glass windows. Then put on the program music by Mozart and Händel, the theme song of Fiddler on the Roof and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah! It brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart.
One morning in Prague, we boarded a bus for a three hours ride to a village in southern Czeck Republic, on the border with Austria. For 15 euros, we bought tickets on a comfortable, airconditioned bus. We mostly wanted to see what the Czech countryside looked like.
Through rolling, green farm fields we reached the UNESCO World Heritage Village of Cesky Krumlov: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/617
The castle on the hill dates to the 13th century and the lovely village is like that from an old world picturebook, with crooked cobblestone streets and little shops leaning into each other, all conspiring to lure tourists inside and dazzle them with souvenirs.
We resisted most of the temptations but did have coffee and apple strudel on the edge of the Moldau. The very second we started our stroll through this medieval village, an elderly lady approached us, asking if we spoke German or French or Dutch. I told her we did. She gestured wildly, explaining that she couldn’t find her friends back and that their bus was almost leaving. After some questioning we found out that she had left a friend on a patio while she was going to look around the village. But which patio? She remembered seeing the castle on her left and coming across a bridge. The village is full of patios and bridges but we decided to see if we could help her to find her friends.
We walked down one alley, traipsing through puddles, the Moldau on our left and the castle up on the hill. Finally we spotted a patio that she thought looked familiar. But no friends. A waitress explain in Czech and broken English that her friend had left for the bus.
Rosalie, as she was called, told us many memories and stories as we walked along, but no recollection of where she had to catch the bus. Kees decided to sprint ahead and let the bus driver know that she was coming. She did remember the tour company but there are at least three bus parking areas around the town. Kees took off – I yelled a Plan B as he left. Just in case we’d never find each other again.
So Rosalie and I trudged, arm in arm, across bridges and through alleys. I dragged her up steep staircases toward the castle. Through the courtyard. “I was here this morning,” she’d say.
“Good,” I thought, “at least she came this way.”
She was panting and puffing and I thought she’d collapse right there and then. No sign of a bus or a parking lot.
Across another bridge, up more staircases. “I’m 84, you know,” she puffed. But she kept on trudging.
I asked in a shop “Where are the bus parking lots?”
They pointed and gestured – a long way away.
We went through the castle grounds and found more long roads around. No Kees in sight. No bus in sight. I finally spotted a car with a lady in it and ran over. “I don’t know this lady,” I explained, “but she can’t walk much further and she’s going to miss her bus!”
“I’ll drive you,” the lady said.
We got in and this kind lady drove us way around, across the main road and to a bus parking lot! A frantic, white haired lady with a cane spotted us and came running!
“Don’t tell her what happened!” hissed Rosalie, kissing me on both cheeks.
The bus driver had been at the intersection on the look out for our missing lady. He,too, kissed me on both cheeks for returning what he had lost so carelessly. They should not let little old ladies loose in this medieval town without a map or a phone number for a taxi!
We saw the entire village in record time while racing around with Rosalie. But we did relax over a nice dinner in a “medieval castle” that night. What do you eat for dinner in a castle in Czech Republic? Why, wild boar of course!

Czech Your Wallet

At least that chapter had a happy ending. Unlike the adventure we had in Prague itself.
When we moved into the Old City, we took the metro. Pulling our little suitcases, we came up from bowels of the city onto a large square hemmed by ornate buildings. As soon as we stopped to look around and get our bearings, a guy approached us and asked if we wanted to exchange money. Of course we looked like total tourists.
“No thanks,” we waved and briskly walked away. Ten minutes later we had found our hotel and Kees discovered that his wallet was gone. “That guy!” we both said.
Kees hurried back but of course, no one was there. We spent the next several hours canceling credit cards. It was no problem and everyone was very helpful. Within ten minutes of having the card stolen, a cash withdrawal was already made. We found out at which ATM and spent the rest of the afternoon at a small police station. We hope they will actually follow up by finding the guy on the ATM’s video. The police were very thorough and helpful. The worst thing now is a missing driver’s license but that, too, can be replaced.
What we learned from this mishap was that we had done the right thing by only carrying one or two credit cards in the wallet and keeping another card in a different place. Keep your passport separate from a wallet and behind zippers! Velcro isn’t good enough for professional pick-pockets! Keep a piece of paper with your account numbers but also with your social security number handy. And 1-800 numbers to call if needed. We were grateful to have money on our Skype account so that we could use our own laptop to phone.
Live and learn…