Walking into a Harrison Painting – Day Trip from Whitehorse, YT

Here is a nice day trip from Whitehorse, Yukon.

On a clear day, it is fun to do this 200 KM round trip. We took the trip in early September when the hill sides were just turning brilliant yellow. But even on a sunny winter day, this is a nice drive. carcross map

We drove to Carcross first because of the views if you drive it counter clockwise. Carcross may be a speck on the map but it is steeped in history. Short for ‘caribou crossing’ this is where prospectors came of the famed Chilkoot Trail, and many hikers still do. The Caribou Hotel was built in 1898 and still remains, although I hope it will soon be restored and protected. The hotel and other buildings were painted by famous Yukon artist Ted Harrison. Walking into this tiny town is like walking into one of his paintings. I chuckled to think that people who see his paintings might comment that “buildings don’t lean that way,” or ‘the sky isn’t really like that.” In Yukon, and in Carcross, they are!

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Carcross has a bakery and coffee shop. It also has a new area with First Nations crafts, artists, coffeeshop and tourist information centre. Tagish is pretty but doesn’t have many services. We brought a picnic along to eat at the Marsh Lake Campground. Jake’s Corner has a gas station and restaurant.

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Impressions of Honduras

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen the Canadian Executive Service Organization (CESO) asked me to go to Honduras for three weeks to assist looking at trail development and for eco-tourism opportunities in the San Pedro de Sula valley I was very skeptical. Every government travel website I checked (Canadian, US, British, Dutch) warned against travel in Honduras. As a matter of fact one of the sites stated that the city of San Pedro de Sula was the murder capital of the world. Who would want to go there? After checking with people who had been on a CESO assignment in Honduras and had had no problems at all, I decided to take the chance and go.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs soon as I landed in San Pedro Sula (SPS) after an 8-hour flight via Mexico City from Vancouver (only a 1 hr. time difference with PST) and was driven to my hotel I noticed how similar the city of one million looks like cities in SE Asia (Vientiane) and Africa (Lusaka). Lots of garbage everywhere, lots of old buildings, but also several brand new hotels and businesses.  After arriving at the hotel I was warned not to go outside after dark, too dangerous. During the day it was OK to be walking around in this neighbourhood, but beware. So on several occasions I walked to a large shopping center 15 minutes from the hotel. By the time you had walked those 15 minutes you were sweating pretty good. The temperature is well into the 30’s during the day and air conditioning is a must to be comfortable. Many days in the late afternoon or evening tremendous thunderstorms would occur with heavy thunder and lighting strikes. In no time the streets are inundated with water and cars drive through 2” to 6” of water. But soon after the rain stops the elaborate drainage system takes care of the water and within a few hours the streets are dry again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs part of the work I was asked to do here I have been driven to some 10 of the outlying communities around SPS in the valley, including one of the national parks. Several of the other outlying communities are too dangerous to go to, just like one particular road up to the National Park had to be avoided. I found the surrounding area quite beautiful, lots of green forests, banana plantations and coffee plantations. The roads are mostly in good shape, however some road sections to smaller villages are atrocious and it  takes hours to drive around potholes at 10 km per hour. There is a lot of poverty in the country, some websites identify it as one of the most impoverished countries in Central America. Unemployment is roughly at 27-28% and several of the outlying communities appeared to be half empty. When I asked about that I was told that many people try to move to North America and end up as illegals, much of the time being deported back again. When I had lunch in a restaurant (Pizza Hut, but there is also McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Subway among others)  one of the servers spoke reasonably good English. When I asked him where he had learned that he said ”New York”, he had spent 6 years there before he got deported. Unfortunately many Central American gangs are made up of deported LA gang members. Especially El Salvador is notorious for having drug gangs. The Honduras government has worked hard the last few years to change that and is making progress. The last few years the GDP also has gone up (7% growth) and a lot of new construction on roads and buildings is evident.

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The security is still a major problem. At night a security guard is stationed in front of the hotel. In the shopping Center dozens of armed guards walk around. Every bank has an armed guard at the door. I was warned against using public transportation since it is not safe for foreigners.

The people are very friendly and helpful, few people speak English. At times my work was quite challenging because I don’t speak much Spanish and as a result missed much of the discussion that took place around me (without me). One thing that I noticed was that very few people smoke. In the few weeks I have been here I have seen exactly 2 people smoke a cigarette. However I also noticed that many people are overweight. That may be not difficult to explain because going for a jog or even an extended walk is close to impossible in this humid / hot environment. And not many people can afford the membership of the few indoor fitness centers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe primary purpose of my assignment was to look for opportunities for trail development. So after seeing some of the poor trails I developed a manual for trail planning and development. The secondary purpose of my trip was to look for eco-tourism opportunities. I found quite a few. I think it would be interesting for a north American tourist to be able to visit a banana plantation and packing facility, or a coffee plantation or have you ever seen a cacao plantation? I never knew how cacao grew, interesting to discover how it grows and is turned into chocolate bars.

In summary: I would not (yet) go to this country as a tourist because of the security situation. However as far as its natural beauty is concerned, I am impressed. If the government manages to get the drug trade and subsequent murder rate under control, improves the road system this country can become a major tourist attraction.

 

BC’s Sunshine Coast

Map ss coastJust north of Vancouver there is wonderful stretch of coast waiting to be explored. Attached to the mainland, you can only reach the Sunshine Coast by ferry, boat or floatplane so it needs a bit of planning to get there. But it’s worth the effort. Like the Gulf Islands, you need to book the ferry especially when you visit in the summer and bring your car.

If you travel by car, then you need to take the ferry. Check the schedules here: www.bcferries.com and do make a reservation during the summer months if you don’t want to sit out a sailing wait.

IMG_4669If you don’t take a car, check out the float planes: http://www.harbourair.com Yes, it is more costly but you will be in Sechelt 20 minutes or so after leaving downtown Vancouver. You can also fly from the airport’s south terminal. The impressive terminal next to Canada Place on Vancouver’s water front offers free coffees, croissants, fruit and pastries. They have umbrellas for rainy boardings, and even offered me a free transit pass to connect to the Skytrain and busses. Great service. And sitting in the co-pilot seat, searching for whales, flying right over Stanley Park and the Lion’s Gate Bridge never gets old!

You arrive in the traditional lands of the Sechelt, Squamish and Sliammon First Nations. Towns include Gibsons, Sechelt and Pender Harbour. Totem poles stand tall and proud in many locations. If you are lucky, you might encounter canoe races, a musical festival or artist demonstrations organized by the Coast Salish people. IMG_4672

One of major events in this region is Sechelt’s Sunshine Coast Festival of the Art. It takes place in August but tickets sell out quickly once they go on sale in May. This literary festival is widely known and a major attraction for the region: http://writersfestival.ca

You can stay in many cabins, B & B’s, campgrounds or the odd motel but planning and booking ahead is becoming a necessity, especially in summer. Like the Gulf Islands, there are plenty of funky eateries, coffee shops and gift shops along the Sunshine Coast. But what I like most is the many beautiful hiking trails right along the shore. A walking path in Sechelt runs right along the gorgeous pebbly beach, offering views of the Salish Sea and the snowy mountains of distant Vancouver Island. You’ll see plenty of bald eagles staring down at you while deer and the occasional black bear wonder around, too.fixedw_large_4x

I highly recommend stopping for lunch in Madeira Park’s Mad Park Bistro: https://madparkbistro.com and visiting the wonderful little bookstore.

Websites:

http://www.sunshinecoastcanada.com

http://www.writersfestival.ca

Rapa Nui’s Tapati Festival

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The gods smiled on us again when we booked our trip to Easter Island. Totally by fluke it turns out that we are here for the grand finale of Rapa Nui’s annual Tapati Festival.This huge festival celebrates local culture and honours the ancestors.

The local people prepare all year for this week long event. Local young men and women sign up as candidates, representing their extended families or tribes. Contests test their skills, strength and knowledge. One contest is sliding down an enormous slope on handmade sled made from palm branches.

img_3710They sing, dance, cook, make crafts and much more. Not only are the candidates tested and judged, but also their entire tribe which supports them. The tribes dance and sing, make costumes and create amazing floats for the final parade.

How amazing to be here to witness this authentic, grass roots Polynesian festival. We walked to the main street around 5 PM.

Floats made of farm tractors pulling long flat beds, were parked along the upper end of the main street. The trailer beds were decorated with greens, mostly palm leaves. img_3695img_3694But it was the carvings on these trailers that blew us away. People had spent weeks carving huge statues of mermaids, warriors, turtles and more. These are reminiscent of North American totem poles, polished and oiled or painted. At first we thought that, surely, these carvings were re-used each year. But we were assured that they are newly created for each festival!

Hundreds of people milled about. To our amazement, all locals, even even some tourists, were decked out in traditional costumes: feathers, paint, and a pair of coconuts – if that. Many women were completely naked except for a sandy body paint. The paint resembles henna mixed with sand. Entire bodies were painted brown or with contrasting designs all over: swirls, lines, dots, symbols – including the face. Even the hair was often covered in this ‘mud’ and made to stand up straight. Women usually had feathers or palm fonds in their hair. The men only wore a loin cloth, or simply some leaf wrapped about their private parts… Infants and children were all painted and decked out in feathers. Little boys brandished their wooden swords and even tiny girls wore little shells as bra’s.

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When we asked what time the parade would start, the answer was invariable “Maybe at 6, maybe by 7…” So we waited, strolling along the street and did not have enough eyes to take everything in. At one point I felt I was in a Disney movie about the South Pacific, except that this was so real, so authentic. Nothing on the floats was made of plastic or anything artificial. Just local wood and greens. Only the preschool had a gigantic fish on their float made of recycled bottle caps.

Once everyone and their entourage was judged, a king and queen were announced and then the parade slowly started to roll down the street. A float would come by, followed by a huge horde of local people in their body paint and feathers. Suddenly everything stopped again and people would sing and dance. There were ukuleles, a harmonica, guitars and drums. They sang these wonderful, catchy Polynesian songs, dancing and swaying arms and hips. Such energy! At some point we sat on a patio for empanadas and drinks while watching the parade flow by. img_3819

The parade would move again and another couple floats came by before it all stopped again and another dance and song erupted. By 9 PM the float wasn’t even at the end of main street. Tirelessly they danced and sang, everyone happy and beaming. There was no drinking, no drunkenness, no pick pocketing. It was amazing to revel in this happy atmosphere and I kept pinching myself that I was able to witness this Festival. It was totally not touristy and a true celebration of local customs and tradition. It was joyfulness personified.

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By ten o’clock a full moon shone down on it all. The king and queen for the coming year were still waving and smiling, music and laughter and song was still wafting out over the white capped waves of the Pacific, as we finally turned our backs on it all and walked to our hotel. The next morning our waitress was sleep eyed and admitted she had gone straight from partying back to work at 6 AM…
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If you ever have a chance to visit Easter Island, I highly recommend you coincide your visit with Tapati Festival – a highlight of our trip to South America.

Our travel agency: www.savacations.com

For details and video of Tapati Festival, click here: http://www.easterislandspirit.com/tapati-festival/

Qatar: from Bedouins to Buicks

img_2710Qatar, a small peninsula country in the Middle East, is difficult to understand*. Ruled by an Emir, Qatar once was one of the poorest countries, but now it is one of wealthiest. This change happened in a very short time thank to oil and gas.qa-map

92% of its + 2 million inhabitants live in the capital city of Doha. But the strangest fact is that only around 10% of the population is Qatari. The remaining 90% is expats, mostly from India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and other countries where men seek work. These foreign workers run the stores, clean the hotels, drive the taxis and build the buildings and roads. img_3095

Qataris were a nomadic people until recent history. Living a difficult life in the desert was no longer necessary once oil was discovered. Those three letters changed life forever here. The desert was reshaped into an ultra modern city with all of its conveniences.  The Emir, the ruler, decreed that all Qatari would receive an income from the profits of oil. No one over the age of 18 needs to work, although Qatari do hold government and managerial positions. The daily chores are performed by people who come from all over the world to find work and who send home their income to support families overseas. The young man who drove me while in Doha put two sisters through school in Bangladesh and supported his mother in raising her family there.

img_2879The buildings of Doha are incredible. It reminds me of how my husband Kees once worked with a group of high school students to help them design the skateboard park of their dreams. He gave each one a bit of play dough and told them to shape their favourite jump. Doha feels like different people dreamed up their favourite building and then just built it. qatar-national-convention-center The skyline is made up of vase shaped skyscrapers, at night highlighted in different colours. The torch hotel is shaped like a torch. The new Sidra hospital resembles ships sailing into port. The national library made me think of a gigantic airplane. Each building is executed in marble, glass, chrome – with dazzling results.lw6272_55199331_720x450

In the process of changing lifestyles, Qatar runs the risk of losing its heritage. On my first night here I was lucky enough to witness the Dhow Festival. Dhows are long, sleek traditional wooden boats that plow the waters of the Gulf. Along the Corniche, the boulevard that skirts the water, were demonstrations of traditional skills: opening pearl oysters, handmaking fishing nets, buildings boats, making palm leaf baskets. Older men sat crosslegged on carpets to demonstrate these skills. img_2721However, they had all been brought in from Oman because Qataris no longer have or practise these skills. Different shaped head dress or different coloured outfits indicated people from different Middle Eastern countries. There was singing and dancing, even the playing of conch shells. Strong coffee was brewed in copper kettles on hot coals while thousands of people strolled along, in a sea of white (men in starched thobes) and black (women in abbayas). Little boys in spotless white thobes ran along, free as birds. Flocks of young, veiled women giggled and strolled along the boulevard. It was an enchanting, Arabian night! img_2803I always like knowing, during festivals in the Middle East, that there is no drinking of alcohol involved. I always feel safe because there is virtually no crimes here. Severe punishments ensure that no one steals. I was even told that you can leave your bank card in the ATM machine and no one will take it…. I didn’t test it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is true. There is virtually no pickpocketing!img_2772

The temperatures were amazingly perfect while I visited. In summer it can be 40 or even 50 degrees C but now it was a beautiful 24… Qatar has one or two days of rain each year and, as luck would have it, I experienced both of these days. Rain fell so furiously that, within an hour, streets were flooded. Homes, even the airport, flooded. This happens each year. Traffic comes to a screeching halt as roads flood and are impassable. Two days later, it’s all dried up for another year…

In my next blog I will tell you about some special sites to visit if you are in Qatar.

* A note of caution: as with my stories about any place I visit, I do not pretend to truly know Qatar after only visiting there for 2 weeks. My stories are merely aimed at sharing my personal experience there, and I might well get much of my understanding wrong.img_2758qfis-mosque_dsc3152

Exploring Spanish Cities

img_2391One of the cities we visited in Spain was Ronda. Ronda is a mountaintop city in the province of Malaga, Andalusia. The town is set dramatically above a deep gorge. Puente Nuevo, a stone bridge spans the gorge. Plaza de Toros, a legendary 18th-century bullring, is one of the touristy city’s landmarks.

Another hill side town we visited was Compéta. It is on the Costa del Sol and is eye blindig white. img_2529Up in the hills, along hairpins and winding roads, we drove. Along the way we had been told to keep out an eye for another village with a beautiful cemetery. Of course, passed it and then had to drive a few extra kilometers before we could make a U-turn. But it was worth it. I’ve never seen such a unique cemetery: it reminded me of a beehive. Apparently this is the only round cemetery in Spain. The origins or reasons are not known but new graves are stucco’ed on top of each other. img_2523

Another few kilometers uphill is Compéta. We parked the car as soon as we could and then walked through the steep, white village and on for a hike in the hills.

Then we made our way to Grenada to visit the Alhambra. As a small boy, Kees learned about the Alhambra and never forgot his visions of this mystical, mysterious place so it was high on our bucket list. The first lesson we learned here was: plan ahead. All the websites had told us to buy entrance tickets ahead of time, even though we would visit on a Tuesday in November. So we went to book online, about 3 or 4 days ahead of time and were told that all tickets were sold out. The websites also stated that a limited number of tickets would be available on the day of the visit but you would have to line up at 8 AM. We read several accounts of people who tried this, only to stand in line for a long time and then to be told there were no more tickets for that day. We hoped to avoid that.

img_2547It seemed to us that we would always be able to join a tour and obtain tickets that way. But when we tried to book a tour, they were full – even two days ahead of time! We were now starting to worry.

But when we arrived at our hotel (see the previous blog of our crazy race through Granada), they told us they would check online that night. And voila, tickets magically appear for sale again. We were happy not to have to join a tour group but to buy the (much cheaper) regular tickets. We rented audio tours at the entrance so that we still had all the pertinent information on the history of Alhambra. The only other confusing thing that was online, was about selecting a time. It sounds like your ticket is limited to a few hours each day, but this is not true. You just need to decide which time you’d like to tour one of the sites: a palace. They limited the number of people inside so you pick your own time, show up and get inside. The rest of the place is open to you all day, both before and after your palace tour.

img_2584We had pictured Alhambra as a Moorish mosque. However, it is an ancient walled city with remnants of houses and streets, restored palaces and gardens. You can easily walk around all day.

Click here for historical details and a virtual tour: https://www.alhambradegranada.org/en/info/historicalintroduction.asp

Our hotel was in Albaicin, a neighbourhood that is believed to predate the Alhambra, which has its origins in the 9th century. We found it reminiscent of Jerusalem.

The old palaces, reflected in pond, with fountains and incredible ceilings were the highlight of our visit.img_2597

If you visit Grenada, we do recommend the hotel at which we stayed (http://www.casabombo.com/espanol/) but be sure to contact them for directions! I’m told they can even meet you somewhere. If you go by car, I’d stay somewhere else! But the rooms and the views are great.

Right in the backyard of the hotel, but you have to walk around the ‘block’, is a treasure of a restaurant: https://www.facebook.com/trilloalbaicin/  It absolutely had the best food we had in all of Spain but was pricey (so we celebrated our last night in Spain – a day early…).

And then our month of exploring Spain came to an end. I learned many things. I didn’t know that Spain had so many mosquitoes…. I learned that most people here drink coffee in glasses rather than cups. I found more dog poop and people smoking here than I had expected, kind of like Holland ten years ago. I learned that basically all stores and offices close at 2 PM, then stores and restaurants all open again at 7 or 8 PM. The streets are deserted around 3 or 4 PM, but around 7 PM people start to reappear. They stream back into the streets, populate the squares. Kids, people with strollers – they all come out at night, especially on the Plaza Mayor of any town. It was neat to see such a social street life.img_2606

Rocking Gibraltar

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Salt Spring Island, where we live, is a small rocky island in the Pacific Ocean. It measures 74 square miles and has a population of 10,000.

Today we spent the entire day on the rock of Gibraltar, a small rocky outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean. It measures 2.5 square miles and has a population of 30,000.

I can’t image how people spend their entire lives living on this tiny rock, so crowded with houses, narrow roads and steep edges.

img_2409We researched Gibraltar a little bit before coming here but the online information on sites like the official tourism website, Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor, was confusing. I tried the website for the cable car – but nowhere could we find out the exact answers to our simple questions: how much is a one-way ticket? – can we buy a one way ticket that includes the nature reserve? – how long is the way back to walk and is it marked? So we hope to give you that information here, to help you plan your trip to Gibraltar.

It is an interesting place with a unique history. This rocky toe that Spain hesitantly sticks into the Atlantic Ocean, at the point where the ocean turns into the Mediterranean Sea, really ought to belong to Spain. History, however, claimed it for the British. Reminiscent of Hong Kong, this strategic harbour was claimed by the British in 1713 already. To our surprise, the local Spaniards we talked to felt that it was a good thing. “Without the British here, Gibraltar would just be another rock in the ocean,” they told us, “Now it is an attraction, an oddity that brings us jobs and a good economy.”

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Walking across the runway

We found an AirBnB literally a stone’s throw from the border. Just a small bedroom in a crowded apartment building, but it offered a safe parking place inside a garage. We managed to get inside (both us and the car) – very complicated because they don’t seem to have street addresses and all the bloques of apartments looked the same – and walked across the border. It is possible to drive across the border but at rush hour you face long line-ups. Plus, worse, once you get into Gibraltar, there is no place to park. You might as well walked all the way. The first thing you walk across is the almost none-existing border patrol. A bored official waved us across without looking at a passport. Then you walk across…. the airport’s runway! If a plane comes in, you’ll have to wait. But without planes, you just cross the runway under the air traffic control tower. A weird experience.

Once across the border, people speak perfect English, cars have GBZ on the license plates and prices are in pounds rather than euros. However, you can pay with either. One button on the cash register converts the price for you.

img_2421Rather than taking an organized tour, we hopped on a city bus and, for 1 euro, rode it across the entire length of the island to Europa Point, the southern most point of the rock. From here you can see the mountains of Morocco. It’s nice to see a Roman Catholic church right next to a mosque. Further on the island we noticed a synagogue next to a Hindu temple. A local assured us that all people, of all races and religions, get along just fine on this rock.

We walked back for about 8 KM to town, along narrow roads with not many sidewalks. Most noticeable was the lack of signage. No signs towards ‘downtown’. We often had to ask which road to take. We ended up in town by the cable car station.

The signs there still did not answer our questions about options and costs and I overheard several others in line commenting on the confusing prices. In the end, we had no option to buy a one-way ticket and dished out about 60 dollars (or 45 pounds) for 2 tickets to the top. The way back was included even though we wanted to walk. The ticket also included caves, tunnels and a nature reserve. If you want just one of these, you had to buy a ticket that included them all. You can buy a simple cable-car-only ticket but then you can’t visit any of the sites at the top. I find this price a bit “over the top” (no pun intended) for a 6 minute cable car ride. The views, of course, can’t be beat as you look out over southern Spain, the ocean and towards Africa. img_2429

Jumping monkeys aiming for backpacks were included in the price. The nature reserve wasn’t terrible well defined but I hope that a portion of our money helps to protect plants or birds, somehow. There were absolutely no signs at the top telling us which way to go. We asked a few times before finding the right path down.

img_2459It was a good hike until we came across caves. We hadn’t read much about the caves before but since we had paid for it, we decided to go in. And we were pleasantly surprised. The caves were well worth the visit. Huge cavernous spaces filled with stalactites and stalagmites, created over thousands of years. Ever changing lights turned the caves into quite a light show.

From there, a very precarious rocky trail led downwards, with broken railings and no signs.

We made it back to town, were we had a well deserved coffee and apple pie at the Trafalgar Pub. It seems a bit out of place, in this southern part of the continent, to hear the Queen’s English and see British pubs with fish and chips. We strolled back through Main Street, past tax free shops and Irish pubs, red mailboxes and English telephone booths. Back across the runaway and into Spain. A fun, interesting day full of contradictions that, somehow, get along. Just like the people that call the Rock of Gibraltar home. img_2475