Re-drawing your life’s trail map

Yesterday I interviewed an effervescent naturopath about her contemporary farmhouse conversion in West Galt for a local magazine. Over a blood red berry tea (and one of those cleanse tonics with maple syrup, lemon and cayenne for her), conversation drifted to forks in the road. Is it ever too late to revisit a path not taken? She split off an obvious path of creativity in pursuit of another, one of stability. Can you go back? Or, is it like searching Facebook for your grade nine boyfriend/girlfriend and trying to rekindle the sparkly feeling when you spun ’round and ’round to Stairway to Heaven, sneaking in surreptitious root beer-breathed kisses?
My paths have sometimes been more like a hedge maze, but, they all have distinct markers–sometimes the path was made longer by complacency, African sabbaticals or misguided affections. I look at my list (I’m a Virgo, you make lists of your possible careers, chronically) and can rationalize why some were never logical, but gosh, they’d be a riot (ie. hot air balloon operator, cake decorator, ornithologist specializing in Galapagos species, bookstore owner with a brindle French bulldog ambassador to greet customers, sommelier and/or vineyard owner, urban street corner toasted marshmallow vendor).
It’s interesting to observe that retirement is the permissible time to revisit such abandoned dreams or backburner pursuits. Is it because a reliable income is no longer a benchmark for success? Are lifelong hobbies simply micro-careers that are designed to remain just that?
What do you think? Are you re-drawing your trail map?

Categories: Retiring--Rewiring | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Buyer Beware: The House Hunting and Gathering Chronicles

House hunting and gathering is a dangerous sport. It involves incredible stealth, patience (especially when the wifi speed can’t keep pace), coffee (or, depending on the clock, wine), vision (sometimes X-ray) and the flexibility of a hot yoga instructor.

My parents are looking at properties too—which allows me to extend our search zone on realtor.ca to tease them with options too. Kim and I have honed in on Prince Edward County, Warkworth, Hastings, Trent Hills, Amherst and Wolfe Island and are open to an unexpected dream house on a tiny lake two hours from the airport in any direction, really. My mom? “We’re looking anywhere in Ontario.”

We’ve been chronically looking since last summer, but with reserve as couldn’t actively move until Kim’s official retirement. Which, is officially this Saturday—but, she will continue working until we have two sold signs (our current and future home/waterfront lot, airstream parking spot). Then the cork will fly out of the champagne bottle and we will move into our default setting: probably painting every surface, with headlamps on if necessary.

As we sift through listings, our greater fun has been in the shock and awe of the photos posted on the realtor.ca site. When they say, “buyer beware”—no kidding! Often it’s just a comical photo bomb of a cat or dog that is found in every room of the house, following the photographer around like static cling. Other times, the photos are a pure marvel. Despite a house’s exterior, inside is an open diary. A time capsule. Collections gone awry. Our greatest nightmare. Or, most often—a forehead-smacking, “What was the photographer thinking? Why would they leave groceries all over the kitchen floor?” I imagine the scene: “GET OUT! NOW! DROP YOUR GROCERIES AND LEAVE!” Did the home owner actually think, ‘Oh, what’s a few bags of groceries matter? People will understand. The house is lived in. What do they expect?’ Or, are potential buyers supposed to key in on that a grocery store is nearby? This is the vision I’m talking about.

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Here are some of our favourites, gathered over the last few months. All photo credit goes to Realtor.ca with kudos to the remarkable real estate agents who manage to sell such places without whiskey on intravenous.

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“Should I put the mop away, or do you think I should leave it so it will be in the photo?”

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Now here’s a stellar view. So practical. “Honey, let’s sit here in front of the railing and look at the ceiling.”

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The new buzz word: “Flex Room.” It’s not a man cave, but, if you like to drink Labatt 50 and eat pickled eggs while you spy on neighbours, we have a garage for you!”

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Find the cat…(it’s just like playing “Where’s Waldo?”)

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Find the cat, part 2.

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Vintage Dixie Cup dispenser, for a little Listerine, or a drink of water in the night. Who cares about a rainfall shower head or Japanese soaker tub when you could have this?

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If you have a demi-john collection, this house will suit your display needs.

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Look, it’s the very first treadmill and stationary bike ever made! Conveniently located beside the wine rack and armchair for post-workout recovery. (*Also note the faux port holes on the wall, to make your exercise room feel like a cruise ship!)

 

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Calgon, take me away! Like, far, far, far away.

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“Is my foot in the way?”

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Find the dog…

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Now here’s a DIY project gone wrong. “Honey, what do you think? If I buy a bunch of wooden spoons and make them into cabinet handles, will they notice the dated kitchen?”

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Question: How many people have had a concussion after innocently sitting on this toilet?

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Snacks, laundry and TV–all in one convenient space.

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For those who love diamond-print socks and sweaters, we’ve lovingly transferred the tasteful design to our ceiling!

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Does the carpet match the curtains?

Categories: Home Sweet Home, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

China? Us? What? The Fortune Cookie didn’t mention that.

As Kim will readily attest, it’s dangerous leaving me idle with a nearby laptop on a snow-pounded day. First, as per routine, I will scour the real estate listings in Prince Edward County and surrounds like a public health nurse armed with a nit comb. In the event of a search with no immediate house crushes, I default to enticing emails promising seat sales and last minute escapes.

I always say never say never—but, Kim and I had already said, in bold and fine print, that we’d never go to Vegas, India or China. So, I’m full of blog baloney. I’d like to retract the last crossed off destination and cheerlead it for a few reasons.

The deal was too good not to go. The clincher was the add-on flight and seven nights at a beachfront Le Meridien property in Phuket for $599 each. A hotel AND a flight for $599? The only place you can do that is Sudbury (no offence, Sudbury).

So, because I couldn’t find a house for us to buy in the County, I found a three week trip to China and Thailand instead. We were anti-China for obvious reasons: pollution, a bazillion people and that niggling exotic animal trade and aphrodisiac thing that is decimating rhino, dolphin, tiger (insert any animal) populations. Oh, and the hawking and spitting at every turn. I’ve skidded on a few globs on Spadina’s sidewalks in my urban past.

But, on the flip side: The Yangtze River. Oh yeah, we said we’d never go on a cruise either. But, but, but…this is a river cruise, just 140 cabins, not a floating small city with a 18-hole golf course, IMAX movie theatre, rock climbing wall, waterslides and casino aboard.

Ironically, I had just researched the most enticing bits of China for an article on 10 luxury trips of a lifetime for Grand magazine (on newsstands now!). I knew zilch about China except the sneering-with-disapproval above smog-smacked opinions. As I read about the must-dos of Beijing alone, I felt a slight tug of responsibility. The marvel of the Great Wall seemed like something every human should see.

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China promised a solid dose of the unfamiliar, cuisine, dynasty lore, neon cities and emerald landscapes. Hell, the Great Wall can be seen from outer space (which makes me wonder—what’s faster? Space shuttle or 15 hour direct flight from Toronto?). The 20,000 km snaking wonder of manmade toil and ambition can be accessed from many points. The most visited entry is Badaling, which was the first part of the wall to open to tourists in 1957. Thatcher, Gorbachev, Queen Elizabeth left their mark here. Recently renovated, Mutianyu is easily accessible from Beijing and appeals to families with a cable car, chairlift and even a toboggan ride. No, that’s not a typo. Tobogganing. At the Great Wall.

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The Forbidden City, protected by a 52m moat around the heart of Beijing is where China’s largest collection of ancient buildings are found. Known as the Palace Museum, previous uninvited visitors were executed (now you can safely pay $9-13 entry). The Chinese Imperial Palace from the Ming Dynasty houses 5,000 years and 8,700 rooms of heritage: marble bridges, a calligraphy gallery, bronze elephant statues and classical gardens.

My mother is already researching these things in tandem. It’s probably the first time she’s ever said, “I want to come too!” when I told her we had booked China. Her excitement over the river cruise to Gorge Wu and Qutang and the panda sanctuary does not compare to her held-breath and knuckle-whitening as witnessed when I announced we were going to Uganda or Zanzibar or the Congo or Kenya.

“They have any bugs there?” was my dad’s concern. My parents should work for WHO with their memorized mapping of the Zika outbreak and dengue scares. My mom later emailed, “What do they think of gays there? Never mind, I probably don’t want to know.”

 

sex livesI’ve been reading J. Maarten Troost’s Lost on Planet China as preliminary research. I’ve read his other two brilliant travel memoirs, Getting Stoned With Savages and The Sex Lives of Cannibals. This guy has lived on remote atolls in the South Pacific. He’s no Accidental Tourist a la William Hurt. But, his expose of China at ground zero and the lung-collapsing pollution has left me panting a little.

What terrifies me most is probably the karaoke. Other things—like the government’s attempt to overcome increased rates of childhood obesity with a mandate that kids learn to waltz also makes me quiver. A place that loves to waltz and karaoke—that’s pretty much my nightmare in black and white.

planet chinaCourtesy of Troost I’ve also learned:

  1. The only four-legged thing they don’t eat in China is a table.
  2. “Death Vans” are the solution to messy firing squads. The mobile execution trucks visit jails, perform injections as necessary and then harvest viable organs for transplants.
  3. The swastika symbol is visible everywhere–but it is the Buddhist symbol for love and peace.
  4. China has the world’s highest suicide rate among women–and they do so by swallowing pesticides.
  5. It’s illegal to carry a photo of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.
  6. To corner the market on grain export, Mao ordered the death of every sparrow in China (because they ate grain seeds). He didn’t predict the locust plague and starvation that would follow.
  7. You can buy watermelons the size of oranges.
  8. At the Yuyuan market (which requires a flashlight to visit), one can find tiger paws, mammoth tusks and monkey skeletons
  9. A typical menu might offer fried swan, boiled frog in radish soup and stewed pig lung
  10. Driving in China is “one long cardiac event.”

In China we will also be privy to the cardiac event that is the high speed train from Wuhan to Shanghai (topping out at some 330km per hour). We can experience reverse vertigo at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai in the Bund while taking in the optical roller coaster of the 30 storey atrium. Maybe have a cocktail at the Fairmont Peace Hotel where Charlie Chaplin used to hang.

Maybe we’ll see the rare-as-a-unicorn Baiji Yangtze river dolphin. Prior to the construction of the behemoth Three Gorges Dam, the river was just a few feet deep. It’s now a swollen vein with 450 feet depths. Shades of the Aswan Dam in Egypt cloud my mind. The mile long and 610 foot dam buried many villages and temples in its path in an underwater grave. The government has kindly reintroduced macaque monkeys to the region and trained them to beg for food from the tourists (I’m sure you’ve seen the images of the demanding troops, robbing starry-eyed visitors of their sunglasses and even flip flops). All to ensure visitors have a good time. Better yet—if the wonder of the limestone gorge isn’t impressive enough, there are acrobats in Hubei Province that ride MOTORCYCLES on wires suspended across the river. Acrobats jockey for attention as this is also the area where 2000-year-old wooden coffins are tucked among the rocky outcrops and caves. They were once a thousand feet above the river, but thanks to the damn dam, they are even closer. And, who doesn’t love a little Cirque de Soleil while passing through an ancient burial ground? Cue up Michael Jackson’s “Beat It!” on the karaoke machine.

It’s all so perplexing. Toboggan rides down the Great Wall. Acrobats in the Gorge. Prostitutes. Phone calls in the night offering special massage at the hotels. Hello Kitty! Hopefully cheap tiger balm. And, fried everything (insert: seahorse, scorpion, duck heads, flying lizards–http://www.goatsontheroad.com/7-seriously-strange-street-foods-in-china/).

Reading Lost on Planet China probably wasn’t the most fabulous introduction. However, we are expecting mass confusion, eye rolling, sky-high frustration and big gobs of spit but also, sheer wonder and startling scenery. Plus, this trip is for investigative purposes. China is actually hiring panda wranglers or “Panda Nannies” at the Giant Panda Protection and Research Centre in Ya’an. $35,000US to cuddle pandas and Instagram the cuteness!

Homework, continued…

The Last Emperor (I think was the first movie I went to that had an intermission! The 1987 flick is 2 hours and 43 minutes long). Based on the true story of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of Imperial China.

The Beach—because we will be in Phuket for a week, and Thailand is the setting of Alex Garland’s backpacker fantasy novel about finding nirvana and cheap banana pancakes

Up the Yangzte—troubling 2007 documentary about the impact of the Three Gorges Dam on rural China

Last Train Home—the human cost of China’s economic success

Kung Fu Panda—for obvious reasons. Po the overweight Panda works at his father’s noodle bar but dreams of being a kung fu warrior. Referencing this movie might help in the Panda Nanny job interview.

Categories: Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Rum Diaries Part 6: Las Galeras, Las Terrenas, Samana, Dominican Republic

There was a warm wash of relief when I read that even Pilar Guzman, Editor in Chief of Conde Nast Traveler spends “an unapologetically culture-free month on Fire Island every summer.” Defensively, the next line of her Editor’s Letter was, “we are rigorous about taking trips that teach,” and choosing destinations that mirror her kids school curriculum (hello Egypt and the Mesopotamia unit!). She also revealed that she and her husband “reserve the right to an adults-only, do-nothing-but-read-booze-sun-and-swim beach getaway once a year.”

Well, that’s what Kim and I did too. There was a surprisingly amount of flak from friends and family though (once we mapped out where the Samana peninsula was). “Dominican Republic? Really? Everyone goes there.”

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Everyone goes everywhere. Unless you go all Tom Hanks Castaway and accidentally bob yourself by raft into an atoll that no human has tread upon. (And I do have a delicious book all about that: Judith Schalansky’s Pocket Atlas of Remote Island: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will. It’s as dreamy as it gets. Most of the islands she spotlights are former leper colonies or suffered smallpox epidemics that wiped out the entire population. You can go to Chile’s Robinson Crusoe Island (pop: 633) or keep company with 120 million crabs during the rainy season on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. That sounds about our speed.

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You see, we ruined ourselves with Zanzibar. The beaches were apocalyptically empty. The sun was searing and the ocean was a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of blues and greens. Finding a reasonable facsimile is challenging—and might not ever happen (though I just scribbled down the “Galapagos of Japan—Iromote and the Yaeyama Islands, after seeing just three glossy photos). However, sometimes you just want a four hour flight versus nineteen. You want a long beach without spiky urchins underfoot. You want sunsets and rum shacks and no greater purpose than to just be. You don’t want to swallow anti-malarial pills that give you near-psychotic dreams every night. You want flights for two for a thousand bucks return and rooms for $65 a night.

We looked at Tobago (crappy flight connections through Trinidad and steep prices for lackluster seaside rentals). We looked at Turks. And then I looked at the Seychelles and Andaman Island (as I always do, by default). We considered the Azores and decided we couldn’t brave highs of 13 degrees in January, despite the killer deal. We wanted egg-frying-on-the-sidewalk hot.

Kim found Samana online one still Sunday morning and knew what the Dominican offered, having been to Punta Cana, Puerto Plata and Sosua years ago. In fact, she even won a bottle of rum at the hotel she was staying at for having the best tan.

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What we wanted, we got. Samana is a direct (4h 20min) flight from Toronto. A cruise ship sounds its horn at this port every few days—sounding our own internal horns to go further from the bloated crowds. A $100 taxi ride further. Unfortunately, the transit system is still operating on 1950’s banana farm ideals. Locals actively pack into the backs of the gua-gua’s (old Nissan and Mitsubishi pick-up beaters with wood plank seating) that stop every 100 m or so. We’ve subjected ourselves to the local way before—and decided our public transit experiences in Uganda alone, justified ponying up for a proper taxi to Las Galeras in the north.

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Lonely Planet described Las Galeras as an expat haven and a solid base camp for indie travellers. French women burned along the downtown strip on ATVs with baguettes (they did!). Here, we could find “morir sonado”—a smoothie of OJ, milk, sugar and crushed ice that translates heavenly as “to die dreaming.”

Dreaming started early when we asked our driver about stopping for beer. We were sticky and parched in our just-left-winter-in-Canada jeans and fleece. He nodded and in less than five minutes he slowed in front of a house with a thatched roof with a girl skipping rope and dizzy chickens pecking out front. He honked his horn in a special pattern and a sinewy teen emerged. Our driver bellowed in Spanish and we suddenly found ourselves holding glacier cold one liter bottles of Presidente.

The ride was stomach-lurching hilly, through a surprisingly verdant swath of palms, jungle tangles and rice paddy fields. I knew that this trip would not be the safari thrill of Uganda. The Dominican has two mammals—rats and bats, though I kept my eyes trained on the canopies, fully expecting monkeys and sloths.

At Costa Las Ballenas we were quickly charmed by new expat Italian owners, Vincenzo and chef Gilda. They had taken possession of the semi-tired sea front property in December and had a long list of to-do’s. Luckily, Kim and I have stayed in rooms with no toilet seats, Donald Duck shower curtains and taxidermied rabbits wearing clothes. We’re forgiving, even when the room is strawberry yogurt pink and the toilet is as private as Facebook. We were shocked to find a flat screen TV (espanol-only, though I was hoping Kim would be able to find the world junior hockey coverage), SCENTED toilet paper and beach bar pizza slabs for 100 pesos (2 bucks).

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(*Of all the pictures we would later show friends, the door-less toilet (where you could see the stars at night and sun tan at certain points in the day) was the shocker.)

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We investigated our surrounds, making our way into ‘town’ which was the usual source of Carib comedy with a motoconcho (motorbike) and a cantering horse being pulled behind. Diesel-burping vehicles that looked homemade overtaking shiny Land Rovers. We quickly found $3 bottles of rum, corn flakes (gluten-free even, though we weren’t being picky), plantain chips and yogurt. The veg section was a sorry site of wilting broccoli, depressed tomatoes and scrubby onions. We had missed the mango and avo season, but there was no fruit. Not a banana. Not a pina. The shelves of the four supermercados we went into were full of squeeze dressings, sardines, wieners in a can, baseball-bat baguettes and rock candies that guaranteed dental work.

But, back to the beach (we could survive on rum and corn flakes and pizza slabs). It was a Simpsons blue sky, every day. There were the token geckos, electric tree frogs at night and forty annoying Russians threatening to break the sound barrier with their music. They started drinking beer at breakfast…at 8am. Or, maybe they never stopped.

Playa Bonita reminded us of The Beach. We schlepped to a pool-like part of the sea where few bothered to walk to. Locals fried up langostina and pescado at $1000 pesos ($20US) for a feed for two. Beers included.

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We had drowsy days of reading, napping and ambling along the boardwalk, gushing the manicured AND pedicured lawns and sweet real estate. At night, we practiced amateur mixology with mango nectar, limon frappe and island punch sodas that we had bought in town.

The beachy perks of Las Galeras are found in the skyline. There are no high rises. There are no chain hotels. There are no jet skis or pesky beach vendors hounding to braid your hair or to buy necklaces made out of shells and fake shark teeth. There was a solo guitarist and someone selling braided palm frond hats but that was it.

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I loved watching the spear fisherman bring their bounty to shore. Around four o’clock they’d come in, a rainbow of scales suspended on rope, rays, jelly octopi and rock lobsters by the bucket. Kim loved that she could order spag bol at the nearby slick Atlantis Hotel. She’s ordered it everywhere in the world, and every day in Italy—but it was here, in Las Galeras that she found the best spaghetti Bolognese, ever.

Onward: Las Terrenas

The sleepy fishing village an hour and a half from Las Galeras (another $100US ear-popper, barf-bag inducing cab ride. Don’t remind us of the crappy Canadian dollar exchange) slipped us through new terrain. Men were clustered around tables playing dominos, women sat fanning themselves, bouncing coffee-skinned babies. Loudspeakers rigged on the back of trucks blared that wormy cabbages and bruised papayas were for sale. Everywhere, music thumped. Out of houses, makeshift bars, parked vehicles. Phones. Keeping up with the Joneses in the Dominican means funneling all your money into speakers.

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At El Sol Azul, a Swiss-owned B&B (“Zimmer und Fruhstuck”), we found a good dose of hospitality, banana rum jam, the freshest smelling towels and a property that was like waking up inside a botanical garden magazine spread. We had a jackfruit tree outside our door, crown of thorns, lime trees, jasmine—so many fragrant blooms. The owners, Esther and Pierre, have been in the business for 10 years and it’s evident. It was $65 CAD a night here too—which included breakfast. Cocoa puffs, pina colada yogurt, fresh cheese, dulce de leche, passionfruit juice, eggs any style with avo, tomato and a pinwheel of her homemade jams: guava, starfruit, kumquat, mango and the banana rum version which was like liquid banana bread in a jar. Divine.

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The bed was so firm we could have played ping pong off the surface, but, the rooms were kitted out with everything from mosquito coils to a cool loft space and bean bag zen zone. Better yet? Two nonchalant cats and an affectionate lab make their rounds.

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The guests were all European—Germans, French, Czech. It was rare to hear English being spoken in Las Galeras. Ironically, early in the trip I had been asked if I knew Spanish. I had taken a college course back in 1993, and really, could only remember “el gato es negro.” The cat is black. As long as I saw black cats, I was fine. And we did. Many gato negros and, Gato Negro wine. In a tiny store with a face-punch assault of scented toilet paper for sale, we actually haggled over wine prices. Certain it was going to be effervescent, we walked away with a $10 US bottle of Gato Negro from the “humidor” as Kim called it. The wine ‘cellar’ was hotter than most saunas that I’ve been in.

The supermercados of Las Galeras were of the same state—finding things to eat and picnic with was a struggle. We had packed tins of tuna and a cartel of trail mix from Canada, but, it was getting difficult to find substance beyond hunks of tasteless or too-briny cheese, “salami” (that was more of the bologna persuasion), drinking boxes of chocolate milk (dreamy—it tasted exactly like melted chocolate ice cream) and white buns that crumbled when you looked at them. God bless preservatives. Some stores had freezers stocked with chicken feet, and there was always a side of beef hanging somewhere.

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We tried a German sandwich shop which ended up being a flat Wonderbread assembly of red onion, the bologna meat, murder-scene amounts of ketchup and mayo. To-go paninis at the French-owned Las Marseillaise became our beach staple.

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Our days were all about finding the next great pocket of beach. This sometimes led to thorny, scratchy scrambles over coral, barbed wire, garbage dumps and cow patties but (thank god love conquers all)…a Brit told us about a “donkey path” to Colorado beach, a secret spot that only the ambitious found. Her donkey path was akin to a drug mule path. When we arrived at the beach, thrashed and wobbly from the terrain, it was in shade and covered in a Stephen King amount of red aphids. Back to our base camp: el Playita.

 

Despite the pep talks about Rincon being one of the best beaches in Dominican, we skipped it. The $20US (each) boat ride over Perfect Storm ocean swells was not enticing. We could see Rincon from our Playita, and we predicted the same. Unfortunately, El Nino and company have eroded the beaches on the northern peninsula at a startling rate. Leaning palms and a short shore are becoming the norm.

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We found bizarre pizza combos at Bar Roma, the Italian-owned joint ‘downtown.’ The open seating allowed for unobstructed viewing of the motoconchos pulling wheelies up and down the main road. A pizza with a one litre beer was $20US and came loaded with ham laid like sod, fried egg, a slice of radish and one anchovy. On our last night we found the better joint—El Pescador. Their Toscane pizza with generous amounts of chicken, tomato and onion with hell-hot sauce made our coveted best-pizzas-we’ve-eaten-in-the-world list.

Most nights involved an eye-rolling amount of Adele, meringue and Menudo-esque music. A pool hall, supermarket, hair salon and bar ALL competed for air time with music at a level that actually made me wince. You need to inoculate yourself with serious amounts of rum or hot black cat red wine to sleep here. You know that expression? Sound asleep? Kim was sound awake every night. I think I have to take her to Fogo Island in Newfoundland next. Hotel rooms here come with a switch for white noise because it’s uncomfortably too quiet for some.

If you are seriously sketching out plans to visit Las Terrenas, this is what you need to do:

Spend a poolside afternoon at Villas Serena. The beers are the most expensive on the island, but they come with an addictive bar snack: red-skinned peanuts and baked coconut inundated with garlic salt, bbq spice and coarse pepper.

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Learn German. Or, bring a lot of English books. Kim and I went on a scavenger hunt to a half dozen hotels after we ripped through our paperback supply (we thought six would cover us for two weeks). All the shelves of traders are German or Dutch, so pack your Rosetta Stone. Special thanks to that generous woman from the Muskokas who handed me her copy of ex-skateboarder Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die. “If you have kids you never have to worry about running out of books on vacation,” she suggested.

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Beware of the Dominican tattoo. We counted nine raw and bandaged raspberries. The ‘tattoo’ is the characteristic right leg burn mark from the exhaust of the motorbike taxis.

Ear Plugs. Though I find falling asleep to the sound of waves poetry, Kim described the waves like a “freight train” that ran all night.

Don’t buy duty free rum en route. It’s so cheap once you arrive. Instead, grab a bunch of golf-ball sized limes and find your favourite combo—Cuba Libre (with Coke) or Santo Libre (crushed limes with rum and ice).

Buy those homemade coconut cookies that look potentially good. They are softer than muffin tops.

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GO to El Maguey on the beach. It’s a haphazard open sky art gallery/bar/resto. For $1,400 pesos ($30 US) we had four paralyzing Santo Libres, a mamajuana shot (the mysterious aphrodisiac blend of red wine, honey, rum, herbs, twigs), papagayo (neon blue fish), 80s style salad (iceberg, tomato, white vinegar) and thick 100% veg oil fries. Under a fingernail moon and a tablecloth of stars with a beach dog at our feet, non-descript Spanish rock at a purr and the ‘freight train’ waves, this was a perfect night.

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Categories: Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Best Places we Slept in 2015

As I type this, I am on red hot poker alert for sounding like a gloating schmuck. One doesn’t have to read too many headlines to be aware of the immense life-joy Syrians are finding in a one-way ticket to Canada. And here I am bragging about all the places we slept around the world this year. However, it is with gratitude that we have the means, and with greater thanks to the powers that be that we are Canadians and synonymous with poutine, igloos, nice beer, plaid of all sorts and moose antlers.

So, in no particular order, these were our resounding favourites for 2015, the places that still stir us in the night and tumble into conversation as quickly as commas and Kardashians.

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La Sirena, Palomino, Colombia

$645 CAD for 7 nights

Comes with very cute cat, a bat show and the best French Toast, possibly ever.

Three words: open-sky showers. You can’t beat them—even if they are lukewarm. Palomino was a neat pocket of surfer survivalists. Budget backpackers love Palomino for the cheap beer, cheap tins of tuna, big surf and $4 a night hammocks to sleep in (though many went even thriftier and simply camped en plein air on the beach without issue).

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We don’t sleep in hammocks anymore, and ponied up a few more dollars to sleep in a seaside casita at La Sirena Eco Lodge. The on-site veg resto serves up thick slabs of fruit-studded French toast, lentil burgs, tangy red cabbage slaw and baseball bat-sized burritos nearly made vegetarians of us. There was seaside yoga every day and a dedicated following—we watched over the rim of our wine glass. That counts, right?

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Best? Every night at dusk we’d secure our front of house seats, straining to finish a chapter in the equatorial light and finally close our books for the bat show. At precisely 5:55pm, the bats would swiftly appear, in quick black blurs as the staff lit tiki torches along the beach. When you stay several nights in one place, it’s cool to pick up on the rhythm and the clock of the natural world.

El Dorado Bird Reservo, Minca, Colombia

$230 CAD includes crappy dinner and crappier breakfast, but…how about 100 hummingbirds an hour?

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This was my birthday gift, and swanky to me comes in different forms. For example, like sleeping at 1,700m, far above the coffee plantations and literally in the clouds. Perched above the forest canopy, we had a bird’s eye view of the bird’s eyes. Lots of them. It was hummingbirdpalooza. Gobsmacked, Kim and I stood quite stunned as over fifty hummingbirds circled and buzzed around us at once.

The motorbike ride to the lodge ($75 return) was hair and heartbeat-raising, more akin to an involuntary Dakar rally over washed out bits of road, getting thwacked in the head with fernery and clacking teeth and tongue over potholes—but, wow.

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It was like sleeping in a treehouse, or a bird’s nest I suppose. I spent more time looking out binoculars than using my own eyes.

Best? After checking off endemic birds like crazed lifer birder-types in Tilleys (note: we do not wear Tilleys), we watched a group of Canadian herpetologists go bonkers over the moths and neon katydids attracted to the light of the lodge. These guys knew not only their birds and herps and ghost frogs and anole, but their lunas too–comparing geeked-out notes and trivia. It’s awesome to see people still get as excited about flora and fauna as the return of Star Wars and X-Files.

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Golden Villas, Noord, Aruba

$139/night (January to May)

Comes with Weber Grill, Netflix and Parakeet Migration

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We were beyond impressed with Golden Villas. The apartments are contemporary, spotless and kitted out with Hamilton Beach blenders, Cuisinart coffee makers, black-out blinds (for even the most notorious insomniac), a gorgeous limestone shower (with HOT water, a rarity with most island stays) and NETFLIX even. And there’s never a battle over outdoor lounge chairs!

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With just eight private villas surrounding the courtyard and pool, the experience is intimate and private. Goodbye obnoxious crowds at the all-inclusives and the thumpa thumpa of the disco and badgering to play volleyball or do morning pool aerobics. At Golden Villas, you can watch parakeets fly-by and spend most of your hours without seeing anyone else. It’s so quiet you feel as though you should whisper– most guests depart early in the morning and don’t return until after sunset.

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We took full advantage of the Weber barbecue that was available—(you can pick up groceries just 15-20 minutes away on foot at several Asian supermarkets or the big conglomerate–Super Foods where all the imported Dutch cheese lands by the tonne). Eagle Beach is a 30 minute walk from here–if you are staying for sunset, a headlamp or flashlight would be advised for the return walk. And the beach—not to complain, but the sand is SO white that you can barely read because of the glare. I know, when you’re biggest problem in life is the glare of white sand, SMACK!

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We stayed for a week and loved the sleepy location away from the Palm and Eagle beach madness (they call Aruba “Little Miami” for good reason—all the big hitters are here: Hooters, Senor Frogs, Cinnabon, TGIF, KFC, etc). The owners Richard and Belle are so lovely and helpful–and their young daughter, Juna, has an infectious laugh. We’d recommend Golden Villas to couples wanting a quieter self-catering option. Aruba requires deep pockets outside of the resorts—a pound of peel and eat prawns and two beers will set you back $50US. After staying in solar-powered beach huts in Colombia for three weeks, this was an indulgent spoil! *From the airport it is $25US flat rate.

Summer House at the Summer Garden, Argyle Shores, Prince Edward Island

Rates from $1,000/week (7-night minimum stay)

Includes a jar of honey, best-ever granola and a blitzkrieg of mosquitoes

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I love everything cottagey, right down to the half-filled in crosswords from previous guests, beat-up Scrabble board, sticky UNO cards, bowls of potato chips, astronomy and wildflower guides and Nancy Drew hardbacks. The Summer House had all the quintessential cottage DVDs too: Steel Magnolias and the Big Chill.

Gail and Joe, the vibrant cottage owners and WOOF hosts (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), were just as groovy as it gets. In their 60s, we saw them perennially bent over in their gardens, in full mosquito swat gear. The mosquitoes were insane in June, but, we can’t blame them for that. The rains came down biblically that week and the decks of cards saw frequent shuffling. Kim’s parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and our quiet group of six quickly escalated to sixty, slab cake and urns of coffee. I’d be breathing into a paper bag if I saw that many people in and out of my rental cottage!

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Best? We were welcomed with a jar of golden honey from Canoe Cove, PEI coffee beans and just-baked homemade granola (stolen in surreptitious handfuls). There was OJ and milk in the fridge, an invite to drop in for a glass of wine and an impromptu lesson on how to make chive flower vinegar.

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Rowdy ravens, rolling jade fields, a veil of fog, devil’s paintbrush in the ditches and serene runs along the cinnamon-sand shore made the Summer House an authentic Maritime escape.

Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery, Prince Edward County, Ontario

$235/night (2 night minimum)

Comes with King bed, just-laid chicken eggs and cilantro and sometimes Veuve.

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This is intelligent camping, people. Whether you die-hard urban or lacking the necessary camping kit, make life easy and dreamy by booking a night in the frontier-style tents at Fronterra. Pick up a bottle of your favourite varietal en route, some organic sausage and pluck greens from their mighty patch behind the farmhouse. Our guacamole with foraged cilantro never tasted so Mex cantina! In the morning, Jens and Inge might deliver some just-laid eggs to fry up in the cast iron griddle. After a night fire side, sticky with mozzie repellant, fear not. Prepare for the hottest shower in your life, with a leafy canopy and an indigo sky above you.

Sleeping at Fronterra makes you want to chop wood, read Farley Mowat and make beer. Thankfully, Jens is taking care of the beer part too. The twist on the Farm Camp is the Brewery—the hops have been lovingly sowed and the beer-making dream is fermenting! The couple have a beautiful vision, and the fact that they are allowing strangers and interlopers to share in on their dream is something to be exceedingly grateful for.

We ended up being their very first guests—I had been following their posts rabidly (the website alone is something to fawn over) and booked us pronto—not realizing we’d be the test subjects! Lucky for us we were treated to a long-coveted bottle of Veuve that they insisted on opening and drinking with us.

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For solitude, and camping that is a far cry from the crammed provincial parks (insert annoying car alarms, inflatable mattresses being blown up at 2am, car doors slamming, blaring music, etc. here). At Fronterra you’re buying into peace, inspiration, and a cheap way to rewire for a few days in the woods.

Ihamba Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

$139 US per night, including breakfast and coffee delivered to your doorstep

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When we first arrived at Ihamba Lakeside Safari Lodge I was worried that I made a mistake. I had noticed a 10% room discount on tripadvisor just before we left for Uganda. We decided to book when we arrived, as we hadn’t fully plotted our trip yet. The rate was supposed to be $139 US per night. When we saw the grandness of the lodge and the view of Lake George, I thought–“oh, no! It’s $139 PER PERSON PER NIGHT!” I fretted throughout our welcome session with Fred, especially when we were shown our very own private cottage! From the tripadvisor pictures, I thought the deal was for an interior room–this cottage had a balcony with lakeview and a slipper tub with a panoramic window for hippo watching AND a King bed. It was gorgeous. Royalty could stay here–and royal we were! I casually and slyly asked one of the staff about the price (in shillings) for our entire stay so I could do quick math without seeming like a fretting cheapskate. All this, for indeed $139 a nite, including breakfast. We immediately went to the pool area, which we had completely to ourselves. Philomen kept us hydrated with a steady flow of Tusker–we turned the lounge chairs towards the lake and wondered what kind of dream we had just woken up in.

All the staff were over-the-top professional, catering to all our needs and requests (ice cubes, arranging a vehicle for a game drive, bird book lending while on safari, bowls and cutlery to make guacamole from avocadoes we’d bought nearby) we even asked if the chef could make an eggplant pizza one night as we were looking for lighter fare than the three course option that was available). No problem. Dinners ($25,000 shillings for entrees) were a rotating menu (not a buffet) of decadent choices–eggplant curries, grilled tilapia–and the best beef samosas. Breakfast came with a fruit plate, a bodum of coffee and your choice of eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, baked beans, stewed tomatoes. Each night after dinner we would fill out an request form with a time for breakfast. Best? You can opt for a wake-up call with coffee delivery to your room! Now that’s living! (No extra charge).

At night, John, the security guard and resident hippo enthusiast would greet us for an escort with lanterns–asking if we wanted to go look at the hippos closer. They graze on the grass right by the cottages, and you will fall to sleep with sounds of them at your feet–amazing!

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The balcony of the cottage makes for great birdwatching—lapwings, wagtails, go away birds, bishop birds, kingfishers, bats…and the sunrise on Lake George, stunning! We watched a few afternoon storms roll in too! You’ll also see all the fisherman as they head out in their wooden canoes from the local village.

The location of the lodge is technically within Queen Elizabeth National Park, but there is some clause on the property that creates an exception for the hotel. This means you DON’T have to pay the $40US per person park fee per night. The lodge can arrange a driver/guide and safari vehicle for you if you are not travelling with a guided group (like us). It was $140US to hire John (a former QENP guide–patient, experienced and comical)–not including park entry ($80US for two for a 24 hour period, time-stamped).

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If you are looking for serenity, seclusion, a stunning lake view, and a hotel without the park fees, Ihamba is it. The bonus is having a pool, a quiet road to walk on in the mornings if you want to check out the birds or run), hippos at night and lovely staff. And, kudos and karma to the hotel owner for allowing children from the local community use of the pool on Sundays–what a treat for them.

Lakeside Lodge, Jinja, Uganda

$255 US a night, full board. Bring sketch book to recreate the floor plan for your dream home.

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We stayed for a week at the Lakeside Lodge in Jinja and have probably ruined ourselves for any future hotel stays. This one really set the bar to an unreachable place. Have you ever booked a night somewhere and fancied just moving right in–forever? We actually found ourselves sketching out the floorplan–we want to design a house just like the Lakeside Lodge. The master with the en suite bath, open shower, raw wood and stone is really a jaw-dropper. The kitchen, though we didn’t make proper use of it, was one that any aspiring chef would fawn over. And the view–the spiral staircase to the upper deck was total bird’s eye–putting a hum on all the activity below. We were sharing air space with hawks and storks up there!

The bed was so welcome after some stiff sleeps in Murchison. Our only chore was wandering over to the Gately restaurant (just across the road) for more of what we had first experienced at the sister Gately location in Entebbe. Crash in Entebbe for a night while you shake off the jetlag shadows–then make the journey (3-4 hours) to Jinja (the ‘adventure capital of Uganda’. Here you can rip around on ATVs, go horseback riding along the Nile, visit the Nile brewery, chill at the yacht club–which is walking distance and they make potent Long Islands, or book a sunset cruise through Gately for $45US per person to the source of the Nile–a must).

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Gately will restore your senses. Come with books, order a few gins and find a banda. We spent many hours chatting in the bandas, there are three or four tucked along the path that winds from the hotel to the restaurant. The grounds here are just immaculate–it’s like sitting in the botanical gardens with a serious bird soundtrack.

Here’s what you need to order from the kitchen: Cobb salad, Kashmiri chicken, any of the fiery curries and the Nile burger.

You can easily walk to town (15-20 minutes), you can even walk to the golf course (rental clubs available and caddies)—Kim loved navigating a course that involved dodging vervet monkeys, termite mounds, grazing cattle and hippo footprints.

But, if you are also happy just to park yourself and walk about the lodge like a Hollywood starlet, that’s good too. Helen and Georgina are smooth operators and helped us immensely in organizing the Pineapple Express (a $12US per person private van to Kampala) and the future leg of our trip by contacting hotels for us about availability. The security guards were always right on the dot with wake-up calls too!

Again, hot, indulgent showers, lots of places to lie about and feel spoiled. Thanks, Gately! And, somehow I managed to get a decadent surprise birthday cake AND foie gras during my stay too! So appreciated!

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Well, that was 2015. We’ve already kick-started this year off swimmingly with two weeks in Las Galeras and Las Terrenas in northern Samana, Dominican Republic. Where next? Well, we often surprise ourselves. Where was the best place you slept last year?

Categories: Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Bespoke Christmas

Once upon a time, all my kid sister wanted for Christmas was “world peace.” (I’m sure this is still true.) However, she was also quite thrilled to get a Cabbage Patch Doll and the latest Babysitter Club books for her collection, in addition to world peace.

Our family has definitely shifted to the “experiential gifts” because we are truly want for nothing. That is, except for the circa 1860 Stockdale Feed Mill on Cold Creek in Frankford that just came on the real estate market today. We wouldn’t mind the keys to that place for Christmas. And some world peace. And a dozen of my mom’s butter-bomb shortbread.

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Photo credit: realtor.ca

Admittedly, I do love looking at the extreme and unnecessary like the excess of the Neiman Marcus Fantasy Line or Nordstrom’s Dream Big Gift Guide suggestions. I love the Williams-Sonoma catalogs even more. But when I look at the Kitchen Aid Copper stand mixer for $959.00 I think of Africa and rationalize that I barely mix anything beyond cocktails anyway.

I think back to childhood, when we used to make stuff for gifts from “found objects.” It’s funny that it’s ‘trending’ now—this movement of ‘repurposing’ and ‘reloving’ when we really did it all along, especially way back when. As a kid with $9.82 in the piggy bank (or reasonable facsimile) shopping wasn’t a consideration. You could SAVE that $9.82 and make things out of teasels and dry milkweed pods and pinecones. Add silver sparkles, googly eyes and voila. (As I look at a few walnuts that the squirrels have yet to warehouse in our backyard I consider the Pinterest crafting possibilities by default. Hmm, grown- up craft: pressing some black walnut oil as used in a fancy cocktail with bourbon in a swishy place our friend Heidi took us to in Nashville). Maybe next year. I’m sure there’s a youtube video on it.

Or, I could just buy into the online “Orphan Barrel Project” that Neiman Marcus has on offer. For a paltry $125,000 “You and five bourbon-curious friends will visit the legendary Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, to go barrel hunting, taste recently discovered bourbons, and create two completely unique Orphan Barrel variants to be hand-bottled with labels designed exclusively for you. You’ll then receive 24 bottles each of the remaining stocks of eight different Orphan Barrel bourbons—including the variants created by you—along with a bespoke whiskey cabinet crafted in Kentucky to house the collection, barware, and a leather-bound book about your whiskey.”

Luckily we still have some Maker’s Mark in the cupboard.

Kim and I aren’t even exchanging gifts (well, we deemed our equatorial plane tickets to Las Terranas and Las Galleras in the Samana peninsula for the first two weeks of January “Christmas”).

If we really had to buy stuff (and we don’t because we both naturally avoid eye contact when “Secret Santa” is brought up in the workplace), we wouldn’t have to look too far. Our circle of friends are oozing talent and make stuff that’s awesome, and there’s a different kind of peace felt when you are contributing to an artist and making their life and creative path a little less overgrown.

Here are five sure-fire ways to light up a room though, from Iceland to a night in a frontier tent to adopting a donkey.

A Ticket to Iceland, With Two Precocious Cats

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Our family friend (a friend of my sister first, but, we all liked her instantly and took shares), Jocey Asnong, recently published another children’s book called Nuptse and Lhotse Go to Iceland. When I first met Jocey, her Banff apartment was a spider web of clotheslines and clothes pegs—the humble beginnings of her first book’s illustrations, all hanging in sequence. Everything was colourful in her home, right down to the painted furniture that she also sold. It was like standing inside a kaleidoscope. By day, Jocey indulges her bookworm matrix at Café Books in Canmore, Alberta—but at night, her cat characters Nuptse and Lhotse take flight. They’ve already travelled around Nepal, and Iceland just made sense. Jocey seems to fly there whenever a seat sale is on, or when the glaciers move just so. Visit the land of ice and fire and see how a landscape can consume an artist and writer so innocently. If you have munchkins in your life or Iceland devotees, this gift just makes sense.

A blurb: “While digging in their garden, Nuptse and Lhotse uncover an ancient Viking helmet. Excited by their discovery, the two cats make their way to Iceland to find out more about the Vikings. Throughout their epic journey, the cats learn all sorts of new things related to Iceland: longboats, sweaters, horses, volcanoes, geysers, even local cuisine!  Nuptse & Lhotse Go to Iceland is a colourful, illustrated story for adventurers of all ages who long to travel to faraway places.”

Be Bound by the Beauty

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I met Alistair MacLellan on assignment. I had read about his new biz venture in the Waterloo Record and was instantly intrigued. I pitched a storyline to the editor of Grand magazine and she bit. Alistair was making hand-bound, hand-sewn books in his garage. Well, his parents’ garage—but, nonetheless, the journalism grad was kicking it old school and making money, making stuff. I liked the simplicity and possibility of his product. Like Steamwhistle—they make just one product, and they make it well. Alistair even sold his beloved (but never running) 1977 Honda CB550 motorcycle to help finance his business (temporarily setting his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ambitions aside). His story was not unlike Olympian Clara Hughes–she sold her crappy car (a Pinto I think) for $700 to buy her first pair of speed skates.

Alistair is all passion, the kind of guy who would try to roast his own coffee beans, learn the art of beekeeping and/or soap making, and make his own jeans if he had time. He’s the real deal and his books are nifty. At MacLellan & Baetz Publishing House, “Making notebooks in a garage in Waterloo, Ontario is our life’s work. You can fill them with yours.”

Tune up Their iTunes With Madison Violet

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Madison Violet has been the soundtrack of our love life—and they could be yours too. We became groupies early on (in the late 1990s even, back when they were Mad Violet and playing at bookstores in the likes of Dunnville, Ontario). Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac are a Juno-nominated powerhouse duo that have moved smooth as pudding from folk and fiddle to Euro pop and a distinct David Byrne meets Kate Bush meets Duran Duran electro feel. Not to be superficial, but, it also helps that they are foxy and girl-next-door-ish.

We routinely recruit cult members to their sound and concerts—some of which we’ve carried their precious cargo (guitars!) back from (i.e. Grenada to YYZ). I check out their tour schedule and send demanding emails to friends in Prince Edward Island and Tennessee and Vancouver Island to make the pilgrimage. We love them so much we flew to Le Petit Phare Bleu in Grenada to see them perform on a barge with dozens of fan-loaded dinghies lashed together at 12 degrees north latitude. Don’t miss them this April back in the Spice Island. Until then, check out their latest CD release, These Ships.

Intelligent Camping for the Lumbersexuals in Your Life

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One of our favourite sleeps this year was at the Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery in Prince Edward County. The founders, Jens and Inge, are like shook-up champagne. They’re all energy, vision and the kind of people who convince you to chase down your own dreams and make them real. Their passport stamps are enviable, and it was the Four Rivers Floating Lodge in Koh Kong, Cambodia that really put the spell on them. They knew they could create something gobsmacking too—and they chose the County and a return to the frontier life.

Before you bark about the price, how much would you pay for solitude? What’s your price tag for an original experience, frying just-laid eggs in a cast iron pan, tending to the embers of a fire that unleashed so much conversation that life had been just too busy to share? Did I mention the intensely hot open-sky shower and King bed? If you’ve grown tired of the stiff back and soggy sleeping bags of traditional camping—this is the intelligent upgrade. Jens and Inge have also planted a massive garden where you are welcome to pluck some cilantro, red leaf lettuce, veg, dill—whatever is at the ready. North Beach Provincial Park is an easy stroll away if you dare leave the fairy-tale woods. In the very near future, the hops Jens has planted will be the source of the on-site brewery the couple has planned. Be part of the dream early-on. Just pack your marshmallows and daydreams and romance 101 is waiting for you. If you want to give a true “experience” gift, this is it. A night in the woods at Fronterra.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me….a donkey?

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Nothing says I love you like a donkey. Since 1992, the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada has been a refuge for neglected and abandoned donkeys, mules and hinnies. To visit the 100 acre sanctuary is like putting your heart in a fondue pot. Which donkey you fall in love with is personal—you can read their profiles on line (each a heart crunching story) or actually visit the Guelph location and give them a good groom and nuzzle before deciding. For $50 you can become a guardian for a year. You can donate money towards specific needed products like fly masks, herbal supplements or pitchforks. Kim and I had a crush on Peter (his bangs!) and Sadie and became guardians. My mom swooned for Trooper and adopted him in a heartbeat. Which donkey will you give some festive love to? Find your donkey sweetheart now!

Make your gift-giving thoughtful, intelligent, creative and supportive this year.

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If all else fails blend a dozen egg yolks, a carton of cream and a cup of sugar in your non-$959.00, non-copper, non-Kitchen Aid mixer. Add Mount Gay rum as family drama or (hopefully) merriment requires. Play A Jann Arden Christmas. Repeat both.

Best prescription: Watch Love Actually. Love the one you’re with.

Falalalala, heehaw, Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanzaa to you and yours and theirs.

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Our Love Affair With Galt, Ontario

“Why are you two moving anyway?”

The question is posed often. Why would we want to leave our sweet little stone cottage now that we’ve groomed the grounds and painted the entire square footage to our earthy palette specs?

‘Here’ was always temporary. We had to stay within a radius that was commuting-friendly for Kim—not some banging-head-on-steering-wheel drive that sucked up three hours of her day (*factoring in 12 hour shifts to boot). With retirement on the shiny horizon, we will be untethered. With friends and family scattered across the map with equal density, we’re truly free range chickens.

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In three years, we’ve taken full advantage of this area. Like small town Lonely Planet writers, we’ve been in and out of every curry house, bake shop and pub, scribbling our own notes (mental, and on tripadvisor). To live somewhere, anywhere—there’s a responsibility to deepen the relationship. And we have.

It’s the familiarity that we will miss—but, we also know that it can be created so easily with time, networking, serendipity and on-foot wandering. It’s reassuring to have that Norm (of Cheers fame) rapport, and connect. Whether it’s the bubbly as Prosecco staff at the liquor store, the smiley guys at the Diva gas pumps, the Home Hardware paint department or plugged-in librarians, we have built our own custom community framework. Each person has been like an essential Lego block in our construction.

Sure, there are many that we only know on a first name basis, but Franco (who is doing woodwork in the century home beside us—like clockwork…no, really. His station wagon rolls into the drive at 10:00am, departs at 12 for a 30 minute lunch and leaves again with precision at 4pm), Cheezy (not his real name—but he owns Cheezy’s Variety across the street), Dee (of Dee’s butter tart empire) and Nonna (not her real name either, but she’s the perennially kerchiefed Polish woman in the stone house across from us) are quintessential Galt. There’s John who lumbers down the sidewalk with his makeshift cart to collect beer bottles on recycling night, Heather the chatty pilot, the Quaker girls and our now departed favourite neighbours who went west by three blocks—Dawn and Eric.

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I’ve previously showcased Dawn as the baked good angel who actually smells like wedding cake and routinely drops off a dozen chocolate chip cookies—stuffed with Oreos. Or coconut lime loaves iced in heavenly confectionary. Then there’s a whole crew of dogs that make this neighbourhood distinctly ours. Meet Penny the Beagle, Porkchop the English bulldog, lanky Scout and two husky pups, still with little razor puppy teeth. They are pure Galt too.

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Even the squirrels are familiar here (I feel like Dian Fossey, recognizing and charting the squirrel family tree)—one of the grey brood has ears that are seemingly dyed Billy Idol blonde. Chipper the bachelor chipmunk, runs along the foundation of our house like a streetcar line. Margaret, the toad as big as a Whopper hamburger patty, spent most of the summer with us until she hopped somewhere new.

Our backyard has been a pure recalibration zone after being sequestered in a basement apartment in Toronto, and a suburban peekaboo in Oakville (where all surrounding eyes are upon you in a tiny no-trees-yet just-sodded backyard).

But the best part? Exploring and exposing. Moving is like opening a blank journal and running your palm down the seam. (*Here’s your preliminary homework: Visit Maclennan & Baetz Publishing House and purchase a hand-sewn journal online. As the founder insists: “Making notebooks in a garage in Waterloo, Ontario is our life’s work. You can fill them with yours.”)

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Start with a to-do list like ours, searching for the best tiny cupcakes and Jamaican patties in town. Sketch your favourite places like Joe Forte has done in Key West, Greenwich Village and Cambridge. (He took it a step further by living out of his van for six months at a time, all ink, passion and pro bono vino nightcaps from the neighbouring Italian restaurant). Go for a walk without destination.

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Certainly, moving out of this area is a swan song of sorts, but, it’s a dance that starts all over again. And, I’m no dancer, so that’s as far as that metaphor is going to go. A few weeks ago, Kim and I sat around our black walnut harvest table (that will come with us as a reminder of the mighty walnut trees rooted a century deep in our yard) and randomly started rhyming off all that we had done in this area. With the enthusiasm of Girl Guides trying to attain fifty badges in a summer, I think we’re close. And, it doesn’t matter where you live—stuff is there. You don’t need the neon lights, Michelin stars or trendy cafes or roadside attractions. Poke around like we did. This is what we did and found….and I challenge you to do the same.

Bat-tagging (yes, tagging bats to track their migration patterns) at Shade’s Mills Conservation Area. The Grand River Conservation Authority offer public programs that run the gamut from star gazing to crash courses on salamanders to snowshoeing. Or, owl prowls…see below.

Owl Prowls at Pinehurst Conservation Area—armed with flashlights and a throaty whistle, you can tromp into the woods and try to attract screech and great horned owls, responding to calls in defense of their territory or, hoping to find a sexy mate.

A Bee Symposium. At city hall, local honey producers and all-around bee enthusiasts and activists shared the skinny on how to attract bees to your garden and create orchard mason bee “houses” out of scrap wood or PVC pipes.

BEER classes! We attended every class (high achievers, I know) at the Grand River Brewing Company. Each night featured a theme from pilsners to spring beers to stouts and porters. For $20 a class, it was a near PhD dose of beer intel —paired with cheese from a local shop or catered by Kiwi.

Monigrams Coffee Roasters Backlot Sessions: Coordinated by local guitar hero Eric Bolton, the Backlot Sessions are an intimate experience, just upstairs from the hive of Monigrams coffee shop. Featuring local and travelling musicians like Glass Face, it’s the perfect venue to take in the acoustics and feel-good coffee sourced from a women’s farming collective in Burundi, Africa.

The Cineseries: My greatest trepidation in moving from Toronto was leaving the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Queen Street Video and matinees at the Carlton. Lucky dogs that we are, the Idea Exchange (our local library), brings celluloid to Cambridge. We’ve been able to catch the TIFF film circuit just blocks from home.

The Grand River Film Fest: The venues this year expanded to include the U of W School of Architecture. Sponsored by Langdon Hall, the film For Grace (about Curtis Duffy, a Michelin-star ranked Chicago chef and restauranteur) was upgraded with the likes of caramel pumpkin-seed studded popcorn and Pellegrino from the Langdon kitchen.

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The Library: I have a serious love affair with this place. We’ve attended a dozen events—pop-up Christmas marketplaces, printmaking demonstrations, live music, poetry slams, live painting competitions—all part of their carefully curated Friday Night Art Live series—because who doesn’t love the idea of drinking beer, in the library?

The Lavender Farm: as part of a “Road Trip to Wellness” article I wrote for Grand magazine, Kim and I went to visit a nearby lavender farm—that was once a pig farm! The owners are in their sixties and, you can tell, are in their groove and happy to share their genesis story.

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Beer Baths: Technically these are outside our hometown boundary, but, just a half hour drive away on at the Grand Wellness Centre in Brantford. For $50 you can soak your weary bones in a cedar tub filled with lava hot water, two pints of beer, hops and hop flowers—all while sipping on a glass of Ramblin’ Road from Simcoe.

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LPGA at Whistle Bear. If you’ve only watched golf on TV (yes, nap-inducing, right?), it’s way more engaging up close and personal with the players. Sit at a tee box and watch the big heavyweights discuss clubs and yards with their caddies and watch the grass blades take to the wind with a Big Bertha.

Sheave’s Tower: Built in 1876, this tower was the powerhouse for the nearby Blair Mill. Painted oxblood red, it’s a secret sitting in the woods. And if you are a fan of bacon lore, the Blair Mill generated power to grind corn for Schneider’s peameal bacon.

Comedy at the Gay Bar: Now shuttered, sigh. The Robin’s Nest was a landmark, even for big city gays. The old agricultural building on George street housed a rough dance floor that saw many a line-dance courtesy of the DJ who still spun records well into the 90s (and her nineties I think). It changed hands and names to Sizzle, and then it went fizzle. The Nest was like the very best gay reunion on a wintry Saturday night. The ladies that owned it sold hot roast beef sandwiches at midnight and there was always an urn of coffee and store-bought cookies for designated drivers. The new owner introduced live music, drag shows and a comedy night, but steep and climbing rent snuffed the legacy.

Canoeing the Grand: There are few outfitters based out of Paris, and the float from the old Cambridge GTO gas station on Highway 24 to Paris is the quickest way to channel Bill Mason. The nearly 300 km long heritage Grand River (on its way to Dunnville where it dumps into Lake Erie) is swift and gorgeous as it cuts through the Carolinian forest of the area. In Glen Morris there are some Class 1 rapids even, to give your adrenalin a stir. Don’t miss pulling over to check out the German Woolen Mills on the east bank of the Grand near Glen Morris.

German Woolen Mills: You can also check out the historical walls and foundation of the mills on foot or bike by taking the Trans Canada Trail on the east side of the river to Paris. Kim and I have walked to the mills and, on one day, all the way to Paris (19km). We’ve seen American redstarts, Green-backed herons, deer and even an indigo bunting.

Ghost Tour of Old Galt: McDougall Cottage offers various walks that focus on the heritage and history of this area. We’ve walked them all—from the Dickson Hill neighbourhood to industrial Galt to the Halloween ghost walk. It’s a fun way to hear about all the hangings, murders, love affairs gone astray and lingering spirits of the town. For Joleen, the affable guide—this is her ultimate Jeopardy category. You can’t stump her on Galt history. The cottage has a broad program of Scotch tastings, live fiddle, odes to a “love carrot” (long story), and demonstrations on baking all sorts of marvellous things for a small donation.

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Jane’s Walk: The citizen-led tours in honour of social mover and shaker Jane Jacob take place in cities all over the globe. The humble purpose is to remind you to connect with your city and communicate with your neighbour. You’ll learn neat trivia and often, it’s those joining the walk that have lived in the area for seventy years that chirp in with the most surprising gossip.

Preston Heritage House Tour: I rounded up my mom and bro to join us on this self-guided house tour that let us snoop inside a stone farmhouse, famed downtown hotel/watering hole and church conversion. A house tour is like getting permission to read someone’s diary. Go!

Christmas Eve Cocktails at Langdon Hall: Add a just-fallen blanket of snow, soft carols and a snapping fire. Order something fancy from the cocktail list or a hot spiked beverage and take in the opulence, history and postcard that the country house hotel is. It’s been our tradition for the last three years.

Little Louie’s Burgers and Soupery: On the complete flip side, this kitschy joint is a wonderland for those who like burgs with a twist. Our real estate agent Jane Gardner, had insisted we go when we first moved in. It took us three years and now we are kicking ourselves—they grill the best burgers possibly ever (though I have special attachment to a reindeer burger from Hofn, Iceland). Load it up with Hickory Sticks, volcanic mayo, grilled pineapple or pulled pork. There are no rules, and for sub $10 you get a gut-busting lunch with a side!

Barnacle Bill’s Fish n’ Chips: Despite not having a religious bone in my framework, I’m all for the Catholic tradition of fish on Good Friday. Beware—this greasy landmark will leave you smelling like a piece of fried halibut—even if you take your order to go. There are picnic tables by the river—but we just walk the block home and let loose on the malt vinegar and double-dipping of the tartar.

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The Knox Church Christmas Bazaar: Again, one doesn’t have to be Catholic or Presbyterian to take advantage of all those sweet little church ladies selling their baked goods and preserves. Kim’s mom and aunts make divine mustard pickles and jams, but, visiting the east coast just once a year puts a damper on importing more as the rations run low. The Bazaar is our in-between for seedy raspberry jam, some imperfectly shaped shortbread and pickled beet jewels.

Music on the street: Whether it’s the Portuguese parade, Folk Fest or Galt on the Grand with Pauly and the Greaseballs cover band rocking it out, we’ve supported all the local fests, grabbed grilled cheese sandwiches and warm beers from the food trucks and mingled as one should.

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We’ve drank every craft beer on tap at our nearby pub, Café 13; picnicked at the lake at Shades, found 8 lost dogs, snagged hardware and corbels from Southworks Antique Market, pewter barn owl salt and pepper shakers from The Green Spot and kept our house chronically scented like a cedar cabin courtesy of Art of Home’s line of Whitewater poured candles. We’ve dragged out-of-town friends to our favourite shops: Blair House Gifts, Willow House and Cornerstone and the Farmer’s Market where they went home with an organic local turkey, a bundle of sunflowers, garlic dip and six chairs for their dining room table.

Gosh, we’ve earned our badges, haven’t we? I didn’t even mention hosting the Galt Horticultural Society tour (and 100 green thumbs—or, 200 I guess) in our backyard. Or, our participation in the Holly Jolly House Tour that saw over 1,200 people traipse through our house, tricked out for Christmas.

Have we done it all? Of course not. We still have to try the poutine at Stoli’s where they load the fries with stuffing and turkey gravy. And I would like to get to the drive-in theatre to kick it old school with a fountain root beer and butterball popcorn.

When we do move, it will be confidently, knowing we treated this little town like a new love interest: it had our undivided attention, curiosity and affection. It’s been a wonderful love affair.

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Categories: Home Sweet Home, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Forwarding Address

People often ask me what I think about all day—as a massage therapist you tend to have a lot of time…on your hands. It’s a solitary job, despite two people being in the same room. Just as you can choose a “silent ride” in a taxi, you can also choose a silent treatment. Clients are usually quick to say “I like to meditate during my treatment.” Or, they want to focus on their breathing. Or sleep. Which, is exactly what they are entitled to do. The flipside of the job with chatterbox clients is that I act as a semi-bartender/hairdresser/airline seat companion, listening intently, under the veil of an unusual and temporary shared intimacy.

So, this is what I think about, with the silent rides. I can’t speak to the majority of massage therapists, but they’d be lying if they said they were totally tuned in to your sternocleidomastoid for 55 minutes. I play memory games, my own personal version of Solitaire. Better than Suduko.

Most recently I spent an entire day thinking about all the streets I’ve lived on, chronologically, the houses (I can’t even remember the house numbers of half of them) and what I loved most. Midday I upped the ante and added a bonus level of reminiscing—what I loathed. Then I added a soundtrack—a specific song attached to that house and time. What I learned was that often, the actual bricks and mortar were not what my memory was affixed to at all. It was the feeling, the silence of the frozen river, a particular smell, Fleetwood Mac on the ghetto, the dogs or the blackberry bushes growing wild in the back alley.

Let’s scroll back.

Arthur Side Road, Brantford, Ontario: Peepers and Tobacco (1974—1992)

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My parents built our house—a red brick ranch on a two acre lot with our own personal stand of pines to climb and make crappy makeshift treehouses in. We were related to everyone on our road until the Kus family bought and built, ruining the road domination.

My teen bedroom was my parents former master bedroom—the mauve walls and purple shag were quickly upgraded to grass cloth wallpaper (that smelled like a Sunday drive through rural Alberta), a full wall forest mural (not unlike those that you would find in 1980s dentist offices), my beloved waterbed cranked to Florida temps, the southern hemisphere at 10pm on a summer’s night depicted in glow-in- the-dark stars on my ceiling and, an actual floor-to-ceiling tree, a plug-in faux fireplace, surrounded by actual rocks as though one were seated around a bonfire. With carpet.

If you ask any of my family members what we miss most about that house, we will answer the same. The spring peepers. Just across the railroad tracks was a still pond pockmarked by lily pads and shadowed by leaning willows. The peepers were always deafening, they made April nights electric with sound. All our bedroom windows would be opened wide, even with the bracing night air, to take in their triumphant song.

And there was that sweet smell, so rare in these parts anymore. The smell of tobacco curing in the kilns. We all grew up anti-smoking (thanks to a puffarama great grandmother who turned us off with her rolling cough and yellowed plume of wispy white hair. My mom said Grandma Grunt’s wrinkles were from smoking—and, she looked like an old dehydrated apple doll from day one—a cross between Willie Nelson and Mother Teresa). But, the smell of curing tobacco—nothing like a lit cigarette.

And, to be honest—nothing says home to me like the heady smell of pig manure (courtesy of my grandfather’s pig farm on the corner).

Loved: Our home was three corn fields behind the Sunset Drive-in Theatre. Somehow we could pick up the sound from the movies on Kleenex box-sized walkie-talkies my mom found for us at a garage sale.

Soundtrack: I blame my sister for this one—“Mr. Jones,” Counting Crows. She played that damn song on her purple ghetto blaster every morning before catching the school bus until Dax stole her precious ghetto plug.

West 27th and Macdonald, Vancouver, BC (August 1992-1993): Blackberries and Stevie Nicks

Holy bohemia, Batman. I moved to Vancouver at 18, eager to strike out and explore my “emotional geography” as my mother once said. I wanted new. New came in the form of about 23 roomies, a cat named Sushi (who disappeared into the heating ducts at any given chance), another cat who slept in a shoebox (Rick’s size 11 shoes), and a living room with a 6-foot under-construction paper mache penis in the corner of it. But that’s another story.

I shared a room upstairs with Rick, his canvasses (he was a student at the Emily Carr School of Art) and the shoebox cat, Cypress. I owned ‘nothing’ but a sketchbook, an Ani DiFranco CD (without a player), an indigo blue Canadian Tire sleeping bag and army boots. Talk about being ready for the lesbian movement!

I LOVED the bohemia. I was living the dream, freelancing for a magazine called Cockroach and learning the secrets of artists: heating the kitchen with an oven on broil in December and using melted cinnamon hearts as sugar substitute for coffee in February. Here, if you climbed out on to the roof, you could see the mauve Grouse mountain ridge turn navy with nightfall. And, those wild blackberries in the alley—Godzilla-sized.

Soundtrack: Thanks to Rick, on repeat—“What is Love?” Haddaway and “Go Your Own Way,” Fleetwood Mac. Occasionally, roomie Shannon’s Cocteau Twins cranked from her bedroom

Monteverde Cloud Forest and Alto Cuen, Costa Rica (December 1993-March 1994): Trench Foot and Canned Mackerel

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Totally off an flight-path, beyond any radio connection (because that’s the primitive GI Joe way we communicated with the head office of Youth Challenge International then—or not, because we never did find a connection).

My living quarters were actually tenths, not quarters. There were a dozen of us—Aussies, Canadians and two Ticos, a sack of rice, a pail of peanut butter, a dozen cans of mackerel and a hut with no walls, a palm frond roof and a family of boisterous pigs living underneath the raised floor.

Loved: Living by the sun, dependent on fire. Survivor-like before Survivor and the pleasure of being able to vote people off our island. This was House Hunters International: Off the Grid, but 20 years early.

Loathed: Trench foot, sour clothes (in a rainforest, the only thing that can be dry is your humour), parasites (everywhere—intestines, under your skin, in your feet).

Soundtrack: “Here Comes the Rain Again,” The Eurythmics

River Road, Dunnville, ON (1994—2000): Pickles and Pit Bulls

dunnville Dunnville is home of the Mudcat festival—an annual celebration of the catfish that involves drinking at various establishments around town, ie. The fire hall or Legion (pickled eggs for 75 cents). Inevitably, you would have more beer on you than in you at night’s end. Dunnville was also home to a Bick’s pickle factory (now closed)—on certain days, the whiff of gherkins was a pregnant woman’s late night crave dream come true.

Living on the river slowed life down to a poet’s pace. What I loved most was being so cosmically in tune with the seasons and the bird migrations. Every night a pair of green-backed herons would fly in and land in a skeleton of a tree. In the dead of winter, nothing was more brilliant as the darting burnt orange flame of a fox crossing the frozen Grand river.

Loved/loathed: the Croatian and Serbian couple who lived next door (yes, love against all odds!). Ziggy was always half-tanked on his homemade wine and owned a cranky pit bull that often escaped and threatened to attack. “If he attack, you do this—grab both his front legs and pull apart. It break his ribs and he no bite anymore.” The dog was all talk no action—but I preferred the African Helmeted Guinea fowl that Ziggy owned. They would race over, prison break style, and eat the stale cheezies and popcorn that I’d throw out on the lawn for the birds.

Aitkens Road, Dunnville (2001, briefly): One Wayward TTC Stop and 14 farm dogs (galloping)

This house was cool, but, wrong person, wrong time, wrong a lot of things. But, back to the house—it had an outdoor shower, a treehouse over the pond with a loft, and an old TTC streetcar parked on the property that was dubbed “Stealies.” It was soon filled with stolen beer glasses and other donations from klepto friends looking to offload guilt.

Loved: The laneway was storybook, crossing a stream and leading to the two storey home largely hidden from the road on a 14 acre chunk of land.

Loathed: the bike commute was tranquil and recalibrating except for the 14 farm dogs en route who alerted the next farm house to my upcoming arrival creating a non-stop chase scene, one colossal wipe-out on the gravel road, two broken shoelaces (from a dog tug-of-war) and punctured calf (and fancy spandex).

Soundtrack: “Closer to Fine,” Indigo Girls

Lighthouse Drive, Dunnville, ON (winter 2001): Sea Glass and Scrabble

Lake Erie in December is ghostly—frozen and fogged in, the earth seemed to end at the stairs to the beach. The fire here was always roaring—and the conversations that unfolded here led to many a splendored thing. There was a book on the old weigh scale table that you were supposed to turn the pages of daily. Each day had a thought, a musing. I’d read most of them before, but, it was something that we read aloud each day anew. Like a fortune cookie, a premonition.

I loved that Rene and Pat had stacks of dog-eared paperbacks and shelves of movies, Scrabble permanently at-the-ready and an “Elbow Room” full of neon signs, an ET figurine, sea glass, fish lures, carved shore birds, license plates, tiki lights, autographed KD lang posters and over 600 CDs. Rene’s son was a radio show host and DJ, and picking out tunes was like sifting thru the world’s biggest jukebox play list. Her impersonation of Macy Gray was head-shakingly good.

We ate a lot of shrimp cocktail and venison pepperettes listening to Shakespeare’s Sister and Amanda Marshall, challenging Scrabble words, comparing smooth jade sea glass finds after our walks.

Soundtrack: “I Try,” Macy Gray

Hyde Road, Burlington, ON (February 2001—September 2001?): Tom and Cruise

My brother had lived with Tom when he was on a university co-op placement. The rent was super cheap ($350) but everything else was annoying. Tom had a fox terrier named “Cruise” (yes) and that thing was a barking terror. Tom spent every Sunday preparing organic meals for the dog and organizing a month’s worth of supplements into daily containers—old film canisters.

He had terrible paintings, all lit with gallery lighting. My room came furnished and I had to take down the picture of the supped up Ferrari and galloping stallion oil painting. He smoked every night in the garage below my room—and thus, opened the electric garage door every night to do so. Around midnight.

There were notes EVERYWHERE in the house dictating how to behave. “Please squeegee shower after use.” “Please wipe microwave after use.” “Please do not touch thermostat.” He made all of these signs with one of those 1980s adhesive label maker things.

Loved: Kim. And, the TV in my room that had to be turned on with a screwdriver (volume adjusted the same way). Only highlight? Living close to Montfort’s and grabbing shawarma after ball hockey. We’d set up base camp on the bed with a bottle of wine (I had no other furniture and a French woman and an odd divorcee scientist monopolized the communal living room) to watch Queer As Folk with screwdriver in hand.

Soundtrack: “Save a Song,” Madison Violet (Mad Violet then!) and “Go West,” Pet Shop Boys (as I could never remember which GO train direction I was supposed to go to get home from Toronto).

Gloucester Street, The Village, Toronto (2001-2002? My years might be off): Sommeliers and Starbucks

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My first real, live apartment. I bought the best sound system going and quickly received a post-it note from the woman who lived above me in the brownstone on the corner of Church. “Your sound system is very impressive, but also very invasive.”

Because I lived about 50 feet from the best girl bar at the time, Slack’s…I became the drop-in zone for pre-drinks on Friday nights. I felt like Hugh Hefner for a while. My friend Big Dave (big in height, not weight), lived on the other side of the horseshoe-shaped building. It was like Friends, with Claire living directly across from me. She was a sommelier-in-training which impressed me until the week before Christmas when she suggested we go to Sotto Sotto to celebrate. She wanted to choose the wine—and she also wanted me to pick up the tab. Ka-ching. Merry Christmas, $88 for a bottle of wine!

Soundtrack: Sarah McLachlan’s Trainwreck on repeat. Woe is me. And, Juice Newton’s “Angel in the Morning.”

But this makes more sense, this quote. Just replace NY with Toronto:

“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last.” –Layne Mosler, Taxi Gourmet

Parliament Street, Toronto (2003-2004): Smoke and Mirrors

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The former Czech maintenance guy of the high rise lived in this apartment for a few years and had it so tricked out that it surprised everyone who cringed a little on the scruffy elevator ride up to the 14th (really the 13th floor. Did you know that superstition overrides elevators? I didn’t). The kitchen had black marble tiles, there was hardwood everywhere else and a GIANT mirror over the bed.

The cat de jour, Gnu, spent every night parked in the tiny hallway between the bedroom and living room (the place was 500 square feet, maybe), meowing some god awful guttural sound to something or somebody who also ‘lived’ there.

Loathed: The gunshots, the marital wars on balconies. The kids who played marbles above, all night long—and then soccer, off the apartment walls. Fire alarms went off in this building every other day. It eventually did catch on fire and the woman I lived with at the time had to crawl out on her hands and knees and lived in a hotel for weeks while the fire damage was resolved.

Other loathe: the laundry room. This was the first (and last) time I was ever subjected to coin-operated laundry and wanting to strangle young children who opened dryers and washers mid-cycle. I would return to the basement level laundry room an hour later to switch the load, only to find it stopped prematurely due to some curious rug rat.

Soundtrack: Kelly introduced me to BET. I had no idea. There  was a lot of Usher.

Earl Street, Toronto (2004): Cheerios and White Wine

Now this place oozed cool. The third floor was sun-soaked, I could tan in bed in the morning. I had a tiny balcony that was 20 pounds away from caving in, but I read here until dark whenever I could. Often my balcony neighbour would holler over (actually, no need to holler, he was RIGHT there) and beg me to join him for a glass of wine. I’d be just back from a morning run, eating Cheerios, but, why not?

The kitchen had a floating hutch—by unlocking a mechanism in the floor, I could swing the hutch and completely close off the kitchen. There was a Murphy bed and the bathroom door was almost five feet wide.

Loved: the walls were the colour of mushroom caps, the space just felt good and snug. I was a shaken , not stirred.

Loathed: N/A

Soundtrack: “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” KT Tunstall

High Drive, Abbotsford, British Columbia (August 2005—August 2009): Oprah and Tetley, Mila & Bently

My urban nerves were slightly shot—High Drive was a welcome respite with a backyard, genuine grass, and birds that weren’t pigeons. There were Stellar’s jays, woodsy trails and lovely dogs.

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Mila and  Bently made this place. And Gillian, the tenant below. We’d throw dinosaur-sized bones to the dogs on the sunny days and sit with a pot of tea and chat about Oprah, Wayne Dwyer and Sylvia Brown for hours. Gillian was sixtysomething, skinny as a whippet and whenever I picked up date squares or peanut butter cookies—anytime of the day—she would put the kettle on and suggest we eat them immediately.

Loved: It was the smell there, in all of BC—wet cedar, earth, worms.

Loathed: It was too much wet. Even though BC brags about the balmy, I felt too soggy. I didn’t want tulips in February, I wanted 30 degree summers.

Soundtrack: Oddly, “My Immortal,” Evanescence. Gillian would sometimes blast this—unaware that I was home. It’s like slashing an artery and bleeding out. A dramatic take on how I felt living in Abbotsford. And Jann Arden’s “All the Days,” because I heard it there first and sobbed the very first time I listened to it.

The Chimp House, Lugard Ave, Entebbe, Uganda (September 2008-January 2009): Thunderstorms and Chapatis

Gin, tonic—and all of Lake Victoria still and distant before me. When I volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute, I bunked at what was affectionately known as “The Chimp House.” I kept great company—three dogs (Scrappy, Levi, Tinker) and two cats (Juwa and Pops) and a slew of in-and-out volunteers from Poland, Australia, New Zealand and the states). My room was probably 5’ x 8’ but I revelled in having so little. A few changes of clothes, a few books, some dried mango, a DVD of Grey’s Anatomy season 3 in German subtitles and the sheer glow of HOLY CRAP I’M IN AFRICA! filling the room and pushing the walls even further apart. And when those African thunderstorms rolled around—picture those three dogs and two cats, all curled up like shrimps and shivering with furry fear in my single bed with me, under a mozzie net.

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LOVED: Waking up to the total ruckus of African birds—plantain eaters, hornbills, sunbirds. I also woke up to the roar of the African thunderstorms moving across the lake and wind on full throttle at 2am. And the bats! Every night at 6:05 they’d start bumbling about in the attic and then stream out and pinwheel low in the sky in a feeding frenzy. Oh, and the JGI housekeeper—Ruth—her chapatis. Sigh.

Loathed: The grid would be shut down every Friday. The power would surge and spit. The internet ground to a halt. The electricity often out for days on end.

Soundtrack: “Since U Been Gone,” Tokyo Police Club

Lubumbashi, The Congo July 2009: Breakfast with the Chimps

It was only a month, but it counts because it shook up my world. I was volunteering at a chimp sanctuary owned by a Belgian couple (they were in Belgium at the time). I stayed in their 10-year-old boy’s bedroom and his tiny single bed with cartoon sheets, stuffies, rubber monsters and insects.

The electricity was dodgy here too and boiling water was an hour-long effort on the stovetop. But, the stories, bringing home a tiny rescue chimp each nite—feeding Mikai yogurt by the spoonful in the morning. It was so beyond my Arthur Side Road daydreams of what “I wanted to be when I grew up.” I was making breakfast for 23 chimps like a windblown Starbucks barista. Hot milk, bee pollen and just a bit of honey.

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In our down time (after feeding the bushbabies a few boiled eggs and some fruit at sundown) Chantal and I ate the most divine frog legs, banana and ham pizza, goat testicles even. She found the best Belgian beers for me and savoury farmer’s pate. It was gourmand, soul-satisfying and the most nourishing place I had lived.

Loved: the exhaustion from sensory stimulation.

Loathed? Nothing. Leaving, I suppose.

Soundtrack: that buzz of happiness

“There was no disorientation, I decided, like the disorientation of reducing your possessions to a suitcase and a carry-on and showing up in a new place where your life had no pattern, no rhythm, no rots, no relationship to any other person’s life. And there was no way around it, this disorientation—no way to skip over it or rush past it. The only way was through.” ~ Layne Mosler, Taxi Gourmet

Dax’s Couch on Wellesley Street, Toronto, ON (6 weeks, August—September 2009): Floored

My kid bro kept me well-fed and well-drank as we watched sci-fi, shook martinis, listened to Lily Allen, Franz Ferdinand, The Beautiful South and bitched. By day I looked for both a job and a place to live, having just re-transplanted from the west coast. Are you following the bouncing ball? Anyway, Dax made the best stovetop burgs, balsamic reductions, pillowy pancakes and baseball-sized banana-choco chip muffins.

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The cranky boyfriend at the time made me sleep on the floor so I didn’t ruin the couch. Three weeks later he relented (due to Dax) and let me sleep on the couch cushions, on the floor. Beggars can’t be choosers, but, my spine was never straighter. And, I had an ocean view. Of his 200-gallon salt water fish tank.

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Soundtrack: I went for a 5km run through Cabbagetown with my ipod and stopped at Church and Wellesley to walk the rest of the block to cool down. I didn’t realize until that moment that I hadn’t even turned on my ipod. I had my ear buds in—but had so much white noise in my head that I didn’t even realize the music wasn’t on.

Winchester Street, Toronto, ON (September 2009—November 2010): Cabbagetown Chronicles

This place was so gorgeous that I convinced my ex long-removed to come live with me. It was $2000 and a stunner. Two brothers had renovated the hell out of the Cabbagetown Victorian and after seeing over 30 crappy rentals, this had to be it. There was a new shiny singing Samsung washer and dryer, heated floors in the bathroom, a claw foot tub to soak in and a magazine spread-worthy kitchen. There was even a bath tub in the backyard.

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Loved: All except that shower curtain sticking to my body in the fancy claw foot tub. Dog-sitting Marlon Brando.

Loathed: Putting together an Ikea Billy bookshelf with a butter knife until the brothers saved me and I plied them with beer (enough to encourage them to help assemble the Ikea dresser as well).

Soundtrack: “Heart of my Own,” Basia Bulat

Dalton Road, Toronto, ON (November 2009—January 2012): Living below a Sumo Wrestler

I said I’d never live west of Yonge. And no way—I’d never live in a basement. Or in a place without a backyard. But, this place—it was a deal-breaker, or maker I suppose. There was a pot-belly gas fireplace and an exposed stone wall. That’s what sucked me in. The ceilings posed a problem for my brother and dad (6’2), but, they could sit.

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I didn’t notice the rumble of the subway when I moved in, or the zero soundproofing between floors. Enter the tenant with cinder blocks for feet and her affection for Adele and YoYo Ma.

But, I was in the pounding heart of the Annex. Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Book City, Future Bakery, Big Fat Burrito, shrimp chips and boiled chestnuts from Superfresh. Movie rentals at 7-24. The Wine Rack.

Loathed: No backyard. Cinder block tenant above. Those basement bugs that look like Colin Farrell eyebrows.

Soundtrack: Tucker Finn, on repeat. The best tunes to paint walls by.

Grand Ave South, West Galt, ON (January 2012—current): Tiger Balm and Crow Bars

Well, you know the love affair we have with our darling stone cottage here. We have been the caretakers of history. We have tended and calmed the Amazonia of the backyard. We have realized that we can spin a house around with a lot of sandpaper, Tiger Balm, love, trail mix, gallons of paint, Kim’s drill bits, CLR, crow bar, wood chips and beer.

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Next stop: Prince Edward County. Though I’m really sucked into the listing for a $9,950 white clapboard church in Coleman, Prince Edward Island.

Soundtrack: That annoying House Hunters decision-making backbeat…”What will Kim and Jules do???”

 

Thanks for traipsing through all the neighbourhoods of my personal Monopoly board. You should do the same. It’s the best place to get lost in your thoughts.

Categories: Home Sweet Home, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

Toronto Expats: Leaving the 416, 519–and onward to the 613

When you write, there is a literal paper trail that recounts a ticking heart, forgotten impulse and mindset. I was digging through emails, retracing our stone cottage purchase back in November of 2012. I wrote something about leaving my “beloved 416” area code sometime soon after that for Toronto Life magazine, though it went to a slush pile. All of it rings largely true (including the church bells in West Galt that sound off every hour). It reads like familiar, dog-eared diary pages–all that I still boast about is here.

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It’s no big secret that we want to pull our mini tap root here and plant ourselves in the clay loam of Prince Edward County. After reading Geoff Heinricks A Fool and Forty Acres, I kind of want to grow pinot noir grapes too.

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Everyday begins with a coffee and a scan of properties in the County. I cruise a little north to Meyers Island and Hastings, a little east to Napanee and Amherst Island, but, the County has a firm grip on us. Who knows? We might secure a woodsy plot of land and build something dynamic. We might just find that perfect church or abandoned school house or barn conversion. If it’s a water tower, a silo or a lighthouse or something off the cuff, or off the grid–we’re interested.

photo credit: realtor.ca

photo credit: realtor.ca

But in the meantime, come back to that ticking heart, impulse and frenetic mindset of 2012, when we boxed up our Toronto lives and became expats in a place with dew worm vending machines.

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It’s been two years (*three now at time of printing) since the U-Haul trundled down Spadina and pointed due west for the 519. I was leaving Toronto and my safety net of Banh Mi subs, Jimmy’s Coffee, utopian bookstores and Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. I looked at the gauzy skyline in the rear view mirror with equal parts trepidation and elation.

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I had somehow convinced my partner that our dream home was a 150-year-old stone cottage located in West Galt, Ontario. Despite being the handy, power tool-skilled one in the relationship, Kim had only lived in brand new suburban builds in commuter bedrooms like Oakville and Burlington. On the flip side, I was like a heat-seeking missile for “urban rentals with personality” in Cabbagetown and the Annex. I fawned over brownstones with Murphy beds, Victorians with claw foot tubs and beat-up hardwood floors. Places that needed work, and power tools.

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The stone cottage needed a little cosmetic love and affection, but not a reality show gut job. Painting wasn’t daunting for us; Kim and I have painted the equivalent of the Great Wall of China at a combined thirty-six addresses. We could do cosmetics. Maybe we’d replace the en suite shower in time and build a deck come summer. When the house inspector gave the structure an A+ and fawned over the repointing of the mortar and underpinning, we said yes.

In turn, Kim gave up the convenience of a garage and storage for her golf clubs and hockey bag. Her workshop had to move to the bedrock basement (at a height designed for Smurfs). I agreed to walking 8km to work while Kim would brave a 4:30am alarm to drive 45 minutes to the steel mill in Hamilton for a 12-hour shift. Negotiations were seamless.

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How West Galt became the marriage of both our needs and wants no longer puzzles our city circle of friends. In fact, they come to us—seeking somewhat of an organic internship (or, that’s what we deem it). We arm them with axes and wheelbarrows and push them into the jungle foray of perennials. Our property is like an all-inclusive experience for condo dwellers limited to growing cat grass and oregano in a window sill.

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We have become caretakers of history (with a little help from our friends) in buying the limestone and granite house that stonemason William Webster cobbled together on the Grand River in 1861. The carriage house still has a rusty hitch on the side wall where his horses would have been tied. The black walnut trees wouldn’t have been tall enough to provide any shade then. Webster probably planted them.

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My urban skin shed so quickly in Galt that I worried that I was in denial. What about those Banh Mi subs and pork-stuffed sticky buns on Dundas? Didn’t I miss the bleary-eyed chatter with the hung-over baristas at Jimmy’s about where and when we spent Saturday night?

I knew what I didn’t miss immediately—living in 700-square-feet with an upstairs tenant who apparently had cinder blocks for feet. Now I could fry up crab cakes and not climb into a bed under a duvet that smelled like the Atlantic Ocean due to the proximity to the kitchen. When you make butter chicken in close quarters, even the towels in the bathroom smell like curry. And Irish Spring.

We now have space to make curries without a trace, and a patch of terra firma that sees the shadows of trees, not high rises. Everything I thought I would miss was quickly replaced by exploring our adopted hometown. I felt like a modern day Chris Colombus when I “discovered” the stiff Americanos at Monigram’s Coffee Roasters. We’re just minutes from a microbrewery where we can grab growlers for under fifteen bucks and attend beer classes on stouts and porters. There is a tiny cheese shop, a Jamaican take-away and the library regularly screens selections from tiff.

All my boxes have been ticked.

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Kim and I eased into the groove of small town like chameleons. After the 24-hour neon rhythm of the Annex, it was initially odd to see downtown stores closed at 6pm, or shuttered on Sundays. In exchange we can slip into the Carolinian woods on the rail trail to our coveted picnic spot by the remains of the old German woolen mill at the river’s edge. If we ever decided to take up fishing, we even have a dew worm vending machine at the intersection of Parkhill and George.

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I thought we’d be back to the city bi-weekly, like boomerangs, desperate to fill the culture and gastronomy gap. However, more often, we are driving directly to the airport, not downtown at all. It’s difficult to leave this soundtrack. From the back deck we have front rows seats to a steady flight path of orioles, osprey and chatty cedar waxwings. Our yard vibrates with bumblebees and hummingbirds. Church bells sound on the hour and the haunting echo carries along the storied Grand.

Of course, I still pick up back issues of Toronto Life as a tether to the 416 I know and love, but, I’ve become a full-time ambassador for the 519 now.

(*Editor’s addition: that is, until we adopt 613).

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Categories: Home Sweet Home | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Sleeping Around Uganda

An African recap if you’re just joining the studio audience here: In 2008 I volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute in Entebbe, Uganda for four months. I was responsible for editing a book on the tribes and totems of Uganda created by local children and members of the Roots & Shoots program. I illustrated and designed colouring books on the primates of Uganda and Rwanda, and quite frankly, had the time of my life.

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I first met Merryde Loosemore at the “Chimp House” (the Jane Goodall Institute headquarters in Entebbe where I also lived). Merryde owned the very posh Gately Inn just a 10 minute walk from our office. It became a favoured spot for Cobb salad, pad Thai, stacks of pancakes on Sunday and lovely Australian reds.

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The night we met, the Chimp House was full of various volunteers, coming and going—we covered all angles from Maine to Toronto to Australia. The universal tie was pizza that had been picked up for the crowd and tall Nile Special beers all around. Wagging dogs were afoot (Tinker, Levi, Scrappy) and even the Chimp House cats made an affectionate round. I had just arrived and was blinkered from the flight via Amsterdam. I hopped up to sit on the counter to take in all the accents and stories being swapped around me. Merryde made her way over and leaned between my legs, casually, as though we’d been friends forever. It oddly seemed that way, instantly. She had been a massage therapist in Chamonix Mont-Blanc (the Rhones-Alps region of southeastern France). She’d slept with the Bedouin (and unfortunately, scorpions) in Morocco. She had tromped around with gorillas in Rwanda and had relatives with a crocodile farm in Oz. I was hooked by her energy and tall tales—it was a soul-meshing night.

Which brings me to present day and returning to Uganda. It’s been 15 years since Merryde opened Gately on the Nile in Jinja and the sister property Gately Inn in Entebbe. It was seven since I’d gazed upon mighty Lake Vic. As Merryde was about to celebrate a landmark birthday in Australia in October, the timing was off for us to reunite in Africa. However, Kim and I would be staying at Gately, a place that is testament to the steely-nerved efforts and persistence of one resilient woman to own a successful boutique hotel chain in Uganda that catered to western appetites.

I told Kim we’d be rather ruined sleeping at the Gately properties at the beginning of our three weeks in Uganda. Aside from eating my way extensively through the Gately menus in 2008, I had also stayed at both hotels and knew of the opulence. Come see, and check out what it’s like to sleep around Uganda.

Gately Inn Entebbe

$269 double occupancy cottage, full board

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Entebbe has grown up remarkably from the dusty Russian pilot and UN outpost I remember it as. Gosh, a mall with all the mod cons is soon opening right across from Gately—with a Diesel store and McDonalds! Just a mile down Airport road there is now a KFC and IMAX. I couldn’t believe it—but, I also insisted that Kim and I and Gately’s manager, Helen, go to see Everest in 3D. The juxtaposition of seeing a 3D film about Mt. Everest in Entebbe floored me! (We skipped the bucket of KFC though.) The (also new) Victoria Mall even has a Nukamatt supermarket. To think, I’d squash into a crammed matatu and travel for an hour to the capital city just to buy bagels back then! Now bagels by the dozen (and donuts and Nutella and glossy mags) were a 15 minute stroll from the Chimp House and Gately.

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But, back to the hotel. What a sanctuary after 19 hours of flying from Toronto. The hot showers here are the type you can’t pull yourself out of. I know, it’s Africa, why are we having hot showers? I always do, even in the dead of summer. The towels were luxury, the linens and mattress all so dreamy after being curled up like a prawn on Ethiopian Airlines.

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Gately had even started bottling its own label of South African red wine. Fresh fragrant petals were strewn in colourful trails on the bed and table surfaces. Outside our cottage we had director chairs tucked just so, for optimal privacy. Our only visitors were sunbirds, dashing weavers, flitting butterflies and enthusiastic goodmornings from Jinja and Sippi, the Gately guard dogs. Plantain eaters gave belly laughs from above—these birds sound like monkeys—and there were monkeys too. From our gin and ginger perch we had a mini safari of marabou storks, hornbills and the odd Russian military plane.

The restaurant at Gately has a thoughtfully crafted menu—Merryde had long ago hired a Thai woman named Nee to teach the staff how to prep curries, spring rolls, pad Thai and traditional soups. The menu now has whopping Nile burgers (with an amazing coriander-yogurt dressing), chicken lollipops and fun pub fare like tilapia fingers. It’s all divine.

The Gately Inn in Entebbe is the perfect crash pad, located just 10 minutes from the airport. Sleep off the fog of the flight and you’re walking distance to the ferry dock for Ngamba Island (a chimp sanctuary for 48 orphaned chimps), the zoo, the botanical gardens (where Tarzan was filmed in the 30s) and Anderita Beach (though the hydroelectric dam project has eaten up most of the beach and the bars and restaurants along the edge of Lake Victoria now have only about a foot of sand). If you’ve read or watched the Last King of Scotland and are familiar with Idi Amin’s reign of terror (his ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Uganda in 1972 involved the mass expulsion of Asians from the country) you can visit the dilapitated hijacked Air France plane on Aero Beach.

When you are in Entebbe, make sure it’s on a Tuesday so you can check out the night market. Prepare to be inundated by vendors eager to sell you everything from fried grasshoppers to shoe polish to knock-off cologne to lace panties to catfish and eggplants. It’s a dizzying display of entrepreneurial work and a jaw-dropping amount of stuff that explodes and disappears a few hours later in the haze of kerosene and fried chicken smoke.

Gately on the Nile, Jinja

$255 US, double occupancy Lakeside Lodge, full board

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Back in the day (2008), you could get to Jinja in a semi-smooth two hours. Now you have to bank on four or five with all the congestion in Kampala. A four-lane highway development is on its way which will make for a convenient artery from Entebbe to Jinja, and the next place you should sleep.

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Gately on the Nile is a completely different entity in atmosphere and vibration. Jinja is a little more relaxed (despite being the adventure capital of Uganda). Expats and travellers tend to hang here a little longer, finding the likes of bookstores, avocado smoothies, a yacht club and pubs serving Guinness and Euro soccer matches on the big screen.

The Gately property, in particular the Lakeside Lodge, has a primo view of the Nile. The spiral staircase to the upper deck leaves you sharing air space with hawks and kite birds, catching a current. The bay below is busy with tilapia fisherman and charcoal delivery. At night, the water is illuminated by fishing boats, the lake seemingly full of fireflies.

At the lodge, Jinja and Sippi’s dog duty is taken over by the lovey-dovey Chili and Beavis. Ferocious if needed, they are also instant love balls off-duty.

Room seven (which is temptingly available long-term) is what we want our future master bedroom to look exactly like. Why? The exposed stone walls and cathedral ceilings—live edge double stainless sink counter top, panoramic windows that allow for birdwatching while you brush your teeth! There’s a soaker tub and an open shower (there’s nothing I love more than reckless showering—ie. No glass doors to squeegee!).

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Merryde’s stealth design and attentive eye to detail are evident in all her choices from the goat skin chair covers to the poofy read-a-book-here love seats and doors that open wide to the exotica outside. We want our house to be this floorplan exactly. With a darling dog like Chili.

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Must do: have the Gately staff arrange for a sunset cruise to the source of the Nile. You will see the fisherman casting their nets, egrets, weavers and a serious kingfisherpalooza in the reeds.

Murchison River Lodge

$255 for triple thatched safari tent, half board (dinner, breakfast)

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Located close to the Paraa ferry, just outside Murchison Falls National Park, the southern bank river lodge is the first place Kim and I have ever slept where a hippo escort is required. At night, lanterns illuminate the path to the restaurant and bar area. You can hear the hippos snorting and chatting at the water’s edge. At our tent’s edge! Our driver expressed concern when he saw our sleeping accommodations asking, “What if the hiphops break your tent?”

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We laughed at the bed arrangement for three. All the single beds were pushed together and Helen (Gately’s GM), who we had just met (though her and I had corresponded for months prior via email), was staying with us. “Helen, do you want the bed in the middle?”

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The shower was gorgeous, we each took turns moaning aloud with enjoyment at the HOT water and pure joy of showering with the hippo soundtrack.

That night the River Lodge staff had the grills busy with beef, chicken and lamb kebabs. We grazed on fried chapatti chips dunked in guacamole, the sun already down and stars taking their place. There was no music in the restaurant which so impressed us—there was no need with the squeak of bats and couckals.

Rest assured, when you are booking a thatched tent here, it is a stunner! Not the crappy canvas tent that I imagined, reeking of mothballs and wet dog (guess I was projecting childhood memories of our big circus tent that we slept in). And, this is bush country—don’t expect air conditioning and telly. Try oogling instead of Googling here.

Fort Murchison, near Murchison Falls National Park

$200 US, triple room, half board (dinner and breakfast)

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I love that we had to stop for elephants en route. Though we were outside the national park, the local wildlife didn’t get the memo. Even after leaving the park gate, we were still seeing bounding Ugandan kobs and duikers and ellies on the move.

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The Fort is located on the eastern banks of the Albert Nile. Designed to appear like a remote outpost for Arab traders, we indeed felt like we had traveled long and far, in need of rest and Swahili care. The four course meal was a complete surprise—I was expecting a line-up of starchy blobs, maybe a fish with it’s eye still intact. Oh no. The server was swift and brought us an avo-beet-olive and caper salad to start, a giant bowl of buttery leek and potato soup, followed by lemon butter tilapia (no eye, filet) on a bed of steamed cabbage and onion. There was a dessert too, but I was ready to undo my capris as is.

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The hippo soundtrack followed us here. We had a laugh over the bed arrangement again—Helen’s option looking like a child’s fort with a makeshift mozzie net. She was the one laughing in the morning. Kim and I could hardly breathe because our mattresses were like bedrock. Really, I couldn’t feel my ear for a good hour, or my arms, because they (not me) had fallen asleep from the slate pillow. Helen’s mattress was a dream—and as we creaked about, she smiled after so many hours of blissful REM not tossing and turning on bedrock.

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But, coffee in the morning at the Fort? Go up top and take it all in. Lizards skittled out to join us on the fort walls, enjoying the warming movement of the sun. We did too. The jasmine in the air, mixed with the coffee was something that can’t translate in a postcard home.

If you’re looking for a firm sleep, a place to eat like a sheik and a surreal cup of morning coffee, this is it.

The Dutchess, Fort Portal

$80 US per night, includes breakfast and BRIE!

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I’ve already bitched about the hell ride on public transport in the previous blog, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, I’ll say the reward was in finding all the pleasures of the Dutchess versus the first rat-hole hotel we looked at on the main drag. It was dumpy, frumpy and the kind of place where you might go to end your life. Ugh. But, cheap. But, no thanks.

At the Dutchess, I knew goodness was in store when I saw fair trade coffee beans, brie and salami for sale in the lobby. An older gentleman seated outside the Dutchess when we arrived said we’d made a great decision, we wouldn’t be disappointed. We joked that he was probably the owner (he wasn’t).

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The rooms are contemporary, with flat screen televisions even! We had filtered water provided (such a treat as you can go broke buying water in Uganda) and there was a resto below serving eggplant pizza and croc ribs and shockingly cold beer.

The staff slogged our bags to the room and finally, we could use our Visa card! Note to travellers: you will find yourself travelling with uncomfortable sums of money because a) ATM’s are few and far between b) sometimes there is no money left in the ATM c) often your card will be rejected). The hotel has free wifi and for Luddites like us, travelling without tablet or cell, they have two computers for use downstairs.

The Dutchess is the best place to decompress if you’ve travelled the 5 hour leg on bus from Kampala. If you’re heading to Kibale, the walk to the matatu stop is 10 minutes away and you can stock up on picnic stuff in the lobby, or at the supermarkets nearby en route.

Breakfast is quite the affair—let me just say this, god bless Gouda and the Dutch.

Chimp’s Nest, Kibale National Park

$120 per night, cottage for 2, includes breakfast

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This was my birthday pick and we had booked the Chimp’s Nest on booking.com prior to leaving Canada. I loved the idea of a wood-fired shower and the balcony overlooking red-tailed monkey territory. The hotel offers on-site night forest walks (where we saw bushbabies and sleeping kingfishers) and, if you jump on a motorbike you can be on the boardwalk of the nearby Bigodi Swamp in just minutes. The 8km walk is astounding and a bird overload!

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We had the Chimp’s Nest to ourselves, really. Travelling on the edge of the shoulder season has become more and more attractive. We spent idyllic days on the stone deck of the lounge area, ate strange spag bol (served with coleslaw?) and stale bacon and tomato sandwiches that exploded like pinatas when you bit into them. But, crappy meals aside, everything else here was off the charts. I’d sit on the toilet of our open sky (yes, no roof Dad!) en suite and often be calling to Kim to come see the moth show on display. I’d interrupt a pee to grab the camera in case something magnificent took off too soon.

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For privacy, romance, killer cat naps, monkey watching, bushbaby stalking and storm chasing—stay here.

Ihamba Lakeside Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park

$139 US per night, includes breakfast and hippo escort

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“Oh no, I’ve pulled a Sandra.” A few years ago my mom booked a night at a hotel in Scotland for a steal of a price. She couldn’t believe it—it was a castle with a lake view and she was surprised the drinking water didn’t have flecks of gold in it. That is, until she checked out and learned that the price in euros was PER PERSON, not total for the room.

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I double-checked my scrawled notes and I had written down $139 US per nite several times. Was it really $139 PER PERSON? I swallowed my panic and my beer even faster as Fred showed us the grounds, our private chalet, King bed and slipper tub where we could watch the hippos emerge from Lake George. There was coffee service in the morning—meaning, they would bring it with hot milk to our door, at whatever time we requested. Holy crap. There were robes and all the finery that made me sweat. Oh well, it would be worth it for one night.

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Again, we had the hotel to ourselves. It was just Kim and I at the pool, pretending that it was our very own villa. Philemon brought us Tuskers before we could finish the last of the first.

I finally worked up the courage to ask Julius about the payment on the sly. “So, what would our total for four nights be in shillings?” This way I could do the math (or Kim could) and we’d know if I’d pulled a Sandra in Scotland or not.

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It was $139 per night, per cottage, not per person. WOW.

Deluxe. “Ihamba” means ‘wilderness’ and you will find yourself plunk in the middle of it. Though there are nearby goats that cruise through too (including two that were eager to have a swim in the pool). Cattle graze close to the hippos and we were told, “Please watch for hippos at night and give them 7 metres distance.” Right, where’s my tape measure?

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This place is straight out of the pages of Conde Naste. For the best dose of relaxation after lion stalking at Queen Elizabeth National Park, go here. If you are travelling sans group, as we were, the staff can arrange a driver and safari for you ($150US plus park entry fees of $40US per day, per person).

Listen for the tambourine doves (they sound exactly like the spinning wheel on the Price is Right). Don’t miss the crispy golden beef samosas (I think Kim had them three nights in a row) or fiery eggplant curry. Watch the fishing boats slide out and edge into the horizon. Sit on that perfect balcony and watch the bishop birds and wagtails and go away birds until dusk swoops in because you’ll miss every bit of this place and scene and sound as soon as you leave it.

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So, isn’t it time you slept around Uganda?

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