Monuments

A friend sent me a message: “Go to news. Notre Dame is on fire.”  I leapt up from the computer and for the next two hours or so I was riveted to the T.V screen as I watched the Cathedral, the heart of Paris burning.  I was saddened.

My Bert and I have had the privilege of visiting famous monuments and landmarks around the world.  They remain in my memory, in my psyche, and yes in my heart.

On separate occasions I have cried, laughed, cried and laughed at the Berlin Wall.  I even own a small piece of it from when it was torn down. My Bert and I raced from Amsterdam to Berlin to witness the ‘unzipping’ of the refurbished Brandenburg Gate by President Bill Clinton.

I got goose bumps the first time I saw Westminster Abbey, The Blue Mosque, The Great Pyramid of Giza, Notre Dame de Paris, The Taj Mahal and so many more.   There are entire cities that I consider to be monuments.  Jerusalem, London, Paris, Athens, Rome, The Vatican, Amsterdam all come to mind.

Whenever I think of Denmark the small sculpture of The Little Mermaid brings a smile as do the Manneken Pis in Brussels which dates from 1388.  They are beloved symbols that give a unique identity to a particular place.  They are more than interesting sculptures.

The Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado means we are in Rio de Janeiro.  Going to the opera at the Sydney Opera house is one bragging right I hold dear. And you know you are in Australia.

As I looked at Notre Dame I was grateful that we had toured it as a couple, as a family, and with travel companions.  I wondered if we would live to see the ‘after’ even if only virtually.

As the fire burned my thoughts were turbulent.  I was filled with dismay and sadness.  I am not Roman Catholic.  That did not matter.  I am neither a Parisian nor French.  That did not matter.  I was looking at an iconic symbol.  That is what a monument is.  A symbol that is universal that can appeal to anyone. 

Great literature, art, music, dance, drama, architecture are ways in which we showcase our creativity, share our talents and demonstrate the human need for beauty that transcends the mundane.   They speak to the soul.  Monumental works like Notre Dame validate that need and give credence to Keats’: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

When we toured Notre Dame the fact that it was the keeper of the Crown of Thorns was awe inspiring.  I enjoyed seeing the art, the craftsmanship that went into the building but uppermost in my mind was the history.  The same words I said then came back to me as I uttered them again: “If only these walls and stones could talk.”  Notre Dame burned at the beginning of Holy Week.  Ironic, isn’t it?

I wondered if the egotistical Napoleon was turning in his grave recalling his glory when he crowned himself Emperor of France in Notre Dame.   He had no great love for either the Pontiff or religiosity so he may have some ambivalence about this destruction.  As the spire fell I wondered if all those nobles who travelled past its doors in tumbrels to be guillotined found some macabre similarity to their own fate.  They lost their heads and now Notre Dame was losing its own.

As I mourned the passing I wondered if some were cheering that this was a symbol belonging to ‘the other’ not to them.  History, literature, religious fervour, art, music, wars, and love are all part of Notre Dame and they were fighting for space in my thoughts as I watched.   That is a monument.  It means everything to some and something to everyone else.  You may be indifferent to it but it cannot be ignored.

The Meander:   Over one billion Euros were donated within forty eight hours for the restoration of Notre Dame.  Extraordinary!  I cannot remember any human disaster that raised so much in so short a time. Hmm…

Experts estimate that it will take up to fifteen years to rebuild Notre Dame. With utter conceit I looked over at my monument, my Bert, and wonder if it will take up to fifteen years for his spire to topple.

Howsoever long it takes, if I am still alive, I will rejoice for one and mourn the other.  The Light and dark together as ever.

Shoehorns

My Bert puts on his shoes using a shoehorn.  It has always been thus. 

The only time a shoehorn gets near my feet is when I am being fitted by a sales assistant.   My thumbs work for me. Always have.

My Bert is so dependent on a shoehorn that if there is none around he will fashion one from a magazine, folded paper, the handle of a spoon, a credit card, or my thumbs.  He is inventive and adept whether sitting or standing.

Shoehorns now for me have become analogous with my Bert’s aging and Alzheimer disease.  When his knee became arthritic he had to abandon the short stubby shoehorn and get one longer.  After his knee replacement the shoehorn became even longer so he could put on his shoes from a standing position. 

Among the travel essentials was the shoehorn.  We have forgotten them in places like the River Jordan and the Dead Sea and other places where we had to take off our shoes on our sightseeing explorations.     I still remember scouring a market in The Gambia looking for a shoehorn!

I have helped my Bert with his shoes and in disgust have discarded the shoehorn and resorted to my thumbs.  They work.

We are in the shoe store.  I have three pairs for my Bert to fit.  Every shoehorn is long.  My Bert is sitting on a padded bench and trying to get a shoe on.  The shoehorn only gets in the way.  An assistant comes by and suggests he stands up to use it.  I become the supporting post.  This is not working.  The assistant tries to help.  Bert hangs on to me and he thinks we are dancing.  He has completely forgotten the reason for us being upright.  He giggles and tells me there is a woman fiddling with his foot.

The bad shoulder begins to hurt.   My Bert wants to dance.  The assistant is sweating and I am sure the mumble I hear is not fit to print.   It is a Herculean task but finally one foot is in.  It is declared to be ‘good’.   I choose the opposite foot from another box and with equal effort gets it on.  My Bert walks around a few times and declares that they both fit and are ‘good’.

I buy both pairs.  I am never doing this again.  It is hazardous to my health!

“Paula, do you have a short shoehorn?  This one is too long to use to help Bert with his shoes.”  The question comes from our wonderful helper who was on her knees, valiantly struggling to use the shoehorn.  The shaft came up to my Bert’s knee and she was working awkwardly with the curved portion at his heel.

Laughter burst out of me as I thought my Bert is like the shoehorns.   I decide I better give an explanation for the mirth before she decides to call in to her office to say she has two clients on her hands and to please send in the emergency squad.

“Your question has reminded me of that old phrase ‘Once a man, twice a child.’   I am thinking how Bert is living his second childhood in conjunction with his shoehorns.   First it was the tiny shoehorn which with age gradually grew longer and longer.   Alzheimer disease has set him back to the tiny shoehorn which he can no longer use by himself.”

The laugh was bittersweet. 

Helping my Bert with his shoes is agonizingly slow.   He has to be in a standing position. I direct him on each step of the process while he holds on to the wall.  Sure, I could still use my thumbs.  It is the getting down to the floor which has become the problem.   Actually, I could get down but how would I get back up?  Calling 9-1-1 is not an option.   I smile to myself again.   I am thinking about having a crane on call.  Nah!

I can’t help but wonder how we will cope when he can no longer stand by himself.

The Meander:  My Bert and a shoehorn.   It is not such an odd juxtaposition.    He has been known to put on his slippers with a shoehorn. Then again, I am the one who sees the sublime in the ridiculous.  Only problem is that in this case what is sublime?  What is ridiculous?  I can only laugh.  Laugh with me so I do not cry.

Time for Sale

I am dreaming.  I am in a hurry.  There are others also scurrying here and there.   I look at my wrist but there is no watch there.  I call out that I need to get a watch but they should carry on.  I am in a car driving fast down a hill.  I pass a large crowd and shout: “I have to buy a watch and time!” I wake up.

The remnant of the dream remains and disturbs.  I take a few deep breaths and think how wonderful it would be if one could buy time.   Every caregiver would want to be first in line.

The dream has dredged up the watch seller we met in Gibraltar.  What a character he was!

His stand was in a prime location.  Going or coming you had to walk by that stand.   There were all kinds of watches for the amazing sum of ‘$10 dollars each or three for $30!’ he would holler.

It was a bargain and a smile in one short sentence.   However, that was not all.

What drew and held a crowd entranced was the non-stop patter of the seller.  He had an English accent which I thought was Cockney.  I asked him if he was born within the sound of the Bow Bells to which he answered:

“The sound of the bow Bells? Darling, mi pregnant mum was at church and when the darn thing rang she jumped so high that out I popped.  I tell you, love you canna get more Cock(pause)ney  (wink, wink) than that.”   Groans and laughter ensued.  It seemed he had an endless number of jokes, sly remarks, double entendres to keep us entertained and buying his watches.  Purchasing a cheap watch in Gibraltar suddenly became de rigueur

I bought three watches.  My rationale was that as frequent travellers it was good to wear these cheap versions for sightseeing.

The next year we happened to be back in Gibraltar.  Our watch seller was at his post.  His patter was loud, persuasive and entertaining as usual.  He looked out, saw us and shouted: “Aye, there’s mi customer, come back from –where you from mi darling? ‘Canada’ all the way from Canada to buy mi watches.  Want another three mi love?” 

We walked the main street for a bit and returned just as he was turning over the stand to his son to take a break.

“Good line you use about a returning customer,” I say. He looked at me and said:

“I do remember you.  Your husband got in on my act and actually persuaded people to buy the watches telling them the spiel alone was worth the money.  Then you bought three watches I am sure you really did not need and for Chrissakes, it is sorta hard for you to disguise yourselves.  Stuck in my head is the fun loving, happy, odd couple.  Come, have a cuppa and a beer for you my friend?” We comply. Bert won the paying the bill battle.

We are back in Gibraltar.  This time I am on a mission to get a good watch.  Gibraltar is a duty free port so prices are better here.  I am happy with my purchase.

We stop at our favourite cheap watch seller.  He hails us again, he tells people to ask us about the fabulous bargains we have made and how we come specifically to Gibraltar to buy his watches.  The patter is non-stop as usual and entertaining.  He beckons us over and says: “OK, which of these are you getting this year?”   “This year, I am not getting any.  I just bought a lovely one just down the road.”  I point in the direction of the shops.  He laughs, tut-tuts, shakes his head, and in a loud voice says:

“Oh, you did, did you?  Let me tell you something, darling, you got snookered.  I bet you paid more than ten times what my beautiful watches cost!  Come here mi luv; let me tell you a little secret.  That expensive watch you bought tells exactly the same time as mine.”

Amid the laughter I hear ‘true’, ‘that’s fer sure’.  I think Bert and I are laughing the hardest.

It is about five years when we get back to Gibraltar.  We make a beeline to our cheap watch vendor.  No, I do not need a watch.  We just want to say ‘hello’ and listen to the patter.  His son is at the stand.  Bert asks after his father.  He has died.  We offer our condolences.  We are sad.  An errant thought: He ran out of time. He would appreciate it. I bought a watch in his memory and walk on under a suddenly dimmed sky.

The Meander:   A thief snatched my watch as we were walking back to our hotel in Santiago, Chile.  After the anger, feeling violated and acknowledging with thanks the care of the good Samaritans who came to our aid, I turned to Bert and said:   “He will be so disappointed that the ‘gold’ watch is a ten dollar Gibraltar special.”  We begin to laugh hysterically.

Our good Samaritans slowly leave and I think they are still debating whether we were happy to be unharmed or that the incident had been so traumatic as to leave us unhinged.

By the way, those Gibraltar specials lasted from 18 months to over five years and kept the same time!

Storytelling in Motion – Bodrum

We flew to Istanbul one week before the cruise began so we could explore that ancient city at leisure.  It would be our third exploration but there is so much to see and shopping in the Grand Bazaar deserves a trip in itself.  Our hotel surpassed our expectations and then here we were ready to board our luxury yacht. 

Yes!  As fans of small ship cruising we were about to board a five-mast staysail schooner, one of the largest sailing cruise ships in the world.   No, I am not a sailor but that is the description of what would be our floating hotel for the next seven days.   The number of passengers on board was a mere 294.  

The first exquisite experience was to watch as the computer operated sails were raised with coordinating music.   Istanbul slowly faded.  We saw other ships and boats but none compared to ours.  I knew this cruise would be special

We arrive at Bodrum, the only maiden port for us on the voyage so off we go to explore.  I had done my research on Bodrum so my head was filled with Halicarnassus, Herodotus and events that occurred in years that were followed by BC, and The Mausoleum.   

I like to think that Bodrum is famous because of ostentatious love.   When the Satrap, or ruler, Mausolus died in 353 BC, his wife had an enormous white marble monumental tomb built.   The top was a stepped pyramid and was such a wondrous accomplishment that the Greek historian Pliny designated the Mausoleum as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.   It was designed by the great Ionian architect Pytheos.  Not only was it the largest tomb ever built by the ancient Greeks it was also well built as it stood for 19 centuries until an earthquake destroyed it around the 14th century.  Only the massive foundation remains though some artifacts can be viewed inside the Castle of St. Peter.

With my head filled with all this antiquity and the romance of a bygone era, I was so surprised to see the modern, clean city nestled on the sunny bay and surrounded by spectacular scenery at every turn.   The only discordant note was the proliferation of vacation villages and timeshares cluttering up the shores.  It reminded us of the Costa del Sol.  I thought of it as the Marbella of Turkey.  Despite this, it still had the ambience of being a step back in time.  It would not have surprised me to see Anthony and Cleopatra holding hands and strolling through the Theatre of Ancient Halicarnassus.

Yet the best was yet to come.  On arriving back on our yacht we were informed that a dancer, an expert in both the history and art of belly dancing was on board to entertain.  We debated going but curiosity won out.   There was an introduction and history of the art by an emcee who informed us that the dancer would perform four stories in dance.

Oh, what a treat.  This gorgeous Turkish woman came out, gave an elegant bow and the music started.  Within a moment we knew we were experiencing something special.  This was pure artistry.  She was grace incarnate.  She moved in fluid, sinuous, sensual patterns, undulating from her toes to the ends of her hair.  The tiny musical coins sewn into the costume added to the mystique.  The movement of her eyes, the flutter of her lashes and the placement of hands and fingers and the ripple of her undulating torso and hips were all integral to the telling of the tales.   We were in awe. 

I looked over at the resident dolt, yes, there was one.  He had a beer bottle almost at his mouth but he did not take one sip, so enthralled he was.  That was the greatest compliment.  She danced as if she was engaged in intense communion in a separate interior place.   Yet we were totally engaged.  Her dancing was a most eloquent language. Mesmerizing.

You know an outstanding performance by what happens when it is over.  Here, there was a long moment of complete silence, a collective letting out of breath, and sighs of wonder broken by: “Oh, what a performance.”   We rose as one and the sound became a cacophony as we each tried to find the words to articulate our admiration and appreciation of what we had just witnessed.

Nearly every guest had seen belly dancing performances prior to this one but we all agreed that they fell far short.  My Bert kept asking: “How did she do that”?”  He was not the only one.

The Meander:   We try to find pleasure in everyday small miracles.  This was a miracle, not so everyday and not so small.   My memory is packed with travel miracles.

The Gem at the Toe of the Boot

Sicilians are proud of their culture, customs, cuisine and laid back ambience.  Whenever we have visited that part of Italy, sooner or later we will hear the oft repeated phrase or some variance of it: ‘Sicily is the gem at the toe of the boot’.  You will also hear the Mafia spoken of with some ambivalence.  It is either blight or an integral part of the culture and a benevolent organization that looks after its own.  What I know for sure is that the food is good no matter where you find yourself in Sicily.

We were only two days from Rome.  The last days of a long Grand Mediterranean cruise.  The Captain had announced that we would be cruising through the Strait of Messina.  With packing, last minute exchanges of contact information, selecting gifts for our wonderful cabin steward it was akin to him telling us he was going to brush his teeth.   I did not pay too much attention.  I had too much to do, plus the grand final Trivia contest was coming up and though I was the weakest link I hoped my team would take home the first prize.  We did not, to our chagrin.  Our cruise pals came to say they had scoped out a great place on the upper deck for us to sit and watch the scenery as we traversed the Strait.   Since they were also busily packing we decided that we would go to the special cruise talk about The Strait of Messina.  We would therefore get the information and be able to skip the lazy time on deck watching the shore and instead do the packing.

My disinterest went straight out the window when the presenter started with: “Have you ever used the phrase ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’ or ‘out of the frying pan and  into the fire’ or, ‘between a rock and a hard place?”  We all laughed as we answered in the affirmative.   She explained that we would be cruising through the Strait of Messina, the birthplace for all those expressions originating from the Greek myth of Scylla and Charybdis. 

Scylla and Charybdis were two monsters who lived on opposite sides of a very narrow stretch of water.  They were the bane of Odysseus and his crew.  If in trying to avoid one monster they happened to sail too close to the other they really would be caught between a rock and a hard place.   Bumping up against either side would culminate in the same dire result, a watery grave.  I would hazard a guess that you would be hooked too with such an introduction.  The narrow stretch of water across which these two monsters lived is purportedly the Strait of Messina.

Packing could wait. We could not wait to get to our vantage point to sit and look for monsters and their homes as we cruised through the Strait.   We did not think about its reputation for very rough and dangerous tides forming whirlpools that could sink large boats.  No doubt this natural phenomenon was the explanation for the ‘monsters’ that plagued Odysseus. Neither did we enter the debate about the long proposed suspension bridge that would connect mainland Italy to Sicily over the Strait that was the hot topic of conversation at the time.  We were filled with the romance of the imagery of the Greek myth as we cruised through the land of mythology.

The journey is beautiful.  There is the blue of the Mediterranean, the green of the hills, the many picturesque villages dotting the coastline.  We watched a bus, a train and transport truck travelling across the water.  They looked like dinky toys but we could follow their journey.  There were many tunnels and we would scan the horizon waiting see where they would emerge.  Scudding patches of clouds would add another dimension and shade to the mountains as we sailed by.  The combination of nature, calm sea, new friends, and the aura of the myth made for a fantastic experience. From our vantage point all seemed peaceful and tranquil.

We made up stories about the people who may live in those villages, separated by mountains, seemingly isolated one from the other.   We were watching the mainland side and I wondered about the logistics of dating across the Strait.  “I am sorry dad, I missed the last ferry.  Can you come and pick me up?”  No wonder that for years that bridge has been a dream for so many.  If it ever comes to fruition, it will be the longest suspension bridge in the world.  Or as some refer to it, ‘a bridge too far’ when despairing that it will ever be built.

There was a moment of regret as we exited the Strait heading north to Rome.  We would be flying home from Rome via Frankfurt.  We were happy to be going home but after the serene, lazy sail through the Strait taking in the bucolic scenery, Rome and Frankfurt seemed discordant, a disruption of the peace, a too swift wake up call back to reality.

The Meander:  Cruising through the Strait of Messina was an unexpected pleasure.  There is one such treasure on every trip, cruise, and journey.  As in life you just have to say ‘yes’ when they come along.

A Sombre Tour

I did not sleep well the night before we landed in Dakar, Senegal.  I knew the reason.   We were going on tour to Ile de Goree.  So many of my friends had visited and told of the emotional toll it took as they walked through the House of Slaves. 

The House of Slaves on Ile de Goree is a Museum and UNESCO World Heritage site that commemorates the darkest period of man’s inhumanity to man – The Atlantic Slave Trade.

Goree was the holding port for slaves.   Of the approximately 45 million human beings who were torn from their homeland to be sold in the New World, nearly 20 million left from this place to face the treacherous Middle Passage crossing.   First begun by the Portuguese, this trade in human ‘cargo’ went on for three centuries from 1536 to 1848.

At the entrance to the Museum stands a statue depicting a female and a male slave.  They are bare breasted.  The woman holds onto the man her face uplifted.  The man’s hands are lifted high holding two parts of a broken chain.  He too looks upward.  There was an involuntary hush as we walked from the statue and through the doors of the Museum. The slave house had rooms measuring eight feet by six feet in which up to twenty persons, shackled by their necks and arms were held.  They were allowed one daily bathroom break.  Families captured together would most likely be separated here as they would be once they arrived in the New World.   If you came to this holding pen you had already lost everything including your name.   After all cargo was a numbered commodity not a person.   You got a number and your next official identity would come from the person who would buy you and therefore owned you.

Dare to show resistance, to rebel and you would be relegated to two small cells, so small you were unable to stand up.  You would be shackled, seated, with your back against the walls.  A hopelessness seemed to emanate from these two cells. Doom, bleakness, darkness, defeat, despair hovered in the air. My stomach knotted. I gasped audibly interrupting the guide.

“Sorry,”   I said.

“It is OK.  Many people cry in this place.  In fact Nelson Mandela was almost in the same place you are when he wept.”

We continued the tour and came to the Door of no Return or ‘last look’ door.  I took a picture, the same place President Obama had had his picture taken.   I cried.  I could not help it.  I imagined the heartbreak as each one realized that once they passed through this door to descend to the waiting slave ship it would be the last look they had of their homeland.   Now they were losing the last vestiges of belonging, of home.

They had lost their personhood when they were traded for guns, trinkets, food.  There was a formula to assess the value of this human ‘cargo’.  Children as tall as a man’s leg, females tall enough to reach a man’s chest no matter their ages were desirable, even more so if they were virgins.  Men were assessed according to their weight.  If a man weighed less than 60 kilos they would be taken but kept in a special holding room at Goree and ‘fattened up’ with beans to ensure a better price when sold.

The strongest, fittest, tallest men were the most valuable.    They may be worth a gun or two or more.  No problem, as these were going to bring a high profit when re-sold in the New World.  Also, they were the ones most likely to withstand the rigours of the Middle Passage crossing.

I struggled for breath as I listened to the atrocities, to the barbarism.  I was ashamed at the description of the ‘cargo’, the ‘goods’, the ‘numbers’.  They were human beings, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, princes, princesses, chieftains, innocent children.  There was no nuance or balance to my emotion.   What I felt was raw, rough, deep anger.   This was beyond cruelty.  And this abominable trade lasted for over 300 years!

I had studied this bit of history; I had watched the movies and documentaries, seen the depictions in books and listened to erudite speakers.   No cinematographer, no author, no speaker or history scholar could capture the emotion of seeing this up close.   Walking through the Stygian gloom of The Slave House shook me to the core.   This was evil, pure and not so simple.

The tour did not end there though the rest seemed immaterial until we visited St Charles Church, built by the Portuguese in 1658 and the place where you got the best view of the House of Slaves and Ile de Goree.  I could just envision the pious and devout congregants leaving mass and looking at the island, maybe see a ship loading the ‘cargo’ and mentally counting the profits the ‘cargo’ would bring.

The Meander:   I wept when I first visited The Berlin Wall and wept with joy as we were at the re-opening of the Brandenburg Gate by President Bill Clinton.  I wept at Auschwitz and said a prayer for my late brother-in-law, Theo, who was held in Dachau. I weep for sadness and weep for joy but my tears at Ile de Goree were the deepest most hurting tears I ever shed.  I was weeping not only for the 45 million but also for the current 20 or 30 or 50 million living in slavery.   For these the chains remain unbroken.

Oh, by the way, we are Celebrating Black History Month!

Birthday Conundrum

Our next port of call was Tabuaeran, Fanning Island in Kiribati.   Tabuaeran is the same as Fanning Island in Gilbertese, an official language of The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribash).   Needless to say, by the time we tendered into port I was already confused.   We got the information overload from a Mr. Fanning himself after whose ancestors the island was named.  It was a delight to travel with him and his charming wife and to attend his most informative lecture.

Fanning Island is like Pitcairn Island, out there in the Pacific Ocean almost in the middle of nowhere.  A beautiful atoll, a ringed shaped coral islet surrounding a central lagoon, and shaped like a foot. In fact Tabuaeran, means ‘hallowed footprint’.  There is no electricity, no piped water, no mountains and no jungle.  It is low lying just above sea level so global warming is a definite threat to its existence.   It would only take one big tsunami and pfftt, no more Fanning Island.  Residents number less than guests on ship (1900) as it is estimated there are only 1200-1500 people living there.   Its land area is approximately 13 square miles. The lagoon is 426 square miles, 7 miles wide and 50 ft. at its deepest.

Canned meats are considered delicacies.  We were met by a singing, dancing troupe of both men and women dressed in grass skirts.  There were a few older people dressed in original coconut fibre clothing reminiscent of the similar sartorial choice of Nuku Hiva.   The most significant crop and export is copra so coconut palms abound.  They appeared to be wearing coir welcome mats including headgear.  This analogy is quite appropriate as they are very friendly with a welcoming smile.  I took one look at the dress and immediately felt scratchy and HOT.   Employment and another export come from large seaweed beds owned by a conglomerate that sell the seaweed to spas and health and nutrition companies worldwide.

Diet is fruit, a few root vegetables, fish, pork and sometimes chicken.   Breadfruit is a staple, and we were introduced to a plant from which sugar is made by boiling the sap.

There are three nurses on the island to look after medical needs including dentistry and should there be a serious illness it is a long boat ride to Christmas Island 160 miles away for the nearest medical Centre.  Supply ships come every four months and if you should get really ill after one has just left then it is likely you will die.  The children seem well cared for and happy. 

We did the grand tour, crowded on three wooden benches in the small and only diesel truck on the island.  There were lots of shell jewelry and carvings for sale.

Now to explain my birthday conundrum:  Prior to 1994 The International Date Line (IDL) ran right through the middle of The Republic of Kiribati. That was a problem as the East and the West were on different time zones and if you woke up at 7:30 a.m. in the East, the next atoll over would be waking up with the same sunrise but it could well be 26 hours later or prior? It also meant that business could only be done on four days of the week. The Governor declared the IDL would be adjusted to bring Kiribati into one time zone.  That declaration resulted in the Eastern half marking Friday, December 30, 1994 and waking next day on Sunday, January 1, 1995.  This explains why Kiribati is the first place to celebrate New Year’s Day, and why the IDL jogs far right at Kiribati.  Help!

But that’s not all.  These islands also sit at the equator, so as the ship cruised along to stop at Fanning Island and carry on our South Pacific sojourn it just so happens that my birthday fell right in the middle.  So there was one day I celebrated my birthday, and soon was celebrating my birthday again and of course, there was the Neptune/Poseidon ceremony as we asked the God of the Sea to grant us safe passage and permission to cross the Equator.  Oh what a mess!  Oh what fun! Oh what a conundrum!

On my birthday we crossed the Equator so I was in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.  We crossed the IDL twice so I was in the East, West, North and South of the world on my birthday.  While I tried to wrap my head around the puzzle my Bert just happily went about asking the ship’s staff what time and what day it was according to ship’s time.  He found it amusing and had no intention of figuring out anything.  It would all right itself somehow, he knew.  Sure it did, but five passengers had birthday celebrations two nights in a row neither older nor younger than a day prior or later?

The Meander:  There were times we looked at our travel account and felt we should put it to better use. Such thoughts died immediate deaths. Travel always won. We would not have it any other way.  On these cold days, I miss it so much but the memories are alive and well in my head, my heart and my travel journals.  We are grateful. No regrets!

Penguin Affair

Our love affair or maybe I should say my love affair with penguins did not have an auspicious beginning.

Imagine this.  It is February 13th. I am not subject to triskaidekaphobia.  The number 13 is just that.  It was  Ash Wednesday, the middle of summer.  Yes, we are almost at the southernmost end of the world though that would come the very next day in Ushuaia, and it is bitterly COLD.  We are in Punta Arenas,Chile.  Everyone is shivering and bundling up in all kinds of layers.

I want to see penguins. The ship’s penguin tours to Magdalena Island were all cancelled because of the inclement weather.  We had not signed on for any, rather preferring to go on an overland tour to the Penguin Sanctuary of Otway Sound with a private taxi/guide.  It is a smaller colony of some 60,000 Magellanic penguins spread over quite a large breeding ground and park for public viewing.

We bundled up and went ashore even as the weak sunshine turned to rain.  So what, we thought, we are only a hop, skip and jump from Antarctica so summer can be wintery.  We were very lucky.  There was this taxi driver who seemed to be just waiting for us.  I told him where we wanted to go.  He looked at me with a slight air of bewilderment and said: “It is wide open space and windy today.  Here in Punta Arenas, even in summer we can get rain, sleet, snow, ice and even a bit of sunshine in a matter of hours.  Today is not a good day to go to Otway”.   I said with the confidence of the ignorant.“Well, we can stand a bit of rain and we are Canadians, we know cold weather.”“OK.” He said and it sounded as if he swallowed “but it is your funeral.”

We negotiated a price and felt very simpatico towards eachother.  Bert suggested we go to his favourite bar on our return for a drink. If I was clairvoyant I think I would be able to read a bubble over Carlos’ head saying: “You’re going to need it!” However, we were becoming fast friends.  Carlos told us his wife taught English and would love to speak with us to get some practice and would we mind if she came along on the trip.  Sure, no problem.  Carlos called then drove home and there was the beautiful Ximena waiting.  She had two very heavy overcoats, both belonging to Carlos and said:  “These are for you and your husband.  There is a cold wind out at the colony and you are going to need these.”  How thoughtful.

Off we went. The rain turned to sleet.  We arrived at the Sanctuary with driving sleet and a biting wind.  The attendant asked:“Are you sure you want to walk out to see penguins in this weather?”  I answered: “Oh, yes.”  She shook her head, told Carlos to go on,that we could pay her when we were leaving and waved us in.

I did not think about this being somewhat foolhardy until Carlos opened the door and Ximena gave me a coat.  We were the only visitors.  A blast of wind rocked us as bits of ice hit our faces head on. What a walk!

Penguins!  They approached us all ready for the formal ball!  A group of about seven came toward us.  I crouched down, and mindful about not touching them, spoke softly to them. They spoke penguin and I spoke English and some Spanish and we communicated.   They came right up to me and followed wherever I went.  One came close enough to peck at my hand.  Carlos was quite surprised how comfortable they seemed with my presence and joked with Bert that I must speak penguin.   However, even with the extra coats, both Bert and I were shaking with the cold.  I looked at Carlos and he was not too happy either.  With regret I said goodbye to my penguin companions.  They followed me as we walked away.  I had the biggest closed mouth smile as I thought my teeth would freeze if I opened my mouth.

I approached the attendant with the fee ready.  She looked at me and said: “Senora, if you were so determined to see our penguins in this weather, you don’t owe anything.  Was it worth it?”   ”Oh, yes it was a short but sweet encounter, and they came to me.  It was a love affair.”  She smiled, shook her head and handed me some pamphlets.

Ximena, who had wisely stayed in the car, invited us back to their home saying we needed to have a hot drink.   At the mention of something hot Bert forgot the bar date.    We accepted and were soon chatting animatedly with Carlos and Ximena , their children Carlos Jr, Gabriel,Stefan and Paulina.  The tea was ambrosia and a panacea.  They offered a meal but that we politely refused citing the plenitude on the cruise ship.  I could not stop talking about my penguin affair. A Good English lesson, I thought.

The Meander:  I fell in love with penguins on that miserable day.   I have seen them in South Africa, In Ushuaia, The Falkland Islands, all over.  I have penguin memorabilia.  February 18th in Puerto Madryn, Argentina we went on tour. It was a marvellous summer’s day.  I was surrounded by penguins.  If only I had waited!   No, Otway Sanctuary remains my penguin first love.  Why?  As the only visitors the experience was personal.  It also had Carlos and Ximena and their kindness.   Gosh, I love to travel.

Small gift, Big Lesson (PNG)

“Lady, lady, for you.”

I looked down to see the little boy tugging at my pants and holding a small, colourful, Bird of Paradise woven basket.   It was the same little boy I had just met at his mother’s stall.  He had such beautiful eyes.  I taught him ‘Inky Dinky Spider’.    We bonded.

We were in Papua New Guinea at the port of Lae.   The cultural tour was over and my head was a maelstrom of weird and wonderful bits of information.

  • Mourning rituals: When a husband dies the wife is locked away for a minimum of six months.  She lives in a semi-starvation state and is looked after by other women in the tribe;
  • Some women make beads for each day of mourning.  Count the beads and you will know how long she mourned.  250 beads means she mourned for 250 days.
  • The MUD people are one of over 700 tribes and language groups in Papua New Guinea. Pidgin English is the only shared language.  When a mud person die they must be buried near their home.  If one should die far away a collection is taken to bring the body home.
  • Mud people have various death rituals all of which end in the body being mummified in mud in some way except for the method where the body is left out to be picked clean by vultures and insects. The bones are then put in caves or kept near the home.  The head is revered and is kept inside the home. “Would you like to meet my father?” is not such a simple question as if you answer “yes” it may result in your actually meeting his skull.  We were told that one man kept the skull of his first wife in a zippered  carry-on bag, introduced her to all and sundry and spoke to her frequently.  Needless to say such luggage now holds a somewhat macabre fascination and I often wonder what marvellous mementos are ensconced therein.

Then there are the Bird people.  Birds with plumage that defies description, flaunting colours that cannot be duplicated abound, and are indigenous to Papua New Guinea  There is an almost supernatural connection between the people and the birds.  They infiltrate all areas of life – the religious, social, political and the magical.  Ceremonies always include people dressing up with feathers, aping the stance, movement and nature of the birds they try to replicate and emulate.  Then there are the Mesmerizers, but that is another story.

Now here we were in the market, much bigger than usual as a cruise ship was in port and this little man, maybe five years old is giving me a gift.  I laughed as he tugged and held the miniature basket/purse aloft smiling shyly.  “Thank you.  Thank you.”   I handed it to Bert and got out US$5.00 from my own purse.  Before I could hand it to my little friend the mother appeared as if from nowhere and said: “No. No.  Basket gift.  No money”.  Her words did not match the look in her eyes which was one of reproach.  She said: “No pay.  Gift.”  I got the message.

Dropping to my haunches (I could do that then) I enveloped the boy, hugged him and said “Thank you” again.  He giggled.  His Mother smiled.  I looked over at the grandmother still at the stall and she gave a slight nod and a gapped- toothed smile.   I felt a shiver of shame.   If I was at home and got a gift I would not go to my purse to offer money.   Here I was, someone who prided herself as a traveller not a tourist doing a gauche touristy thing.  Unintentional, well meaning but a blunder.

Our little friend said something to his mother, she nodded, and he held my hand and said: “Come.”  The six of us in our party all followed him as he led us to many stalls.  Everyone seemed to know him.  Del made a remark that he was a born leader; a Mesmerizer who would be able to get anyone to follow him.  When we got back to his mother’s stall Bert did the right thing.  He looked at all the offerings and bought a wooden ashtray, a woven tray with two place mats, a tiny bowl rimmed with shells.  He was able to do what I wanted to do.  He gave them much needed currency in the best way possible by purchasing the goods without barter.

Our little friend accompanied by his grandmother came to the shuttle bus to see us off and waved enthusiastically as we left.  “Bye,  lady.”   We waved back until they were out of sight.

The Meander:  All the things Bert bought went into the ship’s auction.   I kept my little basket/purse.  I will not use it but it reminds me of my little friend.  It reminds me that life lessons may be learned anywhere and when you least expect it.  I have not made such a mistake again.   Every gift needs only a simple “Thank you.”

Day at Sea

I was going to write about a visit to Papua New Guinea but as I flipped the pages of my travel journal I came upon this ‘Day at Sea’ entry.  I read it and realized just why we enjoyed our cruise trips so very much.  At sea you can do as much or as little as you want and you never have to do the dishes.  This sea day is a good example.

‘Breakfast in the Lido was great as usual.  I do appreciate the service.  Bert and I just choose what we want and there is staff to take it all to our seats.   The ship was not rolling.  The sea was calm, glass smooth which made me wonder if we looked as if we needed the extra help.  No, it was a service.

Next came a trip to the library.  There is a new librarian on board.  The last one was Canadian, this one is British, a bit prissy until Bert told her I was a librarian and being Bert and my number one fan, she got a bit more information than expected.  She thawed, visibly.  Bert borrowed Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen which I did not think was cruise reading but then WWII is of special interest to Bert.  I took out Alice Walker’s short fiction collection The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart.  I do like her work, this was somewhat autobiographical which drew me to it and I had not yet read it.

We went to lunch in the restaurant and met some people from the USA and a couple from Germany.  Good conversationalists all and found out that the German couple would be on board for the entire cruise too.  The ones from the USA would be leaving earlier.  I selected lunch from the ‘Spa Menu’ – light, calorie controlled, low salt and delicious.   It is so much better when someone else cooks it and all you have to do is eat it.

Bert read while I decided to go to the ‘Stretch and Relaxation’ class.  (Note:  You can tell it is early in the cruise if I am on ’spa menu’,  doing exercises and living a somewhat virtuous existence.)

We went for tea.  Really this is not needed as we are on early seating for dinner.  Where did the good intentions go?  To hell, I must presume.

Dinner companions will be with us for a short time as they are only on board another 15 days. There is Ruth, who had a birthday yesterday, Barbara and Eleanor, travel companions who live in Los Angeles and Willem, who is a dance host on board from The Netherlands.   Willem will be around for the entire cruise but not necessarily at our table.  The dance hosts are usually seated around the dining room at tables where there is a high proportion of single ladies. It did not take long for Bert and Willem to start the usual  joshing and teasing that occurs when Dutchmen meet.  That was fine by me as I found the women to be very interesting.

The evening’s entertainment was a lot of laughs.  There was comedian, Mel Mellers and a multi-instrumentalist Simeon or Simon Woods who kept us in stitches.

It is time to work off dinner so off we went to the Yacht Club and got lucky.  The OPUS Caribbean Band was playing and the party was in progress.  They are the house band and play a variety of dance music.  Just about everyone was having a great time.  At one time I was worried about Bert’s knee but he was in the swing of things and having a ball.  It does not matter if you were the world’s best or worst dancer at all.  The object was to have fun and it seemed the crowd was hell bent on doing just that.

We made plans to meet two other couples for breakfast and agreed to share transportation next day to go touring.   It should be a good day as we had all looked at the tour brochures and were interested in seeing the same sites and attractions.   We also promised others to be in the club to be back for more dancing.

We closed out the club that night.  I might have danced off dinner but certainly not the drinks.  Not to worry, we are on vacation.  Maybe just maybe I would walk it off tomorrow depending on how much walking there would be on our sightseeing tour.’

The Meander:  What a pleasant and relaxing day.  What a day of doing just what you want to do.  How wonderful it is to meet people, to find common ground, to laugh, make connections.  We have some dear friends whom we have met on our travels.   They are a very important part of our travel memories.  Travel unifies.