You swim up to the surface of sleep, only aware at first that you’re not in your bedroom at home.
The gentle whup whup whup of a ceiling fan and a sliver of pale mango light push through the hotel balcony black out curtains. Then you remember. It’s the first morning of your tropical vacation.
Your traveling partner sleeps on. You toss back the bedsheet and peek through the curtains. Waving palm trees. White sand beach. Still blue swimming pool.
You congratulate yourself for remembering to pack the only three items of clothing you’ll need for most of the day in an external pocket of your suitcase: Swimsuit. Coverup. Flipflops.
You close the door to your room behind you as quietly as you can. Morning warmth puts its arms around you. Tropical plants line the path that leads you to a row of empty beach chairs and a little rock retaining wall between the pool deck and the beach. You sit on its rough ledge while you take your first look around.
Off to the right is the hotel’s dock and outdoor kitchen. You remember from the online info that you can catch the shuttle to a neighboring island from there, and that the hotel hosts dockside cookouts on Sundays.
To the left, the dock and outdoor kitchen of a neighboring hotel. Beyond it, a few sailboats riding at anchor. On a short land peninsula, you notice a little white delivery van pause at an electric gate before gaining entry and disappearing into a grove of trees. Who lives out there you wonder.
And then there’s the beach, accessible down a few steps from where you’re sitting. You’ll save a stroll for later in the day.
By now, the hotel breakfast room is open. You haven’t quite finished drinking in your surroundings but a cup of coffee might be nice.
Mug in hand, you settle in to one of the poolside loungers, content in the delicious realization that you’ve got six more mornings to spend exactly like this one.
When I was a kid, I used to wish I could see into the future. “I think it would be cool to know what’s going to happen before it does,” I’d say to my mom.
She would pause, weighing, I suspect, how much of her motherly experience to share. “Well, sometimes I think it’s better for us not to know, just to enjoy what we’ve got in front of us today.”
I’ve thought of her words many times over the past year. When my husband and I took off at the end of January 2020 for a Bahamian vacation, there were three COVID cases in Canada, all in Toronto. Yes, we had to switch flights there but, as far as we were concerned, the virus was never going to get any closer to our lives than that.
I never had the chance to blog about that vacation because the little island of Great Exuma experienced internet issues for the whole week we spent there. I could get connectivity if I sat right by the hotel registration desk, but who wants to do that when there’s a tropical paradise waiting to be explored?
So, in the spirit of the Chinese poet Li Po, who said writing poetry is like being alive twice, I’m going to experience that trip again by blogging about it over the next few weeks. I hope you’ll join me. Maybe my words and photos will help you to recall a tropical vacation of your own. If so, I hope you’ll share your memories and photos in the comment section. If only in our dreams right now, we all need to be whisked away to an elusive beach, the sun warming our faces, an icy rum punch near at hand.
A couple of weeks ago, the news broke in Alberta that nine members of our provincial government contravened the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” advice they’d been giving us for months, and jetted off for Christmas beach vacations with their families. Our Premier, who initially declined to discipline them, only brought in sanctions against them when the public outcry got so loud, so angry, and so politically united that he had no other choice.
That same week, the news footage from Washington burst onto our screens. An embittered man-child President, pumping his black leather- gloved fist in the air, urging his supporters to march on the Capitol to force an overturn of the election results. An unmasked mob wearing racist T-shirts and waving Confederate flags swarming into the Capitol Building, posing for grinning selfies as they sat in the chairs of elected officials and put their feet up on their desks.
At week’s end, I turned away from every news source, turned on a jazz music radio program, and sought refuge in the photographs and memories of my visit a little over a year ago to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park in Atlanta, Georgia.
On an already-warm October morning, I played hookey from the educational conference I was attending and caught the Atlanta Street Car a couple of blocks away from my downtown hotel. It dropped me off in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, known in the 1920s for its robust collection of Black-owned businesses, churches, schools and homes, and now as the community where Martin Luther King Jr. was born, grew up, and began his career as a preacher and civil rights activist.
On the advice of my guide book, I made a beeline for the visitor information centre as soon as I arrived, because I wanted to ensure a place for myself on one of the ranger-led tours of King’s family home. Only 15 people were allowed on each tour, and the free tickets disappeared quickly. Because of my solo visitor status, I was able to scoop up a single ticket for a tour an hour later, so I had just enough time to visit Ebenezer Baptist Church while I waited.
Following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, Dr. King began to preach at the church in 1960. There were very few people around the morning I visited, so I stood in the cool, dimly lit sanctuary, imagining King sitting at in one of the stately wooden chairs at the front, the white-robed choir behind him, then rising to deliver the sermon. I didn’t have to imagine his voice: a recording had captured its distinctive baritone cadence, as inspiring as when I first heard it as an adolescent.
I emerged from the church, squinting in the bright heat of late morning, and walked down the street to the house where King was born in 1929 and lived until he was 12. The park ranger guided us from room to room, telling stories of King’s growing up years (the Parks Service now offers virtual tours of the house, if you’re interested).
King lived a happy, busy, middle class life with his parents, two siblings and grandparents, taking piano lessons, reading, playing games, and listening to the radio. He also had plenty of opportunities to interact with visiting students, religious personnel, and community members as they rehearsed hymns and discussed issues of concern such as pay equity and voter registration. Every night at dinner, each of the King children was expected to recite a Bible verse, and to relate and offer opinions about a current affairs item. It wasn’t hard to see how young Martin was influenced in his eventual choice of careers and nudged towards his calling as a civil rights leader.
My next stop was Freedom Hall, where memorabilia from King’s life and the civil rights movement is displayed. In an intermingling of light and dark, I walked past King’s Nobel Peace Prize and artifacts from the day of his funeral, sobering reminders of the high price that civil rights leadership can demand.
Outside of Freedom Hall, I lingered on a bench under a shade grove that surrounded the final resting place of Martin and Coretta King. They are memorialized by an inscribed granite stone and an eternal flame, surrounded by cascading reflecting pools. I sat for a long time, absorbed in the peacefulness of the steadily burning flame, and the splash of water flowing from one pool to the next.
My final stop on the grounds reminded me that although the Kings are gone, their work continues. The Martin Luther King International World Peace Rose Garden is one of five such gardens world-wide dedicated to helping youth appreciate the value of peace. An important part of this initiative is an annual poetry contest in which students from around the world submit pieces about what peace means to them.
Postscript: As the U.S. heads into another week of potentially unsettling events, I’m taking some comfort in the words of Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s first black senator-elect and coincidentally, the current senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Since the coronavirus locked down many aspects of life as we used to know it, especially the ability to travel, I’ve noticed that the media has frequently tapped travel guru Rick Steves on the shoulder for a few words of hope about when we might get off the ground again.
In early August, The Atlantic published “I’m traveling even though I’m stuck at home,” an interview in which Steves talks about exploring his home state of Washington with the wonder and curiosity of a first time visitor. In late October, travelpulse.com shared Steves’ remarks to the virtual audience of The Travel and Adventure Show Series. As the pandemic grinds on and the virus wears down everyone but itself, Steves reassured the audience that “we are going to be able to travel in the future, but we just have to be a little patient right now, and a little community-minded,” working together and building bridges to make the world a better place.
Steves’ August to October progression from travelling wide-eyed in his own state, to considering how to transfer his travel motivation to his own community resonated strongly with me. Back in July, I started a series of blog posts on my tiny treks and travels around my own city and province. At first, it was fun, but, to be frank, I ran out of gas with writing about these local sojourns. Like Steves, when I travel, it’s the connections I make with others that I love, marveling at our similarities and appreciating our differences. I try to transfer a little of what I’ve learned into who I am and how I behave when I return home. And these tiny treks and travels just weren’t bringing me enough of those deeply satisfying people connections .
So what to do? How to be patient until I can travel again? How to build connections and be community-minded while I’m waiting for the wider world to reopen?
The answer? Start new conversations. Build virtual bridges. Begin a new website.
As I looked at how I’ve traveled while I’ve been stuck at home for the last eight months, it’s been through interior journeys – taking courses, reading, writing, learning new skills – and reaching out to others. I want to do more of that and I want you to come along with me as I launch my new website pamelayoung.ca.
The website is part online CV (my job got caught in the crossfire between COVID closures and brutal provincial government funding cuts to Alberta postsecondary institutions) and part blog, where I’ll write about some of my other passions besides travel – education, literacy, writing, and the arts. If you share my interest in any of those topics, I’ll look forward to seeing you over there.
I’m not planning to abandon Wise Woman Travel. I just needed to spread my wings a bit while we’re mostly still grounded.
A couple of weeks ago, after a U.S. steel plant across the river shut down, Windsor, Ontario residents finally got rid of the mysterious “hum” that had plagued the city for more than 10 years. According to the lead researcher into the hum’s source, the plant’s blast furnaces had been running at higher than normal capacity, causing its foundation to reverberate intensely. Residents reported the hum wasn’t a sound, exactly, but a feeling— “a general sense of uneasiness and reverberation through one’s body.”
It’s easy to relate to that feeling of uneasiness this year, as news sources run at higher than normal capacity in their attempts to keep us informed of the current state of the COVID pandemic. While I don’t agree with people disregarding safety measures in their pursuit of “normal” summer activities, I get why they want to silence the constant COVID hum. Our foundations have been reverberating for five months, and there’s no end in sight.
But, if you’re looking for a temporary respite, you might be able to find it in a getaway to a local campsite.
In Alberta, even before the pandemic, the spontaneous Thursday decision to pack up your camping gear and head out of town the next night for a weekend away from town is a relic. And this year, the campsites are busier than they’ve ever been. When we hopped onto the Alberta Parks reservation site a few weeks ago, every site we looked at on every weekend was covered in a red X. But we discovered a Wednesday/Thursday night combo at Marten River campground in Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, three hours north of Edmonton. Done.
With the honey scent of clover wafting through the open truck windows, and the sun at our backs, highway 44 took us past chartreuse carpets of canola, bearded barley fields, and cattle standing in shaded windbreaks, flicking their tails in each other’s faces. Halfway up the highway, the field and pastures gave way to dense forests. Logging trucks passed us going south, trailing spruce cologne. We stopped for a tailgate picnic in the parking lot of the roadside Flatbush Recreational Center. A Lesser Slave River utility truck was parked outside the arena, but we never saw its owners. We ate our ham and cheese sandwiches in the quiet heat, the dragonflies hovering and darting after insects like tiny divebombing biplanes.
In many ways, camping is a near-perfect activity in this strangest of all summers. You can experience other people’s energy while staying safely in your own accommodation. You’ve got your own food. You don’t have to wear a mask because you’re outdoors all day. High touch surfaces are limited to water taps, garbage bins and toilet areas so as long as you practice effective hand hygiene, you’re okay on that account. If, like us, your household income is less than it was when COVID hit, camping’s a cheap escape, at $29 a night. And best of all, you’ve escaped your house, which I’m betting has devolved from the cozy sanctuary it was last March.
Our two day vacay was filled with a lot of nothing much. Poplar and pine towered over our campsite, sheltering us from the midday heat. We ate and read and walked and napped, backdropped by the same soundscape we recalled from our childhood camping days: The ring of ax head on metal tent pegs. Chicka dee dee dees. Little kids racing past on bikes and scooters. Couple banter as he backs the trailer into the narrow space between pine trees and she directs him. Delighted shrieks still echoing from the playground until twilight. At night, silence.
Over the last four months, I’ve spent a lot of time walking. I’ve always been a fan of getting places on foot and since the world changed, it’s one of the few activities that allows relatively safe social contact, gives me some physical activity, and provides a change of scene and mental outlook.
Edmonton has a great system of river valley parks, which form the largest urban green space in Canada. It includes walking trails that wind through 22 ravines. Even though I’ve lived in Edmonton virtually all my life, I’ve only thoroughly explored one of those, the Mill Creek Ravine, because it’s the closest to where I live. It’s gorgeous, but as the months have worn on, I’ve felt the need to push my ravine boundaries. So when my friend Marilyn suggested we visit Kinnaird Ravine, close to her place in central Edmonton, I was happy to go exploring with her.
One of the coolest features of this ravine is a collection of more than 60 murals, painted by youth from the Boyle-McCauley neighborhood in inner city Edmonton. Sheets of plywood were delivered to some of the agencies that engage youth in art and community projects: the only direction they received was “Paint something.”
I’ve always loved displays of public art. They’re characterized by two of the features that, for me, should underlie all artistic expression – autonomy and accessibility. Marilyn and I found both in the KinnArt collection, which decorates a retaining wall that slopes gently downhill near 82 Street and 111 Avenue (for those of you who might like to take a wander down there sometime.)
We were amused, uplifted, and touched by the artistic stories of the outdoor gallery. Here are some of my favorites.
(Look below to see what’s happening between the carrots….)
Morning, J. I just looked at Environment Canada hourly forecast. Chance of showers is “medium” (whatever that means!) during the time we’ll be at the Gardens. What do you think?
Tix are nonrefundable, right?
I’d still go. I have an umbrella.
Me too. If I have to stay in the house one more day, I’ll scream!
So, meet in the parking lot at 11 am withrubber boots, and rain jackets and bellies.
Er…brollies. Stupid autocorrect.
When my friend Judy and I arrived at the Devonian Botanic Gardens, a University of Alberta-owned site about 15 minutes southwest of Edmonton, we knew we were in for a COVID-altered experience. Like so many other tourist attractions, the Gardens had many new protocols in place. Entry by timed reservation only. All food kiosks closed. Picnics prohibited. Benches roped off with yellow tape. Signs telling us to social distance from other patrons.
This last reminder wasn’t really a concern the day we were there, because the gardeners easily outnumbered the visitors. It also gave us the grounds almost to ourselves.
A quiet wander in a natural setting might be one of the most peaceful things we can do for ourselves in this summer of uncertainty. Flowers keep blooming, birds sit on nests, creeks flow, oblivious to the virus which has changed almost every part of our existence. Somehow, there’s a hopefulness in seeing this continuity in nature, a sense that one day, we’ll get that flow back in our own lives.
And so as the clouds leaked intermittently onto our umbrellas, we ambled, pouring our tears in each other’s ears, speculating what the world holds next for us, trying to make sense of the losses we’re experiencing. The backdrop of flower drifts, Japanese water features, and Canada geese herding their little ones along an almost deserted path replenished me, and offered reassurance that other, less challenging summers are still to come.
After an afternoon spent wandering the shops of Positano, a quaint little cliffside village on the Amalfi Coast, I’m sitting at a cafe table, sipping red wine, the day’s ambient heat radiating up from the cobblestones. The sun is just beginning to set, tingeing the turquoise Mediterranean candy floss pink.
Ya, right. My mom always told me I had a great imagination.
Well, the research it took to write that paragraph was fun, anyway. And maybe someday, I’ll visit the Amalfi Coast in person.
But not this year, and maybe not the year after that either. This “lost summer,”as one journalist I recently read calls it, will see me spending my time close to home. That wouldn’t usually be so bad because my hometown of Edmonton has become famous worldwide for its summer festivals. Traditionally, they start in mid-June and follow one after the other to the September long weekend, like so many excited kids lined up for a turn on the water slide.
Again, not this year.
Dreams of the Amalfi Coast aside, I realized a number of weeks ago that it was becoming urgent to unleash my imagination on this summer of no travel. I dread the thought of heading into another long prairie winter without July and August memories. So, with the help of some of my equally inventive, restless friends, we began to concoct plans for tiny treks and travels, touring parts of Edmonton and a few nearby spots where we’d never or rarely visited.
Watch this space to eavesdrop on our travels. Tell me in the comment section how you’re turning your own lost summer into one to remember.
As a colleague of mine who researches hope told me, “It’s not that we can’t have adventures this summer. They just have to be little adventures.”
In more ways than one, it’s been the summer that never was.
In Edmonton, we’ve had very few days when we could enjoy eating on outdoor patios, lounging outside with a good book, or heading out to a favorite lake for a weekend camping trip. When it wasn’t wet, cold, and windy, brooding clouds hid the blue, blue Alberta skies, shortening our traditionally long summer evenings and forcing us to turn on our dining room lights to see our dinner plates.
My own summer had the added disappointment of a cancelled trip to the UK after my husband was injured in a cycling crash. While he convalesced, I tried to staycation, but ended up going back to work a week early to save my vacation time for something more exciting than watching the rain flood my flower pots.
So, today, when the skies stayed blue through the entire day, and the temperature reached a balmy 24C, I was determined to get home from work in time to enjoy an evening on my back deck. But I had to stay late at the office for a Skype call that never came and my bus took off without me in a huff of diesel just as I reached its back door. Muttering under my breath, I thought my precious summer evening on the deck had disappeared. But then, I looked across the street to the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald– and got an idea.
In one blink of a traffic light, I was climbing the Macdonald’s front stone steps and basking in the smile of its doorman. I was headed for some me- time and dinner on one of Edmonton’s most elegant patios.
I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of our one-in-a-row summer evening. Only a table for 5 was vacant, but the server told me to go ahead and take it, not batting an eye at my solo dining status. Classy. He then brought me their summer BBQ menu (all dishes concocted at an outdoor cooking station) and asked if I’d like a newspaper to read while my white wine spritzer was being prepared. Why, yes, of course.
I didn’t have to look long at the menu to know what I needed to eat on this precious summer night- a burger and sweet potato fries. The brioche bun, crispy onions and Gouda aioli added a touch of gourmet while preserving the good old BBQ burger taste.
After a pause to appreciate the panoramic view of the river valley and to read an article on an innovative guide service for vacationing introverts called Introvertravel (really- this is a thing), I was ready for dessert. My server suggested the Mac honey ice cream, the honey courtesy of the hotel’s own bees and topped with pieces of honeycomb.
When I’d finished my meal, I wandered the gardens at the back of the hotel. The evening perfume of petunias, the still-sunny rudbeckias and the lulling splash of a fountain provided the finishing touches to my impromptu mini-vacation.
Whenever I travel, I’m always delighted to find out that there’s a market scheduled for wherever I’m staying.
Small town markets are the best, like the one I ran across last Wednesday in Banff. Unlike so many of the highly commercialized and cookie cutter businesses along Banff Avenue, the Banff market captures its grassroots culture. Locals meet each other and greet visitors like old friends. The aroma of roasting peanuts mingles with the wails of a guitar from a nearby park. Vendors of gin, beer, and hand cream offer samples. A fortune teller and a concerned-looking woman hunch over a table of tarot cards. And suddenly, I want to buy every locally produced bunch of carrots, bar of soap, and knitted cap, whether I need them or not.
The Banff market is held every Wednesday, May to October, from 10 am to 6 pm, right beside Banff Central Park, 110 Bear Street, on the beautiful Bow River.