First Stop – Melbourne, Australia

Australia is a traveller’s dream. It is a modern country with a fully functioning democracy, English-speaking, with a warm and sunny climate, beautiful, coastal beaches, out of this world scenery, rich in resources, and not too many people. What more could a traveller ask for?

There are many different ways to see this vast country but because it’s expensive it can be a daunting task for a solo traveller on a budget like me to decide how to do it. I realised that the only way to see as much as I wanted in just under a month would be to fly the cheapest ways possible.

My intention at first was to fly to Sydney using that as a base to start and finish. However, that plan flew out the window when in December, while researching cheap flights to Australia, a fantastic opportunity with Jet Star Airlines popped up out of nowhere. My take off point was Singapore and if you want to find out why, check out my post Travel in 2018: Fulfilling a Dream. Taking this opportunity to fly to Melbourne first made sense because from there I could easily fly up to Alice Springs, on to Cairns, and then to Sydney, my departure point. Seizing this opportunity would be a good start towards helping to keep me within my budget, knowing that other things such as accommodations and food would be double the price of travelling in SE Asia.

All was good now that I had a plan. After a stress free stay in Singapore (You can check out my post entitled Four Days in Singapore )I was looking forward to my upcoming trip to the Land of Oz. On the day before my departure, I received an e-mail from Jet Star that my 8:15 p.m. flight was delayed until 5:30 the following morning. This meant I had to find a place to sleep for a few hours at least. My hotel came to the rescue with an additional charge for the extra hours I would need. On top of that was the stress of dealing with the place I had booked in Melbourne which had a ‘no refund’ policy. They did promise to hold my room until I arrived. If I wanted compensation, I would have to get it from the airline. The trouble was I didn’t take out cancellation insurance because it’s costly. This is what budget travellers do. We take our chances and hope that the worst won’t happen, and if it does, we pay for it. It’s always a gamble.

I had only three full days to explore this cultural capital of Australia which has always competed for the number one spot with Sydney to be not just the cultural capital, but the capital of the country. The war on who should get the coveted title was finally settled by the decision to build a new city as the capital which is Canberra.

Federation Square – the cultural & meeting centre for Melbourne.

My accommodation choice while in Melbourne was a small, country-style inn of some character in St. Kilda, one of Melbourne’s precincts. St Kilda is a beach side resort, not far from the CBD (central business district). With this location and its apparent old world charm, I booked a room at Little St. Kilda with booking.com. I arrived tired and cranky after a long 11 hour trip with little to eat except the few snacks I brought with me. Discount airlines give you nothing except your seat. You pay for everything including earphones if you wish to listen to music. To add insult to injury, they then charge you for the music!

Gateway to Little St. Kilda.

When I finally found Little St. Kilda, two hours after my arrival, I couldn’t get in. The door was locked and the house was in darkness. “How could this be the place I booked?” I asked myself. This looked like a private home with no one in it. There was no sign or even a house number. I looked around for a doorbell in the dark and instead found a box with numbers on it. But wait, underneath it was a button which looked promising so I pressed it, to which a voice responded telling me to use my code number. “Code number, what code number,” I yelled. “The one we sent you,”  said the calm, slightly condescending voice. “I did not receive any messages from anyone about this!” I yelled back. Realising I am starting to come apart at the seams, the voice quickly gave me the four digit code to punch in. Barely able to see the numbers, I have to trust I am hitting the right ones. With my first attempt nothing happens so I try again. “Wait for the click and then push the door,” he barks. Finally, there is a faint click and I push. I’m in! I turn left as the voice directed and find before me a long, elegant hallway with an inviting living room at the end. Where is the check-in counter, I wonder? How naive of me. This is no ordinary hotel. There is not a human in sight to greet me or to show me to my room. Now what do I do? Is this some kind of joke? Then it dawns on me that this is one of those ‘do it yourself’ check-ins similar to what you might encounter when staying at an Airbnb. The only option was to make myself comfortable on the inviting sofa until someone came along. If no one came, I thought, I could stretch out on this comfy sofa for my first night’s sleep. Thank goodness I had the good sense to stop on my way to this place for a bite to eat. At least I wouldn’t have to go to bed hungry. While pondering this rather bizarre situation, I realised the voice over the intercom had to come from somewhere in the house so in that case he would come shortly to take me to my designated room. I would just have to be patient!

It seemed like an eternity before  a young chap appeared to ask if I was happily settled into my room.  “What room?” I asked in disbelief.  “The Marina Room noted in the e-mail you were sent,” he replied. By this time I was totally baffled and wondered if I was loosing my marbles. I had been checking my e-mails and found nothing from Little St. Kilda. It wasn’t until a few weeks later I found that much-needed e-mail with all the check-in instructions in my spam box.

Once I got into my charming room, I quickly forgot my woes of getting into it. I was just thankful for a comfortable bed to lay down on for a good night’s sleep. As well as the great bed and other amenities such as a fridge and a kettle for making tea, there was also a well-equipped kitchen nearby to prepare my breakfasts in the morning and dinners at night. Dining out in Australia is very expensive so this is the only way to go if you are on a budget.

Unfortunately, other unexpected problems popped up during my stay concerning  the final bill. An additional $40 for cleaning fees had been added and no allowance had been made as I had requested for my missed night. Never have I heard of a cleaning fee for a hotel or guest house on Booking.com. On Airbnb it is clearly visible as a part of the cost. Then I got it! The owners were cutting their costs by listing with Booking instead of Airbnb because it’s cheaper for them. I checked out their website again and found to my surprise that there was mention of a cleaning fee but for less than what I was charged.

Clearly I was not too happy with my stay at Little St. Kilda. My visit had already been cut short by a day, and once there all I seemed to get was grief. My only contact with the hosts was by intercom, phone and e-mail. The young chap, who gave me an orientation of the place, was seldom to be seen afterwards. He apparently was a long-term guest enlisted by the owners to deal with problem guests like me who had difficulties with their checking-in process. From then on I was on my own to find my way around. Fortunately, the Aussies I sought help from were more than happy to comply.

When the time came for me to give my review to Booking about my stay, I realised I didn’t have much to say that was good. I was all set to give them a bad review which I rarely do since I always pick places based on good testimonials which never have let me down . Yet this place which had a 9 out of 10 didn’t come close for me. The only way to handle it was to let them know of my discontent. I did and wasn’t too surprised that after “some consultation” they would give me a refund for my missed night. In the end, they got a decent review from me, however, I did suggest they try to improve their check-in procedure and make sure a light was on for those who were checking in after dark.

My lovely room.

My first day in Melbourne was spent just getting to know the area of St. Kilda which I read was once a seedy area of nightclubs, prostitutes, and crime. This is certainly not true now as it has morphed into an up and coming area of trendy homes and restaurants.

A stately home with lovely filigree. Reminded me of homes in southern US.

However, before I set out to explore, I needed to find a place for breakfast. It was at least a ten minute walk to the centre of St. Kilda. When I got to the busiest cross street, I decided this would be the best place to look. I guessed correctly because what I found almost blew me away. It was not just the proliferation of restaurants and cafes, but in the midst of all of them were at least a half-dozen cake shops strung out in a row one after the other. Never have I ever seen such a display of mouth-watering sweets. Most of them offered good coffee and breakfast so I decided to try one out. I was famished so opted for poached eggs on toast. No butter on the toast and a fairly middling cup of coffee didn’t make much of an impression especially at a price of $11. As I was leaving, I made a promise to get to the Woolworth’s or Woolie’s* as the Aussie say before they closed to buy some food to make my own breakfasts.

One of those cake shops.

And another one.

Melbourne can boast of having some of Australia’s nicest beaches and St. Kilda is lucky enough to have one of them.  With the first glimpse of that beach, all my stress from the past few days just melted away. Finally I had found one of the reasons for my coming to Australia. It was a sunny but windy day so not overly inviting for a swim, but I found the solitude I needed by sitting there on the sand watching the balloons and surfers. I was also able to walk along the beach via a boardwalk that gave me the feeling of being in the country even though in the distance I could see Melbourne’s skyscrapers.

It was a bit wild that day.

Part of the walkway.

My remaining two days were spent exploring the CBD ( Central Business District). With the help of a Miki card which is free pass that can be topped up for any amount depending on what you are planning to use it for, I managed to get around to see a few places of note. My first stopping place was the Melbourne Museum which you can read about in Exploring the Spiritual Heart of Australia.

No, he’s not a live one. Taken at the Melbourn Museum.

There was far too much to see in just two days and getting to these places wasn’t always easy to do. I have to admit their transit system was confusing, not just for me, a visitor, but even to some of the Aussies because I kept getting different stories of how to use the card. Some stops required you to tap for getting on and off, while for others you only needed to tap getting on. Then there were the free trams which would take you around the centre. Great idea but many of the people I asked weren’t sure just where to link on to them or even which buses qualified. Such conflicting stories I did not need so opted in the end to hoof it.

I love old buildings with outstanding architecture which Melbourne has in abundance. The State Library Victoria is one of them which I found the time to visit and was glad I did. The reading room with its magnificent dome and soaring glass was one of the largest in the world when it opened in 1913. It’s now one of the most photographed sites in Australia.

A close up of the dome.

Looking down on the Reading Room with its 3-tiered gallery.

However, putting aside the architectural splendor of this building, the second most interesting thing about this library is its abundance of art and memorabilia on the state of Victoria. Here I learned all about Australia’s infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly, an Irish man of poor background, who has become the stuff of legend to most of the country. His rogue life and the discrimination he endured turned him into the kind of criminal you could not hate no matter what he did. An articulate man despite no education, he left letters which were on display stating his concern for the under privileged. In addition, there was his suit of armour which he wore on some of his killing forays to reveal his bad boy side. He would do anything so long as he could get retribution for the poor at the expense of the rich gold diggers. Not surprising that he has become a symbol of all the things that were wrong in Australian at that time.

Ned Kelly’s armour.

One of his letters.

Another attraction in Melbourne is the lovely Yarra River where you can take a boat trip or walk along its meandering course lined with numerous parks and a huge Botanical Garden. I chose to do neither since my feet would not allow it. Taking the time to sit there with the ducks was enough for me. As I gazed out over the river, I recalled a similar scene many years ago in Cambridge, England where expert oarsmen plied their skiffs along that river. I realised that this was just one of the ways that Melbourne still reveals its British heritage.

An Australian magpie.

The following day I had to leave for my next stop…Alice Springs. By now I was beginning to get a better feel for this massive country and the people. Melbourne taught me a valuable lesson as I came to grips with my rough start at Little St. Kilda. Australians really are true pioneers in a sense. Their approach seems to be that everyone, including tourists, must step up to the plate. We’ll help you but you must help yourself, too. Ask us the questions and we will answer them the best we can, but don’t expect us to read your minds. That was my first impression but I knew there would be more.

Woolworth’s is one of the largest chain of supermarkets in the country and Woolies is what they fondly call it.

Some additional shots of Melbourne

Outside the State Library

Cafe scene in St. Kilda

There’s that Aussie sense of humour.

 

 

 

Travel in 2018: Fulfilling a Dream

I recently wrote about the challenges I face as a senior traveller in my post entitled How Our Changing World is Affecting Our Travel. This left some of my readers wondering if I was going to give it all up and stay at home for our Nova Scotian winters.

My answer is, “No, not yet.” There are still places to see. Travel is in my blood and my desire out weighs any challenges I will face.

In fact, my travel plans for 2018 are my most ambitious yet for I will be heading “down under” to Australia to fulfil a life-long dream.

This dream surfaced some time around fifth grade when I was introduced to this fascinating country in my geography classes. Who wouldn’t have been intrigued with the strange animals and plants of this vast country which had English-speaking people reportedly to be much like us Canadians? To top it off Australia has or did have a warm climate, gorgeous beaches, and the Great Barrier Reef. What did it not have, I wondered?

In 1970 my first husband and I seriously considered migrating there, to the city of Perth. He was an avid sailor and thought this would be the perfect place for him. I wasn’t a sailor but it was Australia so I wanted to go…no question. The problem was timing. I had just returned from a year-long back packing trip to Europe… broke! I needed to get back to my teaching and make some money. Moreover, we found out just how difficult it was for us to get accepted into this vast country. If I recall correctly, I don’t think teachers were on their needs’ list, and neither were sail boat enthusiasts. Thus, that dream quietly faded away….for awhile.

As the years passed, however, the dream was revived each time I taught geography to my students as a grade six teacher, or by a TV show filmed there. Does anyone remember “MacLeod’s Daughters”? Then there was “Crocodile Dundee” and the popular detective series “Dr. Blake Mysteries”. Moreover, I was constantly running into Aussies on my travels to Thailand which only served to whet my appetite to visit there even more.

The spark that finally did it for me was the threatening eruption of Mt. Agang in Bali. I had already booked a flight to Singapore for mid March of 2018 when the first eruption occurred in September. After consulting a map, I realised that Singapore was just a hop, skip, and jump away from Australia. Here was the perfect opportunity knocking at my door. There could no longer be such excuses as how expensive this country is for a budget traveller like me. Something told me I had to do it now.

The result of all this is I have just finished making a reservation for March 16 to fly from Singapore to Melbourne. The rest of my itinerary is up for grabs. All I know at this point is that I will have a month to see as much of this vast and varied country (or continent) as money and time will allow.

As I write about fulfilling this travel dream, my endurance is being tested by the extreme cold weather and snow that has been engulfing the Ottawa/Toronto area this past week. By now I should be in the sky wending my way over to Bangkok, but I am not. My flight which was scheduled to leave at 1:40 this morning was cancelled. Thanks to the caring West Jet staff I am now re-booked to take off the same time tomorrow morning. At this time of the year it could have been much worse. I was given a voucher to take a taxi back to my daughter’s house for the night. Today has been sunny here in Ottawa…still cold at -30 degrees…but not cold enough to keep us housebound. What it did was give us that extra ‘mother and daughter’ time that we needed after a very hectic week to simply enjoy a delicious and nutritious lunch at a nearby organic restaurant and do some store snooping on Wellington Street, Ottawa’s trendy shopping area.

As we leave behind 2017 for whatever is in store for us in 2018, I can’t help but see how my last 24 hours are probably a fore taste of what is in store for my travels this coming year. There will be the inevitable challenges to face which will test me to the limit only to be followed by those good times where my faith and joy in travelling are renewed. This is my hope for the world and for everyone who reads this post. Deal with your challenges knowing that they will be followed by the good times.

Happy New Year everyone!

A typical Ottawa winter

 

With snow shovelling

 

…..and lots of fun!

 

But I’ll take this lovely beach in Thailand.

Overcoming the Fear of Travelling Solo as a Senior

To escape the harsh Canadian winters of Nova Scotia, the place I call home, I do what more and more people are doing which is… to seek out some place that is warm. Florida is not the answer for me as has been the custom for many Nova Scotians in the past. For the last nine years, winters have taken me to the Far East, to such countries as Thailand, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, India, and, finally, last year to South America for the first time.

When I explain to friends, old and new, why I choose to travel to far off places by myself without my husband (Hubby), I get various reactions, such as: am I worried about getting sick, do I feel safe, how do I endure the long flights, or where do I get my energy? They might then end up by saying, “I could never do it.” Before addressing these concerns from the dubious, let me digress to the events leading up to my discovery of travelling solo as a senior female.

I never planned to do this kind of travel when Hubby and I moved to Nova Scotia from the big city of Toronto in 2006. It happened gradually. We kept meeting people in Annapolis Royal…the little town nearest to where we live in Victoria Beach… who had been to South East Asia. They helped perk my interest in the possibility of going there instead of to the south where we had gone previously. To my surprise I was able to talk Hubby into testing the Asian waters. We both realised it was so much cheaper to head east rather than south. For the same amount of money as we would spend to go to Cuba and stay at a resort for a week, we could stretch out our time away in Thailand, for example, to a month or more. Heck, after our second visit we realised we could stay for three or four months and live on a much smaller budget than we ever would if we stayed home. Home meant having to heat a century old house with oil and driving two cars.

Our home in Victoria Beach.

Annapolis Royal in December

After our fourth visit to SE Asia, Hubby announced that he was tiring of this part of the world and wanted to spend his next winter in Florence, Italy, where he had lived for a while as a young man. He also had friends in England he wanted to visit. The thought of spending my winter in either of these places left me cold (no pun intended). I was going back to Thailand again, not just for its warmth, but also because I wanted to shop. If you refer to one of my previous posts you will know why shopping in Thailand is my lure. Click on this link to read: Shopping the Markets in Chiang Mai.

Hill Tribe village in northern Thailand.

Night market in Chiang Mai

So now back to the concerns I have encountered from those who are interested in travelling solo as an older person. I say “interested” as I accept that not everyone wants to do this. We all have different ways of deriving satisfaction on our life’s journey. However, for those who would like to do it, but think it’s impossible to travel as a solo senior who is married, I want you to know it is… if you want it badly enough. You can convince your spouse or partner, if you have one, that it’s better for your relationship if you take time off from it and just trust. You can be safe if you use your common sense…this is where seniors have something that the younger set may not. You most likely won’t do anything crazy like walk around deserted streets late at night. You won’t get sick if you are careful of what and where you eat, and should you get sick there are tons of pharmacies with qualified staff and good hospitals in all the countries I have travelled to. Finally, you will survive the long trip overseas if you prepare yourself for the flight and take it easy for the first week by not eating too much spicy food and keeping a normal sleeping schedule. I have many tips for keeping in shape and staying healthy while travelling which I can address in a separate post if you want me to. For anyone who does decide to give solo travel a try, two things can happen:

  1. You will gain a thirst for more.
  2. Or if not, you will be glad you overcame any fear and just did it…once!

Either way you won’t regret it!

Fear of what disasters could happen are a huge concern for anyone starting off on a solo trip. When Hubby and I went on our separate trips in 2013, I was scared, but at the same time I was excited to be out there on my own. I could almost taste the freedom facing me. To deal with the fear factor, I started off with the familiar by travelling to Thailand first. I had friends there and was so familiar with this country that was becoming like a second home for me as Florence was for Hubby.

Viet Nam, however, was another story. My first night in Hanoi scared me to death when I was finally faced with the hoards of motorbikes and cars which seemed to be everywhere buzzing around like flies. With few traffic lights and police to direct the chaos, the Viet Namese drivers cope with a seemingly effortless charge ahead into the flow aiming for any spot that looks like a possibility. As a pedestrian, we must wait for a small gap or lull before heading out into the traffic. Then we pray the drivers see you and go around you rather than into you. I will be forever indebted to Mike and his wife, Diane, for helping me master the art of crossing the busy streets of Hanoi. Their presence was a gift because having been there many times, they were happy to not only be a guide for me, but to be my dinner companions. Aware that this was my first venture to a new place on my own, they kindly took me under their wing… or tried to. I can be awfully independent at times.

Hanoi traffic

My next leg of this solo journey took me to India and Nepal. This was the most daunting part of my whole trip. Any traveller will tell you that India isn’t easy…Thailand is a breeze in comparison. I was definitely put to the test by having to endure scams, pushy males, and sickness. You will come away from India either loving or hating it. By the end, I was somewhere in between. Should the opportunity arise to return, I would. If you want to learn more about my adventures in India you can click on my post Incredible India. 

This is Kerela in South India

Nepal came much easier to me, but it still had its challenging moments, such as my encounter with a bull who didn’t like what I was wearing. You can find out more about this adventure by reading my post Adventures in Nepal.

The Annapurna Massif – part of the Himalaya range.

What I learned from this trip was that any fear you might have about travelling on your own can be overcome by simply doing it. If you don’t have friends you can meet up with, you can always find fellow travellers willing to help you out at the places you stay or eat. Moreover, don’t discount the incredible helpfulness of the locals who in almost all cases will bend over backwards to help. Not everyone is out to scam you. Even in India which probably has one of the worst reputations for devising outlandish schemes to get your money, you will find incredibly helpful people.

So what I have learned about overcoming the fear that comes with travelling on your own is to gain all the information you can about whatever it is you need to know. And, of course, what better way to gain this information than by actually doing it. You can read all the guidebooks and talk to others who have done it, but the best teacher is your own experience. You will make mistakes, things will go wrong, you will get scammed, you will get discouraged, and sometimes feel very alone. However, look at these as the ingredients that make up the experience. Keep at it and you will get better at it. Fear will be replaced with love. Through your own growing, you will learn to not only love yourself more because you have done something you wanted to do and be proud because of it, but you will also become more accepting of all those you meet up with on your travels. You will become that better person where you will have gained a more open mind and be more compassionate towards those who have less than you. You will cease taking our wonderful country we call Canada for granted. This is what travelling solo has done for me, and I am so grateful that in my senior years I can still do it.

For more thoughts on my solo travels, you can refer to Travelling Solo or Not?

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

 

 

 

 

Mui Ne: A Little Resort Town in Viet Nam

People who visit Mui Ne either love it or hate it.

Before I get into why this is so, let me give you a short description of its location and geography. It’s approximately a four-hour drive northeast of Ho Chi Minh City on the coast of the South China Sea. It’s easy accessibility to the city and its 10 km long beach make it a great seaside escape not only for HCMC residents but also tourists. Over the past 10 years it has morphed from a sleepy fishing village into an over-developed resort town.

The main and only street follows the coastline for 10 km. When approaching it coming from HCMC, you enter from the west which puts you into the actual town of Mui Ne… the main tourist strip with all the fancy resorts. This end of the street is called Nguyen Dinh Chieu which then turns into Huynh Thuc Khang somewhere in the middle. Keep travelling along and you will find yourself in the City of Phan Thiet…also the capital of the province…which is graced with a large harbour dotted with a multitude of colourful fishing boats. Here is the centre for SE Asia’s production of nuac mam or fish sauce.

Boats used to catch fish used to produce fish sauce.

Boats used to catch fish used to produce fish sauce.

Overlooking the harbour of Phan Thiet.

Overlooking the harbour of Phan Thiet.

So this is Mui Ne. It’s a one street strip of restaurants, fancy resorts, budget hotels, and restaurants lining both sides of the street and hemmed in by the ocean on one side and sand dunes on the other.

Most people who absolutely love it are the windsurfers. They come from all parts of the world to do their stuff. With more than 200 days out of the year with strong winds coming off the ocean, it’s a surfer’s paradise.

thailand-burma-viet-nam-xavier-2012-452

The red  and white sand dunes are another rave about this place. Coming very close to the strip of beach resorts along the sea, they appear to be in the backyards of many hotels. I just had to go to the end of the garden at my place to see a part of them. The better views are outside the town where you can be right in the midst of them and experience the joy of driving a dune buggy. I preferred to simply walk and observe the buggies as they got mired in the sand. I was attempting to be more ecologically responsible.

On the white dune.

On the white dune.

The Russians love Mui Ne  because they get great package deals to and from their country, and like us Canadians they are eager to escape their harsh winters for some fun in the sun. In fact, they have almost taken over the town as evidenced by the restaurants which serve Russian food. Even the menus are in Russian. Many restaurants, shops and hotels are now Russian owned by expats who have moved there.

Anyone who likes sun and a tropical climate also loves it, especially at this time of the year which is their dry season. For those staying in a four or five-star resort with their own private beach, life at the beach is good. However, for budget travellers a beach isn’t always easily available. If your hotel/hostel has wrangled a deal with one of the bigger hotels or resorts who are willing to let others use what they think is theirs, then you’re in luck. Fortunately, the place where I stayed did have access so I had the beach at my disposal. Although the beach itself is lovely, it is beginning to show some wear and tear. In some spots the sand is disappearing due to erosion. In other places, the beach is being invaded with piles of garbage and cattle who are allowed to roam at will. For me this was not inviting so I merely used the beach to capture a sunset or two. I didn’t bother to sun bathe or go swimming. I may have if I had been staying in one of those swanky resorts who lay claim to a piece of the beach or have their own outdoor pools.

Beach at a swanky resort.

Beach at a swanky resort.

Is it now evident to you what people might hate about Mui Ne? The Russian invasion, the dirty beach, the over-development, and one more thing…the bland food….are the list of complaints I have heard. I have to agree on the dirty beach and the over-development, but the Russians and the food were more than acceptable to me.

I had a young Russian couple next door to my room at Diem, Lien where I stayed. Although their English was limited, I found both Vera and Vasili easy to talk to and curious about Canada. We found we had much in common. Yes, most Russians prefer to keep to themselves, which has earned them a bad reputation, but I have found they are actually shy with other tourists because of their lack of English. I have not and did not encounter any difficult or loud Russians.

As for the food, I found a lovely little restaurant newly opened three months ago, on my first night in Mui Ne. I enjoyed the food and ambience so much that I returned every day from there on. Owned and managed by a young Viet Nam couple with a four-month old baby, who was at first fussy and probably colicky, I indulged in fresh scallops nicely prepared in a garlic sauce, stewed chicken in a clay pot, tasty grilled chicken with morning-glory greens, fresh spring rolls, and for a change, spaghetti carbonara. All the food was prepared by the husband who was a fabulous cook in my opinion. Everything was fresh, tastefully spiced, and reasonably priced. A glass of good Dalat wine was only $1.50. My dinners were consistently at about $5,00 including the wine. The name of this little gem, in amongst all the other similar restaurants along the strip on the Huynh Thuc Khang end on the dune side, was Mui Ne House. They have no website and aren’t on Face Book since they are so new, but if you are ever in Mui Ne then do try to find them. By the way, the baby settled down after that first night and slept peacefully in her hammock from there on.

One more attraction which gets mixed reviews is the Fairy Stream. I wasn’t too excited about seeing it. However, it was part of the tour package I took to see the dunes at sunset so I had no choice. It’s actually a pretty half hour walk…in bare feet…from the sea up to its source. Strange rock formations in various shades of red and white shaped by the water as it meanders through the sand dunes create an unusual and different site every day.

At the start of the Fairy Stream.

At the start of the Fairy Stream.

Strange looking sand formations.

Strange looking sand formations.

Our group.

Our group.

I read in Travelfish that they wouldn’t recommend it because of reports that it was dirty and hazardous. Other than a couple of cows we met along the way, I noticed no garbage at all. Apparently the town authorities have been working on a clean up. One thing which did take me by surprise was the demand from a sweet young woman who was showing us sites and taking our pictures along the way. Little did we know she wasn’t a part of our tour, but a self-employed ‘tout’ who demanded we each pay her 100,000 dong at the end. In Canadian dollars this would be $6,00. Being more budget conscious and perhaps a little more experienced at what was happening here, I immediately spoke up and stated this was way too much money for a half hour of her time. After some haggling, we settled on 20,000 each. To me this was worth her time and the information she was able to share with us. We could have paid her nothing since she wasn’t a part of our tour. Our jeep driver had no English and didn’t accompany us. I doubt if we could have learned anything on our own.

There was one other incident on this tour which took us by surprise. After we had toured the great white dune on our own time, we were told to meet our driver at the jeep by five o’clock so we would have time to catch the sunset at the red dune before heading back to town. After we had all finally assembled to head back, we had to wait. At first we weren’t sure why, but our driver after much discussion with the other jeep drivers informed us simply that the police were asking for money to the tune of 5 million dong or $295 Cdn. I couldn’t believe it! Here, right in front of our eyes, was the corruption you hear about in this and all SE Asian countries. Fortunately, our driver was honest and had the decency to tell us. After a 20 minute wait, we started out only to stop two if not three more times to wait out the police. There was much telephoning and further yelling from the other jeep drivers at each stop until finally our driver informed us with elaborate hand signals that we would be taking another route back to town. There went our opportunity to see the sunset which was to my mind no big deal. It wasn’t until the next day when I met up with a gal who had toured the dunes the day before with a group that actually paid a lower fine…a fine for doing nothing wrong as far as we could tell…that I realized what we had missed. The red dune at sunset is absolutely gorgeous!

I hope I haven’t painted too gloomy a picture of Mui Ne. What impression you come away with is purely a personal one. My eternal optimism sees it for what it is. It has its problems and isn’t perfect. However, I am happy with my time there even though I am not a surfer. Looking back I enjoyed my meals at the Mui Ne House Restaurant immensely, not only for their good food but for the warm greetings I received from the owners. The family who own and manage Diem Lein Hotel were also helpful and hard-working, especially the two sisters. I particularly enjoyed the garden, a little haven of flowers, trees and butterflies, which provided me with a peaceful place to have breakfast each morning. Furthermore, I was able to catch up on my sleep because the building was built like a motel and situated well away from the noisy street traffic. I doubt I’ll ever return to Mui Ne unless I were to use it as a short stopover on my way to HCMC or Dalat… or take up surfing!

Vilcabamba the Village of Longevity

“Please don’t forget about us. We need you to come back.”

This was a heartfelt plea from many Ecuadorians, locals and ex-pats alike, after the devastating  earthquake that hit this beautiful country on April 16th of this year. I was fortunate enough to spend enough time there in January to develop a real liking for Ecuador and its generous people. Yes, our tendency may be to write off a country which has suffered such a blow, but it’s just when such a disaster like this happens that tourists need to keep on coming. Perhaps they won’t want to visit the western coast where the earthquake caused the most devastation, but there is still the central and eastern part of this tiny country which was still impacted both emotionally and economically rather than physically. Under the leadership of Raphael Correa for the past nine years, Ecuador has progressed from one of the poorest South American countries to one that has progressed to one of the most developed. As a result it has gained a reputation as a comfortable and affordable place to retire. Yes, this country now needs us to ‘keep on coming’ more than ever.

One place that I visited this winter which was not affected by the earthquake due to of its southerly location in the central Andes is Vilcabamba. It has over the last 15 years or so become a magnet for not only tourists but also for adventurous if not disenchanted  ex-pats looking for that proverbial ‘land of milk and honey’. It first grabbed the world’s attention back in 1955 thanks to an article that appeared in the National Geographic. They had heard the rumour that a more than usual number of its inhabitants were living to well into their 90’s so they decided to check out the rumour for themselves. Their article attracted a lot of attention but provided no conclusive observations. To this day, the answer is still up for debate on whether the story is based on myth or reality. Over the years, it’s been called the  Valley of Eternal Youth or Longevity and sometimes the Sacred Valley because the Inca claimed it as one of their most spiritual meeting places.

I first heard about Vilcabamba in the International Living magazine which I have subscribed to off and on over the years. For five years straight, this organization has consistently given Ecuador the first prize as the best place for people to move to for retirement. It’s true, they often paint a picture of this country through rose-coloured glasses earning them the dubious title of “International Lying”, but nevertheless, they have succeeded in helping many people find a lifestyle which for the most part is fulfilling all the dreams they might have had.

So, you may ask, is there really any evidence to support the claim for why this village has gained such a reputation as a haven for healthy living and longevity?

There are many reasons as far as I am concerned, and the first that comes to mind is it’s almost perfect climate. From what I could gather by talking to those who live there and what I experienced, the climate is pretty steady and is almost ideal all year round. It’s not too hot and it’s not too cold. In a previous post “Ecuador – A Land of Diversity”, I wrote that in the northern Andes where the town of Otavalo is located, it can be quite cold, just as all along the low-lying coast it can be hot and humid. Vilcabamba also seems to get just the right amount of rain keeping everything green to allow for all manner of fruits and vegetables to be grown all year-long. You can expect grey skies, blue skies, sun, and maybe a light shower or two all in one day. This was the pattern while I was there and apparently this is what you get for most of the year. Boring you say. Well maybe for some but not for me; it’s what keeps their temperatures comfortable. Vilcabamba is located in the southern part of the Andes where the mountain chain begins to taper off, but it’s still over 3,000 ft. above sea level and, of course, near the equator which is another explanation for its almost perfect climate.

When you live in a climate like this where you can grow fruit and veggies year round, chances are you will be eating a more healthy diet than you ever would in Canada or the US. Almost every fruit and vegetable imaginable can be grown there including coffee and cocoa beans providing two of our all time favourite foods – coffee and chocolate. Heavenly! Pesticides are not used here either. Could such healthy foods not be another good reason for the longevity myth?

Vilcabamba’s  environment is pretty decent, too. It has the Andes Mountains surrounding a spacious valley which in turn produces numerous rivers and waterfalls. There is no lack of uncontaminated water. In fact, much of it is used as a source of bottled water for parts of the country who want clean, healthy drinking water. This abundance of water also explains why fruit and vegetables grow so prolifically. Then there are the surrounding mountains with their imposing presence not only giving the village a pretty setting, but also providing many walking trails, hot springs, and spa resorts, another plus in support of health and longevity. Nature reserves and parks are abundant with at least three in the vicinity. I decided to take a morning hike to the Rumi Willco EcoLodge and Nature Reserve with trails to meet all levels of physical endurance including well-marked trees and plants for those of us who lack knowledge in botany. This reserve is situated in one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world with over 132 types of birds and 500 plant species. In fact, the Huilco tree from which the park derives its name is only found here and goes back to well before the time of the Inca as source of medicine for all kinds of ailments.

So much green space in a high altitude would naturally suggest that the air is clean – another argument to support the longevity myth. Moreover, there is little industry here other than farming which seems to be all sustainable and organic, and the one water bottling plant I already mentioned. Nor are there any towns or cities within a 200 mile or more radius that have any kind of heavy industry to pollute the environment. For the time being at least. It seems that developers and farmers who want to burn their land to get in an extra crop or two are threatening to upset balance. The Rumi Wilco Reserve is one such project which was started by a private concern to be sustainable and to preserve what is in danger of disappearing.

My  final pitch as a possible reason for the longevity myth could be that so many of the herbs and medicinal plants that we have access to for good health are grown in this valley. Over 200 species of plants grow in this area and have been used by the indigenous people for centuries. The Wilco tree in the Nature Reserve is a good example. Would you  be surprised to know that many North American companies are now looking at some of these plants as a potential cure for cancer?

I have to admit I didn’t see any centarians while I was in Vilcabamba or even octogenarians for that matter. I was told, however, there were some around in the rural areas. Nevertheless, it makes good sense to me that if people are living in a warm climate with plenty of sunshine, growing and eating food that comes from clean soil, drinking clean water, breathing fresh air, and working hard at things that are meaningful to them, why wouldn’t they live a longer and healthier life? Do you still think that longevity in Vilcabamba is a myth?

I enthusiastically recommend that people keep Ecuador in mind when planning their travel itinerary either now or for their next winter escape. I think you could easily fall in love with it as I did and the thousands of other ex-pats who now live there and make it their home. My bucket list does include another trip there in the not too distant future, and I definitely want to return to Vilcabamba. There are numerous places in this area where you can find that affordable haven for rejunvenation and well-being to suit all pocketbooks, great restaurants offering all organic food, delicious coffee, clean water and air all around. Let’s hope it can stay that way; a village that can still offer an almost perfect environment in a country which is still relatively safe and has worked so hard to promote its fledgling tourist industry.

Resorts for nature lovers and good health located around Vilcabamba:

  1. Hosreia Izhcayluma
  2. Madre Tierra Eco Resort
  3. The Community Cultural Centre for yoga.

A Picture Gallery of scenes from Vilcabamba

 

A Walk About Cuenca

I love Sundays. There has always been something special about them. In fact, I wrote a post about a year ago titled “ A Precious Gift” about spending a memorable Sunday in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Sundays have no special religious connotation for me but I do find them inspirational. For example, I have noticed it is often on a Sunday that I get inspired to write another blog post.

I woke up today realizing this is my last day in this beautiful city called Cuenca. What was I to do with it after I finished Skyping my daughter and my travelling friend, Cathy? Some of the guests here where I’m staying were taking an excursion out to visit some nearby villages for their Sunday markets, but that didn’t hold much appeal for me. There were other things I could have made an effort to see, such as the El Cajos National Park but that didn’t ring my chimes either. What I opted for was to set out to explore all my favourite places right here within walking distance from my hostel.

Tourists and locals who want to explore or who simply want to stroll will invariably head for the pulse of this city: the Plaza del Calderon.2016-02-21 13.50.11

As I approached it, I could hear authentic Andean music or folklorical as I’ve seen it referred to. This was exciting because I have been wanting to hear more of this music but somehow the opportunity had just not presented itself. There it was, finally, at the Nuevo Catedral! Three men dressed in native costume were making music that literally sent chills through me. 2016-02-21 13.40.59

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At last I had found what I was looking for and to sweeten the pot even more they were selling CD’s. Without hesitating I bought one on the spot for only $5.00!

Feeling quite elated, I decided to head down to Calle Larga the street following the Tomebamba River one of four rivers snaking through Cuenca. The streets here are laid out in a kind of grid pattern in spite of the rivers, mainly because the heart of the city is nestled between the Andes that run parallel on either side of it. The Tomebamba River, which is the nearest to the centre, flows from west to east so all the north south streets lead to it.

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I find myself on a street I have not walked on before. At first it appears to be rather nondescript with houses, shops, and a few eating places on either side. Suddenly a shop with colourful textiles and a few people milling around catch my eye so I  decide to check it out. I find the kind of llama sweater I bought for myself a few weeks ago which I mentioned in my latest post. If I can get several of those at my price of $10 I decide I will buy them. I am in a shopping mood after buying that CD. He starts at $28 and finally comes down to $15 but I can’t accept that even though they are thicker and of a slightly better quality. I know I am fighting a loosing battle. Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I spy some bags which might sell if again I get the right price. Starting at $15 he eventually lowers to $8 so I buy two of the three he has in stock. Buying in Ecuador takes much effort so I’ve had to walk away from many of the things I see and like because of our crummy Canadian dollar!

Purely by accident or maybe it was fate, but the next street I take leads me straight to Cafe Goza, the most popular spot in Cuenca for their many specialty coffees all grown in Ecuador. It’s popular with locals and ex-pats alike and is always busy: so busy in fact that it has a security guard standing outside where everyone sits. I’m not sure why this is so, but I’m assuming there must have been a nasty incident there at one time. It’s odd because I haven’t seen much evidence of police in the rest of the city. Better to be safe than sorry I guess when it comes to the safety of the ex-pats. Apparently there are well over 5,000 living here.

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Sated with a cappuccino and some apple cake, I continue my walk, snapping pictures of the old colonial homes, the bridges spanning the river, and stairs leading down to it.

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By this time the sun has come out from behind the clouds to pour its warmth on me. Sitting there beside the quick-flowing river, I take the time to appreciate this environment for possibly the last time and to realize how fortunate I am to be here in this wonderful place. I love people watching and this was the perfect place to do it. Families playing games or splashing in the water, older folks out for a walk with their dogs, young lovers smooching under a tree, and old indigenous women looking for recyclables to cash in for extra money. It was all there; the good and not so good.

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It is time to move on again so I continue west which will lead me back to the centre. I am looking for Avenida Benigno Malo which has become one of my favourite streets. I discovered it for the first time yesterday and after seeing many restaurants offering daily luncheon specials I noted this and remembered to return. I know I might be disappointed because it is Sunday when many restaurants and shops are closed. However, as luck would have it, I find one which is offering soup, BBQ chicken, dessert and juice for the paltry sum of $4.00. I had taken advantage of a similar lunch special or almeurzo two days ago on another street. Such specials can be found in the better class restaurants on some of the smaller streets where foot traffic is lighter. Their portions are substantial and they are usually good. Tourists like me on a budget love them!

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Benigno Malo has a fine showing of the old Spanish colonial architecture which contributed to naming Cuenca a Heritage site some time ago. That’s another reason for choosing to walk this street and not the others. It’s a photographer’s delight. Right in the centre it runs smack dab into the famous Nuevo Catedral or Church of the Immaculate Conception which is another photographer’s gem. Snap, snap! I must have taken over 100 pictures today!

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Over four hours have passed since I stepped out onto the street at my hostel. Now I am back in my little room with a full stomach and at peace with this city which I hope I will get the chance to revisit. Once again, it’s time to pack up my bags for tomorrow’s early morning departure and long haul bus ride to Quito, my next stop. This will be another revisit to seek out the places I missed or maybe just to explore those already seen in greater depth with a more seasoned eye. Time will tell.

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“Oh, My Aching Feet”

“This is the wrong form. I can’t accept this,” says the guy at the boarding gate desk at Pearson Airport in Toronto, after scrutinizing the reciprocity visa form I had just passed to him. I think the first thing that popped into my mind was why the heck didn’t I heed the little voice inside which said to me when I was applying for this visa to Argentina, “Is this all there is?” Somewhere in the process of filling out my information I thought I recalled that there was the word ‘forms’ and not the singular, but I could only find the one I had in my hand so this had to be it. At the time, I did think this rather odd but didn’t dwell on it as more pressing issues took over.

That’s all he says to me. “What should I do,” I asked after we stand there momentarily looking at each other. “I am not going to miss my flight to Buenos Aires because I haven’t the right form. It says right there that I’ve paid for it. Won’t that do?”

“We need the authorization number so go over to the Customer Service desk to get the proper form printed off,” he replies. “If you hurry, you can make it.” By now I am beginning to feel the first pangs of panic and my voice probably reflected that as I realized I hadn’t a clue where that desk was or how to find that missing form even if I did know where it was. He tells me that if I take a short cut through the Duty Free shop and hurry that I can probably make it back in time for my flight. Probably! He doesn’t seem too concerned so I think perhaps this has happened to others. In fact while I was waiting at the gate in good time to board my plane, many reminders were given to us, the passengers, that this reciprocity visa was required. Obviously many of them weren’t even aware of this so I felt pretty smug that at least I had mine. Little did I know!

I start to run through the throng of people still waiting to board, telling myself to stay calm and that this will turn out all right. The plane just can’t go without me. I see the desk not too far away but also see that all three reps are busy with customers. I presume they are the unfortunate ones who have missed their connections due to the icy weather conditions in Toronto which had already delayed my flight from Ottawa by two hours. They don’t seem to be in as much of a panic as I am so I bravely announce that I need help right away with printing out my visa form for my flight which is just about to take off for BA. One of the girls picks up on the urgency of my situation long enough to tell me to grab the nearest computer, go into my account and bring up the form. By now my mind is drawing a big blank. What account? After a deep breath, some common sense finally clicks in. I try to get into my g-mail account but the computer isn’t co-operating. I ask the girl for help but she replies that she isn’t very computer savvy. Excuse me but am I hearing her correctly? Finally, a young fellow appears who is obviously aware of my panic and inability to function properly so steps in to help. He manages to calm me down and together we find the account which by then I remember setting up to get the form(s). Behold, there is the elusive second form which I had missed when I applied several days ago. It was way down the page and hardly visible as far as I could tell. No wonder I missed it! He quickly ran it off and after a hasty heartfelt ‘thank you’ (if I had the time I would have given him a hug) I ran for my gate via the Duty Free. By now I’m convinced that more than a few minutes have passed and that the plane has probably taken off. Then I hear my name being called and realize they’re waiting for me! The Duty Free staff are now aware of what’s going on so all come to my rescue pointing me in the right direction to my gate. God bless them all! The area is totally deserted as I approach. All the passengers are on board. I race down the ramp. Please don’t close those doors I silently pray. Instead the crew greet me as though all is normal and calmly direct me to my seat. Such an overwhelming feeling of relief washes over me. I quickly give thanks to all seen and unseen beings who have helped to finally get me on my way.

The rest of my flight was totally stress free. They fed me lots of food, I watched a couple of movies, and even got some much-needed sleep. The next morning I woke up to the captain announcing that those of us on the left side of the aircraft should raise the blinds and take a peek at the view of the Andes below us. We were making a quick stop in Santiago, Chili, and there below us were miles and miles of brown mountains iced with a smattering of snow on its chain of peaks. What a wonderful introduction to South America!2016-01-11 11.17.13

As I write this, I am exactly into the fourth day of my visit to Buenos Aires. In some sense, I feel as though I am in another world way down below but as I get more settled this sophisticated city seems no different from any other European city especially Paris. I understand now why it’s called ‘the Paris of South America’. I should also mention that not only does it look like Paris but it’s almost as expensive.

Here are some things I have noted so far and wish to pass on for anyone who may be thinking of visiting this city:

  1. Bring some American dollars to tide you over until you can find a bank that takes your bank card. My friends and I found out that many banks won’t accept them. So far a bank displaying a big red ‘B’ near the door is the best bet. Money changers, which are now legal in Argentina, like American dollars and Euros but wouldn’t even consider my Canadian money. This is true for right now but in Argentina such things as economy and money can change on a dime.
  2. The cheapest and best way to get from the International Airport to the city centre (about 45km away) is by bus and taxi. The company I used was TiendaLeon located right at the arrivals door. For $15US the bus took me along the main highway to somewhere on  the outskirts of the city. From there I was transferred to a mini van taxi which brought me right to the place I am staying in Palermo. They were all efficient and courteous. If I had taken one of the many taxis that were lined up I would have paid $40.
  3. Bring a good pair of walking shoes, or sandals preferably at this time of the year which is their summer. The city is huge (like Paris) and is divided up into many areas. Palermo where I am staying is further sub-divided into its sections i.e. Viejo, Soho, Hollywood,. There is a subway system which unfortunately doesn’t cover the whole city and buses to go where the subway doesn’t. I have been relying mostly on my feet to take me to where I need to go. I can see more that way. Unfortunately, my lousy sense of direction has caused me many additional steps.  However, I do find that motorists are fairly courteous and seem to obey all the traffic signs. It’s certainly a big improvement over the SE Asian cities I’ve visited.
  4. Buenos Aires, as I had predicted, is not a cheap place to visit, especially in the touristy area where I am staying. Accomodations and restaurants, including food if you eat in, are high. They still haven’t reached our level but with the low value of our Canadian dollar, they are getting close. Transportation by public transit is an unbeatable deal, however. It costs only 5 pesos to go any distance on the subway which is about $.75
  5. If you want to learn more about the city BA has a great deal in their FREE Walking Tours – one in the morning and one in the afternoon both to different parts of the central part of the city. They are available every day come rain or shine. My friends and I took the morning one on our second day here and found it very helpful in learning BA’s past and present. It’s a good way to orient yourself to such a huge city which can be overwhelming at first.
  6. It also helps to know some Spanish. I have found a course on-line, called Memrise, which is helping me a bit for the everyday words one needs but it’s not enough. Many Argentinians know a little English so we manage. However, I have noticed that signs and menus are almost always in Spanish. Thank goodness many Spanish words are similar to our English words. Apparently Argentinians speak a lot like the Italians so my husband who can speak Italian should find it easy to get around when he arrives in March.
  7. Finally, Argentinians like to think in terms of ‘big’. Our walking tour guide took us to Avenue de Julio which they claim is the widest avenue in the world. In fact, he said that Argentinians like to think they have the biggest and best of many things in the world like steaks and soccer.

Probably the best part of my days here so far is waking up each day to the sun. Was it less than a week ago I was slogging around in the ice and snow in Ottawa? My first day here was overcast at about 28 degrees but the last three have been sunny with clear blue skies and temperatures hovering at 30 to 32 degrees. Yes, it’s hot but not unbearably so as there is little humidity and some soft breezes. Today I stayed close to Casa Aire Palermo where I am staying to give my aching feet a rest. This bed and breakfast is owned and run by a young couple with an adorable one year old son who smiles all the time. It’s an older home with about five rooms which they let out and comes with a common kitchen and living area for the guests’ use. To keep within my budget I have been limiting my meals out and taking advantage of their kitchen. Immediately outside my room I have access to a small garden where I can sit at any time of the day. You can find this great place on booking.com my favourite site for locating great places to stay around the world. They have never let me down.

As I look back over this week, I am still coming to grips with how it could have taken a turn for the worse when I was beginning my journey at the airport in Toronto. I would have liked to have handled the situation without losing my cool and almost having a panic attack, but luckily for me it was the beginning of a trip which so far has exceeded any expectations I might have had. I am just so thankful to be here learning about a new culture, meeting up with old friends from Dubuque, Iowa whom I met seven years ago in Bangkok, and enjoying the warmth of the sun. Life is indeed good!

A few pictures taken on my Walking Tour of Buenos Aires

The Theatre Colon opera hall.

The Theatre Colon opera hall.

The most beautiful Catholic church in BA

The most beautiful Catholic church in BA

A tango in the park.

A tango in the park.

Our tour guide displaying his skills at guitar playing and singing.

Our tour guide displaying his skills at guitar playing and singing.