How I Dealt With the Effects of Climate Change in Laos

Having to deal with climate change has never been on most travellers itineraries in the past, but I am betting it will be in the future if it isn’t already. I know it will be on mine. When Luang Prabang was experiencing erratic weather such as it did last week, most people I talked to were trying to ignore it by calling it a fluke or quickly changing the subject if it was brought up. Their intention was clearly on what to see and where to eat and not the weather.

Last week when I was packing my bags to catch the bus to Vientiane, the capital, I realised that I really didn’t want to leave Louang Prabang. I wanted to stay and experience the city bathed in sunshine and warmth. I wanted to explore some more of the Hill Tribe villages further north. I wanted just to linger a little while longer and savour its charms and slow pace of life. I have to confess I felt short-changed for I had only two measly days out of nine with clear, sunny skies. The others were dull and grey with maybe a few feeble  rays of sun trying to break through here and there. The worst of it was that each day the temperature dropped a little bit more…down to as low as 10 degrees! Not expecting this kind of weather left us tourists basically shivering in our shorts and sandals.

Over the years I have learned to adapt to travelling to this part of the world by taking as few clothes as possible …. just what I think I’ll need. Other than what I wear when I leave Canada is all I will have for any kind of warmth. So for the time I was in Luang Prabang, it was this outfit every day except for those two days of sunshine. At least I didn’t have to waste precious time deciding what to wear. Instead an easy routine set in: just grab those jeans, a long-sleeved top, my one and only fleece cardigan, my runners with my one pair of socks, and a scarf, which I broke down and bought at the Night Market, and get this on as quickly as possible in the morning. I must confess, I had to resort to wearing this outfit to bed on the night the thermometer went to below 10 degrees. It felt more like zero to me… worse than my  old drafty house in the dead of winter in Victoria Beach.

The five-star hotels probably had some kind of heating source, but my guest house certainly did not, and why should it? This kind of weather is not the norm for Laos. Yes, Luang Prabang is in the mountainous north of this small country where cooler temperatures can prevail in the dry season but apparently not as intense as what I experienced. The one blessing I did have for those cold nights was the fluffy white duvet on my large queen – sized bed. I was able to double it up and make a comfy little nest out of it to help keep me warm. Usually the places I stay will supply you with just a sheet and a light blanket which is quite enough for warm nights so I was lucky to have that duvet.

On our coldest day, I just couldn’t bear to be in my room at my computer making plans for my upcoming travels, blog writing, or wading through E-mail. I had to find a warmer place to do my computer stuff and keep moving. With this goal in mind, I set out. Although my guest house had Lipton’s tea and instant coffee available for breakfast, I have to admit that a cup of good coffee is the best way for me to start off my day. With that in mind, I headed for Le Benneton Cafe which became one of my favourite places to relax and savour a really good cup of coffee along with the newspapers to catch up on the latest Lao news. Fortunately, they provided thick plastic covers for the doors to shelter us from the cold making it warm and cozy. Most eating places were all open so weren’t much better than my room.

After tearing myself away from there, I decided to visit Mount Phousi (meaning sacred hill) in the centre of the city to climb up the 328 plus steps leading to the top. This hill which is over 100 meters high is graced with a golden pagoda which cannot be ignored as you approach the city or from wherever you happen to be while there. Once up to the top, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the region including the two rivers…the Mekong and the Nam Kham. It’s not surprising that it has become the perfect place to view the rising and the setting of the sun. I regret not experiencing either but at least it helped to warm me up and give me some much-needed exercise. Furthermore, I had avoided the crowds who go up to catch the perfect sunset or not so popular sunrise picture and had the place to myself.

With the stair climbing under my belt, I decided to go to the nearby Indigo Cafe for a bowl of their pumpkin soup. This was definitely a soup day. I wasn’t too disappointed except for the rather small bowl which was, however, accompanied by a delicious, healthy roll.

The next thing on my agenda was to indulge in a massage and hot sauna. The only place that had a sauna as far as I could find was the well-known Red Cross Massage Centre. It wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice for indulgence and pampering because there were absolutely no frills. Everything was basic, but it supported a good cause, and I wanted that sauna to help draw out the toxins which were contributing to my cold brought on, no doubt, by the erratic temperatures. I was on a mission to outwit the weather. As I had hoped, the sauna did the trick even though there were at least a dozen near naked women packed into a small room. The heat and close body contact set up a curiously funny but intimate atmosphere, not just for me but also the young Lao women who were with me. I felt like we had really bonded even though we didn’t share the same language. I love their sometimes child like sense of humour where they take delight in such little things. The Centre does have separate saunas for males and females but that’s it. Everything else is shared. If you are taking a sauna, you must basically fend for yourselves by bringing your own towel, or a sarong as I did, for a cover. The massages were mostly good I would say based on what others told me on Trip Advisor and word of mouth. My masseuse had very strong hands which made things a bit too uncomfortable for me at times. However, she apologized and did try to lighten up when I let out a groan every now and then. It wasn’t one of my better massages; however, the whole experience gave me what I wanted. I felt better afterwards and definitely warmer.

My day ended with a hot and too spicy Laotian soup for me. Nevertheless, I managed to have one of the best sleeps in a while as I bunked down in my day clothes under my duvet tent. Having to deal with the effects of a changing climate in Laos had not only turned out to be my most memorable day of all, but may mean that I will have to revisit this charming and most beautiful country in southeast Asia.

Click on the pictures for the captions.

 

Luang Prabang – Still a Precious Jewel in SE Asia

Sometimes waking up in the wee hours of the morning can be a positive experience. Studies have shown that it is often the most creative time of day for many people. I don’t know what part creativity played in my waking up at this time a few days ago, but what I do know is that it led to witnessing an attraction that has become one of the prime reasons tourists are flocking to Luang Prabang in Laos.

After nine years since my first visit to Luang Prabang, I am back again to see what changes have taken place. I am anxious to discover if this charming UNESCO city has managed to weather the scourge of too many tourists descending upon it, or if by some miracle it has managed to escape that and still be the peaceful place it was back in 2009.

Perhaps several days isn’t enough time to give it a thumbs up for managing to maintain its equilibrium but so far so good. This little city of about 55,000 souls appears to have kept its charm and is still fairly laid back compared to many other SE Asian cities. How has it managed to achieve this when others are struggling to keep up with the onslaught? I would guess it’s mainly for these reasons:

  •  possessing 33 of the most beautiful wats anywhere in this part of the world, not only creating a learning centre for young Lao men and Buddhist scholars, but also a number one tourist attraction.

  •  featuring its original shop houses still in good condition dating back to the time when Luang Prabang was one of three kingdoms ruling this part of SE Asia, thus, enabling it to qualify as a UNESCO heritage site.

  • providing a tranquil environment created by the green forested mountains which surround it, numerous waterfalls, and two rivers…the Mekong and the Nam Kham… which meet up in the middle of the city to form a perfect confluence.

    The Nam Kham River on its way to the Mekong.

In 2009 I was one of the few tourists who managed to drag myself out of bed to witness the daily monk walk for collecting alms. What was once an overlooked daily religious event carried out every day in the wee hours of the morning from 5:30 to 6:30  by the monks has these days morphed into one of Luang Prabang’s top tourist attractions. This is not surprising considering how our world in just nine years has changed. The growth of our social media and the technology that drives it has been the stimulus for increasing the number of tourists who have put this event high up on their list of ‘must sees’. This has, in turn, given the locals in need of income to entice their visitors to shell out money for food to fill the alms pots carried by the monks. The result has seen some nasty incidents of improper tourist activities like snapping ‘in your face’ pictures of the monks…many are just young boys. It’s no surprise that such shocking behavior creating such a circus-like atmosphere has not gone down well with some tourists and locals.

The picture at the top of this page is a close up of the monk walk taken by me in 2009. Unfortunately, my camera would not co-operate in taking pictures this year in the dark.

I don’t know if the unusually cold morning we had here a few days ago proved this observation made by so many others over the past few years to be erroneous or not, but I am pleased to report I did not see any of this. The mini-vans, which pulled up along the route where I happened to be standing to unload eager tourists, was done with a surprising silence. I actually found it all quite eerie to see everyone walking around in the dark. We all had our cameras ready for when the monks would pass and the offerings made, with everyone respectfully staying a good distance away from them. I also witnessed how those tourists wanting to take part in the ritual of offering alms…sticky rice… to the monks were being instructed to do so in the reverent manner that such an occasion calls for by some locals.  As for the problem of other foods going into their pots such as packaged goods with questionable nutritional value being sold by local vendors to visitors and locals alike, this is a problem still to be solved. I read in the local newspaper that there is a movement afoot to address this problem by encouraging vendors to make their own edible gifts with rice and natural ingredients to sell rather than peddling the junk food which will undoubtedly cause more harm than good. Many of the monks have been throwing it out or giving it back to the vendors for them to sell again. The proposal is a good one but could be difficult considering all the people involved. At least it’s a start in the right direction which hopefully will have an outcome that will continue to honour this age-old custom.

Physically the character of the city hasn’t changed a great deal. The wats I have seen so far haven’t been altered and are as beautiful as ever. 

The old shop houses lining the main street and the riverside streets are still there looking better than ever. Being a UNESCO city has forced this issue which the local authorities and property owners are adhering to. To accommodate the growing tourist trade, many of the buildings have been renovated into lovely boutique inns and more upscale restaurants. The Three Nagas where we enjoyed a gourmet meal in 2009 is still there but the prices have more than doubled. The cost of food has risen substantially every where, but good prices and good food can still be found beyond the centre and at the Night Market. An authentic Lao dish can be found on the street, especially side streets, for 15,000 kip which translates to about $2.50 Cdn. I can easily keep my daily food expenses under $20 which includes a delicious Lao coffee with a baked goodie at one of the many cool cafes. Also, Sysomphone Guest House where I am staying helps my budget by providing a decent breakfast as part of my accommodation costs. 

So far I have not discerned any tremendous changes to the environment in and around Luang Prabang. Having two rivers running through it is definitely a plus for this city. How fortunate that the mighty Mekong River and its smaller tributary, the Nam Kham, should meet right in the centre and that they have maintained their beauty with no over development. The streets running along side of each of them are lined with quaint hotels, oodles of restaurants, and numerous spas and massage parlours. Furthermore, it’s all kept relatively clean making them a joy for tourists to stroll along either night or day.

The mighty Mekong River

This type of boat is a common site on the Mekong used by tourists and locals.

With rivers there have to be some bridges. The one which has garnered the most tourist attention is the old Bamboo Bridge spanning the Nam Kham. Every year it has to be replaced after the high water levels produced by the wet season have washed it out. On the other hand, it does provide a safe walkway for the locals living on the other side and for the tourists who want to go over to observe how they live. Most of them are small farmers just eeking out a living who have no qualms to having visitors come over to see how simple their life is. For us it gives us a closer view of how the majority of people in this poor country still live. Only in Laos is it so common to see how the two can exist so closely together.

Bamboo Bridge for walking crossing the Nam Kham River.

I am not only impressed with how the city has maintained its true natural character but equally amazed at how the people have accepted all its visitors. They are generally friendly and try to be helpful. Furthermore, their English skills are pretty darn good for which we can thank the monks. Many young boys who would never have had the chance to learn English in the public schools have received their schooling with English as the main subject from the monks. Seizing the opportunity to better their circumstances, they are choosing to enter the thriving tourist sector. For now, this is a win-win situation for tourists and locals alike. I wonder and so does the guide I had for a tour to a Hmong village yesterday about what the future holds for them.

Waiting for a passenger – the Lao version of a ‘tuk tuk’.

One of the city’s lovely tree-shaded streets.

A Day For Learning and Fun at a Thai Hill Tribe Village

Last week I had the good fortune to visit a Hill Tribe village in Northern Thailand. This trip was not arranged by a tour agency, but by an industrious Thai family who want to help the Hill Tribe people to adjust to our changing world so they won’t be left behind. An opportunity surfaced when Nui, the brother of my friend, Toi, came up with the brilliant idea to organize a cooking class with sticky rice as its star and his sister, a creative cook, to direct the show.

Every February the Karen, Lisu, Arka, and Lahu tribes in the Mai Suai district have a Sticky Rice Festival to celebrate their culture and to make a little bit of merit. It’s no surprise that food becomes the main draw with the help of sticky rice, a staple in this part of Thailand. To add more excitement to their celebration, they hold a contest to determine which village can produce the most creative use for sticky rice.

Now the thing is – sticky rice, by itself, is almost tasteless, and truth be told looks like a ball of glue! Commonly known as sweet or glutenous rice…with no gluten in it….it is mostly used as a staple to every meal or added to other foods to make yummy desserts such as, mango sticky rice; as a vegetable mixed with beans or taro and wrapped in banana leaf; or an ingredient in wine. The challenge for Toi was to introduce a new way to use the sticky rice making it tasty as well as eye appealing…and help this village to win the coveted distinction of producing the most innovative way to use it.

When we arrived at the village, the ladies were all decked out in their finest clothing. Some were wearing their traditional dress which I was glad to see because like most Thai, even those in the more remote areas, they are adopting our Western form of dress. Some of the girls are into recycling old clothing creating their own clothes and shoes as shown in the picture below.

Then, there was this pair of two year old twins who were especially cute with their mother who is dressed in a traditional Karen outfit.

The first step to creating new ways for using the sticky rice was to take the already cooked rice (often leftover rice is used) and pound it to a pulp.

Aided by a heavy bamboo stake, we all took our turn which we discovered was the most tiring part of the process.

This also explained why we had some males in the class.

Once the rice was ready, the large sticky balls were cut up into small portions with a long piece of bamboo leaf. This was the perfect tool as the rice couldn’t stick to it as it would have with a knife.

Step two was to take the small rice balls and roll them out with a glass beer bottle. We discovered that the village didn’t know what a rolling-pin was so they had to improvise with the bottles. We decided then and there we would have to get them some rolling pins. Nevertheless and to our amazement, the finished patties or pancakes looked just like a tortilla.

Step three was to use the various ingredients provided by Toi, such as seasonal fruit, black beans, taro, pumpkin, pork, and mayonnaise… which the ladies weren’t familiar with but absolutely loved…. to create a filling for the patties. At first a they were a tad hesitant, but eventually caught on to the potential of what they could do with the food displayed before them and began to immerse themselves into the wonderful act of creating something new.

By this time the laughter and fun had drawn a considerable crowd of curious onlookers waiting to have a sample of their creations. Someone decided to take the finished product one more step so set up a wok, filled it with oil, and began to deep fry some of the wraps. They were delicious and gobbled up immediately!

At the end of the demonstration, we were treated to a typical Hill Tribe meal of… your guessed it!… sticky rice and various dishes consisting of  copious amounts of green vegetables, some spicy and some not so.

The ladies who prepared our meal in their kitchen.

The appreciation of the participants was still evident as we packed up and said our ‘good byes’. Everyone felt it had been a success which was confirmed not only by Nui, but also his assistant who was there representing the local Municipal District Council.

Bringing together the four tribes of women…and some men …. to learn something new and to have fun doing it with the thought that maybe they would be the winner of the contest was a beginning. However, Nui would like to see them take the idea and use it as a possible money-maker for the area. He has his finger in a few other money-making projects it appears, so this could be one more if they are interested. Up to this point the women and men have been making beautiful crafts to sell which has served them well, but it would be remiss if they didn’t get in on the growing interest that tourists are developing for eating local foods that are different and also tasty. He sees an opportunity for them to enter this flourishing market niche with sticky rice as the leader. Wraps could very well be just the beginning.

I think he and Toi are on the right track as the Thai government is recognising the need to alleviate  the poverty that exists in the North by not only promoting more tourism there, but also providing more incentives for learning new skills. However, the most important thing here will be the follow-up to this wonderful day of fun and learning. The seed has been planted, but now the local ‘powers that be’ will have to continue to work with those who are eager to try something new. They will need more education and close supervision as to how to access information and enforce the laws regarding safe food preparation.

Change won’t be easy for them, but with encouragement they could easily learn the skills required for such a project to help them become a more sustainable village. In the meantime, we can wish them well in winning the prize for the most innovative sticky rice product at the upcoming Sticky Rice Festival.

Chiang Mai’s Race For Tourist Dollars

Chiang Mai’s Race For Tourist Dollars

“What is old is new again.”

Some noteworthy person must have said this somewhere or at some time so I can’t take the credit for coining this. However, whatever its origin, the words aptly fit my impressions of what is happening in Chiang Mai right now.

This Northern Thai city is undergoing a restoration and building boom, at least in the inner city which is that part surrounded by a moat. If you want further information on the moat and the remains of the wall that defines the character of this ancient city, then do refer to the blog I posted three years ago: click on  A Precious Gift

A past picture of the moat with fountains on.

Where are the fountains this year?

The first sign of the changes occurring in the inner city, the most touristy part, surfaced as I walked down Phrapokktao Rd. and spotted a few wats undergoing huge renovations. Wat Jedlan captured my interest so I decided to take a closer look at it. I wasn’t disappointed and wondered how I had managed to miss in on all my previous visits. The grounds are spacious and beautifully manicured. However, the buildings are old and in need of repair so, hence, the restoration.

Massive construction going on here.

The next day as I headed to the Sunday Street Market, I noticed that Prah Singh, Chiang Mai’s largest and wealthiest wat, was sporting a glamorous new outfit in gilded gold.

Looking good.

There is definitely a sense of competition going on between the numerous wats in this fair city. They are unabashedly out to get the tourists’ dollars not just with visitor donations but lately by charging them fees to enter. Chedi Luang, the second most sacred and grandiose wat in Chiang Mai, is one of those doing that. The lineup of people waiting to enter reminded me of those horrendous lineups you have to contend with in cities like Rome or Paris. I hope it never gets to that, but then with the droves of Chinese tourists coming here, this could happen.

If a wat doesn’t charge entrance fees then they may resort to renting out some of their valuable land to vendors for selling their wares during the big Saturday and Sunday Night Walking Street Markets which grow larger every year. Click on Shopping the Markets in Chiang Mai

Prah Singh’s entrance to Sunday Market.

Another wat renting out a rest and eating area for market shoppers.

It’s not just wats that are getting a make over: it’s also the accommodations and restaurants in this city. Hearing that at least two of the guest houses I used to stay in…Pachkit House and Baan Nam Sai.. were now facing the wrecking ball, I made it my quest to check both of them out. Sure enough they are both receiving major new face lifts.

Destroying the old Pachkit house for the new.

What’s left of the original.

How can this be happening? In most cases, it’s about money from China which is enticing to family owned businesses who want to retire and leave the hard work to those who have the money and plans for the future. Thailand faces the same problems as all developed countries these days…an aging population along with earlier retirement. China on the other hand which also faces an aging population, but also a thriving younger middle class and a much larger population, is looking for other places to visit where it’s cheaper and exciting. Thailand and in fact all SE Asia is one of their first places to go to before they hit Europe. Those entrepreneurs who have the money see Thailand and its neighbours as great places to invest in since all of them are still bringing in huge amounts of tourist dollars from the West.

What all this change means for us flashpackers…what older backpackers have been dubbed… is less inexpensive accommodations at our disposal. The little family run guest houses are being converted to what is commonly known now as boutique hotels which are smaller and less expensive than the 5 stars but still far more than the traditional guest house.

One of the flourishing boutique hotels.

For backpackers who are younger with a minimal budget, there are the hostels where they must share a room with others in a more communal setting. Still entrenched in my old ways, I avoid these and look for the small guest houses. When I first started coming to Chiang Mai it was easy to rent a room on a monthly or a weekly basis but not so now. If I want to stay in the centre, I will most likely have to pay by the night. Those places offering monthly rates are more likely to be found out in the suburbs and even those should be booked early because they are snatched up quickly. Here you can find a condo or house to rent, but as I discovered last year has its disadvantages. Transportation is the biggest drawback unless you are the adventurous sort and rent a motor bike to get around. My post from last year titled “Is Chiang Mai Losing Its Allure” will give you a better idea of the pros and cons. Click here Is Chiang Mai Losing It’s Allure?

My condo apartment out near the airport from last year.

Like most people when I first saw the construction and heard the jack hammers, I was a bit disgusted. How could Chiang Mai yield so willingly to the tearing down of their storied past for the new opulence of the future? On second thought, I realised it’s simply their way of surviving. If they don’t join the wave of the future where there is literally a tsunami of Chinese tourists descending upon them, then they stand to lose a big chunk of their economy, and like all countries they can’t afford to do that. Sure all this change will just lead to other problems but somehow they will find a solution for them and so on it goes. What would CM or any of us do if we never had problems to solve? Now here is some food for thought….

A typical Thai building still standing.

Let’s hope it doesn’t meet a similar fate.

Making way for the new.

 

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.

A Memorable Day on Nova Scotia’s South Shore

A subject on the minds of many of us these days is the awareness of how everything in this world is connected…the key word being “everything”. It’s easy to grasp the premise that as human beings living on this planet we are all connected, but how about the idea we are also connected to all living things which would include our trees, plants, animals, insects and whatever else that grows? Now there is food for thought. Lately I have been hearing much about a book entitled The Hidden Life of Trees written by the German author, Peter Wohlleben. Seems this book has impacted many of my friends so I have put it on my immediate list of books to read.

The opportunity to learn more about why this book is capturing so much interest came knocking at my door while visiting a good friend on the South Shore last weekend. On the Sunday, Mother Nature blessed us with a clear day after a good rain the day before. Blue skies with fluffy white clouds and moderate temperatures made for a perfect day at the beach. We chose Hirtle’s Beach, not only because it just happens to be our favourite one, but because on that day the Kingsburg Coastal Conservancy was offering an added bonus: guided nature walks highlighting its rock formations and flora, bird watching, a talk on the history of Kingsburg, a local exhibit of art at Shobac, and boat rides to Ironbound Island where feral sheep reside. What more could we want?

Boardwalk leading to Hirtle’s Beach.

The rocky part of the beach.

I learned that this conservancy is a charitable, non-governmental land trust started in 1995 by a group of volunteers dedicated to protecting and preserving the Kingsburg Peninsula on Nova Scotia’s South Shore for all to enjoy now and into the future.

We arrived at the beach around 11 o’clock just in time for the home cooked lunch of seafood chowder and homemade pie. I have to say I had one of my best lunches ever while sitting on the rocks of the beach, and the best part was that it was all for free.

Yummy lunch on the rocks.

To walk off our lunch, we took a walk along the beach noting numerous sea birds darting here and there. We were delighted to see some plovers in the mix. Several years ago bird watchers noticed that their numbers seemed to be dwindling so a group of concerned citizens took great pains to protect their nesting sites from the beach traffic. Their efforts have paid off as more sightings of these little birds have been noted in the past few years.

Can you spot any plovers?

We noticed that most people were doing what we were doing which was just walking and paddling in the water. The wind was a little too chilly for those of us without wetsuits but not for the surfers. I settled for trying to get some action shots of them as they manoeuvred the waves.

Since Sunday was the last day of this special weekend, we had only two walks to choose from: a walk and talk about fungi or the history of Kingsburg. Without hesitation we both agreed that the fungi walk would be the most interesting. I was actually excited about learning more about how they contribute to a healthy forest. Would this be the opportunity I hoped for to learn about the hidden life of trees? In the meantime with an hour or more at our disposal before the walk got underway, we opted to take a short run over to see the local art exhibit in Shobac.

I discovered this special place several years ago when visiting my husband’s son who had rented a cottage there for his summer holiday. So, what makes it so special?

The Shobac of today is an architectural wonder. It’s located on the edge of the Gaff Point Cliffs overlooking the LeHave River estuary. First inhabited by the Mi’Kmaq as a camp ground, then sighted by Samuel de Champlain who named it Shobac, not long after established as an Acadian farming and fishing village, to be later settled by German, Swiss, and French Protestants, mostly abandoned in the mid 20th century except for a few fishing families, the land was finally bought and developed into what it is today by a Brian MacKay-Lyons, a talented Nova Scotian architect.

MacKay-Lyons bought this huge tract of land in 1988 with the vision of re-creating an agricultural village for use by the community and the visitors who come to this part of the South Shore which are many due to its proximity to the three towns of Lunenburg, a Unesco Site, Mahone Bay, and Bridgewater. It is also near three of Nova Scotia’s largest and most popular beaches: Risser’s, Crescent, and Hirtle’s, not to mention numerous smaller ones all around.

Commonly called a compound, the land has a fabulous north view with Hirtle’s Beach in the distance. The land is dotted with undulating hills called drumlins which are glacial deposits left by the ice age some 15,000 years ago. Waves beating against the cliffs have created lovely sandy beaches below as a result of erosion. Sheep and horses can be found grazing on the grassy hillsides. What makes the scene even more outstanding are the box like cottages and larger buildings all available for rent on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. MacKay-Lyons’ latest acquisition is an old schoolhouse dating back to 1830 which has been restored to incorporate both the old and the new as many of his buildings do. The Troop Barn where we found the art exhibit was found and rescued by him in 2009 near Bridgetown in the Annapolis Valley  This was the last of Nova Scotia’s octagonal barns and was slated for demolition because no one had stepped forth to buy it. Thanks to this man’s money and foresight, it’s been beautifully restored and is now used extensively by the community for all kinds of exhibitions and other community gatherings. Not surprisingly MacKay-Lyons has garnered many awards and much recognition for this architectural wonder so it’s worth a visit and definitely a great place to stay for a vacation.

View of Hirtle’s Beach from Shobac.

Box like buildings blending into the seascape.

Troop Barn where the art exhibit was held.

Some drumlins and sheep in the background.

After viewing the art and voting on the one we favoured most, as well as being fortified with some fresh lemonade and homemade cookies for our efforts, we drove back to Hirtle’s Beach for the fungi trek along the Gaff Point Trail Head.

Heading out for our fungi walk.

Into the forest we go,

Our guide gave us an excellent explanation of how nature has devised such an intricate system for keeping an old growth forest healthy and vibrant. Who knew that fungi (mushrooms) played such an important role in their health? Who knew that all that green moss we see on walks in the woods where there is an old and new growth of trees harbours a whole network of fungi threads in the soil underneath? Who knew that these fungi supply essential carbon and nutrients to each and every tree? The more fungi or mushrooms the healthier the trees.

This is my simplified version of how it all works. Hopefully I can gain a more scientific and clearer explanation from Wohlleben’s book. Apparently he goes so far as to say that trees have personalities and actually talk to one another by communicating below ground via a ‘woodwide web’. Willows, he claims, are loners and have relatively short lives compared to beeches and oaks which last for thousands of years and act as a family. He adds that trees have emotions and can feel pain. Who knew? Another ‘ah ha’ moment for me was the realization that perhaps all the clear cutting of our forests here in our province could be classified as a criminal act since it kills any new growth and turns old growth forests into dead zones. I think those who work in the Department of Natural Resources should be putting this book on their reading lists.

Our guide showing us old and new tree growth.

My memorable day at Kingsburg will stay in my mind for some time. I learned so much and it inspired me to do more reading about how Mother Nature has a clear plan for how all living things can live together harmoniously if every part of her is allowed to fulfill its purpose. As intelligent human beings, we have a responsibility to not only learn how we can fit into this system but also learn how to do this in a sustainable manner. Kudo’s to the Kingsburg Coastal Conservancy for their concern for preserving our beautiful province and for spreading the word to all those who are listening.

Looking out to Ironbound Island from Gaff Point.

The cliff on Gaff Point Trail.

Raising Sheep in Port Royal, Nova Scotia

Can you imagine being suddenly thrust into the role of parenting 80 newborn babies dependent upon you for their livelihood. Could you cope?

This spring Julia Springob and Lou Barta of Port Royal were faced with this surprise when their ewes presented them with this number of very hungry baby lambs, far more than they ever anticipated. The norm for a ewe is to birth one or maybe two lambs so imagine their surprise when many of them birthed three and even four babies. Since motherhood was new to many of their mothers, they simply couldn’t cope with so many offspring at one time. This is where Julia and Lou had to step in, resulting in bottle feedings every two hours. They were literally on call both night and day for those first weeks. Thankfully they were down to three feedings a day when I visited their farm.

I must backtrack here to explain how I got the idea to do an article on the subject of sheep farming here on my “special road”. If I leave my house to go anywhere further than walking distance, I must get into my car to travel to our nearest town of Annapolis Royal or any other place in Nova Scotia. This amounts to at least several times a week. If you take a look at my post entitled My Road Well Travelled, (click here) you can find more information on what makes this road so special, not just to me, but many others who live and visit here. Each time I travel this road I pass Julia and Lou’s sheep farm, and every time I can’t resist taking a peek at those little lambs…plus several goats… to see just how quickly they are growing. It’s a heart-warming sight.

I became so intrigued with the idea of finding out more about the owners and their sheep that I made an appointment to interview them, resulting in a piece I had published in the Valley Harvester, our local community newspaper. This is what I found out about raising sheep in Nova Scotia.

After taking me on a tour of their farm to meet the baby lambs, witness their bottle feeding, as well as to meet the goats and the sheep dogs, I quickly realized that this idyllic farm is being built with an abundance of hard work and dedication.

Just feed me.

At last. Thanks papa Lou.

Sheep farming in Nova Scotia is a challenging business requiring lots of know-how and cash. A lover of lamb meat, I have always wondered why it isn’t so readily available in our grocery stores and is more expensive than beef or pork. Well, now I think I understand why.

Julia and Lou have been at this for a year now having moved here from British Columbia where they farmed on a part-time basis for 16 years. They decided to immigrate to Canada in 2000 from Germany. Julia’s native country is Germany and Lou hails from what was once Czechoslovakia. Their B.C. farm was located in the northern, interior part of B.C. in the Bulkley Valley halfway between Prince Rupert and Prince George. There, Lou drove a logging truck while Julia stayed home to raise chickens, turkeys, some beef cows. She also maintained a large vegetable garden providing food for themselves  and their neighbours. Lou’s yearning to be his own boss and their growing desire to go into full-time farming compelled them to take the plunge and begin their search for more land. With land prices in B.C. escalating, they turned their eyes eastward and with the help of the Internet settled on a picturesque farm in Port Royal.

In their first year, they have increased their flock of sheep from 45 to 60, not counting the newborn babies. In addition, they have seven goats, three guard dogs, and one herd dog, still just a kid being diligently trained to take on his adult duties in the near future. I think it’s a miracle they all survived their trip east and their first winter. Now in their middle years, Lou proudly announced, “We haven’t lost a single animal to any disease, climate or predators. We have an electric fence and our guard dogs to thank for this.” I would add that he needs to give credit to himself and Julia.

When asked what their greatest challenge has been so far, they both agreed it was the task of transporting the animals in two large trailers driven by Lou and a friend followed by a back trailer driven by Julia from B.C. to N.S. in just seven days

“It was the most arduous task we have ever had to take on” said Julia. “The weather was heating up in June, making it difficult to keep the animals cool. We were worried about finding places where we could stop for the night and not be an annoyance to the folks around us. Our animals would always make too much noise around feeding time.”

However it turned out that most people, when they heard what they doing, were more than happy to lend a hand in providing a place to park their vehicles with enough water for the hot, thirsty animals.

As Julia pointed out, there was one other high point during their trip which presented itself once they got here… the birth of a baby lamb in November!

As for how they feel after their first year in Nova Scotia and whether they are optimistic about their future here as sheep farmers, their reply was passionate in their quest to raise healthy and affordable food for local eating. Eventually they hope to provide their products to the community as they did in B.C. by starting small and relying on word of mouth. They see a future in this province for the small farmer who wants to join the ever-growing need to become more sustainable in food production. However, Lou did seem concerned about the government and parents not doing enough to encourage young people to climb aboard to take up small farming.

When asked what joy they get from their new venture, without hesitation they said:

  • You can be your own boss.
  • You know where your food is coming from and what’s in it. I must add that they are living proof of this as both who are in their 50’s and look the picture of health.
  • You never can be bored with your work. Every day is different.
  • The challenges you meet present new learning through personal experience.
  • You can be outside as much as you want and have access to clean water and air.

For now they want to continue expanding their flock of sheep to the point where they can support themselves as well as their community. They also want to meet the standards as set by the province for producing healthy food products, which will mean obtaining all the necessary licences. Julia loves to make goat cheese, and she’s even thinking of the possibility of lamb pies and sausages.

However, in order to accomplish that she knows she will have to upgrade her huge kitchen to meet those food production regulations. Right now they are taking it all one day at a time, concentrating on increasing their flock to a sustainable level, and ensuring their lambs and goats are kept safe and healthy.

Julia, Lou, and herd dog.