Birthdays and expectations

There is something about birthdays that is still so special to me, even after celebrating so many of my own and others’. Our children were always given a choice of what they’d like to eat on their birthdays. For mine, I would simply ensure that I had something I liked, or maybe I’d get taken out for dinner. I started making my own cake or my daughter would make one for me. I was always disappointed in store-bought cake.

Last year on my birthday I was completely spoiled by our visitors. They cooked for me and made cupcakes. This year I thought it might be grim. We were away from home and staying in a house with my in-laws, but we were the only ones not jet-lagged. Our children weren’t there.

I woke up at my usual time but no one else was awake. We had no car or method of travel yet we were out in the country, miles from any public transit. I went for a walk to calm myself. I did some yoga to focus my mind. I sent messages to my family, still all asleep, thousands of miles away.

There was nothing wrong with the birthday, but I started it too early, before the rest of my world woke up. By the time I went to bed, and even the next morning, I had lots of birthday wishes and love sent my way.

In fact, I was offered my choice of what to have for dinner. I was also tasked with finding a cake on our trip to the store. It was the best store-bought chocolate cake I’ve ever had.

I still love birthdays, no matter how old I get. I have to adjust expectations sometimes, but usually it all ends up happy.

A brief and unplanned hiatus

Doing nothing but sit around with one’s foot up isn’t always a bad thing. I managed to find many things to keep me busy, including planning a trip and learning a new language.

Now that I’m on my feet again, in a limited capacity, I still have the language to learn and the trip to plan, but I also have the food to buy and prepare and the apartment to clean. We’ve been away for three weeks as well. To top that off, we had company for four days, so I’ve been trying to fit it all in on limited sleep.

Now that I am able to walk, swim and exercise, I’m trying to get back in shape. This recovery business is not for the impatient. While away I found myself lagging at the back of the group many times on our way to dinner. I wasn’t ready for the trip, physically, so took lots of time to put my foot up and ice it.

I’m much better now, but still have swelling and I’m still limited in the shoes I can wear. I often think “I’m all better” and immediately the following day I’ll have to baby my foot again. As my surgeon says, the body will heal itself.

I’m going to be going away again, for five weeks. Unlike some very organized bloggers, I haven’t prepared anything to automatically post while I’m away. I have so many things in my mind about which I’d love to write. I guess it will all have to wait!

Our next travel adventure awaits and I can only think about coming home with a healthy foot and cooking again. Until then, I’ll try to take good notes on our travels.

It’s beautiful in Cayman today, slightly overcast and about 27 Celsius. Why do we leave? Life is too short to stay home when you’ve always wanted to go somewhere in particular. I confess to being a travel addict, but the good news is I’m always happy to come home.

Leaving Paradise: Life challenges made easier

We’re off island as they say in Cayman. We’ve fled the Christmas and high season madness for six weeks to spend Christmas, not in the deep freeze of Canada, but in sunny Southern California. It’s not Cayman hot here, but we’re getting some very nice weather.

The thing about being here is that it’s so easy to go for a walk or even a hike. It’s not too hot and we won’t be hit by a car or attacked by dogs. There is also a pool. It’s quite a long pool, so swimming laps is that much easier. I can do 20-25 laps and get the same distance with fewer turns than I do at home doing 50-60 laps.

Unfortunately, it is the Christmas season, and I’m in full treat-making mode. We are also in close proximity to the best Mexican food outside of Mexico. In fact we are only about an hour away from Mexico, so we have Mexican food everywhere. Have I mentioned how difficult weight loss is when consuming Mexican food regularly, not to mention shortbread and tarts?

We also find alcohol much cheaper here, but fortunately that hasn’t yet affected our consumption. We’ve limited ourselves to wine with dinner and the occasional cocktail while the sun is going down.

My shoulder is much better and I feel energetic enough to do both a swim and a walk now. I think I can fit in some yoga and a strength circuit. I attempted push ups again for the first time in weeks, but I’m not there yet. Don’t pull your trapezoids  if you can help it! It’s painful and affects so much of your day to day life.

Yes, the challenge to eat healthy and lose weight is actually a much greater challenge here. The exercise part should be easy.

One thing we do have going for us is the abundance of fruits and vegetables. Everything is so fresh when it’s grown just a few miles away. We enjoy the local Farmers’ Market and stocking up on beans and greens and oranges and grapefruits picked yesterday. The market also has tamales. As I said, it’s a challenge!

Puerto Montt

I think I should write about the cruise before I forget everything. Our first stop on the cruise was Puerto Montt, Chile. We tendered into port and went through a passenger control area. We didn’t have an excursion booked, so we hung around for awhile trying to get wifi. We didn’t have much success so we carried on, walking up the street towards Angelmo market.

Puerto Montt was established in 1853 and was largely settled by Germans. The population today is just over 200,000.

The street itself seemed to me to be one great, long market. The vendors were all in very open spaces, selling various crafts and clothing made from alpaca or sheep wool and jewellry with lapis lazuli, the national stone.

Street vendors in Puerto Montt
Street vendors in Puerto Montt

I’m not much of a bargainer or much of a shopper for that matter, but our traveling companions certainly are. I was trying to keep up with the men, who marched on ahead towards the destination with barely a glance at the lovely merchandise along the way. I was also trying to keep track of the women, browsing around behind in the numerous stalls. There were some tense moments when someone wanted to make a purchase and her husband was far ahead and out of sight with the Chilean pesos. One of her potential purchases was abandoned when the lady selling shawls wouldn’t come down on the price. “Is baby sheep!” she explained. Fair enough!

I did make a purchase. I had to! There was a beautiful shawl with my name on it and some lovely woolen scarves that I knew my son and daughter would use.

When we finally reached the end of the Paseo del mar and found Angelmo market, we were treated to a picturesque harbour with lovely brightly coloured fishing boats. The market was full of restaurants and fish smells. There were the largest, happiest sea lions I’ve ever seen basking near the pier, enjoying the attention of all the tourists.

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On our walk back to the ship we saw artists, musicians and more vendors selling everything from spices to art and music cds. We came away with a few pesos, but this would be our last Chilean port.

Valparaiso

I don’t know how to title this post without sounding like a smug, privileged North American tourist. Valparaiso is both picturesque and impoverished. It is a World Heritage Site, so they can’t change or update the buildings; but without funds to maintain them they are falling apart.

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The city is, indeed, unique. It has a history of bohemian culture which is still present. The buildings are built on steep hills of streets, the best of which overlook the harbour. The city has an ocean-going history. Men would be off at sea for long periods of time and the women would party, according to our guide. Sounds like a fun place to be a woman, as long as no one came along to rape and pillage!

The city enjoys some beautiful views, but is home to more stray dogs than anyone could ever count. Some of the lovely buildings, which are becoming a little worse for wear, are used as hostels or bed & breakfasts. World class artists have painted murals in Valparaiso and they are amazing.

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Valparaiso was the departure port for our cruise. We enjoyed some fresh empanadas and proceeded to the dock for our check in. Our pre-cruise tour of Santiago and Valparaiso was so worthwhile, we would definitely do it again!

 

 

Santiago: who knew?

IMG_7540 Our first full day day in Santiago, after the previous day of no sleep, got off to a great start. Our hotel had a lovely breakfast, included in our room package. Our van, with driver and guide, picked us up promptly at 9 am and we began our tour of the city. We started with the walking portion to beat the midday heat. Santiago was a pleasant surprise to all of us. I realize we were in quite a nice neighbourhood, but we were impressed by the number of healthy trees and beautiful parks.

Chile has had a lot of earthquakes. They don’t even call the small ones earthquakes anymore, they call them tremours. As a result of all these earthquakes, at least the major ones, there are many newer buildings among the “survivors”.

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Due to Santiago’s location, between ocean and mountain ranges, Chile’s political history, and their geological history, the city has its very own, distinct vibe, and comes across as very modern, resilient and forward thinking. I think part of the reason we enjoyed it so much is because Chile, like Canada, is a mosaic (or melting pot, if you prefer) of so many cultures. It has the “new world” feel, but with a darker history and a much stronger European influence. The climate is fantastic. Although the summer temperatures can get pretty hot, it’s a dry heat. People come to Chile from all over the world and many of them never leave.

It’s hard to believe, even for a resident of the Cayman Islands, that the country is run without income tax,  In Chile, they sell institutions, such as the airports, to investors, who then commit to maintaining them for 20 years. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The petty crime is a problem, because the jails are too full and they don’t have an investor in the jails.

IMG_7492Plaza los Armas

Our tour of the city included a walk through downtown and Plaza los Armas. We had time to explore the indoor market.

 

IMG_7519This market is considered to be among the top five in the world!

 

IMG_7545At Cerro San Cristobal, you can walk, drive or take a funicular to the top. We took the funicular, it being a very hot time of day. We couldn’t drive up because there was a walk or run going on, as there often is in Santiago. As we drove around the city we often saw areas cordonned off for a bike race or similar event. The views from the top were fantastic. We could see the Andes on one side and and by walking around we could see the whole city. We had to do some climbing,as the funicular doesn’t go all the way to the top, where the statue of the Virgin Mary watches over Santiago.

We returned to our hotel with time to go for lunch, catch up on our emails and relax by the pool. One of the problems we had in Santiago was finding cash. Having spent most of our cash at dinner the previous evening,(and that’s another story!) we split up the group so some of us could find a place for lunch and some went looking for a place to exchange money. We had a two counts against us. It’s summer in Santiago, which means one third of the population is on vacation. The banks were closed for the weekend, and no exchange places were available in the neighbourhood.

We had a short walk to a shopping and restaurant area, but it was very busy and we were lucky to get a table for our large group. On the Sunday, we found many places were simply closed for the afternoon.

We could have returned to one of the museums that our guide had pointed out to us, but I think we were all pretty tired by afternoon. I am beginning to understand the siesta! Some of the museums were on strike, as well.

By the end of our 3 days in Santiago, which also included visits to wineries and a walking tour of Valparaiso, we were joking about buying a place and moving there.

 

Miami to Santiago, in a sardine can. My kingdom for a bed!

I was so looking forward to the overnight flight to Santiago. “Why?” you may ask. Well, I guess it’s because I thought an overnight flight would provide a little more leg room. I guess I was thinking about my last overnight flight to London. I guess I was looking forward to an airline giving me free food and wine. I guess I forgot about the flight we took to Amsterdam many years ago where I felt like one of those chickens. You know, the ones that aren’t “happy hens” or free range or “free to nest”; the ones that are crammed together and force-fed?

I didn’t feel quite like that on our flight to Santiago. After all, I had an aisle seat and the only person next to me was my husband. He slept the entire flight, except for the meals. He had space under the seat in front of him because he doesn’t carry a “small personal item”, in my case, a purse. He also didn’t have a huge metal box under the seat in front of him. I did. I had a purse and a metal box of unknown purpose  (although I’m sure someone knows the purpose) firmly attached to the bottom of the seat, leaving me with a few inches of space overlapping into my husband’s foot space. Or, I could have tripped people in the aisle.

On the positive side, the jack-in-the-box in front of me, who seemed to be someone known and revered by the flight crew, was able to change her seat to join her travel companions near the back. The fact that they didn’t have seats booked together and that the flight attendants were fawning over her suggests to me that she probably didn’t have to pay for her seat. (I digress.) We still don’t know who she was.

When a late arrival, a very tall man, took her place, I was sure he’d put his seat back into my lap as soon as he was allowed. I was wrong. He was very considerate, especially considering that his knees were probably pressed up against the seat in front of him.

On the other hand, for all the stretch-out room my husband had under the seat, he also felt as if he and the woman ahead of him were sleeping together.

I also appreciated the free food and wine. The E terminal of the Miami airport is a sad place for a hungry traveller. We were very hungry!

Fortunately, the flight to Santiago was only about 8 hours.

We’d booked a special pre-cruise package with our friends for the 3 days in Santiago. This began with a transfer from the airport to our lovely boutique hotel. On the ride to the hotel, our guide gave us very interesting insights into the modern history of Chile, as well as some useful tips about being tourists in Santiago.

Our hotel was lovely. We were the first of our party to arrive. It was especially fortunate that they had a spacious lobby, a good restaurant where we could get breakfast, and bathrooms we could use while we waited for our rooms. It was fortunate because we waited for our rooms for over 8 hours. We were told that check in time was 3. Our rooms would be ready at 3, unless we wanted a room with twin beds. We’d booked a room with a queen sized bed, so we said we’d wait.  The first couple arrived, close to noon. They were told the same thing. We’d already had breakfast but we walked with them to an area we’d been to earlier and had lunch. We waited a little longer. The rest of our group arrived about 3:30. The rooms weren’t ready. “Five minutes, ” we were told. There was a shift change at the desk.

Finally, our friend who had booked the package approached the desk and firmly asked about the rooms. He was given a vague answer about the rooms not being ready. He got out his phone and started to call the travel agent.  We were almost immediately called up to the desk. There was a problem with the double rooms. Would we take a suite for the same price? That was a no-brainer. We all checked in and discovered that 2 out of the 4 couples had a suite. Score!  We agreed to meet for a drink later in the bar by the pool.

It seems that one of our group later overheard a very angry Englishman complaining that he had booked a suite and didn’t get one. Sir, if I was in your suite, I apologize for the inconvenience, but seriously, I was just happy to get a room!

Swimming with Stingrays

Often while snorkelling or diving I see a stingray. I get a little thrill when I can watch it from a safe distance, behaving as stingrays normally behave in the wild. I’ve also been to Stingray City and sandbar about five times. If you haven’t been and you get a chance, you should go, too.

Apparently some people expect the stingrays to be captive, in a sort of pen, when they go to see them. This is definitely not the case. The stingrays are free-living, wild stingrays that just happen to be used to people.

Many years ago, the fishermen in Cayman used to bring their catch to a certain area to clean the fish. They noticed that the stingrays would come and feed on the discarded fish bits, and had become very tame and used to people.

http://acquarius.ky/stingray-city/about-stingray-city.html

Eventually someone decided to make money from this phenomenon and they started taking people out to see the stingrays. They would feed them and give chunks of squid to the tourists so they could feed them, too. The first time we came here with our family, everyone was given chunks of food if they wanted it.

Over the years, Guy Harvey and others became concerned with the number of visitors to see the stingrays. The rays seemed to be stressed by large numbers of people and their numbers were diminishing. By explaining to the government how valuable each and every ray was to tourism, using dollar values, they convinced the government to make new regulations regarding excursions to the sandbar. They also passed laws to protect the stingrays, eagle rays and manta rays in Cayman’s waters. http://www.guyharvey.com/stingrays-guy-harvey/

The best way to see the stingrays is probably to take a private charter or use a local operator when it’s not a cruise ship day. On our last trip, with four friends visiting, I tried to set up a private charter for six of us. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. I had three different companies giving me quotes. Our friends were arriving Saturday and we’d go out Sunday when no ships were in port. Wednesday came and I attempted to call the first charter company to confirm. I reached their voice mail and left a message. I also sent another email. Thursday, after leaving two voice mail messages, I had no reply. I called the second operator. Their voice mailbox was full. I kept trying both numbers until Saturday. The third operator never even got back to me to acknowledge my query. Things were not looking good for the private charter on Sunday.

Eventually, I decided to book with Red Sail on their “Breakfast with the Rays” trip. They leave early in the morning and provide a lovely, fresh breakfast buffet on the way to the sandbar. They have always been very good with their pre-snorkel instructions, and their crew have the utmost regard and respect for the marine park, the reef, and the stingrays. We were in the water with the rays before anyone else arrived. We had at least an hour to spend there before it started to get busy with other boats.

A couple of our friends were a little nervous at first. The stingrays were much larger than they imagined, and they swam around, brushing against our legs. The new regulations mean that we don’t feed the rays anymore, which is fine with me as I never felt inclined to feed them. Our captain was particularly good with the rays and even seemed to have a special relationship with one long time visitor(of the stingray variety) named Sophie. He recognized her by her markings. Eventually, our friends touched and held the rays and many photos were taken!

Our second stop was the barrier reef. It was a little rough, but it’s very beautiful, without the damage one sees on the reefs closer to shore. By the time we finished here and headed back into Safe Haven, the cruise ship excursions were starting to arrive at the sandbar.

I will try to book a private excursion again if I have a large group of visitors. However, I would go out with Red Sail again in a heartbeat. I think they’ve been the operator on every one of my five visits, over twelve years, and the experience only gets better each time.

I suggest you check out some of the photos on the internet:https://www.google.com/search?q=stingray+city+photos+grand+cayman&rlz=1C1CHWA_enUS632US632&espv=2&biw=1247&bih=626&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjln9SjxNHJAhXLBBoKHWqVBxgQsAQINA&dpr=1 

This is a fun, family friendly activity that you can’t do just anywhere. Still, I still get a bigger thrill from seeing a stingray on a random dive or snorkel. To me, it’s the same joy I get from seeing a turtle or a shark.

 

Destroying Paradise, one reef at a time

I always thought that the long term Cayman tourism plan was to entertain the cruise ship guests for a day, but to convince them with our hospitality and services, to return for longer stays. Divers return here over and over for the amazing reefs. The Cayman Magic Reef Recovery project alone is bringing together divers who want to help restore a reef damaged by a cruise ship’s anchor.(https://caymannewsservice.com/2015/03/cruise-line-coughs-up-100k-for-reef-damage/  ) Anyone we know who has arrived here on a cruise has been impressed with the crystal clear Caribbean blue sea.

We often recommend Eden Rock as a really great place to snorkel, and the Devil’s Grotto and Eden Rock dive is very popular. If I had a dive buddy I’d be so ready to try it out. Instead, I snorkel there whenever I can. In fact, we try to combine that with a Saturday in George Town: National Museum, lunch at the Paradise Grill, snorkel Eden Rock.

Imagine my horror at the idea of attempting to “move the reef” to accommodate a huge pier for cruise ships.

http://www.compasscayman.com/caycompass/2015/06/08/Reefs-could-be-relocated-to-make-way-for-cruise-pier/

There are some suggestions to build the dock elsewhere on the island, such as West Bay. Are you kidding? The reef  that we look out on in West Bay is a very popular spot for dive boats! The reef surrounds the island and any pier built in West Bay would only increase the traffic into George Town. The shops in George Town are probably where the majority of cruisers want to be, or at least where the powers that be want them to be. Honestly, as someone who has been on a cruise ship, the last place I want to be in a new port is in the duty free shops and stores that look like they could be anywhere. I want to experience what little I can of the culture for the limited time I have, but to each his own. I’ve seen evidence of that when I find myself accidentally in town on a cruise ship day.

I get that it’s time consuming and unpleasant to have to tender into port from the cruise ship. How many cruise ship passengers, if they knew of the damage it would cause to the reef, would still ask for the docks to be built to do away with the tenders? Okay, maybe I don’t want to know the answer.

I was a little relieved today to read that The Cayman Compass has not yet endorsed the plan.

http://www.compasscayman.com/caycompass/2015/06/10/Cruise-berthing–Pros-and-cons-begin-to-crystallize/

There are  arguments on both sides, but with no guarantees from the cruise lines that there will be more ships coming, why not invest in the overnight tourist trade? Why not invest in preserving what we have?

One thing I know for sure is that we’ll be going to Eden Rock to snorkel as often as we can, while we still can!

 

 

 

Planes, planes and automobiles

I’ve  just returned from a short visit to our families in Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC.  I have been in six different airports in six cities in under two weeks. I’ve been through security seven separate times. Yes, security! Seven times! Is it any wonder I am randomly selected for special screening so often? I expect it now. It’s no longer enough to pack so that my hair clips or keys don’t resemble a knife on the x-ray image. It doesn’t matter that my miniature toiletries are carefully placed in the appropriate sized clear zipper bag, or that I remove every piece of metal, wearing jeans that stay up without a belt. What I do doesn’t really matter when that “random” signal goes.

It’s not easy to get to my island, unless you live in the Centre of the Universe, or Toronto, to you non-Canadians.  There are both West jet and Air Canada flights from Toronto to Grand Cayman. To reach these morning flights from almost anywhere in Western Canada, an overnight flight is required.

After my overnight flight from Calgary, which arrived at 5:40 AM, I  waited in the chilly boarding area, surrounded by other red-eyed travelers from Vancouver, Edmonton, and possibly Winnipeg. Sometimes the seating area fills up just before the first boarding call, everyone fresh from their good night sleep in their Toronto beds. This time I wasn’t the only one that had been waiting since 6:30 or 7 AM for the 9:30 flight, so I didn’t feel quite the same resentment towards my fellow travelers.

The red-eye flight to Toronto is always full, and cold. For some, this makes sleep impossible. I have no trouble falling asleep. It’s the waking up every half hour with my head in awkward positions that gives me problems. Still, I continue to travel through Toronto,  because it means only one stop,  and no customs and immigration until I get home.

I went  to Canada through Houston. That meant that I had to clear customs in Houston, stay at a hotel overnight, re-enter security, fly to Calgary,clear Canada customs and re-enter security for the flight to Victoria.  In order to see family, I flew from Victoria to Saskatoon via Calgary, and later from Saskatoon to Calgary. I am still working on finding the best connection to allow the least disruption to my sleep and the fewest trips through security. I haven’t found it yet.

When I arrived home in Grand Cayman (and it still gives me a little thrill to say that!) I had to find our car, which my husband had parked in long term parking a week earlier. Did I mention that we seldom travel on the same itinerary but our trips usually overlap? He left for Canada a week after I did and would be coming home a week later.

Yes, it’s our car, but I had never seen it, and it was in the short term parking instead of the long term lot. The same day I left for Canada, my husband took the car that had major transmission problems and traded it. I had the key for the new car and a little ticket that said the car was parked in the short term lot because the long term lot was full. I stood in line with the people waiting for taxis, paid the attendant there for parking and waited for a different lady to bring change. I took my change and a receipt to show the parking attendant. I proceeded to the parking lot with my large roller bag and my small roller bag and my receipt.

One look and I recognized the car I’d never met before, my Amigo! It looks so much like the old Amiga, but without the transmission problems. My roller bags both fit in the trunk.  I only needed to wave my receipt at the parking attendant to release the gate and I was on my way home.

I felt like such a local as I turned right out of the parking lot instead of left, and made my way home through the almost non-existent Sunday traffic. If you’re new to the island, or staying on the South side or Eastern districts, it’s probably best to follow the signs. If you’re hungry, go right and stop at the George Town Yacht Club, which is what I should have done!

I have found as I get older that the overnight flights are taking their toll. I feel like I have jet lag when there is only a one hour time difference. On the other hand, it was nice to arrive home in the early afternoon and have time for a swim and a nap. My last meal was my 6 AM breakfast at the Toronto airport, so before the swim I needed a snack.

I bought my favourite Alberta cheese to bring home with me. Yes, this extra aged Gouda has even won gold medals at national competitions. I was going to test the regulations and see if Customs would let me bring it in. Unfortunately, I forgot the cheese in the fridge at my family’s house: the low sodium household.It’s not low in sodium.

Oh, did I mention that it was Sunday? Our stores are closed on Sundays in Cayman. The flight from Toronto is almost always on a Sunday. I arrive home sleep deprived and hungry. What I wouldn’t do to have my Alberta cheese right now. I found apples and a squash in the fridge, which I suppose was a healthy complement to the eggs Benedict I had for breakfast.

Still, I am very happy to be home. That was a week ago. A week later, I was very happy my husband  was on his way home, following the same  itinerary, He took a red eye flight to Toronto, where it was cold and raining, just as it was when I was there. He also ate an unhealthy breakfast. He would be arriving soon! There are some differences, though.

When he arrived, I’d be there waiting for him. I would drive him  in our newly serviced car to a home well stocked with food, including fresh local mangoes. He would be so happy to be home, and if I was lucky, he’d have my cheese.