Posts Tagged With: culture

Tortugas, Tacos and Total Bliss

We recently escaped from the dreary rain of Victoria to the brilliant sun of Mexico – namely to the Yucatan. Not only did we get some serious sun and sand, we had a few other surprises come our way, which tends to happen on our trips. It might be a simple language barrier, a missed turn, or getting locked out of the villa the first night… whatever the case, the unfamiliar and unexpected is exactly the reason I love to travel.

And travel we did. After 12 hours of assorted trains, planes and automobiles and a stop at the Mega in Playa del Carmen for groceries, we finally made it to our sweet, sweet condo overlooking Half-Moon Bay in Akumal Norte (about an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Cancun). Akumal translates to ‘place of the turtles’ in the Mayan language. Seems fitting, given the amount of tortugas we saw (but did not touch, because we didn’t really want to get arrested – or lose a finger). Of course, it was pretty much dark when we arrived at the condo, so we could scarcely make out what awaited us view-wise. But the next morning we woke up to luminescent turquoise water and sweeping views of a curving bay, giving way to a brilliant, glaring white shore. Yep, it’s what we signed up for.

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Urchinville, USA
Warning! This relatively calm, beautiful bay is not as tranquil as it seems. Take the first day we step into the water, clad in our reef shoes, essential for the rocky terrain. Fortunately, most of the time the water is quite clear so you can spot where the spiny black sea urchins are. Until you don’t, and you step on one. Case in point: Cam. We’re in the water no more than 15 minutes, when he simply brushes by one and howls with pain. Losing his balance with the shock of it, he almost falls ass-over-tea-kettle in a whole big patch of ’em. I look at the injury and see it’s just a little blue spot, kind of like an ink stain, near his ankle. But it was enough to become a running joke of sorts from then on.

Losing Keys on Day Three
You’ll notice that a lot of the glitches that happen on our vacations are courtesy of my (most excellent) travel partner. Me? I just go with the flow. Anyway, this particular incident is no exception. After the traumatizing urchin episode on Day Two, we decide to brave the waters once again, this time for some snorkelling. Despite minor annoyances, such as his mask filling with water every five seconds (turns out it was because he hadn’t shaved – don’t ask), and the snorkel bag riding up his back (we had to take it to store said reef shoes, because we didn’t want to step on more urchins…), Cam trudged on like the true trooper he is.

All is well until we surface after some pretty decent snorkelling to get our surroundings. Cam grabs the sealed valuables case – that annoyingly kept riding up the cord around his neck and whacking him in the face – which stored our condo keys. As he does, the latch flips open, revealing – nothing. To this day, we’re still not sure whether the keys fell out at that moment or while we were swimming. It doesn’t matter – they’re gone. After searching the area to no avail, I helpfully offer, “Oh well, we’ll just get another set of keys.” Cam counters with, “That’s great, but one of the keys just happens to be the safe key.” Let’s just say that images of spending the rest of our stay waiting for someone to come and drill the safe open motivated me to seek help – fast.

(When I asked Hector, one of the resident concierges, for another safe key, he asked, “Where did you lose them?” To which I replied, “At the bottom of the ocean.” He shook his head and silently handed me another key. I’d rather not guess as to what he was thinking.)

What Time is it, Akumal?
You may recognize this title to an older blog post of mine from Sayulita, back in ’12. Technically, we knew that Cancun was two hours ahead, which means Akumal would be the same, being just down the coast. Well, technically yes, but not when we got there. Our many digital devices told us that the local time was only one hour ahead. Temporarily confused, we manually change said devices to two hours forward. Then, through a series of confusing two-hours-ahead-and-one-hour-back-incidents (including my iPhone waking me up at what it thought was 7 am, but it was actually 6 am and pitch-black), we took a time risk and made a reservation at a local fancy place on the beach for 6:30 pm. We arrived for dinner at what we thought was 6:30. The waiter greeted us and then nervously explained that it is actually 7:30. I was so unconvinced (and embarrassed) about this that he had to help us change the iPhone setting. Doh!

The full moon in full view by 7:30 pm.
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Emergency Cashola in Chemuyil
The great thing about Mexicans is they are incredibly helpful. Yes, I know I am speaking from a tourist perspective, but I think it’s an inherent trait. Case in point: we’re in Akumal Playa (the beach ‘town’ – a few kms from where we were staying), when we discover it’s time to replenish the peso supply. Yet all ATMs in Akumal are closed. We’re talking about five of them. Closed. No service. We ask another one of our condo concierges named Alfredo – ‘Freddie’ for short – what to do. He tells us there’s an ATM close by in a teeny town called Chemuyil that we could go to. He asks us if we have a car. We say no. “Take mine!” he exclaims, reaching in his pocket for the keys. We contemplate this for a moment, and after he gives us painstaking directions of the take the first left at the halfway tree, then follow the road until you get to the scarecrow at the Anderson farm variety – we say no. Instead, we ask “Can you take us?” Freddie nods, closes his notebook and says “Let’s go right now!” So off we go, do a few loop-de-loops to the highway, zoom past several Pemex’s, and then finally pull up at a dusty, worn grocery off some random side street, complete with ATM. And it was open. Now that’s helpful.

Adios, Akumal
We had pretty much the perfect last day in Akumal. We went back to Akumal bay, where it was slightly less crowded (the first time was over Easter weekend – you can just imagine in a Catholic country). We swam past yet more tortugas to the small and largely unvisited reef. We bobbed under the ropes and discovered a bounty of fish: schools, angels, parrots, whistling needlefish (well it looks like they are), brightly coloured sea fans and huge coral heads. Add that to our turtles (complete with clingy remoras, as pictured on header of this post) and a rare stingray sighting, and we were sufficiently suffonsified.

Two hours later, we lunched at one of our fave places – aptly named Turtle Bay Bakery – where I had the BEST blackened fish tacos EVER. The day gets better: as we head back to the Akumal Norte area on our rusty yet trusty bikes, we discover that the tiny, hole-in-the-wall eatery we’ve been wanting to try but is never open, is actually open! In true carpe diem style, we order dinner for six hours in the future (to which we later bike back to pick up, natch).

Shar with Ol’Rust Bucket – literally. Note the painting of the local fauna imbibing in refreshments of the Mexican beach kind.IMG_2225
Once back at the complex, we received more good news. Hector informed us that someone found our keys, washed ashore four days after we lost them, at the complex next door. They figured the plastic ID tag kept them afloat. We were amazed, and Cam was (rightly) relieved. We left Akumal the next day with a clear conscience and a couple of Sols to refresh our sun-drenched souls.

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– S

Stay tuned for more funnage in Part 2 of our Mex vacay: Island of the Women.

Categories: Beach, Dining, Mexico, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Those Who Find You: A Tribute

Ah, Christmastime. Although we were in Bali well before Christmas, there were signs of it popping up here and there: a fake tree in the local Hardy’s Supermarket/Mall, a smattering of wreaths and lights adorning stalls. At the (many) airports heading home, trees and baubles surrounded every shop entrance. Flying into our home airport was a bit surreal – Canadians take this North Pole stuff seriously.

When we finally turned into our own little dead-end street, we saw that it had exploded with lights (we had some work to do to catch up). It was a bit weird; so familiar but we weren’t quite ready to embrace it. Yes, we knew it was coming, but when you’re frolicking around in a land of blazing sun and sand, you really don’t think much about it.

So I can’t say I’m deep into the Christmas spirit this year. That said, I do know what I am thankful for: families of all varieties.

There’s no question that I’m grateful for the family I was born into – as wacky as it is. I love them very much and appreciated every day I have with them, but here I’m referring the Balinese family we’ve adopted (or perhaps more correctly, they’ve adopted us).

We’ve been to Bali quite a few times now (five for me; six for Cam), and when you go back to the same place enough times, you’re bound to make connections – wherever you’re from, whomever you are.

Tandjung Sari at twilight. Just go.

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I’ve mentioned before how welcoming the Balinese are – and the Wawo-Runtu family, who founded and still run the sublime Tandjung Sari hotel on an amazing property in Sanur – is no exception. They’re a large bunch – a blended family extraordinare. (We kid them about being a Balinese Brady Bunch.) They’ve all received us with genuine curiosity, open arms, and two or three kisses on the cheek. This reception is a big part of the reason we keep coming back.

Yes, Bali is our home away from home, the place we think about often and fantasize about in the cold, dark, rainy days of a Canadian winter. We crave its colourful, mystifying chaos. It’s where we become accustomed to sweating constantly, needing three showers a day, and epic humidity.

After a breath of frangipani and incense, feeling the sun on my face, hearing the constant swish-shish of sweeping, the ‘ting’ of a bike bell along the boardwalk, stepping over the ubiquitous sidewalk offerings, almost bumping into mini-shrines and dodging stray dogs and cats – it’s like coming home. Actually, that is the coming home.

Here are two people who have made it so for us.

Me and Avi, with duelling cameras.

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Avi is general manager of Tandjung Sari; he’s the first person from the family that we met. He’s married to Wita, who’s father, Wija Wawo-Runtu, started the hotel. They are our age, and from there the similarities are endless (such as Cam and Wita having a birthday within one day of each other).

Me between two Sagittarians: pre-birthday dinner drinks at the fancy Legian on Seminyak Beach.

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Apparently we’re not the only ones who wish we were back there; as much of their job involves entertaining guests, both Avi & Wita relish the chance to hang out with people more ‘their age’. Our relationship with these guys has grown since the beginning; each time we go back we learn new things about ourselves, share funny family stories, indulge in our love for good food and even better company – such as good friends do.

Cam & Wita, toasting to their birthdays. Yes, Cam’s drink is wrapped in a bag.

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Cam & Avi: two great minds (and they have fun haggling over the bill)!

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Me & Wita goofing around at TS.

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I have fond memories of Wita coming down to join us every twilight at our bungalow’s porch for a couple of drinks when Avi was working late: the two of us shrieking as we dodged swooping bats; playing Bowie on the stereo; listening to Wita’s tales of living abroad and her brushes with famous people.

And then there’s us tucking into an enormous plate of kambing kare nasi goreng (lamb curry), homemade dinners at Tatie’s (Wita’s mom) or parties at one of her half-sister’s breathtaking open-air pavilion-style houses. And jazz on the beach, where Avi had the kitchen and the outdoor barbecue time our dinners perfectly. The time when Wita had extra bottles of water delivered to our bungalow when I was sick. It’s both of them going out of their way to make our stay as comfortable, happy and special as possible. Well, like family.

A Balinese tree ornament.

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For me, this Christmas is not about presents, or lights, or the big turkey dinner. It’s about family; it’s about remembering and appreciating your loved ones. There’s no denying the spirit of family this time of year brings, be it good or bad. For us – both near and abroad – it’s good.

Time to say goodbye – we’re smiling through our tears.

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Here’s to second families… ’til we meet again.

– S

Categories: Adventure, Bali, Beach, Dining, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Colours of Sayulita

So, this is our fifth visit to Sayulita, and I’ve managed to blog about it pretty much every trip. If not, I’ve taken the liberty to borrow from past treks; call it creative license. Anyway, since I’ve written so much about Sayulita already, I can’t very well stop now, can I?

Given the latter statement, you might be thinking, what on earth can she say about Sayulita that she hasn’t covered before? I feel you, but I’ve got a new angle: this time, it’s about a vibrancy of colour – something that Sayulita has in abundance.

This is the deal: every time I go to Mexico, I am amazed with the range of colours – such a change from the winter greys, browns and greens where I hail from. There’s so much variety, so much liveliness, if you will, that my eyes almost ache with the assault of it. Sayulita is no different. Yes, it has the typical greens and blues, but add to that add the shock of tan/white sand, contrasted by bright pink, purple and orange flowers, frangipani, and terra cotta stone, set off by absurdly-bright colours of nearby casas.

Take our beloved Casa Mariluna, for instance. Of course the azure sky is there to help.

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Then there’s the palm-tree pink at sunset.

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We were up really early one morning – the moon actually woke us up because it was so bright. Here’s a shot from the top floor bathroom turret (pictured above). Yes, that’s the moon… not the sun.

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The blue morning ocean, in soothing shadows.

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And then there’s the we-bought-tag-end-paint-on-sale hotel in Sayulita’s town square.

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And of course, the Golden Hour – twilight, my favourite time. Check out the Rasta pouring out his beer.

Sayulita at twilight.

One morning we decided to go on a hilltop hike to check out an incredible view of Sayulita proper. This here is the colour of sweat (and yes, I’m still learning the art of the selfie). Ok, it was probably 31 degrees celsius at 9:30 am – best I could do under the circumstances.

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Shot of Sayulita’s south end from our high vantage point.

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After admiring the view, we carefully zigged and zagged down through the high neighbourhood streets, full of casas of all colours, shapes and sizes. The classic white framed by pink rhodo-type bush seems to be a popular choice down south.

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And, naturally, yellow – evoking that sunlight-and-goodness feeling pursued with a sort of madness by us Northerners.

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I’ve been asked where I get my creative inspiration from. That’s a hard one. While there’s lots of colourful man-made architecture – which Mexico embraces to no end – there’s nothing that moves me more than seeing the true colours of nature. Maybe because it’s not forced; it’s just there in all its majesty.

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And its beauty is unrivaled.

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– S

Categories: Beach, Mexico, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Mowie

OK, so apparently an update is desperately needed – all the people I haven’t talked to since we returned from Maui think that it rained the whole time we were there! Definitely not the case, as a day after my first post, the sun came out and Maui shined. Oh, how it shined.

Now, I can’t really remember the sequence of events that happened after the rain stopped, but here are some pretty cool things. First, though, I do want to mention this little hidey-hole of a spot – actually it’s a van – that contains yes, probably the best fish tacos I’ve ever had (I know I’ve said that before, but this time it is really true). It’s worth the sometimes 45-minute wait at lunch.

Horhito’s – glamourously located next to a 76 gas station in Kihei (“Come Get Hooked!” is right – we went back a couple of times)

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After the severe tropical rain fest of the first couple of days, we resumed our regularly-scheduled program of sunshine and kisses. We were itching to get into the water and experience the amazing sea life Maui is so famous for. So off we went, fins and goggles in hand, to one of the most recommended snorkeling spots in Kihei. However, conditions were sketchy – the surf was way up. Nevertheless, we proceeded to enter the water backwards, only to get swept along by the tidal break, falling into the water and me ripping my knees on hidden (and very sharp) black lava rocks. Thankfully, I didn’t notice until we battled our way against the current, past the rocky point to Kam 2. After getting tossed back onto shore, we called it a day and set up camp on the beach, where I attended to my bloody cuts with bandages and settled in to soak up the sun. I got rewarded with a burn, and an attractive X on my knee. I do realize this looks like something out of a medical journal.

Can you spot the X?

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Since the main reason we traveled to Maui was to attend our friend’s wedding, we figured we should go and check it out. Whales breached in front of the Molokini crater as about 30 of us witnessed a traditional Hawaiian ceremony.

A gorgeous morning at Makena beach

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By noon, we were at our fave beach in Wailea with a couple of beverages and the latest Reacher novel. With (yet more) whales breaching in the distance for entertainment, it so did not suck.

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As we were staying in a residential area in south Kihei, we developed the happy-hour habit of wandering around our ‘hood at sunset.

Um, yeah… that’s a pretty nice view.

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We did a day trip to another one of the airport beaches described here. Down a dodgy old road off the highway, we parked in a man-size pothole and made our way on foot to the beach through a billy-goat trail and past a beach creature napping on the grass (complete with mini dog and a trailer). We emerged from the bushes to find gorgeous silky sand, picture-postcard turquoise water (see top pic of this post), and of course more beach creatures, this time sans clothes. Oh, and this sign in the distance, which I did actually take as a ‘sign’, seeing it’s the name of our cat we left behind.

A tribute to you, Billie. (It’s a little weird, but definitely cool.)

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After quite a few snorkelling expeditions around the island, I despaired I would never see a green sea turtle – in the water. Sure enough, on our last attempt at Ulua beach, I bobbed to the surface at one point and asked Cam, “So where do you suppose the turtles hang out?” He shrugged and told me later that he was thinking: does she think I come from a long line of Turtleologists or something?!?. About three seconds later, he noticed another snorkeler gesticulating towards the water, stuck his head under and then quickly surfaced to say something like “Thrs turtloe umber view”. He pulled me under, pointing… and there was my famous Maui turtle! It swam along gracefully and we followed it for some time. It turned out to be a huge specimen, and almost fluorescent in appearance. I was ecstatic.

Ah, beaches, beaches. There are waaaayyyy too many on this lustrous island to hit just in a week. But we sure did our best. Mahalo, Maui.

aloha

– S

Categories: Adventure, Beach, Hawaii, Sunset, Travel, wedding | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

La Dolce Vita in Sayulita

So, I know I haven’t written in… well, ages. Seems I’ve used that line fairly recently, but that’s because I hadn’t really been anywhere.

That confessed, I’m happy to report that after five dreary months in the soggy, freezing climate that is Victoria (the rest of our beloved country has had it much worse, so I will stop complaining), we finally found the sun. It took us only 4,402 kilometres to get to it, but I’m not going to get wrapped up in data. The point is, we found our sun. And it was right here the whole time. In Sayulita.

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OK, that pic is not really the sun (which is doing its duty by scorching us daily – but I’m not complaining). It’s one of the many, many stunning art features of the rather amazing villa we rented in the north end of town – the quiet part of town. Admittedly, it’s a wee big for us, what with three bedrooms and four full bathrooms (including a pool bathroom – genius idea – noted for future palace). We tried our best to get friends to come and stay with us, but no one bit. Crazy people.

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I adore the design of this place: open air, simple and elegant. Did I mention it’s surrounded by water? Two water features, a pool, and the ocean just steps below.

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Enter the turret. It’s actually home of two of the bathrooms. Nothing like showering while peering out from domed windows.

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The pool shot. ‘Nuff said.

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And then…

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The other night we had a local chef come to our villa to cook us a traditional Mexican feast of homemade guacamole, mahi-mahi with a sesame seed crust and mango sauce, sautéed veggies, and fresh fruit garnished with coconut shavings for dessert. A lovely light dinner, perfect for these hot nights.

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Yesterday we went on a jungle walk to one of the many secluded beaches around Sayulita – three miles of sand… and us.

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We walked a little farther and spotted the residence of a former president of Mexico:

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Looking for graveyard quiet?

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Oh, Sayulita – how I missed you. It’s good to be back.

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– S

Categories: Beach, Dining, Glamorous, Mexico, Pool, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sanur: Home and Away

Well, it’s been a while now since we returned from our favourite place in the world (that would be Bali, for those of you not paying attention) – and let’s just say it’s a bit of an adjustment. But I don’t want to waste your precious reading time lamenting about being back in chilly Canada. This is a postcard about our home-away-from-home: sleepy Sanur.

After dusty, scorching Seminyak and the serene lushness of Ubud, we departed for the golden sands of the southeast coast. Sanur is where we first experienced the magic of Bali, where we discovered a peaceful bungalow-style hotel on the beach, where we made lifelong friends and are always treated like family. With fond memories in tow, we were anxious to get there and start creating new ones.

Once we turned off the main street (Danau Tramblingan) and into the Tandjung Sari driveway, I exhaled deeply. It’s hard to describe the feeling I get when I enter these grounds. It’s like I’ve closed the door on an all-too-busy, crazy, rushed world, retreating into a hidden paradise. The long, narrow, two-laned driveway is lined with palms in the middle and high hedges on either side, only hinting at the bungalows behind it. It’s as if I’ve entered a home in a village, going back into another quiet, simpler time. It’s a feeling of arriving at a place unlike anywhere I’ve been before; someplace safe, warm and welcoming.

As usual, we were greeted warmly by the staff in the receiving area: a huge, open-air pavilion that was once part of a Balinese royal house. Three ceremonial beats on a large gong announced our arrival, and we were given cold towels by a fresh-faced Balinese woman. Happily signing in, we started what was to be a two-week-long reunion with all our old friends and the Tandjung Sari family. Indeed, several times a day we were welcomed with a chorus of exclamations, handshaking, kissing on each cheek (often three times), and lots of Apa kabar (what’s the news?). To which we’d reply: baik, baik (very good – especially since we were there).

The Tandjung Sari beachfront at twilight.

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We had booked one of the new garden bungalows (they hadn’t built new ones since the ’90s, so this was pretty special). Bright and spacious, the bungalow boasted beautifully blue tiled floors depicting Balinese themes of animals and birds; industrial-strength air conditioning; a welcome bowl of island fruit adorned with frangipani; a separate room with wash area complete with skylights; and yes… the classic outdoor shower. This time we even got an outdoor bathtub – an essential tool for the cooling-down process, especially after scorching beach days, and yes, our dreaded morning runs along the boardwalk. (This we endeavoured – and succeeded – to do every morning, despite any late activities the night before. It was really the only sane time to do it – that is, if you didn’t want to faint of heat stroke while dodging bikes, scooters, sketchy gangs and, God forbid, the razor-sharp women hawkers who hang around outside the Circle K, just waiting for the next victim to drag down a crowded and confusing alley of shops.)

Outdoor bathtub – Cam’s favourite place to cool off while reading the latest Jack Reacher and sipping a cold Bir Bintang.

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Shortly after our arrival, I really began to relax. Translation: lots of spa treatments. Fresh fruit peel facial and rose petal face masks, a dual manicure and pedicure (to the tune of $15 Cdn – absurdly cheap compared to the $70 – before tax and tip – jobby I had at home).

And then there was the massage. Not just an ordinary one – it was a Javanese massage. Picture a 4-foot-ish Javanese ibu knocking on your bungalow door with just a sarong and some oil. You dress down to your skivvies, lie on your bed and proceed to get worked over by her magic fingers both back and front. Modesty goes out the window as she transforms your entire body into a lump of jelly and goodness. Her touch is utterly perfect: not too gentle that you can’t feel anything, but not too strong that it starts to get stressful. Perfect for us picky North Americans. Again, absurdly cheap: $20. For an hour and a half. ‘Nuff said.

Then there was the fresh fruit every morning at breakfast: pineapple, papaya, watermelon, even passionfruit or banana juice if you so desired. Not to mention perfectly-baked buttermilk biscuits and Tandjung Sari’s famous croissants: fresh from the oven, with a rewarding puff of steam when you break one open. Everyone swears they are better than what you find in Paris, and we can’t disagree.

Shar on bike along Sanur’s beach boardwalk.

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Our resident family of ginger kucings.

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Our third and last week in Bali – what we referred to as our “bonus week” – was spent pretty much planted on the beach, where our biggest decision of the day (aside from what to have for lunch or dinner), was if we should go for a swim in the pool or float on our backs in the 27 degree Indian Ocean.

However, we did manage a day trip to east Bali – to a series of pretty, small fishing villages lining the coast and stemming south from the town of Amed – satisfied our snorkelling urge. The quality was outstanding, with the best part not having to rent a boat to get to the reef. All we did was park on the road, cut through the grounds of an obscure homestay on the beach, step out onto the black sand and put our flippers in the water. A push off the rock and we were transported to a world of angel and Nemo fish, bright blue coral, sea turtles and eels. We let the current take us deeper into the relatively garbage-free water (a treat compared to, say, what we experienced in Nusa Dua) – swimming through warm, cool, and then almost too hot patches – down to a sunken Japanese shipwreck (there are doubts about its provenance, but it was cool nonetheless). We emerged two hours later, and with salt water crust in our hair and cracked lips, rinsed off underneath a rustic communal shower before wolfing down our picnic lunch. Hours later I felt the ill-effects of the classic too-long-in-the-water-without-protection nasty burn, but it was sooooo worth it.

A young woman dances the traditional Balinese legong

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After the ‘cool’ mountain air of Ubud (28 degrees as opposed to 32 – it makes a difference, believe me) we were once again cozily-wrapped in the hot and humid, even with the ocean breeze. But the warmth of the island doesn’t just come from the elements. It’s in the people, too: their gentle and welcoming nature, their stunning smiles, their genuine interest. During our time in Sanur, a series of invites ensued: drink gatherings, birthday outings (including Cam’s), legong dance performances, art exhibitions, dinners at our friend’s house… so much that we barely had a night to ourselves during our whole two-week stay.

But that’s what I love so much about the Balinese: they are eager to include you and have you take part in their customs (and to practice their English while they’re at it). Just take the wedding we went to in Ubud. It’s just what they do, who they are. And that’s what keeps us coming back.

The full moon and me.

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– S

Categories: Adventure, Bali, Beach, Dining, Glamorous, Pool, Shopping, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ubud: Serenity Now

Tucked into the Balinese highlands, in the midst of long and lush flora, gently-flowing rivers, and cooling skies, lies Ubud, Bali’s cultural capital. On previous trips to Bali, we’ve only gone to Ubud on day trips perusing silver, batik and wood carving shops while baking in the afternoon heat, stopping to have a kopi es (iced coffee) until we’d gathered enough energy to venture out again. We’d have a grand old time at the monkey forest, or partake in a popular locals’ pastime, such as dining at Ibu Oka’s (for more detail on that, check out one of my previous posts: The Freaky, The Fresh, and the Fabulous).

But listening to other travellers describe how peaceful, even magical, it is to actually stay in and around Ubud made us think differently for this trip. There were stories of incredibly private villas with glorious pools set in the middle of lush rice fields, with a myriad of spa resorts and retreats steps away, where you could rejuvenate, meditate and no-doubt exfoliate yourself to a temporary Nirvana. Many people swear Ubud is the ‘real’ Bali, so we thought we’d give it a try.

We arrived via transport from Seminyak, about an hour away. Our destination was a villa in the outskirts of Ubud proper, in an area called Penestanan. Once our driver figured out how to find our rather elusive and hidden villa, it was crazy to think we could actually have missed it. I took one look at the entrance’s 100 or so steep (and I mean steep) stone stairs and said to Cam, “How are we going to get our suitcases up there?” He pointed to the two frail-looking Balinese women who greeted us on the street and said, “That’s how.” OK – I had to see this.

Without hesitation, each woman took a 50-pound suitcase of ours and placed them ever so gently on their heads. And up the stairs they went. And up. And up some more. By the halfway point, I was panting from just carrying my beach bag. Watching these women, I was respectfully humbled. Who needs bootcamp, anyway?

Pic of our entrance stairs sans incredibly strong ladies (but an equally capable Cam).

The villa is called Rumah Cinta, which translates to the house made out of love. It was humongous – built to contain at least a couple of families. In fact, they closed off half of the house so the two of us occupied the newer half.  The place had all the right things: a large pool and an open-air, stone-built shower (the greatest thing EVER) for starters. It was simply an awe-inspiring place, somehow mystic, comprised of beautiful traditional Balinese architecture as shown in the pic below, which just happened to be above an alcove in our gardens:

(There were so many large and small touches like this that every day we seemed to discover a new gem or another – including many shrines on the property, which received daily offerings.)

Shortly after we settled in, it started raining unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard. Not the typical long, misty, all-day affairs we get at home. No, it was one of those tropical rainstorms that give little warning and a lot of result: big, hard drops that render you completely drenched almost immediately, umbrella or no.

Our timing was spectacular: getting caught right in the middle as we were walking back from the supermarket. It was so ridiculously loud and intense that we  laughed most of the way… until the aforementioned 100 steps, where we slopped and slipped as we juggled bags and umbrellas all the way up. Despite this, it was a lovely respite from the from dusty, scorching streets of Seminyak. Once somewhat dry, we tucked in for a night of watching the rain from our balcony, relaxing, reading, and drinking Bali Hai beer. We finally succumbed to a long, deep sleep to the tune of a VERY loud singer – what we originally thought was a frog and then later learned it was actually a large gecko – and dreamt of green phosphorescent fireflies (which we really did see – very cool).

View of our villa grounds from the master bedroom balcony during a rainstorm.

We woke up early that first morning and breakfasted at Ibu Putu’s warung, a local’s restaurant just down the path. Ketut, the man whose family manages the villa, met us there to help us prepare for our first-ever Balinese wedding. He had invited us to his brother-in-law’s wedding about five minutes after we arrived. Although we were initially taken somewhat aback, we quickly learned that it’s considered a bit sophisticated to have foreigners at your wedding, especially as we were in the (relative) Balinese sticks. Whatever the case, we were only too happy to oblige to attend as very pale ornaments. Ketut dressed us in layers of fancy sarongs and sashes – required for entering holy sites and temples – and off we went with another couple hailing from – weirdly enough – Edmonton, Alberta.

Ketut led the way through the village, and once at the family compound, we were greeted warmly by the betrothed couple, who then promptly disappeared to adorn themselves in elaborate dress and makeup.

Then we proceeded to wait. And wait. Two hours, many cups of sweet tea, spicy satay, rambutan (a favourite of Cam’s) and several suspicious-looking jellies later, the young couple emerged, snapping us both out of our near-comatose state. The bride and groom then led a procession through the streets to her family’s home for more visiting and eating. As the actual ceremony was not for another several hours, we decided to bow out at that point.

Me with the bride and groom: Koming and Wayan. I’m the one in the middle.

Since we were only in Ubud for three nights, we decided to do yet another thing we hadn’t done before: walk through the Ubud countryside (translation: vast rice fields). While attempting to follow a route suggested in one of our guidebooks (the directions left a bit to be desired), we made a few wrong turns, one in particular that set off a neighbourhood dog in a fit of snarling barks, chasing us back up the slope (much to its owner’s delight).

The trek took about three hours, during which we sighted rice field after rice field, flooding, harvesting, a river gorge and an intricate irrigation system, scarecrows comprised of a combination of stalks, metal and garbage, and miniature shrines. Finally the crooked stone and dirt path spit us out, sweaty, hot and dirty, about 1000 metres from where we were staying. Very convenient.

An old ibu works the fields.
A flooded rice field before harvest.

Although you can pretty much get anything you need in Ubud – massages, manicures, health retreats, yoga studios, sweet organic cuisine – really, there is no need. The place itself is enough – serene and beautiful in its nature alone. It envelopes and captures you with its beauty and raw nature. (Not to mention you could hide out in a warung/homestay and pretty much disappear altogether for months on the cheap.)

I can’t really articulate properly how I felt in Ubud. Some people may describe it as a spiritual connection. Others would say my aura agreed with it, or some other such nonsense. All I know is I felt quiet. I could just clamber up to our rooftop terrace (where the feature photo of this post was taken) and stare into the surroundings all day. Just watch life go by. I felt like I didn’t need to talk, or even think all the time. I felt serene. Or maybe I found something there I haven’t found anywhere else: peace.

Then again, it might have been the Bali Hai – pun intended.
– S
Categories: Adventure, Bali, Dining, Pool, Travel, wedding | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Postcard from Seminyak

Sooooo… it’s been more than a week since we first arrived on the sweet, sweet island of Bali, in the Hindu heart of the Indonesian archipelago. As incredibly long as the flights were (about 21 hours of total travel), we ‘toughed’ it out as best we could in our first-class pods. Rather than reiterating the fabulousness of traveling first class on Cathay Pacific, I’ll direct you to my 2010 Bali trip post.

We arrived in the crowded, hot and vaguely smelly Denpasar airport unperturbed, because after several trips to Bali, we know the drill. We arranged for immigration Fast Track service, and sure enough our paid ‘facilitator’ was waiting for us with a sign as we got off the escalator.

As our new friend disappeared with our passports, we eyed up the long and winding customs queue from the other side and couldn’t help but sigh with some relief that we had skipped over all of that. Of course, it’s always a little scary handing your passport over to a relative stranger, but this service is definitely worth it. Six mysterious minutes later our man emerged with our stamped passports and tourist cards for the return trip all tucked inside. Sweet developing world goodness.

Newsflash: it’s bloody hot when you’re in close proximity to the equator. Here, it’s 32 celsius with 100% humidity pretty much every day at this time of year. Constant sweating and at least two showers a day is the norm. This goes on well into the evening – it’s basically shorts and tanks ’round the clock. After a couple of days, we seriously can’t even remember what it’s like to be cold. Mind you, according to the weather reports from home, it’s the usual 24/7 November rain and wind festival, so I’m definitely not complaining – we’ll be re-joining the rest of our grumbling paisanos soon enough.

Our Seminyak villa: where all that is good and warm can be found. (And also many, many mosquitos.)

Our previous visits to Seminyak were done by day trip from sleepy Sanur (AKA Snore) on the east side of the island, our usual home base. This time, however, we rented a villa off Jalan Laksmana, the main road, sometimes called “Eat Street”. The idea was to hit some of our favourite haunts and actually log some beach time.

A Balinese cremation ceremony on Seminyak beach – note the duck trying to escape.

It’s become a bit of a tradition for us to hit Ku De Ta at least once a trip for sunset drinks and epic people-watching, and this trip was no different. It was a beautiful night, definitely sunset-worthy, and after scoring a sweet spot overlooking the beach, we settled in for lychee martinis, mojitos and lobster dumplings.

It was all moonbeams and kitten bums until I was returning from the washroom in high heels, misplaced a step, and did a spectacular face plant right in front of picture-snapping dinner patrons (I distinctly remember a flash or two as this was happening). The frustrating thing was I hadn’t even had that much to drink!

I returned to my seat with a wobbly chin and tears in my eyes, smarting from a temporary nose-dive (literally) to the ol’ self-confidence. Cam brought me around by pointing out the ridiculousness of the situation and soon had me laughing again. Everyone’s been there, in one form or another. Mine just happened to be on camera where every poseur in Bali happens to show up.

Hawkers on Seminyak beach.

On another night on the town, at another putatively super-cool Bali hangout (that shall go unnamed here), we happened to spot a big, furry rodent friend while sipping martinis and – unfortunately – waiting for our appetizer. I heard some scuffling, but Cam saw the whole thing, complete with rat jumping from the top of the bar (yes!) to the ground before zipping away. Our appetizer arrived shortly after that, and we promptly crossed the place off our list. Forever.

On the flip side, if you’re in Seminyak, go to Chandi. Just. Go. Are you there yet?

Let’s bottom-line this: for some, Seminyak is a must-see, renowned for its brown/black sand beach stretching from Kuta to the south, great (but expensive) shopping, and incredible restaurants. I know what you’re thinking: Oh, that sounds just horrible! However, compared to much of Bali, Seminyak is dirty, dusty, crowded, noisy, and just generally waaay too busy for us. It’s kind of like a been there, done that sort of place. Once is enough, say us.

But if you’re looking for a more ‘real’ laid-back Bali experience, try a villa tucked into the rice fields in Ubud, or head for the quiet sands of Sanur. That thought leads to my next post: walking through rice fields, getting caught in torrential rains, being practically deafened by gecko calls, and attending a Balinese wedding. This is all from our private haven tucked up in the cool, serene Bali highlands.

Sun setting over Seminyak beach.

– S

Categories: Bali, Beach, Dining, Glamorous, Pool, Shopping, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Venice, Uncut

A Dream Realized
Several years ago, my ex and I decided to tour through Germany, Austria, Italy, the Riviera, Spain, and France. Not too surprisingly, one of the places I looked forward to seeing was Venice. Venezia was a place I had dreamed about since I was old enough to read a map (mainly my Dad’s dusty old Great World Atlas that lived beneath the coffee table).

Described as one of Europe’s most romantic places, Venice seemed a beautiful fantasy, a world all its own. This ‘Floating City’ was so opposite to the orderly, responsible, and generally planned culture I was brought up in, and I just had to go there and see it for myself. I wanted to experience the magic, the history – to finally see what all those books, maps, and movies had only hinted at.

After making our way from Innsbruck, through Trento and a stop in Verona, we decided to lodge in a very old, decrepit hotel in Mestre on Venice’s mainland. Accommodation was quite expensive in Venice proper, and besides, this hotel was right across the street from the train station with access to the famed 117 islands. Once we handed our passports over to the proprietor (an unsettling thing to get used to in Europe), we threw our bags down in our 100-square-foot room-with-a-bathroom-down-the-hall and made for the door.

I could hardly contain myself as the train slowly made its way out of the station. My nose was more or less pressed against the window for the duration of the trip. I marvelled at the fact that we were travelling in the middle of the ocean, only mere kilometres away from the mystical land I envisioned so many times.

As we neared our destination, I spotted what seemed like a concrete monstrosity in the distance. Indeed, it was the Piazzale Roma – Europe’s largest car park. This was where those on wheels park it for good when visiting the world’s only pedestrian city. How refreshing, coming from a culture of highways and nonstop traffic. I was instantly charmed.

Venice in Technicolor
As the train chugged to a stop, we clambered down the steps and out of the station … and into a fairy tale.

Venezia laid itself in front of me in all its perfect imperfection. The green lagoon. Gondolas, with their captains in black and white striped shirts and red scarves, navigating through the narrow canals. Houses huddled together on the edge of the water like old friends, bedecked in cheery greens, yellows, pinks and blues with potted flowers perched atop cast iron railings; ornate footbridges; the smell of the sea; people chattering away in Italian as if racing to the end of sentences; bargaining in the market.

It all came rushing at me at once, an overwhelming sensory extravaganza. I felt as though I had stepped back 400 years into the middle of a Shakespearean play. Tears involuntarily sprung to my eyes, blurring my vision. I realized I had been holding my breath. I had waited so long for this moment that I wanted to embrace it with everything I had.

And so went three amazing days in this fabled city. It really felt like a different universe. Every morning we would take the train from Mestre and arrive in Venezia, head straight to a tiny cafe crammed to the gills with locals on their way to work, all laughing and shouting at each other. Fighting our way to the counter, we would order cappuccino and stand around drinking and eating various mysterious pastries.

We made our way around the islands via vaporetti (water buses) to the Piazza San Marco and the famous Rialto Bridge. We dined by the canal lights, roamed around the narrow streets. We browsed the plethora of open-air markets, visited the Guggenheim museum; heck, we even splurged for a gondola ride (very expensive, and very short, but we had to do it). Then there were the churches – so many churches! And they weren’t just for praying – one even held a Vivaldi “Four Seasons” concert (complete with candles and unbelievable acoustics).

Nature Calls And The City
So all was good on the Italian front until one day, after a long time of walking, eating, and churching, I suddenly had to go to the washroom. One annoying thing about me (yes, just one) is that I tend to have to ‘go’, rather urgently, at the most inconvenient times. Like while wandering around the confusing alleyways and corridors of an unfamiliar place, for instance. Have you ever tried to find a public washroom in a place like Venice? Not an easy feat. Why couldn’t they have those convenient pop-up street loos like in Paris? (Actually, one of the worst washrooms I ever encountered was at a rest stop in rural France – toilet paper? Right. Stalls? I don’t think so. A seat? Try a hole in the ground.)

Anyway, after following some random signs portraying the universal pictograms for toilets, we eventually came upon a odd-looking old stone building (possibly a church). Perfect, I thought, any longer and I would’ve burst at the seams. I approached the building, and silly me, thought it would be free to enter. Uh-uh. Right at the entrance was a slot machine requiring coins, and then, only then, were you able to get through the turnstile – the type frequently seen at a subway station, or DIY stores like Canadian Tire. I searched frantically on my being for some lira. I had none. My bladder almost shrieked with complaint.

“Change! I need change!” I yelled at my poor unsuspecting partner as I ran back to where he was waiting. He too searched and came up short. (My bladder tried not to hear this.) “You’ll need to get some from one of the market vendors,” he so helpfully suggested. Great. Suddenly, in a city crammed full of open-air stalls, there wasn’t one in sight. We really were in the sticks.

A Turnip to the Rescue
Wasting no time, I attempted to manoeuvre back through the myriad corridors to civilization, turning right, right again, then a few lefts and another right before I came out into a piazza full of market stalls. I ran up to the nearest one and approached a man selling various kinds of produce. In a confusing mixture of English and Italian, I managed to get across that I needed change. Or maybe it was the fact that I was waving a lira banknote (this is before the euro made its way to Italy) in front of his face and shouting “change!” I knew I was being an ignorant tourist, but I really didn’t care at that point. The urgency to pee was getting in the way of my manners. The vendor communicated back in Italian and hand signals that I needed to buy something first. (OMG. My bladder was really, really trying not to hear this.)

I was in so much pain I couldn’t decide what to get. I wasn’t even sure what half of the things were. I tried to remember the Italian name for avocado. Or apple. Or pear. I couldn’t think of anything except having to pee. So I reverted to the pointing system, my hand involuntarily going to a turnip. “Ah-ha!” the man exclaimed, and spent a good time finding the right one for me. “Just that one!” I practically yelled, not caring, dancing from foot to foot. The vendor shot me a funny look, took my money and agonizingly counted out my change.

It was a small victory – I still had to make my way back to the toilets, wherever they were. I was painfully aware that if I couldn’t pee in the next, say two minutes, it would not be a pretty scene. Clutching my useless turnip, I ran along, longingly glancing at the dark corridors. I was painfully aware that they would’ve worked just fine had I been a man (and, judging by the smells, evidently had for many).

I blindly took a left, then a right, and miraculously found myself back at the decrepit old building that housed the loos. I deposited the change in the slot, practically jumped over the bars (I could have probably done that in the first place, but rules are rules), and crying with relief, made it in. My pride was still intact. Amazingly enough, so was that stupid turnip.

– S


Categories: Europe, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Paris: A Memorable Acquaintance

I’m writing this post in part because I don’t want you to think that I travel only to warm, sunny, tropical places. I actually do like a little culture every once in a while. So, let’s queue up Paris – in the spring, naturellement.

During the weeks preceding our trip to France, we were breathing, dreaming, and talking Paris. We would have two glorious weeks strolling along the Seine, tasting crisp champagne, gazing at the Eiffel Tower, sipping ridiculously expensive café crème, munching crêpes on the Pont des Arts… you get the idea. We couldn’t wait.

Paris street scene, complete with Tower

Anyway, to dream of traipsing around Paris is a fine thing; to get there can be a bit more trying. As it was, we were flying on air miles, so it wasn’t a direct flight from someplace close, like Vancouver. We had to go through Toronto, which is a 5-hour flight away. It’s a milk run, but it’ll be fine, we say. Uh, sure. Turns out getting to Toronto is fairly painless. But then the fun starts. Two hours before we’re due to take off, tornadoes start touching down around the city.

Again, this is Ontario, not Kansas. Of course, air traffic immediately comes to a standstill, and we’re subjected to nine hours of waiting at Pearson airport, the only entertainment a recording stating severe weather is in the area playing at 10-minute intervals. After such anticipation of our trip, it’s torturous. My expensive coffee-and-crêpe dreams begin to fade. And to top it off, we’re unable to contact the owner of the pied-à-terre we’re renting in le Marais. We try emailing from an extremely hokey computer kiosk (this is back a while), thinking that he’d check before heading out to our arranged meeting spot. However, it’s impossible to tell whether the message actually got sent, never mind received. We could only hope.

After what seems like an eternity, the horrible weather passes. Desperate to get out of the of the airport, we stampede the gate, knocking down fellow passengers to secure our seats. Well, that’s how I remember it, anyway. Once settled, we quickly down an Ativan to help us sleep. Fortunately, the flight is uneventful, and we wake to find ourselves at Charles de Gaulle airport. (BTW, part of the terminal collapsed just about the time we arrived, leaving several people injured. We didn’t even know until we received a frantic call from Cam’s mom the next day, hoping we were OK.)

Feeling like we’ve been travelling for days, we gather our bags, etc. and try to figure out the myriad transit choices to reach central Paris. In relatively short order, we find ourselves zipping through the French countryside via train with a coterie of sorry-looking travellers (probably from the TO flight), a few accordion players, and – wait for it – a mime. The weirdness begins.

We eventually make it to Châtelet metro station, and, eyes blinking in the early evening light, step out of the underground and onto a busy Parisian street. Paris! I can hardly believe it – I am overcome, speechless. I breathe in the smell of leather, tobacco, sweetness of cigar, pungent coffee, perfume. All around me people zip past at a frantic pace: fashionistas, working class, men in scarves, women dressed in black and sporting fake red hair. Heels click on the pavement: rushing home after the work day, out for drinks, to gallery shows, I think. The ordinary never seemed so glamorous until now.

However, there is a problem: twilight is approaching, and we are a good 4 hours behind schedule to meet the owner of our flat. I loathe being late, so I am a contradictory a mix of desire to keep moving, yet desperately wanting to sit back and take in every bit of this amazing place.

Sensibility takes over, and we forge ahead, trying to orient ourselves and locate the Centre Pompidou. We arrive to find – and this is no surprise – no Frenchman leisurely waiting for us. Sighing, I realize this is not over. I’m exhausted, and all I want is wine. Preferably French, at some cute brasserie in Saint-Germain, but I’ll take anything at this point.

After a short debate about whose French is better, it’s decided that I will call the contact number for our apartment. We locate a pay phone only to discover it requires a calling card. Of course. Off we go again to find a tabac that sells phone cards. Fortunately, they exist on every corner (this was back when smoking was permitted everywhere). Back we go to the pay phone, I call, and a woman answers instead of our guy. She speaks perfect French, which is not all that helpful. I inwardly curse myself for a) not taking those damned French lessons before we left, and b) being on the phone, where you can’t rely on eye contact, hand signals, and the like. By the time I hang up, I have the vaguest notion that this person is meeting us in 10 minutes in front of the apartment building. At least I’m hoping that’s what’s happening.

To our immense relief, she arrives. Then starts the clown show of communicating back and forth, although this time it is marginally easier, despite the fact that I’m suddenly speaking louder than necessary. She shows us up to our flat, a humble but funky abode on the third floor of an ancient apartment (no elevator). We’re in le Marais, after all, one of the oldest quarters in Paris. Also one of the coolest, with its broad array of restaurants, shops, coffee bars, pâtisseries, just steps away from the Hôtel de Ville and Notre-Dame Cathedral. Once in, we take in the neat and tidy place: wood floors, sitting room, dining area, art adorning the walls, and, best of all, our own kitchen. Mind you, the place is the size of a shoebox, but it’s all ours. She hands us the keys, we give her the first week’s rent (or was it two?), and she’s off.

Pont des Arts, with the Louvre as a backdrop

We’re here! The arduous journey starts to fade as Cam and I throw our bags on the bed, freshen up, and head back out to the street. With renewed energy, we bound down the stairs, giddy with excitement and relief, and make our way to a nearby brasserie (not hard to find, as it turns out). We get a table on the sidewalk facing the Seine, order our long-awaited café crème, and, since wine flows like water in Paris (and in some cases, can be cheaper), a glass of bordeaux. It’s twilight now, that magical hour when everything dims but comes alive. The sun casts a warm glow across the city, making its way into my heart. I smile, and although I am jetlagged beyond hell, I feel truly happy. I take a sip of wine, feel its warmth spread in my body, and sigh deeply. Home at last.

– S

PS. We did all of those things we dreamed about. We also went to Euro Disney… but that’s another story.

Categories: Europe, France, Travel, Unglamorous | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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