04 May

It Was the Best of Times

ORIGINAL SOURCE ARTICLE: https://vancouversun.com/travel/international-travel/travelling-the-world-it-was-the-best-of-times/  May 2, 2020

Two of our favourite travel writers reminisce about past adventures…

By JANE MUNDY and JOANNE BLAIN

If you’re itching to go somewhere exotic after weeks of being cooped up at home, imagine what it feels like to be a travel writer who can’t travel.

Most of us haven’t spent this much time at home in years — we’re used to planning our next trip while we’re already on one. Our passports are gathering dust in a drawer. Our suitcases are tucked away and empty instead of in their usual state, perpetually half-packed and ready to roll on short notice.

Working on our bucket lists is too melancholy for these troubled times. So all we can do is look back at some of the best trips of our lives and hope we’ll be able to get our restless feet moving soon.

 

Jane Mundy:

I was struck with wanderlust when I was 16, when a line in a song by the Animals haunted me: “We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.” With a few hundred bucks, a backpack almost bigger than me and my bible — Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day — I flew to London, took the ferry to Calais and stuck out my thumb, without a worry in the world.

I had heard about Ios, Greece through the hippie grapevine. It was idyllic. I slept on the beach with other backpackers and after a few weeks, I managed to move up to a cave. Ios didn’t have any roads and we had hardly any money, but locals opened their kitchens up to us for a few drachmas. We walked from one house to another, tasting everything until we were full.

If we brought our own bottle to the winery, retsina was half price. Yoghurt bought from farmers was still warm. For my 17th birthday, everyone pitched in and roasted a pig on the beach.

I got my first job at a taverna in Ios, making souvlaki. I was determined to get to India, so I sold my blood in Athens and again in Istanbul, but I spent all my money having a good time. My dad had to send me enough for a plane ticket home. I had been away almost a year, but I was soon dreaming about where I’d travel next.

 

Joanne Blain:

One of my first major trips as a travel writer was to a country that’s not far off the beaten path but surprisingly not on the radar of most people I know — Slovenia.

I didn’t know much about it either, but I soon discovered it was a tiny jewel of a country nestled between Italy, Austria and Croatia, taking a dollop of cuisine and culture from each.

A photographer and I blitzed the whole country in just five days, from the emerald green Lake Bled in the north to the cosmopolitan vibe of Ljubljana, where we spent a couple of nights in a restored 16th-century palace. We headed east to lounge in a spa fed by hot springs in Olimje and south to eat seafood and pasta at a beachfront restaurant in Piran, just down the coast from Trieste, Italy.

In between, we visited the spectacular Skocjan Caves and the stud farm where the Lippizaner stallions — famous for their fancy footwork in Vienna’s Spanish Riding School — were frolicking in the fields. And everywhere, the countryside was postcard perfect.

I’ve urged friends to visit Slovenia ever since, but what I should really be doing is planning a return visit myself when this is all over.

 

Jane:

I’ve changed quite a bit since I was a teenager — I have no desire to bed down in a sleeping bag on the beach again. Fortunately, luxury is a travel writer’s perk or I would never have found myself at the Four Seasons Resort in Bora Bora.

In my thatched-roof bungalow, I could see turquoise lagoon through glass panels in the floor and climb down a ladder to dive in. I took a day trip out to snorkel with lemon sharks and stingrays, which was pure heaven.

But the best bit was meeting resident marine biologist Oliver Martin, who grafted coral to create a sanctuary that was home to more than 100 species of fish. He showed us where to catch the gentle current so we could float downstream amid schools of fish, and how to feed sea urchins to the friendly puffer fish.

Choosing one of three restaurants for dinner was the biggest decision of the day. I can’t think of a place better to do as little as possible.

 

Joanne:

Speaking of lolling in luxury in the South Pacific, the Brando takes the cake. When I heard that the island Marlon Brando bought while filming Mutiny on the Bounty was about to open to the public as a luxury resort, I pulled out all the stops to get there. And it was just as spectacular as I hoped it would be.

Stepping off the private flight from Papeete, we were whisked by golf cart to our private villa, which was like a slice of heaven with its own plunge pool and private white-sand beach. You could also gaze out at the ocean from your outdoor tub, cleverly screened from view, or jump on a bike for a spin around the island, where no cars are allowed.

The attention to detail was astonishing. When I got up in the morning, I discovered the sandy path outside my front door was freshly raked to eradicate unsightly footprints, and the bike that I’d left in the rack was turned around so it would be easier for me to get out. And at dinner, the waitress already knew that I preferred sparkling water because I had asked for it at lunch — from another server at a different restaurant.

I won’t even tell you what the sticker price is for this kind of luxury and service. I just know I couldn’t afford it.

 

Jane:

The older I get, the more I’m attracted to the natural world. Especially now, when we all want to be outside. Serene and surreal Antarctica is like going to the moon — you spend more time getting there and back than you do on dry land — but it was where I had my best travel day ever.

Surrounded by gazillions of chinstrap penguins, my face hurt from laughing at their antics. Even sitting on ice at times, I didn’t even think of the cold and could have stayed far longer. Penguins act simultaneously like children and old men, portly and full of their own importance. You smell and hear the colony’s berserk babbling and shouting before seeing them.   The chinstraps prefer high ground, which means they take ages to waddle down the rocky slope to the sea. Sometimes they waddle too quickly and topple over and squabble like it’s the rock’s fault.

They deftly maneuver around grumpy and gigantic fur sea lions on the shore making a comeback after they were wiped out by the sealing industry for oil and skins. We kept a safe distance. And the curious Weddell seals always posing for a photo op. Thanks to an amazing ornithologist onboard, I learned so much about the birds we saw, such as the albatross, the giant petrel and the tiny storm petrel. One day we drifted by several sleeping minke whales. It was magical.

On our way back to the ship, penguins darted by our zodiac like they were saying farewell. Most of us were teary-eyed.

 

Joanne:

I know what you mean. One of my most memorable trips was to the Patagonia region of Chile, which is almost as painful to get to as Antarctica. But once you’re there, it’s almost impossible to stop staring open-mouthed at your surroundings.

I didn’t see any penguins, but in Torres del Paine national park, I did spot flamingos, ostrich-like rheas and whole herds of guanacos, wild llamas common to the region.

It was tempting to settle in to the laid-back luxury of the Explora Patagonia hotel and just watch the fierce wind sweep clouds over the mountains and churn up whitecaps in the turquoise sea. But the spectacular scenery pulls you outside. Even a hike through a forest that had been ravaged by fire four years before was otherworldly, with the silver skeletons of trees framed by green regrowth.

Someday, we’ll go back to all these places and visit others we’ve been salivating over for years. Right, Jane?

 

04 May

Quarantined with Guest From Hell

SOURCE ARTICLE: Vancouver Sun, April 14: https://vancouversun.com/travel/local-travel/quarantined-in-victoria-with-the-houseguest-from-hell/

Travel writer Jane Mundy was at her wits’ end with “a covidiot” houseguest

A travel writer finds out that there’s no place like home, except when you’re holed up with the houseguest from hell

I thought I was being a good Samaritan when I agreed to take in an old acquaintance who needed to come back to Canada when the coronovirus started to take over the world. But he turned out to be a covidiot.

I’m a travel writer and way back in early March, when the world was still relatively normal, I was gearing up to go on two European press trips. So when Steve, who had been living in Mexico for years, got in touch and asked if I knew a place where he could crash for a month or so, I blithely offered up my place in Victoria, thinking I’d be away for most of the time he was here.

Steve said he was willing to throw some cash my way in exchange for my spare bedroom, so I thought it would work out well for both of us (news flash: travel writing doesn’t pay well).

You know what happened with that plan. Both my trips were cancelled, the federal government urged all Canadians to come home immediately and Steve and I were stuck living together. I’d like to blame the pandemic, but I really created my own living hell.

I should have recalled what happened when I last saw Steve in 1995. I was living in Vancouver then and he said he needed a place to crash for a few days on his way back from Mexico. I met him at the airport on a cold January evening and he walked off the plane wearing shorts and flip-flops. I’ve always found that annoying.

I remember he brought a bottle of tequila and some fresh corn tortillas. A few days later, after he’d packed up and left without so much as a thank you, I noticed the three-quarters-empty bottle and the tortillas had walked out with him. I laughed at his cheapness but got over it.

How time fogs the memory.

This time around, Steve promised he was toilet-trained, animal friendly, a competent cook and tidy. One of those things turned out to be true — he liked my dog (another news flash: everyone likes my dog).

He was due to fly in on St. Patrick’s Day. I stocked up on food and wine, then cooked dinner so he’d have something to eat when he showed up. He arrived wearing shorts and flip-flops, carrying a bottle of tequila and some dried poblano peppers.

My deja-vu alarm was ringing, but I had no choice but to hit the snooze button. By then, B.C. had declared a state of emergency and had told returning travellers to quarantine themselves for 14 days. That meant I’d have to self-isolate as well with flip-flop man.

A friend had generously offered to pick up groceries and any other necessities while we hunkered down for the quarantine period. I laid out a few ground rules to Steve on that first night. “I’ll cook if you do the dishes. If you want to cook once in a while, I’ll clean up. And if you’re going for a walk, maybe you can take the dog. Deal?”

“Gotcha,” he said.

 

Quarantine, Day 1:

I discover that Steve doesn’t think the rules of quarantine apply to him. He came back from his morning walk with a Slurpie and a bag of tomatillos from the local grocery store.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Nobody in Mexico has the virus,” he replied. Even if that were true, which it wasn’t, he blithely ignored the fact that he spent several hours in a virus incubator, also known as an airplane.

I told him to stay out of the grocery store and to add anything he wanted to my friend’s shopping list. He wrote down steak and vodka.

I realized we hadn’t really discussed how long he’d be staying. I made the mistake of asking him what he was thinking. “Well, it would be great if I could stay until January,” he said. My jaw dropped so far that he could have seen my tonsils. I left that discussion for another time and went to bed.

 

Day 2:

Steve came back from his afternoon walk with a parcel he’d picked up from the post office and told me that he’d taken the bus to visit a pal. It’s the first time I’ve heard that he has friends in Victoria other than me.

I used my outside voice this time. “What part of quarantine don’t you understand?”

“Well, I didn’t touch anyone,” he responded. I was speechless.

 

Day 3:

Steve had been in the kitchen for about two hours, making his “famous” tomatillo sauce, oven-fried potatoes and prepping a steak to slap on the barbecue. I don’t eat red meat, but I joined him for the potatoes (which got cold from being left on the kitchen counter while he grilled the steak) and lots of wine. There was no sign of the famous sauce. “It didn’t work out,” he said.

 

Day 4:

I came back mid-afternoon from walking the dog and noticed that the cover for the gas barbecue was sitting in the middle of the deck. I went to put it back on when I noticed that the grill was red-hot.

So was my temper when I came back into the house and told Steve that he’d left the barbecue on full blast for the past 18 hours. “Wow, I could have burned the house down.” End of sentence. No apology.

I was still fuming long after the grill cooled down, but I knew the time had come to tell — not ask — Steve when he was going to leave. “You’ve got to go when the quarantine is over,” I said. “We’ll kill each other before COVID-19 gets either of us.”

He grunted, put on the new puffy coat he’d picked up at the post office and went outside.

 

Days 5 and 6:

He left the toilet seat up, again. His take on cleaning up after I cook is to put his own plate, knife and fork in the dishwasher. So much for being tidy and toilet-trained.

I mentioned the rent we agreed on. He looked at me and left the room.

 

Day 7:

I am an early riser, but not as early as Steve. At 4:30 a.m., I heard him bumbling around in the kitchen making oatmeal. I tried to go back to sleep to the sound of the spoon scraping against the bowl as he ate it. I finally got up at 6 a.m. and found the bowl and the oatmeal pot on the counter, still dirty. “The dishwasher was full,” he said. I checked to see if there was running water in the faucet and dish soap by the sink. There was.

 

Day 8:

My friend came by again with groceries, including the martini olives Steve had asked her to get. He made martinis for the three of us, using every cube of ice in the freezer, and we drank them sitting outside, two metres apart.

“We’re over the hump. Only six more days of quarantine!” I said as a toast. “Anyone want another martini?” Steve asked.

 

Days 9 through 13:

Steve started taking longer and longer walks. He never took the dog. I hunkered down in my office or in front of the TV, avoiding conversation and thanking my lucky stars that I had laid in a case of wine before I got stuck in quarantine with flip-flop man. Steve’s only saving grace is that he doesn’t drink very much. If he’d cleaned out my wine rack, I might have smothered him in his sleep.

 

Day 14:

Salvation is at hand. Or so I thought. When I came back from the morning dog walk, Steve was getting ready to head out on the town, like it was any other morning.

“So we made it through alive,” I said with newfound cheeriness. “Are you all packed?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“Remember I told you 10 days ago that you could only stay until the quarantine period was over? That’s today, buddy.”

“I don’t have anywhere to go.”

“Stay with one of your friends,” I said. I was now aware that he knows quite a few people in Victoria because they have been calling since he arrived. I wonder why they didn’t put him up in the first place? But I realize I probably know the answer to that question.

“Well if you’d told me before that you were going to throw me out, I would have taken my chances and stayed in Mexico,” he said.

By now, my temper is as hot as the barbecue grill. “I don’t care where you go, just get out. Now!”

He storms into his room, throws his stuff into a suitcase and calls a cab.

“Thanks a LOT,” he says.

I checked later and discover he has taken the tequila and the vodka. But he forgot the olives, as well as the rent. I guess it’s nice that he thanked me as he was leaving, even though it was sarcastic. But mostly it’s nice to be alone.

 

17 Nov

To India with Love

The tiny village in southern India wouldn’t be on the wish list of most travellers. Hot, dry and poor,  it’s best known for  factories that produce matches and fireworks.

But I had a particular reason for making the two-hour drive there from Madurai airport. I was going to meet Kavya, the thirteen-year-old girl I have sponsored for four years through the Christian Children’s Fund of Canada (CCFC). I was both excited and nervous.

Reading about how my donations are helping communities is heartwarming, but I always wondered how much good I was actually doing. I wanted to see for myself. read more…

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