Tulum

Cenote :: Mexico

Cenote :: Mexico

We’ve been here for one month visiting friends, working remotely and relaxing in Tulum, Mexico after leaving Vancouver, Canada. Many have asked what we’re doing and we don’t have an immediate answer to that question. We’ve embarked on a nomadic lifestyle, at least for now. We’ll see how long it lasts based on budget, desire and knocks on the door from my husband’s world of film and visual effects. We came here for tropical heat, cheap tacos and a slower pace of life. We’ve found all of that plus a few adventures, some big surprises and an alluring dose of Mayan history.

We’ve been staying in a great apartment on the edge of town, which also happens to be a 20-minute bike ride from the Tulum ruins. I’ve been to the ruins once before — about 15 years ago — but that was long before history and culture really began to make my heart beat. Being here again, in the context of the Yucatán Peninsula, has been given me a new awareness of the richness and depth of culture in this region. The highlights of spending time here have included watching the Travesia Sagrada, and learning about the vast network of caves and cenotes below the surface of Tulum and its neighboring towns.

The Travesia Sagrada honors a historic journey from centuries ago. Mayans traveled by canoe (departing north of Tulum) to the sacred island of Cozumel and its temple honoring Ixchel, goddess of the moon and fertility. The pilgrimage was important for women hoping to have children and men praying for a good harvest.

Nowadays, about 300 men and women in 30 canoes row to Cozumel and return the following morning. In the process of learning about the Travesia Sagrada through a friend who participated, I’ve also learned about temescals (sweat lodges) and a Spanish bishop named Diego de Landa who single-handedly did more than anyone else to both record and destroy Mayan culture. It was de Landa who documented the travesia in the 1500s, but it was also de Landa who burned essential Mayan manuscripts and images out of his religious intolerance.

As for the caves and cenotes here, they may be Tulum’s most enjoyable secret, although they’re not really a secret. Many people know of them but they aren’t too overcrowded. Yet. Typically, a cenote is a large hole in the ground that leads to a larger hole filled with fresh water draining to the ocean. Most cenotes are very deep (in some, you can’t see the bottom) and often connected to other cenotes by caves and channels.

Cenote Labnaha :: Tulum, Mexico

Cenote Labnaha :: Tulum, Mexico

If you’re an adventure scuba diver, cenotes are a unique paradise. If you’re not comfortable in the water, you will hate cenotes. They can be very dangerous if you’re inexperienced, unprepared or your equipment fails (which Jay was witness to at a cenote/lagoon south of Tulum). We explored Cenote Labnaha with a guide, which was both fascinating and freaky. For one hour we snorkeled through low caves, dodged stalactites, looked down at the scuba ropes leading into even deeper caves, and turned off our flashlights to 15 seconds of complete and terrifying darkness.

Cenotes played a part in Mayan history as a place of worship and sacrificial offerings. The Tulum ruins include a “House of the Cenote” and at Ek Balam there’s a cenote visible from the La Acrópolis. Our next door neighbor, who we call the Jacques Cousteau of the Yucatán, has been exploring and mapping Tulum’s network of caves and cenotes for the past two decades. He’s found artifacts and human remains in several.

Sargasso :: Tulum, Mexico

Sargasso :: Tulum, Mexico

Tulum itself is a gritty little town with upscale construction threatening its charm at every turn in the road. It’s straddling an impossible line between retaining its character and leveraging the considerable foreign interest it holds as a seaside destination not far from Cancún. A bigger, pressing issue may be global warming. The coastline here is showing signs of the battle — not against trash, but against a super-bloom of sargasso macroalgae that is relentlessly dumping ashore in a rotting brown mass (pictured above). No one can keep up with it and hardly anyone is hanging out at the beach as a result. In addition, Mexico’s elections are just a couple weeks away and running for office here can be a life-threatening pursuit. This is a country battling many forces against it, including its neighbor to the north.

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Beneath all of this patina, the history here shines brightly. The region is punctuated by the magnificent temples of Chichen Itza, Ek Balam and Cobá, and countless smaller sites cover the peninsula. It would take weeks — if not months — to see them all. Yet it feels like layers and layers remain to be discovered in the crumbling limestone and tropical vegetation.

The Tulum ruins stand alone as a unique coastal site — the only one in Mayan history — and old port for the city of Cobá. Originally called Zamá (dawn or sunrise), the site of Tulum flourished from 1200-1500 AD, and declined in the 75 years after the Spanish made first contact in the early 1500s.

Between 1,000 and 1,500 people lived at Tulum. Based on the wall with four small doorways protecting the ruins, people living within the site may have been of a higher social class than people living outside the wall.

El Castillo (The Castle) sits at the cliff edge overlooking the ocean. Surely the view is spectacular from it’s highest level although you’re not allowed to climb the steps. Standing alongside the east wall facing the sea, it dominates and feels fortified against the weather with its battered construction. But the articulation of the stone ledges and borders adds delicate beauty. Whoever designed the castle and surrounding structures had an evident appreciation of design and proportion.

The Descending God

The Descending God

The Descending God, a notable deity of the Yucatán peninsula, is portrayed at the Tulum Ruins. This figure holds a characteristic pose — inverted, with feet at the top and face at the bottom looking forward. The Descending God is associated with bees and war, and interesting combination. Honey was a vital export of the region and war was a way of attaining power. You can read more about the Descending God here.

The Temple of the Frescoes holds weathered depictions of deities above the colonnade. Even a bit of color remains from the natural pigments (achiote, chochineal and palygorskite or Maya Blue among them) that once painted the sites of this region but have since washed away. What I find most striking about Mayan art is that it so closely resembles the style of indigenous art throughout western Canada. The depictions of gods and animals in both regions share a highly graphic quality of thick lines, robust shapes and bold expressions. Is it coincidence or relation?

I see you :: Tulum Ruins

I see you :: Tulum Ruins

 

Tulum Ruins :: Mexico

Tulum Ruins :: Mexico

Walking around the rest of the site, all of the structural remains have simple rectangular footprints with finished-floor elevations above ground level. Could the varied floor heights have indicated status even within the social hierarchy of the select people living here? Could this detail have helped keep the bugs and reptiles out — of which there are many! Or the rain? Did the added elevation simply keep the floor dry? It has rained in solid sheets over the past few days so this had to have been a concern at such an exposed site bordering the ocean.

Grand Palace :: Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Grand Palace :: Tulum Ruins, Mexico

There are so many unanswerable questions, lost to the forgetfulness of time. Even I have questions related to my own life that have surfaced while being here. When I was a kid — four or five years old — I had two imaginary friends for a period of time. I have no recollection of how I conjured them up. I only remember their unusual names: Chaka and Cobba (as I spelled them). Since coming here, I’ve learned two interesting names that correlate: Chaahk, the Mayan god of rain and Cobá, the historic Mayan city that once dominated the region.

Have I lived here before? Is it coincidence or memory?

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Miscellaneous

Finding the Unicorn of the Sky

The cabin :: Whitehorse, Canada

The cabin :: Whitehorse, Canada

Last March, we decided it was time to pack up and leave Vancouver — such is the life of opportunists and world travelers always looking ahead to the next stop. But before we left we were surprised with one late-season, last-minute opportunity to see the Northern Lights — a big item yet to be checked off our bucket lists. Forecasts predicted the Lights would be active over the coming weekend due to a coronal hole and resulting solar wind entering earth’s atmosphere. Yay, science!

We did what any ardent Northern Lights chasers would do: we booked a last-minute flight and a tiny remote cabin in the Yukon Territory. Two days later, we were fastening our seat belts for a long weekend in the middle of nowhere, in search of the Unicorn of the Sky (Jay’s name for the Northern Lights).

“Nowhere” doesn’t do it justice. The flight to Whitehorse was full of spectacular mountain views and the town itself is pretty cool. Whitehorse has managed to hang onto some of it’s vintage charm, blended with indigenous art and a new community center, interspersed with a few little shops and cafes.

The best thing about the weekend was our one-bedroom cabin on the 80-acre ranch of a Renaissance outdoorsman. He milled the wood and built the cabin himself with a fantastic front porch and firepit facing directly north to the horizon where we hoped to see the elusive green glow of the Aurora. The cabin had no running water but the luxurious outhouse was far better than some bathrooms, and the efficient heat and fast WiFi made the whole outpost perfect for our weekend camp. Located 45 minutes outside Whitehorse, the sky was plenty dark for our adventure in light.

Whitehorse, Canada

Whitehorse, Canada

On the afternoon we arrived, we explored the vicinity of our cabin and discovered other myriad things the Renaissance outdoorsman had built including a handful of additional cabins, an enormous solar array to power the site, and the “Boyleville Saloon” just beyond his backyard (closed for the season, but probably host to some really fun parties).

To the east of his home, he had a large yard and housing for a team of 30 sled dogs, and his wife tipped us off that he’d be taking some of them out for an “afternoon run” around 4:30 p.m. (Fun fact: You probably don’t know this, but I wrote the introduction to a sold-out coffee table book about Iditarod sled dogs called Born To Run by Albert Lewis.) Seeing these dogs here in person, from behind the fence (they are VERY enthusiastic creatures), was an unexpected treat.

All hooked up and harnessed to run, OFF THEY WENT barking madly and racing for the hills. They didn’t return until 50 kilometers and one frozen river crossing later, in full darkness at 10:00 p.m. that evening.

That same evening was the first time we saw the Northern Lights. I was using three websites to track the activity. The Lights had been extremely active over Scandanavia but by the time they reached western Canada, they had calmed to a sleepy Level 2 — nothing too special, but still a fuzzy green glow above the distant mountains to the north of us along with a blob of light above us that was so subtle I mistook it for a cloud until I realized it was shifting in all directions. We ducked in and out of the cabin until 3:00 a.m. that morning, checking to see if the Lights were becoming more active. The forecast predicted better activity during the following two evenings so eventually we gave in and slept.

The next day, we took a walk around the property to a bluff near the cabin. We could see all the way to the next mountains with a flat expanse of land in between and a few stands of trees like ribbons running north to south. With the lingering snow, branches not yet budding for spring, and the frozen Yukon River in the distance, the sparse landscape had the look and feel of The Revenant — minus the grizzly bear (hopefully sleeping).

That night, Jay succumbed to the primal need to make fire in the wilderness and built a glowing pyramid in the firepit out front. We alternated between the warm cabin and the fireside heat until the wood ran out around 9:00 p.m. At 10:00 p.m., Jay took a look out the front door exclaiming, “The band’s here!” That ethereal green band was getting brighter as darkness finally arrived. But Aurora activity again remained low and steady throughout our gaze until 2:00 a.m. in the morning. It was easy to see and enjoy with our eyes but not so easy to photograph with a camera.

On Sunday, our last full day in Whitehorse, we made the most of it. We drove out to walk on the frozen Yukon River and then went for an evening soak in the local hot springs — a community gathering spot with two large pools at different temperatures.

We returned to the cabin and checked the Aurora forecasts, knowing the conditions were right for increased activity. A coronal hole in the sun was releasing solar wind that was striking the atmosphere with high-level intensity as the earth rotated through it. Activity had again been elevated over Scandanavia but tonight it had continued over eastern Canada, too. We knew that if we were lucky we might catch the tail end of the show.

We were drinking wine, making dinner, waiting for the sunlight to completely disappear from the western sky. And then … it happened. The band’s here! Brighter and greener than ever. GET THE CAMERA!

First attempt at shooting the Northern Lights

First attempt at shooting the Northern Lights

I was excited, frantic, running around trying to get my camera attached to the cold tripod I had staged on the front porch. Jay was turning off all the lights and, with less and less light to work with, my camera wouldn’t focus on anything. I switched to manual but the scene was so dark through the viewfinder and I was so filled with glee that both IT and I could not focus. FAIL. More attempts, more failures, but pretty nonetheless! I finally had to stop, take a deep breath, and make Jay be my focal point (holding up a lighter like he was at a Northern Lights concert) to bring the full depth of field into focus. With a few experimental exposures, I finally got it dialed, and captured a shooting star in the process.

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The most memorable part of the following two hours was something I could barely capture with the camera. The green band continued to glow, but long fingers of light started to descend from above us down to the horizon. When those disappeared, more fingers would extend from the horizon up into the sky. Sometimes three, four and five at a time would reach down or up, shift left or right … and be gone. THIS was the solar wind blowing through the atmosphere right in front of us. MAGIC!

Here was a moment to put down the camera and watch the science and beauty of the Northern Lights as two tiny human beings in an infinite galaxy. As fellow blogger Ron Mitchell often says, “Thank you, Abundant Universe.” We have seen the Lights and they are divine.

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

Experience Miscellaneous Outdoors

The Fingerprint of Fez

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Throughout this post you’ll find the words of author Paul Bowles, an American expatriate who lived in Tangier, Morocco for 50 years. He wrote an essay called “Fez” in 1984. His thoughts on the city still ring true today. I’ve interwoven my story with excerpts from his essay, noted as italic quotations.

***

We ride the train from Tangier to Fez on a rainy afternoon in Morocco. If we’re going to spend a vacation day inside, it might as well be on a train moving across the countryside. We pass hills of green and gold which hint at the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert beyond.

Upon arrival at the station in Fez, we find a taxi and ask the driver to call for directions to our riad. It’s low season and we made a reservation just two days earlier after I searched obsessively online for a bit of affordable luxury, as much as that sounds like a contradiction. If there’s anywhere worth splashing out for a night or two, it’s Morocco. The experience of staying in a beautiful riad has a permanent place on my bucket list.

Our destination is Karawan Riad. A man with a wheelbarrow meets us at the taxi drop-off. We push our bags through the busy paths of the medina until we arrive at a dark little doorway so unremarkable I don’t even think to take a photo. The door opens and we’re welcomed inside.

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

“From the street a house is a high wall with a door somewhere along its uneven length and possibly a handful of tiny grilled peepholes sprinkled in a haphazard design across its surface … With the exception of the door … there is no suggestion of decoration … The inside of the house is another matter. When you step into the glittering tile and marble interior of a prosperous Fez dwelling, with its orange trees and its fountains, and the combined pastel and hard-candy colors glowing from the rooms around the courtyard, you are pleased that there should be nothing but the indifferent anonymity of a blank wall outside – nothing to indicate the existence of this very private, remote and brilliant world within. A non-committal expanse of earthen wall in the street hides a little Alhambra of one’s own, a miniature paradise totally shielded from the gaze of the world.” ~PB

Karawan Riad is a gorgeous discovery – grand and beautiful while authentic and understated. My favorite feature is the five-fold geometric design in the floor tile of the inner courtyard which opens to the sky.

We’ve been upgraded to the extravagant Dzhari suite. We have no idea why until later when we talk with an American couple on the rooftop terrace who tell us they requested to move OUT of the Dzhari suite because the floor plan was too big and unmanageable with an upstairs bathroom. Thanks for the unexpected gift!

We stand at the edge and get our first panoramic view of Fez. The city is sprawling, endless and so tightly packed that not even a single road draws a line through the density. How and where do we begin to explore this anomaly?

Fez, Morocco

Fez, Morocco

“Fez was built at a natural crossroads, the spot where the route from the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast intersects the east-west passage between Algeria and the Atlantic … Civilization ended at the gates of the medina; outside was the wilderness.” ~PB

Idris I, the first dynastic ruler of the area that would become Morocco, designated Fez as the capital city. The year was 798 and Idris I died shortly after this, leaving his son Idris II to carry out his plan. In the centuries since, the walls of Fez’s medina have been torn down, expanded and rebuilt with some still standing since the 13th century. Throughout its history, Fez has been the site of frequent conflict between Arabs, Berbers and Jews living in the city, with additional periods of Ottoman and French control during the past several centuries. The French moved the capital to Rabat in 1912 and Morocco became independent in 1956.

“Fez is a relatively relaxed city; there is time for everything. The retention of this classic sense of time can be attributed, in part at least, to the absence of motor vehicles in the medina. If you live in a city where you never have to run in order to catch something, or jump to avoid being hit by it, you are likely to have preserved a natural physical dignity which is not a concomitant of contemporary life; and if you still have that dignity, you want to go on having it. So you see to it that you have time to do whatever you want to do; it is vulgar to hurry.” ~PB

We dive in the next morning after a lovely breakfast at the riad. There is no good way to begin exploring the medina other than by just walking into it. With wide-eyed, curious expressions on our faces, a few people offer to show us around but we have all day to be lost and found on our own.

“The street goes down and down, always unpaved, nearly always partially hidden from the sky. Sometimes it is so narrow as to permit only one-way foot traffic; here the beasts of burden scrape their flanks on each side as they squeeze through…” ~PB

We pass small doorways and alleys leading to even smaller doorways and alleys. We navigate by curiosity and intuition, and with every turn we feel one more step away from knowing how to get back to where we started.

“There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez. The blank wall is its symbol, but it is this very secretiveness which gives the city its quality.” ~PB

Deeper into it with every step, we get bolder and braver – peeking our heads into doorways and climbing stairs to see where they lead. The reward is the discovery of incredible interiors – some old and rustic, others elegant and refined. There is certainly an exotic other world behind these tall, quiet walls.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Eventually we come to a long passageway with latticework shading the interior. We’ve arrived at a major artery of the medina which leads us to a maze of vendors who lure us with all kinds of things for sale — textiles, rugs, lamps, leather goods, ceramics, clothing, baskets, spices and more. Fez is far less aggressive than Marrakech and there is no hard sell.

We wander through the henna souq, Brassmaker’s Square and the Jewish quarter. By this point we have no idea where we are in relation to where we started. The medina is vast and the walls are just too high to glean any true sense of direction. But we’re finding more and more pockets of life and beauty that pull us through the maze. The deeper we go, the more textures and colors we see. The medina blooms around us.

“The visitor senses something in Fez which he describes as a feeling of mystery; that is as good a way as any of describing the impression the city makes. There is no doubt that to the person with a little imagination that impression is very strong; the city seems inexhaustible, incredibly complex, and vaguely menacing. It is possible that the visitor will also find it beautiful, although this is by no means certain. Fez is not a city that everyone can like. Many travelers have a negative reaction to its dark and twisting alleys, teeming with people and animals. Anyone subject to claustrophobia may well find it only a nightmarish welter of tunnels, dead-end passageways and windowless walls. To grasp the fascination of the place one has to be the sort of person who enjoys losing himself in a crowd and being pushed along by it, not caring where to or for how long. He must be able to attain relaxation in the idea of being helpless in the midst of that crowd, he must know how to find pleasure in the outlandish, and see beauty where it is most unlikely to appear.” ~PB

Fez has cast its spell on me. The artistry of the city speaks through the bespoke quality of every single door, window, design, pattern, display and handmade item. Every element of this city has a human fingerprint. Nothing is manufactured and in this way Fez feels truly unique. I cannot walk into a shop and buy eight of the same bowls, four of the same pillows, or two of the same rugs. They simply don’t exist. I can look through a stack of 20 plates and no two will have the same pattern and color. It’s easier to have a pair of leather slippers custom made than to find my size and favorite color among a wall of one hundred choices. Craftspeople here can make one hundred of whatever you like — but the end result will still be one hundred handmade things, each imperfect and unique.

In a manufactured world, Fez is an astonishing city of authentic art and identity.

After a long day on our feet, we finally sit down for dinner at a pretty restaurant smothered in tile overlooking the medina. We’ve been unknowingly sucked into a tourist trap with an expensive fixed menu in a bunch of languages. We hurry through our tagines so we can get back and relax in our palatial room at the riad.

The next day we embark on another adventure through the medina. We find more doorways and details around every corner and spend quite a bit of time exploring the tanneries (an experience of such impact I’m doing a whole post about it, coming soon).

We find ourselves at Bab Bou Jeloud square and walk through the produce market nearby. Much like Tangier, the variety on display is as surprising as the verdant countryside we saw from the train.

We squeeze into two plastic chairs at a stall serving some kind of meat sandwich on Morocco’s traditional bread, which kind of looks like a Frisbee. We share with the cats and kittens lingering in the lane behind us.

We continue our journey, intent on finding a “set” of plates to take home with us – knowing each piece of the set will be unique because … Fez. We step down into a shop filled wall-to-wall with beautiful ceramics.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The shop has been family-owned for several generations – son, father, grandfather and beyond – and the entire three-story structure above us is part of the family home. It’s more than 100 years old with intricate detail in the carvings going up one wall. The father recalls being a little boy, climbing high up the woodwork. While we assemble our set of plates the son asks us if we’d like to see the view from their home.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

“The people of Fez are not ashamed to be hedonists … they have a passion for sitting on a high spot of ground at twilight and watching the slow change of light, color and form in the landscape.” ~PB

He takes us across the footpath in front of the store, up a tiny, dark staircase to an adjoining part of the house that opens onto a balcony. The day is coming to an end and we see several people who have found their way to the upper reaches of the medina for the sunset. For the second time in Morocco, we’ve been treated to an unexpected view through the gracious gesture of a local.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Fez is a grand world city unlike any other — a work of art and life from centuries of self-expression. We look out over the cityscape, share the experience with our new Moroccan friend and his brother, and are reminded again of some of the simple things in life that bring foreigners and locals together: sunsets, beautiful views, friendship and cultural differences which inspire us to invite each other into our homes to talk, to learn and to know respect for one another.

***

Miscellaneous
A Grizzly Weekend in Bella Coola

A Grizzly Weekend in Bella Coola

Flying over the Coast Mountains, British Columbia

Flying over the Coast Mountains, British Columbia

We depart for Bella Coola from the south terminal of Vancouver International Airport, where the old-school spirit of travel is alive and well. We’re aboard a twenty-seat prop plane but we never cleared security and our bags were never x-rayed. We’re flying into the wilderness on the honor system — something that feels uniquely Canadian and appropriate for the weekend.

With just four people on our flight, we can see out every window around us to the earth below. On the left side, a series of islands and waterways. On our right side, a magnificent display of mountain tops and glaciers with ribbons of blue ice leading downhill. We leave the summer heat behind and float into oncoming rain, descending deep into the gray. For five minutes we’re suspended in a disorienting cloud layer until the yellow meadows of Anahim appear below us. This was not our intended destination. Fogged in and surrounded by mountains, the approach to Bella Coola airport is too treacherous to take a chance on today so Anahim will have to do.

We taxi over to the airport office and I suspect the yellow school bus parked next to it may be our golden chariot to Bella Coola. When weather shuts down Bella Coola’s airport, you have to go by bus — they just never said it would be a school bus.

We get on the school bus and Doug introduces himself as the driver. For the next two hours we wind along the dirt road to Bella Coola, topping out on Heckman Pass which has just one lane, with a terrifying drop-off along the south side. Doug tells us this “Freedom Road” was built in the 1950s after the government failed to fund its construction so locals took on the project themselves. They worked from both sides — Bella Coola and Anahim — until the roads connected in between at Heckman Pass.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

At 6:00 p.m. we arrive in Bella Coola (population 2,000) where we pick up our rental car from Steve. No need to show a license — the honor system works here, too. We drive a few minutes up the road to the Rip Rap Campsite where we find Amber and Jim in their home office, ready to check us in while also celebrating their anniversary. Happy anniversary! Jim suggests we hurry up and head across the road for hamburgers at the Legion — the only place open for dinner tonight. Friday nights are busy and they only keep the grill going until they run out of burgers.

After our epic school bus ride, burgers sound amazing but we’re momentarily caught up admiring our accommodations for the weekend. The Cedar Cabin at Rip Rap is more than 100 years old, with logs two feet wide and a front door so thick we can rest assured no grizzly bear will ever enter from the front porch. With two beds, one bath, an open plan and a wood-burning fireplace, we have more than we need to make ourselves at home.

We walk across the road to the Legion where we queue up for burgers and help ourselves to corn, which is free with a donation. Bus Driver Doug is leaning into a plate of food and tables of locals smile at us as we find our way through the ritual. This is Friday night in Bella Coola … small town life at its best. We hit the Shop Easy after dinner to pick up some groceries, build a great fire at the cabin and simmer in the warmth until the next morning.

Atnarko River :: Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, British Columbia

Belarko Wildlife Viewing Platform :: Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, British Columbia

At 6:30 a.m., I can hardly contain my excitement about the day. We’ve come to Bella Coola because the salmon are running and the grizzlies are feeding along the Atnarko River in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. We’ve booked a half-day float on the river with the hope of seeing these bears in their native habitat. It’s pouring down rain outside so I’m covered head to toe in rain gear with a dry bag for my camera.

By 7:45 a.m. we’re on our way to the river with Fraser. If you book a bear tour in Bella Coola there’s only one question people will ask you: Are you going with Fraser? He’s a biologist, bear expert and long-term Bella Coola resident with a great reputation for float tours with Kynoch Adventures. But as we arrive at the put-in, there’s been a small mix-up with some late arrivals and we have too many people for the small raft. We’re gonna need a bigger boat. Fraser works it out, stationing us at the nearby wildlife viewing platform while he goes back to Hagensborg and gets a bigger raft. This minor inconvenience is not an inconvenience at all, and our late timing works magically in our favor all day long.

The land we’re standing on is territory of the Nuxalk First Nation and a Nuxalk man welcomes us to the Belarko Wildlife Viewing Platform, which is managed in cooperation with B.C.’s provincial park service. As grizzly habitat, the area is closely monitored for everyone’s safety. We’re escorted up a path to an outdoor shelter and plateau surrounded by an electric fence. I feel pretty electrified about potentially, hopefully seeing my first grizzly bear ever.

And after waiting and looking for about 15 minutes, we spot one down river.

A rustle in the bushes gives way to a dark shadow and then I see the big front feet of a grizzly bear making his (her?) way up the river. He moves quickly, easily, until he stops on a log and bends down on his forearms to have a look at the fish in the water, just like a dog might look after a tennis ball floating beyond its reach. He gets up and returns to shore and then, within seconds, gracefully swims to the middle of the river. He stops, stands up, has a look around, grabs a fish and moves to the shore, beyond our view.

In three-minutes, this distant grizzly encounter has already revised my expectations about these incredible creatures. They move with such ease, such grace, from land to water and back again, without hesitation. Nimble, not lumbering, with purpose and power.

The bigger raft has arrived so we return to the shore and find a place to sit among the swivel seats on the raft. Rain pours down. It’s going to be a soggy pursuit today but no one is complaining. We push off from the shore and start drifting down the Atnarko, past the Belarko platform to a wide, deep pool in the river. We stop and wait in silence. Hundreds of salmon swim past us, heading upstream. We scan the shores but see nothing so we move on.

As we round a bend in the river, we see a grizzly standing on a huge tangle of trees and logs. He steps off the log, out of view. Fraser steers the raft toward the opposite shore and hops onto a shoal to see where he’s gone. No luck so we keep floating down river and eventually catch up.

It’s time for breakfast. This grizzly catches and eats a fish before moving upstream toward our raft. He catches another fish and deftly picks it apart on the shore with his claws — skin first, then the flesh. He changes directions, walking back downstream so we follow in the raft. He pays no attention to us as we drift past him in faster water and stop next to a big boulder where we get a great view of him coming straight at us.

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

More fish, more breakfast. It’s easy on the Atnarko, with an estimated two million salmon heading upstream. It’s a much better run than last year. It’s still pretty early in the season so seeing a few bears is pretty lucky. Later in the season, Fraser has seen up to 20 bears on one float.

We’ve followed this bear for an hour so we give him some space and float on in the rain. My supposed waterproof layer has succumbed to the relentless pour and I’m soaked all the way through my thin down jacket underneath. My shoes are waterlogged and it’s a constant battle to keep my camera and lens dry. I put it back in the dry bag only to pull it out again when we round another bend and see a mother bear and cub. She’s leading the way up river and stops to catch and share a fish on the opposite shore.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

The mother pays us no attention but the cub occasionally looks right at us. I see a little curiosity in his eyes but I also see a directness I would not want to confront face-to-face. Yet not one of these bears has shown any aggression, not even while fishing — they make it look so easy. I think that’s what makes grizzlies so intriguing. Their confidence is clear and ever-present. Their power to kill is unquestioned but, at ease on the river, they are nothing but calm.

Grizzly mom and cub on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly mom and cub on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Mom and cub swim to the shore near us. I’ve put my camera away (of course) when there’s a sudden commotion in the bushes. I capture one more rainy, grainy moment with my phone as mama bear stands on her hind legs to see if she can get a better look. No threats detected so they keep wandering up river as we float on to the Belarko pull-out where our tour comes to an end. It’s been an amazing morning, with most of it spent in the company of grizzlies.

Back at the cabin, we get out of our wet clothes and set out to explore Bella Coola. This tiny town only has a few stores and a dock where you can catch a ferry to Port Hardy. The Bella Coola Valley Tourism office is located in the Copper Sun Art Gallery with drawings, paintings and carvings by artists of the Nuxalk Nation.

We stop at Mountain Valley Organics where we meet the owner, Abra Silver. Everything in her shop is local, organic or handmade including fruit and veg, spices, snacks, meat and fish, baskets, knit hats, soap and home cleaning supplies. Her shop is next to her house of sixteen years — a charming cottage with flowering plants sprouting from every pot and planter. Although Bella Coola may feel a little trapped in time, Mountain Valley Organics feels hip and cool as a vital resource for sustainable mountain living.

Back at the Rip Rap Campsite, the sun comes out shedding light on everything there is to love about this place including an awesome little cabin full of games, books and flags from around the world. Amber and Jim have meticulously groomed the Rip Rap while retaining all the character that makes it super Coola.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British ColumbiaRip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

We spend the afternoon at the Rip Rap’s viewing platform on the Bella Coola River — the icing on the cake at the Rip Rap. I don’t think I’ll ever stay anywhere else in Bella Coola. With a bottle of wine and some good company, there’s no better place to be for those golden hours before sunset. The river is running fast from today’s rain and we spy a black bear on the far shore.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Sunday morning, with no tour to pull us out of bed, we sleep in and then head back out to the Belarko viewing platform. We talk with a few folks who were on the afternoon tour yesterday. They didn’t see any bears. We were lucky to be out in the morning. But here at Belarko now, we don’t see any bears either although, according to a ranger, a “big guy” wandered through this morning.

We leave after an hour and start driving back to Bella Coola. But a little voice inside my head says maybe we should make a quick stop at the pull-out where the tour ended yesterday. We turn into the parking lot, do a quick scan of our surroundings and walk to the river’s edge. That unmistakable rustle in the bushes is back, just to the left! This is a popular fishing spot and bears have the right of way. Everyone stops what they’re doing and waits.

Mama bear and her cub are coming down the river.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

She’s swimming while the cub makes its way along the shore. With poised strength she pulls herself out of the water, takes a moment to shake it off and continues across the log back into the river.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Shake it off

Shake it off

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mama bear fishes with her nose and eyes underwater until she snatches a Pink with her claws, puts it in her mouth and returns to shore where she can share it with her cub. Satisfied for the moment, they continue down the river out of view.

Grizzly bear on the Bella Cool River

Grizzly bear on the Bella Cool River

We head back to the Rip Rap where we’re looking forward to another afternoon at the viewing platform. The sun is out and we’ve got another bottle of wine, and right on cue a grizzly bear wanders into view along the far shore.

For the next hour, we’re captivated. We watch this bear splashing, pouncing and playing a long game of catch and release with an occasional stop to eat. He spends the afternoon in solitary playfulness like a cat with a ball of string. The moment is elemental, so far removed and blind to everything happening in the world. Just the bear, the river, the fish, the sun, the fog gathering and the cycle of life in the wild of Bella Coola.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Bella Coola River, British Columbia, Canada

Bella Coola River, British Columbia, Canada

Monday morning we take in one last view from the platform before leaving Rip Rap for the airport. The grizzly is out for another frolic on the shore. As I watch the sun light up the river, I can’t believe what an amazing trip we’ve had to this tiny town called Bella Coola.

Remarkable weekends like these are really having an effect on me. Vancouver has been slow to grow on me, mostly because I’m living here right after loving another city so completely (Singapore). It’s a bit like a rebound relationship. But the deeper I venture into British Columbia, the more I like it. Canada is expanding, if not entirely redefining, my definition of wilderness and my relationship to it. This is beautiful, vast, wild country that is winning my heart, one adventure (and grizzly bear) at a time.

My paternal grandfather had roots in Canada. Maybe it’s closer to home than I ever expected.

Miscellaneous Nature Outdoors Travel

Final Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

This is the last post of a four-part series. To read the first three posts, go here, here and here.

It was summer, 1972 — exactly 45 years ago. As my grandmother Peg set out on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe, I was almost two years old and learning to talk in the U.S., and my future husband was about a year old and learning to walk in Germany. When my grandmother landed in Frankfurt at the start of her itinerary, she was just 80 miles from his house. Small world.

Coincidences and connections are everywhere in the postcards she sent home and the journal entries she wrote. Reading them now, so many years later, I’ve discovered things we had in common that I never knew before. Among them, that we shared a deep affection for Rome and if she, or I, had to choose a site in Europe that left us most awe-struck, without question we would both choose St. Peter’s Basilica.

My grandmother had a fabulous time on her solo journey to Germany, France, England, Greece, Italy and Switzerland. She made friends along the way and embraced everything unfamiliar with curiosity and grace. But she had challenging days, too. In this final post of the series, she is worn out from looking for a hotel room, worn down from battling the heat, and worn thin from trying to communicate. All of us travelers have been in her shoes, so it’s easy to understand her frustration when she gets locked in her room and also experiences a major miscommunication with a hotel manager — who speaks English!

But Peg gets back on the right foot again and leaves us with some priceless thoughts about Italian men, Italian food and that feeling we all get when — even though the trip has been amazing — we’re done living out of a suitcase and ready to go home.

Well done, Grandma. You opened your heart, blazed a trail and left me with the most endearing account of your trip in postcards and journal entries. When you wrote, “Please save the cards I send” I don’t think you had any idea how many people would eventually read them and love them, 45 years later. You’re a star! But that’s nothing new to me. I love you.

Rome, July 16th

Rome, ItalyPostcards From My Grandmother, 1972July 16
Hi! Start saving your money so you can see St. Peter’s! This is worth the whole cost of a trip to Europe. I am absolutely stunned at its splendor! Everyone just gasps as they enter. Saw the Sistine Chapel this A.M. — simply magnificent! Saw yesterday the Forum, Coliseum, so many piazzas I can’t name them. Wish I could stay 2 wks. Food is the best in Europe so far — but expensive. Italians are great — love them! Thanks for your letter. Love, Mom

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972Rome     Pleasant     Rain at 5:30
July 15 — Saturday
Went through the Vatican & Sistine Chapel this A.M. Such crowds of people it was hard to hear the guide. The Raphael tapestries were gorgeous. Of course, the Sistine Chapel was fabulous but jammed with people & had to stand an hour & 45 minutes, but it’s worth it. I am still most impressed by St. Peter’s. Its impact is just unexcelled & unrivaled by anything else.

Rome
July 16 — Sunday
Went back to St. Peter’s today & spent about 3 hours. What a stunning place. It is surely my favorite place in Europe to visit.

Florence, July 19th

Florence, ItalyPostcards From My Grandmother, 1972July 19
Hi! Haven’t seen a thing in Florence yet. Spent the day just getting here & getting a hotel room. Waited in line 1 hour for a hotel reservation. Italy is hot & humid. Walked 2 blocks down the street to see what I could find & saw the most elegant shops with marble & silver artifacts. Saw the marble eggs you gave me — big containers of them. Beautiful — in all colors. Love Italy & the people — just great! Love — Mom.

Florence, July 20th & 21st

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972Florence
July 20 Thursday
Took the Am. Express morning tour. Saw the Baptistry, the Medici Palace, Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore, the Pitti Palace, & Galleries. In the afternoon I went to see Michelangelo’s David & then walked to Uffizi Gallery & window shopped. Such elegant shops — beautiful clothes, purses, & jewelry.

Florence
July 21 — Friday
Shopping today. Bought the big platters for each family. Am not real excited about my choices — but at least it’s something from Florence. Am. Express is trying to get me reservations in Lucern & Frankfurt. The hotel got me one in Venice, thank goodness.

Venice, July 22nd

Venice, ItalyPostcards From My Grandmother, 1972July 22
Am reading The Agony & The Ecstasy for obvious reasons
Hi! I’ve just loved Italy. The people are just great — so warm & so happy. The men really know how to treat a woman! Even the porters are gracious! No pinches — just consideration for a woman. I have loved the food. Our lasagna is all wrong. Must work on that when I get home. Venice is unique & colorful, but it doesn’t equal Rome or Florence. Love, Mom

Venice, July 24th

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972Venice     95°
July 24 — Monday
This has been the worst day of the whole trip. Without the Klingles I would have committed hari-kari (harakiri). Train 45 minutes late in leaving. Train like a 120° steam bath. Trip until Lake Lugano so hot & unbearable. Last 1 1/2 hours were refreshing when we got to Swiss border. Got to hotel at 10:00. Big mix-up about the room. I was starving & needed food — no water on the train, either. Washed my face & wanted to get some food. Locked in my room for 45 minutes …

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972… Nobody could unlock my door. Finally, a man was called into the case & he told me to throw my room key out the window. They finally got the room open & I ate a hamburger next door & then fell into bed — completely exhausted but loving the cool night air of Switzerland.
Hotel Cachet

Lucerne, July 25th

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972Lucerne
July 25
I was appalled at the price of this room but I do love it. Went out to find a cheaper one. Found one on the 4th, 5th or 6th floor of a hotel down the street for 30 Francs a night. Am going to have to take it. Back at the Cachet, I packed my bags but decided to wait to talk to the manager about my bill & pay her directly. She was due in at 11:00. When she came …

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972… I explained I could not pay the price she was asking. After much adding of figures I finally paid what I owed & prepared to leave. She said, “It’s a shame you don’t pay the 30 Francs still owed from now until Friday when you leave.” I was stunned. All this time she was talking about the cost of 4 nights & I was talking about the cost of one.

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972Lucerne
July 25 — Tuesday
Today I tried to recuperate from the heat. Have done nothing to exert myself. Just heavenly to have a shower and be cool. Window shopped & got mail from the Am. Express. Only one letter from Fred. Lucerne is beautiful, but I can’t see enough of the mountains. The city is so clean & the people so friendly.

Lucerne, July 27th

Lucerne, SwitzerlandPostcards From My Grandmother, 1972Hi! Will be glad to see you all. Love Lucerne. The lake is gorgeous. The food is fabulous. Having a nice rest here. I don’t think I could take another week. Love, Mom

Thank you all so much for reading and commenting on
Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972!

Miscellaneous Travel

Continued Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

This is the third post of a four-part series. To read the first two posts, go here:

Postcards from My Grandmother, 1972

More Postcards from My Grandmother, 1972

After Wiesbaden, Paris and London, my grandmother continued on to Athens and Rome. Although she found Greece entirely foreign and unbearably hot, she was fascinated by the culture and in love with the food. As travelers know … when everything is lost in translation, a good plate of food or a hot cup of tea can delightfully bridge the gap between you and your foreign surroundings.

To me, my grandmother’s postcards and journal entries from Rome (which will continue into the final post of this series) are the most special and endearing of the entire collection. I visited Rome for the first time in 2001 and just like her, I was awe-struck when I entered St. Peter’s Basilica, captivated by the elegance of Bernini’s sculptures, and generally transfixed by the entire city of Rome itself. It is one of my favorite cities in the world — so worth seeing that years ago I took my mother there for her birthday so she could experience it, too.

We are three generations all in love with Rome. Truly, the apples haven’t fallen far from the tree. Or maybe in Rome, the tomatoes from the vine!

Athens, July 5th

Athens, GreecePostcards From My Grandmother, 19727/5 – Athens
Hi! Hope everything is all right with all of you. Athens is sunny & I’ve had very little sun in Europe. Temp 80° with a wonderful breeze off the Mediterranean. It’s so blue! Saw the Greek islands from the air. They are not green & lush but arid with almost no green on them — not what I expected. This is really strange because even the alphabet is Greek to me! I can’t read the signs! Love, Mom
∆∆∆ — That’s Greek, but doesn’t help!
Sent toys from Herrod’s

Athens, July 6th

Tourkolimano, GreecePostcards From My Grandmother, 1972Athens – July 6
Hi! This is my idea of really being in a foreign country. Can’t understand anything except the money & you learn that fast out of necessity. I see things I can’t figure out, smell things I can’t identify & it is thoroughly fascinating! Had fish & eggplant for lunch — served separately but they tasted so different. Have met & seen only 2 Americans — a couple from Texas staying at the hotel. Had no trouble finding a cheaper one than I had last night. Love, Mom

 

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Athens   Hot
July 6 – Thursday
Spent the morning on foot looking for a hotel room.  Found one in about the 7th stop — Hotel Epidavros. Nice room for less than $3 — bathroom & shower right across the hall. Toured around on foot today to see the sights. The smells are what get me — so strange. Almost no one speaks English. Dimitrious carried my bags from the Ambassador to the Epidavros. He insisted! Nice boy.

Athens    Sweltering
July 7 – Friday
Took a tour to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon. Walked up the steepest steps & got separated from the tour. Read up on the history when I got back to the hotel. Saw the temple of Olympian Zeus, Hadrian’s Arch, the Stadium, & the Archeological Museum. Also saw the Olympic Stadium where the first Olympic Games were held in 1896. It is completely built of white marble but looks pale pink, just beautiful.

Athens, July 12th

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Athens   Sweltering   Must be 100°
Tuesday – July 11
Maria, her 4 cousins, & I went to Aegina by boat. It was a refreshing relief from the heat. Aegina is a little island where they make pottery. Ate lunch & the kids bought trinkets in the little shops. Got home tired but cooled somewhat.

Athens   Sweltering
July 12 – Wednesday
Dreadfully hot. Had my hair done at the Ambassadors Hotel. Feel civilized now. Spent the rest of the day trying to keep cool & repacking the luggage.

 

Aegina, GreecePostcards From My Grandmother, 1972Athens – July 12
Hi! Went to this little Greek island yesterday with Maria & her cousins. Had fun & got cooled off on the beautiful blue Mediterranean. Maria is so much fun & so sweet. She & I love Greek food & I’m hooked on fish soup. She really knows the right places to eat so I’m really enjoying this strange food. Hope you are well and having fun in the new house. Leave for Rome tomorrow. Looking forward to nice cool Switzerland. Love, Mom

Rome, July 13th

Rome, ItalyPostcards From My Grandmother, 1972July 13
Hi from beautiful Rome. It’s cool & raining. What a relief from Athens! Am staying in a singles hotel and I have a private bath for the first time in Europe. It’s really cozy. Walked past the Spanish Steps & down to the Trevi Fountain today. Tomorrow I see Rome. Saturday I see the Vatican & Sistine Chapel. Can’t wait! Saw the Forum on the way in from the airport. La dolce vita — Love, Mom

 

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Rome   Cool   Rain late aft.
July 13 – Thursday
Arrived in Rome after a beautiful flight. Rome is 71° and I think now I’ll live. Hotel Croce de Malta Via Bourgonona had a single with bath — $5.50. It’s great to have my own shower & toilet. Am on a side street one block from Spanish Steps. Walked to them this afternoon & to the Trevi Fountain. Love this city.

Rome   Great weather   Rain late afternoon   Moses Fountain
July 14 – Friday
Took 2 tours — Ancient Rome this A.M. Forum, Coliseum, Arch of Constantine, Circus Maximus, St. Paul outside the city, only pyramid outside Egypt. This afternoon was the highlight of the trip to Europe — St. Peter’s Square & Basilica. Absolutely stunning. Tourists gasp as they enter. Bernini sculpture is magnificent. Pantheon is a truly great sight too. Raphael’s tomb is there.

The fourth and final post of this series is coming up next week. Thanks for reading!

Miscellaneous

More Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

*This is the second post in a four-part series. To read the first post, go here.

After landing in Frankfurt and traveling to Paris, my grandmother departed for London on June 27th, 1972. She explored the city for one week and made a side trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon. By the end of the week, she loved London for its history and regalia but not for its weather or food. Her thoughts came to us in postcards and journal entries from a bygone era when family members would send letters abroad to their loved ones who were traveling, to be picked up at places like Claridge’s or through the services of American Express.

I think I knew my grandmother pretty well, but while reading her postcards now — 45 years after her trip and 15 years after her death — I find bits and pieces of information I didn’t know about her before. She experienced the same anxiety we’ve all had in learning how to navigate London’s Underground. She admired the Magna Carta at the British Museum, just like I did in 2007. She had an evident appreciation for Oxford commas, and soaking in a bathtub was one of her most cherished luxuries in life.

She was like all of us travelers — brave and bold to travel across the world, yet a little timid and unsure about what she would find on the other side. But as the world unfolds in front of her, the delight in her voice appears on the page. And one of the things I find most incredible is that when she saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, that palace was occupied by the same person who lives there today.

Long live the world’s great grandmothers!

*Click on any image to make it larger, or read the typed text below it.

London, June 28th

London, England

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Hi! The Queen & I send greetings. Arrived this AM. Have my first bathtub in 10 days — a welcome sight! I soaked and soaked! England is the city of white starched curtains in every window — Paris was the city of bright geraniums on every balcony. Meet my friends tomorrow at a hotel right around the corner. They didn’t have a single for tonight. Have to learn to ride the subway — scares me, but I’ve studied maps & think I know how to do it. Love, Mom

London, June 29th

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

London
June 29 — Went on a tour & thoroughly enjoyed it. Saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the Cloisters at Westminster Abbey. Saw much more but there were 2 places we got out. W. Abbey holding services so we could not go in today — St. Peter’s Day. Had an excellent guide — Pam — a real authority on British history. Cloisters were fascinating — replicas of all Coronation regalia. Changing of the guard very colorful & interesting. Went to Claridge’s & got mail — hit the jackpot — 5 letters.

London, July 1st

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Cold & cloudy
London
July 1 — Saturday
Went to Westminster Abbey — loved the Poet’s Corner, but still feel Notre Dame is more impressive. Went to the Cockney Pride & had Scotch eggs. I wasn’t too impressed with those. British cooking is so unimaginative! Then went to Dicken’s home & encountered no mobs of tourists. Then went to British Museum — saw the Reading Room, but enjoyed the manuscripts the most — the Magna Carta in particular.

London, England

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Hi! Hit the jackpot on mail & I feel better after hearing from you. Have taken 2 tours and have seen Old Curiosity Shop & the Crown Jewels which are stunning — a 317 carat diamond, & rubies & emeralds such as I’ve never seen  before. Weather is cool, pleasant, & sunshiny. Am flying to Athens from here. Can’t afford Austria. Money is just evaporating! Cheerio Luvs, Mom

London, July 2nd & 3rd

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Cold
London
July 2 — Sunday
Went to Stratford on Avon & what a delightful trip. On the way up, saw Oxford, Churchill’s grave, had coffee at the White Hart Inn  & saw the Rollright Stones (1500 B.C.) — older than Stonehenge. Had lunch at the Shakespeare Hotel (roast beef & Yorkshire pudding). Visited Shakespeare’s birthplace & Ann Hathaway’s cottage, a 12 room house with a beautiful flower garden. Cold & dreary day but the Eng. countryside is beautiful rolling land with beautiful trees.

London
July 3
Went to the bank, then rode the Underground to Herrod’s. Had lunch there and had my hair done. What a treat! Herrod’s is exclusive & expensive. Was not impressed with the toy department. Bathroom shop was fun with the flowered bathtubs.

Stratford-Upon-Avon, July 5th

Stratford-Upon-Avon, England

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

July 4
Yippee!
Have really enjoyed London. Saw everything, I think. Loved the changing of the guard, Mme. Tussaud’s wax works, and Stratford On Avon which we did on Sunday. Have taken in British Museum, West. Abbey, saw Churchill’s grave, 10 Downing St., Dicken’s home, Fleet St., the Tower of London, & on & on. The weather is gloomy, gray, & overcast. It is cold in the mornings. Have worn a coat every day but one. Something about icebergs in the Atlantic. Fly to Greece tomorrow. Love, Mom

Thank you for reading! To read the next post in this series, go here.

Miscellaneous
Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

When I think of her, I picture her sitting at the kitchen table next to the window, working on the crossword puzzle in the Denver Post. A deck of cards sits in front of her next to a stack of papers to be graded. Depending on what day it is, she’s either watching the weekend golf tournament or looking forward to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Depending on what time it is, she might be drinking a scotch and water. A shallow glass dish on the coffee table holds a handful of lemon drops, and the living room decor centers on turquoise. She steps outside to enjoy the shade of the back patio. The grass has been cut, leaving the distinct scent of summer lingering in the air. Mint grows thick along the north side of her single-story brick house and her pinkish ’65 Ford Mustang is parked in the driveway.

My grandmother and my mother, 1945

My grandmother and my mother, 1945

My grandmother’s name was Margaret but everyone called her Peg. She earned a living as a middle school English teacher in an inner city school district of Denver, where her love of the English language met the challenge of teaching teenagers. She had the demeanor to handle it — serious and scholarly but happy to see any child learning and growing, including me. I don’t remember her being a disciplinarian but her desire for me and her other grandchildren to be good students, good people and succeed in life was always deeply implied in the focus and intensity of her pure blue eyes.

In 1972, my grandmother was divorced, in her late fifties and planning what would be her first (and only) trip to Europe. She would land in Frankfurt, see a bit of Germany, travel to Paris and on to London. From there, she would fly to Greece, travel to Rome, Florence and Venice, and end her trip in Switzerland. She would go alone except for a few acquaintances she knew who were also traveling to Europe for the summer break. I admire my grandmother’s courage to take on such a grand itinerary by herself, as a single woman, with very little travel experience. In one trip, she defined Go Big or Go Home before it was ever a trendy cliché.

When my grandmother passed away 15 years ago, I inherited a few of her possessions including her travel journal and postcards from this once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe. I was just beginning my deep dive into traveling the world so I wasn’t yet aware of the significance these items would eventually have for me. Today, I cherish her journal and postcards not only as a record of traveling in a different era but also as a portrait of her character and personality. She was sometimes pessimistic and frustrated but a nice sunset or a good meal or even a bathtub in a hotel room could persuade her back to happiness.

She departed for Europe forty-five years ago this month. She shared her thoughts and experiences using the social media of her day — postcards from abroad sent by mail to my family. They offer a unique look at the challenges of travel so long ago — no internet, no Google maps, no booking ahead, no way of knowing where you’re going to stay upon arrival. No, no, no, no. But my grandmother said YES to all of it and documented much of it. I’ll be sharing her journey with you in a series of four posts over the next few weeks. I hope you enjoy her thoughts, her experiences and the trail she blazed for many of us travelers who have followed in her footsteps.

*Click on any image to make it larger, or read the typed text below it.

Wiesbaden, June 18th

Wiesbaden, Germany

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Hi! The logistics of all this is really a hassle! But here I am in Wiesbaden on a beautiful Sun. afternoon. Frankfurt is noisy and confusing. I came here by train, got a hotel room, and feel as though I’m learning the ropes fast! I’m in a sidewalk café having a drink and enjoying all the local color. Everyone is so nice! I just smile & nod my head! Love, Mom

Paris, June 20th

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Hi! Greetings from la belle France! Am having the most unbelievable experiences! Ran into Dave Mendes from Morey (junior high school) while buying apricots for the train trip to Paris. This was in Cablentz at the end of the Rhine boat trip. Can you believe it? We had lunch together! Slept on the train & got a hotel 1 block off Champs Elysee for $5 a night. All is well! Love, Mom

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Paris
Cool, Need a coat
June 20
Paris — We arrived at 6:40 and the Jensens & I had coffee & then parted company. I then met a nice New Jersey gal who told me where to find out about rooms. French Tourism — 125 Champs Elysée. Took a taxi & came down the C.E. with the sun hitting the Arc de Triomphe & it was so beautiful. They got me a cheap room & I took it sight unseen. I learned something. It’s a hole in a garret. I feel like a starving literary genius. No window — just a skylight. If the weather were hot, it would be insufferable. The water won’t stay in the sink so I can’t wash clothes successfully. I was dismayed when I saw it, but it’s less than $5 a day, so I’m going to rough it — 22 Francs to be exact. Always ask if the room has a window! It still is not as bad as Frankfurt!

Paris, June 21st

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Paris
June 21
Toured the city on a tour bus & thoroughly enjoyed it. Am learning the city layout. Have not had the nerve to ride the Metro. I can walk the full length of the Champs Elysee without too much trouble. It ends at the Place de la Concorde where Tuileries Gardens & the Louvre begin. It is probably a mile & a half — but so exciting. I can’t believe the traffic! C’est dangereux!

Paris, June 23rd

Notre-Dame de Paris

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Cool, & cloudy. Please save the cards I send
Bonjour! Toured the Louvre and learned what you told me — all the early sculptures were painted. Guide pointed out traces of red paint on men’s hair & lips. Wish you had been with me, Jo, to enjoy the masterpieces. Only 12 Raphaels DaVincis in the world & 6 are in the Louvre. All have the Mona Lisa expression as the guide pointed out. I’m exhausted but loving it! Love, Mom

Paris, June 26th

Place du Tertre, Paris

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

Hi! Have walked about 20 miles today. Saw Notre Dame & went in. The stained glass windows are truly majestic — just magnificent. Saw the stalls along the Seine. Walked back again to the Louvre & did the Rubens gallery. Just huge pictures & at least 20 of them. They must be each 20 ft. by 20 ft. Voluptuous women. Hope you’re all well. Kiss Kelly & Tommy for me. Next from jolly old London. Love, Mom

You can find part two of four posted here. Thank you for reading!

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