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!

Miscellaneous

Short Stories from Mumbai

Gate of India, Mumbai

Gate of India, Mumbai

Last month, spending ten days in Mumbai left such a powerful lasting impression that I haven’t written a word here since I returned. Not since Peru in 1999 and Cambodia in 2010 has a destination left me so deep in thought, so totally at a loss for words. The emotions I feel and the questions I have alternate between hope and despair. I would guess that if you’ve spent any time in Mumbai you might feel the same. Mumbai is undeniably a productive and thriving city, rich in culture and humanity. But the pace of its growth and the dire state of its infrastructure is a foreboding juxtaposition.

Traveling through a metropolitan area with more than 20 million people shoves all the associated problems right in your face — transportation, jobs, waste, sanitation and pollution among them. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast Mumbai with Tokyo — a larger city with a far more robust infrastructure accommodating a metropolitan population of more than 38 million. These are two of the world’s largest cities but they are vastly different in their complexions. Tokyo is clean and efficient, with an underlying etiquette that maintains control. Mumbai is dirty and loud, with a relentless bustle that cannot be avoided. But in the middle of it all, glimpses of beauty are everywhere — like the architecture of Victoria Terminus or the care taken in displaying a basket of vegetables.

Streets of Mumbai, India

Streets of Mumbai, India

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness…” I think travel is also fatal to judgement. For everything I saw and experienced in Mumbai, I have no judgement. I think the people of Mumbai are doing the very best they can in the conditions they’re living in, some of which are heartbreaking. The people I met were lovely — curious, engaging, gracious and smiling. And they’re brilliant at dealing with horrendous traffic (and an unexpected currency crisis!) with grace and compromise. Try taking a taxi from the Gate of India to Powai around 7:00 p.m. (with no small change!) and you’ll see what I mean.

From the broadest perspective, Mumbai scared me. At the closest interactions, Mumbai endeared me. These are the short stories in between.

***

Finding Myself in Dharavi

If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you probably know of Dharavi — Mumbai’s largest slum and one of the most densely populated places on the planet with between 700,000 to 1,000,000 residents in less than one square mile (2.1 sq. km). I toured some of Dharavi with Reality Tours. (Their tour is not for photography, only for education and they give back to Dharavi through Reality Gives.) At first thought, touring a slum might seem sad and exploitive but seeing Dharavi was one of the most enlightening experiences for me in Mumbai. Dharavi hums with productivity — from recycling (plastic mostly, sorted by color and melted into pellets) to pottery to the production of nearly all the poppadoms served in Mumbai. Trash is a huge problem in Mumbai and, were it not for the recycling happening in Dharavi, I can’t imagine how much worse it would be.

People living and working in Dharavi come from all over India, in search of good jobs and wages they can send home. The economic output of Dharavi is more than USD $500 million annually. Hazardous working conditions leave a lot to be desired, but many jobs in Dharavi are coveted and kept in the family. For instance, if a man from Himal Pradesh who works in scrap metal suddenly needs to go home, he’ll send a family member to take his place until he can return.

Upon seeing Dharavi, I saw hope along with the universal human desire for a decent life no matter the challenges. As Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

***

Dhobi Ghat

Proof that there is order to the chaos of Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is the city’s largest manually powered laundromat. Viewed from a bridge at the south side, Dhobi Ghat is a maze of concrete washing pens and a patchwork of sheets and clothing hanging out to dry. The complex is as fascinating for its size and function as it is for the life and labor within its walls. Kids play in the water, a dhobi brushes his teeth, mom watches the baby and somehow all those sheets and towels — sorted by color and washed by hand — find their way back to all the hotels and hospitals where they came from.

***

Photos at the Jain Temple

I stood in central Mumbai, admiring the detail of a new Jain temple constructed entirely of marble. Photos were not allowed, so I just stared for a few minutes while thinking about Jainism — all new to me. One of the main teachings of Jainism is non-violence, or ahimsa. Jains are strict vegetarians and also avoid eating root vegetables because they believe removing a plant by its root inflicts harm. Jains also try not to harm insects and even avoid traveling at night because if you can’t see insects, you can’t avoid harming them.

The man overseeing the temple must have appreciated my interest because he motioned that it was okay for me to take photographs. Sweet! But really, he mostly wanted me to take a photo of him and his buddies — some of whom were more willing than others. But the interest in having your picture taken? That’s also a pretty universal human desire. And if you can share the result in the display of your DSLR… even better.

***

Funny with Sunny

Sunny was my guide through Dharavi and I also  booked a private walking tour with him so I wouldn’t get lost in the mayhem of Mumbai while shooting photos. After a few hours at the Crawford Market (next post), flower market, sari market and seeing all the cows at Bombay Panjrapole, we hopped a cab back to our starting point. The taxi driver was super chatty (in Hindi), telling Sunny all about the drama of driving a taxi. Sunny turned to me and told me that his father is a taxi driver so he already knew all about this subject, so I taught Sunny a new English phrase: preaching to the choir.

The taxi driver turned his attention to me — “Madam” — in the backseat. He asked Sunny where I was from, then continued with a curious string of questions about Madam translated by Sunny. Are there trees where Madam is from? Do they grow crops where Madam is from? Does Madam eat rice? Do they grow rice where Madam is from? Most of it is imported, I told Sunny — an unexpected answer.

The driver was excited to have a translator in the car — he couldn’t speak much English or communicate with any tourists. He told Sunny that his conversations usually consisted of two sentences: How much to Colaba? Okay, go to Colaba. He told Sunny he wanted me to speak some Hindi so I read Sunny’s Hindi phrase card and did my best to get it right. We all had a good laugh.

***

Rajesh and the Rickshaw Rides

Upon walking down the driveway of the hotel on my first full day in Mumbai, a rickshaw driver stopped me and asked me where I was going.

“Down to the main street and turning right into the neighborhood.” I could see the neighborhood from my hotel room. It looked questionable but so did everything in Mumbai.

He pointed to his face and made a circle with his finger.

“You are white. Don’t go there.”

I had promised everyone that I would be careful in Mumbai and heed any warnings. This was a warning. Whether it was just to get me to ride in his rickshaw, I’ll never know. But I found out later that this driver — Rajesh — lived in that neighborhood so perhaps he was right in telling me to stay away.

Rajesh took me roundtrip to a more acceptable neighborhood (by his standards) and I took his number when I got back to the hotel. A couple days later I texted him about going to the Khaneri Caves (post coming soon). With rupees in such short supply, I negotiated in Canadian dollars and he picked me up the next morning. The caves were exceptional and when he dropped me back at the hotel I handed him two twenty dollar bills — the $35 we had agreed on, plus a tip for waiting for me throughout the five hour excursion.

Later that day I got a text.

“mam one peypar is crek.”

One of the plastic twenty dollar bills had a crack in it.

“Put clear tape one side. No problem in Canada.” I was flashing back to Myanmar where only pristine, crisp U.S. bills had been accepted when we were there. One tear or blemish rendered the bills unacceptable.

“ok mam i chak.”

“If problem, come back. I have only one more paper but can exchange with you.”

“okay mam i chak.then messages you.”

“OK. Leaving early morning for Goa!”

I didn’t want to leave him hanging. But the clear tape must have worked because I didn’t hear back from him until a week later.

“mam you back in mumbai?”

“Back in Canada!”

“mam any job in canada for me?”

***

 

Miscellaneous

Leaving My Heart in Havana

Havana, Cuba

The song accompanying this post is Besos Discretos performed by Fusión Caribe, a fantastic band on the streets of Havana. Video follows below.

We arrive in darkness around midnight, packed in a taxi, creeping along a narrow street in La Habana Vieja. Our driver speaks very little English, but stopping and turning off the engine is a pretty clear indication that we’ve arrived at our casa particular. Our host meets us on the street and shows us into the building. We climb five flights of stairs and enter the tall wooden door to our apartment.

Even though I’ve seen the photos online, our casa particular unexpectedly sweeps me up in its aura, with its decorative floor tiles and unreachable high ceilings. The photos on the wall offer a few hints about the history of the neighborhood over the past decades. The gold chandelier looks cherished but forgotten. The refrigerator is a relic. The parlor doors swing open to the warm night air and the balcony looks out on a street where thousands of days and nights and people have come and gone in Havana. This place has so many stories to tell.

We sleep and wake up the next morning to music. It’s a fusion of sounds coming from all over — below us, out front, out back. The combined rhythms eventually pull me out of bed. No one seems to mind the noise. This is just how Cuba wakes up in the morning. I follow the strongest beat to the back of the apartment and look out from the open air dining area where I’m greeted by a bright yellow wall against a blue sky. How curious that someone has felt strongly enough to paint half a wall in such a magnetic color in such an unusual location. Like the morning music, it’s another clue about the spirit of Cuba.

View across the street in Havana

View across the street in Havana

As the morning goes on I become a dance partner with the balcony overlooking the street, where the neighborhood has come to life. Outside, inside, outside, inside… I unpack in the bedroom while taking quick little breaks to see who and what is passing by below. I see I’m not the only dancer. Everyone with a balcony has mastered this same choreography. Outside, inside. Inquire, retreat.

Havana, Cuba

Firewood delivery at the Italian café

Our casa particular is located across the street from a wonderful little Italian café where we enjoy coffee, breakfast and a warm welcome to the neighborhood. An old Ford Model T pulls up with a delivery of firewood for the café’s pizza oven. The scene in front of me probably doesn’t look all that different now than it would have in the 1930s.

Havana, Cuba

We walk to the malecón where the road and the seawall extend for several miles in a graceful curve on the north side of the city. The heat and sun are as intense as the blue of the sky and the colors of the cars driving by. These classic cars are everywhere, inspiring our constant speculation about make, model and year. It seems almost miraculous that so many are still running and in pretty great shape (the exteriors, at least) some fifty+ years since manufacture.

A tiny vintage cab shuttles us over to the cerveceria near the ferry terminal and art market. It’s our first of many experiences with live music, beer and cigars. In this heat, a cold beer tastes really good. We hang out for a couple hours and continue our walk around the city.

Most of the architecture of Havana is in dire need of restorative attention, but the remaining beauty offers tantalizing hints at how incredible this city must have been in its heyday in the early to mid-1900s. During that time, Cuba was enjoying freedom from former rule by Spain and relations between Cuba and the U.S. were functional. Havana flourished from a boom in tourism and foreign investment, but the growth of casinos and nightclubs brought gambling, prostitution and organized crime. This, along with repeated upheavals within the government, meant that the years leading up to the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s were prosperous but challenging.

Shortly after the Revolution and introduction of communism, foreign-owned assets were expropriated and the U.S. embargo began. Cuba set off on a new path, independent of the sources of its previous economic success. The country stagnated and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union further degraded the economy. Cuba found itself trapped in time, with no way to move forward.

Havana’s streets tell the whole story — with plazas and churches from the 1700s alongside formerly beautiful buildings left unprotected from the clutch of age. With pastel colors and Spanish Colonial features, some streets resemble an unlikely mash-up between Prague and Cuzco. Other streets are rough and decaying but there’s always at least one friendly face peeking out from a window or a doorway. In some cases, the face we see belongs to Che Guevara. His visage is everywhere and it seems he’s the most endeared figure of the Revolution.

Havana, Cuba

Plaza de San Francisco

We come to the Plaza de San Francisco and the rain begins to pour down. We rush into Restaurante Café del Oriente and feel like we’ve suddenly stepped 75 years back in time. The grit is gone and we’ve found Havana’s old opulence in this cafe’s enormous columns, Baroque crown moulding, and marble and brass bar. A young man plays a grand piano in the corner. He reads the crowd and spices things up with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody thrown in among the usual piano classics.

Havana27

The rain passes in an hour, leaving the city with a dull and dirty glow. We walk back toward our casa particular as life returns to the streets after the storm. J stops for a haircut at the local barbershop — a tradition he follows in every country we visit. He never knows what he’s gonna get, but this guy in Havana does a better job than anyone in any other country. For 10 bucks.

Havana, Cuba

We get to the casa particular and I’m sucked back into the allure of the balcony, and Havana in general. The afternoon turns to evening, I watch the world go by and I wonder why we waited so long to bypass the border and come to Cuba. As Americans, the story we hear is that Cuba is barely getting by without us … unable to really prosper without the support of its biggest neighbor. Certainly, the Cuban people do face a lot of challenges but in the one day I’ve been in Havana I’ve seen happiness, warmth, gratitude, ingenuity and prosperity. It is far from destitute and the people here have pride, energy and determination. Cuba is not a country of people sitting idle with their hands out wondering when help is going to arrive.

Our sweet old ride in Havana

Our sweet old ride in Havana

The next two days take us even deeper into the heart of Havana. We hire a driver with a classic car to take us to the sights outside of La Habana Vieja. The Hotel Nacional sits along the malecón, overlooking the ocean. Our guide tells us it’s the first time in decades that the Cuban and American flags are able to hang side-by-side at the entrance, thanks to the diplomacy of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama. Everyone we talk to about the recent political developments is happy the two nations are reconciling.

We stop at the Plaza de la Revolución — an enormous and featureless plot of pavement for important gatherings in Havana. Fidel Castro and Pope Francis have both spoken here. To the north, Che is memorialized in a steel line drawing on the side of the Ministry of Interior. The tower on the south side of the plaza is a memorial for José Martí, an intellectual who inspired Cuba’s independence from Spain. It’s fascinating to me that this island nation of just 12 million people has been the source of such dramatic history over the past 150 years — colonial rule, independence, revolts, the Revolution, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. embargo, and the saga of Guantanamo Bay. Maybe it’s that the principle characters of Cuba’s biography have been such dramatic figures themselves and geography has unavoidably provided the stage.

Except for the book market, where these history lessons are lined up on the shelves, Havana has a peaceful demeanor that belies its tumultuous past. Business on the streets seems to be doing okay. People are selling what they can to make a living — fruit, coconuts, cleaning supplies, vintage books and magazines (Nat Geo from 1923, anyone?), and even vinegar and cooking oils in recycled bottles that have been sealed up with packing tape. Stores, on the other hand, lack any proof that basic household needs can be reliably purchased. Shelves are empty except for canned tomatoes, cooking oil, baby formula and rum. Lots of rum. Necessity has forced the invention of the thriving economy we see on the street.

Havana, Cuba

We come across a group of guys playing a fierce game of dominoes around a nicely crafted table outside an apartment building. We watch and learn, and I love that they’re not at all bothered by our curiosity. I turn to look down the street and a classic car is coming toward us. But the driver sees some friends on the sidewalk, so he just parks the car and everyone enjoys a quick catch-up on the side of the street. It is Sunday afternoon in Havana.

I can’t keep writing about Cuba if I don’t start writing about the music. The two go hand-in-hand. Never before have I been to a country where sound is such an integral part of the identity of a nation. In the handful of days we spend in Havana, we have the pleasure of hearing no less than nine groups performing on the streets and in the restaurants. Music is everywhere. It seems like everyone sings or plays an instrument, and we see a couple of the best musicians around town accompanying different bands at different times of the day.

When the maracas get shaking and the bongos start banging, the rhythm of Cuba comes alive and street corners come to a standstill as everyone gathers to enjoy the music. The musicians themselves can’t resist the call to move. Their feet, their hips, their wrists … everything moves with a little bit of flare and swirl that is uniquely Cuban. Happiness radiates. Music might be the one thing — the most enduring thing — that has carried the country through history and escaped the turmoil and economic hardship. No wonder it’s such a big part of life.

Havana, Cuba

The one and only Coronet

On our last night in Havana, J chooses one more classic car for a final spin around the city — a big, beautiful, burgundy, convertible Coronet. The only one in the entire country. As we take a look at the car, we get to know the family who owns it. The father is the driver and the son-in-law, who speaks perfect English, is the tour guide. Ingenuity meets opportunity.

We cast aside the tour map and tell the guys we just want to cruise around for an hour. The son-in-law replies, “Ooooh, you want to cruuuuuuuuze! I get it!”

We all pile into the car and dad starts the engine with a big smile. I think he’s just as excited as we are to go drive around. He pulls away from the rainbow of classic cars parked near the capitol building. We go slow. We cruuuuze. We drive 20 miles an hour as the sun sets beyond the malecón, and we couldn’t be happier seeing Havana one more time from The Coronet. It’s an experience we’ll never forget — an experience found only in Cuba.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been completely enraptured by a city but Havana has all the elements that make it happen — history, art, architecture, beauty, kind people, heart, heat, spirit and music … so much music. And the food? It’s okay. There is a lot of lobster so it could be worse. But let’s just say … the food is poised for its own revolution.

I’ll raise a mojito and toast to that, as I run out to the balcony one last time and say goodbye to Havana. I already can’t wait to come back.

Above: Fusión Caribe performing in Havana, Cuba

***

Next post: Trinidad

Previous post: Carnaval: Into the Heart of Cuba

Experience

Road Trip Oman: Nizwa and Final Thoughts

oman145

We arrived in Nizwa last night after a long day exploring Jebel Shams and the aged village of Misfat Al Abriyeen. Today is our last full day in Oman. We start early, meandering the narrow streets surrounding downtown Nizwa. Crumbling stone walls and newly constructed homes co-exist amidst an unlikely landscape of palm trees. As we’ve seen over the past 10 days, life in Oman is an illustration of extremes — the bounty of the ocean next to the vacancy of the desert; the stark mountains next to the lush palm groves of the wadis. There is hardly any middle ground. Even the middle of the day is a barren stretch of time deserted by everything but the sun.

We look for a place to get coffee — a comfort of home in a foreign town. But as we walk around Nizwa, we’re reminded again that Oman exists for itself and not for its visitors. Not that it’s unfriendly — we’ve been welcomed and treated well everywhere we’ve been. But it’s what we don’t find here in Nizwa — cafés full of tourists, menus in four languages, guides selling tours, vendors competing for attention — that shows Oman’s success at maintaining its authenticity. Even though a cappuccino would be really nice right now, it’s far nicer to find a place holding onto its identity, sharing itself but not giving itself away. No coffee, no problem. I think it’s my own expectation that’s misplaced here. In Oman, coffee is meant to be shared among people rather than bought for oneself.

We come to the entrance of Nizwa Fort, built in the middle of the 17th century and recently restored in the 1980s. Many centuries ago Nizwa was Oman’s capital, located at the crossroads of caravan routes. The fort was built to protect the city and house its leaders. Muscat has since become Oman’s center of government and trade but Nizwa remains significant for its character and history.

The fort is a surprising maze of staircases and rooms, including a tiny prison — a stuffy, windowless den. We eventually find our way to the central tower. Evidence of a brutal war tactic remains. Above each wooden door to the tower there’s a hole where boiling oil or date syrup could be poured over incoming enemies.

The tower itself measures 45 meters in diameter. We climb one of the side staircases to a panoramic view of Nizwa and the surrounding mountains.

The souk and streets around the fort hold the bounty of Nizwa — beautiful clay pots, brass tea pots, khanjars so emblematic of Oman and, of course, everything related to frankincense — from burners to resin. The Boswellia tree, native to Oman and a few countries nearby, emits sap when the bark is “striped”. This tree sap hardens into resin and carries a distinct aroma. The resin can be burned, distilled into oil and even eaten (with some interesting cancer- and depression-fighting capabilities of note). When I arrived in Oman I had never smelled frankincense but it has infused our time here like a trail through a forest. Whether it’s burning in a diffuser or wafting from the dishdasha of someone passing by, the scent is ever present and irresistible.

Frankincense

Frankincense

I’ve already bought some frankincense accessories to take home, but I buy another burner as we make one last walk through the souk. We pass men sitting together on the ground playing a board game, the fruit and vegetable market beats a slow pulse nearby, and life prepares to shut down for the afternoon.

We reluctantly make our way to the car knowing our time in Oman is coming to an end. We pass a road sign warning us of camel crossings as we begin the drive back to Muscat. Looking out the window as Oman’s exotic landscape passes me by, I am more intrigued now than when I arrived 10 days ago.

There is something enchanting about this country — a beauty revealed slowly and quietly over time. Take any part of Oman by itself — like the hot, empty desert — and it most certainly wouldn’t be so memorable. But the sum of its parts — that same desert with its warmth, sunset, rustic camp, dinner by candlelight, sweet dates, blissful bed, evening silence, morning fog, impossibly fine sand and genuine hospitality — creates an unforgettable sensory experience. This trip has been a series of sensory experiences. Travel at its best. The elusive feeling of discovery has returned.

Here’s a look back at my favorite memories of Oman. May my home forever smell of frankincense.

This is the final post in my series about Oman. The series begins here.

Miscellaneous Road Trip