Category Archives: Travel

Mi Smo Tako Sretni – We Are So Lucky!

It was on the Island of Korčula that two opposing visions began to converge.

While we were cycling in the southern Dalmatian Islands of Croatia, one of our riding companions began to exclaim at every opportunity, “We are so lucky!”

“Why is that?” I asked.

Our transport awaits at Prigradica, Korčula

Our transport awaits at Prigradica, Korčula

“Look at us,” Heather would say. Here we are, riding on this beautiful island on a warm September day. Friends, all in good spirits, surround us. Everywhere we look, there are stunning vistas. We get back to our luxurious yacht for a fine meal, and first we go for a swim in this clear, warm Adriatic ocean. The roads, the villages, and the countryside are so peaceful. Think of all the people who aren’t able to be here and enjoy this right now. “We are so damned lucky!”

While I couldn’t fault Heather’s logic, after hearing this several times a day, it began to grate on me. So I asked one of our guides for a translation into Croatian. “Mi smo tako sretni,” he said. It had a ring to it – once I got the pronunciation right – so I began to prod my shipmates with this from time to time. “Mi smo tako sretni!” The phrase began its work while we began to absorb some of Korčula’s history.

A small-town church on Korčula

A small-town church on Korčula

While today, this island of anglers, vignerons, and hosteliers feels pretty laid back, it was not always so. The history of invasions and takeovers reads like a “Who’s Who” of the continent.

Between 1000 BC and 900 AD, Korčula was invaded by the Illyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Slavs, and the Byzantine Empire. Then the pace picked up. Over the next 500 years, the Island’s rulers included the Serbian kingdom of Raška, the Slavic kingdom of Zahumlje, the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), the Republic of Venice, the Croatian kingdom of Krka, the Hungarian monarchy, the Republic of Genoa, Venice (again), the Kingdom of Hungary (a couple more times), the Kingdom of Bosnia, the Serbian Kingdom of Zeta, and finally ended up back under the thumb of Venice in 1409.

Impromptu a capella performance. Some say that Marco Polo was born in Korčula during its Venetian occupation

Impromptu a capella performance. Some say that Marco Polo was born in Korčula during its Venetian occupation

In 1571, the Islanders repelled an Ottoman Turkish attack, and then – except for frequent attacks by pirates – things settled down. However, in 1797, a new series of takeovers began, including the Hapsburg Monarchy of Vienna, the French under Napoleon, the Kingdom of Montenegro, France again, the British, and finally ended up under the rule of the Austrian Empire in 1815.

During WWI, the Island was caught between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Italians (after they switched sides.) Italy won out in 1918, but in 1921, Korčula became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. For the first two years of WWII, the new central authority was the Banovina of Croatia, but between 1941 and 1944, the Island fell under the control of Mussolini’s Italy, then the communist Yugoslav Partisans, then Nazi Germany, and finally the Allied Forces.

Close call.  Not far to the Pelješac Peninsula on the mainland.

Close call. Not far to the Pelješac Peninsula on the mainland.

After 1945, the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was in charge, until Croatia declared its independence in 1991. The war for independence largely bypassed Korčula although most of the nearby Croatian coast was less fortunate. However, it would seem that the Islanders have had to endure a considerable helping of violence and upheaval over the past three thousand years.

As the reality of this history began to sink in, I began to see our good fortune in a new light. Because my grandparents located in a relatively peaceful part of the western hemisphere – one that was to become quite prosperous – I have not had to grow up in the shadow of war and cycles of violence. Instead, I had the opportunity to become better off financially than the overwhelming majority of the world’s inhabitants. We can afford to cruise the Dalmatian Islands on a well-appointed yacht, and have our every need catered to. As our friend Heather said, “Mi smo tako sretni.”

Mi smo tako sretni - we are so lucky. Near Lastovo.

Mi smo tako sretni – we are so lucky. Near Lastovo.

As we toured a number of other areas in Croatia and nearby, the contrast between our good fortune and the recent suffering of others kept bubbling up.

It started in Dubrovnik as we sat with our friendly Airbnb host on his balcony, admiring the spectacular view of the Old Town spread out below us. Not twenty years earlier, our host had been unable to venture onto the balcony for fear of sniper fire from Yugoslav forces on the hilltop above. At age 13, he was stuck inside with his grandmother, while his parents worked as medics in a nearby war zone.

From high on Srđ, destruction rained down on Dubrovnik

From high on Srđ, destruction rained down on Dubrovnik

Later, on top of that same hilltop – Mount Srđ – we could see the view the gunners would have had as they shelled the city of Dubrovnik below. Built as protection from medieval forces, the famous walls were of little use in protecting the citizens from late-20th-century armaments. Srđ now hosts a sobering museum filled with photographs of taken during the siege of Dubrovnik. As you wander the streets with thousands of other happy tourists, it’s hard to imagine the pain and destruction of the 1990s.

The rustic shelters high up Mt Velebit served as refuge from coastal pirates for centuries

The rustic shelters high up Mt Velebit served as refuge from coastal pirates for centuries

In the Islands, there are echoes of slightly more distant wars. The Island of Prezba, adjacent to Lastovo, was a Yugoslav military base during the Cold War. With the Italian coast less than 200 km distant, this area would have been part of the front-line in the 45-year standoff between East and West. Now, fortunately, the island flora is reclaiming the fortifications. Up the coast, similar tunnels dug into the base of Mt. Velebit will become a new tourist attraction next year. Perhaps Tito intended to hide out here if the Russians and Americans started lobbing nukes at each other.

Mostar from the Bridge. A war zone not so long ago.

Mostar from the Bridge. A war zone not so long ago.

In the middle of our week of cycling, our tour bused us all out to the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar is famous for the Old Bridge (Stari Most) after which it is named. The bridge, now a UN Heritage Site, was built in 1566 when Bosnia was under Ottoman rule. During the ethnic fighting that took place in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the bridge was destroyed. In 2004, the bridge reopened, having been reconstructed from original plans and using original material that had fallen into the river during the bombardment. It now serves as a symbol of peace.

Remnants of war for sale at the Mostar bazaar.

Remnants of war for sale at the Mostar bazaar.

Still, the signs of the recent war are all around in Mostar. Plaques in the market read, “Never forget 1993.” A cross on the hill above town commemorates some of the victims of the war. Here and there between the tourist shops are the bombed out shells of buildings that have yet to be reclaimed from the fighting. In the part of town that divided Croat from Bosniak ethnic groups, apartment buildings are still pockmarked in shrapnel wounds. It’s sobering to imagine what those years must have been like. Over 100,000 people died in the Bosnian conflict. Today however, the only visible conflict seems to be among tourists for open-air tables or the best views of the young men who once again jump off the new Old Bridge.

Some of the falls at Plitvice Lakes

Some of the falls at Plitvice Lakes

The week after our cycling trip, we traveled to Croatia’s famous Plitvice Lakes National Park. This is a unique region of unparalleled beauty, where calcium-laden rivers of unbelievable shades of blue create a “Land of Waterfalls.” It’s impossible to convey the scope of this landscape with a single picture. As you walk down the trails and boardwalks, it’s as if you are right in the middle of the cascading falls. Between the falls are peaceful lakes, and the entire scene is surrounded by forest.

Our home for five nights would be right in the park, in the small village of Korana, nestled on the banks of the same river that sculpts the waterfalls. Just a handful of houses, Korana boasts one of the few still operating water-powered grain mills. Our accommodation in a private home had no WiFi. The valley walls blocked cell phone reception. As we walked along the bank of the river that first early Fall evening, the smoke curled peacefully up from the woodstoves. The tranquility carried with it a soothing balm for the soul. But there is pain that lies beneath.

Our home at Korana Village - peaceful once again

Our home at Korana Village – peaceful once again

Our host explained to us that most of the homes had been destroyed during the Croatian conflict. All the men had spent a year in prisoner-of-war camps run by enemy militias. “If they seem a little strange now,” he said, “perhaps you’ll understand why.”

Right in the beautiful park at Plitvice were fired some of the first shots of the conflict that would rage for three years. Plitvice was the centre of the area of Croatia known as Krajina, which stretches in a big arc along 40% of the Croatian-Bosnian border. During the Middle Ages the Austrian Empire encouraged large numbers of Serbs to settle in this area as a “buffer” against the Ottoman possessions in Bosnia. In recent times there were several hundred thousand Serbs living in this area, with some areas having more Serbs than Croats. In 1991, as the Croatian government prepared to declare its independence from Yugoslavia, the Serbs in Krajina jumped the gun and declared their own republic independent of Croatia. When the war broke out, most of the Krajina Serbs sided with the Serb-controlled Yugoslav government. The fighting that ensued must have been brutal.

Plitvice changed hands four times during the fighting.

Plitvice changed hands four times during the fighting.

As we toured the area around Plitvice, most notably in Karlovac and the surrounding countryside, we pondered the still stark signs of devastation. Almost every home in this region had been war damaged. Apart from ruins that had not been salvaged, numerous homes were still peppered with shrapnel damage, almost 20 years later.

In the countryside around Karlovac, we passed extensive areas that appeared to be reverting to nature, with trees and bushes growing up around the ruins of farmhouses. From time to time, signs warned of uncleared landmines. Some of these areas were formerly populated by Serbs, but several hundred thousand left Croatia during and following the war.

Open air war museum in Turanj, a suburb of Karlovac

Open air war museum in Turanj, a suburb of Karlovac

Traveling through these areas really got me thinking about how hard many people have it. Meanwhile, Cheryl and I live in a peaceful, prosperous country. It’s not too difficult for us to afford a trip like this, where we can eat well, be well looked after, and have guides show us around or entertain us. We get to sail to beautiful islands on a yacht, or hike through beautiful national parks, or spend the day cruising the countryside on comfortable bicycles.

As our cycle guide explained it, “Mi smo tako stretni.” can mean either “We are so lucky” or “We are so happy.” Could this linking of “happy” and “lucky” offer a small insight into the Slavic temperament? Or perhaps we just need to acknowledge some of the good fortune in our happiness. “Mi smo tako jako sretni!” We are so darned lucky!

Related Posts:

If You Want to Follow in Our Tracks:

Enjoying the peace of an evening stroll in Korana

Enjoying the peace of an evening stroll in Korana

Our five-day stay in Korana Village in Plitvice was arranged by Huck Finn Croatia Adventure Travel. It’s a reasonably priced and somewhat different way to see this part of Croatia. Our guide, Zlatko, picked us up in Zagreb, and spent the next four days leading us on a number of activities around the area: the waterfalls of Plitvice Park, hiking on Mt. Velebit, cycling in the Karlovac countryside, and rafting on the Mrežnica River. Each evening we enjoyed traditional meals in the riverside cookhouse in Korana. Zlatko turned out to be an accomplished classical guitarist, and one evening played a selection of his own arrangements of Balkan flamenco from Macedonia. Our group definitely enjoyed Huck Finn’s Croatia.

Some of us are very lucky. Some not.

Some of us are very lucky. Some not.

One of our most memorable activities in Dubrovnik was a visit to the galleries of War Photo Ltd. on Antuninska Street, just off the main thoroughfare. According to their promotional literature, “It is the intent of War Photo Limited to educate the public in the field of war photography, to expose the myth of war and the intoxication of war, to let people see war as it is, raw, venal, frightening, by focusing on how war inflicts injustices on innocents and combatants alike.” There are several photo exhibits about the conflicts in Croatia and other parts of former Yugoslavia, but there are also revolving displays on war’s human costs in Northern Ireland, Syria, Chechnya, Colombia, Israel, Lebanon, and other hot spots. We spent a sobering couple of hours there, and once more came away thinking, “Mi smo tako sretni!”

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Cycling in the southern Dalmatian Islands

“Pshaw!” said Cheryl. “They won’t blame you.” I wasn’t so sure.

Our long-awaited late-September boat and cycle trip through the southern Dalmatian Islands was to begin the next day. After two previous European cycle trips on our own, Cheryl and I had invited members of our outdoor club to join us in Croatia this year. We’d hoped for half a dozen. When the boat sold out 11 months ago, we had 17 in our group. Fantastic.

The southern Dalmatian Islands at dusk as seen from Srđ above Dubrovnik.

The southern Dalmatian Islands at dusk as seen from Srđ above Dubrovnik.

Or was it? What if the trip wasn’t what we’d advertised to our friends? A mismanaged trip, or even a bad guide, and our names could be mud. The weather was threatening as well. We’d arrived in Dubrovnik a few days earlier only to wade through an unseasonal deluge that one fellow-traveler described as “biblical.”

This storm over the Dalmatian Islands later deluged Dubrovnik, turning the stairs to cataracts.

This storm over the Dalmatian Islands later deluged Dubrovnik, turning the stairs to cataracts.

We were also a nervous about the hills. This had been the biggest single topic of discussion among our group during the planning stages. While most of us were cyclists, we did range from late 50s to early 70s, so it made sense to be prepared. Like many in our group, Cheryl and I made sure to get several trips under our belt over the summer in the islands near our home – but they averaged less than half the heights we were expecting here.

Before heading for the ship, Cheryl and I enjoy a final view from the deck of our Airbnb digs

Before heading for the ship, Cheryl and I enjoy a final view from the deck of our Airbnb digs.

Departure day dawned with bright sunshine. Arriving at the Port of Gruž by bus, Cheryl and I were buoyed when we spotted the elegant and modern yacht, the Harmonia, with more than 30 bicycles arrayed out in front of her on the dock. It was time to meet our two guides, the crew of six, and our 30 fellow-travelers. Besides our own group members, arriving in Dubrovnik on various itineraries, there were another 15 from other parties.

Along with a fellow-rider, Cheryl inspects the bicycles.

Along with a fellow-rider, Cheryl inspects the bicycles.

Of the 32 passengers, there was one American, a few each from Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark – and the rest were Canadian. On the previous week’s sailing, the majority had been German-speaking. The crew and the ride-leader guides were from various parts of Croatia, and like many Croatians we met, they all spoke excellent English. A good thing, as we found Croatian impenetrable.

Cheryl and I unpacked in our air-conditioned stateroom, which was bigger and better equipped than some hotel rooms we’ve been in. After that, our guides, Petra and Neven, introduced us to our bikes. While many in our group had brought their own pedals or seats, Cheryl and I decided we would live with whatever we got. After a few test rides around the dock, we were all satisfied: comfortable, easy-shifting, almost new, and well-maintained. Two of our group and a few of the others had elected to reserve e-bikes, and they were promised a complete lesson before the first ride.

Spending a few days in Dubrovnik is well worth it.  Try to avoid the crowds.

Spending a few days in Dubrovnik is well worth it. Try to avoid the crowds.

Our first formal activity was a tour of Dubrovnik with a professional guide. For some on the ship, this was their first visit to the city. Even though others of us had already spent two or three days here, we saw new parts of town and learned more of its thousand-year history. After some free time in town, we enjoyed the first of many tasty shipboard dinners featuring Croatian seafood and other specialties. The first evening also included wine and schnapps on the captain. “Živjeli!”

Captain Josip at the helm of the Harmonia.

Captain Josip at the helm of the Harmonia.

The follow morning Captain Josip set course across an incredibly azure Adriatic towards the first of our island destinations, Šipan. This was our test ride: fairly level and about 45 minutes each way from the harbour to the small town of Suđurađ. Everyone would have a chance to iron out any kinks in their bicycles … or legs.

Neven gives a rider a lesson on the ebike.

Neven gives a rider a lesson on the ebike.

The promise of this ride was encouraging. The bikes performed well. The roads were quiet, and with a few exceptions, well signed and in good repair. Just in case, our guides had provided each of us with maps of the island, with our route hand-traced. Along the way, we passed vineyards and other crops, fascinating churches or occasional ruins, and figs and other fruit growing along the roadside. The quiet coffee stop at the picturesque waterfront town of Suđurađ was an excellent introduction to the many small island villages we would be visiting over the week to come. As we dug into our hot lunch back on the Harmonia, we got under way to our next destination.

Our first kava stop at Suđurađ, on the island of Šipan

Our first kava stop at Suđurađ, on the island of Šipan

About the only thing that had been missing from the Šipan ride were panoramic vistas. On Mljet, that would be remedied. We would pay for it in lengthy hill climbs and “undulating” roads, making it the “hardest ride of the week.” That turned out to be smart strategy on the part of the organizers, although some of the e-bike riders who hadn’t quite got the hang of their rides elected to sun themselves on the Harmonia as she sailed the length of the island to meet us. For the rest of us, as we contemplated the island summits each morning, we could always say, “Well, it can’t be as hard as Mljet!”

Starting up the first hill on Mljet, above Sobra.  Why are we leaving this idyllic spot?

Starting up the first hill on Mljet, above Sobra. Why are we leaving this idyllic spot?

The crew and the guides on these trips work long hours and hard. Yet somehow they manage to remain up-beat and friendly all the while. Besides three hot meals a day and the on-demand bar, great Croatian coffee was always ready before seven, and the last drinks were served after 10 pm. Once and often twice a day, the entire stock of 35 bikes had to be unloaded from the hold and readied for the next ride. (Those e-bikes are heavy.) There was always something interesting for us to do while the staff worked.

Even a boathouse for a PT boat sports that azure water

Even a boathouse for a PT boat sports that azure water

Before our ride on Lastovo, some of us toured decaying Cold War era tunnels on the small connected island of Prežba, until recently an off-limits military base. Others kayaked lazily around the bay, or sunned themselves top side, while taking in the spectacular scenery.

Succulents line this waterfront road on Lastovo.

Succulents line this waterfront road on Lastovo.

On Lastovo, we had another glimpse of the challenging job of ride leaders. As fifteen of us are in the same outdoor association, many of us have had experience leading bike trips of from ten to thirty individuals. We know how challenging it can be to provide suitable guidance, watch out for road safety, and still allow riders to set their own pace and enjoy the ride. When we arrived at the town of Lastovo, it came out during coffee and beer, that one of the riders had continued through town and not returned. His companions had become concerned when he didn’t show up, mentioning that he was “getting on in years.” Petra and Neven managed to spend a couple of hours searching the far end of the island, while coordinating others of us to help, and the rest to get back safely to the Harmonia. In the end, the wayward rider showed up unassisted at the ship, having spent a couple of hours drinking beer and discussing wines with a local farmer in his barn. All in a day’s work for our hard-working guides.

In Lastovo, each chimney is different, and reflected the home's social status

In Lastovo, each chimney is different, and reflected the home’s social status

There was a little bonus from the adventure. While Cheryl and I were out searching Lastovo with a friend of the missing man, we stumbled upon a tiny home-based winery, and were invited in for sampling and a mini-tour. Our companion was happy to buy a very inexpensive bottle of a very local wine. By policy, the tour company does not do winery stops in order to avoid dangerous afternoon riding conditions.

Two of our club members approach the summit of Korčula.

Two of our club members approach the summit of Korčula.

Our next trip was the first of two across the island of Korčula. Although the rides on Korčula were not as long as Mljet, they included some of the biggest hills of the week. A couple of them were more than five kilometers of uninterrupted climb, although never more than a 10 percent grade, and more often six to eight. Not impossible, but definitely a challenge if you aren’t used to hill climbing. Our club members all made it, but some of the other passengers sometimes pushed their rides, or made use of the e-bikes (which often meant they led the pack.) On most days, the guide who was “sweep” at the end of the group would start out with an e-bike so that they could swap if someone tired on their regular bicycle. This was not advertised, but it really showed the effort taken by Petra and Neven to ensure the trip worked for everyone.

How could you resist a swim in the beautiful anchorage at Prigradica

How could you resist a swim in the beautiful anchorage at Prigradica

Hey, did I mention the swimming? Most days, there were one or two opportunities for swimming off shower-equipped back of the Harmonia. It was impossible to resist. The water was stunningly clear, and that distinctive azure blue that characterizes the Adriatic in this area. It was also warm enough to get in and stay in. That despite the late September date following the “worse summer in decades.”

The water's great at Prigradica on Korčula

The water’s great at Prigradica on Korčula

After three days of hilly cycling, some of us were glad of a day off for a side trip to Mostar in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Others might have preferred not to break up the rhythm of the cycling. On the one hand, it was a two-hour bus ride each way, with lengthy stops at both Croatian and Bosnian customs in both directions. Mostar was hot, and rather overrun with tourists. On the other hand, it’s an iconic place, in terms of both its ancient and recent history.

A quiet moment in one of the mosques in Mostar

A quiet moment in one of the mosques in Mostar

Our guide, Senad, was interesting and informed, and I found it engaging to discuss with him some of the aspects of the recent ethnic conflict, together with his hopes for the future. With a little effort, we were able to visit places with fewer tourists, such as the interiors of some of the mosques that dot the city. In the quieter spaces, one could reflect on the significance of the cross upon the hill, or the war-damaged buildings. We could appreciate our return to our peaceful port that evening. “Mi smo tako sretni!” We are so lucky!

A peaceful evening in Gradac on the Makarska Rivijera

A peaceful evening in Gradac on the Makarska Rivijera

The entire tour had a satisfying cultural component. In addition to Dubrovnik and Mostar, we also had a professional guide in the old town of Korčula. For all the other islands and towns we visited, Petra gave an interesting historical or cultural presentation somewhere along the way. Although I’m sure she was well-versed in Croatian culture, it was obvious she put a lot of preparation into her job. Often, the guides went beyond the strict requirements of the job description. One morning, a half-hour Croatian language lesson lasted for 90 minutes; we were such eager students, she said.

"Good Morning!" While under way, Petra (wearing her Croatian flag skirt) leads us in a class in Croatian.

“Good Morning!” While under way, Petra (wearing her Croatian flag skirt) leads us in a class in Croatian.

One evening, as a special treat, Petra spent several hours giving us her personal view of some of the challenges of life in Croatia. The country suffered considerably during the multi-year war that followed its declaration of independence in 1991. Many industries have yet to recover, and the very personal scars of the war run deep. The country was hit hard again in the global crisis of 2008. Unemployment currently sits at over 17%, and the average gross income is less than $18000 per year. Petra had spent several years working as a nanny in the UK and the US before returning to the country she loved. As an independent guide in a seasonal industry, staying employed was always a challenge. Yet, she also knew that she was better off than many of her compatriots who would have to leave Croatia to find work. Croatia’s recent EU membership was not embraced by everyone. There have been some losers.

Like Croatia, Bosnia suffered horribly during its war for independence (photo taken near the bridge at Mostar)

Like Croatia, Bosnia suffered horribly during its war for independence (photo taken near the bridge at Mostar)

It was an engaging evening, and we definitely appreciated Petra’s frank and sometimes emotional delivery. We felt we were getting more than just the canned tourist spiel, and were grateful for it. Perhaps in return, we all opened up a bit more. On this trip, I learned things from some long-time friends that I’d never heard before.

Cycling hundreds of meters above the bay at Pupnatska Luka on Korčula

Cycling hundreds of meters above the bay at Pupnatska Luka on Korčula

Back on Korčula again for one of the longer rides, the hills no longer seemed so forbidding. They were just part of the journey, and we knew that each one led to views more stunning than the previous. At the end of the longest climb, it was a cool delight to encounter a roadside fruit stand, where we quickly demolished more than one juicy watermelon. Riding along the seaside into Korčula town that evening, I felt a little sad knowing we had only one more day of riding.

A leisurely sea-side ride into Korčula town

A leisurely sea-side ride into Korčula town

That last day, for the first time all week, we woke to gray skies and whitecaps on the water. Given all we’d heard about the eastern Adriatic’s “year without a summer,” we thought ourselves lucky to have enjoyed the past six days of blue skies and sun on our shoulders. Our final day of riding took us through the old town of Ston, a salt-drying region since Roman times. The surrounding countryside is protected by a huge wall, second only to the Great Wall of China. Leaving Ston, we had to make a decision on whether to climb the final hill, which, on clear days, would offer “the most spectacular view yet.” Just then, the sky darkened and we heard the rumbling of an approaching storm. Our guides explained that coming down the hill could be dangerous in the rain, and advised that we might do better taking a shortcut down the Split-Dubrovnik highway. What to do?

Thunder rolls ominously overhead as we decide to avoid the final hilltop climb

Thunder rolls ominously overhead as we decide to avoid the final hilltop climb

We broke up into groups of three or four, and cycled down the paved shoulder at two-minute intervals. It was busy, although not as harrowing as I’d expected. In the end, it was almost certainly the better option. The storm broke just as we reached the ship. Had we gone over the hill, we would have found ourselves right at the top just when the deluge hit. Although riding in traffic is something I try to avoid, the last half hour in traffic reminded me that, for the entire rest of the week, we’d had the roads almost to ourselves. We often rode for an hour or more without seeing a single car. I even wondered why they kept such well-maintained roads for so little traffic. Whatever the reason, this was one of the best weeks of cycling I’ve ever enjoyed.

A rider demonstrates her e-bike on one of the many quiet back roads

A rider demonstrates her e-bike on one of the many quiet back roads

I needn’t have worried about letting our group down. Comments ranged from “awesome” to “best trip ever!” September is a great month for riding here, and the best month for swimming. Apparently, this is true even in an off year. This was a well-organized tour; the crew and guides were personable and highly professional. A beautiful part of the world, with history stretching back for millennia, the southern Dalmatian islands are a great place to swim, boat, and cycle. Or just to sit in the sun, watch the world go by, and enjoy a coffee, beer, or ice cream – national favourites, all. Some of us will be back.

"This trip was awesome! When's the next one?" (aboard the Harmonia)

“This trip was awesome! When’s the next one?” (aboard the Harmonia)

Related Posts

If you want to follow in our tracks:

The tour company is Island Hopping, based in Germany. They operate similar tours in Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, Turkey, and Vietnam. Others in our club have been on a number of these; all reported great trips. Their organized approach is evident. As with our Dalmatian trip, Island Hopping charters local ships and crews, and contracts independent ride leaders and guides. Their tour list sounds like our bucket list.

Harmonia and friend await us for lunch and a swim

Harmonia and friend await us for lunch and a swim

We booked this trip through BikeTours.com (formerly Bike Tours Direct.) This is the second trip we’ve booked through them. You pay the same rate whether booking directly or through BikeTours.com, but we have done well going through a company we know, and in our time zone. The small team at BikeTours.com are all riders themselves – sometimes they’re spread a little thin when they’re out reviewing rides, but that’s the good news. They know a lot about the tours they sell. Simon & Richie did an excellent job of helping us coordinate the plans of 17 riders. (That may warrant a post of its own!) We look forward to dealing with them again. Meanwhile, here’s the tour: “Dalmatia from Dubrovnik

At the top, a placque commemorates the defence of Korčula from a Turkish attack in 1571.

At the top, a placque commemorates the defence of Korčula from a Turkish attack in 1571.

What Happens While You’re Busy Making Other Plans

A Time Thief is operating in our neighbourhood.

How else to explain that my mid-May promise to supply part two of my decluttering post has been outstanding for over three months?

Fittingly, a large part of the delay came from the very non-physical clutter I had planned to write about. My embarrassment at this irony led to further stalling. Could the death of this blog be far behind?

It took a nudge from this young blogger to get me back at the keyboard. (Thanks, Jen!)

While our decluttering project has inched desultorily forward this summer, we’ve been living the “No Pension, Will Travel” lifestyle on other fronts.

Half-way turn on the cycle leg

Half-way turn on the cycle leg on Cheryl’s new road bike.

We’ve continued with our kedges this summer. On the heels of Cheryl’s first half-marathon in the Spring, I joined her for a “sprint triathlon” in May – her third, my first. I enjoyed it more than I expected, and we both bested our targets. Unlike Cheryl, I’d done relatively little triathlon-specific training this year, but my overall commitment to exercising six days a week really paid off.

Synchronized Diving Event at World Masters.  The geodesic dome in the background is from Montreal's Expo '67.

Synchronized Diving Event at World Masters. Geodesic dome in the background is from Montreal’s Expo ’67.

Later in the summer, Cheryl swam her first three-kilometre open-water swim at the FINA World Masters Games in Montreal, Canada. She was thrilled to do this race for the first time ever, and even more thrilled to beat her target time, coming in 22nd in her age-group in an international competition. Along with about 15,000 other swimmers and supporters, we took the opportunity to sight-see in the second-largest French-speaking city in the world – after Paris. Through AirBnB, four of us arranged to stay in a stylish apartment belonging to a McGill University professor. Luxury digs in a great part of town for about a quarter the price of hotel accommodation.

Outdoor Chess near the Place des Festivals

“Montreal Chic”: Outdoor Chess near the Place des Festivals

Between swimming events, we explored the various parts of the Old Town, shopping districts, parks, squares and museums that Montreal is famous for. With unlimited passes for bus and Metro, it was easy to get around – and we were only a half-hour walk from the City Centre. Montreal in the summer has a vibrant outdoor cultural scene, and we found people friendly wherever we went. Everyone was willing to go along with our attempts at French, or switch to English when we got in over our heads.

Something that that stood out for us was the large number of cyclists in Montreal, both on and off the many dedicated bike lanes. Unlike our home town, helmets were in the minority. Those with helmets were more likely to be cycling up Mount Royal at 6am. Those without – often on shopping trips – were more “Montreal chic” – often on bicycles rented by the hour from the Bixi cycle network. We didn’t try it, but, in the summer, you can borrow a bike for free at some Metro stations. All this got us thinking more about a cycle trip through Quebec some summer. Cycle routes abound, and some say it’s like cycling Europe right here in North America.

"Montreal chic" - a member of Montreal's finest sports pink camouflage pants, a creative protest against changes to their pension plan.

“Montreal chic” – one of Montreal’s Finest sports pink camouflage, a protest against changes to their pension plan.

Our next big kedge comes next month, when we will tackle several of Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands by bicycle. We’ve been told to expect after-breakfast climbs to hilltops as high as 1600 feet above sea level, so we’ve taken every opportunity this summer to work on those leg muscles. With friends, or members of our outdoor club, we’ve tackled a number of areas with challenging hills of their own.

San Juan Island Sculpture Park: over 20 acres of outdoor art.

San Juan Island Sculpture Park: over 20 acres of outdoor art.

We started in June with a great couple of days in Washington’s San Juan Islands. No shortage of hills, but most were manageable. After we were forced to walk a steep hill in Orcas Island’s Enchanted Forest, we decided that Mount Constitution – all 2400 feet of it – would have to wait. We continued throughout the summer with several more island cycling excursions with our club, moving northwards into British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. One of those trips included some kayaking as well.

The beach at Sandwell Park on Gabriola Island, British Columbia.

The beach at Sandwell Park on Gabriola Island, British Columbia.

BC’s Northern Gulf Islands boast one advantage over their more southern cousins. In the summer, the water is often warm enough for swimming, especially after you’ve just cycled over the top of the island.. One thing about island cycling – every side trip down to a beautiful ocean bay necessitates a climb back up a hill. Putting in 1600 feet of vertical in an otherwise lazy day is not that hard to do. We’re feeling pretty confident about the hills of Korčula, Mljet, and Lastovo. I hope we’re not fooling ourselves!

Our annual coastal reunion with the Shedders often includes a forest walk along this peaceful lake.

Our annual coastal reunion with the Shedders often includes a forest walk along this peaceful lake.

We also got in some good visits with friends and family: a trip to the near-desert to visit the new home of friends who will retire this year; a visit from Cheryl’s brother and family on their way home from an Alaskan cruise; and our annual waterfront reunion with our friends from the Shedders. This year, we also got a chance to meet the third Shedder couple, if only for a couple of hours. Can an Australian reunion be far behind?

The gang from Shadowlawn, bracketed by two of the Shedders.  (Photo courtesy of Heather of the Shedders.)

The gang from Shadowlawn, bracketed by two of the Shedders. (Photo courtesy of Heather of the Shedders.)

We also took advantage of some serendipity to bring together three groups for a wonderful evening last month. Our investigation of shared-housing options had led me to discover “Shadowlawn” – the joint Pittsburgh residence of Jean, Karen, & Louise (JKL) featured in “My House, Our House.” I emailed them, and let them know about the Shedders – and vice versa. They must have recognized kindred spirits: before long they were commenting regularly on each others’ blogs. When JKL ended up vacationing in our part of the world at the same time as our friends from the Shedders, they arranged to meet up, and the five of them agreed to present to our “Free at 55” Meetup group at a special “Cohouseholding Corroboree.” It turned out to be one of our best events of the year. You can read Heather’s account of the day on her blog, as well as JKL’s account on theirs.

Equivocation, a play by Bill Cain

Equivocation, a play by Bill Cain (photo: The Bard Brawl)

We finished up that weekend attending a great performance of “Equivocation” by Bill Cain – one of the most engaging plays I’ve ever enjoyed. Heralded as “a play about telling the truth in difficult times,” it is most relevant to the times we find ourselves in this year.

With our weekends so long and full this summer, it was all we could do to pack our regular work schedules into three and four-day weeks in between. Not to mention a challenging one-week course on “interest-based” negotiation, giving our sons some assistance with consolidating their new careers and (for one of them) a new home, and regular chores around our house.

While in Montreal, we ran into this memory of John & Oko's "Bed-in" from the 60s.

While in Montreal, we ran into this memory of John & Oko’s “Bed-in” from the 60s. Still relevant today.

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” – Allen Saunders (via John Lennon)

Reflecting on this summer of friends, family and fun has led me to see something more clearly.

I had viewed our decluttering project as the next step on our full transition to “No Pension, Will Travel.” When it stalled, I began to feel as if nothing was moving forward. My perspective fell into a “holding pattern”, waiting until I had the time to start addressing the “big concerns.” I lost my motivation to keep this blog up to date.

You never know what you might find along the way: road sign on Denman Island, BC

You never know what you might find along the way: road sign on Denman Island, BC

In the meantime, life happened. A life to be grateful for. I need to remember that. By all means, make big plans, always have something new to look forward to. But don’t forget to enjoy the meandering path that life follows all the while. For the river of time keeps flowing.

What are Old People For, by Dr. William "Bill" H. Thomas

What are Old People For, by Bill Thomas

Over the summer, I read a couple of books by Dr. William “Bill” H. Thomas that gave me a new perspective on this ageing journey we’re all on. I first read his recently published “Second Wind”. Finding it both challenging and enlightening, I tracked down a copy of his now out-of-print “What are Old People For”. I enjoyed that one even more. These books alone merit a post of their own, but one important idea was that getting older offers us the opportunity to re-learn living in the present moment. As we plan the coming year – or two, or three – I also plan to heighten my enjoyment of life along the way.

So what’s ahead? What stories do we hope to post in the months to come?.

Later this month we embark on our long-awaited cycling trip in Croatia. It’s been a bit more organizing work than I’d counted on. Even though we’re signing on to a pre-existing tour, coordinating the plans of the 15 friends who are joining us has taken some doing. I’m hoping to share some of our lessons learned in a future post. But now that it’s close, we’re finally feeling the excitement. We plan to start our trip with a few days on our own in Ljubljana, the romantic capital of neighbouring Slovenia.

"Ljubljanica 01" by Mihael Grmek - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Ljubljanica 01” by Mihael Grmek – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Cheryl has been mapping out her schedule of triathlons, open-water swims, and half-marathons for the Fall and Spring. One thing she learned from her Montreal competition is that she enjoys the regular training more than the competition, but somehow enrolling in the competitions keeps the training on track.

We’re also thinking about our longer cycling trips for the coming year or two. Besides Quebec, we’re also considering is a trip across the three Baltic countries, passing through the town where my father was born. This would give us the opportunity to meet some of my second cousins for the first time. The family had been out of touch since WWII, and was only reconnected when I started building my family tree on WikiTree a few years ago.

Trakai Castle in Lithuania, by Marcin Bialek

Trakai Castle in Lithuania, by Marcin Bialek (Own work) [GFDL, or CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, we’re still working towards the next phase of our retirement schedule. This year, we struggled with the timing of quitting our current jobs. Somehow, a joint decision kept eluding us. But in recent months, a new plan is beginning to emerge. Cheryl’s employment situation has improved since June, and she’s more excited about staying on for a while. Since I’m the older one in this relationship, it made sense that I should be the first one to make the transition. While a staggered “retirement” creates a few new challenges, it has a number of advantages. Sounds great to me! Christmas would be a great time to give myself a present.

Echoes from the mysterious "old country": Dad & his family

Echoes from the mysterious “old country”: Dad & his family

As for the challenges – such as decluttering – I imagine they’ll be part of that life that keeps on happening while we’re busy making plans.

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For comment:

  • What do you do to enjoy the present moment while working towards retirement?

Keeping Travel Alive between Trips

A couple of friends remarked recently, “Haven’t seen much about travel at ‘No Pension, Will Travel.’  Sounds like no pension, no travel.

Yes, it’s true.  I’ve been writing about almost every other aspect of our journey these days.  Cheryl and I were lamenting that – as we are still both working – all of our vacation time is spoken for this year, and our first trip longer than a weekend isn’t until late June.  So how do we keep travel alive when we’re not traveling?

There’s the usual travel-related tasks such as budgeting for the next trip – a lot more exciting than paying for the last one!  Or trying to find the cheapest way from Rome to Rio.  (If you don’t let the shenanigans of the airline and other travel sites drive you crazy!)  Planning a vacation is often listed as one of the top ways to improve your mood.  We’ve discovered quite a few others.

Canoeing in Croatia's National Plitvice Park - photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Canoeing in Croatia’s National Plitvice Park – photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Most of our upcoming trips are with groups of various sizes.  Following our resolution made on our cycling trip in Provence, we pulled together an ad hoc group of 16 people for a week of cycling in Croatia.  This has given us lots of excuses to get together with fun-loving people and talk about the upcoming trip.  Half of the original group of 16 decided to add on another week of exploring Croatia’s Plitvice National Park, so we met at the coordinator’s home for spaghetti, wine, and a little bit of travel planning.  With eight people, we have enough to make a custom itinerary cost-effective.  In the next month or so, we hope to get all 16 together for dinner as some of us have yet to meet.

Arranging accommodation through services such as Servas, Couchsurfing and AirBnB has given us another way to start a trip months before liftoff.  Once we’ve booked something, we often find the host happy to talk about our upcoming visit, offering us information and ideas, as well as just getting to know each other a little.  Recently we’ve been chatting with Sara, our upcoming host in the old centre of Ljubljana, Slovenia this Fall.  Nothing like connecting with a real person to make it feel like you’re already there.  We also stay in loose touch with hosts we’ve had on earlier trips – to Paris, Avignon, Barcelona, Costa Rica, Tuscany, and the Italian Riviera.  Add Mexico and Columbia for those we’ve hosted here.  Often it’s just Facebook, but special connections warrant something more.

Slovenian Sunday Brunch - photo credit EatWith.com

Slovenian Sunday Brunch – photo credit EatWith.com

Learning something about the culture of the countries we’re going to visit is another way to savour an upcoming trip, one that can also amplify the experience when we’re there.  We’re hoping to visit the local Croatian cultural centre before we go – in our city, there seems to be a centre for almost every ethnicity you can imagine.  Something we’ve yet to try is EatWith.com, billed as “Dine in homes around the world! Meet amazing people, eat great food and enjoy unforgettable experiences!  Besides using them when we travel, we could also find an authentic Croatian meal right in our home town.

Perhaps the most significant cultural undertaking before a trip is to learn something of the language. As Rita Mae Brown observed, “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.  I’m just starting my Croatian lessons, hoping I can achieve a working knowledge before we arrive in Dubrovnik.  Travel has been the main reason that I’ve learned several other languages since leaving high school, although there are other advantages.  Sure you can get by with English in most countries these days, but bear in mind the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby – so helpless and so ridiculous.

In the meantime, my volunteer work as an immigrant mentor has led to a number of invitations to meals and parties among the local Chinese community.  Most recent was an invitation to a house party to welcome in the Chinese Year of the Horse on January 31.  Definitely a cultural

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

experience, even if we don’t yet have a trip to China in the planning stages.  Even if you don’t have any personal immigrant connections, check out the public festivals celebrated by immigrant communities in your area.

There are lots of other ways to travel between trips.  As members of Servas and Couchsurfing, we also host overseas visitors from time to time.  This Spring we have a special visit in the works.  Through dabbling in my family tree on the great collaborative genealogy site, WikiTree, I’ve made contact with hitherto unknown second and third cousins in England, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Australia and Brazil.  Our current challenge is to choose between invitations to several countries.  A cousin from Brazil plans to visit us this year, and Cheryl and I are already making tentative plans to visit my new extended family in Florianópolis in the next couple of years.  It would be great stopover en route to learning tango in Buenos Aires.

If you keep your eyes open, there are lots of opportunities to experience the world within easy commuting distance.  In most cities, there are frequent “world music” concerts to expose you to new sounds.  I’ve been greatly enjoying my first attempts to learn Latin Funk Dance.  I’m pretty much off balance for the entire hour every week, but just think of all the new synapses I’m creating.  And with that Latin beat, I could be back in the main square of Santiago de Cuba.

Being “off balance” is a lot of what good travel is about.  As a dear friend recently reminded me in her post, “Out of the Blue”, travel “rattles our carefully-designed world view.”  If you have any doubts, check out one of the many Internet lists on how travel makes you a better person.  The truth is, however, that we don’t have to travel at all to live in “vacation mode.”

A Tree Drum - photo credit, Drumming & Health

A Tree Drum – photo credit, Drumming & Health

I was reminded of this the other day when I discovered an opportunity to join a “drumming circle” and bring along as many friends as I could muster.  The opportunity to join a drumming master, schooled for months in western Africa, and experiment with call-response rhythms on djenbe and other drums sounds like a great new experience.  I jumped at the chance, and invited 25 of my friends along too.  I was sure that they’d all leap at the chance to experience something new.  Yet, as the excuses started to dribble in – “I have to go skiing the weekend following.” – “I’ve got to do my tax return.” – Really!? – I began to realize that not everyone saw the value in jumping in to brand new experiences.  It’s a pity.  The evening was magical, and those who showed up were excited to invite others to a future event.

I think this points to the real way to keep travel alive even when you’re not traveling:  bring that attitude of open-mindedness, that stance of being perpetually a little “off balance”, to everything you do.  I collected some of the markers of my own travel attitude in a “vacation mode” posting a few years back: “Do only one good thing every day…  Talk to people for no reason…  Live with less material stuff…  Go outside even when the weather isn’t cooperating…  Spend time with friends and family that you enjoy being with…  Have sex any time of the day…”  You get the picture.

Under a Full Moon - photo credit, Meetup.com

Under a Full Moon – photo credit, Meetup.com

So, what can you do today in that spirit of exploring a brand new place you’ve never been before?  How can you rekindle that wide-eyed curiosity in familiar surroundings?  When you start to look, there’s no shortage of opportunities.  On Valentine’s evening, Cheryl and I joined a small group for a snowshoe hike under the full moon.  Snowshoeing is a fairly new activity for us, and this was the first time we’d ever been out after dark.  It was magical.  And, yes, it was romantic too.

What are you taking on in vacation mode?  How do you keep the travel spirit alive between trips?

Related:

What our Family learned during our Season in Costa Rica

When we mentioned our half-year visit to Costa Rica with our boys, nine and twelve, people often asked us wouldn’t the kids be missing school.  Well, they may have missed school, but they certainly got an education.  Here are some of the many things we all learned.

People make the journey.  We met many friendly people in Costa Rica.  Two stood out.  One was Jorge and his family, themselves expats from the US and Asia.  We both belonged to the

Traveling under sunny skies in beautiful Costa Rica

Traveling under sunny skies in beautiful Costa Rica

same international organization, and a query to the president in San Francisco had put us in touch.  Jorge immediately invited us to crash at their place while we got our bearings.  All they asked was for us to deliver the airbed they were going to offer us, and the wine for a toast.  Their girls and our boys hit it off as well, so it was a great start to our adventure.

Our second find was Alex Martinez who ran a small B&B and ecotourism operation in the Caribbean Lowlands.  We met Alex through another B&B & tour operator that we found on the Internet.  Alex was a wonderful guide and host, and the boys loved him.  To top it off, he shared a first name with our younger son.  Costa Rican custom allowed them to call each other “El Tocayo” or “Toca” for short.  We all called Alex “Toca” although only Al was the namesake.  We ultimately took a couple of two week trips with Alex, covering much of the Southwest and Interior of the country, and staying in small-scale accommodations run by agricultural coops and other local operators.

The boys eventually got photos of all four species

The boys eventually got photos of all four species

Do one good thing every day.  We learned this lesson in “slow travel” while staying for a month in a dilapidated country house on a forty-acre farm near the village of La Garita de Alajuela.  We shared it with a single-mom from back home and her two kids, friends of ours.  Plus one pair of emaciated dogs, a flock of scrawny chickens, and more insects than we ever knew existed.  There was one bus a day if we wanted to go anywhere.  Sometimes we didn’t.  We could lie under a mango tree beside the small pool out back, and watch the neighbours harvest sugar cane with bull-drawn carts.  Or chat with the woman who ran a tiny chicken shack down the road about how she was helping her daughters through college in the US.  When we took the bus and went on day trips, we were tempted at first to schedule a full day:  “In the morning, we’ll go to the snake farm, in the afternoon to the ox-cart display.”  This always had us rushing to make the second appointment, and kept us from following our hearts with whatever came up in the morning.  So, we resolved only to do one thing a day.  It was one of our most important lessons in Costa Rica.  Even now, when life feels rushed, we remind ourselves of this one.

This was our insect-friendly home for a month in the country - and many memories

This was our insect-friendly home for a month in the country – and many memories

Don’t ignore the bugs.  About two-thirds of Costa Rica’s half million species are insects.  We were sure that ants comprised one quarter of all animal biomass in the country.  Apart from the more mundane activities – marveling at unusual beetles, walking sticks, and the ants swarming on the kitchen counters or carrying leaves along an ant highway – we had some more exciting adventures.  An ant bit Dennis while we were trekking through the rainforest to swim in a jungle

Dennis contemplating the bite of the Bullet Ant

Dennis contemplating the bite of the Bullet Ant

pool.  Fortunately, it wasn’t the fabled Bullet Ant.  Our most notable insect adventure had us chased through the mangroves by a swarm of Africanized honeybees – otherwise known as killer bees.  How many kids can say that?  Both boys were stung a few times, but managed to outrun the rest of the swarm.

There’s a naturalist in every child.  “Toca” was an avid birder and bird watching guide.  He was engaged in conservation efforts for the Great Green Macaw.  Before long, he had our nine-year-old hooked; Al spent six weeks of pocket money to buy the definitive Costa Rican bird guide, and logged more than 150 species over the next six weeks.  Al was waking me up before 6AM to look for the Oropendula in the grounds of the pre-Columbian ruins at the Guayabo National Monument.  On our flight home, he struck up a conversation with a professional bird guide returning from Belize – it was amazing to hear them comparing notes about their recent field experiences.

We are lucky and we have so much.  Our friend Alex took us to visit a poor family near his place.  Like many of the poorest in Costa Rica, they were refugees from the recent proxy war in neighbouring Nicaragua.  The father had recently passed away, and the oldest boy of thirteen had to leave school to help his mother support her five children by carving wooden key-chain fobs.  It was eye opening to our boys to see how this family lived in a shack with earthen floors.

Simple accommodation provided by an Agouti Coop

Simple accommodation provided by an Agouti Coop

Closer to home was the single mom and her kids who lived in a small house on the farm we inhabited for a month.  The landlord employed her to keep an eye on the place and do cleaning, and she would do laundry for us at a very low price.  When we first moved into the house, the absentee property owner had asked her to tie up the dogs at night.  Big mistake.  That very first night, while she was at a nearby New Year’s Eve party, someone broke into her place and stole her TV.  This was a very big loss to her.  After that, we encouraged her to let the dogs run free.  As mean as they sounded and looked, within a few days, they had befriended the children and were gentle as puppies.

Treasure your family.  Despite the many adventures we had in Costa Rica, some of our best

Our weekly trip to the Internet cafe - now disappearing

Our weekly trip to the Internet cafe – now disappearing

memories just came from hanging out together.  After years of always working family time around work commitments and school schedules, it was wonderful just to be able to kick around together, even when there was no agenda.  Wandering around the neighbourhood.  Playing cards at night under a dim fluorescent bulb.  Or talking about what we’d just seen or what we wanted to do next.

We also stayed for a month with a large family in the capital, San José.  A small newspaper ad from a homemaker offered rooms plus meals to students in the area near the University.  We applied for a month, and ended up with two rooms, two meals a day, and all laundry for about $700 for the month.  The matriarch of the household was nearing 80, but she still cooked for a family that appeared to number about 50 people in total.  There were smaller buildings out back where two of her daughters lived with their families.  They would often come in for meals.  One of her sons drove a city bus, which he’d stop outside the house so he could come in for mid-morning coffee.  It was a lively place.  If we lingered at the table after breakfast, we would be treated to a stream of visitors and constant conversation.  Our Spanish improved immeasurably.

View into the crater of Poás Volcano

View into the crater of Poás Volcano

Volcanoes are amazing.  We visited the top of Irazú once, and Poás twice, both still steaming.  We passed Turialba more than once.  The best by far was Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.  We were fortunate to visit at the tail end of a period of higher activity, with remarkably few clouds – it was amazing to watch the smoke puff from the top, followed by booms like muffled canons.  Most memorable of all was the evening we spent on a recent lava flow on the flank of the volcano.  Not only could we see the orange-hot rock sliding down from the peak, we could actually hear it.  Grandma was with us that evening, and despite her nervousness, stood her ground.

We never seemed to have the camera when Arenal was blowing its top

We never seemed to have the camera when Arenal was blowing its top

In half a year, a family can have a lot of adventures.  We took a fisherman’s open boat through the mangroves and the surf to a deserted bay.  We had lunch in the home of an indigenous chief.  We huddled in primitive cabins while the roar of the Howler Monkeys reverberated

Al making friends with the local chickens

Al making friends with the local chickens

through the valleys.  Broke bread with the Israeli consuls.  Adopted a baby turtle.  Saw every museum in the county.  Stalked the elusive Resplendent Quetzal on the Mountain of Death.  Walked across a river into Panama, on a rickety train bridge high above the crocodiles.  Went zip-lining and whitewater rafting.  Just to name a few.

Some of the other lessons we learned in our “summer” in Costa Rica included:

  • The world is getting smaller.
  • Politics suck.
  • Tourists are annoying.
  • Join the local economy.
  • Pay it back, and forward.

The most important lesson our family experienced while slow traveling around Costa Rica?

The world is your school.  Go get your diploma!

We spent three days snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panama while renewing our Costa Rican visas

We spent three days snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panama while renewing our Costa Rican visas

In our next post, we’ll talk about the legacy of this trip.  What did we take away from it – the good and the bad – and was it worth it?  (See Part 3 here.)

The herpetologist assured us it wasn't poisonous

The herpetologist assured us it wasn’t poisonous

What do you think?

While what we learned about Costa Rica more than a dozen years ago likely won’t help you, here are a few starting points for your own exploration:

Take your Kids on the Trip of a Lifetime

When our two boys were in elementary school, like many parents we knew, we had a dream of taking them on an extended trip overseas, the Trip of a Lifetime “one day”.  If this sounds like you, we hope Paul’s account of how we created our own family adventure inspires you to realize your dream.  Time is fleeting.  Make it happen!

The conversations at our place started about the time our younger boy hit grade one.  With the oldest only eight, we still had a few years to plan this, we thought.  Yet the years go by quickly, in a whirl of school calendars, baby-sitters, holidays, childhood crises, friends who need attention, and the demands of busy careers.  We had also taken on an ambitious project to create a small low-cost cabin on an island – a task that took four years to complete.  It would have been so easy to sail right through our parenting years without ever getting away on our dream trip.

The view from Paul's favourite spot on the windjammer (it wasn't the tiller)

The view from Paul’s favourite spot on the windjammer (it wasn’t the tiller)

Happily for our dreams, we had built a small network of friends and acquaintances who encouraged us in our ravings and fantasies.  We kept on dreaming, and talking about our hopes.

I had always had a fascination with sailing, and those who went on long voyages driven by the willful wind.  Real and imagined accounts like “Two Years before the Mast” and “Swiss Family Robinson” had been youthful staples.  Naturally enough, my first idea was to take the family on a yearlong sailing trip.  What could be more romantic and adventurous?  I’d even been sailing a few times, although Cheryl’s exposure was limited to a couple of Windjammer cruises in the Caribbean.

If, in those days, we’d had WikiHow, I might have been taken in by their two-page FAQ “How to Sail Around the World”.  A reality check convinced me that the full-time sailing life was not for us.  My skipper friends suggested that the business of sailing might not match my romantic notions.  One of them reminded me that Cheryl had already had a nodding acquaintance with “mal de mer” on the placid seas around the island of Sint Eustatius.

Did sailing in light airs off Sint Maarten give Paul a false sense of security about a round-the-world trip?

Did sailing in light airs off Sint Maarten give Paul a false sense of security about a round-the-world trip?

I discovered that the teenager who mowed our lawn had actually been on such a trip, sailing around the world over a two-year period with his family.  He and his mother even wrote a book.  Reading their account of Mom & Dad manhandling the tiller through hurricane conditions – with the two kids lashed to the mast and doped up with Gravol – had me see the dream could well become a nightmare.

Not wanting to give up on the round-the-world part, we edited the foundering sailboat out of the dream and started looking at commercial airfares.  While good packages existed for traveling around the world, we were still looking at a substantial outlay.  Meanwhile, the pencil ticks on the boys’ doorframes crept relentlessly higher, and their scheduled homework grew longer term-by-term.  We imagined a shrinking window of opportunity before our older boy hit his teens, and school and peer pressures derailed our plans.

We made our first real step when we sold our house to follow our kids’ schooling opportunities – the second such sale in five years.  Thinking we should “stay loose” if we were serious about traveling in the next few years, we returned to renting.  Paying off the mortgage and seeing money in the bank gave a big boost to our plans.

Island life around the cabin kept us busy for a few years

Island life around the cabin kept us busy for a few years

Our plans also continued to evolve.  We replaced the idea of spending most of our travel budget on airfare, and much of our travel time in airports, with a plan for extended “slow travel” in just one country.  Why not really get to know a place?  All we had to do was pick a country, … and set a date.  Ah, the dreaded commitment, that moment of stepping onto the roller coaster!  We hesitated.  The boys turned eight and eleven.

That year, we had our second break when a friend told us she wanted to do something similar.  Her kids and ours were playmates so doing something together might work out.  Our friend also inspired us to take the plunge.  If a single mother on a lower budget could do this, then what excuse did we have?  “What do you think about Costa Rica?” she asked.

Costa Rica appealed to us.  It was different enough yet not too scary: one of few Latin American countries that had never had a violent overthrow of government.  It had a good medical system, so we weren’t too concerned about the kids getting sick without help, or a bite from the deadly Fer de Lance far from anti-venom.  (Parents worry about such things)  Even in 2000, mosquito-borne diseases were limited to a few sections of the country, and we learned you could drink water straight from the tap almost everywhere.  Compared to my travel in Brazil in the 70s, this seemed quite manageable with kids.  I could get by in Spanish, so we could escape from English yet not be all at sea.  Best of all, we loved the focus on eco-tourism and outdoor adventures.  Oh, did I mention it was warm and sunny during our winter?

Paul and his two partners about a year before we left

Paul and his two partners about a year before we left

Cheryl and I held our breath, and made the commitment to go during the following school year, a little less than a year distant.  We began announcing our intentions and making arrangements.  Over the following six months:

  • We negotiated open-ended unpaid leaves for both Cheryl and me.  At that time, we both worked in a company in which I had a part-interest.  We had been talking about doing this for three years, so, it was relatively easy.  In hindsight, it turned out to be harder than we imagined, but that’s a story for later.
  • We gave notice on our lease.  Rather than keep our home – and a place to fret about – we chose to put everything we owned into a couple of portable storage containers.  Moving all the furniture and belongings from a typical four-bedroom house into some containers in the driveway sounds like a lot of work – but in the excitement of the impending trip, it didn’t seem so bad.  We arranged to spend the last few weeks before our trip at my parents’ place.
  • We formally registered our boys for homeschooling that school year, which would be grades four and seven for them.  In prior years, we had been part of a parent-managed Montessori school, and we chose it as our formal school partner for this registration.  The teachers offered us a few helpful suggestions, mostly around not worrying about it too much, with perhaps a bit of work on mathematics and Spalding Rules for spelling.
  • We all signed up for some elementary Spanish classes – not that the boys paid much attention.
  • We arranged to handle the finances that we couldn’t put on hold.  This primarily consisted of a good conversation with our bank manager, and enrolling my Dad to fill in any gaps.
  • We visited the local travel clinic and had all our recommended shots … and then some.
Our first discovery in CR was a local Montessori school

Our first discovery in CR was a local Montessori school

The Internet was just coming into its own as a place of travel research, so research we did.  We also canvassed our contacts for helpful ideas:  best flights, where to go in Costa Rica, what to see, what to do, best time to visit, and where to start?  By the time we said good-bye to my parents and boarded the plane for San Jose, we were about as ready as we could be.  In a future post, I’ll talk more about the planning for the trip, and the trip itself.  The unanimous vote:  it was the best six months of all our family years!

See Part 2 here.

What’s your travel dream for your family?  What are you doing to make it a reality?

Paul’s Left Brain Takes a Mayan Holiday

Paul has been reflecting on what he likes so much about travel – about being in “vacation mode”.  He’s not one to sit around the pool with a margarita, but can usually be found on an all-day walking tour, or working on a new foreign language.  He observed that his favourite principles of good vacations apply just as well to “everyday life at home” – although we don’t always remember them:

Paul's not above trying the local beer, however.

Paul’s not above trying the local beer, however.

Here’s something he wrote on the subject a couple years back…

Ah, to live life in vacation mode every day!  What does it take?

I explored the texture of that question on a recent trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

For sun-chair reading, I’d packed a copy of Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight.  Neuroscientist Dr. Jill reports “from the inside” what it felt like when a massive stroke shut down the left side of her brain, and put the right side in charge.  As I understand it, the left brain manages linear reasoning and language functions;  the right brain fills a more intuitive, holistic role.  In Dr. Jill’s case, for the first eight months of her eight-year recovery, the “little voice” in her head fell silent.  Imagine!  She used her experience to reflect upon her life in general, and in particular, the relationship between her two different aspects.

Dr. Jill observed that “vacation mode” derives from the right brain.  So simple, I mused?  The question hovered over me like an iridescent Yucatan hummingbird.  Meanwhile, I did the usual holiday things.

Even plain, the best tortillas ever!

Even plain, the best tortillas ever!

One of my travel activities has me strike up conversations with strangers for no reason.  I dusted off my knowledge of Spanish, German and Portuguese to talk to almost anyone I found myself next to, even tried to learn a little Mayan.  Bix a bel, tz’unu’un!  What’s up, Little Hummingbird?  Yet my wife and I both found it hard to start conversations at the resort.  Our fellow vacationers seemed reluctant to connect, as if locked in their tour buses with the windows up.  I felt frustrated.  After this mood settled over me, something startling took place.

En route to climb the great Mayan pyramid at Cobá, we pulled of the road at a corner store in one of the small towns that crouch in the Yucatan interior.  We squeezed in to harvest a few nuts and chicharrones to stave of the need for a tourist-priced lunch.

I plopped a couple of bags of munchies near the cash register, while we continued to hunt for more.  Just then, a small Mayan girl of six or seven came in, chose a bag of the pork-rind snacks and took them to the cashier.  As we arrived at the counter with the rest of our purchases, I saw the store owner already totaling our bill.  The young girl stood waiting.  I sensed him directing preferential treatment toward us “gringo elders”

En route to Cobá, the better known Chichén Itzá

En route to Cobá, the better known Chichén Itzá

In my most sophisticated Spanish, I explained that she had preceded us, and that he should look after her first.  Alas, my linguistic abilities failed me.  After a couple of failed attempts followed by puzzled looks, he asked me if I meant to pay for the young girl’s purchase.  Annoyed that my communication attempt had gone so completely wrong, I shook my head and replied, “No, no!  That’s not what I was trying to say.”  Chastened into silence, I let him continue with our order, and we left the store.

While we poked around decaying ruins that afternoon, however, I had my own “micro stroke of insight.”  I saw that I had at least two valid answers to the store owner’s question, “Do you want to pay for hers too?”

My “right-wrong” linear left brain had jumped in and taken control of the situation in the store.  “No, that’s wrong.  That’s not what I was trying to say.”  End of story.

Yet his question had another valid answer, one that my less linguistically adept right brain could only whisper on a quiet trail in a Mayan jungle.  Did I want to spend sixty cents to buy chips for a cute kid who looked as if sixty cents mattered?  Did I crave a chance to make the tiniest human connection, no matter how fleeting?  Yes. I did!  Yes, I had!  Yes, I would have!  And then a wave of sadness and disappointment flooded my soul concerning opportunity missed – not just this one, but for all the little missed opportunities of a lifetime.

Jungle-clad Cobá from the top of its pyramid

Jungle-clad Cobá from the top of its pyramid

Fresh from Dr. Jill’s book, I supplied mental hemispheric interpretation to the event.  My number one priority on this holiday involved connecting to people, just because – I thought that a right-brain function.  Yet I’d let my linear left brain run the whole show with its need to get the Spanish right.

This reflection troubled me.  My troubling in turn shocked me.  My own stroke of insight had allowed me to glimpse how my left brain’s reaction had drowned out my right brain’s voice, leaving my life just a little less rich.  A single thread dropped from an intricate Mayan blanket.  Even after returning from Mexico, I kept brooding.  Intrigued that such a trivial event had bothered me for days, I pulled at the loose thread.

How often had I missed an opportunity like this one because I didn’t want to get something wrong?  Ba’ax ka wa’alik?  Hell-o?  Now I see how many threads I’ve dropped in the tapestry of my life. It’s a good blanket regardless and it keeps me warm, but my stroke of insight showed me that I could weave it even warmer, more colourful.  Sometimes I hush my left brain’s chatter, listening for a second right answer, a fleeting chance to make the human connection, just because.

Is Paul destined for the Sacred Cenote (also known as the "Well of Sacrifice") at Chichén Itzá

Is Paul destined for the Sacred Cenote (also known as the “Well of Sacrifice”) at Chichén Itzá

I’ve watched myself drop a few more stitches since then.  Sometimes I’ve gone back and picked them up again.  I look forward to catching more before the tapestry runs out.  The colours brighten.

Yum bo’otik!  Thank you, Mayan sun god.

For further exploration:

Speaking of vacation mode, here's another lounge lizard from around the pool

Speaking of vacation mode, here’s another lounge lizard from around the pool

What’s “vacation mode” mean for you?

Avoiding Travel Scams without Avoiding Travel

In last week’s post, Paul tells the story of losing $75 to a scam in the Dominican Republic.  This week, he draws some lessons from the experience.

Many travelers express concern about getting ripped off while traveling.  Unfortunately, for many in our age group, this fear keeps them from traveling … or from being as adventurous as they might be.

While it’s important to recognize the risks while traveling, it’s easy to scare oneself.  In over four decades of travel, we’ve suffered perhaps half a dozen losses, and a few more attempts.  What little we have lost was a small price to pay for the stories we acquired in return.  Almost surely have we missed a greater number of positive experiences due to over-caution.  We continue to seek the middle ground between being open to everything, and being “open season” for crooks abroad.

Everyone's selling something.  Are you buying?

Everyone’s selling something. Are you buying?

To put our $75 loss in perspective, it was the price of a tour.  To a minimum wage worker in the DR, it was a week’s wages.  Still, it seems unfair to the Dominicanos who stick to less lucrative but legal work.  Moreover, no one likes to feel he’s been taken, including Paul.

A little caution goes a long way towards avoiding a rip-off.  Knowledge of common cons can be helpful as long as it doesn’t frighten more than enlighten.  Check out WikiTravel’s “Common Scams” and Rick Steve’s “Tourist Scams & Ripoffs”.  Maybe you can spot the one that hooked Paul.

Understanding the psychology behind a successful scam may also help you recognize one more easily when you’re the intended victim.  This article from FraudAid lays out some of the basics.  Paul uses it to deconstruct his own experience with the one that got him – and the earlier scam, as he was struck by the common patterns in two very different cons forty years apart.

Enjoy the market in Barcelona but watch the crowds

Enjoy the market in Barcelona but watch the crowds

We think Paul takes secret delight in his vicarious connection with some of the great scams of Hollywood – like “The Sting” or David Mamet’s quirky “The Spanish Prisoner” – even if he was cast in the role of the Mark.  This dictionary of Scoundrel’s Slang may be helpful in understanding his analysis of the events described in last week’s post.  (You may want to reread the story first.)  At each step, Paul the Mark identifies what he might have done differently.  Here’s the rest of the Grifter cast:

  • The Outside Man, or Roper:  the young “father” with the sick baby
  • The Inside Man:  the shopkeeper whose shop was closed
  • On the Wall:  the young boy, on the lookout for the Bluecoats and other interference

As described by FraudAid, the first step is for the Roper to identify the Mark.  Since Paul was a Camera Hugger and traveling solo, he was an obvious choice; had Cheryl been with him, he likely wouldn’t have been a target for that con, although there are other cons designed for couples.  The Roper now has to determine the Mark‘s personality profile and identify what motivates him.

Crowds outside (and inside) Versailles are a pickpocket's delight.  But that's no excuse to miss out.

Crowds outside (and inside) Versailles are a pickpocket’s delight. But that’s no excuse to miss out.

In this case, Paul’s desire to converse in Spanish came through early on.  This put him at a disadvantage; had the con been going down in English, Paul’s “spidey sense” might have triggered earlier.  Operating in a second language can make it harder to pick up subconscious cues.  The Roper also counted on the Mark‘s desire not to look like a “rich tourist” by admitting he couldn’t have recognized any of the security guards from the hotel if he met them on the street.  Had the Mark asked, “Which hotel was that?”, it could have thrown off the con, although a skilled Roper could have recovered.  Before long, the Roper had determined that the Mark‘s wish to help a young family was the psychological persuasion that he needed.

What Paul could have done differently:  taken over guiding the script.  Assuming he hadn’t dismissed the request out of hand, he could simply have asked how much the young father needed and lent or given it to him right there.  Possible savings: $70.

During the second step of the con, the Roper‘s job was to make the Mark dependent upon him in some way.  One way he did this was to throw the Mark off balance.  He did this by quickening his pace to the point where the Mark had part of his attention just on keeping up.  Getting the Mark into unfamiliar territory was also designed to increase his sense of being linked to the Roper.  At the same time, the Roper continued unrelated conversation designed to mitigate any unease the Mark might feel about what was happening.

What Paul could have done differently:  trusted his unease at walking so quickly.  When he noticed that he was feeling rushed, he could have stopped, re-asserted his own agenda, and walked away if there had been any resistance.  It might have been a good time to switch to English.

The final step of the con was the Sting.  Once the Roper arrived at the closed shop with the Mark in tow, events moved swiftly.  Within a minute, Paul found himself staring at the Inside Man‘s $60 receipt with his mouth hanging open … considering his dwindling options.  Chances are the Grifters would not have resorted to violence, but they probably counted on the Mark’s discretion overpowering his valour.  They would have known he’d resist losing face, a motive often more powerful than the fear of death.  Who knows what strategies they might have planned to mollify the Mark if he hadn’t chosen to Cop a Heel?

What Paul could have done differently:  done an about face at the decisive moment.  Paul’s intuition was definitely ringing alarm bells as he stepped through the shop door.  It would have been uncomfortable to have chilled at that point and turned back, but it would have been the wiser course.

We avoided pickpockets at the Louvre by going early.  The day before we saw several pickpockets sussing us out nearby.

We avoided pickpockets at the Louvre by going early. The day before we saw several pickpockets sussing us out nearby.

The more general lesson is that our own personal weak points will determine what cons we’ll fall for, and what we need to be vigilant about.  Paul knows that he’s a sucker for a good cause, and is always looking for second-language opportunities when he’s on the road.  He is often less assertive than might be good for him.  His primary personal lessons for avoiding cons:  “Trust your intuition!  Don’t be afraid to assert your own agenda!”

Knowing yourself and knowing the cons can help you feel more comfortable while traveling.  Just don’t let it stop you.  Travel involves risk, as does everything worthwhile in life.  We have friends who lost their entire retirement nest egg to an investment scam from the comfort of their own home.

Seeing Paris' Latin Quarter with a "Discover Walks" local can make it safer

Seeing Paris’ Latin Quarter with a “Discover Walks” local can make it safer

“The best revenge is living well.

If you do get conned, it’s best to remember that Spanish proverb.  Resorting to violence as this young woman did could make a bad situation much worse.

For further reading:

What’s your best advice on avoiding trouble on the road?

Best Tour Ever?

Cheryl and I recently spent a couple of weeks on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.  We had chosen to stay in a former small fishing village, now growing in popularity with European tourists.  With few North American visitors, there was little English spoken, something that appealed to our sense of adventure.

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Adventures came from unexpected quarters.  An aborted snorkel trip had led to our befriending the French family who ran the dive shop, and we had joined staff at their home for a gourmet seafood meal.  We’d also put our travel technology to the test.  A family health emergency at home had Cheryl trying to manage doctors’ care and hospital transfers remotely, spending hours every day sitting by the pool on her iPod skype-to-phone connection.  Maybe the stress still won out:  she spent most of the second week knocked out by a nasty bug.  After a week of house calls at the small family-run hotel, the patient was old friends with the doctor.

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

On the last day of our stay, I insisted Cheryl treat herself to a massage.  The stomach bugs had canceled a couple of tours so we had a cushion in the budget.  Meanwhile, I spent the morning wandering around town with my camera, taking in the sights.  The air was warming, the sun was growing hot, and I was enjoying the rhythm of the place.  Pretty girls said “hi” in passing.  Everyone seemed happy.

A young man joined me with a friendly “Hola” as I was strolling up the street.  How was I enjoying his country?  He mentioned he was one of the security guards at our hotel.  I couldn’t place him – there were a couple of shifts of each day – but I didn’t let on, and we continued to chat.  I was happy for the chance to practice my Spanish, and he seemed willing to humour me.  He asked if I liked fishing, and said he had a cousin who could give me a deal on a fishing trip.  I smiled.  We’d been declining similar offers all week, and fishing wasn’t my thing anyway.

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

He talked a bit about his family, and told me he was worried about his baby son.  A doctor had just told his wife that the baby wasn’t getting enough nourishment, and that she needed to start supplementing with formula right away.  He wanted to get some today, but he didn’t have the cash.  He asked if I’d be able to lend him the money and he could pay me back at the hotel that evening when he got paid.  I thought to myself that I’d likely not see the money again, and immediately felt guilty.  I reasoned that I wouldn’t mind contributing a few dollars to a struggling family.  Our short stay in their town had shown us that many here got by on very little.  I told him I could help him out.

He thanked me and suggested the easiest thing to do would be to buy the formula together, and I could pay the store directly.  He knew a store up the street a bit where the prices were lower, but he was concerned they were about to close for siesta.  He quickened his pace considerably explaining that he knew the shopkeeper and it really would be the best place to go.  As I tagged after him, we continued to talk about some of the things we’d done in the past couple of weeks.  Struggling with more complex Spanish, I told him of our own medical challenges.  A couple of times, I suggested we could stop at another store, but my new friend appeared to dislike the thought.

Out for a stroll on Main Street - what will you see?

Out for a stroll on Main Street – what will you see?

By then we’d left the part of town frequented by tourists.  I suspected that a local on a security guard’s salary would find better deals in the less upscale neighbourhood.  Just as I was about to ask how much farther, we arrived at a small grocery store – with the metal shutters down.  My companion let out an exclamation, then asked a boy sitting out front something I didn’t quite catch.  “Good news!” the distraught father said, “My friend is still inside.”  He knocked on the side door, and it opened to admit us into the dimly lit interior of the closed store.  The shopkeeper behind the counter said hello, and the two men exchanged a few words.  The young security guard asked for the formula and the shopkeeper went to the shelves and brought back a box that looked like it would last until the baby was weaned.  I felt an unpleasant taste in my throat.  While I was still recovering my equilibrium, a case of disposable diapers appeared on the counter beside the box of formula.  At my urging, the bill was quickly calculated, and the shopkeeper held out his hand for the equivalent of about sixty dollars.

At that moment, the growing unease I’d been refusing to acknowledge for the last twenty minutes asserted itself.  I saw I’d put myself into a potentially dangerous situation.  Here I was in a part of town where tourists didn’t go.  I was inside a shuttered store, with two young men, both of whom now looked surprisingly burly.  The young boy outside was probably a lookout.  The young “father” had suddenly grown shrill and demanding – I had promised to pay for the milk, after all.  I was definitely past my physical prime, and with no fighting skills to speak of.

The candidate's message: a much bigger scam?

The candidate’s message: a much bigger scam?

My priorities changed rapidly.  My overriding objective was to get back out on the street.  Giving up sixty dollars to ensure my escape seemed a small price to pay.  I didn’t even blink when the young man grabbed the extra bills from my hand as I was paying the shopkeeper.  Pushing open the door, I burst out into the bright sunlight, stepped over the boy, and high-tailed it back down the street even faster than we’d come up it.  As the shuttered shop fell behind me, I counted my losses, about $75 all told.  I imagined the milk and diapers going back on the shelves.  I wondered how many times they’d been “sold”.

The next day, as Cheryl and I were taxied out of town, we passed the store, now open.  I briefly considered stopping and raising a scene, but figured nothing worthwhile would come of it.  Besides, they’d played a good game and won.  We continued on to the airport without interruption.  Losing the money had been one thing.  The blow to my pride and self-confidence had been much worse.  How had I let myself be taken in?  “I don’t know what you were thinking!” said Cheryl.

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

With a bit of perspective, the money ceased to bother me.  In fact, I came to think of this experience as just one more “tour,” an educational one this time.  The price of $75 was the norm for the higher-end tours in town.  I had to admit that this was the most memorable tour I’d had in the two weeks!

Talking to strangers, meeting people when we’re on the road, these are some of greatest pleasures of travel for us.  I’ve always tended to trust people’s motives until proven otherwise – and I don’t really want to change.  Cheryl doesn’t want me to change either, but she does wish I’d be a little less willing to suspend disbelief.  Frankly, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t fall for a scam like this quite so easily next time, so I spent some time thinking about how I fell for this one, and how I might train myself to heed the warning signs sooner next time.  I’ll share some of that next time, as well as some security tips from travel gurus.

I trust no one reading this will restrict their travels as a result of my story.  In over forty years, Cheryl and I have traveled a fair amount – and I’ve been in a few dicey locations – but all told, we’ve had very few problems between us.  A couple of pickpocket attempts, one successful one during the Munich Olympics.  I’m sure we’ve paid more than we should have for the odd purchase abroad.  In Costa Rica, I lost my electric razor to a “fisherman” – I’ve traveled with blades ever since.

Many years ago, while serving tables in a small town in Germany, I lost a hundred Deutschmarks to a winsome young German lass – almost $150 in today’s money.  I learned from the “polizei” that many other young lads in town had been fleeced during her short stay.  She knew her marks!

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul's first "tour" - still looks lovely as ever.  I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul’s first “tour” – still looks lovely as ever. I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

What about you?  Have you ever fallen prey to scams or other petty crime while traveling?

Travel the World without a Passport

In our previous post, we shared some of our experience staying overseas with Servas and Couchsurfing hosts.  This week, it’s our turn to host.

When Henry David Thoreau wrote that he had “traveled a good deal in Concord”, we don’t think he had his profile listed on Couchsurfing.org.  However, we’ve been able to experience some of the world’s wonder simply by offering hospitality and good cheer to wandering strangers.

We started by hosting a Couchsurfer who we knew from years back

Playing it safe: we started by hosting a Couchsurfer who we knew from years back

We started hosting with a listing in the Servas directory, and more recently added a Couchsurfing profile to our visibility.  In both cases, we hosted before traveling with these networks, but this is not required.  In fact, there is no explicit tie-in between hosting and traveling – save for conscience.

We felt confident offering short-term accommodation to visitors with Servas, knowing that they had supplied references and been interviewed to get their official letter of introduction.  As we gained hosting experience and became comfortable with the concept, adding couchsurfers to our guest list was not much of a stretch.  In place of references and interviews, Couchsurfing profiles have verification, online reviews, and “vouching”.

Do Couchsurfing hosts need to offer a magnificant guest suite as our recent hosts in Provence did?  No, as the name implies, even a couch will do.  Servas listings in Europe often indicate that a sleeping sheet or bag is required.  Our own offering is a little rustic.  We try to make it up by being informed guides and scintillating conversationalists.  We ‘d rather our visitors remember our kindness and wit than the ridge down the middle of the fold-out bed.

Relaxing after a local hike with a young visitor from Spain

Relaxing after a local hike with a young visitor from Spain

We’ve found the average age of travelers we’ve hosted to be younger than the hosts we’ve stayed with.  This is partly by design:  we often choose older hosts.  And youth is a time to “seek one’s fortune.”  For some of the oldest hosts we’ve met, their traveling days are behind them.  Hosting is a way to stay in the game, both by exposure to new people from new cultures, and by sharing past travel experiences with visitors.

We’ve enjoyed all of our hosting experiences over the years with Servas and Couchsurfing.  Each story is unique.  Our first visitor this year was Christoph, a young man from Germany completing his PhD thesis with a study of the North American distribution of an invasive weed species.  He had flown into Montana and was making a large circle tour that included our area.  He had chosen our home because we happen to live near a large infestation.  Who knew?  He explained that he had to pay for accommodation out of his limited research grant.  Christoph could only stay one night before driving several hundred miles to the next infestation, but we spent a great evening over a bottle of wine discussing everything from religious discrimination in Europe to crossing international borders with bags of weed seeds.

Local Renassiance Festival is a crowd-pleaser

Our local Renassiance Festival is a crowd-pleaser

Maud, a young woman from the French Alps, was traveling between long-term WWOOFing engagements on opposite sides of the country.  It was interesting to hear her first impressions of life on an organic farm in the New World.  In return, we showed her around the area, and offered her suggestions on where to stay when her mother came to join her.  Like most Servas and Couchsurfing visits, Maud’s stay was limited to a couple of days.  Servas has a policy of restricting stays to two days barring an unsolicited invitation by the host.  Couchsurfing has no official policy but recommends a similar time limit.

Have we had any troubling experiences?  Not really.  Once we had to exercise our “no” muscle.  A few years back, a young visitor from Prague broke several Servas rules when he asked, “Can I borrow the car?  Can you help me find a job here?  Can I stay longer?”  It is helpful to be able to

One of many local attractions

One of many local attractions

set clear limits without undue stress.  In our case, it wasn’t hard to say, “No, no, and no,” but others might find this challenging.  Our experience with this guest left us a little edgy, but with other positive experiences, we soon forgot this.  Until, months later, we received his unsolicited apology letter in the post.  Traveling is a learning experience for all of us.

Our most memorable hosting experience was non-standard.  Anaid, a young Mexican woman studying English on a student visa had been stranded here for several months by a travel snafu.  Her mother in Mexico had contacted Servas to make sure her daughter wasn’t left wandering the snowy streets.  Our local Servas coordinator contacted hosts with a special request for longer-term back-to-back stays to house the young woman until she could return to Mexico.  We chipped in about 10 days, and together with other hosts within a hundred mile radius, Anaid’s accommodation gap was covered.

As with traveling, hosting is about enjoying the unexpected.  Anaid’s letter of introduction – written no doubt by her mother – sported a grainy black and white photograph of a young woman with pigtails and a traditional school uniform.  However, when we first saw Anaid, she was wearing a backwards baseball cap and carrying a soccer ball – and her beaming smile revealed a tongue stud.  No doubt some of this would have been news to her mother … as would the news that Anaid had indeed spent at least one snowy night on the streets of the inner city.

A young student from Mexico at a local diner

Our young student from Mexico at a local theme diner

Anaid proved to be a delight.  She was helpful and easy-going.  She brought us some Mexican artwork, and our family still enjoys her easy recipe for enchiladas that she demonstrated for us one evening.  She was quite happy to accompany us on whatever we were up to, like spending an hour watching underwater coaching videos from Cheryl’s swim team.  Whenever we were tied up, she’d just pick up her soccer ball and head out, telling us she’d find someone “on the street” to play soccer with.  The first time we heard this, we were doubtful.  But she always found her game.  We suppose the young men in our town also fell under her spell.

A visitor such as Anaid lets us see our hometown in a new light.  Naturally, we took her to some of the local attractions we liked to visit.  We also discovered that her biggest unfilled dream was to see some of the filming locations for a popular TV series.  We looked them up and went on a tour.  Snapping pictures of familiar backdrops, she laughed, “I’m going to sell these for a million back in Mexico!”

Another visitor at the diner

Another visitor at the diner

As we’ve said, visitors are not expected to reciprocate with their hosts.  There is no requirement to offer anything other than a helping hand with the chores.  Couchsurfers can mark their profiles as “no couch available” or “currently traveling”, and even Servas hosts who are “receiving” are always free to decline individual requests without apology.

Still, most of our recent visitors have offered us accommodation back home and we’ve stayed in loose touch with many of them.  One offer in particular, we look forward to accepting before too long.  In a mid-size town in the Mexican mountains – “a place of eternal springtime” says she – a young woman named Anaid still lives with her very grateful mother.  We’ve promised to look them up when we’re in the neighbourhood.