Far Rockaway (Oregon)

Rockaway Beach

Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made. ~Roger Caras

When we started this process of closing up our company and moving to Seattle, there were so many setbacks and so much starting and stopping that I said to Matt we either needed to get me a dog or I was going to take off and go traveling for a while. In many ways, I think I should have done that – made my way slowly down the spine of the Andes or across India because now that we have a dog (and jobs, and soon a house) those kinds of trips have become even harder to fathom. But we did get a dog and there aren’t many days that go by where I don’t think that she is the absolute best thing ever.

Riley

She is never very far away from me, from love and an innate need to protect me; she is always happy to see me whether I’ve been away for a weekend or just to take out the trash; she curls up on my feet when we’re at home and we have been on so many adventures together. It’s gotten to the point where her joy is so infectious that I want to get up early and spend my Saturdays taking her hiking, or camping or swimming or for ice cream because I have so much fun by proxy.

Oregon Coast

So when Matt and I were deciding where we should go for an anniversary weekend away, I suggested we go to the Oregon Coast so that Riley could run around on the beach. Because the beaches in Oregon are massive and they are all dog friendly. How cool is that?

Rockaway Beach

We armed ourselves with audiobooks and crossword puzzles for the drive to Rockaway, and Riley entertained herself by sticking her head out the window and letting her jowls flap around like laundry on a line and soon enough we were pulling into one of the hundreds of bare-bones seaside motels that PNW road-trippers, parents, motorcyclists and dog-owners adore.

Riley

The rest of the day was spent running up and down the beach, inspecting the bottle-blue jellies strewn across the coastline, finding all the best sticks and drinking Sofia Coppola minis until the sun set and our dog was drunk on adventure. Best. I can’t wait to go back.

Rockaway Beach

The Season to Be Sparkly

bokeh

Well, it’s been quite a year. The last time I wrote a holiday letter / year in review was at the end of 2011 and it started like this:

“Yowza, it has been a year. We travelled to Toronto, Montreal, Paris, San Francisco, Salmon Arm, Mexico, Whistler, Camrose Alberta, Lummi Island and a few more places I’m forgetting, we got married, we got matching Ducati motorcycles, we started working together full time at the technology company we started last year (Adience Solutions Inc.), and blew that out of the water. It’s been very busy but we’ve sure had a lot of adventures.”

2012 was quiet in comparison – the bit of calm sandwiched in between adventure and change – because in 2013 we travelled to the Bahamas, Kiev, Prague, Hawaii, Salmon Arm, Quadra Island, and Whistler. Matt got a job with Amazon and we went to Seattle a couple of times together but he’s been down at least a dozen more on his own too. Then we decided to move to Seattle and got all ready for that big change, only to postpone it until next June. I applied to, got accepted for, and then deferred my acceptance into the Masters in Digital Media program. We closed our company. We got a dog. I took the summer off to figure out what I was going to do and spent days hanging out in dog parks and hiking and diving and making art while Matt went to Seattle again and again.

Gastown

Together we rode curvy Highway 20 to Osoyoos on our motorcycles and learned to sail. I pressed on with sailing lessons and got my day boat captain’s ticket and I also earned PADI diving specialty certifications in wreck diving, deep diving, boat diving and shark conservation. Matt and I both dove with manta rays, turtles, hammerheads and sharks in warm water and  I saw so many orcas that it almost became expected. I dove with friends in Nanaimo and Barkley Sound and Port Hardy – three corners of the Vancouver Island dive diamond – and unfortunately missed the fourth to Victoria / Race Rocks but I did dive the Skookumchuck rapids in Sechelt Inlet which was quite an experience.

Gastown

We’ve already been up to Whistler this winter – we made it for the opening day on 7th Heaven for the second year in a row – and in spite of all the dive trips I did this year, the local diving season is really just getting underway. In terms of creative endeavours, I attended an incredible art workshop with Nick Bantock as well as with my regular teacher and mentor Jeanne Krabbendam, and learned many new things in terms of both perspective and technique. I started writing a book – a sort of memoir with recipes – that may never be finished but that is fun to work on in any case, and have continued occasionally updating SmokySweet.com and this blog. I’ve been cooking and baking a lot too, as well as attempting many food-related projects. Sourdough and jam are currently back in rotation now that the Christmas baking is done.

There’s no other way to write it other than as an incredible list of adventures. We keep a Jar of Awesomeness on our counter that we put moments in to as they happen to pull out and read on New Year’s Eve. I can’t believe how much we’ve done this year but I know there are lots in there that I’ve forgotten.

jar of awesomeness

Now it’s winter and dark from 4 PM until 8 AM. The crows have started to fill the alley and the square around Gassy Jack when I’m walking the dog in the morning dark and their cawing fills an otherwise quiet Gastown. The year has turned in on itself, bookended by these immense blocks of night but it is also nearly Christmas and the city has picked up a bit of an anticipatory bustle. On Water Street the storefronts are all dressed up in their finest and people are rushing here and there, dipping in and out of the dark and light patches made by the windows and lights. I was looking outside just now as the streetlights came on and with the huge tree outside our window also decked out in white lights, the street does feel sparkly and festive and a little bit magical. There are Christmas trees visible in several apartment windows across the street but those lights will come on a bit later, when people get home from work.  It’s snowing today for the second time this month – unusual for us this early – and I love seeing the city (nevermind the mountains) covered.

Gastown

We’re not normally big on Christmas but we wanted a quiet one this year and ended up actually having no plans at all. Surprisingly, that has brought out the Christmas spirit in me. I’ve been cooking and baking and even listening to a little Christmas music. Next week is Matt’s birthday and Christmas and we have plans to go to see the lights at the Capilano suspension bridge and VanDusen Botanical Gardens. Hopefully we will go to the German Christmas market tonight but in between I will be quite content to curl up and enjoy the quiet. I will bring out the sparkles for New Year’s but we’ll keep that low-key too.

After any year like this we have some work to do to bring things into balance – work on our budget, work on getting me a job, work on communication and balance, work on working out…but in spite of planning to keep 2014 low-key, I don’t see how it can be. I’ll have a new job, a new career, a new country, a new dive shop, a new set of friends…and I’m still not sure if Matt will be more or less busy if he’s in Seattle full time. But if I set my sights only on accomplishing those with some kind of grace and not add in too many stretch goals then I just might be able to pull it off.

Happy holidays to you if you celebrate them. Enjoy the sparkle.

And here are some beautiful words to bring in 2014:

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

– Neil Gaiman

lights

What I’m Reading and Listening to this month:

Spain (revisited)

Walterses

Travelling through Europe again, taking photos of doors and writing in cafes has made me think a lot of our trip through Spain last year (we went in May 2012). We had such a good time, hanging out in Barcelona for a week before heading up to Girona and eating the dinner of our lives at El Celler de Can Roca and then motorcycling around the country through France to Andorra, then Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, Jerez, Gibraltar, Ronda, Granada, Costa del Sol, Valencia and back to Barcelona again. That was before I had a place to keep travel notes and the like, so they’ve been floundering around  in my phone and for lack of a better idea I’m just going to post them here, largely unedited. As always, the link to the flickr photo set is at the end of the post.

Gaudi

12-05-03 – 12-05-09 (Barcelona)

Coming from the airport we passed a hillside graveyard and fields and the general unused land around airports, but then the landscape closed in tighter and tighter as we got into Barcelona and then into Barri Gòtic – the Gothic quarter or Old town where what used to be paths hundreds of years ago has now been cemented into streets by years and stone. The taxi driver tried to tell us where our hotel was (we were not in front of it) but not understanding his Catalan, he shrugged and drove us to it down an impossibly small street.

Barri Gothic

The lock was broken so we called the landlord and waited a while but then the locksmiths broke the spare lock that they brought with them so finally we left them to it and went out to dinner. We were tired so we choose poorly and ended up at something too touristy close to La Rambla (the main street, a wide promenade full of shops and tourists) but it gave us an idea of what to expect.

Sagrada Familia

I loved wandering the labyrinthian neighbourhood, navigating to our street using graffiti on closed security doors and public art in seemingly out of the way squares, and passing jamón shops with legs of ham hanging in windows every 50 metres. On the first day we walked to see Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia (above) and on the way passed three of his other works – Casa MilaCasa Amatller, and Casa Batlló. On they way back we passed a restaurant I wanted to check out – Tapas 24 – and we ate pa amb tomate and jamón, croquettes and the best dessert I’ve had in  a long time – rolls of chocolate  ganache topped with sea salt and olive oil. 

We found a cava bar we liked in El Born (the trendy restaurant district near us) called Xampanyet and ended up going there 2 more times, we visited the Boqueria market twice and ate at the Bar Pinotxo. I had made both lunch and dinner reservations at Tickets, planning to cancel one of them but we ate there twice too and tried everything on the menu.

And so our first week in Spain passed this way, feeling easy and comfortable, being amazed at how small and compact and beautiful it was but happy to already have favourites and a familiar routine.

Motorcycles

12-05-10 (Barcelona / Girona)

When I first told Matt I wanted to eat at El Celler de Can Roca I explained that it was in Girona, a couple of hours north of Barcelona and he said no problem, he would sort out how to get us there. I assumed there would be a bus or maybe a train but a couple of weeks later he had rented us some motorcycles – a BMW R1200GS for him and a BMW F800ST for me – and planned a little romp around the countryside. Because he likes driving and I like seeing things that turned into the epic adventure that follows but our first leg was pretty short – we picked up the bikes and drove to Girona, checked into our hotel and ordered some surprise dishes off the entirely Catalan menu, and then I went to bed because we had spent a little too long at the mezcal bar the night before and I wanted to be in good shape for dinner.

El Cellar de Can Roca

Then we ate at El Celler de Can Roca. It was the best experience I have ever had in a restaurant and that covers food and service. Afterwards we met the chef and he thanked me for my sensitivity – what I had called “our gushing” about how good everything was earlier in the evening.

Cadaques

12-05-11 (Girona/ Cadaques /France / Andorra)

The next day was a long one. We wanted to ride through the Pyrenees and we had seen on Google Maps that the road through Andorra was a good one. But to get there we first needed to go north along the coast and then through France. So we passed through Figueres (where the Dali museum is meant to be) but didn’t see much of interest there and then I was anxious to be off again because my clutch grip was so stiff and my hand just gave out after too long in stop-and-go traffic.

A small town, Orriol maybe? smelled fantastically like cheese and made me grin and later a low-flying plane crossed over the road above us to land in a field and made me laugh out loud. It’s a bit lonely riding a motorcycle because even when you’re riding with someone you can’t be sure they’re sharing the same experiences and it’s rare that I get to take a photo but on the other hand, it makes you appreciate the moments a bit more and makes you try to remember them for later. There’s a bit of resonance there with my hesitation to get into underwater photography, I think.

Roses, the town where El Bulli used to be, was even more strange than Girona. It was tiny and felt somewhat like Osoyoos, with hills and windy roads and dry scrub and heat..not to mention the run-down go-carting place and crazy mini golf parks. I guess a seaside town is a seaside town is a seaside town.

But that road! We laughed all the way to Cadaques, twisting in and our of beautiful corners, bright yellow broom all over the place (with that particular cellulose smell), catching our first glimpses of the Mediterranean and were still smiling over beers and bacon-cheese sandwiches oceanside when we stopped for lunch. Cadaques is all square white buildings and square blue windows reflecting light off the ocean and Gertrude Stein was right – this is a perfectly cubist village. Cubism was created by Cadaques.

Cadaques

And then we got to ride that road again, inland! Aside from a small stretch of boring highway slab in France, the twisties continued all the way to Andorra. We passed a whole bunch of beach towns with intense azure water, a Castle with a moat, the vineyards of the Languedoc-Rousillon wine region, and then several small medieval towns with towers and walls and meadows and orchards and some beautiful horses grazing as we rode through a river valley. It’s so neat to think that these would have been about a day’s journey between each town and we just whipped by them one after another.

Andorra

Unfortunately I didn’t realize that the Go Pro camera battery was dead so even when we drove practically through a castle I didn’t pull over to take any photos. We’ll just have to come through here again some day. Approaching Andorra looks so much live Bavaria or BC even (or like a mountainous region, I suppose) but with stone huts and more horses and then suddenly it was all snow and duty free shops. It felt like a mall. The air temperature didn’t drop until we were practically on top of the ski resort, though, but it was pretty glorious. And the road up and down the summit! The switchbacks were so severe that Matt and I were almost facing each other a couple of times. So awe-inspiring, although Andorrans drive like assholes and there were several tracks off into the air so I went slow.

Hard to believe we went from sea level to glacier in the same day, through 3 countries. By far the best day riding of my life.

And then I was ready to be off the bike; I was tired and thirsty and headache-y and my shoulders were quite sore from the ergos on the bike and Matt’s back had been bothering him for hours, but we were almost in Andorra la Vella and then there was another small town, and another, and another and then we were there but there was a river and such a long, drawn out town you never did see but finally we arrived and after 14 hours of riding got ourselves stranded up a steep, narrow dead end. The road was just closed off at the top of a hill so steep that Matt had to back into a corner to turn around and I had to ride up on to and off of the sidewalk, through some bollards and around a car while Matt held my bike and I freaked out because I couldn’t touch the ground. It sucked very badly but eventually we got to our hotel and almost got into a fight with a horrible Italian man who told Matt, “traffic is not bad, you are stupid!!” after honking at us then driving around us and over the median and reversing through the intersection, and the next day Matt came off his bike after breaking too hard from not yielding at a courtesy corner. We hated Andorra as soon as we arrived.

Madrid

12-05-12 (Andorra / Madrid)

Nothing much to report on the journey down the super slab highway from Andorra to Madrid. It was even more boring than we thought it would be, although in some parts there is interesting scenery – including some that looks for all the world like Utah except for the fields of windmills and periodically placed huge toro silhouettes along the way. I guess they don’t call it the Sierra Nevada in both counties for nothing. Also we met a crazy truck driver near Zaragosa who we had quite a long conversation with while actually exchanging very little information. He was rad though and we watched some Moto GP videos of Rossi on his phone. As Matt says, motorcycle people are motorcycle people no matter where you are. I love how many people wave and smile at us here. Motorcycles just make people happy I think.

Arriving in Madrid was busy but sane. People know how to drive here and there is respect for motorcyclists which is awesome and the city just seems electric with energy. We were surprised that we felt good and had some energy after a shower, beer and food  so we decided to walk up to the Reina Sofia museum to see Picasso’s Guernica. This is a painting I have been wanting to see for a very long time and so I was so grateful. It’s one that demands a visit in person to understand the utter immensity of it. It’s enormous and the effect of all those layers and textures of wood just does not come through in photos. His ability to convey emotion like that through form is just such brilliance. I could have sat there for hours.

The museum has several other Dalis, Magrittes, Miros and other famous pieces and we saw quite a few but Matt was getting tired so we didn’t stay too long and then found a nice spot overlooking the city where we could drink our beers before dinner. The light was amazing and the thing that I already love about this city is that there are almost no tourists. It was so nice to just hang out in close proximity to some Spaniards and watch the footy game that was happening down  below. Later we tried to go out for dinner on the Calle de la Cava Baja – Madrid’s tapas row and we were astounded at how many people were out milling and eating, streaming out of streets like water. We thought there was an event on but it turned out to just be Saturday night.  This city is so ALIVE!! Every bar is packed to the gills and we could hear music and people out partying until almost morning. We were in bed early though – we did 700km AND a museum and that was enough. We’ll have to come back.

Madrid

12-05-13 (Madrid)

We toured the entire Prado today! We were not as impressed with Velasquez’s portraits as I had expected and I’m not a huge fan of Goya but it was good to see the original Las Meninas after seeing so many of Picasso’s studies in Barcelona. Also, I hadn’t realized that there were so many (or any, for that matter) of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings in Madrid, so it was a real treat to see the Garden of Earthly Delights and 4 others up close. So much crazy detail in those.

We were cooked afterwards but decided it would be better to press on and eat instead of napping. So we had a couple of beers and then headed back to the bottom of the Calle de la Cava Baja where we had been the night before, ready to tuck in.

The first place we went was a chain called Toma Jamón that (obviously) had jamóns hanging all over the place and one ready to slice on a barrel in the doorway. Gin and tonics seem to be the drink of the moment in Madrid – every bar was promoting them, including our hotel – but I had vermuth again (Matt stuck with beer) and we ordered jamón, pulpo gallego (octopus), and gambas (prawns). I tried to order more but the proprietor waved me off with a laugh and then brought me to the counter to show me the prawns – there was a choice between ones the size of my hand or larger. He also brought out an order of tomato bread and small but meaty green olives so I worried that we were going to fill up on our first stop. Matt laughed at me for being up to my elbows in prawn but they were so delicious – meaty and flavourful and not like any prawn I’ve had in recent years. We were pretty full by the time we got to the octopus but we didn’t much care for it anyways. It was thinly sliced on top of thinly sliced potatoes and doused in smoky, meaty-tasting paprika. It was fine as a protein but not good enough to warrant eating my beloved octopuses.

Gulas

Bar #2 (TxoTolia Pinoteca Madrileño??) was packed but we squished in and Matt got a table while I ordered drinks and scoped out the tapas. I told Matt that there was one of the best looking ones I had seen so far (a fist-sized bomba with potatoes and mushrooms) and one of the grossest (a pile of tiny grey eels – “gulas” – on toast with a lone slice of red pepper for garnish). He told me to get one of each and I stared at him in disbelief for a moment before running to the counter and ordering before either of us changed our minds. Surprisingly, the eels were even better than the bomba that ended up coming warmed with mushroom gravy or the morcilla sausages wrapped in a fried egg on toast and even the Spaniards were shocked since most of them were eating tapas that looked like little cheeseburger sliders.

We were pretty drunk by this point but decided to try one more place. And unfortunately the one we tried one wasn’t very busy or very good but we had some anchovies (tasted as expected) and croquettes (tasted of oil) , some hazelnut ice cream (delicious) and some terrible, bitchy service before stumbling home.

Cordoba

12-05-14 (Madrid / Cordoba)

Even more boring than the last freeway jaunt except for some vineyards and olive trees. It’s pretty cool to smell olive oil in the air though.

So hot. I am melting in my leathers. Matt says him too but I look at his canvas jacket that unzips to practically nothing and think that he just has no idea.

We arrived in Cordoba and parked on the sidewalk, peeled the leathers off and left them in a damp pile on the sidewalk. The hotel was nice but we decided to go out and see the mosque-cathedral immediately instead of waiting until later so we changed and headed out but it was so hot. We were cranky and sweating before we had even made it all the way across the river.

The mosque (way more mosque than cathedral despite the altar in the middle and the various culty chapels around the perimeter) was stunningly beautiful with its rows of candy cane arches and forest of pillars and I was happy that so much of the original remained but I couldn’t help but wish that it had all been preserved. I guess that’s not the way of history though.

For some reason most of the dogs we saw in Cordoba are German Shepherds – all of them with their tongue almost touching the ground. It’s unconscionable. It’s way too hot in this town and the old quarter was full of tourists so we hid out in the hotel room and drained the mini bar until evening. We tried to go to the pool but it was closed so we took a lovely walk around the mosque and old city walls again.

Seville

12-05-15 (Cordoba / Seville / Jerez)

More freeway, we hate freeways. And more cows but now there are some garlic farms and many many more olive orchards. The air was full of the smell of them and Matt smelled sherry as well at one point. Sevilla was bigger than expected and apparently had hosted the Olympics at some point as we recognized the infrastructure pieces that seem to accompany them. It’s also much cooler than we expected (32 instead of 38, at least for now) and we’re so grateful but still astounded to see guys walking around in the sun in black suits, or a FUR shop! There are orange trees with fruit on the growing everywhere on the streets and beautiful purple flowering trees that I think must be Jacarandas. We didn’t have much time in Seville, unfortunately, but we headed to Zelai for lunch where we had jamón and manchego cheese (both delicious, but possibly a poor choice to fill up on), patates ali-oli with saffron, tuna tataki and croquettes. Simply prepared, for the most part, but it was some of the best food we’ve had in Spain. For dessert we had a PB & jam pudding with a chocolate top that I thought was pretty good. Driving out of Seville I was so distracted by the incredibly beautiful architecture and wished we were able to stay longer to explore. Gorgeous palace after bull ring after manor houses…even the tourist information booth was in a beautiful building. And then we were back on the freeway with nothing much to look at but at least we were glad of the breeze.

Andalusia

Passed several castles in the afternoon. We seem to be in the part of Spain (mountainous but near enough the coast) that has one on every hilltop. I tried to get Matt to stop several times but I couldn’t get his attention. He’s been trying to ride more and more like a Spaniard which is better for the flow of traffic but means we’re passing dramatically and I’m often left with very little space. Hopefully it will make me a better rider and not just bitter but the heat and angry pressure building meant that I was in a pretty terrible mood when we stopped in Arcos de la Frontera and Matt yelled at me for not knowing where we were. Obviously there is a need for yelling when we’re both wearing earphones but he’s the one with the GPS so the conversation was maybe besides the point. Turns out there’s nothing to see in Arcos so we pressed on, melting.

We had reservations at the Sherry Park hotel which cracked me up for its Britishness but it is apparently the best-rated hotel in Jerez. We must have looked sunburnt, sweaty and miserable (never how we must have smelled!) because the clerk, Kino (who turned out to be awesome) joked with us that riding a moto in this weather, with this gear, is more like riding a sauna with wheels. So true. I would have laughed but all I could managed was a weak smile.

In the room we cranked the AC and drank 2 beers and 2 waters each before hopping in a cool shower. When we felt human again we went down the tho pool and I ordered some fino sherry (Tio Mateo). The bartender free-poured it, filling up my glass and it cost only €1,50. l love this country! Our new friend Kino recommended a little walk into town so we could get some photos and sample some Jerez cuisine (and sherry of course). Lovely man. When I asked about sherry bodegas he asked how much of a rush we were in in the AM because it was day off and he would be happy to take us to some special ones, but we had a big day ahead of us so we sadly had to skip it.

Jerez

We hadn’t expected anything of Jerez, just a place to sleep and maybe some sherry but we ended up falling in love with it. It has such a character all its own and I can’t help but think that that’s what Barcelona was to be like before all the tourists arrived. The first place we stopped was called Tabanco Plateros and I ordered a palo cortado sherry (which Matt admitted to liking although he still ordered beer for himself) and some delicious fresh cheese – payoyo, I think it was called – with morcilla. The morcilla was hella oily but the flavour was excellent. Same with the plate of green olives that arrived with the sherry. The place was packed and full of excellent energy and an accordion player came by for a while. I could have stayed there for a week butI wanted to see some of the town before dark.

Sherry

From there we walked through the old town (drunk) and took some photos of the cathedral and the square and the crazy swallows flying and chirping all over the place – feeding, I guess – and the sherry bodegas that are right smack in the middle of the old town. The restaurant Kino had recommended was a gastrobar called Reina something or other and was so adorable. They brought a table outside onto the street patio for us because it was still too hot to eat inside and then a bottle of wine (but no ice and no opener!). Lorenzo our waiter was so clumsy he kept tripping over Matt and stepping on his feet, so we laughed a lot, even more after we got the wine opened.

Gibraltar

12-05-16 (Jerez / Gibraltar / Ronda / Granada)

So much wind today! We are tilting at windmills for real as we get buffeted around. And it’s mercifully cold – down as low as 19 degrees today which is a shock after seeing 37 inland. The Rock of Gibraltar was significantly more impressive than we expected; coming down the hill into town we could see it shrouded in mist and all the ships in the harbour, but the “town” is pretty much nonexistent.

Ronda

The ride from Marbella up to Ronda was SPECTACULAR; cold, warm, cold, warmer, hot, hotter / oceanside, foothills, pine tree scrub, shale, farmland, village / sea level, ~3500 ft, etc. grinning the whole time. And then we got to Ronda, a beautiful little village with the oldest and most beautiful bull ring in Spain and the Medieval bridge through the gorge. We also found a whole bunch of tour buses.

More crazy wind, then some crazy traffic and we were ready to be off the bikes but Granada is super gorgeous once you get up the hill into the old town. And then we saw why so many reviews said the hotel was “tricky to get to” because we were up and down and around on ancient, steep, slippery cobblestones. At one point I was watching to see which way Matt was going to turn and realized that the road only went one way – and the other way was stairs! Our hotel was amazing – a 600 year old manor house on the hill overlooking the Alhambra. It has a decorative pool in the courtyard and lovely wood detailing everywhere and heavy ornate metal latches. Also the parking garage has an elevator so that was pretty cool.

Alhambra

We hadn’t bought our tickets to Alhambra in advance because we weren’t sure which day were were going to arrive but we also knew that it sold out quickly, so we walked down the hill that our hotel was on (in the Albayzín district) and up the hill that the Alhambra was on where the ticket sellers just told us to come early in the morning. It’s a beautiful walk through the gate and gardens though, so it was pleasant enough. For dinner we made the mistake of asking the hotel for a reco and he sent us to a super tourist place whose patio looked out to the Alhambra. It was very lovely and romantic but the food was predictably mediocre.

Alhambra

12-05-19 (Granada / Calahonda)

The hours that we spent waiting in line disappeared pretty quickly once we got inside the grounds of the Alhambra. It was a fortress and a palace through several generations so there are different areas to visit that are interesting in different ways. We say the beautiful rose gardens and fountains with the ancient water delivery systems (turned over roof tiles joined together to form a trough that takes water all over the hill) and the old dungeons and watchtower and then we had a bit of a wait before we could get into the gorgeous Nazarene palaces.  I sat Matt in the shade and got him a beer and a jamón sandwich, most of which he ended up feeding to the feral cats (who figured out pretty quickly that we were a good mark).

Alhambra

The palaces are incredibly gorgeous. It’s hard to imagine the work that must have gone into the detailing, where every surface in some of the rooms had been covered. In others, beautiful fountains and pools were the focus, or a quiet garden that looked out onto the town. I’ve been in love with this aesthetic most of my lift and to see it in person was almost overwhelming. I could have spent days in there.

Calahonda

We decided not to stay another night in Granada but instead head out to the coast where we expected it to be cooler, so we got packed up and put the bikes in the elevator. It turned out to be one of our less good ideas because we were hot and tired from walking around Alhambra all day but also because the ancient cobblestones had become slick with oil and heat during the day and were at their absolute worst by mid-afternoon. As the parking garage was at the top of a steep hill, this made is something akin to riding a motorcycle down a ski hill – with cars on it. Matt did okay but my boot slipped while I was balancing on a slick part of the street and I dropped my bike. That made me cranky but even worse was that we changed our plans and just ate at a tourist shop facing Alhambra at the bottom of the hill and for the second time in two days we had a bad meal in Spain.

The drive to the coast was not long and it did mercifully get cooler as we got towards the water. Apparently Spain had been in some kind of heat wave (no shit!) that was almost over as well but it seemed like maybe poor timing now that we were finally at the beach. We stopped in the first hotel in the first town (Calahonda), happy to be off the bikes and out of the heat, then went down to the bar on the beach. We just sat there until the restaurant opened (in the same  space as the bar) and thought that we would see a menu but the waiter just brought me more wine and then started bringing us food. There was a lovely salad with smoked salmon followed by a fish casserole (caught right in front of where we were sitting) and some toro (bull) meat. When we were full, we told him and he brought us some fruit and an after-dinner drink. It was so easy and unpretentious and lovely. Also one of the best meals we had the whole trip.

Peniscola

12-05-20 (Calahonda / Benisanó) 

As we started riding up the Costa del Sol, two things happened – the “sol” disappeared in the rain and we arrived at the Spain that is familiar to German, French and British holiday-makers – tri-lingual picture menus and huge billboards advertising patio furniture rentals, etc. We had thought that we would just ride up the coast until we found another cute little town to stay in but the roads have been expertly designed to get traffic in and out of these small towns quickly and so you turn off of the super highway onto a smaller one and then onto the road that leads to your town. To get out or even to get to the next town you do the same in reverse. That sucks for motorcycling and the rain isn’t great either so we just kept going until we got to Valencia – the next town that I knew I for sure wanted to visit.

Except that we didn’t stop in Valencia but kept going on to the suburb of Benisanó. The only thing that I wanted to do in Valencia was eat a proper paella (although there are a couple of nice restaurants in that stretch that I would have liked to eat at, had we been able to get in) and so Matt looked up the primo place to eat paella and it turned out that it’s Levante, out in the suburbs. There’s only one hotel in Benisanó – a classy joint that has put a potted plant in front of the  2 Star plaque out front – and so we stayed in it, in a room that felt like the spare room at an estate museum or something. There was a dresser that looked like it had been got at a garage sale and although I think we and the people next to us were probably the only four people staying in the whole place, they had put us right next to each other and the walls were so thin that we could hear the guy yelling at his wife from the shower. But no matter, we were going to have paella for dinner and then we were going to leave so we just needed to find a couple of hours to fill until then and as we had discovered on this trip, beer does a pretty great job of filling an afternoon.

Luckily the paella place was just a few doors down so I went and checked every so often it kept stubbornly being closed.  Finally we asked the hotel proprietor and he said in his very limited English that he thought it wasn’t open. That seemed pretty obvious so after a while I asked if we could have paella there in the hotel restaurant and he looked surprised but said he thought they might have some left over from lunch. They did and we ate it while sulking a bit. Later we learned that paella is usually cooked outside over fires made with orange wood and that it’s traditionally made by men who were out working in the fields. For this reason, it’s usually a lunch dish rather than eaten for dinner. Try again tomorrow.

12-05-21 (Benisanó / Peníscola / Barcelona)

Checked out and went and parked ourselves at the cafe next door to Levante. I got crankier and crankier as we filled up on snacks from a suburban Spanish bakery and the paella place never opened. Finally we had to leave and now I will have to come back to this shit town again some day and stay in this shit hotel just to eat paella.

As we rode out of town though we passed orange grove after orange grove and the smell was intoxicating. I always tell people that motorcycles are the best way to travel because you are so connected to the land – the terrain, the climate, the smells – and travelling from Barcelona through Madrid and then Andalusia we passed through the countryside experiencing the things that we would eat at the next town; fields of garlic, olive orchards, orange groves, etc.  Some of these things weren’t pleasant (the pig farms in particular) and when we crested a hill outside Valencia and saw a fire filling the sky with black smoke, we prepared to ride fast through it and hold our breaths against the acridness. The opposite thing happened though. It turned out to be a fire in an orange grove and it was the smell of smoky perfume, spicy pot pourri…the smell of our denied paellas cooking on an open fires of orange wood…If it weren’t for the ERT vehicles we may have turned around and rode through it again and again. It didn’t quite make up for not eating paella but that was a pretty amazing experience.

Stopped in Peníscola (another poor Spanish town about to be overrun by sun-seeking tourists) for lunch and had a lovely meal on the beach of cuttlefish, cheese and Albariño before pressing on to Barcelona. So tired and achey now. I actually have bruises on my ass from riding so hard and just desperately wanted to be off the bike but as we were riding through Penedès (cava wine country) I couldn’t help but signal to Matt that I wanted to pull over and buy some. He looked pretty incredulous – we’d been travelling around Spain for weeks with strangely-shaped, un-flexible luggage the size of overnight bags and in every town I had found something that I wanted to buy. Matt would hold it up against his hard case (he had a bigger bike so therefor bigger bags) and tell me I could get the smaller one. About 2/3rds of the way through the trip he threw out some of his underwear to make room for some regional delicacy I couldn’t live without. So in Penedès he told me I could have ONE bottle of wine and that was it, then he went to the bathroom. 

The proprietor showed me around his operation, through the cellar and the storeroom and finally told me about each of the different wines. He was doing it in Catalan though, and so when he said that the bottles were €60, €70 and €90 each and I just about died because it was the most expensive cava I had ever seen in my life, he actually meant €6 – €9. I wish I had a truck.

Matt rented us a super posh hotel on the water in Barcelona so we just cruised up to the door and parked our filthy, bug-encrusted bikes on the sidewalk beside the luxury cars and went inside to drink our wine. Wanted to go to Cal Pep but it was closed so ducked out of the rain around the corner in a super cute tapas place that we hadn’t seen yet called Bastaix. We had fava beans with jamón iberico and mint, piquillo peppers with goat cheese and honey, morcilla sausage on toast with roasted apple and cheese, a plate of manchego, and some nice Albariño. For dessert there was that gorgeous chocolate ganache and EVOO and sea salt dessert and more PX (from Alvarez this time) which  Matt enjoyed. He seems to be a convert.

We had an unexpected couple of days in Barcelona that we thought were were going to spend along the coast but it was raining and we were tired and the  jamón iberico at the hotel was excellent so we laid low and feasted, shopped, planned our next trip – to Northern Spain…

 

Here are all the photos from our trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157629894497730/

 

Hawai’i: Maui and Kona

Flying

Hawaii was nice. How can Hawaii not be nice?! Unlike Kiev and Prague, this trip has been on the books for a while – it was Matt’s pick after we got back from the Bahamas last winter and he has especially been looking forward to going somewhere beachy and warm so a quick trip to paradise to get in some sunshine, downtime and great diving was just so nice.

Hawaii

It had been a long time since I was last in Hawaii last and probably a decade for the time before that, but my grandmother used to live in Makaha on Oahu part time and so we went what seemed like often when we were kids. I remember falling asleep and waking up to the sound of the ocean, crawling the beach to collect little knobs of coral and digging big pits (instead of castles) in the sand. When we were still too small to swim in the surf my my grandmother used to hold us and body surf us through the waves until our homemade swimsuits were full of sand. When we came inside, she would cut up fresh papaya for a snack and these things must have made an impact because I have never lost my love of the sea and fresh fruit.

Honoloa Beach

Matt had never been to Hawaii so we split the difference between Maui (which I thought he would like best) and Kona (where I wanted to go on the manta ray night dive) and that worked out well except that we both wanted to spend more time in both places. Ah well, next time.

Honokowai

MAUI

I was pleasantly surprised to find Lahaina less horribly touristy than I remembered (although we did have a couple of terrible meals there and why does every restaurant or retail shop in Hawaii seem to have a T-shirt for sale?) but we were still happy to be staying in quiet, tiny Honokowai, with a lush garden in front of our condo and the ocean working its endless magic steps away from our door. The first night after we got settled in to the condo we went and sat by the ocean until we lost all the light and could only hear the waves lapping at the seawall beneath our feet.

And then went to bed because we had a 4 AM wake up call to go and see the sunrise on Haleakala. Diving and flying gets complicated on an archipelago with 10,000 ft peaks so we decided to get the heights over with first thing and booked in our diving after that.

Haleakala

Thankfully we had the time change on our side because it actually didn’t seem that bad when we were stumbling around getting dressed. The summit is a polar region and we hadn’t packed accordingly so I just wore all the warm things I had; a t-shirt, my rash-guard, a paper-thin windbreaker…and flip flops. Matt had said so many times leading up to the trip that he just wanted to sit under a tree and read that I hadn’t even bothered to bring shoes or socks. That’ll be my lesson learned.

 

Haleakala

The last time I climbed Haleakala I made it about an hour’s hike into the valley before I was overcome by altitude sickness. I didn’t know what it was, just that I felt like I was moving through toothpaste and my boyfriend was getting farther and farther away no matter how hard I tried to keep up. Finally I just sat down next to an alien-looking tree and cried. We eventually figured out what was going on but then we still had to climb all the way back up to the visitor’s centre. It wasn’t fun and I wasn’t anxious to repeat it so I made Matt go slowly and stop whenever there was a pullout which made the two hour trip drag. By the time we got the to summit, the morning light had illuminated the clouds and brought some definition into the crater. Several people had assembled, wearing whatever warm things they could collect from their rooms – beach towels and house robes were common – and I was not the only one with toes showing! What a motley crew we looked like to greet the rising sun!

Walterses

Haleakala means “House of the Sun” and in Hawaiian history, the summit was only accessible to priests. It’s easy to see why it was considered a sacred space. We were on top of the world, high above the clouds and the light reflecting off of them and into the moon-like crater was incredible. Through the occasional break we could see all the way to the sea and in the distance far below us the West Maui mountains that had seemed so large when we drove past that morning.

I’m not normally one for sunrises but when there is in fact something magical in watching the first ray of sunshine break into the day and even more so when a park ranger chants a mele oli” (chanted poem) in honour of it:

Haleakala sunrise mele oli

Dolphins

The next day we headed out to sea. After discussing with Lahaina Divers, we decided to do the Cathedrals – beautifully formed lava caves – off the coast of Lana’i and the hammerhead sharks dive off the coast of Moloka’i. Later we added a couple of dives on Maui to round it out but even before we got to our first dive site we were joined by a pod of 40-50 dolphins. They surrounded the boat when it slowed but as soon as the captain resumed speed they sped up excitedly to ride our bow waves then dropping back to leap through and do flips in the wake. I laughed out loud at the site of such pure and obvious joy – they are truly the puppies of the ocean.

Cathedral

The Cathedrals were as beautiful as I remembered and we got to see the rare albino black coral “chandelier” that hangs from the ceiling. It’s a testament to the dive shops in the area educating divers that it’s still intact…we saw much coral-kicking on this trip but at least the stony reef-building corals are a little heartier.

Fish

We were enjoying the chill diving so much that we decided to just stay on the boat for the afternoon dives too. That turned out to be an excellent idea because our last dive on at Mala Pier was one to remember!  It’s a collapsed pier so it has the air of a shipwreck with all the beams and boards piled on each other and provides some great swim-throughs for divers and/or hide-outs for turtles, sharks and schools of fish – we saw all of them as well as a squadron of spotted eagle rays.

Urchin

Perhaps because it’s a busy site also accessible from the shore, or perhaps because there were so many places to hide the creatures didn’t seem to be bothered by us in the slightest. One giant turtle kept a baleful eye on me while he surfaced for a breath but a moment later I turned around to see him swimming by right behind me. And I hurriedly snapped a photo of the eagle rays on the first pass, expecting them to bolt but they cruised by so many times afterwards that I got tired of pointing them out. Even the sharks were chill.

Matt

It’s a stunning dive site and I look forward to diving it again some day – hopefully at night.

Walterses

The next day we headed out to Mokuho’oniki Rock off the coast of Molokai to dive with hammerhead sharks. This was a life-list item for me so I was really happy that we were in Hawaii on a date that the shop was going out. They considered it an advanced dive so Matt had some detailed questions about depths and current and etc. but it turned out to be me who needed to be nervous because getting there involved crossing the dreaded Pailolo channel – Hawaiian for “crazy water.” In the briefing the captain warned that meds might help any people prone to seasickness on normal trips but on this one we were pretty much “f——“. Yikes!

Hammerhead

I wouldn’t pass up a chance to dive with hammers even if I had to be dragged behind the boat so we signed up anyways and it turned out to be not too bad at all. The first site of these majestic creatures made it all worth while anyways and we were lucky enough to see three hammerheads and a Galapagos shark gliding through the blue water on each dive, with two of them swimming along together on the last one. It was just so beautiful to watch and I only wish that we were a little bit closer or that the photos had turned out a little better but I think Matt got some video as well. At any rate, life list item #64 completed!

Degan

One drawback  of all that sun and salt is that my hair had almost no red in it by the end of the trip (more like a pinky coral colour) so I love this photo that Matt got of me underwater where I look like some kind of tropical fish (also showing off the new octo tattoo in its natural element!).

Jeep

Maui is pretty spread out so we spent a fair amount of time in the Jeep driving around. On one of the days that we were going to Lahaina there was an accident and way too much traffic on the road so we decided to just take the long way around the West Maui mountains and see what we could see. We had an Adventure-Mobile, after all.

Honoloa Beach

As we drove north from Honokowai we came up to stunning Honolua Beach where there is good surfing and snorkeling / diving on alternating days. Then the road narrowed and as we got into some seriously lush countryside we passed several signs that warned we were on a one lane highway (as if that wasn’t obvious) and that we had left the official roadway behind. We learned later that this was also the point you weren’t supposed to take the rental cars past but it was great to see the rugged coastline and rural communities up there and it took a lot less time than driving to Hana.

Driving

KONA

Life list item #67 was to do the manta ray night dive in Kona and it seems a bit incredible to check two things off in one week but we only had two days on the big island – one to do the manta ray night dive and one to get the nitrogen out of our bloodstreams before flying – so that meant we weren’t able to summit Mauna Kea or see the lava fields on Mount Kilauea or do the pelagic magic night dive… so while I may have checked some things off the list,  I’ve also added a few to it as well.

manta ray

The build up to the manta dive terrified me. The boat was full of both divers and snorkelers and no one seemed to have any idea what was going on but they were all doing it exuberantly. When we got to the dive site we found that we were not the only ones, but apparently one of several such boats all decked out with lights and surfboards rigged with PVC pipes ready to see some manta rays. The idea was for all 70 – 90 people to be in the water all at about the same time. Matt saw the incredulity in my eyes and asked out right, “this is going to be worth it, right?.” The dive master assured us that it would be but a few minutes later when he asked who was on their first night dive I thought it was a joke because I could not imagine putting new night divers into that chaos.  And then we were in the water, trying to keep one eye out for manta rays and another on our guide.

The idea is that the divers stay low to the ground and shine their lights up while the snorkelers hang on to the surfboards and shine their lights down. Plankton is attracted to the light and then the rays come to feed on it. It all started when a hotel (now the Sheraton) was shining lights into the bay for their night swimmers and noticed that the rays were gathering. While the hotel was closed for renos the site moved to the current location where we were diving but they seem to travel up and down the coast – we went to the hotel for dinner later and saw a couple of manta rays from the patio!

We only saw one manta ray on our dive – Eli, the same juvenile that we had seen on our check-out dive – and I found out later that the record number of rays they’ve seen there is 44,with the norm being somewhere between 17 – 20.  So I consider ourselves just a tiny bit screwed on the manta ray front but by the same token it was such a spectacular dive with an octopus and several trumpet fish and eels hunting off our lights and I also consider myself very lucky to have been so close to the manta ray so frequently during the dive. Many people didn’t see him at all.

Degan Walters

On our last day in Hawaii we didn’t have a lot of options. We couldn’t dive or go above 2000 feet (so no horseback riding or ziplining or summiting volcanoes), we didn’t have a car (so no plantation tours) and we needed our gear to dry (so no snorkeling) so as a pretty awesome last resort we walked into town and hung out at the Kona Brewing Company for lunch. We had been in love with the Big Wave golden ale since the day we landed in Maui but I tried a couple of blond and wheat variations and Matt dug into the IPAs and we were both pretty happy about that.

dog camp (1)

Riley was at Camp Good Dog for the first time and it seems like she may have had as much fun as we did.

Here are all of the photos from our trip:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157637717057644/with/10897388444/

Kiev

Nesting dolls

Things I knew about Ukraine before this trip included: the painstakingly decorated Easter eggs,  the traditional women’s dress is a heavily embroidered white tunic with garlands of flowers (sadly, it occurs to me that I probably know this because of the Olympics), it is a former Soviet republic and this is the land of perogies, borscht and vodka and Chicken Kiev.

I had wanted to travel somewhere I had never been this fall. And more than that, I wanted to travel somewhere I didn’t know much about. I was searching for a place to explore and in doing so spend some time exploring myself and thinking about what my next steps are for my career and work. I had narrowed it down to Japan, India and Israel when Matt proposed another option: Kiev and Prague. He was going on a business trip and invited me to come along. Obviously I jumped at the chance.

Kiev

After being in Kiev for a week I feel like I know a lot more but I’m still not entirely sure where to start. It’s a strange town. In place of the easter eggs, flowers and Soviet stuff (although there traces of those too) is some incredible architecture. I’ve been running every morning that it’s not been raining and even on the side streets outside of town there are enormous, beautifully decorated and colourful buildings, some recently revived, some in need of repair and some in progress – with printed scaffolding over top to shop what the building is meant to look like. Probably there are modern buildings somewhere in the city but I haven’t seen many.

Lavra

The next thing of note are all the churches. The beautiful golden domes of the Russian Orthodox churches peek out from the colourful buildings at every turn, or at least it seems so from our hotel, which is positioned right between St. Sophia’s cathedral (an almost 1000 year old cathedral with its wedding-cake bell tower) and St. Michael’s Golden-domed monastery. St. Andrew’s is a short walk away and looks like it should be some giantess’ jewelry box but the inside is not my favourite – it’s too red and ornate and comes off looking a bit gaudy. Instead I love St. Volodymyr’s which on the outside is a pretty standard issue Neo-Byzantine cathedral but inside is all black and gold and candlelight, making it hard not to feel the glow.

Icon

But Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery / Kiev Monastery of the Caves is HQ for Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine. They believe it is one of four places in the world where the Virgin Mary lives and there are also 73 “imperishable relics” – the bodies of saints who were buried in the caves and who have been deemed uncorrupted. That belongs firmly on the list of things I didn’t know about Ukraine before this week. The top part of the complex is maintained by the church but feels fairly secular – there are many churches but also souvenir stands and a series of museums. I wandered around there for a bit and then went to the lower part, it was obvious that something very different was happening…by now I had noticed that women cover their heads when they’re in the church and so I had been trying to do the same on my visits but here all the women’s heads were covered and everyone bowed and crossed themselves coming through the gate. But there were no tourists, no English words anywhere and I had no idea what was going on, so I went back up to the gate and bought a tour.

Church

The first order of business was getting dressed to go underground. Women have to have covered arms, a covered head and wear a long skirt and there are wraps to be bought or borrowed for this purpose. My tour guide was lovely and patient with all of my questions but as she explained all the mysteries of the saints to me and how they died and how to pray to them, I couldn’t help but feel awkward. It was unbearably hot in the catacombs with all the people and my jeans / skirt / shirt / wrap / headscarf combo, not to mention that there are no lights – just a few candles above the relics – so everyone carries a candle in their hand, trying not to get beeswax all over the place as people jostle against each other in the narrow corridors. But that’s not what made me uncomfortable , it was because I was the only tourist in a place packed with pilgrims waiting patiently for me to get out of the way so they could access the relics.

I’m so glad I went but I will be processing it for a while….what it means to be a tourist and what a privilege it is. No photos were allowed down there (and I wouldn’t have taken any in any case) but Wikipedia has one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iliya_Muromets_Kiev.jpg.

Dumplings

There is PLENTY of perogies, borscht and vodka. Actually they are no perogies but varenyky (or vareniki), the difference being that perogies seem to be baked or fried after they’re cooked and varenyky are simply boiled or steamed. There are no perogies that I have seen but varenyky are all over the place, in all kinds of flavours, as well as pelmeni – which are filled with raw meat and then cooked whole. So far I’ve had mushroom (pelmeni and varenyky), and cabbage, potato, meat, sour cherry and blueberry varenyky and you would think that I would be getting tired of them by now but I assure you that I have a very high dumpling threshold. My favourite by a long shot are the sour cherry and I want to try the poppyseed ones before we leave but I’ve had sour cherry three times now and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to come away from it.

Borscht is predictably delicious and slightly different everywhere but it always comes with a side of garlic brioche and sour cream. Actually everything comes with sour cream and you always get a basket of bread with a meal (including with the borscht and brioche). Chicken Kiev is apparently Russian in origin but Ukrainians have either adopted it or they share a common love of cutlets because there are plenty of similar items on the menus under different names. All of the fried things I’ve had in Kiev thus far have just tasted like oil though, so I am not a fan.

And of course there is vodka. We have had lots of local beer and been happy with it (Stare Misto and Bitburger are the favourites) and there is wine from the area but vodka is everywhere. So far we’ve had regular, organic, honey-pepper, cranberry and horseradish. The horseradish smelled like it came out of a barn but on the palate it was beautiful – infused with horseradish for certain, but also honey and raisins and some other things. I’ve been told that no one drinks vodka for the taste but I might have to argue for this one because it was amazing. Unfortunately it is house-made and not available in store but our other favourite is honey-pepper. It’s infused with honey and a bird’s eye pepper and is so perfectly balanced between sweet and spicy that shooting it feels smooth and natural. This one was hard to find but I was able to source a couple of bottles. I guess it really wouldn’t be that hard to make either.

What else? There is so much bread that I’m beside myself, lots for breakfast along with cold cuts, sausage, cheeses and two kinds of smoked herring. There is also kasha, a mushy Russian granola / porridge which is interesting. For lunch I’ve been having beer and dumplings and in between there are amazing pastries – my favourites are raspberry or the new-to-me combination of pineapple and ricotta or cottage cheese. Sounds weird but it’s delicious. Almost every restaurant has shashlik – barbecued shish kebabs – cooked over an open fire and salo (lard) shows up a lot too. Basically it is just pork fat, so that takes some getting used to but it does help with all the vodka.

Embroidery

The thing that has made me the most sad is that the people have not been kind. My favourite thing about travelling is meeting new people and finding out how they live but in Kiev Matt has been working and I have spent most of the week alone. It might be that I have bright red hair now and tattoos (although I’ve tried to keep both of those covered) or that we’re staying in a luxury hotel that alienates us from both the hoi polloi and the nouveau riche, or that I don’t speak a word of Russian OR Ukrainian…or that they don’t have a culture of tourism here. But I don’t think so. I had been warned that smiling was not part of the culture but I thought that people would still be nice under their stoicism. I know many Ukrainians in Canada who are incredibly warm and I have no doubt that they are friendly with each other so I have spent a lot of time thinking about it as I move from park to cafe to park with my book.

The season has definitely turned here and there has been a beautiful fall breeze rustling the chestnut trees. For the most part I’m happy to be outside and I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking. What must it take to make an entire nation of people shut down and turn inward? What has the cost been of being kind to strangers? We come from a place of enormous privilege in North America, not only because we are able to afford to travel and stay in a golden hotel and speak our own language to the locals but because we can even afford to have a culture of tourism that enables us to travel to places only to see them. Being part of a culture that is welcoming to strangers is a privilege. Smiling easily is a privilege. I purposely skipped the Museum to the Great Patriotic War (WWII), the Chernobyl Museum and the Babyn Yar mass grave site because I am too sensitive but being sensitive is an enormous privilege. I have a lot more thinking to do about this but there will be no sitting in parks today; it is pouring rain in Kiev and we leave for Prague in a few hours.

Art market

Here are my photos from Kiev:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157635493893362/

Sail Away, Salty Dog!

Sailing

I have wanted to learn how to sail for approximately forever. There had to be a boat somewhere in amongst my many forms of love for the sea and power boats just seem like marine cars to me so I have known since I was a child that at some point, I was going to learn how to sail. Having time off and no real direction seemed like the perfect time to start checking things off my life list so Matt signed us up for the Crew course at Cooper Boating on Granville Island.

Matt & Degan

We had done a half day “see if you like it” sail with them back before we got married. This is us about to go out, pretty sure we’re going to like it.

Sailing

And we did like it, in spite of the grey days and having to be rescued on the way back in because the engine had run out of oil. Of course sailing through the Bahamas didn’t do anything to dissuade us either so we rode our bikes down and prepared to learn the ropes with two other women in our class.

Vancouver

Most of the what we learned in the crew classroom sessions was what was required for the PCoC (Pleasure Craft Operator’s Card) exam but we also learned the language of sailing.

I thought I already knew how to talk like a sailor but there is a different name for every single thing on a sailboat and many parts of that language have made it into this one. Some people would find that infuriating but I think it’s delightful and I have lit up with a big smile in the middle of several conversations lately when I come across a new crossover term. Some are obviously nautical, like knowing the ropes or loose cannon and some are so lost that we only know the expression –  like the only thing most of us know about gunwales is that they can be either full or packed – but the really glorious ones are the ones you say all the time, without really thinking about they came from. Like, slush fund or bitter end and so many more: taken aback, hand over fist, high and dry, by and large, hard and fast, make my way home, etc. I don’t think I’ve ever used between the devil and the deep blue sea but I love it so I’m going to have to rig a conversation where I can work it in.

Matt

We also learned how to sail, in spite of being out in 21 knot winds (a storm warning) on our first day and almost ramming another boat. We got through it though and brought our bruises and rope burns to Day 2 where our instructor filled in all the knowledge gaps and we got to know our points of sail, how to recover a object (man overboard) from the water, how to tack and how to dock. It was very exciting but we still only knew the basic basics* and weren’t really qualified to do anything other than crew on other people’s boats. So with Matt’s urging, I impulsively registered for the Skipper class the week after. He was unfortunately in Seattle, so he’ll have to take it next month.

Well! The Skipper class was a whole different ball game (there’s got to be a nautical term for that), because instead of just knowing what to do when the Captain asks, now we were learning to make the decisions and call out to the crew to get things done. This involves knowing your points of sail, knowing your  plan, knowing your boat and keeping close watch on the sail, sheets, lines and tell-tales to make sure everything is ship-shape. I have no trouble giving orders but I discovered quickly (with the help of the instructor yelling at me) that I am tiller challenged. Tillers work in the opposite way that steering wheels do and being tiller challenged means that I invariably move the tiller in the opposite way that I want to go. On a tight turn with the sails hardened, this can be pretty dramatic and by the end of the day I was exhausted, embarrassed and questioning whether I should even bother going back the next day.

Bowline

 

It’s hard to not be good at it when you’ve wanted to do something for so long and I was so frustrated that it didn’t come naturally. I thought maybe I needed to crew under some good skippers for the summer to get the hang of it but Matt was very encouraging and especially as the other girls had spent a lot of time on boats it seemed at least worth trying. And a day sailing has got to be better than a day at home on the couch so I practiced my bowlines and studied up on my theory.

Skipper Degan

And the next day I got my Day Skipper certification! Thanks to Drew, a much better and very patient teacher.

I was still embarrassed but pretty proud and when I got home I saw that Seth Godin had published this:

The ludicrousness of embarrassed: I understand why we may have evolved to have the automatic, out-of-control feeling of embarrassed in some situations. But is it useful? Has being embarrassed ever helped you accomplish anything useful? We can (and should) work to eliminate it from our emotional vocabulary. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth not being embarrassed about. And if it’s not worth doing, don’t do it. One reason to avoid doing something is because it leads to embarrassment. A better reason is because it’s not the right thing.

It was the right thing and I’m really glad I went back to finish it off. I still need to spend a lot of time practicing and Matt needs to get his certification but we’re making way. We’ve got time. And when it’s time for us to buy a sailboat, well, we’re just going to get one with a steering wheel.

 

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*Our instructor told us the 4 stages of learning, which I hadn’t heard before but quite like:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know
  2. Conscious incompetence – you do know just how much you don’t know
  3. Conscious competence – you can do it but you have to think about it
  4. Unconscious competence – you know it so well you do it without thinking

the Bahamas

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Boaters have a saying that if you’re lucky, you go to the Exumas when you die. Not only had I not heard that saying before we booked our trip, I hadn’t even heard of the Exumas. But after spending a week on board Blackbeard’s MV Morningstar, a 65″ sloop sailed by Captain Red and an excellent crew, I feel like there may be something to it. There are  365 cays and islands in the Exumas chain alone with any number of coves and reefs to explore – and yes, the water really is that colour.

photo

It was our first liveabord experience so we were a little startled when we saw that 29 people (23 guests – and all their gear – plus 6 crew) were going to be sharing such a small space but we soon got into the routine of getting up early, getting in the water, and exploring. By evening we were so spent from exercise, heat, fresh air and the early hour of darkness that it only took a beer or two to send us off to bed.

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I would have liked to see some more and bigger sharks but it was a great trip and we had so much fun with our friends. It was an excellent intro into what it can be like at sea and on a liveabord, as well as some more diving experience for Matt. Some other firsts:

  • Matt’s first (and several more) shark sighting
  • Matt’s first time in a blue hole (below)
  • Our first time traveling with someone else, my awesome dive buddy Talia (who took that photo of me, above).

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It set the stage for some exciting trips that we’re already planning for next year but I’d also like to make it an annual thing where we travel somewhere warm with some awesome people and without any internet access. Here are all of the photos:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157632793337412/

walterses