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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Adieu 2017 Hola 2018!

I think that we can pretty well all agree that it has been a weird year. Part of me feels like the world has completely lost its collective mind...and I mean even more so than usual. 

For me, personally, I've overcome a few health challenges and been lucky enough to move on and experience some incredible moments: via travel, personal growth and good friends. I'm constantly fighting to find balance, peace and self-acceptance. There have been moments this year when I've achieved it and other times when I've failed abysmally. I've come to accept that this is the clear definition of life. Most importantly, I haven't given up trying.

I have struggled to understand how others think (on a global scale and individually) and have questioned my own thought process. (I count that as a success...we should all question how we come to conclusions.) 

I hope that 2018 brings all of you more clarity, calm and growth. I wish for you a year of magic and wonder. Let us be kind and accepting, of both ourselves and others. May we learn to breath and reflect, may our anger not rule us, and may we find forgiveness.

Happiest of New Years!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Happy Holidays!

Santa in training!
To all of our family and friends, both near and far, we're wishing you the very best of this holiday season. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah (a bit late), Joyous Kwanzaa, Happy Festivus, Happy Eid (even though it's well past) and Merry "Yay, I've got a day off".
We decorate EVERYTHING here
Hopefully, you find that the miles are not an impediment to sending and receiving love and warm thoughts, which we send freely and joyously.

May 2018 bring you happiness, success and wonder.

From Ron and I

Friday, December 22, 2017

May the Force be with Us

I me, I really can I do a post about a movie franchise? (For one thing, there are 1,000s of dedicated sites, I'm sure and B (that's an inside joke to those who love Craig Ferguson) it's only make believe, right? 

Rebel Alliance Flag
Here's the thing though: for the majority of my life there has been Star Wars. I was just a little kid when the first movie came out, sweeping the globe in a sort of interstellar mania. It was simple and sweet, so clear cut that a grade school kid could figure it out. We played it in the school yard and my birthday cake was Star Wars themed. It was wholesome and fascinating. (Occasionally groan inducing, when viewed from today's perspective, but that makes it even more charming.)

I was sitting, innocently, in the theatre, having watched the opening credits of Star Wars - the Last Jedi roll over the screen (so thrilling, right?) and got a good glimpse of the protagonist Rey, It was in that moment that realised Star Wars had provided me with a strong female role model that I hadn't even known that I needed. Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia Organa) was a kick butt, rebel leader and she was...a GIRL. Sure, she was objectified by that Jabba the Hutt guy (put a tribble on his head and does he remind you of anyone???), but she took her revenge didn't she? She bossed around Chewbacca, didn't take any guff (yes, guff...I said it) from Han Solo and stared down Darth Vader. (Hell, she was leading the entire Rebel army now as a General!) 

In the latest instalment there's also Rey, a girl of unknown origins, minding her own business when the Force comes calling. I was watching her on screen and was delighted to see that she had she'd actually worked out and could do the things they had her doing on screen. She seemed to be, in many ways, like me (except for the martial arts fighting and lifting stuff with her mind, of course). I saw a cast of mixed races and multiple women in positions of power. We've come a long way, baby. (Yes, there's still a long way to go.)

Imperial Empire Flag

More than that, I found myself asking do I belong to the Rebel Alliance, as I'd like to believe, or am I a cog in the wheel of the Empire? I think this is an important question for our time. Are we as righteous as we think, or are we part of the problem. It's not so clear cut in real life, as in the movies. I want to think that I'm on the side of the oppressed, the down trodden, the huddle masses, but have I contributed to the power of the Dark Side? It's a good and valid question that doesn't have an easy answer.

Some people can't let go of the old and feel that Last Jedi doesn't honour the past, but for me, it's proof of life. Rey is the symbol of passing the torch, the hope that the future has possibility and that the next generation is ready to step up. With everything going on in this crazy world (I'm looking at you, countries that can't grasp the idea that we're on this globe together), we need a rallying cry. And we need hope, we need inspiration and for heaven's sake, we need the Force.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A New Shiny Cuenca

Well, we're coming into the holiday truth, it's upon us. Cuenca is finding a new style of self that involves Christmas becoming, brighter and more "touristy", at least this is their hope.
Mr. Toad Comes for Christmas
It's pretty amazing to see the lights expanding over the city, when a few years ago, only Parque Calderon was lit up. Now the Centro is benefiting from the concept of holiday tourism. They've even put up the largest Christmas tree in South America...we can actually see it from our place and it's down by the river. (I have yet to take pictures, sadly.)

A river of light - over the river
Ecuador wants you to come and visit. They want to show you their amazing culture, their progress and the stunning natural beauty that this country contains.
Luminary Festival with Carl & Linda

Parque Calderon
We're happy to say that the restaurant scene here is expanding, even though anything outside of traditional food struggles to gain a foot hold. Restaurateuring here isn't for the faint of heart, but for the bold, there is opportunity. (I don't think I'd do it, even if someone offered me a million dollars as seed money.) I'm so glad that others are braver.

Sure, there's crazy stuff, like the health insurance debacle and the rumours that the minister of tourism doesn't like foreigners moving here and Tranvia (light rail system) taking for-EVER, but day to day life is pretty sweet. The people I meet and have come to know (in passing) are kind, friendly and welcoming. 

The Christmas goose, perhaps?
I have no idea what the future holds, but for now, we're content to pass our days on the equator, searching for the next great travel destination.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Madrid and Porto

Our whole adventure started with 5 days in Madrid, which sped by quickly. Neither of us had spent much time there (no time, in my case) and we were eager to discover a new city.

Spire on Church of San Geronimo
Our home exchange was a bit outside the city centre, but in a neighbourhood that offered lots of restaurants, shops and other diversions. We could walk to the old town, or take the metro, which was handily close by.

Our first full day there, we accidentally tripped across the Prado museum, but there were lines and we decided just to wander around and enjoy the ambience of the city itself. We were hard pressed to find a bad meal and the sun was shining, so life was pretty good. As it was a Saturday, there were lots of outdoor concerts and events, so our day was pretty full.

Iglesia San Geronimo

Wild and wacky architecture
The Prado was sufficiently impressive, and we spent the next morning wandering through the halls of paintings, sculptures and antiquaries. We were lucky and waltzed right in, like we owned the place, no lines, no waiting. (And apparently, no pictures!)

After that we went in search of lunch and decided that an Irish bar was the place for us. (We knew we'd have tons of opportunities for tapas and other specialties on the Camino de Santiago, so weren't to worried about missing out.) Lunch was running us about 30 euros a day, so we opted to dine in at supper most nights. 
Teddy gets his Guinness on
The next day we enjoyed the palace, parque de los retiros, admired the plaza del toros from the outside (I don't hold with bull fighting) and the La Latina neighbourhood. We indulged in a fantastic dinner at La Imparcial. We enjoyed it immensely.

One more full day of sight seeing and then we found ourselves rising early to catch our plane to Porto. We were a bit sad to say good-bye as it felt like we were just coming to appreciate the city.

Street lights, palace style
We've always loved Porto, since our first visit. It's a beautiful city with lots of great food, little winding streets and lots of hills. The Ribera (river) has day cruises and is lined with restaurants that are perfect for people watching. Our apartment was a good walk from there (maybe a half hour), but led us through interesting neighbourhoods and past the large cathedral (where Ron and I bought our passports for the Camino) and various plazas and buildings of note.

View from the opposite bank
Old neighbourhood on the cliff (Barranco)
Just a guy...walking his pig

Getting down the barranco
This is where we met our Camino buddies. The only downside with our stay there was that the lock on our Air BnB was not working properly, causing several minutes of angst every time we tried to enter the condo. The management company was unconcerned and only resolved the issue on the last full day of our stay. Quite irksome. Besides that, it was a lovely sojourn and a great way to get ready for our big walk.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Camino de Santiago - Portuguese Way

Why walk the Camino de Santiago? Our answer was "why not?", but for many people this is a religious pilgrimage equal to the haj to Mecca, for others it's a spiritual journey of discovery, made solo, but not alone. (It's almost impossible to be completely alone on the Camino, especially in the last 100kms.) We went, not really looking for anything, but a few us found unexpected things. We found challenge, friendship and humour, plus a few other surprises.
Stop sign graffiti along the Camino
Photo by Rick Johnson
What you need to walk the Camino Portuguese: not a lot and that's the truth. We opted out of the multi bunk albergues, so we didn't need sleeping bags or liners. Honestly, you need basically two of everything: two shirts, two pairs of hiking pants, two sets of socks (I'm a double socker, so that means four socks - more on that later), two pairs of shoes (your hiking boots and flip flops/other comfy shoes - this is an argument for three pairs) three pairs of underwear (one to wear, one to dry and a back up), rain gear, warm gear (sweater, sweatshirt, gloves, toque) and sun hat. Don't forget your jammies. Add to this your medical kit, toiletries, tech requirements, camelback or water bottles, possibly walking poles and sun screen and bug spray and you should be good to go A guide book or app, might be the thing, too.

Note the English Spain
Photo by Rick Johnson
This was the impetus of our entire trip. Our friends, Susan and Rick, invited us to do the Camino with them, I think on a whim. We were some of the only friends that met Susan's 5 criteria: financial capability, available time, compatibility, interest and physical ability. (I'm pretty sure I'm paraphrasing there, and might have some of them wrong, but I'm hoping it's close enough.)
The Fellowship of the Camino
It was a bit ironic, as we'd been looking at the Camino and decided that if we ever did it, we'd want to do the Portuguese Way starting in Porto (Oporto). There are many routes with different distances, experiences and terrain. This is exactly what Rick and Susan proposed, so how could we say "no"? From that point, we figured out the entire balance of our trip. It's not like we could just go over for a couple of weeks, right?

We gave ourselves 16 days to walk the 234kms from Porto to Santiago. This allowed for a couple "recovery" days if anyone in our party got sick or injured. You'll hear a lot about what you need to qualify for your Compostela (certificate of completion), but there are hundreds of people at the office everyday, so most of what you'll hear is bull pucky. We wound up taking one sick day and finished up in 13 days completing 234kms.

We planned our route to try and keep it to around 16kms (10 miles) per day, but sometimes, we just had to do more, as there was no where to stop. Our longest day was over 22kms, but even then, that's only half a day, you can really do more, if you're short of time and physically able.

Wall of Remembrance

Fellow Pilgrim leading the way
I'll be honest, some days were hard. The path isn't always well marked, or there are diversions. You get obsessed with yellow arrows and shells. You need to be ready for extreme weather (we had NO rain the whole time, just a half hour of drizzle, that didn't require our rain gear), Some sections are challenging - rock scrambling, busy streets and tenuous footing. My body, though used to walking daily, occasionally took exception to what I was demanding of it. My feet were tired by the end of the 4-5 hours, sometimes my knees ached and no matter how conscientious we were, I was dehydrated a few times. The Camino is much more a mental challenge than a physical one, even though you can't discount the physical requirements. 

What was amazing was seeing the landscapes of small towns, countryside and forests by foot. You get a whole new appreciation for distances when you're walking. You come across amazing people, with incredible stories and you get to become just a small paragraph in their lives. You also get to see what you're made of. Can you get over the ache in your feet and get where you need to go? Do you collapse in exhaustion at the end of the day or do you revel in your accomplishment? 

Photo by Rick Johnson

One of the more gruelling days
(2 mountains to hike over)
Ron and I were blissfully free of blisters. We wear double socks (a liner and a thick pair) which cuts down on chaffing. We bought our boots specifically to do this. Our friends had double lined socks that worked in the same way, without requiring you to pre-plan larger boots. We were among the very few that were blister free. My boots did lose some of their cushioning during the trek and I bought gel inserts.

Mind the traffic

Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

Photo by Rick Johnson
Final shell outside the Cathedral
The incense burner
It was a really worthwhile journey and we got things out of it that you just can't get from taking a car, train or bus. We forwarded our "city" luggage at each stage, but I don't recommend it. If we were to do it again, we'd carry just what we'd need for the trek, leaving our other luggage somewhere and picking it up at the end. This gives you the flexibility to stop when you want, not where your luggage is going. We'd also allow more time to discover some of the amazing towns we came across.