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Last Days of 2010

December 18. Yellowknife Bay. “High Noon”. Just a couple of days before the solstice, when everything will start to get better or at least brighter I tell myself.

This time of year midnight, 8 am, 4 pm, it doesn’t really matter, it’s all dark. Around 1 am on the solstice I tie a string of Bhutanese prayer flags between some birch trees then lie down in the snow on Yellowknife Bay to watch the lunar eclipse and make angels. -30? -40? Whatever. My Snowgoose parka, skipants and Baffin boots will keep me warm. Distant snowmobiles roar across the lake, a few pickups drive by on the road above. I hear the swish swish of the skier coming out of the night before I see him and call out, great eclipse, eh? in case he is about to run me over. I’d like to take out a couple of those streetlights he says pointing up at the road before continuing on his way. Later I can hear engines starting across the bay, see single headlights aimed back towards the lakeshore. Although my parka is striped with reflective tape it occurs to me that might not be so useful laying in the snow within metres of a skidoo trail. I get up and walk home.

The next day I fly to the Okanagan to spend Christmas with my Mom and Dad. The joy of waking up to daylight at 7:30 am. I’m tempted to cancel my trip to Mexico on Boxing Day. Inevitable airport and customs hassles, ridiculous connections, and really, what are the chances I’ll make it through Kelowna, Vancouver and Portland this time of year without getting fogged in at least once. Is a mere 6 days in Mexico worth all this? The thought of it all makes me feel like a grumpy bear dragged out of hibernation.

But I do get on the first plane. And the second. And the third. And the fourth. And then I’m in Playa del Carmen. Days and days of friends, sun, sand, sea, rum, hammocks, quesadillas, bright colours …

New Years’ Eve. How can 2011 be anything but a letdown after 2010, my year of Andes Rockies Himalayas Alps Himalayas Alps Rockies South Atlantic South Pacific North Pacific North Atlantic Mediterranean Caribbean Italian Riviera French Riviera Mayan Riviera Huron Superior Maggiore Futaleufu Po Seine Tiber Thames Pho Chu Mo Chu island valley rainforest glacier pampas bog plain meadow tor steppe desert taiga. A voice on the breeze whispers that some how some way believe it or not 2011 will be even better. For me, and, I sincerely wish, for all of you.

Post script: January 6, 2011. 7:45 am. I’ve traded flipflops for mukluks, swimsuit for parka, and set out on my 45 minute walk to work. It’s only -20 something, and I’m grateful for that. Dawn is just close enough that I can make out the silhouettes of the prayer flags fluttering below as I pass by. I hope they’ll make someone else smile too.

Fall Rivers, Lakes and Roads

It’s Sunday afternoon in Yellowknife and -31 C. Ideal conditions for staying indoors drinking tea and updating one’s blog!

I’ve been back in Canada since September 30, back in Yellowknife since Hallowe’en and back at work since the first of November. October was my last month of “freedom” and I made sure I packed a lot in: a quick drive up north to find an apartment, a long-awaited road trip to Lake Superior, visits with friends and family, and enjoying the Okanagan fall. Here are a few colourful memories of those not-so-long-ago warmer days…

The Journey Continues

And so I am once again writing from an airport, Geneva this time, about to catch a series of flights that will take me back to Canada a year to the day that I left Toronto for Bali. I’m afraid I can’t give you a neat and tidy set of conclusions about the last 12 months – that will require many more months if not years of processing. In response to a few of you who have asked in one way or another how it feels now that the journey is ending, I will however say this: the journey continues. First, on a purely physical level, I’m not due back at work until November 1, so although I will be staying within Canada.s borders I plan to log a lot of road kms in BC, Alberta, the NWT and Ontario over the next month. Second, the travel journal friends gave me before I left Toronto is only just half full, in other words nearly half its pages are still blank and I already have a few ideas for how to change that. Finally, if there’s one thing that is absolutely clear to me after this year especially, it is that however much or little the scenery changes, the real journey happens within.

This does seem like a good time for some thank yous. First of all a big thank you to my mom and dad for pick-ups, drop-offs, storage, packing, international banking, carrying extra suitcases, getting the right clothes to the right place at the right time, organizing and coming on the Ireland trip, generally being an A1 pit stop crew, and especially for their moral support.

Next a thank you to Made and Ni-Luh, Gabriel and Irma, Ivan and Irena and Mercedes (and her mom who I unfortunately didn’t get to meet) for their hospitality. Staying in the homes of friends is an entirely different experience from being a hotel/hostel tourist and my memories of Bali, Mexico, Easter Island and Mar del Plata will always be extra special because of the warmth and kindness of my hosts. Speaking of warmth and kindness, I also must thank my thoughtful landlords/friends Marco and Marina for making me feel so welcome in Torino. It really does seem like a second home now.

A tremendous beam of gratitude goes out to all my guides for helping me and others discover the corners of the earth that are special to them. I hope that they realize what a gift they are offering to travellers like me and to the planet through their service. In order of appearance: Made, Namgay, Maria, Peter, Abner, Juanito, Roberto (El Commando), Robinson, Jaime, Juan, Tshe Tshe, Laurent, Steph, Nelly, Jen, Jean-Marc and Stiijn. A special thank you also to Karma, Jack and Sonam in Thimphu for your parts in making every one of my trips to Bhutan spectacular. And thank you to all my fellow surfers, hikers, rafters, riders, winetasters and travellers for sharing the journey.

Checking in with friends over the course of the year has been a highlight. Thanks especially to Heather in Toronto and Keith and Angela in Vancouver for letting me crash with them, Dougall and Valerie in Paris for the ice pack and delicious dinner, the Bang crew for reconvening on my periodic returns to Toronto, the Massey community (another place that will always seem like home), bobbi for the books and for still being my friend after all these years, Charlene for her faith that we would eventually meet up somewhere in Italy and uplifting texts, Nick for hanging out in London and putting me in touch with a fantastic osteopath, Ben, Emily, Frank, Graham, Patricia, and Shane for keeping up the same habits in the same city and for being you, Harry for being a culinary oasis and for being you, Karen and Tanis for being you, and Zannah, who I unfortunately just missed in London for inspiring me with her amazing blog about life in Liberia (A Long Way from Coalgate). To my Yellowknife friends, it’s been a long time, and I look forward to seeing you soon.

Finally, thank you thank you thank you to all you readers. When I first started this blog I didn’t know if anyone other than my parents would read it, and I worried about having to post everything in draft form without any time for editing. Your encouraging emails and comments (thanks especially Ben, Miki, Tanis, Tanya and mes tantes) meant a lot, and so did every hit on the site. I won’t be writing as often from now on, but I suspect this will not be my last post.

The journey continues…

L’Ultima Pizza

I chose the title for this post a couple of evenings ago in Levanto when I came to the somewhat melancholy realization that I was about to enjoy my last Italian pizza for some time to come. Thanks to a general strike in France this turned out not to be the case after all, but before I get to that let me back up a bit since I’ve covered a lot of ground since my last post.

Incredibly as I write this it’s only been a week since I bid farewell to my fellow Tour du Mont Blanc hikers in Geneva airport. The tour, which was an extended 10-day version of the same one I hiked last June, was magnificent: on every day but our last we had clear weather to enjoy the spectacular views of the Mont Blanc range, and while I very much enjoyed the largely fogbound June tour, I am pleased that I now actually have a sense of the geography we covered. Although the alpine flowers were mostly finished, the blueberries and raspberries were out in force, so much so that some days I had to discipline myself to take at least 10 steps before stopping to grab another handful.

mmmmm.... berries....

From Geneva I took a flight to Rome, from where I caught a series of trains and buses to Tarquinia, about 100 km to the northwest, to see the Etruscan necropolis and in particular the Tomb of the Leopards painted around 470 BC, which I wrote a paper on nearly two decades ago for an undergrad art history class. Mission accomplished, from Tarquinia I travelled along the coast by train to spend a couple of days in Levanto, a Ligurian beach resort town just north of the Cinque Terre that I visited a few times earlier this year while based in Torino.

From Levanto the easiest way back to Chamonix would have been via Torino, but I decided that I would rather cover some new ground during my last week before returning to Canada (a bit of a recon mission for my next trip here), so I chose a train route via the Cote d’Azur that added about 8 hours to the journey. Thanks to Jean-Marc, our guide on the Tour du Mont Blanc and also an avid reader who lent me a book from his library and gave me plenty more recommendations, I’m enjoying another fiction binge so the time spent on trains goes by quickly between the mostly gorgeous scenery and a stack of contemporary French novels.

Which brings me to The Last Pizza (4 formaggi, incidentally), which turned out not to be the last pizza, because on arriving at Ventimiglia on the Italian-French border I learned that due to a strike in France my connecting trains to Monaco and onward to Nice were canceled until the next morning. Determined to make the best of a warm and sunny afternoon on the Mediterranean I checked into the first hotel I could find, paused long enough for a gelato (yes, I finally seem to have found some new gelato capacity), then changed into my swimsuit and headed for the beach. Next – you guessed it – I went for a pizza dinner (prosciutto e funghi).

Since the first hotel I could find was the kind of place that provides a can of Raid on the night table I didn’t waste any time the next morning and caught the first train to Monaco. By 10 am I was enjoying a beautiful day in Nice, a city I wasn’t sure I’d like, but that I found quite charming, like walking around in a Matisse painting. I spent the better part of today travelling by train to Annecy, a very different city but also charming and a possible future Winter Olympics host, where I’ll spend the night and most of tomorrow before taking the much shorter train ride from here back to Chamonix…. where I’ll spend my last two nights before heading back to Geneva to catch a flight to Bangkok … and from there to Hong Kong … and from there to Vancouver ….

September 4, 2010, 1310 hours. Autostazione [bus station], Aosta, Piemonte, Italy.

The exact location where back in June I reached maximum gelato capacity (see earlier post). On September 4, I was back in Aosta, having arrived that morning by bus from Chamonix and enjoyed a delicious lunch of insalata, bruschetta, rose wine and caffe in the sunny central square, and still had 20 minutes to spare before my bus to Cogne. Should I put it to the test? Half of me said no, you’re still full from that big lunch, wait until you get to Cogne. The other half could not resist the symmetry of the situation, and convinced me to walk the short distance away to la Dolce Terapia [Sweet Therapy], the very gelatteria I’d bought the coppetta from on that fateful day last June. Una coppetta con fondente e pistacchio, per favore, I placed the order, which was ready within moments. It was a hot day, my hands were full with my luggage, and the gelato was melting fast, so I walked as quickly as possible back to the autostazione, dropped my bags on the ground, and began to eat.

The verdict? I could not do it. More than half of the coppetta went into the garbage can. Apparently, despite having been absent from Italy for 2 months, I am still at maximum gelato capacity.

Cogne and its surroundings are as beautiful as ever, and I’ve spent the last couple of days in the area enjoying some solo hiking in Gran Paradiso. There aren’t as many wildflowers now, and with less snow the views aren’t quite as spectacular as they were in June, but the trails are drier and easier to navigate and the scenery is still stunning. Today I’ll head back to Chamonix where I look forward to meeting the group I’ll be hiking with for the next 10 days on the Mont Blanc circuit.

…. “We look down on the Alps,” a Bhutanese acquaintance said to me a few days ago when I mentioned this as my next destination. “Yes, but they have better wine,” I countered. And better caffe I should have added. Over the last 2 months I had attempted to drink the coffee in Ireland, England, Mongolia and Bhutan and in almost every case was forced to set aside the cup of what I charitably referred to as coffee-flavoured beverage after a few sips (one of the exceptions was in a small cafe on the Aran Island of Inishmoor which served Lavazza – made in Torino! – coffee; the owner had lived for a time in Italy with a former girlfriend, and in true Irish form managed to tell a few good stories in the moments it took for me to drink my tazze of espresso). Call me a coffee snob if you want, but I can’t help it. As a character in a book I read recently said, just a few months in Italy can spoil you for life… in a good way. If any of my fellow Mongolian riders are reading, I am happy to report that the countdown is over: that first caffe in Aosta was even better than I imagined, and I’ve savoured several more since. Though my coppetta runneth over, clearly my tazze doth not.

These boys were part of a posse of kids who followed Tshe Tshe and me down the village road until I agreed to take their picture. Obviously they were going for 2 entirely different looks...

I’d been looking forward to returning to the Haa Valley since arriving back in Bhutan, and I was not disappointed by the few days I spent there. Lunch on the afternoon we arrived was at an uncharacteristically crowded restaurant where amidst a busload of Japanese tourists I ran into Tshering Tobgay (who I met on my first trip to Bhutan) and some of his fellow cycling aficionados for the second time in 24 hours. After stopping by the house that was under construction when I visited last spring and giving the owner prints of the photos I’d taken, we continued on to the farmhouse of Tshe Tshe’s wife’s aunt Tshering Wangmo, where we stayed for the next few nights.

During the daytime we went on hikes, once up a slippery slope to a monastery, and another morning across a pass to a neighbouring village. This second hike, which was supposed to have been a fairly easy and gradual climb ended up being a steep, muddy ascent up what appeared to be a deer track after we lost the little-used human trail. Fortunately that afternoon happened to be the one the family had planned to prepare the traditional hot stone bath, so all memory of the morning’s struggle was soon soaked out and scrubbed and massaged away by Tshering Wangmo’s kind hands.

The traditional hot stone bath experience came complete with passing village women stopping to wave hello as I soaked.

Evenings were spent enjoying Pem Tshering’s delicious cooking – he was also the cook on my spring Haa trek – which one night included a brook trout he’d caught the previous night, sipping arra, watching far too many Bollywood movies (that would be anything more than 1 for me :)), and laughing at all the phone calls Nima (who’s driven me around on all 3 of my trips to Bhutan) was getting, which we teased were from his girlfriends in each of the valleys we’d visited. Nighttimes I would drift off to sleep in the altar room by the flickering light of the butter lamp.

Tshering Wangmo and her family were incredibly kind and hospitable and despite the language barrier we had some good laughs together. By the time I left I felt like I had new friends who I’ll look forward to seeing again on my next trip.

On my last morning in Haa, Tshe Tshe and I set out to cross the Saga La pass and return to Paro by foot. Although much to my disappointment I struggled with the altitude up the last 1,000 feet or so, the 3,500 foot descent was much less steep, muddy and slippery than expected so that overall the hike was very enjoyable.

Yesterday could not have been a more perfect end to this trip. In the morning we had a relatively easy hike to Takstang (Tiger’s Nest) monastery which I’d also visited on my previous two times in Bhutan. A ritual was in progress when we arrived, and the monastery resonated with chanting, drums, cymbals and trumpets. The experience of sitting with the monks in the temples as they performed the rituals was powerfully energizing. After a delicious lunch at the restaurant just below the monastery, I had a relaxing afternoon at the hotel teahouse, and then went into Paro town with Tshe Tshe and Nima for one last delicious Bhutanese dinner and French/Dzongkha lesson. Tshe Tshe is expecting a large group of French Canadians in another week, and although they will have a lead guide who speaks French, since the opportunity was there we thought I might as well teach him a few useful expressions. I’m proud to report that he can say “chalice!” with a perfect Quebecois accent. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ve made as much progress with Dzongkha as he has with French, but I did pick up a few more words and phrases that I wrote down so I’ll remember them for next time. After dinner we were joined by Sonam and Karma, who despite not feeling well made the trip from Thimphu to say goodbye in person and to give me a gorgeous necklace, bracelet and earring set she and Sonam had made as well as a beautiful basket and box of tea.

All too soon I was saying goodbye to Nima and Tshe Tshe at Paro airport this morning. Although I’m not sure when I’ll be in Bhutan again, this time I found it easier to leave. From the moment I arrived, I knew I’d done the right thing by coming back (despite more than one person questioning my sanity for visiting 3 times in less than 12 months!), but on leaving Punakha midway through the trip, I had the feeling that whatever purpose this return to Bhutan had been meant to serve had been fulfilled. I also felt sure that I will be back hiking the trails with Tshe Tshe and meeting my other Bhutanese friends again many times more. So as the plane climbed out of the Paro valley and the Himalayan peaks gave way to the flood plains of Bangladesh I felt not sad, but grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to spend time in this unique place, and for all the wonderful people who have made it so special for me.

A few posts back I wrote how both Bhutan and the Western Alps had a similar quality of energy for me although wildly different in intensity: the first like a thunderous waterfall, the second like a gentle rain. Tonight I’m at a transition zone between these two worlds, in Bangkok airport about to catch a flight to Geneva to be exact, on my way back to Mont Blanc and Gran Paradiso…

Late August in Bhutan: rivers are swollen with monsoon rains, valleys that were just-harvested or newly-planted dusty brown on my earlier trips are bright green with almost ready rice crops, and March’s blossoming apple and peach trees are summer-heavy with fruit. I’ve been to Thimphu and caught up with Karma, Namgay and Sonam, and to Punakha where I was very fortunate to be received again by the lama at Talo monastery and to have my guide/friend Tshe Tshe there to patiently interpret our Dzongkha-English conversation. Tomorrow Tshe Tshe and I will go to the Haa valley for a few days where we’ll stay at the farmhouse of one of his relatives and hike. It is an incredible blessing to be among the Bhutanese people and to be experiencing the energy of this special place once again.