Tracing my footsteps through 2018

My iPhone tells me that in 2018 I took over 4,900,000 steps with it in my pocket. We averaged 8.7 kilometers every day in 16 different countries. My phone and I also took hundreds of photos as we made that trek though the year together.

Here is just one photo from each of those countries.

Longboat Key, Florida, U.S.A.

Amalfi, Italy

Rotterdam, Holland

Copenhagen, Denmark

St Petersburg, Russia

Helsinki, Finland

Stockholm, Sweden

Brussels, Belgium

Berlin, Germany

Tallinn, Estonia

Baridi, Kona, Kenya

Maputo, Mozambique

Costa Maya, Mexico

Roatan, Honduras

Santo Tomas de Castillo, Guatemala

Magog, Quebec, Canada

Random musings from my week in Ontario’s North

It was drizzling and muddy when I arrived at the Moosonee airport on my way to Moose Factory on Monday.  There followed a short ride in a van to the edge of the river where I boarded a motorboat taxi that wound its way to the island.

The first thing I was asked was “Did you bring rubber boots?” I had not. The roads in this district are basically all gravel/dirt roads and when it rains they become muddy swamps. Luckily I was able to borrow some rubber boots and this proved a good omen since the weather quickly dried and I didn’t need them after my first day.

Moose Factory Hospital.  Surrounded by muddy roads.


img_3707An evening tour of Moose Factory by a colleague who has worked there for years took me to the dump to see the bears who were fattening up in preparation for their winter sleep. There was frost overnight and no heat in my accommodation. I ended up turning on the oven for a bit and sitting by the open door of the stove to warm up. An indoor campfire.








The next day I ferried back to Moosonee then bounced to Fort Albany to Kasheshewan to Attawapiskat on a flight that sometimes barely got off the ground until it was time to land again. In the winter these communities are linked by ice roads that traverse the many waterways and frozen tundra.  Supplies are brought in over the ice roads and people travel out of the community then by skidoo or truck. During the summer and fall the only way into them is by plane.  Food and fuel and other goods are expensive since they all have to be either flown in or brought in by barge until the ground freezes and trucks can traverse them.


Attawapiskat is flat and looks barren without any vegetation

Attawapiskat is an indigenous community of about 2000,  mostly Cree. Some speak only the Cree language. It has had a lot of press over the years for its poverty, mental health challenges, high youth suicide rates, drug and alcohol abuse and water and sanitation problems. There have also been allegations of money mismanagement by the local leaders.   Many of the people were friendly but reserved and hesitant to engage spontaneously.  Nevertheless, it felt foreign to me in many ways.


Attawapiskat airport waiting room

At the “Atta” airport all baggage was searched by hand and we all had a pat down looking for smuggled drugs or alcohol. Attawapiskat has been designated a “dry” community for the past few months in an effort to curb abuse.  It took about 45 minutes to get my luggage cleared. I heard that, in the past few weeks,  one health worker was arrested and sent back south for possession of marijuana that he was taking for “medical” reasons. Zero tolerance. I wonder what they though of my Cooke’s coffee beans, grinder and bodum.


While I was there, news broke of an arrest of three people in Kingston who were part of a drug ring smuggling narcotics and whatever else to the James Bay West communities using the hospital shuttle flights like the one that I took during the week.


“The Northern” is the main/only store in town, selling everything from bullets to overcoats to apples.  Fresh food is limited.  Lots of canned and processed food.  Good nutrition is hard to come by for these folks.   Notice everyone drives a 4-wheel drive truck as well.  Gas costs $2.99 a litre.

Lucky the weather in Atta was dry so I did not need my boots to walk around the little town. One of the Public Health nurses took me in a 4 wheel drive truck about ten kilometers out of the town to near where the river meets James Bay. The road reminded me of some of the muddy rural roads in the Massai Mara. The brush along the road was scrubby and tall grass. ( there are virtually no trees in Attawapiskat so it looks really barren.) A few times we skidded through mud, needing the 4-wheel drive to get through. An Africa flashback for me in Northern Canada! More than once, I was making mental comparisons of what I was seeing and experiencing to what I have encountered in Africa.

Once we got to the end of the road near the Bay, the vista was serene and washed in warm fall colors. In the spring, polar bears are sometimes seen here, I was told.


Ramula Shopping Centre – photo gallery


Situated right on the Equator, Ramula is a colorful, little, rural Kenyan trading centre that  I love to wander around and take photos.  So much character. Friendly people living what appears to be simple lives but that are really quite complex given the challenges they face getting from day to day.

Here some photos of some of the shops that operate in this rural Kenyan “shopping centre.


This dilapidated van has been sitting here for the last five years, looking like this. In front of the “Palace” kinyozi (barber) hardware and beauty salon.

This fellow makes wooden tables, doors and cabinets using all hand tools. I contracted him to make a crib out of cyoress wood for little Heather Maddie at a cost of 6000KES ( $80 Can)

I asked these guys who were the other nine of the top ten.  There were no others.  Guess that makes this one number one.

The fellow hidden in this kiosk cage also can make deposits and give money from your Equity Bank account.  In his spare time he does construction and cuts hair.


This is where the fellow above gives haircuts.  The little sticker in the upper corner says “Trust in God”.  Advice for clients who may not feel his skills are up to par?

And for the ladies…



The Place Pub, complete with smoking zone outside.

Will I become a cruisaholic?

The idea of a cruise as a holiday never appealed to me in the past and it was on a bit of a whim that a friend and I took an Alaska cruise in May.  It was such a good holiday that to escape the cold January Canadian winter weather I signed up for a week on the Holland America ship, Rotterdam, sailing to four ports in the Gulf of Mexico.  I now find myself wondering what cruise is next!


I took the Gulf of Mexico cruise on my own and, although the single supplement is often double the shared twin price with most cruise lines, the holiday is an excellent choice for a solo traveler.  IMG_6165 3I enjoyed having my own cabin with lots of space and privacy but I could also readily immerse myself in the other activities either on ship or at a port, where there was ample opportunity to chat and get to know other travelers, all of whom are in a friendly holiday mood.
I love being able to unpack at the first of the holiday and have my hotel room (and food and transport) move with me throughout the week, avoiding the hassle of checking in to new digs every night. Our Alaska cruise visited three ports during the week, all with the opportunity to explore on land for the day. The Gulf of Mexico cruise had four stops at Key West, Roatan, a little port in Guatemala and Costa Maya Mexico. In all those ports I was able to wander, go to a tropical beach and even snorkel.


img_6659I was worried before I went on the first cruise that I would feel claustrophobic ( I remember a holiday in Bermuda in 1986 when I thought the island wasn’t big enough for me – more a function of my being able to sit still than the island) but the ship is like a small city with a large theatre, casino, several lounges with live music in the evenings, a gym, two pools and three hot tubs and a sun deck. I was easily able to get in my 10,500 steps, even on days we were at sea. In the week I walked 78 km and climbed 188 flights of stairs!

Then there is the food. Lots of it and good quality. My preference was to eat in the Lido Restaurant – with a huge selection served up cafeteria-style – but there was the opportunity to also to indulge in even more upscale service in the fine dining room. I managed to restrict my weight gain to about 2 pounds on the last cruise by insuring that I was physically active every day and limiting my desserts to one a day. See the quick “cruise” past the dinner offerings in the Lido restaurant on the 8th floor of the ship in the video below.


I had less luck limiting my Martini consumption as I ended up meeting a couple from Oklahoma at the Mix Bar every night at 6 when the bartender offered up three different martinis every night for $4 each.

As you can see, I am hooked on this kind of vacation, whether I do it with a friend or on my own. I will append videos with photos of both cruises. Where will I cruise next? Stay tuned, already working on that.

Dobro došli u Bosnu i Herzegovinu

I have switched countries. Now on the east side of the Adriatic in Bosnia where I worked for several years between 1998 and 2009.  It is nice to be back.  My friend Saša picked me up at the airport and we headed along one of my favourite drives from Sarajevo to Mostar.  A twisty road lined with mountains and following the Neretva River.

The weather was threatening rain but the sky was dramatic and there were lots of bursts of sunshine to give great light for photography.





As sit in the airport in Syracuse waiting for the flight that will take me to Florida for New Years I realize that it is a good thing that I like airports. In fact, I LOVE airports. In addition to holiday destinations, in the past 15 years, my work has taken me to Europe and Africa and I have logged hundreds of thousands of miles in planes of all sizes. I have spent more time in airports than Edward Snowden.

imageAlthough I can not get off a ladder onto a garage roof without feeling dizzy or panicked, I am a totally relaxed flyer. Once my bags are checked and I have my boarding pass, I love to sit and watch those little golf carts push planes out onto the tarmac or stroll through duty free shops or electronics shops. I have shopped more in airports than anywhere else. This trip, I don’t even have a boarding pass. All my information is on one if those little boxes of dots on my phone.

In the last 15 years I have spent time in airports in London, Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Munich, Glasgow, Manchester, Shannon, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Split, Dubrovnik, Ljubljana, Venice, Barcelona, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Rome, Bologna, Milan, Brussels, Nairobi, Entebbe, Dar es Salaam, Kilimanjaro, Mombasa, Kisumu, Minneapolis, Boston, Atlanta, Syracuse, Sarasota, Raleigh, New York, Tampa, St Petersburg, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Montreal, Thunder Bay, Halifax and Kingston.

Most of this travel has been by myself. But in airports you are never alone. I have slept overnight on a bench in YYZ with no one else around but the cleaners, been bitten by bedbugs in the Yotel in AMS and drunk champagne in the lounge in LHR. I can’t imagine how many times I have shown my passport, taken off my belt and shoes or how many hours I have stood in line. I have had flights delayed, cancelled and rebooked. I have ended up bumped to another flight because of a pilot strike and then found myself in the connecting airport in Munich without an onward ticket. I have waited on standby and have run through Heathrow with my bags and an Air Canada employee to get to a flight that was leaving immediately. I have stood with my nose against the glass at the departure area and watched as my flight pulled away from the gate. Last year in Barcelona I got a free night in the city and 500 euros when I gave up my seat in an overbooked flight. I have physically bumped into Pavarotti at a Duty Free shop. My baggage has been lost about half a dozen times but always shows up eventually. I have stopped trying to overcome jet lag. I just endure it. I have collected a lot of air miles. In fact, I paid for this trip to Florida with Skymiles and $10.40 in fees.

I am addicted to travel. I consider myself a global citizen. Before I get home from one trip I am already planning the next. I realize how lucky I have been to experience the world in this way and am also a little embarrassed about my carbon footprint. I rationalize that the work I did in Bosnia and continue to do in Africa is helpful to others.

My flight is being announced.  On to the huge Atlanta airport and then to warm, friendly, Sarasota.


Risk aversion

Over the past several years when I traveled to Africa with students from McGill university, they were always briefed repeatedly prior to their safari about risk aversion. There was an acronym that was drummed into their heads – SSRAB. Never one for learning things this way I could never remember what SSRAB stood for. I did know that the general idea was that while traveling in Africa ( when traveling anywhere unfamiliar, in fact) one needs to be more cautious than usual to avoid putting yourself and your travel companions at risk.

imageNow some people have a greater risk tolerance than others. I am not one of those. I did, once, pay a keeper to let me into a compound with two cheetahs. But I like cats so….

This week I am traveling with a friend in Uganda. One of our stops was at a rhino sanctuary a large park where several rhinos live free in the bush. The hope is that after several years their numbers will increase enough to release some back in to the Uganda parks. Rhinoceroses used to be found in Uganda but over years poaching for their horns reduced their number … to zero,

imagePart of the experience was to hike with a ranger into the bush to find the rhinos. We were warned that they were wild animals and that sometimes they would charge without much warning. Before we went out to the bush we signed a release which clearly stated that the sanctuary will not be responsible if you are injured or killed. Very reassuring. Adult rhinos weigh three tons and can run 35 km per hour. They have that big horn. Our escape, we were told was to climb a tree.

Those of you who know me can imagine me running through the bush being chased by a rhino and looking for a tree to climb. I am more likely to trip on my shoelaces and get trampled. So I was a bit anxious about meeting the animals in the bush.

The night before this we had a bit of a rehearsal. We encountered a hippo in the compound where we were staying. My friend, Dave, who is somewhat less risk averse than I am, found himself a bit too close for comfort as the hippo changed direction and he had to scramble up an acacia tree. Acacias have thorns. Dave spent the next morning picking thorns out of his hands.

imageYesterday, we walked into the bush and ten minutes from the guest house where we were staying, we suddenly came across four huge rhinos chewing grass in the bushes about 30 metres from us. We followed them for a bit and then they turned toward us in the grass and started coming our way. It didn’t take long for me to scoot back to a place of relative safety near a clear path out of the brush but Dave stayed in place, at least for a while. I think he was actually hoping to climb a tree and watch the rhinos pass below him.

All ended well. We survived. The rhinos took a right turn into the brush and meandered in, chomping on grass as the went.

As this was happening, I was blessing my camera zoom which let me get some photos from a safe distance.

The events in Nairobi this past weekend at the Westgate mall bring risk aversion for foreign travel to another level and make the rhino trekking trivial. For months, Western travelers to Kenya and Nairobi in particular have been advised to avoid places like malls and large international hotels or public gatherings because of the risk of terrorist activities.

SSRAB (Street Smart Risk Averse Behaviour is the translation I have dragged up from the depths) is always a good strategy.

Adjusting …

It is good to be back in Kenya. I woke up on Monday morning, after about three hours sleep, to the sound of birds outside and a bright light streaming through my window. In my jet-lagged haze I wondered why there would be a spotlight outside my room that came on near dawn. Turns out it is the sun.

Fresh pineapple and mango juice at breakfast. The pineapple here is like a different fruit than what we get at home. It is juicy and sweet and tender. Probably picked yesterday. I enjoy fresh pineapple here almost every day. It is delectable.

One of my bags took a side trip to Amsterdam. The other one, full of calendars and books and kids clothes to give away arrived safely. Luckily I threw a toothbrush and a cap and a change of shirt in my carry on along with a week supply of malaria prevention medication so I really did not suffer. This has happened to me a couple of times in my travel past. It always points out how much less I really need than what I bring along with me. I had all my electronics and camera supplies so I was able to function but it has been difficult to locate my bag and slow to get it transferred back to me.

I was thinking of sending out one of those “I have lost my bag and can you send me money by Western Union” emails like I get from I people I barely know but luckily Kenyan Airways came through in crunch and saved my friends the trauma.

Our first day here was filled with activity. A visit to the Daphne Sheldrick shelter for orphaned elephants was a delight – twenty-five elephants all under three years old that have been rescued and are being cared for with eventual re-introduction into the wild. I had been there once before and seen an IMAX film (Born to be Wild) last year that highlighted the work done by this refuge. The elephants are shown once a day and if they decide to come close to the rope dividing barrier you can touch them. Quite extraordinary. More about the Sheldrick Trust can be found here:


At lunch time we sat at the edge of the Rift Valley at a very breezy Baridi corner, one of my favourite places to visit reflect on the magnificence of nature. I will spend a bit more time there on the weekend when I visit my friends, the Moikos.

The weather is a bit cooler than usual, probably around 20 degrees C. Just like in North America, climate change has made the weather more unpredictable and erratic, with extremes of wet and dry, hot and cool. The difference is that here they have fewer resources to deal with this change and reliance on the traditional weather patterns for agriculture, for example, have made planning difficult.

I will get over my jet lag in about 3 days and feel more settled now that my luggage has been found. The adjustments to being in Kenya include the transition from winter to summer, overcoming the 8 hour time change and getting into “Africa time” where nothing happens quickly or according to schedule.


On my way to Kenya …

Saturday January 12, 2013. Noon.

Well I am on my way … Again. This is my tenth trip with The McGill Canadian Field Studies in Africa Programme (CFSIA) and an even dozen to East Africa in total. It is hard to believe. Firstly that so much time has passed and secondly that Africa has become such a big part of my life. For the ten years prior it was Bosnia. Things change and I imagine that ten years from now…I will be a lot older…things will be different again. However, carpe diem will be my mantra for now.

20130112-130600.jpg I am on the train on the way to the airport at Dorval. Via rail has change it’s luggage policies so I have to take a long route via Ottawa to get to the airport so I could take my bags with me. I have one large bag of “stuff” that will be left in Kenya. I have been good about my personal luggage this time, with about 15 pounds less than what I took last year. And even that may be too much. This Via-rail trip may sound like a lousy diversion but, in fact, I have a business class ticket, will still arrive in lots of time for my flight tonight and am being feted with wine and beer and food and free wifi as I travel. So the bottom line is that this is a more reasonable way to spend the day, getting ready for the long two flights to Nairobi than sitting on a bench in the airport in Dorval, guarding my luggage and waiting for the ticket counter to open. I am always glad to get the trip started – no more wondering what I have forgotten or might forget. Too late for that and nothing I can do about it now.

It is barely past noon and I have already had a beer and a glass of wine and lasagna. The steward has told me that there will be a second meal service between Ottawa and Montreal. I will gain weight before I even get off the ground.

I will keep a journal as I travel and probably post in my blog this year as well – something new. I am all set. Twende! (Swahili for Let’s go.)

A tragic death in Tanzania

I never met Susan Wells. The news that this 41 year old Canadian aid worker had been killed in late November shortly after arriving in Tanzania to do charitable work struck home, however.

I imagined her arriving at the Kilimanjaro airport, tired from the long flight from Canada but invigourated and very excited to be back where she felt she belonged in some way. She would have been eager once more to meet loving children who would swarm her and welcome her in a heartwarming way that is hard to describe.

But she never made it. Her body was found in a field near Arusha. What exactly happened is still not certain but the bottom line is that her mission to East Africa ended in tragedy.

The message conveyed to others by this horrendous assault might be that East Africans are cruel and heartless. It is actually quite the opposite. I’m sure that the people living in the community where Susan Wells worked are grieving with a deep despair. I know that she would have had loving associations with many. Why else would she continue to return?

There are bad people everywhere. We don’t want all Canadians judged by the likes of Luka Magnotta, Russell Williams or Paul Bernardo. All of America can not be measured by the actions of the young man who murdered children at a Connecticut school this week. Tanzania has the same population as all of Canada. A tourism sector report in 2010 reported close to 1,000,000 tourist visits per year. Foreign visits  – both by tourists and by community aid workers – are  an important contributor to the local economy. Violence of this nature towards foreigners is rare.

Travel anywhere has its risks. Visitors to East Africa are aware that crime rates there are much higher than at home. Foreigners are perceived (and rightly so) as having more money than the locals. It must be tempting if you see a visitor using an iPhone that costs as much as you live on for a year, to want to relieve them of it. Pickpocketing and theft is rampant. Even the locals are cognizant of security risks and the potential for them to be victims of crime. Caution is always required. I’m sure that Susan Wells knew that and in all likelihood she thought she was being safe. Most of the people you meet are friendly and helpful. It is hard to imagine that you may be the victim of of such a violent crime – whether at home or abroad.

It is very sad that a young woman who had dedicated herself to sharing with people less fortunate in Africa has been brutally murdered. I suspect, however, that she would not want this crime to taint the reputation of the East Africans who had provided many other loving moments that she must have experienced while living and working there.

Visitors to East Africa are much more likely to be greeted with welcoming affection than negativity.

Visitors to East Africa are much more likely to be greeted with welcoming affection than negativity.