Christmas Day, 2015
My year of Elsewhere began with a dinner party last December, where friends Helen and Ron invited me to spend a week at their rented condo in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende.
I arrived the first week of March, catching a ride at Mexico City’s airport for the four-hour trip northwest into the mountains. This colourful town is a surprising mix of ordinary Mexicans, U.S. expats and holiday-ers all going about their business. It’s easy to walk downtown to the main square and spend hours looking at all the little shops and art galleries, or take house tours organized for expats at the cultural centre.
The locals feel no need to learn English, while the expats spend hours practicing their Spanish so they can order dinner in the many affordable restaurants. Shop in a giant supermarket that rivals any at home, or head to the main market where piles of produce sit next to tires and cheap clothing. Helen washed all our fresh produce in iodine and nobody seemed to get sick.
On warm afternoons the visitors lounged by the pool, reading, and there were margaritas on the roof at 7. Early Sunday morning she roused me from bed to watch the hot air balloons glide overhead. I think Sandro would’ve enjoyed it, though the lack of an ocean or even a river to fish in would’ve been a deterrent.
Kenya in April, to see my sister Janet. After 30 years, their teaching in
Africa may be drawing to a close, so figured I’d better get over there. Eight hours to Amsterdam, where I finished a story in a coffee shop, then eight hours to Nairobi, where I was photographed and fingerprinted for a $50 visa. Andy and Janet picked me up and off we went down the mostly two-lane Mombasa Road, the main road between the port of Mombasa and Nairobi. Vehicular madness, with ordinary cars weaving merrily between lines of transport trucks in the pitch dark.
A week later, we were stuck in a roundabout on the outskirts of Nairobi, with cars 10 deep going every which way, when Janet beeped her horn indignantly at a car beside us. “He’s in the wrong lane,” she said.
As always, watching the locals go about their business was the loveliest part. Janet’s roomy bungalow sits beside an empty field, shaded by tall trees. As we walked up the hill one afternoon, along red roads, we passed a woman braiding another’s hair, and others selling fresh guavas and vegetables from a table, or a tarp on the ground. Women washed their clothing in a stream between red rocks, and kids played naked while their fathers worked their bit of garden or tended coffee bushes, studded with red cherries. There were goat kids, too, tied to a tree and resting in the warm sunshine. Later we watched big game from an open-roofed van in the Masai Mara. I could watch zebras forever.
How to top that? Peru, of course. Dining in top restaurants in Lima – 60
courses in the first two days, then flying to wild west colonial Cusco 3,500 metres up in the Andes mountains, where the temperature drops significantly and the altitude and thin air can make people sick. We took the Hiram Bingham luxury train down 1,000 meters to the station next to Machu Picchu. The rest of the world arrived on foot, hiking 1 to 5 days to get there or taking the regular train.
Every time I’ve awakened before dawn to see the sun rise over some famous landmark it’s been cold, uncomfortable and a bust. Of course we weren’t the only ones that grey morning. Bus after bus after bus crammed with tourists and backpacker kids wound their way up the mountain to find cotton clouds obscuring the famous abandoned Inka city from the 1500s.
By 10:30 a.m. the clouds had burned off, revealing just how high we were. The green mountains around us and rivers snaking far far below were as thrilling as the site itself. For three hours we walked up and down worn stone steps and through pyramid-shaped doorways into the remains of homes and places of worship, all crafted by hand from smooth stones of golden beige.
Driving around the Andes for half a day to see real people at work was heart-warming. The fall fields were golden under snow-capped mountains while crusty-looking quinoa stalks were ruddy red. I loved watching women in the local markets with their long black pigtails, dressed in colourful skirts, hats and shawls. They seemed frozen in time – how long will it be before they switch to down jackets and jeans? Especially if a new airport is built on their land. We stopped above a valley and looked down at 3,000 salt pans. An hour later we gazed at ancient terraced circles, an Inka plant laboratory.
Another small plane took us from Cusco to the Amazon basin for two days of tropical R&R, trudging through muddy forests with monkeys jumping overhead and reading in the hammock of our private thatched-roof villas. Trip of a lifetime it was, and I was grateful for every minute of it.
Can I top that? Probably not. But how about quick jaunts to Quebec City, Montreal, Philadelphia (first time) and NYC! Or perhaps Italy, as out-of-the-blue as the Peru trip. After spending the summer wondering and worrying about how/when to get to Italy to see Sandro’s brother, who just turned 77, the opportunity fell in my lap. Emilia Romagna ho.
To Bologna, Piacenza, Parma and Modena, to feast on tortellini, mortadella, prosciutto, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and traditional balsamic vinegar doled out by the drop. The trip ended at the Expo in Milan, which I’d been desperate to visit. Too crowded, but even walking down the street of international pavilions (except Canada!!) was a thrill.
The next morning I caught a ride to the international airport with the rest of the group and an hour later Sandro’s nephew Fulvio picked me up for the 40 –minute drive to their village. Four nights was plenty, as they were in the midst of a family crisis. I hope brand new babe Gregorio will smooth things over. I was glad I went, and Remo and Marisa were so appreciative.
Back home, I told everyone (including Copper the cat ) that that was it, no more trips. But my summer of Elsewhere wasn’t over. I had a few more meals to go, a bike ride among red and golden vineyards and a bath in pudding-like black mud in California’s Napa Valley, followed by a weekend in San Francisco with dear friend Sharon.
And here I sit, ready for Christmas dinner with youngest sister Nancy and co. in downtown Toronto. Followed by a few days in Kingston with Janet, who’s back briefly from Africa. We’ll all convene in Hamilton Jan. 2 for her youngest son James’ wedding. Then it’s my BIG birthday – celebrated with a catered dinner for friends. Another year beckons! Wishing good health for all and more love in the world. And more Elsewhere.