What a week: to Malaga and back again

What a week! That might not be much of a headline but that was the best we could come up with to capture our “experience” of Malaga, Spain. This was my week to introduce Catherine to Europe so I wanted this to be a special time, one free of stress and full of wonder. Well, to echo the old adage, so much for the best laid plans.

Things began according to plan. We arrived in Malaga after some quick connections through Switzerland following our overnight flight from Montreal, rented a car and eventually found our hotel for the night. We were giving ourselves an afternoon and evening to adjust to the time change and get our bearings and it went well. We had a decent meal in the hotel restaurant and stayed awake long enough to avoid a midnight rising and accompanying insomnia. We awoke the next morning, had breakfast, and headed into Malaga for a day of sightseeing before heading to our resort for the week.


The view of the Mediterranean was as wonderful as might be expected. The coastline – in spite of the evident development – was suitably dramatic with its cliffs rising to meet the plateaus that led, in turn, to the hills and peaks beyond. Once we were parked we headed for the historic centre of the city and visited two places on my “must-see” list: Malaga Cathedral and the Alcazaba.

Both lived up to their billing and after some tapas for a late lunch we headed for check-in. It took us 20 minutes and as many roundabouts to arrive at the Sunset Beach Club. What looked like a decent property didn’t take long to disappoint.

Check-in was easy (on the 6th floor since the resort is built into a cliff) and we made our way to our 5th floor “cave” I’ll call it. We were almost directly beneath the registration area and the adjacent bar (lots of sources for noise at any time of the day or night) and had no direct light of any kind. Our balcony fronted on what could only be called a “courtyard” in an architect’s drawing since no one would ever dream of spending time there. Narrow and sandwiched between two towers it hinted at an outer world without actually revealing it. As for the room itself, “dated” will have to suffice. Still, we were staying courtesy of an RCI certificate so we were prepared to live with it since we had no intention of spending much time there. Once again, “best laid plans” and all that.

After dinner in the decent restaurant on the first floor, we were prepared for an early night in preparation for our adventures the next day. Alas, it was not to be.

I awoke fairly early and I knew immediately something was wrong. Because I can hear my mechanical heart valve quite easily, I immediately knew that my heartbeat was irregular. My suspicion was cardiac arrhythmia, a suspicion that was to be confirmed an hour or so later when a doctor arrived and had a look. Upon receiving that confirmation, I was whisked away in an ambulance to the nearest hospital where the prescribed regime required that I be admitted and stay until the following day. One day lost.

By the following morning, Monday, they knew that the medication route wasn’t going to correct my issue so they moved on to more “proactive” measures shall we say. I had expected it would come to that having had this problem once before and, indeed, the intervention was successful and my heart was back to beating as it should. After resting for a couple of hours, I was able to get up and, with Catherine accompanying me, make my way back to the hotel after paying the hospital bill (ouch!) and grabbing a coffee.

Back in the cave that was our room, it was approaching mid-afternoon and it seemed like a good idea to take it easy after my hospital stay so we hunkered down until it was dinnertime and once again ate in the decent restaurant downstairs. Two days lost but I figured we would be back on track the next day. Oh the folly of imagining such a thing.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I was struck by Montezuma’s revenge (I’m calling it that even if this wasn’t Mexico). What followed was another two days where the best I could manage was a brief visit to poolside on the second day of my incapacitation. Essentially, in other words, Tuesday and Wednesday – days three and four – lost.

By Thursday, I had recovered enough that, in the afternoon, we were able to finally return to the car we had parked on Saturday, and head somewhere other than the dungeon or the pool. Our destination, Mijas, turned out to be well worth the visit. Nestled high in the hills, this Spanish “white town” provided exceptional views of the hills and the sea as well as a little shopping, some excellent narrow streets, a charming chapel and, the highlight, a small bullring that we spent some time exploring.
Both of us experienced that unavoidable mixture of fascination with the tradition and repulsion when it comes to the actual activity. We were both surprised at how small the space was allotted for the bull fight. It certainly made very evident the dire nature of the predicament any matador would find himself in.

Unfortunately, after even a couple of hours or so of easy strolling, the challenges of the week caught up with me so we headed back. I was still on a restricted diet of some fruit and toast so I did with that while Catherine had takeout, yet again, from the “decent restaurant” in the hotel. While the day was not a total loss, it was definitely less than the best.

So along came Friday, the last full day we had in the Malaga area. When I had conceived of visiting this area, I had three destinations in mind: Gibraltar, the town of Ronda, and Granada to see the Alhambra. Not happening. The closest was almost 2 hours away and after the week we’d had, that was just too much to consider, especially since we calculated we would have to get up around 3 am in order to make our early flight to Lisbon, first stop on our journey home. So, back to Malaga we went.

As it turned out, we quite enjoyed ourselves. The Pompidou and Picasso museums were respectively fun and puzzling, and wonderful and awe-inspiring.
Generally speaking, it was just nice to be out and about on a sunny day enjoying the sights and the ambiance of a beautiful Spanish city. Even though severely truncated, our experience of the area convinced us it was a place well worth visiting.

Our time ended, once again, back in that same “decent restaurant”, but this time it graduated to something better. We ordered paella and both in terms of presentation and taste, it was delicious. I was still not 100% so I ate what I could but didn’t overdo it. Catherine was able to enjoy to her heart’s (and stomach’s) content. Satisfied, we were early to bed and early to rise. We returned our underutilized vehicle and made it home the following morning after some 36 hours of travel time (with an overnight in Toronto thankfully).

What a week! That was all we could say to sum up the experience. Still, we agreed we had seen some wonderful things and that, whatever else, this was a vacation we would not soon forget, one we would even laugh about someday. Such is the risk of any travel adventure. Happily, we made it home safely and all is well. Now it’s time to plan the next adventure!

There (NYC) and back again

Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.
― James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

New York City has long been a favourite destination of mine. Back in 1976, I visited for the first time with my brother as part of a summer adventure that saw us travel coast to coast and back again. As an 18 year old experiencing the enormity of New York for the first time, I was understandably awestruck. Mind you, it was a far different city then from what it has become.

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42nd Street was, shall we say, “seedy” to be kind. While Broadway was undoubtedly a huge attraction, the high-minded, artful Big Apple sat side-by-side with peep shows aplenty and street attractions that I haven’t seen since that first visit, and I’ve been back many times. And for all the times that I’ve been there, only on that first visit was I ever afraid. While walking along 7th Avenue near Times Square, I managed to attract the attention of some nefarious types who made me uncomfortable even if nothing detrimental to my health actually happened.

Still, once New York gets in your blood, it’s pretty hard to stay away. On my most recent visit, I was explaining to my companion on the journey that no city I’ve seen is built on the scale of New York. I’ve been to cities that have larger populations and far crazier traffic (Bangkok in particular comes to mind – consider being in a taxicab that stalls in the middle of some eight to ten lanes to traffic and just won’t start – been there, done that). But New York’s enormity is unique, a fact that was explained for me, in part, by a statistic I encountered in a publication that came with my subscription to The Economist magazine, “Pocket World in Figures.”

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Among the minutiae describing population and various statistics regarding age, demographics, median income and the like was a list of cities with the most skyscrapers. While I can’t say for sure what the rule is for designating buildings as such, two things struck me: Toronto came second with 1,993; New York was first with 5,888! Toronto’s position as number two was surprising but the distance between first and second place was what caused my jaw to drop. No wonder New York immediately impresses you with its size. So much of it is just so BIG!

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On this latest trip, by virtue of where we were staying (New Jersey), our day in the city always began at the World Trade Centre. While the site remains a work in progress, the centerpiece of the redevelopment, the new building – One World Trade Centre – is largely complete. While nothing could ever replace the twin towers, the new building is a worthy successor. As luck would have it, we were able to watch a documentary on the construction of the building not long after we returned to Saint John. Knowing the details of the construction simply enhanced the wonder the sight of the structure had engendered in me. Enshrouded in glass, it is a huge needle that draws your eye anytime it appears in your field of vision.

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Otherwise, the city remained its usual, frantic self. Over the course of our five days there, we checked out Central Park just to be reminded that trees do bloom and that Saint John’s turn will come, even if it is a month or so behind. The Staten Island Ferry, with its great views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Manhattan and New York Harbor continues to be the best ticket for the price of just about anywhere. That being said, if you haven’t done the cycle of New Brunswick’s ferries on a beautiful summer day, you need to make a plan and make sure you do.

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A Yankees-Mets game, Broadway shows, a visit to Brooklyn, good food galore, the sights and shopping: five days well-spent, I say. Towards the end of our time we managed to encounter a couple of protests, louder versions of the overall impression I always have of New York: this is a place where “things are happening”. I know the same can be said of any of the world’s major cities but something about its physical presence makes everything in New York conform to its image as the BIG Apple. I always feel that I’m somehow closer to the pulse of the world when I visit. And I enjoy that.

At the same time, when the day came that it was time to leave, it didn’t take me long to remember why New York is always a nice place to visit but not somewhere that I would necessarily want to live for a long time. As you leave the city and head northward you eventually get beyond the traffic that stays with you almost as far as Augusta. Once past Maine’s capital, though, things begin to revert to the pace that we think of as “Maritime” and, quite frankly, I breathe a sigh of relief.

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No matter where I go, it’s always the same it seems, especially if I’m driving back from the U.S. When I come over the rise on Highway #1 where the city is laid before you, it always looks particularly beautiful to me. Which, I suppose, goes a long way toward proving the old adage, at least for me, that “there’s no place like home.” In my case, that’s Saint John – always was, always will be.

Weather day(s)?

Apparently with no surprise
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at its play—
In accidental power —
The blonde Assassin passes on—
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God.

– Emily Dickinson

Another day in February here in New Brunswick and, yet again, more snow than our well-settled community can cope with easily. We’ve all seen snow before, but even the hardiest among us cannot recall anything quite like this.

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Just the other day I found myself on some streets that I hadn’t traveled since the first of the big storms and, I confess, I was amazed. And these were not side streets; snow-bound major bus routes had me squeezing off to the side to avoid collisions with oncoming traffic. I was equally dismayed when I stopped by the grocery store and was confronted by snow mountains in the parking lot. Now, we’re all accustomed to oversize landscapes when the plows have done their work but this was something else again. I felt as though I had an opportunity, should I choose to pursue it, to experience an alien landscape. Height is something you expect of snowbanks in parking lots during the winter but it was the depth that amazed me. I don’t think the stores are going to be crowded out any time soon, but the proximity of these behemoths to parking spaces ordinarily well-removed from such accumulations seemed almost intimidating. If anything can be said to “loom”, these banks were certainly looming.

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Weather is an important thing everywhere, no doubt, but countries that tend to experience extremes throughout the year are especially prone to having the weather become THE ice-breaker in conversation. A few years ago, I spent a summer month in Northern California. Every day – no exaggeration – the temperature moved within one or two degrees of 90 Fahrenheit and I did not see a cloud, at least not that I can remember. I clearly recall the elation I felt when I came home, looked up at clouds in the sky, and felt a breeze blowing off the water. For a good portion of the year, in certain places (the part of California I was visiting is one of them), you can completely ignore the weather, simply because you know it is going to be essentially the same tomorrow as it was today and the day before. Go ahead and make that plan for a birthday party six weeks from now! So strange for someone like me to see such assumptions at work.

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Beyond the weather itself, even more unusual for me was how absent conversation surrounding climate really was. Does a day ever go by in our neighbourhood where we don’t spend some time assessing either the immediate conditions or the trends we’ve seen over the last while? I had some guys in this morning to look at some repairs I need done and it didn’t take long for us to begin a comparative analysis of this winter to last. In summary, the consensus was that last winter was tougher overall but nothing could quite compare to the last 4 or five weeks, both for the sheer volume of snow and for the persistent bitter chill.

We have so many reasons to be grateful for where we live. Some would argue that the weather represents something we must endure, an unfortunate consequence that we can’t do much about other than accept. Personally, I prefer to see it as our particular “world”. Among other things, travel has taught me just how particular each world truly is. While my travel mode – figuring everything out on my own – isn’t for everyone, I prefer it to organized touring because I feel it gets me closer to the reality of the places I visit. In my experience, the organized tour insulates you from many of the experiences that might reveal most about a place and its people.

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We have it good here in snowbank New Brunswick. Winters such as this one bring challenges and frayed nerves certainly, but ours is still largely a world where we can feel secure in our homes and free from the threats of violence that seem to affect more and more places every day. If people stay away from our part of the world because they find the climate unwelcoming and the pace of things a little too slow, I understand. But this is the world that many of us call home. And I have no doubt, if suddenly we turned tropical, a part of all of us would miss the storms and the unpredictability of it all. More than a few conversations would never even get started.

No rush, no rush

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
– Lao Tzu

It’s the strangest thing: all the time in Saint John, and most of the time just about anywhere else, keeping within the speed limit is an act of will. Not having to worry about speeding on the highway makes cruise control the one optional (assuming it IS optional anymore) feature that I cannot do without. I don’t think of myself as having a “heavy foot” but 50 kms at all times seems just about impossible to maintain.

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Now consider Hawai’I or, more specifically, the main byway that runs from Keauhou Bay down to the Kona pier. It’s quite long – probably close to 8 kilometres end-to-end. The posted limit is never any higher than 30 mph and falls as far as 15 mph depending on where you are. And repeatedly, I find myself having to speed up.

It seems a kind of spell falls over you, a spell that so relaxes the muscles in your feet that, without noticing, your foot stops putting pressure on the gas pedal and you begin to coast ever slower. A quick glance down at your speedometer hovering around 20-25 reminds you to pick it up a bit. Call it habit but it is hard for me to imagine that the cars behind me aren’t wondering what’s wrong with the guy in front.

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That being said, I suspect that’s more about a habit of mind than reality. I think colder climates can encourage speed. We need to get there faster to get out of the cold; if we walk faster, it will heat us up a bit; the more frantic the movement in general, the more we’ll begin to generate heat. It’s been noted before that northern climates tend to encourage greater productivity, something, if truth be told, that probably results from dealing with the need to work to stay warm during a good portion of the year.

Some years ago now, when I was in Ghana with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, a colleague and I observed one day when we were out tearing through the neighbourhood where we were staying (and sweating like crazy as a result) that we were outpacing literally everyone else walking on the road. It hadn’t occurred to us to notice that the Ghanaians around us uniformly took their time, sauntering along without a care in the world, or so it seemed to we hyperactive Canadians.

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That’s when we realized that there was method in this particular madness. Ghanaians moved slowly because it was so damned HOT. One way to avoid drowning in perspiration was to walk a little more slowly. Truly, this was a revelation for us and from that moment, as difficult as it was, we slowed down and ultimately rejoiced in the benefits.

Now Hawai’I isn’t Ghana. It certainly isn’t as humid although at times the actual temperature might be comparable. But it does seem to have something of that same slow pace that we noted in Ghana, although perhaps for its own reasons.

Needless to say, I think, tourists are far more prevalent on the Big Island of Hawai’i than they are in Accra, Ghana’s capital. And there is no denying that the same consumer drive is evident in Hawai’i as anywhere else in North America: Costco is just up the road, the big malls are bustling and commerce is evident in everything from restaurants, to souvenir shops, to all the opportunities for “adventure” advertised in every publication and on a great many street corners.

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Still, for all that, the urgency that feels so much a part of everyday life in my “real world” seems lessened here. I’ve been here for over a week now and been on the road every day, and I have yet to hear even a single horn honk. As I’ve meandered slower than the speed limit – unintentionally every time – I haven’t had a single impatient tailgater, finger-flipper or even an exasperated and impatient look from anywhere. Instead, people routinely slow down to allow others into traffic (commonly more than just one vehicle) and wait patiently while the guy up ahead slows down even more to see something or other.

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When natural beauty is an easily recognized constant, maybe relaxing doesn’t require work. We in the frozen north know a blizzard has an undeniable allure but its beauty is easy to forget when you are shoveling snow and dealing with the many consequences of “after the storm”.

So yes, Hawai’i has signs indicating tsunami evacuation areas, and earthquakes happen here but somehow both seem very far away. “Paradise” can seem overused when describing tropical climes but I can’t think of a better characterization for the west coast of the Big Island. The climate, the pace, the people (universally friendly, it seems) all fit what I imagine such a place should be. It’s my last day here amidst the undeniable beauty of this place. I’ll take the ease of the moment – for the moment – because the blizzard’s terrible beauty and its aftermath is waiting for me. No need to hurry.

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What price a camera?

My brief foray into underwater photography has been put on indefinite hold. Indefinite because I need to figure out if having your battery pop out while the camera is submerged in the Pacific Ocean means the camera may not work any longer. Time – and visiting someone who might know what to do about such things – will tell. Without another battery to check and see if the thing will even turn on, I’ll just have to live with that unknown for the time being.

Of one thing I am certain: the SD card is not allowing me to download the photos I took today. This day was dedicated largely to aquatic pursuits. I headed to a nearby beach that was supposed to have good snorkeling and I was ready to snap some good shots. After my first effort a couple of days ago, I felt better prepared – more aware of the difficulties of trying to achieve wonders with a $90 second-hand camera. Not that it was a bad camera, but it was one of those waterproof point and shoot types that can take a shot underwater but that certainly weren’t intended for deep sea adventures. In other words, a camera perfectly suited for someone like me with no previous experience.

And today was a good day to be in the water. While the beach was fairly crowded, it’s a big ocean and there were plenty of fish in that sea. And I actually managed quite a few good shots today. I know this because I checked them out while sitting on the shore after the first of a couple of sessions checking out the aquatic scene. This particular location was essentially a small reef which afforded some protection from the waves. The swell was still substantial but not so much that it made it unpleasant. The water was clear and the fish, as I say, were abundant.

All of this was in preparation for tonight, though. I had been following the Lonely Planet guide inasmuch as it suggested certain things as must-dos on the Big Island of Hawai’i. I had settled on three essentials and two were complete. First was a trip to Volcanoes National Park; second was seeing a sunset from Mauna Kea, the highest peak on the island (although I didn’t climb the final 4000 feet to the summit, a smaller peak near the Visitor’s Centre afforded all the view I needed). Both of these proved worthy of the recommendation and I would add my voice to the multitudes who have come before me recommending the same things.

The final must-do was night-snorkeling with Manta Rays. If you are unfamiliar with these marvels, I can’t offer you any snapshots I took because . . . my camera is awash in salt water, my SD card is dead, and my battery is somewhere on the ocean floor. But do I ever wish I had my own snapshots to show you.

Assuming my tour was similar to all the others, we didn’t go far from shore, just off the point from where I am staying actually. After a brief orientation that took us to within a few minutes of sunset, we were ready to head into the water.

I had planned on bringing my own snorkel gear but I’m glad I didn’t. The company’s equipment proved fine and the wetsuit they supplied provided some relief from something I hadn’t expected: getting cold in the water.

Manta Rays are attracted to light in the water, not for the light’s sake, but because plankton, which they feed upon, are. So the set-up is as follows: tethered to the boat, long, narrow platforms with lights on the underside float in the water. On either side are handholds for snorkelers to grab on to while flotation devices are held at your ankles to keep you level on the water. And then you wait.

On this night, I was beginning to wonder if this was money well-spent as we laid in the water for a half-hour or so with nothing much happening. Fish were plentiful and interesting but they were not, in this case, the main attraction.

And then the first one came, followed by others. Someone let out a whoop and it didn’t take long to figure out why. These indescribably graceful creatures with their sometimes 12 to 14 foot “wingspans” dance a ballet for you without even thinking about it. For the next half hour, we were treated to an experience difficult to describe. Their “dance” involves moves I would tend to associate with early twentieth century aircraft doing loops silently in slow-motion. They do long, arcing somersaults and even brush against your body sometimes as they go by. Sinuous is a word that pops into my head when I try to find the proper adjective to describe their passage through the water.

But finally, words just won’t do it. As with so many things in travel for me, I can see the pictures and read the commentaries and descriptions, but nothing ever compares to the real thing. It might have cost me a camera but it was worth it. Good for you Lonely Planet; you got it right.

What can you learn from a volcano?

To see the world in a grain of sand,
A heaven in a wildflower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

– William Blake, from Auguries of Innocence

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If I was going to spend the best part of a day at Volcanoes National Park and still be back before dark I knew I would have to be on the road early so, before the stroke of 6 am, I was on the road. And it was dark and the first 20 miles or so of the main highway was narrow and twisting with a speed limit of 35 mph. I’m glad I was doing it now rather than on the return journey, though.

According to Lonely Planet, I should have been a couple of hours getting to the main gate of the park but I meandered and didn’t arrive until around 9:30. Along the way, I managed stops to see some great surf, a black sand beach and green sea turtles lounging on the same. Just another day on the Big Island.

For some reason I hadn’t paid much attention to temperatures – assuming I suppose that it must be hot and glorious everywhere – so I was somewhat surprised when the external temperature was registering as low as 14 degrees Celsius by the time I was at the park. That being said, considering I was now at elevation around 4000 ft, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Fortunately, coming from Saint John, New Brunswick, where a warm summer’s day tops out around 18-22 if you live along the coast, it wasn’t that big a deal.

I headed straight for the visitor’s centre because I had a plan. After yesterday’s grueling trek down and back to the Captain Cook Monument, I was looking for something a little bit easier and I thought I had found it in the Kilauea Iki trail, a 4+ mile loop that took you down to and across the caldera and back up the other side. I had certainly heard the word caldera before but I had never thought much about what it meant. I was about to find out.

I always say that I love traveling anywhere – and I do – but I have been to some places that stick with me for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s the magnificence of human achievement (cathedrals in Europe, the Angkor complex, Macchu Pichu), others, the beauty of nature (the Fundy Trail, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, the Canadian Rockies) and still others for quite specific reasons. Kilauea Iki falls into the last category.

The Kilauea Iki trail begins from a parking lot a short drive from the Visitor’s Centre. Immediately upon arrival you can look down some 400 feet and see your destination. As I discovered, a caldera results when a vent for lava collapses. This is not your gushing down the mountainside brand of volcanic activity. Think of water backing up in a drain. The water is still trying to get out but it has nowhere to go so it simply fills the tub.

From above, the caldera doesn’t look like much. By now I’m accustomed to the ripples and eddies of solidified lava although it certainly looks interesting. So off I go, guide in hand, down the trail.

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As you descend, the enormity of what you are approaching begins to assert itself. You are at one end of the caldera and the other end is very far away. When you step out of the surrounding vegetation, the first impression is size. What looks from above like a rippling but smooth surface is, in fact, what I might imagine a battlefield would look like after the bomb fused all the earth.

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You enter the caldera at the level of the “bath tub ring”. No, I didn’t make that up. When you look at the “high lava mark” – where the molten lava reached before the eruption slackened and the lava began to drain a bit – it takes your breath away. More than anything for me, the analogy, “bath tub ring” is so apropos! If you’ve ever laid in the tub after a long day of hard and dirty labour, you know what such a ring looks like. Here’s one that encircles a hardened lake around a mile from end to end.

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As you begin the trek across this broken land, you pass the vent from where the lava poured. This is the most broken part of the caldera, a huge conglomeration of broken lava that reminds me of asphalt, if it were a couple or more feet thick and the size of a chunk of four lane highway. They build up in small mountains here and there and ripple as you might imagine the ocean would if flash frozen.

The trail across is marked with piles of rock and you are not allowed to venture outside its limits but I was forced off the path briefly in order to retrieve my sunglasses. I had my Tilley hat on – my companion for many years now – and it has never blown off, anywhere. Now it has.

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Of all the things I might have expected as I went down to the Caldera, wind wasn’t one of them. Was I ever wrong. Once past the initial entry point, you enter the open plain, you might say. The wind was strong and gusting the rest of the way and one gust caught the hat and away it sailed, even though I had the chin strap on. My sunglasses were perched on the hat and they flew further and down the side of one ridge. It looked safe enough and, after some hesitation, I made a quick trip down and back.

I mention this not because I was doing anything especially dangerous but because it is an object lesson in what makes this trip across the caldera so remarkable. With every step, I grew increasingly aware of the power that could fuel the event that created this landscape. Steam was venting in the distance, the land looked broken and tortured, yet, other than the wind, all was calm and serene. Somewhere beneath my feet Pele, the goddess of fire, was slumbering.

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When I was done with Kilauea Iki, I spent time doing a few other things, last of which was a trip to the Jagger Museum where you can view the Halema’uma’u crater, currently venting gas. Also, you can see the larger caldera, of which Kilauea Iki is but a small part. Driving down Chain of Craters Rd. provides an even clearer view of the enormity and extent of past eruptions and lava flows. Power and grandeur everywhere I look. And yet this is but a speck on a tiny planet amidst a universe beyond comprehension. All I can say is “wow!” and that just doesn’t quite capture it. Thank god for poets.

1300 feet is a long way down . . . and up!

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My first full day on the Big Island of Hawai’i and I had a plan. I was going to get up early so I could hit the road and make my way down the highway some 90-100 miles to the volcanoes. My thinking was “I’ve been there before but it was some time ago and a visit was on my to-do list so I might as well get it over with”. As so often happens with travel – if you’re open to possibilities – my plans changed.

After I was on the highway for 5 minutes or so I saw a sign for a Sunday farmer’s market. It opened at 9 and it was just after 8 so, if I wanted to go, I would have to forego the volcanoes unless I wanted to arrive at Volcanoes National Park much later than I had hoped. Now, a ¼ mile or so before the market, I saw a sign for Kealakekua Bay some four miles down a road to the right so I decided that would be a good way to kill some time before the market opened. It turned out to be a fateful choice.

Narrow and twisting the whole way, the road took me down the side of the mountain (everything seems mountainous around here) to a beautiful bay where the surf was breaking against a beach composed entirely of lava boulders. That didn’t stop some intrepid snorkelers who had found their way out into the water. I envied them but I wasn’t comfortable snorkeling alone in a place with such obviously turbulent waters. It got me thinking though.

So I checked my Lonely Planet guide and, sure enough, it identified the northern end of Kealakekua Bay as a primo snorkeling spot, although it wasn’t exactly easy to access. The choices were being transported there by one of the tour companies or hiking for an hour down the Captain Cook Monument walking trail, a path that drops some 1300 feet from the trailhead to the bay. I was quite pleased actually: I could kill two birds with one hike – get my exercise in and have my first chance to snorkel.

Having come up with a plan, I retraced my route in time to be there when the market opened. I’m glad I went. A great selection of local crafts complemented some produce and a food vendor or two. It was small but worth the time.

From there it was back to the hotel to change and pick up my snorkel gear, all of which put me back at the trailhead at around 10. I parked on the shoulder and headed out.

Just for the record, I am not a hiker, if being one means that everywhere you go you seek out opportunities for hiking. I like a hike every once in a while but I don’t live and breathe it. This, as it turns out, would have to qualify as the toughest hike I’ve ever taken.

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The trail begins as a path through rather long grasses. Immediately apparent is the fact that this is a descent. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that no straight and level portions were about to appear. This was going DOWN. 1300 feet, it turns out, is a long drop and the path made that evident. Adding to the adventure was a varied and sometimes treacherous trailbed of loose lava, large boulders, and lava faces with both smooth and jagged surfaces. In some ways, the trip down was harder than the trip back, at least as far as footing went.

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Water and the coastline appear after you’ve traveled about halfway. On either side of the trail itself are vast fields of lava. I can’t help calling it a scene of devastation. It’s what I might imagine some alien landscape would look like. Far below is the water and cliffs but, by now, I’m halfway there.

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When I finally arrive at my destination, it does not disappoint. The monument to Captain Cook is there, placed by the government of Australia, and the waters are, indeed, calm enough for some good snorkeling. It’s my first time using my underwater camera so that is an extra thrill, but the fish and the coral are the attractions.

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Eventually, the time comes to steel myself for the journey back to the top. As it turns out, it is as gruelling as I had feared it might be but I have plenty of water and I stop many times along the way. That may very well be the longest climb I have ever made without any level places to provide relief. It was all downhill on the way and it was very much all uphill going back.

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Flying the friendly skies

airline awards

Imagine how proud I was to hear that Air Canada has held on to its title as best airline in North America. I keep promising myself that I’m going to find the source of this particular award because it’s puzzling to me. I can’t help wondering what the criteria might be. Is it like the non-competitive athletics now played in some schools? Does everyone win? What is it, exactly, that so sets Air Canada apart that it deserves an award, not just for one year, but for five years in a row? Granted I don’t fly every week on business so I’m probably not the expert to depend on for an evaluation, but I’m out enough, and have flown on sufficient airlines over the years, to be able to have some sense of what goes on when flying.

Now don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I’m really even complaining. As I wrote on this blog yesterday, I don’t really ask much of airline travel. I don’t even mind flying economy on the really long flights, the ones to or from Asia, for example, that can run some 12 to 15 hours, depending on where you’re departing from and where you’re going. I’m with R. L. Stevenson on this one: travel is its own reward. I decided some time ago I wasn’t going to turn this marvel of our age – being able to arrive virtually anywhere on the planet inside of a couple of days – into a burden.

As for Air Canada, since I still haven’t been able to get it together and find out who is presenting this award or what the critieria are, I can’t help trying to guess. I’m over the Pacific Ocean at the moment on a United flight that offers the washroom free of charge and that’s about it. I’ve been aware of the many ways in which airlines are working to make ends meet but an absolute lack of free onboard entertainment surprised me. Now, to be fair, you can watch a series of infomercials on the little screen in the seat-back in front of you but, all of my natural good-nature and optimism notwithstanding, even I am hard-pressed to think of that as being anything other than stingy. If this were a quick flight such as the Saint John-Toronto leg where they don’t have the onboard equipment to provide anything anyway, I could understand. But this is almost six hours in the air with not so much as an option to listen to elevator music. Maybe United is in even worse shape than other carriers.

So score one for Air Canada there. From Toronto to Los Angeles, a solid selection of music and other forms of entertainment is available. If you need headphones, there’s a charge but the product itself is free. So what else might separate Canada’s national airline from the competition?

Friendly flight attendants? Exceptional and thoughtful service? Careful baggage handlers? Never mind that last one since most of us wouldn’t have much sense of how good or bad our baggage is handled until after the fact. As for the first two, I can’t say I’ve seen much difference among airlines in North America. As is so often the case with such folks, it’s hit and miss. Overall I find those working in airports and on planes about as competent and friendly as the general mix found in just about every service industry. I’m sure most of us can think of the exceptional server in a restaurant – both the exceptionally good and the exceptionally bad – but the vast majority falls into that forgettable category of the “ordinary” where so much of our lives are lived.

And that’s a pretty good place to live, especially when so many people’s ordinary, in so many of those parts of the world I’ve visited (or hope to visit some day), can be so fraught with difficulties that I can read about but have little expectation of ever experiencing.

So congratulations Air Canada on a job well done. Someone out there thinks you are doing a great job and who am I to disagree. Until it matters enough to me that I take the time to look into it, the specific reasons will have to remain a mystery. And that’s really okay. As I said, I’m just amazed that I live in a time when the world is just waiting to be discovered. I may be stuck in economy for a long time to come but I don’t mind. I’m flying 34,000 feet above the earth at the moment. Not a bad place to be.

On the road again

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.
– Robert Louis Stevenson

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I’m a guest at the Maple Leaf Lounge, Pearson International Airport, Toronto, for the moment. I have a 6 hour layover between flights, just shy of being enough to justify a quick escape from the airport, especially when your next flight is to the U.S. Getting through security these days always has the potential to be a chore but getting to the States takes the cake (although I’ve heard Israel is the toughest).

Before I even have the chance to start taking everything out of my pockets and divesting myself of everything including my boots, my boarding pass has been checked three times. It will be checked once more just before the scanner. Today, at that juncture, I thought I had lost my passport for a moment and I – the guy who prides himself on the adopted motto for travel, “go with the flow” – actually started to freak out just a little bit. Fortunately, I held it together long enough to find my missing passport in the deepest recesses of a shirt I commonly wear when I’m flying. It has pockets galore, all sealable, and I do my best to decide clearly beforehand where everything will go. I can hear my Aunt Fran intoning the old adage “a place for everything and everything in its place.” She left out the part about how too many things and too many places to hide them can lead to confusion.

I’m very deliberate about such things. I’ve traveled enough to believe that solid organization is at least one important factor in how much enjoyment I can expect to have doing what many find a chore. Bottom line for me: not only do I love the destinations; I enjoy the getting there as well, as long as I have everything in hand in preparation. iPad? Check. eReader? Check. iPod and headphones? Charged and ready to go. Snacks? Itinerary? Any paperwork I might need? If I’ve made sure all of that is in place before I leave the house, I am pretty confident things from that point will be all good.

Especially before I retired, opportunities to spend time in airports were welcomed and a source of pleasant anticipation. An airport is one place where, when I choose to “go with the flow”, I can truly relax. Nothing will bring you any closer to departure time, and the time you do have at your disposal is entirely without responsibility. It has an effect similar to that which a golf course has on me. After I hit (or mishit) that first tee shot and head down the fairway, the real world fades behind me and a silence of sorts descends. All of the concerns and distractions of the world park themselves for a time. It feels good.

So the Maple Leaf Lounge is a bonus. It’s not because I’m so well traveled; rather, I happen to have the right credit card at the moment so I’m granted free access. I haven’t been to airport lounges all that often but, this one, I must say, is especially nice. For one thing, it is large yet divided in such a way that you don’t feel like one of the huddled masses. And the food is pretty good. Soups, an excellent hummus, salads, good bread: overall, plenty to make for a reasonable lunch.

And comfort. Granted, no daybeds or other options for getting horizontal but the chairs are people-friendly and varied and the overall atmosphere is relaxed. The contrast to the seating at departure gates is pronounced. The seating at the gates seem designed, by virtue of wafer-thin padding, to discourage settling in. Kicking back in the lounge can’t help feeling a bit luxurious. I always say that I’m not one to actively seek luxury. That being said, if it presents itself and I’m available, it would be impolite to say no.

The sun is setting over Toronto now and the lights of the city in the distance are beginning to assert themselves. Departure approaches and I need to get some exercise so it’s time to leave and go for a stroll. Next stop Los Angeles for a few hours rest and time adjustment. Tomorrow, Kona International and the Big Island of Hawai’i. I’m looking forward to my arrival but, for me, getting there is always part of the fun.