Десять лет назад

Ten years ago, today

…I packed up two suitcases (remember when you could take two checked bags on a plane for free?), said my farewells to my family and friends, put on a can-only-be-Canadian-red blazer, and flew half way around the world – literally – to spend a year living in Siberia, Russia.

Was I having a bout of insanity? Were my parents sending me to the Gulag for misbehaviour? Did the government send me to spy à la Cold War? No, nothing of the sort. At just shy of 17, I chose to go to Russia to live for a year. (How?! I hear you cry).  I went on a Rotary International Youth Exchange, a program run by the Rotary organization, that sends high school aged kids from country to country on both short- and long-term exchanges.

I’ve spent the past week or so trying to decide how to write this piece. Reflections on the year? Discussion of Rotary and the program and how awesome it is? Just pictures (they’re a thousand words a piece!)? I decided, as you will soon see if you are still with me dear reader, to plagiarize myself. That is, I have taken bits and pieces out of an essay I wrote for my Grade 12 Writer’s Craft class titled, “The benefits of living a year in the middle of nowhere”. And now, without further stalin’…!

Early autumn morning on the way to school.

Most people know major cities, like Paris or Rome. I’d even go the length and say most have heard of Munich, Osaka, Los Angeles, or Vancouver. Now, if I were to ask you to find ‘Krasnoyarsk’ on a map, could you? (Here’s a hint: it’s in Russia). I bet even hard-core geography lovers would be in a bit of a pickle to pick up this almost million-person city in Russia. So where is Krasnoyarsk, anyway? Well, the middle of nowhere is a pretty good description.

North bank of the river Yenisei, which flows through Krasnoyarsk north to the Arctic

Located in the heart of Siberia, Krasnoyarsk is nestled between the river Yenisei and the Stolby taiga nature reserve, north of where Kazakhstan meets Mongolia. A major station on the Trans-Siberian railroad, Krasnoyarsk is between Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, a gem amidst the ever-changing landscape of Siberia. How exactly do I know this? Well, [ten] years ago I was given the enormous chance of going, by way of Rotary Youth Exchange, to Krasnoyarsk to live for a year.

So there I was, on the plane going to Moscow, making my way to a place I’d never seen pictures of, never heard of before, and knew almost none of the language. Makes you wonder, why Russia then? When I was given the chance to live almost anywhere for a year, I really wanted to do something different. Everybody goes to Europe [kudos to them – Europe is awesome!]. I wanted a challenge, a place hardly anyone had gone to before, and Russia was that place. The Russian language also uses a completely different alphabet, Cyrillic, and I wanted to be able to read it and write things so no one else could read them. For example, Вы сможете это читать? Learning Russian is one of the hardest things I’ve done.

Hardly anyone I knew there could speak English, and I was forced to learn the language to be able to live normally, to take a bus, go to the store, and get schoolwork done, instead of just standing and looking like a stupid foreigner (which at the beginning I was). On the journey over, I had a most unpleasant time in the Moscow airport, one that, for a moment, made me seriously reconsider my choice of country. How can the country’s main international airport have only three people who speak any sort of English? Even getting into Kras (as I affectionately call her) was a little oppressing at first: grey streets, grey skies, grey everything greeted me, and I wondered yet again, why did I come here? Although perhaps in was the fact that it was five in the morning and I’d already been travelling for two days without sleep. Maybe.

My Russian family <3

My host family, whose daughter was going to the U.S. on exchange, was absolutely amazing. I hardly ever felt awkward with them, and my host mom (shout out Светлане <3), treated me just like her own child after the first few weeks. Usually you live with three to four families a year, but I had the luck of staying with one and I couldn’t have been happier. Before she left on her exchange, my host sister showed me all around Kras, and I fell in love with the city: the churches, the river, the architecture (albeit Soviet and dull), the Stolby – everything! I felt like I was exploring a new side not only of the world, but also of myself. What reactions would I have? What experiences would I get to try? What new culture was ready to embrace me?

The main question I got upon my return to Canada a year later was what did I actually do in Kras? When people ask me this I really don’t know what to say other than ‘I lived’. Had a family, went to school, made friends, explored, did athletics, learned Russian, not that different from any year in Canada for me. The main differences were, obviously, that I learned Russian [and can still speak it quite fluently, though it’s gotten worse – oops], I was able to travel across the whole country (from Moscow to Vladivostok, from Lake Baikal to Yakutsk), spent four days on a train, met many new people and other exchange students, jumped off a bridge, and much, much more.

Four days on the Trans-Siberian. Thank heavens for Lonely Planet’s amazing guidebook!

Winter silliness reminiscent of V. I. Surikov’s painting “Taking the snow fortress by storm” (1891)

I just jumped off a bridge…still alive!










Living in Russia forced me to grow up a little faster than normal. It allowed me to become fully independent and gave me freedom within rules (actually, Russia has very few rules, but you didn’t hear that from me. The rules are mainly ‘guidelines’ on how you should comport yourself). I was able to become a more open person while being true to myself through opportunities that took me out of my comfort zone on more than one occasion. For example, I used to get very nervous singing in front of people; however, when the Russians found out I could sing well they at once told me I’d sing in concerts. Again, and again, and again… Similarly, before Russia had I been asked to do a presentation, even just a school one, I would have not been able to do it. I used to get scared, shake, and become really nervous. Now people have to tell me to stop talking and I always go over my time limit! On these occasions, did I have much of a choice in what I was asked to do? Well, yes, but I was always mindful of how that would reflect on Canada, as I was a ‘little ambassador’ for our country, and for many of the people I met during my exchange I was the only foreigner they’d ever seen, let alone Canadian.

The orthodox church by my apartment. Loved this little guy <3

I also learned the culture of ‘the Motherland’ and became a part of it, making relationships that will last for a long time to come with people I’d have otherwise not met. The skills and new things I learned are worth much more than the money I spent to get there. By living in the ‘middle of nowhere’ I was able to get away from the stereotypical Russia and the hustle and bustle of the more industrial and touristy areas of the country and experienced the real Russia – the one you hardly ever see: falling down dachas (cottages), beautifully decorated Orthodox churches, the man on his way home from shopping in the next village over, cows blocking the road for at least ten minutes, the drunks sleeping in the stairwell almost stopping you from getting to school, squishing onto an obviously over-crowded bus to get to the island with the stadium…Siberia is real. There is no front to it all; what you see is what it really is – no tourist traps, no forgeries, and no over-zealous people trying to snag your money. I gained peace of mind from the simplicity of the Russian people and their surroundings and, being in the middle, was given many opportunities to travel with others or by myself into the vast, beauteous landscape of Siberia.

Siberian conqueror looking out over the vast expanse of the Stolby

All in all, my year in Kras was worth far more than money could ever buy. It was everything I’d though and then some. I learned, cried, got mad, celebrated both Canadian and Russian holidays, immersed myself in the rich culture of the hospitable Russian people. Learned a language, made new friends, saw new things, and you know what? Europe can wait. I’d sooner return to my ‘second’ home.

I was told once that “Once you’ve been to Siberia, you can’t not return.” They were right. I’ll undoubtedly go back [indeed, I returned to Kras for New Years and Christmas of 2011/2012].

Who’d have thought the middle of nowhere could be so wonderful?

Preparing to return to Canada, July 2008

Russian reflections – the cupolas atop the cathedral in Chita.

Meanwhile in Russia…your host father goes fishing, so you can’t bathe for a few days.

Cold in Siberia? Nyet! (it was only -40C/-40F)

Lyceum 11, my school for the year

Further pictures from my exchange can be seen on Facebook, here: https://www.facebook.com/jenipher.laughton/media_set?set=a.10150619401995626.681019.528200625&type=3

Or from my return visit 5 years after, here:


Or if you just want pictures of Lenin statues…:


Russian translation (hopefully!) to follow as soon as possible :)


Categories: August 2017 | Leave a comment

From Castle to Castle

Magnet…to convent, church, and cave.

At 25 years old I have become my father (for whom I would have bought this magnet had it not cost an arm and a first-born child; I wouldn’t mind paying the first-born child, but I quite like my arm): I plan my travels based on castles, and other various old historic buildings. Not that that’s a bad thing really, as man have I seen a lot and I’m loving every minute of it! Plus, the views from these places… it’s enough to break your heart and steal your breath away.

When we left off three weeks ago I was worrying over my research project. Thankfully, I have a question now (woot!) but it still took a long while to get there. Namely those three weeks. Especially since my items to be recorded and studied dropped from 15 to around 10, then went up to 20 and a bit, and has now settled around 18 individuals. Easy right? Not quite. Two still don’t exist in pictures or the excavation logs, one is merely a foot (and some other bits), and one might not even be from my time period. I feel my dissertation should just be sorting out who is from the Hospital and who isn’t!

Enough of that, though, and onto the castles! The weekend after my trip out to Évora I took the train from Lisbon out to the absolutely stunning UNESCO heritage town of Sintra, the playing ground of Portugal’s former royalty. And why not flounce around here as a royal? Situated close to the coast, Sintra is nestle in three main built-up areas at the foot of a big mountain with fresh air, beautiful vistas, and the stunning remains of my favourite place in Portugal: the Castelo dos Mouros. Built in the 9th century AD by the Moors, the castle was only taken in 1147 during the reconquest of Portugal from the Moors, led by Afonso Henriques, the to-be king of ‘Portucale’.

While you might now be thinking ‘okay, it’s a castle Jen, I’ve seen many/some/pictures of/no castles – why is this special?’ To which I merely respond with the following picture:

Castelo dos Mouros

Castelo dos Mouros

Yeah. Imagine taking THAT fortress. The path I took from downtown Sintra up to the entrance of the castle was about 1.3km of winding, steep mountainside, with an elevation gain of roughly 420m. I found it hard to progress at a few points, so image climbing to those peaks in full armour… The weather also aided in making this place amazing, in that between bouts of sun and drizzle the fog rolled in over the mountain and the castle’s walls – very haunting and beautiful. Once inside (finally!) the child in me spent the next hour gallivanting along the old walls and loving the fact that there were no barriers; I was trusted to not kill myself. It’s refreshing in our nanny-states of today. The views from both of the towered-peaks of the castle were as breathtaking as the walk up (literally and figuratively!), from the Atlantic all the way to Lisbon visible and stretched out before you. Zakhvativayuwschii. The cistern, reputed to have never run dry, is also a cool (pun!) place to sit with traditional Medieval music playing.

Surviving the climb up to the top tower of the castle.

Surviving the climb up to the top tower of the castle.

The nave of the 14th century Convento do Carmo (roofless since 1755)

The nave of the 14th century Convento do Carmo (roofless since 1755)

Back in Lisbon, this revelry (or nerdiness) in the historical continued as I finally made it to the Convento do Carmo; third time’s the charm! This convent was built in the 14th century in honour of the Portuguese victory at the battle of Aljubarrota (1385) in the ‘War of the Two Johns’. Here, the military and strategic cunning of Nuno Alvares Pereira and his small (6,000) army defeated the larger (30,000!) Spanish force with relative ease (and with the help of 100 English long bowmen). Long story short, Nuno funded the building of the convent, and after his wife’s death he gave up all his titles and fortunes (which was almost half of Portugal!) to live out the rest of his life in the convent; he was made a saint for his piety. The convent is a stunning piece of Gothic architecture, made even more stunning by it’s roofless-ness. The great earthquake of 1755 destroyed the roof of the convent and did some damage to the structure, but the vaulting arches and stone walls stood firm and remain today as a testament of Nuno’s faith (and that of Gothic architecture!) The open-air ruins house a host of carved works, a cat, and the small but very interesting Archaeological Museum of Carmo. I was lucky when I finished in the little museum, as upon returning into to the nave of the convent I was the only person there. Sun shining, birds singing, and a roof open to the sky and the glory of above.

And now for something completely different (but not): the other castle. Friday and Monday were bank holidays in Lisbon in honour of Saint Anthony, so the university was closed. I took advantage of the extra days and made my way north to Porto for the weekend, to explore the city of port and to visit the UNESCO heritage town of Guimarães. I arrived Friday morning, dropped my bag at my hostel, and saw everything in the city I wanted to see. Compared to other cities, Porto is not as tourist-y (explained by the Portuguese saying: “Braga prays, Coimbra studies, Lisbon shows off, and Porto works”) but it still has an amazing array of things to see and do. Among the numerous gorgeous churches that litter the city, the one I found most enjoyable was that of Saint Francis. Beautifully carved with a gold-gilded interior, this 14th century Gothic construction is also home to some 19th century catacombs and an ossuary (which you can see into through a grate in the floor. Yay, bones!). The Catedral do Sé is equally impressive, and the Torre dos Clerigos gives stunning views across the city. I spent the evening wandering around the UNESCO-designated historic waterfront, Ribeira, ate a francezinha (a most fantastic sandwich full of meat meat meat!), and sat by the water’s edge before bed called.

Porto, located on the north side of the Rio Douro

Porto, on the north side of the Rio Douro

Saturday morning dawned far to early (I curse drunk people who fight loudly in the streets at 2am >.<), but I was bright eyed and bushy tailed by the time my train arrived at Guimarães. It was here that Afonso Henriques was born and from whence he began his reconquest of Portucale from the Moors in the 12th century. Guimarães became capital of the fledgling state, and as such the city boasts that “aqui nasceu Portugal” – Portugal was born here. And boast she can! The narrow, medieval, winding streets lead one up through a well-kept and history-laden city up to the Paço dos Duques (the palace and home of the Dukes of Braganza) and to the castle.

Castelo de Guimarães

Castelo de Guimarães

Knitting on the castle walls - you should have seen this coming!

Knitting on the castle walls – you should have seen this coming!

Aqui nasceu Portugal - Portugal was born here.

Aqui nasceu Portugal – Portugal was born here.

The castle was ordered built by Mumadona Dias, a wealthy noblewoman, in the 10th century in order to protect the city and people from the Normans and the Moors. It now stands proudly at the top of the historic centre of the city, with views from it’s corner towers across the surrounding area; it is lovingly decorated in the colours and flag of Afonso Henriques. After my jaunt along the castle walls, I took the cable car to the top of Penha Mountain, the views from which are as stunning and breathtaking as those from the Castelo dos Mouros. While walking around the exterior of the church at the top of Penha (couldn’t go in as a wedding was underway), I was hit in the arm by something. When I looked down I saw a small lizard scurrying away. So, I was hit by a small lizard from on high. Cool beans. Is this where I should have heard a heavenly host?

View of Guimarães, and the Minho region, from atop Penha

My final day in Porto I walked the 8km out along the Rio Douro to reach the lovely sandy beaches of the Atlantic and to see the two castles (well, fortresses, but the word is interchangeable in Portuguese) protecting the coast: Castelo do Queijo (Cheese Fortress) is worth a mention for its fun name cased on the cheese-like rocks upon which it stands. I’d hoped to catch the tram back as it was very hot and a long walk to get there, but public transportation was suspended as I happened upon the running race weekend in honour of Saint John. Cool, but it meant a long walk back. So much exercise…!


Cheese Fortress – named as such do to the rocks below it




So many barrels of port! The Largest barrel Calem caves has can hold over 55,000L of port!

So many barrels of port! The Largest barrel Calem caves has can hold over 55,000L of port!

I had some time before my train back to Lisbon, so I finally made it to one of the port caves to learn about the wine (and have a cheeky little sample). Our tour guide at the Calem Port Caves was fantastic with a delightfully subtle sense of humour (wait, am I discussing a human or a wine?), and the two types of port we got to try were both very nice. I don’t drink, but when I do I enjoy a small glass of port, so a bottle of Calem port will go back to Canada with me in August. I had lovely chats with my co-port-tasters, and in our group of twelve or so and nine of us were Canadian, French- and English-speaking! What are the odds? I’ve met more Canadians in 5 weeks in Portugal than in 3 years in the UK :)


Two of these Canadians, like me, where on their way to Lisbon that afternoon to see the festival of Saint Anthony. We exchanged contact details and later that evening met up in downtown Lisbon to party-it-up with the rest of the city :D The parade was cool, however it was not like parades at home (a bit too slow for us), and around midnight we went our separate ways. I spent the next hour or so (until 1:30am!) walking around Alfama and watching the party; the entire city by now was just one big party. Literally. There were people everywhere: eating from charcoal bbqs, drinking, dancing in the square in front of the Sé, dancing in the main square; even on my walk home, which is normally calm and people-free, was chock-a-bloc with mini-party after mini-party. It was definitely the largest party I’ve ever been to! Luckily I was so tired that I fell asleep immediately, as the music I’m sure was playing until dawn ;)


Images: top from left – festive decorations in Porto; one of the many beaches of Foz do Douro on the Atlantic coast; my newest little friend in Guimarães. Bottom from left – the church of Cedofeita (made early), the oldest Christian building on the Iberian Peninsula supposedly built by King Theodemar in the 6th century AD; graffiti of le Petit Prince near our place in Lisbon; view of the area down river of central Porto.

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Categories: June 2016 | Leave a comment

Sun, Romans, and a Whole Lot of Hills

Two and a half weeks in, and I have to say I’m in love with Lisbon. Maybe I’ll stay here; I mean it rained the entire first week so it’s just like England.

My colleague, S, and I arrived in Lisbon bright and early on a Sunday. We got a taxi to our apartment (and were completely ripped off; a word to the wise don’t trust the taxi driver’s meter – it’s rigged!), and both stood dumbfounded at the bottom of our travessa. As we looked up. As we girded our loins, so to speak. We should have expected it, given the ups and downs we took to get there. But nothing could have prepared us for walking up what felt like the steepest little hill in all Christendom.

The view from our apartment balcony

The view from our apartment balcony

Okay, so I’m exaggerating a tad, but Travessa do Pasteleiro (Lane of the Pastry-maker) sure is a steep little hill! Especially when you’re dragging a 20kg suitcase behind you and low on sleep. Let alone when you then have to then drag it up four flights of narrow stairs. Bem-vindo a Lisboa! We settled into our home for the 5.5 weeks while we’re here then popped out for groceries. Which involved walking up another steep hill; I will have calves of steel by the time we return to the UK!

S and I are here in Portugal to conduct research on some archaeological material excavated from the Praça da Figueira (Square of the Fig Tree) in downtown Lisbon. During archaeological intervention back in 1999-2001, in preparation for the building of underground parking, over 2,000 years of Portuguese history was uncovered: from Romans (3rd – 5th centuries AD), Medieval (5th – 11th centuries AD), and part of the old Islamic quarter (11th – 12th centuries AD), to the Royal Hospital of All-Saints (15th – 18th centuries AD) and the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which raised most of the city to the ground.

The past two weeks have consisted of cleaning bones and walking, and walking and cleaning bones. It’s a long, but nice, fifty-minute walk to the university where S and I have been ‘brushing up’ on some Roman history ;) Conveniently, all my subjects are clean and ready to go but it was decided it would be good for us both to get some practice in cleaning and handling more archaeological material. And I can’t say I’m complaining – I do love dirt! And we’ve now got ourselves some clean Roman friends. In terms of the research aspect of this trip, there have been some ups and downs (lack of research questions, unfinished work, very little archaeological information about the site/material, some of my material being found to be from an earlier time period…), and the odd bit of cultural frustration (ah yes, the concept of time…), but on the whole we’re making some progress in each of our dissertation areas. I believe. I hope…!

Colours of Lisbon

View from in front of the Portuguese Parliament: we pass it daily on our walk into/from uni.

Fields on the way by train to Évora.

Countryside: I captured a farm and its fields from the train on the way to Évora.











So, while the research front may or may not be advancing, the history-nerd front has made great leaps and bounds. While I have yet to make it to the Convento do Carmo (alas, it was closed the day I went!), and have a day trip to Belem in west Lisbon planned for this weekend or the next, the rest of the city is covered. The day after we arrived we were scheduled to meet with our supervisor, who had flown over from Cranfield for the week, but he was only arriving in the afternoon which gave us a morning to explore downtown Lisbon. A quick 15-minute walk along the River Tagus/Tejo got us from our place near Madragoa to the gorgeous open-planned Praça do Comercio, arguably Lisbon’s main, and most impressive, square. From here we walked north and made our way up the beautiful Avenida da Liberdade to what we affectionately have started calling “the big roundabout”, Praça Marquis de Pombal – it’s a roundabout INSIDE a roundabout. Take that, Swindon!

Praça do Comércio

Praça do Comércio

From there, we timed our walk home in order to get a time estimate for walking to the university. Although it’s a 4km walk at most, the hills…add time :) We then walked the whole journey and met our supervisor as well as our secondary, Portuguese, supervisor and her colleagues. After a brief tour of the university and the facilities we had a lovely (albeit slightly awkward) walk with our Cranfield supervisor to the top of Parque Eduardo VII, from which one can marvel at Lisbon as she sprawls out in front of you from horizon to horizon. Not bad for a first ‘official’ day!

View over the city from the top of Parque Eduardo VII.

View over the city from the top of Parque Eduardo VII.

Our first full weekend here S and I toured the downtown core, admiring the Pombaline architecture (after the earthquake, the Marquis of Pombal was given near free-reign over redesigning the city centre which had been worst hit by the ‘quake and resulting fires) and made our way to Alfama. If it’s the only thing you do in Lisbon, a walk around the spiralling, narrow, steep streets of the Alfama neighbourhood is a delight. Sometimes you’ll come upon a tour group from one of the cruise ships, but go in far enough and it’s just you and the streets, which survived the brunt of the 1755 earthquake and thus retain their Medieval layout and haphazard design bursting colours and life.

Colour party in Alfama: a typical street in the old district.

Colour party in Alfama: a typical street in the old district.

The 12th century Catedral do Se

The 12th century Catedral do Se

We also ventured into the Catedral do Se, built in the late 12th century in dedication to the defeat and expulsion of the Moors from Lisbon. With high arches, beautiful stained glass windows, and elegant stone masonry, the Se is probably my favourite church on this continent. We also paid to enter the Cloister, and it was worth every eurocent. Where one would normally expect to find grass, the interior of this cloister contains an archaeological site which has exposed Portuguese history down through the Islamic period and into the Roman city of Olisipo. Not to mention the masterly carved arches, windows, crypts, and tombs scattered around.

On a separate trip to Alfama, we visited the remains of the Roman theatre, exposed during building works in the area, then up up up to the Castelo São Jorge. This Moorish fortress, dating back to the early 12th century, is a focal point of Lisbon as it sits atop the tallest hill in the city and, as our hike up to it only confirmed, was built in a very strategic position making it very hard to attack! The Moors held out for months before finally succumbing to the Christian onslaught and being pushed out of the city, and later out of Portugal entirely. The castle sprawls over a large area, and the main fortress still maintains its walls and towers, and steep-steep steps. If you want a good work-out than you need look no further than a trip to São Jorge.

Downtown Lisboa as seen from the top of Castelo São Jorge.

Downtown Lisboa as seen from the top of Castelo São Jorge.

One of my favourite ‘Portugal moments’ so far, however, comes from my day trip out of the city to the Medieval walled city of Évora, about 150km south east of Lisbon in the Alentejo region. I spent a whole day traversing this amazing place, and it definitely lived up to its UNESCO World Heritage status. The main core of the city is located atop a hill – of course – and is completely surrounded by the Medieval walls. From the Catedral do Se, another fantastically built and decorated cathedral with an equally beautiful cloister – archaeological dig not included, the sprawling streets and beautiful squares, complete with Roman Temple smack dab beside the Se and old Moorish fortress, Évora oozes with history.

2,000 years of Évora's history: the Moorish fortress, the Roman Temple, and the Se.

2,000 years of Évora’s history: the Moorish fortress, the Roman Temple, and the Se.

One of the morbidly decorated columns in the Bone Chapel

One of the morbidly decorated columns in the Bone Chapel

And for the physical anthropologist, one need not look further that the Igreja de São Fransisco, home of the Capelo dos Ossos – the Bone Chapel *swoon*. I probably spent a bit longer there than was healthy, engrossed in trying to sex the skulls lining the pillars and walls; admiring the the sacra and various long bones used in decorating the walls, pillars, and arches; and thinking about where are the phalanges were put. The bones belong to some 5,000 individuals, mostly made up of former monks, but with some from cemeteries dug up centuries ago. The arch above the doorway into the chapel also adds to the grim scene presented to visitors: “Nos ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos.” We bones here for yours are waiting.

Macabre yes but utterly fascinating and, in its own gruesome way, beautiful. On a lighter note, I also spent half an hour just sitting in Largo do Aviz, where I passed the time watching a horde of pigeons…being pigeons. It was oddly interesting and quite relaxing, and gave me the energy in the hot Portuguese sun to complete my own little mission: to find the end of the aqueduct! Along with Roman Temple, Évora also has a Roman aqueduct running into it. The arches within the walls are charmingly integrated into the architecture of the city, with houses built into/under them and cars parked below.


I followed the aqueduct out of town and within a short while was walking along side a field (with sheep!!!!!), with few houses around and a Convent in the near-distance. Where the aqueduct crossed the road I found a sign outlining the entire length of the aqueduct and the greenway running alongside it with information panels scattered across its 8.3km run. Needless to say, I didn’t have time to complete the 16.6km round-trip (alack), but I did follow it the kilometre further to where it disappears underground for a distance. A beautiful walk through the Alentejo countryside which, for me, ended at the Monastery of São Bento (no entry, but still a great thing to look upon). Don’t know how many tourists/travellers know of this path, but it was so lovely, and I know for sure that if I’d had the time I’d have definitely run the whole thing.

The incorporation of the ancient into the new.

The incorporation of the ancient into the new.

Greenway alongside the aqueduct.

Greenway alongside the aqueduct.

Upon returning into Évora, I grabbed myself an ucal (delicious delicious chocolate milk in a bottle) and an ice cream at a little kiosk and sat in the sun. In the presence of the Roman Temple, the Se, and the Moorish fortress, I pondered upon the history and beauty of this quaint city, and soaked in the feeling before catching my train back into Lisbon.

Well, that’s enough of an update for now! I could go on for pages more (one of our Portuguese supervisor’s colleagues has cottoned on to the fact that I can talk for Canada), but will give it a rest until later. It’s a bank holiday tomorrow apparently and I’m all up for letting my legs, and writing hand!, have a well-deserved break (spent the whole day in the lab with the Royal Hospital of All-Saints material writing away and darn it all if my distal 2nd and 3rd metacarpals aren’t hurting) ;)

Boa noite e beijinhos!

The crenelated walls of the Moorish Fortress.

The crenelated walls of the Moorish Fortress.



PS: I still can’t understand spoken Portuguese very well, but I’ve managed to make myself understood, from buying fruit at the market to getting S a new travel card when hers got wet in the rain. Booyeah! :D


Categories: May 2016 | 1 Comment

A Canadian Queen’s Scout

Note: This post was written on September 16th, 2015, but has only been published now as I have received confirmation of completing the QSA.


It. is. done.

I’m 25 today and have added another notch on my belt of awesome.

When I’d first moved to Shipston, I vividly recall my first time passing the Shipston Scout hut and thinking ooooo! Scouts! I’m there. That September, I began as an Assistant Explorer Scout Leader with the 1st Newbold RN Sea Explorer Scouts (i.e. Venturers, but more water-based). A year and a half on, I’ve moved south to Highworth, started my Master’s degree, have learned billions more while being Mistress Marion, spent a week commanding children around a naval base, and above all else, achieved my Queen’s Scout Award (QSA) – the highest honour a young person can achieve in Scouting.


I’d toyed with the idea of completing the QSA for a few years, but on my 24th birthday I was given the appropriate gentle little shove to get on my way, and spent the next 365 days working towards it. The award consists of eighteen nights away; six little themed projects from international, environmental, and values categories; time in Scouting (using my time at Newbold as well as my time with the 96th Ottawa Venturers); a final presentation to sum it all up at the end, and the five QSA challenges.

The QSA Challenges:

1. Service: I love to volunteer, and as such was already volunteering at the Air Ambulance shop in Shipston when I decided to start my QSA. 18 months of customer service, stacking shelves, and turning hangers the right way round and putting them in size-order (an OCD person’s dream!) :) Along with this some of my time spent as  Beaver Leader with the 96th Ottawa Colony was included.


96th Ottawa Beaver Colony

2. Physical: after a bit of time deciding what to do as a new physical activity for a year, I decided upon something I’d already been learning and doing at work – Tudor Dancing! I’ve taught people from many different countries the country dances of an England of olde, and have gone a step further and attended many Contra dancing events (a North American variation on English Country Dance) and Ceilidhs. More recently, I have driven a good 100km to attend a Tudor Dancing Workshop in Oxford (along with the odd spontaneous Tudor Dance Party in my kitchen).

3. Skill: my Sheep-to-Sheep Project. I spent the year (and them some) learning how to process wool, learning all the individual steps in wool and yarn production in order to take my freshly sheared Cotswold sheep fleece and turn it into a plush sheep toy :) Washing, picking, carding, spinning (wheel and spindle), knitting, basic dyeing…as a good young Tudor maid I’ve learned it all! And used it to give informative and real demonstrations to visitors in English, French, and a bit of Spanish. Additionally, I have then been a nerd and taken my knitting to various historical sites in England: the Royal Crescent in Bath, Blenheim Palace near Oxford, and the idyllic Cotswold village of Upper Slaughter.

4. Residential: a 4-night 5-day volunteer project in an unfamiliar environment to you. In May I hustled down to Portsmouth to be a Divisional Officer in charge of a group of children at a week-long Scout camp aboard HMS Bristol, a decommissioned Destroyer used for training purposes at HMS Excellent. (they let a Canuck on their navy command base – woo!) I met some fantastic people, some great kids, and learned to loath ‘Call the hands’ (at half six in the morning after an evening telling kids to get the heck into bed and be quiet). HMS Bristol is like a drug, and unless you’ve experienced it for yourself you just can’t understand what it’s like. That, and I ran a camp-wide silent macarena-off. Win.

HMS Bristol

Some of the surviving leaders after a week of torme- fun. Fun.

5. Expedition: a 3-night 4-day expedition of your choosing. I amassed three fellow scouty-people and we set off on a canoeing exped down the River Avon to the River Severn, taking the route that Tudor sea fish would have taken in the 16th century from Gloucester to a market in Warwickshire. We had two beautiful days, and two miserable rainy days, and even though we had to pull out just shy of our final destination it was a fantastic four days on the water with some good (and not so health and safety approved *cough cough*) stories to tell.

So! I did my presentation last week, had the DC sign and send my forms, and am awaiting a response. Come next St. George’s Day look for me in the parade at Windsor Castle ;)



Categories: September 2015 | Leave a comment

The Summer of ‘Marion’

‘Tis the end of an era.

Okay, it was merely the end of a season, but still. Mary Arden’s Farm has closed its doors to the public for the winter months and I have found myself having to put away my ‘other self’ until the spring. No, I’ve not come down with a dual-personality or anything like that. I mean Mistress Marion, my Tudor alter-ego. Who is this ‘Marion’, I hear you cry? Well, to tell her story one must first venture to England, where we lay our scene, to the home of Master Adam Palmer and his household in Wilmcote, Warwickshire.

Mistress Marion with Jasper Tudor, who was not eaten for Thanksgiving.

Mistress Marion with Jasper Tudor, who was not eaten for Thanksgiving.

The year is 1573. Mistress Marion is 24 and has been in service at Master Palmer’s house for almost 10 years now. Born in 1549 in Sheep-wash Town (Shipston on Stour, where modern-me currently lives) to a merchant father and wool-spinning mother, she is the youngest of 8 children: the elder 7 all being boys. Because of this, she is able to read and write as, being male, many of her brothers went to school and thus were able to teach her how; it was very uncommon for a girl of her status in this period to be able to read, let alone write.

Palmer's Farmhouse, built in the 1560s.

Palmer’s Farmhouse, built in the 1560s.

Master and Mistress Palmer

Master and Mistress Palmer

At the age of 12 Marion left home to go into service as a maid. In the Tudor Period, this was about the best you could hope for as a girl – to be a good maid, then later a good housewife. Going into service was a girl’s ‘school’, and from 12 until she got married she would live, eat, sleep, and work in that household. The Master and Mistress of the house were responsible for the girl’s ‘womanly’ upbringing, moral education, and morality in general – for example, to become pregnant during service was a big disgrace. When a young girl entered service she was a maid -it comes from maiden/head- and when she left service to become a wife, she would cease to be a ‘maid’ and would set up her own household. So, Marion began service with the Palmer’s at 12, and over the next 12 years she learned many housewife skills and farming skills, such as: cow, sheep, and goat milking; butter and cheese making; child rearing; making and baking breads; making pies and processing fruits; cleaning; mending and making; sewing, spinning, felting, and weaving; processing meat and skinning and gutting animals; cooking; gardening and plant lore; and animal welfare and handling, among many other things!

Preparing silks for weaving and braid-making.

Preparing silks for weaving and braid-making.

You can imagine, being a housewife in the Tudor Period wasn’t easy. Along with the things mothers and fathers do today, a Tudor housewife was expected to do all the things I mentioned above, and then some, along with planning up to a YEAR in advance to make sure her family didn’t starve. In 1573 there’s no refrigeration, no processed foods, no electricity, no Loblaws/Tesco. If you wanted to have food during the winter months you had to have prepared it in advance. Meat needed to be salted or smoked and kept in keevers – big wooden barrels; milk was preserved in the forms of cheese and butter; fruits were keep in pies or jams etc., and many vegetables and legumes were dried. By the time winter arrives you’d better be prepared, else by the spring  you may no longer be there…

Now, speaking of food! Tudor food, despite what many people think today, was not too different from our own, however unlike us their weekly menu was rather strict and set out for them. At Master Palmer’s, Marion found that three days of the week weren’t good for her. Being allergic to fish, she most likely wouldn’t have survived past the age of five, as a Tudor household had to eat fish 3 times a week. Friday was a religious fish day, and they ate fish for the Lord did tell them so. However, if you were wealthy enough to pay a dispensation (bribe) to the church, you could have such rare breeds of fish as rabbit-fish, goose-fish, duck-fish, or beaver’s tail-fish: is a beaver’s tail not a fish stuck to a beaver? Do rabbits, like fish, not swim? The very wealthy could even eat venison-fish! (In 500 years not much has changed, has it?)

Mistresses Alice and Marion hard at work chopping vegetables.

Mistresses Alice and Marion hard at work chopping vegetables.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Tudors ate fish because the government told them to eat fish. And not just any fish: it had to be sea-fish. (For those of you not too keen on English geography, Wilmcote and Stratford are as far from the sea as one can get in the UK.) As such, the sea-fish that they were eating was heavily salted or pickled, and we have written evidence that they knew it as “stinking stock fish”. While the fish was vile, the reasons behind it were very clever. Under Henry VIII, England had the world’s best navy; he also nearly bankrupt the country paying for it. So when Elizabeth took the throne she cut back the navy and made her subjects eat sea fish. If the populace was buying sea fish then fishermen had a job and were out fishing. These were men who knew the waters, knew how to sail, had their own boats, and were in effect a “home guard”. If the Spanish were ever silly enough to invade England, these fishermen and their boats could be conscripted into the navy to help protect the nation. And instead of being heavily taxed – never a popular decision – the English just had to eat sea fish.

Roasting pork on an open fire for a traditional Sunday roast.

Roasting pork on an open fire for a traditional Sunday roast.

In a household like Master Palmer’s, a yeoman farmhouse – he owned the land he farmed – Marion would expect meat 2-3 times a week. Thursdays and Sundays were typically roast meat days, with Monday as a ‘leftovers’ day. This makes sense, as on Wednesdays and Saturdays there was a large market in Stratford where you could buy fresh meat for the following day. Even today, the English love their Sunday roast; a hallmark from Tudor times. Tuesday was a simple, fasting day, were you might have a more vegetarian-like meal, such as frumenty (a pearl barley risotto), a quelquechose (omelette), or cheese and onion chewits (pasties deep fried in lard.) Mmmmmm.

It is important to note, however, that for the poor every day might be a fish or vegetable day. If you were very poor your diet consisted many of pottage (a stew-like soup), root vegetables, and bread and ale. For the very wealthy, the diet was meat meat meat, sugar sugar sugar. I’m sure we’ve all seen portraits of Henry VIII? 6 foot tall and 6 foot wide? They regarded vegetables as ‘peasant’ and demonic food, as vegetables were cheap and many of them grow down towards hell. The middle class, like the Palmer’s and Marion’s own family, had a varied diet with a decent ratio of meat to vegetables, and they were wealthy enough to afford sugar and spices.

In the Palmer household Marion would get three meals a day. Breakfast was an hour after the sun rose, and could be anything from porridge to bacon with toast and eggs! Supper was the evening meal, a small affair of some cold cuts of meat and cheese, maybe some pottage before bed. The main meal was dinner, and it was taken in the middle of the day. Because the Tudors lived by the sun, the middle of the day could be at 11am, or it could be at 2pm, depending on the time of the year. Dinner was the main meal as having perhaps woken up and started work at 5am, you needed the energy and rest by then. Similarly, for the Tudors the sun always rose at 6am and always set at 6pm, regardless of the time of year: so a “summer hour” might be 2 of our hours, and a “winter hour” maybe 40 minutes.

Day labourers and household alike ate dinner together in the house.

Day labourers and household alike ate dinner together in the house.

As well, on any given day Master Palmer may have hired 5-25 day labourers to work for him on the farm. They were invited into the home and to this meal as part of their daily wage. Not only did it help to pay them and give them energy, but it also allowed the Master to find out how work was going. The dinner was had at a board – not a table, but a board on trestles – and the meal was in essence a board meeting: the Master, at the Head of the Board, sat on a chair and was the ‘Chairman of the Board’.

Tudor women in madder-dyed clothes.

Tudor women in madder-dyed clothes.

Now back to Marion, and the more social aspect of Tudor life. This is were in some cases history disappears and we have only speculation as to how people were. Marion would get up an hour after sunrise and begin her maidly duties; sometimes in the kitchen, sometimes in the house, sometimes out on the farm. She would have her three meals, then go to bed with the other half-dozen maids, AND the daughters of the house, when the sun set. Her daily clothing consisted of a shift (a nightie), a kirtle (an over-dress), an apron, a partlet, and a coif (like a bonnet). Hair had to be covered at all times, even while sleeping, and a woman’s ears especially had to be covered! They believed that the devil sits on your left shoulder and, among other things, whispers into your ear and tells you to do bad things. Women are more likely to listen to the devil; case in point Eve in the Garden of Eden. Men never had to cover their ears as, lets face it, they don’t listen to anyone! Marion’s kirtle was died with madder, a root plant, that gives cloth a reddish-orange colour. Madder and wode (blue) were the colours of service as they were the cheaper dyes and associated with the working/maidly class. This is something that carried on into the modern era in the form of blue jeans/coveralls, and is where the term “blue collar” has its origins.

May Day celebrations on the farm - dancing a Selanger's Round around the May Pole.

May Day celebrations on the farm – dancing a Selanger’s Round around the May Pole.

Every year what Marion looks forward to most is May Day: the one day a year when young maids could ‘let their hair down’ (but, their head had to be bedecked with a garland of flowers) and have fun and frolic and dance around the May Pole – and even talk and dance with boys! As the majority of the work was gender-based, men and women were often segregated by their daily tasks, and young maids especially would be kept away from boys to ensure their morality and purity.

It was during May Day, 1573, that her eyes fell upon Master Thomas, the local blacksmith. Their courtship was short and towards the end of May they were wed. At 24, Marion was at a good and proper age to marry; anything younger was a bit off the mark. She was very excited to be married. She spent hours preparing and making the perfect braid for the ceremony. I’m sure we’ve all heard the expression “to tie the knot”? For the Tudors, a wedding ceremony was usually held outside and was called a hand-fasting: during the ceremony the couple’s hands would be tied with a braid and they would be ‘hand-fasted’ as man and wife.

Marion, with her sponsors, all ready to be wed!

Marion, with her sponsors, all ready to be wed!

On her wedding day, Marion spent the morning preparing and getting dressed, then when ready she and her sponsor were collected by a piper and led into the barn (modern note: Tom and I ‘married’ twice that weekend, and it rained the first time) for the ceremony. After breaking with the past by filling a pot with past sins and smashing it on the ground, they said their vows, offered each other a token of how they would provide for each other, then Master Tom gave Marion a ring – for the poor, a braid was the only token, for the wealthy, braids and rings were used. Lastly, they had their hands tied, were blessed, then jumped over a bonfire to symbolize courage in the marriage – as one does. Dancing and a feast followed. As far as society was concerned, a hand-fasting was a legal wedding, and the couple were married.

Marion and Tom at their Hand-Fasting, May 1573.

Marion and Tom at their Hand-Fasting, May 1573.

From that day the man and woman had a year and a day to call it off and have the ‘divorce’ be socially accepted. This gave the woman the chance to get out of an abusive relationship or one in which her husband couldn’t truly support her. For a man it gave him an out from an abusive wife, or one who could not cook/clean etc. The real reason, however, for the year and a day was so that the couple could try to conceive and have a child, and if not, then the man could find a new wife (even if he was at fault and she not barren!). Luckily, this aspect of marriage has not continued into the modern era, unlike many of the other aspects of the Tudor ceremony!

Once married, Marion would have left Master Palmer’s household and, with Tom, would have set up her own home and eventually had children. Child birth was the #1 killer of women, followed by fire deaths, so it’s no wonder actually that many women decided, instead of marrying, to stay in service and become “old maids”. It meant you didn’t have to pay people to work for you or your house, you didn’t have to go through childbirth, and you had a place to sleep, food to eat, a new set of clothes every year, and a set yearly wage – 10 shillings a year! It was a very cushy job.

The Tudor maids of Palmer's Farm (and one Master Charles!)

The Tudors of Palmer’s Farm.

So, while Marion did get married, it only really lasted two days before things went back to normal and she continued to stay in service. There, she continued her studies of spinning and cooking and looked forward to what the future held in store for her. God willing, Marion will return next year to continue her life: scaring people at All Hallow’s, painting maple leaves on sheep for a festival that hasn’t yet occurred, and dressing Master Tom in a coif; and I very much look forward to the things we’ll learn together and the shenanigans we can get up to again.

Having fun at All Hallows Eve :)

Having fun at All Hallows Eve :)

Happy Canada Day!

Happy Canada Day!

(Photos courtesy of Shashika Poopalasingham).

Categories: December 2014 | 2 Comments

Falling for Fell Running

It seems that I have started a trend of doing something out of the ordinary around theEagles - Cheshunt 4 time of my birthday – i.e. mid-September. Last year,in the process of moving to the UK, I spent a week galavanting around Iceland. This year, I opted for a home-grown option and spent a weekend galavanting around the Isle of Wight.

And by galavanting, I actually meant running…

Some quick back-story: while I was living in London I joined the Ealing Eagles Running Club, and participated in cross-country, my first half-marathons, and many other fun and running-y things. So, when a few months back one of my fellow Eagles suggested a 2-day 3-race weekend away running up and down hills on an island how could I say no?

I took the train down from Stratford to London last Friday and stayed over with Jenn – an Edmonton native. The next morning, having woken up at the crack of dawn, we met Ruth and made our way to Portsmouth from where we caught the ferry to the beutiful Isle of Wight. Upon arrival we drove to Ventnor, the location for our fell-running madness, and having arrived many hours earlier than expected we had a gander around and took in the hills. And boy were they steep!

IMG_6273Race 1: Saturday morning, 3.8km, 245m of elevation. We registered, got ready, and made our way down to the beach for the first of the three races that weekend, which was to include a 2km jaunt up, then 1.8km down, a very steep climb. Up to a point, I continued with my running, but eventually had to give up and walk when I realized I would go faster! Luckily, everyone else was walking at this point, too. Fell running, it turns out, is a cross between cross-country and hiking – fantastic mix! Just very, very tiring. Upon completion of the first race we raced down to the each and got our legs in the sea water asap! Nothing better to help relax ones legs than a cold water dip. we had lunch, walked around Ventnor some more, then braced ourselves for Race 2.

Race 2: Saturday afternoon, 12km, 443m of elevation. We returned to the beach, theIMG_6345

start for all three races, and had pre-race chats with the other runners: for friendliness (many runners were surprised that our aerie of eagles was only three-strong) and for tips about the course, as we’d been told many times that this race was the hardest of the three! We began by running up the same steep beginning as race 1, but instead of going up the right-hand hill, we went up the left-hand hill: no less steep! Ruth told me after the race that our first 1.6km took almost 20 minutes to complete! I could have almost walked it faster. At the top we ran along a ridge-way before descending into a forest and later on through fields, paths, hedgerows, and more hills.


For the first 8km I was loving it: beautiful views, fun paths, my legs were still feeling okay, and overall it was just lovely to run for the sake and love of running. Okay, my ankle had started hurting and I could feel a few aches here and there, but it wasn’t until the final few clicks that my body started letting me know it wasn’t too happy. Especially after the one steep climb with, as Ruth had counted, roughly 120 steps. Straight. Up. thank heavens for the railing, sweaty as it was by the time I got to it! By the time I got to the top of another ridge-way by right hip joint began to give out and my calves decided to go on holiday. By the time I got to the final descent (the same, steep, 1.8km downhill finish for all three races) I could hardly walk, let alone run, but managed to make it to the finish tears and all; thanks a million to Ruth for getting me across!

Don’t pity me, by the way, I brought it upon myself for not training enough beforehand! Bad idea to not train or barely run then go out and run hard-core. Bad idea. After we’d all finished we returned to the beach and straight away jumped on in to the welcoming waves. What a relief for sore and tired legs! After a sufficient swim we piled back into the car and made our way to our campsite. Once the tents were set up and we’d gotten ourselves clean we went off to a local pub for a well-earned and well-deserved meal! You can bet we slept well that night


Race 3: Sunday morning, 20km. We got up, packed, and headed off for the final race of the weekend. I bailed on this one; I’m not a fan of half-marathons at the best of times, let alone after having raced twice previously and on steep and hilly ground! I watched Jenn and Ruth set off, then went for a hike for picture-taking instead. I retraced our steps from the previous day and started by hiking up the starting hill of Race 2. Much easier to hike up than run, let me tell you! However, at my slower not-race-pace I was able to stop and eat the blackberries :)


At the top I had a breather and marveled at the sight: the town of Wroxall and the surrounding hills and countryside (see above). It was as breathtaking, as it had been while running (forgive the pun). I finished my wander by hiking down the steep slope that was the finishing hill and was soon thereafter passed by the first runner – I hadn’t expected them to finish so fast! The first woman finished in 1h30, setting a new course record. Holy mackerel…!IMG_6406

IMG_6389At the end there was much rejoicing for having survived the weekend, and after a final swim in the cold sea we showered and got ready for the awards ceremony. Congrats to Jenn, who was third in her age category for the weekend. Woot woot! We returned to the car and made our way back to the ferry, enjoying some coffees and a birthday muffin to celebrate the end of a fantastic weekend of fell running. A Titanic moment was had, a running-stalker moment too, and the first of many, many, groans about sore legs and the inability to move!

And thus ended my out-of-the-ordinary event for 2014. I’m really tempted to do it again, to be back on the slopes of Ventnor and complete all three races, but we’ll see. My MSc might get in the way; maybe that’ll be next year’s? ;)



Categories: September 2014 | 2 Comments

I’m a Hobbit! (No, a Viking?) – encounters with the Icelandic Pony

Hobbit *cough* Icelandic Horses

Hobbit *cough* Icelandic Horses

I awoke bright and early Saturday morning and went across the road to the hotel to await my pick-up. I’d booked a full-day horse-riding trip and was more than ecstatic about being able to go horse-riding again. I’m not sure what was more exciting – the prospect of riding through the Icelandic/volcanic countryside, or the prospect of riding the Icelandic Horse (actually called the Icelandic Pony, but you definitely do not say that to an Icelander’s face! They’re very proud of their ponies…er, horses). The Icelandic Horse is a stout breed, and is one of the only horses in the world with five gaits (instead of the common four – walk, trot, canter, gallop). This fifth gait is called the tolt, and is supposedly so smooth you could drink a beer and not spill a drop. Intriguing…if I drank beer that is. As well, for those of you who have seen the Hobbit or LOTR – the horses that are ridden by the Hobbits are all Icelandic Horses.

Cracked LavaI arrived at Ishestar (hestar being the word for horse in Icelandic), signed in with the other people, then we all watched a “how to not kill yourself on a horse” video before getting suited up and ready to ride. My tour was an ‘introductory’ ride through the (hardened) lava fields, getting used to the horse and the tolt, followed by a lunch and then a 3-4 hour ride around an extinct volcano (“forging a small river”). The first part was alright. Being an experienced rider, it was constricting to be stuck in a group of tourists, many of whom had never set foot near a horse in their lives (yes, I’m aware that I was a tourist, but I was there to ride, not to marvel at lava rocks and say I’d been on a horse – so shoot me). Despite the slow pace and the “stay in a line!” squished position, it was rather enjoyable, and Brille was stubborn and kept wanting out of the line and to go faster, so it kept me occupied and on my toes. The scenery was fantastic and I got used to the tolt – not as smooth as I had been led to believe, however when I actually got the position right I could see the appeal of the softness of it. I prefer posting trot, myself. During that hour and a half it rained a total of roughly four times (on and off, of course.)

Mt. Helgafell, the extinct volcano

Mt. Helgafell, the extinct volcano

Forging a mighty river!

Forging a mighty river!

We returned, I parted with lovely Brille, and went inside to get my lunch – and ended up having two! I was meant to get a ‘home cooked meal’ lunch, but was given a bagged lunch. I was a tad disappointed, but it was good anyway. After I’d finished the office guy came by and saw my bag and looked at me oddly, spoke to the bar-woman, then invited me to have some soup and bread. Ah, so I was given the wrong lunch. It was a delicious mix of stew and soup, with chicken and tomato. Finally, an Icelandic typical food that didn’t involve fish! After lunch I met with my guide, found out I was the only one booked for my tour (sweet!) and we geared up and headed out – this time I was with Filkyr.

The gods must have been on my side this time, as it only rained the final half hour of the trip, and the weather stayed relatively nice and sunny for us. Definitely my best three hours in Iceland (well, almost)! We headed through the lava fields again, made our way down a road (with cars), forged a small river (and nearly got my feet soaked as the water lapped at my soles) then dismounted to go around the gate and into the park. For miles and miles around there was nothing but the extinct volcano (long since eroded down to a respectable hill) and rock/lava/pumice. With the occasional splatter of green or red flowers here and there, and trees closer to the hill. A few rocks were carved with faces, and I imagined to myself that there were little trolls, faeries, elves and what have you hiding and watching us from behind the non-carved ones. Icelanders believe that lava fields are home to ‘little people’, invisible spirits and creatures of myth and I’m quite happy to go along with them and believe it myself. I mean, this landscape is supernatural to being with, so why not add some mythological elements to it?

The Viking and her faithful steed, Filkyr!

The Viking and her faithful steed, Filkyr!

The best part of that ride was our gallop. Let it be known that I had never galloped on a horse before, and when my guide called back “Ready to gallop?” and took off I was glad Filkyr readily responded and we took off through. Lost my stirrup a few times as I got used to the speed and the movement, much to the dismay of my ankle, and held on for dear life (a throw from a horse in this terrain and you’re looking at very serious injuries) until I gained control and was able to revel in the joy of it – and get addicted to the speed, the power, the wind and the freedom. It was sad to return to canter, then trot, but we managed in a few more before heading home. A day very well spent, despite the bruised and unhappy ankle and the sore legs. Especially when, missing my ride back (no one had told me the bus was there, and the guy from before came out, saw me, and “What are you doing here?”) I had to be driven back to Reykjavik by a stable worker who was going near where I needed – a lovely young Icelander with whom I had a long and interesting chat about her country, my country, the school system, and jobs/living in Iceland. That night I had a shared dinner with a fellow traveller at my very-odd-but-now-home-ish place, before packing up all my things and getting everything set up for my final day in Iceland. I attempted to get some sleep and awoke too early on Sunday.


My art-studio-frat-house CS home in Reykjavik

My art-studio-frat-house CS home in Reykjavik

Beaches, Vikings, and Rain

Castle Canada on Nautholsvik Beach

Castle Canada on Nautholsvik Beach

When I woke up it was thankfully not raining, but wasn’t sunny either. I ate, gathered my things (rucksack, broken suitcase, backpack, and hat) and headed to Hlemmur Bus Station for the last time. Unfortunately for me, it was Sunday, and I’d not taken into account that the public buses wouldn’t be working until too late for me – oops. Instead I had to haul my 50kg of stuff 3km across Reykjavik to get to BSI. It took a lot of effort, and strain on my ankle and my arms, but I made it! Got a locker, bought my Flybus ticket for later, and headed on over to the SAGA Museum, which is located in a strange building on a hill – the Perlan. I got there before it opened so decided to head on down to Nautholsvik Beach at the base of the hill. Yes you read correctly. A beach. Until September 1st it’s even heated! Alas, not on September 15th. I made my way downhill a few km through forest and emerged almost at the shore. This beach is special, not just for it’s heated waters in the summer, but also because its golden sand was imported from Morocco. I just had to make a sandcastle as I played in the sand and freezing cold water before heading back up to the museum.

One of the SAGA models

One of the SAGA models

A tad expensive, and smaller than I’d expected, the SAGA museum is still an interesting little place, mostly for it’s life size, completely accurate models. These silicon (plaster, plastic?) models were made from casts of real people in Reykjavik, and are ridiculously life-like. So much that at the end of the exhibit there’s a place to sit and watch the making of the museum. I put myself down a few chairs away from a male visitor, and it wasn’t until half-way through the video that I realized that guy beside me wasn’t real! A model made of the museum director sits and watches the film with you – I’d been sending him furtive glances for a while, trying to decide if he was real or not without being rude. Gave me quite a start to figure out he was fake! Backing up a bit, the museum takes you through the history of Iceland in various dated scenes, from the Irish monks and first landing of Vikings (around the 870s AD – remember the longhouse museum?), to the Viking’s forays into Eastern Canada (then Markland, Vinland, and Helluland), to the burning of witches in the medieval period and on to today.

View of the mountains across from Reykjavik

View of the mountains across from Reykjavik

After this little history lesson, I spent some time on the Perlan’s observation deck, taking in Reykjavik one last time, and noticed for the first time that there were snow-capped mountains on the other side of the city – What?! It had been so dank and rainy the whole time that I had never seen them for the fog! Beautiful. I bought an Icelandic-made yoghurt at a gas station (I was short 10 IK but the guy let me buy it anyway – awww, takk!) and made my way back to BSI before busing back to KEF, checking in, and awaiting my flight.

Do I have to leave...?

Do I have to leave…?

As always, I was sad to be leaving, though not just because I hate leaving from trips, but because like Zimbabwe and Peru before her Iceland had grabbed hold of part of my heart, and I know I’ll have to return to get it back. There were so many things I didn’t get to see, so many things I still wanted to do – from the thrilling 4-day Laugevegurinn Hike (through glaciers and volcano lands) and driving round the entire island and the Westfjords, to doing a horse-riding trip to help farmers round up their sheep (yes – this is actually something you can do!) to climbing Mt. Hekla – a gruelling 4-5 hour hike up an active volcano spewing ash. I’d better start saving now, eh?

Categories: September 2013 | Leave a comment

It’s like Canada, but different! A Southern Iceland Escapade

Leaving Reykjavik

Leaving Reykjavik

Note: foss = waterfall in Icelandic, and jökull = glacier

Thursday morning I awoke bright and early, grabbed my bags (and hid well the ones I was leaving at my place) and made my way to the hostel to meet up with Dave and Stephan. Packed into his 4-wheel drive monster the three of us set off on our 2-day Southern Iceland Escapade. I never knew how much fun traveling with random people could be before now. I was a tad nervous at the start (what with being on my own with two guys I had never met and knew almost nothing about) but it soon melted away as we found ourselves getting along famously – and for the duration of the trip I became known (affectionately or jokingly, I’ll never know) as our ‘human travel guide/GPS’ with my quick answers to any question either of them had (I had the guidebook, and made a point to read aloud any cool/strange/important/funny/what-the-hell? information I could find about our destinations and other parts of Iceland in general). I even made a better GPS than the actual GPS! (Thank you, Lonely Planet).

Hot Pools in Hveragerdi

Hot Pools in Hveragerdi

We hit Highway 1 (the main highway around the island – the only one, really, opened fully in the 1970s) and made our way out of Reykjavik and through miles and miles of lava fields, stunning mountain scenery, and rain. Our first stop was in the tiny village of Hveragerði . Here we found ourselves a geothermal area, took silly pictures, and debated buying eggs to cook in the boiling water. They were expensive, so we pressed on – promising to return the next day to find the ‘hot river’. I’ll explain later. Next stop: Seljandsfoss – the waterfall you can walk behind. If we weren’t wet before we definitely were now! But it was totally worth it; I’ve never been behind one before. Afterward, we put our 4 wheel drive to the test and got Dave to go up a very steep mountain gravel path as far as we could (before we came to the conclusion that yes, it was a private road, oops…). Before turning back we had fun ‘bouncing’ on the moss and reveling in the beauty of the landscape. It’s amazing.

In the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull

In the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull

Our next stop (Dave had a list of places he wanted to go to, but was keen to stop whenever Stephan or I saw something, or when I alerted them that the guidebook wanted us to stop) was an outdoor pool. It had been raining all day and was really windy, and I couldn’t understand why we were going to stop there. Regardless, we piled out of the car, bathing suits and towels in hand, and hiked the few kilometers to the pool. And I understood why we were there.

Iceland's oldest geothermal pool

Iceland’s oldest geothermal pool

Nestled at the base of the mountains supporting the Eyjafyallajökull Glacier, and surrounding by vast beauty of the volcanic terrain, was Iceland’s oldest geothermal swimming pool. It was only around 15x10m, with a sketchy changing area, but it was warm and the location was to die for! The best part of this whole stop was that it hailed on us. While we were still in the pool. Yes, I did say hail. Stephan and I huddled together behind a rock and managed to be perfectly safe from the ice balls as the warm water kept us from freezing. Day made.

MyrdaljokullTeam CouchSurf!Dried off and ready to go we got back to the car (just before the heavens really let loose) and continued on our merry way to a spot I’d found in the guidebook – one of the many glacial tongues of the Mýrdalsjökullglacier. The road to it was also a gravel nightmare, but it was well worth the risk as we frolicked about the ice and snow and dirt at the foot of Mýrdalsjökull. And I licked it (what can I say, I couldn’t help myself!) After some silly ‘Team Canada’ and ‘team CouchSurf’ pictures we hiked back to the car and kept going. The day really was a stop and start of various things, but it’s definitely the best way to get to know Iceland. And even the long drive between sites was amazing, with landscape so beautiful and desolate (and sheep-pocked) it could make you cry. It also looks so freakishly like Canada that I could almost pretend I was home and not on a tiny volcanic island in the North Atlantic. Almost. Shortly thereafter we popped in quickly to Skógafoss, another lovely waterfall with dazzling rainbows and an equally dazzling view from the top (for which there is a path to climb up – it only has 483 stairs [yes, I counted them all]).

The exquisit rainbow-fire Skogafoss

The exquisit rainbow-fire Skogafoss

Dyrholaey landscape

Dyrholaey landscape

Our next destination was the site of Dyrhólaey, just outside of the city of Vík í Mýrdal . The fascination with tourists for this spot is, breathtakingly amazing views ignored, are the white waves crashing onto black-sand beaches. The contrast is astounding to see, and it’s no wonder that many people stop here on trips around the island. I’ve never seen black sand before (let alone volcano-created black sand) and packed myself a nice little baggy full of the stuff for my sand collection. We admired the views – inland towards mountains of volcanoes, glaciers, and snow, and out over the ocean – and played around the beach caves before carrying on.

Black beaches of Vik y MyrdalGlaciersThe next few hours were spent in a sort of reverie – nothing much was said save my occasional reading of the guide book – watching the vast stretch of flat, volcanic tuft land fly by us…and the occasional group of sheep stopping us as they crossed the road. This reminded me of the Prairies, only darker in colour and with glaciers in the distance. We passed Skaftafell National Park (a small section of Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull), oh-ing and ah-ing over the glacial tongues making their lazy path down the mountains, and the waifs of waterfalls cascading delicately over the same mountains.

 Finally, after what felt like hours of driving, we arrived at our main destination: Jökulsárlón, the “Iceberg Lagoon”. Here is wear a tongue of the Vatnajökull Glacier meets with a small lagoon and loses chunks of herself to the icy waters. From there, these baby icebergs are either stranded on the beaches around the lagoon, or managed to make their way out to the Atlantic to then, I don’t know, sink unsinkable ships and whatever it is they do for fun. With the sun setting the colours of the icebergs ranged from light pinks to dark blues as the remaining sunlight flit across the lagoon, and it was one of the most magical things I have ever seen. Ice-licking and ice-sword battles between the three of us ensued. Of course. Once the awe had settled, we turned around and began a long drive back to civilization of sorts to find a place to hunker down for the night. We managed to find a farmhouse with sleeping bag berths, and I had my first good night of sleep in ages. I fell asleep contemplating the new things I’d seen and experience, and marveling on how we’d managed to drive around a third of Iceland. Not bad for one day!

Jokulsarlon - the Iceberg Lagoon

Jokulsarlon – the Iceberg Lagoon

Eyjafjallajökull - that volcano from 2010

Eyjafjallajökull – that volcano from 2010

We awoke too early for my liking the next day, had breakfast, chatted with and payed our friendly farmer friend, then attempted to not hit his sheep as we began the second phase of our escapade: “The Golden Circle” (or, as I like to think, “the cheesy tourist loop”). On the way back we saw some of the same places we’d gone by already, before turning North instead of continuing West to Reykjavik. The Golden Circle, touristy as it is, really embodies a lot of Iceland, and is advised if you’ve only a few days in the country. And, cliché as it was, it was amazing all the same. First stop – Geysir, the world’s (second) largest geyser. While it hardly goes off anymore (something about people in the past clogging it up by throwing rocks in it to make it burst) the little geyser beside it is punctual and cheeky – spraying tourists with a blast of boiling water into the sky.

Beautiful Gullfoss

Beautiful Gullfoss

 Second stop: Gullfoss, an absolutely beautiful (in the sunlight, that is) waterfall. It’s impressive in the rain, too, but when the sun comes out it unleashes a fury of rainbows all around, making it a truly awe-inspiring site. Leaving the wet and spray, we made our way over to our third stop: Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, home of Iceland’s (and Europe’s) oldest parliament (AlÞing) . On the way we were delighted to watch more waterfalls and glaciers go by, and snickered at the smoke and rotten-egg smell emanating from the land itself (geothermal energy is great! It just smells bad.). We also stopped at a hot lake and dipped fingers in to see if it was ‘hot’. Yes, yes it was. Some parts were cool, like a normal lake. Unfortunately my spot was scalding, and I almost burnt myself in that lake. It’s so mind-boggling to feel a lake being not cold, but hot. It just goes against your every instinct!

No Swimming

Getting to the geysirs

View from ThingvellirWe made it to Þingvellir and although we didn’t spend as much time there as I would have liked, it was still well worth it. We parked and made our way to a lookout, from where one can see the place where the North American and European tectonic plates are moving apart (at a rate, supposedly, of 2.5cm/year). The area is awash with igneous rock and volcanic leftovers, and to the north one can see a snow-capped dormant volcano; to the south the lake which is fed by the melting ice from said dormant volcano. The views are sweeping and spectacular, and it was all I could do to tear myself away from the beauty of it all.

 Having completed the Golden Circle we made our way back to Reykjavik, but not before one final (awesome!) stop. We returned to the first village we’d stopped at and made our way to a deserted parking lot at the foothills outside of town. Then, swimsuits in hand, we made a near vertical then flat ascent for 3.5km to reach something I had never seen in my life and didn’t even know existed (and threw my brain for a loop or five). We hiked those 3.5km in order to relax in a natural ‘hot tub’ in the ‘hot river’. Basically the hot lake, but in river form. Still a kilometer away we could smell it (rotten eggs, woo!) and see billows of smoke rising from bubbling and boiling water ‘pots’ on either side of the path. It was muddy-slippery too, and I was quite terrified about slipping into one…I did step up to my knee in mud at one point, having thought it was solid ground, and kept my wits about me.


The PathIt was more than well worth it. The pouring rain and freezing wind had subsided enough to make it pleasant enough for us to change, surrounded by nothing but mountain and grass and steam, and hop on into one of the natural little tubs in the river itself. Gorgeous. The three of us spent a good hour in the warm water, talking, reminiscing, joking, and laughing about how we were, in essence, in our skivvies in a river outside in the freezing cold wind and rain yet blissfully warm and content. It really is such a weird sensation! We managed to time our exit from the river perfectly, as once we’d changed back into our gear it began to pour rain again. This would have been fine, except that the rain was colder than before, and cold rain/wind on hot water = lots of steam. We were very slow going until we left the boiling water fields and made our way quickly down the mountain thereafter, with no problems but freezing cold hands and wet hair and shoes.

To the end of a successful trip!

To the end of a successful trip!

We got back to Reykjavik and, having ignored our stomachs for most of the day, had dinner together in at a pretty authentic Thai restaurant, only with striking blondes instead of small brunettes as it the norm in Canada, at least. After we returned to the boys’ hostel and swapped photos, contact details, chatted more (and with other travelers in the room) before Dave took me back to my frat-house-art-studio-couch-place. I was a little sad to see him drive off, but ended up having a good end to my evening talking to a couple other travelers there who had done similar ’round-the-island’ trips like mine. I warmed up to being there again and enjoyed the company of the rag-tag group of people sharing the space with me, before getting to bed before another full day out adventure.

Caution: Rainbows! The gravel road to Myrdaljokull

Caution: Rainbows! The gravel road to Myrdaljokull

The 'prairies' of Iceland

The ‘prairies’ of Iceland

The little geysir

The little geysir


Categories: September 2013 | 1 Comment

If you don’t like the weather…

I'm a Viking!

…Vikings will attack you! Just kidding. “If you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes” – at least, that’s what the common Icelandic expression says. And in a way, it has so far been true. I arrived into Iceland’s Keflavic International Airport (KEF) at a lovely 6:30 am. Early as it was, I was treated to a nice sunrise as we landed, and later on the same sunrise on the bus into Reykjavik, the capital city. However, the closer we got to the city, the less of the sun I was able to see. Within an hour of landing the small strip of clear sky had vanished and was replaced with grey. Grey grey grey grey dull. And rain. Lots of rain.

Lava Fields near KEFNeedless to say, the weather didn’t make me feel too happy about having arrived to this tiny island nation, with a population of roughly 320,000 people, 2/3 of whom live in Reykjavik. But as I got my bags and made my way to the flybus (the airport to city-centre bus) my mood lifted slightly. Then slightly more as the driver announced our route the following notice; “an hour to reach the city…during this we will be passing through the lava fields…” Oh my word. Those lava fields, which I’m sure pale in comparison to the ones in other parts of the country (like say at good ’ol Eyjafyallajökull – which I can now pronounce), were my first glimpse at Iceland and already by 7:30 am my breath had been taken away.

And then returned. I got into Reykjavik, to the main bus station (BSI) and caught a local bus to a smaller bus station (Hlemmur) where from I walked to the address of my couchsurfing. No one was there. I went to the hotel across the street and was able to call my person, who was busy, and I sat there for an hour or so. Called back, and was told to get the key from under some pavement stones and to let myself in. Eh? Turns out my place of staying is not at all what I expected. I knew I wasn’t staying with the person, but they’d mentioned a small flat they had that I’d be able to use. This ‘flat’ was more a hodge-podge of boxes of stuff, flipped up couches, and looked more like a run-down/abandoned store/frat house than an apartment! The window’s I’d walked by earlier, thinking they belonged to a shop that was opening or closing (and was a mess, I might add) are the windows into which people would be able to see me sleep on my chosen couch! I was not too happy about this. The place also had other people already there (a guy with a room made by tarps, a girl on a mattress, and apparently two “eccentric guys” upstairs. But someone lived there, as the well set-up video game system told me. I decided almost immediately I was going to try to find somewhere else to stay for a few nights, but I figured hey, I’m always going on about how “off the beaten track” and “weird/make-do/spontaneous” I am. Challenge accepted. I had a short nap, and when I woke up I felt slightly better about the living situation. That, and a granola bar, gave me enough energy to brave the rain and make my way downtown to start the whole tourist thing.

It rained the entire day I was out (from 11am-5pm) and only now as a type (at 5:30pm) do I finally see the sun! And blue skies! I kid you not 10 minutes ago it was a downpour. As well, Reykjavik (and I guess all of Iceland) has ridiculous wind. As I was talking to the guide at a museum I went to he politely informed me that what I called “really windy” was “merely a breeze. This is not windy.” So, the winds that morning that had near pushed my feet out from under me a few times were a mere breeze. Welcome to the beginning of winter in Iceland!

Viking Boat, Reykjavik

I began my first day here walking along the waterfront from my area (105 Reykjavik) to the main downtown (101 Reykjavik), stopping briefly to gaze at the mountains on the other side of the water, and to ponder the strange ‘view point’ statue of abstract curvy-line figures in an abstract Viking longboat. Passed a large, the concert hall (a very nice building!) and made my way down some little streets to the tourist info centre, where I stuffed myself with free maps, activity pamphlets, and debated buying stamps in advance for postcards.

Canadian Embassy My stomach then dictated me to find food, and I sat and planned my next steps in a café. I had two days free in Reykjavik and a list of things I knew already that I wanted to see. The next two days I was planning on a mini-trip by car with some people I’d contacted on couchsurfing (CS). That left Saturday for a day-tour (Horseback riding! But which tour…?) and Sunday to get to the airport, and possibly the ridiculously expensive – but THE tourist thing in Iceland – Blue Lagoon. I paid my 1940 Icelandic Krona (IK) bill – don’t worry CAD1.00 = 117 IK, so things seem really expensive (well, they are) but not that expensive – and began my walking. Managed to find all the embassies on my first try. The Russian, French, German, and (best of all) Canadian Embassies, all on one street. Yay maple leaf! I made it to the Catholic church, but was unable to see the inside as there was a funeral going on. I retraced my steps and found myself at the small, but fantastic, 871 + 2 Museum.

Oldest Long House in Iceland

Why 871 + 2, you ask? The museum (not unlike the Montréal Archaeology Museum) was built on top of one of Iceland’s two oldest Viking long halls. Discovered in 2001, this long hall was excavated over the next 5 years, and the museum opened thereafter. I managed to get in for a student price and spent the next hour and a half reading the bi-lingual panels and observing the in-situ (i.e. the original site) long house. The museum is amazing, as it incorporates the archaeology with interactive touch screens for more information (from Iceland’s genealogy to a history of Viking raiding). After thoroughly eating-up everything there with my eyes, I spent a good while talking with the guide/worker about the site, and then about Iceland. The “merely a breeze” guy.

Althing - Icelandic Parliament


He also wrote down the name of the article about the excavations, and then called the National Archives for me to ask how late they were open until. Although cold and windy, Iceland so far has some of the nicest and most helpful people I’ve encountered travelling. From the bus driver who got me on the right bus, to the hotel guy who let me crash the reception, to this guy, I’ve had no real problems trying to do what I want to do or find out what I want to know. After the museum I wandered over to the Parliament building (it is adorable!), the Dominican Church (where I warmed up inside for a bit), the city hall, and along the Tjörnin City Pond and side park to the cemetery. Spent a good hour walking along the mossed-over gravestones and just enjoying the peace of the place – which at times appeared more forest-like than cemetery!

The first glimpse of blue sky...I then went to the National & University Library – the site of both the National Archives of Iceland and the University of Iceland Library. Walked around, learned the Icelandic word for archaeology (fornleifafræði), found some Hittite and Esperanto languages books, and sat and read until leaving for the pub quiz. Which never happened, to my great dismay. I’d seen it posted on CS but when I finally found said pub I was given a strange look from the bar-tended, and I decided to head home via a grocery store to buy myself a little “feel less like an idiot” treat. Spent the evening chatting with my fellow couch-peeps (and the people who actually lived there) and watching ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. Not a bad way to end a first day.



 How to make the best of a rainy situation

I awoke the next morning to beams of sunshine and in a split-second (okay, about half and hour) was ready and out the door to make the most of the little sunshine Iceland was getting. I made my way first, bundled up in every jacket/scarf I had brought (that wind is really piercing), to Hallgrímskirkja – or the Church of Hallgrím. This impressive, but monstrously grey, building is an amazing sight from outside, however there’s something to be said for the tastefully simple interior. I paid to take the elevator to the top of the tower and was not disappointed – Reykjavik stretched out before me and I had the breath-taking ability to see the entirety of the city. That, and the sun was still out, making the views spectacular.

HallgrímskirkjaDowntown Reykjavik

 Looking towards the down town it reminded me, almost painfully, of the Maritimes (Canadian East Coast – where I grew up), and I was a little surprised to see how similar it looked to Halifax, with its quaint and colourful little buildings and new and old harbours. As I left the sanctity of the kirkja I made my way south and to the National Museum. It’s a well laid out museum, with a very good permanent exhibition on the history of Iceland – from the first settlers (Irish monks in the early 9th century AD) to the plague and beyond. Because of the climate and soil type in Iceland artifacts aren’t always preserved well enough to be conserved, but there is still a large and varied amount on display, from Viking beads, the skeleton of a man buried with his horse, to an elaborately carved wooden door (with the story of a knight slaying a dragon in order to save a lion) and an iron figure of either Thor or Jesus. Before the 11th century AD the people of Iceland practiced the old Norse religion. However, those who still worshiped the old gods were considered ‘heathens’ as the majority of the island converted to Christianity. 

Old wooden doorSoil SampleOne of my favourite things at the museum was the large soil sample taken from a southern part of the island. It is layered with many colours of sediment, and on the side is a scale showing each coloured layer as a volcanic eruption. Mt. Hekla, Iceland’s most dangerous volcano (overdue for an eruption) has had 15 major eruptions since the 1100s. You can also find the eruptions of Mt. Katla (her almost as bad sister volcano), and everyone’s favourite, Eyjafyallajökull (roughly pronounced ey-ya-fiat-la-yu-koot-la). I also got to play around in Viking armour in the children’s section. Huzzah!

 After the museum, I wandered around the downtown area (making my way as far west as the Atlantic) before returning to my place for a bit of a nap (that, and the rain had begun to pour down hard…again). On the way home I also popped into the interesting, but very odd, Phallological Museum. For those of you not as up to snuff on your Latin, it was Penis Museum. Yup – two rooms stuffed full of various animal penises, penis paraphernalia, one human specimen, and the official consent forms for the next three human specimens. And just in case you really wanted/needed to know, I am shorter by far than a sperm whale penis. It’s that big (insert “that’s what she said” joke here if you really must).

Sperm Whale Penis

Despite the crude and strange subject nature, it was pretty interesting! After a nap and a quick meal, I returned downtown to attend a CS meet-up. Basically, anyone on CS in Reykjavik was invited, along with any other travelers who happened upon the group. Here I met several interesting and fun people, and we talked well into the night about ourselves, our countries (Germany, Canada, US, France, Sweden, Lithuania, and more) and I met Dave. This is important, as I had contacted him a few days before I’d left for Iceland when he’d posted on CS about having a car and being willing to share it for travel. By the end of the night I’d confirmed my trip with him, had an Icelandic hot dog (basically a normal hot dog), gotten soaked through to the bone, and enjoyed my first good conversation in ages. Next stop, iceberg lagoon road-trip!

Categories: September 2013 | 1 Comment

I Had Christmas Down in Africa

Before you read this final post, watch this video by the acapella group Straight No Chaser – it will explain the oh so appropriate title: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Fe11OlMiz8

V&A WaterfrontThe first thing I saw of Cape Town was Table Mountain rising from the misty-smog. We settled into our various hotels then had one last group dinner together before parting ways after two weeks on the dusty, sandy, Namibia road together. A shower was definitely in order. My parents and I spent the next five days in Cape Town, and on December 28th I ended my 8-month overseas adventure and returned home to Canada. But before that, we have five days to get through.

The first day in Cape Town we hit the Victoria and Albert Waterfront (the V&A) and I got to see cosmopolitan Africa at one of its best. I’d heard a lot of hype about the V&A, Cape Town, everything and, for me…it didn’t quite live up to the standard at which I held it. Maybe it was because I was with my parents? Because it was the holiday season and the city was empty of all but tourists? Because of all the tourists mayhaps… Regardless, day one was spent walking around the V&A, exploring little shoppes, and getting a feel for Cape Town downtown.

That evening we got together with our close group of eight from the trip, and with them had a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner – it was Dec. 24th after all! Kudu for Christmas? I’ll toast to that. At midnight we made our way to a festively lit up central square and after an hour’s wait (can’t forget Africa time!) we watched an hour of marching bands playing carols and religious music.

Merry Christmas!

Holy penguin, Batman!Christmas dawned quite early in South Africa, and it dawned quite cloudy and cool. After some simple exchange of gifts and candy my parents and I hopped on the train and made our way south to Simonstown. Why Simonstown, you may ask? PENGUINS! Southern Africa is home to several colonies of South African penguin, and they have a large breeding area at Simonstown. So, where my friends and family back home were having cold weather and, in some cities, snow, I had +30-35 Celsius weather, sun, and beaches of penguins. Not a bad way to spend Christmas, eh? We had lunch at a lovely harbour-side restaurant before returning to relax and skype family from Cape Town proper.

View across Table Mountain

We woke up the next day to sunshine and heat, and like flies to a banana made our way to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. After some perusing of the flowers and plants, we hiked to the top of Table Mountain – over 1,000m above sea level. Skeleton Gorge is one of the hardest paths up the mountain, but the view from the top is exquisite and well worth the scare of some of the path. Three hours were spent galavanting atop Table Mountain UNESCO World Heritage Site, before we took the cable car down to the city. We ended with a bus tour around the coast and beach-areas of the Cape, then had another quite evening at hotel.

Conquered: to defeat

I spent the penultimate day happily adventuring on my own and, as the parental units went Great Horned Owl at World of BIrdson a wine tour I went to World of Birds and spent the next four hours in wonder. World of Birds was created over 30 years ago to house and look after hurt, abandoned, or sick birds. Over the years, as their reputation spread, they began to receive all sorts of animals and today it is home to over 300 species of animals and over 4000 animals total. From birds to monkeys to penguins to a honey badger and llamas, the sanctuary has it all. Best parts: the squirrel monkey enclosure, where you can enter and be climbed all over by the adorable little buggers. Also, the birds of prey enclosures, where you are in the same enclosing as the bird, and can be as close to it as it will allow. Best one was when I entered the enclosure of some great horned owls backwards, and when I turned around the one was right in my face, sitting nonchalantly on a perch. Within arms reach…Better than owls peering down at you through tree branches – WHO?!

World of Birds, located near Hout’s Bay, is a must-see for anyone (especially with kids) looking to spend more than a few days in Cape Town. I even have a sticker for it on the back of the Smart car. I spent the rest of the day at the Two Oceans Aquarium and, unfortunately, was not as impressed to be there as I’d thought. Curse you Michelle! After having seen these fish in the wild/through diving, aquariums are now…*shrug* plain. Must…dive again! I had dinner with the rents and friends of theirs at a fantastic Ethiopian restaurant, where we amused ourselves while eating by hand and by pancake.

Scarlet Ibises

My last day in Africa came all too early, but I spent it with Michelle of all people! She and her family had arrived in Cape Town the night before, and we spent the day frolicking around the city together, buying last-minute souvenirs, and reliving past moments of fun/stupidity/time together before this inevitable final parting. The day came to a close, I found my parents, and we made our way to the airport. One final Mugg & Bean meal, one final use of the rand, one final mockery of logic in Africa, then it was past security and no looking back. The security guard thought I was under 18, as she made me wait, then asked my mother for permission to search me. I’m 22 darn it!

How far to Canada?

Cape Town to Heathrow, Heathrow to Pearson: two days of travel boiled down into one. I arrived home to frozen Canadian soil on December 29th and froze my butt off getting home – let it be known that I have NEVER felt cold at -4 Celsius. That night in Toronto, heading back to Waterloo, I was FREEZING! Oh the shame.




And thus came to an end 8 months of vagabond-student travelling. Two continents down, five countries, two languages, and lord knows how many archaeological sites! It’s weird being back, but university helps you get into a rhythm, get back into things. And biking to class in the winter and snow has upped my cold tolerance – thank heavens!

Until the next adventure, salang sentle, distala tsame. Botswana: ke a go rata thata. Ke tla a tla again <3


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