Disgusting on all counts

The news broke yesterday that Air Canada is partnering with “social media influencers” to promote travelling now, despite the current federal advisory against non-essential travel outside the country.

This riles me.

First, because the whole idea of “social media influencers” makes me slightly sick to my stomach. There are some lovely definitions for the term on the Urban Dictionary, including this barb: “Someone with lack of intelligence and a lot of free time, followed by tons of idiots on some social network, usually Instagram….[T]heir opinion is worth something only to primates with an IQ lower than the room temperature.”

Do we really need camera-pretty people to tell us what to do, say, wear, eat, etc.? Keep in mind that these people generally have no particular expertise or knowledge. They may be glib and cute, but their main claim to fame is that they chose to make fame their aim. [Am I rapping?]

Why should you or I care if @chelseaBotox-lips is “Having a great time in Cancun!”?

Sadly, some people do care. Which brings me to my second gripe.

Parading tanned and blissful “influencers” in exotic locales before responsible Canadians* who are doing their best to get through this winter at home, masked, and socially distanced, many struggling with financial woes, fears for their elders or their children, or anxiety about vaccines, is at best cruel, and at worst, evil. You can probably think of better words to describe those who deliberately make others crave something they can’t—in good conscience—have.

Come on, Air Canada. You can do better than this. Use all that money and brainpower to find ways to help us through this instead of trying to “influence” us into disobeying health directives that are designed to protect us and everyone around us.

The Canadian government advisory states that those who choose to travel now “may have difficulty returning to Canada or may have to remain abroad for an indeterminate period….The governments of those destinations that have opened their borders to tourists could impose strict travel restrictions suddenly….International transportation options could be reduced significantly, making it difficult…to return to Canada.” It ends with this warning: “If you choose to travel despite these advisories:

  • you may have difficulty obtaining essential products and services
  • you may have limited access to timely and appropriate health care
  • you may suddenly face strict movement restrictions and quarantines at designated facilities and at your own cost
  • your insurance may not cover your travel or medical expenses
  • we may have limited capacity to offer you consular services.”

*Clearly, this does not include politicians who feel official government guidelines don’t apply to them.

Calidris Reads: England, 1665

Reading and traveling are two of my favourite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Year of Wonders:
A novel of the plague

Geraldine Brooks

Read for: Imaginary journey to England & pandemic pastime

Opening: “I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light.”

Although it is set in England, 1665-1666, Year of Wonders is a story for here and now. I first read it a number of years ago and liked it enough to stash it on my “might be read again” shelf. The characters are interesting and drawn well, the writing is just my style, with spare but evocative descriptions, and the premise, intriguing.

The plot is a fictionalized retelling of the true story of Eyam, a small countryside village like many others in the seventeenth century. The people live simple, sometimes harsh lives, but thrive through faith and community. When the Black Death arrives via a delivery of cloth from plague-stricken London, village life is shattered as every home is visited by horrific illness and agonizing death. The town’s religious leader urges the villagers to take the burden of the plague upon themselves and voluntarily quarantine so that the disease should not be carried beyond Eyam’s borders.

How the various characters respond to this challenge creates the drama and poses questions for the reader: What would you do if faced by this situation? Do people act better or worse when lives are at stake? Do you have a higher duty to your family or to society? Should one sacrifice personal freedom for the good of others?

One reviewer of the book wrote: “[Year of Wonders]…leaves us with the memory of vivid characters struggling in timeless human ways with the hardships confronting them….”

Does this strike any familiar chords? Anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, deniers, exploiters, haters, haranguers, heroes, and helpers. The great of heart and the small of brain.

Welcome to 2020.

While culling my library in October, I came across Year of Wonders and realized immediately that if there was a time to reread the book, it had to be now.

In an 2001 article published after the September 11 attacks, author Geraldine Brooks wrote: “Whether we also shall one day look back upon this year of flames, germs, and war as a ‘year of wonders’ will depend, perhaps, on how many are able…to match the courageous self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam.” She could have just as well have written that today.

Speaking in a subsequent interview, she said: “Eyam is a story of ordinary people willing to make an extraordinary sacrifice on behalf of others. Love, hate, fear. The desire to live and to see your children live. Are these things different on a beautiful autumn morning in a twenty-first-century city than they were in an isolated seventeenth-century village? I don’t think so. One thing I believe completely is that the human heart remains the human heart, no matter how our material circumstances change as we move together through time.”

People magazine’s review of the book included this comment: “[Year of Wonders]…subtly reveals how ignorance, hatred, and mistrust can be as deadly as any virus.”

Wow. The wilful stupidity and bigotry of some segments of the population during the current pandemic plus the deliberate deception practiced by some of our leaders certainly proves that point.

Published almost two decades ago, Year of Wonders is still worth seeking out. O, The Oprah Magazine called it “a vividly imagined and strangely consoling tale of hope in a time of despair.”

Isn’t that what we all could use right now—a tale of hope in a time of despair?

Five knots: A must-read

Travel in the time of contagion*

Last week, I finally ventured out into the big, scary world for my first bit of travel since February and the beginning of the lockdown. It wasn’t far, just a short camping trip out to Pacific Rim National Park with a close friend in her lovely new camperized van, but it was interesting to see how things are working in our BC tourist industry.

I crossed The Big Water as a foot passenger on BC Ferries, choosing an evening sailing on a Tuesday night with the idea that the ship would be fairly empty. I also assumed most people who boarded with cars would choose to stay in their cars. Wrong on both accounts. There were few walk-ons, but many car passengers did come upstairs to wander around, use bathrooms, and buy food. According to current BC Ferries policy, everyone is required to wear masks at all times and most people did, but there are always those who don’t and I didn’t see any ferry staff enforcing the rule. On the positive side, every second row of seating on board was roped off to create safe distancing.

At Green Point Campground in the national park, check-in was accomplished with distancing and safety barriers. Individual sites are far enough apart that you don’t have to worry about being near other groups. I wasn’t sure if the park was limiting occupancy, since many sites were marked Occupied or Reserved, yet seemed to have no one in residence. Because of this, the campground was extremely quiet (lovely) and felt empty (a bit spooky). The bathrooms were open except for the inside showers and provided warm water and soap for hand washing. All good, but I noted that they had blow dryers for hand drying rather than paper towels; I’m sure I remember reading that one shouldn’t use blow dryers as they scatter the virus around, whereas paper towels act as a final scrub to remove germs.

When we headed to Long Beach (this was a Thursday), we found it very busy, with parking spots near-impossible to find and hundreds of people both in the water and on the sand. It is a big beach, however, and sunseekers naturally space themselves out anyway, so distancing wasn’t a problem.

Dropping in at Tofino, 21 k up the coast, I saw few masks in evidence but since the town is a magnet for freewheeling younger folks, that wasn’t surprising. The only store we entered, Chocolate Tofino (excellent, BTW!) did have safety measures in place, including a tight limit on the number of shoppers inside, barriers between staff and customers, and a mandatory hand sanitizer station at the door.

Overall, I revelled in my chance for a getaway, short as it was, and I never felt the risks were unreasonable, probably no worse than going into a grocery store back home.

*You’ll note that I have not used the name of the-virus-that-must-not-be-named. That’s because the last time I did name it, that posting drew over 8,000 spam comments—ranging from offerings of pyramid schemes to ads for male enhancement products—which were impossible to remove, and I ended up deleting that posting to get rid of them.

Reality check

I saw this pair of photos on a Facebook post and had to give a rueful chuckle. So true! How often  we have high expectations of a travel experience that arise from photos that we’ve seen or descriptions we’ve read, without reflecting that the photo may well have been staged or the description may be omitting some important elements. And yet, it’s only natural to look forward to the exciting travel experiences we plan, sometimes for months or even years.

We travelled to Costa Rica a few years back with the express goal of seeing birds. Bryn was very into birding by then and he was making a documentary film about Costa Rica and its relationship with nature. A prime target was the resplendent quetzal, a magnificent bird with iridescent plumage and metre-long trailing tail feathers. The guide told us that our best chance would be to stake out a wild avocado tree that was in fruit, as the quetzals love to eat the tiny avocados. We would need to be in place around dawn, as the birds might arrive to feed any time thereafter.

The guide woke us at some ungodly hour and we drove in darkness into the valley through a thick layer of mist. The tree we were targeting was in a farmer’s field and he had given us permission to climb up the hillside through his cow pasture to where the tree perched on a high knoll. After navigating an extremely steep, slippery, muddy path, we settled in to wait for the birds. It felt like a classic birding expedition: the semi-darkness of sunrise, a remote location, peaceful silence, and that buzz of excitement as you anticipate the arrival of your quarry.

Then the tour bus pulled in. A horde of people tramped into “our” field. People carried small children or dragged them by the hand. They set up folding chairs and scopes. More groups arrived, each with their own guide. They blundered around in their neon-coloured rain slickers, talking loudly, some eating breakfast on the go.

We were gobsmacked. This was not at all what we had expected. But, of course, if we had thought about it, we would have realized that there were likely many other people who wanted to see the elusive bird, there were many other guides, and it would be their business to know this particular tree had ripening fruit and might attract the quetzals.

No birds showed up, whether because of the bustle of dozens of tourists milling around the tree I’ll never know. Luckily, we did see the quetzal later in the day, at a different location, thanks to our excellent guide. But that morning was definitely a letdown.

How can we avoid falling into the trap of disappointed expectations when we travel?

Well, we might try changing our expectations or changing our experience. For example, we might:

  • Try not to have expectations. Do research, choose destinations or experiences, and then try to let go of expectations. Instead, be in the moment. When we travelled to the Yucatan, I really wanted to see Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan site, because I had studied it in university. However, I dialed back my expectations after researching the site and realizing it would be extremely hot, unpleasantly commercialized, and very crowded. Accordingly, I tried to focus on enjoying what I could at the site rather than bemoaning the lack of tranquillity and opportunities for quiet contemplation.
  • Be realistic about expectations. Take a peek at the stats of how many people visit that place. About 30,000 visitors gawk at the Mona Lisa every day and if you’re hoping for a lengthy, private tete-a-tete with her, you’re bound to be disappointed.
  • Re-examine expectations. What is it about this place or activity that is really important to you? If being solitary or having majestic silence at a site that sees tens of thousands of visitors every year is the experience you seek, that is probably not realistic. But if you can adjust your expectations to “I will be there, I will be fully engaged, I will simply experience this to the best of my abilities, no matter what the circumstances,” you may still be able to find meaning in it. In Nova Scotia, I thought that taking a day cruise on the famous Bluenose II would be fun. But somehow, the reality just didn’t live up to the romantic notions in my head. Still, I reminded myself, I was on the sea on a beautiful ship, the wind in my face, and I had a stunning view of Lunenburg. I looked around and noted all the lovely details of the ship, the polished wood, the gleaming brass, the white canvas sails against the sky. I let go of my unrealistic expectations and relaxed into the cruise for what it actually was.
Across the river from Chenonceau.
  • Change the experience by finding a new approach. The Château de Chenonceau is the second-most-visited chateau in France, receiving around 800,000 visitors yearly. Not much chance of a unique or personal experience. However, in seeking places we could walk the dog we were caring for, we discovered a wooded path that runs along the other side of the river from Chenonceau. We rambled through the forest with just ourselves and the dog, coming upon perfect views of the chateau and its reflection in the still water.
  • Alternatively, choose a different experience that isn’t on such a well-beaten path. Mona is great and she’s certainly famous, but there are 35,000 works of art in the Louvre, many of them—IMHO—more interesting than Leo’s lady. Pick any one of them instead of Mona and you won’t have to line up for an hour to get a brief glimpse.

Finally, one of the best ways to beat the expectations trap is to remain open to and ready to embrace places/experiences that we haven’t planned or built expectations around. On a steaming hot day in Panama, we drove over the central mountain range to visit the Caribbean side of the country. After a few hours, we pulled off the highway onto a rocky, bumpy little track to check out a farmer’s field for birds. Not only did we photograph some interesting species, but we discovered that the track led down to a gorgeous swimming spot in the river, overhung with tall, leafy trees. The water was cool, green, and transparent and we were the only people there. Resistance is futile and I was soon paddling around, luxuriating in this totally unexpected delight. No expectations, yet it was an experience I will never forget.

Have you had a travel experience that did not live up to your expectations? Or have you found your own way around the expectations trap? Share in a comment!

France’s Loire Valley in Winter

Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley in February

France is one of the most popular destinations in the world. Which means that its beautiful places are overrun with tourists much of the year. The Loire Valley, with dozens of historic chateaux, fortresses, villages, and foodie delights like vineyards and farmgate sources, not to mention beautiful natural spaces, is no exception. When we visited in late January and February, we could tell by the acres of parking stalls that the larger sites are braced to receive hordes in spring, summer, and fall.

But in winter, those parking lots were nearly empty. We strolled through any site that interested us on a given day–no need to buy tickets in advance or line up. Once inside, it made no difference what the weather was doing outside. If it was a bit chilly, it made us appreciate more the challenges the original inhabitants faced in keeping warm. One of the chateaux had big wood fires burning in the huge fireplaces, which added to the historic ambience and put a lovely hint of woodsmoke in the air.

Beyond the chateaux, those charming medieval or Georgian streets are still there for your enjoyment, although you might need to bundle up for your stroll and sit inside the cafe or patisserie rather than on the patio (some restaurants do have a heated area outdoors). Cafe au lait or chocolat chaud is especially pleasant on a chilly day and you can savour the French food without guilt, knowing that you’re burning off extra calories when you walk in the brisk weather. And speaking of food, even the tiny gastronomic restaurants have space for last-minute dinner guests and the local farmers’ markets run right through the cold months.

The cooler temperatures and lack of crowds made the whole experience of visiting a site less tiring. I hate it when vacationing becomes an endurance test, i.e., I’ve paid 15 Euros to get in here, I have to stay X number of hours and see the whole bl**dy thing to get my money’s worth, even though I’m overheated, exhausted, and my feet are numb. This scenario is far less likely in the winter.

Whether you’re driving around or taking public transit, everything will be quieter. Parking in the villages will be easy. Churches and cathedrals remain open year-round and you will often have them to yourself on weekdays if you, like me, just like to sit in the pews and drink in the magnificent surroundings.

A few things to keep in mind if visiting in the winter:

  • Some sites are closed, especially in the second and third week of January when apparently many tourist-focused businesses shut so that employees can vacation after the busy Christmas season. Those that are open may have reduced hours.
  • Some amenities are unavailable, such as guided tours or onsite restaurants.
  • If a site’s gardens are a primary attraction for you, this is not the time to visit. The gardens will be immaculately maintained and pleasant to stroll, weather permitting, but trees will be bare and few, if any, flowers out.
  • Yes, it rains. And it’s windy sometimes. The temperatures are much like in the BC Lower Mainland, mostly hovering above zero. I believe that in the four weeks we were there, we had a couple of frosty nights. But we also had gorgeous sunny days with clear blue skies, as you’ll see in the photos.
  • The banks of the Loire (and other local rivers) are frequently flooded in winter. As many of the beautiful walks in the area run along the river shores, some were too wet or muddy to use. However, we never had any diffculty finding somewhere near the river to perambulate, if that’s what we desired.

Knot Spots: Airline Response to Coronavirus

Spotted: vancouverisawesome.com

It seems a bit disingenuous to write about the joys of travel during the current coronavirus scare, when people are afraid to pass through airports or be entombed in airplanes with hundreds of unknown people from all around the world. Even those who would dare those risks are reconsidering travel plans when the very real possibility of quarantine looms large. No one wants to spend weeks in a windowless cruise ship cabin. (Shudder.) My own friends and family are canceling or postponing trips for these reasons.

Perhaps the airlines are starting to feel the pinch, as a note just popped up to say that Air Canada and WestJet will waive fees to change flights if you go ahead and book flights now (between March 4 and March 31 for AC and between March 3 and March 17 for WestJet). I’m guessing new bookings have plummeted to zero and they are desperate to get some cash flowing in. I suggest that ALL airlines and ALL hotels/accommodations follow suit or they will be completely shut down for the next few months, until the health situation stabilizes. No one is going to be crazy enough to book travel as long as there’s a good chance they will lose their money if they have to cancel.

Meantime, what I want to know is how will the airlines and hotels accommodate people who booked months ago and are scheduled to travel soon? Has anyone heard anything from them beyond “Tough luck”? I even wonder if travel insurance companies are going to cover any of this. (Doubtful.)

Calidris Celebrates

My intrepid travelling companion and I. You can tell we’re on the road because he’s toting my camera backpack and I’m wearing my trusty Tilley hat.

I am very excited to announce this is my 100th blog post! This month also marks the third anniversary of this blog, which I started in December, 2016.

When I started out, my goal was simple: to publish at least one blog per week for one year. Once I achieved that, I gave myself permission to blog when the mood struck, but I’ve continued to post fairly frequently over the last two years. Part of my reason for blogging was to get myself writing regularly and sharing more of my work with the world. I really enjoy choosing topics and writing about them, although sometimes time is short and I don’t get to blog as much as I want to.

Travel blogging is a way for me to remember and record my thoughts and adventures. I must admit, I do go back and reread my old blogs to relive those memories.

I want to thank all of you for reading this blog. You’ve travelled with me to Nova Scotia, Thailand, Cambodia, California, Hawaii, Arizona, Louisiana, New York, Washington State, England, Wales, Ecuador, Yemen, Costa Rica, Australia, South Africa, Namibia, Germany, the Yucatan, Panama, and cruising the Caribbean. You’ve met members of my family and suffered through my opinions on a variety of topics. You’ve seen more photos of birds than you probably ever wanted to see.

I hope you’ve been intrigued, had a laugh, learned something, or mulled over an idea you hadn’t previously considered, and I sincerely hope you’ll continue to read along as I indulge my wanderlust.

PS Happy holidays!

Knot Spots: The dilemma of California’s Salton Sea

Image source: https://polizeros.com/2019/02/01/salton-sea-problematic-in-colorado-river-drought-plan/

Spotted: fishbio.com

The Salton Sea is a strange and disquieting place located in the arid Colorado Desert of southern California. It is a lake, not a sea, and its surface currently lies about 71.9 m (236.0 ft) below sea level. The “sea” was formed in 1905 when engineers mucking around with the Colorado River and irrigation issues made a boo-boo that resulted in the river flowing into the Salton Basin for two years. Since there was no outflow, a large freshwater lake formed.

Lying in the midst of a desert climate with warmth and sunshine much of the year, the Salton Sea, as it came to be known, became a magnet for funseekers. Resort towns popped up along its shores, hitting their heyday in the 1950s.

Over the years, however, as the lake evaporated, turned more and more salty, and became increasingly polluted from agricultural runoff, the resorts faded away.

“Many of the species of fish that lived in the sea have been killed off by the combination of pollutants, salt levels, and algal blooms. Dead fish have been known to wash up in mass quantities on the beaches. The smell of the lake, combined with the stench of the decaying fish, also contributed to the decline of the tourist industry around the Salton Sea.” (Wikipedia)

Yuck.

Today, the area is scattered with the remnants of abandoned settlements. It is the closest thing to an apocalyptic landscape that I’ve ever seen.

Recently, the US House of Representatives passed a bill in support of allotting $30 million “for projects that would address the environmental and health crisis at the Salton Sea.”

The question is, what are they going to do with that money? I wonder if they even have a clue.

It’s a tricky situation. Technically, the lake doesn’t belong there at all. It’s the result of an environmental catastrophe. However, it has now been there for over a hundred years and nature abhors a vacuum, so it has become a vital resource for birds in an otherwise waterless landscape. Amazingly, birds can survive in this bleak habitat; so much so that the Salton Sea is internationally recognized as an  Important Bird Area (IBA). Which is how I came to be there, checking out the burrowing owls and other intriguing species. People also continue to live around the lake.

If the powers that be allow things to continue as they are going—“let nature take its course”—the lake will eventually become so poisonous that nothing will be able to live there. Millions of birds will lose their resting, feeding, and breeding grounds. After that, it will dry up completely, forming a toxic dust bowl that could sicken anything that stills lives in the vicinity, animal or human.

If, on the other hand, they decide to preserve the lake, it would be a massive undertaking. California already has chronic water shortages. Where would the water to save the lake come from? And if they somehow found that water, how would they solve the problem of pollution from agricultural runoff?

What would be the ultimate goal? To recreate the Salton Sea’s glory days, when tourists water skied and swam, and a commercial fishery existed? Or to maintain the area as a nature park, inhospitable to humans, but a haven for wildlife? Do they turn the clock back 10 years? 20? 60?

What should be done for the people who live there? Relocation? Welfare? Publicly funded communities?

How do you “fix” something when you know it’s definitely “wrong,” but you don’t know what “right” is?

There are several documentaries on the Salton Sea but I’ve only seen one of them: Bombay Beach (2011), an experimental style film heavy on the bizarre ambience of the place. 

Panama Hats and Other Misnomers

In the category of Who knew?! I offer this tidbit: Panama hats are not from Panama. The materials used to make them do not come from Panama. They are not made in Panama. They are, in fact, made in Ecuador.

“A Panama hat, also known as an Ecuadorian hat or a toquilla straw hat, is a traditional brimmed straw hat of Ecuadorian origin.” (Wikipedia)

The art of weaving the traditional Ecuadorian toquilla hat is unique and important enough to be included on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of the world.

My Fodor’s Panama guidebook reads: “Any such headwear you do find for sale here [in Panama] should be labeled ‘Genuine Panama Hat Made in Ecuador.’” I’m glad that’s clear.

How did the straw hats wind up with a false identity?

“Straw hats woven in Ecuador, like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, were shipped first to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing for their destinations [worldwide], subsequently acquiring a name that reflected their point of international sale—‘Panama hats’—rather than their place of domestic origin.” (Wikipedia)

In 1906, when celebrity president Teddy Roosevelt made a stopover at the construction site of the Panama Canal, he was photographed wearing one of the hats, cementing its connection—in the buying public’s mind—with the Central American country.

All this must drive Ecuadorians to distraction. (I recall one of our guides ranting about how Ecuador gets no credit for all its accomplishments. “Who do you think of when you think bananas? Costa Rica! But Ecuador is the largest exporter of bananas in the world.* Who do you think of for roses? Holland? Ecuador grows the most and best roses,** but no one knows!” I had never thought of where roses come from, so I couldn’t argue.)

Perhaps it’s time for nations to trademark their names to avoid this kind of confusion.

For example, how often in my travels have I heard people refer to Canadian bacon, which has nothing to do with Canada? In the United States, they mean “a form of back bacon that is cured, smoked and fully cooked, trimmed into cylindrical medallions, and thickly sliced.” (Wikipedia)

Huh? Having been born in Canada and lived my entire life here, I’ve never eaten such a thing.

You could be forgiven for assuming the Australian shepherd dog came from the land down under, but the breed was actually developed on American ranches in the 19th century. No one knows how the Aussie got its name. One theory is that Basque sheep herders from Europe took their dogs to Australia and later, when they moved on to California, again, with faithful dogs in tow, Americans assumed the dogs were an Australian breed.

The devastating 1918 influenza pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide was often called the “Spanish flu,” although it almost certainly did not originate in Spain. Current hypotheses favour the United States, France, or China as the culprit.

So why “Spanish flu”? When the new and deadly influenza strain first appeared in January 1918, it was what would be final year of the First World War. The United States and much of Europe were under censorship, neither side wanting to show signs of weakness, so reports of the flu were suppressed. In Spain, which was neutral in the war, there was no such censorship, so the horrifying reality of the sickness was widely published both locally and internationally, especially after the Spanish king fell ill. Because of this, people outside of Spain thought of it as the “Spanish” flu, while the Spanish themselves sometimes referred to it as the “French flu.”

With Irish stew and Danish pastries, we can at least say the foods did originate in those countries, but what do they mean today? Danish pastries can be the sorriest, soggiest, amalgams of cardboard-like dough and gooey-sweet fruit-flavoured glop found in the bake section of many grocery stores, while Irish stew might be any bland, chewy, mash-up of meat and tubers a restaurant chooses to slap the name on. Can Danes be proud of their pastries now? Can the Irish hold up their heads in the international culinary arena based on the “Irish” stew of today?

I say it is time for a moratorium on inauthentic, inaccurate, nation-based nomenclature. Let the Ecuadorians reclaim the brimmed hats that pair so fashionably with light-coloured and linen suits. Give the Basques back their bob-tailed sheepdogs. Relieve the Spaniards of the burden of one of the deadliest viruses known to humanity. Require restaurants to rename their dish as “a meat and veg stew of indeterminate origin and ingredients” and demand that stores sell “round, fake-fruit pastries” without blaming the Danes.

America, we Canadians give you back your bacon. Please rename it after your local pigs, who richly deserve the credit.

*”Banana Exports by Country” (2018)

**”2018: A challenging year for the cut rose industry” Floral Daily

Books That Found Me

Compulsive reader: n. A person who cannot refrain from reading.

Situation: We pull into a gas station in Mexico to use the restroom. I jog across the tarmac to the ablution block only to pull up short in dismay at the large sandwich board sign displayed outside: Baños cerrados. Even with my tiny bit of Spanish, I get this: Toilets closed.

I slink back to the car and sit with legs crossed while Mark pays for the gas, contemplating the baños with resentment and some anxiety. Who knows how far to the next place of relief?

I see another driver stride purposefully toward the baños door. Any moment now, I think (somewhat smugly), he’ll see the sign and turn back. But no, he simply pushes past it and continues on. Is the door locked to thwart non-signreaders such as this brash fellow? No, it opens easily and he disappears inside. A second man follows the same path.

Clearly, the baños are not closed. Had I simply not read the sign or ignored it, I would have been blissfully employing papel higienico at that very minute.

My compulsive need to read every bit of text I see has often gotten me into similarly inconvenient circumstances.

On the other hand, being ready, willing, and able to read anything can be a blessing when travelling. I used to leave home with three or four novels stashed in my suitcase, irrationally worried that I would run out of things to read on the road. God forbid I should have to endure a moment at the airport or a rainy day confined to the hotel without reading matter.

However, as we stayed less often in big chain hotels where available text is inevitably restricted to the New Testament and the room service menu, I discovered a world of reading possibilities.

Many smaller hotels, inns, and hostels keep a shelf of books under the rule of “Take a book, leave a book.” Often, the selection will include many tempting choices in languages that you cannot even identify, much less decipher. There will also be dog-eared travel guides that predate the Internet and provide essential information for visits to the U.S.S.R., West Germany, or the Ottoman Empire on $5 a day.

But hidden among the flotsam, there will be jewels.

On the shelf of a nature lodge in the jungles of Mexico, I discovered a novel—The Name of the Wind—that I was actually planning to read anyway, as it had been recommended to me by a friend. Curiously, it was clearly brand new, and appeared unread. It was such an odd coincidence that I felt the book was meant for me, that it had somehow found its way to me.

In Ecuador, I browsed an inn’s bookshelf that stretched from floor to ceiling, covering an entire wall. Out of several hundred books, I pulled one called The Year of Pleasures, scanned the back cover and knew instantly this story about a woman trying to find a new life after losing her husband would go straight to my own grieving heart. I almost put it back, not sure I could handle it, but I promised myself I could put it aside it if it took me in the wrong direction. I galloped through it in three days, cried many times, and marvelled at passages that made me ask “How does she know?”

One of the best things about found books is that they challenge and tease you to read things you might never otherwise choose. Sometimes that means you are condemned to the only English-language volume available, which is usually a thriller by the uber-popular hack writer of the day, the one you never read. But other times you may be led to an unexpected place. Like the slim hardcover sporting a photo of a man wearing a dress and purse and the quirky title Kennense Noch Blümchenkaffee? Die Online-Omi erklärt die Welt. With my rudimentary German I puzzled this out to be: Do you still know flower coffee? The online grandmother explains the world. I guessed that the reference to flower coffee hearkened back to the war, when luxuries like coffee were in short supply and inventive Germans turned to making hot beverages from a variety of sources such as flowers. This is one of those almost-forgotten facts that has passed or is passing from common knowledge.

I still don’t know if my guess was accurate, but it intrigued me enough to flip through the pages. The book turned out to be a tongue-in-cheek “dictionary” of outdated terms and concepts that only an “omi” (affectionate term for grandmother) would still be able to explain–with a generous dash of humour and some social commentary. Example (rough translation): “In olden times, we already had ebay. Only it was without computer and it was called the church bazaar.” Reading this in German and then struggling through to a lightbulb moment when I finally got the joke was so much more fun than reading it in English, and a perfect way for me to stretch my foreign vocabulary.

There have been many other books that found me along the road. I must confess, however, that I have occasionally been known to take a book without leaving one, rationalizing such inexcusable behaviour with the thought that the universe seeks equilibrium and if I am caught without a book to leave, then somewhere there must be someone who has reason to leave a book without picking one up.

Even worse, while I usually conscientiously leave the books behind on another traveller’s shelf once I’m done, sometimes a volume begins to possess me and I take it home to hoard, pawing it lasciviously and mumbling My Preciousssssss! This is a bad habit. I need to remind myself that books need freedom to find new readers who will flatter and appreciate them. To paraphrase Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!:

“Books are like manure: They’re no good unless they’re spread around, helping things to grow.”