Creepy Crawlies 3: Fiends From Hell

“The ants go marching one by one….”

Actually, they don’t. At least not when you’re talking about army ants, or driver ants, as they’re sometimes called. What they do is form marching “columns” that vary from a few ants in width to a wave pouring over everything in their path.

Until fairly recently, everything I knew about army ants came from two childhood sources: a 1938 short story titled “Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson, and a children’s book, Alonzo and the Army of Ants, written by Murray Goodwin in 1966. In both books, the ants are portrayed as a horrifying, unstoppable force of nature:

“They’re not creatures you can fight—they’re an elemental—an ‘act of God!’ Ten miles long, two miles wide—ants, nothing but ants! And every single one of them a fiend from hell; before you can spit three times they’ll eat a full-grown buffalo to the bones. I tell you if you don’t clear out at once, there’ll be nothing left of you but a skeleton picked as clean as your own plantation.” [“Leiningen Versus the Ants”]

What better to titillate the fertile imagination of a child? Naturally, I was fascinated and frightened in equal measure.

When I began travelling to the tropics as an adult, I somehow believed my chances of seeing these fearsome creatures were about the same as running into a tiger. I mean, if they were that dangerous, surely someone would have got them under control or something. Or there would be fences. Or warnings. In Africa, you see signs about how to act around elephants and hippos. In Australia, there are crocodile warnings. Nowhere do you see signs warnings about army ants.

However, somewhere in my readings about birds, I learned that there are certain species of birds that follow ant armies for a very particular reason.

“During their hunt, many surface-raiding army ants are accompanied by various birds…which devour the insects that are flushed out by the ants, a behavior known as kleptoparasitism.[1]

Sneaky buggers, eh? But they get their just deserts, because they in turn become dessert for bigger birds—raptors—who also follow the swarms and prey on them.[2]

What this all boils down to is a bird photographer’s dream: a bunch of birds that are too absorbed in lunch to pay much mind to large lenses being poked at them:

“While focused on feeding on these invertebrates, birds at army-ant swarms typically allow very close approach by people—within 1 or 2 meters in many cases—often providing the best opportunities to see [and photograph] many of these species.”

In my case, I did things backwards (as is so often the case), stopping by the roadside in Costa Rica to photograph a roadside hawk (yes, that’s its actual name). After shooting from the car window, I thought I’d try getting out and moving a bit closer, as the hawk seemed absorbed in watching something and disinclined to move. I opened the car door silently and ever-so-slowly reached my foot toward the ground, always keeping my eyes on the bird. Until something moving below me caught my attention. I glanced down and realized we had stopped the car in the middle of an army ant swarm.

Roadside hawk accompanying army ant swarm.

Not knowing how many beloved ant citizens we had crushed with our metallic behemoth or what gruesome revenge their comrades would wreak upon us—Were they even at that moment scaling the walls of the engine compartment, breaching the flimsy barriers that stood between the ravening horde and our shrinking flesh, soon to pour forth with gigantic clacking mandibles from vents and other car orifices?—we elected to retreat to a safe distance.

That was a small swarm, just a few square metres in size. And we didn’t really see the kleptoparasites in action that day. Perhaps the presence of the hawk kept the smaller birds in hiding. Our next army ant encounter, however, provided a spectacular example.

We were staying at a small jungle lodge in the Yucatan. There were few guests, just a couple of the cabanas were occupied and the staff were usually nowhere to be found. As we returned to our hut after a walk, we spotted a column of ants moving along the main driveway. This group was about a metre in width and extended back into the jungle farther than we could see. Intrigued, we followed the ants as they marched forward.

They moved along steadily, searching everything in their path methodically and efficiently to find food. They swarmed up each twig of every bush and plant to flush out whatever was there. We could see spiders, grasshoppers, beetles, and other insects frantically leaping or running to escape. Some made it, others were tackled by the ants and quickly disappeared under the onslaught. You could actually hear the rustling of the vegetation as the ants moved through. It was mesmerizing and extremely creepy at the same time.

We began to see the small birds that accompanied the column. They hung in the bushes just off the ground, keeping close watch on the progress of the army. The insects that managed to elude the ants were often snapped up by the birds instead.

I was able to approach as close as I dared to take photos. The antbirds ignored me and the ants seemed to have little interest in us.

Soon the column entered the courtyard in front of the reception office, an open building in the tropical style. There was no one inside. As the ants fanned out to search the clearing, we realized they were also going inside the building. I wondered if this was unusual and if we should tell someone, but we hadn’t seen any staff members for quite some time.

Our main concern was to avoid being encircled ourselves. We figured we could easily outrun the army as long as we had at least one clear path, but didn’t fancy putting our feet down in the midst of those soldiers. We watched and waited as long as possible, with the ants around us on three sides getting ever closer, then we took our leave.

Later, we talked to the manager and he shrugged the whole thing off. The ant armies came through the property regularly. They didn’t bother people. As for them storming the reception building, he said, that happened a lot and was of no concern. In fact, he welcomed the conquering army, because the ants swept in, searched the building thoroughly and hunted down any resident bugs, and then quickly left without disturbing anything else. Sure enough, when we returned to the clearing, there was no trace of the column and no ants in the building.

The fearsome army ant: just a cleaning brigade on the move. If Leiningen only knew.


[1] An excellent Scrabble word.

[2] Apparently, there is no existing term to describe raptors that feast on army ant kleptoparasites, so this is your opportunity to coin a word. Uberkleptoparasites?

Tours and Museums via Livestream

Frustrated at not being able to travel? I certainly am.

Fortunately, many organizations around the world have created free online content to help keep us entertained and make sure our brains don’t stagnate.

Two that I’d like to share this week are the Washington DC History & Culture Meetup group and the Louvre Museum.

Pre-COVID, the Washington DC group organized popular themed tours in that area. Now, they are creating and putting online 60-90 minute livestreams on a huge variety of topics.

Today, I participated in a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian.  Some of the others I’ve watched include:

  • Harriet Tubman Tour
  • Van Gogh
  • Diana Ross
  • Medieval London Walking Tour (led by a professional tour guide from London)
  • Shakespeare’s London (ditto)
  • Courtship and Marriage in 18th Century Virginia

I’d also like to catch the Barcelona History Tour and maybe some of the other art talks—Monet, Renoir, Georgia O’Keeffe.

It’s not quite the same as visiting a city or museum in person, but the topics are interesting and the guides are keen on their subjects. At least it gets me out of the house in my imagination.

I think you must sign up for the group (free) in order to get notifications of upcoming shows (https://www.meetup.com/DCHistoryAndCulture/). That’s what I did. Some of the shows are recorded and added to their Youtube channel (https://www.youtube.com/c/WashingtonDCHistoryCulture/videos), so you can access them any time, while others seem to be one-off. Since the number of people who can watch the livestreams is limited, it’s worth it to get notifications so you can jump on things that interest you. I’ve been shut out of a couple of things because I waited too long to get on the list.

A few days ago, I received notice that the Louvre has put nearly half a million items from its collection online for the public to visit free of charge (https://collections.louvre.fr/en/). You can browse the whole collection (a rather daunting prospect) or choose from “themed albums” (https://collections.louvre.fr/en/albums) such as:

  • Masterpieces of the Louvre
  • 2020 Acquisitions
  • The Art of Portraiture
  • Kings, Queens, and Emperors

Assemble an afternoon repast of baguette, French cheese, petits fours, and café au lait and settle down for a visit with some of the world’s most important artworks.

Look on the bright side: your feet won’t be aching when you finish up and you’ll probably get a better view of many of those artifacts then you would peering through dozens of other gawking tourists.

What are your favourite online programs/sites for culture, arts, or history?

Creepy Crawlies 2: The Lovely

In my last post about multi-legged critters, I covered some of the scarier bugs I’ve encountered on my travels. This time around, I almost hesitate to use the term “creepy crawlies” because, to me, most butterflies, moths, and caterpillars are beautiful and not at all frightening. However, I realize that’s not the case for everyone.

A couple of years ago, I posted a photo of myself with a large cecropia moth clinging to my fingers. I was so thrilled to see this amazing insect up close, but someone commented “I’m terrified and you’re showing it off!!!” I don’t think she would have been too happy about another moth-related incident that happened during that trip.

We were staying in a nature retreat on a jungle-covered mountainside in Ecuador. On our first evening, we returned to our cabin after dark (the sun sets early that close to the equator). The kind manager had stopped by our cabin and helpfully switched on the light over our door so that we could find our cabin easily. Unfortunately, the light had attracted a cloud of moths and the door was covered with them. We had the good sense not to open the door immediately (it opened inward) or they would have all been inside the room. We turned the light off and tried to shoo away as many as possible, but we still had a dozen or so that flew in. Mark caught some and put them outside, but he couldn’t get them all. I spent that night dreaming of moths and woke up many times when a pair of fuzzy wings blundered into my face. (Apologies to the moth-phobic; they have probably run screaming out of the room by now.)

Moths, I suppose, are associated with nighttime, darkness, and mystery, whereas butterflies are more often classed with sunshine, flowers, light, and beauty. I’ve seen a field full of butterflies with transparent wings, such that you could see right through to the body and opposing wings.

I’ve chased the stunning blue morphos across fields and forests in Central and South America, trying to capture its beauty in a photograph. This large butterfly, although not rare and certainly conspicuous, is maddening due to its habit of floating around but never alighting for more than a nanosecond. I would follow it forever, waiting for it to rest with those iridescent lapis lazuli wings outstretched. It would land; I would tiptoe up, focus, and—gone. I finally snapped one in Mexico, but, of course, my mediocre photo doesn’t come close to the reality.

Blue morphos butterfly

Yes, sunshine, flowers, light. Oh, and did I mention mud? It’s a curious fact that these glowing creatures that flit along on the breeze are often found on patches of mud. I would guess that they are seeking moisture? Or maybe just cooling down? But Google turns up this interesting tidbit: “Like other animals, butterflies need salt and minerals in their diets. By sucking up puddle water, butterflies are able to accumulate salt and minerals in their hind gut while passing the water out their anus. This process is called ‘puddling’.” Who knew?

I’ve observed this behaviour in many locations, but most strikingly along the Napo River in Ecuador, where I spotted a gathering of butterflies whose wings were outlined in white, making them appear as if they were cut out of paper.

Before any of these critters were lovelies, they all started out as caterpillars, some of quite bizarre appearance. One can easily understand the concept of camouflage, trying to blend in with surroundings in order to avoid being eaten. But the marching line of neon-green-saddled caterpillars that I spotted on a forest path in Panama seemed to be doing anything but avoiding notice. The dark spot surrounded in white in the centre of the “saddle” pretty well shouted “target,” while the spiky protuberances covering the rest of the body warned “hands off!” Luckily, we took its advice and didn’t touch, as I found out later these oddballs are quite venomous, delivering a sting similar to a bee’s.

Outside a lodge on the eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes, I walked past a ball of white fluff on the path, assuming it was a seed pod from a tree. Then I did a double-take, realizing I hadn’t seen any other similar puffy balls anywhere else in the vicinity (trees, when they drop seeds or leaves or whatever, tend to do it in multiples, not singles). At closer look, I discovered a fuzzy white caterpillar with long black “twigs” sprouting from its back. Was it attempting to disguise itself as something inedible, a fungus perhaps? Impossible to know.

Fantastical or fancy, moths, butterflies, and caterpillars are always fascinating and I look forward to photographing more on future travels.

Do butterflies, moths, and caterpillars inspire Ooooo! or Ewwww! from you? Let me know in a comment.

The surprising underside of a blue morphos

My Love Affair with Travel Guidebooks

The sad remains of my trimmed-down collection.

I recently culled my library of travel guides.

I set myself the goal of halving the shelf-full of books I’d accumulated. It was hard going. Some were guides to places I have been and so represented good memories. Some were for destinations I still hope to visit and so protected cherished travel dreams. Others sat on the shelf to remind me of places on my B list.

I must confess that a few were published in the previous millennium. <Blushing.> Yet I still clung to them and hated the thought of tossing any. What is more useless than an out-of-date travel guide? I told myself firmly. But (whispered another voice) who could let go of Insider’s London, a guide to delightfully quirky hidden spots and sights—even if it is over 20 years old? 

In the end, I achieved my goal. I started by arranging the books in date published order, then started cutting from the “written before cell phones were invented” end. Sometimes—as with Insider’s London—I took down the book with full intentions of heaving it into the bin, but after looking at it, I put it back. I had two old guidebooks purchased for a Galapagos Islands trip that never happened. I hesitated, then let go of the one with more time-sensitive info and kept the other.

As I said, difficult choices because, despite the huge amount of travel information available online, I still love my travel guides.

I enjoy the feel of a book in my hands and I like to get away from my computer when I can. I respect and understand the order that information is presented in a book. I like the fact that books are text-heavy, whereas websites tend to be image-heavy. I don’t mind that hard-copy content is not perfectly up to date—the things that interest me usually don’t change much over time and I can always use the Web to get recent info when I need it—things like opening times or ticket prices.

As soon as I start to consider a destination, I open the library website and order in two or three guidebooks for that place. Once I have them in my hands, I browse through them to get a general sense of whether the destination is going to make the A list. I read the “must-see” lists. Are these things that interest me? I look for special sections that might discuss niche topics like birding or lesser-known museums or regional foods. I stare at the maps of suggested scenic or themed driving routes. I might browse through the local customs sections

As I scan the guidebook(s), I insert Post-Its next to items that catch my interest. Eventually, I’ll transfer the info and any relevant URLs to my file of notes for that trip.

When possible, I try to check out a guidebook to take with me on the road. It seems somehow fitting that a travel guide should get the opportunity to visit the country it describes in such detail.

As a side note to using the local library resources, it’s always intriguing when I realize that someone else in my neighbourhood has taken out all the guidebooks for an area. I like the idea that this anonymous stranger—perhaps the fellow behind me in the grocery store line-up—is also dreaming about visiting my chosen destination. I wish I could sit down for tea with him/her and trade information: So what made you choose Argentina? When are you going? Where will you stay? Which tours are you thinking of taking? Maybe we’d even arrange to meet up and trade stories after our respective journeys.

Perhaps I should leave a note hidden in a library travel guide, prompting the next reader to get in touch. Hmmm…I think I see a future movie starting Jude Law and Helena Bonham Carter….

PS: FYI, all those guides on my shelf with library call numbers are not purloined copies. They are ex-library copies that I bought for 50 cents.

Am I the only crazy person with a collection of travel guides? Let me know in a comment.

Calidris Compares: Feb 2020 vs Feb 2021

Let’s see now…what was I doing one year ago in February 2020? Ah, yes, I remember…I was housesitting a stranger’s home in France and wandering around the Loire Valley for fun. Hahahahaha….

How long ago and far away that seems now. Just visiting a stranger’s home is unthinkable and forget about travelling to France, eating in tiny, crowded bistros, or rubbing shoulders with thousands of people from all over the world in the Louvre or d’Orsay museums. The world has changed and as always, Calidris does not shrink from candid comparisons.

Feb 2020Feb 2021
Canada-US border Leave the pot in Canada and the guns in America and you’re good to go Closed for nonessential travel
Coughing in publicYou are offered a lozengeYou are run out of town
MasksMardi Gras, Carnival, or bank robberyMust-have fashion accessory
Airplane travelAnywhere, any time, as long as you have the bucksJust no, unless you are a politician to whom the rules don’t apply (according to yourself)
Flight phobiaFiery crashHaving an anti-masker on board
Public restroomsGratitude that they existTerror that you’ll need to use one
SanitizerTiny packeted wipe in your purse4-litre jug that you wear like a camel pack
Friendly hand shakeGood manners in many countries around the worldThe Touch of Doom
Travel wishBeing bumped to first classA vaccine
Touching your faceItchySuicide
BirthdayParty with everyone you knowOnline meet-up over takeout
Flight recoveryA good sleep-inTwo weeks of quarantine
Passenger in next seatCurler from Moose Jaw heading to a bonspielMillionaire sitting in economy as part of his ruse to get vaccine in a small, remote town
Things to smuggle homeBooze, bits of endangered animalsToilet paper
#1 travel destinationFranceThe living room
ZoomSound the jet makes as you take off for HawaiiYour primary source of communication, education, entertainment, and business
Bonnie HenryDr Who?Goddess of the Known Universe and Ruler of Our Fate
Jigsaw puzzlesAre you kidding?More valuable than gold bricks

What do you see is different this February? Let me know in a comment.

Creepy Crawlies 1: The Enemy

Purple tree tarantula

We were having dinner on the outdoor patio of a monastery in Trinidad when a gigantic beetle came hurtling out of the darkness and crash-landed in the middle of the food and cutlery on our table. As it lay groggily on its back, waving its legs at us, Mark reached out and deftly allowed it to hook onto his arm, flipping it upright so we could admire it before he escorted it to the edge of the patio and sent it back to its family and friends.

Encounters with many-legged creatures are not unusual when you travel in the tropics and not all of those critters are as harmless as a beetle. There are, of course, mosquitos, flies, roaches, and other pesky things that are nothing more than The Enemy: the huge, inch-long Amazon equivalent of a horsefly that managed to bite Mark through his clothing, drawing blood and leaving a visible gash in his shoulder, or the tiny flies that swarmed our faces atop a 30-metre high viewing platform in the jungle. They crawled into our eyes, noses, mouths, ears. They roamed across the lens of my camera every time I tried to take a photo. “Sweat beasts,” the guide informed us grimly.

The Yemenese cockroaches that shared my family’s first house in that country were of epic size and prodigiously robust. I remember them as being at least 2 inches long in body with antennae extending 6 or 7 inches beyond that. To kill one, you first had to slow it down by showering it with highly toxic insecticide administered with a pumped spray gun. When it was literally swimming in a pool of deadly chemicals, you could then commence beating on it with any sturdy object to hand, e.g., hammer or crowbar. Often, it would still attempt to walk away. Cockroaches will inherit the Earth.

Spiny orb-weaver spider

I have an ambivalent relationship with spiders. They frighten me in a primal way (and I probably frighten them in an equally primal way), yet they are fascinating and can be beautiful. Outdoors, and safely poised in a web, they seem less threatening, and I can cautiously admire. But when found indoors, and most particularly ANYWHERE NEAR MY BED, the thin veil of scientific detachment is torn asunder and I run screaming in the opposite direction.

Tarantulas have crossed my path twice. On the British Virgin Island of Tortola, Mark and I were walking back to our hotel at night, strolling a few metres behind a young couple. Suddenly, the woman ahead gave a little shriek and jumped, and then quickly moved on. When we reached the same spot, we saw a big tarantula just beside the sidewalk, moving very slowly. I looked down at my sandaled toes and imagined accidentally stepping on the spider in the dark. Many years later, when we stayed at Sacha Lodge in the Amazon, there was a good-sized tarantula hanging out in a tree right next to the boardwalk between the dining hut and our room. The spider had no interest in us gawking at it with flashlight in hand. It merely crouched in the shelter of the tree’s loose bark, waiting….

The Caribbean islands have giant black millipedes that are harmless but quite startling when they erupt out of the leaf litter right next to where you’re snoozing on the sand.

In Costa Rica, we encountered a praying mantis with its eerie alien face. I’m sure it was just minding its own mantis business, but I had the urge to snarl: “Get away from her, you bitch!”*

Finally, there are ticks, which love to fall on you as you stroll down an overgrown jungle path, crawl under your clothes, and commence to suck your blood. Nice, eh? The icing on the cake is that they also carry lots of nasty diseases which they are more than happy to share with you. So when I found a tick on my arm in Mexico, we panicked and did exactly what you are not supposed to do, grabbing it with tweezers and ripping it out. We then raced to the grocery store and tried to find rubbing alcohol to sterilize the wound. (Probably we should have thought of that before we tore the creature in half.) Unfortunately, when we asked the pharmacist for alcohol (in very broken Spanish), he helpfully directed us to the extensive selection of liquor, wine, and beer. Clearly, we were tourists and tourists always want to buy liquor, right? We could not get across the idea of alcohol as anything other than booze. I would have resorted to buying vodka and pouring it over my arm, but in the end we did find rubbing alcohol by wandering around until we spotted it on the shelf.

But don’t get ticked off by this description of the scary creepy-crawlies. There are also the lovely and the intriguing, which I’ll cover in future posts.

*Aliens, 1986

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

Calidris Reads: Denmark

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books about other writers’ travels. 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).

The Year of Living Danishly:
Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country

Helen Russell

First sentence: “It all started simply enough.”

Indeed, it all starts simply, when Russell’s husband, fondly dubbed “Lego Man” in the book, receives a job offer to work for the toy company at their home base in Denmark. Despite a successful if exhausting career in London publishing, Russell decides to take the plunge and move with him to the tiny country (pop. 5.7 million; smaller than Toronto).

Living Danishly, she soon learns, can be challenging, baffling, frustrating, and rewarding. Danes are both freethinkers and rulemakers and are not shy about letting you know when you’ve stepped out of line. Each month of the year leads to new discoveries about the Danish way of life and questions about how aspects of it contribute to Danes’ high level of happiness. From traditional food to modern furniture, raising children to celebrating Christmas, Russell shares info and anecdotes that are always illuminating and often funny.  As when the two Brits visit their first Danish bakery and are confronted by an unhelpful clerk:

“The place is empty, so we stand expectantly, waiting to be served. But the woman behind the counter remains expressionless. ‘Hi!’ I try, but she averts her eyes and busies herself rearranging a crate of buns….We smile. She does not. Instead, she points to an LED display above her head that shows the number 137. Then she points at a deli-counter-style ticket dispenser behind us….Is she seriously telling me that I have to get a ticket?…Bakery woman has now folded her arms resolutely, as if to say, ‘Play by the rules or no buttery pastry goodness for you.’ Knowing when I’m beaten, I turn around, take three paces to my right, extract a small, white ticket with the number ‘137’ on it from the machine, then walk back. The woman nods, takes my ticket, and uncrosses her arms to indicate that normal service can commence.”

Or when they naively hoist the revered Danish flag up a pole without consulting the flag laws and a disapproving neighbour presents them with a comprehensive list of rules that he has helpfully printed off his computer and laminated for them.

I must confess, I shared Russell’s curiousity about why Danes consistently rank themselves so high in happiness, so I found all the factoids fascinating and I thought she threw in enough humour to help the medicine go down in a most delightful way. Even if you have no intention of visiting Denmark, The Year of Living Danishly will have you wondering whether the Danes are really onto something and you’ll be asking yourself: Would I be happier living Danishly?

5 knots 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.