A Wonderland as A Tourist in My Own City

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I am going to whine a bit today. My father would refer to what I am writing about as first world problems. The company where I am now working hosted a family day at the local amusement park this weekend. This amusement park is a wonderland for children, with every kind of ride and flavour of junk food imaginable. I knew my children would love to go and a day at this place is dreamy for them. I also knew that a day at this place was my idea of a terrible nightmare. What to do? Do I tell them? Do I hide it and spend a lazy day at home? Or do I sign up and just do it.

I did it. I signed up and we went. In theory, a visit to this amusement park, Canada’s Wonderland, on a September weekend should be a bit quieter. Children are back at school and the weather is often not great. But summer just goes on and on for us this year, and my luck, it was sunny and over 30 degrees. The whole city showed up.

You know that sinking feeling when you finally rev yourself up and get excited to go somewhere and arrive to a chaotic scene? That was me when our car drove into the massive parking lot. Cars were parked from end to end, what seemed like thousands of them. We circled for a while and grabbed a great spot. I am sure that just having my son Matthew in the car guarantees me a good parking spot, but that story is for another day.

We got out of the car and immediately felt the beating hot sun on us. It was so hot outside that I could feel the sweat starting to bead on my neck and my shorts stick to my thighs in seconds. I threw hats on the kids’ heads, organized my backpack of supplies and dumped the baby in the stroller. Off we went into the park for a day at a child’s wonderland and an adult’s bad dream come alive.

The moment I walked through the park’s gate I wanted to turn around and leave. My throat was already parched. The beads of sweat had turned into a steady stream of water dripping down my neck and back. I was tired just from the walk from my car to the main entrance. My children and niece, who joined us for the day, even my husband, looked perky and excited. What did I get myself into?

Organizing the logistics for six people, all different ages and sizes, at Canada’s Wonderland, is a challenge. Matthew’s dream finally came true this year and he hit the magic number: 54. That is 54 inches tall, so that he qualifies to go on ANY ride. Julia, with shoes and puffy hair, hit another magic number: 48. That means she can go on almost any ride. Nessa, at 32 inches, is a bit more limited. I am 62 inches so it means I can go on any ride, but catch me going upside down and loop-de-loop. No way.

Every time we go to this wonderland it takes us a while to get in the groove, find our way around and do no more than stand at the entrance and yell at each other. Some want to go on a roller coaster and others want to start with a gentle ride. The baby would be happy to just run around in circles and maybe play with a cardboard box. I personally voted to run fast to the exit and head home.

We finally agreed on a simple ride that most could go on, and of course, it had broken down. So the older two headed for a roller coaster while we took the younger two girls to a gentle kiddie ride: the swans. The line didn’t seem too long on first glance, but it doesn’t move. We stood there, in the blaring hot sun with no shade in sight for about 5 minutes then had enough. Why does it take so long to strap a child into a giant swan-shaped boat?

We finally found another gentle ride for the girls with a reasonably short line and they were happy. Then we zoomed across the park to partake in a free buffet lunch. I didn’t care what the lunch was – all I cared was that it was free. A slice of pizza at this place is almost $8! And the line-ups for food? Oh my gosh. I would rather go hungry than stand in line for 30 minutes for low quality food.

After we filled ourselves with our free low-quality food, at least in a relatively cool covered area, it was back to the masses. We ate lunch in the corner of an area called Medieval Times, with castle architecture and all. But to get to the next ride we had to walk through the Oktoberfest celebrations. Imagine a huge area filled with picnic tables and hundreds of people drinking beer. At the centre of it all was a stage with a pair of middle aged men dressed in lederhosen on it, singing their version of popular music. And they were totally tone deaf. I tried my best to push through the crowds of drunk people who clearly didn’t notice the loud off-key music.

Back to the long lines for rides we went on. Have you ever noticed the very strong odor that people emit when they are crowded together in a long line on a hot day? The smell permeates everywhere and gets worse as the day goes on. I will say that at least, for the most part, the people standing in line for kiddie rides are pleasant and provide good entertainment during the long wait. They all smell bad but we smile through it all together.

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We made efficient use of seats on a ride and got all four in together

Winner of the oddest moment of the day came when I stood in line with my two-year-old for the toddler train ride. You stand in line for at least 20 minutes (this line is at least in the shade) so you can cram your adult behind into a kiddie-sized seat on a mini train and travel for 6 minutes along a slow track at 15 kilometers per hour. We all stood patiently in line with our small children until we made our way to the front. I chatted in a friendly manner with the woman ahead of me, who was in line by herself. I figured she was a smart one and was waiting in line alone while her child (or children) went on another ride. But no one had arrived when we arrived at the  front of the line.

The operator of the ride opened the gate for the woman to enter and stopped her when she clearly didn’t have a child with her. He explained that adults HAD to have a child with them in order to ride the mini train. Had to? Of course they do. Who would want to go on this ride unless they had a child with them? This woman laughed sheepishly and I was faced with a decision: do I look the other way and have him send her on her way or do I smile and invite her to join us? I invited her to join us. Yes, very strange, but she was pleasant and friendly and sang along with Nessa during our six-minute ride. We all yelled “choo choo” together.

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I survived the antique car with the two-year-old at the wheel

Since I only dare to step foot in this wonderland up to once per year, we always stay the whole day, until it’s dark and closed. The day wore on and eventually the heat subsided and the crowds thinned just a little. My eleven-year-old went on his first “adult-only” ride. The eight-year-old went on her first real roller coaster. And the baby experienced her first ever amusement park rides, long lines, sweaty people and all.

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Selfie on a swan with Matthew age 11
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Selfie on a swan in the same spot with Matthew, age 2

Once it was dark outside and the park lights were on we finally lumbered our way, with the thundering hordes, to the exit. On cue, my son announced he was hungry. A random stranger stopped us and handed us his unused food vouchers, worth $20. The park was about to close and our food selection was limited. But the Starbucks, of course, was still open and with $20 in free snacks everyone chose a treat.

After a long, hot, sweaty and hectic day at my children’s wonderland, when every muscle in my body hurt and I smelled like week-old bread, we ended on a high. There’s nothing like caffeine and sugar to perk you up, especially when it’s free. Thanks again to that friendly stranger who handed over your vouchers. You made my day.

Halifax is my Home away from Home

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I have had a bit of a whirlwind summer and have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit. As I have written many times, travel is the greatest gift I can give myself. Sometimes it is exhausting and frustrating but the stress and fatigue that come with travel are worth it. This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit and enjoy one of my favourite cities, Halifax. I have visited this city so many times that it has almost become my home away from home.

This summer I have spent every weekend in a different place. It all began with my trip to Scotland. The second weekend was spent at my family’s country home, near the southern shores of Georgian Bay. Then I had a weekend in Toronto, as we hosted family from abroad. And this past weekend I was in Halifax, the city I love so much.

The reason I traveled, with my family, to Halifax, was for the annual visit to our beloved Camp Kadimah, where my children go to overnight camp. Yes, I put my children on an airplane each summer and send them hundreds of kilometers away to Nova Scotia to go to camp. Besides the fact that Camp Kadimah is the greatest place for my children to spend a summer, it gives me the chance to visit Halifax in late July.

What is so special about Halifax, you ask?

First of all, it has all the amenities, history and culture that you get in a big city but in miniature. It’s not to say that Halifax is tiny, but it is a small city. It’s easy to get around, with polite drivers and friendly pedestrians. Fellow cars let you in when you change lanes and gently stop at crosswalks to allow you to walk across the road.

Then there is the waterfront, or as the signs say, the “Harbourwalk.” The heart of downtown, by the water, is a sprawling, clean boardwalk. It goes on and on, from the historic seaport where new immigrants docked in Canada for decades, all the way into the harbour to the casino. Along the boardwalk are restaurants, cafes, a couple museums, benches, stores and even a small playground. It’s adult and child-friendly, and during the summer it is populated by locals and tourists alike. We walked up and down this fabulous stretch in the morning, afternoon and even late at night and always felt welcome and safe.

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Nessa kind of enjoyed our first afternoon on the Harbourwalk with her grandmother and cousin
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This was my view from dinner on Friday evening
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This is the boardwalk, where everyone can be silly.
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Nessa invented a new kind of pole dancing at the Seaport.

Do I sound like a paid advertisement for the city of Halifax? Eek, that’s not the intention here. There is just this warm feeling I get when I am driving around, walking the streets or even checking into my hotel. And sometimes I wonder, when I bite into a fresh piece of halibut, tuna or haddock, if the reason I eat fish today is because of this city. I didn’t like fish of any kind until I tasted the real, fresh kind. I ate more fish this past weekend than I eat all year.

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We found a new Japanese restaurant and loved the tuna tataki in particular
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Enjoying a snack downtown with roadside food.

Every time I visit Halifax (and I have visited too many times to count) it draws me in and I begin to imagine what my life would be like if I lived there. No, I’m not selling my house tomorrow and moving to Nova Scotia. But the thought, the feeling, the question, jumps into my head over and over. People seem happier, more at ease and more full of life in this east coast city.

They are a stone’s throw away from beautiful maritime towns like Lunenburg and Mahone Bay. You can smell the fresh saltwater air even on a hot day downtown. It is not just okay but it’s encouraged to paint your house bright red or pale yellow. There seems to be a bar at every corner, if you like that kind of thing. When Waze tells me it will take ten minutes to drive across town, it actually takes ten minutes. There is a new unique central public library and also a Discover Centre. And Camp Kadimah is only a 90-minute drive.

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Need I say more? BEST ice cream.
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Selfie at COWS. Enough said.

Maybe I am just coming down from a high after an exhilarating four-day weekend away when I didn’t have to cook and clean. Maybe I am suffering from a bit of heat stroke after I walked the city for hours in what felt like forty-degree heat. Or maybe Halifax really is as great a city as I have hyped it up to be and there is a good reason why I consider it to be my home away from home. For now, I will keep visiting, and we will see where life takes me.

I Climbed Another Mountain and many Steps too

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Scotland is not a flat country. It doesn’t have huge mountains like the Rockies or Alps, but it’s hilly and curvy. In the middle of rolling hills, you may find a few small mountains. As you drive north, you pass through the Grumpian Mountains and into the beauty of the Highlands. In a car you climb and go down over and over again. On foot it’s the same thing. How many stone steps did I go up and down this past week? And I even climbed another mountain.

I wouldn’t say I am the most fit person in the world. I’m not in bad shape and I do eat well. I am short and slim and happy about that. Running is not my thing nor is hiking up a very steep path. But, I do enjoy moderate exercise, and I’m always happy to walk a fair distance, especially to see something interesting.

Over the past week I climbed and climbed. Most people would say that the best view is at the top. In an old castle there is only one way up: the stairs. Our week began with a visit to the Wallace National Monument, which stands on the edge of the town of Stirling. It commemorates the great William Wallace, and the monument is a massive tower, on the top of a hill. First, we climbed up an easy snaking path then we went into the monument and climbed 246 steps up a winding stairwell to the top. We learned about the Scottish-English battles of the 13thand 14thcenturies, enjoyed the views, then climbed back down. If I really wanted, I could have bought a t-shirt that said I had climbed the 246 steps. I didn’t.

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Photo from the top – 246 steps
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That’s the Wallace Monument. I climbed that.

We spent our first night in Inverness, which is the capital of the Highlands, and to get there, our little car had to work hard and climb through those mountains. On our second day we visited Loch Ness and Urquhart castle. At this castle, on the edge of the loch, we climbed down first from the road then up again to experience the spectacular views (and look out for the monster!). There is a reason why Kings, Queens, Dukes, Earls and Barons always had a bed chamber high up in the castle – it’s where you get the best view!

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Selfie from the top of Urquhart Castle, overlooking Loch Ness.

On our third day in Scotland we toured three very different castles. The first one, Dunnottar, on the edge of the North Sea and its famous cliffs, was all about the climbing. I didn’t count the number of steps we climbed to first go down to the castle and then go up, but I’m sure it was similar to that 246 we climbed at the Wallace Monument.

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Can you believe someone built a castle there?

Crathes and Craigievar castles were built in the 16thcentury by noble families, and they are both big and tall. What does that mean? A lot of stairs. Craigievar’s pink granite, seven floors and soaring turrets makes it look like it is straight out of a fairy tale. Some say it may even have been the inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella castle.  Whatever the inspiration, you need to have your climbing shoes on to visit its many floors and learn about the history of its many owners, including “Red” Sir John Forbes who found his daughter in the arms of his enemy’s son. He gave the guy two options: a duel or jump from the fourth-floor window. The kid chose to jump. Bad idea.

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This is Crathes Castle. Tall and slim.
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It’s hard to tell in this photo I took, but that stone is pink and oh the turrets.
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Selfie from the upper deck, seven floors up, at Craigievar.
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We passed a ski resort in the highlands. Really

The city of Edinburgh has some steep hills and it also has some extinct volcanoes in the heart of downtown. Really, I’m serious. Google it. The incredible and imposing castle in the centre of town sits atop one of them and behind a famous palace, called Holyrood Palace, down the Royal Mile, sits another. We toured the castle and hiked up the other mountain. I wouldn’t say climbed is even the correct word as it was a true hike, with very steep inclines, boulders, pebbles and cliffs. Unlike my winter icy mountain climb, I easily scaled this one and enjoyed the 360 degree view from the top (spot known as Arthur’s Seat) tremendously. And then I climbed down.

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This is Edinburgh Castle. Good luck climbing that mountain and storming this fortress.
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We had to take a selfie after we climbed this mountain in the city.
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The view from the top really is spectacular.

Traveling through Scotland I sat in a moving car a lot so that we could cover so much of the land. I also ate some scrumptious food (I tried vegetarian haggis, sorry I’m not adventurous enough to try the real thing). And I climbed. A lot. This country is not for the faint of heart. Bring your quality walking shoes and get ready to explore some amazing places.

The Answer to Everything in Life is 42

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Today I learned that the answer to everything in life is 42. Don’t worry, I will never abandon number 17, which will forever be my favourite. But today I learned why number 42 is so significant. Could it be that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything really is 42? Or is this number only significant to me now because today is my birthday and today I turned 42?

I guess 42 is a nice, even, solid number. It is divisible in so many ways (practice your math… 21 x 2, 14 x 3 or 6 x7). It shows you have definitely reached the age of some maturity, but you are still considered relatively young. I like that. I think 42 works for me.

And on my 42nd birthday I woke up in the beautiful Scottish Highlands city of Inverness and made my way across the country to the bustling city of Aberdeen. And I saw so much in between.

As I wrote about last week, my husband, David, and I just celebrated our 20th anniversary. We gave each other the gift of a trip, just us, to mark the important milestone. And we booked the trip to coincide with my birthday soon after. On Tuesday evening, with two kids at camp, and number three safely in the hands of my parents, we flew to Scotland for a short trip to a place I have wanted to see for so many years.

Why Scotland, so many people asked me. Aren’t there great places to visit closer to home or across Canada? Weren’t you just in London a few months ago? The answer to all of these questions is, yes. I love to travel in Canada and have been lucky to see so much of the country. And I will be traveling out to Nova Scotia in a few weeks to visit my kids at camp. But Scotland is a place I have dreamed about for over twenty years. It’s historic cities, ancient castles, lakes (or lochs as they call them here) and scenic countryside intrigued me. The rich history of its people, clans, kings, queens, warfare and dedication to its freedom drew me to it.

I’m finally here. And I love it.

I woke up this morning, on the day I turned 42, in the northern part of Scotland. Inverness is small but mighty and I loved my short stay there. Our first stop was a short drive south to the famous Loch Ness and a ruined castle on the shores of this mysterious lake.

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Meir this photo is for you. Yes this place is great.
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Selfie on a bridge over River Ness in Inverness

Urquhart castle changed hands many times (different groups liked to invade it and plunder it until it was finally burnt down, intentionally, in the late 17thcentury). As I stood atop the castle’s tower, I could see why everyone wanted this place. I was mesmerized by the scenery and beauty of the lake. I don’t know if a little monster lives in those deep waters or not (but wow do the locals ever play that one up and sell every kind of merchandise imaginable), but that is one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen.

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Isn’t this a great spot to celebrate a birthday?
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I could have stood and stared all day
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Which one should I buy? My daughter’s name is Nessa…

Back in our little rental we went (I could write a whole blog post about David driving a manual shift car on the left side of the road) and drove northeast to the town of Findhorn, on the North Sea. We had booked a two-hour nature and wildlife boat tour on the North Sea, and I’m so glad we did. We had blue skies and sunshine, gentle waters and warm temperatures.

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Don’t worry the car was in park here.

The only problem was that the wildlife, for the most part, decided to take an afternoon nap. The seals were cute and there were hundreds of birds. But the dolphins and whales were in hiding. No problem. The boat and water were pleasant, our guide was friendly and knowledgeable and the other passengers were friendly. David and I were the only non-Scots in the group, so maybe we seemed exotic to them.

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A selfie just before we left the dock.
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Do you see the seal’s head popping out of the water?
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Thousands of birds live in nests on this cliff

We took the long, rather indirect route along the coast all afternoon, on our way to our day’s final destination of Aberdeen. We drove through adorable beach towns like Cullen and Banff (the original one, not in Alberta) and stopped in the fishing town of Peterhead for dinner.

Thanks to too many Google searches, I discovered that Peterhead is one of, if not the largest fishing port in the UK and that there was a local restaurant in its fish market that was highly recommended. There was no mention of how hard it was to find. There are few things more frustrating, after a long day of driving, when you are hungry, then searching for a restaurant that doesn’t want to be found. After 30 minutes of going in circles we found the Dolphin Café, 25 minutes before it closed for the day. But it was worth it. Those may be one of the best fish and chips I have ever had.

We continued on our way south down the coast to today’s final destination of Aberdeen. I don’t know much about this city other than it is the hub of the oil and gas industry in the UK and it’s a popular location for my TV show House Hunters. I am sitting here in my hotel room right now, in the heart of downtown with a view over the city and even the water, and the city seems nice. We had to circle for a long time to find our hotel, and I won’t go into the details of that meltdown (as in my meltdown).

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I took this photo of the North Sea from the car. I just love it.

My birthday was topped off this evening at a local café, where I finally got my piece of birthday cake. What’s a birthday, especially birthday number 42, without cake. Sticky toffee pudding and toffee cheesecake. You can’t go wrong.

Our road trip through Scotland continues for a few more days, as we head into Cairngorms National Park to see some castles then down to Edinburgh for some city fun. I am loving every minute of my anniversary and birthday tour. The big question now is, where will we go next?

Can you be a Tourist a few Blocks from home?

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I love to travel around the world and often start planning my next trip while traveling on another. I was lucky enough to visit family in Israel in April then have a bonus few days to be a tourist in London with my husband and kids. And in a few weeks, to celebrate our anniversary, David and I will be in Scotland for a few days (details coming in July!).  But as I plan all these fabulous trips I sometimes lose sight of the great things to see and experience in my own city. Not only my own city, my own neighbourhood.

I had the opportunity to play tour guide to a good friend of mine this week who was visiting from Western Canada. Adam actually lived most of his life in Toronto and moved with his family to Kelowna ten years ago. He has taught me so much about architecture, heritage homes and walking through old city neighbourhoods. It’s hard to find even a small part of the city that Adam hasn’t seen.

But I found one, just a few blocks from my home.

I have tried to be a tourist in my own city as often as I can, discovering beautiful hidden gems like Spadina House, for example.  But sometimes it’s more than about just one house – it’s a whole neighbourhood, of houses, trees, a park and even a pond.

I am referring to a small, private enclave in the heart of Toronto called Wychwood Park.  It was created late in the 19thcentury as an artists’ colony and named after a town, called Wychwood, in Oxfordshire, England. The area was rural and the city grew up around it. There is even a creek that was damned to create a large pond, in the centre of the neighbourhood.

Taking a walk through this neighbourhood on a beautiful spring afternoon is my idea of heaven. Deep in Wychwood, surrounded by spectacular homes, two-hundred-year-old trees and even a pond, on the edge of downtown Toronto, is something special. You can’t even hear the noise of the city with all its hustle and bustle.

And Adam, the guy that knows everything about Toronto, its neighbourhoods and heritage homes, had no idea this special place existed. We walked slowly on the quiet streets of Wychwood Park then continued our tour through the wider area, with so many more beautiful streets.

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We had to take a selfie in Wychwood Park

Our tourist in my own city afternoon was capped off with a visit to the delectable Dutch Dreams. This place is more than just your basic ice cream parlour. You will find the usual basics like chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. But there’s also fun flavours like caramel turtle fudge, moose droppings or Hawaiian delight.

We each chose a single scoop in a sugar cone. At most ice cream parlours that’s all you get. But not at this place. Adam was a bit overwhelmed when his “single scoop” cone was topped with fresh fruit, whipped cream and even cotton candy. Yes, he ate the whole thing. So did I.

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Adam happily tackled his ice cream!

I just loved being a tourist in my own city again, really in my own neighbourhood. Living in the heart of the city I am surrounded by gems like Wychwood Park. Adam, when you visit Toronto again in a couple of months, let’s find another.

A Little Bit of Airplane Courtesy Please

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In my forty plus years I have traveled on many airplanes, all over the world. The older I get, the crankier I get. Air travel is no longer considered a luxury, where passengers kick back, relax and are pampered along the way. It’s stressful, tiring, long and sometimes, just miserable. Airlines are eking out every last inch of space (and comfort) on their planes, in an attempt to increase profit. Knowing this is the reality today, as passengers, we need to work together to make the experience better. And that begins with some airplane courtesy.

Why are travelers so aggressive? Why, for the most part, do I feel like I am in competition for space, a spot in line or the last drop of coffee, when I’m flying to my destination? After almost three weeks of travel and four different flights during that trip, I learned a few lessons and picked up a few tips. Here I will share some of my thoughts and offer a bit of advice on how we can bring forward some airplane courtesy and hopefully make air travel a better experience for everyone.

I won’t go through the whole airport experience, as that is a blog post unto itself. No doubt the airport experience has been made increasingly stressful because of security, a tighter limit on baggage and the sheer number of people traveling. The main thing I will say about getting through an airport is to give yourself a ton of time. If you think you need our hour, come 90 minutes early. If you think you need two hours, give it almost 3.

Let’s focus here on bringing courtesy to the airplane experience and how we can all work together to make that happen.

Getting on the Plane

The airlines try to bring some order to the onboarding process, but for the most part, they do it really badly. Air Canada, for example, thinks that the business class passengers at the front and Elite members should board first, as a courtesy to them. But why board the front of the aircraft first, creating a log jam? Why not board from back to front, making it smoother for all? And why does the pre-board for passengers with young children or those who need extra assistance also happen after the business class group goes on? Makes no sense.

But since, for the most part, this is how it works, how about everyone stands in an orderly line and allow people space to get through in the order they are called? If I am traveling with my young children, with a stroller and bags, let me through the tight crowd so that I can get on the plane before your zone is called. And when I am walking down the tunnel with my kids, moving slowly, don’t shove me aside and try to pass me. The plane won’t leave any sooner and your seat will still be there.

Once on the plane, try your best to put your hand luggage above in a relatively swift manner and don’t block the aisle. If just one person blocks the aisle no one can board. It slows down the whole process and people get crabby.

Reclining your Seat

This may be the source of most of my crankiness on an airplane and possibly one of the areas where showing some courtesy would go a long way. I just traveled on four different planes on British Airways, where only 1/3 of the plane was, let’s call it, the economy section. The rest of the plane was made up of first class (wide individual pods), business class (smaller pods) and premium economy (regular seats, but wider and more leg room).  The economy seats were small, barely cushioned and had the minimal pitch allowed between seats. I’m a small person and I felt cramped.

Add to the fact that I had a baby on my lap (I’m not paying for a seat for the baby until she turns two, I’m too cheap), I had very little room. So, when the person ahead of me, just after take-off, reclined his seat all the way, I had maybe a few inches between my face and his seat.

Now I will admit, according to the rules, a paying passenger is perfectly within his or her rights to recline the seat. If the seat can recline, one can do it. If it’s a long flight, overnight maybe and the lights are out, okay, recline your seat. But all the way? And right after take-off? Could you show a bit of courtesy and notice that you had a woman behind you with a baby on her lap, with no space? Or at least move the seat back up when the food is served so that my tray didn’t constantly fall on my lap?

We are all on this tightly packed airplane together. If we show some courtesy and work together to be comfortable, it’s a better experience for everyone.

Getting Up and Down and Walking the Aisles

I like to sit in the aisle seat when traveling. I recognize that I have much less personal space on the aisle than the window but I just need to know that I can get up when I need to. Never mind that anytime I see the “vacant” sign show up on the toilet I run there. I’m always worried about being stuck in my seat and having to go. It’s just a personal obsession.

But, my seat is mine. It’s not a spot to lean on when chatting with your friends in the aisle. If you are sitting behind me, it’s not a tool you use to get up and down, pushing me forward or backward. We all have limited personal space on a tightly packed airplane, but show some courtesy for the person in the seat in front of you, especially if that person is asleep.

And on the issue of the aisles, these too have become tighter as airlines cram more seats across the plane. I know the seat and legroom are small, but please try to keep your legs/feet/arms out of the aisle. I don’t want to trip over you or walk into you and get the evil eye from you when I do so.

The Toilet

Every time I get on a plane I calculate how many toilets are on the plane and how many people need to share them. The big planes used for overseas flights have a higher toilet to person ratio, but there are never enough. But I can accept that. What I can’t accept is people abusing the toilets and treating them like their own dumping grounds. Can’t we all show some courtesy and keep them clean?

Some simple suggestions to keep the toilets clean:

  • Wipe the sink area if you spray water everywhere
  • Flush the toilet (I shouldn’t even have to say this, but really?)
  • Pick up any toilet paper or paper towel you drop on the floor and throw it out
  • If you finish the toilet paper, paper towel or soap, ask the flight attendant to load more
  • Use your time efficiently and please, if you can, don’t take too long. Again, the toilet to person ratio isn’t great. No one wants to wait too long to use the facilities.

Getting off the Plane

Once we have landed at our destination, everyone on that plane can’t wait to get off. No matter how aggressive everyone is lining up to get on, it’s nothing on how people behave once the plane has landed and arrived at the gate. We get off front to back, and it always takes a bit of time. So why do people at the middle and back have to jump out of their seats, leap into the aisle and push their way through? There’s nowhere to go. If I am in the row in front of you and I can’t go anywhere, why do you think you can, or why do you think that shoving me out of your way is good behaviour?

The basic courtesy of getting off the plane is to let people off row by row, patiently waiting for the people in front of you to collect their items from under their seats or above and walk forward. If the person needs a few extra moments, be patient. Maybe offer to help them? Smile. Don’t push them aside or jump in front of them. Let them get off the plane. And if we all do this in an orderly and courteous way, the process will probably move much faster.

Some other Quick Tips to show some courtesy:

  • If the touch screen for the audio/video system does not respond immediately to your fingers, don’t pound on it. It will work soon, and remember, pounding the screen means pounding on the back of the person in front of you.
  • If you have the window seat, you don’t have to open or close your blind but be aware of the people around you. People may be sleeping, so lower the blind. If the plane is landing and there’s a great view outside, open the blind and let others look too.
  • The arm rests are for all of us to share. While you may have one on each side of you, remember that you are sharing one (or both) with the person or people beside you. Resting your arms, or worse, pushing your elbows out, can be considered obnoxious.
  • Use your headphones. If you are watching a movie or TV show on your own device, no one else wants to hear it. Put on your headphones and keep them at a moderate sound level so that only you can hear what you are watching.

It’s hard to behave your best when travelling. From beginning to end the process is exhausting. It is my belief that airlines aren’t making it any easier for us. If you are willing and open to spend a bundle of money, it is definitely more pleasant in any and all of first class, business class or premium economy cabins, but that’s not an option for most people. So, my advice is simple, be courteous. We will all be better off.

What to Expect when Traveling to London with Children

London

I have been traveling to overseas destinations with my children since my eldest was just 17 days old. Some people think I am crazy. Others may be envious. And a few more have applauded me. Over the past eleven years I have traveled with my children all over the world, from New Zealand to France to Hawaii to Israel and many other points in between. This past week I added England to the list, or more specifically, London.

Traveling with children is not necessarily an easy thing to do, no matter the destination. Even in an English-speaking environment like London, with all the amenities I could ever want at my fingertips, we faced a few challenges. Over the past few days, as my family enjoyed a short stay in this fantastic city, I took mental notes about what to expect and what not to expect, and hopefully I can share some advice with others who are planning a trip with children to London.

Accommodations

London is a very expensive city, and a simple, clean, small hotel room in a central location can be expensive. I discovered the joys of Airbnb a few years ago, when we traveled to Rome, and I never looked back. For a reasonable amount of money (not cheap but fairly priced), a family can stay in an apartment (we booked a two-bedroom flat near Piccadilly Circus) that is spacious, has a kitchen and separate living area. You can save a bit of money if you book a space with no elevator. Grab some groceries at a local supermarket and enjoy breakfast before going out for the day. And you get a bit of a flavour of local London life too thrown in this way.

What to expect at an Airbnb: more space, great location, a more personal way to stay in an international city.

Don’t expect: a sterile, formal space. It is someone’s home. Treat it with respect.

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Having a snack at the Airbnb. Spacious and convenient.

Food

You can find every kind of cuisine in London, and like the accommodations, it’s expensive. My children eat with their eyes and want everything they see. They eat two bites and suddenly they are full. So, I picked up fresh bread, cheerios, bananas, oranges, chips, and chocolate (Cadbury Dairy Milk of course) at the local supermarket and carried them with me all day. We snacked on everything from sandwiches and pasta to sushi and pizza throughout the day as well (which were partially consumed), but all the snacks were demolished. The kids asked for treats at every street corner, but we learned to say no. One could go bankrupt just buying food in London. Don’t fall into the I’m hungry trap with children. Throw them a banana and some chocolate and they will settle down.

What to expect when buying food: to see the same price you pay in dollars for basics, but you are paying in pounds (3 pounds for a latte? Yep, that’s almost 6 Canadian dollars).

What I didn’t expect: cheap groceries. Fresh baguette was only 9 pence (that’s about 17 cents!) at the end of the day, and it was good.

Transportation

Public transportation is world class in London, but for an outsider it can seem confusing. When I first did a Google search on the topic I was overwhelmed. There’s the Underground, DLR, trains and buses. Don’t forget the famous black taxi, and Uber has arrived too. I can’t bear to spend fortunes to travel from the airport to my accommodations or to sight see, and I highly recommend using public transit. You can buy an Oyster Card at Heathrow airport (card has a five-pound deposit which you can get refunded at a machine when you leave), or tap your credit card to enter public transit as well.

I won’t go into all the details of how to use the system, but I will just say it’s efficient, it’s cheap and the kids love it. My kids could have spent a whole afternoon riding on the top floor, at the front, of a double decker bus and been happy. Don’t panic when you see the many transit options. Do your research and it will make sense.

What to expect when traveling around London: A tube station every few blocks and more double decker buses than cars downtown.

What I didn’t expect: kids under 11 travel free on the Underground, light rail and buses.

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They could spend all day and night on the double decker bus
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Now that’s the way to ride a bus.
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This is the way to travel through London – the Tube. And wow, it’s deep underground.

Sight Seeing

There are so many things to do and places to see in London, depending on your own personal preferences. My kids are like border collies and need a daily run. Like I did in Israel, I stood by my mantra to Keep It Simple Stupid. While the museums are incredible and I personally could spend hours at the British Museum or Victoria and Albert Museum, children don’t always have endless patience (or stamina). The torture chamber and historical re-enactment of a siege was a hit at the Tower of London as was our afternoon in Greenwich, where they could stand on Earth’s Prime Meridian (longitude is 0 degrees, so cool) and run up and down the deck of the famous Cutty Sark sailing ship.

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Who wouldn’t enjoy learning about torture?
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Nessa wasn’t impressed with the reenactment at the Tower of London. Sister Agnes took it all in stride.
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Standing on the edge of time.
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The famous Cutty Sark sailing ship is a child’s delight. Nessa ran everywhere.

For me, the best part of traveling to a city like London is walking the streets and soaking up the local culture. We walked and walked, well over 20,000 steps each day. We walked past Westminster and Big Ben, London Bridge, the London Monument and St Paul’s Cathedral. Trafalgar Square. Through famous historical neighbourhoods And of course over to Buckingham Palace.

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Family photo at Trafalgar Square
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Best shot we could get at Big Ben, with the ongoing renovations
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The London Bridge isn’t gorgeous, but we had to snap a photo
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Matthew and Julia learn about the famous Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

I could write a whole post just about the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Surrounded by thousands of people, many of them crammed together to get a good view, it was a bit underwhelming. You need to arrive at least 30-45 minutes in advance to secure a decent viewing point, and we chose the top steps of the statue of Queen Victoria (but don’t sit on the top of the statue, Queen Elizabeth doesn’t like that). A bit of advice: the ceremony begins at 11 am and continues for a half hour. Start walking away, towards the Wellington Barracks, at 11:20 am. The path to those barracks is quiet, and the “old guard” walk this route at 11:30. They march right past you and the band keeps playing. The kids were thrilled to see the famous guards up close.

What to expect at the changing of the guard: big crowds, aggressive people

What I didn’t expect: the band played a selection of ABBA. And it was great!

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Nessa brought her new bear with her to Buckingham palace. He’s a guard too.
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Taking a break from the guards marching behind us to snap a selfie
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It’s hard to get a good view of the action. I stayed on the Victoria statue and David tried to lift Julia (in purple jacket) up high.

And here is a little more advice:

DO:

  • Wear a pair of comfortable shoes, a warm jacket (like a packable down) and carry an umbrella. The weather changes like my kids’ moods.
  • Take a boat ride on the Thames. We used the MBNA Thames Clipper and loved it.
  • Buy tickets to attractions in advance on the internet. No line to enter (they will scan a bar code on your phone) and it’s about 20% cheaper online.
  • Stay in a central location, on the Piccadilly Line. Why? Heathrow airport is on that Underground (subway/metro) line and it’s so convenient (and cheap) to take the tube to and from the airport and your accommodation.
  • Check out the seemingly endless choice of Cadbury chocolate, at supermarkets and convenience stores. I have no self-control.
  • If you love the theatre, buy your tickets online in advance. Unlike New York, where there is a plethora of discounted shows through TKTS, there are few day-of deals in the London West End. Like everything else in this city, theatre is expensive.
  • Remember that they drive on the left side of the road. Look down before you cross the street – and read if you should look left or right.
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Emma learns which way to look when she crosses the street.

DON’T

  • Choose an Airbnb above a bar or night club or on a street with a busy night life if you don’t like noise or the kids go to sleep early. Our place was great, but it was a bit noisy.
  • Stand at the front, right at the gates, of Buckingham Palace, for changing of the guard. You see much less and you are stuck there for the whole ceremony.
  • Let a little rain or dampness stop you. That’s what London is all about. Take it in stride.
  • Waste your money and time in a long line to see either Madame Tussaud wax museum or the London Eye. These are overpriced tourist traps. There are so many better things to do.
  • Buy souvenirs at one of the many stores that line the streets of the city. You can snag a deal at a stand on the street or sometimes pick up a quality, more personal item, at an attraction’s gift shop.
  • Only travel around by public transit (or taxi). Get out and walk. London is a flat, easy-to-navigate city. Most of the best attractions are a short walk from each other.

London is a great city, and I look forward to returning there with my children someday. Our visit was too short, as we only had two full days to explore. We covered a lot of ground, ate some good local food (okay, we ate a lot of Cadbury chocolate) and even spent an evening with my cousin, Jacob. It’s loud, lively and expensive. And I loved it.

It’s Worth the 12 Hour Flight to “Montreal” to Visit Extended Family

extended family

Israel is a long way from Toronto. If you fly direct, the flight takes about 12 hours. We travel this distance as often as we can to visit with our extended family. While there are so many wonderful things to do, places to visit and food to eat in Israel, the main reason we come is to see brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. I often joke that it’s my 12-hour flight to Montreal. And it’s worth it.

David and I both have extended family in Israel. Most of the family we visit with are David’s relatives, including his mother, sister and brother, but I have a few cousins too. We see these people once, maybe twice each year, and we savour every moment that we are with them.

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A delicious dinner at David’s sister’s house

I will admit that concentrated time with family can be a bit stressful for all, and tempers get heated sometimes. Okay, often. Yes, there are blow-ups. But isn’t that normal when extended family come together and live under one roof for any period of time?

We just enjoyed a wonderful few days in the desert with David’s extended family. His mother, Barbara, generously treated us to the field school experience in Ein Gedi, which we all enjoyed. It gave us an opportunity to be together and recharge our batteries in the most relaxing of settings.

A night hike in the desert, a trek to a waterfall, a visit to the ancient fortress of Masada and a swim in the Dead Sea were all done with extended family. We relaxed outside under a full moon in the evening and caught up with old friends. What a way to spend a vacation inside a vacation.

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Family lunch at Tel Be’er Sheva on the way to Ein Gedi
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Getting ready to go up the cable car at Masada

After we left Ein Gedi some of us traveled north, first through the desert, then through the heart of Israel and into the Galilee, to see my extended family. I have relatives in Israel who I only met in the last ten years. Over 100 years ago my great-grandfather traveled to Canada from Ukraine. Not all of his siblings joined him, and one brother stayed behind and eventually moved to Argentina.

The family stayed in touch for a while but eventually, over the years, were separated. My great grandfather’s descendants stayed in Canada, and some my great-grandfather’s brother’s descendants stayed in Argentina while others moved to Israel. To make a long story short, about a decade ago we found each other. And now we always get together when I come to Israel.

Not only do I love the beauty and serenity of the desert, but I also adore the magnificence and lush landscape of the Galilee. With fertile valleys surrounded by mountains, how could you not love Northern Israel? And since this contingent of my extended family lives in a small community in the Galilee, I always get the opportunity to go there.

My extended family lives on a Moshav. There is no direct English translation for this term as this kind of community is very unique to Israel. It’s a cooperative agricultural community. Everyone owns their own home and property and for the most part have careers and commute to a job every day. But at its heart it is still a tight cooperative farm.

We love to spend the day with our cousins, at their home, walking around the Moshav and touring the dairy cows on the farm. The kids went on a tractor ride and fed a few cows, some born just a few days ago. Matthew even asked if he could take one home.

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Julia had fun in the grass with the neighbour’s dog
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Matthew enjoyed a tractor ride with his cousin Tomer
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Julia had a knack for giving the cows the tastiest hay

Our trip is not over yet, and when it is we will have a solid 12 hours of flying ahead, to get back to Toronto. We still have a few more days to soak up with our extended family, and we relish every moment. It’s a long, 12-hour flight to “Montreal,” but it’s so worth it.

The Personalities of a Field School

field school

When you travel, you meet all kinds of people along the way. It’s part of the fun of being in a new place. It’s not just the sights, sounds and smells, but also the locals. People watching I call it. Some people you come across share similar characteristics while others are rather eccentric.  Where we are staying now, in Ein Gedi, in the desert, beside the Dead Sea, at a Field School run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, there are many different personalities.

There are many places just like this one all over Israel. With simple but spacious accommodations, a field school is a wonderful way to see Israel. During holiday times the field school attracts hundreds, if not thousands of families. It provides a good home base for hiking, sight-seeing and just relaxing.

It’s where you meet real Israelis. The challenge for me when I travel is that I want to get a flavour of the real culture of where I am visiting. How do locals live and what do they eat? How do they spend their free time? In Israel, the field school is where local families go on vacation. And here, I get a true mix of local personalities.

Bohemian Religious Man

I saw this man in line at dinner the other night. Dressed in what I could only describe as pink nurse’s scrubs and sandals, he had a long grey beard, long curly grey hair to match, and of course a kippah on his head too. He was surrounded by a large family, spoke a mix of Hebrew and English and had a friendly, Santa Claus look on his face.

Cool Boarder Nature Guide

We had the opportunity to take an incredible hike at night organized by our field school, through a dried-up wadi (river) near Masada. We were led, in the darkness, by two experienced, 19-year-old guides who were a wealth of knowledge of astrology, the local area and its geological history. One of the guides was a brown-haired, curly-haired guy with a big smile. The Canadians in us quickly discovered that he likes to snowboard but really, he is in to surfing and skateboarding.

Children, so many children

One can find gangs of children all over the field school. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they are everywhere. The children speak in rapid Hebrew (that I can’t understand) and run around the place like wild animals. They wake up early in the morning, and with their loud voices and rapid footsteps, they are a great alarm clock.

Generations

Something that intrigues me about the field school is that one often sees three generations from one family all here together. Our group is a great example of that, but we are not unique. It is not uncommon to see a grandparent chasing a two-year-old down the path or a man explaining the various food options at dinner to his father. It’s actually kind of sweet that the field school is a place for multiple generations of one family to congregate together.

Gold Chain Wearing Man in a Wife Beater Shirt

There are always a few of these, here with their families. This is one of those situations where a picture is worth a thousand words, but I don’t have the guts to take a photo of one of these men. He’s typically tall, has dark hair, has on a tight shirt with some jewelry and speaks in loud, rapid Hebrew. He thinks he’s cooler than life itself and boasts to all around him how great he is. And oh, is it ever entertaining to listen and watch him.

Friendly, Quieter Religious Women

Israel is a place with a wondrous mixture of people, including many religious Jews. They travel and experience the country in the same way as other locals, including visits to a field school. Many (but not all) of the religious women cover their hair and dress in a modest manner. Sometimes they are followed by a brood of children of all ages. And they are a staple of the field school experience, often sitting at the same table as the gold chain wearing man in his wife beater shirt.

Overweight Head Cook in the Dining Hall

Not only does one get a family-style accommodation at a field school, but for a reasonable fee, breakfast and lunch are included. It’s not five-star dining, but there is a good variety of food, including tons of fresh vegetables, fresh dairy at breakfast and meat at dinner. There is a hard-working team of cooks preparing the food. Each field school I stay at the team is always led by a slightly overweight cook, who only speaks Hebrew and has a permanent frown on his face. He is probably harassed every day by annoying people like me asking if there is plain yoghurt or more fruit in the back. He appears at some point during every meal and quickly runs and hides in the kitchen before another guest whines or complains to him.

I could go on and on describing the various personalities one comes across at a field school. To really understand the unique nature of this place you have to experience it for yourself. You get great views, the most beautiful scenery and of course the most interesting personalities.

**Disclaimer: that’s my mother-in-law, Barbara, and my father, Barry, in the feature photo. While they are not the typical personalities one finds at a field school, they are both an important part of my experience! And in this photo they are sitting in front of our rooms, with a view over the Dead Sea.

It must have been Hot when they Wandered the Desert

desert

I am at one of the lowest points on Earth. Well below sea level. I am surrounded by mountains, rocks and the deadest piece of water you can ever find. As I write, the sun has set, the moon is rising and there is a warm breeze outside. I’m in the desert. And it’s beautiful. And during the day, wow, it’s hot.

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Sunset over the Dead Sea and Mountains of Moab

People often ask me, when they hear that I blog or when they start to follow my posts, “Where do you think of all those ideas?” It’s easy. This blog is about my musings. Everywhere I go I get inspired by the people I meet and by my surroundings. Sometimes someone says something to me, and I have to stop and take note so that I can write about it later.

That happened to me today, in the desert in Southern Israel, when I visited a fantastic historic site called Tel Be’er Sheva. This is the ancient site of the city of Be’er Sheva. The modern city sits west of this small national park, where layers of civilization from a few thousand years ago remain.

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Some information on the ancient ruins I visited

It was a hot day, with blue skies and a blazing sun above us. As we walked towards the ruins of this ancient walled city, my mother joked, “It must have been hot when they wandered the desert.” And boom, my blog post came into being. Just a comment, a thought, a sight or a random meeting can inspire me.

So yes, it must have been hot when they wandered the desert. It’s hot in the desert. But I am amazed by the desert. When I see a small shrub growing out of dry rock and sand or a small stream of water making its way through the ruins of an ancient city I am astonished by the beauty of the nature around me. The desert is truly beautiful.

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Shades of deep green, lime green and brown, with camels, on the edge of the desert
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Look carefully at the beautiful delicate flower my daughter picked, in the middle of the desert.

And when the desert blooms, it’s even more beautiful. After we left Tel Be’er Sheva we drove along a windy road, with big signs saying dangerous curves ahead and descended hundreds of feet, deep into the desert. The landscape turned from deep green to lime green to brown, and each kilometer became more and more beautiful.

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500 feet above sea level. We have a long way to go.
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100 feet above sea level. Going down!
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Sea Level!
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100 feet below sea level and still descending!

And then suddenly, before our eyes, was the Dead Sea – the lowest point on Earth. It is a body of water with such a high salt content that nothing can live in it. It’s pretty much, well, dead. We continued to drive until we reached our destination: Ein Gedi. This is an oasis in the desert. It’s not some kind of strange mirage that you see in the distance in a cartoon. It is a place of beauty, with palm trees, grass and flowers, surrounded by a brown desert.

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My first glimpse of the Dead Sea

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Our group is fortunate to be staying at the Ein Gedi Field School – run by an organization called, in Hebrew, Haganat Hateva, and in English, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. We are high on a hill, with spectacular views of mountains and the Dead Sea. It makes you forget that you are in the middle of the desert. When I walk outside and soak in the beauty around me I understand why, even though it was hot, people have been wandering in the desert for thousands of years. Not only am I at the lowest point on Earth, I may be at the most beautiful one as well.