Saturday, December 5, 2015

Grounded...sort of!

As many of you know, July is my birthday month.  This year it was something of a sporting weekend celebration.  Having been priviliged to attend the dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony for the Pan Am Games, I then scored more free tickets to watch the rugby sevens with five friends. Canada eventually won.

My actual birthday itself involved an early start to get myself to a local cinema which was screening the Wimbledon men's final.  Despite my hopes and sporting my Roger Federer hat, my tennis hero sadly lost to Novak Djokovic so the rest of the day was spent trying to pull my bottom lip in!

A few weeks later, I set off on a cross-Canada adventure.  I flew to Vancouver Island and boarded a ferry to sail up the British Columbian Inside Passage.  It was a long and chilly but spectacular sea journey punctuated by wonderful views, breaching whales, soaring eagles and First Nations culture.

I arrived in Prince Rupert and enjoyed another incredible day sailing out on the water, very close to the Alaskan border, to watch humpback whales.  We were treated to an amazing sight of three whales bubble-net feeding.  The whales team up and then dive blowing bubbles.  The bubbles confuse the fish into thinking they are inside a net.  At this point, the whales breach and swallow as many of the dazed fish as they can.  The whales came so close to us (with engines off) you could smell their stinky bad breath!

Prince Rupert was also the start of an epic rail journey which would eventually bring me back home to Toronto.  The first two days were spent about the Skeena as we travelled inland towards the Rockies and Jasper.  Much of my time was spent in the 1950s observation car pretending to be Marilynn Monroe and peering out across the vast landscape.  Eventually, we caught sight of Mt. Robson, Canada's highest peak, and as we neared the town of Jasper, I caught a glimpse of a young bear ambling along the tracks just feet away from an oblivious lady walking her dog.

I had two nights in Jasper and stayed at a lovely place, Storm's Retreat, in the centre of the town.  This was my second visit and I spent a couple of days driving from lake to mountain to lake taking in the crystal clear water, fresh mountain air and even having a close encounter with a wolf along a back road. Jasper and its surrounds really are one of my happy places! 

Boarding a different and much longer sleeper train in Jasper, I again hit the rails.  On board the Canadian, I spent the next three days and nights rattling across the Rockies, Prairies and Canadian Shield to get back home.  Disappointingly, the weather was not that good so it rained or was misty for much of the ride but it still gave me a wonderful perspective on just how vast Canada is.  I also enjoyed life on board the train meeting lots of interesting travellers and enjoying the excellent service.

In September, after a lot of reflection, I decided it was time for a bit of a change at work in order to give myself a new challenge and develop my skills set further.  I am now on a one-year secondment at the Faculty of Medicine, still at the University of Toronto, where I am now Associate Registrar for Enrolment Management.  They are not short of students applying for the Medicine program but the work I am doing is to ensure the quality and diversity of applicants.  I am not travelling overseas on business this year but am visiting other campuses across the Ontario region.  I'm also involved in some interesting developments such as a new website launch and implementation of a customer relationship database as well as initiatives to bring in more black, indigenous and low income students.  Although I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss working in the international arena, it's been interesting to see a different side of university recruitment and to develop my knowledge and connections further.

One advantage of being in Toronto a bit more has been the opportunity to see more friends and places locally.  Over the past few months, I've managed to squeeze in a couple of lovely out of town trips with friends.  Stratford, the home of Justin Bieber, was visited twice.  Firstly, to see some Shakespeare and the Sound of Music at the Stratford Festival and secondly, to take in the edible delights of the garlic fest.  The Biebs did not put in an appearance!

I also made a trip north of Toronto to Midland and Penetanguishine where we stayed in a floatel on a lake and visited Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons, one of the first immigrant settlements in the region.  We also managed to get a bit of team rowing in on one of the wetland areas.

Another weekend was spent in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is a very pretty town not far from the US border and the famous falls.  Here, I encountered Steampunk for the first time and was very intrigued by this quirky sub-culture.  We had a great afternoon watching magic shows, listening to lectures on 18th century surgical techniques and seeing cookie-dunking duels - believe me, it's a thing!  The wacky costumes people had made were amazing.

Perhaps this is where I became inspired to develop my latest hobby - sewing.  I've taken a few courses at the Make Den to learn how to sew over the past few months and am planning on a few more in the new year.  I think I've inherited my mother's passion for it and am really enjoying the creativity and using my hands to make things that are both useful and pretty.  I was even kindly donated a sewing machine that a friend found by the bins at her apartment building but which, after a service, works just fine.  I'm not yet taking orders but I am now able to alter my own clothes and make a few bits and pieces from scratch.

Anyway, on that note, I shall sign off and wish you all a very Happy Christmas and New Year!  I will be spending the next month with my family exploring the jungle and beaches in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia.  Happy Holidays one and all!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Six Months on the Road's been a while and, as I have a bit of time to write at present and am enjoying the sunshine on my balcony, I am finally getting down to reflecting on all that has happened in the past six months or so.

Towards the end of last year, I headed back to the UK to spend Christmas and New Year with family and friends. It was great to catch up with everyone but almost as soon as I landed, I was thrust into something of a family crisis having to take my dad to hospital as he writhed around in agony. Turns out it was a kidney stone and my dad was in hospital for a few days until they managed to stabilize his pain. He still has the stone six months later but is on the list to get it sorted. My Christmas shopping was set back slightly but it didn't stop me from seeing people and enjoying the festivities. I also managed to get up to the Scottish border region and see my Granny for one last visit. She sadly died in mid-January after a fall from which she did not recover.

A highlight of my time in Leeds was having the opportunity to take my godson, Alex, to see Paddington at the cinema. We both loved it! Another highlight of our Christmas was that my Canadian friend, Darlene, who was mid-way through a round-the-world trip, joined us to see Yorkshire and enjoy a traditional Smith family Christmas. I think she was initially a bit shell-shocked by the over-indulgence as she flew in from a month in India. We enjoyed being able to show her some of our favourite regional sites and see Yorkshire through a tourist's eyes. Darlene has just returned to Canada having explored Europe and Africa after she left us in early January.

Not long after my return to Toronto in January, I again boarded a flight back to the UK. This was unexpected but I wanted to be with my family and attend my Granny's funeral in Scotland. It was a fitting tribute to a grand old lady and I was glad I went.

After a brutally cold Canadian winter, I was very happy to head south to the sunshine in March on a business trip to Colombia. I had not visited this beautiful country before and was really pleasantly surprised by all that it has to offer. Although I was very cautious in terms of safety, I used my free time to get out and explore some of the cities visited. In particular, I loved the walled old town of Cartagena and Islas del Rosario - so much so that my parents and I are planning another visit just after this coming New Year.

In Bogota, I was extremely lucky to have my own personal guide, my lovely friend and native Colombian, Alix. Alix gave me a great tour of the city and its surrounds for a couple of days. We ate at the famous Andrés Carne de Res restaurants, toured the underground Salt Cathedral and climbed up (the last bit!) of the chest-squeezing heights of Mount Montserrate. Towards the end of my trip, I went off on my own to explore the downtown and took a wonderful Graffiti Tour . I learned all about the different artistic styles and artists based in the city. I also visited the famous Botero and Gold Museums - both visually stunning. Fortunately, I managed to avoid being attacked by the rather vicious llamas in the main square!

In March the sun came out in Toronto and the thaw commenced. Although it was still very cold, I ventured out on a day trip with some of the students to the town of Elmira. Here, we enjoyed the world's largest Maple Syrup Festival. After a bone-chilling ride on a hay wagon to get into the sugarbush, we learnt all about how maple syrup is tapped and sampled some of the delicious baked goods made with the end product by the local Mennonites.

Much of spring for me was actually spent overseas. First, I headed to Istanbul for some meetings and was lucky enough to be there for the Tulip Festival - the city looked spectacular with all the floral displays.

I then flew on to the city of Baku in Azerbaijan for a whirlwind stay of 36 hours. This was a new spot for me to visit and I was very impressed. As soon as I stepped off the plane into the brand new airport terminal I knew this place would be different from what I had expected. Baku Airport was like a five-star hotel with bouncy carpets and incredibly glamorous decoration. Driving into the city my jaw dropped as I saw all the designer stores and high-end luxury car showrooms. I knew there was money here from the country's natural resources but was somewhat bowled over by the opulence. On the Sunday, I managed to get out for a short walk before work and explored the old Islamic quarter of the city - beautifully restored. I also walked along the newly-created sea-front promenade overlooking the Caspian Sea with the famous Flame Towers in the distance. All very fancy. When you learn more about how much all this renovation has cost in the run up to the European Games, things start to fall into place. It is estimated that the President has spent $8 billion on improving the city's appearance - much of it to reflect a Parisian-style favoured by his wife!

I moved on from Baku to Hanoi in Vietnam - a city I have visited many times and which I love. It was again a very brief visit but before work, I had chance to stroll around the lake and do a spot of shopping in the heat and humidity.

A couple of days later, I moved on to Bangkok, which was positively steaming! Super hot and almost unbearable to be outside. After a few days in the big city, it was a welcome respite to take a week off and head to the second largest Thai island about five hours' drive south of the capital. I took the ferry over to Koh Chang (Elephant Island) and spent a most relaxing week at the gorgeous Amber Sands Resort. Located on the quiet north side of the jungle-clad island full of monkeys, elephants and other critters, the small resort was so lovely that I only left it once to go shopping with the owner and get the money out of the ATM to pay my bill!

After a very long journey home, I returned to a much warmer Toronto gearing up for the start of summer. Life returned to normal for a few weeks before I took a short one-hour flight down to Boston for this year's NAFSA conference. I added on the weekend and had a super time exploring this beautiful city that I had last been to with my folks when I was five years-old. The weather was fabulous and I loved visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as well as Harvard. The annual conference traditionally marks the end of the work travel season for me and this year was the largest ever with over 11,000 international education professionals attending. It's always a great place to catch up with people I know but this year was particularly so, with former colleagues from the UK as well as, very surprisingly, a former boyfriend of mine who I had not seen in 13 years and was last known to be distributing pet food in Russia. It really is a small world!

Anyway, on that note, I shall sign off and wish you a great summer wherever you are!