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!