We’ve moved to Mexico…

…Oaxaca to be exact, and we’ll be here for seven weeks. It’s not long enough to totally escape winter, or Covid, or the lasting effects of Trump, but it’s a very welcome change.

It’s not even really travelling, since we’ve been here before, but we knew what to expect – sun, warmth, colour, gorgeous architecture, art everywhere, fabulous food, lovely people and the opportunity to walk for miles, read and practice speaking our kindergarten-level, present-tense Spanish, which sadly never seems to improve.

While Mexico’s Covid cases have been very high, the state and city of Oaxaca have been much lower and stable and controlled. Their protocols may have something to do with it – they are considerably stricter than in Canada. Masks are worn always – indoors and outdoors – no exceptions. At the entrance to every store and restaurant, patrons are given a squirt of hand sanitizer and in most cases, temps are taken and guests are asked to walk through a mat filled with sanitized water. In some cases, guests’ clothing are sprayed with sanitized water.

This is a typical entrance to a shop. The guard backed away when I pointed my camera, but there would be no getting past him without being sprayed and sanitized.

While some of you might recoil at the thought of going to a market during these times, you could honestly eat off the floors of the two or three markets we’ve visited so far. Again, the entrances are being guarded by the likes of these two where you not only walk through sanitized mats, have your temperature taken, but wash your hands and then sanitize them. Armed guards are at the exits, in case you thought you might sneak in the back way.

Oaxaca’s markets are fantastic during normal times, but the extra level of cleanliness is much appreciated. There is one very large market, Abastos Market, that we have always been warned to avoid, but especially now. It is situated in the south end of the city in a bit of a rough neighbourhood and was always more than a little intimidating. A massive labyrinth of stalls with dirty alleyways, dim lighting and opportunistic pickpockets at the best of times, apparently Abastos did not get the memo about keeping things clean.
No loss – we have several others to choose from during our time here, which we’ll feature during upcoming posts.
The photogenic Mercado de la Merced.

Obviously no-one is making light of the dangers of Covid, but like everything else that life throws them, the Mexicans seem well-equipped to cope and carry on. Art is everywhere in Oaxaca, and Covid-themed art has found its way onto street murals.

This image can be found all over the city – not sure if he is “someone” or if he represents the common bond that we all share during this time.

We stumbled upon a small park with displays of art set up for purchase – some of it quite good. The agave plant (which produces the region’s mezcal) figures largely, as does the ubiquitous Frida Kahlo, although she seems a little more contemplative. Tough times for everyone.

This exhibit was dedicated to those who have lost their lives to Covid.

And, like so many other things Mexicans do so well, why not make their masks beautiful?

Most Mexicans are matter-of-fact about keeping a safe distance from others; they just do it. There are no pained and exaggerated face-averting body-swooping postures that we have encountered back home.

Even the dogs keep a pretty chill distance during siesta.

Let me introduce you to our new home. Ten years ago we met a couple, Jan and Dave from Massachusetts, who spend half the year in this complex in Oaxaca. They are back this winter and we’ve been happy to reunite with them for distanced rooftop drinks. These units are usually rented out, but due to Covid, we were able to snag a large one-bedroom – for just $700 CA a month!

Like so many houses in Oaxaca, this one hides behind a high gate and fence, giving passersby no clue as to what lies beyond.

There are about 20 units spread out over three buildings and three floors. This is the entrance.

We’re on the second floor on the first building and have a cute little patio leading into our unit. I have been having a good time watering and deadheading the plants – our own little garden for the next several weeks. There are also a number of shared rooftop decks to watch the sunsets over the mountains and the city.

Our living room. We love the coved brick ceiling and our in-the-treetops views.

Our dining room and kitchen. We also have a spacious bedroom, several closets and bathroom.

This compound was an operating weaving studio for number of years. This mural shows the late founder, Roberta French. Her daughter currently operates the business.

This building is to one side of us. Many full-time residents have created beautiful homes here, filled with Oaxacan art, textiles and pottery. Our friends Jan and Dave have the rooftop unit and balcony – probably the best view of the whole complex.

Just to paint an accurate picture for you, we also have a less-than-picturesque view outside our living room window.

A number of years ago, the complex was broken into by someone who gained entry by scaling a wall. A resident was beaten up during the robbery, and while thankfully they were not critically injured, the entire complex is now ringed by three rows of razor wire. Not even Spiderman could get past this.

I hate to even mention this because I am such a defender of Mexico and the safety of travelling here, but this is the reality of life in a poor country. Feeling safe and being safe are two different things. Doors have heavy-duty locks and windows have bars, albeit attractive ones. We walk with comfort but also with awareness of our surroundings. As a New Orleans police officer once advised me about his tremendously crime-ridden city, “Don’t be a victim.” So far, that advice has worked well for us throughout all parts of Mexico and we are so pleased to be back here.

One of the reasons we love Mexico are the people. They are such a fascinating combination of soft and tough, friendly and discreet, incredibly helpful and the very heart and soul of patience.

Here is an example. For some reason, direct deposit does not seem to exist here, so people have to pick up their paycheques, pension cheques, whatever and then line up to deposit them in the bank – twice a month. These are long, long lines and many of those waiting are older folks, in the hot sun, with nowhere to sit.

This would kill me. I hate waiting for anything – I’d be looking at my watch, sighing out loud, shifting my weight from one foot to another and complaining to anyone who would listen. The Mexicans may not like it, but they simply wait with grace and fortitude.

It goes without saying that Mexicans are hardworking, but we are always amazed by the sheer strength exhibited by many men. This man made multiple trips delivering cases of beer (four at a time) from the truck to the store. Sure, he’s young, but I’m thinking about back troubles or torn rotator cuffs in years to come.

Another element of Mexican life I adore is their devotion to family. Children are much loved but not spoiled, included in conversations, taught simple age-appropriate tasks and brought up to be a functioning part of the family. It was heartwarming to see the little kids out in the park, doing normal things.

This made me a little sad. These slides and bouncy castles are a fixture in most Mexican parks, and would normally be crawling with kids. Our poor children, with their new restrictions and their masks. This one had just a couple of children playing rather listlessly on it, but it made me think of our own grandson, who is 20 months old. Is he big enough to go down that slide on his own, or would his featherweight body become airborne? I’m going with the latter – essential learning for grandmothers who have forgotten everything they knew from when their own kids were small.

The food!!! Oaxaca is Mexico’s culinary centre and has developed a tremendous restaurant and food production scene. There are so many restaurants to choose from – the traditional family-run to the very innovative; the food trucks, the market stools, the taquerias, the bakeries, the cafes, the artisanal mezcal bars, etc. etc. One of our favourite things here is the comida corrida. This is a fixed-price lunch menu that offers starter, main, drink and dessert for between $4 and $14 per person, depending upon the fabulousness of the restaurant. Portions are usually on the small side, but this allows us to sample food from all types of restaurants without breaking the bank. In most cases, the decor is every bit as interesting as the food.

We will bring you food every blog posting – this one is from Casa Taviche.

Inside the decor was simple – pastel-coloured tables and chairs and art-filled walls. We began with a full-bodied broth filled with chicken, rice, vegetables and fresh herbs. Next we were served this dish (forgot the name) – succulent beef encasing a warm potato salad, with a sweet tomato sauce.

Dessert was a warm zabaione with fresh fruit, and chocolate cake crumbles. Stay tuned – we are doing this all for you.

We haven’t talked about the history, the architecture, the surrounding villages, the art and crafts, the mountains, Monte Alban, the indigenous people, the textiles, carpets, pottery, hiking, etc. etc. All to come.

We’ve been feeling a little disappointed that the many great museums are currently closed, but there is still so much to see and discover. We look forward to sharing it all with you.

We went to Chedraui, a large grocery store/department store to stock up with basics. When we passed by the furniture section, we were struck by this tableau. Another of the many diverse sides of the Mexican character that someone would think to place plush animals as decoy dinner guests. Hasta pronto!

The highs and lows of travelling during Covid

It took us such a long time to decide to make the trip to Greece, that even when we were on the plane, we were still questioning ourselves. We didn’t really feel comfortable until we had been in Greece for a few days and the sun, the people and the normalcy of life there calmed us down.

We can’t say we were right or wrong in our decision – I don’t know if that is quantifiable. We chose Greece because of their low Covid numbers and because of their government protocols. We asked ourselves how we would fulfill our responsibility to the Greek citizens to travel responsibly, and we answered by keeping distance, wearing masks, practising constant hand hygiene and avoiding crowds.

I think of navigating the world with Covid and compare it to driving a car. Every time I get behind the wheel, I am accepting the risks that it might not have a good outcome. A blown tire, sudden snowstorm, drunk driver, a moment’s inattention – all risky possibilities. I mitigate those possibilities by maintaining the car, wearing a seatbelt and driving defensively. I haven’t eliminated the risks, but I’ve lessened them and I drive almost every day without giving it a second thought.

So…the decision to travel was made, we arrived in Greece and then what? What was it like to travel during Covid? Short answer – the same and different.

I’ll start with the lows of Covid travel.

Loneliness: One of our great pleasures of travel is meeting people. We have a number of good friends we’ve met during travels and still keep in touch. Memories of pre-Covid travel include innumerable chance encounters, long chats, lunches and dinners with new friends.

We did find people willing to talk to us, but the conversations were shorter and more reserved, and no-one was inclined to suggest joining a table or sharing a bottle of wine, or meeting up later. As well, we did not meet a single Canadian, so we had brief chats with Europeans without feeling any connection. There was the one exception of a Parisian who was excited to discover we came from Vancouver Island. He is a diver and it is his ambition to come to Nanaimo and area for cold-water diving.

Sadness for the locals: We were struck by the resolute nature of the Greeks, and their wonderful hospitality in spite of the fact tourism is down by 75%. We were wondering if we would be the only guests in hotels or the sole diners in restaurants, and it wasn’t like that. There were people out and about; life going on. But Greece is hugely dependent upon tourism – how long can the small cafes, souvenir vendors, tour guides and boat operators survive? It was wrenching to have chats and encounters with so many Greeks and imagine they might not make it.

The highs of travelling during Covid:

No crowds!
Greece is one of many destinations that has become wildly over-touristed, and no, the irony of being a tourist and complaining that there are too many of us out there is not lost on me.

Santorini is a stunning island, but its beauty draws an inconceivable number of visitors – way more people than the tiny streets can reasonably accommodate. In high season, cruise ships drop between 11,000 and 15,000 tourists Every. Single. Day.

Pre-Covid, this would be a typical day in Santorini, with thousands of tourists inching along the alleyways, and thousands of cameras poised for the sunset shot.

Looking at this photo gives me the willies. I regard watching a sunset as a religious experience – it is a wondrous and solitary and reflective moment. I cannot imagine being crowded and jostled and anxious as hundreds of people around me chattered and whistled and clapped.

This was how Santorini looked during our visit:

Everywhere we went in Greece was similar. We could drop into any restaurant, easily find sunbeds on any beach, and not worry about finding a seat on the bus, ferry or plane. But yet, there were enough people around to feel like we hadn’t missed the party.

Greek hospitality (filoxenia)
The loose meaning of filoxenia means “friend to a stranger”, but there is a deeper cultural intention of extending courtesy and comfort to visitors. We found the generosity of people who probably could scarcely afford it this year to be overwhelming.
We visited very few restaurants that did not offer something on the house – a drink, some fruit, a dessert, and in the case of Crete – always raki.

Travel Similarities
There are certain precious elements that are common to almost all our travels, and we found them in Greece as well.

Discovering what we don’t know
We learned very quickly that our knowledge of Greek history and mythology was sadly lacking, but we knew that going in.

What I mean by “discovering what we don’t know” is that ineffable understanding that our tiny corner of the world and our tiny lives within that corner are not representative of how much of the rest of the world lives. Ours are not the only standards by which to live. When we travel, we learn that truth over and over again. That old saying about “not knowing how lucky we are” is true, but we also see that many people who have far less than us feel far luckier.

Getting rid of fear
I’m not a big fan of being afraid. Unless I’m being chased by a rhino, I consider most of my fears to be groundless, or at least manageable. The exhilaration of setting out on an adventure that may carry risk and require using judgement and common sense is one the biggest paybacks of travel.

Serendipitous book discoveries

I LOVE this one. When we travel, we only carry a couple of books with us, and hope that the book gods will provide. And they almost always do – in the shape of Take a Book, Leave a Book shelves in hotel lobbies.

The old standards – Ludlum, Grisham, romance novels – are reliably there, but so are the treasures. Books you’ve been meaning to read or authors you’ve never heard of turn up on the shelves – so exciting!

This time around, I picked up three winners – an old P.D. James The Lighthouse ; Cartes Postales from Greece by Victoria Hislop and Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keene. I had not read the latter two authors and I’m keen to find more of their work.

Travel buddies
Since we are together 24/7, it is important to branch off and give each other space as much as we can. It also provides the opportunity to experience what is unfolding in front of our eyes without ongoing commentary (often mine, I confess).

This is a very dear sight to me – Stephen walking with hands behind his back, lost in his own thoughts.

Time slows down

Without the familiar prompts and requirements of home, time seems to shape-shift when we travel. Every minute of every day brings something new that demands our attention. Whether it is a beautiful garden to admire or a bus we just missed by two minutes, we are fully engaged. That engagement means that our time does not flow by unnoticed and our days don’t disappear into weeks.

If I could figure out how to bottle that essence, I would, but in the meantime, here are words to live by.

Our experience travelling in Greece during Covid has just made us keen to plan our next trip. We won’t be foolish – we have a couple of months to get through yet as the second wave rolls around the globe, but if there is an opportunity – we’ll grab it.

We have added anew page to our site – Financial Summary. We have started it with this trip, and will make a feature from now on.

It began because so many people have asked us indirectly (and very directly!) how we afford to travel as much as we do. It’s a natural curiosity and we’re happy to share.

We want to be mindful of travel costs so that we can continue to live this lifestyle – travel, pay our bills and home and continue to save.

This is Stephen’s bailiwick – he is the plotter and planner of all things fiscal, and he keeps us on track.

We consider ourselves to be budget travellers. We are not adverse to staying in a hostel, but more likely we will find a modest hotel or Airbnb. We eat at tavernas, family-style restaurants, or do takeout. We stop for coffee, or beer or ice cream. We will not miss museums and attractions, but take advantage of half-price or free days, if possible. In short, we don’t do without, but we don’t waste our precious travel dollars – they can go toward the next trip.

If you are interested, please check out our page “Financial Summary” at the top of our blog.

And now, we are on Day Six of quarantine. It is not so bad – we have lots of little projects to do, and daily activities – exercise workouts, studying Spanish, reading, catching up on Netflix.

The weather is cooperating – we are not being taunted with glorious sunny days. We came home to this – our view from our condo.

And we have a lot to look forward to – once quarantine is over, we will be heading to Vancouver to see our little grandson, Leo (and his parents!)

Thanks so much for following. We wish you all a healthy, happy fall-into-winter and hope to see you back on these pages before long.

Getting lost in Chania

Well, not really lost – just momentarily misplaced. Chania (pronounced hon-ya) is all about discovering the alleyways and back lanes. Without our cellphone, we would have had a tough time finding our Airbnb, Xenon Apartments. We’re on the second floor, with the balcony.

We’re staying six nights in Chania, which is a beautiful, evocative small city on the north-western end of Crete. The Old Town is a series of laneways and narrow alleys that criss-cross up from the Venetian harbour and show a number of influences – Jewish, Turkish and Venetian – in the architecture.

Just around the corner from us is a building that was built in 1650 by Jews who were brought from Spain by Venetians during their occupation of Crete during the Middle Ages. It was originally a soap factory but is now a restaurant.

We also visited the only surviving synagogue, Etz Hayyim, which was re-built in the mid-90s. After Crete’s Jewish population was wiped out in 1944, the synagogue fell into disuse, but today is full restored and is open to all visitors. We were not allowed to take photos inside the synagogue, but this is a shot of the exterior grounds.

Other religious edifices are prominent, of course. The Mosque of Kioustsouk Hasan, which is now an exhibition hall, is a standout on the harbour.

The Agios Nikolaos cathedral is one of a number of Greek Orthodox churches in Chania.

It flanks the leafy Splantzia Square, where the Greek prerogative seems to have a foothold; men of all ages sit and gossip and drink coffee.

Chania has been a fantastic introduction to Crete – we are re-learning the art of slowing down, sipping our drinks and savouring our food.

While there is no denying the appeal of Greek food, after a while the palate is screaming for something a little lighter, a little cleaner, a little different. We discovered a fabulous vegan restaurant called Pulse, owned by an Irishwoman who has lived in Crete for 27 years and has successfully resisted the urge to eat lamb.

Last night’s dinner, overlooking the water: Stephen had a Superfood Salad

I had ravioli stuffed with polenta and garnished with fennel.

The Venetian harbour – ground zero for people-watching, eating, drinking and endless strolling. It is flanked by the Firka Fortress on one end:

…the Grand Arsenal at the other…

…and the Egyptian lighthouse that protects the harbour.

More harbour scenes – at dawn…

…and at dusk.

Although the marina was full of yachts, catamarans, luxury cruises and glass bottom boat rides, there was still room for the trusty Greek fishing boats.

So now that we’ve walked the promenade, let me take you through some of the alleyways. They are filled with cafes, tavernas, small inns, sweet little shops, and photogenic doorways and balconies.

and finally – this little fellow. He is a friend of our apartment’s proprietor, and his very proud young parents watched as we stopped to talk to him.

We had a bit of a setback in Chania – we had to cancel our plans to hike the Samaria Gorge. It is listed in all guidebooks as a “Must-do” – an all-day event that involves a very early bus ride to the trailhead, followed by a 16-km. hike through an outstanding canyon landscape, dropping from 1230 ft. elevation to the sea on the south shore of Crete. This was one of the things in Greece I was most looking forward to; I even bought new hiking shoes!

Two days ago, my back gave out on me; an episodic event that can be brought on by bending over to tie up my shoes, and results in a paralyzing vice grip on my lower back that is the mother of all muscle spasms. Every two or three years or so, I am in the grips of one of these hellish things; I think this one may have been brought on by the many hours on the plane, followed by my excitement and a failure to pace myself.

Luckily, I have found a therapeutic cream that has really helped, but certainly not enough to tackle a full-day hike. So very disappointing.

Stephen has been a trooper about it all – “in sickness and in health”, I guess. We could still do the beaches and Crete has bragging rights to a couple of beaches that consistently make it on the “World’s Top Beaches” lists. We chose to go to Elafonisi Beach – an exquisite beach on the south shore, about an hour and a half drive through the mountains.

We rented a little white Peugeot, and began the drive with a tiny bit of trepidation. The reputation of Greek drivers as impatient speed hounds aside, we also have a long history of getting tragically lost, so driving in foreign countries carries its very own adventures.

But not this time! Armed with our cellphone, and very comprehensive road signs, we soon found ourselves high up in the mountains.

The road conditions were terrific – mostly like the photo above, although with a bit more twist and turn.

And if you had a sudden irresistible urge to drink and drive, there were a number of raki shacks along the way.

And then, the reward.

Crystal clear water; warm enough but still refreshing, mountains as a backdrop and best of all – no crowds. Absolute swimming bliss. Elafonisi used to have pink sand, but apparently over the years so many people have taken home vials of sand as souvenirs that the true pink tone has changed and softened. An admonishing sign is posted – yet another thing of beauty on this earth we have failed to protect.

Tomorrow we head east for a few days in the small town of Rethymno. We’ll be in Crete for over two weeks, maybe longer. See you again in a few days.