Hugging Trees Around the World

Ksenija and Mirek hugging a giant maple tree in Prague’s Kinsky Garden

What I miss most at this isolating time of Covid is hugging people. Can’t say that it is quite the same emotional high, but hugging a tree

Mirek hugging an oak in Pruhonice Castle Park

can indeed be very calming and grounding. Even if I don’t often feel compelled to hug a tree,

Ksenija hugging a giant eucalyptus in Wooramel, Western Australia

I like shaking hands with a tree – touching it’s skin. Every tree has a different bark, some are wrinkled and calloused as a hand of an old wise grandmother,

and some smooth as a trembling young bride’s hand waiting for the wedding ring to be slipped on her finger.

Bamboo has the smoothest skin of all.

Wait, bamboo is not a tree at all, but a grass. Though it grows in bamboo forests.

I can’t prove that trees have souls, but they definitely have faces and they keep looking at me!

Planting a tree is the ultimate sense of hope for the future. You hope your grandchildren will sit in it’s shade when you are long gone.

Mirek sitting under a giant linden tree, traditionally planted in the middle of European villages.

If you need shelter from a sudden storm, a tree can help.

Tingle State Forrest, Australia

It is the big trees that take our breath away. Some are so tall

that you look up and up and not see the top.

Some are incredibly wide and it is hard to know where roots end and branches begin

Buttress roots in Tasmania
Crazy roots in Jorhat, North East India

Look closely at these roots! They form a living tree bridge

East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, NE India

Tree roots can build, but also destroy

Ta Phrom temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Ten years ago on our first of many trips to Cambodia

Trees make a home for birds and… monkeys

A baby long-tailed Balinese Monkey, Monkey Forrest, Ubud, Bali
Langurs in Pushkar, Rajastan, India
Orangutan in Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, Indonesia

No matter what season, trees are always beautiful.

SPRING

The most famous spring trees in the world are blossoming Sakuras (cherry trees) in Japan. We made a sakura pilgrimage and chased the blossoms south from freezing Hokkaido.

First buds in Miyagaoka park in Sapporo, Japan
Hirosaki castle, Aomori, Japan
A kimono clad sakura admirer in Goryokaku park in Hakodate, Japan

SUMMER

As spring turns into summer, the trees give us the sweetest gift – their fruits. The joy of our childhoods are inextricably linked with picking cherries. I can’t help but wonder with a sad stab in my heart, will our grandchildren still have a chance to experience this delight?

A Monet like carpet of red poppies under South Carolina trees
Summer greens and blues

Autumn with its glowing palette of colors and falling leaves is my favorite season.

AUTUMN

A quiet pond reflection
Fall by the railroad
Japanese maple in Kyoto, Japan

We came full circle experiencing the autumn vibes in Japan. There is no place more magical than a Japanese garden with the many different kids of Japanese maples changing colors.

WINTER

With snow comes the quiet reflection of winter (and joyous shrieks of kids).

One of the most famous woods poems written was Robert Frost’s Stoping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Watching the woods fill up with snow while your horse gives his harness bells a shake is fun, I am sure

but so is driving through the woods on a snowy road, with snowlfakes falling and miles to go before we sleep.

Trees welcome the sun in the morning

and rock it to sleep in the evening

Whatever the season or time of day go ahead and hug a tree and you can also tell it your deepest secrets.

But mostly when it comes to trees or anything else in life… Stay curious!

Íslendingar of Past and Present

Grétar Thor Pálsson, carver&trader

The first Icelandic Vikings live on in the Íslendingar (Icelanders) of today. Well, their good parts do: their self reliance, yet close knit community values, hard work, sportsmanship, intelligence, and love of written language. Unfortunately the image of Iceland and Icelandic population has been molded over the years by a variety of very popular TV series showing the original settlers of Iceland as a bunch of ruthless killers

“Norsemen”, A Netflix original series, Season 2, Episode 1, ”East vs. West”

filling all the other peoples with horror whenever they showed up on the horizon in their fast moving open boats. After binge watching Vikings and The Last Kingdom we then laughed through the lighthearted “Norsemen” series. The Viking women and men are portrayed as beautiful and strong, wielding axes and/or swords ferociously while their long blond mane is streaking behind them.

Norsemen”, A Netflix original series, Season 3, Episode 5, ”Do You Believe in Dragons”

After half an hour glued to our iPad in the darkness of our bedroom, we feel like we have to get up and wash our sheets soaked in blood, before starting another episode.
If it were not for the entertainment industry we would have come to Iceland completely uninitiated. There were only a few rare Iceland related flashbacks from the past in my memory:

-in 1972 American wonder child/weirdo Bobby Fisher getting his Chess World title by

beating Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavík (appropriately so, when not plundering or ravaging the Vikings spent long winter evenings playing chess in lighthearted friendly competition),

-in 1986 President Reagan beating the Russians and beginning the end of the Cold War with Perestroyka man General Secretary Gorbachev during the Reykjavík summit (a peace-loving nation without a standing army providing a peaceful milieu for two Nuclear Superpowers?)

-in 2010 Eyjafjallajökull (Icelandic names are difficult to write and impossible to say)

volcano eruption beating and all together stopping the air traffic over North Atlantic and in Europe for days with 10 million tourists stranded. A devastating mayhem airport precursor to the COVID-19 impact in March 2020.


When we finally land in Keflavík International the first impressions upon arrival are rather confusing as no blood could be traced anywhere while walking from the gate to immigration. Smiling Icelanders guide us through the airport not to the bloodthirsty executioners as we might expect but to young attractive nurses taking us one by one into a private room and….no swords nor knives. Instead they stick long cotton swabs up our nostrils and down our throats to collect samples of our bodily fluids with pleasant smiles on their lips!

Imagining the smiles under the masks

All of that in still gentle manner before we are allowed to pickup our Hertz rental and drive to our pre-booked Hilton

New COVID seals on doors

to wait there in the luxury otherwise unheard of in the Icelandic history of simple housing. There we are nervously awaiting the ruling on our fate. Positive or negative? Luckily, over the generous breakfast served by lovely Icelanfic waitresses the merciful verdict is handed over in the form of an anxiously anticipated text message:

Thank you, it’s very kind of you, runs through my mind as we embark on our ten day drive, hoping to figure out, amongst other things what kind of transformation converted this bloodthirsty Norsemen tribe to pleasant peace loving cultural society.

We did read that Norwegian Vikings were actually not the first to land here. A few lonely Celtic priests found their way there in 7th – 8th Century AD, but they left terribly disappointed by absolute lack of women on this empty island. About two centuries later in AD874 the history of Viking settlement started when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson

became the first permanent Norseman settler. He landed with his wife and brother on the southern coast. After surviving the first winter he founded Icelandic capital Reykjavík (translated as Bay of Smokes) and the rest is history. Other Norwegians and to some extent other Scandinavians followed, bringing with them slaves, mostly women of Gaelic origin. After about one third of Icelanders very cooperatively signed up for DNA analysis the results prove that indeed their roots are a healthy mix between Nordic Y chromosomes and X chromosomes from the British Isles. Some speculate that some British women might not even have been taken as slaves. They actually followed Norsemen voluntarily! Why? There is an interesting theory that women enjoyed enormously watching those raiders and traders bathing regularly and combing their shiny long hair, thus making themselves attractively clean, nicely smelling creatures, after using a practice unknown to their own men of that time!

In the initial period called The Settlement, Icelandic population ballooned in less than 60 years to above 30,000! Good reproduction activities combined with immigration can produce miracles. And even as Iceland population jumped more than twelve times, now standing at 364,000+ the country is still more or less empty. With total area of about 40,000 square miles it has barely 9 Icelanders per square miles. And with its shore line almost 3,100 miles long and Iceland maintaining a 200 nautical-miles exclusive economic area there can be plenty of space for enthusiastic fishermen and fisherwomen. Less than 120 Iceland residents can enjoying exquisite fishing per each mile of their precious coast.


It did not mean necessarily that the Norsemen would be happy sitting at home fishing and farming. “Go West, Young Man!” was a rallying “Call of the Wild” for them. The North Atlantic some thousand years ago was a much warmer place (the first Global Warming without Greenhouse Gases?) and they happily visited and even settled in a place they called Greenland.

Note: The boats they used were much smaller and simpler

They ventured even further to another dry piece of land they named Vinland which by sheer coincidence was re-discovered by Mr. Columbus some five hundred years later and renamed America.

Unfortunately when arriving in Vinland, some locals were already claiming the living space there. As Norsemen preferred to be Masters of their own Universe nasty conflicts evolved. After killing some, but not enough to change the equation, Norsemen packed, turned around and left for Iceland just content to be killing each other back home!
Life in “Splendid Isolation” was hard enough through harsh winters without having to constantly look over your shoulder anticipating the next raid from your neighbors. Living conditions were poor and much energy went into keeping the simple dwellings warm. The dwellings of modern day Icelanders are still quite simple,

but the innovation in clean geothermal energy for heating provides for significant improvement and enjoyment of indoor spaces.
The typical housing in the time of Leif Eiríksson,

a super-Star of Iceland history, the first known European discoverer of Americas, can be seen at the historical site called Eiríksstaðír.

It is a former homestead of Erik the Red, a person of almost mythical standing for Icelanders, and father of Leif Eirícksson.
When not sailing the vast waters of North Atlantic, contemplating the future of their nation, and occasionally spilling blood, they spent their days and long winter nights in this rather poor housing. This is supposed to be a place for a nobleman, something we would call high end of the real estate market of that time! A longhouse of about 550 sq.ft. area with turf walls five foot thick set on base of rocks. In spite of the walls’ thickness its thermal insulation was so poor, that a permanent fire had to be kept in the long central fire place

filling the interior and lungs of residents with well conserving 24/7 smoke. The original Icelandic forests paid the final price for such poor heating management. Those forests are long gone, and the by-product of their disappearance are enough pastures for those idyllically beautiful sheep and Icelandic horses! If you think the longhouse interior could be a little bit more attractive and comfy you better think thrice. Guiding us through this excellent specimen of architecture was extremely knowledgeable local woman, seen on the photo above in the background. She provided us with interesting details from the life of rich and famous of Norsemen High Society, insight to the treatment of slaves (always very cruel and bloody), the facts of sharing the very private elements of life with the whole family (not always cruel, but not very romantic either,

How many can fit into one bed?

considering limited square footage available for the number of people and animals during the long winter nights close to the Arctic Circle!), and the ways of solving issues between neighbors (even more blood all over the place). Erik the Red, the original owner of this homestead, was a gentleman with temper running on a very short fuse, always embroiled in disputes. After yet another conflict with the neighbor who killed all his thralls (understand “slaves”) he slaughtered the neighbor in revenge, and was expelled from Iceland. He left for Orkney where he killed two more guys, and on and on and on. Good job, Erik, good job!


By now you would think: “Oh my, is there anything in those times indicating that Norsemen had started mellowing just a little bit?” Well, there were some hopeful signs. If you are browsing throughout the official history of human mankind you would get a strange impression that the other half of humans (with few sweet exceptions like Cleopatra, Mary Stuart, Jean d’Arc, etc ; you know how they ended, right?) were delegated to light physical disciplines such as working fields, collecting firewood and water, weaving warm blankets,

washing dishes, bearing children, treating injuries of their strongmen and after a full day’s of back breaking labor in the last resort of desperation whispering gently in their husband‘s ear:“Anything else I can do for you, honey?” Icelandic women were, I visualize, different. Actually physically quite strong, and remarkably independent they could own property (to the contrary in the rest of Europe women were the husband’s property; oh wow!) and could ask for divorce. To this day Icelandic women continue to build on those strong fundamentals and are considered to be in the position of the most equality in the world. Quite by coincidence we came across the statue of this remarkable strong woman explorer who undertook eight sea journeys!

Her name was Guðríður Þorbjarnadóttir, born AD980 and outlived three husbands. Read on how her special position in the history of Iceland and America is secured forever! Around the year AD1000 at twenty years old, already widowed twice, Gudrid organized an expedition with her third husband Þorfinnur to that piece of North America oothey called Vinland. They intended to settle there and she was the first white woman to bear a child, a son, the first born American of European descend! His name was Snorri, born in Vinland, and we all know the law: “Born in America, American for life automatically!” On the photo above, Snorri is carried on the shoulder of his mom in the memorial raised close to town of her birth on the southern shore of Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

Guðríður’s life is a fascinating story intertwined with important figures of history of Iceland. Her second husband was the younger son of our hot headed friend Erik the Red. Gudrid was mentioned in historical sagas

Saga of Eric the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders. Guðríður converted from paganism of early Norsemen settlers to Christianity, and some of her descendants were either Bishops (males) or spouses of Bishops (females) in Iceland. Her son Snorri built a church at their farm in Glambaer.

Later in her life after the death of her third husband, she traveled to Rome to meet the pope – what an accomplishment for a woman, a single woman. There were not many like her, I remember just Eléonore of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II and mother of Richard the Lionhearted. She made it to the Holy Land, a little bit further than Guðríður, but more than a century later. And Eléonore to her advantage was definitely a lady of higher means!

I, as a person with lack of religious belief, do have strong doubts that Christian religious fervor could have seriously contributed to the mellowing of the hard core Norsemen society. The human history teaches otherwise. Probably more effective must have been establishment of Alþingi (“Althing” in English transcript), the oldest surviving Parliament in the world, in the year AD930. Yes, long before Magna Carta, my friends! This body did not have just legislative arm. It functioned as the highest judicial arm of Icelandic self-government; wow! ALL free men could attend Althing, the longest running parliament in the world. Those sessions were usually the main social event of the year and they drew large crowds of farmers and their families, parties involved in legal (remember judicial function?) disputes, traders, craftsmen, storytellers and travelers. It managed to end the blood feuds and corporal punishments.

The center of the gathering was the Law Rock, a rocky outcrop on which the elected Lögsögumaður guy (Lawspeaker) took his seat as the presiding official of the assembly. For a country with such an early start in democracy and state institutions it is strange to know that it got independence from Denmark only in 1944, when Denmark was too busy being occupied by Germans. It probably helped that at the beginning of WWII British, Canadian and then US forces arrived in Iceland in large numbers. An interesting repeat of history then happened as recounted by our Erikstadir guide. Icelandic women very really really impressed with the spick and span clean shaven soldiers in lieu of their fish smelling compatriots. And you bet that didn’t go down well with the local guys.
If you want to see Althing, it is quite close to Reykjavík on the shore of large Lake Þingvellir (Thingvellir) lying on the impressive seismic fault line between

Walking between two plates

North American and Scandinavian tectonic plates. It was here that Althing was forced by Norwegian king Olaf to accept Christianity as the State religion early on in AD1000. There is a small historical church in this location which

is consistent with simplicity of all religious as well as secular buildings you can find in this country. Of course, with slight exception of Reykjavík and a nice contemporary chain of Foss Hotels we had the opportunity to enjoy a few times during our trip.
Move a half millennia forward to see how far the standard of living improved. The progress is quite visible in its front view.

The reduction of turf usage helps visually quite a bit, and where it was still heavily used, the window openings make

its interior space surprisingly lighter as well as the usage of stoves for heating much healthier. The complex has its own church and cemetery around it

always as simple as possible. We found a varied palette of colors for churches, like this beautiful sample in a rather innovative black in combination with white trimming:

Truly a daring design in pure shapes and simple lines on the backdrop of distant, snow sprinkled mountains with a sensitive complement of the sheep family arranged in front of the compound’s front gate every morning and evening by the staff of a nearby luxury hotel for photographic needs of the hotel guests.

Icelanding churches might be small and simple, but they do come in a variety of colors.

Icelandic builders must have faced lack of wood as the forests, mentioned before, were mercilessly decimated for heating. Driving around we came to a small village of Hólar, which was the Episcopal See for Northern Iceland. Hólar’s current church was built in the middle of the 18th century at the site of five other, older ones!

Wars, religious transformations, or fires do not treat wooden structures kindly, so parishioners decided: “Enough is enough! Let us use something more durable!” and erected the church front from the nearby mountain‘s red rock.

You can see in these two pictures taken a few minutes apart, how changeable the weather in Iceland can be. This can not be said of Icelanders, they are steadfastly pleasant and friendly. Here we were welcomed by another knowledgeable guide who knew practically everything about his church and answered kindly all the questions we bothered him with during our long visit. We could not believe our eyes seeing fantastic workmanship and art.

The special surprise were two very old bibles, one in the church itself

and one, a rare copy of Old Testament in Hebrew displayed in the replica of the bishop’s house from 14th century.

All those wonderfully simple and aesthetically pleasing churches of Iceland reminded me of the cultural shock I experienced during my teenage years when I first traveled to the Baltic Coast. After heavy dosage of Central European dark, overly dramatic, heavily gilded baroque churches I could hardly believe that church interior could be almost

unbearably light, pure, and simple, almost gay in its expression. What a feast for the eyes! Everything warmed up by the kindly guide/priest’s presence. His big fluffy dog was a pleasant addition.

We were taken by surprise at how few dogs we encountered in Iceland. Yes, there were some hard working Icelandic sheep dogs out in the pastures, descendants of dogs brought by Viking settlers, but few pets. It seems that Iceland is more of a cat country. It didn’t come by total surprise then to find a bizarre total ban of dogs in the capital. The dog ban was issued in 1924 at a time when the population was overwhelmingly rural (just opposite of today) and Reykjavík was still small, but rapidly growing and overcrowded fishing town. The ban was only lifted in 1984.

Talking about bans, a few years after the dog ban was lifted, in 1989 exactly the Beer Ban was lifted as well, and after 74 years of only drinking wine and spirits the Icelanders could say Skál again with beer.
It would not be fair to leave unattended the progress of regular Icelandic housing in the last 50-100 years. Driving around the country you cannot help observe local preferences not to overspend on major ticket items with focus instead on cost effective functionality and comfort. Indeed Icelanders did stop using turf as a cost-effective material and built the simple light comfortable houses (the initial idea for Tiny Houses?) which serve them and us, tourists, very well.

The money saved on the house is then invested in a swimming pool or at least a hot tub. Icelanders are crazy about their hot water baths, another relic of the Viking times.

You can hardly see many Ferraris on the mostly two lane local highways with uniform speed limit which is barely 55 miles per hour and frequent signs banning overtaking on long stretches of straight roads. Only a complete idiot would not figure out that Ferrari is for Icelandic traffic seriously over designed and a complete waste of money! But with no public buses plying the countryside (ok, we did see ONE in our ten days) people do buy lots of cars and there is probably no country in the world where there is such a mix of cars. Icelanders are a brave and hardy stock, and they are used to driving under driving rain and on sleek ice. (And camping on ice, too, brrr). They also love crossing deep rivers and driving on glaciers and not all are smart enough to use big monster trucks so Search and Rescue teams are assured life long secure employment.
We did also notice a certain modesty when it came to sculptures and public art.

God Thor in a relatively human size

This one was one of the more grandiose memorials which at first looked more like a decorative pile of rocks.

The Bárður Snæfellsás statue was created by local artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Who was that Bárður guy? He was a half-man, half-troll who lived here after fleeing Norway. Another violent individual involved in a severe family argument, he exiled himself to the Snæfellsnes Glacier. This hot headed guy fortunately did not kill anybody, at least not that I am aware of! For centuries, the locals believed he was their protector and called him the Guardian Spirit of Snæfell.

On the way to this memorial I was slightly misled by my co-traveler (it happens rarely and mostly not intentionally, but still it does and she knows how to get my attention!). I was convinced there was to be a memorial to my favorite writer Jules Verne who located one of his many fictional adventure novel to a volcano

Voyage au centre de la Terre, First French édition 1864

crater here in Snæfellsnes Penninsula. We drove in circles around the Google maps dot proclaiming Jules Verne memorial, but could not find it.

Only partially disappointed by finding this other (for me) impressive piece of art l was happy to admire it for simple use of readily available material. As a matter of fact there is so much good quality rock lying all over Iceland that it would be quite easy to make a killing exporting their rocks all over the world.

Volcanic (Indian?) Rock

or

Fjadrargljufur canyon palagonite rock

The best in our view are the basalt columns (formed when magma cools slowly and cracks into columns) found in many places. On Reynisfjara’s Black Beach

are the most striking hexagonal basalt columns of the Halsanefshellir cave.

They are supposedly the inspiration behind the Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavík.

We saved this one for our last afternoon. Just as any other Icelandic place of worship we found it blessedly empty, confirming the population’s laidback attitude towards any religion. They prefer to worship the sun in the plentiful outdoor coffee shops.

Hallgrímskirkja Church belongs to (Lutheran) Church of Iceland, the largest denomination in the country. It was not planned for it to be the tallest religious building in Iceland but….the church leaders wanted its spire to be taller just to outshine Landakot’s Church, the cathedral of the Catholic Church of Iceland standing a few blocks away. And their ego beat the State architect’s Gudjon Samuelsson’s design! The church, which is quite recent, from the second half of the 20th century, did not impress on arrival. But it does grow on you, the longer you look at it.

After the stark exterior the interior is a wonderful surprise of luminous light.

Back outside the kids were happily playing around the statue of Leif Eriksson.

No wonder, their parents come up close to the top in worldwide happiness surveys.

They have lost their zeal for shedding blood, and live in harmony and equality.

With so many places closed and few people about due to COVID we had, to our chagrin, less opportunities to meet the locals. But those that we did, were just wonderful.

Here again is my horse guide Helga.

We had such an immediate warm connection that she offered me a summer job on the farm and I was sorely tempted.

Ad here is an artist in Reykjavik, who dropped what he was doing and told us all about his family of sculptors and potters and Icelanders’ affinity for skulls.

I promised in the last blog to tell you about the Shark Sign. We were desperately looking for a morning cup of coffee all over the Snaeffelsness peninsula and came to a farm that was also a big shark museum. Normally we would be really interested in shark exhibits but that afternoon the coffee craving took over. While the museum was opened, its coffee shop was closed. But when the owner Gudjón

saw our need, he opened it just for us and personally made us two cappuccinos and then recounted his family’s history of hard work. And then wouldn’t let us pay for the coffee!

It is fascinating to know that most Icelanders can trace their family roots all the way back to the .first settlers and that despite the fact that they don’t even have family names, but use a patronymic system. Their names are set up from their father’s (occasionally mother’s) name plus ending of son or dóttir. So Stefán Gunnarsson (son of Gunnar) would have a son named Y Stefánsson and a daughter called X Stéfansdóttir. Add to this the fact that you can only pick first names from a list of preapproved names by Icelandic Naming Committe and I don’t know how many people then end up having the exact same names.

Even the nameless brief encounters with fellow Icelandic travellers were lovely. As in willing cooperation of this young lady to model for our photoshoot her hand-made Icelandic sweater at the famous Kirkjufell waterfall.

The sweaters were attractive, but only appropriate for the hardy Icelandic stock of Viking descent, because the wool was way too itchy for us.

We were told that the best way to meet Icelanders is to jump into one of the many hot pots. With the sharp wind always rearing its cold head we were not tempted until the very last day. We spent a few hours awaiting our returning flight’s midnight departure at the man-made Blue Lagoon

disposing of the runoff water from the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power plant, conveniently located some 10 miles from Keflavík International Airport. At this COVID time the normally overcrowded ”spa” was nearly empty and we did not have a chance to encounter many locals, but in the best of Icelandic traditions we submerged in the pleasant water with a free drink in hand. Your choice: non-alcoholic or alcoholic. Guess which for us? No need to guess twice.

P.S. This is our 3rd and last post on Iceland. We are now home in California, enjoying the adventures with our newborn granddaughter.

We still have some posts in the works and would also be happy to hear your suggestions or questions. And yes, our Bucket List continues to grow longer!

Land of Ice and Infinite Raw Beauty

Iceland, we have done you wrong! Please forgive us, we will sing your praises, in repentance, forevermore.

CLICK ON THE VIDEO of the Skogafoss Waterfall !

Iceland was never high on our Bucket list.

So true for Iceland!

And there were good reasons for that. Firstly, it was, like other Scandinavian destinations, always exceedingly expensive. Secondly, it became excessively crowded, peaking at 2,3 million visitors in a country of only 360,000 people.

Well, not anymore. In this crazy 2020 year of travel, Iceland was empty,

Immense parking lots devoid of tourists

like every other country around the globe. Except that Iceland was incredibly successful in fighting COVID-19 and hence poised to open up to tourists first.

And your intrepid crazyparents were on the first flight from Prague to Keflavík international airport on June 17th.

Despite much trepidation (will the flight go, or the airlines file for bankruptcy first, will they let us in…?) our one and only plane was met with efficiency and speed. After two quick COVID swabs, yes, unpleasant, but free and totally worth it, we were in.

For once Hertz was there, the only rental company opened at night. The girl at the desk was so excited to see us, her only customers, that she gave us a triple upgrade.

And off we went into the late sunset, or actually early sunrise.

That’s the thing, with June days so very long we could drive to all late hours of the night on totally empty roads.

The few local cars we met, whizzed by, or overtook us immediately, stupid tourists following the limit signs.

Well, not only were we forewarned about the speed traps, more importantly, it was lambing season and the sheep moms with their cute little twin babies often wandered into the road.

Our plan was to drive the main Ring Road or Route 1, the only road that goes around Iceland.

Theoretically one could drive its mere 1,332 km (828 miles) in a few days, but with the awe struck photographer on the passenger seat the stops were exceedingly frequent. How could they not be?

We added two days on the Snaefellsnes peninsula and minimized our Reykjavik stay to one last day. A few extra days would have been good, but then, aren’t they always?

Never have we slept so little on any of our travel explorations because even when we finally got to bed, it was impossible to close our eyes. The show outside of the panoramic windows was ongoing and ever-changing.

Just when you would think that the sun has finally set in a blaze of pinks and purples and oranges, there would be a burst of sun rays from the clouds or fog and the sun would start rising again.

Despite the catastrophic weather prognosis of 10 days of 80% rain, the Norse gods smiled upon us and all together we only had two days of drizzle.

We had plenty of sun and dramatic clouds often chased by cold blustery winds.

One day there was even a record-breaking 24 degrees C (75F) which to us seemed a good time to peel off our puffy jacket layer,

while the tough Viking descendants stripped down to shorts and spaghetti straps. No wonder…

5C=41F

As the country’s name denotes we did expect plenty of ice, but found the presence of glaciers so close to the road astounding. It would have been cool to take a super Jeep and go walking on the glaciers, but even with a short hike one could get really close.

For those of you who haven’t met a glacier up close, there is often a lot of black mixed with white, especially nowadays with global warming and pollution.

The one place that was top on my Iceland list was the Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón)

and especially the unique Diamond Beach at its mouth.

I was looking forward to spending some creative fun time photographing the many pieces of ice on the black sand. Alas, this was our one day of rain, so the stop was very short.

Still, a few fun shapes emerged from the shots taken from under the umbrella.

Ice Salmon?

or

Big Haired Ice Lady sniffing perfume on her wrist?

Snow and ice for sure, but what really surprised us was how green Iceland was. From the large swaths of green pastures

munched on by sheep and horses to moss-covered glacier-fed stream banks, glorious green was jumping at us.

And there were many different colorful flowers. Some were tiny, brave, alpine flowers growing in tough rocky conditions

and some were surprisingly scarce radiant Arctic poppies.

The biggest surprise was seeing the enormous areas of blue and purple lupines by the sides of the roads or creeping up the mountains.

Lupines are a nonnative plant, considered by some an undesirable invasive species. It was introduced in the 1970s to help combat soil erosion. When Vikings came to Iceland from Norway in the late 9th century, they found a land so thick with woods they could only explore it by ways of rivers. Very soon they managed to cut all the trees down to build their homes and keep them warm in the long winters. The few forests of trees now standing were replanted only some 120 years ago.

Weeds or no, lupines are an impressive sight that we enjoyed again and again.

Now, where are the famous Icelandic waterfalls, you might wonder and why have you kept us waiting? Well, I guess the waterfalls are an Icelandic cliche, but honestly, they were indeed exceedingly beautiful and each unique, so we never tired of them, even though we are not real waterfall chasers. There are hundreds of waterfalls, small and big, gushing off of the side of mountains and canyons.

Gulfoss waterfall

Because of the sunny weather we were treated to rainbow shows in many places.

Skogafoss waterfall

Yeah!

Some waterfalls show two different faces, front

Butter cups of Seljalandfoss

and back

Seljalandfoss waterfall cave

Some are easy to get to, like Godafoss, where the pagan gods’ statues were thrown into the water, if not oblivion, after the switch to Christianity.

Others demand an early morning hike, like Hengifoss.

Halfway up

We have to share all this wild beauty with just a few other travelers, and it feels like we are back in the golden olden days when travelers were few and everyone actually talked to each other and asked for advice on closed roads and opened coffee shops.

Comparing notes is helpful indeed because sometimes road signs have not been removed after winter.

And the roads have not been repaired either… still, we bravely press on and after a lot of bouncing, we arrive at Detifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe.

I guess that is enough waterfalls for now. Then there are other phenomenal sights like geysers and more.

Saving those for the next installment.

Your Own Slice of Paradise

Where do you go in your mind when instructed to close your eyes and imagine a perfect place where you feel safe and happy?

I am immediately transported to a green meadow with a rich tapestry of blooming wildflowers encircled by buzzing bees, surrounded by tall spruce forest, edged by white birch trees. And enhanced by the occasional visit from the local beauties… This green meadow is a real place in a quiet corner of the Slovenian Alps. Here my parents have built a wooden log cabin and my children spent their carefree childhood summers.

We are here now and again in between our different travel adventures. Every morning we wake up to the silence enhanced by the trills of the meadow birds, measured by the steady coo -coo of the cuckoo from the forrest. The fresh mountain air wafts in through the half open window and the sun streams in, illuminating the wooden planks of our bedroom. I count the burs in the ceiling, remembering my dad and uncle putting it up plank by plank every free weekend.

In my mind and my life this place has always been a refuge. I counted the days till the school holidays began so I could take our girls to a place where they could run free, picking flowers and wild berries and climbing trees, and I, relieved of the stresses of modern-day parenting, could sit on the deck, overlooking the meadow, book in hand and a pot of tea at the ready.

In times of struggles, just the thought of this place gave me strength. If everything went to hell in a handbasket I would pick up the pieces and go to this cottage by the woods.

In the rare times of really dark mood, probably just after lost elections or when watching really depressing news I would imagine WW III breaking out and me and my family heading up to the mountains, living off wild berries and the potatoes and vegetables grown in the small garden my mother so skillfully tends to every summer.

Having been traveling for the third year in a row, I realized how important it is to have a little slice of paradise, a temporary refuge from the vagaries of nomadic life. Even when we returned to California for the first Christmas we didn’t go home, for our home was rented to a lovely Australian family. I only stopped by once to pick up some itinerant mail and introduce myself to the tenants, that I have only met on Skype once. It was strange to step into our old house, I felt like an intruder into someone else’s home. It was their home for the year, with their children draped over couches and their shoes and books and musical instruments scattered about.

I don’t know how real retired nomads do it? The ones who sell their homes and all their worldly possessions and go traveling around the world permanently. Perhaps a few years down the road we might get to that stage, too. For now, our home is still awaiting our return, the plants in the garden are still (over)growing and the neighbors ever so rarely drop a line.

While I am happy to plan new and better adventures all the time, I do realize what a blessing it is to have an occasional break in a safe heaven. Besides the stops to see my family in Slovenia, we also regularly drop by to see our loved ones in Prague. We are lucky to have a use of a family apartment where we keep some of our things and slowly fill the blank walls with exotic finds from our travels, hand woven textiles and masks and wild boar necklaces. It is a most special regular stop on our travels for we have two little Czech grandkids that are always excited by our arrival, and we sometimes even cross paths with our American kids traveling around Europe.

In the world that went crazy with Coronavirus fears we were so grateful, we could make it to this slice of comfortable and safe paradise to wait out the crisis. Some of our travel friends got stuck on the road for months in much less pleasant places and circumstances. We have never spent such a long time in one place on our travels, but after initial self quarantine and gradual lessening of restrictions we were able to have some interesting in depth adventures discovering glittering Prague and history-rich Czech countryside devoid of any and all tourists.

Our Asian worry free slice of paradise on Koh Samui is at the guest bedroom of our generous friend Jenni’s beautiful home. We have stopped at her colorful home a few times on our travels through Asia to rest, recoup, and plan in peace the next steps on the journey. To have a familiar face pick you up from the ferry or airport, to drop your jet lagged body into a familiar bed with fresh linens, to not think where you will find a late night dinner is such a welcome break.

Somebody asked me the other day where do I most feel at home? Is it Europe or United States? I didn’t have to think twice, the answer was just there, clear as day. I feel home wherever I drop my bag and pull out my pajamas. Sure, I am happy to return ”home” be it to the Alpine cottage by the woods, the Prague city apartment or the California house. But it is with the slightest tinge of regret and a whole new level of excitement that I lock the door behind me when I hit the road again. For many many people, it is difficult, nay impossible to understand the deep-seated desire to travel. They love their home and their community and they are happy to stay put. Great for them! For the rest of us, the world is our temporary playground or permanent home.

I believe some travelers are bitten by the travel bug (often when quite young) while many of us are born with the “wandering shoes” on. Sometimes we can trace our desire to explore to a family branch. I am sad I never got to meet my grandfather on my dad’s side to hear his stories about his vagabond life building water wells and repairing all things that needed fixing in villages on the way.

In fact, crazy as it may seem, the inherent urge to travel can supposedly be traced back to one gene, which is a genetic derivative of the gene DRD4, which is associated with the dopamine levels in the brain.

The gene itself, which is identified as DRD4-7R, has been dubbed the “wanderlust gene,” because of its correlation with increased levels of curiosity and restlessness, for the most part.

Wanderlust, the very strong or irresistible impulse to travel, is adopted untouched from the German, presumably because it couldn’t be improved upon.

It consists of two words:

wander

Verb

a passionate or overmastering desire or craving

What are the things people lust after besides of course sex?

Some are gluttons, or as it is more acceptable to eat just for fun today, they are called – “foodies”.

Some women might lust after handbags or shoes.

Some people are adrenaline junkies.

I freely admit that I am a travel addict. This fact became abundantly clear during the two months of COVID shelter in place. Even though we were not forced to stay inside like many other people, and we roamed abundantly within the borders of the Czech Republic, it was the knowledge that the borders were closed that really vexed me. That and the uncertainty of future travel. The thought that we might never be able to travel again was devastating to my psyche. I was on edge, irritable, and depressed. Life without travel had no meaning.

I scoured the news on countries with the best COVID outcomes and the possible reopening of borders. I figured Iceland would be one of the first countries to welcome tourists back, as they had very few cases and a great testing scheme. And with tourism being 10% of their GDP and 30% of their export revenue, I gathered they will be itching to get it going again. And voila, when they made the announcement that they will reopen borders to European tourists on June 15 we were poised to buy a ticket to Reykjavík from Prague. It was the drug fix I needed. Immediately the feeling of wellbeing spread through my veins. The need to get out of the apartment diminished. I would gladly sit at home, reading my Iceland guidebook and digging on the Internet for the best waterfalls the whole next month, just knowing that Iceland is awaiting our arrival.

I got the travel bug early in life and after every travel adventure I would come back to visit my beloved grandma. In her little kitchen I would find my colorful postcards prominently displayed and proudly shared with family and neighbors. For the rest of her life she would ask me, “Haven’t you had enough of traveling? Haven’t you seen everything?”

No, Grandma, people like us never have enough. The more we see, the more there is to see and discover. My Bucket List gets longer and longer. While in the beginnings there were great European cities with museums and galleries galore

then exotic countries with ancient temples and ruins, now there are secret tiny slices of paradise scattered wide and far. And besides beautiful places, we also enjoy different immersive experiences like native festivals or camel fairs or adventuresome scuba dives and horseback rides.

The longer we travel, the more important is the people connection. We enjoy meeting other travelers and sharing our experiences or tips from the road. On our last South American adventure we met a number of interesting and inspiring couples that we still keep in touch with. Here’s to you, bird watchers from Chicago and camper van vagabonds from Brazil!

We like staying in Airbnbs not because there is often an added comfort of a kitchen and washing machine, but because they are often run by warm, welcoming and chatty people. Here’s to you Anne France in Argentina and Bette in Brazil! We have had some wonderful welcomes from volunteer hosts Servas International members around the world. Here’s to you Stan and Marion in New Zealand and Ita and Avram in Israel. And here’s to the random strangers who shared a warm moment of connectedness!

(note: click on this video)

We don’t often have guides, but when we do they really bring a heightened level of understanding. I can easily find all relevant historical or geographical information in a guide book or online, but to have a chance to ask personal questions about life and family is a huge bonus. In that we find that hiring a female guide is a huge plus. Here’s to you Yuli on Sumba and Heba and Gigi in Egypt!

When people hear about our travels around the world, we often get asked a silly question: Which is your favorite country? We have favorite places for unspoiled beaches, tall mountains, blues lakes, vast deserts, green jungles, or depth of history, layers of culture, ancient civilizations, animal kingdoms, vanishing tribes, exhilarating adventures, or just best fishing.Tell us what defines your secret travel paradise and we will direct you to one or quite possibly more places.

If we were young again and looking for a new home as we did so many years ago, we would probably make a different choice. When we speak with young people wishing to leave their home and country we always say, “Try to go to New Zealand. Right now it is the best country in the world with most progressive policies and amazing young woman prime minister.”

But really, the truest answer to the question which is our favorite country in the world is simple:

The next one!

 

99 Best Toilet Signs on the Wall

Or did you think it was 99 Bottles of Beer on the wall?

Get it?!

It is our 99th post, believe it or not. No worries, we won’t make you scroll through 99 beer bottles, nor 99 toilet signs, though we have collected that many and then some on our travels.

Finding 99 local bottles of beer or 99 good restaurants is easier, but much less important than locating the very vital nearby toilet in time of need. And when you are on the road, that time of need can become urgent, possibly depending on what restaurant you had your dinner at.

While in many “civilized” countries you will find clear signs declaring Restrooms for customer use only, in “less developed” countries kind shop owners or even a local family will graciously let you use their own private facilities.

Queue for the loo?

I still remember this one time many years ago in India, when I desperately searched, stomach-churning, cold sweat running down my face, for a toilet. “My kingdom for a toilet!” cried king Richard III. Or was it a horse?

A merchant seeing my need opened his door and without a word ushered me to the back. Kind sir, your generosity and empathy will not be forgotten.

A strange juxtaposition

It is always so very helpful in foreign lands when important signs occur in a familiar language and/or alphabet.

And if the alphabet fails, representations come into play.

Yet at times human forms are not helpful at all.

Maybe the locals can see the difference between the man and the woman here, but we sure can’t.

And if you are not local and don’t know the language,

this smart play on words won’t help you either.

These guys at Hoggie’s restaurant were trying to be cute, but also informative.

If you are from a country that calls toilets very squeamishly Restrooms, Bathrooms or Facilities (talking to you, Americans!),

you will struggle with this one: WC= Water Closet in British English, used widely in Continental Europe, too, for the toilet. Unless it says FIFA in front of it and then it might be World Cup soccer/football.

Some signs, on the other hand, can be very creative, but maybe kind of too specific.

Or, really, TMI

And some totally out there and definitely not for the faint of heart. Way, way too graphic.

Just like a shag carpet your home, a toilet sign can date your establishment. Right?

A lot. Like, these children were put up when I was a kid.

These ones, I think are timeless:

While these ones are just plain fun:

And these from a national park Down under very ethnic:

Are these two classical or a bit sexist?

Marilyn squatting in the bushes…
James Dean smoking in the john…

And these ones too far in the opposite direction?

How about this one from a restaurant called Garage?Just right?

We share the work and the toilet equally.

Hmmm… big talk, but maybe just a little bit condescending? Humor me!

The true sign of equity is this opportunity for both, moms and dads, to have a chance to attend to their parenting duties.

But what do you do when you have a baby and you need to attend to your own pressing needs? The Taiwanese have the perfect solution:

The corner child seat… anyone ever left the toilet and forgot the kid behind?

We love the instructions found in toilets around the world.

Some are very simple and straightforward…

Some are open to interpretation…

Others are perfectly clear as for expectations…

Then others are a bit more long winded…

This sign is Gluten Free

This one on a farm in the outback gives a fair warning about the toilet lid:

The matter of the proper position of not only the toilet lid but also the toilet seat, should be addressed in any and all religious prenuptial courses and possibly added to prenuptial agreements, lest it is grounds for justifiable divorce. Of course, the toilet seat has to always be in the down position unless you want to be murdered in your sleep after your queen unexpectedly sits on the cold porcelain throne in the middle of the night in the dark. She didn’t want to turn on the lights, because she didn’t want to wake you up, you moron!

There might be one exception to this rule. You could possibly want to keep the seat up at all times if you had a charming toilet like this:

Pescadas… Washout… closet, huh, interesting!

I see the barmaid in this urban setting found a special solution to her toilet seat conundrum.

We do appreciate clarity in the area of toilet paper disposal.

In many countries, you are asked to never ever flush the toilet paper down the toilet as it will clog the antiquated or inadequate piping. You DO have to put it in the bin.

Though some toilet paper is just too cool to throw in the toilet. Or maybe even use…

As for the buildings in which the toilets stand, let me mention just three:

The most opulent ever golden toilets at the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) in Chang Rai, designed, built, and owned by painter Chalermchai Kositpipat.

The most colorful and quite famous toilets designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser in Kawakawa, Northern New Zealand.

The weirdest and darkest toilets we have ever set foot in were at the Baan Dam Museum (also called Black Temple) outside Chang Rai designed by the artist Thawan Duchanee.

Hitchcock would feel at home here with the birds.

I do hope you enjoyed our toilet saga. Here is a Post Scriptum on special toilets in Cambodia:

For the last ten years, I have been involved as a volunteer with the Cambodian Community Dream organization. We have brought education, health, nutrition, and clean water to tens of thousands of people in the countryside. It is always a special privilege to visit the village families in the shadow of Angkor wat temples. Yet no other time was I so gratified and touched than when we visited a family who built an outdoor toilet – a brick latrine, with our help and sponsorship. A mother excitedly ran out of the meager thatched dwelling, carrying a disabled boy in her arms. Through our interpreter, she thanked us profoundly for helping her care for her child. We have made her difficult life just a little easier since now she could carry him to the latrine close to her home instead of hauling him into the bushes behind the house. My eyes still well up with tears now, remembering. At that moment I felt I have arrived as a human and that my life was not in vain. Since I was a teenager I tried to live by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of success:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

I am sure you have had your successes and touched many lives, but if you are so inspired to help a family with a much-needed latrine please reach out to me or simply check this link:

https://www.theccdo.org/building-latrines

Thank you!

My young Californian friend Taby in front of the latrine donated by her family.

Romanian Rhapsody in Blue

Through futuristic sunflower fields sown thickly with sleek New Age wind mills we slipped into Romania. On small country roads, only occasionally passing a horse and cart loaded to the brim with fresh hay, we sped towards a tiny village of Plopul on Sfante Gheorghe arm of Danube. There we had arranged for a private boat tour and a stay at a restored traditional house. The house was absolutely charming in its authenticity and simplicity except for a crucial detail: it did not have the promised air conditioner. With mosquitos descending with the evening we hightailed it out of there. “No worries, there are plenty of other accommodations on Booking.com,” I said as we turned towards the bigger village of Murighiol. “I am not booking anything until I see it,” my husband was adamant.

Well, let me tell you, only at the height of Sakura season in Japan did we have such a hard time finding a decent bed. I will spare you the crazy details of being turned away from guest houses that showed availability online to people not calling us back with directions to their place. The first night we ended up in a ridiculously overpriced old communist resort where an International conference of Fisheries was in its final stages with a “traditional” music group performing. With the secure knowledge of the air conditioner humming away in our drab room and an introduction to excellent Romanian dark beer I was able to join in the festivities with a few rounds of kolo circle dance. Afterwards I transferred my enthusiasm to killing some nearly frozen mosquitos on the ceiling of our room. Do you know what is the most effective way of their extermination? You take a bed pillow and you throw it up at them with all your might. Compared to a hand or actowel, the large thick pillow surface prevents their escape.

The next morning our search for accommodations continued. It was only through an accountant at a very fancy resort kindly calling her friend that we got a cute apartment at a place that was actually sold out. Our disappointment continued with surly slow services, and mediocre food, including the boniest fish in the world. When we recounted our frustrating experiences to traveling Romanians, they had no good explanation.

“It is the Delta,” said a young chap on vacation with his family. “We don’t get treated any better. Please do not let this spoil your Romanian experience. You will find it much more developed and tourist friendly anywhere else. ” And he was right. At the end Romania was our favorite Balkan country and the Delta, too, redeemed itself at the end.

I absolutely fell in love with the sweet little white and blue thatch covered village houses, many dating back centuries and some beautifully restored. Folk architecture of perfect proportions with lovely hand carved details. In our wanderings through the countryside we came across white and blue churches, too, with gleaming cupolas and golden altars.They were quite a richly adorned apparition in otherwise poor Delta villages.Turns out the blue communities are the descendants of Russian-Ukrainian Lipoveni, the dissenters (Old Believers) from the Russian Orthodox Church, who in the 18th century wanted to escape the persecution of their sect.

But it was the early morning boat trip to the Delta that sealed the deal. To avoid the tourist trail and explore the smaller channels we first drove a good way on the banks past old homesteads and haystacks to the edge of the water. As we climbed into our small floating boat all the troubles were forgotten and our hearts expanded reveling in Nature’s beauty. We soon turned into smaller and smaller channels Some were so narrow we had to watch for reeds and grasses hitting our faces. We saw water snakes and otters, but it was the abundance of bird life that Delta is famous for that had us transfixed. We were in good hands with our naturalist guide Alma, who seemed as excited for every even small encounter as us. The Danube Delta is where river Danube after flowing through nine European countries ends its journey and flows to the Black Sea. It has the third largest biodiversity in the world (over 5,500 flora & fauna species) spreading over 5,050 square km offering a sanctuary for birds, fish, and animals. Even for non binocular clad non birders the bird encounters are easy and frequent. From small colorful bee eaters to large white tailed eagles birds abound in the quiet of the morning. There are around 300 bird species – and among those, we saw flocks of pelicans, cormorants, wild ducks, geese, storks, herons, ibises, and swans. The Delta is a pleasant resting stop for the migratory birds.  It was especially joyous to observe proud papa swans protecting their young by puffing up and patrolling the waters. Did you know nearly 30 bird species mate for life, amongst them three kinds of swans? Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site 60% of the Delta is protected from human development and indeed we encountered nary a human being except for a few fishermen. After an exciting day in the Delta appetites are sated by all fish specialties: sliced, diced, smoked, pickled, fried and rolled into phyllo dough. How lucky we have been with the weather! Looks like some rain is coming in. Leaving the Delta it catches up with us just before the Moldova border in the town of Braila on the Danube River. We watch the bride and bridesmaids quickly ushered into a limo and are left with the umbrellas just (singing and) dancing in the rain…