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Paying the Water Bill

When we first moved to Isla Taboga, we were limited to 100 gallons per day for drinking, washing and cooking. The water came from a well up the mountain that was pumped into a huge tank. Every morning, Boris, whom we call “Water Boris” to differentiate him from the other Boris’ on the island (Taxi Boris, Little Boris, White Truck Boris),  would drive up the hill and open the valve that allowed the water to flow out of the tank and run down into the pueblo, filling the individual tanks that service each home.

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Our 100 gallon tanks. Cleaner inside than out! Promise!

Occasionally Water Boris would oversleep. Or have a hangover. Or just forget. And then we would be on uber conservation mode until some of the women in the pueblo got on his case and chased his butt up the hill.

For the past two years,  however, a state of the art, Israeli built desalinization plant has provided unlimited water to the island so our tanks are always full (with the occasional malfunction). We continue to be mindful and conservative because having water is a luxury that only those who don’t have – or haven’t had – an unlimited supply can appreciate.

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Giant desalinization plant provides water to Isla Taboga.

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An impressive accomplishment for our tiny island!

Science lesson: Desalinization is a reverse osmosis process. Salt water is forced, at high pressure, through a membrane that will not let the salt molecules pass through. It also filters out the tiniest of potentially harmful particles. Only fresh water molecules are small enough to make it through. Many boats – including ours in Seattle – have similar systems to render sea water drinkable.

My husband, a systems expert / geek, has a TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) meter that measures water’s suitability for drinking. The water provided by the desalinization plant measures solidly in the range of good drinking water.

This year we learned that the water company is going to begin charging for the service and that every household must sign up for a contract and begin paying a monthly fee for the water utility.

Unlike where we come from, that information did not come in the mail with an account number and the option to pay the bill online. No. Not here. On Isla Taboga, we learn these things via word of mouth. Once we heard that we had to do this, we began asking around as to how.

“Doña Irene,” explained José, our caretaker, “You wait until the lady from the water company is on the island and then you go to the Casa Dimás and she will take care of it for you.”

“When is she here?” I asked logically. “No se (I don’t know),” came the response, also logical as I am beginning to learn more about life in certain Latin American countries.

Several days later, a man from the water company came to our gate and handed out bills to our neighbors. I called José. “A guy from the water company is here. Does that mean the lady is here, too?”

¡Si! ¡Si!” (Yup.)

We gathered what we needed: proof of residence, copies of our passports, our Panamanian ID cards and money – cash – and began the journey to the Casa Dimás.

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The journey begins!

“Go down to the Chu and turn left,” we were told.

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There’s the Chu – straight ahead on the right.

“Walk up the hill past the empty lot. Go past the bright green house where we used to pay the electric bill, and then a slight jog to the left and there it is.”

Outside the house, under that triangular roofed structure to the left, were four or five old men in hammocks who told us that the water lady had just gone to the doctor but would be back in a half hour. We waited for forty five minutes.

Because this was someone’s home, I refrained from taking photos, but let me try to describe to you the room we were in.

Just inside the door we were in a partially enclosed porch or outer room. Straight ahead was a hallway leading to the rear of the house. A little to the left and through an open doorway was the kitchen, dishes piled in the dish drain, counters full to bursting with tools of the kitchen trade and a bowl of fruit on the plastic, floral tablecloth covering the dining table.

Inside the porch, were several chairs whose grimy cushions I could not bring myself to sit on. Rusty, dusty tools that had not been touched in a very long time were haphazardly placed on broken shelves and the floor, intermingled with yellowed books tossed and left where they had last been used.

A makeshift altar to the Virgin occupied a table just to the left of the kitchen door. Among the devotional objects were several broken statues, rosary beads glued onto the statues and the table, an empty bottle of Seco (Panama’s national liquor), fake yellow roses and someone’s cell phone attached to a plug dangling from a wire that disappeared up through some access in the ceiling.

Occupying the left side of the room was a large, round table covered in papers and miscellaneous paraphernalia. A broken multi-paned window leaned up against the wall behind the table on the left side of the room next to something covered in a dingy, dusty cloth. And beyond that an open cement stairway leading to the second level of the home.

Finally, parched and tired of waiting, we headed down to the pueblo for a cold drink, and returned an hour later. Now, a line of people waiting to pay their bills, stretched down the road. We waited our turn and then, at last, entered the room. Several people were sitting inside, on those chairs that I, in all my northern gringasity had snubbed.

We sat down at the round table, piled with forms, sheets of carbon paper (remember that?), thick, hand-written record books and a couple of cookie tins that contained a stapler, a stamp and money.

We explained what we were there for and the lady, a rotund, business-like but friendly woman with a quick smile began the process of finding our names in the big book. Page by page of handwritten names were painstakingly gone through. It would have been excruciating had it not been so fascinating. Or if I had taken time off from work or had another appointment to get to. But I didn’t. This was my day’s goal so I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

People who lived in the house traipsed up and down the cement stairs, a backdrop of action to watch, while we waited. At last she said, “No. No tengo sus nombres (I don’t have your names).” So we had to show our proof of ownership, our identification and then she added our names to the book next to our neighbors’ names and commenced the process of writing out the contracts – by hand – in triplicate – with carbon papers between copies. Lucky for us, José happened by and helped a bit with translation.

At last, it was done. Everything stamped – they love their stamps down here! Bam! Bam! Bam! Then initials next to each stamp.There was laughter and it was all very friendly. Each contract cost $20 (we have two condos so two contracts) Then we paid for six months of last year ($17.25) and for the entirety of this year ($34.50). Times two. Final bill for two houses, for a year and a half of water: $143.50…..

I cannot express the sense of accomplishment I felt when we left. Our pockets were lighter but not too much. And we knew that until we return next year we are paid up.

The next week, Jose said. “Sorry – we didn’t get water today. Please conserve.”

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Global Community. January 21, 2017

Women hold a sign during the Women's March in San Jose, Costa Rica on January 21, 2017. 
Hundreds of people packed the streets of San Jose in a massive outpouring of defiant opposition to US hardline new president, Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / EZEQUIEL BECERRAEZEQUIEL BECERRA/AFP/Getty Images
          NYTCREDIT: Ezequiel Becerra/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images

Walking back to our place on January 20th, after having a beer down in the pueblo, trying not to watch inaugural coverage, Dan & I ran into a French Canadian couple taking photos in front of the island graveyard. We offered to take their photo in front of the historic graveyard that contains stones dating back to the early 1800’s.  The dearly departed of Isla Taboga, fresh (or plastic) flowers always on their graves, have a beautiful view of the Bay of Panama.

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“Congratulations on your new President?” one of the tourists said hesitantly. “NO!” we responded. “HE IS NOT OUR PRESIDENT!” They smiled at us in solidarity and we commenced a conversation about politics in general, the U.S. election, Canadian issues and what we think will happen in the world from here forward. They didn’t have much English and even less Spanish. Communication was a challenge but our mutual disgust with what has happened in the U.S. with this tragic election definitely came through.

On the day after the election, I walked on the beach near our boat in Seattle. I felt alone, scared, vulnerable, despondent. I held out hope that something would change, something would prevent this man from becoming president. It seemed like the end. The rolling back of history and of all the advances we have made over the years in terms of human rights.

Today, January 21, I spent entire day watching coverage of the Women’s March on Washington and the Sister Marches taking place all over the country and the world. I couldn’t stop! I was stunned to see the global response, the show of support, the coming together of the world over our election of a man who openly degraded women, handicapped people and minorities.

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What a showing! The photos are astonishing. Millions of people all over the world saying “NO!”This is a global movement to be sure. We are in this together and we are not going to stop or be cowed. This movement, this resistance is not going to go away.

I am hopeful and empowered and unlike after the election, I feel strong and solid in my womanhood. I am proud to be female, proud of my brothers and sisters who marched yesterday all over this beautiful globe. I am energized and courageous and positive and I know that I, we can accomplish anything, overcome anything.

I may be in Panama right now, but I am also everywhere. And we are all together. And this feels really, really good.

Finally.

Be strong. Be brave. And remember, Silence is not an option. No excuse. We have the world behind us.

Feliz Ano 2017!

Still fishing the old way.

Happy New Year from Isla Taboga, Panama!

We arrived on the Isla in time to settle in, put our things away, set up our casitas and toast in the New Year with our south-of-the-border friends.

A fan is blowing on me as I write this to keep me cool and I’m contemplating a dip in the pool. It is a New Year after all. Time for a baptism of sorts. Time to wash away the old and start clean with the new.

One of the best things about this New Year so far is our friend, Okke’s, return from an ordeal that is the stuff of movies. I’ll spare you the story but suffice it to say that it was the best New Year’s gift of all to have him back among us. And to see his partner, Kimberlyn, smiling with joy and relief.

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Welcome home Okke. Keep smiling Kimberlyn!

My brother in law who is from Brazil told me that the tradition in his home country is to eat fish on New Year’s Eve. “Because fish,” he explained, “swim only forward. They don’t go backward.” And the New Year is a time to look ahead. Hopefully to better times.

This will be an interesting year. Especially for citizens of the U.S but because of our global influence it will be an interesting time for the entire world. Hopefully (always hopeful, right?), people will realize how much is at stake right now, particularly with our precious climate.  We can’t afford to go to sleep on that one. Stay awake. Look up and around. Be vigilante.

Returning to and living on this island during the winter months gives me a unique perspective. I notice the things that have changed. The children are bigger, new babies have been born, the beaches are cleaner, there are new, albeit small, enterprises and businesses popping up. But so much remains the same in a place like this. Familiar faces and activities such as:

Fishermen selling fresh fish to folks on the dock…

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The sleepy tienditias (small shops) where locals buy their basic food supplies…  and kids buy gum and candy…

 

The throngs of tourists arriving on the weekend to soak up the sun on the beach…

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Ladies heading down the road to church every Sunday under their parasols.

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Second oldest Catholic Church in the western hemisphere.

The inextricable link between old and new is profoundly obvious on Taboga. It’s comforting to have both. The familiar keeps us grounded and the new helps us look forward to better times.

Here’s hoping that 2017 brings good things to all. Change is definitely in the air. We have work to do, but as Dan always says, no matter what, “We’re STILL gonna have fun.”

Happy New Year.

 

25 Days and Counting…

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One reason I would have trouble living in the tropics year round is that I do enjoy the change of seasons. Even Seattle doesn’t have enough seasonal change for this east coast woman to be honest. I love blizzards in the winter. The kind that keep you inside, huddled by the fire, looking out the window in wonder at nature’s power and then hunkering down with a warm drink because there is nothing else to be done. I love hot, sunny summers. Beach time, tank tops, cold beers with lime squeezed into and dripping down the bottle’s neck.

I’m a walker. During the months we are in Seattle (April through December), I monitor the seasonal changes on my daily three mile walks. Part neighborhood, part woods, part beach, I observe the changes as they happen. They seem infinitesimal at first but then – all of a sudden – the season – whichever season is making its way towards us – has arrived.

Yesterday, I chanced a three mile walk during what I thought was a break in the rain. Half way through my hike – right about the time I took the photo of the trees you see here, the break ended and a substantial “mist” surrounded me. It felt nice. As I trod on damp leaves and dark earth and my face dripped with the moisture surrounding me I thought, “This is good. It’s good for my skin to live in a place that is damp and misty.”

I descended the considerable hill and reached the beach. By now the soft, sweet mist had definitely changed. Thin, sleety rain picked up in its intensity thanks to a strong southerly wind into which, of course, I was headed as I strode – south – towards my dock. It felt like sharp, cold needles were stabbing my face and thighs in rapid fire. I had no choice but to keep walking.

The killer was that I needed a piece of paper I had meant to bring with me to fax at the mail service office which I would pass on my way home. A piece of paper which, naturally, I had left on the boat. This deed could not be postponed because it was Friday and we are leaving for Panama at the end of this month and I have to make sure all of my business-y things get taken care of before we leave. One business day could make a significant difference.

I knew that what I had to do in this now very strong, knife-like wind and rain, was get back to my dock, walk the quarter mile west to our boat (with the wind at my left), get the paper and then go back up the dock (wind at my right) and get to the office which was now very much out of my way. Taking shelter in one of the marina bathroom buildings, I called Dan, and asked him to find the paper, put it in a baggie and have it ready to hand off when I got there. As I continued on my walk, I noticed that my thighs felt tight. But not in a good way. I was beginning to lose feeling in my soaked, frozen thighs. But onward.

I arrived at last at the office and, dripping all over the counter and the fax cover sheet I had to fill out, I got the deed done before 5:00. Relieved, I knew that the next order of business was a hot shower.

We don’t have a shower on our boat. Which means I had to get in my car and drive to the only shower at Shilshole Bay Marina that I can stomach. The new, modern one that is at the other end of the marina from where our boat is moored. The one that I don’t have to feed quarters to. The one that is not thirty years old, co-ed and sullied with disgusting remnants of previous showerers.

As I sat down in the seat of my car I felt, not relief, but a cold feeling in my crotch – like I had peed myself, but a little while ago and it had cooled. As the water from my body and my wet jacket pooled on my seat, I turned the defroster on high because the moisture coming off my clothes was fogging up the window.

I took the longest, hottest shower of my life and, as I was the only one in the shower room, I didn’t have to hold back my groans of pleasure. They gushed out of me  – long and loud.

Dressed in dry clothes, wet shoes and a wet coat, I headed back out into the pelting rain and got to my car, sitting once again in that wet, cold puddle of water on my seat. Almost there….   almost there…  so cold….

Quick little steps down the dock. Looking up occasionally to see how much further I had to go. Then down so the rain could drip out of my eyes.

Home at last, I looked at the calendar. 25 days until we leave for Panama. Yesterday I talked to a friend in Panama who said “It finally stopped raining! It rained every day in November.” Which means that it is now warm and it’s dry. And will be when we are there – for the entire three months.

What was that I said about loving the change of seasons? About not wanting to live full time in a tropical climate?

I forget.

 

 

 

Storm Watch

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While the rains pelted Panama during what is commonly called the rainy season, a  big Pacific Storm, the remnant of a large typhoon, raged through Seattle. Living on a sailboat I felt the storm quite literally as it swirled around me. When big gusts hit, the boat lurched and shuddered. The wind was incredibly loud as it whistled and whirred through the halyards, sounding like sustained screams. It was a dramatic sound track to the storm, and one that let us know that we were definitely not in control.

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Anticipating the storm a day or two before, our neighbors lashed down lines and secured loose items on boat decks and on the dock. Folks worked together to be sure everyone was prepared. By the time we finished, our boat looked like a bug caught in a giant spider web. And all that remained was to watch the storm and marvel at the power of nature. Knowing that, eventually, it would end.

I wish I could say the same for another storm that has been raging around us for months.

(Full disclosure: I am about to go all political on you so if you want to stop here, it’s perfectly fine.)

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One of the candidates is a walking, talking typhoon of racism, misogyny, xenophobia and narcissism. And unlike the weather turbulence that will abate, it seems he can’t be shaken. Despite revelations of behavior unfitting a human being, never mind a U.S. Presidential candidate, and regardless of his former supporters flying away like leaves in the wind, he continues to hold his place in the polls. His attitude towards half of the people in this country – women and girls – is unacceptable. Would anyone want his or her mother, daughters or sisters viewed, discussed and treated in the manner that we have been witnessing? Would you trust him – potentially President of the United States – to give your daughter a ride home from school? I wouldn’t.

Racial and religious intolerance have no place in our country either. But this man has been a poster boy for both and has done some real damage. Damage that will continue to stick around long after the election, regardless of whom we elect. The Southern Poverty Law Center conducted a survey of educators in which one third of teachers said that they have noticed a rise in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment among their students. Even more disturbing are reports of “…openly racist and vicious bullying of minorities, and more fear and anxiety among immigrants and minorities about what would happen to them if certain candidates for president are elected.” Two thirds of teachers surveyed for this report said that their students, mainly Muslims and children of immigrants, had expressed worry about what would happen to them and their families after the election.

This is damage that a lot of brave and good people have been trying to repair for a very long time. To name a few: women’s right to vote (1920); the 1965 voting rights act allowing people of color to vote; the end of school segregation and the desegregation of public places. The fight for civil rights has been going on since long before he who shall not be named was born. Society, I ask you, do you really want to go back that far?

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I understand that people are unhappy with our current system. And with our current choices. I am, too. But this guy is definitely not the answer.

Last year, when this election was heating up, we were in Panama where people down there said the candidate’s last name in disbelief, rolling their R’s as they did so. And as their voices invariably crescendoed to a big question mark at the end, I knew we were in trouble. In danger of being an international laughing stock. If, on a tiny little island off the coast of Panama City, people were talking this way, I wondered what I would hear in other parts of the world.

Unlike nature’s storms over which we have no control, we do have control over the manufactured storms currently affecting our lives. It may not feel that we do, but we do. We are more powerful than we are led to believe.

We must reject the message and attitude of this ridiculous and frightening candidate. And then, come January, when hopefully anyone but him is in office, we have to fight for a transparent, honest government that is working on behalf of the people – all the people – of our country.

That way, working together, we can protect our future, tie it down securely and make sure there is something left to hand off to the folks coming up behind us once the storm has passed.

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Season of Mists…

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Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s fall in the Pacific Northwest. I can still break a sweat on my daily power walk. And my t-shirts haven’t been filed under “T” for Taboga quite yet. But the chill mornings and snuggle-under-a-blanket evenings are here. The leaves are turning orange and red and yellow and dropping to the ground. The fog lingers a bit longer into the day. School playgrounds are filled with the sounds of children at recess.

Fall has always felt more like the beginning of the year to me than January. There is a feeling of excitement in the air, like something is about to happen.

Something is about to happen. Sweaters are being resurrected from their summer hibernation. Soup and stew recipes float to the top of my recipe book. The holidays start peeking in the windows and whispering ideas for this year’s celebrations. As sorry as I am to see the summer end, I surprise myself with how ready I am for the coming season.

We spent the early part of September up in the San Juan Islands, north of Seattle, on our sailboat. The anchorages, normally filled with the sounds of kids swimming and playing on the beaches were quiet. Spots for boats were taken by those of us who don’t have to return to the city for school deadlines.

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San Juan Island anchorages are wide open in September

Without lunches to make, homework to help with, packets of papers to fill out for the teachers and a job to run to after dropping kids off at school, fall has become a reflective time for me. A time to walk and smell the rich smell of leaves and damp dirt becoming mulch. To watch as flocks of birds take to the sky for their long journey south. To think about all the love I have in my life.

Fall was my father’s favorite season. He often quoted Keats’ Ode to Autumn, challenging us to name the author.“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness; close bosomed friend of the maturing sun,” he’d recite, asking, “Who wrote that?” To me he’d always add with a twinkle in his eye, “my English major.”

I miss him deeply during fall, but I in some ways he feels closer than during the other times of year. I can still hear his voice asking if I wanted to take a walk with him, or share a cup of Earl Grey tea, or, later in my life, a glass of scotch. This season is the time I get to spend with his memory and to appreciate the moments we would have shared were he still here.

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September sunrise in the San Juans

 

Soon the Seattle rains will start. The sky will turn gray and the damp will begin to sink into our bones. But then, just when the holidays have ended and the long winter takes hold – lucky us – we will jump on a plane and head down to Isla Taboga, Panama. Lovely, sweet, warm, sunny Taboga. There’s room for you if you want to come!

Until then, I plan to take a little time each day to enjoy the beauty. To enjoy the way the sun at this time of year slants in golden loveliness and to feel the chill air on my face. To cook fall foods and wear warm socks and buy pumpkins.

Enjoy every minute. It’s all connected. It’s all beautiful. And it’s all a gift.

 

Small World

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I’m writing this blog post from Reid Harbor on Stuart Island, one of Washington State’s beautiful San Juan Islands. As we anchored a couple of days ago, we noticed that four other boats from our dock at Shilshole Bay Marina were also here and soon we were all having drinks in one of the cockpits, visiting dinghies bouncing around happily behind the boat.

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Friends from “E” Dock!

 

One of the boats is aptly named, Small World. Indeed, it is.

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We live in Seattle where we cruise in the summers and then, when the cold, wet winter weather sets in, we head down to Panama where we live on Isla Taboga, a small island roughly 12 miles off the Pacific Coast, across from Panama City. Heading up the Strait earlier this week, one of the huge container ships we passed was named APL Antwerp. Homeport: Panama. The ship, loaded with hundreds of colorful containers, was likely ocean bound, heading south to Panama where it will anchor in the bay among the ships we observe from our terrace, waiting to transit the Panama Canal. I grabbed my camera and snapped photos to email to my south of the border friends with whom we are in regular contact.

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A close friend spent the fall, winter and spring in Guatemala. On one Skype call (a miracle in itself) she told me about chatting with some guys at a local bar. They were traveling through Central America and their next stop was Panama. “Where in Panama,” asked my friend who had visited us there. “Isla Taboga,” they replied. The island we live on! And they were going to visit friends of ours – people she had met when visiting us a couple of years ago.

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Isla Taboga from “The Cross”

What are the chances of all of these encounters? These days they are good. Very good indeed and getting better all the time. So much so that it’s not even that surprising anymore. As our world becomes smaller thanks to fast and convenient travel options and communication technology offers instant access to friends and family, it is not unusual to experience what may once have been too incredible to even imagine.

Even here in the cove, which has spotty reception at best, we heard about the tragedy in Nice. Yet another in an increasing series of incidents occurring in our world. We heard about Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton. Up to the minute political conversation happened during our spontaneous happy hour, despite being far from home. We are more connected than ever before and unless we really don’t want to be, we are in this together.

A friend across the bay is flying his one world flag instead of an American or Canadian flag, which is the regulated norm on the water. earthflagRather than identifying as belonging to one country, this flag – we have one, too – is a picture of the globe from space, making the statement that this world IS our country now. We are a global community. We are facing a global mess when it comes to politics, climate change, and economic disparity. And, sadly, terrorist attacks on innocent people. 9/11 was a wake up call for the United States. Listening to Arundhati Roy address the United Nations following the World Trade Center attacks, I remember her saying that she meant no disrespect and no diminishment of what we were experiencing. But, she pointed out this sort of thing had been happening for a very long time all over the globe. “Welcome to the world,” she said, sadly.

Like any family, we share joys and heartaches. We are no longer isolated and travel is no longer, necessarily, just about vacation and fun. I have come to believe that travel is essential. However we can make it happen.

Mark Twain wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

 

This is why we travel. This is why we live in another country for part of the year. Few of the people I have met doing these things are rich. Rarely do we hang out with people traveling in 4 Star luxury mode. But we are out there, doing what we can to see this world and be part of this life. To gain a better understanding of what our fellow earthlings are experiencing. To enhance our own life and give ourselves a more realistic view of our home.

The first step is… well, taking the first step. It’s about saying “yes.” And then doing the hard stuff of getting things started. Doing your homework, your research. Making sure that whatever it is you are thinking about doing will work for you. And then, making the commitment for better or worse.