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As I write these words, summer in the leafy town of Oakville on the Lake is quickly winding down.  This weekend is Labour Day, a national holiday started to acknowledge the achievements of workers:  ergo most regular working folks will resume their daily grind this coming Tuesday.  Ironically, this weekend is also the last hurrah of the “cottage country” crowd here, those families who are fortunate enough to enjoy second homes on the pristine blue waters of lakes a few hours north of Toronto.  What passes for a “cottage” in Ontario can range from a simple wood frame 2 bedroom uninsulated bungalow, decorated with lumpy mattress and castoffs plucked from the “soon to be recycled” pile, all the way up to multi-million dollar Cape Cod style mansions (with fully outfitted guest house/boathouse of course) that are regularly featured in the pages of design magazines.  Simpers the owner, “I wanted to keep it simple:  only 6 bedrooms, and no maid’s quarters”.  But I digress.

The level of traffic on the major highways going into and around Toronto will go overnight from being mildly annoying to stress inducing, fingers on the wheel clenching, swearing like a drunken sailor horrendous.  What took 20 minutes on a sunny July morning will now take a mind numbing 100 or more.  (And then the children of privilege go back to private schools the following week and then the traffic horrors intensify.  BMW drivers can be so aggressive!)

For me, the event that signals that the wind is coming out of the hot air balloon that is summer in Ontario is the arrival of the Canadian National Exhibition.  The “Ex” is a dizzingly chaotic and crowded mashup of amusement park, concert venue, circus, hucksterism, greasy disgusting and somehow irresistible  foodstuffs (deep fried Mars bars anyone?) an irresistibly cute dog show, and something called Horse Capades!  Everyone I know has been there at least once.  Over a hundred years ago,  there were real agricultural competitions at the EX, a holdover from the glory days of Ontario farmlands when capturing the 4H prize for growing a gigantic pumpkin or raising the finest looking doe eyed heifer was a real coup for a budding farmer.  Awh shucks and pats on the back all round.   There are still gardening awards, but most of the true celebrations of the rural farming life were replaced earlier this century by an elaborate petting zoo (140 animals!) and an urban gardening wall.

My personal highlight of the Ex is overhead right now:   The Toronto International Airshow.  Our Oakville home is almost right on the flight path of those glorious silver birds like the World War II Allied heavy bomber, the Avro Lancaster which flies into Toronto from the Warplane Museum in Hamilton.  There are only seventeen remaining of these worthy Leviathans of the sky in the world, only two are still flying and that Museum has one. It’s a sight to behold, and our good neighbour and aviator, Brock Mason, holds a neighbourhood tailgate party and arranges a “fly by” every summer in honor of the plane.  A crowd stands out in the middle of the street, waving madly as the plane goes by,  briefly wagging one wing in regal acknowledgement. It’s a perfect summer moment in a summer that was pretty darn perfect.

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So what pray tell is “glamping” ?  It must have an element of camping in it, and camping lost its appeal for me decades ago.  I am a product of Northern Ontario,  and my parents, who were passionate about fishing, took me out in a 12’ aluminum boat at 6 months of age.  My memories of lakes, rocks and pine trees are consistent over my early childhood and into my teenage years, and you know, those rocks and trees don’t change much over time.  Same green pine, same black water, same grey rock. 

But glamor? Well that is my passion. In accommodation of course. I have a Master’s degree in luxury, courtesy of an executive position with the platinum coated global company that is American Express.  My handsome husband thinks that I am spoiled in lodging specifically, and he is so right.  So how did my first adventure in “glamping” turn out?

Our first night at El Nidal evoked a strong, unexpected emotional response in me.  The smell of a campfire, listening to the crackle, watching the flames do their hypnotic dance, brought back memories of our family weekends at various lakes around my small home town of Atikokan (“cariboo bones” in Ojibwa) in northeastern Ontario. Half a century later, a whiff of smoke and I am instantly back in the Pre-Cambrian shield, roasting marshmallows, jostling with my cousins for space at the fire and comparing marshmallow readiness.   But no singalongs in my childhood, which is strange because my Dad had a beautiful voice. Before they put radios in cars, he would sing songs from the Kingston Trio as our car bumped along on the way to the Floodwaters, or whatever lake we were fishing in that weekend.  When we made camp, the first task that my brother and I would set ourselves to was finding long green branches to skewer hot dogs and most importantly, marshmallows. My dad would take his ever-present pocket knife and sharpen them to a fine point. I remember marshmallows:  a sweet sticky treat, perfect when golden brown, but never made inedible by burning black. You just gingerly removed the burnt skin, and started again.  

Glamping is an interesting concept, which could only be dreamed up in an age where adults are so divorced from the outdoors yet so committed to their comforts and novelty, that they would pay serious coin to sit in a clothing optional yurt, or safari like tent, or a restored Airstream for the very cool, all to watch the sun come up and go down.  Your choices at glampinghub.com range from a tiny treehouse to rustic reconstructions of five star hotel rooms complete with hot tubs.

El Nidal is the vision of new age, eco-entrepreneur, Marcello Castro Vera:  it is situated on over 50 hectares of  land that has been in the family for 50 years.  In addition to the compound of 8 “accommodation containers”, he has a farm with pigs, sheep, goats and chickens, a micro brewery, a mescaleria, a winery which uses technologies that the ancient Romans would recognize appreciate, and a vineyard which looks like it may take a decade to produce a single grape.  There were 8 couples booked in for 2 days and the container reminded me of an upmarket version of the camper my parents had in the 70’s except with a stylish decor, hot water, satellite TV, and comfy duvets. The event was described by organizer and the best food writer in San Miguel, Glenn Griffin (aka “Don Day”) as an adventure in eating, drinking, then eating drinking followed by more eating and drinking.  As he promised, the typical Mexican food was all cooked over open flames and it was robust, filling and delicious.  There was a smoker too, and the smoked charred beef ribs that came out of that contraption of rusted oil cans are the best BBQ that I have ever tasted.  Really.  

We did sing songs on our first night, led by Bob’s funky guitar playing and charming voice.  There were 8 couples there and I speculated about the possible bickering or blowouts that seem to happen whenever you get couples together out of their natural element and apply copious amounts of alcohol.  But the open air seems to have calmed whatever marital beasts there might be lurking within and conjeniality reigned.  It was a lovely group of people. On the last night, I was alone in the container and could not figure out how to use the “church key” (bottle opener for brown stubbies and now, cool micro brews):  apparently,  I have been out of the North for too long. 

How did I like glamping?  Well, honestly, I missed some of the fun:  I decided that I was going to taste a bit of everything on offer, mescals, gin, grappa, and just a thimbleful each mind you.  But after 2 years of taking only an occasional sip of a special wine from my husband’s glass, I got a little tipsy and needed to retreat to my bed.  Never even made the visit to the ale house. So I missed the competitive bocci ball, and something called “corn in the hole”, and the ride up the mountain to see the sunset.  Ben & I did get to meet some interesting new folks and we had some quiet fireside chats that would not have happened back in San Miguel, with its frenetic socializing. We had intermittent wifi, but no CNN or phone, so the world went on without us for a few days.  The chill on our bones from being 8,000 above sea level gave us plenty to talk about in the morning, comparing strategies for keeping warm and for finding coffee making implements.  The experience was relaxed and friendly, it was certainly a change of pace, and an unexpected benefit:   in one inhale of smoke, I was transported to a favourite time and place that had been on the fringes of my subconscious, but no longer.

. 

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maybe we ain’t that young anymore”..*

The Day after my 60th Birthday.  (11\11\1958)

I  am writing this posting as I wait for Alicia to come and work her masseuse magic on my back, neck and legs.  Yes, while at our home in Mexico, we indulge ourselves in an almost weekly massage, in front of the living room fireplace, while listening to soothing spa instrumentals. It is a Sunday, so no daily housekeeper:  Ben has told me that he will tackle the dirty dishes in the sink from last night and this morning and not to touch them.  I wouldn’t dream of it:  it’s my birthday week and I am in full “princess” mode.

Later, we will sit in our living room, watching the birds flitting in and out of the cedars by the pool.  It is a little cliched to say how grateful I am for all of the good things, experiences, and of course, the good people in my life.  (My handsome husband is of course the top of that list.)

But its true.  If being truly grateful makes you happy, as current research says, then I am joyful.

Never mind that I have a 14” zipper scar on the top of my head, and a head which, post 7 weeks of radiation, bears a strong resemblance to Mr. Maggoo. Then there are all of the other annoyances of aging that you were warned about but blithely think won’t happen to you:    hair that behaves like a weed which grows where you don’t want it (facial), and thins out where you do (scalp), the skin under your upper arms has a life of its own,  enlarged pores and diminished sight.  To my surprise, my bedside table suddenly looks like my mother’s, crowded with skin cream, reading lamp, tissues, used & new tissues, lip gloss, and alarm clock.

Ben comes into the bedroom to find me crying:  as I do every year on my birthday, I read family stories of loss from the Great War and World War II.  And at 11am, no matter where I am in the world, I stand straight backed, arms at my sides, to observe the silence at 11:00am on Remembrance Day (Veterans Day for my American friends) , the 11th of November.  This little gesture is made in honour of the fallen, for whom the wind blows between their graves in Flanders Field.  (Canadians will understand the reference). I think about the freedoms that I enjoy, and give thanks that there were young men willing to die for God, the Queen and Country.  I will not sanitize that statement, even though it’s not very current or politically correct.   That would be a betrayal and a dishonour to their memory.  I am here, enjoying the personal liberties of a liberal democracy because they are not.

We have arranged a birthday party this evening at a San Miguel Karaoke bar.  I had this idea that Karaoke would be a great way to have our groups of friends mix and mingle, have a few alcohol induced laughs and possibly embrace the microphone as the evening progressed. We are starting off the fun with a romantic, upbeat duet from the 50’s called “Come Go with Me”.  We are Karaoke neophytes, and our single rehearsal was a performance on the stage of a grungy bar/restaurant/betting shop in an Oakville strip mall.  (If you drop something on the carpet, you pick it up gingerly, and with a napkin).    It wasn’t the sort of place where the WASPy tennis ladies from The Oakville Club would soon be having afternoon tea. But the small crowd of truly idiosyncratic regulars was enthusiastic, accepting and I really appreciated that the DJ cranked up the canned applause as we left the stage.  A Star was not Born….but she didn’t fall on her butt either.

“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night…you ain’t a beauty but hey you’re allright”*

 

*lyrics from The Boss of course. 

Health Update:  after the bitch, aka,  the tumour, reared its ugly head in the spring, I had 7 weeks of radiotherapy.  Based on my recent MRI, the doctor thinks it has been halted in its evil tracks.  Begone and good riddance!**

**from Shakespeare, 1609, for those of you whom like me, find that sort of etymology fascinating.  

 

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Those Mel Brooks fans among you will recognize the voice of young Dr. Victor Frankenstein (played by comic genius Gene Wilder) commanding his servant, the hunchback Igor, (another comic genius, Marty Feldman)  to bring him the brain of a prominent & brilliant dead scientist, a brain which will complete his creation and redeem his family name. (Igor famously brings him another brain, from a specimen jar labelled “Abby…normal”. Yuk yuk) 

Now following 19 days of radiation therapy to my skull, I cannot decide if I look more like Igor with my cute head wraps or perhaps, with the scar tissue, it’s The Monster (Peter Boyle), that is my doppelgänger.  

No, I think that one have to conclude that the movie star most likely to play me, being me right now,  is Richard O’Brien as Riff Raff in the Rocky Horror Picture Show (Of course, I would have preferred Susan Sarandon:  I read somewhere that she has the best rack in Hollywood.  Really.)  Richard wrote all of the music for the RHPS, and the signature song “Time Warp”, was actually an afterthought because they were running short and needed filler. Really.   

It is an odd feeling, waking up one morning and literally, not recognizing yourself in the mirror:  huge chunks of hair fell out overnight, leaving me with wispy bits around the crown and long straggly bits to the shoulders.  It exposed my 14” of scar tissue in all of its pink and ropey glory.  I was really hoping to have that evidence hidden for a long time.  I have big issues around personal privacy (as in, I need a lot) and having to wear a head scarf that screams cancer patient makes me cringe.  I see young girls and women in the treatment room who proudly show off their shaved bald heads:  but for me, I never want to be defined by my condition.  

And so, well you might ask, why was I not mentally prepared for the hair loss?  The radiologist told me it was coming and so did the genuinely sweet young technicians in Treatment Room 16, my daily destination for 5 minutes, 35 days in June and July.  You can see in the photo the huge machine that they roll me into:  first, they put me in my personalized mask, affix the mask to the table, start the tunes (I have heard everything from Louis Armstrong to Guns n Roses) and then quickly scoot out.  The machine starts moving around me, delivering green radiation beams from 3 directions, and before the chorus to “Sweet Child of Mine” is finished, they are back to release you.  The custom mask is made of a plastic mesh material, and it is snapped down and in so tightly that I sometimes have mesh tracks on my forehead and nose.  Nice. 

So again, why was I not prepared? Well, I do believe that the good Dr. underestimated the area required to ensure complete treatment.  The regrowth is only 6 cm long and 1 cm wide. The thickness of a piece of paper.   And because it is growing flat on the top left side, they need to target the beams from an angle that skims the skull all around the area.  Picture shooting beams at the top of an orange to target just the surface peel, and that is pretty close.  

So much larger than the regrowth area is perfectly reasonable, but I am stunned to have lost more than half of the hair on my scalp. Not to mention that there is hair everywhere, in the toothpaste, in the hand cream, in the mascara, and for awhile there,  it was reminiscent of being up north in mosquito season, except that instead of bugs, I was breathing in strands of fine hair through my nose and mouth!

In the interests of making lemonade from life’s lemons, last week I visited Lora, the lovely and compassionate owner of the medical wig store here on Oakville.  I bought a variety of pretty head coverings:   a few of them are definitely channelling the whole Woodstock ‘70’s thing, which is cool, since I missed being a flower child the first time through.  (Ironically, we just watched the opening sequence of the brilliant 70’s movie, American Hustle, in which Christian Bale carefully pastes down his combover and hairpiece.  Too close to home!)  I  will likely order a stylish hairpiece through her as well:  the only downside of the easy care synthetic variety, is that you cannot BBQ or even open a hot oven with it on! Melt Down Madness!

Will my hair ever grow back?  The answers range from maybe to not completely to not likely.  We will give it a good 6 months before I order an expensive piece of natural hair.  Chemo patients have a better history of regrowth:  radiation is so hard on the skin.  

So again, why so unprepared? And why so upset? I was and still am.  Getting past it, but of course, it is well known that women have a fundamental attachment to their hair.  Crowning glory.  Defines and expresses one’s feminity.  A tool of seduction when tossed in the right direction.  Why else so many products, salons and appointments? You may have gained a few pounds, but your hair can always look good.  You may need a morale boost, so get a new cut or colour. Only compliments will ensue.   Do you remember the old song, “I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair”.  A bit before my time actually, but I always appreciated the sentiment. And of course, nothing says “still young” like a full head of bouncy, shiny hair.  Pale blond wispy bits floating across a pink scarred scalp says “frankly darling, its a head only Ben could love”.  And that is a darn good thing too.

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Most of you will allready know about this development, but since this morning is the first day of my radiation treatment, I thought that I would update you all. Here is the email that I sent out shortly after I knew about the regrowth.

In the interests of not having you look at me strangely when next we meet, and of course,  because I consider you to be a friend, I wanted to let you know that my menginioma has resurfaced, and that i will have to go in for targetted radiation treatment this summer. The treatments are quick and painless:  15 minutes a day,  M to F, in Toronto, for 7 weeks.  
 
The most painful part will be getting there and back, but traffic does slow down during the summer.  
There is a high probability  that I will experience fatigue as well, so forgive me if I am not my usual bouncy bubbly self.  (I have no idea how “fatigue” differs from just just needing a nap in the afternoon, which I do so enjoy) 
 
The strange looking part is that the hair on my head in the radiated area will fall out about 3 or 4 weeks into it. Regrowth may take a year or more, or if ever.  So if anynone has any good ideas or sources for weaves, partial wigs, even comb overs, bring it on! I left my wig from post- surgery in SMA, but a wig can get hot in the summer. 
 
Other than hair loss and fatigue, the doctor expects no other side effects and the progonsis is good. Our hope is that this treatment will finally stop the little bitch from creeping further across my poor knobby scarred skull.  
So the Update:
Since we have been considering replacing Ben’s almost 10 year old car for a few years now, we decided to accelerate the decision (an almost pun):  last night we bought a low mileage grey Lexus 350 RX to make the drive into Toronto easier.  I am not really a car person,  but this is one sweet ride (custom interior, best sound system, shiny sparkly wheels, oh my.)    I will spend the drive into Toronto with my head in the manual, trying to figure out how the audio system works.
I have already had a consultation with Lora, the warm and friendly owner of Medical Wigs here in Oakville.  I saw Lora almost 2 years ago when I bought a wig* to cover my head which had been completely shaved off before my tumor surgery. (See my blog from the summer of 2016 for the photos. I have a happy but strange smile.  The photo below, taken at my brother’s wedding, is with about 2 months growth).
She is still dispensing wig wisdom, and has assured me that I can have a hair piece made to cover the roughly 12x10cm blank spot and that it will enhance my overall look by adding height, readimade curls, and beautiful bouncy shine.  There you go, we have made lemonade.
Onward! 
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The Road Travelled Well” blog
* The “Miley Cyrus” model at the height of her twerking nonsense – women with greater sensibilities than mine refused to buy it based on the name. I thought it was mildly amusing.

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Well,  of course it is!  Ben and I left our “5 star bubble” late last week to return to “TreeTown”.  Gasp, I have to learn how to make my own bed again. Horrors!

So at dinner last night, (I know, how can I possibly eat again? Ask Ben:  I can always sleep and always eat. Charming in its own way, I have always thought.) I was asked what country I preferred:  Japan or Vietnam. So let me frame the answer in this way:   When I was in the marketing  business, one of the ways in which we measured customer loyalty, was by asking clients these three questions:  “ how likely are you to repurchase, how likely are you to buy more, and lastly, and most telling, how likely are you to recommend our product to a friend?”.

So, with respect to the first two questions, I only turn 60 once, and so my next big travel trip will be somewhere new.   On the second question,  neither my wallet or my waistline can afford to buy more! Question three is an interesting one:  all other factors being equal, such as age and stage and means, where would I send friends to, Japan or Vietnam?

For me, the answer is Japan.

We were chatting to a well travelled older man over breakfast in Saigon, who firmly disagreed with that preference.  He said, with some vehemence actually, that “Japan was sterile, fixed in place, no future.” He may have something there:   the birthrate in Japan is one of the lowest in the world, and the population is aging quickly.  I read a novel last year by famous author Haruki Murakami: one of the themes has precocious  girls  growing into successful women who no longer needed or even wanted men in their lives, except for, delicately put, “their equipment”, and even that was optional. In a very over simplfied equation:  no men + no marriage, equals no babies. This is how a culture dies.

So yes. Vietnam is a country with a huge future. (Conditional on the formula of “Communist Capitalism” and Globalism meets huge personal ambition and desire for progress is not derailed by some other external force).  And since I cannot foretell the future, I cannot predict how it will turn out.  However, it may involve lots of cars.

Our guide in Hanoi said that only students use bicycles, because they cannot afford scooters.  And people only use scooters because they cannot afford cars. You can see where this is going.  Saigon is constructing its first subway, so I can predict fewer scooters. Which will be replaced by cars. Cars remain aspirational here, the ultimate mobile symbol of personal and family progress. However, subway says communal good:  car says individual wealth.  We will see how the one Party rules.

Japan is a living museum.  Many of its traditions are dying.  And not being replaced or renewed.  So get there literally before its gone.

So we return to the streets of Saigon:  we had the obligatory (and sad) tour of the “AmericanWar” museum, a culinary evening via vintage Vespas, and a wilder daytime tour of the many street markets. The last two were highlights of our time in Vietnam.  Funny how you can quickly learn to trust a teenager with kind eyes when she says “let me help you”, when she clicks your helmet  into place and says “ready” before she plunges her bike again into the mayhem of Saigon traffic, whispering are  you ready for “The Wild Ride”? *

 

* Actually, that’s a lie.  “Wild Ride” is an infectious mid-nineties honky tonk song by country singer, Dwight Yokum.  It is highly improbable that a teenager born a minute ago, half way around the world, would know that song.  But I liked how it fit with the rhythm of the paragraph as a closing sentence.  And you know, she could have known it, possibly might have heard it, you know, if pigs were purple.  And that my friends, is how “fake news” starts. End transmission.

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Almost a week ago, we left the carefully controlled, cool, precise world of Japan, for the erratic, messy, hot world of Vietnam.  Worlds apart.  Confession: I spent so much time sorting out our trip to Japan, that I ignored the Vietnamese portion of the journey.  I just knew we going to Hanoi & Halong Bay (the subject of this post) and then HoiAn and finishing in Saigon.  (And yes, everyone here calls it Saigon, not the Ho Chi Min City, despite of how much  “Uncle Ho” is revered here).

When I told Ben that I wanted to go to Japan for my upcoming special birthday (60th) he suggested that if we were going to go that far, why not add another country?  I immediately said Vietnam, without checking first what the weather would be.  And it’s the double whammy for Ben of heat (34) & humidity (60%+). I had gone to South East Asia ten years ago, but in our winter.  So we find ourselves at the Four Seasons, and every night, rinsing out sweaty underwear to hang in the very elegant outdoor shower.   I am sure that the maids had a chuckle at the Canadians who are so cheap that they won’t use the laundry service.

Did I mention that my handsome husband Ben was a frugal Scot?

So Vietnam.  How to capture in words or even photos, the frenetic energy, the  tangible dynamism, the passion for growth?  Hanoi, the capital, is overrun with scooters, nimbly moving in and out of lanes, carrying full families (and dogs on occasion) or elegant women covered completely in colourful “scooter burkas.” ( I just made that up, but truly, the fabrics are pretty, but under the helmets, only the focused black eyes show)

While I make no claim to be an expert on comparative religions, something of the difference in cultures may be found there.  In Japan, Shintoism & Buddahism coexist quite comfortably:  as our guide said, “Shintoism is a form of animism, so we can worship spirits in nature and ask them for help during our life.  Buddahism deals with the afterlife & reincarnation, so we revere and ask the ancestors for help in the next life”. So as Ben observed, you’ve got it covered both ways.  Practical.

Here in Vietnam,  some people are Buddhists,  a smaller number are Christian, and the majority, well, the guide said with a shrug, nothing.  Based on the rate of entrepreneurial activity, the welcome given to foreign investment, and the aggressive property development that we observed in our week in  Vietnam, you might come to the conclusion that all that matters is growth. Communist capitalism if you will.

But ancestors matter too:  in fact they have  one day a year where they celebrate the lives of their dead family members, with food, music and parties.  Sounded like Mexico and the Day of the Dead to us.  In fact, we saw a lot of parallels between the people of  Vietnam and Mexico:  both nations have endured centuries of colonization and the devastating affects of imperialism.  And yet they remain hard working, positive, warm, friendly, accepting of others.

How did we spend our three days in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi?  Well, we ate.  (Ben and I are putting on weight like the Titanic took on water. Sigh)  We spent a sobering hour in the “Hanoi Hilton”, so nicknamed by downed American flyers, including John  McCain during the American War.   That prison has a more gruesome past, as the place where the French imprisoned, tortured and sometimes guillotined the Vietnamese who tried to over throw their 100 years of brutal French domination.  The notion of French Indochina no longer has romance for me.

 

We spent a fascinating hour with an American expat & veteran who became involved in the anti-war movement after his discharge. As a result, his parents refused to talk to him for years:  the pain of that remembrance brought all three of us to tears.   Another expat of the same generation took us through her fabulous art gallery home:  the moment I walked in, I thought of San Miguel de Allende.   As it happens, she has good friends who have just moved there, and she is planning a trip soon.

 

 

 

So, in the interests of saving time, and frankly, just having a lark, I chose a seaplane transfer from Hanoi airport to Ha Long Bay, one of the most beautiful places on earth. (And how else can you meet an investment banker from Istanbul with multiple passports, including Canadian, who keeps a pied a terre in Dubai for tax purposes.  He was so handsome that 2 giggling Chinese girls had their photo taken with him. He drew the line at a kiss, however. )

Legends say that in ancient times, dragons appeared to fight off the invaders from the north (mmmh, I wonder what country that would be) and when they vanquished them, they dropped emeralds in the sea that became the beautiful islands we see now.

We only spent one night at sea, and while it was nice to be sleeping on a boat again, but I am not sure that I converted Ben to cruising.  Might be because they made us wear these silly outfits.

 

 

 

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