I didn’t know what to expect in Sedona Arizona. My in-laws rented a spectacular Air ‘BnB for a family trip, nestled amongst the mountains. It was in celebration of their 50 year marriage. How is that possible without killing each other? I’m only a little over half way there. They are an incredible couple and I could only hope to be as happy as they are after 50 years together.
I knew that in Sedona there were amazing red rock formations and that it is considered a hiker’s wet dream. Our Air BNB was surrounded by them. Every angle was a spectacular view.
I’m not a hiker but I like challenging myself and feeling like I’ve pushed myself physically… usually that involves picking up the pace from the couch to the fridge. My husband’s family are avid climbers and hikers. They are athletic and seek out opportunities to walk and climb and were determined to tackle the “Vortex” rocks like Bell Rock and Cathedral rock. A vortex is an area where there is a palpable energy field . There is a circular magnetic pull that has twisted all the trees at the base of these rocks so they look like licorice twizzlers.
On one trip to a Vortex, I sat alone on a plateau and closed my eyes to meditate. I’ve always been incapable of slowing my mind down enough to be successful at this, but for some reason, at the Vortex, I was able to simply sit and “be”. It was surprising to open my eyes and check my watch and see that I had been there for an hour. I was lost in my breath and the feeling of nothing…and everything at the same time and it was overwhelming.
Tackling a Vortex climb is also not for the faint of heart. I started climbing one but realized it was beyond my expertise and I did not have proper shoes so I conceded to the rock. My sister in-law persevered and made it to the top, which impressed me to no end. She said it was terrifying at a couple of spots and she is a seasoned climber. She also said the strange energy made her feel a little unstable. I am fascinated with the reason for this magnetic pull and some New Ager’s believe it is from an alien force and fully expect the top of a Vortex to open up one day and an alien spaceship to fly out.
Sedona is the birth
place of “New Age”. Everywhere you go in
town there are shops selling crystals and meditation techniques and readings by
psychics. I couldn’t resist and had a
rather lame reading ,which could have been applied to any woman of my age, but
it was a fun way to spend an hour.
We took a day trip to the ghost town called Jerome. It hangs off the cliffs in central Arizona and was originally a mining town full of men, gambling and prostitutes. When the mining industry there collapsed it was abandoned. Eventually people wanted to preserve this town and its history and so they began a campaign to reclaim it as a Historical site and tourist location and it worked. Today you can walk the hillside streets that are home to various cafes and local artisans selling their creations.
There is a historic hotel called the Jerome Grand Hotel where you can pop in and have a cocktail.
It was built in 1927 and was originally a Hospital. It was sold in 1994 and reopened as a Hotel in 1996. It is famously haunted and has been featured on some “Ghost Hunting” shows. It has been structurally maintained as the Art Deco Hotel it is and even has the original sliding cage elevator… which was also the location of the only known murder that took place. It is suspected that , Claude Harvey, the Hospital maintenance man was murdered in April 1935, and his body slid behind the elevator shaft in order to make it look like an accident.
There are many sightings of Claude in the hotel by guests and staff. There are also sounds of children laughing and running up and down the hallways, the smell of baby powder, zinc oxide, flowers, dust, whiskey and coughing can be heard coming from empty rooms. Especially on the 3rd floor you can hear hospital gurneys and wheels squeaking as this was the location of the operating room.
We sat in the beautiful bar and sipped on Martinis and basked in its history. I explored the main floor hallways but you are not allowed to go up to any of the floors unless you are a booked guest.
Someday I’ll go back and stay there for a couple of nights. It’s just such an amazing location and view and I like a place that is a bit spooky.
We ate some food in
town at one of the bistros and walked around looking at some Mexican art. I bought some Día de los Muertos statues. There
is also a great old-time candy store so
I purchased a bag of assorted candies that I remembered from my childhood. It’s
a good work -out to visit Jerome because the streets are so steep that walking
through the town can bring on a sweat and a racing heart.
The other trip I would
recommend is a visit to The Grand Canyon.
It’s not that far a drive from Sedona and it can be done in one
Walking from the
parking area along a path, you don’t expect for everything to suddenly open up to this never-ending massive
crater in the earth that has gigantic rock formations on either side. It left me feeling like I was on a man-made
science fiction set for a movie. The red
colour of the rocks and the way the sun bounced off of them was absolutely
stunning. There were spots where you
could walk out onto a ridge and the whole world was beneath you. Of course, I was wondering how many people
had taken one pose too many and accidentally slipped off an edge. It was exhilarating and terrifying and the
entire time I was holding my breath.
Besides the obvious hiking there are other things to do in Sedona. There is some delicious and authentic Mexican food and ,since we don’t really have that at home, I was excited to get eat some great food. We also hit up a few charity shops and I found some cool, cheap, vintage clothing. I bought a new hat and a lovely silver and turquoise horse necklace. There is an abundance of beautiful silver jewellery. Turquoise is also found in most jewellery shops. It is home to the Hopi, Navajo, Yavapai and Apache peoples, who are the original people of Arizona.
I would go back to Sedona any time and definitely stay at the same place. Next time I’ll bring along some good hiking boots. Happy trails readers!
I had a recurring dream as a child. I would be traveling around the country in my Barbie Dream Camper with my best friend, Cathy, and our boyfriends…. At the time mine was Paul McCartney and her boyfriend was Donny Osmond. I did not come from a family that vacationed. We never went on trips except the occasional tag along with my father, who was a traveling salesman. I remember we once went to Blind River… vacation capitol of Ontario.
No offense to Blind River.
I have always been into history and I love vintage and retro things. I bought my 1960 Pink Rambler after I had a car stolen. It was an incredible ride while it lasted. Eventually my beautiful car was mechanically beyond repair so it sits on my property.
Since I bought my farm house outside of the city I have plenty of space to accumulate old cars and trucks and campers to sit rusting on the lawn; the stereotypical right of passage for those that live in the country. The property already had a stationary trailer so I painted it like a Diner and we’ve used it as a rehearsal space for bands and currently a pop up Vintage clothing shop. Even though the Rambler is not road worthy anymore, I call it “Art”. He will deteriorate and rust and I will become that person surrounded by beautiful rusting and twisted metal.
I decided to finally pursue my dream of owning a camper and began scouring all the buy and sell newspapers and online auctions. I did this for five years and found nothing. The trailers that were listed were too expensive, too far away, or in need of a huge overhaul to have them road worthy. I almost gave up but then a friend sent me a listing that was close by. I went and looked at it and it needed a bit of work but had such potential that I bought it on the spot.
I hitched it up to my truck and towed it home where I would renovate and decorate the interior. Thank god for my supportive father in law, Bruce, who, along with a buddy, put in all the necessary finishing touches to make sure it was leak proof and ready for painting. My little trailer went from bland to wow.
This is what it looked like before
This is what it looks like now
I’ve never been a tiny space person… or at least I didn’t think I was …until I began using my , little tennis ball of a trailer, as a living space for four months during the summer.
I was working on a
television series in the city and no longer had an apartment so my trailer
became my living space during the week and I only came home on the weekends.
It is amazing how we humans can acclimatize almost immediately. I hung my nicer clothes on cupboard knobs and filled my sink with toiletries. I had access to the office and studio at night, which had washrooms and a private shower. All of my clothes were neatly folded on a top bunk… for the first week… and then I was a teenager again. I somehow managed. My Quaker parrot, Mr. Pickles, was living with me in the trailer, chatting away and acting like it was his giant bird cage.
The use of string lights and electric candles on timers made my space magical. I have a good size double bed in my trailer so it is comfortable to sleep.
When the set called a “wrap” at night everyone would be warming up their cars to head home and I simply sauntered across the parking lot to my tiny apartment.
The thought of not being able to go home to the farm depressed me but once I entered my trailer and shut the door I felt like I was no longer at work. It became my tiny apartment where I could sip wine and watch Netflix on my computer. When the season ended and the work was done, I hitched my trailer up to my truck and returned home. Now I could use my trailer for pleasure and not just work.
My partner and I attended a music festival that he was playing
at and we stayed the night, parked beside a little stream. Stepping out into the starry night filled
with music; eventually, stumbling back into our dry and comfortable sanctuary
to sleep was heaven.
The next day, kicking the door open; hung over with curlers in my hair and a smoke clenched in my teeth…..
OK that didn’t happen.
I was definitely hung over and feeling raunchy, but when I flash back to the days where I woke up in an over -heated tent with flies buzzing around my face and a rancid smell, this glamping experience is all the more fantastic.
I am definitely too old to do the tent thing. I love camping and the adventure of traveling to a different part of the country but I want to do it in style. I want all the comforts when I throw open my door and experience nature. I’m tired of staying in crappy little motels.
My little trailer has a gas stove, a sink with a water tank, a fridge and a microwave. I’ve used the microwave and fridge but never the stove.
The whole world beckons me… at least the world within driving distance. Maybe I will plan a trip to the desert or the ocean or the mountains; wherever I go I will be surrounded by vintage florals, snacks and some good wine and the new friends I will make.
You are never too old to realize a dream.
Maybe I ‘ll see you out there in my Barbie camper. Paul McCartney still is not my boyfriend but I’d rather have the trailer… no offense to Paul.
“I’m a gal of means by no means… Queen of the road”!
When we left Vietnam
in an over- crowded, small bus, I hadn’t anticipated the hours it would take to
get to Phnom Penh over bombed out roads with huge craters in them.
It was a gruelling 10 hour drive in what was supposed to be 5 hours and 12 minutes.
There were no bathroom
breaks and when we did stop it was at the side of the road. I was horrified at having to squat in front
of a bunch of smiling school children. Something
that did not shock or surprise any of them.
They just smiled and waved and edged up closer and closer as I pee’d.
We finally pulled into the city at night and , as the haze and dust cleared, there were dozens of people waiting for us. They were all yelling and holding signs for various hotels. We were shell shocked and ended up finally just following a beckoning and earnest fellow who led us to a car.
He took us to a relatively expensive hotel ,by Cambodian standards, at a crazy $30.00 US per night. It was nice and modern and was the closest thing to a low budget hotel in America that we had seen so far in South East Asia.
We showered and went
to bed and when the sun came out we headed out to see the city.
Phnom Penh was once
referred to as the “pearl of the Orient” but the beautiful French Colonial architecture
was now partially covered by tin advertising and the parts that were exposed
were flaking, rotting and dirty. There
was garbage in alley ways and sewage on the streets. The motorbikes sped along spewing black smoke
as they weaved in and out and around pedestrians. Sometimes you would glimpse something grand
from the past in an old hotel but for the most part the city was trying to
build new and cheap buildings and forget its glamour from the 1960’s …before
the reign, destruction and ruin of Pol Pot.
I did not feel the same comfort and love that I felt in Vietnam. I was nervous and felt unsafe. I was always making sure I was aware of my
surroundings as we walked along the streets and avoided any out of the way
areas. I heard later that crime is
rampant and the city is indeed not safe.
bombings of Cambodia over a four year period kept the government busy and gave
the Khmer Rouge the opportunity to build in numbers and finally storm the city on
April 17, 1975; taking over the government.
Pol Pot was a political leader whose Khmer Rouge government ruled from 1975 until 1979 and committed the most barbaric and horrendous genocide in recent history. They systematically tortured, starved, shot, butchered and overworked over 2 million Cambodians in an effort to wipe out intellectuals, educated specialists, ethnic Vietnamese and religious leaders. In the end 2 million people were dead and the middle class was wiped out. The notorious S-21 Detention Centre had only 7 survivors out of the 20,000 who were dragged in and tortured.
If it hadn’t been for
some journalists ,like Syndey Schanberg who refused to leave during the fall of
Phnom Penh and took refuge in the French Embassy, along with his Cambodian photographer
Dith Pran, the world would not have eventually known and seen the chaos and
blood shed that was happening. Dith Pran
was left behind when Sydney was allowed to walk across the border into Thailand
and his harrowing story of survival was eventually shown in the film “The Killing
When the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh and took over the government they cleared the city forcing everyone into the fields to work. No one was allowed to have any personal possessions and rules were made regarding clothing, sexual relations and what one was allowed to say or speak. The children were taken to re-education centers where they would learn that they would no longer answered to their parents but only to the system and then they were forced into the military. An area outside the city, later named the Killing Fields, was the final resting place for hundreds of people who were murdered and tossed into pits. There were thousands of mass graves all over Cambodia.
You cannot visit this
country and not be aware of its history.
Day one we met a couple of guides with motorcycles who wanted to take us to The Killing Fields. We got on the bikes for the hour long trip out of the city. When we pulled into the area it looked calm and peaceful.
There were a couple of boys playing with slingshots and it seemed so tranquil. It was hard to believe what was inside this memorial.
As we walked up to the memorial we saw the hundreds of skulls piled in formation.
Every where you looked there were human bones on the ground and articles of bloody clothing spewing out of the earth.
There were men sitting by on benches whose families had been murdered here.
They talked quietly
about their own survival and how they have never forgotten seeing their parents
The killing fields now are home to cows who graze around the pits that once held hundreds of dead bodies.
It was a sobering journey to see this spot and I couldn’t stop thinking about the film “The Killing Fields” and what atrocities had taken place and how many people had died in this one spot. The only uplifting part of this trip was to see some smiling faces of surviving offspring and to sit with them and let them tell you their stories.
It was still early afternoon when we got back on the bikes with our guides and, since we had no plans, we were at their mercy to what we should do next.
Oddly enough, they took us away from the killing fields and onto a giant yard filled with old tires to go shoot weapons and throw hand grenades. I was completely shocked. It seemed like the worst idea after seeing such horrors that resulted from violence. I tried to tell them in English but they were adamant about us participating so… when in Rome. We went to an odd place in the middle of nowhere to find a bar where they handed you AK-47’s to fire. It was uncomfortable being around tourists who had a beer in one hand and a weapon in another.
Just when you think things can’t get anymore depressing and horrifying; onto day 3 where we visited Tuol Sleng School which is now called “The Genocide Museum”. This school was occupied by the Khmer Rouge and became the notorious S-21 Detention Centre. It was a harrowing experience to go through this place because it is still intact and left as it was. It is where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed anyone who was thought to be capable of fighting the new system. When we arrived and saw the building, the hair on my arms and neck stood up. I felt like there were many ghosts and spirits trapped there.
We entered the building and saw the remains of those who were murdered inside its walls. More skulls. Everywhere we went there seemed to be human remains.
Walking through the dilapidated halls it was silent and eerie.
There were small brick enclosures where people had been separated and shackled.
Rooms of torture were on display with pictures of how each room was used.
They were meticulous record keepers as well and there were photographs of foreigners who had the misfortune of just being in Cambodia at the wrong time. There was a photo of an Australian yachtsman, David Lloyd Scott and a British teacher, John Dewhirst, who were kidnapped, tortured and killed.
There were glimpses of this once being a school with its checkered floors and pastel walls but you could no longer imagine children running through this place. It was grim, blood stained and horrifying.
We left there feeling like we had seen the worst of mankind.
After three days of horrors in Phnom Penh I was ready to get out of Dodge. I hadn’t had a moment of not feeling sick or incredibly sad… or frightened. I needed a different experience. We managed to hear about a French couple who owned a restaurant off the beaten path. We somehow found it and it was really a bit of paradise. It sat on a large dock on the water and the thatched roof had diaphanous white fabric draped off the sides that fluttered in the night wind. The white candle-lit tables touched on an elegance we hadn’t seen since we arrived in South East Asia. We ate frogs legs that had been sauteed in teriyaki and butter and then grilled.
French food in Cambodia isn’t that hard to find but great french food is always hard to find. We had a salad and and some petite potatoes. I was thrilled. To celebrate I had my first cocktail and then another. The night was filled with laughter and it felt like a load was lifted off of my shoulders and my body finally unclenched itself and relaxed.
Later that night I was barfing, shitting and hallucinating. Yes… I had broken my number one rule of not drinking anything with ice in it just in case the water isn’t purified. Fortunately I had brought along a pill from my Dr., just in case this very thing happened, and 12 hours later I was feeling well enough to venture out. It was a good thing because we had decided to move on to our next stop which would be one of the most amazing man made wonders of the world… ANGKOR WAT.
I always wanted to go to Vietnam. Not to fight… obviously… but to travel. All I saw were movies like “Apocalypse Now”, “The Deer Hunter”, “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket” and I knew, since there was finally no war happening, Vietnam had changed and hopefully mended. I was also curious what the Americans had left behind; in terms of culture.
My partner, Travis and I traveled with backpacks because I couldn’t fathom lugging suitcases around during our adventures across potential unexploded bombs in rice paddy’s.
I went to an Asian tour company in China Town in Toronto and they were amazing, not only because they found us a great fare, but they told us important information like, “do not bring damaged American dollars because they only want new and clean looking money.” Our flight departed out of Toronto to England where we had a three hour wait and then we boarded a Korean Airline to Thailand. Korean Air was a wonderful airline where the service was impeccable and the food was great. We landed in Bangkok and had a four hour wait for our flight into Vietnam. We could have hitched a ride there faster. The entire travel took about 19 hours with the time on the ground between flights. The journey was ridiculously long.
I opted for a Thai foot massage at the airport while Travis cringed because he can’t imagine anyone touching someone else’s feet. He’s never had a pedicure. It felt good and it passed the time. When we finally landed in Vietnam it was around 6pm.. the next day for us. We got a taxi in Saigon and headed to the only pre-booked hotel on our entire vacation; somewhere near the airport. We had to sleep and we somehow managed to rest our minds and slept through the rest of the day and night in a simple but clean room with a shower. The next morning, we checked out and headed to Pham Ngu Lao in District One because we knew that was an area where backpackers could find cheap hotels. We managed to find one after talking to some people in a café on the corner of the street. We also had our “bible” at the time; The Lonely Planet, with tips to traveling in Vietnam. This area is where we met our Cyclo drivers that were to become our friends and travel guides for the entire time we were in Vietnam. Hue and Nyg were the sweetest couple of guys you could ever meet. They only wanted us to be happy; all the time. They peddled us around Saigon showing us all the sites like the Reunification Palace, where the tank crashed through the gates in 1975, ending the Vietnam war. The tank still sat there as a symbol.
We went to the War
Remnants Museum which used to be referred to as the American War Crimes Museum. It is a yard filled with American Huey
choppers that were shot down and Platoon tanks that were captured. There are unexploded ordnance to see. There are also some really disturbing photos
of the My Lai Massacre and the effects
of Agent Orange and other atrocities.
There are replicas of the “tiger cages” the North Vietnamese used to
house prisoners as well as a guillotine that was used by the French and South
Vietnamese to execute prisoners up until 1960.
We saw where the American Embassy used to be, where the helicopter evacuation took place during the fall of Saigon. It closed in 1975 and was demolished two years prior to our trip there.
The Vietnam-Soviet Petroleum company occupied the building for years and on the rooftop there were still rusting c-ration cans and sandbags left ,from the evacuation, when the building was demolished in 1998..
The architecture in Vietnam is French and Asian combined. Some of the markets are in the most beautiful buildings but ,once inside, it is vast and cramped, with stalls of people cooking over steaming woks and buckets of boiling broth.
We saw women sitting up in little cubicles with sewing machines making clothes all day in the crowded space.
Our hotel was a small room with a small bed but we had our own bathroom and it cost us around $10 US a night. We were within walking distance of all the restaurants and shops. There were open air stalls with incredible artists who were reproducing famous paintings on canvas. There were perfectly copied Warhol’s and huge art deco paintings. My one regret was not buying one. I couldn’t figure out how to transport it around the country and into Cambodia without it eventually being destroyed.
The traffic in Vietnam is horrendous and the crazy thing is that there are no traffic lights or signs or anything. Everyone moves like fast flowing lava traveling down a roadway; always in sync and always moving; a mechanical winding snake. There are numbers of people on overloaded motorbikes sitting in every position imaginable and then there are Cyclos, which are bicycles with seats on the front, for tourists to ride around the city. There are cars and trucks that are overloaded. There are so many people. Crossing a road takes some courage and know- how. You just need to start walking and have faith that everyone will go around you. The thing is; to not stop once you have decided to make your move because they are anticipating you moving along as they weave in and out and around you. They are very aware, defensive drivers, but they also will stop their car or bike anywhere… walk away ; leaving it in what you would perceive as a traffic lane. It’s the craziest system.
It is very polluted in Saigon because of all the vehicles and unfortunately people are not really conscious of littering. It was hot and smelly in the streets. You would see someone dragging a block of ice down the sidewalk to hack up later and put in beer or soda. As in all countries where the water is not purified you need to be careful about ice and always drink bottled water. I never drank a cocktail and stuck to beer without ice in it my entire time in Vietnam.
When we went, in 2000, it was just starting to become a place for tourists to go. There were Vets who were returning to find some peace of mind in seeing that the country had survived and the people of Saigon, now Ho Chi Min City, had moved on and were trying to build a new life. Everywhere we went the Vietnamese knew and requested, the song “Hotel California” by The Eagles. I’m not sure how or why… but they knew that song. It is most likely from Kareoke which is a big past time and you will find rooms in the most run down looking buildings that are fancy and air conditioned for your singing comfort. The Vietnamese also love to use the “thumbs up” while saying “A-OK” which must be a leftover expression from the Americans.
The Vietnamese are
enthusiastic and happy to meet people from a different culture and really care
about your happiness while you are there visiting. They desperately wanted to show us how things
have survived but also wanted us to know that there was a lot of hardship. Both of our
guides had grown up during the war and when they were old enough around
1978 they had to go and fight in Cambodia against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. One of our drivers had shrapnel in his back
and he looked so much older than his years and they had friends and relatives
die in both the Vietnam War and the war against genocide in Cambodia.
Almost everyone in
Vietnam has suffered because of the long years of war. You can see it in their eyes behind the
smiles and in the quiet moments where no one speaks. The children are also suffering because of
the poverty. They only go to school for
three or four years ,if they are lucky, and then they are working on the
streets selling lighters, cigarettes, books, and anything considered touristy
that they can carry.
We met kids who were
only 7 years old and spoke four languages.
They hadn’t been to school but working on the streets they had learned
to speak English, French, German and Russian.
We bought the kids dinners and cokes and they would eat half of what was on their plates and then sneak off with the rest to hand it over to a parent who was watching from a distance. It broke my heart. The children in Vietnam are very special because there is a hope and a joy that they express openly with strangers like ourselves. Travis bought a mandolin and would play songs for the kids. They knew a little bit of Jingle Bells but they did knew all of Frere Jacques the French lullaby. “Frere Jacques Frere Jacques dorme vu dorme vu”. We sang that with them and they were so excited we could all sing a song together.
One day we asked Hue and Nyg to take us to the Mekon Delta. They rented motorcycles and we were off on the horrible bombed out roads to the river. It took a couple of hours and we blew a tire on the way and had to stop to have it replaced. Inside the mechanics shack was a women charging for haircuts so Travis decided to get a trim. She pulled out a straight razor and started dry shaving him around his neck and chin. I saw the terror in his eyes… one slip of that blade. She went to move onto the back of his neck and he squeaked out, “No! It’s OK… no.” She understood and stopped. She moved onto his hair and when she finished he looked like a Vietnamese Ken doll. His molded and folded hair was then sand blasted with hair spray and as we sped away on our motorcycles I looked over and Travis’ hair was not moving an inch in the dusty dry 50 mile an hour wind.
When we arrived on the Mekon we met a guy with a boat and we chugged down the river with our friends. It was eerie and strange after watching so many movies about the war. All I could think about was Apocalypse Now. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been for the Americans and South Vietnamese. The river has a winding beauty with its thick jungle banks but you cannot see what is around the bend. You could be lulled into the peaceful tranquility and all of a sudden face an ambush. Thank god the war finally ended and now it is just another river with dark brown water. We stopped for lunch somewhere along the way and ate gigantic steamed shrimp.
By the time we
returned to Saigon we were exhausted and filthy from the dust and dirt of the
roads. I think we were always dirty in
Vietnam. There is a dirt film in the
One of our most bizarre day trips was to the Cu Chi Tunnels in the Cu
Chi district near Saigon.
There are interconnecting underground tunnels that were used by the Viet Kong to hide from detection during the war. Some of them were right underneath American bases. The Viet Cong would come out at night into the jungles and lay traps and place charges and mines. There was an American tank left rusting in the jungle. It had been ambushed and it still sits there as a haunting reminder of the turmoil this country and America had to endure before the end of the war in 1975.
I’m claustrophobic but I thought I would be remorseful if I’d traveled all this way and not experienced this. We saw an original entrance to a tunnel that was a patch of grass lifted from the earth exposing a narrow hole down. You had to raise your arms above your head to get through.
They have an entrance for tourists that is much larger and has earth steps down but once inside you have to crawl along. They have added electric lights so at least you can see. Once inside my heart started pounding and the panic set in. I just kept talking to myself and quietly saying that I would be out shortly. I went 10 meters and then took the first exit out. I did see one of the small rooms that the tunnel opened up into before I scrambled out. It was so small. I can’t believe that there were babies born in these tunnels who never saw the light of day. They were like mole people.
Outside the tunnels in the jungle were traps everywhere. Covered pits that housed bamboo spikes so if you were a soldier walking along you could all of a sudden drop through the earth and become impaled. Really gruesome stuff. So many ingenious ways to killing a man.
This was a pit of spikes, hidden, and covered by a soft porous wood that would not withstand the weight of a man. It would be covered over with some dirt and leaves and not seen by the human eye.
Prior to entering the site we were shown propaganda movies and footage of the Viet Cong fighting the war and living in the tunnels. The whole thing was really surreal.
When we left the site we noticed a beautiful Temple and stopped there to have a look. it was called the Bến Dược Memorial Temple. We didn’t expect to find something so beautiful near something so horrible.
ON December 19, 1975 the first stages of the Memorial monument was inaugurated by the Communist Party to memorialize the soldiers and people who died in the war. Visitors are welcome to come inside and burn incense and meditate.
We went inside many temples and we couldn’t believe the ornate structures with multiple poles of winding snakes and serpents. Some were so beautiful and had traditional Vietnamese music playing.
As we left Vietnam to make our way into Cambodia we experienced a sadness to leave our friends behind. We traveled in a small cramped bus with other tourists to the border. It took several hours on roads with huge craters left from the bombings. There were no washrooms on the way. Our driver stopped at one point to grab a fish that had jumped out of a gutter at the side of the road. He picked it up and put it in the front of the bus. Something he would take home for supper I imagined.
When we finally arrived at the border it was a scary site. I really felt like I was in a movie.
Like a lot of places, there is corruption, and we were told if you put a five dollar bill in your passport you could get through the border faster. I was too afraid to do that. I just stood in line and ,when we got up front, the guards took my fashion magazine and immediately started looking for a centerfold. That was pretty funny. We finally crossed into Cambodia and… well… that’s for another post.
Someday I hope to go back and find my friends who made us feel welcome and safe and happy. I will always remember them in my heart if I don’t make it back there.
I will never like the song “Hotel California” though.
Imagine the year 1957. You are in Havana Cuba and heading out to the swinging Hotel Riviera to do a little gambling and see an act at the Copa Room. Tonight is the opening night at the club and the featured act is Ginger Rogers.
You arrive in your most glamorous outfit draped in furs and diamonds and pearls. Your date looks sharp in his shark skin suit. There, in the lobby, is the owner, Meyer Lansky greeting his guests as they drive up to the front where the spectacular fountain is lit up in the night.
The historical Hotel Riviera sits on the Malecon ocean front drive in Havana Cuba. It was built in 1957 as a posh resort and was owned by the notorious mobster Meyer Lansky. He spared no expense in his efforts to rival the Hotel Riviera in Las Vegas. Lansky hired two of Cuba’s formative artists, muralist Rolando Lopez Dirube and sculptor Florencio Gelabert.
When I first pulled up in front of The Riviera my heart sank because I had expected so much more, but then, there are a lot of things in Havana that only have a shadow of past glory. Florencio Gelabert designed the white marble sculptures of an intertwined mermaid and swordfish that fronts the entrance and a large sculpture in the lobby , “Cuban Rhythm” that has a male and female dancer. The fountain, long dry ,sits baking in the sun, deteriorating and cracked.
Once inside the main lobby I felt like I stepped onto the set of Mad Men.
Every where I looked there was something else that caught my eye and I appreciate the completely unique creative force that was 1950’s design.
I’ve seen so many reproductions of starburst clocks but this was the real thing.
The original floating staircase was under construction and was off limits so I wasn’t able to see it but I am hopeful that they will be able to restore it to its original coolness.
The 3-D flying cranes art accented a wall leading into the circular bar.
The days of glamorous couples sipping martinis and smoking cigarettes at the lively bar, with the incredible view, is now reduced to curious tourists, like myself, who love architecture and history. If I had my way I’d throw a party there with all of my friends and it would be cocktail dresses and suits that would harken back to a time where the Rat Pack could have strolled past with beautiful girls on each arm.
The breakfast area is light and airy and leads out to the most fantastic pool I have ever seen.
When I walked outside and saw the magnificent three tiered diving platform I felt like I was in a Doris Day/ Rock Hudson movie. I just couldn’t take my eyes off of it and I desperately wanted to climb up and try a swan dive.
It sounds crazy but I got the same feeling when I was staring at the statue of David in Italy. Maybe that makes me a little weird but I was hypnotized by this structure.
The dining room inside the Hotel is equally breath taking in its over the top style. The murals on the walls were painted by the Cuban artist Rolando Lopez Dirube and they are a tropical explosion.
I promised myself that next time I visit Havana I will stay at The Riviera, at least for a couple of nights. I know the rooms are nothing special; a total let down, actually, but I want the experience of swimming, diving, dining in that crazy tropical restaurant, and going to the Copa. It’s still a cabaret with show girls and, not very impressive these days, but the interior is the same as it was when Ginger Rogers twirled her gams for a crowd of mobsters and gamblers.
Even the elevators are cool looking.
If you love history, like I do, you will get a real joy out of seeing all of this original 1950’s cutting edge style. Of all the places I have been, Havana is one of the most interesting. You can’t put your arms around a memory… to quote Johnny Thunders… but you can touch it in Cuba. If you get the opportunity to visit please go. I don’t think you will be disappointed unless your idea of a vacation is 5 star luxury. You won’t find it there but you will find a city steeped in history that has not changed. You will find a people who are open and welcoming. I will always return and I will always love Cuba.
I woke up early the next day and was off in a mini van to the jungles to scout our first location. We picked a spot in Mayabeque Province, just outside of Havana. There were bamboo trees and thick vegetation and the deeper you went in the thicker it got. There was sugar cane that the crew cut and handed around. It looked like a stick and you chewed on it to find the sweetness inside.
In an open field we constructed a thatched hut which we would later burn to the ground. That’s the film business.
Day 1 of shooting and the actors and extras stood around in the blazing heat in vintage suits and we had very little water and no bathroom facilities. It was a nasty first day. Our Walkie Talkies didn’t show up either so the soft spoken Cubans were bombarded by the blasting voice of the Canadian 1st Assistant Director who was screaming for his cast to come to set. They were up on a hill in an old bus that was converted into a costume truck and couldn’t hear him… so he just kept yelling louder. It was culture shock for the mild mannered crew. They were not used to having someone so loud and aggressive.
As the sun fell behind the trees the jungle came alive with sounds and the constant buzzing of mosquitos that all seemed to be saying “we have malaria”. No matter how much mosquito repellent was applied they just kept swarming. The Cubans didn’t seem to take notice but the Canadians were squirming. Someone told me that if you rubbed dryer sheets on your skin and tied them to your waist the mosquitos wouldn’t bite you. I put that theory to the test. I was a mosquito buffet
Get me out of here!
Some of the happiest people I have ever met are Cubans. The crew that I had the pleasure of working with were completely professional. The grips were working with old equipment that was frequently catching things on fire. They would just grab a bucket and douse out the lighting “flags” and we would keep shooting.
The women were organizers of Extras and transportation. They were also our Hair and Makeup department and additional assistant directors.
I spent most of my time in the only proper truck that we had, which was the hair and makeup truck. There were only two dressing rooms for the entire cast. The extras changed in pop up tents and in an old bus. I didn’t have a work space so I sat in the makeup truck as the actors were being processed. That truck also had the only bathroom for the entire crew. It was rank after a day but the smell was covered up by vats of “Final Net” hair spray. I inhaled enough hair spray to torch my breath. I mean… loads of hair spray.
I brought a box of Kashi granola bars to Cuba and one day I took them to the makeup truck. I handed one to the Makeup Artist, Karen and she proceeded to take one bite and pass it on to the next person. I laughed and said, “no no stop! I have one for everyone!” They just looked at me and didn’t understand… they didn’t speak English so well and my Spanish was horrible… but the point being; they share everything. I have never met people who did not have ambitions to do better than the next person or have more than their neighbor. They have been raised to take care of each other and to share, unlike North America where the message is to do better, have more, display your wealth and success. And guess what? They seem so much happier than us.
Once we got out of the jungle I felt like I could handle anything else that came my way. We moved back into Havana and no longer had the long drives to and from work in the morning in over -cramped vans. The roads were horrible and it took forever to maneuver around deep ruts and holes. You also have to be aware that walking the streets in downtown Havana can be a bit treacherous. The sidewalks are paved but will all of a sudden open up into a 3 foot hole or crevice. I stepped into one while I was sight seeing and dropped down up to my hips because I wasn’t paying attention. There are also a lot of dogs on the streets. They aren’t necessarily strays. They could have homes but the owners just let them out all day long to search for food on the streets and let them back in when they return from work. I fed a lot of dogs scraps and sandwiches that I didn’t want. I realized at one point the crew wanted my sandwiches. I ended up giving my unwanted food to the people to take home to their families and scraps to the dogs. One day I had the usual full container of rice and mystery meat, that had been our meal every day for a month, and I could not stomach it anymore so I carefully put it down in front of one of the street dogs. He took one sniff and walked away. Made me a bit nervous.
You don’t go to Cuba for the food. A popular luncheon meat is kind of like bologna and the crew were grateful to have those sandwiches to take home. It made me think about how spoiled we all are when it comes to food and the amount of waste there is on film sets. I couldn’t find a good salad anywhere and I’m not sure how you would survive as a vegetarian in Cuba. Salads consisted of shredded cabbage with nothing on it. Surprisingly someone taught the Cubans how to make good pizza. I had an amazing cheese pizza in a pop up tent restaurant near the Hotel Nacional. It was in a wood fire oven and I could have eaten that every single day. I also had a really good Paella in a restaurant. It was spiced nicely and had shrimp and Logostina in traditional Spanish rice.
Shooting in the downtown area of Havana was a little crazy. Its a busy place and the streets are a bit narrow. You can walk along and someone on a balcony above the street will dump a bucket of dirty water down or worse, they’ve emptied their toilet, so you have to be careful not to get doused with something unpleasant. I dropped my walkie talkie in the gutter once and the girls yelled at me to not pick it up. One of the men came over with a plastic bag and retrieved it for me and sprayed it with disinfectant as the girls pointed at it and said, “poe poe”. Ewwww… I knew what that meant… its pretty universal.
The vintage looks on set were fantastic. The suits and dresses and shoes were all brought in from Canada and the cast looked amazing.
Honestly, once you are surrounded by a cast dressed in 1950’s suits and you are on the streets where all the cars are authentic for the period its hard not to believe you are back in time, until you glance to your left and see someone in lime green shorts and a Nike tee shirt. Fashion in Cuba is very flashy and colourful. The women love to show off their bodies and bright colours are in style. You see a lot of hot pink and oranges and yellows and anything neon. I think there are still a lot of tourists who bring along clothes to give away. I brought linen tops , tee shirts with logos, and silk dresses and gave them away to my friends on the crew. Everyone gave me something in return. I tried to refuse but they were insulted so I accepted the tokens of friendship. One older woman gave me a beautiful vintage shell bracelet. The Art Director gave me a tiny mariachi drum key chain. Someone else gave me a little red heart pendant. They have nothing and yet they insisted on giving me something. Such displays of love and affection were everywhere. I was there for Valentine’s Day and it was more popular than Christmas! It was such an event. All the women had special surprises planned for their boyfriends and husbands. There was not a cynical one in the bunch. It’s that Latin lover thing and it really is true. They take love very seriously. It was touching and charming and I felt a bit of a spoil sport for always rolling my eyes at the cliche celebration that was invented by Hallmark and Laure Secord. See? I can’t help myself.
We filmed at night because it was so quiet. Havana does not have a crazy night life like you would expect. It is definitely not Miami. People go for long dinners and have drinks and then walk along the Malecon, which is the most popular social thing to do in Havana. I compare it to a boardwalk by the ocean where families and friends stroll along and there are musicians and teenagers sitting on the breaker walls entertaining each other. There are no drugs in Cuba but you do see people drinking. They also love to smoke their cigarettes. As the temperature drops and the wind picks up everyone disperses to their homes and it becomes quiet except for the taxis and cars that are still driving tourists back to their hotels. At the Hotel Nacional things are gearing up for a big show with dancers and a band and singers. Everyone will sit outside in wicker chairs and drink cocktails and smoke cigars. When I was there I saw the famous Buena Vista Social Club and it was a thrill for me to get to listen to them.
Once it is dark in the downtown area things wind down and the streets are empty except for our film crew, cast and extras. We lit up the streets and had some occasional curious onlookers but, for the most part, it was deserted.
We were shooting a scene one night where the army and the revolutionaries have a standoff. It was very late and the Extras hadn’t eaten. When a food truck with sandwiches finally arrived, after hours of waiting, they ran to the truck in a stampede. Each of them had weapons and they were not prop guns.. meaning plastic or fake.. these were real Cuban Army rifles and handguns. They just dropped them in the street and ran for that bologna.
When we were ready to film the scene the first line was “People lay down your arms”… instead it became “People lay down your sandwiches.”
There is a nice beach outside of Havana called Plays Santa Maria Del Mar. It is a public beach and has beach chairs and restaurants. There are a couple of hotels and you can have your dinner and drinks served right on the beach. The water was wavy and there was a bit of seaweed but it is a soft sandy, relaxing beach, and its a hot spot for families to cool off on a weekend
My next blog will feature the incredible Hotel Riviera. The famous mob run 1950’s casino and home of the Copa Room.
Now I’m going to make myself a pitcher of Mojitos…. and yes… I said pitcher.
Stepping onto the plane to go and work in Havana on a movie for 5 weeks was exciting and terrifying at the same time. I met a coworker, the Costume Designer, at the airport in Toronto and we boarded our plane. She had three large bags of vintage clothes she was bringing for the film. I had my enormous bag stuffed to the brim because I needed to survive for a month and I knew that snack bars and toiletries were scarce in Cuba. When we landed in Havana we experienced something straight out of “Midnight Express”. We were immediately pulled aside by security, once we snatched our bags off of the carousel. The Cuban guards were yelling at us in Spanish and pointing for us to go into a back area. Neither one of us spoke the language. They started opening our bags and going through everything. They kept saying to my coworker in English. “You cannot bring to gift… you must pay.” We kept saying we were working on a movie and none of the clothes were gifts. Of course we didn’t have our visas yet because we were told by production that we would acquire those once we actually came into the country to start work. It was scary and confusing. After two hours of being held in the back of the small airport I remembered I had printed out the crew list which had contact information for our Cuban Producer and some of the Cuban crew. I pulled it out and gave it to the guards. They looked at it and then snapped their fingers at us to repack and zip up our bags. I was so relieved. As I was zipping my bag, one of the border guards that had been yelling at us approached, with a huge smile on his face, and said quietly to me, “I want to be an actor.” It was so hilarious after our ordeal that I suddenly felt relaxed and had no animosity towards him. I gave him the universal thumbs up and we were allowed to exit. It was not the way I had wanted to be introduced to such an incredibly beautiful and complex city but it is one for the record books. It was night as we exited the building to meet our patient driver who had been waiting now for three hours for us. It was hot and muggy as we sped through the empty streets that had the smell of gasoline mixed with the salt of the sea. I thought maybe it was the old car we were driving in, but later, realized that this is the way Havana smells. There are so many old cars on the road it has created a smell of an automotive seniors center where cars cough and chug along with the help of young, innovative home mechanics, who will use anything to keep their original family cars on the road.
There is something to be said for a country that does not have a single MacDonald’s or Burger King. It’s wonderful. Havana sits in a time warp. Everything sort of stopped in 1959 or more aptly was reborn, depending on who you speak to.
The Cuban revolution, lead by Fidel Castro, began on the 26th day of July 1951. Within the last five years, President Obama famously visited Havana, in his efforts to finally mend relations between the US and Cuba, but since Trump has come to power, it all seems to have gone awry. It makes me sad since the people of Cuba are the happiest and kindest, most generous, people I have ever met and its history is like no other place I have been. Americans are missing so much by not being allowed to visit this complicated country, but then, the selfish side of me doesn’t want to share this amazing place. I do fear that once things open up it will destroy the innocence and beauty. I also know that the people deserve better but do not assume that everyone wants change. Some people are fearlessly loyal to their government and system and are also wary of what could happen if everything opens up. I think the smartest thing they have done in Cuba is to not allow anyone who is not Cuban to own property. If you are a foreigner you can only buy a home or estate in Cuba if you have a Cuban partner and the property has to be in that persons name.
There are signs everywhere signifying the Revolution. The Museum Of the Revolution is fascinating and is in the Palace in Old Havana. There are bullet holes in the marble walls as you go up the steps inside. You will also find many photos and tributes to Che Guevera.
“Ernesto “Che” Guevara was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, activist, guerrilla leader, diplomat and major figure of the Cuban Revolution, his stylized visage has become a ubiquitous countercultural symbol of rebellion and global insignia in popular culture.”
This is a picture of my desk that I used at an old police station where we were shooting for a few days.
I could not believe our luck as we pulled up to the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where Frank Sinatra honeymooned with Ava Gardner. Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in movies, used to famously dive from his third story room overlooking the Olympic size concrete swimming pool.
The hotel also entertained politicians like Winston Churchill and Jimmy Carter and actors like Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich. In December of 1946 the Hotel also hosted the famous Havana Conference which was a summit of mobsters run by Lucky Luciano and attended by all the notorious mob bosses of the day and was recreated in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II”. This was going to be my home for the next five weeks and it was a dream come true.
The Tropicana, which
is the nightclub at the Nacional, had
performers like Eartha Kit and Nat King Cole, who were not allowed to stay at
the hotel, because they were black, but were hired to sing to sold out audiences. There is a bust honoring Nat King Cole
today outside the Tropicana.
I was thrilled to be in a place that is an Art Director’s dream come true. The 1950’s are preserved in Havana. The cars are meticulously taken care of but if you open the hood you see makeshift parts that have kept them running. Wire coat hangers, spoons, forks or anything metal is used. They have not been able to get new parts for decades because of the sanctions against them from the United States. There are some newer European cars but the majority of people can’t afford them so they have to keep their old American made cars running. You are not guaranteed ,that when you hire a car, it will make it to your destination without breaking down.
The architecture in Havana is in a Baroque style but is also Cuban. Open balcony’s with barred windows and huge rounded columns are common. In the suburbs of Havana you find homes that were built in the 1940’s and 1950’s and are still decorated with original ‘50’s furniture. The mornings are a symphony of roosters greeting the dawn.
The Malecon is along the coast of Havana and stretches for 8km. It began construction in 1901 during temporary U.S. military rule. It is a broad esplanade that has a seawall protecting the roadway from a ,sometimes, tumultuous sea. It is also a social gathering area for people to walk and sit and play music. You can stroll along the sea wall into the area referred to as Old Havana.
Old Havana is Cuba’s capitol and it is filled with vintage cars, enormous museums and cobble stoned, narrow streets ,with shops and open air restaurants.
There is lively music everywhere and some of the best Spanish guitar players you will see playing on a corner. After speaking to many musicians , the one thing I came away with was an intense sadness. Guitar players in Cuba can’t buy strings. Most of the guitars are still using ancient cat gut strings and if they break one then they are out of business as musicians.
I decided that anytime I visit Cuba I will bring along packs of strings. I handed them out to the street musicians and saw grown men cry to get something so essential to their careers. A tiny gesture that makes a huge difference in someones life. Music is a huge part of their culture. The talent you will see from a busker on the street is mind boggling.
Old Havana has a central area called Plaza de la Catredral which is named for the stunning Catredral de San Cristobol. It is an open square in front of this Cuban Baroque cathedral where there are many outdoor cafes and restaurants to sit, have a coffee or a drink and have a bite to eat. The square is also filled with music and colorful locals who are entertaining you or selling you something.
You will also find line ups of retro cars from the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. All of these cars are for hire and some are just taxis. You can get a taxi for 6 Cubanos , which is a Cuban currency that has a floating exchange rate. Its bizarre and it is the luck of the draw if you get a good rate.
The rates seem to correspond with the American Dollar but my Canadian dollar was never factored in and is worthless in Cuba. As a matter of fact you have to buy Cubanos when you land but you can also use your credit card in hotels and most places will take American money.
I went to the old Ernest Hemingway haunt La Florida, which, from the outside does not look that impressive but the interior is dark wood and elegance. A lively band plays at the front while they serve delicious Daiquiris, which was apparently Ernest’s drink of choice at the time.
You can sidle up to the bar beside the bronze statue of Ernest sitting in his favorite seat at the bar.
Cuba also has some of the finest rum in the world. And ,of course, everyone knows that the best cigars in the world are Cuban. One of my favorite drinks is the Mojito. It is rum, lime, soda water and sugar and mint. A delicious and refreshing drink for a hot day. I had my fare share over the month I was in Havana.
The art in Havana is also everywhere. There are original paintings hanging in the streets of Old Havana alongside the outdoor vintage market. You kind find everything from old typewriters, jewellery, cameras and books pre-revolution and post revolution. I think the prices have gone up recently because the Cubans are aware how precious some of these antiques are.
There are also many restaurants called Paladars. The government has allowed people to get a license to serve food in their homes. Some of them are in huge old mansions that are crumbling around you with a fading opulence of another time and place. Families of enormous wealth, at one time, now trying to survive, still living in the ancestral home with cracked Spanish floor tiles as a reminder of how things used to be.
I went to a Paladar in Old Havana and the food was delicious. It was logistina, which is a Caribbean lobster, with fragrant seasoned rice and free Mojitos. The tiny laneway beside the house was decorated with Christmas lights and flowers. It was hidden away and the man who owned it chased my friend and I down and begged us to follow him for a tasty and cheap meal. He just happened to show up at the right time because we were starving and ready to sit and eat. We could see the apron of his wife cooking our meal in the kitchen as we sipped on our Mojitos.
The food was amazing and we thanked them as we left with a full stomach. What I need to warn you about is the danger of having a drink with unpurified ice. We had at least three. This is exactly what happened to us. Hours later I was feeling a bit off. I managed to get back to the Hotel after work but entered to find my friend projectile vomiting across the room. I joined in! Then it was none stop fun for the entire night. I really don’t want to go into the gory details but we also plugged the toilet. I was so dehydrated my hands were cramping. The hotel maids came in the next morning and were horrified at the pasty white grub creatures they found and immediately called the Dr. who rushed over with injections for us both.
I have never been so sick. I would suggest asking your Dr., prior to going somewhere that may have bad drinking water, to give you a prescription in case you accidentally have bad ice like we did. You will be cured in 24 hours instead of going through the three days of torture that I went through. Oh well, live and learn, and the next time I visit I’ll be a little more cautious.
Some of the most beautiful, generous, happy and kind people that I have met in my life are Cubans. They share everything because they have very little. There is no jealousy or ambition to have more than your next door neighbor. I have seen this rarely. You see it everywhere in Havana.
In my next blog I will talk about Havana from a working perspective and the people of Havana. I also will explore one of the more fascinating historical hotels… The Riviera … which was owned by gangster Meyer Lansky and was built in 1957. It is a virtual time capsule of ’50’s design, art, furniture and cool. Stay tuned readers!
Once upon a time there was a man named Isaac Singer that purchased a house in 1871 on beautiful lush grounds where he added gardens, tennis courts and bowling greens. He bought it as his private residence with the money that he made with the invention of the Singer Sewing Machine, which still stands today as the standard for the modern sewing machine. He lived from 1811 until 1875 and then this stunning house was rebuilt it in the style of the Palace of Versaille, by one of his children, Paris Singer.
This breath taking
property is named Oldway Mansion and sits in Paignton, Devon England. Oldway Mansion was purchased by the Paignton
Urban District Council in 1946 and was used as council offices and then marriage
ceremonies till 2013 and since then it has sat empty.
I strolled around the massive home in the mist of a light rain with patches of fog rolling along the tennis courts and gardens.
There is a statue with the head of a woman and body of a lion protecting the steps going up to the back of the house. I’m not sure who it is. Perhaps a member of the royal family? I can’t tell.
What I can say, is that this hauntingly beautiful estate sits empty and rotting. It is the saddest thing to see such a lonely empty historical landmark deserted and ignored because of a lack of funding. I know that local historians are gutted to see it just sitting there like a discarded pearl at the bottom of the ocean. It seems no one can come to an agreement with what to do with the enormous estate. It should be reopened to the public as a museum, if nothing else. One can only imagine what it was like when it was a private home with parties and dinners and events. I peered through the windows and snapped some shots of a ghostly interior trapped in a time warp of opulence. A grand piano sits alone in a vast room. Parkay floors are faded and stained but the windows still have curtains and the style of the room hearkens back to a period of decadence.
I yearned to go inside
but there are bolts on the doors and no one is allowed.
Crumbling brick and dead leaves are starting to collect and if nothing is done this symbol of the 1800’s will collapse.
Chard, Somerset – Courthouse – circa 1640
I visited another amazing private residence in Devon that was built in 1640 and, originally, was the town courthouse. The judge was known as “the hanging judge”. It is a thrilling monument to the times with its turrets and lovely courtyard.
There is a ghost who has been there for centuries. One day an old woman knocked on the front door, which resembles the entrance to one of the castles on Game Of Thrones, and said she had lived there as a child in the 1920’s. She brought along an old photo of herself on a tricycle out front of the place, gifting it to the current resident. He brought her inside so she could revisit her childhood dwelling and she immediately asked if the female ghost was still there. And.. yes.. she was, still entertaining and watching over his children as she had watched over this woman so very long ago. It seems this spirit loves children and therefore they are the ones who have the gift of seeing her.
The back grounds are meticulously taken care of and the flowers are in full bloom. There is Ivy clinging to the walls and framing this idyllic English garden.
Moving back to the courthouse.
There were many hanged in the Gothic brick building with its heavy wooden door and concrete stair case.
I pleaded with Val to come into the old courtroom at night and we were terrified at the top of the stairs to see a mannequin dressed in period clothes at the back of the room. A dark specter watching over its ghostly tenants. I almost pee’d myself when Val’s blood curdling scream rang out and she scramble to the door in a desperate attempt to escape.
A mischievous tenant and keeper of all things spooky stood at the foot of the stairs giggling. A practical joker of the highest order.
I took some photos where I caught a large orb. They were zipping around so quickly it was difficult to catch them on film. I could definitely see them when the light flashed in the darkness.
It was cold and ominous and the light through the giant windows cast shadows on the concrete floor and ceiling.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I retreated to the warmth of the main house where there is always laughter and music and great food. I’ve been fortunate to have been invited for more than one Sunday roast and the host does not disappoint. Big thick slices of roast beef and home- made gravy, from scratch. Cheese topped cauliflower, parsnips roasted in Madagascar honey, a perfectly crispy roasted chicken and deliciously crunchy, yet, melt in your mouth, roasted potatoes.
To top it all off, the dessert was fresh berries with clotted cream and a sprinkle of sugar. A feast for a King or a Queen or a couple of Princess’s. At least I felt like one, when I visited this incredible house and it’s owner. Whatever the atmosphere has been over the years in this ancient place, I can say it is filled with love and happiness now. I doubt it has always been.
I photographed the old church and cemetery near Val’s place in Dunkeswell. I wanted to share some of them with my readers in case any of you decide to make the trip. It just such a beautiful place.
Tubbys Diner at the WWII Airfield – Dunkeswell
Val took me for breakfast one morning in an old hanger at a WWII Air Force Base. It was called Tubbys and there was one large gentleman cooking in a small kitchen in the back of the hanger.
He whipped up a great hearty British breakfast of eggs and ham, baked beans and potatoes and toast.
One thing I did a lot of was eat on my trip. The old myth about Britain not having good food is seriously a myth. I had delicious food everywhere I went… even Val’s house… because she makes a mean Chicken Fajita, that cannot be topped!
If I want to shop, while in Dunkeswell, I go to Exeter where there is a mixture of the old and the new. Top Shop and Zara and other fashionable stores are mixed with small bakeries and vintage shops. There is always a pub or restaurant to stop and have a drink or a bite.
I think the most heart felt thing I can say about anywhere I have been in the world is the connection to people that you meet. In my case I am fortunate to have a friend that always makes me laugh and is the best travel companion you could ask for. She selflessly goes to the most touristy, cheesy spots and shows just as much enthusiasm as I do and she deserves an Academy Award for that. So my hat is off to Val and her laugh and her wonderful Devon. If you are looking for a peaceful, lovely holiday I suggest Devon, England. You will not be disappointed.
London is a city like no other. Its fashion and music history for starters. Lets start with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. They changed music forever. Everything that was mod and mini came from London. The birth of punk fashion came with Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McLaren’s store. They capitalized on the safety pinned youth that were poor and had created something out of necessity. The real punks couldn’t afford to buy clothes from the shop that stole their fashion. The irony.
I started my trip to London in Camden Town. My friend Val and I stayed in a cozy little Airbnb that was within walking distance to Camden Market. It was a two level apartment that I mistakenly thought we would have to ourselves. When we arrived there were men’s socks draped across a radiator. Our upstairs room had men’s briefs on display at the foot of our bed. Our hosts slept in the bedroom beside ours. It was hilarious. I don’t think he quite had the whole hosting thing down. Still, we could walk to the market and the apartment was clean despite the socks and undies… and the sand paper towels they gave us to bath with were horrendous but it was all manageable.
I love the quaintness and small town feel by the market. The cobble stoned streets through Camden Market wind their way through stalls of fashionable clothing, cutting edge bondage looks and great vintage. There is the “Mod Store” where the gentleman who owns it walks around in his authentic mod suit spewing a wealth of knowledge regarding the clothes he sells. “This is from a London based designer who only made a few pieces… very rare.” “This sequined flag jacket could have been made for Elton John.”
Then there is the beloved statue of Amy Winehouse in the center of the market. She lived in Camden Town and her house still has offerings of flowers and poems and gifts ,displayed across the road and under a tree, from fans who miss her. She was incredibly talented and incredibly tiny with her massive hair. I wish I’d had the opportunity to see her perform but she’s gone and the closest I will ever get is posing beside this bronzed Amy.
There is an array of foods from around the globe in Camden Market and always somewhere to stop for a pint or a cocktail. I spent two days just wandering , eating fantastic coconut based Indonesian curry from a stall on the first day, and having delicious Mexican on the second day. I ended up purchasing a dark red burgundy velvet waist coat that I found in a steam punk store. I’m not sure what inspired me other than the fit was perfect and I felt a bit like David Bowie when I put it on. I also found a vintage satin DKNY coat that would not allow me to leave it behind.
From there I traveled to Brighton where I immediately started singing “We are the mods, we are the mods, we are, we are, we are the mods” from “The Who’s” epic film “Quadraphenia”. The film was shot in Brighton forty years ago. I love The Who and I love that movie. It is a gem of great music, fashion and art and it features the lovely seaside town of Brighton. I sat at an outdoor pub and drank pink gin and lemonade… refreshing and deceivingly innocent until you stand up after a couple. Gin is not a drink I normally partake in but for some reason I drank a lot of it in the U.K. I also discovered Espresso Martinis… a delicious blend of coffee and chocolate with vodka… and something called a Porn Star Martini… a fruity mango based elixir with vodka and a shot of prosecco …both delicious and deadly… and I blame my mates Val and Angela for that obsession. It became my mission for the rest of my trip to find cocktail lounges that could make those two drinks. I was successful in my hunt and have had a couple of Espresso Martinis in my own home since I’ve returned… a full blown lush.
Brighton reminds me of San Francisco with its hilly streets and sea front. The boardwalk is spectacular and still has rides on it that look like old -timey fairground rides. The weather was a bit chilly, although it was sunny all day long, but even the heartiest of Brits was not giving in to the lure of the sea in May. I have seen people swim where it could not have been much above 50 degrees and I turned blue just watching them, but not this time. I went to see a Canadian band called The Sadies from Toronto and they blew the roof off the sold out show which was packed with enthusiastic guitar nerds and drunken dancers … myself being one of them… and afterwards everyone spilled out onto the streets to find the next libation. My friends and I went to a wonderful place called The Bohemian where we drank my new fav, the Espresso Martini, that came on a concrete chalice filled with dry ice. It was a drunken Game of Thrones moment for me.
Next, we made our way to my best mate Val’s farm house in Devon. A gorgeous British countryside with narrow hedged lined roads that wind up and down from one small hamlet to the next. I was introduced to clotted cream on scones with jam and probably gained five pounds in a week. It was worth it. Thank god for Spanx. There is nothing that compares to the English breakfast or countryside. Gorgeous. We visited a donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth. The grounds were immense and well kept. They even had a large maze you could run through, which reminded me of The Shining. I wouldn’t want to be there on a snowy day in the winter. The rescue donkeys were lovely and approachable. One had the most beautiful and peaceful face as we scratched her ears and whispered affections to her. I also hung out with Val’s rescue ponies and her son Will, a handsome young lad whose title is Will Of Fartingdom.
Next, Val and I headed to Carnaby Street back in London and home of the birthplace of the swinging ’60’s. There was a time this street was filled with mods , punks and skinheads. It has always been the epicentre of fashion and culture in London’s West End. I tried to envision these early days as I walked the street. Now Carnaby Street is a tourist attraction that has fashionable “chain” stores that you would find in any mall. The boutiques seem to all have gone by the way side. There are some nice cafes and pubs to stop for a drink but the best thing is that it is bordered by the timeless Liberty department store.
I didn’t purchase anything on famed Carnaby Street because I could find any of the stores back at home offering up the same fashion.
We headed over to the famous and iconic Liberty Department Store. It is known for its luxury designs and fashions. It first opened in 1875. Its famous mock Tudor front was done in 1924. It has continued on in its history of championing eclectic designs and has the enviable reputation of housing the most forward thinking and highly covetable fashions.
We made our way into Liberty and passed through a spectacular perfumery. It was heavenly, with so many different scents. I was tempted to buy something original but my pocket book was not having any of it. We made our way up the wide stair case to the second floor where I experienced a wave of envy seeing some of the most beautiful and original dresses hanging, evenly spaced, on racks, in order to give you time to process each and every one…. and once again … in my case, realize that they are all out of your price range. There was something so regal and old about this store, the creaking heavy wooded floors and large mirrors, and the highly fashionable staff. Just making the trip inside was worth the pain of not being able to buy anything. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t try something on… and I did. I tried on a pair of Stella McCartney sunglasses! We stopped for tea at the restaurant on the 2nd floor and recharged our phones. I had a couple of poached eggs, bacon and toast with some fruit on the side, and , of course, some tea. It was completely full and we shared a table with an older couple. There was lively chatter and the brightly lit room was elegant, even though it was filled with shoppers.
Val took me to Kensington High Street where she grew up not far from Kensington Palace. It was the home of the 3 storied Kensington Market that was demolished in the early 2000’s. I was sad to hear that it had closed down and remember buying some cool bohemian trousers there in the 1980’s. Freddy Mercury even had a stall there at one time. There was just so much cool fashion and history everywhere you looked.
The church bells rang out for long periods of time as we walked past famous landmarks. These streets are well groomed and wide and the mansions spectacular. We walked past the house of Jimmy Page… well.. the castle of Jimmy Page with it’s turrets and stained glass, as we made our way to Kensington Palace.
Kensington Palace was lit up in the dusk and the “no photos” signs did not stop me from snapping a quick one at a distance.
Living there must be such a public affair and I don’t think I could handle that much attention… not for all the money in the land… which is apparently what they have. I prefer a quieter and more private existence. As Val and I walked the deserted streets she reminisced about a childhood growing up so close to the palace and playing near Kensington gardens , and it’s large pond, feeding the ducks and the swans. She told me a story about herself, as a small child, meeting John Wayne in front of her house ,because he was coming to visit her next door neighbor, who had worked as a crew member on one of his films. She had no idea who he was but her mum did and the word spread that John Wayne was on the street. She also had no idea that she was growing up in a place that was steeped in so much history and was in the process of creating more. We don’t recognize that sort of thing when we are kids. We are just living in our moment. I wish I’d had that kind of history instead of growing up in a brand new suburb in Ontario. I dreamed of castles and Princes when I was growing up.
When I think of England I think of moss and ivy covered thatched cottages and stain glass windows in enormous castles and over flowing purple Wisteria falling off of houses and fascinators and mini skirts and The Beatles and The Who and The Rolling Stones and afternoon tea and Double Decker buses and the Royals and one of my closest and dearest friends… Val…. and that would keep anyone coming back over and over again…….
Thanks readers… I hope you enjoyed this post and there is more to come from my trip to the UK!! Stay tuned. All photos featuring myself were taken by the multi talented Val Miller.