Thankfully, he did manage to capture quite a few details of the trip enroute, for example, his write up about La Habana, below...
There was also his recount of the snorkeling adventure at Playa Coral...
Although Alex was less resistant than Simon about working on his journal daily while in Cuba, the gig was up when we got home. The working copy of the journal was all I ever got out of him!
Thankfully, he did manage to capture quite a few details of the trip enroute, for example, his write up about La Habana, below...
There was also his commentary (albeit brief, i.e. "fine") about being unplugged:
(For the record, I do NOT "yell" at him "all the time" -- or ever, really -- to get off his device, lol!)
There was also his recount of the snorkeling adventure at Playa Coral...
His review of the resort was Trip Advisor worthy!
On the plane ride home, Alex summarized the trip nicely, but skipped the parts he decided he wouldn't be doing. Oh well, at least he's an honest writer!
During our recent stint in Cuba, I asked my two kids to complete a reflective journal each day. Simon, who had been the less delighted of the two about this prospect, wowed us all with his write up on return. In addition to typing several pages worth, he requested feedback and willingly returned to the project to to make changes based on that feedback.
His final results are below...
When we first got to Cuba, I saw a lot of green (plants and shrubbery). Because of these plants, I smelled extremely fresh air. However, during the trip I got used to it so I didn't notice it as much, but when we got back to Toronto, I could smell the difference. In Toronto, the air smells more industrial. Saying this though, I have to remember that the taste of the food in Cuba was a bit bland but the food at the resort was terrible. All the food was hard, bland, soft, etc etc... . They even ruined chicken!
One thing I noticed was that there were many different races. There wasn’t really one noticeable majority because there were many colours of people, black, latino, white; you name it! I was surprised by this because I thought all the Cubans would be Latino.
So those were my first impressions on Cuba but let me tell you more about the Resort. Our room was pretty cold (colder than the air outside). Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that we could just change the temperature of the room until over halfway through our trip . Uggh!
The room had two double beds and a cot that the cleaning staff brought in for one of us to sleep on. The walls of the room were dark blue.
The pool was cold so we didn’t really swim in it other than the first day. However, never mind the pool, because the beach was almost perfect(the only problem was the salt water). I quote Alex when I say “the beach was very salty and it was disgusting to accidentally swallow water. There were also lots of straw umbrellas and plastic chairs to have relaxation at its best.”
I already talked about how bad the food was so never mind that, however, let me talk about the lobby. The lobby was very big. To plant a good picture in your mind, let me describe how it looked. It had three levels, the main level which has the front desk, washrooms, cafe, gift shop, entrance, seating area, and other smaller details. The second level has a stage for the band (which was one of the best ones I’ve ever heard) and seating area. The third level has two restaurants, a bar, and seating area. The place didn’t have a roof but rather a huge, green covering un attached made of stone and wood with beams supporting it. The lobby also had a green ramp coming down from the third level all the way down to the main level (the ramp also opened up at the second level) and a lot of potted plants.
Before we got there I thought the city would be really old because Mom kept saying “Havana is an old historical city.” However, when we got on the tour bus going to Havana, I learned some real facts. I already knew that it’s the capital city but I didn’t know that the city is home to three million people which is about one fourth of the country's eleven million residents.
When we got there, i realised that the city was crowded and LOUD! Forget New York, this is the real city that never sleeps. People were up partying all night.
Soon enough we met our host. They had a really nice house (they were probably pretty rich for Cuban standards). Everything was neat, tidy, and they even had a balcony with a nice view of the street below. I thought “Yes, Score” until they showed us the rickety spiral staircase behind us. At the top of those stairs was our place (the place ended up being nicer than, or as nice as, theirs with three beds spread across two bedrooms, two balconies, other living necessities, and a microwave that might explode at any moment so no need to worry). Dam!
The Town of Varadero
Other than Havana we also visited the town of Varadero although, we did not stay there overnight.
While most of our rides to places cost money, we ended up getting a free ride there after haggling with our bus driver (we did give him toys, hygiene items, and clothes though so it wasn’t exactly free). When we got to the town of Varadero, the first thing we did was buy my friend Muneeb a mini Baseball Bat tourist item because he loves bat sports. Then, we walked around an industrial part of town that my Mom said was allegedly a residential area. Heh, heh, No! Next, we went to a local art market (really it was just kind of a tourist market, in fact, the whole town was infested with tourists). After that, we rode in a taxi shaped like a helmet to one of the local beaches and swam in the clean and clear water there. The taxi was one of my favourite parts of the entire trip partially because of all the fresh air in my face as we zoomed through the streets. Finally, we took an old fashioned taxi car home, which we payed for (something different about Cuba compared to most places is that most of the cars there are old fashioned and most of the people who own cars there are cabbies because very few people have a car there).
Other Fun Activities
Some other things we did were snorkelling and seeing a dolphin show. First, I’m going to talk about snorkelling. This was the first time I've been snorkelling. I really enjoyed it. We saw lots of fish and various different colours and types of coral. Our guide even showed us a starfish! He also gave us a sea urchin but in return we gave him clothing. One thing I didn't enjoy about snorkelling was that I had to keep my legs super stiff in order for the coral and sea life to not rub against my legs.
While Alex and I were Snorkelling, our Mom had her own adventure. Allegedly she bought herself and our driver a pin encalada then watched us snorkel.
Later, we went to a dolphinarium to see a dolphin show. The dolphins did cool stuff like dancing and balancing things on there nose. They also jumped through hoops, shot basket balls, and gave high fives to the trainers. All of that aside though because the star of the show was a little baby dolphin that kept smiling, laughing, and overall just being bad.
Life without Internet
It was very difficult for me not to have internet for two reasons.
First of all, I couldn’t watch youtube or do a lot of things I like to do. However, my second reason was that I felt like I couldn't show my Mom my full potential for documenting our trip. As it is I type as slow as Molasses but writing, OMG! I was being sloppy with my work because I felt that it would be bad anyway. I’m hoping that after reading this my Mom will see my full potential (I know she does, but it will still feel good to complete this).
All of that aside though, what I did like about not having internet was that I was more observant because I wasn’t just thinking about getting back to my screen. I felt like I enjoyed this trip more than any I’ve ever gone on before.
To conclude this part, I would like to say that I think people should take a break from internet for a straight twenty-four hours every two months.
Before I end off this article I would like to give anyone planning on going to Cuba a huge tip. GO SOON because times are changing. The leader of Cuba Fidel Castro has just passed away meaning anything can happen (including the price of things in Cuba) so go now!
When my mother and grandmother used to travel with me a hundred years ago before the omnipresence of smartphones and social media (heck, the Internet was not even a “thing” yet!), we’d pack our bags and head out of the country for two weeks or longer.
The only contact we’d have with the folks back home was a postcard here and there, and sometimes maybe one long distance phone call just to let everyone know we’d arrived safely or something. There were no Facebook updates, Instagram photos or Twitter hashtags - people back home simply had to wait for the in-person update when we got back home at the end of the trip.
The payoff for this was that while traveling, we were fully immersed in the moment, conscious of the experiences we were having and the people we were having them with.
Unless you want to spend silly amounts of time and money surfing ridiculously slow internet the lobby of your dilapidated hotel, Cuba offers an opportunity to go “old school” for your vacation, as ubiquitous and accessible wifi is still an emerging concept here.
And that’s just what we did, my boys and I.
Alex and Simon and I left our devices at home when we headed out the door to the airport at 3:30 a.m. last Friday morning, and I’m grateful that we did so.
I should preface my praises for disconnecting with an admission that I had some pretty significant anxiety the first 48 hours without my smartphone.
For starters, feeling for that little key to the world in my pocket at all times has become almost a subconscious habit. I literally would reach for my iPhone multiple times a day: While standing in line at the airport, while waiting for the hotel shuttle bus to arrive at the airport, and at many other times once at the resort, just to check email, texts or update my Instagram feed. It was a surprise to me every time at first that the phone wasn't there!
Another thing I missed was the ability to look things up in a flash:
With the exception of the latter fact, which we were able to find out fairly quickly by looking at one of the maps in our Lonely Planet Cuba Guide and by simply walking around after checking in with our Casa owner, all my “need to know” questions had to wait until I could find someone to engage with who spoke enough English and knew more about Cuba than where the nearest bar was at the all-inclusive resort. Or wait until our return to Canada and the relatively fast, free wifi we enjoy here.
Finally, being out of text, phone or email range from my partner for a full week was a bit unnerving at first, since we’d never been apart for any length of time without some sort of digital access before. But “absence makes the heart grow fonder” as they say, and in the end, it was probably a good and healthy thing to have such a clearly demarked break from one another.
Being without my phone also meant having relatively little idea of what time it was, most of the time. Our resort lobby had a clock, as did the living room in the Havana Casa Particular where we spent a night, but other than that, we basically had to gauge what time it was by estimating the passage of time since our last confirmation, or checking -- in the morning and early evening -- by how bright it was outside.
That was a bit of a strange feeling at first, since I am so used to living by the clock (10-o-clock meeting, 2 p.m. deadline, 6 p.m. dinner, “family time” 7:30 - 8:15, kids’ tuck-in at 9, and so on).
But it didn’t take long to let go of the stringent schedule, and just respond to our mental and physical sense of what we “should” be doing at different points throughout the day.
Being free from daily reminders of all the lunacy going on in the world due to limited access to news of the latest racism, homophobia and misogyny in governments nearby was a welcome break.
After the initial awkwardness of feeling like we had to constantly know what time it was and whether anyone had texted us or updated their Youtube or Instagram feeds in the past three minutes, things started to get a whole lot better.
I began to read the book I had brought with me, and got so into it that I felt compelled to read aloud sections to the boys. They in turn became fascinated by Trevor Noah’s coming-of-age tales from Apartheid South Africa and demanded I keep reading more. This became a daily ritual, at the beach, by the pool, in the hotel lobby…
Cards were big, too: On the bus to Havana, in the brief moments we spent in our hotel room during transitions, and under the shade of our beach umbrella, the boys played everything from 21 to Crazy 8s to President, and I was obliged to join them.
We played more cards this week than in the past 12 months!
The best thing about being disconnected was that the daily digital distraction of the device was replaced by an ever-increasing, in-the-moment appreciation of the sights, sounds and other sensual flavours all around: The azures and aqua-marines of the Atlantic mesmerized me, and not just for a moment while I grabbed my phone to snap a photo to post on social media.
Nopes, not having the temptation of my digital device at my fingertips for a week meant I had the freedom to just stare out at the ocean and enjoy the view for a full ten minutes, or an hour, or all day, as I basically did at least once during our time in Varadero. It also meant that I would often glance up from my book, rather than being sucked in by the endless labyrinth that a screen and internet access provides, and enjoy magical moments that my 12-year-old twins were sharing with one another in the ocean, on the beach, doing card tricks, or engrossed in a good book together.
One facet of leaving my phone at home that had made me particularly nervous was the absence of a camera. But once on vacation, the boys and I quickly adopted the habit of capturing moments in our memories by pausing and holding our hands up to our face and making a “click” sound whenever something especially wondrous caught our eye.
We also spent some time each day completing the travel journals I had prepared for them ahead of time, though truth be told, Alex and I were considerably more enthusiastic about and committed to this little project than Simon was.
I am hoping to blog my own travel journal notes when I have some time over the coming week, so that the wonderful memories don’t fade too far into the mental abyss -- while more comprehensive than photos, memories do tend to have a far shorter lifespan than digital images!
I recognize that the Internet provides access to a global network of knowledge and perspective, and that these things often translate into power, and in general I am in strong favour of access as a fundamental human right in the 21 Century. Nevertheless, given our privileged position as westerners not living below the poverty line in a country where we have the luxury of consistent access, I feel that our brief hiatus from the world wide web was a beneficial one for us. The peace and reduced sense of urgency facilitated by the absence of constant connection to the outside was a feeling I'd not had in a long time.
All in all, I am in favour of such regular unpluggings, and am thinking of practical ways to make purposeful internet and social media breaks a part of our family’s regular routine.
So we're going to Cuba, and we're not taking any electronics.
The last time I was in Cuba was a hundred years ago, before the Special Period, and certainly well before smart phones and ubiquitous wifi (which is not so ubiquitous in Cuba anyway). I was about 12 years old, and I survived. Imagine!
So now I have two 12-year-olds who are virtually connected most if not all of the time. Given Cuba's limited (emerging?) connectivity and our short time (one week) there, we've decided it's best if we just go digitally naked for the week. In an age where one's personal digital devices is not only one's phone and wifi connection, but also one's map, alarm clock and camera, among other things, it's a pretty significant decision.
That being said, I'm not about to give up the opportunity to document our experiences, despite not having a camera or the ability to blog or post to Instagram in real time. I've made a lovely little workbook for the kids and for me to journal our adventures...
Truth be told, when I shared this little gem with Alex and Simon, it went over like a lead balloon.
"But we're supposed to be on VACATION!", Simon lamented.
He was particularly unimpressed with the suggested learning goal and success criteria I had noted on the inside cover. Their 7-year-old selves would have loved it, but their adolescent selves were not so easily bamboozled by fancy fonts and bold borders on clean, white printer paper.
Alex, at least, succumbed to the colourful cardstock and little sticky note tickets I introduced to sweeten the deal, and even got into the spirit of crafting his little workbook, posing obediently for a photo.
Simon was not so easily swayed, and the activist in him continued to protest in any way he could; three guesses which of the three booklets below is his!
For all his groaning and complaining, though, I know he's excited about the trip, and I'm willing to bet my bottom CUC that he'll jump on board within 24 hours of our 4 a.m. airport arrival on Friday and get on with the journal-ling. (In between swimming in the pool and the ocean, that is!)
P.S. Want to make your own travel journal for your kids or a student in your class who will be away? Download the word doc below, and customize the text to suit your needs. If you want to take it to the next level, arrange the pages so that you can print back to back and have a self contained booklet!
Our friend is in Washington.
Almost lost this friendship, we did, after the Trump election...
An ex-pat American, this friend is politically liberal, but the Trump election tried the best of them, it did. Many a liberal, especially (though not exclusively) of the white, straight, able-bodied male persuasion was challenged to understand the mindset of the very people they professed to support, stretched to come to terms with what it really means to be an ally.
I know our friendship was not the only one tried at this time. The media was full of stories of lost or shaky friendships as a result of this particular election.
Eventually we had dinner. And a conversation. And as our straight, white, able-bodied friend noted that while he supported LGBTQ rights, he would probably not wear the "Teaching with Pride" rainbow t-shirt I had given him last summer out and about (because he just "didn't want to bother answering people's questions"), he began to see that those of us who can't leave our proverbial t-shirts at home (because it's who we are in our sex, gender, skin colour, sexuality, physical ability, etc.) are sick to our stomachs with fear and disgust over the apparent mainstreaming of racism, homophobia and generalized bigotry that this election has shone a spotlight on.
Our friend started to see how those of us who were suddenly and forcefully being re-oppressed might feel a little impatient with those alleged allies who still didn't "get it".
What to do?
Our friend wondered what he should do to demonstrate his sincere support, and offered to make a donation to the Women's March, to help support those who needed to pay for travel expenses and lodging while there.
His thinking reminded me of a song by 1980's Christian pop icon Keith Green, who himself was fed up with people always sending money instead of acting themselves, and who insisted that Jesus Commands us to Go!
The Women's March is for Everyone
At first, our friend didn't understand that he could and should go to the march in Washington. Surely a straight white guy like him didn't belong there, he insisted. But in time, we convinced him that his presence would be very much welcomed and needed.
Yes, he was only one person, but so was every other individual person who was going to ultimately make up the more than half a million people that formed the Washington crowd (plus millions at sister marches and rallies all over the world)!
Yes he was a man, but women and children needed to see men who were not misogynistic pigs supporting them, and their mothers, and their sisters. Ditto for the "but I'm not black/gay/disabled" arguments.
Besides, we told him, it would be a great chance to him to reconnect with a long lost cousin and meet an internet friend from the Chess server who lived in the area.
And so, with a little more convincing (and considerable paper chasing -- it turned out his American passport had long expired, and his current Canadian passport was of little value in crossing the border), the old man finally bought an overpriced, last minute airline ticket and got going to his Motherland.
Those of us who stayed behind rallied together and got the man a pink pussy hat to take with him on his adventures. It's the least we could do.
First, a Little Sightseeing
Eager to get first-hand accounts of the happenings, we sent along strict instructions for our friend to update us with regular texts and photos.
He did not disappoint.
Arriving the day before the inauguration, he wandered about Washington, taking photos and sending his observations like a good little tourist...
First came an excited text and photo of the recently completed National Museum of African American History and Culture, behind which there was apparently "some tall pointy thing" to be seen.
Then this photo and caption:
Tall, pointy thing with flags.
Our friend was also excited to discover that he was not the only man wearing a pink hat, as the next text proclaimed that he had just "spotted a guy walking north along 17th St wearing a pussy hat"!
Following this came a series of three photos...
This is the first of a series of three, which should be looked at one at a time. I was not able to get close to the Lincoln Memorial, which was the one sightseeing thing I'd most wanted to see – they have it fenced off for some reason. But something good came of it anyway – trying to get to it brought me close to this thing. This is the way it looks when you enter through an entrance formed of two similar blocks of stone.
Then I walked a little bit further on and saw what you will see in the next picture.
Walk a little further around and you see this – an image of Martin Luther King Jr. carved out of the rock. He is a supposed to be holding a copy of the Declaration of Independence in his left hand. Apparently there is a bylaw in Washington that no statue can be taller than the 16 foot tall statue of Abraham Lincoln, but this is technically not a statue since it was carved out of a big piece of rock and only partially. This monument has only been there since 2011.
Arranged in a semicircle behind it are roughly 20 quotations of this hero, made in various places over a period of years. Next photo shows two of them.
Saturday morning came photos and commentary about the journey to the march.
We are at a subway station several miles outside of Washington DC, on our way in, and already there are many pussy hats on people. :-)
We the People
Soon after this, the text texts stopped, save for a quick observation that "thousands of people are wearing pussy hats". Indeed, both the photos that followed, and an Internet search on the Women's March revealed an encouraging sea of pink.
In attendance at the march were many celebrities, including Angela Davis, Michael Moore, and of course, Gloria Steinem. As the latter urged towards the end of her 10-minute call to action, "Make sure you introduce yourselves to each other and decide what we're gonna do tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow."
These marches were only the beginning of the revolution.
I'm glad you were there, Rick!
I had a conversation the other day about the importance of teaching history from a less eurocentric perspective and through a more FNMI-focused lens. The teacher I was chatting with was lamenting
the lack of ready access to good FNMI resources for students and teachers.
As someone who grew up with little if any authentic teaching about FNMI realities in Canada, I shared her frustration: How do we begin teaching well about something we know so little of? Last year's Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action calls for the integration FNMI history, contributions, current events, etc. into the curriculum at all grade levels, and not just for FNMI students. We are to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods, and we are to teach at all grade levels about the legacy of the residential school system, and its attempts at systemic eradication of an entire cultural group.
But how can we do it all justice without a firm understanding ourselves of FNMI realities?
I was embarrassed -- when talking to a colleague at the office later that afternoon (one who had recently published a relevant children's book about her grandmother's experiences with the residential school system) -- to be reminded that it is not just in History that we should be thinking about how to infuse FNMI realities into the curriculum; Dr Jenny Kay Dupuis, who happens to work in a cubicle a short walk from mine, patiently pointed out that there are many opportunities to highlight Canada's injustices to our FNMI people, and to integrate Indigenous knowledge into our teaching.
Jenny shared with me this guest blog post she co-authored, which includes a number of links to FNMI sites and other resources for teachers and students.
Coincidentally, she also happened to be interviewed by CBC's Matt Galloway that very morning, to share about her new children's picture book: I am Not a Number, by Second Story Press.
The audio interview is under 10 minutes, and provides listeners with some poignant historical information about the residential school system.
It would itself make an interesting study in oral language for students -- as I listened to it, I imagined immediately how I might use it with my students, were I still in a classroom: How effective is the interviewer (Galloway) in extracting information from the interviewee (Dr. Dupuis), etc.
It could perhaps serve as a catalyst for having students interview a family member about their own history, or write about a time when they first remember hearing an important family story. I could also see myself using this interview as a jumping off point for students to develop inquiry questions; the ESL teacher in me wants to begin by supplying a list of relevant vocabulary words: Grannie, Residential School, haircut, and so on, before students listen to the interview, and have them write a few sentences predicting what it will be about.
After talking with Jenny about her book, I offered to let her write a guest post on my blog (which I am still hoping she will do at some point), and sent her a follow up email saying "anything I can do to help!"
I realized after I sent the email that I was guilty of the same crimes that the T and R commission's report urges us to fight against: Although well-intentioned, my offer of help could easily be construed as demeaning; Jenny and her people don't need my "help". What they need is for me and my fellow non-FNMI Canadians to stop helping and start learning. Ugly history, beautiful history, troubling current events and discrimination, beautiful arts, culture, medical and other contributions... we need to take responsibility for our part -- direct or indirect -- in the ugliness, and make it a priority to learn the story of our FNMI sisters and brothers so that we can share the same with our children at home and in our classrooms and begin the long climb out of darkness and into a lighter future in which we acknowledge the mistakes of our past authentically and celebrate our truly equitable and respectful co-existence.
And it has to be authentic, not just a memorized and script off a printed page, poorly recited at the beginning of a meeting or over the P.A. system at school each morning so that we can say we've fulfilled our legal duty -- no, we have to go our of our way to learn something we didn't know before, and get excited to share about it with our colleagues and children.
This weekend, my partner and I visited Port Perry with one of our sons. We geocached on Scugog Island, home to a Reserve; one of the caches was placed on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, which the cache owner alleged to be a part of.
Simon wondered aloud about the relationship between these people and the Mississaugas of the New Credit, whose traditional land his school is built on. It led to an interesting conversation, just a drop in the bucket, but another seed was planted, none the less.
It is through a combination of these opportunistic teaching moments and through careful, planned, integrated instruction that we will begin to fulfill our responsibilities with respect to the teaching part of the reconciliation recommendations.
Not knowing is no longer an excuse. We are called to wonder, to question and -- if necessary -- to google!
Much has been written and discussed lately about Airbnb, the self-professed "rent out your spare room for a little extra cash" website and app.
Not all of the commentary has been flattering. Home wrecking incidents and competition for affordable housing are highlighted, and some local governments are imposing heavy (and in my opinion unfair) restrictions on hosting.
Personally, I think that – – done "right" – – Airbnb is a great way to build community and make the world a kinder, smaller, safer and more respectful place.
Here are some of my top reasons for hosting on Airbnb…
Meet Interesting People
Over the past several years, we've had the privilege of hosting a variety of noteworthy visitors, including an engineer working on the island runway extension at the airport I fly out of in Toronto, two retired biologists (ornithologists), a group of Polish astronomy students, and a PhD student working on the Hadron collider. We've also had our share of artists and musicians hoping to be inspired by new surroundings on PEI and and in Toronto, as well as travellers coming to North America for their first time and stopping in for a night or two at one of our places to rest up and get their bearings before setting out on a cross-Canada camping tour.
Whoever comes to visit, we almost always end up having some deep conversations over breakfast or before turning in at night, about the state of various world affairs.
Sharing ideas about ways to support and promote things like sustainability, feminism (and equity in general), responsible parenting and/or dog ownership and a wide range of other important topics invariably flow from these sorts of conversations.
Airbnb facilitates the sorts of "kindred spirit" relationships that no sports team or dating site could ever hope to foster!
Share Favourite Local Hangouts
Another reason I enjoy hosting on Airbnb is that I get to share some of my favourite places in Canada with others who have not yet discovered them.
Whether it's where to have dinner, or the best place to catch a beautiful sunrise or sunset, as a lifelong Torontonian and an avid wanna-be PEIslander, I am fairly knowledgable about both locales, which works out well for visitors trying to get a sense of what they should do with their limited local time.
I'm always eager to share my favorite, less-touristy hotspots with both our Toronto and PEI visitors, and get a real kick out of other people getting as excited about a place as I have been when they, too, discover it.
Support the Local Economy
People who use Airbnb tend to be people who would not necessarily use a more traditional hotel, either because they can't afford it, or because they prefer a more personal, authentic accommodation experience. And so I feel like hosting brings spenders into town who might otherwise not be here.
At the very least, they have to buy food/visit local restaurants while staying, and, often – – as in the case of the antique and curio-hunter staying in my kids' play house tonight – – they buy a lot more while traveling.
Since I provide essentials and a few little frills at all my listings, I am also pumping money into the local economy that might otherwise not have been spent.
Practice and Develop Life Skills
Running a side hustle like renting a spare room on Airbnb allows one to develop a number of important skills. First and foremost, I love hospitality and the art presentation, two skills I learned by necessity the summer before my mother died.
Painfully uncomfortable and often nauseous from either the cancer or the toxic chemo she was taking to buy herself a few more months to get her affairs in order, my mother spent much of her final summer on earth tucked into a sleeping bag on a fold-out lawnchair nestled into a corner of the garden she loved so much. I returned to Toronto the summer of '94 from a stint working at a hotel in southern Germany, where I had learned about presentation at a mid- to high-end restaurant on site. I quickly put these skills to use preparing small, tasty drinks and light meals, enticingly presented, for my mother, while as she/we played host to various friends and work colleagues of hers who had come to basically pay their last respects before she finally moved into palliative care at Toronto Grace that fall.
Hosting through Airbnb some 20 years later has helped me to revive these skills and honour the memory of my mother as I prepare artfully designed breakfast services for my various guests.
Even when we have visitors availing themselves of more basic, "self-serve" accommodations, I always prepare a nice breakfast basket and fresh flowers (when available) to make the first impression pleasing to the eye. These frequently get rave reviews, and I relish helping make people's stay a delight.
Developing one's ability to be a great host is a skill which I feel is easily transferrable to many other parts of one's personal and professional life.
Imagine if we all treated one another in our day-to-day lives as valued guests in our personal space… How much kinder a place could the world become?!
I also feel like being an Airbnb host it helps me refine my critical thinking and diplomacy skills: As a host I constantly need to assess the safety and feasibility of a situation. For example, should I accept this particular booking request or are these people just looking for a place to party?
I read reviews, research guest profiles, and – – if needed – – craft carefully-worded, diplomatic messages inviting new users to flesh out of their profiles and consider including a personal picture of themselves rather than their pet Chihuahua, in order to establish trust within the Airbnb community.
And as I am reading those user reviews, I consider how well I myself behave when I am a guest; am I respectful? Quiet? Tidy?
When Airbnb offers me options like "instant book" (which strike me as tailored to encouraged quick turnover and impersonal service) I develop the resistance to the temptation to make a quicker buck by rejecting that option, so that I can maintain the integrity of personal, clear communication between myself and my would-be guests before manually accepting any reservation request.
Become a Mentor Parent
This summer, my kids caught the Airbnb bug: Spurred on initially by the thought of making a few extra bucks for spending money, they pimped out their new Playhouse on Airbnb.
One of my twins in particular really got into the swing of things, writing a little welcome message in a guestbook on site, and preparing and rehearsing a "spiel" he gave to guests when they first arrived. He also had to negotiate with his brother about a fair pay arrangement, given the inequitable split in workload. Finally, there was the learning that there are different sorts of people in the world, and just because someone is not "like us", doesn't make them a "bad" person.
While the charm of being hosted by a 12-year-old monozygotic twins paid dividends with guests, my kids were learning valuable people skills and collaboration in return, both transferrable in the "real world".
We've had many conversations over the past few months about what it means to be a good host. As I have learned and continue to learn from my own experiences and from other, fellow hosts, hosting through Airbnb has helped me guide my young entrepreneurs in this learning.
Pay for the Extras
A lot of people think you can make buckets of money off Airbnb. And in some contexts you can. (Take, for instance, those who purchase multiple properties for the sole purpose of accommodating such short term rentals in cities were demand is high, or if you happen to have a spare room in a city like Boston, which has the highest hotel rates in America.) But if you are doing things as they were originally intended, that is, renting out "extra space" in your own home periodically, and you live in a more "normal" city, then the fiscal payout can be negligible.
By the time I buy the extra pillowcases and towels, refresh the flowers and/or buy the baskets to display the snack or breakfast items, pay taxes on my extra income (yes, I claim it like an idiot!), there is not that much left for "fun money". And there are some days when cleaning up after my guests and preparing perfection for the next ones seems considerably more of a time-consuming chore than the few dollars I make off the side hustle are worth.
On the other hand, if you do rent often, you can, over time, make enough money to save up for special projects or alleviate the burden of those little extras we all enjoy but most of us can't really afford. Some of the things I've paid for with Airbnb earnings outside our regular budget include dinner out with my girlfriend, shows and musicals, ice cream and other outings with my kids, car rental while traveling, and a playhouse for my kids (almost).
Now I'm saving up for a deck for my music cabin on PEI! :-)
It frustrates me when those who embrace and participate in creative disruptions like Airbnb are penalized. On PEI, for example, you have to be registered with the tourism board to run a bed-and-breakfast. The official reasoning behind us government cash grab is that they want to ensure an excellent user experience, since their economy still have a late depends on tourism.
But how do you meet the standards of such an operation with things like a play house without electricity or running water that is never the less in-demand? (The treehouse my boys and I stayed in earlier this summer – – also without running water, and no breakfast offer – – was doing a booming business at $30 a night!)
Besides, with almost exclusively five-star ratings, what is the tourism board really worried about? (on Airbnb, guests are strongly encouraged to rate their hosts anonymously in areas such as communication, cleanliness and overall value, so if someone is running a less than stellar operation, they won't be in business for long, even without the tourism board meddling in their affairs!)
It seems to me that there is room in the economy for both five star hotels and five star Airbnb listings. Someone who is bringing a sleeping bag and paying $22 a night to stay in a playhouse wasn't going to pay $125 at the official B&B up the road anyway, and those who are staying at the "official" hotels, are not being negatively affected by their Airbnb-surfing counterparts.
And in the meantime, ideas are exchanged along with smiles and often outstanding hospitality, making the world a smaller, kinder, safer, smarter and more creative place – – even for kids!
This has been the summer of comings and goings on PEI; kids left at different times, with some overlap of visiting friends and also Tats, and now, finally, some time to myself at the end!
These various visits have resulted in a little more driving than usual, most recently, a necessary trip to Moncton, as Tats, who could only spare a weekend for the Island this summer due to school, couldn't find a flight home from Ch'town.
We decided to make a road trip of it with Alex and Sneakers in tow, and do a little geocaching along the way.
After a fabulous lunch at the Landmark Cafe (officially my new favourite restaurant on the South Shore, BTW -- but make reservations, it gets busy!), we made our way to the gateway village where I took a nap, Sneakers had a run and a pee, and Tatsy and Alex played on the playground.
We also stopped in for the obligatory Cows ice cream and picked up some chocolate covered potato chips for Tats' work/school chums before joining the lineup of cars waiting to pay good money to get off the island!
Once in New Brunswick, we did a little more geocaching, and then raced to the airport to drop Tats off for her 8-o-clock flight back to YYZ.
Where to Sleep?
Knowing I probably wouldn't have it in me to do the long drive back home to PEI's north shore again in the same day, I had planned ahead and hunted around for a relatively affordable place to spend the night.
One of the things I love about AirBnB is the ability to find unique and interesting places to sleep, on the cheap! I figured, if I can find a $30 tree house in Crapaud, then surely there must exist a spot for a 12 year old boy, a rambunctious dog, and an old lady to spend the night!!
Sure enough, a search only a few weeks prior to our travel date turned up a barn just outside of Moncton. For $20, Alex, Sneakers and I would be dry (and safe?) for the night.
The property at Indian Mountain is newly owned by Melanie, a young gal in the film industry, who envisions a large, self sustaining gathering space. She proudly showed off her property, pointing out where the berry bushes had been planted, and illustrating some of her future plans.
She's already begun renovating; the upstairs of the barn has had one wall almost entirely replaced with a large panel of windows that looks out over the back of the property, towards the woodlot and pond. Also upstairs are two punching bags, several small tents and a hammock, the ambiance enhanced by strings of Christmas lights hung here and there.
Downstairs is a "bar" and a large open area where just last week, Melanie told me, they had a DJ and set up a screen on which people were playing "old school Nintendo".
Seems like a pretty cool space!
Sleeping Arrangements, Starlight and Kittens
The idea on the property is that people can just pitch their tent -- if they have one -- anywhere inside or outside of the barn, and use the facilities on site (Mel was just in the process of installing a shower the night we stayed over). Lucky for us, Melanie let us use a spare room in the small house next to the barn -- we hauled our sleeping bags onto mattress there, and set up a little "nest" for Sneakers next to our bed.
Before turning in for a restless night, both Alex and Sneakers discovered the two barn kittens that lived on the property. Curious little cats, they were not deterred by an overenthusiastic dog, and held their own, offering in no uncertain terms to scratch Sneakers' eye out if she didn't back off!
The night sky out in rural New Brunswick was at least as lovely as the one on PEI, and Alex and I stopped to admire the stars before going inside the house and locking ourselves and our wildebeest into our bedroom for the night.
The Next Morning
After a predictably restless night on an uncomfortable bed with a kicking child and an anxious, pacing dog in the room, it was finally time to pack up our things and stuff ourselves back into our rental car for the drive home to PEI. Before we left, we picked two apples (as invited to the night before by Mel) off the tree on the property; the apples turned out to be quite tasty, as I discovered two days later, when I finally got around to eating them.
Alex and Sneakers slept pretty much all the way to the Bridge, and I sustained myself with the promise of a nice, long nap in the hammock later that afternoon!
As we approached the Bridge, I saw a sign that announced breakfast was being served at the restaurant on the conservation ctre just before the Bridge, and eager for something more substantial than the emergency snacks in our car cooler, I turned off the highway and into the parking lot, arousing Alex from his passenger seat slumbers with my change in driving direction and pace.
Jourimain Nature Centre
The large park that precedes the Confederation Bridge crossing was one I'd not heard of before, and I was delighted to find this space: There are trails for walking, and a beach at the base of the bridge from which one can (and we did) take some incredible photos.
As tide was out, and it was quite early in the day, we let Sneakers off leash, and she and Alex splashed about on the beach, hunting for seashells. Alex and I found a small sand dollar -- a rare find -- and I tucked it away carefully in one pocket of my pants, where it was soon crushed when I jammed my phone in there, forgetting it was already holding precious cargo!
After a nice time at the beach, we parked under a tree and set Sneakers up on a cozy bed in the back seat, windows open more than a crack. Then Alex and I walked through the interpretive centre and into the restaurant to enjoy some eggs and pancakes before leaving New Brunswick.
Argyle Shore... Again!
We had stopped at the red shore the day before with Tats, only to discover tide was in, so there was no "beach", and the stairs led directly into the ocean! Today our timing was a little better, and Sneakers, Alex and I were able to enjoy a nice walk along the rocky shoreline before climbing back into the car for the final leg of our trip home.
While I don't enjoy driving as much as I used to, and find chauffeuring a bit of a chore, I did enjoy the opportunity for this particular mini-road-trip of sorts. Spending quality time with some of my few favourite people in the world and discovering new travel treasures like the barn and the beach at the bridge are things that make the hassle of driving worth it!
So, sleeping in an 8x8 "room on stilts" with two silly, kicking 12-year-olds was perhaps not my most brilliant plan ever, in terms of relaxation techniques while on vacation. Though in fairness, one cannot say it wasn't an adventure!
Perusing the AirBnB listings on PEI recently, I came across a budget listing for a no-frills "treehouse" in Crapaud, near the lovely, little village of Victoria-by-the-Sea.
Knowing the boys would love it, I booked one night.
After camp on Monday, we set off for Crapaud, making a brief stop en route to pick up a giant pillow which I had scored on Kijiji for the boys' playhouse which was due to be delivered to our property in St Peter's Harbour later in the week.
I had forgotten how hilly the south-west part of the Island was, and I enjoyed the scenery while the boys slept in the car, tired out from their first full day of camp.
The lovely thing about PEI is that everything is pretty close, so within about 40 minutes, we had arrived in the general vicinity of the treehouse, and as the boys woke up from their powernap, I tried to divine the somewhat sketchy directions included with my reservation.
We soon found the property, and sure enough, there was the treehouse!!
A Japanese exchange student staying in the main house checked us in and showed us the 2-piece washroom we could use, and then we climbed up the ladder to our room for the night.
The boys eagerly set about arranging the room: Organizing sleeping bags, pillows (including the new giant one we had acquired earlier in town) and various personal belongings they had brought with them for the night on the hooks and little "shelves" that lined the inside of our rustic hut amongst the trees.
We also had a little kitten climb the ladder and visit us. (After some petting, she just curled up outside the cabin door.)
Once out stuff was arranged in the tiny room to everyone's satisfaction, we drove 4 minutes to the nearby fishing village of Victoria, and enjoyed a great dinner (even vegetarian protein available!!) and excellent service at the Landmark Cafe, following which we picked up some ice cream on the wharf and sauntered around the lighthouse and antique market, taking silly selfies and admiring the imposing clouds in the evening sky.
We also saw PEI's oldest tree ("That's nothing compared to the trees we saw in Buenos Aires, right Mom?", Alex was quick to point out).
And then it was back to the treehouse.
We read a few chapters of our current read-aloud together (Deborah Ellis' Sacred Leaf), and then attempted to sleep.
I will say that the mattress itself (a reasonably roomy, high quality, inflatable affair) was considerably more comfortable than I had anticipated. It was my two restless bedmates who were the problem. Every time they moved, the mattress squeaked.
And also I had to pee. And I was not going to haul my corpulant, over-40 self down a rickety old ladder at 11:57 p.m. And 2 a.m. And again at 4:38 a.m. No way, no how. (Fortunately, I had anticipated that particular problem, and had done some advance planning accordingly, the details of which I will spare the reader.)
And there were mosquitos. (Not a lot, but enough bother a finicky sleeper.)
I debated whether or not to fish around in the catch-all bin we had brought with us for some mosquito repellent, and opted for some ear plugs instead, pulling the sleeping bag up over my head.
In between tossing and turning, I surfed Kijiji for deals and posted random photos with uninspired hashtags on Instagram.
Finally, blessedly, the morning arrived, another beautiful sunshiny day o PEI, and I roused the two sleeping bunnies to pack up their gear and get back in the car for the ride back into town for Day Two of Art camp. But not before using the real washroom, in the main house!!!
The ride back to Ch'town was uneventful; we enjoyed watching the pastoral scenery out the window while munching on cut-up peaches and strawberries and little boxes of dry cereal I had prepared ahead of time as a sort of en-route breakfast.
I wouldn't do it again, I don't think, and I am desperately looking forward to my real bed tonight. But my one night in a treehouse was worth it: A fun and affordable mini-adventure for all!!
Every small town, though similar to its neighbour in some ways, has its own unique quirks.
Sitting in the diner at a corner of "downtown" Fonthill waiting for my dinner this penultimate evening of my three day assessment workshop for teachers, I have opportunity to reflect on the peculiarities this particular small town offers. (I guess technically the small town in question here is Pelham, and Fonthill is… what, a village within the town? But I digress…)
Let's begin with the suddenly-ending sidewalk that brought me here, the sidewalk that begins at the main road and continues, rising up, up, up, three quarters of the way up the hill, and then suddenly coming to a stop at someone's driveway.
I don't get it: I'm supposed to walk along the sidewalk, and then just suddenly jump down into the road or what?
On the other hand, let it not be said that the people of Fonthill are unimaginative; the unique and undoubtedly hand-made plumbing-inspired structure in the washroom of last night's restaurant featured no fewer than six toilet paper rolls, five of which I was able to capture in one photo frame on my trusty iPhone:
No, creativity is alive and well here in this tiny village in the Niagara region... Undoubtedly the locals have tremendous time to cultivate their prolific arts in the many hours they have off work; it seems every place around here is constantly closed.
Arriving in town two days ago, I was eager -- after setting up for my workshop and checking into a local B and B -- to check out some of the cute little shops I had seen on my drive in. Alas, everything had already closed for the evening, bakery, gift shops, chocolaterie, cafe...
It was about twenty to four in the afternoon.
I especially like the sign on this shop:
Srsly, dude! With working hours like that, who's going to laugh at government jobs anymore?
On the plus side, the local bank (when open) has specialists to meet the needs of the local community:
(What the hell does an "agricultural specialist" do, I wonder, at a BANK??! I mean, isn't agriculture more about planting corn than planting dollars? But what do I know, I'm just a city slicker.)
And then let's talk about the road I had to drive along to get from my B&B to my workshop each morning. It's called... Wait for it… "Effingham Road".
Yes, that's right, say it again, let it roll around in your mouth, say it out loud, kids -- it has to be heard to be fully appreciated. In fact, I heard it before I saw it spelled out myself, when the son of the folks who run the B and B where I'm staying said it out loud in a series of directions he was giving me… Honest to God, I seriously thought at first that he was saying "f--ingham", and it took every effort on my part to not burst out laughing!
And then I saw it written out on a street sign as I drove along.
So there I was, muttering "fuckingham" out loud to myself for the next three days, and succumbing to periodic fits of internal giggling, which had some observable symptoms, and which I hoped none of my workshop participants would notice, for I'm sure they already thought I was weird enough! (But really, people, who names a street -- or anything for that matter -- "F-ingham"?!)
I will mention two noteworthy redeeming features of this little spot on the southern Ontario rural map, one being the Picard Peanut outlet store on Hwy 20, which offers the company's world-famous chip nuts and a host of other goodies for purchase (I bought several packs as prizes for my workshop, and a few more to take home for family).
The other great thing about Fonthill and pretty much every place around here is the fact that it's located in the Niagara region, which means it has an abundance of fresh, juicy, tasty fruit.
In fact, as I'm typing this, I'm devouring a bowl of fresh peaches, picked this morning!
So there you have it, folks, another great small town adventure in Ontario, yours to discover!
After writing for several teacher and multiple birth publications, including ETFO's Voice Magazine, Multiple Moments, and the Bulletwin, Vera turned her written attention to prolific blogging for some years, including BiB, "Learn to Fly with Vera!" and SMARTbansho . Homeschooling 4 was her travel blog in Argentina. She now spends more time on her Instagram (@schalgzeug_usw) than her blog (pictures are worth a thousand words?!) Contact Vera by clicking the photo above.
The views expressed on this blog are the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of her family members or the position of her employer on the the issues she blogs about. These posts are intended to share resources, document family life, and encourage critical thought on a variety of subjects. They are not intended to cause harm to any individual or member of any group. By reading this blog and viewing this site, you agree to not hold Vera liable for any harm done by views expressed in this blog.