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Top tips for a less touristy Edinburgh trip

Top tips for a less touristy Edinburgh trip

I moved away from Edinburgh more than a year ago, but it will always remain one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. Since moving to Cambridge, in the leadup to the Edinburgh festival season I’ve had a few people asking me for tips on what to do beyond the Royal Mile and Fringe madness, so this is taken from emails I’ve sent to them. There are so many more wonderful things to see and eat and drink in Edinburgh beyond what I have here, but these are a few of my favourites beyond the top attractions everyone knows about. I highly recommend the usual suspects too but once you’ve seen the Royal Mile, wandered New Town, and visited the museums and galleries, see if any of these more off the beaten path suggestions appeal.

Note I left Edinburgh in May 2022 so be sure to check that places are still open before taking my word for it.

Old Town

My off-the-beaten path Edinburgh tips generally involve getting out of the city centre, but a couple of quirky things I’d recommend if you’re in the Old Town:

  • Quickly ducking into the Scottish Poetry Library to see the mysterious little book sculptures (story here and map here)  
  • The Edinburgh College of Art has a beautiful collection of replica statues (aka fakes) in their cast museum
  • Roam around the various Closes off the Royal Mile, like Lady Stairs Close to the Writers Museum and other pockets of pretty quiet-ish places. The Devil’s Advocate is a decent restaurant/bar in Advocate’s Close (not so quiet but not completely obvious from the high street).


For nice walks that bypass roads, the Water of Leith walkway and the path network that used to be old railways (Warriston, Goldenacre, Chancelot Paths, etc.) go through many parts of the city north of the Old/New Towns while feeling like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Except for all the people, dogs, and bicycles. Along the Water of Leith look for the creepy statues in the water.

A fun way to explore some of the just-off-centre town can be hunting for the guerrilla mosaics, around Calton Hill, Canonmills and Broughton Street (Calton Hill is on the tourist trail and well worth visiting for great views and interesting/strange monuments).

Off the beaten path

  • The Shore in Leith – pretty water, good restaurants. The nearby Ocean Terminal is a semi-failed shopping centre where the old royal yacht is now a tourist attraction and I hate it … except there’s a great artist-run store called The Leith Collective that sells things from local artists and up-cyclers. The Scottish Design Exchange used to be there too but it’s now moved more centrally to George Street in the New Town – I haven’t been to the new location but I recommend both of them for more authentic souvenirs than what you’ll find along the Royal Mile.
  • Colinton Tunnel – an old railway tunnel that was turned into a community art project and I loved it so much. It’s in a pretty area in the south of the city that won’t have a lot of tourists.
  • Duddingston Loch / Duddingston Field – an amazingly rambling wilderness-y area with great views that’s quite central but doesn’t feel like it, with woods, gardens, wetlands and meadows. The Sheep Heid Inn is near here, a pub that does a good Sunday roast and is supposedly the oldest pub in Scotland. Duddingston is another nice area of the city that’s not touristy.
  • Hermitage of Braid – a large park connecting two of the “seven hills of Edinburgh” so there’s good hikes and views from here and far less travelled than the iconic Arthur’s Seat.
  • Cramond Beach – outside of Edinburgh but easily and quickly accessible by bus (#41 from city centre). From the beach at low tide you can walk across the causeway to the island, and there’s Roman ruins in the village too.
  • South Queensferry – again outside the city but easily accessible by bus (#43 from city centre). A pretty little town on the Firth, right under the three bridges, and some nice shops and restaurants. Scotts Bar and Restaurant is supposed to be good but you need a reservation. Queen’s Spice has delicious Indian food.
  • Jupiter Artland – it’s a giant sculpture gallery spread over some beautiful grounds outside the city and a lovely place to wander around. Bus-able but easier to drive.
  • Jupiter Artland is close to Dalmeny House where you can sometimes see their herd of highland cows wandering around. (Cramond/South Queensferry/Jupiter Artland/Dalmeny are all quite close to each other for a jam-packed day trip.)

Restaurant recommendations

  • Scran & Scallie – for a Scottish flavour this is the less-expensive casual restaurant from a well-known local chef who runs the crazy-expensive The Kitchin. S&S is in Stockbridge which is a great area to explore for shopping, the Sunday market, and restaurants without being as touristy as Old and New Towns.   
  • Prestonfield House – more for the area really, but they do a nice afternoon tea in this gorgeous old house that has peacocks and highland cows on the grounds, and it’s literally in the middle of the city but doesn’t feel like it at all. It’s kind of on the other side of Arthur’s Seat/Salisbury Crags from Holyrood Park.
  • Chaophraya – Thai, kinda fancy, New Town
  • Vietnam House Restaurant – a bit of a hole in the wall but delicious food, West End
  • The Basement – Mexican food, good cocktails, fun vibe, New Town/Broughton Street
  • Educated Flea – ok I love the name most but it’s good food and a cosy atmosphere, New Town/Broughton Street
  • Porto & Fi – a family run place and definitely off the beaten path but I used to live very close and loved their fish pie and other food. It’s right on the Firth of Forth, past the Leith Shore and into Newhaven, where there’s also a place that made some BBC list of best fish and chips (The Fishmarket at Pier Place), and the Old Chain Pier which has good food, friendly staff and incredible views.  
  • At the new St. James Quarter shopping centre in the New Town there are food trucks outside and on the top floor a fancy-ish food court called Bonnie & Wild that has local restaurants (seafood, Chinese, veggie Indian, burgers, pizza, pancakes, etc). I like it as a casual place for groups with varied tastes. And lots of choices of whisky.
  • Beyond food, Panda & Sons is a fun cocktail bar – it’s modelled after a speakeasy, looks like a barber shop outside and you get in downstairs and through a secret door in a bookcase.

Have more recommendations? Feel free to share!

AI-inspired adventures in Amsterdam

AI-inspired adventures in Amsterdam

I’m heading to Amsterdam next week for the first time, continuing my pandemic-interrupted mission to see more of Europe by living and working in the UK. I have a rough idea of what I’d like to explore, but even by my standards of not wanting to over-plan I haven’t done a lot of research or put a lot of thought into an itinerary. So I turned to my good friend ChatCGP. I’ve been experimenting with the Artificial Intelligence chatbot at work to see whether I can bow down to my robot overlords or retire in ignominy any time soon. (The answer: not yet, but AI can occasionally help with the dreaded curse of the blank page and get me started on a piece of writing, or propose creative ideas for icebreakers, for example.)

I love its realistic itinerary, plus the additional suggestions when I realised I hadn’t specified books/literature in my list of interests. There’s no way I’ll get to everything, especially once I build in time to wander and enjoy meals and sleep, and I might want an additional daytrip outside the city, but I have more confidence now that I won’t miss something obvious that I’d love to see. Here’s our conversation:

Can you offer suggestions for what to do in 4 days in Amsterdam? I like museums, exploring, science, space, culture.

Certainly! Amsterdam is a beautiful city with plenty of things to do, especially if you’re interested in museums, science, and culture. Here are some suggestions for what to do in four days:

Day 1:

  • Start the day by visiting the Rijksmuseum, one of the world’s most famous museums, which houses a large collection of Dutch art and history.
  • Afterward, head to the Van Gogh Museum, which is home to the largest collection of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and drawings.
  • Take a stroll through Vondelpark, a beautiful park in the heart of the city that’s perfect for relaxing and people-watching.
  • End your day by visiting the Anne Frank House, a museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Anne Frank and her family.

Day 2:

  • Visit the NEMO Science Museum, which is designed to be interactive and hands-on and is perfect for people of all ages who love science.
  • Take a boat tour through Amsterdam’s famous canals, which offer stunning views of the city’s architecture and history.
  • Visit the Royal Palace of Amsterdam, which is located in Dam Square and is open to the public for tours.
  • End your day by visiting the Amsterdam Museum, which offers a comprehensive look at the city’s history and culture.

Day 3:

  • Start the day by visiting the Tropenmuseum, which showcases the art and culture of non-western societies.
  • Explore the Jordaan neighborhood, which is full of charming streets, cafes, and shops.
  • Visit the Hermitage Amsterdam, which is an offshoot of the famous Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia and houses a collection of artwork and artifacts from around the world.
  • End your day by visiting the EYE Film Museum, which offers a look at the history of cinema and features a variety of film screenings.

Day 4:

  • Take a day trip to the nearby city of Haarlem, which is known for its stunning architecture and rich cultural history.
  • Visit the Frans Hals Museum, which showcases the work of the famous Dutch painter Frans Hals.
  • Explore the city’s many historic churches, such as the Grote Kerk and the Sint-Bavokerk.
  • End your day by visiting the Teylers Museum, which is the oldest museum in the Netherlands and features a collection of art, science, and natural history exhibits.

I hope these suggestions help you plan your trip to Amsterdam and that you have a great time exploring this beautiful city!

That’s amazing, thank you! Any additional suggestions for my interest in books and literature too?

Absolutely! Amsterdam has a rich literary history, and there are plenty of places to explore if you’re interested in books and literature. Here are some additional suggestions:

  • Visit the Amsterdam Athenaeum, which is one of the city’s oldest and most famous bookstores. It has a large selection of books in English and Dutch, and is a great place to browse and find something new to read.
  • Take a walking tour of Amsterdam’s literary landmarks, such as the houses of famous writers like Anne Frank, Multatuli, and Harry Mulisch.
  • Visit the Dutch National Opera & Ballet, which is housed in a beautiful building that dates back to 1986. The company regularly puts on operas, ballets, and other performances.
  • Explore the OBA Central Library, which is one of the largest public libraries in Europe and has a huge collection of books in various languages. The library also regularly hosts literary events and workshops.
  • Visit the Multatuli Museum, which is dedicated to the life and work of the famous Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker, who wrote under the pen name Multatuli. The museum houses a collection of his manuscripts, letters, and other personal items.
  • End your day by visiting the Begijnhof, a historic courtyard surrounded by buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s a peaceful and serene place to relax and read a book.

I hope these additional suggestions give you some ideas for exploring Amsterdam’s literary scene. Enjoy your trip!

Thanks ChatGPT, you’re the best. Until you take my job and then you’re the worst. (No, I didn’t say that.)

Peace and propaganda in the DMZ

Peace and propaganda in the DMZ

Every two-ish years since Vancouver 2010, I’ve worked for the host broadcaster of the Olympic Games. So every two-ish years I explore as much of the host country as I can given how little free time I have during the contract period. Other than Vancouver (because I live there) and London (because of my brother’s illness), I’ve taken some post-contract time to see the country I’d otherwise experience mostly from the Olympic bubble. When I was contracted for PyeongChang 2018, I knew my one must-see in Korea was the DMZ. And not just any old place along the DMZ, but a tour that included inside the Joint Security Area, an area that surreally brings current events and the Cold War to life.

First stop: Dorasan Station

Dorasan Station, enormous and mostly empty. 

South Korea’s Dorasan train station is a gleaming, cavernous symbol of hope for Korean unification, on the outskirts of the DMZ. Largely empty and unused since it was built in 2002, it was funded by donors nostalgic for the one Korea era, and hopeful for a future where trains will run freely between the two Koreas. For now, the “To Pyongyang” signs are aspirational and the station remains a terminus, waiting for peace enough to fulfill its destiny.

The few trains that do arrive bring tourists to the demilitarized zone – the DMZ — 50 kilometers north of Seoul. The DMZ bears witness to the aftermath of a war that ended not with a peace treaty but an armistice, and one country divided in two not by a border but a military demarcation line. The four kilometer-wide zone spans the Korean peninsula, two kilometers on either side of that not-a-border. Beyond that is one of the most heavily militarized boundaries in the world.

One of the commitments coming out of the recent summit between the two Koreas was to join the two countries’ transportation lines. Others were to work toward a formal peace agreement and to reunite families separated by the war. It remains to be seen whether those commitments will become reality under the volatile North Korean regime, and the on-again-off-again summit with the United States, under the volatile Trump regime, only adds to the uncertainty.

Even tourism doesn’t really give gleaming Dorasan Station a purpose for now. Most tourists — like me — come to the area from Seoul by bus, with the train station merely a stop on a guided tour. Beside the vacant and closed-off customs area, visible through the glass walls, a small shop sells souvenirs such as North Korean wine and chocolate. Next to that is a counter with self-serve stamps.

“Don’t use your passport,” our guide warned as I pulled out the only stampable item I was carrying: a Starbucks napkin. “Some countries will not be happy if they see Pyongyang in there.” Besides the wisdom of branding our passports with the capital of a Communist country under various sanctions, there’s also the minor details that these aren’t official passport stamps nor are there officials to do the stamping nor is this yet an official border crossing. My passport has some pride.

The DMZ from the outside looking in

The tour moved on to the Dora Observatory, where we noted electrical towers in the distance change from bright blue to dull grey as they cross the demarcation line, and saw the only inhabited villages within the DMZ with their competing giant flagpoles. The guide unironically referred to the South Korean village, Taesung, as “Freedom Village” and the North Korean Kijong as “Propaganda Village”. To North Korea it’s “Peace Village,” but rumour is it’s uninhabited, and some are skeptical about the North’s commitment to peace.

The droning voice we heard in the distance (you can hear it in the latter part of the above video) was part of the propaganda war between North and South, designed to lure defectors and annoy the neighbours. Our guide translated what we were hearing as a South Korean broadcast of news, announcements and K-pop. The North retaliates with broadcasts of their own, minus the K-pop. The loudspeakers are silenced during periods of relative ease between the countries, so before the April North/South summit, the residents of Taesun – and possibly Kijong – finally had relief from the constant aural battle.

With stops at the Third Infiltration Tunnel, (aka the “Third Tunnel of Aggression”) — one of North Korea’s attempts to dig under the demarcation line –and a park including the Freedom Bridge, so far our tour had skirted the southern boundary of the DMZ without entering it. Penetration requires an escorted trip to the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjom, the highlight of the visit and well worth the additional cost and hassle.

Joint Security Area: Where the two Koreas meet

Look ma, I’m in North Korea. And looking a little like I was taken hostage.

The area is under the control of the United Nation Command and is the neutral ground where the two sides hold negotiations without being required to step foot on the other side – and where South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un made news by each crossing it during their summit.

Arrangements must be made in advance since not only do the JSA tours sell out, but the United Nations requires passport information before granting clearance to participants. A dress code is in effect – no ripped jeans, no sleeveless tops, no shorts, nothing the North Koreans can use as propaganda against the outside world — and tours can be cancelled depending on military activity.

Our affable army escort Private Pudder boarded our bus to take us first to the entrance of the DMZ ad Camp Bonifas, named after one of the two U.S. soldier victims of the luridly but accurately named Axe Murder Incident. We’re told the rules: no pointing toward North Korea, no photos except when we’re told it’s OK, listen to our escort. We walked double file, stragglers reprimanded by the female Korean tour guide who was considerably less affable than the young American.

Private Pudder is about to admonish the woman: “No pointing!” (The raised line on the raised concrete beside the blue building is the line between South and North Korea.) 

We gathered in a theatre to watch a film about the DMZ and JSA, including the many other incidents and incursions that have occurred since the Korean War. Private Pudder asked if anyone had alcohol or drugs. We dutifully replied “no.” “Is anyone planning to defect?” We laughed. We signed the waiver and, seeing us taking surreptitious pictures – as likely every tourist before us – our civilian guide offered to give them back to us after we survived the trip as a souvenir. In a page of fine print, the key language: “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”

Side by side in the JSA itself are buildings positioned on the military demarcation line. From outside we could see the raised concrete line that marks the line, and inside the sky-blue conference building we’re allowed into, a microphone cable across a table serves the same purpose. Half the table and half the chairs are in the north, half in the south. This is where deals are made, and broken deals discussed.

South Korean soldiers stand in dramatic poses meant to intimidate the other side and overly casual tourists. We were instructed not to get too close, not to touch the furniture, and not to cross between the soldier and the central conference table. Eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, the soldier’s only detectable movement was to block the way of an errant tourist with a raised arm.

The blue building are half in South Korea, half in North Korea. The large concrete building is in North Korea.

We could take pictures but only facing south to north. We’re told the place is miked and the North Koreans are listening. They must be used to hearing the sound of endless selfies in this one place tourists can straddle and then cross the line between the two countries still technically at war.

We saw no North Korean soldiers during our visit, but the tension was palpable … and purposeful. The surreal experience had the air of military theatre, but people have died here. Those days may be in the past, but even as the potential for peace and reunification seems more attainable, that past has left its scars.

Getting there

• DMZ tours that include the Joint Security Area depart as day trips from Seoul.
• Only a handful of companies can take visitors to the Joint Security Area. Look for tours that include the JSA on or

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Finding an introvert’s paradise in New Mexico

Finding an introvert’s paradise in New Mexico

One week, one roadtrip crammed with eccentric offerings such as Meow Wolf’s The House of Eternal Return, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, an open house at the Very Large Array, and the state’s nuclear legacy.

A yurt with a hundred-mile view off the Turquoise Trail. An RV on an alpaca farm amid the southern scrub desert. A geodesic earth dome near hippie-flavoured Taos. With a week, a car, and an indispensable but unreliable GPS, I cut a north-to-south swath through New Mexico last October, staying in the quirkiest accommodations I could find on AirBnB (plus, full disclosure, Motel 6 when quirk was costly).

I have vacation moods, and I was in the mood for road-trip solitude inspired introspection. Add the Very Large Array open house and a seat sale to Santa Fe in my target month and a plan came together.

With limited time and unlimited intriguing places, I hadn’t intended to stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s biggest city, thinking I’d make it a quick meal stop on the way to somewhere else. But that was before I learned about the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival and the fortunate coincidence that my trip coincided with its 2017 dates.

I also didn’t expect that, still sunburned from a day amid giant radio telescopes in the scrub desert to the south, I’d be ducking into a home kitchen-based restaurant in Taos Pueblo in the north to escape the snow (snow!) and biting wind with a bowl of chili and fried flat bread.

Santa Fe

My direct flight from Vancouver took me to the pint-sized Santa Fe airport where a rental car and their last GPS unit awaited. Before I hit the road I had time to explore some of the capital city, including the open-air opera house (featuring a non-operatic The Shins concert), with its backdrop of the surrounding mesas, plus art collective Meow Wolf’s The House of Eternal Return.

That immersive art installation/interactive multimedia story feels impossible to describe adequately. I was giddy from the moment I hit the parking lot under the shadow of a towering metal daisy-holding robot. Inside the converted bowling alley – owned, incidentally, by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin – just walking down the entrance hallway to the washrooms was a trippy delight, lined as they are with drawings and captions ranging from weird to hilariously weird.

The 20,000 square foot exhibit involves a mystery you can solve or choose to ignore: you enter a seemingly normal-looking house (except that it’s been constructed inside a bowling alley owned by George RR Martin), where a mysterious cataclysmic event has opened up a portal to other dimensions and caused the resident family to disappear. Or something. You can pour over the evidence and solve the mystery or, as I did, simply marvel at the bizarre and wonderful worlds you can enter via secret portals the fireplace, dishwasher, or fridge. With each turn there’s some new combination of a visual, aural and tactile experience. After a few hours of exploration, the novelty hadn’t worn off but my time had. I had to eat and get on the road in order to get to my first quirky accommodation reservation.

Tia Sophia’s was maybe my favourite place to eat in New Mexico. The small Sante Fe diner is unassuming with great food and friendly people who regaled me with what they knew about Canada (Don Cherry is apparently a regular), and I still dream about the carne adovada burrito with a sopaipilla – a food I’d never heard of before, but it turns out it’s a puffy fried dough served with sides of honey and cinnamon and even better than that sounds. But come on, fried dough with honey and cinnamon sounds about like the best thing ever.

Incidentally, the food in New Mexico was unreal. Simple, hearty, delicious. Everywhere you eat you’ll likely be asked “green or red” – as in, green chili or red chili, on pretty much everything. Unless you have more of a preference than I do, “Christmas,” meaning both, is a decision-impaired person’s gift.

The Turquoise Trail to Pie Town

From Santa Fe I went south along Highway 14, The Turquoise Trail, passing through Madrid (they pronounce it MADrid), a former ghost town now succumbed to touristy shops. I stopped for the night at a yurt high somewhere far above civilization, in the Shanti Community a woman named Shelly has created, with a handful of yurts, vans and RVs dotting her 10 acre parcel of land. She wasn’t around but her caretaker and friend Terri showed me around and took me on a long walk around the beautifully desolate landscape.

The impetus for the New Mexico trip was the open house at the Very Large Array (VLA), a biannual event that enticed me as a substitute for a recently cancelled trip to Chile’s Atacama desert that would have included two observatory tours. So my trajectory from Santa Fe was south toward Socorro, and my next resting place was an RV on an alpaca farm.

The owner, David, had been living in Vienna when he fell in love with the peculiar creatures and their sellable wool. He started collecting them from afar until he resettled near San Antonio (not that one, the tiny New Mexico one) to operate his own llama enterprise, teach elementary school, and host visitors like me.

The RV was midway between the VLA and the White Sands Missile Range, whose open house at the Trinity Site, the location of the world’s first atomic bomb test, was held on the same day. I opted at the last minute not to make the detour to the Trinity Site open house — too much driving and rushing for what felt to me little reward — but the state’s nuclear legacy was apparent even without it.

San Antonio has a few places to grab a green chili cheeseburger but I chose The Owl Bar and Café, famous as a place where Robert Oppenheimer and his nuclear gang ate while they worked at White Sands on the Manhattan Project. The area’s culinary specialty wasn’t what I expected – it was so much better. Trust me and everyone else who will tell you the green chili cheeseburger is a must-try, whether here or elsewhere.

To drive in New Mexico is to feel like a very small piece of a very large world, with endless views that change only incrementally over large distances. And to visit the Very Large Array is to feel like our world is a very small piece of a very large universe.

The October 2017 VLA open house commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Jodie Foster/Matthew McConaughey movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book and partly filmed on site. Special talks and other events were taking place, but the highlight for me was the guided tour inside the facilities and to some of the very large telescopes, with scientists and engineers enthusiastically explaining the complexities of radio astronomy. No matter how much – or little – of the science I absorbed, it was awe-inspiring to stand under one of those enormous radio telescopes as it moves incrementally, craning its head to the skies, listening not just for signs of intelligent life à la Contact, but for clues into the formation of planets and other secrets of our universe.

On my way back north I had to make a westerly pitstop to nearby Pie Town, which barely registers as a town but has several pie shops dotting the highway after its instagrammable town sign. I went to Pie-O-Neer and the pie was fine – apple with the ubiquitous green chili – but really the highlight was being able to say I visited a place called Pie Town.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Because I was cramming the Albuquerque stopover into an already planned and crammed itinerary, I timed my visit for one of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta’s morning mass ascensions. All participating balloons in the world’s largest balloon festival rose up in stages over the course of the morning, with hundreds of colourful shapes dotting the sky and me darting along the ground in awe, trying to snap pictures of all the character balloons – Darth Vader and Yoda, aliens and spaceships, penguins and hedgehogs, mariachi and senorita. I wandered the massive, massive field as balloonists set up their balloons, dodging the crowds,  unfurling canvases and the baskets ablaze as the balloons inflate and “zebras” – coordinators dressed in referee outfits – guide the participants on when to safely launch. It was exhilarating and exhausting, and though I’d had pangs of not having time to see more events, I left after a few hours satisfied before even all the balloons had made their way into the sky.

Taos to Los Alamos

My last and favourite accommodation was near Taos, the northern ski resort area, for a few nights in a geodesic earth dome in a compound of homes mostly built by women. The original owner called it an “introvert’s paradise”, which the current owner quoted as a way of signaling that privacy was guaranteed (except from the friendly orange cat who greeted me outside the gate on the first night).

Nearby hot springs provided more relaxation time, and Taos Pueblo and its collection of ancient adobe homes – supposedly the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States, dating from 1200s — gave a glimpse at how the indigenous population lived and in some cases still live. Businesses attached to the homes provide some shopping and eating experiences without seeming overly touristy, but my impression might have been coloured by the fact that it was snowing (snowing!) so only a few of us hardy souls were wandering around.

On the way back to Santa Fe and my morning flight, I took a daytrip to Los Alamos, the former top-secret home of the Manhattan Project where the nuclear bomb was developed, perched high above the surrounding landscape on three long mesas. I wish I’d skipped the recommended van tour, with its nonstop, non-story-based commentary that didn’t pause even when some bored captives fell asleep in the van. There are self-guided or volunteer-guided walking tours that will take you to the museums and sites of interest (that’s Oppenheimer’s house in the bottom right of the collage), which would also leave more time to explore the spectacular scenery of the area, including the nearby Bandelier National Monument, which I rushed through as exhaustion set in at the end of my trip.

Before looking into what else I could do besides the VLA open house, New Mexico had never been on my endless list of vacation destinations. Once I started researching, I was left with a long list of places that weren’t practical to cram into a couple of weeks. And in that zen state that a road trip, dramatic scenery and displays of  larger-than-life human endeavors can inspire, accompanied by only my thoughts and my horrible singing to the radio, it’s no surprise that I made some major life decisions shortly after this trip.

Ring in the new

Ring in the new

This summer, a coworker and I were chatting while kayaking in the Burrard Inlet when I mentioned a former colleague had moved back from Europe and was now living on Salt Spring Island, picking up freelance work so she could work remotely. “I wish I could do something like that,” I said.

I recognized the look that flitted across her face before she said “Well, you could.”

I used to have that look. I used to say that to people when they said it about my decision to move to Mexico.

In the last couple years I’ve found myself saying things like “I always thought I’d do something like that again, moving to some other country” with a shrug, like it was too late.

People who know me at all know I like to travel. People who know me well know I moved to New Brunswick, Calgary, Mexico, and Vancouver for no other reason than the adventure of it. It’s what I do. I just haven’t done it for a while.

I always meant to put down roots in Vancouver after returning from Mexico. It’s the longest I’ve ever voluntarily lived somewhere. But it’s time for my repotting. Maybe past time. It was back in 2012, when I was working on the London Olympics, that I first got the birth certificates I’d need for a UK ancestry visa, which lets Commonwealth citizens with a grandparent who was born in the UK live and work there. Back then, I thought I’d want an escape after Steve’s imminent death, but I was wrong. I needed to not think about logistics, to not be away from my comfort zone. But recently I’ve been restless.

So I’ve given notice at my job. At the end of January I’ll head to South Korea to work on those Olympics, then finish up some things here at home and travel a bit. If all goes well I’ll be settling in the UK by June, trying my hand at more freelancing, less sitting in a cubicle, more European travel, shorter flights to do it.

I have plans to make that possible. I have layers of plans because some will work out and some won’t, and that’s part of the adventure.

The last time I felt like this, like I was working toward crafting another phase of life that excited me, my brother’s death derailed me. So I can’t shake the feeling that making these plans is an invitation for the universe to smite me. But I’m too rational to really believe that. Mostly.

As with my move to Vancouver I have no end game. I’ll settle somewhere until I don’t want to be settled there anymore. I’ll travel around the UK a bit but right now I’m thinking Edinburgh is where I’ll land, at least at first. By the end of the year, or decade, or some time after that, I may end up back in the Vancouver area, or I may end up somewhere else. There’s no need to plan that far in advance; there are too many variables.

I’ll sell my home. I’ll bring the cats. I’ll get rid of my stuff, except for a couple suitcases to take, and a bare minimum of sentimental and useful items I’ll store here until the future is clearer. There are a lot of logistics to work through but it’s not new; I’ve done this before. More than once.

There are always reasons not to take a leap like this. It’s going to be hard giving up the home I decorated to my taste and my taste alone. I’ll miss friends. I’ll miss the camaraderie of my workplace. I’ll be anxious about getting work and a place to stay. What if something disastrous happens to derail me before I even start? What if I can’t find enough clients, and can’t find a job? What if I can’t understand the Scottish accent? What if I can and they’re saying nasty things about me? What if I’m run over by a car because they drive on the wrong side of the road? What if a post-Brexit UK devolves into a Black Mirror-esque dystopia?

I’ve reached the point where I’d rather face these temporary what ifs about taking a risk than a lifetime of “what if I’d been brave enough to do what I really wanted to do?” I’m ready. Let’s do this, universe.

Swimming with sharks in the Galapagos

Swimming with sharks in the Galapagos

There came a point in the trip where I questioned the wisdom of swimming toward the man yelling “shark!” That point came later than you might expect.

I’d only been snorkeling once before, years before, from the beach in Cozumel. I mostly remembered feeling claustrophobic and sunburned, plus marveling at the colourful fish.

In the Galapagos, our group was swimming with the sharks. And the turtles, jellyfish, sea lions, an octopus, a penguin or two, and even more colourful fish. When one of us would see something exciting we’d yell for the group to come see, but usually it was our guide who spotted them first. Including a lot of sharks. And once, toward the end of that outing, the logical part of my brain started overruling the awe-struck part of my brain and I started to hyperventilate, logically.

That’s when I fell in love with snorkeling. I realized the claustrophobia, the struggle to calm my breath, the healthy fear of sharks, had all disappeared until I felt like a privileged guest in this underwater world.

The Galapagos Islands had been near the top of my travel wish-list forever. I knew of Darwin’s evolution epiphanies, the diversity of animals unique to the volcanic islands – blue footed boobies! giant tortoises! marine iguanas! sea lions as far as the eye can see! – and the remoteness which makes traveling there more difficult (and expensive).

I didn’t realize how many people live in the collection of islands, but meeting locals helped me feel like a privileged guest in their world as well. Except in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, whose town centre felt like every port of call, tacky tourist shops and all.

I have an aversion to cruises so when the opportunity came up to finally go to the Galapagos, I landed on the Galapagos Unbound trip from ROW Adventures. For a couple of nights we slept in tents on an isolated beach close to sea lions and hermit crab tracks, and the rest of the time in charming hotels (and charming is not code for dilapidated in this case).

It was my first time with that company and it was a mostly positive experience. It helped that I was one of the last people standing amid the gastroenteritis that blazed through our small group.

In the initial kayaking excursion, my friend and I were champions in our first time paddling together. The second excursion … well, we didn’t capsize or get swept out into the open ocean, but not for want of trying. Because we had seemed to know what we were doing the first time, our guides left us behind to fend for ourselves so we finally arrived at the destination exhausted and cranky.

But then we went snorkeling again, and crankiness couldn’t survive in this volcanic landscape inhabited by otherworldly creatures.