A New Birthday Tradition – Gift giving

I woke up feeling no different than yesterday, but today is different. Today is the day it supposedly all goes downhill. Today my metabolism slows to a crawl and I gain weight just by looking at food. Today I get to blame my impulsive and bizarre behaviors on my impending “mid-life crisis”. Today I need to find some reading glasses to be able to see the small print on the labels. Today I should stock up on the painkillers to ease the aches in my joints. Today is the day I can blIMG_6623ame my bad memory on old age. Today is the day I begin my descent to death.

Feeling energized, I made my way down to the gym and had an extra spring in my step. I worked out a little longer, partly to offset any birthday indulgences that may come later, but mostly because I just felt good. I have never been one to look or feel my age. In fact, I quite often forget, and have had to check my ID to be sure. I think that all started after 25, when I started traveling the world. That is when I really understood that age was just a number, just as time is only an illusion. Anyway, I fully understand the stigma attached to 40 but I don’t buy it.

 

Today, I am 40. So I crawled out of bed and checked my muscles but they felt pretty good despite yesterdays 2 hour workout. I bounced up and down a bit and didn’t hear my knees creak, not a peep. Next, I made my way to the mirror to look for hidden grey hairs or new wrinkles…I didn’t see a one. I was delighted to jump on the scale to learn I am the lowest weight I’ve been in years. Hot dog! This 40 thing is really working for me!

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After the gym, my big sister Trina came over to spend the day with me. I knew she had something planned but I didn’t really know what. After all, I wasn’t expecting much since we are going to Vegas in a week to really celebrate.

In my mind, today was just supposed to be a token visit to commemorate the actual day. In all honesty, Trina and I haven’t spent a lot of time together oveIMG_6635r the past few years and have grown apart a little. I was a little nervous to go along with her plan, since we have such different tastes in so many things. But I decided to give up control and go along with whatever she proposed. Trust.

I was excited when she came around the corner, arms full of gift bags and a Happy Birthday balloon bobbing behind her. Wow! That’s all I really wanted! I love balloons. So everything else is just icing on the cake. But I had no idea how big this cake would be!

After a big hug, she gave me a ginormous card half the size of my dining room table. It was hand-made and she had placed candy bars throughout to fill in the words. It read:

Dear CaraIMG_6629mels,

You are always a Starburst wherever you go. It is not a Mirage…everyone realizes you are a Smarties and a Hot Tamales. I am looking forward to our Vegas celebration where I believe we will Skor a Bounty of awesome memories. I will make sure Zero people Snickers as we Rolo into town even if we move like Turtles down the street.

Love you to Reeses Pieces, Trina

It is the sweetest card anyone has every given me. Literally.

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Next she sat me down and proceeded to give me 9 more gifts, all individually wrapped with pretty lace and delicate sparkly paper. Each had a tag with a number and a cute, humorous, or wise quote that somehow pertained to the gift. But number 8 I was feeling spoiled. From bath stuff to cat toys to a magical cloak to sea salt…she got me lots of gifts that I could use. I love useful gifts.

When we were done, Trina pulled out a bunch of crafts and told me we were going to finish some projects that she had started. These were the tools we would use to run around the city doing random acts of kindness. We worked together to put together some laminated inspirational pocket cards, snowmen booklets with  , and smiley packets of gum. She showed mIMG_6650e all the beautiful rocks she had handpainted with positive and loving words that we would be able to gift. And there was a huge bag of teddybears! Needless to say, I was getting VERY excited.

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Before we left, I remembered that I had some bags of food that I had wanted to give away so we packed that into the van and we were off. First we went to the University hospital. Parking was a zoo and I was busily scanning for a spot when Trina noticed the first metered spot closest to the door was empty. When we tried to plug it with change, we saw it was out-of-order. Free parking. Win!

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As we walked through the hospital, I opened my heart and felt my way through searching for people who needed a hug. Today, their hug comes in the form of a rock. The first man I saw sitting on a bench by himself, staring at the ground, looking forlorn. After I placed the colorful rock in his hand, he looked up at me with a surprised soft smile. I smiled back and went on my way to find my next person.12557810_10153337379132217_305382572_o

We gifted a nurse who was at the bank machine, the information lady who seemed delighted be on the receiving end, a tired doctor who was getting a coffee, an older man crumpled in a wheelchair.

But the moment that touched me the most was when I saw a fragile looking lady standing near the cafeteria looking a little sad. I turned around and approached her with a big smile. She seemed a little scared and jumped when I held out my hand to her. She backed up a little and shook her head. I softened my smile, and looked deep into her frightened eyes. “It’s ok. Today is my birthday and I am giving gifts. I have a gift for you. May I please give it to you?” She studied my face and slowly reached out her hand to receive rock. I chose the one that said “You are Amazing!” with a stipple drawn teddybear on the flipside. Before she could say anything, I turned and briskly walked away to rejoin my sister who was watching on from a distance.

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A few minutes later when we were discussing which hallway we should turn down, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to find the same woman who I had given the rock to a few moments before. She told me, “I had to find you and tell you how much this means to me. I really needed this. You don’t understand.” With that, she reached up and pulled off her hat revealing a soft bald head. “I really needed this,” she said again softly. I looked at this young woman, with her pale complexion and her young eyes, and felt such gratitude. We hugged and I could feel her trembling. This moment was heavy and hard and powerful and deep. I have to say this was by far, my favorite part of the day.

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After giving out the rest of our rocks, we made our way back to the van where the parking attendant was working furiously at fixing our broken meter. I gave him one of the gum gifts that we had made and told him thank you for all his hard work. Next Trina gave me my next 10 gifts to open, which were even more amazing than the first bunch. Practical gifts, kitchen gifts, and more chocolates. She even made me a handwritten a recipe book!

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Next, we made our way to Superstore to give candy to kids. I was a bit nervous about this one but Trina assured me that parents would be happy to have something to occupy their restless little ones while they shopped. A lollypop ring would be a wonderful distraction! Ok….I was skeptical.

We gifted almost a dozen children whose parents were surprised and impressed with the idea of gift giving on one’s birthday. All the kids we found were happy to accept but no one could match the exuberance of this one little boy. He was the youngest of three little boys and before his mom could agree, he snatched the red lollypop ring out of my hand and yelled “YES!” triumphantly. We all laughed and she apologised explaining that he is autistic. I remarked at how awesome it was to have such an honest kid. As we left, I could hear the little guy yelling after us, “See you tomorrow!!” Back in the van, 10 more gifts. Trina was so very creative and thoughtful with her ideas, her heartfelt words were priceless.

Next stop, we drove to a low-income housing development where we spent a few years of our childhood. As we pulled into our old neighborhood crowded with townhouses, I remembered some of the struggles we endured while living on the “wrong side of the tracks”. It was a strange feeling as I walked up to my old steps and placed the bag of food on the stoop. I flashed back to a time when I was 8 and we were given some bags of food and clothes anonymously. I remembered how excited and happy and grateful I felt to be cared for by this magical somebody who didn’t even know us. I hoped that there were children living there now and they may feel that same thing.IMG_6673

After the last round of presents including books, makeup, bracelet, candy, gadgets…40 total!, we went to the mall armed with happy cards and a big bag of stuffed toys. We had no problem finding children who agreed to give our orphan toys a good home. We decided to grab a quick snack before we headed up to see a movie. As we walked through the food court, we saw two little girls sitting with their very disinterested Dad who was looking anywhere but at them. I could see their sad eyes as they unsuccessfully tried to get their dads attention. He looked like he had been through tough times and had a rough looking face. I had a hard time imagining him smile. So I thought I should try.

“Excuse mIMG_6698e, it’s my birthday today and I am giving gifts. I have these two bunny rabbits who don’t have a home. I was wondering if I could give them to your little girls to love and take care of?” His face went from dazed to confused to awestruck all in a matter of seconds. He didn’t even talk he just nodded and grew a smile that transformed his face from hard IMG_6700and closed to kind and approachable. The little girls were happy too.

Trina and I ate a healthy snack then gave out a few more gifts, before heading up to see “Sisters” which we had both been saving to watch with each other. We shared some popcorn (which is a big deal for Trina because she really doesn’t like to share food) and laughed until we cried. To end the night, we went to Menchie’s for froyo and games.

Today was a phenomenal day. Gift getting is fun and I am super grateful but it was the gift giving that brought me to tears. I have to say it is a tradition I will keep. Now that I am 40, I don’t feel like things are winding down at all. I am finally learning what works and making new traditions. I am making my moments count. And I feel like this is just the beginning.

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#BeKindToOneAnother

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Kruger Park Safari

IMG_5743Today was one for the record books. I bounced out of bed 45 minutes early, brimming with excitement about our first safari in Kruger National Park, here in South Africa. I quickly put on some hot water in our kettle to make some coffee. This roused Michael, who began getting ready as well. I was dressed before he made it off the bed. We gathered our packed breakfasts and made our way to the front gate to meet our guide a few minutes before our meeting time of 530am.

Frank, from The Other Animals SIMG_8360afaris was out of town, but sent us his best guide to show us around the park. South African Marc Cronje is a personable young man who actually grew up in a zoo. His father worked in the zoo in Joberg so he has been around animals his whole life. Literally. You can tell because he has an ease with nature only comes with a lifetime of experience. Frank couldn’t have left us in better hands. Marc answered all our questions with expertise and had many an interesting story from his four years of guiding.

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I borrowed a soft heavy blanket from our hotel room and wrapped it around me as we took off down the road in the open-air safari truck toward the gate. The air was crisp and the sun came up quickly. We were only 3rd in line at the gate and Marc hopped out of the truck to chat with his fellow guides. At exactly 6AM they opened the gates and all the guides raced to the guard shack. Michael and I purchased a “Wild Card” which gives us unlimited access to all the South African parks for a year. The 2770 rand (about $230 USD) international couples pass is worth it if you are spending more than a week here. Plus, I don’t mind supporting the animals. They need all the help they can get. Marc told us about the poachers who are driving the rhinos to extinction because of a myth about rhino horns curing cancer. Park officials have implemented a shoot to kill policy on poachers in the parks, but unfortunately, just like the drug trade, it is a losing battle. ThIMG_7929e foot soldiers that make it into the park are expendable and the smuggling kingpins are safely out of reach. The exotic animal smuggling problem is quickly surpassing the illegal arms trade according to the numbers. If this continues, the only rhinos left will be in zoos. It makes me sad.

The first animal we saw was, in fact, a sleepy rhino unsuccessfully hiding behind a sparse bush. He was a huge creature and nothing was waking him. We continued on and Michael spotted his first elephant! He called him Bob. Bob who was barely 15 feet away, was tearing branches off trees like he was peeling a banana.

We watched the elephant for while then continued on our way when another game truck full of people pulled up. We are insanely lucky to have the whole 10-person truck to ourselves. I felt very spoiled when we would pass truck after truck packed solid with tourists. “Sardine Safaris” are one way to do it but not optimal. If you ever have an opportunity, a private safari is where it’s at.

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Over the next eight hours, we saw lots of impala, elephants, giraffes, zebras, hippos, boks, turtle, warthog, buffalo, alligators, a squirrel, baboons, vervet monkeys, a rhino, kudu, two leopards, tons of birds, butterflies, and a giant snail crossing the road. Perhaps my very favorite moment was when we were alerted to some activity by the excitement of the monkeys in the nearby tree. The chatter escalated rather quickly and we knew something dangerous was near. We all waited, and I scanned the bushes with my eagle eyes.

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Suddenly, I saw him! Through the tall golden rods of dry grass, a heart-shaped furry face peered out at me. Just as I saw him, he saw me and he darted across the clearing. I barely had time to alert the others before my leopard was out of sight once again. It was exhilarating! I caught my first leopard! I imagine that when you are the first to spot and discover an animal on a safari, that one is yours. At least for that day. As the monkeys quieted down, we knew that the leopard had taken off. We continued on in search of more adventure.

Michael wasIMG_7996 very excited about the tower of giraffes that he manifested. He is in love with the gentle creatures and couldn’t seem to get enough of them. We got to experience a troop of baboons all but enveloped our vehicle, having family arguments and “sexy time” right in front of us. The best was the little baby riding on the mothers back like a cowboy.

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Next we were treated to a dazzle of dozen brazen zebras crossing the road and galloping into the thick brush.IMG_8263

My other highlight was when we had front row seats to an elephant crossing, complete with newborn babies and shy teenagers. They were just coming up from a river session and a memory of about 30 pachyderms decided to walk about 15 feet in front of us. Marc pulled the track sideways to block the road when he saw them coming, to protect them from inexperienced overeager tourists who would inevitably inch too close to the majestic creatures.

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It is a well known fact that when there are babies around, elephants are hypersensitive and will do anything to protect them. Marc recounted a sad story of one of his favorite elephants being shot to death a few years ago when an ignorant tourist continued to provoke him even after many warnings.  As they ambled by, the smallest baby let out an excited squeal and the parents were quick respond, blocking him inside a sIMG_8117afety envelope between them. I was transfixed by the personalities evident and how the maturity causes them to walk and move differently. The slightly clumsy teenagers seemed curious but timid and shy only taking short sideways glimpses of us through their long lashes. The littlest ones were like little tornados bouncing by unbridled and carefree. When the baby stopped, everyone stopped. He seemed to be waiting for his big brother before he started walking again. The largest and most mature of the pack were very deliberate with every move and positioned themselves to protect the others. The biggest male kept his eyes locked on us as until every last one was safely off the road before he seemingly did a little dance and moved on himself.

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We had two rest stops at Skukuza camp where we stocked up on Kudu wors and coffee. In the giftshop, we also found an elephant shirt for me and a Save the Rhino glass water bottle for Michael. When our day was done, we thanked Marc and sat at our lodge glowing in what was a fabulous day. We had a nap before dinner then went to bed reasonably early since tomorrow we head north to another lodge.

https://www.youtube.com/watchv=uw8DC7BFcV0&feature=youtu.be&feature=autosharec

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Touchdown in JoBerg

The plane ride was long but very easy. We watched a couple of movies and slept most of it. The two flight attendants were extremely friendly and entertaining. They even had a little “Fred and Ethyl” skit going on. The only real miss was the food. It was pretty much inedible, which was ok for us because we had brought our own. Since this was Michael’s longest flight he was super-nervous about it. We made sure we had more than a pound of crispy bacon for him. We also bought a little tapas spread of olives, cheese, pepperonis, peppered turkey, assorted nuts, and all my veggies. I also brought my scrambled eggs that I didn’t eat at home and some avocados, so we were set. We barely made a dent in it all, but Michael was able finish every last strip of bacon (even the one that fell on the floor).

We deplaned in JoBerg and walked straight to the Avis rental car counter where we picked up our pre-reserved car. We ended up with a little silver Chevy Spark and it was pretty much brand new. I was happy that it had a USB charger port and a decent music system. We will be doing a lot of driving over the next month so along so it has to be comfortable but still get good gas mileage.

The sun was just starting to go down as we left the airport and headed into the city. I flipped on the radio to listened to local music and found it was pretty awesome. Even better than our normal stations at home in SF or Edmonton. Maybe it was because of the South African accent but we both voted for radio over anything that was in our iPhone music collection. At one of the stop lights there was a man going from car to car begging. I remembered the extra food we had and opened my window when he approached. I asked the man if he wanted food, and he answered “Yes Ma’am” in the most humble, gentle voice. I handed him a tupperware of eggs and meats then the light turned green. As we drove the rest of the way, I sat quietly, reflecting on how real life gets here. I hadn’t even been in the country an hour, and I already felt my heartstrings being tugged at. South Africa made a huge impact on me the first time I was here 10 years ago and that energy was still here, even more so.

We pulled into the large fenced property and met our lovely host couple. We really hit the AirBnb jackpot for that one night in Johanesberg. Bridget’s place was so charming and cozy that it was really hard to leave. She and Jeremy had spared no expense in stocking the place with everything you could ever hope to need. They showed us around their gorgeous property and gave us the run down on how it all worked. I especially liked the “emergency” button that was way too close to the light switches. They explained that if we pushed that, a bunch of men with guns would show up almost immediately. Though I was curious, I didn’t really feel the need to try it out. I have never had such hospitality shown in any AirBnb as I had at this place. They had nuts and biltong waiting for us to snack on along with every kind of fruit. There were cookies, teas, coffees, and crisps. The fridge was packed with our favorite drinks. I was blown away with the level of detail and care that they put into our stay. We were presented with delicious hot cappuccinos and I felt so lucky. These guys have hospitality perfected.

I felt a bit dirty so I wanted to freshen up a bit before we wandered the neighborhood to look for a bite to eat. I was impressed by the fully-stocked bathroom. There was every kind of lotion, soap, specialty cleaners and special bath oils and salts. Bridget had thought of everything. I eased myself into the oversized tub and soaked for a while. After my bath I felt energized and ready for an adventure. We were given directions to the nearby restaurant row. They kept asking if we wanted a ride but we insisted walking was half the fun. We set off and within 15 minutes we were in the thick of it.

Parkhurst is clearly the trendy part of town. All the stores were shut but I couldn’t imagine ever affording anything in them anyway. The restaurants were packed and each one had a different vibe and flavor. We walked the whole row and settled on one called Craft. There was a large wood burning stove and Michael got very excited at the prospect of meat cooked in there. We settled into our table smack dab in the middle of the packed out place, and ordered. Michael had steak smothered in a ale and cheese sauce overtop of cauliflower rosti. I had a huge salad with grilled haloumi. We broke the rules and ordered the popcorn panacotta for dessert. Tummies stuffed, we waddled back home and fell into bed.

I slept for just a couple hours before I woke up with a start. It was the middle of the night and way too early but I clambered out of bed so I wouldn’t wake up Michael. When I checked my email, I learned of some problems back home. I spent the next three hours trying to put out the fires that had sprung up with my rental properties. It was very stressful but this is what I signed up for when I chose to manage things myself. I have tried many property managers over the years but none have been able to pull it off. They seem to make things just so much worse and then when I come home I end up having to repair all their mistakes. When I finally felt things were on the right track, I got dressed and made some coffee. There was no use trying to get anymore sleep so we just decided to start the day early.

We were spoiled rotten when we were presented with a picnic breakfast for the road. Our gracious hosts had made us delicious scotch eggs, hot sausages wrapped in foil, yogurts, fresh raspberries, MORE biltong, and nuts. They even gave us the cutest wooden utensils to eat it all with. We feasted all the way to our next stop in Hazyview.

When we were about halfway there, we ended up at a toll booth which caused us some worry. Apparently they only form of payment they accepted was South Africa credit cards and the Rand. We didn’t have either and the moody toll booth lady had no patience for us. She ordered us over to the side of the road where the “authorities” would deal with us. As we pulled over, I was frustrated with myself for being so unprepared and making such a rookie mistake. Just as Michael was about to open the door to face our penalty for ignorance, a car pulled up beside us and rolled down the window. I was confused what this family of four wanted with us and assumed there was something wrong with our car. What next!? But to my surprise, the dad handed us a 50 Rand bill (exactly the amount of the toll) and then sped off smiling. We were barely able to shout thank you after them.

We both sat there dumbfounded how they even knew our predicament. I supposed they must have been behind us in line and witnessed the drama.

I was so touched by the Random Act of Kindness, I almost had a tear. There are opportunities to perform RAOKs every day, and lately I have been making a point to answer the invitation. Today, I realized that the more of this magical energy you surround yourself with, the more these small miracles you get to experience. It feels amazing to give, and powerfully humbling to receive in those rare moments of need.

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Pretty things! – Uturoa, Raiatea

Woke up early enough, but wasn’t all that excited to get off the ship. In fact, I entertained the idea of staying onboard. I really didn’t want to get any more sun. It’s not the most painful sunburn I have ever had but I don’t want to compromise my time in some of the future ports which I am really looking forward to. There is meant to be some world-class diving coming up and it would be a shame to be too burnt to enjoy it.

After room service came, I took my cup of coffee and wandered out to the promenade deck. We were just pulling into port and I was thrilled to see that we were not tendering. I love the freedom and ease that come with just walking off the gangway into a port. There was a small group of musicians playing us traditional welcome music. I loved hearing the pounding of the drums as it echoed through the metal corridors of the ship.

I decided since it would all be so effortless, I could get off for a “little” while and at least walk around. There wasn’t much to the town and I could probably cover it in an hour. After a slow start, we finally got off the ship. As we were checking out the touristy souvenir huts made of grass that were placed in an area next to the ship, I wasn’t expecting to but anything. I was pretty sure I was done shopping for stuff, unless I found something spectacular. I found lots of black pearls in shiny shells and jewelry of every kind. We found coconut bras in every cup size and hand dyed sarongs in colors of the pastel rainbow. I was temped by some wood carvings but remembered that it can be tricky getting these things back into North America. I am not savvy on what is permitted and watching too much “Border Security” has made me paranoid. That is why I normally just don’t bother with stuff.

There was one little hut that was something slightly different than the others and I was drawn to it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but I just liked it in there. Then suddenly it caught my eye. It was the most stunning cluster of shells arranged into a necklace of carefully weaved straw rope. A lot of the shells were artfully cut so you could see their skeleton and they were placed together in such a way. There were lots of other necklaces that had the same idea but those were all made into shell patterns and were so much more tame. This one was extremely unique in that it was a giant cluster of every shell I had ever seen. It was gorgeous. I didn’t even dare contemplate it. It was so impractical. It made no sense to buy such a piece. Even though it was one-of-a-kind, hand made, and I would likely never see anything like it again. I walked away. I didn’t even show it to Michael.

We puttered around looking in the three supermarkets which were within a couple blocks of each other. I tried to figure out the difference between them, but I couldn’t. I did notice that they all had a particular odor and it wasn’t pleasant. I reminded myself that I have smelled much worse in places like India and Egypt. I put it out of my mind and tried to find some vanilla in the baking aisle, which is one of the things they are famous for in this part of the world. It was sad to see that the only vanilla they had for sale was imported from McCormicks. Ugh. They also didn’t have any Noxema skin cream to soothe my charred skin but I wasn’t counting on finding that so far away from home. Most people haven’t even heard of the stuff.

We went around the other markets and shopped the other gift stores. Once we finally felt like we had our fill we were getting ready to go. Michael had become obsessed with buying a black pearl for himself. He kept looking and looking and we finally found one that suited him. It wasn’t a perfect pearl and therefore was not all that expensive. He said he liked the imperfect ones…they are unique. I thought of the special necklace in the first souvenir hut. Since we had looked through every store and I think I saw more than a thousand shell necklaces, I realized how dramatically different that one was to all the others. There simply was nothing else even comparable.

I asked Michael to come, that I really wanted to show him something even though I was sure it was already gone. There was no way someone hadn’t snapped it up in the last few hours. When we got to the small hut, I was so excited…it was still there. The sweet little lady who took care of the shop had her head down and was busy working on another necklace. I asked her if I could try it on and with her heavy French accent and broken english, she said “of course!” It fit like a charm, and I was in love. I don’t get attached to things. I just don’t, and especially things that are impractical. Its quite a challenge for me to buy something just for the sake of it making me happy. Like my Elephant painting at home in my bedroom. It serves no purpose at all, but it was important to celebrate a success I had achieved.

It was marked $25 but the lady saw how much I adored it, and gave it to me for $17. I was so happy and touched that she seemed to understand how important it was for me to have it. She looked into my eyes and asked me knowingly, “It is your favorite, isn’t it?” I nodded wholeheartedly and hugged her, thanking her for sharing her talent. Just as we were leaving, she stopped me and produced a shell cluster ring, that seemed to match the necklace. She put it on my finger and smiled, sending me on my way. It was made with such love and every time I look at it, I remember that sweet woman, and the kindness she showed me.

Now, all that said, it is a treasure, but it takes some bravery to wear it. It’s massive! It’s not just a shell necklace, its THE shell necklace. I wore it tonight to dinner and many many people complimented it. When the polynesian entertainers onboard saw it, they were in awe. They fawned over it and commended me on finding it. I realized that if I had their stamp of approval, they who know and are from these lands, then I must have done well. A bunch of older ladies advised me to store it in a shadow box at home, to preserve it and keep it safe. I can’t wait to show it to my Mom, who loves shells and everything beachy.

During supper, we were sailing away and the rains started coming down. As I gazed out the window next to our table, I was surprised to catch another lucky moment! In the middle of the ocean off in the distance, a double rainbow had appeared. What a day!

Even though my skin is tight and I am red as a lobster, I kept my commitment to reaching my 10,000 steps. I didn’t walk enough today so we made our way up to the gym before hitting the sack. It was a little difficult to walk on the treadmill in flip-flops, but I didn’t have much of a choice. Since I had not worn any socks in Bora Bora on my long walk, my runners had worn deep welts into my achilles heel. Now they are raw and bloody and there is no way I am putting anything on them. Hopefully they heal soon, because walking 10,000 steps in flip flops create blisters between the toes.

Tomorrow is Tahiti and I am pretty sure I am going to take it easy. I have done no research so I have no idea what to expect…but then, those random days are often the ones that turn up the best surprises.

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Finally Bora Bora!

After a lazy morning, we hit lunch, then the gym. I wanted to time it properly so we would be able to watch our approach to Bora Bora while I was on the treadmill. The gym is located directly above the Bridge so the view is perfect. Once the massive mountain peaks showed up in the distance, people started popping up on the outside deck with their cameras. By the time we were in sight of the motu, the place was packed with excited fellow cruisers. I finished my steps just in time, and joined Michael outside in the warm humid air. Just as we were pulling closer to the main island and passing the smaller islands into the bay, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of this place. It hit me that we were arriving in a location that was extremely high up on my Bucket List. And I don’t have many of those left now. So, very special indeed.

I looked over at some of the over-water bungalows that Bora Bora is famous for and then down at the stunning colors of the waters. It wasn’t just blue, but there were turquoise and greens, and every color in-between. The land was lush with greenery and coconut trees. And the air was so warm against my skin. I hurried Michael to get in the tender ticket line, while I went and showered. Once I was done, I took Michael’s place in line so he could get ready for our adventure. Once our tender number was called, we milled down with the crowd to take our place on the tiny little boat. Everyone was very eager to get ashore so the energy was high. We were lucky enough to get onto the first tender so our wait time was quite minimal.

We arrived in Bora Bora at 4pm so there wasn’t a lot to do before it would get too dark. We certainly were not going to attempt any kind of excursion this late so we decided to catch up on some Internet to get that out of the way. We knew we had a full day tomorrow so we could take advantage of that if we cleared up our chores. We asked a few of the touts on the tender platform where we could go for Internet, and were directed to a pearl shop down the road. Turns out they also rented cars, scooters, and dune buggies too so we were in luck. One of the things we wanted to do while we were in Bora Bora was perhaps rent a car and go around the whole island. We explored a few of the options but none of them felt quite right. I really wanted to be in the water but the touts said that jet skis were in Moorea, not here. I was sad about that but resigned myself to driving around the island looking for pretty beaches. Unfortunately most of the good beaches were on the motu and not really on the island at all.

As the tenders brought more and more cruisers onto the island, the store started to fill up. And the free internet connection became jammed. I decided to check my emails and clear up any business that had come up before making any decisions about tomorrow. Low and behold, while I was offline for a week, several fires had begun. One of my renters who had just signed a years lease, had a string of bad luck and had to break his lease. He wasn’t even able to pay his last months rent. The timing really could not be worse. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. What was worse, was that I genuinely felt bad for the guy. He was a great tenant until now, and I know how it can be when you are going through tough times. I wracked my brain for ways to deal with this major disaster.

This is one of those major stresses that I have nightmares about. It is hard to rent a place while you are in the city or country but when you are traveling and off the grid for weeks at a time, it’s damn near impossible. Last time I trusted a property manager, he rented to a psycho woman who trashed the house and cost me thousands of dollars. Finding a GOOD renter is a serious job and not many people are able to do it well. Beside me, Michael was dealing with his own emails and though his were not as dire as mine, he had stuff too. People just go nuts when you are offline and don’t answer within one day. One person gave a 72 hour deadline before pulling a plug because they hadn’t heard from me and were scared something was wrong. CHILL OUT PEOPLE… it’s ok to unplug and disconnect. My gods. I muttered to Michael what was going on and he shared with me some of his, and we just put our heads down and tried to push through it.

I answered as many issues as I could, and put out most of my fires, and some of Michael’s. After getting a change of schedule, I had to change a couple of flights. This can be a headache at the best of times but today, it went better than I expected. Right around then, I started realizing I may have to head back to Canada to solve this rental fiasco. But there just was no time! We are supposed to be heading to South Africa just two weeks after we get back from this trip. I have an extremely long list of stuff I have to get done in California during that fortnight. I started to panic, just a bit. I looked outside at the palm trees swaying in the dusk breeze and crab skittering across the dirt road and felt the warm tropical air waft in every time someone would walk in the door. Then, I remembered to breathe.

A solution suddenly filtered through the madness. Thought it seemed far-fetched, maybe, just maybe it could work. I pinged the few people I needed to connect with and by chance, they all seemed to be online. Within 20 minutes, the crisis had been averted. If all goes as planned, I will have a new renter, someone I know and trust, moving in exactly when the other tenant has to move out. Cross your fingers.

Finally, when I felt somewhat calm, I wanted to call my mom and dad. I missed them a lot having not spoken to them in a week. I waffled out loud about calling them and waking them up since it was almost an hour after their bedtime. An elderly couple who had overheard my worrying, insisted, “Call. Absolutely. It is never too late to call your parents.” I nodded, and took their advice. Dad answered quite groggy but perked up immediately when he heard my voice. I shared with them as much as I could in a couple minutes before I let them get back to bed. It was just so great to hear their voices, and know they appreciated the call.

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Liking the ship staff

Woke up early-ish and ate on our breakfast. The gym is getting a lot busier and people have started getting weird about machines. Ugh. I guess it was bound to happen. I think when they realize their clothes are not fitting, rather than cut down on the drinks or desserts, they imagine that a few minutes on the treadmill will solve everything. It’s only a little frustrating when I get asked all the time to assist with how to work the machines. I suppose its one of the hazards of going on a cruise full of oldies. Many automatically assume you are crew, because why else would you be on the ship?

We had a leisurely lunch and then retired to the library. I meant to write but try and I might, I just could not keep my eyes open. I had a micro dream and then was startled awake by another sleepers snoring. Finally I gave up and told Michael we should head back down to the room. We dressed for dinner, then went to listen to Chris for a while. He is one of my favorite parts of this cruise. No matter what he is singing, it always seems to get into my soul. That boy has some serious talent.

We ate dinner and joked with our servers who always bring such a sparkle to the day. We especially like Asep who is labeled “Dining Room Greeter” on his name tag. He has such a sweet smile and always brightens my mood. His costume is really bizarre and we joked in the beginning that it was exactly that of a organ grinders monkey. He has a little red hat and the suit, well, now that we know him, we really think it suits him. It looks like a very fancy bellhop costume from the classic movies of the olden days. He is there at the end and the beginning of all our meals. And at the end, he has a digestif station where he offers little napkins delicately folded with either mints, dates, or our favorite, candied ginger. It’s a daily tradition now.

We head back to hear Chris’s second set and the lounge is packed from all the Trivia leftovers. It will be an hour before they are corralled out for the second dinner seating. Then, for that last hour, we generally have Chris to ourselves. He plays pretty much what ever we ask and well. He did a slow ballady version of Michael Jackon’s Beat It tonight and I was blown away. But perhaps my favorite was when he nailed the Dave Matthews tune “Don’t Drink the Water”. Nailed it, I say. Truly a pleasure to have him as part of our cruise.

Now we are back in the cabin and I am almost caught up on my writing. I am looking forward to Fanning Island tomorrow so I had better get some sleep now. We only have 6 hours there so we had better make it count.

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Sleepy Sea Day

Try as I may, I couldn’t sleep in. I woke up at 4am then 6am then 7am. Finally breakfast came. I was impressed that they finally found a way to get coconut milk onto the tray. I had been asking for days but no one could figure out where to find it. Finally one of our dinner managers said he would find a solution. It really makesWe ate and watched the morning news. The news channels we get are pretty depressing. Fox is all fluff, MSNBC is all politics, BBC is always talking about war. The only exciting part of the newscasts are when the weather man pops up from time to time.

We went for our workout then ate lunch. I think am tired today because I am especially sensitive and touchy. I tried to have a nap in the library but everyone was being too loud. I was so annoyed by the young Librarian who insists on shouting to everyone who asks her a question. I wish she would realize that not everyone is deaf and she could moderate her tone, it is a library after all.

The rest of the day was a blur. I was in a fog and basically just waiting to get back in bed to catch up on my sleep. I know we listened to Chris which perked me up for a short while but as soon as he was done, I was done too. Back in our cabin, we watched a movie called Contagion which kept my attention for a while before I crashed hard.

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Swimming with Wild Dolphins – Honolulu, Hawaii

Woke up unnaturally early at 530am and I was not happy about it. I didn’t really sleep at all, because I kept worrying about not waking up on time. I hate that. I do it often when I have schedules or appointments. Which is why I generally stay away from those types of commitments. Anyway, we didn’t have much time to eat since room service came a bit late. I shoved Michaels pound of meat (bacon, sausage and ham) into a bag and wrapped up my omelette. The bus was arriving in 8 minutes and though I was sure it would be easy and quick to get off the ship, I didn’t want to risk it. Nothing like the wrath of a bus load full of tired tourists angry because you made them wait.

It was still pitch dark out and I was groggy when I climbed on the huge tour bus. I was awake enough to notice that 95 percent of the bus was Japanese. We signed the electronic release form and I played some Candy Crush while we drove to the site. An hour later, we pulled into Waianae Harbor. We all filed off the bus and waited around until we were instructed to follow to the boat. We were all loaded onto the boat and found our seats. The sun was coming up nicely and it was looking to be a nice warm day. We were introduced to the energetic and very chipper crew who had quite the act going on. It was easy to get involved and I was impressed by their ability to get everyone participating. It wasn’t long before I was singing and high fiving with everyone else, even though I was still a little tired. We were all given boat rules and instructions before being fitted with our shorties and snorkel gear.

We sped around the waters looking for pods of wild dolphins. After a good 20 minutes, I started getting worried. I thought how silly it seemed to be looking for dolphins and what the chances were that we wouldn’t even see any. I began to feel doubt and regret that I dragged myself out of bed for this. Plus I was getting cold again. The sun was dipping in and out of the thickening clouds.

Just then, we slowed down and lo and behold, dolphins. And not just a few, A LOT. There must have been at least 60 split into several pods. I couldn’t get into the water fast enough. As I jumped in, I only felt cold for a second before I started swimming my heart out. I was going to get to those dolphins before they swam away. Turns out, I didn’t need to try so hard. They ended up coming to me. They swam around, through and under our group dozens of times. Michael and I got a little carried away and separated from our group a bit. We were so enchanted by the Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins and just wanted to get closer.

At one point, I was swimming just two feet from a mommy and her baby. We swam together for a good half minute before they shied away in a different direction. Those suckers are fast when they wanna be! I felt so blessed to have that special moment. It was unlike any I had before, and way beyond the package dolphin experience you can get with trained captive dolphins in tanks. It’s like the difference between going to the zoo and going on a safari. There is no comparison. By far, one of my fav experiences to date. I only wish I would have been scubaing rather than snorkeling with a large group of 40. It would have been much more authentic to be down under the water with them.

We were meant to go on a second snorkel in a different bay but since there was a surfing competition on, we had to forgo it. We ended up in a really crappy bay that had nothing to see except a few fish and cloudy waters. We did feel that we were ripped off for that second half. The captain cooked up hamburgers on a grill that was attached to the back of the boat. We decided to stick some of the bacon we had brought from breakfast, to make bacon cheeseburgers. The crew was impressed by our ingenuity and remarked that no passenger had ever thought of such a clever idea. Obviously they had never met Michael, The Bacon King.

We headed back to the harbor and while everyone else baked in the sun getting a token hula lesson, Michael and I climbed aboard the bus to wait. We just wanted to get back to the city and get any last minute shopping done. After all, we wouldn’t be in real civilization for a while. Once we were dropped off, we wandered around the area picking up last minute supplies. Finally we boarded the ship and waited to leave Hawaii. We were exhausted so we tried to have a nap after having a snack on the lido deck. But I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned. Finally we just woke up and headed to the gym so I could complete my 10,000 steps. Just as we made it to the top deck, the ship began to pull away.

I walked on the treadmill and watched for whales in the distance. There was one especially active young humpback that was almost showing off. We watched him splashing around and making quite the scene. It was a fantastic goodbye. I watched the Oscars on the treadmill TV which helped the time go faster. The sun sunk lower in the sky and the day was done. My pedometer vibrated my goal completion, so my workout was done too.

We had dinner, listening Chris croon for a while, then retired to our cabin. It was a long day, and hopefully I earned a good solid sleep. I was very much looking forward to sleeping in.

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Diving in Honolulu, Hawaii

I was up and ready to go well before Go time. We ate up our breakfast and got off the ship for the long walk to the harbor. It wasn’t a pretty walk but we made it fun. We walked along the sidewalk bordering the busy road, and passed a lot of nondescript buildings. We walked over a bridge where there was a homeless person sleeping cuddled up to the abutment for shade. I wondered what kind of dreams he was having with nothing but the background sound of traffic. Then I realized that of all the places to be homeless, Hawaii probably wasn’t a bad choice.

We were walking past a bunch of car dealerships when I noticed a man with a bunch of giant balloons. Another man was tying the balloons to the cars for sale in the lot. In that moment, I have never wanted a balloon so bad in my life. These were not just any balloons but the heavy duty extra big, extra round ones that are pretty much indestructible. The kind of balloon that tricks you into thinking you are just a bit lighter, that it just may lift you right off the ground. Michael caught me gazing longingly at the balloon bouquet. I was surprised to hear little Carmella remarking sadly that she wished she had a balloon like that. The were putting balloons on cars, and maybe they would like to put a balloon on a Car-mella. “Just ask!” Michael encouraged me. Well, I did and guess what!? After they got over their initial shock of a grown woman asking with a childlike sparkle in her eyes, the men gladly told me to pick any color I liked. I picked the only red balloon in the bunch. I thanked them profusely and I think they could see that, for me, it meant more to me than a bit of plastic covered helium on a string. I promised to tell everyone where I got it from, and that they should go buy their car from the nice people at Cutter Chevrolet. I left them smiling from ear to ear as I skipped away with my happy balloon bobbing behind me.

The rest of the walk I don’t really remember, it went by so fast. Time flies when you have a red balloon. We got to the harbor and hooked up with our dive shop. I was relieved to find that they were just as personable as they had been in all our prior planning communications. I had dug around for a few weeks, trying to locate a shop with integrity and that special friendliness that only really good dive shops have. They are generally the smaller, less commercial operations and this time, we hit it right on. Hawaiian Diving Adventures uses a boat that was specially made just for diving and their crew is top-notch. It was the first time I had a female divemaster, and Erika was awesome. She was super chill and competent with a sweet, cheerful demeanor. Though she is very beautiful, she obviously has a good head on those tanned shoulders. I felt really taken care of and in very capable hands. Sometimes if you don’t click with your divemaster, it can make for a stressful or uncomfortable experience. I think with diving, trust is paramount and I felt it came effortlessly with Erika and the rest of the crew.

There were only 6 of us diving so we were a very small group which made it easier to be more efficient. One of our fellow divers was from Vancouver and was getting certified today. The rest of us went down with Erika and explored the ocean floor. It was a magical dive with an abundance of colorful tropical fish, including a large school of neon yellow angel fish. It felt just like a Disney movie when one of the curious little fish broke away from the pack to come stare me directly in the face. It was slightly abrupt and surprising but cute nonetheless. I wasn’t really sure what he wanted, when I realized he just wanted to explore me, as I wanted to explore him.

My favorite part of this first dive were the dozen or so sea turtles that we encountered. I was enamored by the heavy-shelled creatures gliding effortlessly past me despite the temperamental current. I saw mommas and smaller babies and territorial daddies all thriving in their underwater home. There were a couple behemoths that were half the size of a small car. I wondered how old they were? And I wondered what they thought of us…

Near the end of the dive, I became extremely cold. Erika had left the three of us so she could assist the pair that were having equalizing problems. I was really impressed that she was able to recognize our experience and let us stay down together rather that cutting our dive short. I made shivering motions to Michael and he gripped my hand tighter. He pulled out his regulator mouthpiece and held his breath waiting for me to return his kiss. I think we have almost perfected underwater kissing. I gripped onto him and let him tow me along rather than expending more energy.

Once above water, I couldn’t seem to warm up. Though I was sitting in the direct sun, I was still shivery. We sped off to another dive site. I actually contemplated not going on the second dive. I was wearing a full wet suit but the wind of the moving boat kept me from warming up. Finally, I told Michael that I would try but if I got much colder, I was going to cut my dive short. This dive was much easier and surprisingly warmer. Even though we went almost twice the depth, the water was still. There was no current so it was like cutting through butter with a warm knife. I was able to warm up considerably and focus once again on the beauty of the ocean. We swam over the coral reef discovering adorable nudibranch, cheeky trumpet fishes, yellow tangs, shy moray eels, and even a sleepy white-tipped shark that was taking a nap under the reef shelf.

Perhaps the most memorable part of that second dive was when Michael had gone off to search out something and came back with a present for me. During most of our dives, we hold hands the entire time. But every now and then, we separate. We take turns discovering some new and interesting hidden jewel then if it’s impressive enough, we call the other over to share. This time I was skimming around the sea floor looking at shells and playfully chasing fish when suddenly Michael grabbed at my hand. He slipped an extraordinarily shiny ring my finger. It fit on my ring finger perfectly. I always dive without jewelry because I know how easy it is to moop (matter-out-of-place) in this very foreign environment. I guess not everyone is so sea-savvy. Michael had found a lost stunning jewel-laden ring in the bottom of the sea, and it looked like it was made for me. He seized the moment, swung around in front of me and got on his knee with one hand on his heart and other hand holding mine. He was proposing to me underwater. How romantic! I nodded giddily in confirmation and we shared another ocean kiss. Best. Dive. Ever.

After diving we had worked up quite the appetite, and I went from peckish to ravenous in a matter of minutes. I needed food STAT. We headed for the nearby Ala Moana Mall and hit the food court. We circled the restaurants and finally settled on a healthy grill. We gobbled it up like we were starving shipwreck survivors. Fed and content, we perused the mall. We watched a cultural show on the stage where dozens of women were performing traditional dance. These lovely older ladies were moving with unparalleled grace and quiet confidence.  It made me proud to be a woman in that moment.

We moved on from the mall after drawing a happy face on my balloon with a marker borrowed from the coffee shop. We headed towards waikiki beach to watch the sunset. On the way, I was drawn to some drumming going on in the distance. I followed my ears and we discovered a Chinese New Years celebration on the street. There were two magnificent red dragons gobbling up the money filled red envelopes and wads of cash people offered in their outstretched hands. I was completely taken with the amount of emotion and comedy these dragons were able to express. It was endearing to watch the children interact with the symbols of luck parading around the square. Some were shy, some were a little scared but most were excited and thrilled to be able to feed the dragon. The well-trained dragon dancers coupled with the loud beating of the drums put the energy levels through the roof.

We continued on to the beach just in time for the sunset. I still had my red balloon tied to my wrist and it accidentally bumped into a few passers-by. Everytime I turned to apologize, I got a huge grin from the person who had been “ballooned”. We sat on the beach and waited when I decided how perfect it would be to be able to share a Hawaiian sunset with my mom and dad. I know Hawaii is at the top of my Mom’s bucket list, so it seemed like a nice gift. They were happy to hear from us and we got to share that last few minutes of a perfect day.

The sky got dark fast, and my feet were more sore than I cared to admit, so we ordered an Uber cab. Our lady driver was very animated and full of energy. She was thrilled to hear we were on a cruise and had experience on the exact Disney ship she was going on in a few months. We learned all about her family and how it is to live in Hawaii. Hawaiians are such a sharing people.

We made it to the dining room and had a fabulous view of the city lights. It was such a great day, we even treated ourselves to dessert. Sticky date pudding and warm chocolate lava cake were too hard to resist so we allowed our sweet teeth a couple bites. We hurried off to the Hawaiian cultural drum show where we watched traditional dancing from not only Hawaii, but Samoa and even the Maoris of New Zealand. An exuberant young boy stole the show with his killer moves and brave face. The only time he showed his age was at the end of a dance. When the audience would burst into applause, he would suddenly become shy and run off the stage. So Cute.

We went straight to bed since our early morning would be even earlier to meet our shuttle to the Wild Dolphin swim.

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Shopping in Lahaina, Hawaii

I was eager to wake up early again to perhaps catch a glimpse of more whales. The sky was grey and it began to pour as I approached the bow. As quickly as it began, the rain stopped. We decided to take it easy since today was a tender (a tender is when they use the ships lifeboats to shuttle people to and from the ship to shore) port which have the tendency to get quite busy. I prefer to wait until the keeners get off so I don’t have to wait in a long line of impatient people. It turns out there will be many tender ports on this trip.

We sat up top on the lido deck and I munched on some customized eggs benny. I am not having bread so I replaced that with an artichoke bottom, then added spinach, mushrooms and crab. It was delicious. Michael took a work phone call while I peered through the binoculars on whale duty. I spotted quite a few in the distance and some were putting on quite the splashy show. The were breaching and tail flapping like nobodies business. No matter how many I see, it just doesn’t get old. I think whales are the excitement equivalent of fireworks and shooting stars for me.

I met a couple from Stony Plain who struck up a conversation when they saw my Edmonton tee-shirt. There are so many Canadians on board that 2 out of 3 people we chat with happen to come from my homeland. I guess it goes without saying when the winters get as cold and treacherous as they do in the Great White North.

Finally we decided the lines would have gone down so we made our way down to the bottom deck. The ocean was quite rough so it was quite dangerous to make the step from the platform to the tender boat. The staff were extremely cautious and assistive, especially with the more elderly folk. Which means everyone but us.

I decided to FaceTime with Mom and Dad so they could see where we were. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to have Mom and Dad on the iPad. Hearing their voice is great but seeing them, sometimes brings tears to my eyes. It’s so special to be able to whip the camera around and show them the island and the waves. As I swept the view of the entire tender with the camera, a bunch of the folks waved jovially at my mom and dad.

We decided to make Maui a shopping day, so we jumped on the Hilo Hattie shuttle. It really wasn’t necessary since it was just at the end of the shopping street, a 20-minute walk. But we decided we would walk back and forth a few times, put some steps on the pedometer. We looked a tons of sarongs, jewelry, and some stunning pieces of art all along Front Street. Everything seemed pretty expensive so we reigned in our need to spend. We did find a few great deals, like a bunch of Maui muscle shirts for $3 and the perfect pink hat with Maui embroidered across it. I was so touched when Bob, a fellow shipmate, saw me coveting the hat and gave it to me. He said it was only a going to be a donation so it didn’t matter which hat he bought, so I traded him the other less-cool hat I was going to settle for. It’s really amazing how such little things can make me so happy.

We pigged out on the poke again, getting more than two pounds at the local FoodLand. It was a very odd shopping experience and we didn’t really like the energy. The only cool part was the guy in the seafood sections who insisted we taste every single kind of poke. How could we argue? My favorite was the wasabi poke and I would have cleaned them out had it not been for the lady behind us. She begged us to leave a little for her son. He had sent her especially for that exact item and if she came home empty-handed, he would be crushed. We laughed and obliged, choosing a few other kinds to make up the two pounds that would qualify us for the poke sale.

Michael found himself a manly sarong and I got a couple pairs of stunning glass earrings. I could see the sunset and sunset in them…and unlike many of the other earrings I have tried to wear, they were virtually weightless. Since plumerias are my favorite flower in the world, when we found them in the bargain bin, we had to get some for my hair. We stretched our day right to the end, catching one of the last tenders back. We had a short dinner and went to bed early since we would be diving so early in the morning.

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