Feeling Abundance, Appreciating Travel Experiences in Art, History, Food & Wine

In my first two blogs relating to me and Mister’s Grand Ramadan Adventure of 2017 I wrote about my experiences feeling love and connection with family and friends. I’m switching gears now, to share the explorations of our senses as we viewed, listened, felt, smelled and tasted our way from Winnipeg to Rome and along the Western Mediterranean.

529 Wellington, a posh and trendy restaurant in an up-scale water-front neighborhood of Winnipeg, Canada, was our first indulgence in fine cuisine, a belated birthday gift from Greg and Julie. I was impressed as soon as we drove up, the restaurant housed in a renovated turn-of-the-century mansion. From the luxurious draperies to the ornate chandeliers to the dark wood paneling throughout, the ambience was rich and inviting. Even on a Tuesday night it was packed and the noise was a bit jarring at first, but soon we settled into our cozy corner.

We ordered a bottle of bold, peppery shiraz from the Barossa Valley in Australia that paired smashingly with my prosciutto wrapped scallops, not to mention the melt-in-your-mouth beef tenderloin rated Canadian Prime distinction shipped in all the way from High River, Alberta. The four of us shared side dishes of asparagus and mushrooms and ate, sipped and talked our way to dessert. Mister and I shared the chocolate cheesecake which was divinely decadent; rich, creamy and dense. It was over-the-top and Mister and I felt grateful for his parent’s generosity.

 

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529 Wellington

 

We celebrated our dear friend Anne Marie’s birthday two-fold, beginning with a musical production, Strictly Ballroom, in the Princess of Wales Theatre located on King Street in the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district. Incorporating traditional and contemporary design, the theatre can seat 2000 guests and after collecting our tickets from the box office we took our seats in the centre orchestra section.

Strictly Ballroom originally opened in Australia and featured a cast that mostly hailed from London. It began with a rather cliché opening of ballroom dancers engaged in petty competitiveness. As the story progressed and featured elements of modern choreography I appreciated the talent even if the plot and characters felt flat and predictable. Only after the play, in conversation with Anne Marie, did I discover the subtle nuances that had originally eluded me. It was no Kinky Boots or Les Miserables, but a worthwhile performance nonetheless.

We took a cab back to Anne Marie’s and drank champagne and told stories and shared photos from her Breakfast at Tiffany’s themed birthday bash in February. We caught another cab to take us to George, located in an old red brick building on the corner of Queen and Church. We chose to be seated in the courtyard patio, nestled in a corner partitioned for privacy with green bushes twinkling with lights and a tranquil fountain.

Our sommelier arrived to inquire about our drink preferences and we ordered a bottle of sparkling prosecco from Nova Scotia that Anne Marie was familiar with. It was dry, crisp, light and refreshing, a perfect way to toast and begin the evenings festivities. We all decided to indulge in the five course wine pairings and over several hours we were served spectacular food and wine with impeccable timing and service.

Chef Lorenzo Loseto created a bold epicurean adventure for us featuring local food artisans and global wine producers. After an amuse bouche of crisp, bright pea shoots with citrus we were brought a selection of first course cold appetizers paired with barely pink rose. The second course featured a warm appetizer of sweetbreads with rich Foie Gras and a complex red pinot noir. Third course was lamb rib chop served with scalloped potato and asparagus and yet another smooth, bold red. A supreme selection of Quebec cheeses was served next with a dry ice wine. Last, but never least, was dessert, a gluten free chocolate torte with a layer of cheesecake and a smattering of raspberries paired with an outrageously thick and decadent port.

Throughout the meal the conversation was lively, with Anne Marie entertaining us with a multitude of stories about her adventures at home and abroad. It was an amazing experience and by the end we all agreed, we were stuffed, literally and metaphorically, with food, wine and connection.

 

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George

 

Rome was an explosion of art, history, architecture and ruins. As we drove along the freeway from the airport to the centre of town where we were renting a condo we noticed the shift. The streets turned to narrow and cobbled, lined with old brick and stone buildings and peppered with tall umbrella and thin cedar trees. The Italian flavour for romance and passion was palpable and my spirit was soaring as I took it all in.

The food and wine in Rome were an experience all on their own. From cheap wine and cheese selected at our local Coop market to upscale restaurants, we feasted on Caprese salads featuring creamy buffalo mozzarellas, sharp pecorinos, fresh pastas, and I even discovered an amazing gluten free pizza.

An unexpected delight was when we stumbled upon an elegant restaurant just a short three-minute walk from our apartment, adjacent to the French Embassy, called Camponeschi. The well-dressed waiter, a man of senior years and expertise, treated us to exceptional service, proclaiming as he pointed to include all of us, “Mama, Papa and the kids!” A talented guitarist strummed and sang soulfully in English, Italian and Portuguese. We drank luscious bold and smooth Italian red wine and ate delicate grilled seabass and robust cheese and a decadent soufflé smothered in dark chocolate sauce.

Our final night in Rome had us walking to the trendy Eitch Hotel on recommendation and it did not disappoint. A museum hotel, the rooftop patio where we enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails overlooked grand fountains in the square below and the sun dazzled in the early evening sky, lending a pristine quality to the white and glass elegance of the décor.

 

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Roof-top bar at Eitch Hotel

 

The restaurant featured private dining rooms with windows open to the beauty and bustle of the plaza below. We drank deep purple Amarone and toasted Susie’s graduation and dined on aromatic chef-inspired dishes.

 

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Kevin, me, Mister & Susie in the restaurant @ Eitch

 

The attractions in Rome were as plentiful and over-the-top as the food and wine. Our first day featured a whirl-wind tour of Vatican City, including the museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s  Square. The hall of maps was an eye-dropper for all four of us, dazzling in its contrasts of simplicity and complexity. Floor to ceiling paintings and tapestries were featured throughout the museum. It would be impossible to choose a favourite, although the deep colour and demonic expressions in the paintings by Botticelli captured my imagination. The Sistine Chapel was magnificent in all its glory and St. Peter’s was surely the most magnificent chapel I’ve ever seen.

 

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me & Mister outside Vatican City

 

Day two had the four of us venturing out for a walking tour of Rome that included the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Villa Borghese Gardens. Designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi, the Trevi Fountain is considered the most beautiful in the world and Mister and I agreed it impacted us with its pristine ivory baroque sculptures surrounded by turquoise waters.

 

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Mister & Me, Trevi Fountain

 

The Colosseum, Forum, Circus Maximus and Palazzo di Venezia were the subjects of our third day’s outing. We walked the ancient steps in the 35 Celsius heat and humidity, taking photos, refilling our water bottles and seeking shade whenever possible. The Colosseum was truly remarkable in it’s size and preservation and we all felt like we could feel the energy where spectators viewed gladiatorial contests, executions, animal hunt re-enactments and Christians being devoured by lions.

 

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Mister & Me; Colosseum

 

All I’d known previously of the magnificence of Rome I’d read in books like Colleen McCollough’s Caesar or Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. To experience in the flesh, with all my senses, was a gift I will treasure forever, and already my heart and spirit are calling me back.

Monday was check-out and after an hour-long transfer to the Port Terminal Mister and I boarded the Celebrity Reflection cruise ship destined for an eleven-day Western Mediterranean adventure. From the moment we were welcomed with a glass of sparkling prosecco, to the moment we left it was life-expanding and amazingly epic.

 

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Mister & Me on deck

 

When our ship docked in Ville Franche, the gateway to the French Riviera, we took a taxi to Monte Carlo, driving past medieval style villas, mansions and castles all nestled into the craggy rocks and rolling hillside that lined the road curving to follow the beautiful beaches along the coast. The infamous Grand Casino did not disappoint in its grandeur, the gold-gilded ceiling a spectacular architectural design. Intoxicatingly elegant, we were entranced as we entered the main gaming hall where no photos were allowed. There was only one black jack table, the minimum bet 25 EUR. We sat down to play, losing the small amount we’d allocated for entertainment quite quickly, but not before two high rollers joined us, cashing in a 10,000 EUR chip and proceeding to bet stacks of 600 a play without blinking an eye.

 

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Mister & Me in Monte Carlo

 

In Barcelona, we had booked a Wine and Tapas Tour, which was an interesting walk but short on the wine and tapas. We couldn’t complain, however, because the tour ended in an outstanding Flamenco Dance performance that blew both Mister and I away. The venue was an intimate theatre in the Gothic quarter, a work of art in its own right. We had front row seats and the performance featured an amazing spectacle of talent and passion. The singing, dancing and music had my soul ignited, tears on my face and goosebumps on my arms.

Gibraltar was an unexpected surprise. Valerie, a fantastic Brit from Manchester, was our tour guide for the Upper Rock Cable Car and Walking Tour. She had a fabulous sense of humour and was a natural story-teller. We rode up in the cable car, 412 metres in six minutes, to the top of the rock where we witnessed incredible views.

 

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Gibraltar

 

Macaque monkeys were in abundance, scrambling along the rocks, playfully engaging with one another, and I agreed with Valerie that you could fall in love with the adorable babies.

 

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Macaque baby monkey with her mother

 

We toured St. Michael’s Cave where ancient stalagmites and stalactites were wonders to behold. We walked through St. George’s tunnels, built during the Great Siege of the late 1700’s when France and Spain tried unsuccessfully to capture Gibraltar from the British.

 

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St. Michael’s Cave

 

Mister and I had a delightful time on-board as well. The food and wine were spectacular, especially at our favourite restaurant, Murano, which featured elegant French cuisine, including sharp and creamy cheeses and melt-in-your-mouth chateaubriand. We indulged in the delicious coffee and baked goods, including an impressive selection of gluten free offerings, at El Bacio. And we spent many hours in Cellar Masters tasting a variety of different wines, culminating in an Unforgettable Italian Reds tasting the last day when we were at sea.

 

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Mister in Cellar Masters

 

We worked out at the Fitness Centre, including a yoga studio, both with exceptional views from floor to ceiling windows. We spotted dolphins joyfully frolicking in the ships wake. We played our luck at the black jack tables in Fortunes Casino. We took in a theatre production called Broken Strings. Throughout it all, we were treated to exceptional service from everyone.

So yeah, I’m feeling abundance, appreciating travel experiences in art, history, food & wine.

 

Feeling jazzed about my trip to Panama, Summer of 2016

My last blog dealt with some deep spiritual content, so I decided to switch gears and write about something completely fun and frivolous; my recent trip to Panama, with a focus on food.

 

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view from our balcony

Flying into Panama City is quite a spectacular site. The modern city line reaches majestically into the blue sky. Built along the sparkling waters of the Pacific Ocean, the view is reminiscent of a miniature Miami and in fact has been described as such. The architectural grandeur was pleasantly surprising and I felt excited as I peered out of my Air Canada Rouge window.

Our arrival this year corresponded with the opening ceremony of the new locks and the police cars and motorcycles were out in full force. It added some extra time to the typical 45 -minute drive from the city to our destination of Coronado Bay. Our driver talked animatedly about the opportunities in Panama while I held my husband’s hand and took in the lush green countryside and the peaceful hills, a faded blue-gray in the distance.

We’d been to Coronado Bay the year before, on our first visit to Panama, and had such a fabulous experience we decided to return. Unfortunately, the suite we had rented previously wasn’t available. The unit we were shown to this time was spacious, colourfully painted with seaside blue walls and decorated with bright paintings. It had some wear and tear and lacked an oven or dishwasher. The balcony overlooking the pool and ocean was in similar lacklustre condition but made up for it with the spectacular view.

We decided to walk the short five minutes to our favourite local restaurant, Luna Rossa, for dinner. We were greeted by the owner, a delightful woman originally from Italy. The atmosphere was cozy, the service excellent and the menu featured both Italian fare and local specialties. The wine list was limited compared to what you might find in the more cosmopolitan city, but the selection was suitable to our tastes and the prices were reasonable. The barbequed lobster I indulged in was perhaps a little bit over-done, but tasty and decadent nonetheless.  Over the course of our 7 day stay in Coronado we dined here several times. I ate tangy tomato and seafood risotto, imported from Italy melt-in-your-mouth cheeses, thin strips of medium rare beef tenderloin and a rich dark chocolate torte. But my hands-down favourite was the smooth and creamy cappuccino, the best I’ve ever had anywhere in the world.

The possibility of purchasing an investment property was on our agenda and we’d contacted a realtor before our arrival. The first day out we viewed several properties, including two condos at Playa Blanca in Founders, three units in an older building in Playa Serena and one in Coronado Bay where we were staying. There was one unit in Playa Serena that was basically turn key and listed for the incredibly low price of $215,000 USD that we felt was a contender.

A few days later our realtor showed us some stunning condos that were under construction in a brand new community called Casamar. With ocean and mountain views and everything you needed on site, including a gym and a restaurant, they were enticing. There weren’t many already built that were for sale and even the ones that were ready didn’t include air-conditioning or appliances. Listed at $290,000 USD without the aforementioned items, the cost, effort and challenge of trying to oversee construction and furnishings in a foreign country from out of country seemed too daunting a task for us to consider.

We saw a few more units and talked with a Property Manager. Hearing his stories about short-term renters trashing the place and his opinion that we should consider long-term rentals was off-putting because I wanted to be able to use the property as a vacation rental for ourselves and our family. When he went on to describe dishonest property managers who claimed the rental was vacant when actually occupied in order to pocket the money for themselves it had us feeling even more deflated and discouraged.

Before throwing in the towel on the whole property investment idea we decided to go and view a house in a gated community near Coronado that we had looked at the year before. As we walked up the cobbled pathway to the pale yellow stuccoed and white-trimmed show home we recalled instantly why we had loved it so much. The magnificence of every detail was even greater than I’d remembered and it blew everything we’d seen out of the water. The skill and craftsmanship of the builder was apparent in every detail. The show home was selling with all of the high-end furnishings, appliances and a pool in the back yard for $360,000 USD and we both felt certain we had found our space.

After the emotional reaction settled, we realized that we loved that property as a space to make our home, not as a property to rent out to strangers. We started looking honestly at all of the decisions we would have to make, including financing and lawyers, not to mention finding renters we could trust, and concluded that it just wasn’t the right time.

With that decision made we were able to focus on relaxing and rejuvenating. We managed to exercise regularly at the rooftop gym of our building, which had the extra bonus of spectacular views. We spent a few hours dreaming and sunbathing by the pool but unfortunately the weather was frequently overcast with occasional thunderstorms and we didn’t get to lounge around as often as we would have liked.

One of the most impacting experiences during our stay in Coronado was the one day we made it down to the stretch of ocean just outside the gates of our building. We were the only people in sight as we went about laying out our towels on a beige patch of sand overlooking the craggy rocks where the ocean waves were crashing. I lit a candle and sat in silent meditation, letting the ebb and flow of the waves soothe my soul as my breath united in tandem with the oceans’ rhythm. Peacefulness enveloped me, feeling in flow with the universe and full of gratitude. I smiled when I opened my eyes, marvelling at the shift in my perception, where the black volcanic sand that had appeared to me as a dirty canopy of the earth’s crust now appeared like a sheet of midnight sky, the sand sparkling like a multitude of stars. 

When our beach vacation came to an end it was off to spend five days enjoying the culture and food of the city. We rented a casita in the district of Casco Viejo from Patty, the friendly and delightful owner. It was a very small studio, decorated artfully with attention to every detail and was impeccably clean. After dropping off our luggage and taking a quick peek around we left in search of a restaurant in the area that Patty had recommended.

Nazca was just a few blocks away, nestled in amongst a row of shops and eateries. We were treated with the attention of a skillful waiter which added to the experience. We ordered a bottle of Catena Malbec and a bottle of still water. I savoured the chef’s specialty, a local grouper in champagne sauce with crisp steamed vegetables that was absolutely delicious. Feeling particularly decadent, we decided to finish by sharing a caramel pudding the waiter suggested that was crazy sweet and likely not the best choice for a diabetic but so creamy-smooth and delicious the extra insulin requirement seemed worthwhile.

 

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Nazca

 

We walked through bustling markets with artisans selling their wares and music blaring from speakers in the alley. We took selfies with cityscape, ocean views, and local attractions in the background. We walked along the immaculately clean city-designed walking pathway that stretched along the ocean, through the bustling fish market, complete with gardens, tennis courts and fountains. We even took in a live jazz show at Danilo’s Jazz Club in the American Trade Hotel.

A highlight was the day our tour guide Rudy picked us up for a day of sightseeing. We began in the oldest section of the city, Panama Viejo, constructed in the 1500’s. It was the first European colony to be established in the area until the pirate Henry Morgan came along and ransacked it. We drove through various other neighborhoods while Rudy spoke with pride and enthusiasm about the history of his native country.

The tour culminated with a trip to the Miraflores Locks. We were directed into a theatre and shown a brief movie that explained the history of the canal. We toured the museum before beating the crowds to stand along the viewing area and await the arrival of two ships making the passage down the narrow, intricately designed canal. The spectacle as the massive ships were towed and lowered while the water drained and rose again in the containers was amazing and definitely a site worth seeing.

 

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Miraflores Locks

We shared many delightful culinary experiences in Casco Viejo, but our absolute favourite was the Veggie Moon restaurant. The designer of the space created a unique dining experience by featuring individually decorated tables and settings. It was whimsical and cozy and inviting. The waiter spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish but with a few eyebrow wags and hand gestures we were able to procure a Malbec that was bold and peppery on the palate. It was luscious, swirling and sipping the deeply purple-tinged red liquid.

Then there was the food. The chef prepared for us an appetizer that featured a sushi roll of delicately mashed sweet potato combined with quinoa, rolled in nori and served over a smear of avocado mousse, sprinkled with sparkling citrus mango salsa and garnished with fresh, crisp pea shoots. Slices of aromatic freshly baked bread were being served in a miniature doll-sized steel shopping cart. For our mains, my Mr. chose the pepper crusted tuna over garlic mashed potatoes. I picked the lentil risotto with beans. Listed as gluten free, I wasn’t expecting the explosion of flavours. It was without a doubt the most incredible vegetarian dish I have ever tasted, and Mr.  agreed upon tasting that it contended for the best dish ever, including those featuring meat!

 

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Veggie Moon

Feeling jazzed – and suddenly quite hungry – remembering our fabulous trip to Panama.

Feeling Nostalgic About the Glory Days of Travel

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Drinking wine at the Frankfurt International Airport 🙂

Since moving to Saudi Arabia in May of 2015 I have had the opportunity to travel more than I ever have. Before making that first long and arduous 20+ hour journey from Canada to Saudi Arabia I had a wide-eyed, romantic and somewhat naive vision. It has since been tempered by some hard doses of reality.

I don’t want anyone to think I don’t appreciate the gift of being able to go back to Canada three times a year to connect with all of my family and friends. Especially my children and grandson. I am truly grateful. Still, there is a dark side.

Air travel isn’t like it used to be. Back in my glory days, the airlines treated you like valued customers. You weren’t crammed in like sardines. Beverages and meals were a complimentary part of the service. There was more of everything enjoyable and less of everything uncomfortable.

Let’s face it, in the anti-terrorism age, the headaches of travel begin at the airport. Going through security can be a nightmare of travel sized liquids in plastic bags, laptops, belts and jewelry removal. My husband was once chastised for not removing an old tissue from his trouser pockets. I have been repeatedly hassled for my various medications, including extra insulin and ice packs to keep it chilled. And then of course there are the random pat-downs.

To illustrate, I shall regale you with the details from my husband’s and my most recent trip.  As we stood at our gate waiting to board our flight from Florence to Rome the screen suddenly changed to show a delay from a 12:10 departure to 1:00, making our connection in Rome tight but doable. Moments later it was revised once again, due to thunderstorms in the area, to 3:00, making our departure in Rome at 4:00 impossible.

We had to switch gears and accept our fate. We walked over to the Food Court where we thrilled to discover that in Italy even food courts serve wine. Sipping wine and munching on Caprese salad while engaging in interesting conversation with one another seemed a civilized way to pass the time.

Back at our gate, there were further delays. We got chatting with a lovely couple from Virginia. Somehow the conversation turned to politics and Donald Trump. Some Trump supporters in the line behind us overheard and it all got a bit heated. But that’s a whole other long, controversial and emotionally elevated story.

Back to our travel woes. They finally boarded us. I conked out immediately. David dozed off for a few minutes and informed me later that he woke up to discover our plane still parked on the ramp with the stairs leading up to the open cabin door. We never did get an explanation, or perhaps we just slept through it.

We arrived in Rome around 5:30 and upon deplaning and entering the terminal we were greeted by the sight of a massive throng of people in the same unfortunate circumstances as us, lined up at the Alitalia transfer counter. It took five and a half hours, standing in line with impatient and occasionally hostile passengers only to be told that all flights out the next day bound for Riyadh from all transfer cities were fully booked.

We were given instructions to board a shuttle bus to the Ergife Palace Hotel, which was most definitely non-palatial. A half hour bumpy ride later we arrived. Our adventures in Rome is another story for another day, but just let me remind you that I hadn’t packed my insulin in my carry-on and my checked luggage was still at the airport. Apparently in Italy, as a non-Italian, you cannot purchase insulin at either a pharmacy or the hospital. So I had to cross my fingers and hope I had enough. We spent two days in our palace in Rome and then it was back to the airport to start over again.

We had been advised to arrive at the airport three hours earlier so we arrived with three and a half, just to be safe. Of course, the Aegean ticket counter, our new airline, wasn’t open until two hours before the flights departure. But my quick-thinking husband suggested we use the self-check-in machines. Tickets in hand, we went through security (where David’s study notes binder caused the traditional open your suitcase for a search routine). We used our handy Lounge Key App and located a lounge to wile away the time until boarding.

Upon arrival at our posted gate,D3, we found the gate had been changed to D7. We walked to D7 where the plane was then announced delayed for half an hour. Really? Another delay? Then the gate was changed again, to D2. I tried not to feel frustrated and impatient. I tried not to worry. Secretly I felt that if I had to spend a night at a hotel in Athens I might lose it.

Finally, we boarded our flight. I was disappointed to find the configuration of seating even tighter than usual. And no TV screens. I buckled into my cramped quarters and peered out the window at the pouring rain and felt despondent as I noticed we were in a long line of planes awaiting take-off. My ears were accosted by the loud, obnoxious and constant laughing and shouting of a group of overly-enthusiastic young Greeks. Eventually we started down the run-way and lifted off into a dark and ominous-looking sky.

We arrived in Athens and our plane to Riyadh was already being boarded. An Airport Ambassador corralled the group of us destined for Riyadh and guided us through the fast track at Customs, but then abandoned us at security where they still felt compelled to rummage through our luggage. Frustrated, I wondered, not for the first time, how we could possibly have procured an inappropriate item since going through security last in Rome. Grr….

We made it! We boarded our plane and despite the same cramped quarters as always I was thrilled to finally be on the last leg towards home. I was given the extra bonus of an airline meal I could actually consume, that did not consist of wheat products. Did I mention I have a wheat allergy? Well, I hadn’t eaten anything for twelve hours, since lunch, other than a few bites of chocolate. It was midnight and I was starving and exhausted, so the otherwise mediocre rice and chicken tasted heavenly.

The fasten your seat belt light came on. It was time to descend so David retrieved my Abaya from my carry-on bag and I draped it over me. We deplaned and turned the corner and beheld the spectacle of a next to non-existent line-up at customs! Hooray! I almost clicked my weary heels! It felt like a silver lining, but alas, it quickly turned to grey. All of the luggage from our plane was dispensed and the belt stopped moving and there was no luggage belonging to us.

Off we traipsed to the Baggage Claims counter where a porter led us to a different terminal where apparently our luggage awaited, having arrived ahead of us from Jeddah the day before. Mine was there, and I almost hugged it, but thought better of it seeing as how David’s was still missing in action. It’s been three days and it is still missing.

Suffice to say, the ordeal was draining. Even I, who scored 23/24 on a Test Your Optimism quiz sound like a Negative Nancy. It’s like I said, I’m feeling nostalgic about the glory days of travel.