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Birthdays 'On the Road'

by Gwen McCauley
(Ottawa, ON, Canada)

I've celebrated 2 birthdays while traveling, both under very different circumstances, and both memorable.

The first traveling birthday was way back in 1975 when I turned the ripe old age of 27. It was on my 'I'm OK Jack' trip to Portugal where I was proving to myself that I was doing okay after the sudden death of my husband about 6 months earlier. Of course, some part of me knew that I'd celebrate my 27th birthday far away from home, but somehow the reality of it didn't hit until the actual event arrived.

Anyhow, when my birthday arrived I was spending a few days in The Algarve and had met up with this 70 year old ex-pat Canadian banker who had retired over there. He introduced me to his 60 something buddy from England who was a retired bra salesman. When they discovered that it was my birthday, they insisted on taking me on a day-out excursion into the Monchique Mountains and then out to dinner.

Now, in the 70's this was quite an excursion. Few locals drove cars, the roads were narrow and not in great shape, and the onslaught of tourist services which are now common in that part of the world had not yet arrived. They took me to the ancient spa (now called the Caldas de Monchique, and a very upscale place at that) which I recall being quite run down. My most dominant memory was 'drinking the waters' from a mungy old tin cup which hung from a spigot. That was my first experience of the delights of spa waters - full of sulphur and quite disgusting to taste, but oh so good for your innards! I remember the two of them having a great old laugh at the look of digust on my face as I took my first gulp.

We then proceeded further up the mountain to the village of Monchique and spent quite some time looking for a shop that sold the local firewater called Medronho. At the time, none of it was made it factories but was distilled by local farmers, probably by the light of a full moon and after some sacrifice was made!! We finally found a source and I bought a huge bottle to bring home as a souvenir. I had a taste in the shop and the 'boys' had another good laugh at the second look of disgust that cross my face when I tested it. At the time I don't think I'd had more than 10 drinks in my life and Medronho is certainly an acquired taste with a kick like a mule.

We then headed back to civilization and went off to a delightful seafood dinner where I was shocked by two things. First, the fish I ordered was served whole, head on. That was my first experience of the custom. Then I was amazed when the waiter proceed to fillet the cooked fish and serve me only the deboned portions. I had never been so pampered. And when I think back on it, I almost blush with embarrassment when I realize what a hick I was!! Ah well, we all have to start somewhere, I guess.

My second birthday abroad was decades later, in the mid 90's actually. I was on a junket sponsored by one of our corporate suppliers (gosh, marketing jobs have a lot of perks). We had been flown to London (my first real visit) and were to spend 5 days chattind with cutting edge R & D folks while being wined & dined very generously. It was a very busy time in my life and it wasn't until we had landed at Heathrow and were standing around the carousel waiting for our luggage to arrive that I realized it was my birthday.

After getting settled in our hotel rooms and taking a refreshing nap, I realized that we were situated only blocks from Trafalgar Square. I had several hours to myself before we were due to meet for dinner and so off I headed to see what I could discover. I had a great time gawking at people and places I'd only ever dreammed about and finally headed back towards my hotel as dusk settled over the square. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields sat right on one corner of Trafalgar Square and decided to come back and look inside before I headed home. And then I noticed that people were entering the church even though it was quite dark outside.

I figured that I had nothing to lose by taking a quick peek inside. Well, what a treat was in store for me.

An Evensong Service had just begun so I slipped into a pew and spent the next hour or so having one of the best birthdays of my life. For a start, I had heard so much about the beauty of Evensong, but it isn't a tradition in any part of Canada I'd lived, so it felt like a treat to finally get to experience one. Second, although I'm not religious, I'm a huge fan of choral music and the choir that day was in fine voice. Third, because I was alone, it was as if this music was being made just for me, to celebrate my special event. I sat back and drank it in, enjoying the beauty of my surroundings as much as the sweet sounds that filled the space. The church was lighted mostly by candles so the deep shadows added a very mystical dimension to it all. I marveled at the serendipity of life and the opportunities that travel affords when you are open to making spur of the moment decisions.

It's been at least 15 years since that most special birthday treat and I still experience a warm glow each time I think about it.

Actually, now that I write this, I think that I'm very overdue for another solo birthday surprise! Hmmm, gonna have to get busy and create something special for myself very, very soon.

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Comments for Birthdays 'On the Road'

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Jul 12, 2009
Things work out
by: Scribetrotter

It's amazing how things end up working out when we travel on our own. The first few birthdays I was afraid I'd be lonely but somehow I never ended up alone. There's nothing like a birthday to bring other travelers out of the woodwork!

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