Meet Mama Elephant

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Photo credit: Jeffrey C Sink

I mentioned a while ago that we were going on a Kenyan safari later this year, organised by a lady I have known for decades.  Our friendship dates back to when we were both horse-mad 14-year-olds, living in Nairobi.

Our paths and lives diverged ten years later, when we both married. I went to live in England, she stayed in Kenya for some time, and it was about then that we lost touch, too many moves, too many changes of address. I heard Vivien was living in the United States with her new husband, but couldn’t find any way to contact her.

It was thanks to the Internet that we eventually made contact again in 2002. I was reading something about Kenya horse racing, and lo! there was Vivien’s name as a committee member of the Jockey Club of Kenya. She had had a long history as a successful show jumper and winning lady jockey, and thanks to the article I was able to get in touch with her and rekindle our friendship. She was living back in Kenya by then.

In 2004, when we set off with our dogs on a round-France trip which I wrote about in my third book, Travels with Tinkerbelle, it was Vivien who came to look after our animals and house here in France. During the time we spent together, she set me on fire with tales of the Kenyan safaris she was running, but I doubted we’d ever be able to afford to go on one. However, the unexpected happens sometimes, and when we were lucky enough to benefit from a windfall we decided to ‘live for the day’ and treat ourselves.

I asked Vivien how and why she set up her safari business, AsYouLikeItSafaris.

Susie: What first gave you the idea of starting a safari business?

Vivien: Born, raised and educated in Kenya, I love the country, and I love the animals. I was married, with children and living in Connecticut, USA., having emigrated there in 1977. There came a time in 1989 when my then husband suggested I go back to Kenya and get it “out of my system” for a year, on the condition that I worked. Being an airline pilot, he was able to commute. I had a friend who had often asked me to run safaris, so that is the path I chose and have followed for the last 26 years.

Susie: How did you come up with the name of your company?

Vivien: I wanted it to be “classy”, and say exactly who and what we are.  A company which customizes safaris for our clients with the emphasis on comfort, quality, safety, adventure and fun. One morning my lawyer called and said, “I am in a company-forming mood.  What name do you want?”  Without hesitating, it just came to me, “As You Like It…and you better add (Safaris) Ltd”.  He asked, “And second choice?”  “None, it has to be As You Like It.  Shakespeare, class, and specific!”

Susie: What about your staff and back-up team?

Vivien: We started small, and remain small; it is the only way you can give personal attention to each and every person, each and every safari.  The core team is Ernest Kamara, my driver guide, who was with Brian Nicholson for 14 years, before I “inherited” him when I bought Brian’s camp;  and of course myself, who also learned so much from Brian.

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Ernest Kamara

Backing us up on the ground are AYLIS representatives Herman Shadeya and Philemon Ochieng.

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Herman Shadeya

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Philemon Ochieng with some of the Hope Stream Academy children

Herman is very experienced marketing professional who has travelled widely throughout Africa, the USA and Europe. A trained airline business specialist,he joined the AYLIS team as CEO at a time of intensive restructuring to achieve maximum efficiency in service delivery, as focus shifts to the customer as the employer in our business.

Philemon Ochieng was born, raised and educated in Kenya and has a degree in Tourism Management. Before bringing his expertise in the tourism and wildlife sector to AYLIS he worked in the Kenya National Museums, Kisite Mpunguti Marine reserve and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Here’s the whole team at work:

the team at work

Susie: What are the essentials to ensure a successful safari?

Vivien: Above all, driver/guides who can co-ordinate their team work to find the animals. Safety and comfort are paramount, and your driver/guide will make or break your safari. It upsets me to see ignorant drivers, clueless regarding animal behaviour, or operators just in it for the money. I am in this business to share the wonders of this magnificent country and its wildlife with those who dream of a safari, who need to get it right first time and be able to send money to someone they can trust to come through with what is promised.

Susie: When I used to go camping as a child, it was with a huge heavy canvas tent held down with ropes and wooden pegs. The lavatory was a hole dug behind a bush. I think it’s somewhat different now?

Vivien: Very different!  Clients demand a high level of hygiene, including flushing loos, comfortable beds, excellent cuisine, plenty of ice, guaranteed security, hot showers, and that is what we provide.  You are going to love your 4-day stay at the Little Mara Bush Camp!

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Susie: Kenya has had bad press regarding security. What are your views?

Vivien: Political and tribal squabbling is not unique to Kenya. Look at the USA, the Mid-East, Asia.  Kenya is the most stable Third World Country in Africa. The people are hard-working, friendly, and just wish to get on with their lives; educating children, feeding families, milking cows, and growing crops. Most of the trouble reported by the media came from Somalia, and was confined to territories far from the “safari circuit.”  Somalia has recently confirmed the death of the Al-Shabaab commander, Yusuf Dheeq, in a US drone strike south of Mogadishu. This has helped to return peace and stability to the region.

Susie: Where are you based?

Vivien: At the moment I operate between the United States and a small office in Langata. I go to Kenya to make all bookings personally, organise vehicles and drivers, talk to the lodges, check on road conditions and set up a team to handle ground work while I’m back in the USA. And of course I lead all the safari groups myself.

Susie: Bearing in mind that groups are made up of people from different backgrounds and different countries, what do you think makes a successful blend on safari?

Vivien: A mutual sense of adventure; the patience to observe, and a sensitive tour operator who can shift people around to create a good social mix, so that in the evenings everybody can relax and enjoy the camaraderie of discussing their day while enjoying dinner together.

Susie: Have you any funny stories to share about things that have happened on safari?

Vivien: Many!  In about 1992 I was drawn into the late Brian Nicholson’s camp as a caterer. Brian was one of the legendary “White Hunters,” who was Chief Game Warden in Tanzania for 26 years.  He always said that no one ever came to his camp and did not see a lion.

One weekend a couple came, and after two days of game drives with Brian had not seen any lions.  On their last afternoon, Brian was confident they would find a lion.

We went on our last game drive and towards the end, still no lions. We were heading to the last area where we might find them, near bushes and a ditch.  Who the patron saint of “lost things” is I am not sure, but St. Stephen has always answered my prayers.  If ever I lose something, it is to him I pray. I said to Brian, “Shall I pray to St. Stephen?”  And he nodded sceptically, “Well. If you think it will help.”

So I prayed, “Please, please St Stephen, please let there be a lion when we get round that bush.”

We bumped slowly around the corner, and standing there in all his glory was the biggest, most handsome elephant you could ever see!

Brian, wagged his chin with its rather soft, loose jowls, just like a wildebeest.  “I think St Stephen is confused!” he said.

Susie: If you had to choose only one place to visit in Kenya, where would it be?

Vivien: The Maasai Mara Game Reserve.  The richest reserve for wildlife in the world. No two game drives are ever alike.  You will always see something different, no matter how many times you go out.

Susie: Can you promise me I’ll get to cuddle a real baby elephant?

Vivien: As well as a visit to the Hope Streams Academy, an educational project for deprived children that we promote and support, we will be going to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage. You should have plenty of opportunity to cuddle one or more of the resident elephants like this one.

Susie: I can’t wait!

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Photo credit: Jeffrey C Sink

Susie: What are your other interests when you’re not leading a safari?

Vivien: I love my Welsh Corgi, Pippa and going for walks with her. I love dancing, enjoy cooking, travelling, writing, riding and swimming. I follow the progress of several elephant orphans I “adopt” at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage, and am an active supporter of animal rights issues.

Susie: Thank you, Vivien, for your time. I am SO looking forward to our forthcoming safari!

Carpe diem. Kenya, here we come.

Once you’ve lived in Africa, it stays in your heart and blood. It implants itself in your soul like a magnet that is forever pulling you back, and wherever you may be, there is always a part of you longing for the vast horizons, the unforgettable smell of the rains breaking, the smiles of the people, the beauty of the flora and landscape and the wealth of wildlife. This yearning is what the Italians call “il mal d’Africa” – the African sickness.

It’s something I’ve lived with for more than 40 years, since leaving Kenya in 1972.

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Mount Kilimanjaro – image courtesy of Telegraph.co.uk

A few months ago I received an unexpected windfall. Having briefly considered putting it away for a rainy day that may never come, I decided instead to seize the day and return to visit the magical country that is Kenya. TOH has never been there, and I so much want him to experience the warmth and friendliness of the Kenyan people, and the thrill of seeing Africa’s greatest mountains and wild animals in their natural habitat.

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As it is going to be the experience of a lifetime – I very much doubt we’ll ever be able to do anything similar again – it has to be perfect.

I have a friend of long-standing – I mean really long-standing, Vivien and I have known each other since we were 14 – who organises bespoke safaris in Kenya where she was brought up and has lived for most of her life. She is, above all, a perfectionist in everything she does. Nothing less than excellence is her motto. However, as all her safaris are customised according to clients’ wishes, there was no price list to consult and I expected my requested itinerary would be far more than we can afford. I cautiously enquired “on behalf of a friend.” Oh dear, how awkward we English are when discussing finance with friends!

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The price she has given me is less than half of an almost identical safari by other companies, and within our budget. We’ve spent the last month working together to finalise the itinerary and confirm availability of all the accommodation. Vivien has performed miracles in organising this, and it is now done!

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Vivien and hitch-hiker

Kenya is famed for the warmth of its hospitality, the luxury of its hotels and game lodges, and the quality of its cuisine. Our 17-day full-board itinerary includes stays in Amboseli, Mount Kenya Safari Club, Samburu, Lake Nakuru, Maasai Mara (of which 4 whole days in the unbelievably romantic Little Mara Bush Camp), and a visit to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and a local school for under-privileged children.

We are linking up with members of the 95th Bomb Group Memorials Foundation of the 8th Air Force. If you fancy a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in one of the world’s most beautiful countries, seeing nature at its grandest, full details including itinerary and sign-up forms are available here. The group is limited to a maximum of 20 people. Should you be interested in joining, and wish to discuss anything not mentioned on the site, you’re welcome to email me at doolally dot tap at gmail dot com.

I am nearly paralysed with excitement, because in August next year we will be on our way to Kenya for 17 days of pampering and wonderment, camera and notebook packed – I can feel a new book coming on!

PS  Did I mention that our itinerary will include standing on the Equator? :)

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Slumming by choice

The recent news about the hotel in Blackpool that fined a couple £100 for leaving a negative review started me thinking.

Over the years we have been fortunate to stay in some of the world’s top-class hotels and luxury resorts, and only one has left any lasting memory.

That was at the Dorchester many years ago, at a company function. We were booked into a large suite. I woke in the middle of the night, disorientated and needing the bathroom. But I couldn’t find a bedside light, and the thick curtains blocked out any ambient light from the road. There was not a glimmer anywhere. I climbed out of bed and began tapping my way around the walls, trying to find a light switch, panic growing by the second. I ran my hands up and down, from left to right, round in circles, patting and panting, until I found a door handle. Ah! I turned the handle. The door stayed shut. I groped for a key. There was no key. I tried the handle again. Nothing. (By the way, all this time TOH was sleeping like a baby.)

Hysteria replaced panic. I shook, kicked and pounded on the door with my fists, screaming: “Let me OUT, you bastards. Let me OUT!”

A slice of light appeared around the edge of the door, and a voice shouted: “Shut up and go to sleep, you bloody stupid woman.” The door I had found communicated not with the corridor, but with the adjoining suite. dorchester

TOH finally woke up, switched on the bedside light, and steered me back to bed, where I slept with the light on for the rest of the night.

There was also the unfortunate incident at the Gatwick Hilton where TOH locked himself out of the room stark naked, in a brightly-lit corridor overlooking the atrium, but I wouldn’t describe the Gatwick Hilton as a luxury hotel, so it doesn’t count.

But in general, my only recollections of luxury holidays is that they were luxurious. Clean bed linen. Comfy furniture. On the other hand, we’ve stayed in some pretty slummy places, and can still look back and remember the experiences with amusement. When travelling I’m wanting lasting experiences, not ethereal moments that are soon forgotten.

At a small hotel somewhere in Wales, many years ago, the bed was more like a hammock, with a huge dip in the middle, so we had to tip the bed on its side to leave space to put the mattress onto the floor.

In a shabby hotel in Andorra the bed was similarly saggy, so we took the doors off the wardrobe and put them under the mattress to give it some rigidity. The hotel had assured us they catered for vegetarians, and served us hard-boiled eggs for every meal, for 10 days, culminating in the New Year’s Eve special – a vast bowl of mashed potato with six eggs sticking up out of it. For each of us. :D The same hotel’s floors were bare concrete and children ran up and down shrieking from the early hours of the morning until TOH leapt out of bed and shouted at them, leading to their parents glaring at us and emanating hostility for the next week.

Driving through France at night many years ago on our way back from Spain, we came off the motorway in search of somewhere to stay the night. After following a road for several miles, we saw a sign indicating ‘chambres‘ eight miles further on. We arrived in a small and dismal village, where the only sign of life was a somewhat grubby little bar/café. We asked the tired-faced and wild-haired lady behind the counter if she knew where we could find a room for the night. She took a key from a shelf and beckoned us to follow her up some dingy stairs. She trudged down a narrow corridor and pushed open a door into a room that contained a double bed, a mirror, and a bidet with a sliver of soap perched on the edge. We looked in dismay, but as it was almost midnight we knew that we would not find anywhere else out here in the middle of nowhere. At least the sheets were clean.

I asked if there was a bathroom. She nodded and led us up another flight of stairs. On the way up we met a cheery man coming down who winked and clicked his tongue as he passed. The bathroom was spotless and gave no indication that it had ever been used.

In the far-ago days when TOH used to race his airplane, we were staying on the Isle of Wight for the Schneider Trophy race. Normally for these weekends accommodation was arranged for competitors, crew and committee in quality hotels, but there was nowhere large enough to accommodate everybody together on the island except for the local holiday camp, where the pimply lad on reception greeted an Air Vice-Marshall with “Hello mate, what can I do for you?” :D

Breakfast had to be ordered at dinner time the previous evening. Dinner was served at 6.30pm. Our quarters were a tiny room, where the kettle was perched on top of a wardrobe and you had to stand on the bed to reach it. We had been asked by the media to take our dogs with us for a documentary they were filming. Our dogs were extremely well-behaved and quiet. Unfortunately there was a difficult person staying nearby who was offended that the camp’s “No dogs” rule was being flouted, albeit with the prior agreement of the camp. This wretched little man complained continually until the staff were forced to try to evict us just before midnight.

First came the receptionist, then the manager, and when we still refused to vacate our miserable little box, the police arrived. They said they would take the dogs to the police compound for the night, and loaded them into their van. The dogs promptly leapt into the front seat, while TOH had a stand-up row with management and police, and insisted on removing the dogs from the van. Had the horrible little man only gone back to his room, we could have quietly returned to ours and had a few hours sleep. But no, he stood his ground and would not be swayed. The rules said “No dogs”, and he wasn’t going to bed until the dogs were removed from the premises.

Eventually a compromise was reached. We were re-located for the remains of the night from the box to one of the new bungalows that had not yet been open for the public.  So ya boo sucks, Mr Misery. Next day we were rehomed in a small hotel where we were given a four-poster bed and the staff looked after the dogs while we went out for dinner.

On a package holiday to one of the Greek islands, the guests in the adjoining room were Italians who returned in the early hours and stood talking and laughing in the corridor. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that one of them had put the key into the lock of their door. The key had a tennis ball sized wooden knob on it. While they talked and laughed, the keyholder turned the key backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, with the wooden knob banging rhythmically on the door in time to the key clicking in the lock. After 20 minutes of this, TOH had had enough. Springing naked from bed and launching himself into the corridor, he yelled at them to “SHUT UP!” Silence fell, and they all tiptoed into their rooms. And for the rest of our stay we could hear them coming back every night, whispering and tiptoeing. :D

Don’t for a moment think I don’t enjoy a little luxury from time to time. I do! But all I’ll remember is yes, it was lovely and the food was great. I won’t recall what we ate, but I’ll always remember those Andorran hard-boiled eggs. :D

And the audiobook winners are ……

Rafiki needed some encouragement to do her part in choosing the winners. She was more interested in trying to bite through the lamp cable.

She’s a little self-conscious at the moment. We left her with a friend while we were away on holiday, and it’s the first time she’s been away from the house for 20 years. Parrots are very sensitive, and she may have suffered from stress being in an unknown environment. She shed all her chest and back feathers, and instead of replacing them with new ones, has only managed to grow some fluffy down. Hence she looks as if she’s wearing a little white woolly waistcoat. At her next moult, she will hopefully regrow her proper plumage.

She was finally persuaded to take her pick from the 20 names on the dish, and the two winners are …….

Ladies, you will  be receiving the necessary code to download your copies, and I really hope you will enjoy listening.

I’m so sorry you couldn’t all win, but thank you very much for participating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No such thing as a free lunch, but ………….

…. there is such thing as a free audio book from Audible!

Absolutely free, no strings.

Just leave a comment or smile below. Using my ultra high-tech selection method, I will write your name on a little slip of paper, fold all the slips up tightly and put them into a bowl and let Rafiki, my parrot, choose two. The two selected names will each receive a free audio copy of Best Foot Forward, exquisitely read by Anne Day-Jones. You can listen to a sample here.

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There are two copies available. Entries accepted until Monday afternoon, 3rd November at 14.00 French time, and the two winners will be named on Tuesday.

Good luck. :)

 

I can’t say I’m sorry.

In fact, I’m very pleased that Awesome Indies has awarded their badge of approval to “I Wish I Could Say I Was Sorry”
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As part of the Blackbird Digital Books autumn promotion, this week The Valley of Heaven and Hell and Best Foot Forward Kindle versions are both available to download at 99 cts/77p.

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Click image to buybff cover

Click image to buy

Workaway – how did it work?

Early last year, a cycling nutter tweeted me that he’d read and enjoyed my book about wobbling through the Marne Valley. He said he was planning to spend two years cycling around Europe and Wwoofing, and I replied that if he found himself near us, he’d be welcome to a beer, or a bed for the night.

He ended up living with us for over two months, and worked like a Trojan to help re-roof one of our barns. He  was great company and a perfect house guest. I had never planned on having a stranger staying with us for so long, but it worked really well.

Millar

Millar, the cycling madman, and perfect guest in an untypically serious mood

Millar introduced us to Workaway, a scheme to link people from all over the world who are looking to travel and enjoy cultural exchange, living as working guests, to host families. Being possibly probably the world’s worst housewife, with a pathological hatred of housework, I was hesitant. What would people think when they saw the daily coating of wall-to-wall dog hairs, the chewed-up sticks, shoes and yoghurt pots, the bedding the parrot shovels out of her cage, the shaving foam smeared all over the bathroom mirror, the daily burnt porridge pan soaking in the sink, the shredded blankets the dogs drag wherever they go? How would they react to two exuberant, large dogs monopolosing the comfy chairs, the chickens pooping in the house and the disheveled hostess still in her nightclothes at midday? Could our chaotic lifestyle qualify as a cultural experience?

Well, nothing ventured …. I posted a profile on Workaway, and had an almost instant reply from a young school teacher from Switzerland, surely the cleanest country in the world. Still, she seemed very keen, so I scraped down the walls and swept the dust into the corners.

Andrea was the sweetest, most helpful guest we could have hoped for, and felt like part of the family from the moment she arrived. The Workaway terms specify that guests agreee to work for 4-5 hours a day, five days a week, but I couldn’t stop her. After spending the mornings tidying the garden, she spent the afternoons scrubbing the house. Really scrubbing. From top to bottom. She turned out the kitchen drawers and cupboards (mortifying when I saw the state they were in!), cleaned the windows. She said that she loved her job, but it was stressful and she found peace and relaxation in cleaning. She was also a great conversationalist and we successfully sorted out all the world’s problems. A perfect ambassador for Workaway.

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Lovely Andrea

Our next guest was a charming French gentleman who came to us to improve his English. His friends had teased him about sharing our vegetarian lifestyle, but he tucked in and enjoyed our evening meal. Unfortunately after a day here he had to leave suddenly to deal with a family crisis, but we kept in touch and I recommended him to a friend earlier this year , which led to a very successful exchange for both of them.

This year we had a less than enjoyable experience with our first visitor. There was a chasm of cultural difference, and a personality clash. We are easy going and get on with most people, but this case was an exception, and having a house guest who didn’t fit in was uncomfortable for all of us. We would have asked them to leave ahead of the agreed date, but they didn’t have anywhere to go and apparently no money to support themselves. Dumping them at the railway station was out of the question and so we all soldiered on and sighed with relief when they eventually left.

“No more,” said TOH. “I don’t want any more of them here. We can’t have people living in our house and behaving like that.” I agreed, having found the experience extremely stressful.

“I’ll delete us from Workaway,” I said. Before I had a chance to do so, an email arrived.

It was a dignified message from a Spanish man who was in a very uncomfortable situation with hosts who were using him as unpaid labour in their business. Although Workaway is a voluntary agreement between two parties, with no legal contract, he had undertaken to continue slaving working for them for a further three weeks despite their treatment of him, as their business depended upon him, but at the end of that period he was looking for a new host.

My feelings about Spanish cruelty to animals have never been a secret, nor my contempt for the galgueros, and the stupid elephant-killing king.

If Spain is looking for an ambassador who defines dignity, honesty, kindness and generosity, then I nominate Miguel. What a lovely man. He voluntarily worked long, long hours, always smiling and cheerful. And he’s a fantastic cook – like us, a vegetarian – and most evenings he volunteered to cook for us, which was such a treat. Offhand I can’t think of anything that tastes better than his tortilla. We also shared similar tastes in music, and he restored our faith in Workaway.

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Miguel smiling up on the roof

We were so sorry to see him leave after his three weeks with us, as we waved him off to his next host. But he came back, to our great delight, a couple of weeks later. It isn’t my place to describe the strange experiences he had with two of his hosts, but I will say that we were shocked, angry and amused by some of them. Workawayers are not slaves; they are temporary family members and deserve and expect to be treated as such.

During his time away, Miguel had met another Workawayer whose situation wasn’t ideal. I’ll only say that her accommodation where she was staying was in a small tent. He gave her our email, and a couple of days later, Lydia arrived, a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. She had just returned from working as a volunteer in Togo, and entertained us with accounts and photographs of her life there. She also co-opted Miguel and TOH into yoga sessions in the garden. I participated in the role of official photographer.  :)

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Lydia’s yoga session

Smiling

Miguel didn’t seem totally convinced. :)

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Tally never did understand what he was meant to be doing :)

So by a wide margin, our experience of Workawayers has been very positive, as has that of several friends, although at least one did find themselves lumbered with a very unacceptable “guest”.

The beauty of the system is that you can read feedback for both hosts and volunteers on the Workaway site, and my advice to anybody considering using the system is to check out the experiences of others before making a commitment.

A final note. Having a number of American friends, among them not one has tasted Marmite without pulling a face and declaring it to be inedible at best, and downright disgusting at worst. Lydia’s initial reaction was polite disbelief that anybody would eat it. However, next day she tried a little more. And by the time she left, she was converted and wondering if she would find anywhere to buy it back home in the United States.

Here are Miguel and Lydia having breakfast:

And here they are at the end of their stay with us. We’d love to see both of them again one day, they enriched our summer and our lives. Thank you both.

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PS  If you wondered why we know him as the cycling nutter, have a look at Millar’s checklist AFTER he dispensed with the trailer.  :D