I suppose I should start this year’s Christmas Letter with my pandemic story, since everyone is preoccupied with the COVID-19 virus this year. Back in May of 2019 I booked a Holland America South America 30-day cruise aboard the ms Zaandam, sailing from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA during March 2020. Departure day came, and a friend and I flew to Buenos Aires to meet the ship on March 7th. At that point, we knew about a Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, and that it had spread to a half dozen other countries. Before deciding to go we discussed the situation, however a pandemic had not be declared at that point, there were no travel restrictions, and if we had cancelled our arrangements at the last minute, we would have forfeited the full cruise and air fares.
We overnighted aboard the Zaandam which was docked on the impressive Plata River in Buenos Aires, and had a wonderful time experiencing the city the following day before the ship sailed that evening for our first port of call, Montevideo, which is a fascinating city. We subsequently sailed to the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas to experience that unique and historic British outpost, seeing the obligatory penguins, before departing for the Magellan Strait near the southern tip of South America. Two sea days later we reached port in Punta Arenas, by which time WHO had declared a world pandemic. Our excursions ran normally that day, and we had a good experience in this historic southern Chilean city.
By the next day, things got “interesting”, and not in a good way! The Captain told everyone that Holland America had decided to pause all their worldwide cruise operations, and assured us he was making good progress to land us in Punta Arenas, where we could find flights to return to our respective home countries. Unfortunately, Chile had other plans, declaring the country closed to foreign visitors that very same day. So now the Captain had no alternative but to sail the Zaandam and her passengers and crew northward – he made a run through the Magellan Strait, and up the west coast of South America.
We made one provisioning stop in Valparaiso, Chile, transited the Panama Canal with our sister ship the Rotterdam, and docked at Fort Lauderdale. As it turned out, we followed the original planned route of the cruise, but had to stay on the ship for the three weeks it took to get to our home port. We experienced no ports-of-call, and we were quarantined in our cabins once we left Valparaiso, since the COVID-19 virus had broken out aboard ship by then.
My friend and I were some of the first to be transferred to the Rotterdam when the ships rendezvoused in Panama, and thankfully, we were also some of the first to leave the ship in Fort Lauderdale and fly home to Canada. By then Canada’s borders were closed and pandemic health restrictions were in place, so we entered a 14-day quarantine at home, along with our families. We had a great time during the first week of our cruise, but this was a journey to be otherwise endured, not enjoyed!
Holland America and their crew took very good care of us, sparing no expense or effort to do their very best for the passengers. I sent a big Thank You by video to all Holland America crew through their brand Ambassador Seth Wayne, who as it turns out, was aboard the Zaandam on the same voyage as us! We received very generous cruise credits and refunds from Holland America, and also managed to cancel or obtain credit for most of our unused airfares. I’ve booked a 14-day Alaska cruise for September of 2021 aboard Holland America’s Noordam using those cruise credits, so hopefully by then the world will be returning to “normal” with a readily-available vaccine for this devastating virus!
Due to the pandemic, both my annual trek to the Island Star Party and my 50th high school reunion were cancelled, however I traveled on two short, close-to-home trips this past summer. My first trip in July was to the Cowichan Valley, which is only an hour’s drive from my home in Victoria, but provided me with a break from the routine, and gave me the opportunity to visit with some childhood friends, since that’s the area I was raised in. I stayed in a guest house owned and operated by a friend. I also travelled to Vancouver in September to have my Tesla Model S serviced, staying two nights in a hotel and visiting with my cousin while I waited for Tesla to complete their work.
Family & friends
My other big news this year is that I have connected with my birth family. I was adopted as a baby, and through most of my life I had little desire to find my birth mother and father, however a couple of years ago I took a DNA test and made it available through some online DNA services. Two years later a second cousin contacted me through a DNA match and pointed me to my birth mother in Alberta, who unfortunately had recently died.
That said, her obituary provided a wealth of information, and thanks to that original second cousin, I have subsequently made contact with a couple of first cousins, who have been very welcoming and generous by providing me with information about my “new” family, and even some photos. In fact, it’s a bit overwhelming to learn who my birth father is, that I have five siblings, and my mother had 11 siblings! I’m still in the early stages of exploring all of this new information, and forging new relationships as they present themselves, which is quite exciting and challenging.
I have created a new family tree for my Beasley and Robinson birth families, using online and personal genealogical research to reach back to the origins of the families. Like my adoptive families (Carr, Carruthers), the Robinsons and Beasleys come from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The Carrs migrated directly across Canada to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The Carruthers, Beasleys and Robinsons migrated through the USA before settling in Canada, with some family members remaining in the USA.
Like most of you, we are hunkered down at home most of the time, since pandemic health restrictions emphasize that we must stay safe for the sake of both ourselves and others. I must admit that I’m finding it a bit tedious at times, but both Kirk and I are making the best of the situation. Thankfully, since we are retired we have no financial stress to deal with, unlike younger people who are challenged like never before. I connect with friends through Zoom, telephone, email, and social media, so at least I’m not losing touch with close friends and family. We also get out to walk the dogs several times each day, splitting our exercise time between our neighbourhood and local parks.
Speaking of local parks, we are currently being visited by a rare Asian duck, who has joined other ducks who hang out in the reservoir near us on the top of Smith Hill in Summit Park. The single Male Common Pochard duck has never been observed in North America before, normally being found only on the eastern shores of Asia. This rare duck is attracting dedicated birders from near and far to visit out little corner of the city!
My annual trip to southern Arizona to observe under dark skies didn’t happen this Spring, since my friend was rebuilding his observatory. So I made the best of it by observing from home, and from nearby Observatory Hill with my astronomy buddies in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
In July we were treated to a spectacular comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). The comet put on a stunning show night after night, and the weather cooperated, so many of us had time to observe and photograph this rare sight. As if that wasn’t enough, on a couple of nights we also observed noctilucent clouds, which are exceedingly rare at our latitude, normally only visible from higher northern latitudes. This was my first time observing noctilucent clouds.
Another big astronomical event this year is the close approach of Mars, which allows us to see many planetary details on Earth’s nearest neighbour, since it’s apparent diameter increases significantly. Thankfully, this year Mars experienced no atmospheric storms, so the views were nothing short of amazing. Although I didn’t manage to personally photograph the Red Planet, some of my buddies took some amazing photos of Mars.
As I write this, another planetary show is coming up – an exceedingly close conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the third week of December. I urge you to look in the evening sky just after sunset in the southwest for this pair of planets as they approach each other throughout December. They will be so close on December 21st, that they will appear as one!
Photography & video
I have upgraded some of my old Canon EF lenses to new RF lenses, since I sold my Sony cameras and lenses this year in favour of returning exclusively to Canon photo gear.
In May, I purchased a DJI Mavic Air 2 drone, which represents the latest technology, and is a significant upgrade from my DJI Mavic Pro (1st gen), which I still have but no longer use much. I’m still exploring the many new features of the Mavic Air 2, but it produces gorgeous aerial video and photos, which I made good use of while visiting the Cowichan Valley this past summer.
Our Shaw Internet service now runs at 600 Mbps (download), which was a no-cost upgrade from the 300 Mbps service we had previously. As I mentioned last year, as an older geek, I’m blown away by the amazingly fast connection speeds now offered by Internet service providers!
I had Tesla Vancouver upgrade my Model S electric vehicle to the latest and most advanced computer and graphics hardware, which has given my 2017 vehicle new life, and capabilities to support full self-driving when it is released and approved.
In August, I sold my 2014 Apple Mac Pro desktop computer on eBay since the used market prices were so high for my upgraded model. I replaced it with a 2020 iMac 27″ desktop computer, choosing a fairly high specification with 1Tb of SSD storage, 64Gb of memory, graphics and Intel i9 processors. The iMac has a gorgeous 5k monitor and processes my video and photo projects very quickly. This will be my desktop computer for the next five years or so.
After watching Apple’s debut event for their M1-based computers in November, I decided to trade in my venerable 2015 MacBook Pro 13″ notebook on a new M1-based MacBook Air. I’m really enjoying using this new notebook computer, which has no fan and yet has performance that leaves most other notebooks on the market far behind. It is small and light, yet beautifully made, so it will be an excellent portable computer to take with me when I return to travelling.
After much debate, I also upgraded my 2-year old iPhone XS for a newly release iPhone 12, which offers a new design, better screen and camera, and will work with the new 5G technology when the cellular companies support it in a year or so.
At first glance, these computer and photography upgrades may look expensive, but my net outlay was actually quite modest. Used Apple computers and quality Canon lenses retain their value quite well, so trading them in or selling them independently keeps upgrade costs under control.
So in closing, Kirk and I and our pets are all reasonably healthy and happy. Kirk and I are still adapting to using a walk-in medical clinic instead of a traditional GP, but the benefit is that they are open 7-days a week. The pets have only visited the veterinary for routine stuff this past year, so smooth sailing into 2021!