Category Archives: country bios and literature

Baaaack to our country exploration – the Falklands/Malvinas


Yes, folks, it’s another archipelago, but this time it’s one with a sheep on its coat of arms.424px-Coa_Falkland.svg

What’s not to like about that?

It’s another one of those strategically located places that everyone wants to own. Maybe it’s the oil that hangs around there somewhere. Or maybe it’s the sheep. There are a lot of them. Sheep. And Islands. And places people want that aren’t theirs.

In any case, the Portuguese, Spanish, British and French have all had their hands in the pie there, and the US has put its thumb in, too. The Argentinians seem to have the best case for ownership, since these islands hover just off the coast of Argentina – 310 miles or so, and there are there are almost 800 islands all clustered together. That’s a lot to manage from way far away.

Well, except that the inhabitants are remorselessly British.

images-25Unless you count the penguins, who don’t disclose their nationality.

There aren’t many people – about 3000 or so, many of them military families. Around 400 of them are children, many not born on the islands but they get a special designation that lets them be born away but still citizens. They seem to be almost entirely British descent. No Argentinians need apply, perhaps?

They have a government of ten to manage things, which seems a goodly size. Mind you, managing air traffic must keep them busy – seven airports spot the islands. They must spend a fair amount of time in granting of fishing licenses to trawlers from other countries. We’re not going to mention responding to the polite requests from the Argentinians to give the islands back, please. (Since the War, they promised to not try to take the islands by force and so far they’ve stuck by their word, something some other countries might think about emulating)

global_warming_christmas_mouse_pads-p144719592188075039eng3t_400According to the CIA fact book, a reindeer herd was introduced here some time ago to provide Venison for the Scandinavians and they stay the only reindeer herd not affected by the Chernobyl explosion, which I think is rather dear. Santa need look no further for his sturdy flying friends, and since he is likely considering a move to Antarctica due to the eroding ice at the North Pole, this will be very helpful for him.

There are no trees on the islands, no mammals except aquatic ones, and, apparently a heck of a lot of albatrosses (albatrossi?). Which of course makes me think of the Ancient Mariner and having to read that poem when I was far too young to understand it and now I want to read it again, but preferably on the Falklands, where I can read it to the albatross myself.

Black Browed Albatross reciting "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to her son

Black Browed Albatross reciting “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to her son

The perils of traveling for a hypochondriac


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Thanking my stars we have TP here in Canada, unlike in Cuba

My kids think I’m a total hypochondriac. They could be right, but hey, I AM a nurse, so unfortunately, I know just enough to be able to detect statistically improbable diseases in me (or them) given three symptoms.

I’m not always delusional. I told one son he had H1N1 last year or so after hearing his symptoms over the phone and yes, he did have it (blood work said so, so there!) I diagnosed scarlet fever in my son, Shigella in my ex, and MS in me, so I should have some street cred.

Alas. No.

So perhaps traveling to Cuba wasn’t the BEST idea, but you’ve got to give me credit for not going to, say, Borneo or Mali.

I knew the likelihood of a tenderfoot like myself getting ill was pretty high. But I pretended it wasn’t. I was with my well-travelled kids, after all, and didn’t want to seem like any more of a wuss than my MS body would do already. I wanted to be cool, groovy. And I only brought one tiny bottle of hand sanitizer, which we all shared. Truth be told, I assumed my immunizations and copious amounts of rum would kill pretty well anything that approached me. I think they did, until I got home and stopped drinking.

So I got sick.. Yep. The “Grippers” as Regis Philbin used to call them. Fevers. Exhaustion. Headache. Been flat on my back for the last week – am typing now only because I am SO BORED I can barely breathe.  But I’ll have to lie down again soon, despite the gasoline-strength coffee I’m inhaling in a desperate attempt to stay vertical (and yes, I know it doesn’t help but I’ve been without coffee for a whole four days now and I am barely sentient).

Can’t let it lie, though. As a certified hypochondriac, I had to look up alternative diseases I COULD have from my time spent in the country. Turns out there’s a fairly high probability I have Dengue fever. Doesn’t that sound deliciously awful? And the first bout of Dengue seems to be fairly benign – later ones are bad and I know Dengue is a scourge of many countries and they have my sympathies –  and there’s always the risk of spraying blood suddenly from my gums, but so far I merely have the toasty feeling and a really good disease name.

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When I looked up the disease, the public health page warned me strongly to keep the screens closed. Obviously they weren’t staying where I was – not a screen (or glass) to be seen – just funky wooden slats. Not many bugs showed up, strangely – only one hapless beetle on our last day (who I helped on to his next reincarnation), but I did wake up the last day with a ring of bites around my neck and on my elbow.

So I’ve diagnosed myself. I merely need to develop the rash.

Of course, it can’t be the flu, or the fact that everyone was sick on the airplane with some viral thing.

Not for a pro hypochondriac like me!

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Ola! from Cuba


IMG_0098Ah, Cuba.

I’ve been consumed with curiosity about this island ever since I had to sit under my desk in school to protect myself from nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I grew up around Boston. If I’d known how many missiles were housed immediately around my school I would have spent the time colouring instead.  We’d have been blasted in the first sortie.

As I grew older, and learned about the Cuban health care system, their healthy literacy rate and their amazingly stable economy given the embargo by the US (and the way the US told everyone that if they were nice to Cuba they couldn’t play with them). I was curious to see how the Communist nation so close to us had fared, was slightly romantic about the revolution, with its dashing figures of Che and Fidel and whoever that other guy is whose name I can never remember. It was and is the stuff of legend.

For a place slightly smaller than Pennsylvania (sneers the CIA fact book), it’s chock a bloc with history, romance, music, art, people, and, apparently, cigars.

We spent a five-day visit in Havana – old Havana – a thoroughly interesting borough that alternates in appearance with a bombed-out war zone and a decaying but still elegant deep south Spanish plantation. Totally fascinating, noisy and silent by turns, filled with people of such diverse colours and shapes you can trace the native, black and Spanish lineages through the shape of their noses.

Everyone, even the smallest child, automatically responds to the sight of we tourists with a murmuring of “cigars? you want cigars?”.

The men – handsome without exception. The women – gorgeous until about age 35, when the gruelling day-to-day life catches up with them. They must wash laundry every day – everyone is so clean and clothes hang everywhere to dry.

The streets – spotlessly clean in some places, despite feral dogs and cats everywhere. Covered with garbage where the feral people are. No windows in most buildings, but Dolce and Gabana and expensive spas have them. Banks with nothing inside, only an ATM on the outside. Shiny old 54 Fords, polished to the max, run as taxis, followed by husks of the same car with no muffler, run by locals. Shiny new Kias here and there, tripping over bicycle taxis pulling painfully through the cobblestone streets.IMG_0520

The hustlers say, as they smile broadly and try to get us to buy contraband cigars, “Cuba is very safe. 11 million people and half of them are police”. They lead us on, through darker and meaner streets, until common sense prevails and we say “No, Gracias”. Their faces crumble with such acute disappointment you almost want to take it back, say, of course you believe him that today is the only day that Fidel allows the people who make cigars to sell them privately at half price, only today…

I still feel the air, warm and almost like a human breath, the grit and diesel from the out of control refinery and the many many cars. I can shut my eyes and hear the noises, the endless honking of horns to say hello or get out-of-the-way or whatever, interspersed with sharp whistles and shouts and the roar of unmuffled diesel engines. In between you can hear bands playing salsa music.

The tourist industry in Cuba seems designed to make you pass your time there in a pleasant heat and rum fuelled haze, happily buying versions of art that are nowhere near as wonderful as the real artists produce in their tiny studios off of darkened streets. They sell rum and mohitos and Hemingway, send tourists around well-trodden paths, call to you with such desperation you feel positively terrible for saying no. Elderly women come up and circle you slowly, putting their hands to their mouths, begging for money. But when you tell them no, as with all of those trying to extract money from you (and why not? We have so much, they have so little), they look at you once, with eyes that show their heart is breaking, and shuffle off to the next person.

It is intoxicating, rude, charming, warm, friendly, hostile, old, ancient, proud, humble, utterly unexplainable. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling.

I’ll never go back, for so many reasons. But everyone should go, at least once. Immerse yourself in Cuba. Don’t just go to a resort – see the place itself, meet the real people.

Vive la Cuba Libre!


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Sitting in Pearson airport, day one of travels to Cuba for the next five days.
Airports remind me of long term care facilities. Everything is carefully cleansed of anything that might identify where you actually are, the floors are shiny enough to disturb the vision, and large hallways open to large hallways and sliding doors and occasional art of the generic variety.
We’re just passing through and I’m still relatively oriented, but I do wonder what the effect of all this large shiny emptiness is on the employees over time. Do they get pale and shiny, too?
From what some Canadians think is the centre of their universe, DA out.

If it’s Tuesday, we must be Americans…


300px-Map_Mariana_Islands_volcanoesThe poor Northern Mariana Islands.  They’re way out there in the sea, cuddled up to a big seam in the earth’s crust. They were formed by the earth’s crust pushing up on the side of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth, which means they are volcanically active (see red triangle volcanoes on map to left) and I dunno about you, but I’d have an uneasy feeling that at any moment I could be folded into the sea or thrust into the sky. Or perhaps melted by molten lava.

Mind you, that could make life interesting, especially today, the supposed end of the earth day.

Various sources say the main religion is Roman Catholic, but some old beliefs still exist. If I lived there, I’d sure wanna hedge my bets. I might even want to be an international criminal. It seems a goodly place for a hideout, all ready for the eventual explosion after the discovery by some James Bond type.

Their national song speaks to their isolation – it’s “Gi Talo Gi Halom Tasi” (In the Middle of the Sea). True. They also sing “The Star Spangled Banner”.

They are a Commonwealth (Or, lately, a Commonpoverty) of the US, which means they get to vote in presidential PRIMARIES, only, and they have one non-voting representative in congress. Didn’t some colonies a while ago get pretty riled up about this sort of taxation without representation? I can’t figure out this rule about voting, actually.  Are the Americans afraid the 52,000 citizens on the islands will pull their votes for guns away?

But enough of confusing politics, except to remark that everyone seems to have come here and taken over the islands at some point and then left. Spain, primarily. They arrived with Capuchin monks (as vs Capuchin Monkeys…) and such and killed off all the natives with disease, as they were wont to do, and then left, rather hurriedly. There was this misunderstanding about a boat, see.  Since then they’ve been called the Islas de los Ladrones, Thieves Islands. Locals said they were only borrowing the boat.

In addition to Spain, Germany, Japan and the US have all variously held ownership. The US used the islands as a launch site for the B-52 bombers that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. Nice. That explains the three airports, no doubt.

Capuchin Monk

Capuchin Monk (not cute)

Apparently there are enough WWII relics scattered about to make it a war buffs hangout. Big big fighting here.

There are also lots of birds.

Lonely Planet speaks of THREE (3) things worth seeing, and of those three, one seems dangerous and another is crowded with tourists, mainly from Japan. Again, this puzzles me. Why would you want to go to a place where your people were slaughtered?

The chief industry other than tourism appears to be garment sweatshops, where Chinese and Philippine workers sew like madwomen to produce clothing for the US. The Islands aren’t held to US standards of minimum wage or immigration so garment factories are blooming like mould.

The locals, the Tao Tao Tano (People of the Island, now extinct) and the Chamorros (recovering  somewhat, finally, from the infectious wipeout) have had a hard

Capuchin Monkey

Capuchin Monkey (cute)

time. Chamorro, the language, is one of the official languages, so some parts of culture are kept alive. Not sure if they are still borrowing boats, though.

All I know is that they aren’t on my “wish I could visit” list. Now, if they had Capuchin monkeys, I might reconsider.

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view of Bird Rock. You have to climb down wild rocks to see it.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road…


australia-homeOf cash and environmental degradation and planes trains and automobiles to the wish I could see it destination of Australia…world’s smallest continent but sixth largest country.

What can I say about Australia that hasn’t already been said by the excellent Bill Bryson in “In a Sunburned Country“? He explains there that everything in the natural world in Australia is trying to kill you. Spiders, sharks, snakes, sun – you can practically hear the country hiss at you!

Well, except for the Australians, who are generally non-poisonous and cheery, if a bit pushy. I was lucky enough to have parents in law, one from Australia (him) and one from New Zealand (her), and to see their interaction. It reminded me of those studies done in the US where they’d put a northerner and a southerner in the same room and let them talk and the person from the south would end up chasing the northerner around the room because South would try to close the room between them and North would try to widen it. Aussies push forward, New Zealanders quietly get even.

It was part of my marriage agreement that my hubby and I would go to Australia and New Zealand, but after 23 years of waiting for this to happen, I gave up and left. The hubby. Still haven’t got to Australia or NZ. Sigh.

There are about 22 million Aussies in the world but they are hard to count because they are always travelling everywhere. Any time anyone goes anywhere, they’ll run into travelling Aussies. Try Antarctica – they’ll be there. Norway? Been there. Go to Niue, and an Aussie will pop out of the surf. They’ve been everywhere or are en route to there. It’s a bit annoying since for us to get to Australia seems like such an expedition.

western-australia-kangaroo-beach

When they’re home, they run a good country, doing well financially, only occasionally cruel these days to their native population. They’ve dumped the Queen as head boss, which angers many. But they have compulsory voting, which I think is brilliant! Might get some of those lazy “think I’ll just stay home and complain” types we have here out and active.

In any case, I’d give good money (and would have to) to go there. According to the CIA Factbook, the only real problems are the usual overpopulation and climate change desertification, and a really healthy poppy population in Tasmania that contributes hugely to the opium industry.

And the place itself is glorious. Who doesn’t want to go there? See Kangaroos and Koala Bears and other weird creatures, see the world’s best surf, go climb the world-famous Uluru, a.k.a. Ayers Rock.

On second thought, don’t do that last one. The native population doesn’t appreciate people walking all over their sacred land, and, according to my friend Heather who just visited there, they feel terrible when people climb the rock because they are sad when they die. And this happens a lot.

So why not plan, instead, to look on the marvel from afar and honour the Aboriginal traditions. They’ll be happy, and you’ll survive to be bitten by that deadly snake just behind you.

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USA? Stay Away.


abd7e331-dd87-4e27-83cc-59eb25ac61f5Why are we talking about the USA? Because it’s one of the countries on the list of where you might be from, and it’s on my mind right now. My horrified mind.

Some man went into his kid’s elementary school today and shot up the class and a whole bunch of other people. We don’t know yet whether he shot his daughter, whether this was some horrible custody fight, why the man, now dead, took it into his head to kill everyone today.

Of course it will be argued that he was mentally ill. You’d have to be mentally ill to shoot kids and teachers and such. But maybe he wasn’t as ill as all that. Big shootings are a common event down south. They seem to happen about once a month, at least. More in good weather. And they are speeding up, like in murder mysteries when the psychopath starts losing control and changes his pattern to kill more often.

Usually that’s when the detective catches the perp. Who is going to catch a country’s perpetrator?

It’s utterly horrible. Most Americans are wonderful people, most of the time the country is peaceful, bucolic even, given that most of the violent have been killed in needless international wars (oops, cynicism there). I grew up in the US, and my family members still live there. But I really don’t think I’ll ever go visiting anymore. I can’t support such a place.
You might argue that it’s individual people committing the crimes, but I disagree. A political and economic system based on creating inequality and competition and ever-increasing pressure to have more, take more, own more creates these monsters. It always has.

Look at other places. The countries with less income inequality, with a better social safety net, with fairer laws, with GUN control – well, there’s less violence. Unless you are in the middle of a war zone, there’s not much that matches the violence in an average US city.

The US prison population is over 2 million, more than those incarcerated in CHINA. 1 in 32 Americans are under correctional supervision. Everyone knows about the imbalance in racial background in the prisons, but with this many people incarcerated, a lot of people of every colour, sex and background are doing time.

WHY?

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And then there are the guns. Everyone wants one. Florida crowed only last week about having issued their 1 millionth concealed gun permit. People are getting their legislatures to pass laws to allow people to bring guns to work, to coffee shops, to wherever.

Every time there’s a big shooting, the NRA tells people that the only thing that will keep them safe is more handgun ownership. They institute things like laws that allow you to shoot anyone you think may be trespassing on your land. Note: don’t go to a stranger’s door in the US and ask for directions.I am certain there will be some idiot who suggests that this shooting in Connecticut wouldn’t have happened if the teachers were armed. The NRA have a convenient “Women on target” program to teach women how to shoot pistols – perhaps this will become part of teacher training?images-22

I am in astonished grief about all the poor children and teachers and family members of this man who were killed today. I even spare a bit of grief for the man. But grief is not enough. This has to be stopped. It’s insanity on a country-wide scale.

I think the only solution is to start an embargo around the USA – no one buy anything from there or travel there until they pass some decent gun-control laws. And here in Canada, make sure our safety net is secure (fix it), and throw our Conservative, wish I had a gun too, government back into the oil sands.

It’s important. We’re up here in Canada, just waiting for the wave of hatred and killing to surge over our border. Our income inequality is worse than in the US. The only thing saving us are our gun laws and our inhospitable weather.

Incidentally, I googled “no guns” images, and these were on the front page. Including this one. I could cry, all day. How many more must die?NoGunsNoMoney-Variety

Let’s do a Tonga-line!


ImageIf ever you think Canada is too spread out to be efficient, think of Tonga.

Tonga is 176 islands scattered over a huge number of sea kilometres, hanging around the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and New Zealand. Only 36 of the islands are inhabited, thank heavens, or you’d be going a heck of a way for a cup of sugar. There are about 100,000 Tongans on the islands plus many more off island, who kindly support the economy by sending money home.

A lot of money home.

This is a good thing, because:

a. They have a monarchy to support,

b. Their economy is based on yams and fish and such, also available elsewhere from other tiny island nations,

c. It has a bit of a history of government corruption,

and d. their tourism industry is still small. Why, I don’t know. The place is gorgeous, and there are all these uninhabited islands just perfect for those crazy folks who want to really, truly get away from it all. And then go back to Tongatapu Island and email all their wonderful photographs to the entire world to engender envy.Image

Things aren’t all challenging – I like the way the Tongeans put women above men in the social scale (huzzah!), how they provide free education to all students to high school, and offer hugely supported college education. They have universal health care and universal suffrage as of 21. And they are the only country in the area to avoid colonization, always being independent (with treaties) from the larger first world countries who wished to take them over. The last British Ambassador left long ago. The last tourist was cooked in 1806. When Captain Cook came to visit, they couldn’t decide how best to cook him, so they left him alone and he, in turn, called Tonga “the Friendly Islands”.  He also gave the then-leader a turtle in thanks. The turtle, Tu’i Malila, was made a chief and ran around the palace on his own for several years. There are no reports of whether or not he was eventually made into soup.

God love ’em, they even sent a few troops to support the Americans in their coalition of the willing in Iraq. Wrong-headed, but it shows a desire to play big on the world stage.

ImageAnd then there’s the Rugby. They are currently 11th in world standings which is pretty darn impressive, given how few folks they have to draw upon. I have a terrible weakness for rugby, and rugby players, muscly and tough as they are, heavy drinking and yet the sweetest fellahs you’d ever want to meet (unlike footballers who either whine a lot (soccer) or prance around in tight pants and then go home and beat their wives (American Football)). Rugby players just play, fall down, get up and play more.

I still remember my dear son calling from the rugby field to let me know that in practice, someone had “apparently torn my ear partly off. Can you come get me?” He was smiling ear to damaged ear when I got him, and the entire ER was impressed.

Anyway, you can see their ranking info here. The Ikale Tahe (Sea Eagles) do pretty well, all in all.

ImageWhat with that and the pro-woman thing and the tolerance for obesity (Over half the population rates as obese), perhaps I need to visit here, as well. I’d fit right in.

Perhaps you want to go Faroe Faroe away?


You could do worse than a wander to the Faroe Islands. I went looking at them today as I wanted a northern turn. It hasn’t snowed here in Nova Scotia yet and I am wishing for a little whiteness to make Christmas come sooner. So I thought I’d take an imaginary trip to somewhere close to the North Pole.

The Faroe Islands are located just off the tip of the UK – bathed in the gulf stream leftovers perhaps, they are warmer than they have any right to expect to be. Quite tolerable at this time of year.

The Vikings lived there for years, and the 49,000 souls living on the 18 islands in this little archipelago remain furiously independent. Though they are technically part of Denmark, they fought with Viking ferocity to gain self-government status and have cleverly opted out of the EU, leaving them out of the mess that is at the moment. They’ve even managed to have their own national anthem, and are hoping for full independence if the oil reserves they think are there can be developed. Right now they live by fishing, and I think I should help them out with a bit of tourism.

It seems a breathtakingly beautiful place, with similarities to Newfoundland in geography and style – green mountains end in rocky drops to the sea; residents paint their houses in multiple colours much like they do in St. Johns. Newfoundland was a big Viking place, too. Perhaps the blood that runs through the Faroese is like that of the Newfoundlanders…

Their slogan, “Mitt alfagra land” means “My fairest land” and it seems justified. I mean – look at this photo:

faroe-island

How does anything that awesome actually exist? I could look at that for a couple of days straight and still not believe it. Check out Lonely Planet’s site for more amazing photos that fill me with wanderlust.

Add the fact that the place is a haven for all sorts of migrating and northern birds, like the puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars and guillemots(they come from the auk family!), and well, I’m looking at flights now.

It seems to be a place where you can wander lonely as a cloud, but link up with wireless and get a good fish cook up after you wander.  And while you eat, you could get called into some live music or an art gallery filled with vibrant art.

Hmm. Sounds more and more like Newfoundland. Pity we can’t push these places together. They’d probably have a lot of fun with each other.

newfoundland

Newfoundland

Labrador

Labrador

Faroe on the bottom, Newfoundland and Labrador on the top

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Faroe Islands

Faroe Islands

Who wouldn’t adore Andorra?


As said in Wikipedia, “It remained in a state of belligerency until 1939” as it was not part of the Treaty of Versailles.squirrels-belligerent

I love that. They declared war against the Germans but never fought. Just were belligerent.

I’d like to see how that worked out. Did Andorrans sit about in their pubs and say things like, “Damn Germans,” and spit in their drinks? Did they practice German insults and stand on the border hurling epithets?

I’ve been belligerent in my time, but never for years on end. It could be hard on a person.

See, they don’t have an army to send, really. There’s an honour guard and they have a rule that there must be one person in every family that has to respond to country emergencies; thus each family has a gun. Maybe they use them to shoot squirrels.

an-mapAndorra is perched high in the mountains between France and Spain and is governed in an almost incomprehensible way with splits between parliament, out of country leaders and who knows what else. The origin of the country is similarly muddled with royalty messing about in it and all sorts of splitting up shenanigans. At least, I can’t understand it. They have two princes, for example, role unclear: the President of France and the Bishop of Seu D’urgell, Spain. Plus a parliamentary democracy. I’m confused.

But who cares?

It’s a tourist paradise, a tax haven, it’s filled with Alps and snow and probably edelweiss and singing nuns (though they probably sing in Spanish or French). They get 300 days of sun a year! 300! You’d be glad of a bit of shade on those dark dark 65 days of non-sun, wouldn’t you?

They have a charming, if rustic, patron saint – Our Lady of Meritxell (the name comes from some word meaning sunny pasture) – she’s the patron saint because her statue kept running away to sit under an out of season rose. The people were so startled by this they took the appearance to mean they should build a chapel on the site of the rosebush. So they did (no mention of whether they saved the rosebush) and put the statue in the chapel. The chapel burned down in 1972 but they’ve rebuilt it and made a new statue. Tourists flock, etc.vierge-meritxell

So, confusing government, confusing saint. And they speak Catalan, a language spoken only by a select few. Or French or Spanish. Or all three.

According to the Lonely Planet guide, it’s famous for skiing, shopping, and smuggling. Something about the 2000 shops in the main city. But, apparently, they are also very good at competitive roller skating.

And native Andorrans live longer than almost anywhere else in the world – average length of life is 82 years. So they must be doing something right.

It must be all that pure up high air and the sun. Mind you, you should visit soon. Apparently the tourist based economy is running on development and pretty soon the place will be overrun with condo time shares and people from colder rainy places snorting about their tax-free purchases.

Either that or lairs of evildoers and their henchmen. Even the evil like a sunny day now and again. And think of the ski chases! 06-on-her-majestys-secret-service-piz-gloria