Nothing but Camping
Travel is a very important part of my life. Growing up on the farm, then putting myself through two degrees, there certainly wasn’t much travel before my mid-twenties. I always admired my parents’ resourcefulness. They loved to travel but didn’t have much money; still, they managed a few big trips – a Caribbean cruise, two trips to Norway to see my mom’s sister and family, and several bus trips to various U.S. destinations. But mostly they satisfied their wanderlust the practical way – by camping. Local trips were often with friends – couples with kids close to my age. I have plenty of memories but two stand out …
In my early primary-school years, I was a fast runner and cleaned up in track and field. My dad was so proud that he would often pit me to race against his friends’ boys. Of course, I always won! I wonder now if he had money on me – the human equivalent of cock fighting. What I find touching about it now is that my very traditional, non-demonstrative father was truly proud of me. He showed his love very clearly in a few other ways over the years, and each time it really stuck with me. Emotionally, he was just the product of his own upbringing. Ukrainian and Polish immigrants (his father and mother respectively) weren’t known for their touchy-feely ways, after all. But he was otherwise a great father – did his best to provide for us, taught us a strong work ethic, and had lots of fun along the way. He was one of the “favourite uncles” with my cousins, one of whom recently described him as “so full of love, humour and compassion”.
My other camping memory is the five-week trip I took with my parents across Canada and back through the U.S. Being 13 and the youngest of 4 kids, I was the only one that “had to” go; the others were 18 and older and had no desire to spend 5 weeks with their parents and baby sister in a car. Who can blame them?! On the road, we played games like “I Spy” and “Crow” (an old card game that I still have) but I was often bored, so my parents assigned me the responsibility of finding the next stop and navigating us to it. My singular, laser-focused goal was to find a campground with a pool, so I could ditch my parents as soon as possible and find some kids my age to hang out with. When we got to Coquitlam, British Columbia, we quite randomly knocked on the door of my “pen pal” (yes, I really had one). She wasn’t home but her parents offered to take me across the border to Washington State, where she was camping with friends, a few days later. And so, as if we’d known them all our lives, my parents packed me off with these perfect strangers for the weekend – across the border no less! Can you imagine anyone even thinking about doing that today?? Times sure change, mostly for the better … I think.
Early Business Travel
Bangkok & Sao Paolo
After having travelled very little, and never by myself, my first business trip – at 26 – was to Bangkok for 4 ½ days … including flights!!! Needless to say, I was delirious most of the time. I didn’t “make the sale” but I did return home with two new passions – one for cooking (see Food) and the other for travel. I definitely had to go back to Thailand someday, to see more of that fascinating country, at a much more leisurely pace.
My next business trip was a year or so later to Sao Paolo, Brazil. What struck me there was the severe poverty. Just getting from my hotel to the client’s office was a very depressing obstacle course. Add to that the inherent danger for a single woman, and the Argentinean coup that poured cold water on my plan to go there next, and I came away with an entirely different take on travel.
Both trips were eye-openers for this farm girl, in very different ways. In Thailand, I saw a bustling, tropical urban paradise full of very kind and apparently happy people and amazing food – an exotic, idyllic foreign land. (Two and a half days on the ground doesn’t allow much time to see anything else.) In Brazil, I saw the opposite, but was equally fascinated. My big takeaway: the world I grew up in was a little bubble – the exception rather than the rule. I needed to see how the rest of the world turned, and how we all manage to co-exist.
Since then I’ve been to 40 more countries (excluding Canada, where I live) – some several times – and done it all, from luxury golf trips to quasi-trekking, but I prefer to go to third-world or less popular places and do something other than just “sit on a beach”.
Around the World in 100 Days
Believe it or not, after barely travelling except for my two business trips, the very next trip was an around-the-world odyssey. My husband and I had sold a business, made enough money to pay off our mortgage, and had some to spare. Knowing how much I loved Thailand, he suggested we go there. But with the business sold and my employer’s willingness to give me a leave of absence, why stop at one country? His idea of travel was to ski in Europe or golf in the UK (clearly he didn’t grow up on a farm!) but I just wanted to see the real world – experience the cultures, eat the food, …
We certainly weren’t independently wealthy, so we had to stick to a budget. As luck would have it, he had done so much business travel that he had enough frequent-flyer points for us to travel around the world – in Business Class, no less (a first for me)! Before we knew it, we were on our way to 17 countries, each with one carry-on duffle bag, for 3 ½ months in early 1991 – before, during and after the Gulf War.
To keep costs down, we stayed in very inexpensive hotels (even the YMCA in Hong Kong). But in every country, we treated ourselves to a meal at one of the best restaurants. We also ate at a McDonald’s if there was one, just to experience the different menus – a tradition I carry on to this day.
In a nutshell, we went (in order) to: Hong Kong, Macau, China, Thailand, Singapore, India, Germany, Poland, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, France, Monaco, Belgium, Norway, Scotland and England. This trip alone could be its own blog – there is so much I could say about each country – but I’ll just touch on some highlights.
Around the World
Hong Kong, Macau and China:
Johnny, Fat Boy and the Snakes
Stop #1: Hong Kong, which started almost immediately with a small-world experience. Walking in Aberdeen, we happened upon the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. Being sailors, we popped in and discovered it was race night. It was a beautiful spot with a great view, so we signed up to crew with anyone that needed us and settled in on the patio with a beer. Imagine my shock when, an hour or so later, I heard “Wendy?”. There was a fellow sailor and former colleague from Canada on the patio – wow! Fast-forward and we each crewed on a different boat with perfect strangers, returned to the club for post-race drinks, and the rest of the night is a blur.
From Hong Kong, we took a hydrofoil ferry to Macau, a living dichotomy of big, opulent casinos and utter poverty, for a brief visit. After touring around for the day, we took a bus to the Macau-China border, and our plan was to transfer to another bus for a long ride to Guangzhou. But on the Macau bus, we met a Chinese bookie (yes, that’s right) named “Johnny”. He was a fast talker and I don’t think we ever saw his eyes behind his mirrored sunglasses, but somehow he convinced us to share a cab with him instead of taking the bus. I believe the cab driver was his cousin, who he introduced as “Fat Boy”. So off we went with Johnny and Fat Boy for a 3-hour drive. Hindsight is 20-20 but really, what were we thinking?!? Fat Boy, like most other drivers in China, honked his horn several times a minute, whether he needed to or not. After a while, we just got used to it. About half-way in, Johnny suggested we stop for lunch in the village where Fat Boy lived. So we got out of the car at a “restaurant” (more like a roadside garage) and Fat Boy drove off with all our luggage in his trunk. Again, what were we thinking?? I don’t think the locals at the restaurant (all men) had ever had tourist visitors, so we were quite the spectacle. Lucky for us, Fat Boy returned and off we went to Guangzhou.
There, we stayed in the 5-star China Hotel for a ridiculously low amount of money. My husband had seen a feature on A&E about a local restaurant that specialized in snakes so, not ones to shy away from an unusual experience, we went … about 2 hours too late – the tourist section was closed. But the part where the locals ate – on the main floor, with a terrarium full of slithering snakes in the window – was open. Have I mentioned that I have a major aversion to all reptiles and amphibians? This was my husband’s dream; not mine! I was just being a good sport. The menu had every living creature you could think of, and the place smelled like a disgusting fusion of all their urine. I’m not sure why I stayed; “good sport” is an understatement. Adding to the experience, none of the servers spoke English and we certainly didn’t speak any Chinese dialect. So sign language it was! My husband literally acted out what he saw on A&E – the server bringing a small terrarium to the table for us to pick a snake, then chopping up the live snake … at the table! … and cooking it for us. I’m not sure if the server understood him or not; either way, it was a no-go, and that was fine with me! Still, they brought the snake dish to him, and a vegetarian dish to me, and both tasted fine (I had a small bite of the snake – super sport!).
But that wasn’t the end of the night. Literally stepping over and around throngs of homeless (or at least extremely poor) people, which we had also done to get to the restaurant, we stood out like beacons in the night. Soon there was a gaggle of young kids closing in on us, begging for money. To be clear, I have a great deal of compassion for the homeless and the less fortunate, but this was a big gaggle, and we were concerned that if we started giving them money, it could draw the attention of the adults on the street and perhaps turn into something very different. So, as heartbreaking as it was, we resisted, until there was just one little boy left, sitting on my husband’s foot and clinging to his leg (just as I did for fun with my dad when I was a kid). It was either give him money or take him home, so we handed him a bill and ran for the hills! I bet that kid made it out of there and is now a billionaire ☺
Around the World
Stranded at Sea
From Guangzhou we took a boat down the river back to Hong Kong, then flew to Bangkok. What a crazy city back then (and by all accounts still)! Thailand was the longest stay on our itinerary – 3 weeks. In Bangkok, we saw all the typical tourist sites – temples, the reclining Buddha, etc. But our travel philosophy was “when in Rome …” so we went to Patpong for an evening to get the full experience of one of the most extreme red-light districts in the world. It’s one of the things Bangkok was known for and we were just curious. I won’t go into great detail about that night; suffice to say we saw some things it’s hard to imagine the human body can do!
From Bangkok we headed on an overnight bus to Phuket (thank goodness we couldn’t see the sheer cliffs descending from the winding roads the bus was travelling) and just on a whim, asked around about chartering a sailboat. Soon we were off for a week on a 30-foot sloop with:
an outboard motor and 2 oars
two other couples that were strangers to each other and to us
Rupert (from Germany) was in charge of food. He was a slim young man who obviously didn’t need a lot of sustenance – so the few bananas, buns, etc. he bought had to be carefully rationed. The first night, we stopped at Koh Racha Yai – a virtual paradise with one “restaurant” but no place to stay. One couple took up an offer from a French couple on a lovely yacht, one couple slept on our boat, and we slept in a tent on the beach with ghost crabs scurrying around under us.
Next stop was supposed to be Koh Phi Phi (famous later for the movie “The Beach” and the 2004 tsunami) but we discovered that the winds in that area calmed down to nothing every day like clockwork at 1pm, and there was no chance we could get there with our little motor by the end of the day. Okay, no problem – let’s just motor over to the nearest sign of civilization. We saw an island with what looked like a few roof-tops so we chose it as our destination. That would have been a great idea … if the motor had worked. Instead we had to take turns laying on our stomachs on the deck and paddling. Hours later and with no food, we tied up at a big mooring ball and a man came whizzing out on a small power boat, asking what we were up to. We explained that “we’d like a hotel and a restaurant, please”. LOL! This island was a construction site; the workers and their families lived wherever they could and fended for themselves. Luckily the people – like most Thais – were super-friendly and just thrilled that they had their very first visitors. We loaded up our sleeping bags and clothes, and hitched a ride to shore, where the supervisor kindly put us up on cots on the deck of his office/cabin … which also happened to have a fridge full of beer! The workers eagerly rustled up food for us and we ate it all – including entire fish, head and all – gratefully. Then, just as we were about to burst from all the beer and food, a man ran in, beyond excited to show us the (still-alive) squid he had caught for us. It would have been very rude to turn him away, so after we all got to feel its tentacles sucking onto our arms, he cut it up and cooked it on a little grill. I have to say, that meal is one of the most memorable and delicious I’ve ever had. Sometimes it’s just about the circumstances.
Fast-forward to the next morning after sleeping next to a very loud generator. We had assumed the supervisor would give us a lift back to our boat, which was a fair distance offshore (where the water was deep enough for ships bringing construction supplies). But he was gone! As we all know, necessity is the mother of invention. One of the guys swam out and back with our little plastic dinghy, which we loaded with all our stuff. Two of the guys swam it out, with Rupert spread-eagle on top to keep the stuff from falling off. Then one more round trip to pick up the women. The men were (rightfully) exhausted before we even started! We did make it to Koh Phi Phi that day before the wind died down, and we bee-lined it to a restaurant on the beach, where we scarfed down six big meals, then ordered another round of the same.
The sail back from Koh Phi Phi to Phuket was one for the books – straight down-wind like a smooth rocket – absolutely exhilarating! And just as soon as we got off the boat, my husband and I caught a ferry back to Koh Phi Phi for another week in a hut on the beach with a gravity toilet, netted bed and nothing else – pure heaven!
Around the World
Splendour and Squalor
Just as we were thinking it couldn’t get any better (after a brief stay in Singapore) we arrived in Delhi. Here, like most stops on the trip, we had no hotel reservation. It was never a problem – we always found something – but I’m not sure I’d be so brave now. India is not a country you ever want to drive in on your own, so we hired a driver and toured the “Golden Triangle” – Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. The size, history and absolute splendour of the forts and palaces is mind-blowing. There are few other places in the world that compare (although Rome, Athens and Istanbul do come to mind). Of course, the grande dame of them all is the Taj Mahal. It’s a world-famous site for good reason: the story of its creation and the end result – literally a bejewelled work of art more than a building.
Juxtaposed to all that splendour is the utter poverty surrounding it. In that part of India (and in most others) tourists should be prepared for a bombardment of street vendors, beggars, mongrels and cows roaming the streets, people defecating in public, and even some maimed bodies (just as described in the book "A Fine Balance"). But none of it is frightening; it’s just the way it is – a hustling, bustling, every-man-for-himself existence in the midst of all that splendour – utterly fascinating, in my opinion.
India was so special to us that 16 years later, we returned with our children, spending a week in the Golden Triangle and then heading to Kerala in south-western India. When we told our friends that our family vacation was to India, most of them looked puzzled and asked “Why?”. I say, “Why not?”. We North Americans (well, many of us) live in a bubble of sorts. Our way of life is not the norm. Instead of heading to an all-inclusive hotel in the Caribbean, or a golf/ski trip, or a cruise, why not go somewhere completely different and see what life is like outside the bubble? You’ll return enlightened and grateful for the life you have.
Around the World
Berlin, Warsaw and Krakow
The Eastern European Leg
From India, we travelled to Berlin, just over a year after the wall came down (and less than 6 months after the official reunification of East and West Germany). Not surprisingly, it was still really two cities – a lively, colourful western metropolis across a grassy gap from a sea of drab, grey blocks. Of course, we ventured into “eastern Berlin” but there was very little to do or see. What stood out to us was the stark difference in cultures and the utter lack of customer service on the east side. Again, none of this is surprising, and I’m sure it’s very different now; it was the extreme dichotomy – a surreal mashing together of two completely different worlds – that was so fascinating. Our timing there was purely coincidental but I’m glad we saw it when we did.
Next stop was Warsaw, Poland. I hadn’t properly packed for the cold, rainy weather we encountered through the Eastern European leg of the trip and so there we were, shopping for boots and long underwear in a country that was just exiting the communist era. The better part of a day later, I had the only pair of boots I could find in my size (fashion be damned) and a most awesome set of long underwear that I used for skiing for years to come. The WWII history we took in was almost too much to bear, particularly in Krakow, where we toured the Auschwitz concentration camp. I won’t go into detail about what we saw but suffice to say it was utterly haunting.
Around the World
Life is Good
From Krakow we headed back to Western Europe – Austria, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, …. The train ride to Vienna, through Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), felt like a scene from “Midnight Express” – guards abruptly waking us in our sleeper car to check our passports, and constantly feeling on edge. After a brief stay in Vienna (a most civilized, high-brow place) we went on to:
Venice, Italy – fascinating for all the obvious reasons
Courmayeur, Italy – 5 days of skiing during which the fog was so heavy, I swear I never saw the tips of my skis
Zermat, Switzerland – 3 more days of skiing in bright sunshine and an unexpected dump of a meter of fresh powder – absolute heaven
Paris, Dijon, and Monaco – good food, good wine, good life
Brussels, Belgium – 3 days with friends in their apartment – exhale!
Around the World
Norway, Scotland & England
Familiar Faces and Special Memories
From Europe, it was on to Norway – not just because it’s a beautiful country full of wonderful people, but also because some of those wonderful people are my cousins. The back story here is worth telling … During World War II, my mother’s sister Phyllis (we called her Aunt Phil) met her future husband – a Norwegian pilot training on Toronto Island or “Little Norway” (the Norwegian air force had fled when the Germans invaded, and Canada welcomed them with open arms). They were married in Canada, then went on to London, England. With her husband training outside of London, Aunt Phil became a Norwegian citizen, joined the Norwegian air force, worked in the air force office, and (of course) learned the Norwegian language. Still during the war, she learned she was expecting a child (my cousin, Erik) and so returned to Canada by ship (she was given a temporary Officer’s rank so she could travel in relative comfort), had the baby, stayed for over 2 years, and eventually returned by ship to Oslo to reunite with her husband. This abbreviated version of the story really doesn’t do it justice, though hopefully it explains why I have Norwegian relatives but no Norwegian heritage.
I always looked up to Aunt Phil, who came back to Canada several times to visit when I was young. Clearly, she was smart and adventurous. What struck me was that she was also both principled and fun. She expected her nieces and nephews to behave properly and we knew exactly where we stood with her. But as long as we stayed within bounds, the jokes and levity abounded, and her big, infectious laugh is seared in my memory.
The week we spent in Norway will always be a special memory for me. We saw all the sights, played great music, ate a traditional Norwegian meal every night, cross-country skied on a glorious sunny day, and spent loads of quality time talking and laughing. Before that, I knew Erik, but not well (we lived worlds apart and he is about 20 years my senior) and I barely knew his wife or his sons. But now I can honestly say I’m closer with him and his family than I am with any of my other relatives. The bond we forged during that trip will last a lifetime. Since then I’ve returned to see them three more times and will most certainly go again, as often as I can. On one occasion, I brought stacks of letters I had found in my parents’ home, from Aunt Phil to my mother and grandmother, mostly from England during the war. Giving Erik that direct insight into his parents’ lives before he was born was one of the best moments of my life, and I know it meant the world to him. (Footnote: Just as I finished writing this, the song “Norwegian Wood” started playing – coincidence???)
From Oslo we moved on to Edinburgh, Scotland, where we stayed with a lovely couple – Doug and Betty (or as they would say, Doogy and Bette) – who were related to a former co-worker of my husband. We didn’t know these people from Adam but they welcomed us like we were life-long friends. One memory that stands out is their myna bird, which they had trained to talk. Doug had an office at one end of the house that could only be reached from outside. Every day when lunch was ready, Betty would open the back door and call out to him. The bird learned to mimic her, and so all she had to do was open the door with the bird on her shoulder, and he would literally scream “Doogy!!!!!”. To this day, it cracks me up.
Three months and 16 countries behind us, we ended the trip in England – first London, then Cornwall. It was a perfect finale to this odyssey – spending quality time with my best friend, who lived there with her husband, and seeing a part of England that is so unique!
It all sounds so extravagant but, as I said at the beginning, this trip really didn’t cost much. We were lucky to have the frequent-flyer points and were frugal throughout. Seeing so much of the world at once just solidified my love of travel and set the stage for a lifelong quest to see it all.
Habitat for Humanity
Looking for a fulfilling way to see the world?
Several years ago, my husband and I did a formal financial-planning exercise. Some of the questions we were asked took some “soul searching” – how did we want to spend our time and money? Until then I hadn’t thought much about charity, but then I had a moment of clarity (poetry unintended) – I did not want my life’s work to be solely so my children could have an easy life. I wanted to give back, not just by donating to charities but by contributing in a tangible way. There are many wonderful charities/NGOs in the world, but I connected with the philosophy behind Habitat for Humanity (HFH). I have a bit of an affinity for home-repair projects (I used to tell my kids the cordless drill was mine – not their dad’s) and I’m not a stranger to hard manual labour, so the idea of spending a week or so helping to build housing for a deserving family was appealing.
Our first HFH build was in Prince Edward Island, Canada – dipping our toes in the water in a way, before venturing further afield. Half of the 14 people in the group had done several other builds in various countries. They cautioned us not to let PEI set our expectations for future builds. We were finishing one house – trimming, painting, etc. – and starting another, with all the modern resources a first-world country has to offer, and dining every night on fresh seafood; not exactly a big hardship (other than the mosquito swarms and red sand that covered us at the end of each day) but nonetheless, we got a good sense of the HFH model.
A few years later, now as a single woman travelling alone, I did another HFH build in Romania (more on that trip, which ended in Spain, in Romania & Spain: Eat, Pray, No Love). There it was a small group of 6 Canadians, staying in modest but clean accommodations and working every day on tying rebar and pouring cement for a four-plex foundation. That’s truly all we did all week – in the cold and rain most of the time. Surprisingly we were not completely exhausted at the end of each day. In Romania, as it was in PEI and I suspect on every HFH build, there was just enough time to shower, change, get back in the bus/van, and go out for dinner and sometimes a little tour. The local hosts were wonderful; they showed us the sights, brought a bit of levity to the drudgery of our daily jobs, and generally just did their very best to look after us.
On these two builds, I’ve met some amazing people that have done HFH builds all over the world, and I plan to become one of those people. Travelling this way is so much more enlightening than as a typical tourist; you learn what life is really like for the people there, and it’s usually not what the tourist brochures say. And although I have yet to carry buckets of adobe mud up a hill in a sweltering slum, bunk in a hut with no running water and eat basic home-cooked food, my two experiences have given me a taste of the variety of amazing experiences awaiting me.
Where should my next HFH build be?
Tanzania: Amazing Creatures and the Underwater Hotel
Is a safari on your bucket list? Maybe it should be.
I was very lucky to have a job that took me to some faraway places and allowed me to extend my business trips with vacations. And my husband was lucky, if I do say so myself, to have a wife with a job like mine ☺ One such extended business trip started in Dubai – to be honest, not a place that was on my bucket list, because I prefer to visit places that are a little more “real world”. But then I guess Dubai is in fact “real world” in a sense – the real glitzy, man-made, oversized world. Even so, we appreciated the chance to experience it.
Our challenge was to choose a place to vacation after Dubai. Asia was just a little too far for the time we had available, and we’d been there and done most of Europe (first-world problem) so we picked another part of the world that was not on our bucket list but perhaps should have been – Africa. I’m really not sure why a safari had not appealed to me until then. “Why not, though?”, I thought. At least I’d either confirm or deny my lack of interest. And much to my surprise, I LOVED those 6 days! We visited three different parts of Tanzania: Tarangire National Park, Manyara & Ngorongoro Parks, and the Serengeti. Each place was unique from the others, in terms of both accommodations and wildlife.
One of many highlights was the Tarangire Treetops lodge. Each room was a private treehouse, nestled in the trunk and branches of one of the enormous resident trees. A Maasai guide escorted us to our treehouse, carrying our bags up a narrow spiral staircase and instructing us not to open the trap door at the top of the stairs under any circumstances. For the next two nights we learned why – elephants and all kinds of other creatures roamed the grounds and would have welcomed the opportunity to visit our treehouse. Sitting in the dark, listening to the elephants breaking down trees and bushes (but never really seeing them), was both fascinating and scary – they are powerful beasts not to be taken for granted. During the day, elephants, zebras, etc. freely lounged right beside the restaurant, and some even jumped the natural barrier to drink from the pool!
Another highlight was the Lemala Ewanjan Tented Camp. Here, like at the Treetops lodge, we had to be escorted at night by Maasai guides if we wanted to leave our tent, which was equipped with a flashlight to signal a guide and an airhorn to sound if we were in danger – a comforting welcome !#$%
I’m normally a very good sleeper, but it was a little hard to relax knowing that the only thing separating us from the nearby lions (which occasionally let out a powerful roar) was a (albeit heavy-duty) zippered screen. One night, we got the distinct impression that something big was happening, and the next morning we learned that the lions had taken down an impala … literally half a kilometer from our tent! I lay there thinking, “What the ___ are we doing?” But then I thought, “Many thousands of people before us have done this, and probably only a small handful have not made it through, so suck it up, buttercup!”
But the biggest highlight, of course, was the wildlife. Just when we thought we’d seen it all, another unique creature would appear. It was a humbling experience, realizing just how small and insignificant I was in the grand scheme of things. And I’m so glad I did it! I’d go back for another safari – maybe next time to South Africa – in a heartbeat.
From the safari, we flew over to Zanzibar – the former Arab slave-trading centre, primarily inhabited by Muslims, that merged with Tanganyika (a primarily Christian, Swahili country) in 1964 to create the United Republic of Tanzania. The cultural differences were glaring.
One of my favourite things to see when I travel is the local market (or bazaar). In many countries, there are no hygiene standards whatsoever. Many from the western world couldn’t fathom life in such a place. But the way I figure it, it’s all relative; the locals’ immune systems have adapted and can tolerate the bacteria. I’ve seen some borderline gruesome sights at these markets – skinned dogs and live cats in China, every organ you can think of in Peru – and the Stone Town (Zanzibar City) market is tied for number one, if not the winner, for the most extreme. I wouldn’t dare share some of the pictures I took; these are just mild teasers.
After a few days in Stone Town, we flew again to Pemba, another island in the archipelago. Not being your typical tourists, we had found the Manta Resort’s underwater room. It wasn’t cheap, so one night is all we booked, but it was truly one of the most memorable nights of my life. It’s sort of like a houseboat with a basement. The main floor is comprised of a living area, small kitchen and bathroom. The bedroom, which you get to by climbing down a narrow tunnel, is like a “reverse aquarium” – humans on the inside and fish on the outside. And the top deck features an open-air bed. If I slept at all, it was only for a few minutes; sleeping would have been such a waste! We just kept moving from one spot to another, soaking it all in. There wasn’t a sound to be heard and the starry sky went on forever; It felt like we were at the end of the earth. To add to the intrigue, there was a guard in a small boat off to one side, very quietly spending the night there, ensuring our safety from pirates (or locals?).
Not many people can say they’ve done something like this. I’m grateful for the amazing experience!
Romania & Spain: Eat, Pray, No Love
Travelling solo – good to try … once?
After becoming a single, unemployed orphan, I decided to just “live a little”. I had a tentative plan to start a new business but realized it wasn’t a good idea. That left me with ….. nothing! So I did all kinds of things on my bucket list: spent a week at an awesome spa resort in Arizona, went with friends to Roatan (an amazing Honduran island) and discovered the best Toronto bars for live music and dancing, to name a few. Then I decided to take a one-month trip to Europe. I would have been happy for a friend to join me but that didn’t happen, so I went on my own. I’m certainly not unique – many people travel alone – but this was a first for me and so it was an important turning point. As I discuss in Habitat for Humanity (HFH), I first went to Romania on a HFH build. There, the eating was not particularly noteworthy, but the warm-and-fuzzy satisfaction of working hard to build housing for very deserving people (mostly single mothers) certainly felt like a bit of a “spiritual awakening”. And it goes without saying, there was no love.
From Romania, I travelled to Madrid, where I spent 3 days in a small apartment near the main square – Plaza Mayor. First, I stocked up on basics – eggs, coffee, toilet paper, etc. – at a nearby grocery store, and then I just started wandering around. I hate to admit it but, when you’ve travelled a lot, the typical tourist attractions just aren’t as compelling as they once were. And this trip was not about sightseeing; it was about experiencing life – eating, praying, and maybe loving. As luck would have it for a music lover, the Fiesta San Isidro was happening then, and there was plenty of great live entertainment at Plaza Mayor. Serendipity, I say! And the tapas – mmm! Those three days helped me reset – after spending a week with five other Canadians in Romania, this was the transition I needed before heading to San Sebastian.
Then all aboard for the long train ride through beautiful northern Spain. Every place I’ve been – every journey big or small – leaves an imprint that will be with me for life. I just look out the window and soak it all in.
Arriving in San Sebastian for an eleven-day stay, again I stocked up my lovely 2-bedroom apartment in the old town, then began exploring. I had chosen San Sebastian for two reasons: it was recommended as a nice, small city where I could just “live” for a bit, and the MIMO cooking school was there (more on that in Food). It turned out to be not quite as quaint as I expected but that’s okay – live and learn. Besides, my trip was much shorter than Julia Roberts’ (Elizabeth Gilbert’s) epic journey.
Each day at cooking school, I met wonderful people and often made arrangements to go out with them in the evening. When I was alone though, it became easier and easier to justify staying in and languishing in loneliness. It took some work, but I always managed to pull myself off the couch and away from Netflix (although I did see some excellent documentaries!) and go out to a few pintxo bars. I’m fairly outgoing, but walking into a place by yourself, looking like that’s exactly what you want to be doing, is quite uncomfortable. The strategy I used was to listen for anyone speaking English, approach them and ask where they were from. If I didn’t quickly find someone to connect with, I’d move on to the next place. And if after a few tries I had no luck, I’d return to my apartment.
But once there, I’d tell myself, “The night is so young – you shouldn’t be here”. So I searched for and found a few good live-music venues, including a very cool little jazz club. Jazz is not my thing, but why not?! It expanded my horizons a bit.
I doubt that I’ll ever do such a long trip on my own again, but I’m glad I did it. Ultimately, the eating was awesome, and you could say there was some praying … Two out of three ain’t bad!
Vietnam and Cambodia
Planes, Trains, Automobiles and Tasty Critters with G Adventures
After my “eat, pray, no love” tour to Romania and Spain, I concluded that long trips on my own aren’t my thing. So when I realized I had an opening in my schedule but very little time to plan, let alone to find a friend who could drop everything and leave home for three weeks, I thought of G Adventures. My husband and I had gone to Peru with G Adventures five years earlier and it was a terrific experience. Now, Vietnam and Cambodia were at the top of my bucket list, so it was a stroke of luck when the first tour I saw on the G website was a 17-day tour of those countries!
I can’t say enough about G Adventures; it’s a Canadian company with a terrific model. The G website, which offers tours to a huge number of destinations with a variety of travel styles and activity levels, is super easy to use. But more importantly, G Adventures has a conscience. Their Responsible Travel policy of acting responsibly and creating positive impact makes each tour a very fulfilling experience. Our tour, for example, included a visit to Oodles of Noodles in Hoi An, Vietnam, a culinary-arts program offered by STREETS International in partnership with the Planeterra Foundation, G Adventure’s NGO dedicated to ensuring communities touched by tourism benefit from the opportunities it provides. We also visited New Hope Cambodia, an organization supported by G Adventures and Planeterra, among others, whose goal is to transform the lives of impoverished children and youth in Mondul Bai Village in Siem Reap, by providing free education, health care and community support. Seeing how these programs could have such a significant, positive impact on the future for the people of this developing world was heart-warming.
But G adventures are also about sightseeing, fun and education. On top of the amazing sights we saw (too many to name), our tour offered plenty of optional activities: kayaking and exploring an enormous cave in Ha Long Bay, a motorbike ride through the countryside near Hue, cooking class, cycling in and around Hoi An, lantern making, quad driving in the Siem Reap countryside, etc. We rode just about every type of vehicle you can imagine – motorbikes, bicycles and quads, plus planes, large and small boats, an overnight (local) train, buses, vans, tuk tuks and cyclos (an old form of transportation introduced by the French during their colonization of Indochina).
On a serious note, we also learned about the strife and atrocities endured by the people of these two beautiful counties through our visits to the War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, and the killing fields and S-21 interrogation/torture center in Phnom Penh.
What struck me most was the resilience of the people after so much suffering. Everywhere we went, we met people who shared their stories about how they had been directly impacted. On our motorbike tour, we visited “Bunker Hill”, a famous battle site in the Vietnam War (or, as the Vietnamese see it, the American War). Our guide, Von, the owner of Local Motorbike Tours, told us how he had lost a brother, for example, to a land mine years after the war ended. Our guide for the tour of the killing fields and S-21 told us that 48 of his relatives died during the Pol Pot / Khmer Rouge genocide (in which 1.5 to 2 million people were killed from 1975 to 1979).
As a result of their past, both countries have very young populations. Vietnam now has a communist/socialist government and Cambodia is technically a kingdom but really a dictatorship. No matter what you call them, they both strictly prohibit speaking out against the government. The people are well aware of their governments’ corruption and that they deserve more freedom, but after all they’ve been through, they’re just happy to have peace. They are friendly, kind people who really hustle to make a living.
When I travel, I subscribe to the “when in Rome …” theory: I do my best to experience that country as they live, including eating their typical food (although I do try McDonald’s “cuisine” just for fun – I find it interesting to see the different menu items and to see if the burgers taste the same). On this trip, our Cambodian guide, Kosal, arranged a home-cooked meal at a family’s home, and welcomed us to his own home for a meal with his wife and adorable young boys. He also introduced us to the street foods he was accustomed to eating, and much to even my own surprise, I tried them all: pig’s ear, intestine and tongue, frog, tarantula legs, red jungle ants, crickets, silkworms, and even unhatched duck egg (hard-boiled and served with vinegar, cucumber, etc.). Many North Americans would cringe at the thought of eating these things. But remember that Cambodians went through years of hell, during which they had to eat anything that was edible to survive. And they found creative ways to make these otherwise unappealing things taste quite good!
All in all, this trip ranks among the best I’ve ever taken. And that’s saying something, given that these two countries were #44 and 45 for me. This kind of trip may not be for everyone, but if it might be for you, I highly recommend it. And even if it’s not, check out G Adventures; they have something for everyone.
Adventure the safe way
Several years ago, at an industry conference in Whistler, British Columbia, I took the opportunity to go ziplining for an afternoon with a few friends and colleagues. Little did we know we were starting with one of the most extreme zipline experiences in the world! I’m pretty much game for anything within reason, so I wasn’t nervous, but I’m sure a couple of my friends regretted committing to that extracurricular activity. Their fear was both frustrating and entertaining. What I discovered that day is that ziplining gives me an exhilarating adrenaline rush. If I lived near a ziplining facility, I’d do it regularly. In the case of Whistler, you travel at speeds of well over 100 km/hour across some enormous mountain valleys. If you can accept the fact that it’s perfectly safe, the feeling is worth its weight in gold, IMO.
Since then, I’ve taken every opportunity to zipline wherever it’s available – including with my family in St. Lucia (from tree to tree in the jungle) and with my husband in Cuzco, Peru (across a river). But none has compared to Whistler. So in 2019, at the same industry conference, I jumped at the chance to do it again. And it was all I expected it to be!
I don’t know where or when I’ll zipline again, but I can assure you I will.
Never Let Desperation Trump Logic
As I say in Why Me, they don’t call me Wendy Brittle for nothing. In my twenties, my husband and I joined his family in Florida for the holidays. Like most would, we assumed the weather would be hot (or at least warm) and sunny … but no; it was so cold (close to freezing) that there were power brown-outs due to the abnormal load on the system by people heating their homes. On Christmas day, we had to strategically time the cooking of the turkey – first-world problem. Needless to say, the typical Florida outdoor activities were not an option, so my sister-in-law had a “brilliant idea” – let’s go horseback riding!!
Having grown up on a farm, I had done a little riding – mostly bareback on our little pony and a few times on neighbours’ horses – but I was certainly not a skilled rider.
Off we went to a ranch she found that had just enough horses for the seven of us – perfect! Being a nice person, I stood back and let the other six get their assignments, which left the last horse in the barn – Bobby Sue – for me. As she gave instructions to the group, the ranch owner casually mentioned that Bobby Sue had had a colt or two recently and had not been ridden for about two years. Right from the start, it was clear that this was not the best-quality operation, but we were committed and needed something – anything – to do. So I didn’t protest.
Once we were all tackled up (is that how they say it?) and ready to go, it was glaringly obvious that Bobby Sue was not happy about leaving her child behind; she was feisty and hard to handle. Meanwhile, my husband’s horse barely moved. He could see that I was challenged by Bobby Sue and offered to switch, but I declined – I was no femme fatale that needed to be rescued by a man! Bad decision. Instead, I suggested that if I started Bobby Sue running, his horse would naturally follow. And with barely a nudge, off she went. I was so proud of myself – what a brilliant idea! I looked back to confirm that he was following but he was nowhere to be found. I tried to stop Bobby Sue so I could go back to my husband and the others, but Bobby Sue had another plan. As she ran faster and faster, it was clear that she was headed back to the barn and that nothing – no amount of pulling in the reins or yelling “whoa” – would change her mind.
As she galloped at race-horse speed, I saw that that the path, bordered by a tall corral fence, took a sharp turn ahead, and I just knew I wouldn’t be able to hold on. Here’s what went through my mind: According to the law of inertia, the horse is going to turn and I’m going to keep going straight, right into that corral fence. So if I relax as I fly off the horse – like a crash-test dummy – then maybe I won’t be too badly injured.
Indeed, I flew off Bobby Sue, hit the top of the fence at waste level, folded over, rebounded and fell to the ground in a v-sit. Unfortunately, the crash-test-dummy strategy didn’t play out as expected, evidenced by the very loud and clear sound of a bone cracking. As I lay on the ground, a farm-hand came running to me and said, “Oh no! Your foot’s in a fire ant hill! Let me move it.” “Don’t … touch … me,” I said, my lungs struggling from having the wind knocked out of them. My husband and the others soon came running to me, and desperately tried to stop the ants from their steady march up my shin, under my jeans, as we waited for the ambulance to arrive.
The rest of the story is rather anticlimactic. It was quickly confirmed at the hospital that I had broken my pelvis in half. I was weirdly grateful for the many ant bites; they were a great distraction from the broken pelvis. I spent a week in the Florida hospital, another week at my in-laws’ place, and more than a month back home using crutches and a wheelchair. I had been told by one doctor that I would walk “with a gimp” for the rest of my life but luckily, he was wrong. The worst part of it all was the itchy welts left behind by the fire ants; it was more than a year before they faded.
Moral of the story: Never let desperation trump logic … and never trust a horse named Bobby Sue!