A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: madrugada

African Adventure

Visiting Family, Friends, and the Falls!

sunny 30 °C

Once again I found myself recently single right before a trip abroad – I’m not sure whether this is my new “good luck” pre-travel charm, or just a reflection of lousy life choices. In any case, it was adieu and bon voyage to that past! In fact, my future began in London, England where I spent the first day of my trip visiting with an old university friend who I hadn’t seen in a number of years. Arriving in London proper after flying into Heathrow is very easy, as you have the option to catch the tube (at a regular price and speed) or you can catch an express train to Paddington. I opted for the regular route and met my friend at Piccadilly Circus on what must have been the sunniest day London has ever seen. In fact, it was so sunny and warm (especially for a February day), that I’m sure some of the locals ended up with sunburns. Thanks to the uncharacteristic weather, we were able to grab falafel in Soho and picnic in a churchyard. We also managed to wander by the National Gallery, Queen’s Stables, Prime Minister’s Residence (10 Downing St), Westminster Abbey and over the bridge to catch a great glimpse of Big Ben in all his timely splendour. London is a great city for a quick getaway because you can so easily get around, either by metro or on foot.

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The strangest thing about catching up with old friends in new contexts is trying to balance the desire to explore while also having the privacy to listen intimately to the other person. When you have a limited amount of time, as travellers do, you want to immerse yourself in the other person because you never know when you’ll see this person again and a superficial chat seems to dishonour the opportunity presented. In this case, I felt fortunate to be able to engage with him on some of the major political changes happening these days like Brexit (especially since he’s a foreign national living in England), and the current state of US politics. It’s always interesting to hear different perspectives on major topics – it becomes too easy to see the world from your own local view, and a trip abroad can certainly help disrupt that short-sighted vista.

After my quick trip to London, I was ready for more sun and hotter politics in southern Africa. To get to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, I had to fly through Johannesburg, South Africa, which is fine because it was a nice opportunity to grab a peppermint crisp and some biltong to keep myself satiated on my next flight. The arrival in Victoria Falls takes you by surprise because as soon as you exit the airport there’s a troupe of men ready to perform a song and dance for you dressed in (what I can only assume is) traditional gear. Oh, and this is after you’ve walked by the embalmed lion eating a buck who’s wearing a huge printed sign that says “don’t touch”! It definitely gets you wondering what you’re in for…

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We had booked our tour through Jenman Travel, and chosen to stay at Ilala Lodge – both turned out to be great choices. The hotel was stunning, with gorgeous grounds that spread into the wild. In fact, we saw baboons and warthogs basically in our backyard! The service at the hotel was phenomenal, and the food was innovative and tasty. That being said, I learned quickly that crocodile is meant to be feared and not eaten.

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Speaking of crocodile, one of the highlights of our time in Zimbabwe was a cruise of the Zambezi River on the Ra-Ikane. The boat was named after the man who assisted David Livingstone in his exploration of the area, and we definitely got a taste of what they may have seen when we spotted huge hippos emerging from the still waters on numerous occasions. We were also lucky enough to spot dinner - I mean crocodiles - gliding by. One of the most stunning parts of the cruise was seeing the mist from Victoria Falls. It’s truly magnificent. It also helped that there was an open bar, and so everything I saw felt that much more breathtaking thanks to the endless stream of G&Ts. The boat was limited to about 15 people, which meant it was far more intimate but also more invasive when my sister and I took selfies and the older people gawked like we were wild animals. All in all, I would be happy to cruise through life on the Ra-Ikane.

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The town of Victoria Falls itself is very small, but surprisingly has two snake pits that are fully stocked with the latest and greatest cobras and pythons to make any snake charmer’s dreams come true. We decided to split our time in the town between shopping and snakes. At the Snake Pit in town we learned all about live births vs. laying eggs, snake vision, and how to respond to local snakes you may see in the wild there (like green mambas, cobras or puff adders). I was also able to hold a Burmese Python and a Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake. It was a unique opportunity, and I used it to discover that both my sister and my mom are incredibly afraid of snakes. These are important facts to keep in mind for future trips, or just April Fools’ Day. In terms of shopping, we went to Elephant’s Walk, which is basically the main drag for curios and souvenirs. I really enjoyed wandering the booths and looking at the artwork, although there was quite a bit of duplication. There’s also a tent with a number of “stalls” just behind the main shopping area where you can find good deals on similar goods. I wish I had thought more about what goods people would need there, because there really is a lot of need. Whenever we bought an item, the vendor would ask us if we could give him pens, clothing, anything really. It’s an important reminder that even the people who have jobs are suffering there, which says something about the majority who are unemployed. We were able to get a great deal of insight into what it’s like to live there considering that my mom is from there, and one of her friends (along with her family) spent time with us. They talked to us about the cash withdrawal limits from the banks, the checkpoints, and also the Cecil the Lion controversy (and poaching in general).

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One of the more historic buildings in the town is the Victoria Falls Hotel, built in 1904. It was originally built to help house the workers for the Cape to Cairo railroad (which was never completed). From the hotel you can walk to the Lookout Café, which is the base for a lot of the adventure tourism in the area. It’s helpful to have a guide walk with you though, unless you have your own method of dealing with the feisty baboons in the bush. Once we were seated in the café, I noticed that we had a clear view of the various zip lining activities, including the gorge swing (which probably came with a warning not to eat for the day prior). After careful consideration I chose to zipline. I also essentially signed away my life to “venomous insects, unpredictable wildlife, rope failure” and a plethora of other fun ways to die. Before I dove off the cliff (Superman style), I asked the man to check my ropes probably about three times because not only was I nervous but I had the entire restaurant as my audience, including my sister’s phone. Shortly after the third check-in, I decided to go ahead and dive. Unfortunately, I wasn’t brave enough and instead I just ran off the cliff and then got jerked down by the harness, a tough wake-up call that I needed to look down and remember that I was 125 metres up. It was the most serene feeling flying through the air and seeing the rapids below and Victoria Falls to the left. I truly felt light, like I had overcome fear. And then I had to turn around once I got close to the Zambian cliff. The cable was pulling me backward and another cable had twisted around my leg so I somehow managed to unhook that and turn myself around to grab on to another cable in order to be pulled back to the Zimbabwean side. Once I got to land, I crawled back to the station and then slowly stood up. I felt like I’d been thrown back to childhood – everything was curious, and I’d never felt more excited… or incapable of controlling my muscles. After greeting the adoring crowd, also known as the fellow patrons who clearly thought I had lost my mind when I jumped off that cliff, I sat down to have a sip of water before we headed off to the bridge to Zambia.

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The one thing I haven’t really talked about so far when describing Victoria Falls would be… the waterfalls! And that’s for good reason. Doesn’t everyone know that you’re supposed to save the best for last? Seeing the falls, from every angle, made me understand how people literally worship nature. I couldn’t pull myself away from the lush greenery, the thunder of the falls, and the ethereal rainbows. I felt like the trees were even bowing in honour to the cascades. I think the most beautiful view of the falls is from the bridge to Zambia (it’s a must-see vantage point, but make sure you take your passport and double check whether you’ll need double entry visas when you first arrive in Zimbabwe), but I’m really glad we also walked through the national park and saw them from those angles. Word to the wise though: do not expect to take photos when you’re that close. My sister’s camera was destroyed – and of course it happened on the first day of our trip. The benefit of the mist being so intense is that you get to watch people get trapped inside ponchos as they desperately scramble to cover themselves from the misty rain. I know from experience. I took a classic photo of a group of tourists taking photos of my mom having a fight with a poncho while the guide tried hopelessly to help her.

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When visiting Victoria Falls, it pays to visit the National Park. The cost is pretty low considering how beautiful the views are, and there are some interesting plaques full of historical facts and figures for your consideration as you stroll. A major difference between Victoria Falls and Niagara Falls, one of the top 3 waterfalls in the world too, is the amount of development surrounding the natural area. Niagara Falls has degraded itself into a tourist trap complete with haunted houses and casinos at every corner, while Victoria Falls has remained untapped and undeveloped – you won’t even find barriers to prevent you from tripping over the edge of the cliffs. It should be fairly obvious which approach I prefer.

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On our last night in Victoria Falls, we went to watch a show at the Victoria Falls Hotel. I’m glad that I decided to spray myself with more mosquito-repellant than usual; however, I made a foolish choice by not wearing pants. I have never seen more mosquitoes out and about as I did that evening – it’s like we’d intruded on their party... and we brought the drinks! The show itself was interesting: there were circumcision dances, as well as dances about white farmers. I won’t get into the origins of the dances or any real commentary, because I really don’t have a clue about where the dances were coming from or what they symbolized (aside from the basic description provided by our server, whose name was “Anytime” – and yes, he was available at any time). The dinner was buffet style, and I managed to try sadza, a local corn meal dish, as well as a number of dishes containing pumpkin (common in local cuisine). While leaving the hotel it’s a good idea to stroll by the Larry Norton Gallery. His artwork is stunning! And no, I do not receive commission.

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Leaving Zimbabwe was difficult because it meant that my mom had to say goodbye to her friend of almost 5 decades not knowing if they’d see each other again. It’s hard leaving people in unstable situations. I won’t go into detail about the politics in the region, but suffice it to say that it is far from reassuring. I think this trip did a lot of good for my mom though because it was her first time being back in her homeland since she left in her 20s (a long time ago, as you can imagine). She was able to reminisce about areas like Inyanga and Harare, while also enjoying Victoria Falls like a tourist. I think it takes courage to step into your past understanding that it’s no longer your present, and that’s what she did. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country teeming with wildlife (last year 5 people were killed by elephants and a lion around Victoria Falls alone), but also deeply disturbed by its colonized past and its corrupt present. I hope things change for the better, because it seems like it’s been settled in the ashes for too long.

We flew through Joburg again to get to Cape Town, where my family live. I’ve noticed that the Joburg airport seems much safer compared to trips through there in previous years. I was quite startled upon arrival in Cape Town to find that my father had a swollen forehead and a great big gash on his face. It turns out that he had fallen hard on concrete, and hit his head. Fortunately, he didn’t suffer any major damage but it was jarring to see the impact nonetheless. This trip, more than any other, made me realize the value of having a comprehensive travel insurance package. My mother also had an accident resulting in fractures and stitches, and I myself had a medical incident resulting in my disembarking a plane (with some very frustrating British Airways staff “assisting” me) and rebooking another flight for the next day through Dubai. I can’t stress enough the quality of assistance provided by the insurance company. No one wants to get sick or injured on their trip, but these things happen on a regular basis and it’s important to have support. In fact, while in South Africa I saw a friend and also a family member who had both recently returned from South East Asia with awful injuries (motorcycle accidents seem to be all the rage in Thailand, Vietnam and India for tourists) who commented on the value of the insurance provided. Rant about responsible things over.

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For the first time on a trip to South Africa, I spent some time in Hermanus: a whale watching town near Cape Town (about 1.5 hours away). I think it would be tough to get there without a car, but if you do rent one it’s well worth the drive just for the scenic coastal route. Most of the time spent there was on the beach (sundowners are like a national sport), or in restaurants (I’d highly recommend Betty Blue Bistro and also Peartree Restaurant). The first night we also spent 1.5 hours sitting in my mom’s friend’s car, because the battery died and the tow truck apparently decided to take its sweet time arriving. I didn’t have too many complaints at the time though as we were able to watch a gorgeous sunset, and my sister, father and I got some quality bonding time (taking selfies and laughing at the shocked passersby who glanced at the car then did a double take upon realizing there were 5 adults sitting in the dark). All in all, I would say the highlight of our time in Hermanus came when we went to a wine tasting nearby. Wine tastings are all the rage in South Africa because there are so many unique and delicious wines, including a local variety called the pinotage. But the reason I enjoyed the wine tasting so much had nothing to do with wine – in fact, I didn’t even drink. The winery was fairly rural and casual, and the toilets were two stalls (very nicely decorated) slightly apart from the dining area, but within view of it. This is crucial information, trust me. At one point my sister stepped away from the table to go to the toilet, and when she returned she seemed agitated and began speed walking back toward us. I couldn’t tell what was wrong with her until I leaned back and caught a glimpse of an aggressive sheep trailing her. My sister was involved in a not-so-high-speed speed walking/galloping chase in the wineyard’s dining area! An employee noticed my sister’s erratic movements and instantly ran at the sheep screaming “Stop that, Stewart!” Stewart, sheepish, galloped in the opposite direction and my sister was safe again. The employee apologized profusely and informed us that Stewart is a bit of a menace because he doesn’t truly realize that he’s a sheep. I accepted her apology; after all, don’t we all go through identity crises at times?

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The funny thing about being back in South Africa is that it’s my motherland, in the sense that I was born there; but because I wasn’t raised there I still get to enjoy it as a tourist. That being said, it’s still very familiar for my father. In fact, while we were at Betty Blue Bistro he ran into two couples that he hadn’t seen in nearly 40 years (neither of which still live in Cape Town or even South Africa anymore!). Just his luck! My sister gets charged by Stewart the sheep, while my father gets approached by Sidney the South African.

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In terms of places in and around Cape Town, I particularly like Somerset West. Oddly enough, I’m most familiar with the main mall and the Helderberg mountain range – I’m a woman of divergent interests, it seems. I also quite like Stellenbosch. This time around we went for dinner to a restaurant named Gino’s, which had delicious meals for very reasonable prices. I’m sure the fact that Stellenbosch has a huge student community really helps the pricing scale. Somerset West is not quite as affordable, and even the Lourensford Farmer’s Market (which is really lovely) was pricier than I had anticipated. That being said, it’s well worth a visit to Lourensford for their Farmer’s Market as they have lovely dishes, drinks and live music as well as an adopt-a-stray-animal centre (for all those tourists who want to go home with a truly unique souvenir). While in Somerset West, it’s also worth visiting Erinvale for a live show and Vergelegen (the winery next door) for a wine tasting or at least a stroll through their beautiful grounds.

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In Cape Town proper, we’ve visited Table Mountain a few times but on this trip we were, unfortunately, blocked in our attempts to ascend to the precipice by rather inclement winds. Instead, we opted for a sundowner at Clifton 4 – one of my favourite beaches. Woolworths offers some really nice ready-made meals, so we grabbed some food and settled in for another beautiful sunset. Every day was sunny, which is wonderful for people on vacation but causes problems for local residents when drought counts are exceeding 99 days. Some things appear amazing until you consider the actual implications. Sunshine every day with no rain may seem like a dream until you realize you don’t have drinking water and can’t bathe. Water scarcity measures don’t create those kinds of extremes, but you weren’t allowed to wash your car or garden and the plumbing was testy (for example).

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Cape Town still looked as beautiful as ever. Driving through Hout Bay and Constantia, in particular, are favourite areas of mine. I also love Camp’s Bay and am always happy to visit my dad’s friends who still live in that neighbourhood. I’ve noticed that the V&A Waterfront has undergone drastic development from its past state. It looks gorgeous and offers a plethora of shopping and dining opportunities. It also serves as the gateway to ferry to Robben Island, which has been used for centuries as a prison, military base, and also leper colony (at different times). We were fortunate enough to catch the “fast ferry” which only took 45 minutes, but felt like a painful eternity. I often get sea sick, but this was a particularly bad case of it. The ferry had a maximum capacity of about 140 passengers, so it wasn’t small but it also wasn’t big enough to avoid the feeling of each ocean wave destabilizing the boat. It’s also not enough space to avoid the glaring eyes of the passengers who don’t want your lunch on their outfits.

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The first thing you see upon arrival are the seals and a massive painted mural exclaiming that “Freedom cannot be manacled!” Under Apartheid male political prisoners of colour were sent to the island and also forced to do manual labour in the quarry. Depending on the colour of your skin you were given different food rations and privileges. There was only one prisoner who was kept in his own “house”, and that was Robert Sobukwe. He was held in isolation for years. The crimes committed against black people in South Africa under Apartheid are unimaginable. It’s by no means an easy past to recover from, but Mandela had hopeful messages of unity that still seem to resonate with a lot of people (particularly youth, from what I’ve seen). Nowadays you can’t enter Mandela’s cell, but you can experience the site with a former political prisoner as a guide. In our case, the guide had been involved in student protests and imprisoned before he even turned 20 years old. Powerful stories and inspirational people – if only the current politicians chose to move forward in such a positive way, instead of opting for corruption and self-interest instead. There were numerous protests while we were visiting, and it seems that people are fed-up with a president who is causing massive economic crashes in the country in addition to spreading messages of ignorance (he’s publicly stated that you can’t catch HIV if you have a shower after unprotected sex). Again, this isn’t a political blog so although I have too many opinions to count I’ll opt not to share them and focus instead on the real purpose of the post – the spectacular nature of southern Africa.

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My sister and I chose to sign up for a hop-on-hop-off two day city tour while in Cape Town – blue, yellow, and red lines. The first day we went with the blue line, and started our tour in the Kirstenbosch Gardens drinking tea and eating scones. It’s well worth spending a few hours wandering through the gardens and the experience is significantly improved by having a guide with you – in our case we tagged along with a kind family. The Boomslang bridge was the highlight for me, as it’s about 130 metres long and moves with the winds and movement of the folks travelling over it. It’s not for those who have a fear of heights, or those who like to run on bridges!

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After Kirstenbosch we passed Constantia Nek and the World of Birds before disembarking at the township of Imizamo Yethu for a guided tour, and a visit to the Original T Bag Designs shop. The guided tour was bizarre because the tour guide appeared to just wander at random and stop in at places where he had some greetings to deliver, like a local daycare and also his own home (where his girlfriend didn’t seem too happy to see my sister and I). Overall (objectively), it’s a strange thing for two middle-class white girls raised in North America to be paying to walk through a township in southern Africa. It makes me feel guilty, but it also makes me much more aware of the actual conditions a lot of people face. It’s important to step away from your own comfort zone sometimes and see first-hand how many people live. I just hope that it doesn’t come at a cost for the local residents. I would in no way want their township to turn into a zoo for foreigners who hop off the bus, walk through it for an hour to take photos, and then hop on a bus and zoom back into their worlds of whiskey, and whine. There is no easy answer, but chatting with the guide he seemed to rebuff these thoughts because he said it’s important that the community has its own ways of generating money and tourism is enabling them to become entrepreneurs. I’m still unsure of how to best approach these situations. There’s a lot of talk about how best to be an “ally”, but I’m not sure what that would entail apart from being reflective about your own privileges and being genuine and open-minded in how you approach situations of injustice. In any case, it was a thought-provoking trip for both my sister and me. The tea bag store really interested me because it was successful proof of the concept that the tour guide had been talking about: encouraging local people to create their own industries. I was really impressed with the artwork produced in that store, and the dedication of the employees. The store’s motto (first spoken by Eleanor Roosevelt) embodies the work ethic: “A woman is like a tea bag. You don’t know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

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The second day also involved some pretty deep reflection around issues pertaining to social justice as we headed immediately from Long Street to the Jewish Museum and Holocaust Center. We learned more about the impact the Jewish diaspora community had in South Africa, and also their prominent participation in the anti-Apartheid movement. I knew first-hand already about a lot of the issues raised in the museum given my family’s history – I’ve heard stories about my grandfather having to deal with Greyshirts (Nazis) targeting him and their family business. We found the museum quite intense so we decided to skip the District 6 Museum and head straight to the V&A Waterfront for a sunset harbour cruise. It was lovely but absolutely freezing on the water without proper clothing (i.e. long sleeved shirts and pants). I feel like any discomfort at any point in the trip was immediately alleviated by the sight of adorable wild animals – in Zimbabwe the warthogs and baboons won me over, while in South Africa it was all about the penguins and seals. Any time you’re down, just look up and you’ll see something delightful staring back at you... although that can be a sign of aggression, so maybe look down again?

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In terms of nightlife, the olden days of partying on Long St are long-gone. Although there are still a number of bars and clubs, our friends and family now prefer Bree St and Shortmarket St (Cafe Roux was my favourite stop with its fantastic selection of live acts). One staple that has remained the same throughout the decades is Green Market Square and its fine selection of curios. It’s like a tourist’s dream because you can find endless art and it’s (mostly) affordable given that you’re negotiating the prices yourself. We ended up missing a walking tour in order to make sure we didn’t miss the market. Funnily enough while we were strolling through the crowded aisles, we ran into our parents (who were staying in a totally different neighbourhood than us at this point). Opposites attract. The young, the old... we all unite over beaded keychains and colourful tablecloths.
In any case, the real reason we were in South Africa was for some quiet family time and a not-so-quiet wedding. The family time was plentiful and absolutely wonderful. There’s nothing like seeing your family after years apart to make you really realize how lucky you are to have them. Life as an immigrant has meant that we’ve missed most milestones with our families, but whenever we do get together we all get along so well that you’d never know we’ve been raised at such a distance. The wedding was hilarious because they decided to have fun rather than try to go the traditional route of pomp and ceremony. To clinch the deal, the sisters of the bride and groom took tequila shots and then confetti cannons blasted confetti into the crowd. The dancing was amazing, thanks in part to my cousin’s best friend who made the dance floor; and the heckling was even better thanks to my oldest cousin who took it upon himself to leave no innuendo unsaid and no gratitude ungiven. The halal Indian foodtruck provided us with delicious curry and the soft serve ice cream machines were the perfect dessert. I really enjoyed spending the time with my family (including in the photo booth), but also meeting some of my cousin’s friends who work in such diverse areas as investment to HIV medical care. One recurrent theme of the evening was young people bragging about what a desirable destination Joburg has become. Apparently it’s the new “hot spot” for young people looking for a good time. In any case, I’d choose Cape Town in a heartbeat for the beaches and mountains alone – although the attractive people everywhere also help boost its desirability factor. Ultimately, its beauty doesn't lie solely in its appearance but also in the space for reflection that you find on every corner (and beach!).

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This trip was as much about reconnecting with my family living in South Africa as it was about a new adventure in Zimbabwe, learning about my mom’s past. Time spent with family was the highlight of the trip, but I really enjoyed playing tourist in South Africa for once and also trying new things like crocodile, snake handling and zip lining in Zimbabwe. There are complex conditions at play in the region, but there’s endless strength and possibility – I can’t wait to see what amazing things the future will hold!

Posted by madrugada 14:14 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged wildlife england reflection nightlife zimbabwe south_africa Comments (0)

Asian Adventure

A Solo Trip to Hong Kong, Macau, Korea, and Japan

Turning 30 was looming large, and with vacation days banked and an incredible YYZ Travel Deal posted for a trip to Hong Kong, and Japan I decided to spontaneously book. After reaching out to friends in various countries, I plotted out in detail where I'd stay in each city based on the vibe I predicted. In Hong Kong it was a Catholic lodge in Kowloon, a boutique hotel in Seoul, a traditional Japanese guesthouse (ryokan) in Kyoto, a hostel in Tokyo, and an international business hotel in Osaka.

Half excited, and half nervous I set off on September 30 for my 8:45 am flight to arrive the next day at 6:30 pm in Hong Kong. My first flight was to Chicago where I had a brief layover, before the transcontinental flight. Due to the short duration of the flight to Chicago I hadn't taken any motion sickness pills, which is unusual given my typical propensity for vomit to fly when I'm in the air. Of course, turbulence set in and I started to feel sick while in mid-conversation with the great guy sitting beside me. My instinct? Ask him to tell me stories based on the genre that I pick until we've landed and/or the turbulence has ended. In the middle of one his stories, the flight attendant comes on to announce that "This is an emergency..." and then the sound cuts out. Reassuring, right? On my second flight (to Hong Kong), another odd encounter occurred - a man decided to smoke a cigarette in the washroom beside me (which, apparently is a federally indictable offense).

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, my friend Camila kindly met me at the airport so we could take the bus to Kowloon where I was staying at the Caritas Bianchi Lodge. We went for dinner at Australian Dairy Company - the highlight was the red bean shake! My first impression of Hong Kong was that I felt like a giant... until I looked up at the buildings. The skyscrapers were huge! I really appreciated that nature still found a place, like on Lantau Island for example. You take the metro to Tung Chung station and then you can catch the Ngong Ping cable car to the island, which on a clear day would be a beautiful sight - instead, I rode through the horror movie "The Mist". Apart from the beautiful hikes around the island, and the beaches there are also historic and cultural sites like the Big Buddha which was built in 1989 of 202 pieces, and Po Lin Monastery (which had a delicious selection of vegetarian food like a plate of snacks for 30 HKD). I must say that for anyone, like me, who doesn't like gelatinous blobs... avoid mochi at all costs! Getting back to nature, what I particularly enjoyed was the Wisdom Garden where pillars had messages that told hikers to stay far from lust, and empty your minds.

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Much to my surprise and delight, there's a South African restaurant in Lower Cheung Sha Beach called The Stoep so after a visit to Tai O (a fishing village on stilts) where I couldn't eat anything (no shellfish in my diet) I gorged on biltong and boerewors with Camila. The view from our dinner was of foreigners trying to shoo bulls who were digging deep into their picnic baskets on the beach. Bovine burglary at its finest!

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The other natural area of Hong Kong that I particularly liked was Victoria Peak in Cetral on Hong Kong Island. Foolishly, I didn't want to wait the two hour line for the tram up the Peak so I hiked it (after being told it would only take about an hour). I hadn't eaten, and didn't have water on me yet I began the arduous climb (with breathing mask on - style is crucial). By the time I finally made it to the top, I resembled a lobster more than a human so I promptly took a few selfies and then took the tram back down. In any case, it's worth the climb (assuming you have water)! Central is also home to the Botanical Gardens, which have some friendly orangutans and other stars of The Jungle Book.

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Another prominent area of Central is Lan Kwai Fong, home to Hong Kong's best nightlife although it is rivaled by Knutsford Terrace near the Chungking Mansions. Another highlight of the nightlife was a trip to the Happy Valley Race Track for the Wednesday races (for about $1 Canadian entry)! One area that made me uncomfortable at night was Wan Chai, home to stripclubs and "traditional" American pubs. My discomfort was eased by a trip to Victoria Harbour to watch the Symphony of Lights with my friend Camila and her family. We watched all of the skyscrapers light up across the water to the beat of some very funky music! The nights were made much better by the endless food and drinks. Camila's family and I went to Hui Lau Shan, a delicious mango dessert bar; while, with my friends Amanda, Natalie, and Sheila we went to a vegetarian restaurant and then a bubble tea place.

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In terms of culture, some of the highlights for me were attending synagogue for the High Holidays and discovering tidbits about the Jewish community in Hong Kong; visiting the local markets like the Goldfish Market and the Ladies' Market; and the Hong Kong History Museum where I learned that Hong Kong was once a desert then it was covered with ice and when that melted it became its current geological formation.

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From Hong Kong, it's an easy day trip to Macau. I would highly recommend not travelling there during a national Chinese holiday. I had never seen so many people crowded into such a tiny space... until I arrived in Tokyo. In any case, upon arrival in Macau I took a free shuttle to the Cotai strip where I arrived at the Venetian casino. I spent 10HKD in a slot machine, which I couldn't comprehend as I don't speak Cantonese or Mandarin so I promptly set off for the historical part of town (Largo do Senado). Unfortunately, the line for the shuttle was set to take over an hour and my patience was wearing thin in the 30 degree humid weather so I opted for a taxi instead. The line ended up being almost as long, and the cost quite a bit more than zero. By the time I got to town, I was ready to go back to Hong Kong. I promptly ate bacalao balls and then took a taxi to the ferry terminal where I caught an earlier ship home. I think the highlight of my trip to Macau was enjoying the curves of the sidewalk, when it was visible between the throng of tourists' toes.

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When the time came to leave Hong Kong, I was already feeling sad to leave my friends but ready for the adventure to come in Japan. I had always been curious to explore Japan ever since I was a child and now was my chance. Upon arrival in Osaka I was immediately taken by how polite everyone was, and how shockingly expensive everything was - particularly transit. My suspicions were confirmed by a 90$ taxi ride one night in Tokyo for what should have been 5 subway stops, except that the subway there closes incredibly early and isn't supplemented by overnight buses or light rail transit. In any case, my quick trip to Osaka was jampacked with a trip to the human rights museum - Liberty Osaka; the Osaka Castle; Orange Street; and the Osaka Aquarium. For anyone who's interested in a trip to the human rights museum, keep in mind that Japanese is a requirement (as is an incredibly astute sense of direction). In fact, for anyone who's planning to visit Japan let me emphasize that English is not widely spoken, even in Tokyo. I had a very isolating trip there as a result of the lack of English, and the cultural norms - much to my surprise. Although my time was spent primarily by myself, I did visit a friend in Osaka. We spent a lovely evening wandering through Amerikamura and Dotombori picking up new friends along the way and exploring a variety of themed bars (including one with a massive penis statue). The lowpoint of the night came when we found out that the reptile themed bar had closed - I was looking forward to doing shots out of turtle shells.

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The more sites I visited in Japan, the more curious I became about the gender dynamics and minority rights in Japan. When I visited Liberty Osaka I learned that fairly recent national polls indicated that roughly 50% of Japanese men strongly or somewhat agree that a woman's role is as housewife. I have no problem with women choosing to be housewives; however, I strongly believe in the freedom of choice. What surprised me most in the museum, actually, was the lack of information about Japan's colonial history. It's kind of a crucial cultural element of eastern Asia's history, and I'd argue it's pretty relevant to any discussion around human rights in the Japanese context. On a much lighter note, another cultural learning was that Japanese people (at least in the major cities) are extremely supportive of Halloween festivities. A visit to the aquarium resulted in multiple photoshoots initiated by staff there, and resulting in photoshopped images of me with my witchy penguin and dolphin friends celebrating Halloween.

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In terms of food, I found some cheap eats in Japan, which was quite an important survival mechanism for my rapidly shrinking wallet. The first tip for anyone travelling through Japan is to swallow your pride and also some 711 food while you're at it - they have packaged meals that are tasty and timely. An alternative is to search for Torikizoku (a chain) where each plate costs 280 yen. I quickly came to learn whenever there was a Torikizoku in the vicinity so that I could grab a skewer of meat and continue on in whatever mission I had planned. My last cheap food tip is to stay at a place like the Dormy Inn Shinsaibashi where they offer free ramen (between the hours of 9 and 11 pm).

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Kyoto is only about an hour away from Osaka, so it's very easy to commute between the two. One day I spent the morning wandering Osaka, including attending a spontaneous rock concert in Amerikamura and then afternoon exploring Japan's historic temples and shrines in Kyoto before listening to a folk concert from a back alley. The concert-goers' behaviour was a stark contrast to rock concerts I've attended in North America where they usually mosh and jump around; in Japan I saw some very good posture and some incredibly synchronized fist pumping. I much preferred the city of Kyoto to Osaka - it was beautiful, and calming. The gardens were all immaculate, and the people were incredibly polite (although that's a given in Japan). Some of my favourite sites were: Ishibe Koji Path, Yasak Pagoda, Kiyomizu-dera Temple Complex, Kodaiji Temple, and the Gion area. My favourite place of all was Ryokan Uemura where I stayed for the duration of my short trip to Kyoto.

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If you ever find yourself in Kyoto in the evening, I'd suggest buying some fried chicken and beer and taking a seat beside the Pontocho River to listen to the whispers and enjoy the calm waters. Just don't enter a Pachenko afterwards because the sound is shocking; stock up on earplugs before you dare enter the premises. Another word of caution: if you ever choose to stay in a ryokan confirm the rules beforehand. I learned that mine had a 10 pm curfew, and came with a personalized grandmother. The owner must have been about 100 years old, and decided to tell me when to shower and also when to eat. She was lovely, so I smiled and gladly took her towels and kiwis before changing into my assigned kimono and slippers.

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If one finds oneself with extra time in Kyoto and in need of a change of scenery, I'd recommend a day trip to Arashiyama. I went to visit old friends from Turkey, and in the process I discovered that there's a monkey park there. After saying goodbye to my friends, I stepped foot into planet of the monkeys where I befriended two Swiss men and walked through a bamboo forest with them. Although it didn't lead to an alternate universe, it certainly felt like it was other-worldly.

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Speaking of other worlds, I flew to Korea after a never-ending trip from the ryokan in Kyoto to the airport in Osaka. Along the way, I felt incredibly ill and was oh-so-fortunately not helped in the slightest by anyone, except for the only two tourists in the vicinity who ended up carrying my luggage so that I didn't faint and have my contents revealed to the world. I was happy to finally arrive at the boutique hotel ShinShin in Seoul so that I could rest and recover as quickly as possible. My hotel was close to Namdaemun Market and Myeongdong - an excellent location. My time in Seoul was spent primarily exploring via bus, as I succombed to the ease of the hop-on-hop-off bus. I managed to relax beside Cheonggyecheon Stream briefly before visiting Deoksugung Palce which is surrounded by activists. I really wish I could speak the languages of the countries I'm visiting to really understand the cultures and the aesthetics in more depth. I found it easier to relate to people in Korea though, as there was more English spoken there. In Gwanghamun Square (near the statue of King Sejong who invented the Korean alphabet in 1400) I chatted with some police officers who talked to me about their duty to protect protestors even when they were anti-government. Becoming more and more curious about Korean culture and history I went to the National Museum of Contemporary History where I learned more about Japanese colonialism and the divisions between the north and south. They also had a special exhibit about Iran's relationship with Korea; and the American Peace Corps. There's history all over this city. Everywhere I went I learned about the Joseon Period, and all of the destruction that Koreans have endured over time. The Changdeokgung Palace was a highlight for me - I visited the Secret Gardens, which were absolutely stunning. The whole place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it's no wonder why.

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In a more contemporary vein, I think the highlight of my trip to Seoul was the night I saw a Nanta show - it's a nonverbal cooking musical show. It's indescribable, but it's incredible. I was almost crying from laughter, especially at the audience participation. In terms of nightlife, the areas I explored were: Hongdae, which was a student area of Hongik University where I got kicked out of a bar for not being gay; and Gangnam, where I received a tour by a local Korean man who I met through Couchsurfing. An alternative form of nightlife is a trip to the Namsan Tower for a view of the city, and possibly a tasty drink from up high. Seeing the city at night is quite different to its daytime persona; it alternates between confident and sassy, and uptight business classy.

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While in Korea I decided that I needed to go to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to better understand the tensions between north and south. The first stop on my daytrip was Imjingak, which was like a war and peace version of Disney World. There was a carousel ride, and all kinds of photo shoots. Apparently, people visit this site in honour of their homes and families left behind in North Korea. The guide provided very minimal information about the two countries, but I did hear from some participants that apparently there's a tension between older and younger South Koreans in terms of their desire for reunification - apparently many younger people feel that reunification would be costly and they're suspicious of the north. Another stop on our trip was the third infiltration tunnel where you can't take photos, but you can bump your head if you're over 5 feet tall. This tunnel was found in 1978, and it's one of four that have been discovered thus far. We also ended up at the Dora Observatory, where we took a look at the north namely the Gaesong Industrial Complex (and an artificial village) before going to the train station where I bought North Korean wine for $8. Our final stop was a frustrating visit to a ginseng factor, which was not advertised in the daytrip's outline. What was most infuriating was that we spent more time at this ginseng factory stop than we did at any of the other advertised stops. At the end of the day, I was glad to have seen the sites but a bit frustrated by the lack of insight provided by the guide.

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There were aspects of Korean culture that I found baffling, and I wish I had friends to visit there who could have provided further insight. I couldn't comprehend why all of the homeless people that I saw were over the age of 65, or why plastic surgery is so omnipresent. Walking through Gangnam there's an area that's basically the Mecca for plastic surgery - you see people walking around covered in bandages, mainly around their eyes or noses. The aesthetic obsession is reflected in the soap operas: many of the stars share similar features, even if they're probably from fairly diverse backgrounds. Speaking of TV, the only times I saw anything on TV it was either a soap opera, or shows about dogs that are captured, killed and eaten. I left confused, and wishing I spoke Korean. I also left Korea truly admiring the courageous culture, and the amazing airport (which provided live entertainment, and also free arts and crafts).

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After my time in Korea, I flew back to Tokyo for my final chapter. I had decided at the last minute to change my accommodation as the hotel rooms were so small that I became nervous about whether the hostel room was actually a broom closet. I stayed instead at the APA Hotel Sugamo Ekimae, where my hotel room was in fact about the size of a broom closet. I had expected people in Tokyo to speak more English, but that was not the case. Unfortunately, I hadn't purchased pocket WiFi so getting around was still challenging even in such a cosmopolitan metropolis. That being said, I managed to see quite a bit of the city. I spent three out of the four nights in Shinjuku, where I became utterly obsessed with Golden Gai - alleyways with the most adorable bars you'll ever see, many with a capacity of 10 people. They served the most important drinks in Japan: Sapporo beer, and Sake. Some of the bars were also very clear about which important clientele were allowed in, namely no foreigners. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised by the clearly exclusionary nature of some of the establishments, but it was really jarring to see signs clearly outlining who was allowed in and who wasn't. I kept thinking about other contexts where people would clearly state this behaviour as it is: discriminatory.

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As it happens the area that I stayed in, Sugamo, is known as the Shinjuku for the elderly. It's a hub of hip replacement. Jizo-Dori is the main shopping street, where I decided to have breakfast every morning at the Takase restaurant in order to meet my needs of endless matcha lattes and tasty pastries. On my first day in Tokyo, I set off for Ueno Park which was opened in 1873 and could easily consume a full day with its museums, gardens, temples, and live entertainment. I devoted most of my time to the Tokyo Nation Museum, which was established in 1872 and cost about 620 yen plus the special entrance fee for the Hidden Buddha of Rakuyaji Temple Shiga. I started in the Toyokan Asian Gallery looking at pieces like calligraphy from China, buddhas from India and even a mummy from Egypt. They also had an educational space about Asian fortune telling where I learned about shagai Mongolian fortune telling using sheep ankle bones. I was told that I will succeed, if I try. Sounds fairly obvious, but I'll accept that over the other options involving broken bones and/or overly salty soups. I then went through the other galleries like Honkan which had a landscape by Takuku Aigi that really stood out to me. The special exhibit was definitely the highlight for me though; there were 20 statues including a 3 metre high seated buddha with 11 heads that featured a focus on compassion. The grounds of the park featured beautiful temples and also Shinobazu Pond, which was covered in marshlands and lotus flowers. I couldn't believe how massive the fish and plants were. Right near the park it's a fairly quick stroll to Ameyoko shopping area, which also has a huge Game Taito Station where I became absorbed in a drumming game right before having one of the best Turkish doners of my life. After my shopping expedition ended I wandered through the ceramics neighbourhood, sporadically making purchases, before arriving in Akasuka and Kaminarimon Gate. Sensoji Temple was built in 628, and was illuminated in beautiful lights that made it glow red. It inspired me to then see Tokyo in all its glory from the heights of the Tokyo Skytree (2080 feet tall). I looked down over the 39 million people in the city and stood stunned that so many people can live together peacefully, and in such an organized fashion. The Halloween obsession continued in Tokyo, and so I participated in a number of photoshoots there too.

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The one area I went to at night, apart from Shinjuku, was Roppongi (the foreigners' district). Like Shinjuku, it was loaded with gentlemen's clubs which made me very uneasy. I wasn't comfortable with the dichotomy between extremely asexuality and consumerist sexuality. I spent my night hopping between bars, and costume karaoke with a new friend who I made off of couchsurfing. He was very open-minded and agreed to dress up like a ninja, while I dressed like Sailor Moon and we sang Aqua's Barbie Girl in between 80s ballads. The karaoke was far more fun than the bars where I was treated to the worst cut-eye I've ever experienced, and enough second hand smoke to require an oxygen mask.

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Tokyo is an exceptionally crowded city, and Shibuya Crossing sees roughly 3 million people pass through it every single day. Harajuku was also fairly busy, and didn't really match my interests so I quickly left in search of serenity. I wandered through Yoyogi Park, which housed Meiji Jungu Shinto Shrine from the early 1900s. I saw a traditional Shinto wedding, and then left in search of Shinjuku's wondrous night scene. The best decision I made while in Tokyo was to visit the Robot Restaurant. It's unlike anything else I've ever seen in my life. There were small women with huge breast implants riding robotic dinosaurs who were breathing smoke, and sets devoted to Michael Jackson and the holiday of Halloween. The lyrics to the latter were: "Happy Halloween, Trick or Treat". There was also a Fern Gully backstory where cruel capitalists were trying to kill the earth and water, until Kung Fu Panda saved us all and then handed us lightsabers for no clear purpose. I was so hungry by the end of the show that I ate sushi for the first time in Japan, and it was delicious.

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I did one daytrip from Tokyo: to Mt. Fuji. I went with the Japan Panoramic Tour (DOA), and the tour guide, Mario, was excellent. He spoke great English, and provided additional insights into what it's like living in Japan as a foreigner. Our first stop was Lake Kawaguchi-Ko, one of Fuji's five lakes. The bright red ragweed bushes were the most spectacular sight - I couldn't believe how vibrant they were. The mountain itself was stunning too, although it was obscured by clouds. We then continued to O Shino Hakkai (eight ponds), which also had some beautiful views of the mountain. Our next stop was Oshino Shinobi no Sato (ninja village) where I learned how to throw a ninja star and ate a delicious vegetarian curry. Along the way I befriended a 20 year old Swiss man, and a group of fun Australian men. Life is better when shared. These guys were all sweet and funny, which made the stops a lot more interesting. After visiting Mt. Fuji's fifth station, we set off for some sort of a French amusement park where we did a 4d ride through Fuji Airways at Fuji-Q. We were shuffled into a room where an announcement started playing about a golddigger seeking a doctor to marry, then a video came on all about aliens flying to Fuji and warning us that doppelgangers are actually dangerous clones. Then the faux CEO of Fuji Airways came on and informed us that our flight was about to take off. This is an excellent representation of modern Japan. I'm so glad I had people to share this experience with, and it also helped that they had a charger for the three hour drive back to Tokyo from Mt. Fuji. By the time we finally made it back to Tokyo, it was already dinnertime. Mitch, one of the Australians, and I ate conveyer belt sushi, skiied down a virtual hill, did some reconn for an escape room, visited a maid themed casino, and then ended up in Golden Gai drinking with a bartender named Fuji - it seemed like the whole day came full circle. A kind Irish couple joined us, and the four of us drank some delicious plum wine - it was the perfectly calm end to a very eventful trip.

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Posted by madrugada 19:45 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged japan korea hong_kong macau Comments (0)

Viva Cuba!

My last visit to Cuba was a decade ago; a lot can change in ten years – myself included. The last time I went there was no mention of amnesty with the Americans. Meanwhile, in April of 2016 there are open discussions between the two countries, including a recent visit from the U.S. president elect. My curiosity around the geopolitical impacts was offset by my personal curiosity around how differently this trip would play out given the context. Last time I went with one male friend, both in our late teenage/early adult years, and the purpose was entirely to let loose and be silly. We tried (and succeeded) to enjoy our trip to the utmost: from renting motor-scooters with no fuel gauges to befriending a group of rowdy Germans (one of whom entered into a beauty contest with me in front of hundreds of screaming onlookers). This time around I was going for a destination wedding at a family resort, and I knew no one from the groom’s side, and only one person on the bride’s...

Arriving in Cuba was exciting because it was the dead of night and it was still hot; I’m like a baby, all I need is warmth. The lobby of the Melia Peninsula Varadero was beautifully adorned, and had large open windows. It felt tropical, and it was exactly what I needed. The resort grounds were nicely manicured, but the rooms themselves were not as luxurious as I was expecting (aside from the towel artwork). They were perfectly adequate, but throughout the week it became apparent that five star meant something different to the resort than it did to most of the guests there.

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The bride and groom’s family and friends were a good mix of personalities, and we all meshed really well. You know people get along when they can sit around in public playing truth or dare Jenga and laugh about having to “kiss the person beside you on the cheek” or “slow dance with a broom”. The families were francophone, and aside from the groom’s sister’s boyfriend I was the only Spanish speaker. I’m about 150% times as outgoing as him (or almost anyone else really), so I became the dedicated translator of the group. This ran the gamut from translating the maid stealing a coconut from the bride’s sister (because it was rotten and a disgrace to her nation) to trying to negotiate better fares for different services for the group. The highlight of my translation time on the trip came when I picked up a group of Turkish mayors and civil servants, along with a professional Cuban dancer and then proceeded to translate between English, Spanish, French, and Turkish for the purposes of all those who had coincidentally gathered in the same place at the same time. The fun was augmented because the Turks had chased after the bride and groom yelling congratulatory remarks at them in Turkish, while the bride and groom shuffled away giving them dirty looks. Finally, the Turks started yelling their names at which point the couple stopped and realized this was some kind of elaborate gag. You’re welcome, I deviously thought to myself. The Turks were the only group of people that I befriended at this resort, which was a stark contrast to my last time in Cuba at the regular resort (remember that this one was a family resort). A decade ago, I had made friends with Germans, Spaniards, Cubans, and even some fellow Canadians. I had also become particularly close with a certain Irish man who bore a striking resemblance to Damien Rice when playing his guitar for me on the moonlit beach. My last trip really was embodied by the motto: “viva la fiesta!” This time around the fun was definitely more PG... except for the bride and groom’s wedding night, I’m sure.

The resort took care of everything from the decorations to the live music, and at the end of the day (compared to at-home weddings) the stress and decision-making was probably about 99% lessened. This, of course, is aided by the fact that you can literally wander over to the beach for a photoshoot… which we did. The set-up was simple, but elegant and the intro speech was short which left more time for the bride and groom’s vows. The couple had already been together for a decade, so they had plenty of time to think about how they wanted to express their love – and it showed. The vows were both eloquent and thoughtful. He also made a few jokes, which gave some of the criers a brief reprieve. The bride had just finished taking a writing class prior to the wedding, so he poked fun at the timing and also at his tardiness in asking for her hand in marriage.
The strangest thing that happened on the resort was probably the beach party that happened the night before the wedding. It involved local dancers cheering foreigners on, who watched and attempted to mimic their moves with great delight. This would be fairly standard, except that at one point the MC announced that we had to split into pairs. I immediately backed away because I was there with a group who all had partners. To my surprise (and delight) a Cuban dancer came up to me, put his hands on my hips and told me to jump him… which I did. It turned out that the game was a raunchy version of Simon Says. We played. There were no winners, except him clearly. It seemed like it was just a gag to take some great photos, and I was fine with that. The groom’s sister was one of the stars of the wedding for me. She encouraged me to join her in the limbo competition – her skill far exceeded mine, so in the end only I fell short (literally).

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The day of the wedding was overcast, which was a blessing in disguise as it kept the temperatures more manageable and also made for some gorgeous contrast in the wedding photos. It also meant that I was so comfortable strolling along the beach that I ended up lost. I’m so good with directions that I managed to get lost on a straight beach path. Essentially, I left my roommate Erin happily sipping coconut water on the beach, strolled upwind, turned around and then realized that I didn’t recognize the resorts to the right. I had overshot my own Cuban home. I eventually wandered back and found the resort. Erin and I hurriedly walked back to the hotel room and prepared to go meet the girls. There was a minor emergency as the electrical outlets weren’t working for the hair straighteners, curlers, etc. but the bride had hired a hairdresser for herself and she did a gorgeous job. The bride emerged from the washroom with her make-up and hair done looking like a Grecian goddess. The wedding outfit came together perfectly – as did the wedding.

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The bride had asked me to negotiate pricing for the convoy taxis to Varadero; however, after the wedding dinner no one wanted to do anything. I was set on leaving the resort because my trip was so short this time that I really wanted to make sure I got as much local culture in as possible, i.e. not just resort living. Given my past trip to Varadero, I also wanted to compare how the city itself may have developed in the past decade. Fortunately, Erin was open to exploration and we set off together in the most pimped out taxi I’ve ever seen. It was probably a 1950s Chevy, painted, with a video screen and more lights than a rave. We arrived at the Beatles Bar, which was the originally intended destination post-wedding party, only to meet a throng of other foreigners. We then set off to find a more authentic party destination. Along the way we passed a hotel so luxurious that we couldn’t help but trespass. We, of course, got caught, and the security guard inquired (rightfully so) why we thought we could enter their private premises. I explained that we were drawn to its beauty. He was pleased and gave us a private tour, culminating in his asking very vehemently for my email address. I suddenly forgot my Spanish, and needed to disappear. Erin and I went in search of “La Fondue” – a bar that locals had recommended. It turns out that it's a fondue restaurant. There was, however, a happening dance club right beside it. The party was so real that it spilled into the streets, which the cops had shut off. Keep in mind that this was a Sunday night. Locals and foreigners alike were dancing salsa, and grinding on every square inch of cement possible. I managed to chat with a professional baseball player, and be horribly harassed by a German pensioner. We left shortly after the latter, and headed back to the hotel where we were greeted by a cockroach in the washroom. This resulted in us using bandaids to clog every possible hole in the walls.

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One of the internal conflicts I faced in Cuba was trying to connect with the foreign groups, while also respecting the local culture. Having the linguistic capacity to straddle both worlds allowed me more insight into the dichotomies that emerged. I realized while haggling for taxi prices that morally I couldn’t continue to question prices in a Socialist country. Foreigners are all hugely entitled in order to fly to a country like Cuba for a vacation. The notion of vacation itself is a luxury, combined with an ability to pay for endless drinks and food in a land where salaries and resources are next-to-nothing. This became more apparent for me on Monday, when I spent the afternoon chatting with my Cuban dancer. He informed me that apparently the workers (including entertainment staff like him) aren’t allowed to even walk through the lobby that the foreigners use, or eat the same food. There’s something about staying in an all-inclusive resort that makes me feel like I’m living in a Pleasantville of oppression.
That being said, there is undeniable value in the tourism industry. In fact, many Cubans are concerned that the improved relationships with America will kill off the number of Canadian tourists that visit Cuba – something concerning given the strong relationship between the nations. Tourism has granted many Cubans an opportunity to experience the world outside their island, when they wouldn’t normally have the permission or means to leave. This has also enabled higher living standards in the wake of the Soviet collapse, which of course had huge implications for smaller communist nations at the time.

In any case, Havana became a great study in contrasts. When Dan and I did a day trip there I remember many beggars asking for anything we could possibly give: from pencils to cash. This time I was stunned by the huge number of tourists in the historical core. They’ve clearly increased the number of tourists buses travelling in and out; visiting similar stops for short periods of time. Our tour guide and bus driver were spectacular – not only were they hilarious, but they were also knowledgeable and transparent. The only unfortunate aspect of our day trip to Havana was that the bride and groom ended up on a French tour instead, which they found highly disappointing. It was a shame that we couldn’t all share the day together (in English).

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The trip to Havana involved a significant amount of historical (anthropological) background. Many of the names of valleys and towns are quite morbid given the number of massacres that occurred in the region. One town is itself named “Matanzas” which means massacres. If the deaths weren’t caused by the people, then they were as a result of the weather. There is some extreme wind, rain, and waves in areas of the Cuban coastline. One of the rest stops had even been destroyed – fortunately, not while we were present. We visited a number of castles/fortresses built in the 1500s and 1700s. Complementary to the historical component, the tour guide also informed us of current living standards. One of the facts that stood out to me was that milk is fortified with buffalo milk and subsidized till the age of 7. The question of what other types of milk were offered in Cuban stores came up, to which the guide replied that unlike in Canada where we have too many choices like 1% or 2%, Cuban milk is all 100% milk. He’s either hilarious, or very confused. I became very confused while wandering through historical Havana when I realized that there were legitimately museums for everything from firearms to firefighting within a ten minute walk of each other. Naturally, I chose to visit only one museum: chocolate.

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Drama emerged at one point in the trip when we were told to meet at a certain location at a certain time and three people didn’t show up. In order to not lose our reservation at La Floridita (the bar where dacquiris were created, and Hemingway often sat), we decided to leave and hope that the three lost souls would find their way. The tour guide had repeatedly mentioned all of the details of where and when to meet, as well as where our next stop was. The three showed up about an hour into our meal, looking furious and grungy. I don’t want to know what they had to do to get where we were.

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Once the group was happily reunited, we set off for Revolution Square. Along the way our tour guide gave us an explanation of the American coup, the subsequent revolution and all that has transpired since. Obama had visited fairly recently, which was a momentous occasion. Apparently there is still a fair amount of anti-American propaganda. Given that I spoke Spanish and sat in the front seat, I was able to generate a lot more discussion with the tour guide – which worked to the benefit of my friends sitting around me too. One of the questions I asked was why there are billboards across the country that read: “Blockade: the Longest Genocide in History”. Apparently these billboards target the American embargo. Some Cubans believe that that lack of access to medicine has resulted in numerous deaths thus constituting genocide. Clearly this is a strong statement. IP laws are complicated, and accusations of the mass murder of a nation even more so.

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On a lighter note, we ended our Havana trip at a cabaret performance in the jungle. The Tropicana Show was launched in 1939, and has (allegedly) been open every night since then. It was quite possibly one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had. We sat around with 1000 other people watching individuals dance on stage in virtually no clothing, but decorated with massive headpieces like pineapples on their heads. Some performance involved significant amounts of gyrating hips, while others sang the sorrows of the slaughter of native peoples in Cuba. Once again, my speaking Spanish put me in a strange position. There were times when they sang of slaughter, rape, genocide, and the gap between what the lyrics sang and the dances demonstrated was huge. People were sitting there smiling, because all they saw were the beautiful movements without understanding the heavy lyrics. It was the perfect juxtaposition of the confusion in a society that caters to well-off foreigners, while extolling the need to live simply to locals. Appearances are as they need to be for the audiences that the message is delivered to. There is no notion of being as you seem, or seeming as you are.

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Overall, the trip was very loaded for such a short period. The wedding itself went off without a hitch, but the Cuban experience has changed and I expect it to be drastically different the next time I visit.

Posted by madrugada 19:12 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

My Icelandic Saga

Quick Trip to the Land of Ice and Snow

all seasons in one day -15 °C

Not everyone is lucky enough to find themselves recently single, horribly sick, and flying to a foreign country within two days – envy me, because I have been that fortunate. Two days before my much anticipated trip to Iceland, I found myself with a high fever lying in bed marathon watching episodes of “The Bachelor” right after my boyfriend had determined that our cultural differences were too great and thus he just wasn’t “feeling it” anymore. I went to the doctor who indicated that my horribly sudden illness could be bacterial or it could be viral, and he diagnosed my ex as a commitment-phobe. Clearly, I’m joking about the last part (although it's probably true) but I am basically as qualified as this doctor because I too know that illnesses must be one of the two: either bacterial or viral. I wasn’t looking for a treatise on indecision, I was looking for an answer. He prescribed antibiotics, so I took them and promptly my stomach protested. The next day I waited it out in pain, praying for a miracle as the following day was my overnight flight. Wednesday arrived. I had to make a judgment call. If I could hardly walk to the washroom, could I master the frozen slopes? I decided that I was more than capable. And then I changed my mind, and fled to another doctor. He changed my antibiotics and told me that the only one capable of assessing my capability to fly was me. For once, I wanted a man to make a life decision for me and he abdicated responsibility. I went home in a panic and realized that regret is harder to deal with than a bad experience so I packed my bags in a hurry and fled to the airport.

I had warned my travel companion and oldest friend in the world, Karen, that I had no voice and that I was fairly phlegmatic. She wasn’t too worried until she saw me and realized that I wasn’t exaggerating. I had to text her while she stood beside me looking on in fear for the fun we had anticipated having. It slipped away with each tap of the keys. Suffice it to say that it was a really quiet flight for me: no small talk whatsoever with my new neighbours. Karen, unfortunately, found herself at the back of the plane in the aisle across from a very vocal baby.

Upon arrival, we caught a shuttle to the hotel and reckoned that we’d have more than enough time to change, leave our luggage, eat breakfast, and then catch our tour for the day. Instead, we arrived back at the hotel five minutes before the Reykjavik Super Saver: Blue Lagoon plus Gulfoss and Geysir with Viator tour company departed (early). The front deskman was, fortunately, straight out of Norse mythology – a first class hero. He showed compassion, sympathy, and gave me a lot of tissues for my phlegmatic face. Our first stop on that thunderous Thursday was the Blue Lagoon – a spa that exists only because a geothermal plant was built beside it and led to significant liquid waste, which one day the employees began bathing in and found to be favourable. I could have done without the back story. In any case, Karen and I had a fabulous time floating around in the misty waters and plastering our faces with whatever the employees gave us – from clay to algae. The water itself is full of silica and sulfur, and averages between 37 and 39 degrees centigrade so my skin remains as soft as a baby’s bottom weeks later. We also particularly enjoyed looking up at the snowy mountains, and feeling the hail hitting our backs as we smugly strolled through the hot waters with drinks in hand. The volcanic rocks surrounding the baths were a sight in of themselves, so we decided to exit with sufficient time to take photos before heading back to the bus and its jovial tour guide, Willy.

The second half of the day was spent sightseeing with the same older Icelandic guide, Willy, at various locations including: a waterfall, a geyser, and a horse farm. I had been waiting my whole life to see a geyser, and it definitely met my expectations. Mainly I just enjoyed the different possible ways to pronounce the word, which is actually of Icelandic origin. When we got there it was clearly the geyser’s party and it would erupt if it wanted to... or bubble with passive aggressiveness. I saw the greatest selfie attempt ever at the Strokkur geysir. The man stood there with a stern face and his smartphone in hand (in camera mode) for a good five minutes waiting patiently, waiting angrily. It was him vs. the geyser; and the geyser won. I’m almost completely sure that by the time it erupted he blinked. Although I could hardly eat, I did manage to stomach a special Christmas chocolate bar at the tourist bar built beside the pooling of geysirs. It was the most delicious dessert I had on the entire trip, yet sadly I couldn’t stomach it for long.

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The sights on the tour were glorious, and I particularly enjoyed visiting the area where the tectonic plates for North America and Eurasia meet and are moving at a rate of roughly 2 cm a year. It was found in a national park called Thingvellir National Park where Iceland’s first parliament was founded in 930. I realized on this day trip that I don’t care as much for waterfalls as I thought I did; although my temperament may have been impacted by my state of sickness combined with the cold mist surrounding the journey to the falls. Gulfoss was by all accounts spectacular, but did it really need to be so cold? What happened to roughly 87% of the country’s buildings being heated by geothermal energy – where was that geothermal energy to heat the area surrounding the waterfall? I would have accepted a heated bus stop, or maybe heated benches. By the time the tour was done, I was utterly exhausted and ready to sleep, but upon arrival in Reykjavik Karen wanted to go for dinner – which is what any sane, non-sick person would want to do. It seemed completely illogical to me at the time. We ended up trekking off in the cold to find a restaurant that had been recommended to her. I paid $20 for a bowl of soup at “Glo”, but she assured me that it was worth it because it was refillable. How many bowls of soup can one human drink? Or eat? The soup was delicious, and the Icelandic bread, Rúgbrauð, was very tasty. What makes it special is that it’s baked in the ground near a hot spring – I was told it can take 10 to 24 hours before it’s ready. Again, where is that heating when you’re outside braving the cold for the sight of pretty falling water? We had a difficult night, as I had multiple coughing fits and ended up spending time in the lobby looking like a forlorn castaway (which I suppose I was).

On Friday morning I told Karen that I would rather try to sleep in the hotel room while she went out and explored, and that we could reconvene using Whatsapp later in the day. She was happy to part ways for a bit (and avoid the hacking sound). When I did finally get up I beelined it immediately to the local library, art gallery, and old harbour so that I could take in the most aesthetically pleasing sights before spending a few hours at the national museum, also known as “oh, that place where we keep old things?” by the local man I asked for directions. I’m glad I went to the museum because it gave me some crucial insight into the history, and also visuals for how the religious customs and lifestyles had evolved over time. After the museum, I raced back to the hotel area to meet Karen at a bar nearby packed with foreigners and locals alike called the Laundromat Cafe. She had, not surprisingly, picked up an American fellow who had quit his job in academia to become a full-time musician. We chatted for a bit and then I rushed us off because we had to get ready for our next tour – Warm Baths and Cool Lights which traversed the Thingvellir National Park on its way to Laugarvatn Fontana´s Open Air Geothermal Baths. Our tour guide, Raven, was young and very knowledgeable and enjoyed telling us folklore about the elves that inhabit Iceland as well as the spirits of the deceased. She didn’t have the best punchlines, or quite understand phrasing so we were left with stories that ended like so: “The moral being you shouldn’t go party after leaving your child to die of exposure”. I must say this evening was probably the low of the entire trip. Although the food was delicious (and the first full meal I had on the trip), I found that the spa facilities were far too small for the size of our tour group. I didn’t appreciate stepping out into the -15 weather and running into a sauna, which was full of the scent of pungent rotten egg; or tripping over rocks that were hidden in the hot tubs (for authenticity perhaps); or having to shower naked in front of dozens of other women. It felt like an awful summer camp combined with a sick candid camera episode. While our trip out there found us in a whiteout snow blizzard, the return trip was calm and entailed two stops to spot the Northern Lights. It was one of the reasons why I went, and it left me green with envy of its natural beauty. If only one day I could be as shiny, and mystical.

Saturday was our Sensational Iceland tour with Extreme Iceland. I was looking the most forward to this day, but also the most fearful of it as it included the glacier hike. When you’re having difficulty walking down the street, it’s a bit daunting to picture yourself climbing a mountain of sheer ice. Our tour guide, Didi, was a classic silver fox which really helped with knowledge transfer. We learned about how the island had been genetically tested, and how there was even an app called the Islendiga-App (“App of Icelanders”) which allows users to bump their phones into each other to determine their degree of relatedness. He also taught us some key phrases in the language and recounted Viking tales to us. My favourite Icelandic word happens to be the name of the disruptive volcano that erupted in 2010 – Eyjafjallajökull. If I’ve taken one thing from this trip, it’ll be the ability to pronounce that excuse for a word.

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I learned, by observation, just how much most people love horses. Karen went nuts when she saw the Icelandic stallions, which I referred to as ponies (much to the chagrin of Didi). They’re adorably coiffed and quite small. Apparently they can sell for up to one million dollars because they have a unique gait and are the only type of horse in Iceland (purebreds). Icelandic people are so focused on purity of race, that if one of their horses leaves the island (for whatever reason), it’s never allowed to return. It’s like a really intense version of Survivor, but for non-humans. In any case, we saw two sets of waterfalls: the first was Seljalandsfoss, and the second was Skógafoss. I’ve already made clear my stance on waterfall viewing while ill in a country that literally has “ice” in its name.

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Speaking of ice, we got to the glacier fairly early in the day and I was immediately convinced that I wouldn’t be able to walk further than its base (which felt like a full hike in of itself just to get to). The Sólheimajökull glacier is a part of the fourth biggest glacier in Iceland -- Myrdalsjökull, and it covers the volcano Katla. For this reason, the colours are a mix of ice and ash – crystal blue and jet black layers upon layers. Climbing up the glacier felt like an endurance test. I had to stop from time to time to cough up phlegm, and then rejoin the group as nimbly as my shaking muscles would allow me. By the time we reached the top, I stood in silence and looked out over the mountains, the glacier and to the ocean, and felt like I had hit nirvana, if only for a moment. In perfect silence it was the most rewarding peace after an arduous trek externally, and within myself.

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We were all too tired to speak much after the glacier hike, which was fitting for our next stop: the black sand beach of Reynisfjara. It felt like we had entered another world, and made me better understand how and why Norse mythology came to be in such naturally violent surroundings. The waves didn’t creep up on us, they pounded the sand and within minutes were metres closer than they should have been. It felt like we had no protection from the natural elements, and it was intoxicating for that exact reason. Leaving the glacier and then Reynisfjara I felt overjoyed to be able to have visited this incredible island – full of volcanoes and glaciers.

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That night upon return to the city, Karen and I decided that we had to go out and experience the famous nightlife we had heard so much about. It exceeded our expectations. As we were leaving our hotel lobby around 11pm, we stumbled across a group of very handsome, very tall, and very intoxicated Icelandic men. We joined their group, and went to a nearby bar called Jacobsen Loftið. They told us it was the classiest bar around, and it definitely appeared to be – one shot of their local spirit, Brennivín (also known as “black death”), cost the equivalent of $20 Canadian. I wasn’t too bothered because the Icelandic men were generous, in addition to being charming. Suffice it to say that we had a very nice night, and enjoyed the scenery.

Sunday was our final day, and I had only returned to the hotel around 4am, so I wasn’t too thrilled to be waking up early but it was worth it so that we could do a walking tour and also visit the local flea market. We went with CityWalk Reykjavik, which is staffed by two young Icelandic men who care a lot about local culture and history. It helped that they fed us licorice at the end of the two hour walk too. With that sugar high, we headed off in search of the famous hot dog stand -- Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Karen ate, and I waited patiently for the moment when we could head inside the Kolaportid flea market in the old harbour area. Immediately upon entering the market, Karen and I split up so that I could find a genuine Icelandic wool sweater and she could buy presents for her family. I found a stall manned by a group of grannies, and decided I couldn’t get more authentic than that. It turns out that they had created their own business of Icelandic grandmothers who handle the knitting of the sweaters, as well as the sales. After considerable discussion, and try-outs, we selected the newest member of my closet – a bright red, patterned sweater.

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Short, but sentimental our trip to Iceland was meaningful because it taught me how much I’m capable of mentally and physically; and the importance of strong friendships.

Posted by madrugada 19:08 Archived in Iceland Tagged waterfalls snow ice glaciers iceland Comments (0)

Tripping to the Past and Future

sunny

On June 11th I left on a trip to Turkey and Portugal. It was more cost efficient to fly three return trips rather than multi destination, which meant I landed in Lisbon and had hours to wait. The flight to Lisbon had the feeling of a high school reunion from the 1950s - like I was flying to a different era and not a different country. The food on the flight was so awful that the woman beside me force fed me her homemade cookies. I was torn because I half wanted to sleep, which sugar doesn't help but I was also hungry (perpetual problem). I should have voted no.
By the time I landed for my stop over in Lisbon, I was ravenous as the cookie was not quite the satiating and delicious little something I had hoped for. I sat at the Spoon Cafe for hours eating toast and chatting with a Canadian Portugeuse family who were very kind and also fed me chocolate. I think the mother wanted to take me as her daughter in law because by the end she was hugging me and trying to pick up my phone number. I need more yenta in my life, so I soaked it up. Finally it was time to go so I headed off for my flight to Istanbul. In general, the best way to get from the airport to the city is by the Havatas but I arrived very late in Istanbul and took a shuttle to my hostel, Galata West, where I met my friend Kate. We went out to Istiklal Caddesi (close to Taksim) where people are partying on the streets until sunrise. In those few hours out having fun I noticed a few stark differences from my last time in Istanbul three years prior (when I still lived in Turkey): the increased presence of Arab tourists and refugees, and an increase in selfies (and selfie sticks). No correlation as far as I know.
The next day Kate and I decided to visit Büyükada, an island just an 1.20 ferry from Kabataş ferry terminal in the European side of Istanbul. One thing to be aware of when taking this ferry is that it will be overcrowded, so go early to board early and actually get a seat. You'll be kept entertained by the vendors selling things like lemon squeezers and potato peelers. One was so convincing he had the whole ferry clapping and laughing. By the time he was done his schpiel I was first in line to purchase the merchandise. Three weeks later and I have yet to use it but his memory remains.
The first thing that stood out when we arrived were the crowds - it was a gorgeous day and everyone clearly had the same idea to take a break on the islands. The houses were stunning, and there were some interesting sites to visit like an abandoned orphanage and the views from on top of the hills.
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After returning to the mainland we walked by some winding streets leading to Galata and enjoyed some of the random activities like shooting pellets at balloons. We also walked by a brothel, which Kate explained is regulated by the state meaning the sex workers get tested regularly and receive pensions. They had more than enough business! We went out that night past Galata Tower to a Circassian restaurant called Ficcin where we were approached by an older lady who thought I was Turkish and proceeded to advise on where to go and what to do while in Istanbul. Serendipity dictated that we run into her again the following day! That night we went to a blues jazz bar called Kumsaati, followed by a bar on a fun corner called Narrdo. You can't beat a party on a street corner. You also can't compete with a rooftop terrace highlighting the mystery of the Bospherous and the beauty of Turkish men... Or vice versa.
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On Sunday, we went to visit the Ottoman Banking Museum in Galata Salt on Bankalar Caddesi. They had a number of interesting facts about women and foreigners working at the banks, and also how the banking system worked in general. A benefit was that entrance was free. Ironically, we then went to visit the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Beyoğlu. I had tried to attend a service there years ago and it hadn't worked out but I was welcomed into the Rabbi's house for a Seder meal. I love finding community in transit.
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I went wandering Istiklal after and saw the massive influx of police, I then decided to retreat indoors in a restaurant called Ravouna - beautiful rooftop views of the city.
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At about 1 am I went to play tavla (backgammon), before dancing at a fun old school bar on Istiklal called Eskici Pera.
I had yet another late night, in keeping with the theme of enjoying Turkey. One of the highlights had to be beating a Turkish man at tavla to which he commented: adamsın. Only took a simple game of backgammon to find out that apparently I'm a man... Or I'm the man. I'll take the latter.
Monday morning was another late morning, but I finally got ready to head off to Bebek and Ortaköy as per the instructions of my new guardian angel from the Circassian restaurant. I walked to Taksim to catch a bus there, but it's not as straightforward as you'd think catching a bus in Istanbul to go where you want to go. I chose to take a cab, and let the driver convince me to go to Rumeli Hisari instead of Bebek. He also promised he'd fight anyone on my behalf, if necessary. I'm not sure what about me screama damsel in distress, but I told him I'd take him up on the offer should the need arise (in the 20 minutes we had together). I'd never heard of Rumeli Hisarı before, but it was well worth a visit - it's a fortress from hundreds of years ago with a view of the European and Asian sides as well as the Bospherous. I was even able to see dolphins.
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Afterwards, sweaty and famished, I took a taxi to Ortaköy where I ate kumpir (Turkish baked potato with all the fixings you could ever want), and ice cream and watched Spain's Top Chef being filmed. I thought about interrupting for my fifteen minutes of fame and then retreated back into my delicious food. I then walked back to Kabataş where I took the tram to Karaköy and strolled back to the hostel. I got ready and went out to the Hazzo Pulo Şarap Evi. It's amazing how many different sides of a city you can experience depending on who you're out with. I had already been in dive bars, hipster clubs and now a classy wine house...more in store!
On Tuesday, my conversations with strangers and friends continued to center around the Syrian crisis. It hit a head in a sense when I was having a meal with some Turkish men (the restaurant owner and his friends) and one of their friends walked by screaming in Arabic. He's Syrian and had been rejected from renting a room for that reason. The massive influx of Syrian refugees has been influencing local politics too. This is a nation that still has Gezi Park looming. There are serious complications in terms of how these refugees will be integrated into the society, and whether and how they'll leave. There are humanitarian considerations in addition to the economic ones that are often discussed. No one knows where this will go.
I sat with a friend and his girlfriend discussing these matters before strolling the streets and taking in what I could before returning to the world of politics through a newspaper.
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Wednesday morning was departure time for Ankara - back to visit my old life. I decided to stay in Tunalı at the Ankara Gordion Hotel. The first place I wanted to go was Ulus for Iskender Kebap. As if life has any meaning without the decadence of meat, yoghurt and bread.
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Mehmet and I went strolling around and I noticed that there have been some changes like a huge new mosque being built, but for the most part things remain the same like Luna Park. Change is a funny concept because throughout my whole trip I couldn't help but compare its present with my past there and wonder when things are identical why that is but question the changes at the same time. You can't step in the same river twice.
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We went on the ferris wheel, bumper cars and haunted house. The highlight to me came at the end of the haunted house when finally something scary happened - the mechanical car broke down and we sat stuck when all of a sudden one of the employees came and put his hand on Mehmet's shoulder and said "boo". After that shock, we headed off walking through Sihhiye to Kizilay and finally Tunalı. Along the way we ran into Esat Kıratlıoğlu, a former Turkish politician. We then visited Kuğulu Park, which has become far more political in the wake of Gezi Park. Politics everywhere yet few swans to be found.
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Thursday was a day of wandering around Tunalı. Everywhere I went I overheard people discussing the recent election (of early June) and the possible coalitions that may be formed in its wake. If only there were a crystal ball for us to see into the future. But then what fun would the challenges be?
I had the most delicious lunch at my favourite restaurant, Cafe des Cafes - pomegranate and fig sauce on a steak. Food could be my life. I continued wandering and shopping before stopping in at Elizinn where the wonderful management wished me well and provided me with some delicious food. Ramadan had just started so everyone everywhere was preparing fabulous meals to break the fast, Iftar. It's beautiful being able to celebrate it and watch the love and kindness people bring to the table.
Friday was a day of nostalgia. I spent the day visiting my former coworkers, neighbours and friends at the University I taught at in Turkey. I first spent the morning at Bilkent otel and spa, which is fabulous and has a special half price massage deal between 10am and 2pm Monday to Friday. After that was done I visited people and had long discussions about where we are, where we were and where we see the country going. A lot can happen in a few years and there are now babies and newly weds. I was encouraged by everyone to consider coming back to Turkey, maybe it's a sign? Most telling was the fact that almost everyone thought to ask: are you happy where you are? The area around Bilkent has changed considerably as they've developed a new entertainment complex called Bilkent Station. I was impressed with its development, but concerned for the businesses in Ankuva (the mall to its side) which seem to have been neglected. The waves of change, I suppose. Turkey is all about development, after all. Kate met Rob and I, and the three of us ventured into the city for a night out at Corvus, City and Puhu (three classic bars in the same building just off of Tunali). Along the way I tried to memorize the sights and reconfigure my memories so that when I leave, I can carry all this fun and life and absurdity with me... Dinosaurs included.
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Saturday was spent in Ulus once more. It was my last day in Ankara and I wanted to visit the best hamam and also my friend, a carpet seller, before a night out in Tunali and Kizilay with a group of my old friends. It was great visiting my friend, he's still working hard and doing well - kind as always. While there a group of British tourists came in so once again I put my translator cap on and helped him make some business. In the hostel in Istanbul my help had been enlisted for some Spanish to Turkish to English translation, at least this was just a two way street: English to Turkish. After some tasty Elma Çay (apple tea) Kate and I set off for the Şengül Hamamı.
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For 39 TL they sold us a package of kese (rubbing dead skin off your body), massage, and the flip flops/towels. Compare this to the same package being sold at a luxury hamam in Istanbul for 150 TL. You have to know where to go, I suppose. I liked this hamam because they're honest. They walk around smacking your bum and winking at every opportunity so that they can claim you as their own. I think they must make commission. At one point my woman was massaging me and getting her very own massage at the same time. She then told me we had to move to another part of the marble slab, so instead of me getting up she slid me across on my stomach. I was impressed with her strength but concerned for the spectators. After the hamam, I left Kate and the others (at a restaurant) so that I could head up to the castle for a view of the new Ankara (with Erdoğan's Presidential Palace).
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That night we went to Retrox for dinner and also to celebrate Rob's birthday. I had a delicious güveç and had bits and pieces of others' meals too. We sang songs and joked around like old times before setting off for Bestekar and then IF. It was one of the best nights out I've had in ages - everyone was happy, and the places were fabulous fun. After everyone had left, it was just Yalin and I so we set off for Eski Yeni - my favourite old bar. The name of the bar is actually Old New, which was highly fitting. We somehow managed to engage a couple on the street in a debate about what it takes to have a double jointed finger. I have many. Ten to be precise.
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Sunday I had to hop on yet another plane, this time to return to Istanbul. I was exactly halfway through my vacation and running on roughly four hours of sleep per night. This time in Istanbul I stayed at an upscale hotel in Sultanahmet, not a hostel in Galata. The trek to the hotel was arduous, and that's with my speaking Turkish. After getting a havatas to Taksim, I decided to hop in a cab. The first taxi driver told me he wouldn't drive to the area because of Ramadan - (hiç alakası yok) there's no connection, but I decided not to argue it. The second driver wanted to force me into paying 50 TL, which is exorbitant (şaka mı yapıyorsunuz?). The third said yes, but then the other two started fighting with him so a fourth appeared and I hopped in his cab (hadi gidelim). The third driver then started screaming at the fourth and made him help me exit the cab and get into the other (yeter ya!). When we finally arrived in Sultanahmet the cab driver made me get out, because he was unsure of where we were so I had to walk the rest of the way with all my bags. The hotel workers were very kind and helped me to print some documents like my boarding pass (I was leaving early the next morning). After some chatting and unpacking I set off for the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia. There were huge crowds because of Ramadan, and they'd even erected a makeshift shopping centre nearby.
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The inside of the Blue Mosque never fails to amaze.
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I bought some food and sat in a single solo chair on a sidewalk watching passersby. I couldn't have looked more out of place if I were wearing a t-shirt that said "yabanci". After that I bargained for some 2TL watermelon and left that area to set off for Istiklal. The walk was beautiful as the night fell. I can't get over the mystique of Istanbul - everywhere you go, you're surrounded by life, history and adventure! It was a difficult trip because I still felt like I fit in, but I knew that I had to return home. It did really raise the question of where I consider home to be, and whether home could ever have a permanence to it. I think this is the nature of growing up as an immigrant compounded with my personal forays into living in different lands. The cultures create you. I know that it was confusing for the Turks I encountered, because I spoke their language, knew the city but didn't live there. I love so much about the culture, but it's difficult to imagine myself in a city where I'll always be an outsider. I'll never be able to just go about my business without being asked where I'm from, why I speak their language and why I'm there...
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The beauty of the city is overwhelming, the water is enticing. My walk was calming and allowed me time to think before meeting a friend and setting off on my final night out in Istanbul. I met him on Istiklal and we went to Nevizade - a party street. I don't know anywhere that could compare to the side streets of Istiklal at night and all there is to offer: from dancing circles to lentil delights!
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Monday morning came and it was time for me to fly off to Portugal and my sister. I met her in Lisbon, dropped off my luggage and we headed off in search of bacalau. It was delicious! I had developed a taste for if when I lived in Spain in high school and missed its flavor and probably my memories too. Every bite is a journey. I then ate pastel de nata for the first time. I can declare that I am now addicted.
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Tuesday was a day of learning about Lisbon. I signed up for two Grayline bus tours as it was an efficient way to see more of Libson in a shorter period of time. I learned about the Tagus River being the longest in the Iberian Peninsula; Chiado being the former entrance to the city; the company that built the 25 April Bridge being the same that built the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge; Lisbon becoming the national capital in 1256 and a huge earthquake destroying much of the city in 1755 with the Marques de Pompal later helping to rebuild.
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I also wandered around Belem, and learned about the explorers like Vasco de Gama - I even saw where he was buried in the Iglesia de Santa Maria de Belem. In fact, there were a number of sites around the city devoted to Vasco de Gama, including a shopping mall, tower and bridge (on the 500th anniversary of his Maritime route to India in 1998). I can only hope that one day I'll have a mall named after me.
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One of my favourite parts of solo travel is the people you meet along the way. That night my sister and I went out with one of the people I'd chatted with that day. The three of us went to Bairro Alto, which is where the greatest nightlife is in Lisbon. Bars line the streets, but the real party is outside on the cobblestone. We tried ginginja, a type of cherry wine. We also met a really great group of French tourists with whom we chatted and drank until the time came to be responsible and go home and sleep so my sister could wake up in time for class the next day. One disturbing aspect of the night was the fact that a man walked into the same bar as us with a tattoo of a swastika on his arm, and noone seemed bothered. I'd never seen something like that in real life, and it was definitely not something I want to see again.
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Wednesday was my day trip to Sintra, which made me realize the value of planning ahead. Since I speak Spanish I thought I'd be fine just asking for answers wherever I went around Portugal, similar to my laissez-faire style in Turkey. I find whenever I speak a language that's local or close enough to local to get by that I tend to rely on just getting by rather than planning ahead. I try to embody go with the flow. In this case, I got lost with the flow and ended up hiking up a mountain for an hour and a half instead of taking a simple 20 minute path or a bus. By the time I reached el Palacio de Pena I was exhausted, but still motivated to learn more. It's one of the most breathtaking palaces I've seen because it's straight out of a fairy tale imagination. If a king ever proposes to me, I'd appreciate it being there. Who wouldn't want to be queen of that castle?
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After descending back to the village in a tuk tuk, I sat in a cafe to eat some bacalau balls and a travesseira (the local pastry of Sintra). I took a train to Lisbon, and Sara and I headed to Castelo de São Jorge where we saw the Miradoura St. Luzia and some of the most beautiful views of the city. We then returned back to the centre of the city to eat at Da Vinci restaurant again, where they have the most delicious risotto I've ever had.
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I feel like a huge element of any trip for me is the food - I couldn't have chosen two better destinations in that regard. The fresh vegetables, fruit and fish in Portugal were delicious and in Turkey I couldn't get enough of the meat, yoghurt and breads aka İskender kebabı.
Thursday I left Lisbon for Lagos in the Algarve (southern Portugal). I took a bus there, which was about 15 euro and 4 hours. I sat beside a chatty elderly Portuguese lady who wasn't bothered by my only understanding maybe a quarter of what she said (her accent was very different to the people in Lisbon). I found the hostel easily as it's a very small town. There were a huge number of tourists and some very kitschy artifacts, but the natural scenery was stunning.
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I dropped my bags, met my bunkmates (three of them) and then began my long walk alone. Somewhere along the way I had been given a map, and for whatever reason I decided my destination was going to be Ponta de Piedade - the tip of the peninsula. I walked for hours past beautiful beaches and cute couples...
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Thanks to the beauty, I was inspired to take endless selfies. It's like a disease. Part of the motivation was probably the deep feeling of being alone when you're surrounded by love at every turn - or at least couples who like to look like they're in love for a prime photo shoot opportunity.
I finally made it to Ponta de Piedade before the sunset, with beautiful glows on the water and rocks.
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It was well worth the walk out there, but it was definitely quite a stroll back considering that I hadn't the foresight to realize that you can't just call a cab to the middle of nowhere... especially when you have no cell phone to make that call with. I ended up having dinner at Harley's, which came recommended by a bunkmate who happened to be sitting there when I arrived. We had a lovely dinner, but I realized that I needed to be with my sister. It's not worth being in a beautiful place, if you're not there with the people who you want to be with.
The next morning I went and bought a different ticket to Lisbon and told the hostel I wouldn't be staying the night (they wouldn't give me back the money, but that's not a huge surprise). I then settled in for a few hours of beach time at Batata Beach. It's very calming there. Not so calming was the fact that when I had left and was halfway to my hostel I got pooed on by a seagull. Let's hope the legends are true and good luck springs my way. When I did return to the hostel I chatted with a really cool Canadian couple who are travelling the world for a year. Hostels are prime locations for meeting great people, there's no doubt about that. I also managed to find time to check out the Science Alive Museum in Lagos and go to an art gallery. I was the only one cool enough to hang out in a science centre on a Friday in a beach town as I literally had the whole place (and guides) to myself. At one point a strange man appeared and asked if I was Spanish. I said no, but I speak it. He then proceeded to rave about Ibiza being paradise on earth before promptly walking away. This is who comes to a science centre on a Friday in a beach town: me and a 60 year old retired party animal.
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My trip back to Lisbon was accompanied by a Master's student from Belgium who chatted with me in French about his fascinating thesis topic, while I tried frantically to contact my sister and alert her to my far earlier return to the apartment. I did manage to catch her and we were able to have a great debrief before going to sleep and readying ourselves for my last day in Portugal. We slept awfully as usual, which isn't surprising given that we were sharing a cot. I don't think a single overweight ten year old could have fit comfortably yet there we were head to toe clutching onto each other so as not to fall to the creaky floor.
We decided that for my last day we should do a trip to a beach near to Lisbon called Cascais. You can't go from Rossio Station, you have to walk a bit further, but it's still in the centre of town and it was only about 5 Euro return. The beach was pretty, but very small and crowded. It was a good opportunity for Sara and I to just relax and enjoy the scenery - to savour the fact that we were hanging out on a beach in Portugal on a sunny Saturday. She engaged in some pick up soccer while I managed gracefully to fall while climbing on some rocks. All I can say is that it was probably less embarrassing than the walk of shame back to my hostel after I was pooed on...
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That night (my final night) we went out to Bairro Alto again, this time with Sara's friend Rachel too. We danced and drank and had a fabulous time. I knew I was tired when a man walked out to the street with a tray full of shots and I mistook it for free samples. The bachelor party of men were definitely amused... I suppose it's the proximity, but there was an abundance of Frenchmen. I got into conversation with one while my sister and her friend watched on, when all of a sudden another Frenchman interrupted just to say to me: t'as l'air trop sérieux. Why would it ever be a good idea to tell someone that? Furthermore, why jump into a conversation to share that useless bit of obvious? I've lived with my face 28 years. He thinks I wouldn't know by now? I'm in fact highly aware of the syndrome they call bitchy resting face. In fact that very same day I had done a "beachy resting face" photoshoot in Cascais on the playa. To add insult to injury, not a minute later another Frenchman wanders over and yells out (directed at my sister): t'es la plus belle fille qui j'ai vu ce soir. What did I learn? My sister is a beauty and I'm a strict headmistress.
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Sunday meant time for me to leave this fabulous country, my beautiful sister and vacation life. On my journey back to my present reality, I watched an inspiring Turkish film, Kış Uykusu. I'll leave you with this: "A well-planned life doesn't feel like a real one".

Posted by madrugada 17:24 Archived in Turkey Tagged turkey istanbul lisbon lagos portugal sintra ankara cascais Comments (0)

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