St. Pierre & Miquelon Photo Essay

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Newfoundland and then St. Pierre & Miquelon with a friend for about a week. We spent a long weekend in St. Pierre & Miquelon just to check it out and officially say we had been to France.

In case you aren’t familiar, St. Pierre & Miquelon is just off the cost of Newfoundland, Canada, but is a French territory. The communities speak French, have divine French pastries and use the Euro as currency. It is indeed a tiny piece of France!

The islands are small and don’t offer a lot of tourist attractions, but we did manage to fill our time for three days. From hiking the trail to the top of a large hill to look out over the colourful community of St. Pierre, to a ferry ride and day tour of Miquelon and Langlade where we visited very friendly ‘wild’ horses.

My primary tip if you are planning to visit … make dinner reservations every single day. If you just arrive at one of the handful of restaurants, you will be disappointed as they require reservations. Also keep in mind that dinner starts at 8 or 9pm, as per the usual in France.

Interested in more information or visiting? Drop me a message. I’d be happy to help you out.

Caring Counts for Critters too!

My business card says Photographer. Adventurer. Storyteller. But, in all honesty, I’m a story-listener as well. I love learning about people and why they are doing what they do. It’s amazing to start a small conversation with someone and have it turn in to a Caring Counts moment.

The owner of the Alona 42 Resort in Alona Beach, Panglao Island in the Philippines is a great example of Caring Counts (for Critters).

Christian is an engineer from Germany. He works five months in Germany each year and spends seven months in the Philippines. Contrary to popular belief, his time in the Philippines is not seven months of vacation, rather seven months of longer than normal work-hours managing his resort. The resort took three years to build and became operational in 2012.

When we arrived at the small resort, we were greeted by one of Christian’s four cats, Mary. She was in really rough shape, hobbling, dirty and looked like she was in a lot of pain. Her mouth and surrounding fur was black and her paws were balding. She was so dirty that I didn’t even dare touch her as I wasn’t sure what disease might be lurking. I was heartbroken and asked the staff what was wrong with her. They explained that she had some kind of mouth cancer and had been sick for quite some time. They also explained that she had been to the vet and that they had been trying to help her. As she hobbled over to the food dish that the staff set out, I found my heart aching that this poor kitty, presumably, was in so much pain, but happy that the staff were taking care of her despite her outward appearance.

Although we had only met one cat, Mary, at this point, Christian had actually taken in a family of four white cats Mary, Sophie, Chica and Mouse, all of whom we would meet in a short time. Within a couple of hours, we saw one or two of the other cats. It was difficult to tell them apart as all had similar markings with their white bodies, black and brown patches on their heads and various sizes of bob tails. They were all clean and appeared healthy which was a relief to see.

Generally speaking, animals aren’t cared for or respected here in the Philippines, which is sad. Many of them roam homeless, dirty, mangey and severely under nourished. Not to mention that they continue to reproduce, as very few are fixed. Due to lack of education, it is not uncommon for animals to be abused here. To control the animal population, every few months the government gives residents notice, sets a date and drives around collecting animals that are not tagged or collared. They are kept in a cage for approximately 24 hours. If you’re pet has been mistakenly captured, you can go and pay to have them released. After that time, sadly, the remaining animals are killed. It’s heartbreaking. And I’m sure that there is no hope of the animals being killed in any kind of a humane way.

As I spoke with Christian about the cats, I mentioned that I hadn’t seen Mary for a couple of days. He gently and sadly explained that she had been too sick. He had taken her to the vet the day prior and the vet confirmed that the medicine was not working and that she was in a lot of pain. He was given the option to take Mary for an operation in Manila which would cost several hundred dollars and may or may not work. Besides the fact that they would need to fly there and fly back which is particularly stressful for any animal, let alone one as sick as Mary. So, they made the difficult decision to put her down, humanely, by way of injection. You could tell that Christian was still a bit sad, but he went on to tell me about how he and his staff care for the other cats.

The cats are left to roam free, but rarely leave the property. They are outdoor cats, but have lots of shelter options when it rains under the balconies of the accommodations, or the small covered outdoor restaurant / seating area. They also tend to scare off new cats who decide to try for a chance at the good life at the resort. He chalks it up to them being fed and well taken care of on a regular basis, so therefore they have no reason to leave. He lamented with a smile that some days he wished he could be one of his cats as they have such a good life.

As I write this, Chica is snoozing on the mat outside my front door and Sophie is having a bite to eat at the bar. Mouse is sprawled out on the cement close to a wall, trying to cool off a bit. Chica doesn’t run away, but sticks her nose up at you if you try to pet her and saunters just out of reach. Sophie looks up with interest when you call her, but keeps her distance.

Although I was sad to know that Mary was no longer around, I was glad to know that she was no longer in pain. More than anything I felt warm from the inside that this man from another country had taken in not one, but four cats, to provide food and shelter for them as well as the necessary medical check ups. Even better, he had them all fixed as not to contribute to the overpopulation of animals. All of this paid for from his own pocket.

As I try to live in, and create a world around me that is full of kindness and caring, I am happy that I’ve had the chance to stay at this lovely little location where Caring Counts for Critters too.

Please take a moment to check out the fantastic Caring Counts movement that is going on in Halifax, Nova Scotia and spreading like wild fire. It’s all about the little things that make a difference and caring about one another. It’s for me and you and everyone! Let’s make this world a better place, just by caring!

My underwater world experience

As I threw myself backwards off the little boat rocking in the waves I closed my eyes and held the regulator firmly so that it wouldn’t fall out of the grasp of my teeth and drenched in salt water. Oh how I hate the taste of the ocean. I was the last one out of the boat and as I was falling over the edge, tank first, I was still wondering what I had agreed to.

I had just finished my PADI Discover Scuba Diving course in Alona Beach on Panglao Island in the Philippines. My friend Robin had enrolled in the PADI Open Water Diver course and although I wasn’t interested in the time or money required for the certification, learning to dive had been on my adventure to do list for quite some time. No better time to start than in the Philippines with one of your best and most encouraging friends.

After watching an hour-long introductory video about how diving works, the equipment involved, underwater communication signals and how air works in your body as you go up and down in water, it was time to get suited up.

A relatively painless, however, hilarious trip to the on-site gear closet had me tugging on the shorties for what seemed like forever, trying to get them to crawl even an extra inch up my thighs. After a not so graceful wiggle-dance, the wet suit was successfully in place above my knees. Luckily, they had sized me correctly and I only had to try on one wet suit and keep it on. I shoved my feet in my booties, sized my flippers and snorkel mask and then we headed to the nearby pool for our confined water training.

My instructor checked over my gear and helped me into it while my friend was in charge of checking and preparing her own equipment as part of her more in-depth open water certification. With my regulator clenched between my teeth almost as tightly as a dog clenches his bone, we were instructed to put our faces in the water and then submerge in the shallow end of the pool. We were then towed gently underwater to the deeper end of the pool, stopping every few feet to equalize by swallowing and/or blowing gently into a pinched nose.

Next up we got to practice inflating and deflating our BCD (buoyancy control device) to achieve neutral buoyancy. I must admit I didn’t do so great at this. I would definitely need more practice on this one before doing it on my own. We then practiced a few of the basic skills of diving, including clearing a mask that had started to fill with water, how to find our regulator if it were to become dislodged from our mouth, how to clear it to start breathing again and sharing our air if our buddy were to run out.

Although only one meter under water and in a pool, when I went from having the regulator in my mouth as my air source, to letting it float away, I panicked slightly. I was able to successfully wrap my arm backwards to find the regulator, but remembering all of the other steps was a struggle for me. I immediately held my breath instead of releasing air which is the cardinal rule for diving – ALWAYS breathe. If you are releasing air you are breathing, because you don’t want the air in your lungs to expand as you rise. I was fine up until the point that I had the regulator in hand and close to inserting it into my mouth. My instructor reminded me to continue breathing and letting bubbles escape. As I inserted the regulator back into my mouth I realized that I didn’t have enough air left in my lungs to clear it by blowing into it. Although we had been taught what to do, I had a moment (of a few) of panic when I wasn’t sure what to do. I remembered to use the release button on the regulator to clear it, but just as I gently pressed it I realized that I wasn’t blocking the opening with my tongue and everything was going to be pushed into my mouth. Hence, a stronger panic, as I felt like I was running out of air and was scared if I breathed through the regulator that I was going to take in water.

When my instructor signalled to ask if I was ok, my panic rose a bit more as I couldn’t remember the signs immediately. Finally, (likely only 2 seconds later), I signalled that I wasn’t really ok. I then pressed the release on the regulator a second time, remembering to place my tongue to block it from pushing back into my mouth. I then inhaled lightly and realized air was flowing just fine, so I took a deeper breath. We stayed there for a moment until I was able to give the ok sign. It took me a minute for my heart to drop back out of my throat. It was at that moment, despite being ok, that I really wasn’t sure if I could do this in the big open ocean.

We swam a couple of circles around the small pool practicing our neutral buoyancy and then started our ascent to the shallow end. I just couldn’t seem to get the whole neutralization thing quite right. At the bottom of the pool I would sink too far and scrape my knees. At the top of the pool I seemed to lose my balance easily and felt like I was being pushed forward all the time. When I finally took my regulator out of my mouth and was standing on my own two feet in the shallow end, I choked back tears and spit out, “I’m not sure I can do this.”

Our instructor was great, making sure that he talked me through what happened and then reassuring me that I wouldn’t have to do any of those skills on the dive, all I would need to do is breathe and use my flippers; he would take care of my buoyancy and guiding me. Robin, on the other hand, had to do a bit more work and testing while in open water for her course.

As we moved from the weightlessness of the pool to full on gravity it gave me a new appreciation for the weight of all of the gear on my back. I carry a lot of heavy camera gear in my backpack regularly and it didn’t even compare! We went directly from the pool to the small boat, handed off our gear to be loaded and hopped over the edge. I guess it was probably a good thing that I didn’t have time to sit and think too much about it. I was really unsure if I wanted to do the open water dive, but none-the-less I was going through the motions of getting on the boat. I would have at least a few more minutes to decide.

The rocky boat ride lasted only about five minutes to get to Garden Eel Reef. I was super glad I had remembered my Transderm patch the night before as it was perfect conditions for me to get horribly sea-sick. Choppy swells and a boat sitting without movement … my arch nemesis! Before I had time to turn green, we were plunging backwards over the edge into the waves with our vests inflated and regulators in our mouths. I was still nervous and unsure if I could do this.

The plan was to follow a mooring line down a few meters, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t able to release enough air from my BCD to start sinking. After a minute, the instructor assisted and I started going down, all of us stopping to equalize every few feet.

What an odd sensation when your head starts to feel heavier than normal and you can feel the pressure in your ears. It’s similar to descending in a plane, but somehow was much more intense for me. In my mind I revisited childhood memories of diving for pucks in the deep end of the Florenceville swimming pool where I was a life guard for several summers. I could vaguely recall the same pressure, but was only ever going down for a few seconds and then straight back up to the surface. This time would be very different as I would be staying under to explore the underwater world!

At the end of the mooring line, our instructor led us to a coral shelf that was full of corals and fish. We glided horizontally through the smooth water despite the choppy seas only a few meters above us. We then came to the edge of the coral where, all of a sudden, the shelf abruptly dropped off and there was nothing in front of us but the deep, dark, beautiful unknown beckoning us.

Despite my earlier panic in the pool, I was breathing normally and curiosity was slowly winning over my fear. The slow, methodical sound of my breathing was unusually calming as we glided through the open ocean toward a world that too few people see.

Our instructor slowly led us deeper and deeper with the coral shelf only a couple of feet to my left. Although I would never reach out and touch it, it was easily within arms reach. In fact, a couple of times I got a little too close and I was scared I was going to touch it by accident. Not sure if I was more concerned about damaging the environment or the environment biting me! Just as I was too close for comfort, the instructor who was guiding us from above, steered us slightly away and deeper again.

Although I was slightly nervous throughout the dive, I was able to relax enough to enjoy the beauty, knowing that the instructor was controlling my depth and direction. With this peace of mind, all I had to do was clear my mask occasionally and breathe normally. Luckily I enjoy deep yoga breathing and know that it calms me, so I was a conservative air user.

At 12 meters below the surface, it is amazing in itself just to be able to breathe freely. It is amazing that air can be bottled for consumption under water. It tickles your brain in a totally new way as you explore a whole new world below the surface.

Through the various depths, we saw schools of bright blue fish, beautiful black ones, the occasional bright yellow one and a school of Angel fish. Along the coral shelf there were blue starfish clinging to the side and small clown fish poking their heads in and out of sea grass. The size and textures of the different types of coral were a delight in the spotty sun that was reaching through the water. The plants and grasses were waving with the motion of the water and fish were dancing in the current.

We stayed at a depth of 12 meters for a short period of time before turning the dive and gradually making our ascent back to the top passing new schools of fish, a small grey eel wiggling vertically in the water, and hundreds more small, colorful fish.

At about three meters from the surface, we stopped for a non-mandatory rest and equalization period. Robin was tested on a couple of skills and then we self-inflated our BCDs until our heads popped above water and we were again bobbing in the swells waiting for our boat to draw near.

We were underwater for approximately one hour. Somehow it felt like time stopped while we were there. I had no concept of time, nor any need to be concerned with it. That was a liberating feeling in itself. The only ‘time limit’ we had was the amount of oxygen in each of our tanks.

I’m still contemplating my feelings on the entire experience. It was nothing short of amazing to be able to breathe underwater. Despite there being three of us under water, nearly attached to each other, somehow I got lost in my own little underwater world, amazed at the beauty and color that exists where our eyes rarely see. And somehow, I still harbour an uneasy fear from my panic situation in the pool. I’m excited that I tried it, yet, somewhere inside me, I’m not sure if it is something I want to pursue further. I feel like I need to give it more than one chance, yet, I also feel like I’ll have to do some self-convincing to jump over the boat’s edge into the unknown. In the end, I hope that my curiosity will win over my fear. After all, I am in the Philippines and who knows when I will be back. Some of the best diving in the world can be done right here, it would be a shame to miss it, wouldn’t it?

Istanbul Night Tasting Trail

In September 2015, I explored the foods of Turkey on a great tour with one of my favourite companies, Urban Adventures. They welcomed me along to enjoy their Istanbul Night Tasting Trail and share my food experiences with you!

I met up with my local guide, Beatrice, and four other passengers; two were from Germany and two from the United States. We set off from the Galata Bridge, taking the Tunel (one of the oldest in the world) to the top of the hill where we began our evening food adventure. Trust me, the two minute ride is well worth it, it is a steep hill!

The tour itself was presented as a day in the life of a Turk, through food. We started at a small cafe eating a breakfast food called su boregi (directly translated to Water Pastry) and a sampling of Turkish coffee or tea. The su boregi was light and mild. Layers of dough boiled and then flipped to keep the inside moist and the outside crispy. Sometimes they are filled with meat, cilantro, eggplant or yellow cheese, but ours was light and simple with just a sprinkling of white cheese inside, mixed with oil and hang yogurt. The texture is like eating pasta, but with no sauce, it is light enough for breakfast.

Su boregi

Su boregi

With Turkey being the world’s second largest tea producer, you might understand that it is an important part of their culture. Most of the tea is grown in the Black Sea area and Turkey as a whole, produces 1/3 of both tea and hazelnuts in the world. You don’t see Turks just sticking a tea bag in hot water though. There’s a delicate process where they use two tea pots with water in the bottom pot and loose tea in the top. They pour the boiling water from the bottom over the loose leaves. A bit of this extract will be mixed with more of the hot water and voila, the perfect cup of Turkish tea!

Turkish Tea

Turkish Tea

For ‘lunch’ we headed to a lovely little patio restaurant where they served up a bottle of Raki for us to share as we pondered our meze options. Raki is a local liqueur. When mixed with an ice cube and water, watch the magic happen as it turns from a translucent liquid into a milky substance that they refer to as Lion’s milk. It has a distinct liquorice flavour and is regularly compared to ouzo, but don’t say this out loud as you will start a big debate that cannot be finished!



Meze is a variety of hot or cold small plates, served with bread. Our group poured over the options, asking what each one was and then a handful were ordered to give us a little taste test of everything. From denim borulcesi (sea weed / sea beans) to atom (a powerful chili), kozlenmis biber (red peppers), patlican ezme (mashed eggplant) to the most delicious hummus I’ve ever tasted. Of course, it was accompanied by the standard onion, tomato, garlic, pureed salsa and haydari (hang yogurt with garlic and herbs). Add a spoonful of any of these tasty dishes on top of bread baked soft in the middle and crispy on the outside, and you have yourself a meal! Did I mention we were only on lunch at this point?



As we moved on from the outdoor patio to our next destination, we stopped for a quick bite of street food. Vendors throughout the streets of the Taksim and Galata districts are always hopping with the crowded night scene streaming by at a constant flow. As two men stopped for a quick snack from the muscle vendor, we joined in the fun. A muscle shell filled with rice, drenched in lemon and popped in your mouth is apparently the way to go for your mid-evening night-out-drinking snack! Seeing as we had already had our afternoon Raki, I guess we had caught up with the youngsters. I’m not a huge fan of muscles normally, but decided to give it a fair try. After staring down the shell convincing myself that I could do it, I popped it in my mouth and was pleasantly surprised at the mix of soft flavors and absence of distinct seafood taste. I almost had a second one and then remembered that I needed to save room for dessert! Oh wait, dessert isn’t next?

Stuffed Muscle

Stuffed Muscle

You can’t have dessert before you’ve had at least one more Turkish tea or coffee! So off to an open air cafe near the Passage Hazzopulo, we went! With a mixture of both tea and coffee drinkers, we got to enjoy the thick bold goodness of Turkish coffee, the smoothness of Turkish tea and the sweetness of emil cay (apple tea). Apple tea is my favourite, but apparently it is more of a tourist drink than one of the locals.

Turkish Tea and Coffee

Turkish Tea and Coffee

To give us a feel for a real ‘afternoon’ out in the life of some Turkish ladies, Beatrice offered to do a coffee grind reading for one of the guests. Often a way for ladies to pass the afternoon, is to sit and have tea / coffee with friends and then read each other’s fortune from the upside down settlings of the thick sludge at the bottom of the coffee cup.

We then meandered off through some of the narrow streets and were drawn in by the methodical clickety-clack of metal utensils on a hot metal cooking service. As the minced meat on the cooking service was broken up, tossed around and loaded up with spices, you could see people piling around to get it while it was hot and fresh. Kokorec it was called and our guide asked if we wanted to know what it was before or after trying it.

hmmmm … that doesn’t really sell it for me!

Kokorec is a very popular delicacy of cow or goat intestine mixed with spicy tomatoes and onion and then served on a small bun. I was sorry that I had asked what it was beforehand, but dug out my inner bravery and gave it a try. Much to my surprise, it was actually pretty tasty. It had the texture of minced beef or lamb, although maybe a little greasier, and the spices added a nice flavour. I even managed to take more than one bite, so it must not have been too bad at all!



With our bellies warmed up from tea / coffee and spicy Kokorec, we headed off to a narrow, off the beaten track street for a taste of Efes, Turkey’s famed beer. Although I’m not a beer conosoeur, the gentelemen in my group described it as an “Easy drinking beer. Sweet and not too hard.”

Efes Beer

Efes Beer

After our ‘night out’ for a beer, next up was the typical ‘after-the-bar’ food; a little something called a wet burger. And, it was just that. It is a small, smoked, beef patty cooked with garlic and tomato paste and then smooshed into a small bun and left to get soggy. Chow down on a couple of these with a few big gulps of Ayran, a salty yogurt based drink and they say you’ll be hangover free!

Wet Burger

Wet Burger

At our final stop, we got to indulge in the delectable Turkish sweets. We were served delicious baklava which is many layers of phyllo pastry, filled with pistachios, baked and then drizzled with sugar water. To take the edge off the exceptional sweetness, we shared some gooey Turkish ice cream. The ice cream has the same substance as chewing gum, so it doesn’t melt quickly and is slightly chewy, but mouthwateringly delicious.

Baklava and Turkish Ice Cream

Baklava and Turkish Ice Cream

As if that wasn’t enough, Beatrice then pulled out a chocolate bar chalked full of hazelnuts which is one of Turkey’s big exports. I have a special soft spot for chocolate and hazelnuts, so I managed to find an empty spot in my tummy to try a couple of squares.

And with that, we finished up the evening near Taksim Square with full bellies, new friends and a feel for how the locals eat. I would highly recommend giving the Istanbul Night Tasting Trail a try for a great way to explore the foods of Turkey and a great way to see a bit of the amazing city by night.

This post has been sponsored by Urban Adventures, a division of Intrepid Travel.

“Urban Adventures is about a new style of travel experience for those who want to get off the beaten path and really connect with a destination. The experience can be as short as a couple of hours, or as long as a whole day, but in every case our Urban Adventures tours take travellers to interesting places to meet locals, and to really see what makes a place tick.”


Stark Naked … At a Turkish Bath

I had heard rumours that you had to be naked and that you’d be scrubbed so hard you would nearly bleed. Yet, I was curious what all of the fuss was about with hammams, or Turkish Baths.

When I came to Turkey the first time in 2014, I had wanted to go but hadn’t found time. I was scared to go alone and vowed I would do it when I returned. Here it is, one year later and I’ve lived to tell the tale.

The local family that I was staying with in Fatih, a local community within the overflowing metropolis of Istanbul, asked if I was interested in visiting the Turkish Baths. They explained that their neighbour owned one and he would be happy to have me visit. I anxiously and tentatively said yes, and arranged to go the next day.

The owner of the hammam met me at the house with his two young grandchildren and we walked down the winding, narrow streets from near Molla Aski Terasi to the Tarihi Historical Hamami. With all of the twists and turns I thought I might never be able to find my way back home and it felt like a 10 minute walk, but I’m sure that it was only five.

As we arrived on the street where the Hamam was located, in broken english the man said “Men only,” and pointed to a door. About 20 steps later we turned a corner and there was a door immediately to our left with a curtain. He said “Women only. You go here.” He knocked and then spoke in Turkish from outside the doorway. Next thing I knew, a tall, thin woman came to greet me and introduced herself (in English) as Melitza, the owner’s daughter-in-law.

She welcomed me and invited me to sit in the main area. I looked around at the mixture of tile work that seemed to have no real rhyme or reason to it’s pattern, bordering the entrance to the bath which was surrounded by marble. There were small rooms with doors along the back wall that looked almost like Catholic confessional rooms, but clearly were not. Benches lined one wall and a small table with a drink and a pack of cigarettes were against the other wall, where Melitza took a seat.

It was slightly cooler in the main area than the midday sun outside which was still climbing and had already reached 25+ degrees. There was only one other lady at the hamam and she was introduced as Fatma. She was a short stout lady with an ample bosom who walked with her feet turned out as she scurried around in her night-gown like dress. I later found out that Fatma had been working at this hamam for 30+ years.

With a big smile, Melitza welcomed me again and began asking where I was from, how long I would be traveling for and if I had ever been to a hamam. I immediately felt comfortable with her friendly and open personality and concluded that I would be able to ask her anything I needed.

Come to find out, although she does work at the hamam sometimes, this day she just happened to be there for her own bath experience, but wanted to make sure I was comfortable.

We chatted for a few minutes about what the experience would entail and what services I would like to have. The Turkish Bath, peeling and massage would be 35 Turkish Lira (equivalent to less than $17 CAD). They also had a treatment with a combination of a coffee scrub and honey for 20 Lira. I was there to experience it all, so I said ‘Let’s go for it!’

Of course, with the thought of coffee and honey being spread all over my body, I thought it time to ask about dress code. Melitza explained to me that wearing underwear would be perfectly acceptable as many women do this, however, traditionally women would be completely naked, not just topless. I should do whatever made me comfortable. She explained how she was shy the first time, but now she really enjoys the experience. She was born and raised in Serbia, but had married a Turkish man. Now they live in Istanbul. She had her first hammam experience only a few years before.

I had asked the folks that I was living with about dress code they had told me I could wear a swimsuit if I wanted, so I had. It was a full swim suit as I don’t do bikinis. When I heard a better explanation of the peeling process and then about the coffee and honey treatment I decided that I did not want my swimsuit to be covered. So, just like that, it was decided that I would be going full monty. Why not? I was there for the real experience, I’m not ashamed of my body and it helped that I was the only one there at that particular time. However, I was well aware that others could arrive at any minute.

Melitza explained to me that they would give me everything I needed to enjoy my experience. Fatma then came over and handed me a small yellow basket with shampoo, a wash cloth and two large towels made of tea-towel-like material. I was given a key to one of the small changing rooms at the back and told to wrap the small towel around me and that the bigger one would be used for later.

Fatma then smiled a crooked, but uniquely charming smile, took me by the hand, led me up the stairs through the first marble doorway and then through the second doorway where I was enveloped in the humidity like a warm, but wet, blanket.

It was silent, although when you spoke you felt dwarfed by the size and stance of the great 400 year old building that seemed to talk back to you through it’s echo. The large room was about half the size of a high school gymnasium, with natural light trickling in through the carved holes in the beautiful, dome-shaped, marble ceiling. In the centre of the room, directly below the dome, was a large square marble slab about two feet thick and 8 feet by 8 feet in diameter. It demanded attention, but I wasn’t quite sure of it’s purpose. The walls were lined with ancient marble sinks, each with their own hot and cold water taps, about 15 separate washing stations in total.

Fatma led me to one of the stations, turned on the hot and cold water, hung my towel on a rod above the sink and there I was … stark naked in this large room where I was about to bathe myself, publicly!

Through words and hand motions, Fatma explained that I should pour water over myself, but not to use soap or shampoo yet, just water. For the next 30-45 minutes I breathed in hot, humid air and poured warm water over myself until my skin softened. I alternated between hot and cool water every once in awhile. The humidity was hard to get used to, so I found a bit of cool water helped me endure while still softening my skin to prepare for the peeling process.

At the 45 minute mark, Fatma returned and took me out to the front waiting area to cool off and get some fresh air. I sat and chatted with Melitza while other women and children began to arrive at the hammam for their Sunday cleaning ritual. Melitza prepared me for the next section of the process which would be the peeling, washing and massage part. She told me that I would know when to roll over as Fatma would slap my ass.

Yes. You read that right! This local woman was going to slap my naked ass to communicate with me that I needed to roll over. I won’t lie, I giggled …. slightly horrified!

When Fatma gathered me to go back into the sauna area, she motioned for me to lie down on my stomach on the large marble slab in the middle of the room. She threw some warm water over the marble slab so that I wouldn’t stick to it and I laid down near the edge, on my tummy, and tried to find a way to get my boobs comfortable while being smushed against warm marble. Before I could even find a half comfortable position, Fatma was busy ‘peeling’ away my dead skin with a rubber mit with rubber teeth. It is similar to being exfoliated, but with something soft and rubbery tugging at your skin instead of a loofah which is hard and scratchy. Somehow she balanced the pressure of her body and the pressure of her scrubbing so that my skin started to roll off in little packets. She scrubbed all over my back, neck, bum and legs and then slapped my ass and mumbled something in Turkish.

Time to roll over.

Now, being naked in public is one thing. Having another nearly naked woman peel dead skin off you is another. But really, the hardest part to get over is laying face up with your private areas exposed.

I awkwardly rolled over on the wet slab and laid face up while Fatma continued to scrub my legs, stomach and breasts. Sounds weird right? Well, I can’t lie, it is weird, at least for me! I just kept telling myself that she’s done this for 30+ years, she’s seen everything by now!

Coming from Western society where it seems like just about any same sex contact is ‘gay or lesbian,’ it was hard for me to let a stranger rub and scrub all over. I’m sure she could see my tension. I couldn’t open my eyes, as I couldn’t bare to look at her while she was scrubbing me.

She tugged gently on my arm and motioned for me to sit up where she held my arm against her body and methodically scrubbed everything clean.

By this time, an elder had entered the sauna area in her underwear and was sitting in the corner gingerly pouring warm water over her body. On the other side of the large room, two women and a young girl of about five years old, were frolicking and giggling as they bathed one another. The young girl’s enthusiasm for bath time made me smile. It was in that moment that I understood that the hammam was a tradition that was being passed down. It may have once been a necessity and a place for people to clean themselves once a week for lack of having access to water at their own homes. But now, it was more of a tradition and luxury which families would hopefully share with the younger generations. Occasionally I opened my eyes and saw the joy of this little girl and heard her squeals of laugher as her mom dumped buckets of water over her head. Each ear piercing squeal made the corners of my mouth turn up in a delicate little grin.

I had heard about the peeling process and people described it as being rubbed raw and then roughly pummelled with a massage. For me, although slightly uncomfortable, it really wasn’t anything at all like being rubbed raw or being pummelled!

The soft teeth of the rubber mit hitched slightly on my skin and then continued down my body taking a thin layer with it. It wasn’t painful. It wasn’t even uncomfortable. Mostly it just felt like being scrubbed super clean or having a massage with no oil. When Fatma was done scrubbing me down, she went to get water to clean the dead skin off me. I made the mistake of opening my eyes and seeing the rolls of greyish skin laying lifeless all over my body. Had I really been that dirty? I was almost sorry that I looked! But, before I could be too disgusted, a bucket of warm water hit my back, then each of my sides and my front. The dead skin washed away, down the drains, leaving me naked and one shade whiter than when I had arrived!

I was directed back to the wet marble slab and laid down on my front again. This time, Fatma rubbed a soft washcloth with soap all over my body and then gave me a soap massage. The massage lasted about 10 – 15 minutes and was concentrated on the knots in my back and neck, but also on my legs and feet. It was an ok massage, but nothing like the joys of going to a professional massage therapist for a treatment where they could actually help your body recover. It was more like a boyfriend giving me a massage that he felt obligated to provide. It wasn’t bad, but I’m not sure that it was great either. Another slap on the ass and I rolled over again to have my front soaped up.

The process of being bombarded with buckets of water continued until all of the soap was washed off. Fatma motioned to me to use the water to clean my lady bits and then back to the slab. This time my large tea-towel like coverup had been spread out on the slab drenched in water. I got uncomfortably comfortable on the towel, face down and then the sweet, delicious smell of coffee wafted past my nose. It was like a little slice of heaven as she covered my body with coffee grinds and began to use them to gently exfoliate my soft, tender skin.

Once both sides of my body were amply covered in fragrant coffee grinds, she gently exfoliated my face. The heavenly coffee aroma made me relax and smile, despite the fact that I was sitting naked in public covered in coffee grinds.

When she was done the coffee application, I opened my eyes and all of a sudden was shocked to see that I was now a dark shade of brown all over. I’m not sure why I hadn’t thought of it before, but it was interesting to see my skin as a different colour. After all, I already felt strange enough being naked in another country, why not try on a different skin colour too?!

Fatma washed the coffee off with buckets of water and then allowed me to wash it from my private areas where the water had carried the coffee grinds it on it’s way off my body. Then she sat me down, poured warm water over my head and washed and conditioned my hair.

I climbed back on the slab one last time for the application of the honey treatment. Pure, natural honey mixed with water was drizzled all over me and then spread around and left to melt into my skin for a few minutes before being washed away again.

Fatma slapped me on the ass one last time and drizzled honey over my front. The scent made my mouth water. Luckily with the honey mixed with water it was much less sticky than I expected and it washed away easily with one more quick soapy wash down. Fatma finished washing my hair and then motioned for me to cover up and head back to the waiting area.

Oops! I hadn’t brought my second towel in.  My first towel was soaked and covered with coffee and honey and there I was naked. Now what?

Fatma chuckled and shook her head at me and then asked Melitza to grab my towel from my changing room. I wrapped up and headed to the waiting area to sit, cool off and chat. There were a few ladies arriving and preparing to enter the sauna area, a couple women were cooling off  after their first 40 minutes or so and Melitza was there waiting to ask me all about my experience.

I sat for another hour, had a lemon drink and chatted with Melitza about Serbia, Turkey, why women choose to cover their heads and bodies and why not. She explained the challenges of being a Serbian, non-covering woman who married into a family where covering was expected and that she has always stood her ground explaining that they can wear what they wish and she will wear what she wishes. She told me about her psychology background and a school she had opened in Serbia to help special needs children learn better math skills through different teaching methods. What an interesting lady! I’m so glad that I met her and took time to hear her story.

Eventually, I decided that I needed to get lunch seeing as I had skipped breakfast and it was already 3pm. I put my swimsuit and clothes back on and Melitza’s mother-in-law walked up the hill with me, back to my apartment.

Two weeks later, as I think back on the experience and am so glad that I did it. Not only was it an interesting local experience, but also a freeing of my mind and liberation of my body. In a society where women spend their days covered, it was an interesting contrast to see them uncover completely as an indulgence in themselves.

If you are visiting Turkey, I highly recommend the experience. And, don’t go to one of the expensive touristy hammams in Sultanahment. Dig a little deeper and find a family run one that operates as they have for hundreds of years. Enjoy the true Turkish hammam experience!

I highly recommend visiting Tarihi Historical Hamami in the Fatih / Balat district for the full, original experience. They have not sponsored this post or asked me to promote them, I am just 100% pleased with the experience I had and would like to see them thrive.

As always, if you are planning a trip to Turkey (or anywhere), feel free to get in touch. I am a full-service travel agent and happy to help you plan your next great adventure!

What I learned about my body from taking portraits of others.

There’s nothing quite as liberating as being naked and being ok with it. For those of you who are cringing and groaning, that’s probably because somewhere in your mind you are harbouring ill feelings toward your body. I can hear your thoughts: “I’m too fat. My thighs touch. My boobs sag. I don’t want anyone to see me like this. What if I don’t look the same as the others? I have scars. You can see my ribs. I have no bum. My boobs are like grapes with nipples.”

Oh ladies (said in my sympathetic, soft voice) … let me tell you something.
Listen closely, promise?

It is time that you stop talking negatively to yourself about your body. It is time that we all stop talking negatively about other people’s bodies. It is time for you to renew the self confidence you had when you were two or three and everything was better when you ran around naked.

No matter what it is that you don’t like about your body, I can almost guarantee that you don’t like it because the media has told you (or your parents who then told you) something else is more beautiful. I can also guarantee that you are not the only one with the same concerns. Although all of our bodies are unique, we all have the same parts. Some are bigger or smaller than others, some are dark, some light. Some parts have become ill and have scars, battle wounds or angel kisses. And you know what the best part is? Those are your unique traits! If you tell other people these traits are ugly, they will probably commiserate with you about their own body ‘faults’. But, what if instead of talking negatively about our bodies we just loved them for what they are? Imagine if instead of saying, ‘Oh I hate this birthmark on my right shoulder because I can’t get a tattoo there.’ you say ‘That’s my mark! I can’t be mistaken for anyone else!’ What if instead of telling the world you are ugly and not good enough, you were to hold your head up high and believe that you are good enough and that your body does not define you?

It is time to love your body ladies. The sooner you stop criticizing your own body, the sooner you will stop wondering what everyone else is thinking about your body. Besides, do you really think they are worried about your body when they have their own insecurities to worry about?

Alright, I know that there’s this whole ‘fat-shaming’ society thing happening and yes, sometimes people can be cruel and criticize others. I am aware this exists. But ladies, don’t be part of it! Don’t fat-shame yourself, your friends or your neighbours. Don’t make comments on someone’s weight (heavy or light) on the street. It’s really that simple.

Just. Don’t. Do. It.

And, we’re all adults here … at least I think! So, when your friend starts talking badly about her own body, or that of someone else … don’t agree, don’t get wrapped up in the game, don’t respond with your own faults … STOP HER! It may be difficult at first, but just stop her. Politely tell her that you don’t feel right talking about someone else’s body as you wouldn’t want them talking about yours. Tell her that you’re trying to look at your body more positively and maybe you should both work on it together. Make a love-your-body pact! #LoveYourBodyPact

It’s a movement folks.

The first step is to recognize it when it happens. Whether you are saying negative things to yourself or you have friends who talk about their own bodies negatively. Be aware of this.

Once you are aware of this you’ll be amazed at how often it happens. Not monthly, not weekly, not once a day. You’ll hear it over and over and over.

Once you see how often it happens and how nothing good comes out of saying bad things, then maybe you’ll stop those thoughts in their tracks. Maybe you’ll meekly tell your friends that you don’t want to talk that way anymore.

Time will pass and you’ll grow stronger because you aren’t beating yourself down all the time. Your self-confidence will improve. The next thing you know, you won’t have to stop yourself from talking badly about your body because bad thoughts will rarely cross your mind.

And then … you won’t be so meek when your friends are talking negatively because you won’t want to let that negativity into your life.

Eventually, you’ll make a positive change in the way your friends see their bodies.

Imagine if we could all just do that, one little bit at a time. Support one another with positivity. Imagine what your daughters and the young girls of the world would think? What if they never ever learned from you and I, that their bodies aren’t good enough. Because you know what? That is something that is taught, not something that you are born with. No baby cries because their tummy sticks out or they have a cow lick. Four year olds run around naked because they haven’t learned shame of their body yet.

Yes, I know, everyone can’t run around naked all the time, but I think there are ways to teach your kids about this without making them ashamed of their bodies.

I’m not a skinny person. This is subjective, of course. It also depends on my (and your) definition of skinny. I also don’t consider myself fat. Well, quite honestly, I don’t consider my body to be anything except my body. I’ve been called ‘gordita’ (chubby in Spanish) in a beautiful and loving way, sexy, and most recently, I was told in Turkey that I am beautiful, but I would be very beautiful if I lost 20 kilos. Yes, folks, someone felt the need to portray their beauty standards directly on me. Luckily I don’t care if she thinks I’m beautiful. That’s the benefit of being self confident. My body is only important to me. Hmmm … interesting concept isn’t it?

I, like many of you, have been up and down in weight all my life. I played sports all throughout school and was good at them. I won lots of awards, played on championship teams and was always active. Somehow, I was still not skinny like many of my team mates.

I struggled with uniforms that didn’t fit properly because my bosom was too big or my legs too thick. Nothing like making someone feel self conscious by making them wear a uniform that’s too small for them! And, even worse, having the largest uniform available for the team and it still not being large enough. And ladies, I was really not that big! I played basketball and volleyball like a champ.

Jump forward a few years to when I was in my early 20’s and started my photography business. I was busy taking family portraits, children’s portraits and wedding photos. I began to see, very clearly that people generally disliked having their photo taken. Why? Well, because it was never good enough. Even if it was a beautiful photo of them, they wished they could look like someone else. Almost always stemming from someone wanting to be a thinner version of themselves because of course that is more beautiful! *sarcasm*

As the years wore on, this attitude tugged at my heart and eventually I couldn’t keep ignoring it. The more women would tell me to take 20 lbs off them in photoshop or to get the best angle to get rid of their double chin, the more I wanted to cry for them. What kind of life is it to live if you don’t believe in your own beauty? And, for those skinnier than me, who do you think you are complaining about being fat to someone who weighs 40 lbs more than you? At first, that hurt me. If you think you’re fat, you must think I’m a disgusting blob! And then I realized their opinions of their bodies had nothing to do with my body, nor did it change the way I see my body. This was a very big life lesson!

I can remember being frustrated with so many women during my photo shoot days. They had hired me to be a professional photographer and capture their family (or business shots … whatever the case). They were paying me to take photos of them. About 95% of the time, before I ever lifted my camera to even get light readings, the women were telling me ‘Oh. I hate having my photo taken. I never look good in photos.” Followed by one of the following qualifying statements, “I have a double chin. I don’t want my freckles to show. Make sure I look skinny. You can edit to take 20 lbs off right?”

80% of the time when I showed them their photos they were pleasantly surprised with them (and unedited at that!) and relaxed for the rest of the session. The other 20% of the time were women who either didn’t care what their photo looked like because it wasn’t important, or who had already made up their minds that it would be so ugly that they didn’t even want to look. If you are one of those women, please, give yourself a break. Beauty is so much more than outward appearance.

In the midst of all of that, I told myself I would never ever point out my shortcomings or body criticisms to someone else. For one, I don’t want to talk negatively to, or about myself. And two, it makes other people uncomfortable when you talk about yourself negatively! From that point forward, I would not be ashamed of my body, I would not talk negatively to myself and I would walk proud in the skin I am in. Seven or eight years later, I still live by this rule. Sure I slip sometimes, but I overcome it. Sure there are times when I would like to lose some weight, but if I choose to do that, it is for my health and comfort, not to look beautiful for someone else. There is a big difference.

I also decided that if someone was kind enough to give me a compliment, I would accept that compliment with a ‘thank you’. No more of this ‘Aw, no. I’m ugly’ crap. It really isn’t that difficult to bite your tongue, swallow those negative thoughts and spit out ‘Thank you.’ Once you get used to it, amazingly you’ll get more compliments. Funny how when someone compliments you and you react negatively, they aren’t as likely to compliment you again. How backwards are we women who want others to see us as beautiful and then we turn our backs when they tell us what we wanted to hear?

One day, I had had enough with women bullying themselves and dragging me into it.

My polite, politically correct statement for nearly every woman I ever worked with who expressed her concerns about having her photo taken was as follows, “I am a profesional, I will use the best lighting and angles to make sure you look your best.”

Inside my head and my heart I was screaming. “No, I am not going to stroke your ego. No, I am not going to argue with you that you aren’t too fat or too skinny. No, I am not going to commiserate with you that your body isn’t perfect. What is it that you want from me? If I tell you that you are beautiful you will only deny it. Oh, right … you want a beautiful photo! Well, let me see if I can help with that because I cannot be your psychologist.”

Eventually, I started explaining to women, “If I tell you there is an elephant to your left, would you look for it?”
“Yes,” they all replied.
“If I put a ball cap on right now and then asked you if my hair was natural or died and if I had roots, would you know the answer?”
“Um, probably not,” most of them would say.
“Well, I want to share a little life lesson with you to put you at ease. I am a professional photographer, who you have trusted to capture beautiful photos for you. I am going to do my best, as I understand lighting and techniques that are great for portraits. It is my job to capture the best you; a photo you are happy with when we are done, not one to cringe at. I am not here to take bad photos of you and I’m not just pointing and shooting like snap shots that your friends take. In order for me to do my job, the one that you are paying me for, I need you to be comfortable. I promise any photos that do not represent you beautifully, I will delete. Please, however, I want you to know this … If the first thing you point out to someone is all of your faults, what do you think they are going to see? Yes, that’s right, your faults. If you don’t want someone to focus on your faults, the best thing you can do is not point them out! It’s like saying ‘don’t look for a blue car’ and then all you can see are the blue cars on the streets. If you tell the world you are fat, they will see you in one of two ways, either fat, or insecure. If you say nothing, the world will see you as you. Even better, if you see yourself as beautiful, so will the world. I think you are beautiful. Now it’s your turn.”

Buenos Aires in Review

Throughout 2014 and 2015, I have been busy seeing the world and not spending much time in Nova Scotia. I am officially nomadic as I have no home and keep on moving. However, I’m not a full time tourist. Don’t be fooled! I work throughout the week as a travel agent and then I explore when I can.

During my stay in Buenos Aires other people often told me I ‘needed’ to see so much more. They are used to tourists who arrive for a few days and try to jam in all of the history and sight seeing they can. Those tourists are on vacation and have little time and no work to do. It is a very different situation than living in a place for four months and needing to make a living while you are there. Can you imagine 120 days straight of full-on sight seeing and then going home to work for six to eight hours each night? Phew! Talk about exhausting. And that’s why I spread my excitement out!

Sometimes I look back at my four months in Buenos Aires and get a little sad that I didn’t do more … but then I look at this list of what I did do and I’m back to being content.

Street Art Tour – Early in my stay I joined Travel Writer, Yvonne Gordon, on a wonderful Street Art tour with Graffitimundo. If you haven’t read my blog about it, check it out!
Tren de la Costa – Costal train stopping at several communities, with a final destination of El Tigre.
El Tigre – A lovely community boasting the National Art Museum and lovely boat rides along the delta.
Lujan – Known for it’s beautiful basilica. They happened to be having a community mural project that weekend so I got to meet lots of great street artists who were painting large canvases of their own pieces to be displayed together around the city.
San Telmo Market – Blocks and blocks of street vendors, artisans, dancers, performers and musicians that takes place every Sunday in the bohemian district of San Telmo.
House party with Karaoke – Does it get more local than a 2am house party with Spanish karaoke?
Bar – no name – The bar actually did have a name, although I’ve forgotten it, but it was not displayed on the outside of the building.
Trip to Fray Bento – A couple of locals offered to do a road trip with me to Uruguay to withdraw US money. We ended up driving several hours, crossing a large bridge and stopping in Fray Bento, Uruguay. The saying, it’s all about the journey and not the destination is very fitting for this. The road trip was a lot of fun; Fray Bento, well … not much to see here!
Gallerias Pacifico – A high end mall in a historic building with beautifully restored original art work.
Samba – One of my local friends was a member of a Brazilian Samba band. Not only was I invited to attend for the experience, but I was encouraged to participate. My instrument of choice … the cowbell.
Samba Percussion Show – Although I didn’t quite fit the bill for performing in the Samba band after practicing for one song, a few weeks later I attended one of their live performances and was treated to lively Samba music, along with my first live Samba dancing.
Plaza Serrano – A lively plaza in the heart of Palermo filled with tourists and locals. Boutique shops, bars and an artisan market make it a great meeting place for people day and night, all week long.
La Boca – Known for it’s colorful history, literally, with brightly painted buildings and a multitude of different artists. La Boca as a whole is a very poor area of the city and one of the highest crime areas. The tourist section has been revived and consists of two small streets. Talk to anyone and they highly recommend not leaving the tourist area. In fact, most locals avoid it as well.
Puerto Madero – A beautiful port area with higher end bars, shops and restaurants.
Feria de Mataderos – A travelling market straight out of the countryside. They bring their artisan crafts and delicious foods to different communities throughout Buenos Aires Province and do dance, singing and percussion performances as well.
Cafe Tortoni – One of the city’s oldest and best known cafes with history back to the 1800s.
Costanera Norte – An area along the edge of the river with yacht clubs, a university and museum. Well known for the delicious food (it was too busy for us to get in to eat) and nice walks along the coast.
Vos Spanish classes – For one week I attended Spanish classes at a school in Recoleta called Vos. It restarted my motivation when I felt it was failing. The staff and teachers were very welcoming and I met a couple of great other students.
Trip to Iguazu Falls – A short flight (or a very long bus ride) from Buenos Aires, you have easy access to the beautiful Iguazu Falls that has a tri-border with Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Known as soon of the largest falls in the world.
Trip to Colonia, Uruguay – I did a full day trip on my own to Colonia, Uruguay in pursuit of US money. Some people love Colonia and speak very highly of this quaint little town. Personally, I found it a little lack-lustre and was glad to be headed back home on an early afternoon ferry.
French Food Market – My friend Holly invited me to a French Food market one weekend which was tucked away by the train tracks about 10 blocks from Raul Scalabrini Ortiz Street. With street food trucks and pastries, along with some French live music and the biggest glass of wine ever served, it was a delightful afternoon.
Family Asado / birthday party – One of my friends had a family and friends get together one evening to celebrate her birthday. It took place in the upper kitchen of the house, made especially for cooking for family gatherings. The asado (barbecue of sorts) was filled with chorizos, churipan, pop, chips and pickles, not to mention the tasty chimichurri!
Plaza Francia / Recoleta – One Sunday afternoon while wandering around Recoleta, which is known as one of the rich areas of the city, I stumbled across Plaza Francia and another lovely artisan market. Handicrafts, street food and musical performances. Grab a spot on the grass or stroll the walkways and enjoy.
Don Silvano Estancia – A Sunday visit to the Don Silvano Estancia on one of the coldest days of winter in Buenos Aires turned out to be a joy. Despite the fact that it was too cold outside to watch the full horse demonstration, the asado was delicious, the cultural show was great and we even had a very short crowd participation / tango lesson.
Live Radio show – Late one evening a couple of friends took me for the experience of seeing one of Buenos Aires’ famous live radio shows. I didn’t understand much, but it was great to sit in a live crowd and feel the energy. To me, it felt a bit like something CBC would do back home. They had a little politics, a little comedy and then live acoustic musicians at the end.
Food tour  – I had a great little food tour in the Recoleta area one evening that included such yumminess as empanadas, a variety of asado meats and salad and delicious ice cream.
Volunteer tour – I traveled with a group to the outskirts of the city to visit a not for profit organization for kids in a very poor area of the city. The organization provides a hot meal and a safe place for the children to be after school when often their parents aren’t home. We played soccer with a few of the kids and helped prepare the meal for the evening.
Mushka – A musical theatre about a prostitute who fell in love with one of her callers. It was a short performance, but well done and I happened to see it on it’s closing night. It was at the Gallerias Pacifico in the Borges theatre which is small, but cozy.
Night bike riding through the parks – Despite the heaps of traffic in Buenos Aires, lots of locals use bicycles for transportation from point A to point B. They even have free rental services for locals for one hour at a time. For many others though, cycling is a form of exercise and relaxation. Late one evening I went cycling with a friend from my apartment in Palermo to the parks nearby. Amazing to me that there were still tonnes of people out walking and running right up until we headed back to my apartment after midnight.
Marketing Class – One of my friends thought it would be interesting if I went to a business class with him one night at a small school. The topic was social media for your business and although I didn’t join in any discussions, I was excited that I understood almost everything that the instructor said.
Casa de la Fondue – I’ve never been to a fondue restaurant before, so why not try it in Buenos Aires with their amazing cheeses. A couple of platters and two different pots of cheese was a great way to share time with my new friends before I headed back home to Nova Scotia.
Cuba Mia – I had great plans of going out salsa dancing regularly while in Buenos Aires, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I went out only one night and that was for my going away party. Cuba Mia is a great dance club with live music and was packed the night we were there. It’s definitely somewhere I would check out again!

There are still some experiences that I missed out on and will save for my next extended visit to Buenos Aires. Here are a few that I would recommend if you are heading that way.

Theatre, theatre and more theatre – Although I went to one theatrical showing – Mushka at Borges – this city is filled with theatre performances of all kinds – one of the top theatre destinations in the world! I would love to see a symphony, a ballet and a really amazing tango show. Cirque de Soleil would have been amazing as well, but they were not performing during my time there. Fuerza Bruta is supposed to be a great show. It started my last week there, but tickets sold out incredibly fast and I was not able to get in before I left. There is also the Ciega Theatre where you take part in shows completely in the dark while both blind performers and others provided interesting shows for your other senses. From comedies to monologues, dance to musicals, there is something for everyone!

Bomba de Tiempo – Monday nights in Almagro there is a high energy percussion show that I hear is really fantastic. It runs from 7pm – 10pm (so they say). Would have loved to have gone but it just didn’t pan out. Next time.

Ecological Reserve – For weeks I planned on going to the beautiful, open, green space near the river in the central area of the city. For weeks, I couldn’t drag my butt there on my own. It is a great space for walking, cycling and bird watching, but I couldn’t get motivated to explore it on my own. So, next time it’ll be top priority when I need some nature-time to recharge. I swear, alone or with a friend, I’ll make it there next time.

Rose Park – I can’t believe I missed this one. Well, in all honesty, I didn’t miss it, I did circle it on my night city bike ride and saw the potential beauty. But, next time, I will enjoy this park with all of it’s scents and sights.

Yes, I agree, there are a million things to do in this fabulous city as a tourist or as a local. As a city, it is one of my favourites. As a country, I love it. But, the economy and government need more than a little work. It is a difficult society to live in despite your best intentions.

I bid farewell to Buenos Aires in August after four months. It was officially the place I lived the longest in the past year, so it is as close to home as anything right now. I suspect I will return in 2016 as the launching spot for a trip to Patagonia and possibly to stay for longer. Since I’ve lived there for four months, it will give me a bit of the familiar home-like feel after another six or seven months on the road, waters and in the skies.

I hope that we will meet again Buenos Aires, my friend.

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

I am not a religious person. I very rarely discuss religion as, quite honestly, it frustrates me. When there are wars being fought based on what ‘power’ you believe in and people being killed in the name of religion, my heart aches over the irony. How ever you choose to believe in a God, or whether you believe in science, we are all here on this same big planet together. Although this blog discusses religion, it is not about trying to change your belief (or non-belief) in a higher power, simply a reminder of how to live as a good person. For me, it is a testament (pardon the pun) to my love of travel and the education that I earn every day by opening my mind to new cultures.

I hope you’ll take time to comment and discuss after you’ve read the following.

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

It was late afternoon when I was standing in the doorway to my private room-rental in the local community of Fatih in Istanbul with the sea breeze wafting past me into the kitchen. I was engulfed in a conversation with Babek, the building owner, who I had met only a few short hours earlier.

What started out as me asking questions about the week-long Bayram festival to understand more of the culture, as well as arming myself with knowledge about closures over the next week, turned into exactly the type of conversation that drives me to continue traveling.

Although my correspondence leading up to my stay in Fatih had been with Sourena, the son, Babek was the one to greet me at the un-numbered wooden doors. My transfer driver from the airport had chatted with Sourena only minutes before, so I was (fairly) confident I was at the right place despite not seeing a number on the building.

I was welcomed with Babek’s warm smile and then Sourena quickly peeked down from upstairs to say hello. Then the two men carried my heavy suitcase up the narrow staircase to their second floor home. I immediately noted that both of them had really good English. Of course, there is an accent and words here and there get confused or lost in translation, but overall, I was surprised at the level of their conversation skills.

Sourena showed me around the small apartment and then led me to the roof top to see a spectacular view over the Balat area and toward Emininou. Indeed, the view is worth seeing and was a great way for him to point out the attractions of the area, along with giving me directions. He welcomed me and offered me a Iyran (mixture of yogurt and sparkling water) to drink, which I promptly devoured in the heat of the midday sun.

I spent only 15 – 20 minutes with Sourena gathering information for my stay and then I settled in, cleaned up and took off for a meeting in another part of town.

After a busy afternoon I walked back home surprisingly, without getting lost. Babek came to offer tea, which is a staple of the Turkish diet and hospitality. Although I was too hot to drink tea, a conversation arose.

I asked Babek about the Bayram festival that I had been hearing so much about. My local contacts are expats, so I thought I would ask a local for the inside scoop. He explained that Bayram is a sacrificing festival, often celebrated twice per year for families. Many people who live in the city go to the countryside to be with their family for this week-long government holiday. Families buy (or raise) an animal to be sacrificed and then they share the meat with friends and relatives. Traditionally the meat was divided into thirds; one part for the poor, one part for friends and one part for family. The festival is all about sharing what you have with others.

Although I can’t say I agree with the practice of sacrificing a live animal, I do try my best to respect other cultural and religious beliefs. I was interested in seeing the ceremony and photographing it, as I had heard that it may take place in the streets or backyards in the communities. However, now-a-days, law requires the slaughterings to be done by a butcher, rather than just by anyone. In all honesty, it is likely more humane than many of our practices in North America with the way animals are treated before going to slaughter. And, it seems, that at the root of this festival, at least from my understanding, is the kindness of sharing with those you love and those less fortunate.

As I chatted away with Babek about what stores may or may not be opened and closed over the next few days and if there was an area that I could watch a sacrifice (horrified, but with camera in hand), he ended up telling me that he wasn’t really sure because he is not Muslim and it is a Muslim festival. I tried to hold back my surprise. Not Muslim in a Muslim society?

Many questions begged to be asked, but where to start!

Come to find out, Babek and his family are Iranian, not Turkish. Six years ago they moved to Turkey to escape punishment in their own country for their choice of religion. Three years ago, they relocated to Istanbul. They were Christians in a dominantly Muslim society in Iran. For this, they had been persecuted and they could have been killed. In Istanbul, although dominantly Muslim, they are more tolerant and accepting of Christianity with the religions existing side by side with little conflict.

Immediately, my heart sank for them, knowing that they had left their home because of fear.

Immediately, I also asked myself ‘If I had known the family I was about to live with was Iranian, how would I have reacted? Would I have made a different choice?’

I like to think that I am not prejudiced or racist. I like to think that I am open-minded. And, I truly believe that good people come from every country of the world. But, that belief was challenged when I found out that this family was not what I had ‘expected’. If I had known they were from Iran, would I have chosen another place to stay? I am sure that many people would have. For me, I also asked myself, if I knew they were from Iran, wouldn’t I have assumed that they were Muslim? And, if that were the case, what would be the difference between staying with a Turkish Muslim family and an Iranian Muslim family?

If my friends and family knew this (which now they do!), what would have been their reaction? It is so easy to say ‘Nothing would be different’, but I am positive that some of them would have a heightened concern for my well-being based on the fact that I am staying with Iranians and all we know about Iranians is the bad news that the media shares about war, terrorism and death. We never hear about their caring side, their hospitality or that they aren’t all the same! Imagine for a moment thinking that all Canadians were terrorists. Doesn’t that seem more than just a little ridiculous?

Luckily, in asking myself these questions, I also realized that in booking my stay with this family, religion never once crossed my mind and for that I am thankful. I try to be open to religions and cultures around the world and I try not to pass judgements, but treat it as an opportunity to learn about other beliefs. Having said that, it is not something that determines my comfort or happiness. Whether I stay with a Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Jewish family, for me, I will look for the opportunity to learn from the experience. Will I agree with all of their practices and beliefs? No, but I will be respectful as I understand that is what they believe.

Learning of their background led to a particularly deep conversation with a man I had only met a couple of hours earlier, sharing our thoughts on religion. He thoughtfully explained to me that at the heart of everything, his core belief is to not judge others. “Judgement can only be handed out by God. It is your job to live and love under God and not to act as God by judging other people.”

Seems simple enough.

In Canada, we hear about refugees in the news. We see them in our communities, some Canadians more accepting than others. We (as a society) often pass judgements on these people without knowing anything about them.

Now, let’s take God out of the equation for a moment, as not everyone believes in ‘a God’. One of my core beliefs is to treat others with kindness. And really, isn’t this similar to not judging? Who am I to pass judgement on someone else. I don’t know their story. I don’t know their struggles. I don’t know their beliefs. It is not my business to judge them based on their beliefs and upbringing, as I would hope that they do not judge me for mine.

I think what makes our world so beautiful is the differences in opinions, the million ways that people can do the same thing but in different fashions, our different religious beliefs that really all come from the same core, yet they are interpreted and taught differently.

Be kind.

In any religion that I can think of, at the core of that religion is a message about love and being kind. So, why, if all religions want the same thing, can’t we all get along?

Isn’t that the big question?!

For Babek and his family, like millions of others, believing in kindness and love has led to persecution. Since moving to Turkey, he and his family can never return to Iran for a very real fear of being killed, as they have chosen to believe in a different teacher than the mainstream of that country.

Regardless of my religious beliefs, I applaud these people for standing up for their beliefs. Regardless of our religious similarities and differences, Babek and I were able to have great conversation about religion and the world as we both try our best to ‘not judge’ one another.

At no time did I feel that Babek was trying to convince or convert me to believing in God, or ‘his God’, but yet it was clear that he is a religious man. It was in this, that we discussed how backwards it is in many cultures that you are forced to believe in any one thing. In Iran, his government and the community were busy trying to force people to all believe in the same thing. This force came through fear and persecution. For Babek and his family, this was not acceptable. Babek expressed his frustration that the leaders in his community were trying to forcefully get people to follow their religion.

Believe or die.

Rather than conforming to the beliefs of the people around them, they fled. Had they conformed, they would have been doing themselves an injustice, as they would have been living a lie. Sure, they would have been able to stay in their country, but if they stood up against anything they believed to be wrong, they would have been killed. If they in any way rebelled against or questioned Islam, they would have been persecuted or killed. Can you imagine living with this fear? Not just a fear of being outcast by your community, but a real fear of you and your family being killed for having a mind of your own.

The problem with the world and religion is not religion itself. The problem is the leaders of the religion who have manipulated the teachings of the religion to benefit themselves in the form of power and / or money. If you read the ‘book’ of most religions, they talk about kindness, love and being brotherly to your neighbours. This message is not the problem. I think everyone can agree that this is a good rule to live by. The problem is those who manipulate this message to gain power and then use their influence to teach people differently. Funny how religion and politics seem so much alike at the moment … or is it just me?

For me, on my first day in Istanbul, regardless of my religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), ‘Don’t Judge’ is a reminder of how travel has opened my mind in the last few years. It is a reminder that people do things differently and that is ok. It is a reminder that there are more good people in the world than bad. It is a reminder that we are human-kind and should not be defined by our color, country or religion.

Despite having fled his own country for fear of being killed for his religious beliefs, Babek did not speak ill of the community that did not accept him and his family. He simply spoke of judgement and that it was not his place or right to place judgement on others.

A lesson that we should all live by, starting with the smallest of things in our lives. You only know your own story. Leave your judgements behind and ensure that you are living your life with kindness and love.

I hope that next time you meet someone from Iran, that you let go of your hesitation, put your secret, media-driven, prejudices behind you and see these beautiful people for who they are as humans and all they have to offer.

La Boca, Buenos Aires – Photo Essay

One of Buenos Aires best known barrios is that of La Boca. One of the poorest barriers in the city, sadly, riddled with crime and poverty. However, amongst the difficulties, there is an area of several streets showcasing some of the most amazing art of the city.

Buildings were constructed with whatever materials were available and often painted with left-over paint from the boats coming through the harbour, hence the variety of colours and materials used for the buildings.

Although, still struggling and not a safe area alone or at night, the tourist district of three or four main streets is a big tourist attraction for the colours, the history, the tango and milonga shows, food, and most of all the art. You can also find great food, museums and markets for all of your touristy spending pleasure.

Please enjoy this little photo essay of the area:

Quick visit to Cafe Tortoni

Having finished all of the browsing I could do while not buying anything at the Feria de Mataderos, I wandered down Avenida de Mayo to the famous Cafe Tortoni. When I had been in Buenos Aires the first time in December 2014, my tour group had visited the old Cafe which dates back to 1858, but it was one of the days when I had to stay behind to work. I’ve been thinking about going for weeks now, but hadn’t made the effort to head into the centre of the city. Now, being on the same street, I knew it would be a shame if I didn’t pop in.

Well, you don’t just ‘pop in’ to Cafe Tortoni. It is an icon in Buenos Aires, so it is packed full of people, including a line up outside waiting for tables. Luckily, I arrived at around noon and there were only about 10 people in front of me in the line. Even better, those 10 people were together, so I was officially second in line. I only waited about five minutes for a small table to open up and walked in through the old doors to a land as old as time. A large room full of old furniture, yellowish ambient light, paintings, drawings and trinkets from a time long long ago.

I sat down at a small table in the corner and took in the atmosphere and people around me. I ordered an authentic submarino and delicious churros. A submarine is a cup fill of hot milk served with a bar of chocolate that you dunk in, wait for it to melt and stir it around before drinking it. A fancy hot chocolate if you will. But, at Cafe Tortoni, that bar of chocolate is in the shape of a submarine. Look closely at the photo and you can see that the chocolate is starting to melt on the rim of the cup just in the time it took me to snap an iPhone photo. That’s a hot cup of milk! My only mistake, I forgot to order the chocolate churros!

I enjoyed sipping away at my fancy hot chocolate and people watching from the corner. I suspect that the bulk of customers were tourists, although most of them were speaking Spanish, so they may have been locals, or may have been Argentine tourists. There was a mixture of everyone from young couples to older couples, folks kissing across the table, completely in love, girlfriends chatting over breakfast and four older folks having a good chuckle at something I couldn’t make out.