Life is unpredictable

 

Sultanahmet square

Obelisk in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, where the suicide bomber attacked in Jan 2016. 10 people killed. 15 injured.

In the old city of Istanbul, adjacent to Blue Mosque, stands the Obelisk. This photo was taken only a couple of days after the January suicide bomber killed 10 people and injured 15 others.

I was not in that part of the city when it happened. I did not hear or feel the bomb go off. It was a strong blast, but was only felt in the immediate area. And, it looks like most of the world has already forgotten about it and moved on to other news.

I was in Istanbul, only a few kilometres away, when the bomb went off. My local friends immediately began messaging me to make sure I was safe and to tell me to stay home, or at least out of crowded areas. I was shocked and saddened, but not really scared.

After the bombing, I never once considered leaving the city because of the events. I’m now in Amsterdam, but only because I had commitments with friends. I actually didn’t want to leave at all. I felt like I had the opportunity to show people that expats are alive and well in Istanbul and it is not a scary place to be. Yes, there was a bomb, but you can’t just run away from what ‘might’ happen next.

It would be easy for me to ignore the fact that there was a bombing only a couple of weeks ago, especially when I am in the process of promoting a Photo Tour to Turkey and want to encourage people to come with me, but truth is, I’d rather be honest. I would rather not ignore what has happened.

The truth is, our world is a scary place. There are terrorist attacks, bombings, traffic accidents, murders, thieves, plane crashes and incurable diseases. All of these things are unpredictable.

Life, itself is unpredictable.

I know many people are scared to travel, but to what end? I cannot stress enough what a negative impact the media has on travel. So many people believe that the entirety of Turkey is a dangerous place to be. When, in fact, the only areas that have strict travel advisories are along the borders with Syria. The other communities and cities are every bit as safe as any other large city in any destination, such as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Buenos Aires in Argentina or Barcelona in Spain.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but cities are not safe … ever. It is just that simple. There is petty crime, tourist crime, murders and traffic accidents in every single city. Then there are the mafia, drug crime and bombs … the list of ‘bad’ goes on. However, the stats show clearly, that the number of people killed by terrorist activities are far less than that from traffic accidents. Many more people are killed from hand guns than bombings. And let’s not forget traffic accidents. If you are operating a vehicle in Canada, you are more likely to be killed than by traveling to Istanbul or Paris or Jakarta.

Perspective …  There is no advance notice of either a traffic accident or a bomb and therefore you can’t purposely change your location to avoid it.

In the end, what I am saying is that you shouldn’t stop traveling to an entire country because a bomb has gone off in one small area of one city. Avoiding all of Istanbul because of the bomb in the Old City is like avoiding all of Prince Edward Island because a bomb went off in the centre of Charlottetown. Is that reasonable?

Isn’t it also amazing that the CITY of Istanbul is the same area as the entire province of PEI? Holy!

With that in mind, would you avoid all of Atlantic Canada because a bomb went off in Charlottetown? No, of course you wouldn’t. That would be ridiculous. But, if you are avoiding Turkey because of the bomb in Istanbul or because of the problems along the borders with Syria, it is the same thing. Media would have you believe that Turkey is a dangerous place and makes it seem so small, but it is not. There are hundreds of kilometres between Istanbul and the capital of Ankara. There are hundreds of kilometres between either of those cities and the borders with Syria and Iraq. Don’t let media scare you!

I ask you to remember the innocent lives lost in these tragedies around the world (Paris, Jakarta, Istanbul, 911, hurricane Katrina … the list goes on), but please do not stop living your life because of unpredictable circumstances. You might stay home for fear of a suicide bomb, just to find out that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. You might avoid flying because of two recent severe turbulence incidents, just to end up in a car accident.

I don’t say these things lightly. They are spoken from experience and from the heart. I was in a plane crash in Fredericton, NB in 1997. I let that hold me back for over 10 years. For 10 years I missed out on incredible opportunities to see the world. I lived in fear of getting back on a plane.

I am here telling you that life is precious and unpredictable. Do not let your fear of the unknown keep you from living, tasting, touching, feeling all of the amazing things our great big beautiful world has to offer.

I am thankful to be alive. Thankful that my life has changed and that fear does not reign any longer. I am thankful to have been in the beautiful city of Istanbul to share my experiences with you first hand.

Travel. See the world. Enjoy the beauty that surrounds us on your own terms. Don’t let the unpredictable control your life.

With love, and passion for travel … from Istanbul,

Shari

 

The Journey with Life Line Ezidi

This is a follow up post to How to help save a life. If you haven’t read it yet, please start there for the back ground information.

On January 27th I met the fantastic founder of Life Line Ezidi at a Cafe in Galatasaray, Istanbul. We became fast friends with common goals and on January 28th (about 15 hours after meeting him), I found myself rushing to meet up with him to take on the day’s tasks; to bring back as many lifejackets as possible to give to at least three families who would be departing on the Agean Sea in small, rickety boats on January 29th.

He had warned me that our own journey would be long, physical and a bit chaotic. He was indeed right about all of it, but I was up for the task.

At 10am I left my house, walked to Taksim square to get my Istanbul kart (public transit card). After a couple of complications, I was on my way by Metro (subway) to Yenikapi where I would meet up with David before continuing on. We crossed under the Bosphorus Straight via the Marmaray, switched to another Metro line and went all the way to the end. We then caught a bus which took us another 10 kms where we hopped off and walked another couple of kms to the Manufacturer’s location in the outskirts of Tuzla. All in all, we arrived around 12:15 or 12:30pm (about two hours of transit from my home).

We were greeted by David’s contact, Mehmet at the Tuna Ship Supply Ltd Co. where we were to wait for the delivery of a few lifejackets that had to be special ordered from another factory.

Very_excited_to_helping__lifelineezidi_deliver__life_jackets_to__refugees_in__turkey_today._Just_helped_pick_up_31_life_jackets_and_about_to_tackle_an_hour___of_public_transit_with_the_huge_bags_of_product._Great_job_David__centre__and_thanks_for_eve

As a side note, there have been horrific stories of factories making fake life jackets and selling them on the streets. This is part of what prompted David to start Life Line Ezidi. He wanted to ensure that if these families were going, that they at least had proper life jackets. He sourced out a manufacturer that provides life jackets for the shipping industry with very high standards. All of the life jackets purchased are SOLAS approved and built to keep people alive and their heads above water in rough seas.

On occasion, when David inspects the jackets, if he sees an inconsistency, he returns them to the factory to have them repaired before giving them to families. He takes no chances that the life jackets aren’t 100 safe. I saw this with my own eyes as he returned two that morning for stitching that had started to part from the jacket. We were assured that the jackets were still safe, however they didn’t hesitate to fix the small errors.

We sat and discussed the day’s order of over 40 jackets of different sizes from adult to child to infant and then we waited for the delivery to arrive which took an hour or so more.

Mehmet shared stories of his own life as a deck hand at sea and that he had visited over 40 countries in his career. Wow! Amazing to meet someone who had traveled more countries than I have. And to hear his stories of small ports where he had spent anywhere from a couple of days upwards to a month. His English was excellent and you could tell that he was willing to do anything he could to help out this cause.

When the life jackets arrived, they were repacked into large white bags that David and I would carry back to a common area where we would meet the refugees and deliver the jackets. In the end, we ended up taking 12 adult life jackets, 19 child life jackets. This was literally all that we could physically transport. We took all of the child life jackets that were ready and had to leave a handful of adult ones behind, simply not being able to carry them all. Not only are they bulky and awkward, 15 life jackets are also pretty heavy. It would be one thing if they could be carried on your back, but they can’t, so lifting 20 to 30 lbs of awkwardness in your hand is difficult, especially for long periods of time and lifting them over turnstiles, up and down escalators and stairs.

Mehmet was kind enough to take us by vehicle to the first Metro so that we avoided taking the large bags on the bus. We maneuvered down the stairs and escalators to the underground where at our first entrance, we were stopped by security who didn’t initially want to let us through. The issue, more than anything is the size of each of these bags (approximately 4 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep) They are not small and take up the space of at least a person on the metro. After waiting for two more security guards to come, scan the packages, ask a few questions, check for our payment receipt and David’s passport, they let us go. All in all, relatively easy, but none-the-less, a pain in the butt when we were on a time line to get them to the families before their departure.

Aboard the metro, it was relatively unoccupied, which made life a little easier. Our 20 minute journey was relatively uneventful. Then we pushed our way off the metro through crowds of people boarding with their heads down looking at their cell phones and not caring if people were trying to get off the metro. We took a rest to regroup and for David to begin organizing which families would get which jackets.

This process is particularly complicated.
David can only purchase life jackets when he has donations to do so. These have been coming fairly regularly, but in small amounts. He does not have the luxury of buying many at once, nor does he have a location to store them. The other large complication is that he often only gets 24 hours notice when a family (often of 7 – 15 people) is coming to Istanbul. Within that 24 hours, he needs to raise the money for the lifejackets, place the order and make his way to / from the manufacturer (5 – 6 hour journey) with the correct sizes for each family member. Further than that, often three to seven families can arrive on the same day. That could mean up to 50 life jackets are needed with 24 hour notice.

To this point, David has now delivered approximately 600 life jackets since November, with his record being 44 in one day.

On our journey, we started out with three families that we were hoping to help. Because we could not physically carry all of the lifejackets, we would only be able to provide for the children and the youngest of the adults in these families. Sadly, difficult decisions have to be made and this day it was that anyone over 40 would be last priority. So we carried what we could to help as many as we could, insuring that children were first priority.

We were told that these three families would be leaving the same night to head to Izmir to board the boats to head to Greece. Other families who have been waiting for lifejackets were put on hold as these families leaving same day became priority.

This alone weighed on me all day. As I carried 19 lifejackets, having trouble lifting them and manouevering them, I kept wondering, could I have taken just one more? Could I have helped save one more adult?

When we exited the Marmaray, we again regrouped. We found a corner of the station where we were out of the way and not blocking any entrances. We began the process of putting life jackets into large blue plastic bags for each family. Generally speaking, when the families meet in a public area to pick up the life jackets, they don’t want anyone to see what they are doing, so the life jackets need to be hidden in bags. After about five minutes of starting to organize and re-bag life jackets, security came over and told us that we could not stay here. We asked for two more minutes and were able to push it to five or seven more minutes where we were able to almost finish sorting everything. When the next security guard came over, he stood with us and waited as we packed up, ushering us to our next destination, through another set of turnstiles to go on yet another underground. This one was a bit more difficult as it was busy and getting around with these large bags is difficult alone let alone when people are pushing and shoving to get through turnstiles.

We made it.

On to the Metro from Yenikapi to Aksaray which would be our last stop. On arrival at Aksaray, we stopped to rearrange everything that was left and ensure that everything was bagged properly for each family. At that time, David also was still receiving messages about other families looking for life jackets, others who would also be leaving tonight and some who would be leaving the next day. Ah! The confusion! The pressure.

Not to mention that he’s also in touch with the refugee families to advise of meeting time and location. He also has the awful job of telling them that he has as many lifejackets as possible, but he does not have one for everyone in the family.

Don’t forget, very little of this is being done in English and David does not speak Arabic. He speaks a tiny bit of Kurdish and the refugees speak Kurdish, Arabic and a tiny bit of English (some more than others).

Once again, we made changes to the bags, last minute. Now we would be providing child life jackets to four families and adult jackets for part of each of three families. We had spread the supply as far as it could possibly go.

We walked to the meeting point to see four anxious men waiting for us. We greeted them, confirmed their identities and began handing out the pre-bagged life jackets prepared for each family. Of course, in finding out that there were not enough jackets for everyone in each of their families, they were heartbroken and begged for more. They could see we had more life jackets with us (a big white bag half full) and it was very difficult to explain that they were for a different family and not the right sizes for their family.

Sadly, in this time of need, they aren’t able to understand that a child life jacket will not support the weight of an adult, therefore it will do them no good, but it WILL help save the life of another child. They pleaded with us for more. It was heart wrenching.

David explained to two of the families that he also has infant lifejackets for their youngest family members, but he needed to go pick them up. After some miscommunication / language barrier, everyone understood that David would return that evening to the same location with infant life jackets for their families.

Once the life jackets were handed out, their faces wrought with anxiety, they smiled through it, shook our hands, thanked us and went on their way. I shook each of their hands with the beginnings of tears surfacing in my eyes, wished them a safe journey and then we all parted ways.

David continued his journey – another approximate two hours in transit to pick up infant life jackets and return to meet two of the families again to provide hope for their littlest family members.

At 10pm I was in touch with David and he was meeting with the last of the families for the day. Getting ready to return to his home, calculate funds raised on this day (most of which came from YOU my fabulous supporters). He would then sleep and do it all over again the next day because he had new money to buy more lifejackets!

As for me, I arrived home around 7:30pm. Although I had wanted to continue on, I was exhausted. I also knew that David did not actually need assistance carrying the infant life jackets, I would just be tagging along. I decided my time was better spent promoting the cause on social media.

I am extremely proud that my friends and family came through with over $400 CAD worth of donations for this great cause. I had been aiming for $200 to cover one family of seven members and in the end, we covered two families. That’s about 15 child lifejackets a couple of adults and a couple of infant ones. These will be picked up on Monday, Feb 1st and delivered to the next families in need.

At the end of the evening, I swear David had said thank you to me at least 50 times. It is just the kind of guy he is. He is caring, compassionate and thankful for everything that everyone does. I said to him, ‘I don’t really feel like I did all that much other than keep you company and help you sort through a couple of complications.’ He forcefully reminded me that I had done so much more. He praised me for the fact that if I hadn’t tagged along he would only have 15 – 17 lifejackets to provide, but because I was with him we were able to transport 31 in total. That made a difference to at least 15 more people.

Then my heart swelled and I nearly cried. Not sure how I hadn’t realized the impact I was making, but he laid it right out there for me. Me spending 10am – 7:30pm that day trapesing across the city to pick up and deliver these life jackets was the difference in 15 people having a much better chance at survival across the cold, angry, Agean sea that night.

There is never any guarantee that a life jacket is going to save a life, but it is certainly a much better likelihood than not. And with thousands of refugees drowning in the waters of the sea after capsized boats, all I can do is cross my fingers that if their boat didn’t make it, that they were able to swim or float until rescuers on the other side were able to get to them.

I hope to have an update in the next day or two on these families and if they made it safely. They aren’t always able to get back in touch, but if they do, I will let you know!

If you are inspired by this story and able to make a donation, it is always appreciated. Please click here to make your donation. Any amount helps save a life!

How to help save a life

As many of you know, I returned to Istanbul, Turkey in December to search out opportunities to work with Syrian refugees. I had planned to stay in Asia over the Christmas holidays, but was feeling a pull to return to Turkey and to help out with the refugee crisis in some way. What way? That, I was unsure about, but I began looking into volunteering to teach English. I have been here for six weeks, made connections with a couple of great organizations and finally found one that would be happy to have me teach English. The problem is, I am leaving Turkey in less than a week. My heart hurts because I want to stay, but I have plans in Amsterdam with friends and have to leave Turkey for a certain amount of time before I can return for longer due to visa regulations.

To make my heart hurt a little more (in the best way), today I met a remarkable young man by chance, sitting in a little cafe in Istanbul. He was sitting behind me at the cafe, working on his laptop and he ended up chatting with a Syrian man who was also at the cafe. I tried not to eavesdrop (impossible) but when he started talking about working with refugees, I tuned in rather than out. A few minutes later I barged right in to the conversation and starting firing questions at him as I found his story so interesting.

I will write a longer blog about this young man, David Boulton, sometime soon, but in the interest of getting this information out quickly, I want to get right to the point.

Quick background:
David arrived in Turkey in July 2015 to volunteer teaching English in the Sirnak Ezidi refugee camp near the Iraq border. As you have all heard, camp conditions are pretty much deplorable, but David was lucky enough to be working at one of the ‘best’ (that’s the best of the bad). He was the only educator for the entire camp and lived by the same rules, in the same lodging and with the same food as the refugees. They were lucky to have buildings instead of tents, they had water most of the time and electricity (albeit, intermittent) and the local city council did what they could to provide food for the camp.

The Nitty Gritty:
Around November 2015, David’s students began to leave the camp. Their families were tired, without hope and were wasting away just waiting for ‘something’ to happen. The weather had turned cold, the seas had gotten more dangerous and the prices from the traffickers helping refugees get out of Turkey, had dropped because it was ‘low season’. Many of the families were now taking advantage of the price drop to get their families out of the camps. Doesn’t this alone horrify you?

NOTE: Traffickers (from my minimal knowledge) recruit families, charge them large sums of money and then put them on packed buses or other transportation to get them to ports where they are then put on rubber dinghy’s or otherwise deplorable boats to cross the Aegean sea to Greece. As I’m sure you have seen in the news, many of these boats never reach shore and thousands of people have drowned in 2015 alone.

Refugees are herded like cattle; no human rights, no medical attention, no guarantees of their safety. However, they have no reasonable choice, as staying in a camp with no work, no education, minimal food, lack of safety and complete lack of hope, is not a life at all. Taking a chance on a trafficker and getting to a country where they can start a new life, at least gives them hope. The hope of a brighter future for themselves and their children.

This is an incredibly simplified description, but I hope you will understand my point.

These refugees have left their countries because of war. They have already fled their homes, left their entire life behind and often walked literally over mountains and run through gunfire to cross the border into Turkey where it is safer, although the camps aren’t safe by any means.

These refugees have literally fled situations where entire communities have been captured, families have been segregated into men / women and then often by age groups. Elders and adults are often shot and killed and then teens and young children are sold into slavery, or into the sex trade.

These people are the community members … Doctors, lawyers, teachers, mechanics, librarians, farmers, entrepreneurs … just like you and I. Fearing for their lives and that of their families, they fled their cities and communities in droves, often, with only the clothes on their backs. They are running for their lives, literally.

My heart aches as I write this.

How can this be happening?

Back to David’s students:
As David began to learn that his students and their families were leaving the camp with traffickers to catch boats to Greece, he knew he had to do something. He couldn’t stop them from going, but he could make an effort to help them arrive safely.

How you ask?

He started buying life jackets for these kids (and their families). These families were about to risk their lives to cross the Aegean sea on rickey old boats, filled over-capacity with other refugees. They were willing to risk their lives at a chance for a better life rather than living in fear, desperation and slowly dying in the camps.

David came to learn that traffickers were providing poor quality / fake lifejackets to these scared families and convincing them that this would increase their chances of survival across the sea. Appallingly, it turned out that many of these poor quality lifejackets were actually mass made in factories and stuffed with packing supplies that don’t even float. If it isn’t bad enough that they were poor quality, they were actually not floatation devices at all. (BBC News story and video – Jan 6 / 2016)

David started spending his own money to source quality lifejackets to ensure that these people he knew personally, would have a better chance at survival.

If that’s not amazing enough … he has continued to spend his own money as well as raising funds from friends and family in England to buy over 565 life jackets since November that have helped families reach safety. His own money has long since run-out, but his very supportive parents help keep him going so that all monies raised can go directly to purchasing life jackets.

His connections in the refugee community are mostly with Ezidi refugees from Iraq, but when possible he provides life jackets to any refugees that are in touch and can prove they are indeed refugees. He goes to great lengths to ensure that the life jackets are only reaching refugees and not falling into the hands of traffickers or other people pretending to be refugees.

He is here in Istanbul at the moment, as the camp that he was working at is nearly empty. Almost everyone has left or is in the process of leaving. Many of the refugees are routed by traffickers through Istanbul before heading to the ports to start their horrifying journey by boat across the sea. He often finds out that the families are coming to Istanbul only 24 hours in advance, the amount of time it takes them to travel by bus (arranged by traffickers) to Istanbul. The families then stay in Istanbul for only one to two days before being moved along to the coast to continue their journey. In this 24 – 48 hours he needs to go to the life jacket manufacturer personally (approximately five to six hours round trip) to get the proper size life jackets for the family. He then hand delivers the life jackets to the family where they are, or at a central meeting point. He makes sure that the life jackets fit properly and then the family are on their way. He also provides instructional videos on his website which show families how to properly use each size of lifejacket. Thankfully, although migrants don’t have much, they often have a cell phone to make calls and access internet.

What got me tonight as I picked his brain for more and more information about everything he has seen and done over the past seven months was this …

He has been working tirelessly trying to provide these families with quality lifejackets but his limited resources have run out. His friends and family / connections etc have supported him with amazing efforts, but at this time, he only has 12 lifejackets left in stock, all of them for infants.

Yesterday, he delivered an infant life jacket to a family who left on their journey today. The family had four children and he had to tell them that he could only provide one life jacket, the one for the youngest. This family, like hundreds of others will be crossing the sea on an unsafe boat, without lifejackets.

This tears my heart into pieces.

The big ask (which isn’t so big at all really):
I am only in Istanbul until Monday (sadly) and I want to do something to help while I am here and I’m hoping you’ll be compelled to help as well.

Life jackets (depending on size) cost $21 – $41 USD per person. Families range in size, but I’m aiming to cover a family of seven members. That comes to just under $200 CAD approximately.

“All our lifejackets are made by reputable suppliers, are SOLAS certified and are suitable for non-swimmers in rough seas. They will turn an unconscious wearer face-up and keep their nose and mouth above the water.”

David’s project is called Life Line Ezidi. You can check out his website and / or Facebook group for further information.

I want to be upfront in saying that Life Line Ezidi is not currently a registered charity. David hasn’t had time to go through the bureaucracy of getting that set up yet (if you’ve ever tried to start a charity or organization you will sympathize with this!). What he is doing, is keeping track of all monies received and publicly showing receipts for all purchases. All money donated is going directly to the life jackets. It isn’t even going to his transportation / living / cell phone costs. He’s living very minimally and his amazing parents are helping to keep him going.

Have I mentioned that this amazing David fellow is the ripe old age of 20? Yes. You read that right. He is just a damn amazing 20 year old (as ‘Green as a meadow’ in his own words! ha ha). He doesn’t have savings from working all of his life, he just believes in doing what he can.

If I raise the $200 quickly enough (before I leave on Monday), I will go with David to the manufacturer to pick up life jackets and deliver them to the family. He is checking with the family now to see if they are willing to be photographed and have their story shared. Understandably so, they may decline due to safety / security reasons. But, if they agree, I will share photos when I can.

How can you donate?
Go to David’s website and donate through pay pal. Then send me a quick email (info@sharitucker.com) to advise me of the donation amount so that David and I can track the donations to ensure life jackets, in the right sizes, are purchased for an entire family. Of course, if I raise additional money, more life jackets will be purchased for other families. If I don’t reach my goal of $200, that’s ok too, any money donated will still go toward life jackets, it would just mean that the entire family would not be covered. I’m sure that with your help I can reach $200 though!

It’s a small ask, that will make a big difference. Can you spare $25 CAD to make sure someone has a life jacket to continue an already traumatic journey? If you can’t spare $25, donate $5 or $10 … every little bit helps and is greatly appreciated!

1 … 2 … 3 … Donate!

PS – before I even got a chance to post this, I’ve decided to go with David today to pick up some life jackets that he received donations for just last night. Watch my Facebook and Instagram feeds for updates on this journey (provided I have cell service)

My love of Turkish food – Photo Essay

In 2014 when I started my nomadic lifestyle, I found myself in Italy, famed for it’s food and bored to tears with my options. Pizza, pasta, olives, cheese, wine and sliced meats. With so many foods named after the cities where the were invented, how could you not love the foods of Italy? I felt guilty, but underwhelmed at the famed flavours of the country.

First off, I’m not a wine or olive fan, so those two options were out from the beginning. Tough luck for me, I suppose. Sliced meats go great with cheese, but some were so exotic to my tastebuds that I couldn’t quite get used to them. Then there was the pasta and pizza. Both were fantastic in their own way, but after more than a week surviving on carbs, I felt like a bloated mess. I can remember posting on Facebook that I was craving vegetables as I hadn’t eaten any for what seemed like forever.

Italy’s one redeeming factor for me was it’s gelato. You simply can’t go wrong with Italian gelato.

Nearing the end of my trip to Italy, I found myself daydreaming about the food that I would have in Turkey. I had only ever eaten Turkish food a couple of times in Halifax, but had loved it. And, I was familiar with flavours from Lebanon and Greece as well. I couldn’t wait to leave Italy to go to Turkey and eat. Seems a little backwards doesn’t it?

Luckily for me, the food in Turkey did not disappoint and now, after my third visit to the country, I can honestly say it is home to my favourite food (in general) in the world. It beats out Thailand, Peru and Argentina which are all known for great eats!

Here are a few photos that should ignite your tastebuds!

 

Galapagos Islands Photo Essay

In 2011 when I confirmed that my very first photo tour would be happening in Peru in February 2012, I said to myself, “If you are going all the way to Peru, you can’t NOT go to the Galapagos Islands. It is so close. And, what if you never get back to South America?”

And so began my love affair with South America.

At that time, I really wasn’t sure if I would ever go back to South America or not. Four years later, with two Peru: Through the Lens Photo Tours complete, two trips to Argentina (one consisting of four months in the beautiful city of Buenos Aires) and visits to Uruguay and Chile … well, let’s just say I love South America.

I flew to Quito, Ecuador and then off to Baltra Island of the Galapagos Archipelago where I would do an independent tour with Bamba Experience. It was their first year operating in the Galapagos, so there were a few glitches, but nothing could dull the amazing beauty of these incredible islands and the locals who went out of their way to assist me in every way they could.

I visited Santa Cruz and Floreana islands. Someday, I’ll return to visit more of the islands, but, being on a tight budget, a short amount of time and wanting a land-based itinerary, my options were limited. None-the-less, I’m glad to have the amazing memories that I do from one of my favourite places in all of my travels.

Want to read more about my travels to the Galapagos Islands?
Check out these past blogs:
Floreana Island – Dolphins
Lifejacket Complication
Fresh Fish Feast
Swimming with the sea lions

Is the Galapagos Islands on your travel bucket list? What’s stopping you?
Send me a message, let’s chat about all of the great options for an amazing, educational and life changing experience for you alone, with your friends or family. I’d love to help make this dream come true for you! You can reach me by email at stucker@tpi.ca

Who uses a travel agent and why?

Shari Tucker in Thailand

Wouldn’t you love to visit Koh Phi Phi Thailand? Let’s Chat

With so much information on the internet, why would you want to use a travel agent? And, with booking flights online being so easy, why would you have someone else do it?

So many people ask me why I’m a travel agent and assume that we agents are a dying breed. On the contrary, we are becoming more and more in demand in specialty areas. My specialty being Adventure Travel and Around the World travel, with secondary passions for sailing and river cruising.

Well, here’s what you need to know!

I am a home-based agent with Travel Professionals Internationals. That means I work under their brand, with all of their products and resources, but I do so from a home office instead of a fixed office. They are a large, Canadian based company entirely made up of home-based agents. Our head office is in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In my case (I’m a little extra special), I have decided to travel the world and take my home office with me. I move around a lot and my work goes with me. It’s not like being on vacation because it isn’t very restful, but it is certainly adventurous!

I get to experience both the tourist and the local side of destinations and get a real in-depth experience that I can than pass along to my clients. You can’t argue that hands-on experience in travel is a pretty big value-add when you are taking on a new adventure.

I’ve been to over 30 countries and have several more coming up in the first few months of 2016. I bet I can tell you some interesting stories about places you’ve never even considered visiting!

My clients are almost all Canadian and I work with them just as I would if I were in an office in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Most of the time this is by email, but I can Skype, whatsapp, twitter … whatever works for you! The only difference you’ll see is that you can’t meet with me face to face in an office setting. Skype is a pretty good replacement for that though!

I can’t stress enough that, although I am traveling, I am not on vacation. I spend my working hours to send you on vacation and that allows me to continue living this amazing lifestyle where I can to see our amazing world. This gives me pretty high motivation to keep my clients happy and give them the best advice and vacations possible!

So, how do I get paid? Don’t worry, lots of people ask and for those who don’t ask, they want to, they just don’t know how to approach it. So, here it is … I’ll tell you so that you don’t have to ask!

I charge a $60 + tax consulting fee per person for any custom itinerary (although if it is an extended trip, such as round the world, I charge based on the amount of research required, so it could be $100 or $120 + tax for a couple or family depending on the destination, length of trip and services required). This would always be discussed up front, not a surprise part way through the planning.

NOTE: If you are booking a straight up all inclusive package, cruise, or group tour, I do not charge the consulting fee. This way my rates are the same as you would find online, however sometimes I get better deals due to our supplier agreements. Things that you can’t find online!

The $60 + tax fee can be looked at as a consulting fee and you can take as much information as I can provide you in one or two sessions and use it to book on your own, however you wish. The biggest benefit of this is having a trusted source of information from a real person who you know, rather than a random google search.

Although google has many answers, it also has many scams, incorrect information, out dated information etc. Wouldn’t you rather get your information from someone you know?

Or, you can think of it as a booking fee. I give you lots of information and then also go through the booking process for you with each of the individual companies so that you don’t have to (flights / tours / hotels / cars etc). The biggest benefit of this is that it saves you HOURS of time. If you have to call 10 companies in different time zones, sort out details and then give each of those companies all of your personal information to book a tour, it takes hours of time. I can do that for you so that you don’t have to. We also have systems that streamline the process to make it faster and more efficient.

What do you really get out of the consulting fee?
1. It gives you access to me as your personal resource for information. I’ve travelled 30+ countries in the last 7 years with many more on the horizon. I’ve been there and done that in a lot of places, so I have a lot of experience and knowledge to share. Yes, you can get that knowledge from the internet, but you never know how honest it is, was it sponsored, is it old / new / valid / trash. And, the internet can’t tailor information to your specific needs like I can!

2. Further to that, if I don’t have the experience in a particular destination, I can reach out to my colleagues who have personal experience or a gazillion tried, tested and true resources that we have as a company rather than randomly on google. I’ve also sent many clients to destinations that I have not yet been to. I have lots of experience in Australian and New Zealand adventures, but haven’t quite made it there yet. Same goes for Africa, which is on my list for 2016 / 2017.

3. I will spend my time researching your adventure so that you can just go and enjoy without the hassle of figuring it all out. You might spend hours on the internet, whereas I might spend 1 hour through our resources or I might know the answer to your question immediately through personal experience.

4. It gives you a real person to talk to instead of booking online. If you have a problem with your flight, need to make changes, etc, you can contact me. That will save you sitting on hold for hours. Many online sites are now charging booking fees as well, so it is quite normal, although sometimes they are hidden amongst other taxes and fees so you don’t see them.

5. Being a real person, I can give you options that you may not have thought of based on your particular interests / needs. Websites can only know so much about you. Not to mention that I’ve traveled with many of the companies we sell, so I truly know what they are like.

6. Flight bookings. Prices are set by the airlines, not by travel agencies. This is very important because it means that we all have access to the same prices. There are some exceptions but not that many. Generally speaking, if you search the exact same flight route / dates / times and class of service, we should get the same price. If you see a different price online (through expedia vs red tag for example), it is likely slightly different routing. OR, it could be one of them has a different tax or hidden fee somewhere.

Where I am better than the online sites is that I can look for connection options that they don’t see because their algorithm has set rules. I can often get long haul itineraries for the same (or cheaper) than the big online sites AND either get you there faster, or get you a cool stop over at little to no extra cost. We also have bulk buying agreements with most of the airlines, so often I can get you a slightly better price than what is offered online (but not always).

7. Exclusive insider knowledge on specials and discounts. Especially if you are following one of my social media feeds! Twitter – @ShariTucker or http://www.facebook.com/ShariTuckerPhotoAndAdventures
Sometimes we get deals that are only open to our clients at TPI and cannot be found online anywhere. Sometimes we get advanced knowledge of upcoming specials or flash sales (usually on tours, not flights).

8. In case of an emergency, you have someone to help you through the situation. Whether it is arranging an alternate flight route due to a volcano eruption or reminding you to keep receipts and start a claim for travel insurance. If someone falls ill in your family and you need to be with them, the last thing you need to be concerned about is trying to cancel your vacation plans to get refunds. I can take care of that for you while you take care of your family.

Other than the $60 + tax consulting/booking fee for custom itineraries, I also get paid through commissions. (It would take a lot of clients at $60 each to make a living, so don’t be surprised that I get paid in other ways too!)

1. The consulting fee pays for my time / effort / knowledge to help you with your trip. If I were to spend four hours researching options for a client, giving them tips / advice and suggestions and then they booked everything online themselves, I would have wasted four hours and not gotten paid for anything. I’m sure you’ll agree, no one can make a living that way. So, therefore, I don’t work for free.

2. Commissions. Many of the companies that we work with pay us commissions for selling their products. I promise that I will always offer you options that are suited to your needs and you can choose what is best for you. We have hundreds of companies that we have great communication with and we can also work with lesser-known companies as long as they are reputable.

Who works with Travel Agents:
My top 10 types of clients are the following (but others are certainly welcome!)

1. Retirees who want to travel and enjoy doing some online research but have hesitations in actually booking online. Fear of making a mistake or not knowing all of the details.
2. Busy professionals (doctors / lawyers / executives) – They desperately need time off and have 4 – 8 weeks of vacation a year, but they are too busy to do the planning themselves.
3. Solo travelers of all ages – people who are tired of waiting for their friends to travel with them and are ready to see the world. Sometimes I help these people travel on their own, other times in small group tours so they are not so alone.
4. Adventurers – These are people who want to do something active on their vacation that is a little harder to plan on the internet, therefore they look for professional help in booking the trip that is right for their passions and skill levels. Think hiking the Inca Trail, climbing Kilimanjaro, hiking Mont Blanc.
5. People who are looking for round the world trips, complicated flights with multiple cities or stop-overs along the way to a destination. I can almost always get a better deal on these options than what is available on the standard expedia / red tag etc.
6. Groups of people looking to travel together, whether it be extended family or a girls trip. Who really wants to take responsibility for all of the planning for 6 or 10 friends / family? That’s what I’m here as an impartial professional. I gather all of the information, work with you to set the itinerary and make it all happen behind the scenes so you can have a fantastic vacation without the hassles.
7. People looking for sailing trips on large or small boats.
8. Honeymooners looking for something more adventurous than an all inclusive vacation. Whether that be paddle boarding in Hawaii, self-drive through Ireland, swimming with whale sharks in the Maldives or Greek Island hopping.
9. All inclusive Caribbean destinations. Sure, it is easy to book these online, but you’ll spend hours researching the best deals, locations and prices change before you can decide. Agents also come in particularly handy when you have friends traveling from different destinations, but want to arrive on the same dates, or share rooms.
10. Well traveled people who are either tired of doing all of their own planning, or they need new ideas about up and coming destinations that interest them.

Do you fit in one of these above categories?

Get in touch. We’ll chat about your needs and then I can give you suggestions and start the planning process whenever you are ready. I’m here to help. Don’t let the plethora of options overwhelm you. Let me help narrow them down for you!

Who I don’t normally work with, although there are always exceptions!
If you are the type of person who has lots of time, little fear and enjoys doing all of your own research on line, then you may not want to work with me. And, that’s ok. There are lots of people out there just like you!

If you are looking for the absolute cheapest option for anything and are willing to sleep in airports for 12 hour layovers to make it happen. If you enjoy bartering for every last little thing. If you will stay at a 2 star resort in Cuba or you want to arrive in destination and book your hotel when you get there then I’m not the best fit for you. If your money is that important to you, then you probably won’t see the value in paying me to help with your decisions. There’s no problem with this, but we’re probably not a good match.

If you are only booking domestic flights (Halifax to Toronto / Halifax to Vancouver or something into the US), it is likely just as easy for you to do that on your own instead of paying an extra $60 + tax to me. However, if you don’t have a computer, your internet doesn’t work well, you hate researching on line or have 10 people who need the same flight .. Let me help!

If you are going to Disney, I’m not the right person for the job. Disney is a category all of it’s own. I have no experience in this area, but can recommend people who do!

So, now you are armed with all of the information on how I work as a travel agent. My passion is helping people like you see the world and sharing my own experiences. If you are interested in a consultation or getting your next vacation booked, I would be thrilled to hear from you.

I am currently (Jan 2016) in Istanbul. Remember, I am working, not on vacation. The best way to reach me is by email. But, if you’d prefer to talk by phone or skype I’ll arrange a time with you, no problem at all.

Let’s chat!

Stucker@tpi.ca

My Favourite Destinations of 2015 – Part 1

In 2015 I was crazy enough to visit nine different countries (Dominican Republic, Belize, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Turkey, Thailand, The Philippines and Malaysia). That’s kind of a lot, don’t you think? And while they all hold a special place in my heart for different reasons my next few blogs will give you insight into my favourites and why you should visit!

Penang, Malaysia
Funny enough, at the top of my list for places you should visit, is a lovely island that I had never heard of before I went to the Philippines in October / November 2015. In fact, I knew very little about Malaysia at all, other than the bad press Malaysian airlines has had. In the Philippines I met several other travellers who had wonderful things to say about Malaysia and ended up finding out why for myself!

I had no intentions of visiting Malaysia, but when we needed to book a flight out of the Philippines on short notice, Kuala Lumpur was an easy solution. Honestly, it was only planned to be a landing spot and then to take off again for the Thai Islands.

The fun thing about an un-plan though, is that it is fluid and changes as you go. Sometimes (like the aforementioned need for a short notice flight decision), it isn’t so much fun. But, sometimes, you end up falling in love with where you end up!

When my friend Robin and I decided to stay in Malaysia for a few days, seeing as we were passing through anyway, I had no idea I would enjoy it so much. We had planned to go to an island by the name of Langkawi, but it turned out to be a little difficult to organize on short notice. So, in the end we headed to George town on the island of Penang.

Our first introduction to George town was our amazing Air BnB host, Edward, who picked us up after midnight on a weekday from the ferry and then stopped at the best little hawker spot on the way home so that we could grab dinner.

Best. Wonton Soup. Ever.

Our next few days were filled with hot hot hot weather, late afternoon rain storms, funky cafes, cheap and delicious street food, the beach, markets, street art, the coolest little postcard shop and a night out with some crazy (fun) new friends.

WHY DO I THINK YOU SHOULD VISIT?
If the reasons I listed above are not enough, here’s the best reason. Malaysia isn’t as much about what you will see, but more about what you’ll learn. In my few short days in Malaysia, I learned of a world where acceptance of one another as humans actually exists.  The Malay people live alongside people from India, China, Thailand and everywhere in between and the all just get along. Their festivals are open for celebration by anyone and it’s nothing to see a young Chinese man having a laugh with an elderly East Indian woman. You’ll see groups of young friends who look like United Colors of Beneton ads and that’s just the way life is. No one questions it. Religion is taken seriously, but does not create a divide between people. Although there are specific areas, such as Little India and Chinatown that have a higher population of one race, there is a culmination of all races in every area. If you are looking for a place where love is the answer no matter your color, you’ll find it in Malaysia.

If you are looking to eat your face off. You’ll find that in Malaysia too. I only wish I had taken more pictures of the drool-worthy delights! Whether you crave Asian-style noodles or curries from East India … if you want your meals presented in a plastic bag or looking like they came from the world’s best chef … you’ll find it all in George town. Go ahead, eat small meals all day … eat, eat and eat some more. The food is delicious, cheap and plentiful!

GETTING THERE:
From Kuala Lumpur, Robin and I decided to travel by land and ferry to Penang. We booked our tickets online two days in advance for about 60 RM each. We arrived at Kuala Lumpur Central Station about two hours before our departure, which proved to be an hour too long.

The trains are new, clean and comfortable (although a bit chilly). The food selection left a lot to be desired, so take snacks with you. We spent about four hours on the train and got off at Butterworth Station. The pedway to the ferry terminal was under construction, so we were taken via free shuttle, which was probably better with my big suitcase as it was a bit further to walk than we expected. We were dropped at the check in for the ferry terminal, paid our 2.50 RM and waited only about 15 minutes to board the ferry. You pay the ferry fee only on the way to Penang, there is no charge for the return trip to the mainland. The ferry crossing itself takes about 15 minutes to the island. We arrived in George town just after midnight and were picked up by our Air BnB host. Although, there were lots of taxis present if you needed to catch one.

THINGS TO DO IN OR NEAR GEORGE TOWN:
Clan Jetties
– Century-old, houses on stilts which are the last remaining old Chinese settlements on the islands. Originally there were seven small villages, but one was lost to fire, so there are six remaining that you can visit.
Sunday Market on Upper Penang Road which becomes pedestrian only from 9am – 4pm on the last Sunday of the month – handicrafts, food, entertainment. It’s a great spot to buy unique souvenirs and don’t miss the coconut ice cream. It was my favourite!
101 Stray Cats – George town is well known for it’s street art, but my favorite installation is the 101 Stray Cats project that was done to bring awareness and promote helping animals in need. Here’s a great little article and map if you want to find them all!
New Lane Hawker Centre – Penang is famous for it’s hawker (street) food. Even our street food guide in Kuala Lumpur raved about the amazing food in Penang! My favorite hawker centre was on Lorong Baru and it happened to only be about a 15 minute walk from where we were staying. About 20 stalls serving up every type of street food you can imagine, with my favourites being chicken satays and won ton soup. Ok ok, I’m not the most adventurous, but it was sooooo yummy! Check out other hawker spots here. I also visited Just Food. It is a food court in a fancy shopping centre. Food is good and almost as cheap as the streets, but the atmosphere is more upscale and doesn’t give you the ‘real’ feel for street food life. However, in the midst of late afternoon rains, it is a great alternative to the outdoor markets.
Bars / Restaurants:
Love Bites – I had delicious pizza baked on a light, flaky crust drizzled with balsamic – yum!  Piknik Everyday – The chocolate waffles – need I say more?
Black Kettle – I had a nice chicken sandwich that was fresh and tasty. Super friendly staff as well.
China House – Great spot to relax and take in some live music in the evening. Apparently their cakes are to die for, but I didn’t try them … you should!
Ferringhi Beach – Known locally as Batu Ferringhi, it is the second most popular destination on Penang Island. We were warned that the beach would be busy because we were there at the beginning of their summer holidays. However, it was far from busy in comparison to beaches in Southern Thailand for example. There was lots of space for everyone in the sun or in the shade. In fact, I wouldn’t have called it busy at all. It was quite tranquil, other than the myriad of vendors selling parasailing. Sadly, I didn’t know about the ‘legendary’ night market, or I would have stayed for the evening!
Penang National Park –  With Jungle trekking, monkey beach and a turtle sanctuary, the national park is a great spot to feel at one with nature and get some exercise. Just make sure you take lots of water, insect repellant and your swim suit!

GETTING AROUND:
Download the Uber app on your phone for taxis (use my promo code (sharit146ue) and you’ll get a credit for your first ride!)- It was my very first experience using Uber and we had nothing but success. Cars were clean and tidy, drivers were super friendly, cost was about 1/2 price of the regular taxis and payment is made by credit card rather than having to carry cash. No bartering, no haggling, just simple.

Buses to (Batu) Ferringhi Beach
Cost – 2.70 RM – each way from George town

Inspired to get your travel on? Think Malaysia might be the place for you?
I’d love to chat about my experiences there and help you plan your perfect South East Asian Adventure or Vacation. Get in touch at stucker@tpi.ca

** This is not a sponsored post. None of the suppliers, locations or restaurants have in any way paid to be mentioned. They are just fabulous and I thought they were worth talking about!

A Girl and her hair

Bad hair cuts or dye-jobs suck. Come on ladies, I know you feel my pain and probably lots of men out there too!

For whatever reason, much of our confidence, for better or worse is built around how we look. It directly relates to how we feel. Hence, the old advice to dress up every day even if you have no where to go. Or, in business, to dress in business attire even if you work from home. (Advice I could never follow!)

You’ve all been there. You’ve all gone to a new hair-dresser, told them exactly what you wanted and ended up with something horribly different. Whether it is too short, the wrong color, styled like you belong in the 80’s … it sucks. We cry over it. We get angry. We refuse to leave the house. We rewash it immediately when we get home hoping that it’ll look better if we just do it ourselves.

Luckily for me, most of my life I’ve subscribed to the belief that my hair does not define me. Although I love my hair, I can’t be bothered to make it perfect every day, to get my roots coloured every six weeks (sometimes not even every six months) and hair cuts? Well, a couple of times a year is good enough for me. (three times in 2015!)

I had been staring at my lengthening roots since I was in Asia, being slightly annoyed with them. The blending that I had done when I was in Nova Scotia was growing out and wasn’t working for me any more. My hair is longer than it has been in probably seven or eight years and it was getting tangled. I’d roll over and get it caught under my shoulder at night or sometimes in my armpit. I don’t know how women deal with really long hair!

I had thought about it for several days, but being in Turkey, I was really only pondering the idea. I wasn’t really going to get my hair done, was I? I passed a couple of salons here and there, but never went in. What were the chances anyone would speak English anyway? I passed a few blonde women in the streets and thought about stopping them to ask where they had gotten their hair done, but stopped myself as that was a combination of weird as well as not knowing if they would speak English.

Finally, the other day, after working from a cafe for most of the day, I just up and decided that I was brave enough to give it a go. After all, it’s just hair right?

I walked out of the cafe, two doors down and realized that one of the salons I had been looking at was for men. Boo. Then I noticed the one right next door was for women! How convenient. And this is where it begins.

I walked downstairs to the empty salon that was below street level and was greeted by a man with a nervous smile. It was almost as if he expected me to ask for directions rather than asking about getting my hair done.

I asked if he spoke English, to which he said ‘a little’. Well, that’s better than none at all, right?

I showed him my roots and explained that I wanted blonde. To which he confirmed understanding by saying “Highlights!”

Ah. We’re off to a good start!

I asked him how much and he paused. I wasn’t sure if he was thinking about a price or trying to find the right words in English. In the end, I think it was both.

Him: “Two hundred and fifty lira.” (About $100 – $115 CAD)
Me: “Are you sure? That seems like a lot. That’s the same price as me getting it done in Canada!”
Him: “Yes. 250 lira. I give you beautiful highlights.”
Me: “Ah, that’s too much for me, I’ll have to go somewhere else.”

And, I started back toward the door.

Him: “How much?”
Me: “There was a place down the street for 150 lira.” (complete lie, but that’s as much as I was willing to pay)
Him (without hesitation and with a chuckle): “Ok. Ok. Come in. 150 Lira.”

** That’s 100 Lira less than he originally asked for which is about $50 CAD.

Picture me with my hands on my hips, smiling at this short, older man. He’s got wavy-ish grey hair and great laugh lines.

Me: “What if I had said 50 Lira? Would you have done it for 50?”
He laughs: “No, no. 150 yes.”
Me: “Are you sure you can make it pretty?”
Him: “Yes. Yes. Beautiful highlights. Come. Come.”

Next thing I knew I was sitting in the chair and another man was wrapping a towel around my shoulders and then a small plastic cape over top of that. He fumbled a bit with pinning both closed and I thought to myself that he hasn’t had a lot of practice. This is when I got nervous.

A couple of minutes later, the older man came back out with the dye all mixed up and ready to go. There was no discussion on color, no discussion on what I’d like the final product to look like, he was just ready to go for it.

Deep breath! Here we go.

He meticulously parted my hair and I could see him weaving the end of the comb in and out to pick out the pieces to be highlighted. He then put some plastic (not foil) under the first bit of hair and started slathering on the bluish white goo. The second guy had prepared the stand and was busy crumpling the plastic pieces and handing over clips to the hair dresser.

After a couple of plastic sheets were in place and more plastic was prepared, the ‘assistant’ started holding the plastic in place against my head while the hair dresser globbed on the goop a little faster; sometimes stopping to look closely at the ends of my hair to determine if he should color them or leave them sticking out.

As in any salon, the process of putting in a full head of highlights took about an hour or so. Throughout this process it became clear to me that the hair dresser was instructing the assistant and explaining things along the way. Of course, they weren’t speaking English, so I’m not exactly sure if it was just instructions for him to help out or if he was teaching him how to do it on his own.

They chatted away as I nervously watched them using plastic instead of foil and wondering if the hap-hazard sloshing on of product would be a nightmare in the end.

Every few minutes they would stop and ask me if I was ok. They would grin at me and give me a thumbs up. Or, the hair dresser would tell me how beautiful it was going to be. Almost reassuring … almost!

About a third of the way through, we had a bit of a conversation and I learned that my hair dresser, Ahmed, is Syrian and he had been living in Istanbul for about two and a half years. He also has family living in Vancouver. Then, there was Hussain, who was from Iraq and had only been in Istanbul a few months.

So, here I was, in Istanbul, Turkey, having my hair done by two men from Syria and Iraq who barely speak English. I was putting my confidence in their hands by letting them change my hair and wow was I ever hoping for the best.

I won’t lie. I sent a few text messages to friends saying that I was scared to death of how it was going to turn out! I wasn’t feeling very confident, but I was there and there was no going back!

After finishing the back, they moved on to the front and sides, doing so in a very different way than what I’ve ever seen done in Canada. They started with the three strips along the front and sides and then worked their way toward the back.

Ahmed, being only about five feet six inches tall, was tip-toeing to see the top of my head, so finally I slouched down in the chair. It wasn’t one of those fancy foot-pump chairs, just one fixed height! We all had a good chuckle over this and Ahmed jumped up and down a few times peering over the top of my head making fun of himself.

He finished up all of the highlights and went to have a cigarette in the office. Next thing I knew he was coming out, phone in hand, on face time. He was laughing and chatting and telling some guy on the phone to say hello to me. It was the weirdest experience ever. I was being shown off while in full foils by a man speaking another language (not sure if it was Turkish or Arabic at this point). Next thing I knew, I was fully on the camera saying hello, and then he was showing the guy my hair close-up and in great detail. I’m still not sure what this was all about. Was Ahmed asking for someone’s advice or showing off his great work? Was he proud to have a client because he hadn’t had one in quite some time? Or was it because I was blonde? So hard to know!

My FaceTime face

My FaceTime face

Ahmed finished up his phone call, gave me a very excited kiss on the hand and told me how happy he was that I was there. He said it with all of his heart. I don’t know the whole story, but I know that he meant it.

I sat by the sink while he removed the first layer of plastic foils and then Hussain got me some tea to sip on while the rest of the highlights continued to bake. Every few minutes he would come back and take out a few more of the foils. He could obviously see my apprehension, so he got a mirror to show me a couple of the front ones that he had taken out.

WOAH! They were white-blond. My heart nearly stopped. I think I was better off without the mirror!

After all of the plastic was out and the dye rinsed out of my hair, he proceeded to shampoo my hair and then give me the strongest and best head massage I’ve ever had in my life. This wasn’t just a little massage while he worked the shampoo through my hair, this was the royal treatment, hitting every pressure point on my head. I could feel myself relaxing even in the awkwardness of the sink / chair combo.

Once the shampoo was rinsed out, the process started over with conditioner. This led to a second head massage, including into my neck. At this point I was thinking I was getting a good deal for 150 Lira … hair dyed, cut and a massage! Yay me!

And, it wasn’t done! He then folded a hot, damp towel over my eyes, around my cheeks and chin, somehow leaving my nose and mouth open. And then came the gentle face massage.

I’m telling you … it was lovely.

When it was all over, I had almost forgotten that my hair could be platinum blond!

At this point, another man had arrived at the salon and was super excited to meet me. He started chatting away in pretty good English. He offered me more tea, gave me options of Earl Grey, Apple or regular turkish tea. Then he brought out sweets and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He asked all about where I was from and what I was doing in Istanbul. All the while, he communicated back and forth with Ahmed, filling him in on the whole conversation.

When it came time for Ahmed to cut and style my hair, this third man translated everything and Ahmed went to work. He worked on my hair like an artist with his masterpiece. He parted and combed it perfectly straight and then chopped and clipped to the beat of his own drum. A little snip here, some hard staring and then a big snip there … all in some kind of rhythm.

I have to admit, with my hair wet and combed all straight, the highlights were looking pretty good and the blond wasn’t quite as frightening once it was mixed in with the other shades of my hair. Either he had done a good job, or the massage had relaxed me enough not to care.

After drying my hair, he went about perfecting his masterpiece by curling my hair with the straight iron. And this was not a normal process either. He clacked the straight iron arms together in a beat while contemplating if he should curl toward or away from my face and then the dance began.

He would find a piece of hair, wrap it tightly around the straight iron, pull on it, twist it and then tilt his head, maybe screw up his face a bit. He’d release the heat and then whirl and twirl it around in loop and then let it bounce down into a corkscrew. This dance with perfecting my hair lasted another 20 minutes until I had perfect corkscrew curls all around my head.

To finish it all off, he ran his fingers through it to separate all of the curls and give it lots of body, fluffed it up, sprayed it and said ‘Voila!’

Voila!

Voila!

I really was happy with it in the end. How could I not be after the royal treatment, the warm welcome, all of the smiles and laughs throughout the past few hours.

The third man invited me to stay for another cup of tea and wouldn’t let me say no even though it was already 5pm. I stayed and chatted for another half hour and listened to stories about his family, life in Syria and his plight to find a better life in Turkey. He had come as a business man, not as a refugee. He is working on a vegetable oil import / export business and once it is in operation, his family will come join him in Istanbul or Ankara.

When it was time for me to leave, the two friendly men, who had known each other for 25 years, were truly disappointed to see me go. They told me over and over how happy they were to meet me, how happy they were that I had come in on that day and that 2016 would be a good year.

I left the salon with a much improved head of hair, a smile on my face and a full heart. Despite my own apprehension for getting my hair done by someone new, in a new country and our lack of communication skills, I felt good having helped out a struggling business and meeting the best kind of people … the warm, friendly, appreciative kind. It doesn’t get any better.

Yes, indeed, I think 2016 will be a good year.

Men and Cockroaches

I’ve had my fair share of cockroach incidents. Some I’ve written about (The Cucaracha Wars), some I’ve videoed (that time in Mexico when one flew in through my window, made it’s home behind my bed and I freaked out. I moved the headboard and it dashed across my bed to the other side of the room while I was squealing). Some I’ve shared with friends (the time in the Philippines where Robin and I had to deal with six or so. She told me if I would take em’ alive, she’d take care of em’ when they are dead) and all are forever stuck in my memory.

Today’s story is a little different than the others. Despite being in what I would consider a 2 star hotel with great potential for cockroaches, we’ve been here for five nights and not seen any. That is, until today.

Note: Graphic content regarding the killing of a cockroach

After a lovely day spent swimming and working from Long Beach on Koh Phi Phi Island in Thailand, Robin and I returned to our air conditioned little room for a break from the heat. Robin was sitting on her bed and I hear her say ‘Ah, Is that inside or outside?’ I immediately flipped over and looked at her. Seeing the look of disappointment on her face, I immediately freaked out a bit asking ‘What, what, what is it?’ By the look on her face I thought it might actually be a snake or something as she wasn’t moving. She finally told me there was a cockroach on the window, but she wasn’t sure if it was inside or outside.

Together, we took a closer (but still distant) look and determined that the bugger was between the screen & window. Robin was hoping to close the curtain and forget she saw it, but I decided it had to die before it found a way in. After a couple of minutes staring at it and hitting the screen with my flip flop to try and make it run away, I wasn’t having any luck. I gingerly moved the screen window that it was on hoping that it wouldn’t run into the room. I wiggled the screen door enough to get my hands on the sliding window and jostled it open. (Nothing here works smoothly. Lucky it works at all) I was hoping that it would simply run to the opening, but who are we kidding, cockroaches aren’t the smartest insects on earth! They are about the same as June bugs. We decided to dump water on it, hoping it would make it go the direction of the opening. No luck. Now, on the window tread instead of the screen, It decided to wiggle through the water, inward rather than toward the opening. In the end, when he crawled on the end of the window frame (still outside), I closed the window & it ended up smooshing him between two window frames. I could still see him wiggling but I couldn’t reach him to put him out of his misery. Besides, everyone must know by now how much I hate cockroaches! I wasn’t about to try very hard. Horribly, I watched him struggle for a few minutes. Not because I wanted to see him struggle, but because I wanted to be sure that he was actually caught and couldn’t move to get in our room. So, I left him to die. Yes, maybe I am a horrible person but cockroaches have traumatized me more than once.

A few minutes later Robin noticed a surgance of ants in the same area where the cockroach had been. Hundreds of fairly large red ants had covered the area and the bits of the cockroach that had been visible were no more. Apparently when cockroaches are left to die, red ants quickly find them and devour them! Who knew!

But, the story doesn’t end there. A few hours later, the guys staying in the hotel room beside us came home (not so quietly). They turned their music on and joked around loudly. This is what I pictured (and dreaded) that Koh Phi Phi might be like. Young people here on vacation with the sole purpose of partying (all night long). They had woken us up with their drunken boisterous voices at 3:30 am this morning, so I would expect nothing less than some loud music through the evening tonight.

Shortly after they arrived home, the door opened quickly and I hear a one side of a conversation through the extremely thin walls in our dingy hotel, between two English men. I can hear the guy standing in the hallway in his deep English accent like he’s standing beside me.

“Pauly, just take care of it I don’t want anything to do with it.
Ewww. It’s huge.
What the fuck.
Hurry up and get rid of it. Just smack it. I’m not coming back in until you’ve flushed it down the toilet.
They are so dirty.
This isn’t funny. Just deal with it.”

(faintly heard from inside, presumably Pauly’s voice with a slight chuckle) – “It’s just a cockroach man!”

I couldn’t help myself, I peaked out the peephole in the door to see the guy standing there.  I’d guess about 25 years old, tall, shirtless and super fit. That’s about all I could tell through a peephole. I didn’t think he’d like it much if I opened the door fully and asked him if he was scared of a wee cockroach.

“Hurry up and deal with that monstrosity.
Is it gone yet? Did you flush it? Is it gone?”

Door slams and rattles the walls. Presumably the big strong man went back into the room after his friend had flushed the ‘monstrosity’ down the toilet.

Happy to say that this little cockroach incident made my day. I struggle with cockroaches all the time and for once it’s nice to know that a ‘big strong man’ freaks out over them as much as I do.

Adventures in Local Transportation – Philippines Part 2

BUS RIDE – EL NIDO TO PUERTO PRINCESA, PALAWAN

For the three days that we were in beautiful El Nido, I was slightly rattled by the accident that we had seen. There was nothing I could do to help and no way to know if the victims had been alright, but none-the-less, I couldn’t quite get the images out of my head.

When it came time for us to leave El Nido, we booked our van the night before, choosing a 1:30pm departure to hopefully put us in Puerto Princesa after the rush hour traffic and to give us time to sleep-in and enjoy the morning. We paid only 500 pesos ($15 CAD) for the return trip to the city, as we would also need to make our own way to the bus terminal.

After lunch, with our overnight bags in hand, we went searching for a tricycle to take us to the bus terminal. One tricycle driver asked us for 100 pesos.

Me: ‘Hmmm sounds like a bit much, we were thinking 15 pesos each’
Tricycle driver with a sly little laugh: ‘Just joking, it’s 50 pesos.’

I was quick to offer him 30 pesos for the two of us, which he declined, reiterating 50 pesos. We politely declined saying we would try with someone else. He quickly turned the tricycle around and rode off. Not too far down the street another driver asked if we needed a ride and we were able to negotiate a fare of 40 pesos for the 10 minute ride to the ramshackle bus terminal.

It was a bit disconcerting from the beginning when no one seemed to know the name of the company that was on our receipt, but after a couple of short conversations between men at the station, they directed us to a van and a friendly van assistant welcomed us to have a seat. We shifted into our chosen, assigned seats in the front row. We had chosen the front row hoping for a bit of extra foot and knee room, but were disappointed to see a hump on the floor giving us even less than normal foot space.

Two other passengers hopped in the van and off we went, departing nearly 10 minutes ahead of schedule. For the first few minutes, the road was more or less straight ahead and the driver clearly was excited to get going. He sped along the straight-away passing every vehicle (fast or slow) along the route. My friend and I exchanged a few questionable looks, but didn’t say anything.

The friendly assistant quickly became over friendly chatting away, asking questions and leaning over my shoulder to yell out the window to people of the side of the road to see if they needed a lift. Again, my friend and I exchanged glances wondering just what type of bus we had ended up on.

After picking up a local or two along the highway, the assistant leaned over me and adjusted the ceiling air conditioning off of me and on to himself. When I shot him a look, he adjusted one of the other vents to me and the one I had been using on to himself. Five minutes later, he moved to a different spot and readjusted the air conditioning that was on me, to him.

This cycle continued a ridiculous amount of times during the 4 – 5 hour transfer. The assistant couldn’t seem to sit still. Between leaning in beside me to yell out the window, to struggling to opening the door, to having a loud conversation with the driver from the back of the van … Not to mention the minimum of 10 times that he adjusted the air conditioning to himself.

Now, I know it sounds selfish that I would want the air conditioning all to myself, but that actually wasn’t the case! There were three ceiling air conditioning vents. I simply wanted one of them on me in the 40-degree heat. For whatever reason, he kept turning the one I was using on him and I would then have to adjust another one to be on me. Why he couldn’t have just adjusted the one that wasn’t in use, I will never know. He was antsy and kept changing seats, so he would change one vent and then change seats and change a different vent. I nearly lost it on him more than once.

As we barreled down the road at top speed passing everything along the way, I found myself thinking about the moto accident we had seen on the way to El Nido and remembering how thankful I had been for our reasonable and careful driver. Now, I felt like I was traveling with the devil!

About 15 minutes into the trip, much to my dismay, the driver’s speed stayed the same despite the hairpin turns going up and down mountains. After a short time, I stopped reaching for something to hold on to when we went around a turn, but instead, just held on for dear life.

As we careened down the steep hills, around corners and then back up again over roads in much need of repair, I thought to myself ‘Time to eat a cookie.’ Strange thought, right? True story … I was not going to die with home-baked cookies in my bag, so I was eating it to enjoy every last crumb … you know, just in case!

Along the way our driver would slow and occasionally stop to pick up new passengers and then put the pedal to the metal to make up for that lost thirty seconds. The craziness of the situation really set in when I realized that the driver of this rickety old van was leaning into the turns like a race car driver. Somehow he was delusional and thought we were in Formual One. How could this be?

Scared to death, annoyed by the unsettled assistant with his loud voice and increasing anxiety, I did the only thing I could in order to deal with it. I found a place where I could balance myself without falling out of the seat, stopped looking at the road and closed my eyes hoping for a nap. I was startled awake with the assistant mistakenly grabbed both sides of my head when he must have been reaching to hold on for a fast turn. I can’t even lie. The look I shot the assistant after his hands had come in contact both sides of my head while I was trying to sleep was a look of death. I managed to go back to a restless nap for another few minutes until we stopped at the halfway point.

Unbelievably, we had arrived at the halfway point in 45 minutes less time than it should have taken. I didn’t dare eat anything for fear that the roller-coaster of a drive would continue and that I would fall ill to motion sickness. After about a 15 minute stop, we piled back in the van with the other six or eight locals who we had picked up along the way and continued our mad dash to the city.

The assistant started up a new conversation with me about an hour in to the second part of the drive, tapping me on the shoulder and asking for the time. I quickly gave him the time. Not two minutes later, I was tapped on the arm and he asked again for the time. I looked at my phone, gave him the time and mumbled … ‘It’s two minutes after when you asked me last time.’ I had never met someone so constantly annoying. All I wanted to do was tune out, breathe and get through the crazy ride. The assistant then leaned in to the back of my seat and loudly had a conversation with the driver about the airport. That was the only word I understood in the local language. Then, a third tap on the arm from the assistant asking me what time we needed to be at the airport.

Seeing as we had bought our tickets specifically with a drop off at our hotel, it was a little frustrating that they wanted to drop us off at the airport. I explained that we were not going to the airport and that we needed to go to Puerto Princesa. A couple of minutes later, the assistant was trying to explain that one van would take us to the airport and another van would take the other passengers in to the city. I again explained ‘No Airport. No Flight. Hotel in Puerto Princesa.’ Who knew if we would end up in the city or at the airport.

To add to the joy of the ride, after another section of continuous S turns with the driver leaning in to each one, I heard the horrible sound of a cough and then a small choke and a splat. One of the two girls sitting in the front seat fumbled around for a plastic bag to give her friend. A couple more coughs and I cringed, now being sure that she was motion sick. I waited for the smell of vomit to permeate the rest of the van. As the poor girl continued to be sick, I wondered why she didn’t ask the driver to pull over for a moment. I then wondered why the driver wouldn’t offer to pull over. And then, my biggest wonderment was if the driver knew that it was likely his fault that this poor girl was motion sick. Had he driven like a normal person instead of a race car driver, he may not be smelling the puke of the girl sitting in the front seat with him, nor would we!

The friend tossed the plastic bag out the window and consoled her friend as we continued full speed ahead.

As we rounded the last few bends and started to see the slow rush hour traffic, it was a relief to know that the driver would have no option but to slow down. Sadly, the girl in the front was still sick once or twice more before the drive was over.

Next thing I knew, I was being tapped on the shoulder again, this time to be told we would be getting out and would need to hire a tricycle to our hotel. After 4-5 hours of life-threatening driving, a loud voice yelling in my ear, being woken by a strangers hands on my head and having the air conditioning re-directed every 10 minutes for no rhyme or reason, my sanity was nearly gone. I slowly and clearly explained (at least twice) that we had paid for the van to take us to our hotel and we would not take a tricycle. The assistant tried to tell me that we would get out at the next intersection and take a tricycle, but I refused, insisting that they drive us to the hotel.

In the end, the few remaining passengers piled out of the van and we continued on, stopping at a gas station along the way into the city. Within about 10 minutes, we were dropped off at the door to our hotel. Never had I been so happy to arrive at a hotel and get out of a vehicle. I was thankful that evening for being safe, for having a friend to travel with and endure the horrible ride with and I knew that eventually I would look back and have a laugh at the situation. I was wrong about that part though … two weeks later, I’m still not laughing.

Word of the wise:
If you are traveling from Manila to Palawan and plan to see both El Nido and Puerto Princesa, book one flight in to one airport and the other flight out of the other airport. This way you only have to do the crazy long drive once.

Secondly, we were really happy with the van and service of Camarih Palawan Shuttle Transport and I would strongly suggest NOT traveling with a company whose name starts with “B”. Sadly, they took our receipt when we got into the van and we had no idea that we would want to remember the company name, so I never asked for it back, therefore I can’t recall the company name. Do a little research, pay that extra $2 – $5 and make sure you arrive safe and sound.