5 Questions from Elite Travel Blog

I have recently been asked to participate in a series with Elite Travel Blog where they invite travel bloggers to share their favourite memories. Below you can find my responses, but you should stop by their site and get some inspiration from many of the other bloggers who participated!

Why do you love travel?

My love of travel was born out of a fear of planes. In 1997 I survived a plane crash in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. I got on a plane shortly after the crash, which was a horrible decision and then I did not fly again for 11 years. Eventually, I decided that the world was too amazing to be missed. From that point on, I stepped cautiously into the travel world and a few years later, here I am making my way around the world!

For me, travel is such an interesting mix of emotions. The flights are still difficult for me nearly 20 years after my plane crash and can still cause me anxiety, but to not be able to experience the world in all of it’s wonders would feel like I hadn’t really lived.

It’s like opening presents everyday of the year because there is always something new and exciting to do. For the same reasons, it can be equally as exhausting when your brain is always taking in new things and never has a routine. With all of its ups and downs, I love travel because it has opened my mind to new ways of thinking. Through travel I have overcome challenges, learned when to be independent and when not to be.

For me, travel is: empowering, frightening, overwhelming and beautiful. Travel is the air that I breathe that gives me life and purpose.

What destination is top of your bucket list? 

As with any travel blogger, narrowing it down to just one place at the top of my bucket list is very difficult. So, I’ll choose the over 7000 islands of the Philippines (I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow!). With Chocolate hills, swimming with whale sharks, kite surfing and festivals galore, my heart beats faster just thinking about it. Yes, I think it is time for me to float, swim, eat and dance my way through the Philippines.

Where is your most favourite place you have travelled to? 

I’ve traveled to 27 countries, most of them in the past seven years. I truly have amazing memories of every single one of them. Of course, some will always stand out more than others. When I traveled to Turkey in September 2015 with Experta Tours  and The Gallipolli Artist, I expected the chaos of Istanbul but what I didn’t expect was the welcoming, friendly hospitality of the locals throughout the country. That hospitality was expanded 100% when I landed in Cappadocia, land of fairy chimneys and some of the greatest landscapes that I have ever laid eyes (and camera) on. From the charm, art and history of the family-run Sofa Hotel to the pure serenity of my sunrise hot air balloon ride over Love Valley. It was a land of dreams come true and place where a piece of my calm heart will forever reside.

What is your most favourite memory or experience whilst travelling?

My favorite memories from travel seem to be when I find serenity and learn something profound. Or is it that serenity finds me and therefore it teaches me something profound?

As a professional photographer who was interested in travel, what could be better than leading photo tours to far away places? In 2012, with the culmination of much hard work and great support from my friends at G Adventures and the Planeterra Foundation, I led my first photo tour to beautiful Peru. My small group of eight passengers made our way to a small village in the Andes mountains called Ccaccaccollo where we organized a portrait day for the families who had never had family portraits taken before. It was a heart-warming experience, despite the language challenges and primitive homes. We photographed as many children, families and elderly as we could and then arranged to have the photos sent back to them to keep. We were greeted with excitement and welcomed like family. Some people wanted their pictures taken with their favorite cat, while others proudly posed by their llama or cattle. It was a life altering experience when many of us really learned that money can not not buy happiness.

A couple of days later, we traveled together to Machu Picchu and sat in the great Lost City surrounded by thick fog. Our leader asked us to take a few moments to sit and enjoy the peacefulness. Some of my group did yoga or meditation, others just sat in awe and some continued about their business taking photos. For me, I will never forget the tears that I shed at the beauty of this magical place. I will never forget the clearness of my mind and the profound changes that Machu Picchu inspired me to make in my life. Forever, the Lost City will be where I found myself.

What is your favourite photo from your travels?

Hot air Ballooning over Love Valley in Cappadocia

Hot air Ballooning over Love Valley in Cappadocia

Street Art: Challenging Perceptions

Big cities around the world often have underground Graffiti and Street Art scenes, Buenos Aires is no different … or is it?

As part of this country’s deeply carved wounds in the political past, the graffiti and street art of today are a representation of the struggles, a reminder of the battles, a voice speaking out to create a movement.

From the outside looking in, the general public (at least where I’m from) view Street Art and graffiti as the enemy. It’s old. It’s ugly. It defaces and devalues property. It’s a hassle. It’s got to go. Rebellious kids are responsible for destroying property. Poor people and the uneducated are the cause.

In fact, this is exactly why there is a misconception of this form of art. It has been misunderstood by so many for so long. I’m here to challenge your perceptions.

Let me start with a very simple difference between Street Art and Graffiti as they are not the same.

Graffiti was where it all began. Various forms of painting large, blocky letters in public spaces. This was often done anonymously. Sometimes it would be legible to the average passerby, but often it was a language only understood by other graffiti artists.

Street art has nothing to do with letters and words, but everything to do with art, beauty and conceptual messages. Again, some may be obvious to a passersby, or it may be understood only within the artist community. Some displays are just for the beauty of it, with little conceptual meaning other than to give the viewer enjoyment.

Street Art in Buenos Aires

Street Art in Buenos Aires

Indeed, graffiti and street art in almost every city that has risen out of poor governments in power, loss of control or war. It is true, that in the beginning that those who went to the streets did so in the dark, illegally and in a hurry to avoid being arrested. They were driven by their passion for a cause, their audacity to stand against a dictatorship and to draw likeminded people together. They were the silent, but visual leaders of their time. Their art became a language to be shared and to unite them. They were not hitting the streets to destroy random property or to make their city ‘ugly’. They were going to the streets like men who go to war. They were fighting a battle of words against their flailing governments and building support without the aid of government funded media.

Graffiti in general started out as anti-government, or at least against specific government parties. It was a semi-permanent protest that could be spread across city walls by night and visible by day. It was a voice for those who were being silenced.

It’s a pretty dark history, but as with anything from the past, people learn and grow from it. Governments change, wars begin and end, cities make laws and then change them.

On my recent Street Art tour with Graffiti Mundo in Buenos Aires, I really began to understand more about the recent history of the art and how it flourished from the ugly past.

In the early 2000’s, the city went grey. Devoid of colour, devoid of hope. Huge billboards and public wall space was devoted to campaigning for government. Political propaganda was everywhere. Sky-high faces of leaders painted on previously blank spaces appeared.

Citizens were being silenced and the dictatorship was quashing any resistance. Artists started having secret gatherings in garages and clubs to discuss what they could do. They had no money, the government was forceful, and they were just a few people. What they decided was that they needed to put colour back into their streets. They needed to spread hope rather than disparity. They needed to move forward instead of being stuck. Artists began by painting the outside of their own homes and offices, making their own colourful art. The artists had no money, so they collected paint left overs from the street and started getting creative with mixing colours as well as trying new methods.

Spray paint is expensive to buy, although quick to use, so it was often the choice of Graffiti artists. Latex paint is free, if left over from someone painting their house, but takes longer to design with. This meant that you could not paint and run. People took to painting their own spaces, in broad daylight with whatever materials they could find. Painting, for the purpose of putting colour back in the streets; for doing something rather than nothing. This art also led to less space for political propaganda. It was a protective layer for their houses as propaganda messages from the government would easily be lost if they were painted on top of colourful art instead of on a clear blank wall.

The Artists thought that if everything else in their city was grey, boring and politically fuelled, that if they painted colourful art, with no political affiliation, it would stand out. It would disrupt the norm because it was different. And, so it continued to flourish.

A group of 12 artists collaborated on this wall below.

Soon enough, a few people painting one or two of their homes were asked by neighbours what they could do. The grand answer – Paint! Find paint and paint the grey away (or the politics away, depending how you read into it). Neighbours joined in by painting their own homes, or by offering up large blank building surfaces to be painted with full artist discretion.

Buenos Aires Street Art

Buenos Aires Street Art

The camaraderie, the appreciation of art and the common passion for revitalizing the city was thriving. No longer did artists have to buy spray paint, tip toe around after midnight and rush to pain their message on a wall before being caught. No longer was it a taboo. The city opened up and embraced the art with many businesses now commissioning artists to paint their walls. Sometimes these are paid gigs, other times artists do it simply for the joy of painting and sharing their vision.

Still today there is a law in Argentina that says you have the right to paint your house however you wish. Neighbours don’t complain about it being an eye-sore, if you own it, you can paint it.

A few years ago, Buenos Aires even hosted a large scale festival dedicated to painting the city. Well-known graffiti and street artists came from around the world (by invitation or by choice) to participate. Being a government run project, sadly, the festival rubbed many artists the wrong way as the funds coming in from the festival all went back to the government (to their consulting and construction fees) while none of the money went back to support the artists.

The festival was held mainly in an area of the city near Palermo Hollywood, but known for social housing, the city dump and a main bus hub. Not the prettiest or most desirable of neighbourhoods. Hundreds of artists joined the festival and painted a piece of themselves on the walls, brightening up this otherwise monotonous neighbourhood.

Two pieces of note:

Street Art in Buenos Aires

Street Art in Buenos Aires by Jim Vision

Street Art in Buenos Aires

Street Art in Buenos Aires by Jaz

Over the years, street art studios have opened and closed. Sadly, most of them are now closed. It has been a losing battle as the government prohibits artists from exporting their art to an international market. This means their art has to be purchased by other Argentinian’s, who for the most part are in the same constant struggle to get buy with the little money they have. They don’t have money to buy art, leading to the closing of many of the galleries and lack of exposure and recognition for deserving Argentinian artists.

Even today, as European and first world as Argentina appears to the outside world, it’s internal struggles are tormenting it’s people every day. They are stuck in a hamster wheel where they can’t get off. Their money is monitored, their currency has no value and citizens are not allowed to earn or spend USD.

In the year 2015, Argentina is still in political turmoil, but the vision and artistic passion of it’s people lives on through the streets. No matter where you look, you can see walls popping with colour, you can see images of conflict amongst images of roses. You can even find an entire street block filled with Homer Simpson’s face as an effort to be the world’s largest wall of Homer Simpson.

The spirit of these artists is friendly, open and without shame for the work that they do. Although their government stings them with restrictions that are unbearable for many of us to consider, they march on spreading their vision throughout the city.

These are not the poor, uneducated criminals that the media would have us believe. These are talented, educated, intelligent leaders who believe in a better Buenos Aires, a better Argentina. Their voice runs through the streets and colourfully joins neighbours and strangers together against the government’s disparity.

Tigre

Just 16 kilometres to the north of bustling Buenos Aires lies a small town full of life but at a much slower pace. Tigre sits at the mouth of the Delta and sprawls out from a grand riverway to a web like maze of smaller rivers and streams.

Rio Tigre

Rio Tigre

Serviced by two train lines, the Mitre and la Tren de la Costa, along with several bus routes, it is easily accessible for tourists, along with a great weekend day trip for locals.

Starting from the Maipu Station in the Olivos barrio of Buenos Aires, I hopped on the Tren de la Costa for the short ride to Tigre. This particular train route allows you the option of stopping to explore any or all of the costal communities along the way, then you hop back on the next train (approximately every 30 minutes). I made one stop at Barrancas and then continued on my way to explore Tigre.

At the Tren de la Costa station in Tigre you are met on the platform by a small market with a handful of local vendors and then more vendors line the streets to your right. Also on the right you’ll get your first glimpse of the amusement park. I headed left to find food as it was mid-afternoon and my tummy was asking for lunch.

I was traveling with a friend and we grabbed a spot at one of the first parilla (barbecue) restaurants that we found called La Isla. A parilla for two, with five different types of meat, a salad and two drinks totalled up to nearly $400 pesos. Yikes! On the bright side, the chimichuri sauce was devine and we were stuffed when we left. I’m sure the next few hours of walking did us good!

At this end of town, there isn’t a whole lot to see outside of the market and the amusement park. It was fun to watch the bungee jump-style ride from afar, but I didn’t feel the need to jump from a tower that day.

We followed the flow of people up the road and around a bend until we saw the river bubbling along, teeming with boats and the river banks filled with families and friends relaxing in the sun.

Rio Tigre, Buenos Aires

Rio Tigre, Buenos Aires

We walked up-river, dawdling along, people watching and checking out a few vendors along the way. I stopped to take a few photos, watch a bit of a busker show and poke through the market with the purple stalls. Then, we made our way to the bridge and crossed over to the other side of town.

The river banks were clustered with families and friends have picnic lunches, couples kissing, dogs and children playing and the elderly sitting on nearby benches over looking the river. A few vendors provided snacks and tourist trinkets along the way, but never once did any of them approach us to sell their wares. They just served those who approached them.

We walked to the bend in the river and followed the park-like path with even more people enjoying a lovely Sunday afternoon in the sun. It felt like one big picnic party, but I left my basket at home!

Relaxing by the Rio Tigre

Relaxing by the Rio Tigre

Along the way I marvelled at the beautiful buildings on both sides of the river and enjoyed the late afternoon sun. After all, we hadn’t arrived in Tigre until about 2:30pm, had lunch and then wandered for an hour along the streets before heading toward the Museo de Arte Tigre.

I had heard the the Museo de Arte Tigre was the most beautiful building in the city and it did not disappoint. Not only is it beautiful, but we timed it right to enjoy the late afternoon sun warming it’s outer walls with golden light. My only disappointment was that I didn’t have enough time to explore inside.

We did, however, get to take in a beautiful dance performance. It may have been tied into an election speech, but with my intermediate Spanish, I didn’t really know what they were talking about. I was just happy to see the beautiful performances.

We stayed around the Museo de Arte for about half an hour wandering the grounds and watching the performers before walking back the same direction in which we had arrived. After crossing the bridge, and my feet being sore, we decided to take the Mitre train line back to Buenos Aires. It was packed, but luckily I was able to hop on the train at the front of the line and nab us two seats rather than standing for the 20 – 30 minute ride back. The other benefit of this was that I was able to get off the train at the Belgrano station rather than heading all the way back to Maipu and needing to take an hour long bus or 1/2 hour taxi ride home.

Overall, it was a beautiful day. I’ll likely do the trip again in my next few weeks here. If the weather stays warm enough I may head back to Peru beach for some water sports. And, if not, I think a trip to Tigre just to wander the Museo de Arte Tigre would be worth the 30 minute train ride.

The Coastal train to Barrancas Station

If you find yourself for an extended period of time in Buenos Aires and are in need of a relaxing getaway, head toward Tigre where you’ll find a day full of wandering, meandering and treasure hunting waiting for you with la Tren de la Costa route.

It took far too long for me to get from Belgrano to the Maipu Station to catch the Tren de la Costa, but I chalk that up to a variety of bad luck, bad sense of direction and lack of planning. I took a bus to Plaza Italia (opposite direction) in order to catch the 152 bus that I needed to go the right direction. Sadly I wasn’t sure where else I could catch this bus, although I suppose I could have looked it up online. I’m sure it passed within a few blocks of my house.

With less traffic on a Sunday than other days, I was hoping that the trip would only take 30 -45 minutes. Over an hour in, we hit a traffic jam caused by construction and traffic was near a stand still. I hopped off the bus, walked one street back and hailed a taxi. I just couldn’t sit on a bus going nowhere any more.

The taxi took another 15 minutes to get to the Maipu Station, but eventually I arrived and followed the signs to the ticket booth, easy enough. I walked upstairs through a funky antique market, but only about a quarter of the stalls were open. The faint smell of dust and rust filled the air and there was a little of everything from old furniture to signs to trinkets and records.

At the end of the market you’ll find the ticket booth right at the edge of the platform. There are two fares, one for locals ($10 pesos one way to Tigre) and one for expats ($20 pesos one way to Tigre). You’ll receive a ticket, white for locals and purple for expats. You’ll need the ticket to get through the check point on to the platform.

Once on the train, there is a stop every two to five minutes. From the little map I had reviewed, I expected it to be five to ten minutes between stops, but I could hardly believe it when we stopped about one minute after the train started. At that pace I thought I could walk to Tigre! (well, it’s only 16kms) Ok, maybe a little stretch of the imagination, but none-the-less, the total train time was only about 30 minutes.

The main point of taking the Tren de la Costa (the coastal train) is that you can hop off at any of the 10 stations along the way and explore the station along with the small town or community. I had read about most of the stations, but decided that Tigre was my main destination so I would only stop at one other station along the way.

I hopped off at Barrancas Station where there was a lovely little antique market. Now, antiques aren’t really my thing, but none the less it was interesting to see some historical pieces of Argentinian history. Mostly trinkets and old tools, but a lot of historic television paraphernalia (action figures etc) and lots of old liquor bottles. It is literally a mish mash of everything. Some of the tables are organized, others are just piled high with treasures. All of them could use some dusting!

Once you are done wandering through the market, you can grab a croissant (medialuna) and coffee at the green and white Bikes and Coffee Cafe on the platform, or you can take a wander through town to grab lunch. I had wanted to try Parilla el Nandu restaurant for lunch, but being a Sunday it was particularly busy with a full house and over an hour’s wait to be seated.

A couple of blocks away you’ll find the entrance to Peru beach. Not quite sure where the name comes from as there is no beach, but it is a beautiful view of the water and the opportunity to try a number of watersports from windsurfing to kayaking to paddle boarding.

The small area was packed with visitors dining at the ‘beach’ restaurant, lounging on the grass soaking up the sun and taking selfies along the water with sailboats in the background. Sadly, I wasn’t prepared for swimming (in jeans and a t-shirt), so I gathered a bit of pricing information and decided another Sunday it would be worth the visit just to get out on the water for awhile.

Just to give you an idea of what prices to expect:

Kayaking – single – $150 Pesos per hour (about $15 USD) / double – $200 Pesos per hour (about $20 USD)

Windsurfing – 1 hour class $450 Pesos / 3 hour equipment rental $1200 Pesos / 5 hour equipment rental $2000 Pesos

Although I didn’t this time, I think next time I’ll rent a bike and take a peddle along the train-track-trail. The houses, scenery and art looked lovely from the train.

I wandered around Barrancas for about an hour in total. You could easily spend a morning, afternoon or full day there if you were to partake in some of the water sports, but if you are just stopping for a peek, a wander through the market and a quick bite at the Bikes & Coffee Cafe should have you on your way again in about an hour or hour and a half.

PS – the medialunas at the Bikes & Coffee Cafe are deeelish!

Love at first sight Photo Essay: Ljubljana, Slovenia

In September 2014 I went on a spectacular tall ship sailing with Starclippers. We were scheduled for six ports of call and I was least excited about Slovenia as I knew nothing about it and knew no one who had been there. I decided that I would do the day tour to the capital of Ljubljana without really knowing anything about it. It’s actually one of my favourite things about traveling solo … you can do as much or as little research as you wish. I had done very little (none actually) on Slovenia. I like doing zero research because then I have zero expectations. Now, it doesn’t always work out for the best, as sometimes research can be a good thing, but this time, it was perfect. After a couple of hours by coach from the seaside town of Porec, in land to Ljubljana, our group hopped out and started walking toward city centre. It was a crisp, sunny autumn day. The sun was shining, everyone was a little chilly but the fresh air made me feel alive. I can’t quite pin-point it, but every once in awhile I fall in love with a city and this one was love at first site. Immediately I noticed the beauty of the old buildings – a mix of various periods of famous architecture. I’m not a history buff so knowing the difference between Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque architectures is not my strong point, but whatever the mix is that presents itself in Ljubljana is undisputedly beautiful. Take a look for yourself from the Ljubljana Castle to the city’s dragon bridge, the detail, history and strength show through. The streets were old, steeped in history but wide and open interchanging with newer style architecture. A large section of the main core is pedestrian only and the streets were impeccably clean. I had 2 – 3 hours on a group tour to learn about this lovely city, along with taking in a local lunch of sausages, wine and potatoes. The quick overview didn’t even begin to scratch the surface. It did, however give me the yearning to go back, not just to Ljubljana, but to Slovenia in general. Check out some of my favourite pictures below.

If you are interested in a Slovenian adventure, drop me a message. I’d be happy to set you up with an interesting small group tour, a tall ship sailing that has a Slovenian stop or help you with your own custom itinerary! stucker@MeritTravel.com

Bidet Blunders

You’ve all done it … you’ve all said to yourself ‘hmmm I wonder what this button / switch does’ and then you’ve tested it … right? (please agree with me even if you won’t say it out loud, at least agree inside your own head). Whether it was a light switch, a button on the oven, a button on your computer … you’ve done it, right?

Well … I did that today … with the bidet …

Very common in a lot of countries, including here in Argentina, but very rare in countries such as Canada. Not that they don’t exist, they just aren’t commonplace. I’ve seen bidets all throughout Europe, occasionally in Asia and almost everywhere in Buenos Aires, including in my current apartment.

Let me clarify the extent of my advanced knowledge of a bidet.
It is used to wash your bum with spraying water. That’s all. I knew nothing else.

I’ve always been a bit curious, but I’ve never pressed that button, flipped that switch or turned that knob.

….. until today.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get too graphic as I actually was just inspecting the bidet, not using it for it’s intended purpose.

There are three handles. I turned the left one and water slowly leaked out into the bowl.
I turned it off.

I turned the right one and water slowly leaked out into the bowl.
I turned it off and thought ‘maybe this is more like a urinal than a bidet. Maybe the water just cleans the bowl out.’

But wait … I had one more knob to turn. The left and right handles were both turned off, no water was running. I leaned over and turned the centre knob …

Guess what happened?

I jumped out of the way as water shot straight up with such force that it hit the ceiling. (no joke). I giggled and hurried to turn it off without getting sprayed directly in my face by the firehose-strength stream of water.

And then I thought, I don’t think I could ever let water with that force spray directly at my bum (or other areas)

Um yeah, I just said that! Just keeping it real here!

After surviving the bidet encounter without impaling my eye, I decided that maybe I need more information. How could a bidet actually be so popular? Really, do people use these? I’ve done and seen a lot of things in my travels and somehow using a squatter seems less complicated than navigating a bidet. Maybe I’m just more comfortable in the simplicity of nature than the luxury of a middle class apartment.

Having no actual knowledge of what the bidet is meant for, further than ‘cleaning your bum’, I checked good old Wikipedia after my experimentation. It’s always better to try first and inform yourself later, right?

And then I found this fun video for your viewing pleasure. Don’t worry, it doesn’t show any private bits.

I’m still a little confused on how it saves toilet paper though … do you drip dry? Or do you just pull up your pants and have a wet seat for awhile? Seems the system is still a little flawed.

Halifax plane ‘incident’ thoughts and reflections.

FACT: Early on March 29th, 2015 there was an airplane ‘incident’ at the Halifax airport.
FACT: It was an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Halifax.
FACT: There was a snow storm at the time.
FACT: Everyone survived.

Almost everything else is currently unconfirmed.

There are a lot of questions out there. Speculation. Guessing. Varying Reports. Accusations and accolades.

Why is this important to me?

I am a survivor of a plane crash. Not an ‘incident’, not a hard landing, not a mis-hap. I survived a plane crash in December 1997 in Fredericton, NB.

Details on the crash from Wikipedia: Air Canada Flight 646 Crash in Fredericton, NB.

Excerpt from MacLean’s Canadian Encyclopedia.

Full story here.

It took emergency crews about 20 minutes to reach the crash site – about one kilometre from the terminal – a response time that Transport Canada says was reasonable given the snow, fog and darkness. But for the passengers – some of whom began to walk towards the terminal before the rescue team arrived while others huddled in the woods – it seemed like an eternity. Kitchen recalls that there was a smell of jet fuel, prompting fears the plane might explode. She could also hear cries from inside the plane, where at least six people remained pinned under seats and debris.

 

It took until 2:30 a.m. to free the last of the passengers. In all, 35 people were treated for injuries ranging from broken limbs to cuts and bruises. At week’s end, nine remained in hospital. Meanwhile, Air Canada offered all passengers $5,000 for their “trauma and stress” – a move some lawyers saw as an attempt to ward off lawsuits.

 

As traumatic as the experience had been, for most of the survivors last week was also a time to count blessings. Said Kitchen: “At this point, you have to move forward.”

Maclean’s

December 29, 1997

I have a different take on all Halifax’s March 29th incident than *most* of the general public and over 17 years of healing from the life changing experience to give me perspective from a lot of different angles.

What I can tell you is this …

It is a scary, unimaginable situation where you have no control over anything and no idea what is happening. And, it is happening fast … in the blink of an eye, in the flash of a light … Adrenaline kicks in and then shortly after, you go into shock. Some people get overwhelmed and cry, some people are eerily calm, protecting themselves by not talking and some go into ‘help others’ mode.

My immediate reaction when the plane stopped was to get out as fast as possible. I bolted for the nearest exit, waited while someone opened the door and I was the second or third person off the plane. I didn’t stop to look around, to think about anyone else, I just got out of dodge. Once outside of the plane with my heart pumping, my knees shaking and my teeth chattering, I wondered if the plane would explode. Would another plane coming in for landing do the same thing?

Surprising, even to myself, after we crashed in Fredericton. I went into ‘help others’  mode. Trees had torn through the side of the plane, pinning people in their seats. I exited the aircraft, slid down the wing and stood outside in the freezing winter weather for awhile … in shock.

Then, not really thinking clearly, I decided to return back into the aircraft to see if there was anything I could do to help. I was oddly calm, but functioning almost in an out of body experience kind of way. When I saw the few people who were injured and pinned in the plane, moaning and crying in pain, I left my scarf / hat / mittens to help keep someone warm and then exited as there was a nurse there and she told me I really couldn’t help.

I remember my crash it like it was yesterday. I remember it even more vividly because of the crash at the Halifax airport March 29th that had many similarities to the crash that I had been in. A week later when I’m actually posting this blog … all of it is still heavy in my head and heart. And, less than two weeks from now I’ll be back on a plane headed to Argentina. Anxiety will start a couple of days before and this is 17 years after my crash.

As I look back to 17 years ago, I know now that returning to the aircraft was a ridiculous idea but when you are in shock your reasoning functions don’t really work so well.

As I heard passengers fresh off the tarmac from the Halifax incident speaking to the media about their experience I cringe, as I know that they too, are likely in shock and not thinking clearly. They don’t even realize it at the time as their bodies are still functioning on adrenaline. Time frames of events are thrown off, five minutes feels like an hour and then media begins launching question after question at you looking for answers that you simply can’t provide.

I get it, I know that media needs to cover these events. I know that everyone (including myself) wants to know what happened. But, the truth is that very few facts are known and there is so much speculation at this point. And, just in case you don’t realize this, just because someone was on the plane, it does not mean they know the facts!

Did it crash? Was it a hard-landing? Was it pilot error? Air-control error? Did the pilots save everyone with their skills or endanger them with a poor decision to land? Why did it take so long for people to be rescued?

This list of questions goes on.

For example, I saw today that someone was calling the pilots heroes for landing the plane and everyone getting off safely with only minor injuries.

I am thankful from the bottom of my heart that everyone is safe. I feel the overwhelming emotions even now that I felt nearly 20 years ago. I have shared this horrific experience with them, on a different date.

With my crash, it was actually deemed to be pilot error that caused the crash (involuntarily), but it took the Transportation Safety Board nearly a year to do a full report on this.

For those saying the pilots are heroes … maybe they are, maybe they aren’t.
And, for those criticizing the decision to land … well, it is an easy criticism to make as an on-looker, but no one knows all the details. Sure it was a snow storm and bad conditions, but were they acceptable conditions to land? Had other planes landed? Was someone on board ill and they needed to land? Were they running out of fuel? Maybe not, maybe it was just a bad decision … but we simply don’t know, so … why don’t we just hang tight, let the investigators do their job rather than guessing? Why is it that so many people who are on the outside have to stick their noses into everything, start pointing fingers and name-calling?

Initially with my crash, media stated that we ‘slid off the runway’. Nice, gentle wording suggesting that we had touched down and maybe hit some ice, which led us off the runway.

What actually happened is we lost power BEFORE touching down, a wing clipped the ground and we went careening through a field with small hills off to the side of the runway, leaving behind a trail of fuselage and becoming airborne once or twice from the speed of the plane and the size of the hills.

I don’t know this so much because I remember it; I only remember fearing for my life. I remember the initial violent jolt when I (and everyone knew) that something was wrong. Was that the wing breaking off? Was it us hitting the ground? It happened in a split second and we had no warning, so there was no way that I could have been paying attention to exactly what caused it. I didn’t know that the wing hit the ground and broke off until I saw it in the media, but even then it wasn’t determined in what ordered the parts had been ripped from the plane.

I remember holding on for my life and wondering if it was ever going to end and would I live through it? I remember the up and down motion and the violent beating we took while being thrown around like rag dolls, all while buckled in place.

I can only tell you my own personal experience which is different for each individual. Everyone has a different perspective literally and figuratively. A different perspective based on their personality, but also different based on where they were seated on the plane and what they could see.

Keep in mind, that the crash I was in was different than the one in Halifax, but there are an incredible number of similarities. My plane had fewer people, but more severe injuries. Both planes clipped a wing at some point. Both were landing in questionable weather

I would just like to say that it is a horrible, unimaginable experience. Although I understand it is the media’s job to report on this big news event, when you read all of the information out there remember that passengers were in shock, scared and overwhelmed. They may or may not remember events correctly and they could only see out tiny windows … In my experience in 1997 it was a crash, not a hard landing … there was much more damage and people were seriously injured, however no one was killed. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one is also eventually deemed a ‘crash’, however it is not for me to decide and it may not be determined for a year!

I am pleading with people to lay off the negativity, name calling and telling everyone what a horrible job they did.

Why weren’t people brought in from the cold sooner?

Well … I hate to tell you, but the incident wasn’t planned. Unless pilots advised in advance that they were in trouble (which would only have been moments before), then all staff assumed they were on track to land as per normal. You can’t plan to rescue people that you don’t know need rescuing! You can have rules in place for if it happens but it still takes time to put it all into action.

So think about it; plane crashes, staff have to determine where exactly the plane is, put the call out to first responders and get them to that location … I’m positive this happens very quickly. However, with the Halifax incident, it was IN A SNOW STORM and WITHOUT POWER at the airport. There’s not an easy path plowed and God doesn’t part the snow so that the driver can see the whole way there. First responders don’t teleport (just in case you didn’t know).

When my plane crashed we ended about 300 meters (1000 feet) off the runway, stopped by trees that ripped through the first five rows of seats. Some passengers got lost in the woods and were missing for awhile. Many of us walked through knee to hip-deep snow to the edge of the runway where we could see the lights. In our case, we had simply disappeared off the runway and no one (at the airport) really knew why. They may have activated first responders quickly, but it wasn’t immediately known where to send them. So yes, I too, was out in the cold, dressed poorly for winter, standing in the snow, in shock waiting for someone to rescue me, when they didn’t even know for sure that we needed rescuing. I still feel like I was there for hours, but reports say that responders were on scene in 20 minutes. Shock does weird things to you.

Lucky for those of us who were able to trudge through the snow to the runway, when we made it there, we piled into cargo vans (or at least a group of us did) where we were shuttled back to the airport terminal and placed in some sort of cargo room and told not to leave. For those who were still on the plane, it was hours before they could clear a path through the deep snow to the plane to get heavy equipment there to extract people who were pinned into the plane.

I know it is easy to judge and to say that the first responders should have attended to passengers first, but if that plane (Halifax) had exploded they all would have been dead. Don’t you think it’s important that the situation is totally under control primarily?

Sure, I wanted better response times during my crash too, but sometimes circumstances get in the way. Sometimes human error gets in the way. But, don’t forget for a second that everyone responding was doing so with concern for the safety of all involved. They are not doing so with mal-intentions and are doing their best to do what they can.

Thank you to first responders and staff who pitched in to do what they could for my plane crash in Fredericton in 1997 and for those on March 29th, 2015 in Halifax. I’m sure improvements could be made, but difficult situations are never ‘perfect examples’. Doing a test run of an emergency never plays out exactly like an unexpected emergency. All you can do is your best. So thank you to those who responded with their best. Please stop picking on them for doing their jobs as best they could while you watch from the sidelines.

Having been through a very similar situation it is incredibly hard to watch this in the news all over again, but it is impossible to avoid. It happened. It cannot and should not be erased. Although I would never wish a plane crash on anyone, it is a huge factor in so many ways of the person I have become and, to tell you the truth … I kind of like me. I am not glad that I was in a plane crash, but I am glad that I’ve become who I am.

Black Orchid Resort – Review

Beauty, serenity and hospitality

I stayed at the Black Orchid Resort for three nights in February 2015. Should I return to Belize, I wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again. I did not go to Belize for a chaotic city vibe, so staying outside the city in a small resort on the river was perfect for me.

I had arranged an airport transfer from the hotel and was warmly welcomed by the driver who took me to the resort. Check in was easy. My room was clean, comfortable and cozy. It had everything we needed and maid service cleaned and tidied up for us daily. Luggage was delivered to my room which was nice as it was on the second level (no elevators).

Black Orchid Resort, Burrell Boom, Belize

Black Orchid Resort, Burrell Boom, Belize

I had the opportunity to see several of the different rooms and each one is unique with a Belizean flavour, but different interiors. Some have been more recently renovated than others, but all of the three or four that I saw were lovely in their own charming way.

Black Orchid Resort Rooms, Burrell Boom, Belize

Black Orchid Resort Rooms, Burrell Boom, Belize

I had hot water and lovely showers while I stayed at the hotel which is always a plus when you’re staying in a country with less infrastructure than Canada.

The staff were extremely helpful, friendly and attentive. I didn’t have any issues, but if I did, I wouldn’t have hesitated to ask them to help me. And I feel confident that they would have gone out of my way to assist as quickly as possible.

The grounds of the Black Orchid are rustic, but charming. Full of nature from the trees and flowers to the monkeys. It was lovely just to take in the peace and quiet of the surroundings while sitting by the pool, overlooking the beautiful river or relaxing in a hammock.

While I was there I took one of their free bicycles and rode around the small community. People were incredibly friendly, as well as curious. They were surprised to see tourists biking around, I guess most visitors take tours, rather than explore the small community.
I stopped for a drink at a local convenience store and chatted with the owner, and I met a man who regularly races in the big Ruta Maya Canoe Challenge, so I heard about the race from a competitor which was interesting.

The Black Orchid is outside of the city, out of the hustle and bustle, completely quite, serene and relaxing. I didn’t spend any time at the bar, but a few of my co-travellers did and enjoyed the evenings chatting away over drinks.

I was particularly impressed with the food. Every day I ordered something different and it was just as good, if not better than the previous day. The soups were full of flavour and ingredients, the fish was fresh and the chicken dishes were all very flavourful as well.

Tacos at the Black Orchid Resort

Tacos at the Black Orchid Resort

Breakfast was sufficient but not luxurious. There was always cereal, juice, coffee, tea, some kind of bread or pastry and a couple of fresh fruit options. I never left the hotel hungry. If you arrived near the end of breakfast, supplies might be slightly limited, but the one morning this happened to me, I just asked for replenishments and a couple of minutes later I had everything I needed.

As for location, there is nothing within walking distance of the resort, but there are a myriad of great adventure activities in the surrounding area. This makes the Black Orchid a great central point to stay for a few days.

You can do canoeing, cycling and bird watching right at the resort. The Baboon sanctuary is only a few kms away. Within an hour or two you have Lamanai Ruins which are fantastic ruins hidden in the jungle, accessible by river. In the other direction you can head to San Ignacio for caving, tubing or many more ruins sites. Most of these would be full day trips from the Black Orchid.

On the flip side, you can also easily reach the Caye’s from Burrell Boom. Arrange your transfer into Belize City, hop the ferry and off you go to Island Paradise. Two to three hours and you’ll go from jungle to beach.

Although I wouldn’t suggest spending your entire Belize vacation in Burrell Boom, it is certainly a lovely, off the beaten track resort that caters to those who appreciate the sights and sounds of nature over the hustle and bustle of the city.

You’ll be sure to be well taken care of by the friendly staff.

Kizomba Lessons

A few years ago I met a Cuban guy living in Halifax. We hit it off and hung out a few times. I discovered he used to work for the resorts in Cuba as part of the entertainment crew and used to teach people how to dance. hmmmmm … It didn’t take me long to ask him to show me a few things!

One night (long ago) he asked me if I had ever heard of Kizomba. I hadn’t. He loaded up some good ol’ youtube videos with kizomba music and told me ‘just feel the music’.

There we were, ‘feeling’ the music in my living room. How romantic right?
Generally, I would agree with you … handsome latin man who can dance, sexy music … should be very romantic.

This is what ‘Feeling the music’ is supposed to look like ….

Then there is me trying to learn to dance to Latin music when I don’t have Latin blood. It is difficult. Our white North American bodies are not accustomed to moving the same as Latinos. They learn to dance from birth and here I was 30 years late getting started! I had a lot of catching up to do!

Me?

Ok ok … I’m not that bad.

I thought that Dominican bachata was the sexiest dance I knew, but then I learned about kizomba! Ooo la la!

Lessons didn’t last very long that night. I don’t think I was a very good student. For some reason I have difficulties with follow the leader. (ha ha ha) It was probably because kizomba is danced so physically close to one another that it is like you are one.

Fast forward several years until March 2015. I’ve always enjoyed the rhythm of kizomba, but it isn’t very popular in any of the areas that I’ve traveled. Or maybe I haven’t been looking in the right places.

One night when I was out with my friend in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, we stopped for Happy Hour at La Bodeguita, a Cuban bar / restaurant on the malecon, whose creator is famous for the original creation of the mojito in Cuba. Come to find out, we were an hour too late for happy hour, so we didn’t stick around, but on the way out I noticed a sign advertising kizomba dance lessons at 9pm that night.

We went out and had a few drinks at a nearby bar (I couldn’t resist 2 for 1 Pina Coladas) and then returned to the Cuban bar to check out kizomba lessons.

The instructors started off with a beautifully choreographed dance to show us all what ‘could’ be done and then a small group of us practiced the basics together. We learned a few of the basic steps and danced a couple of songs and then the lesson was over. It was just a short little teaser for the workshop that they were organizing for the next two days.

I had looked into taking dance lessons (salsa) when I arrived in Vallarta, but I didn’t have any luck finding group classes. Having stumbled upon kizomba classes and a workshop taking place on my last weekend in the city, I just couldn’t say no.

Late Saturday afternoon I headed to Isla Cuale (a very small island in one of the main rivers running from the mountains to the ocean) to a newly opened bar called Utopia. It was quiet mid-day but looks like it would be a great place to dance the night away. There I met with the promoter, the instructor and about seven others looking to learn kizomba.

The workshop was put on by Nora from Keep on Dancing. She’s a beautiful dancer and speaks fluent Spanish and English. Amazingly, and very proudly, I told her that she did not need to repeat everything in English for me and I actually understood the instructions in Spanish. Although, I’m sure the demonstrative nature of a dance class helped some.

I knew I was in the right class when she explained the basis of kizomba as being all about connection with your partner. The first thing we had to do was form a circle and then individually hug everyone in the circle. Keep in mind, nearly all of us were complete strangers, with the exception for the couple who were there and two girls who had met at a prior class. Now, I know many people who cringe at the thought of hugging a stranger, although it doesn’t bother me at all. But, take a second and think about hugging a stranger for 10 – 15 exaggerated and long seconds. It was important to hug long enough to actually relax a little and feel the connection. This is a hug like you would give your mom, your dad or your partner and isn’t the quick little pat that you give someone in a receiving line at a wedding. For anyone who knows me, they are more like my squishy hugs or even my wiggly ones. I’m a strong believer that hugs are good for your mental health and I give and take them whenever I can.

When was the last time you had a 10 second hug? I was literally very happy that day because I had at least 10 hugs before the dance class even started. If I could take dances classes daily that started with hugs I think I would be the happiest girl in the world. It was a great, although a slightly awkward icebreaker, but afterwards we didn’t really feel like strangers any longer which makes it a whole lot better for dancing kizomba.

The first 45 minutes was spent listening to the music and standing in a line learning the basic steps. Then we would practice them with rotating partners. This way everyone got a feel for how to dance with different people and since some were a little more advanced than others, you could learn from your partner while practicing.

One of our practice exercises was to dance with our bodies touching, but without our hands. It is important to maintain body contact at all times and you ‘should’ be able to follow your leader by feeling their movements rather than with hand signals. Here’s a short clip (I’m in the black and white dress on the left).

For the next hour and a half, we practiced various steps with increasing difficulty and putting them together into a choreographed movement. The choreography was mostly so we could learn how all of the steps could transition and be used together, more so than having to learn to dance this exact formula of steps.

Through changing partners the men got to practice leading different women. I felt bad regularly as I suck at following, but I tried really hard to follow and by the end was getting better. If a guy can’t lead, the girl doesn’t know what to do and if a girl can’t follow then nothing works!

I won’t lie, I stepped on a few toes and my little toes got squished a few times too. Note to self – don’t learn to dance with open toed sandals. I learned how to move my hips in a proper figure 8, how to do the dolphin move (rolling your body) and all kinds of variations of quick-quick-slow, slow-slow-quick, side to side, back and forth and walking along with a couple of turns or salidas.

In the end it was actually lovely to hear from the instructor how much I had learned throughout the class and have a laugh at how uncomfortable the dolphin move is for me, even though I was doing it correctly.

Here’s a little video of the instructor showing off all the moves that I did not learn in my first class. Well, the dolphin is in there toward the end where she moves her whole body like a dolphin, or a worm (standing up). Add these moves into the choreography of a beautiful partner dance and it becomes incredibly sexy. Hmmmm … I’m not quite there yet.

Sadly, I was too busy learning to take any video of my efforts. I know how disappointed you all are! But, I hope you enjoy the few little videos I’ve shared.

I now know how to dance at least the basic steps to salsa, cumbia, bachata, merengue and kizomba. Keeping all of the music straight is sometimes a challenge, but I just can’t tell you how much I love latin dancing.

If you ever get a chance to try a class, give it a ‘roll’ …

A big thanks to Keep on Dancing for the classes and Nora for being so lovely and encouraging.

It’s a cat … oh wait, no it isn’t!

I’m living in a nice area of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It is on the border between Fluvial and Pitillal. It is a newer neighbourhood, only a few years old and there is new construction happening on at least four houses in a two block radius. It is very quiet here (other than some barking dogs) and no traffic.

The house I live in is quite nice. It has two levels, tile floor throughout the house, three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, a full kitchen … A normal house. I’m guessing about 2000 square feet. The front door opens to a dead end street with about five houses in total. Not only is the street a dead end, but the sidewalk blocks the entrance to the small street so that traffic doesn’t enter. Of course, the locals in the few houses bring their vehicles in, but most people wouldn’t bother to manoeuvre over the sidewalk.

I’m living with a local lady, her cat, dog and sometimes her boyfriend when he is in town. The cat and dog are lovely. I’ve never met such a calm and well behaved cocker spaniel. She only barks at danger and never at me.

Tonight, I went downstairs to get a drink at around 10:30 pm and the screen door to the small patio and laundry area was open. This is normal, as the small backyard (about 8 feet x 25 feet) has a cement wall about 10 feet high and then a screen / fence around the top for another 5 or 6 feet. The small patio has room for a laundry sink, washer, dryer, cleaning supplies, a small bbq and a few plants.

The dog, Mona, was sitting by the open doorway perfectly still staring into the distance. I thought nothing of it because she is always so calm. I walked by again and she didn’t stir. She didn’t even cock her head or ears. I said her name, nothing. She was like a statue. I called her name louder and still nothing. She wouldn’t take her eyes of of ‘something’ outside.

I went to the open door, stood over her and timidly peered upward in the direction where her eyes were fixed. I saw nothing but blackness and the shimmer of plants in the breeze. She still hadn’t moved even though I was invading her space and likely blocking her view.

I took a quick look around the house for the cat and determined that she must be somewhere in the back yard, that’s probably what the dog was looking at, right? It made sense at the time.

I looked out of the open screen door again, standing still a little longer and letting my eyes adjust to the light. And then I saw the glitter of animal eyes at the top of the fence above the backyard (about 16 – 20 feet up). I squinted through the dark night to see what it was. It wasn’t much more than a shadow, but was about the size and shape of a house cat. About a foot long, four legs, hairy and it had a round belly. It didn’t help that the animal was also dark brown or grey, not exactly easy to pick out from the blackness of the night sky with no lights.

Yes, it must be the cat, Menina. She is grey and black striped and since she’s not inside the house, it is quite possible that she’s climbing the fence in the backyard.

I made some kissy sounds to get her attention and she looked at me. As I squinted to see what colour it was to make sure it was Menina, it started moving very slowly across the top of the wire fence, about the speed of a cat stalking a mouse. She continued to move slowly away from the edge of the house and to the corner of the fence where she stopped.

As it was moving very slowly and my eyes were starting to adjust, I could tell it was not Menina. The animal was far too plump to be the lovely little cat that was in my bed last night. And, now I was questioning if it was a cat at all. But what else could be cat-sized and climb fences?

As I caught a glimpse of the animal’s profile, I realized it clearly was not a cat. It had a long pronounced snout. And then it paused and looked at me again and seemed to be content to stay in that corner for the time being.

I closed the screen door and went to my room to get my trusty iPhone to use as a flashlight. I was a little scared that the animal might have moved, or climbed down into the patio area while I was upstairs, so I was scared to open the screen door. I tried (hoping for miracles) shining my light through the screen, but it didn’t work. I timidly opened the screen part way and shone the light up at the corner where I had last seen the animal. Sure enough, the light glistened off of it’s eyes. It then started it’s way across the top of the fence again. Ah! Maybe it is a racoon? They aren’t so bad, we have those in Canada! They like to make a mess and dig through garbage, but they don’t really scare me. But then I saw the long, thin, hairless tail. The tail was approximately the same length as the animal’s body.

What does a long, thin, hair-less tail mean to you?

RAT.

I nearly squirmed out of my skin at the thought that this cat-sized animal could be a rat. I’ve seen lots of wharf rats in Halifax and other large rats in other countries, but never the size of a full grown cat.

It wobbled atop the wire fence, likely because it’s body weight was more than the fence was meant to withstand, and I quickly shut the screen door and then the glass door while I got myself together. All the while, Mona, is still sitting under foot, just inside the door, following the movements of the creature.

With the glass door shut, there was nothing further that I could do, but at least I knew it wasn’t coming in the house through the open door. I went upstairs to research what the animal could possibly be.

Searching for cat-sized rodents in Mexico, rodents with long tails in Mexico and large rodents in Mexico brought me to lots of images that I should never have looked at before bed time. Was it a coati, a rat, a racoon, a capybara?

I couldn’t tell which it was, so instead of going to sleep and forgetting about it, I marched myself back downstairs to see if I could get another look.

I tried to see through the glass and the screen with no luck. I opened the glass, muttering to myself the entire time that it better not be standing right by the door or I might die.

I cracked the screen door open far enough to stick my hand out and pointed my phone’s flashlight up at the fence. Sure enough, it was still stealthily moving across the top … until it changed it’s mind and started climbing down … on the inside of the fencing … That’s right folks, headed down toward the ground on the inside of the patio. I watched until it got to the bottom of the fencing and was contemplating how to manoeuvre from the concrete wall to the large tree with it’s leaves reaching upward.

I contemplated no more. I shut the screen door and then quickly shut and locked the glass door. After all, if it was a racoon, they are smart little buggers. I didn’t want it figuring out how to pry the door open because it smelled the garbage can in the house.

With nothing further I could do, I messaged the lady I lived with to warn her not to open the back door as there was a large rodent out there. She hadn’t read the message, but came home a few minutes later.

When I told her the short version, that there was a large rodent outside, she said ‘oh, was it about a foot or two long and green? I’m sure it was just an iguana. Don’t worry about them. They won’t come in because of the cat and dog.’

I had to explain that this was definitely not an iguana. And, with that, she bravely opened the glass door and we looked through the screen for the mysterious creature. We finally found him back on top of the fence. Since he was at the top of the fence, I took my light out and shone it on him again. We then both got slightly grossed out and our voices each went an octave higher. Even she didn’t know what it was, but she was equally disgusted at it’s long, hairless tail.

We watched it slowly crawl along the top of the fence for a couple of minutes and then it started down on the outside of the fencing. This is when she squirmed a bit and closed the glass door again, reassuring me that if it had gotten in that the dog and cat would take care of it quickly. Sadly, that really wasn’t very reassuring with a skinny cat and a cocker spaniel, I didn’t feel particularly safe.

In the end, we still don’t know which kind of rodent it is for sure and it was too dark to take a photo.

Lesson learned to always keep the patio door closed at night though!