Small Group Travel – Middle Agers

As a travel agent over the past few years, I’ve heard all the excuses. The general consenses is that group travel means 50 seniors on a big coach bus going at a turtle’s pace, following a colorful umbrella and stopping at each boring monument.

Please, let me educate you on a whole world of options that you are missing out on because of this widespread misconception! Please, open your mind for a few minutes and listen to what I have to share!

What if I told you that you can have a super-fun, yet still relaxing, vacation that combines the best of travel without all of the stress of planning it and booking every single minuscule detail?

What if I told you it doesn’t matter if you are single, in a relationship, married or divorced that travel is for everyone?

What if I told you that people from 18 – 99 travel in groups by the thousands every year with other people around their age and with similar interests?

What if I told you that you can travel anywhere in the world and never HAVE to be alone? (although if you choose to be, you certainly can)

I’ve done my fair share of solo travel over the last few years. In fact, I’m sure that’s what most of you think I do all the time, but that’s not true! I’ve been on several amazing group tours in the last four years as well, not to mention a whole bunch of day tours that I adore!

Myanmar – Tucan Travel
Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand – G Adventures
Chile & Argentina – Intrepid Travel
Belize – G Adventures (this itinerary is now a National Geographic Journey.)

There are group tours for everyone and some are specific to an interest, such as photography or cycling. Others are specific age groups, such as 19 – 20 somethings or seniors. Then there is a whole world of options for the middle agers, as well as for the mature 20 somethings and the extra active 60 – 70 somethings.

I hear these comments all the time …

“I can do it on my own.”
* Yes, you can. And, if you want to because you want to prove to yourself that you can, that’s great. However, if you simply don’t know the other options, you should learn why they are so awesome. Group travel isn’t any less adventurous, less rewarding or less worthy. It is often less stressful and better value though!

“I can do the same thing for cheaper.”
* Hmmmm …… No, actually you can’t. You might be able to book your flights, accommodations and entrance fees to the sites for slightly cheaper than a group tour, but you won’t have a local guide with you to share his or her stories and opinions (which, in my opinion is worth far more than the $200 bucks you saved and all of the hours it took you to book everything online!) You may or may not have a qualified guide to explain each of those sites you paid to get in to. You probably won’t have any meals included (maybe breakfast). Are you skilled at paying off people at the border to let you into a new country without a hassle? hmmm … And, if things go wrong at any step of the way, you are on your own. So, yes, you can book ‘something’ for cheaper, but NO, it will never be the same.

“I don’t want to travel with strangers.” (My favourite)
* So, you think you already know everyone you are going to see in the new country? (sarcasm). If you don’t want to travel with strangers, why are you traveling at all? If you want to be surrounded with your old familiar friends, that’s great, stay home. But, as soon as you head to the airport, you are with strangers (sorry to break it to ya). So, embrace the fact that you are surrounded by strangers, get out of your comfort zone and get to know them.

Oh, you meant you “don’t want to travel with other travellers”. You want to meet locals.
Alright, so I agree, traveling in a group of other travellers is not the same as meeting locals. However, if you think you are just going to arrive in a new country and locals are going to flock to you and become your friend, well …. it’s not really like that. It takes work to get to know the locals. So, if you are the extroverted type who can go hang out at a bar and talk up the bartender, or you go to the same market every day and chat with the lady selling fruit, that’s great. Not everyone can do that and don’t forget about the language barriers. If you think that you are getting to ‘know’ the locals by going to an all-inclusive resort … don’t forget, they are being paid to serve you. Chew on that for a few minutes. Is that what getting to know the locals looks like to you?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent lots of time with amazing locals in many countries, but personally, I find it takes a lot of effort and a lot more than just five or six days to get to know people. Most times you have one encounter with a local. It might last five minutes or five hours, but you can hardly really understand an entire culture in that amount of time. You are only just scratching the surface.

Traveling with other travellers isn’t a bad thing! You get to learn about cultures and people from all over the world while you explore a destination that you are all interested in. You meet new friends (which you can then go visit in their countries – they are ‘locals in their own country you know!) and you have that little bit of comfort in knowing someone nearby likely understands why you are uncomfortable with the thought of eating a bug, a worm or spider.

“You’re so good at traveling by yourself. Why would you want to ruin that with a group tour?”
* Traveling solo is tough. It’s a whole other blog post (or series). Yes, I love my freedom and my alone time, but I also hate being lonely, going to dinner by myself and often being overwhelmed at the ‘newness’ of everything. Sometimes, it is just better to be with people who are seeing things for the first time with you. And, sometimes it is just a whole lot easier when someone else is in charge and deals with any mishaps or problems that arise! So, yes, I love traveling solo, but every time I’ve taken a group tour I’ve loved my experience and appreciated that things were just taken care of for me. I’ve also always loved my local guides and picked their brains for all kinds of information for further travel in their homeland … you know, the things you don’t find on the internet and in the guide books!

So, just what happens on one of these group tours?

For starters, most of them run in a similar fashion but all have their key features. In general, what will happen is you’ll meet with your group and tour leader on day 1. You’ll likely go out for a group dinner to get to know each other and go over the itinerary for your tour. Often (although not planned) this will turn into your first night on the town with your new friends, exploring the local bars or street foods. Sometimes your local leader will join you and other times, they will direct you to the best local spots, avoiding the tourist traps. You are not obligated to take part by any means, but it is a great way to get to know the people you’ll be traveling with. I’m not a drinker, but I often join in on the first night out just to chat with people.

Itineraries vary a great deal depending on destination and level of activity, but I can tell you from both personal experience and from selling hundreds of group tours, that there is something for everyone.

You’ll have a mix of included activities and free time. You’ll have some timelines that must be followed (for example 8am in the lobby to catch your 10am flight). And then other times your leader will say ‘this isn’t in the itinerary, but how do you feel about … ?’ However, don’t get wrapped up in thinking that you are tied to the group the entire time. Often the group will have a guided tour and then free time to explore further on your own, or with other group members. Often tour leaders will give options for free time, but that doesn’t mean you have to do any of them. Almost all tours have half or full free days scheduled in for you to take in specific activities of interest, to relax, shop or explore. Group tours are a good mixture of having friends and organization, but having freedom to do your own thing as well.

Picture yourself exploring a turtle sanctuary on a beautiful Costa Rican beach, hiking the inca trail in Peru, swimming with turtles and rays Mexico, meeting local farmers and helping with their harvest in Vietnam, hot air ballooning over Love Valley, Turkey, searching for the big five on a safari in Africa, enjoying wine tastings in France or Italy, climbing to the top of ancient ruins in Belize … the list goes on and on. And you don’t have to do it alone!

When I’m on a group tour and there is free time, I’m the first to go off on my own and do my own thing. I’m an introvert, so after two or three days spending a lot of time with a group, I find I need my own time. However, many of the people in my past groups have become great friends and spent all of their free time with other members of the group, exploring common interests in the new destination. It’s your choice. Go with new friends or chill on your own. Read a book in the sun or play cards with your new mates! Whatever makes your vacation perfect, that’s what you should do! Your local guide will be around to help you make plans and book tours whether you go it alone or in a group of new friends.

On the last night of the tour, there is usually another group dinner to enjoy the local food and beverages, which often turns into an evening outing drinking beer or wine with your new friends. It all depends on the group whether this becomes a wild and crazy goodbye party or a few friends at the pub sharing laughs. And, believe me, I’ve seen many a 50 or 60 year old have one too many and the 29 year old heads off to bed early. You just never know! And then the next morning, everyone parts ways to return home or continue on their journey.

It paints a little different picture than a group of 50 seniors on a coach bus stopping at monuments, right? And, I should point out that the 30 to 50 somethings love to nap on buses, likely more so than the seniors!

No matter what you are looking for, or where in the world you want to travel, don’t ever think that doing it on your own is the only option! It is AN option and many people love doing the research, the challenge of struggling with the language barriers, paying off police officers and border crossing guards, finding their way in a new land on their own. Many people love the challenge of saying they survived all of the obstacles. But, for many, all of the unknown is enough to make them want to stay home.

What I’m saying to you is get out there and travel. If you want to do it on your own, do it! If you’re apprehensive about doing it on your own, go with a group. And, don’t let your ‘do it yourself’ friend convince you that group tours suck. Group tours might suck for them, but might be perfect for you. After all, the same ‘do it yourself’ friend is probably great at fixing the electrical and plumbing in his / her house too, does that mean that you are?

Have you travelled on a small group tour before? Drop me a note in the comments about where you went and what you loved about your group!

If you are interested in exploring the plethora of options for group tours out there, get in touch. I’d love to help you, your friends or your parents get away and see something new in this beautiful world of ours!

Contact me at


Loule, Portugal – Carnaval 2016 – Photo Essay

When I decided that I would head to the Algarve region of Portugal, I hadn’t even considered the fact that I would be visiting during Carnival festivities. About two days before departing Amsterdam for Faro, I learned that Loule, a community inland was known for hosting the oldest and largest Carnival in the Algarve region. With it being only 45 minutes or so away from Albufeira, I would have to make my way there to see the celebrations!

I walked 20 minutes to the bus terminal on the outskirts of town and arrived just in time for the 10:10am bus to Loule. I jumped on the bus behind a man toting a Canada flag on his back pack and immediately struck up a conversation with him and his three traveling companions. Turns out, one couple was from Halifax, Nova Scotia and the other from Miramichi, New Brunswick. Small world! We chatted away through the 45 minute bus ride and in no time at all we had arrived in the little city of Loule.

I headed in to the centre of town which was about a 10 minute walk from the terminal. I made the obligatory stop at the information centre to get a town map and a couple of pointers and then I wandered around taking photos of the historical old town and observing local life for the next couple of hours.

By 12:30, it had started to rain and I had seen pretty much all there was to see in the historic centre. It’s a pretty small area. I headed for lunch and wondered what I was possibly going to do with myself until 3pm when the parade would commence. After an underwhelming lunch of rice and two small chicken thighs that the restaurant ‘called’ chicken piri piri, I wandered around a bit more and then sat down for dessert at La Boehm Cafe. The warm brownie and hot chocolate warmed my spirits up and left me more satisfied than the sad little lunch I had eaten.

By 2:15pm it was raining again (or still) and I made my way to the parade route with my camera around my neck, my backpack rain protected and my umbrella above my head. I was awkward at best trying to use my camera and an umbrella at the same time. Luckily I didn’t take anyone’s eye out.

By 2:30pm the streets were lined with locals and tourists and the floats were starting to fill with participants. Media had arrived to interview and film the oldest carnival celebration in the Algarve region and bands were warming up with their samba beats. The build up of music and energy was infectious and I stood on the street tapping my feet and grinning. (Don’t mistake the ‘tapping my feet’ for anything near samba dancing though!)

Right on time, at 3pm, the music blared and the streets came alive with energy and colors.
The rain had subsided momentarily and the drummers and dancers were getting the feel for the beat as the parade began. Confetti and streamers were already dancing in the wind, filling the trees, streets and hair of everyone around with colourful reminders of the day.

Despite the chilly temperature of about 14 degrees, not to mention the wind and misty rains, lots of the performers put on radiant smiles and shared their energy and love of carnival with the crowd. Having said that, there were quite a few who couldn’t muster smiles through the rain. Some of the kids were pretty cold and not so happy to be there. I chose to focus on the excited ones though, so here’s a look at Carnaval 2016 in Loule from my perspective. Hope you enjoy!

NOTE: Click on any of the images to view full image.


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,



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.


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 ( 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

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
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!

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.

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!

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.

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!

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

** 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!’



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.