Dare to Dream

It’s approaching 2am and I’m awake.
My heart is beating faster than normal, I can’t calm my thoughts and they are bouncing around like pin ball in my brain.

No, I haven’t had a horrible nightmare!

Instead, I’ve come up with this crazy amazing dream for the next year of my life and I’m so excited about the potential it has that I can’t sleep. After an hour of trying, I decided that writing would be a better use of my time then laying in bed wide awake.

When I started this whole un-plan journey over a year ago, it was just that, unplanned. I didn’t know where it was going to take me, how I was going to get there or how long it would last. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing or not, but I knew it would be the wrong thing not to try.

I’ve always said I’m more of a doer than a dreamer. Some people day dream their days away and never take action. Me, I get an idea in my head and I make it happen. Often though, I don’t really consider my ideas to be dreams. They are just the next step in my journey.

Tonight, I must admit, I feel differently.
The last time I remember having this strong, anxious-happy feeling was when I met Nora Gross and Brenda McAloney who inspired me to do my social awareness project – Young & Fearless – Inspiration of Cancer Survivors. The project started small and grew into two art shows and a published book. It gained a tonne of local media attention over the two years that I worked on the project, along with solidifying a strong connection with the Photosensitive project which gained me national exposure and publication in several other books. Now I feel like the time is right to follow this gut feeling again.

I’ve visited 11 countries in the last eight months. I’ve been on the road or in the skies more than I’ve been home. I’ve had so many amazing opportunities and experiences that many of them have never been told because I don’t have time to write about them all.

I feel like I have truly lived life in the last eight months. I’ve met amazing people. I’ve seen our beautiful world from boats, planes, trains, automobiles, bicycles, motoconchos and a hot air balloon. I’ve challenged myself and I’m sure I’ve challenged others (for better or worse!). I learned to surf. I can hold my own in Spanish. I’ve built life-long relationships with people I’ve met all around the world.

It’s not all roses though folks. I’ve been sick. I’ve dealt with the loss of important people in my life. I thought I found potential for love, but found out I was wrong (the hard way). All of this while being away from family and friends back home. Through all of the ups and downs though, I’ve learned an amazing amount and I have lived with my heart open.

After a short rough patch where I was feeling a little confined, sad and suffocated by the people and events surrounding me, I’ve emerged again. As I read about the devastation caused by the April 25th earthquake in Nepal, I was drawn to the images, the news, the search for survivors, the pain and the suffering of locals and volunteers who are living this horrible nightmare right now. I pondered if I could drop what I am doing in Argentina and head to Nepal to help out. However, two factors slowed me down. 1. I don’t do so well at altitude. 2. Nepal needs money not extra people at the moment. The thoughts of going to help these broken communities have been nagging at me, but I knew Nepal was not the best option.

I now feel like I’ve broken free from the confinement I had been experiencing and my brain has room to breathe. My mind went on overdrive in the opposite, but positive direction. After reading several articles about the Nepal earthquake, I found myself looking at volunteer options with a Canadian based organization Volunteer Abroad / Basecamp. I’ve worked with them before by sending travellers through their programs to work, including one girl to Nepal two years ago. I started meandering through the website and looking at placement opportunities.

There were two incredible volunteer opportunities (out of close to 100) that screamed for my help, my skill set and my attention.

The first one to catch my eye was the one that made the hair on my arms stand up and thoughts start jumping with excitement. It is a placement in Ghana, Africa to help educate women, children, and the community about the importance of education, to help stop the process of child and human trafficking and to discuss sexual health issues.

For quite some time women’s issues in Africa have caught my attention (from the missing girls in Nigeria to genital mutilation). I’ve often looked into various organizations or contacted people that I might be able to work with. Sadly, nothing has ever worked out, but maybe it just wasn’t the right time.

The second opportunity is in Tanzania, working with an orphanage to build a website / social media, including photography and writing. Then moving on to teaching local staff how to maintain it. This opportunity would give me hands on time with the local volunteers / teachers, as well as getting to know the children and their stories. Telling stories of people through photographs (and through blogging) is one of great passions. Here’s a chance!

Tonight as I chatted with a couple of friends on Facebook, my mind decided to dream …

What if I actually did decide to go to Africa and volunteer? What would that look like?
I’ll be in Nova Scotia this summer to get my yellow fever vaccine. I was already looking at the potential of staying away for a full year, just no solidified plans. And, I’ll already be in Europe for my Turkey Photo Tour come September / October which is a lot closer to Africa than I am right now!

Is this the year that I’ll see Africa and I’ll spend time making a real difference in people’s lives through a volunteer placement? Volunteering and travel together have been very important to me for quite some time, but somehow I haven’t made time recently to make it a priority. I’ve said for a long time that I should change this. Tonight the thought scurried out of the depths of my brain and had a little dance party.


NOTE: Initially this post was written at the end of April 2015 and I’ve revised it as of the beginning of June 2015 as I never got around to posting it. Shame on me!

Quick update: I have been in contact with Volunteer Abroad and am looking into several options for working with them later this year. I also have several new ideas that I am currently working on for potential projects with other Not for profit / Non-Government agencies.

Update coming very soon on my revised unplan for the next year of my life.

If you’ve been considering voluntourism, maybe this is your year too! Feel free to drop me a note to chat about your plans, or I’m happy to assist you in finding the right NGO/NPO to work with. Don’t be afraid to take the first step and get in touch.


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.”


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.

My First Christmas Abroad – Part 3

After reading Part 1 & 2 about my beliefs on Christmas and how Dominican’s celebrate differently than North American’s, I hope you’ll appreciate how absolutely at peace I was with my decision to be abroad for Christmas in 2014. Of course I missed my family and friends. More than anything though, all I could wish for was that every single one of them was enjoying Christmas in whatever capacity brings them happiness and no stress. Christmas morning I slept in until about 9am. When I woke up, I immediately called my family to say Merry Christmas and chat for a bit. My apartment was ‘decorated’ with clothing hanging to dry on a drying rack after being at the beach the day before. My mind was rested from a good night’s sleep and the sun was shining (when I finally opened the curtains!). Amazingly it was just like any other day except fewer people in the community were working and stores were closed. And I felt … Happy. Later that day, with a handful of other students and friends from IIC Casa Goethe (my Spanish school), we hopped in a carro publico and made our way about 30 minutes outside of Sosua along the coast to a small community called Saboneta. On the outskirts of town we were met by our guide and her jeep, waiting to take us to her farm where we would meet the horses and begin our day. We all got saddled up and acquainted with our horses and then slowly set off through the streets of the little town toward the mountains. Locals were sitting on their porches chatting away as normal. Kids were playing in the streets. Bachata and Merengue music could be heard around every corner. And we clip clopped through waving and saying ‘Feliz Navidad’ to the locals.

Horseback Riding on Christmas

Horseback Riding on Christmas

Once we set off up the first hill, our guides checked in to make sure we were all doing ok in the saddles and then shortly after that we had our first opportunity to go fast, straight up a large hill. I’ve been horseback riding only about 10 times in my life and I’ve never gone any faster than a saunter, so this was particularly exciting for me. And off we went straight up the hill. How exhilarating! The strength, speed and agility of the horse, balanced with the concentration it took from me to stay on her … amazing! Do it again! Do it again! (it wasn’t time yet though) We climbed a fairly well-groomed dirt road for a good half hour and then headed down into the valley where we got the first glimpse of the river that we would be crossing with our horses. This was also the rest stop for the horses and a relaxing snack and dance break for us.

The beautiful river

The beautiful river.

Break time for the horses.

Break time for the horses.

Horseback Riding on Christmas

Dance break for the humans.

After a leisurely break, we mounted the horses and started our true adventure through the river and jungle of the Dominican’s beautiful mountains. The horses navigated their way down a short, slippery and rocky slope to the river and then in we went! No time to reconsider, the horses were following the leader and he was already on the other river bank! Each of the horses daintily waded into the water stumbling on rocks and regaining balance almost with every step, but never losing a passenger! The water was up to the horses’ tummies which meant our feet were fully submersed in the river and occasionally up to our knees. Don’t be fooled though, the rest of our bodies didn’t stay dry with the splashing from our own horse as well as whoever happened to be in front. As dainty as they may be when they are trying to choose the path of least resistance, they sure can make a splash as they clomp into a river. We quietly followed the leader along the sandy banks of the river for awhile and then criss-crossed back and forth down the river to follow the best pathways along the beaches, rocky banks and through the jungle. More than once I found myself drifting off into a relaxed day dream as I bumped methodically along the pathway surrounded by large leafy trees, the bubbling sound of the river passing by and birds singing in the distance. My mind completely relaxed and I was able to just enjoy the freshness and revitalizing spirit of nature. I’m not sure if others in my group felt the same or not, but they were equally quiet and there were times when no one in the group spoke for five or more minutes as we trotted along the trails. It was complete human silence, only broken by the sounds of nature. After traversing the river and riding through various different types of foliage, we reached an open field where we were allowed to run with our horses to the other side where we would meet our final path back to the main road. A couple of the others were seasoned riders and took off at the speed of light. Me and my horsey, Puerto Plata, started with a trot and then next thing I knew she was going full speed ahead. I was a little torn between fear of losing my balance and the exhilaration of going so fast. In the end, exhilaration won as I’ve decided that I love horseback riding and need to find more opportunities to improve my skills so that the fear of falling off doesn’t inhibit me from going as fast as the horse can take me. We all met up at the last trail and clip clopped our way slowly back through the little village to the farm. I can’t really put in to words how much I enjoyed the three hours we spent amidst nature with the horses, but I know that for Christmas 2014, I found my holiday happiness, my tranquility and my sanity on a horseback trip through the mountains and rivers near Saboneta, Dominican Republic.

My First Christmas Abroad – Part 2

Check out Part 1 for the background on my Christmas beliefs before delving into the following post.

*Beware, some sarcasm may ensue half way through this post. You have been forewarned.

Pretty much from the minute that I started making travel plans in the summer of 2014, I knew that I would be away over the holidays that year. My friend had asked me to photograph her wedding in the Dominican Republic on December 28, 2014 and by the end of summer I had confirmed that I would be there. I decided to fly into Dominican Republic on December 11th (before the Christmas rush and high prices) and leave at the beginning of February (after the Christmas rush). That gave me about seven and a half weeks to enjoy Dominican life. Keep in mind that I’m not on vacation while I’m traveling, I’m working as a travel agent, so I spend a good chunk of each day working, just like you. The big difference is that before work (or after), I can walk to the beach.

I was so busy traveling throughout the autumn of 2014, I didn’t really have time to think about what it would feel like to be abroad for Christmas. The thought crossed my mind occasionally and I wondered if I would be homesick. Would I miss my family? Would I miss the tree and the presents? Would I feel lonely on Christmas day? Would I be able to find turkey dinner? But, I was too busy living every single moment to think that far into the future.

Once I got to the Dominican Republic I settled in quickly, made new friends and reconnected with old ones. I immediately felt at home. I arrived on December 11th and went out dancing my first night. You could tell it was Christmas because there were a few decorations at restaurants and shops, but they weren’t very prominent. There was a small Christmas tree in the lobby of where I was renting and the bar that I went dancing at had a wrought iron tree / candle stand, but overall, just like Dominican in general, it was ‘tranquio’ (which translates to quiet).

A couple of days before Christmas one of the motoconcho drivers that I had met invited me to come spend Christmas with his family. I wanted to go sooooo badly, but I knew that it was a ploy to show me off as the ‘white girl trophy’. I contemplated going for the experience, but I didn’t know him very well and in the end I decided that as much as I wanted to see a real Dominican Christmas, I knew that I would just be annoyed if he acted like my boyfriend the entire day. So, in the end I said no.

Dominican Republic is a very poor country. They do not celebrate Christmas the American way and I’ve got to be honest, I think America could learn from them on this one. Generally speaking, Christmas Eve is spent attending church and then gathering with family and friends for lots of food (often pot-luck kind of style) and drinks. Everyone stays up late and it is all about spending time together with loved ones. Christmas day is spent being ‘tranquilo’ with friends and family. On Christmas night everyone goes out to dance and celebrate.

Most locals don’t have a Christmas tree, although you are likely to see some form of nativity scene as most families practice their faith. There will be random Christmas trinkets and old-style decorations hung throughout their tiny, basic homes from the oddest of places. Decorations are eclectic, they don’t match and you know what? None of that matters here.

Huh! Imagine that.

Shhhhh …. Don’t tell anyone ….

It actually does not matter if your tree lights are hung perfectly.
(Unless you are diagnosed with OCD and then I’ll agree that it could matter in that case)

In Dominican Republic, you will not be judged for your Christmas decorations or lack thereof.
You also have no need to put pressure on yourself because someone might be judging you. They just aren’t.
Woah! What a concept.

Sorry about my sarcasm, but one of my biggest problems with North American Christmas is the expectations that people put on themselves to impress their family and friends when really, none of that matters. It is all superficial.

Side Note – Thanks mum and papa for not ever judging me for how untidy my house was. I know I used to get in trouble for my messy bedroom as a teen, but I’m not THAT bad anymore.

Did you notice in my description of Christmas in Dominican Republic what was missing?

Dominican’s in general don’t celebrate Christmas with gift-giving.

WOAH! What is this concept? Is Christmas even Christmas without giving gifts?

Well folks … believe it or not, even though Jesus was welcomed into the world with gifts, in my humble opinion, God is not judging anyone based on what size Tonka truck they give their son or if their daughter would rather a tool set than a barbie.

Anyone care to argue that point? My comments section is open … open for nice, intelligent conversation, no bullying folks!

In Dominican (and lots of other countries) families don’t have the money to buy gifts to celebrate Christmas. Some families do, of course, but the majority do not. There are no long lineups. No one is stressed about having enough money to buy the best new shoes or most popular new toy for their kids because they are more stressed about putting food on the table (a problem for separate discussion). You don’t have to keep up with the Jones’ because the Jones’ are just normal people, struggling to get by. So, instead of giving gifts, they spend time with their friends and family.

WOAH! What if we all did that?

Nearly every day the week before Christmas I arranged my work day so that I could go to the beach for a few hours. Immediately I hear most of you thinking to yourself ‘Lucky girl. That must be nice.’ Followed by tinges of jealousy.

You know what? It was beautiful. It was relaxing, sunny, warm and not even remotely Christmas-like in Sosua on the beach. I did not hear Christmas music. I saw very few Christmas decorations. There were no extra long line ups, no stressed people, no complaints about not having money to buy gifts …. Hmmmmm … quite the concept! I bet most of you reading this would love to have a relaxing Christmas.

So, I ask you … What’s stopping you from having a relaxing, enjoyable Christmas (whatever that means to you)? Why are you letting family, friends and advertising dictate how you spend your time, money and sanity?

I understand that I’m not going to change the entire North American way of thinking about Christmas (after all, I’m not an advertising company). I know that I can’t single-handedly stop the huge influx of ridiculous advertising around the holidays, but what I can (and did) do is remove myself from the stress that burdens so many people around the holidays.

You can let yourself get caught up in the mob, or you can step aside and let it tumble on past you.

For my first ever Christmas abroad, I chose to do something on Christmas Day that would bring me joy. Something that would make me feel good and that would not cause me any stress. It was completely relaxing, enjoyable, peaceful and beautiful …

Check out Part 3 for how I spent my first Christmas abroad.

My first Christmas abroad – Part 1

(the back story on my Christmas beliefs)

Bah humbug.
Yeah, that’s what most of the world’s Christmas lovers would say about me.
I prefer to think of myself more as an advocate of less stressful holidays. That doesn’t mean that I hate Christmas (although I don’t particularly love it.) And, it doesn’t mean that I try to bring others down. It just means that I choose to avoid the chaos whenever possible. I stay away from the malls. I don’t do Christmas baking. I have very few Christmas parties to attend. I don’t listen to Christmas music. I don’t put up a tree or decorate. Some people love these things, but for me, they really all lead to more stress.

I think part of this is because I’m an introvert and chaotic situations drain me physically and emotionally. So, with a holiday as hectic and chaotic as Christmas, I feel tired and drained the whole season (which often starts before Rememberance day). That’s nearly two full months of exhaustion. And, let’s face it, if you live in the Americas it is impossible to avoid Christmas.

Even if you do your part to keep your own stress level to a minimum, it is still near impossible to avoid soaking up some of your friend’s stresses. Not to mention advertising on television, radio, buses, etc and post after post on Facebook about the long lines, the high prices, the ridiculousness of it all … but yet everyone still going crazy to meet the deadlines and high expectations that they have placed on themselves.

Over the past couple of years I’ve tried to explain to my family (who mostly understand) that I don’t really enjoy Christmas. I’m not interested in gifts. I don’t need anything and I don’t want to buy stuff for others that they don’t need or appreciate. The commercialization of Christmas and needing to buy gifts for everyone frustrates me to no end. All I want for Christmas is a turkey dinner with family. My expectation is that my mom or sister will cook the turkey because I don’t know that I could come anywhere close to doing it as well as them. However, should something happen and the turkey doesn’t turn out, I would hope we could all laugh about it rather than being upset because it wasn’t perfect.

Stress … Think of all the stresses that surround Christmas!

1. Deadline to buy the gifts, have them wrapped or sent by mail.

2. Having the money to buy ‘good enough’ gifts for whoever is on your list.

3. Buying gifts that your significant other will like.

4. Cooking turkey dinner with all of the fixings.

5. Having your tree decorated PERFECTLY.

6. Having your house clean enough for company.

7. Entertaining company (specifically the in-laws) over the holiday

Thankfully my family isn’t particularly wrapped up in material items, so it has never been about spending large ridiculous amounts of money. Of course my mom decorates for Christmas and I always appreciate how pretty it is, but I would never ever judge her if she one day decided not to decorate!

For the past few years, my mom, sister and I have tried to stick to exchanging hand-made gifts. These could be self-made, or they could be purchased from a local artist. Something interesting, not terribly expensive, but more about the thought and meaning of the gift rather than just buying for the sake of buying. Personally, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this and try to stick with it.

My mom has both made, and bought beautiful hand-made bracelets, necklaces and other jewelry. My sister made a donation in my name to the Planeterra Foundation and bought me a t-shirt from a not for profit. She also purchased a bracelet for me from Free the Children that gives water to a family for life.

For my family, I usually create a travel photo calendar of that year’s adventures. One year I also purchased garden baskets for African families to be able to start and maintain a garden, the way to a healthier and more prosperous future.

These things warm my heart because in all honesty no one in my family needs anything. We have everything we need (likely 10 times more) and if the spirit of Christmas is giving, I think it should be given to those who need it, not those who don’t!

Trying to keep this perspective alive is nearly impossible when you are bombarded with Christmas gift giving expectations and advertisements. Whether you believe in Christmas or not, you have no choice but to be subject to it because it is so commercialized.

So, in 2014 I ran away from it all and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Stay tuned for How I celebrated Christmas 2014 and why I loved it so much.

Rovinj, Croatia – Photo Essay

On our fifth day at sea on the beautiful Star Clippers Mediterranean sailing, we arrived in Rovinj, Croatia. Prior to booking this sailing trip, I had never heard of Rovinj and I had done no research on it, so I had no expectations.

I decided to explore the small community on my own rather than taking a tour. Despite the rain early in the day, I thoroughly enjoyed my solo walk through the narrow streets exploring and wondering what I would find around each corner or down the next alleyway. I wandered aimlessly, without a map for a couple of hours throughout the community, stopping at several galleries and boutique stores along the way to the Church. I headed up the hill toward the church and then down the hill on the other side to the harbour.

The rain came and went, but only softly, no downpours, so it simply added to the charm of the town. Walking on the well trodden stones that are rubbed smooth was a challenge in the rain; even in sneakers, it was slippery. Flip flops were nearly impossible for those wearing them.

One of my favourite memories of Rovinj was a saxophone busker near the main square. I could hear the beautiful sound of the saxophone from several streets away and followed my ears until I found a single man playing near a cafe. He happened to be playing ‘Happy’, which of course, made me happy! I stood in the small crowd and listened to him for a few minutes, then I decided to take a short video and of course throw a few dollars in his case. Who knew that the acoustics in this small little town would be delightful for street musicians. And who knew I’d hear the beautiful haunting sounds of a saxophone during my short little visit to Rovinj.

While I wandered, I stopped at the tourist market and bought a nice necklace, one of the few things I purchased on my travels. The market was full of jewelry, scarves, souvenirs … your regular ‘tourist’ market. I looked at a lot of jewelry and found only one necklace that really stood out, so I returned to the stall and haggled to get it for 140 Kuna (about $25 CAD which was probably still too much!) I also wandered through the local outdoor food market which was full of fresh fruits and vegetables, spices and fish.

In the main square and surrounding the harbour were endless cafes and restaurants waiting to invite you in. Some were fancy, some just little mom and pop shops. A little something for everyone.

Take a look at a few of my favourite photos of the community. Isn’t it a pretty little seaside town?
(Click on any of the photos to bring up the full image)

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Montenegro – Photo Essay

Early in the morning on our third day, a strong cold breeze ushered us in through the mountains to the beautiful Bay of Kotor. From the warm summer breezes on the Mediterranean to a brisk, fresh wind winding through the crooked mountain maze, it was definitely a change in scenery and temperature. The water was a choppy, deep blue and the mountains towered above us in every direction.

I headed in on the first tender to explore the old walled city of Kotor.

(Click on any of the photos to open full view)

After an hour exploring Kotor, I headed back to the ship on the tender to have lunch and then back in to Kotor for our group tour to Perast. It is a beautiful little sea-side town, lazy and sleepy but full of charm. It is best known for being featured in movies such as November Man with Pearce Brosnan. Too bad he wasn’t there when I was!

Aside from the little town of Perast which I got to explore for about 30 minutes or so, there are two islands in the middle of the sea near the most narrow part of the passage. One of the islands is natural, the other was man-made, built on top of a large rock. Each island is home to an interesting Chapel. We had the opportunity to visit Our Lady of the Rock and the Chapel. The art inside was quite interesting and a couple of beautiful paintings are shown the the photo essay below.

Interested in visiting beautiful Montenegro or taking an amazing Star Clippers sailing of the Mediterranean? Get in touch. I’d love to help you out and I am working while I’m traveling, so I’m always happy to assist with your travel needs.

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Thanks for reading.

Falling in Love with Sailing – Part 2


WOW! I had no idea I would be so completely amazed and in awe by the beauty of the send off. The sun had already set and sunset itself was kind of lack-luster, but when the music started, the deck filled with people, the deck hands started raising the sails and the Captain started commanding the ship, it was a magical, beautiful moment. It was then that I started to get excited about my big adventure. There had been too much stress leading up to the trip, that until I saw the sails of the ship I don’t think I really believed it was happening.

With the sails raised we started our slow sail through Venice, seeing St. Mark’s square off one side of the ship and the Molino Stucky hotel (where I almost stayed) off the right-hand side. With the sail-off anthem playing and the beauty of the lights and sails against the dark blue night sky, I got a little lost in my own little world.

Molino Stucky in Venice

Molino Stucky in Venice

The process probably takes about half an hour to 45 minutes and they do the sail-away ceremony every single night that you leave port. For me, it did not lose its charm. I watched every single night, even when it was cold and misty. Looking up up up as the sails come down, spread out and begin to catch the wind. Every night I spent 30 – 45 minutes lost in my own thoughts, amazed at the beauty and gentle power of the wind in the sails.

A couple of nights I actually helped the deck hands with the process, not that I feel I really did a lot, but I learned how to coil the rope properly and how to let the rope out slowly. I felt like it was an insignificant task, but yet there were six or ten different staff doing the exact same thing at different stations on the boat, so it couldn’t have been worthless. And I got to chat with one of the staff from Goa, India. He was really a great guy and so friendly! Sorry I made your job more difficult Shalesh! Glad you could at least have a laugh at me. (I admit, coiling rope shouldn’t be difficult, but somehow, it just wasn’t my thing!)


Deck hands raising the sails

Shalesh showing me how to coil rope (making fun of me actually).

Even though the process is the same every night, the light is different and the port is different. Some nights departure is after dark and the sails are raised into the dark night sky full of stars, other nights they are raised just as the sun is setting. Each night with a beauty all its own.

Royal Clipper Sail-Away from Venice

Royal Clipper Sail-Away from Venice

Royal Clipper Sail-Away from Venice

Royal Clipper Sail-Away from Venice

Each night I noticed something new, found a new process to watch or just simply breathed in the calm energy and beauty of the sails lifting to the sky as we were lulled away to our next destination.

Most people congregated at the front of the boat (bow) where the Captain was commanding the ship and where passengers could take turns learning how to steer. Although I didn’t take a turn at the wheel, I photographed several of my group mates giving it a shot.

Deanna steering the ship

Deanna steering the ship


Michelle steering the ship

Michelle steering the ship

Francine steering the ship

Francine steering the ship

Captain Sergei

Captain Sergei

Florentina steering the ship

Florentina steering the ship

What a different atmosphere from a regular cruise ship where you only interact with the wait staff. All around, staff on the ship, were wonderful, fun, friendly and accommodating. After all, I’m sure that Shalesh probably had to redo all of my rope coiling after I turned my back!

Royal Clipper Ropes

Royal Clipper Ropes

On our last sail-away from Porek, Slovenia the last tender to the boat was at 6pm. 6:30pm was set for sail-away. I arrived back on that last tender as I had been on a tour of stunning Ljubljana and our tour had run late returning. I didn’t even go to my room when I returned, I went straight to the sun deck for send-off because it was golden hour and I just knew it was going to be simply beautiful.

When I arrived on deck, I went to the bow where there were surprisingly few passengers. Just one or two. I thought it was unusual, but convinced myself it was just early and people would come in a few minutes. Then the music started and deck hands were everywhere working away. I was busy snapping a few pictures and taking it all in, but felt like I had missed something because no one was on deck!

Slovenia at sunset

Slovenia at sunset

Porek, Slovenia at sunset

Porek, Slovenia at sunset

Just then, one of the deck hands said to me ‘Why are you here? Why aren’t you out on the tender?’ I said ‘What tender?’ He pointed to the tender that was already out in the water staring back at the beautiful Royal Clipper with sails being raised in the setting sun. A perfect moment and I was missing it. My heart sank instantly. Then he told me that there was another tender and hurried me along to go catch it. And I did just that. I arrived at the second tender just on time.

I suspect there had been announcements earlier during the day on board, but because I arrived on the last tender back, I had missed them.

As we moved away from the ship to a better vantage point on the tender, the beauty of the ship, the perfect sunset and the beautiful week I had enjoyed on board all culminated together for a fantastic memory.

Royal Clipper at Sunset in Slovenia

Royal Clipper at Sunset in Slovenia

IMG_8717 IMG_8714

Royal Clipper at Sunset in Slovenia

Royal Clipper at Sunset in Slovenia

I sat on the tender with 30 or so other passengers who were equally enamored with the beauty. Our two staff members, the tender Captain and Shalesh (deck hand) did a great job taking us to all of the best vantage points to see the beautiful Royal Clipper as she started to sail away.

We were treated to the opportunity to sail along beside her, to see her with the sun shining on her and the sun setting behind her. I climbed all over the boat, standing on seats, poking my head out above the top and standing precariously on the edge to take a few photos. I think my jaw was open the entire time as I just could not even believe I was part of something so stunning.

Royal Clipper at Sunset

Royal Clipper at Sunset

Royal Clipper at Sunset in Slovenia

Royal Clipper at Sunset in Slovenia

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we were taken to the bow of the ship in our tender where about 14 of our crew members walked to the very tip to give us a grand send off with a bow and wave. An amazing end to a very memorable trip.

Royal Clipper send off wave

Royal Clipper send off wave

Royal Clipper send off wave

Royal Clipper send off wave

The next day, I went back on deck to find the deck hand who had pointed me toward the tender, to say a huge thank you for telling me to go as I definitely would have regretted it if I hadn’t caught that second tender. Thanks to his extra care, I shared in one of the most beautiful moments of the entire trip. He didn’t have to tell me about it, but he did and I am most thankful. The sunset was beautiful, but if it hadn’t been for the exceptional staff, I would have missed out.

What do you think? Are you ready for an adventure with Star Clippers tall ship sailings? I can’t wait to do another one. I’m not a fan of cruising, because isn’t adventurous enough for me, but somehow sailing has completely captured my heart.

If you are interested in more information on Star Clippers and the beautiful ports that I visited while I was on this seven day Mediterranean Cruise, please feel free to contact me stucker@tpi.ca

I have access to the latest and greatest deals on these amazing sailings from 2 for 1 to no single supplement sales, right through to on board credits and extra amenities.

I would truly love for you to have an experience as wonderful as I did.

A quick note. I am not being paid to write this post. I simply adored my travels with Star Clippers and believe they are an amazing company with an interesting background, amazing ships, unique and fun products. I’m sure if you try them you will not be disappointed! I will be a repeat customer for sure.

Falling in love with Sailing – Part 1

Star Clippers

When the opportunity came for me to set sail on the Star Clipper’s Royal Clipper in the Mediterranean, I couldn’t believe it. I had almost booked my flights that day, but hadn’t finalized them yet, when the call came from my Star Clipper’s rep, Florentina. She had a space available for me on a 7-day sailing adventure departing from Venice, with stops in Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia. I had been considering doing these areas (at minimum Croatia) by land and now, here she was, offering me the chance to do them by land and sea.

Taking the opportunity would mean leaving Canada a week earlier than I had planned and finding a way to deal with the sea-sickness that I’m prone to. I love the ocean. I love boats. I love sailing (and the cute sailors in white don’t hurt!). But, about 75% of the time I’ve been on boats, I’ve been horribly ill. Could I really go on a Mediterranean sailing and enjoy it? I was really worried about being sick the entire time.

In the end, my thirst for adventure and love of the ocean far outweighed my hatred of being sick. I researched some options and decided to get the ear patch and hope that it would work.

I’m a believer that when good opportunities throw themselves at your feet, you don’t walk away, you give it a try. So, I excitedly accepted the opportunity and a couple of days later I booked my flights for the European part of my epic adventure!

When the time came to depart, of course it wouldn’t be a Shari-Adventure without some difficulties getting off the ground! You can read about my experience with the Air France strike here. But, eventually, I landed in Venice, took a cab directly to the port and saw her sitting there … just waiting for me to meet her! (The boat that is!)

Royal Clipper

Royal Clipper docked in Venice

Before boarding, we filled out a tiny bit of paperwork and then streamed through security and walked to the gangway. Easey peasy! With only 200 people to board and only half of them there at beginning, wait times were non-existent.

Royal Clipper boarding

Royal Clipper boarding

We were greeted with a welcome drink, snacks and music and then I filed through the short line up and one of the staff members eagerly showed me to my cabin, gave me a quick overview and left me to settle in.


I was really quite impressed with the cabins. They are beautiful, clean, lots of storage space and have two port holes and lots of lighting. The beds were comfortable and everything you needed was there for you. I was especially impressed with the beautiful bathrooms. I felt right at home, except for the tiny corner shower, but that’s to be expected on a boat! There’s no room for a tub! The shower worked well, had lots of pressure and hot water. There were toiletries available and replaced daily just like a hotel would and the towels were fresh and clean (except of course when you ask for them not to be replaced to save water!)

Royal Clipper Cabins

Royal Clipper Cabins

Royal Clipper Cabins

Royal Clipper Cabins

Royal Clipper Cabins

Royal Clipper Cabins

Royal Clipper Cabins

Royal Clipper Cabins

Florentina had made arrangements for a group of us to meet for supper, so I took a few minutes and unpacked my entire suitcase. One of the best parts about a cruise is that you can unpack because you stay in the same room for the duration of your trip. I hung up my dresses, stored my shoes and put my toiletries in the bathroom. After cleaning myself up from a long day of travel, I got dressed up and headed up to the sun deck for our very first sail-away, from Venice, at 7pm.

Part 2, coming soon!

If you are interested in a sailing adventure, I highly recommend Star Clippers and would love to help you find the destinations that are perfect for you! We also have some current specials for 2 for 1 sailings or save the single supplement, but you’ll have to get in touch to get details! You can reach me at stucker@merittravel.com

I’ll be doing a FREE Travel Talk on Nov 10th – Exploring the Balkans by Land and Sea. If you’d like to hear more, please RSVP!

Shari’s Epic Adventure 2014

For those of you who want to know what I’m up to and where I’m going this fall, here’s the quick version. Blogs with more details on each country to come soon.


I’ll be visiting nine amazing countries in four short months.
Italy, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Turkey, Greece, Chile, Argentina and Dominican Republic.

Eight of those countries are places I have never been to before.

This is NOT vacation for me. I know this is hard for most of you to fathom, but I will be working while traveling. I will be working as a travel agent the entire time I am traveling. I will have a mobile office that just happens to be in a different country every couple of weeks. The only way I can travel is if I continue to work while I’m on the road, on a boat or in the air, so please, drop me a note if you are planning to travel. I’d love to help arrange your next adventure, big or small!

I don’t doubt that there will be an endless number of highlights that stand out from this trip and only a few of them are things that are planned. Most of the highlights are likely to be unplanned moments that spontaneously happen. For now, here are the things that I am most looking forward to:

Tall Ship Sailing on the Mediterranean. (Star Clippers, Royal Clipper – 7 days Venice to Venice) – Send your best wishes as I try to muster the guts (and a balanced stomach) in order to climb to the crow’s nest on the ship. Fully harnessed of course!

Cinque Terre, Italy – This is an area that I dream of visiting and I can’t wait to experience it’s beauty. The main highlight here will be hiking from town to town along the coast and up the mountains through tiny towns, lush vineyards, past monasteries and castles.

Cappadocia, Turkey – A sunrise hot air balloon ride over the valley. How does it get any better?

Visiting an estancia (ranch) near Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Patagonia – The southern most tip of South America crossing through both Chile and Argentina. Torres del Paine National Park and visiting a Penguin colony.

Studying Spanish in the Dominican Republic. I’m heading back to Sosua to Casa Goethe to study Spanish. I studied for 5 or 6 weeks in 2012 and lived in the Dominican for a total of 7 weeks. I can’t wait to go back to continue learning this beautiful language and visit with friends from all over the world.

I have one month before departure. I have no less than a million things to get done, but I have faith that it will all come together and that anything that doesn’t get done wasn’t that important.

Follow along on my Epic Adventure by entering your email to get notifications when I publish a new story (in the right side column on this blog). If you want to see photos, you should check out one (or all) of the following:

500px – My online store for purchasing prints will be opening soon!