Love Letter to Turkey

Dear Turkey,

It’s been two months since I’ve seen you and I still remember the kiss of your crisp fall air on my cheeks and your mouth-watering cuisine. I remember your bright colors, rich history, your friendly spirit and the beauty of every sunrise and sunset that I saw over your sprawling cities and weather-carved landscapes. I remember feeling happily breathless as I floated above your valleys, wafting in your light breeze in a hot air balloon at sunrise. You wrapped me in your warm welcoming arms and took care of me like I was one of your own.

I know that your government is a work in progress, that many of your borders are riddled with controversy and that no matter how much you try to help the Syrian refugees, the backlash seems to be an on-going battle. I know that being a primarily Muslim country in a time when Muslim’s are being bullied and discriminated against is not easy, but you have been strong throughout history and I believe you will keep your spirit alive.

After hearing the recent news of attacks in Paris and Beirut, I checked with the (Canadian) government to see if I should be concerned about coming to see you again. They say that I need to be cautious, but that as long as I stay away from the Syrian border areas, that are no immediate concerns. In fact, the concerns are the same as those listed for many countries that I’ve visited before that many people think of as safe, such as Peru.

Ah. What a relief to know that as of right now I can return without any serious risks. And, unless this changes, I know we will get to spend some quality time together soon.

I know that Istanbul has been known for it’s historical, very powerful protests and statements from artists. I was also there when a bomb killed people in Ankara in October. I saw your tears and pain. I hope that your healing has begun and that you continue to fight the good battle.

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Monument at Taksim Square

As you go through these difficult times, try to remember that bullies exist everywhere in the world and you are not alone. There are those from outside who scrutinize your every move and broadcast it to the world through television and media. Some of their findings may come from the truth, but they twist and stretch it so much that it is often unrecognizable. Sadly, people too often believe what these loud voices are saying without seeing with their own eyes. Keep whispering your truths until enough voices join together that it drowns out the lies.

In order to survive these difficult times, you need to find it within yourself and your people to continue doing good. For every bad story that reaches outside your borders, make sure that you are creating 10 good stories. Not as many of these good stories will reach the world, but for the one that does, it makes a lasting impact. And, don’t forget that the other nine good stories have a huge impact on your own people and their spirit. Bad news is immediate, but feel-good news lasts longer in people’s hearts and minds. You are strong. I believe in you.

I may be far away at the moment, but I think of you often and dream of when we will be together again. I may even like to make you my home for a few months, despite the difficulties you are enduring. Just as people stand together and continue to visit Paris, I will do the same for you.

I hope that in a few short months I will be sharing your beauty with some of my friends and showing them how to look at the world through their lens. I hope that they will then share your beauty and fond memories of your warmth and hospitality with their friends in their own countries. I hope that by continuing to visit, by continuing to believe in a country that embodies so much history, culture and beauty, that it will help people to look beyond the loud voices and see for themselves what you are all about.

Until we meet again, may your call to prayer be unwavering, may your tolerance for one another be strengthened, may your caring hands take care of many in need and know that I will continue to share your culture with the world outside your borders.

With Love,
Shari

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I will be running my second Turkey: Through the Lens Photo Tour in May 2016 for amateur and hobby photographers. If you are interested in seeing Turkey through your lens with a group of like-minded travellers and photographers, check out the itinerary here and get in touch!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just. Don’t. Do. It.

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

It’s a movement folks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

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

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

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seems simple enough.

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

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

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

Be kind.

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

Isn’t that the big question?!

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

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

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

Believe or die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I heard the voice of Buenos Aires

THIS is what it feels like to be in a city that LOVES football (soccer for us Canadians) …

Tonight was River Plate VS Boca Juniors. Two local rival teams playing in the semi-finals of the South American Cup.

The game started around 8pm. Thankfully I had already made my way safely back to my apartment by then. I had been warned not to be near the stadium during a game. In fact, you can’t just go to a game, you have to purchase a tour package and go with a group. Tickets are well over $100 US. Although I’d love to experience it, I’m not sure I’m brave enough!

Picture this:

It’s quiet in a city that is almost always busy. The main street that I live on (Diaz Velez) has only a quarter of the cars as usual. No one is out walking. It’s almost a ghost town, but you can see lights on in all of the apartments nearby.

I had been in the centre of town until almost 8pm when I hopped a taxi back to Almagro, the local area that I’m staying in. I’m a good 15 minutes by car from the stadium. It took me about seven or eight minutes from the centre to ‘almost’ home where my taxi driver dropped me off. He tried to tell me that he couldn’t go down the streets near my house because they were the wrong direction, which is true for some of them, but not all of them. He was either super lazy or in a hurry to get somewhere to watch the game. So, he dropped me off and I walked the five or six blocks home. I understood him, but couldn’t seem to make him understand me; I think he was just being stubborn.

I was sitting in my room when I heard the first loud cheer (around 10:15pm). When I say cheer, I mean not just one or two people, I heard the voice of my neighbourhood. I messaged one of the locals I had met to ask what happened as I immediately knew it was ‘the game’ talking. The response was that River almost scored, but didn’t. It was a false alarm.

About 30 minutes later, I headed to the laundry room to hang my clothes to dry and nearly fell over when I heard the city roar. Have you ever heard a million people scream all at once? I hadn’t, but apparently it’s loud enough to fill the night air and carry throughout the city. (a million is just a guess by the way … three million people in the city, one million cheering for each team and one million who aren’t watching or don’t scream … that was my thought process ha ha)

And, that was the roar of the game being ALMOST done.

30 seconds later the city erupted in one louder-than-loud roar. So loud that you didn’t just hear it, you could feel it. It was the voice of Buenos Aires! The excitement of the fans was unmistakable. A smile spread across my face as I stood near the window in my laundry room watching the fireworks near the stadium. I was amazed that I could see them, but with an eighth floor apartment, I guess there are some unique benefits. The fireworks continued for a few minutes, as did the screaming, without losing strength, not even a little.

Hidden amongst the boom of the fireworks was the beat of a loud drum (or many drums), a scared dog howling at the night and the occasional celebratory gun shot. It’s funny how when you hear fireworks you think it could be a gun shot and vice versa, but when you hear them both at the same time, they are very distinct.

I continued to smile, thankful to be inside and not in the chaotic core of the city. The energy and excitement of the city had reached me even though I wasn’t watching the game. And shhhhh don’t tell anyone, but I really could care less about soccer. (Please don’t hate me Buenos Aires!)

By about 10:55pm the roar had subsided, the fireworks were done and the main street in front of my apartment was trickling with traffic, laughter and yelling.

20 minutes after the end of the game I had heard several police and ambulance sirens, screeching tires, beeping horns and there is a constant hum outside of people talking about the game.

An hour after the end of the game the neighbourhood is still buzzing and occasionally a happy driver (or 10 in a row) honks their horn all the way down the street. More sirens. More screeching tires. And, I’m not even close to the stadium! I guess it has taken an hour for fans to get from downtown back to their homes.

I’m guessing the city will be awake for awhile. For me, it’s time for bed.

PS – River Plate won tonight, so they move on to the finals and La Boca is done.

Travel with your heart, not just your camera.

Hot air ballon, Cappadocia, Turkey

Hot air balloon ride over Love Valley in Cappadocia, Turkey

The above photo was taken on an amazing hot air balloon experience in Cappadocia, Turkey, thanks to Experta and The Gallipoli Artist. It captures perfectly what my heart was feeling … The appreciation of wide open spaces, the beauty of autumn in Love Valley and yet a few other balloons off in the distance to remind me that I was not alone.

Your camera is an object.
It is devoid of feelings.
It only works when connected to a human hand, which is connected to a human brain and human heart.
It is not the camera that takes amazing photos, it is the person behind the camera.
It is the person behind the camera whose eyes you are seeing through.
It is not just the emotions of the subject that you see, you are feeling the emotions of the photographer and how they saw the subject. You are connected to the photographer’s heart.

When you are traveling the world, it is exciting to capture everything with your camera. It’s wonderful to be able to share what you see with your friends, family and social media followers. Everyone loves photos and stories of far away places.

When you travel though, I urge you to go first with your heart and second with your camera.

When I travel, I go first with my heart.
I travel for the love of other cultures and for the open mindedness it has instilled in me. I travel to understand other people, their struggles, their way of life and their joys. I travel with my heart because no matter where I go, I still care about people, about humans.

I don’t travel to take amazing photographs, those are simply the byproduct of what my heart feels and my eyes see while I am there. I travel to have experiences that change my life, and hopefully change others’ lives for the better.

There are days when I am on the road that I leave my camera behind. It is so easy to get caught up in taking photos of all of the new and amazing things that you see everywhere in a new city or country. It is normal for a photographer to want to document them because that is what we do. But, sometimes I make a decided effort to leave my camera behind so that I am fully present in the moment and spend time learning, feeling and seeing the country, the people and the history without trying to ‘capture’ it.

If you are in a country for seven days and you spend all of your time wrapped up in taking photos so that you can ‘remember’ it, what is it that you are remembering? Simply the photos that you took. Instead, what if you took time to enjoy the country you are visiting and let the photos help remind you of the amazing people you met and things you did instead of missing out on the real country just to capture the outer layer.

If you just can’t bear to leave your camera behind, here are a few tips on how to travel with your heart, not just your camera, but still have your camera in hand.

1. If you are photographing people in another country, remember that YOU are the invader of their privacy. It is not your right to take their photo. If you approach people with your heart, with a true interest in them, they will be more relaxed and more willing to let you photograph them. If you stick a camera in their face without even saying hello, you are invading their space and intimidating them.

2. Get to know the people who you are photographing so that you don’t just have photos of random people, you have stories and experiences to share.

3. If you are traveling with a tour guide, I know this is hard, but try listening to what the guide has to say about his / her country and the location you are at rather than snapping away. Once you hear the history and stories behind the location you will look deeper for photos with meaning rather than snap shots of ‘interesting things’. You will photograph from the heart because you will understand the history, the struggles, the achievements of the place you are standing in. Listen and learn, then photograph to tell a story, not just to have photos.

4. Take days (or hours) off from photography. Choose to do something of interest and enjoy it fully without your camera. Maybe this is going for dinner in the evenings. Do you really NEED a picture of every meal? Will you do anything with the photo of that restaurant? Do you know how to properly take night photos so they are not blurry? Don’t take your camera with you because you feel you have to. Leave it behind you so can be present. It will give your brain (and neck) a break and you’ll be more refreshed for shooting the next day.

Your camera is an extension of your heart. You have the power to capture both your emotions and the emotions of your subject in one single moment in time. Make the most of it. Shoot from your heart.

Falling in Love with Sailing – Part 2

SAIL-AWAY

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.

Bittersweet

It’s 11pm on June 11th and I’m sitting on a blanket on my bed writing this post. I’ve removed the sheets to wash them so that I can pack them first thing tomorrow morning before the movers come, bright and early, at 8am. The windows are open with fresh are drifting in an I hear the clunk-swish-hum of the washer and dryer going.

It’s a reflective time for me and in that reflection I have gone through pretty close to every emotion you can imagine … except maybe anger … I don’t have much to be angry about.

Sad – Although this was not my first home, it was the first one that I purchased and maintained by myself. Previously I had owned a house in Truro with my ex husband, but this is the first one that I’ve had on my own. I’ve had good times and bad in this house. A lot of squeals of excitement and a lot of tears of sadness, frustration and just simply ‘because’ tears. I’m sad that I had to part with my beautiful kitty, Morgan in order to make this all happen. I’m sad that this will be my last night sleeping here … forever.

Tired (is that an emotion?) – I am simply drained from this whirlwind that has been my life for the past six months. 2014 has been constant turmoil for me. Self-inflicted, but none them less tumultuous. From the decision to start renos, through the whole process of deciding who to hire, what needed to be done and how I was going to pay for it … to the nightmare of living in a dismantled condo for many weeks with no actual livable space. Rushing to get my condo on the market, still finishing final touch ups at midnight, only a few hours before leaving for Asia to lead a photo tour. Coming home to a condo that I barely recognized, all cleaned up and putting on it’s best for show and then having an accepted offer on the condo in less than one month from it hitting the market. Next came the choosing where to live, all of the organizing that goes along with moving and for the past week, the packing.

Relieved – All of this chaos is almost over. I can see the end. My body, mind and spirit are relieved that the end of this tunnel is near and soon I will have more time to relax and enjoy a life that I have just begun to design myself instead of just going along for the ride.

Thankful – I am thankful that through all of this I have had great friends to call on to help me with many things from renos to cleaning to shopping and most importantly just a shoulder to lean on when it was all a little too much.

Happy – I am happy that I’ve had a great five years in this home and that now it will be a great home for someone new, who will have many emotions of their own that only the walls of this condo will see.

Proud – I am proud that I’ve survived these six months with my sanity. Honestly, it would be a feat for anyone, but I know that I can be easily affected mentally by stress and turmoil. I am proud that I’ve grown over the past few years and have learned to better handle the crazy situations that I get myself into.

I am beyond proud that I’m so close to accomplishing what I set out to do which is become debt free, simplify my life and travel the world (a little bit at a time). Officially the money won’t be in my hands for one more week, but all is in order from the lawyer’s perspective and right on track. There are no issues anticipated.

Excited – Besides being proud that I’m about to accomplish this huge debt-free goal, I am excited. I could jump for joy and do a little happy dance (if my back didn’t hurt from lifting boxes lol). I have so much to look forward to, so much life to live, so many places to see, so much to give! I’ve accomplished some pretty amazing things in my life so far and I’m excited to see what the ‘over 35’ years have in store for me.

What really happens when you put all of those emotions together though? You have a girl shedding probably more than a few tears as she lays down for her last night in her own bed for who knows how long. Tears of happiness, of sadness, of excitement and pure exhaustion.

One thing I can tell you for sure is that no matter how difficult it has been, I’m happy to say that I’ve done it and I will live life with no regrets.

Now, do me a little favour … Know someone who needs a little boost of motivation or inspiration? Or maybe you know someone else who on a get debt free to travel path? Take a second and share this post with them directly, or post it to your Facebook or twitter. I’d appreciate the love, and you never know who might see this and start to believe that they can do it too!

South East Asia – Chapter 19 – Lady I don’t want your money.

*** I’m catching up on blogging & posting stories. They are a bit out of order and I’m not currently in Asia. This particular post was written while I was there though.

Today we arrived in Siem Reap at around 3pm. After a dip in the hotel pool, I headed out to explore a bit of the city. I followed the map to the market area, stopped for a cold smoothie at Blue Pumpkin and then wandered around a bit more. People were out and about doing chores, selling fruit or street food and massages were being offered everywhere. Not to mention the plethora of drivers trying to get you to take their tuk tuks.

After a wandering around for about an hour, I headed back on a slightly different route through the side streets.

A little girl, who was about eight years old, walked up to me and touched me on the arm.
“Lady, I don’t want your money” she said in a soft voice. I looked down at her and she was carrying her little sister who seemed to be about a year old.
“I just want some milk for my sista. Can you buy some milk?”

I never give children on the streets money and I rarely buy anything from them unless I really want it. I know it is a different way of life in other countries, but I don’t like that kids learn to beg for money from tourists because they assume we are rich and that their parents force them to do this. I am, however, more than happy to give a child or family food instead of money.

I agreed to buy the little girl milk.

She quickly took me by my hand and led me in the direction of the nearest grocery / convenience store which was about ½ a block away. Along the way she held my hand tight and helped me safely cross the street, assuming that because I was a tourist I wasn’t familiar with the crazy traffic and lack of driving laws. It was really cute that she was insistent that I not cross before her and that we do so safely.

As we got closer to the store, the girl explained that she wanted powdered milk … Similac, as it would last for a long time for her and her two sisters. Her English was really good for a child of her age. She obviously must be attending school for her English to be so good.

We walked into the store and she took me directly to the powdered milk section, pointing out the exact kind of Similac that her sisters needed (for 6 – 24 months). I asked her how much they cost and she didn’t know, so I took one to the counter and asked the staff. The can that she had pointed out was $23 US.

I turned to the little girl and sadly explained that it was too much and that I didn’t have that much money. (I only had a $20 bill on me) I asked if there were smaller cans, but there were not.

The little girl pleaded with me as I put it back, saying that it would feed them for three months and that it was not too expensive. I tried to explain to her that I didn’t have the money, but she did not seem to accept this answer.

“How much you have?” she asked.

I wasn’t going to play that game with her. They are taught well to try and get every penny from you. Nor was I going to take my wallet out and show her.

“I’m really sorry, but I don’t have enough. If they had a smaller can I would buy it for you, but they don’t.”

The little girl continued to argue and plead with me, so I began to leave the store. She grabbed my hand and forcefully pulled it, begging once again for me to buy it for her. When I firmly said no, that I could not, as I did not have enough money, we continued out of the store with her saying “Give me $5 then and I can find money from someone else to buy it.” (Not a bad suggestion from an eight year old, but I only had a $20 bill)

As I headed to cross the street, the girl grabbed on to my hand with all her strength, it actually hurt a little bit! She continued to plead with me. I continued to say no.

She yanked on my hand and I stopped in my tracks as it honestly hurt and surprised me.
“I come with you to get more money.” She suggested.
I said “No, I’m sorry. I can’t. Will you be here tonight? Still on the street?”
“No. no. no. I won’t be here lata. Everyone says they will come back lata and no one ever does.”

Her English really was quite amazing for a young girl and she certainly knew how to shame you into helping her.

Still tightly gripping my hand, she again insisted on helping me cross the street. As I continued to walk away, she continued pleading with me, repeating everything that she had already said. Her new tactic though was to also pinch me to try and get my attention. She had let go of my hand after crossing the street but had begun pinching my arm and begging. In fact, she began to get very angry with me.

Getting increasingly annoyed at being pinched by a little girl and not wanting to cause a scene, I stopped and looked at her.

“Why won’t you help me? You said you would buy me milk.” She whined
“It is too expensive. I do not have enough money for it.”

She pinched my arm again to which I said “You were being nice and now you are not. I’m sorry, but I do not have the money and pinching isn’t helping.”

Finally, the little girl stopped pinching me. She didn’t stop whining and she let me go on my way.

I felt absolutely horrible about walking away. I truly had wanted to help the girl and her sisters. I had no idea how many tourists she convinced to do this on a regular basis, but buying them milk was so much better than giving them money.

So many tourists give into the pleading eyes of these children. I’m not at all saying it is wrong to help, but just how much money are you willing to give away and not know what it is being spent on or who the money is going to. These children learn their way around the streets and make a living for themselves and their families by begging on the streets from ‘rich’ people like you and I. What kind of life is this for a child?

I want to help them. Their pleading eyes cut through me too, but I try to see the bigger picture. Instead, I try to give them food or water. I try to support fair trade organizations or not for profits who teach or employ children and youth. There are so many ways to give back without giving money directly to a child.

In Cambodia alone, I’ve already eaten meals at two restaurants that support youth. Veyio Tonle and Friends, both in Phnom Penh. I also have purchased souvenirs and gifts from a couple of not for profit organizations, including Friends who have a great store with many recycled items, hand made by the children and youth that they support. You can also have a $3 – $5 manicure or pedicure at the Friends store and spa where youth are learning skills that can help them earn money.

The next time you travel, source out some reputable organizations to support, be strong and don’t give in to the children begging on the street. Rather, give back to an organization that teaches skills so that the children can earn a living and hopefully make a change to end the vicious poverty cycle that they currently live in.

Giving money to one or two children in the street may feed them for a day. Supporting a not for profit organization or charity may not help that same child, but it will help many children have a better life by gaining skills so that they do not have to live and beg on the streets.

Peru in Video

While we were in Peru, our G Adventures leader, Elard Aranibar captured some of our adventure on video. Although all of the moments in this video won’t mean something to the general public, it is still a really interesting look at the people and the culture and some fun memories for participants from the trip.

Check it out here:



Dominino

In July 2012, while I was living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, studying Spanish I was lucky enough to meet Tabea Thomaschke, founder of Dominino (site is in German).

Founder of Dominino, Tabea with one of the children from the school.

Founder of Dominino, Tabea with one of the children from the school.

As a child, Tabea had always been interested in making a difference in children’s lives and had a love for the Dominican Republic as she used to travel there with her family. As she grew older, she began working toward her goal of helping children in the poorest areas of the D.R. She started a not for profit organization called Dominino. She went into the area of San Luis, known to be one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of Santo Domingo and she started a school for the children of the community. At first, it started out very small, with only a few children, but as her funding grew, she was able to support having more children take part. The school provides education in Spanish and some German for young children, provides a meal each day and lots of love and attention from the staff. These are three very basic things to most of us in North America, but education, food and love are three things that are severely lacking in this poorest of the poor community. The school now has close to 20 students and is making a huge difference in their lives by giving them the education which will hopefully encourage them to get out of the cycle of poverty. All of this, started by a young woman in her 20’s.

I visited Dominino while I was in Santo Domingo and wish that I could have gone back again! I knew that we were heading to a poor community, but I didn’t really know how dangerous it was until I learned that taxis refused to enter the community at all … ever. Simply because it is dangerous. We got off a local guagua (bus), then climbed on moto conchos (3 of us on each) and were driven about 5-10 minutes away to the community of San Luis.

It is here where we were greeted by some very shy, but bright children who were very excited to see Tabea again, and the couple of others of us who came to visit. Some of the children were incredibly shy. Often, in fact, not even speaking to staff at the school for quite some time until they begin to feel comfortable. These children often come from abusive homes, their health is neglected, their education is non-existent and they don’t really know what it is like to be loved and cared for.

We sat with the children, singing songs and playing games. And then, they were served fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal to fill their empty tummies before heading outside to play a couple of active games in a closed in area. All the while, I was there capturing photographs of the children in their environment. Some of them were excited to be photographed and couldn’t wait to see their photos on the back of the camera. Others were cautious, but smiled shyly. Yet, a couple of children simply were scared of the white lady with the big camera. Yes, I did make a couple of children cry. To which, of course, I then stopped photographing them. I had no interest in traumatizing the children!

3642_ShariTucker

The most heart warming part for me in the end was that two of the children who were scared of me and my camera at first, came around and actually wanted their photos taken by the end of the few hours we were there.

One of the little girls who originally was scared of my camera.

One of the little girls who originally was scared of my camera.

Dominino is a not for profit organization that does good work for underprivileged children. They accept donations and you have the opportunity to be able to sponsor a child for a year to ensure that they continue getting education, food and love. The Dominino website is in German, but Tabea has excellent working knowledge in both English and Spanish. If you are interested in making a donation to this organization please contact me and I would be happy to put you in touch with the organization.

Below is a collection of photos from my visit to Dominino. I can wholeheartedly say, my favourite photos from my seven weeks in the Dominican this past summer.