Small Group Travel – Middle Agers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hear these comments all the time …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact me at stucker@tpi.ca

 

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Loule, Portugal – Carnaval 2016 – Photo Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Life is unpredictable

 

Sultanahmet square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life, itself is unpredictable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love, and passion for travel … from Istanbul,

Shari

 

The Journey with Life Line Ezidi

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

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

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

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

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

Very_excited_to_helping__lifelineezidi_deliver__life_jackets_to__refugees_in__turkey_today._Just_helped_pick_up_31_life_jackets_and_about_to_tackle_an_hour___of_public_transit_with_the_huge_bags_of_product._Great_job_David__centre__and_thanks_for_eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We made it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Galapagos Islands Photo Essay

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

And so began my love affair with South America.

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

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

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

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

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

St. Pierre & Miquelon Photo Essay

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Newfoundland and then St. Pierre & Miquelon with a friend for about a week. We spent a long weekend in St. Pierre & Miquelon just to check it out and officially say we had been to France.

In case you aren’t familiar, St. Pierre & Miquelon is just off the cost of Newfoundland, Canada, but is a French territory. The communities speak French, have divine French pastries and use the Euro as currency. It is indeed a tiny piece of France!

The islands are small and don’t offer a lot of tourist attractions, but we did manage to fill our time for three days. From hiking the trail to the top of a large hill to look out over the colourful community of St. Pierre, to a ferry ride and day tour of Miquelon and Langlade where we visited very friendly ‘wild’ horses.

My primary tip if you are planning to visit … make dinner reservations every single day. If you just arrive at one of the handful of restaurants, you will be disappointed as they require reservations. Also keep in mind that dinner starts at 8 or 9pm, as per the usual in France.

Interested in more information or visiting? Drop me a message. I’d be happy to help you out.

Stark Naked … At a Turkish Bath

I had heard rumours that you had to be naked and that you’d be scrubbed so hard you would nearly bleed. Yet, I was curious what all of the fuss was about with hammams, or Turkish Baths.

When I came to Turkey the first time in 2014, I had wanted to go but hadn’t found time. I was scared to go alone and vowed I would do it when I returned. Here it is, one year later and I’ve lived to tell the tale.

The local family that I was staying with in Fatih, a local community within the overflowing metropolis of Istanbul, asked if I was interested in visiting the Turkish Baths. They explained that their neighbour owned one and he would be happy to have me visit. I anxiously and tentatively said yes, and arranged to go the next day.

The owner of the hammam met me at the house with his two young grandchildren and we walked down the winding, narrow streets from near Molla Aski Terasi to the Tarihi Historical Hamami. With all of the twists and turns I thought I might never be able to find my way back home and it felt like a 10 minute walk, but I’m sure that it was only five.

As we arrived on the street where the Hamam was located, in broken english the man said “Men only,” and pointed to a door. About 20 steps later we turned a corner and there was a door immediately to our left with a curtain. He said “Women only. You go here.” He knocked and then spoke in Turkish from outside the doorway. Next thing I knew, a tall, thin woman came to greet me and introduced herself (in English) as Melitza, the owner’s daughter-in-law.

She welcomed me and invited me to sit in the main area. I looked around at the mixture of tile work that seemed to have no real rhyme or reason to it’s pattern, bordering the entrance to the bath which was surrounded by marble. There were small rooms with doors along the back wall that looked almost like Catholic confessional rooms, but clearly were not. Benches lined one wall and a small table with a drink and a pack of cigarettes were against the other wall, where Melitza took a seat.

It was slightly cooler in the main area than the midday sun outside which was still climbing and had already reached 25+ degrees. There was only one other lady at the hamam and she was introduced as Fatma. She was a short stout lady with an ample bosom who walked with her feet turned out as she scurried around in her night-gown like dress. I later found out that Fatma had been working at this hamam for 30+ years.

With a big smile, Melitza welcomed me again and began asking where I was from, how long I would be traveling for and if I had ever been to a hamam. I immediately felt comfortable with her friendly and open personality and concluded that I would be able to ask her anything I needed.

Come to find out, although she does work at the hamam sometimes, this day she just happened to be there for her own bath experience, but wanted to make sure I was comfortable.

We chatted for a few minutes about what the experience would entail and what services I would like to have. The Turkish Bath, peeling and massage would be 35 Turkish Lira (equivalent to less than $17 CAD). They also had a treatment with a combination of a coffee scrub and honey for 20 Lira. I was there to experience it all, so I said ‘Let’s go for it!’

Of course, with the thought of coffee and honey being spread all over my body, I thought it time to ask about dress code. Melitza explained to me that wearing underwear would be perfectly acceptable as many women do this, however, traditionally women would be completely naked, not just topless. I should do whatever made me comfortable. She explained how she was shy the first time, but now she really enjoys the experience. She was born and raised in Serbia, but had married a Turkish man. Now they live in Istanbul. She had her first hammam experience only a few years before.

I had asked the folks that I was living with about dress code they had told me I could wear a swimsuit if I wanted, so I had. It was a full swim suit as I don’t do bikinis. When I heard a better explanation of the peeling process and then about the coffee and honey treatment I decided that I did not want my swimsuit to be covered. So, just like that, it was decided that I would be going full monty. Why not? I was there for the real experience, I’m not ashamed of my body and it helped that I was the only one there at that particular time. However, I was well aware that others could arrive at any minute.

Melitza explained to me that they would give me everything I needed to enjoy my experience. Fatma then came over and handed me a small yellow basket with shampoo, a wash cloth and two large towels made of tea-towel-like material. I was given a key to one of the small changing rooms at the back and told to wrap the small towel around me and that the bigger one would be used for later.

Fatma then smiled a crooked, but uniquely charming smile, took me by the hand, led me up the stairs through the first marble doorway and then through the second doorway where I was enveloped in the humidity like a warm, but wet, blanket.

It was silent, although when you spoke you felt dwarfed by the size and stance of the great 400 year old building that seemed to talk back to you through it’s echo. The large room was about half the size of a high school gymnasium, with natural light trickling in through the carved holes in the beautiful, dome-shaped, marble ceiling. In the centre of the room, directly below the dome, was a large square marble slab about two feet thick and 8 feet by 8 feet in diameter. It demanded attention, but I wasn’t quite sure of it’s purpose. The walls were lined with ancient marble sinks, each with their own hot and cold water taps, about 15 separate washing stations in total.

Fatma led me to one of the stations, turned on the hot and cold water, hung my towel on a rod above the sink and there I was … stark naked in this large room where I was about to bathe myself, publicly!

Through words and hand motions, Fatma explained that I should pour water over myself, but not to use soap or shampoo yet, just water. For the next 30-45 minutes I breathed in hot, humid air and poured warm water over myself until my skin softened. I alternated between hot and cool water every once in awhile. The humidity was hard to get used to, so I found a bit of cool water helped me endure while still softening my skin to prepare for the peeling process.

At the 45 minute mark, Fatma returned and took me out to the front waiting area to cool off and get some fresh air. I sat and chatted with Melitza while other women and children began to arrive at the hammam for their Sunday cleaning ritual. Melitza prepared me for the next section of the process which would be the peeling, washing and massage part. She told me that I would know when to roll over as Fatma would slap my ass.

Yes. You read that right! This local woman was going to slap my naked ass to communicate with me that I needed to roll over. I won’t lie, I giggled …. slightly horrified!

When Fatma gathered me to go back into the sauna area, she motioned for me to lie down on my stomach on the large marble slab in the middle of the room. She threw some warm water over the marble slab so that I wouldn’t stick to it and I laid down near the edge, on my tummy, and tried to find a way to get my boobs comfortable while being smushed against warm marble. Before I could even find a half comfortable position, Fatma was busy ‘peeling’ away my dead skin with a rubber mit with rubber teeth. It is similar to being exfoliated, but with something soft and rubbery tugging at your skin instead of a loofah which is hard and scratchy. Somehow she balanced the pressure of her body and the pressure of her scrubbing so that my skin started to roll off in little packets. She scrubbed all over my back, neck, bum and legs and then slapped my ass and mumbled something in Turkish.

Time to roll over.

Now, being naked in public is one thing. Having another nearly naked woman peel dead skin off you is another. But really, the hardest part to get over is laying face up with your private areas exposed.

I awkwardly rolled over on the wet slab and laid face up while Fatma continued to scrub my legs, stomach and breasts. Sounds weird right? Well, I can’t lie, it is weird, at least for me! I just kept telling myself that she’s done this for 30+ years, she’s seen everything by now!

Coming from Western society where it seems like just about any same sex contact is ‘gay or lesbian,’ it was hard for me to let a stranger rub and scrub all over. I’m sure she could see my tension. I couldn’t open my eyes, as I couldn’t bare to look at her while she was scrubbing me.

She tugged gently on my arm and motioned for me to sit up where she held my arm against her body and methodically scrubbed everything clean.

By this time, an elder had entered the sauna area in her underwear and was sitting in the corner gingerly pouring warm water over her body. On the other side of the large room, two women and a young girl of about five years old, were frolicking and giggling as they bathed one another. The young girl’s enthusiasm for bath time made me smile. It was in that moment that I understood that the hammam was a tradition that was being passed down. It may have once been a necessity and a place for people to clean themselves once a week for lack of having access to water at their own homes. But now, it was more of a tradition and luxury which families would hopefully share with the younger generations. Occasionally I opened my eyes and saw the joy of this little girl and heard her squeals of laugher as her mom dumped buckets of water over her head. Each ear piercing squeal made the corners of my mouth turn up in a delicate little grin.

I had heard about the peeling process and people described it as being rubbed raw and then roughly pummelled with a massage. For me, although slightly uncomfortable, it really wasn’t anything at all like being rubbed raw or being pummelled!

The soft teeth of the rubber mit hitched slightly on my skin and then continued down my body taking a thin layer with it. It wasn’t painful. It wasn’t even uncomfortable. Mostly it just felt like being scrubbed super clean or having a massage with no oil. When Fatma was done scrubbing me down, she went to get water to clean the dead skin off me. I made the mistake of opening my eyes and seeing the rolls of greyish skin laying lifeless all over my body. Had I really been that dirty? I was almost sorry that I looked! But, before I could be too disgusted, a bucket of warm water hit my back, then each of my sides and my front. The dead skin washed away, down the drains, leaving me naked and one shade whiter than when I had arrived!

I was directed back to the wet marble slab and laid down on my front again. This time, Fatma rubbed a soft washcloth with soap all over my body and then gave me a soap massage. The massage lasted about 10 – 15 minutes and was concentrated on the knots in my back and neck, but also on my legs and feet. It was an ok massage, but nothing like the joys of going to a professional massage therapist for a treatment where they could actually help your body recover. It was more like a boyfriend giving me a massage that he felt obligated to provide. It wasn’t bad, but I’m not sure that it was great either. Another slap on the ass and I rolled over again to have my front soaped up.

The process of being bombarded with buckets of water continued until all of the soap was washed off. Fatma motioned to me to use the water to clean my lady bits and then back to the slab. This time my large tea-towel like coverup had been spread out on the slab drenched in water. I got uncomfortably comfortable on the towel, face down and then the sweet, delicious smell of coffee wafted past my nose. It was like a little slice of heaven as she covered my body with coffee grinds and began to use them to gently exfoliate my soft, tender skin.

Once both sides of my body were amply covered in fragrant coffee grinds, she gently exfoliated my face. The heavenly coffee aroma made me relax and smile, despite the fact that I was sitting naked in public covered in coffee grinds.

When she was done the coffee application, I opened my eyes and all of a sudden was shocked to see that I was now a dark shade of brown all over. I’m not sure why I hadn’t thought of it before, but it was interesting to see my skin as a different colour. After all, I already felt strange enough being naked in another country, why not try on a different skin colour too?!

Fatma washed the coffee off with buckets of water and then allowed me to wash it from my private areas where the water had carried the coffee grinds it on it’s way off my body. Then she sat me down, poured warm water over my head and washed and conditioned my hair.

I climbed back on the slab one last time for the application of the honey treatment. Pure, natural honey mixed with water was drizzled all over me and then spread around and left to melt into my skin for a few minutes before being washed away again.

Fatma slapped me on the ass one last time and drizzled honey over my front. The scent made my mouth water. Luckily with the honey mixed with water it was much less sticky than I expected and it washed away easily with one more quick soapy wash down. Fatma finished washing my hair and then motioned for me to cover up and head back to the waiting area.

Oops! I hadn’t brought my second towel in.  My first towel was soaked and covered with coffee and honey and there I was naked. Now what?

Fatma chuckled and shook her head at me and then asked Melitza to grab my towel from my changing room. I wrapped up and headed to the waiting area to sit, cool off and chat. There were a few ladies arriving and preparing to enter the sauna area, a couple women were cooling off  after their first 40 minutes or so and Melitza was there waiting to ask me all about my experience.

I sat for another hour, had a lemon drink and chatted with Melitza about Serbia, Turkey, why women choose to cover their heads and bodies and why not. She explained the challenges of being a Serbian, non-covering woman who married into a family where covering was expected and that she has always stood her ground explaining that they can wear what they wish and she will wear what she wishes. She told me about her psychology background and a school she had opened in Serbia to help special needs children learn better math skills through different teaching methods. What an interesting lady! I’m so glad that I met her and took time to hear her story.

Eventually, I decided that I needed to get lunch seeing as I had skipped breakfast and it was already 3pm. I put my swimsuit and clothes back on and Melitza’s mother-in-law walked up the hill with me, back to my apartment.

Two weeks later, as I think back on the experience and am so glad that I did it. Not only was it an interesting local experience, but also a freeing of my mind and liberation of my body. In a society where women spend their days covered, it was an interesting contrast to see them uncover completely as an indulgence in themselves.

If you are visiting Turkey, I highly recommend the experience. And, don’t go to one of the expensive touristy hammams in Sultanahment. Dig a little deeper and find a family run one that operates as they have for hundreds of years. Enjoy the true Turkish hammam experience!

I highly recommend visiting Tarihi Historical Hamami in the Fatih / Balat district for the full, original experience. They have not sponsored this post or asked me to promote them, I am just 100% pleased with the experience I had and would like to see them thrive.

As always, if you are planning a trip to Turkey (or anywhere), feel free to get in touch. I am a full-service travel agent and happy to help you plan your next great adventure!

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.

Quick visit to Cafe Tortoni

Having finished all of the browsing I could do while not buying anything at the Feria de Mataderos, I wandered down Avenida de Mayo to the famous Cafe Tortoni. When I had been in Buenos Aires the first time in December 2014, my tour group had visited the old Cafe which dates back to 1858, but it was one of the days when I had to stay behind to work. I’ve been thinking about going for weeks now, but hadn’t made the effort to head into the centre of the city. Now, being on the same street, I knew it would be a shame if I didn’t pop in.

Well, you don’t just ‘pop in’ to Cafe Tortoni. It is an icon in Buenos Aires, so it is packed full of people, including a line up outside waiting for tables. Luckily, I arrived at around noon and there were only about 10 people in front of me in the line. Even better, those 10 people were together, so I was officially second in line. I only waited about five minutes for a small table to open up and walked in through the old doors to a land as old as time. A large room full of old furniture, yellowish ambient light, paintings, drawings and trinkets from a time long long ago.

I sat down at a small table in the corner and took in the atmosphere and people around me. I ordered an authentic submarino and delicious churros. A submarine is a cup fill of hot milk served with a bar of chocolate that you dunk in, wait for it to melt and stir it around before drinking it. A fancy hot chocolate if you will. But, at Cafe Tortoni, that bar of chocolate is in the shape of a submarine. Look closely at the photo and you can see that the chocolate is starting to melt on the rim of the cup just in the time it took me to snap an iPhone photo. That’s a hot cup of milk! My only mistake, I forgot to order the chocolate churros!

I enjoyed sipping away at my fancy hot chocolate and people watching from the corner. I suspect that the bulk of customers were tourists, although most of them were speaking Spanish, so they may have been locals, or may have been Argentine tourists. There was a mixture of everyone from young couples to older couples, folks kissing across the table, completely in love, girlfriends chatting over breakfast and four older folks having a good chuckle at something I couldn’t make out.

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.