Like a Box of Chocolate…

Last post was about taking time, being home and enjoying a “normal” life. But just days since writing that, the travel whirlwind has whipped me away again and I’ve been running through these weeks with a wild rush. Continue reading Like a Box of Chocolate…

In the Gaps

There’s a quote I came across a while ago, and today it’s on my mind again.  It’s by the brilliant Margaret Atwood:

“We lived in the gaps between stories”

And it’s not so much that this is a powerful quote, or is one that might make us stop in our tracks and consider something new.  Margaret Atwood has so many great quotes that do that – go ahead and google her – but this one is just where I am right now.   And I think it might be a good transition to help me get back to this blog after letting it sit ignored for so many months.  Just in the simple obvious, there’s been a huge gap in my blogging.  I last posted in the fall, and I didn’t even finish publishing everything about my travels through Turkey.   I have so many drafts that I started and will likely never return to, unfortunately.  I wanted to tell about the ancient cites in Turkey, and the epic natural sights, plus the cities and food and vibrancy.    But life was changing and I was busy living so there’s gaps left in my external chronicles.

Here’s a little sample of what I had meant to write about:

I bet you can relate.  We scroll through stories online and keep up with others’ lives digitally, and we post our own hoping to capture a good memory, or to gain validation.  As silly as it may seem to say; the obvious is easily overlooked; Despite our connectivity in 2019 we still have life outside of what we share as our social media stories.  I have to admit, for a minute there last year I was beginning to getting caught up in the idea of being an Influencer.  And even while I knew that my paltry 250ish Instagram followers left me about 2,000 short of what would qualify as a fledgling social media influencer, I’d still daydream about it.   My unplugging from this blog and from writing was not some grand gesture by design, not a deliberate retreat to ‘find myself again’ and come back all glowy and full of marketable tidbits of wisdom.  Nope.  I was just battling a bit of writer’s block and also just really busy.  Living the little details of daily life, slogging away at work but also having fun with the people who mattered to me already.

I lived in the gaps between the stories.  To be literal I say that because I spent about 6 months without posting anything on AimlesslyAli.  Life went on without the spotlight.  More poetically, the gap allowed for an echoing in my life.  Words I had sent out ages ago came back to me and I was reminded that building up love and fostering purpose in myself and others is what life’s all about.  Even without any intentionality, it turns out I did learn something.  Here’s what I learned: I don’t need to be paid for my words, or to get free samples for photos I take.  I want my influence to be personal, in real life, in my day to day connections with people who cross my path.  I hope to be able to demonstrate that kindness and gentleness ARE a form of strength rather than just the aloofness we tend to associate with mental toughness.  So this aimless wanderer is now on a deliberate path to show love to others in the gaps.  Though, let’s be real – this’ll likely be accomplished without a map and written with drifting thoughts and paragraphs of run-on sentences….. I am still Aimlessly Ali, after all.  (who’d in a heartbeat accept a sponsored trip in exchange for promoting the location if I ever got the opportunity!!!)

Gallipoli

This morning I had my heart broken a little more again. You’d think I should know by now, expect it even, as it’s not the first time. But I can’t seem to steel myself and each new experience has my eyes well with tears.

These war memorials get me every time.

Today we’ve just left the area of Gallipoli, now more famous as Anzac Cove. All the Australians on my tour knew of this already, it’s one of their culturally defining moments in history, but this particular battle from WWI was missing my from knowledge. It’s funny how I used to just assume that everything I learned in school was pretty much all there was to know about major world events. Now I know so much more, and am just aware of how clueless I still am.

Difficult terrain added to the troops’ problems

Back in the midst of the war, The Allied forces had a plan to take control of the peninsula and waterway, which would allow them to transport goods to Russia. They assumed if they could take Constantinople (Istanbul), the Ottoman Empire would leave the war and it would have the double effect of allowing their safe access to the Black Sea while weakening the German forces. So the Australian and New Zealand armies, newly formed and training in Egypt, came in to reinforce the British. They landed on a cove near Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. This wasn’t the simple success envisioned, though, and the soldiers were stuck in a tragic torture for months. To make a long story short, it was finally in January 1916 that the remaining Allied fighters were able to be removed to safety. Thousands lost their lives.

Graveyard after graveyard, memorials and tributes march across the land as an emotional contrast to the bright scenery. Lest We Forget feeling even more poignant here, where if it were not for the carefully tended markers the landscape would feel cheery under the bright Mediterranean sunshine.

Hushed and reflective, our group read the names of the soldiers. The epitaphs engraved spoke of bravery, of love, faith, honour, and family; this mixture of pride and devastation did me in and I was thankful for my dark sunglasses to hide my liquid eyes.

At the crest of the hill stands a memorial complex for the Turkish army, who also sustained significant loss of life despite ultimately claiming victory in the months-long battle. On the way up there’s a statue of a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded British soldier to safety. It shows simple human kindness and the respect soldiers had for each other even across the battlefield, though I suspect some might also see it as a subtle testament to the locals’ mastery.

The Turks are very proud of the outcome, and while they acknowledge the horror of that time, their course of history was improved by the Battle of Gallipoli because this is what developed Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as a revered leader. Atatürk ultimately brought reform and independence to Turkey, and was the country’s first president.

Paying respects

While at this memorial, I walked through the recreation of the trenches. Whether from some lingering sense in the air or from Hollywood, I could feel the young soldiers as they walked those same footsteps. Again as always when I’m in locations such as this I am so grateful for the peace I’ve grown up with.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore Rest In Peace. There is no difference to us between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

– Atatürk, 1934

Istanbul introduction

Constantinople. Ottoman Empire. Byzantine. Ancient Roman Empire. This all has intrigued me for years and Turkey has always been high on my wish list.

Finally…

I’ve booked a tour from Istanbul that will show me 10 days of highlights from the western side of the country and I am so keen to get started! Right now I’m at the first hotel now after a 2-hour drive from the airport (who knew it was such a huge busy city?! 13 – 16 million citizens) and unfortunately I arrived just too late to meet the group for the initial welcome/introduction. But as it turns out, the 38 people on this tour are mostly Australians living in London. There are a few from New Zealand, and a few more Aussies that still live in Australia. One couple from Paraguay, one from Poland, and me as the sole North American rep. Should be a good time!

My first dinner in the country was a perfect start to set the tone of my travels. I nibbled on a piping hot lamb kebab grilled in a crispy pita wrap and sipped Turkish tea from a delicate fluted glass at an outdoor cafe. Fruit-scented sheesha and melodies from local musicians wafted around me, and I basked in the atmosphere.

I have a bit more time in Istanbul on my own after the tour ends, so I’ll circle back and write about the city then. For this post I’ll just leave off with some visuals for anyone armchair travelling with me.

Little Leeds Layover

The English countryside is so iconic, no? Maybe it comes from our commonwealth history, where I can picture all these British expats gathering in the 1800s to reminisce about their good old days with sheep-dotted emerald hills, low stone walls and grand manor estates. I think that conversation may have perpetuated throughout the generations to diffuse this image as my instinctual assumption of the United Kingdom.

I had the chance the other day to see this all in person again. And a day in the English dales is just as I’d imagined.

My dear sweet friends have been living in Leeds for the past couple months, and they are gracious enough to allow me to drop in on their doorstep without much warning, even making me feel like they’re happy to have their work and plans disrupted (Thank you!!) so of course that’s just what I did. I was travelling again with an uncertain timetable, and wasn’t sure I would be able to come visit, but I’m so happy it all aligned and I was able to arrive.

Here’s a travel tip, though, for anyone thinking of following my footsteps: most of the money I’d saved by booking a standby flight was then eaten up with booking a last minute train ticket from London to Leeds. I wasn’t expecting that to cost so much!! You’d be much better off to arrange your rail pass in advance! Thanks to Jeanette’s suggestion, I found my best option on thetrainline.com.

Anyway, from train tickets back to my train of thought. My unofficial tour guides had a pretty incredible itinerary for us, so I’ll now pass this along as a “One Day in Leeds” suggestion for you.

Start the morning with a walk to city centre, picking up coffee from Cafe Nero and sipping it while continuing to stroll. Take in the shops built into old Arcades and look for the golden owl statues set throughout. Apparently this is the symbol for the city of Leeds…. I meant to look up the story behind that but haven’t made the time for it yet. If anyone knows, please feel free to write in the comments.

After lunch, a drive out to Bolton Abby and the Yorkshire countryside. This is a beautiful drive through the peaceful scenic country – along harrowing narrow roads and blind corners with ridiculously fast speed limits!

Certainly worth the drive, the grounds around the Abby are lovely and lush, and it’s easy to imagine how life may have been centuries ago in this very spot. There are the stones used to make a footpath across the river that the monks from the Abby used to cross, fun to hop across now, as well as ruins from the outcrop buildings. If you prefer to hike, gentle trails run through the woods and along the river.

Photo by Jeff

Before leaving, take a pit stop at the cafe where it would seem a spot of tea and scone would be just right… or you could just get a soda to go if you’re rushing the way I was…

Next stop, a quick stretch of the legs to hike up the “Cow and Calf” outcropping. This was an old quarry, and the sudden stone cliffs towering out of the green hill is something to see. Listen for the bleating of sheep across the way as you walk to the top, and notice the way heather and ferns blanket the ground everywhere except the boulders.

Graffiti seems so much better when it’s 100 years old

Back in Leeds, excellent dinner options seem endless. Or nip into a pub and share your stories over an ale. And there you have it. A great day almost guaranteed!

As I was there to visit friends, we spent an evening around a table with others of their friends. We talked a lot about travel, and life as an expat, and the weather. People always seem to talk about the weather, hey? I remember that part because I said something about how cold it was currently, and one of the girls who lived in the UK made an offhand comment about their weather, saying “it’s not hot here like in Canada” which made me laugh as it’s not a sentence you’d often hear in most places around the world! Canada is known for polar bears!!

I had to run to catch my train back to London, and as much as I was excited to get started on my “real” travels through Turkey, I wished I had more time. But there you have it: One Day in Leeds. I hope you enjoy it, though in my opinion to really get the best you’d need to become friends with my Jeff & Jeanette.

Next time from Istanbul! Ciao!

Stampede City

I’ve said a few times before, I love the city I live in.    And this is especially true in the summer.   The big blue sky, warm air and sunshine, happy friendly people… what’s not to love?!  Also a highlight of the summer – The Calgary Stampede, which is what I’m thinking of today.  Every July, the City of Calgary takes 10 days to host the Stampede; billed as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”   Now, Calgarians are generally split into either loving or loathing the Stampede.  I imagine it must be similar in the major tourist cities, where locals end up inconvenienced by the swarms of crowds on their streets (Amsterdam, I’m thinking of you here!).  I can understand there are some valid reasons a person might not want to be around, so how about I list them quickly, get that out of the way, and then move on to why I love it instead?

So here we go.  A mostly-unbiased opinion of the Negatives:  For ten days each year,

  • Downtown is crowded. The trains are packed, parking sucks, and traffic is slow.
  • Alcohol consumption rockets and public drunkenness becomes normal
  • Modesty seems to take a break (ummm…. #trampede is a real thing)
  • Some people think animals are being taken advantage of.  Animals Resting

And so here is where I need to vehemently disagree.   The rodeo professionals love their animals, and I know absolutely everything is done to protect and care for animals.  For example, one year I was behind-the-scenes in the barns with my friend who was hired to massage the chuckwagon horses.  Yes, Equine Massage Therapy is a booming industry.  And the photo is from this year, where even in the exhibition barns they ensure times throughout the day for the animals to get breaks from all the city slickers gawking.

So maybe you saw those drawbacks, and have decided that’s enough to make you want to run for the hills to avoid it all.  That’s ok, may I recommend Jasper or Banff?  But if you’re still with me, even for curiosity’s sake, please keep reading.

Personally, I automatically love the Calgary Stampede because of my positive childhood memories.  My family would come to the city for a day, and we’d delightfully dizzy ourselves on the fairground rides and cheer my Dad on as he won us plush toys at the carnie games.  (To this day, I can’t walk past a ‘strong man’ game without flashing back to him)  We’d watch the rodeo and chuckwagon race highlights on tv every night after dinner, crowding around and crowing when our pick did well.

Another reason why the ten days of Stampede are something I look forward to is the camaraderie this city experiences.  Picture it a little like Cowboy Christmas; with decorations up at businesses citywide, special music played everywhere, staff parties, and days off from work!  Just substitute carols with country twang.   Even without entering the Stampede grounds there is a festive feel throughout the city.  We get to wear jeans to work almost regardless of industry, and cowboy boots are the exact right accessory to every outfit.  My cousin, Erin, demonstrates that perfectly, below.IMG_8123

Erin's Instagram post
erin.slemp: The only place it’s acceptable to wear all denim and eat poutine perogies… #calgarystampede #canadiantuxedo #stampede2018 #calgaryalberta

She brings up another great point: The midway food is an attraction all its own.  I personally can’t go without at least one corn dog (battered and in a pickle this year!) and the mini donuts with cinnamon sugar, but I also snarfed down some deep-fried coffee balls, brisket and poutine, and charcoal ice cream.  IMG_1299

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Me and more cousins

Much more than the midway, though.  The Calgary Stampede is a cultural bridge, reminding us of our heritage as a ranching and rodeo frontier town, as well as the Indigenous roots of the Canadian Prairies.  I took some time this year to explore more of that, and I am absolutely in awe the First Nations set up at the Stampede.  This is exactly the type of thing I would flock to any time I travel to a foreign country – representation of the uniqueness of the cultural history – and I was awestruck seeing this again from my own hometown.

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Tipi skyline
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Watching a traditional dance
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Elder blessing
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traditional cooking

A quick video clip from my cell phone, so my apologies for the lack of quality production, but I had to show you a snippet of one of the dances.  Make sure you have sound on to hear the singers from the drum circle just outside the image.

wow.

You know, this far into the post and I haven’t even scratched the surface yet of everything that’s on offer at the Stampede.  Try learning to two-step at one of the beer gardens, attend a concert, watch the rodeo and events, learn about current agriculture, worry about the motocross daredevils hired to entertain, view the incredible western artworks, watch the grandstand show or the marching show band, and go to one of the FREE pancake breakfasts or (and!) BBQ lunches that are everywhere across the city.  The list goes on and on.   You’ll need to come here and see it for yourself next July.Stampede active

After ten days of “Yahoo!” excitement, the dust is settling, and the city is returning to a normal urban centre.  Boots and hats are tucked far into the back of closets again, safe until next year.  We start to pick up on all the work that was missed, but first all the stories are swapped around the water cooler.   Love it or hate it, The Calgary Stampede gives everyone a story to tell.

Calgary Ali
Calgary Ali

Sunset on the Calgary Stampede

 

 

 

 

 

Beaming in Port Barton

Note: I’m behind on my blogging – again.  I wrote drafts of several posts while I was travelling, but wasn’t able to post them all during the trip (limited wifi!!).  These next few posts are arriving online late, but were mostly written on the road.

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Getting to Port Barton was fun, (well, until it wasn’t… you can read about that in my previous Post) but being in Port Barton – that’s the real story.  I found this area accidentally; I’d never heard of it until the day before setting off to get here, and it has me wondering.  I wonder to myself  “In this modern age of travelling with Google Maps & Instagram Influencers & Bloggers galore who have been everywhere & the Hostelworld app at my fingertips, could I REGULARLY find myself arriving in towns I’ve never heard of until I was almost there?!”   Who knows, maybe!  After all it’s still a huge beautiful world out there.  And I guess I’ll enjoy ‘sometimes’ even if ‘regularly’ doesn’t happen.

I had been sitting around the bar at my hostel in Puerto Princesa looking for a place to stay in El Nido, and not having much luck at all.  I was surprised to find that almost everywhere was already fully booked up, and I was beginning to wonder why I was spending all my time on my phone scrolling through places to stay instead of being out doing something more fun.  I made a comment to that effect to a traveller next to me, and he said “Oh! You should go to Port Barton before El Nido! I just arrived from there, you’ll love it.”   As it turns out, Port Barton is a tiny little town on the cusp of adventure.  (In my opinion, both literally and figuratively.)  The stunning beachfront with soft deep sand is so inviting, sparkling with the promise of a great day regardless of if you choose to be busy; boating or snorkelling or paddleboarding; or lazy lying on the sand or in a hammock and soaking up the sunshine.   And there definitely are signs of tourism catching on.  While it still can’t be found on the hostelworld app(*), there are several great options for backpackers to stay.  And more being added all the time to keep up with the demand!  We stayed in a couple new hostels and were really impressed with the rustic comfort and unique vibe of each place.  So lets backtrack again a little so I can relive all the best times.

* At least, not found on the app as of this post.  I suspect that changes before long!

 

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The town’s main port

Take a walk along the beachfront and you’ll see fishing boats gently jockeying for space, their anchor ropes cast out to the beach as they hope to reel in tourists now more often than fish I think.  Strolling across sand and drinking in the atmosphere is up there among my favourite simple pleasures, and this place doesn’t disappoint!  All along are friendly people suggesting options or activities; and yes, I know they’re hawking their businesses but it never felt pressuring or irritating (like I’ve found in some other countries).  This felt more like they were suggesting an option to a friend, something I might enjoy if I felt like going, but only if I wanted.  I’ve commented on this before in the Philippines and it’s true in this town as well – I got the impression that the locals were just genuinely excited to show the world how great their home is, and as a whole are not trying to just squeeze a buck out of the tourists.  I recommend taking up one of those suggestions and booking an island hopping tour, as there are some incredible reefs for snorkelling here.  Bright coloured fish darting around the coral, schools of silver fish like a mist passing through, giant sea turtles paddling lazily past, fat starfish settled in near sandbars, and so much more!!

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When I’m not busy being deliciously un-busy at the water, I meander around to eat.  Everywhere I turn I seem to find another new place serving tantalizing options, from traditional to traveller-trendy.  For such a small town the options are vast.   One of my favourites in Port Barton is Mojitos Restobar.  It’s not on the main street, not on the beach, (though both are full of great places!) instead it’s a gentle hike up through the village and into the jungle.  Less than 15 minutes of walking at a leisurely pace, following the signs they have up along the way, is rewarded with Mojitos Restaurant and Bar.  I call it a “Tropical-Zen-Party Zone” which sounds like such an oxymoron but somehow still really works.

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Mike and I spent a whole afternoon here, chatting with the owner and snacking on incredible fresh pub food.  Sounds like another oxymoron but somehow it’s true!  And of course, sampling our way through the menu of specialty mojitos.  I’m partial to the passion fruit calamansi mojito…. and I’m salivating again just remembering that drink!

Back in town again, the streets transform to a night market, and it’s clearly the place to be to mix with the locals.   We watched a high school basketball tournament, shopped for trinkets, and were delightfully bemused with the popup gaming stalls.  Like an arcade for kids at a summer fair, but instead of tossing rings to win a plush toy these children were gambling centavos like pros!   Reading this, it could sound negative and like the kids are being taken advantage of, but I never got that sense.  It seemed like a safe and fun way for the kids to play with their candy allowance.

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The next morning Mike and I decided a slow start with breakfast on the beach was just what was needed, and yep, we were right.  I think I might have gotten a little sneak-peak of heaven with my mouthful of mango topped pancakes.

All this to say:  Don’t be surprised if before long your Instagram feed is FULL of #PortBarton from the travel bloggers and Influencers.  This is one spot that will be having a major moment on the tourist trail before long.  It’s incredible as is, seems to have room to develop and sustain tourism, and has such a special charm that my days here will forever make me smile.   You should definitely plan to be here if you’re anywhere near the Island of Palawan!