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!

 

Seeding Good Luck

I still have two days in Bangkok at the end of my trip that I want to write about.  They were incredible, and a very different experience from my first days in Bangkok at the beginning, before the tour.  I remember so many different snippets of stories that I had begun drafting in my mind while we were there, and I was excited to share the contrasts with what I had written a month previously when I was first experiencing the city.  So why haven’t I written that?

As has been my pattern already, if I get behind in blogging I end up procrastinating.  When I let too many days pass from the emotions and thoughts, what I actually felt in the moments I write about, my posts just end up seeming stale and forced, a list of what I had seen and done.  Dull.  So I avoid it, and my blog.  Self-perpetuating non-motion.   To shake that now I think I’ll just chatter about what I am feeling currently, and hopefully as I go on I can find a way to loop it back to the topic at hand: travel and the Thai capital.

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This week I’ve been feeling a little untethered.  My 5 month leave of absence from work is almost over, so this era of being a full-time traveller is wrapping up (for now??…).  At the same time nearly all of my other external identity markers have also disappeared or changed, and it’s a bit hard to handle all that all at once.   I spent years defining myself by my job:  I was a flight attendant, not only that, but a Corporate Flight Attendant.  When I return to work next week I have a significant career change that I’ll need to wrap my head around.  I used to be a Wife; I’m not anymore, and tied to that I used to be a Homeowner until we sold our house in the suburbs last month….  Writing this paragraph has sparked a memory for me, and I had to pause to dig through my notes for a quote that was given to me by a friend a few months ago.  It fits here for me now.

Each misfortune you encounter will carry in it the seed of tomorrow’s good luck.  – Og Mandino

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I know those little good luck seeds are already germinating in my life, and I’m looking forward to seeing what great things spring up in the near future.  And in the meantime the best way I know how to keep myself sane and happy is to dream about travel.  It really is the best medicine for me!   The picture I used for this quote is from a courtyard at Wat Pho, the Reclining Buddha temple in Bangkok, and it reminds me again of my time there.  My first few days were all about touring temples and streets full of food and vendors and massage spas and backpackers. (you can read about Better than expected Bangkok) And my final days in Bangkok: restaurants bursting with personality and shopping and expats.

We were able to meet up with a friend who has lived there for the past four years, and she was a perfect host and guide!  It’s aways fun to laugh with an old friend so we would have enjoyed ourselves regardless, but Corrie knew so many great spots we were almost run off our feet trying to cram it all in.

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speaking of feet
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Ali and Corrie

Here we are stopping for a quick selfie at the MBK Centre.  This place is a massive, seven storey mall used by locals and tourists alike.  I don’t even feel like I’m exaggerating when I say it has everything!  I definitely made good on my plan to wait and make the bulk of my purchases on my last day before going home!  Souvenirs such as curry mixes, tea, exotic fruit candies, clothing, jewelry and watches…. my list goes on.  Tricia and I had to get reallllllly creative in packing to get everything in our luggage for the flights home!  And when we weren’t shopping, we were eating.  Which I love!

 

Look at that – I did circle back and steer this post to Bangkok!  I know it’s a little light on details and funny stories this time, but considering the mood I was in when I began writing this post and how much better I feel now, I’m calling this a personal win anyway.  Thanks for reading along with me.

Phenomenal Phnom Penh

After Angkor Wat it’s time to move on again, letting Siem Reap fade in the rear view mirror and looking forward to Phnom Penh.  Another day and another bus, story of my life lately! 

Our tour team selfie
Not sure he liked all the loud English spoken around him
Our chariot, half way to Phnom Penh

As I was watching the countryside scroll past me out the window I had a sense of déjà vu that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I found myself smiling.  And then it hit me:  What I was seeing was the real life version of a childhood fascination.  When I was about eight years old I learned that in some impossible-to-imagine place on the other side of the world people would live in houses built on stilts, letting them spend the day in hammocks in the shade under the house or keeping the floor dry when the flooding comes.  I remember vividly thinking this was the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to live in a “treehouse without the tree”.   Fun to witness it almost exactly the way I had pictured as a kid!

While in Phnom Penh we learned about the horrific period in Cambodian history during the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot regimes.  Heartbreaking doesn’t even come close to describing the devestation inflicted on the country, where in a four year span roughly two million people lost their lives by execution, starvation, exhaustion or war.  We visited the memorial at the Killing Fields as well as the Genocide Museum housed in a former detention prison, and I think each of us struggled to contain our emotion while hearing about the atrocities committed by the regime.   I find it really difficult to write about; on one hand I believe it’s important to share and educate people about such shocking events, and on the other I’m afraid to do a disservice to the victims due to my own ignorance.  Hearing from our local guide some of the facts and personal stories made me want more information.  If you would too, here’s two websites I’ve been reading through to learn more: Killing Fields or  Khmer Rouge 

A former school transformed to an execution prison
Bracelets left as blessings at one of the mass graves
Killing Fields memorial, built as a Buddhist stupa

I don’t know the real significance of the memorial stupa, but to me it evokes a graceful sense of hope in the soaring height of the pillars.  (A stupa is a sacred structure that contains the remains of the deceased.  Inside this one are more than 5000 carefully preserved skulls.) 

Emotionally drained by the weight of the Killing Fields, I had wanted only to escape to my hotel room and disappear into a novel for a while.  On the walk back, though, I spotted a beautiful spa promoting massages, and almost before I realized what I was doing I had Tricia and myself booked in.  We didn’t really know what to expect of a Khmer massage, complete with a guava and rice milk scrub, but the whole place just seemed so serene.  That is, at least, until our awkward nervous giggles broke the tranquility.  Tricia and I were led to side by side tables and instructed to take off everything – everything! – and to cover with the towel set on each table.  Feeling sheepish that I apparently booked us a couples massage, we did our best to swallow our giggles and just enjoy the treatment.  And as soon as the massage began I forgot about anyone or anything else…  My masseuse was a tiny beautiful woman who seemed to possess superhuman strength, which she used to wipe out knots I hadn’t even realized I possessed.  Once my muscles were sufficiently tenderized, jasmine and lemongrass oils were massaged into my skin.  First time I’ve smelled so nice since I left home I’m sure!   Next came the body scrub, and I was impressed with her ability to keep my modesty intact as she deftly folded the towel to only expose the limb she was working on while basically giving me a sponge bath with guava fruit.  The final step had her massaging a thick and grainy paste all over me.  Toes to nose my skin glowed baby soft!

Scene at the spa waiting for us after the massages were complete

Dinner together with our group this evening had been hotly anticipated (or dreaded, in Tricia’s case) as our guide Joe had promised to take us to a place that served spiders.  As we arrived, I think everyone breathed a small sigh of relief to see it was a really nice restaurant.  Just as we were placing our drink orders there was a commotion at the table beside us, and we got ringside seats to witness a plate of three tarantulas being eaten by one brave tourist.  So we couldn’t let our table be shown up, and ordered our own dish of horror to share among us.

Our order of tarantulas

The most surprising part of this story isn’t even that we ate huge and hairy fried arachnids – it’s that it actually tasted really good!  If you want to know what it’s like but don’t see yourself getting here, just imagine a big mushroom with a crispy coating and delicious peppery citrus soya sauce.   This was Tricia’s show, and everyone including the people at surrounding tables, was invested in her ability to overcome her phobia and take a bite.  After she finished her first bite spontaneous applause broke out!