Grouchy in Paradise

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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People talk about getting away from everything, leaving the city and all the noise. I’ve had people ask or tease me about wanting to live in the downtown core of my city at home, saying, “how do you sleep with all that noise?”  In our minds, busyness and bustle equals noise.  So a retreat in some cozy eco-lodge in the absolute middle of nowhere, with limited electricity even, might seem like a silent paradise.

Well that might be half true.

I’m in a paradise, no doubt about that, but it has been so stinkin’ noisy All. Night. Long. that in my insomniac state has me almost missing my city hum and sirens.  Almost…. but as soon as I roll out of bed to engage my other senses – seeing the island’s beauty, tasting fresh fruit and smelling the fragrant flowers growing here, feeling the sand under my toes – I’ll remember how amazing this is to be here.  And have a coffee!

I’ve experienced jungle noise before, but I always forget at first how loud the nights are. It’s a whirling swirl of cacophony from the animals all around.  Where I am now we have insects buzzing and lizards chirping, birds squeaking and singing and crowing and cawing, dogs barking, monkeys calling, and even the occasional water buffalo lowing.  And my own grouchy grumbling.  Honestly I’m a little embarrassed at how irritable I’m being.  Good thing Mike is sound asleep still and therefore not noticing this scowl I’m wearing, because I don’t have the energy to fashion my face into a smile quite yet.

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Might as well get up to catch the sunrise

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Mike’s photo of me taking photos.  He came to join me for the sunrise

 

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Some members of the noisy orchestra

It’s a couple hours later now, and I feel like a new person; or rather, the old me again that’s easily happy about everything.  I saw the sunrise over the other islands across the water, went for a walk to explore this enchanting edge of the earth, and am now sitting sipping my first coffee.  And I realized again why I always forget the irritation of the noisy nights when I travel to locations like this – because the daylight’s joys overwrite the night’s negatives.  Always and every time.

So now properly caffeinated and ready to gush about this location I can’t contain my enthusiasm for Tribal Xperience.  Take a look, and I dare you to disagree with me on the perfection of this place.  (At least during daylight hours!)

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Simple huts as Home Sweet Home

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Miss Monkey in a rare capture of calm. I think she likes Mike

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Paradise has won me over again, and I’m already feeling a bit sad to leave tomorrow, which is quite the departure from my feelings while I was lying awake in my bed earlier.  If I ever get so lucky as to return, I’ll re-read this post first so I remember to pack quality ear plugs!!

Port Barton or Bust

Question: How many people can fit in a jeepney?

Answer: One more. Always one more.

This is another thing I love about travelling – noticing the similarities found amidst all the differences. Taking local transportation today has me thinking of this, and how that same wry joke is used around the globe, the only difference might be to swap out “jeepney” for “tuktuk” / “dalla-dalla” / “micros”.  We’re on our way now from Puerto Princesa to Port Barton, and technically in a van rather than a jeepney (though that wouldn’t have had the same ring to start out my post with) but the concept remains the same. After taking a tricycle from the hostel to the station on the outskirts of the city we bought our tickets to Port Barton for only 300 Pesos each and settled into wait for our ride to arrive. When the van did show up, it was already full. We hung back a moment to let the people out, but were instead ushered in. Everyone squashed over another inch and little homemade seats were placed in the aisle between rows. About five minutes of human Tetris ensue inside while luggage is stacked and tied to the top outside the van, but in the end another six adults and a child found a way in and off we go. It’s incredible, and that’s what I’ll keep my focus on rather than the discomfort and potential safety hazards of the upcoming 3 hour journey.

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Our Chariot “Recaro”
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I had a better seat than some – at least mine was cushioned!

The drive is beautiful and I am blissfully alternating between marvelling at the scenery and jotting down thoughts. I have headphones in and am so content I almost forget about the four other strangers sharing my personal space, except when one of us makes the odd comment to another. Between all the lush greenery I watch glimpses of day to day life; farmers working by hand in rice fields, children playing in yards. Or the hues of the blue sky, green palm fronds, bright pastel homes and more blue sea.IMG_0958IMG_7299IMG_7181

Nearly two hours into our journey we turn off the main highway and at the intersection is another backpacker trying to flag down our van. I chuckle to myself as the driver pulls over, expecting him to open the door and show the guy that we’re full. But I forgot that there’s always room for one more. One guy hopped out of his little half-seat and ran around to open the driver’s door, where he wedged himself in between the driver and door! So to keep track, that’s now 19 people in a van designed for 10.

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Playing sardines with strangers

Twenty minutes later and the humour I felt has ratcheted up to tension. The road we turned onto goes inland across to the other side of the island and isn’t paved the whole way, which means a rough bumpy ride across a small mountain range. And since it’s mid-afternoon, the rain has started. Sheets of rain torrent down on us and the road became a slick muddy river. So picture this with me: an overloaded vehicle navigating the rain on a nearly washed out single lane, two way road clinging around a mountain side. I’m almost happy I can’t see out the window anymore, as I’m sure the vision of the looming landslide above and below our little trail would really scare me.IMG_7146

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The road to Port Barton

I’ll distract myself now with thoughts of some other transport stories…. while in Puerto Princesa the best way to get around is on a tricycle, as I’d mentioned earlier. A metal frame just large enough for two people is welded to a motorcycle, often a small Honda trail bike about 150cc. (-ish…. I don’t know much about bikes so I’m guessing off what I might’ve heard Mike say earlier). Every time we’d step outside the hostel several of these tricycles would be waiting to whisk us off to wherever we needed to go for 40-60 Pesos per person. I asked once if I could snap a quick photo before we set off, and the driver nodded his consent, then kinda edged a bit closer in. I picked up on the hint and asked if I could take another with him in it as well and he flashed a huge smile as he posed, grabbed his friend for another photo, and by then the third guy ran up to be included as well. Young men mugging for my camera – I couldn’t help but give a delighted giggle before we set off on our way!!

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Tricycles in Puerto Princesa

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Sharing a moment with the drivers

Back to the present now, and we’re pulling up to a stop at our destination. I’m so relieved we made it on one piece, I don’t even mind that we now need to walk in the rain, with our backpacks, to the other side of the town searching for our next hostel.

All in a day’s adventure.

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Pouring rain when we arrived at the village
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Mike with Jimmy, who showed us the best stalls in town to wait out the worst of the rain

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Cebu City Faux Pas

Arriving at the hotel in Cebu City completely exhausted, I feel like I couldn’t stand up another second longer when the key to the room is handed over. We finally arrived around 7am local time on Friday morning, and considering the roughly 26 hours on the go and the 15 hour time difference I was ready to collapse the second my bed was in sight. But it’s worth it!

Two and a half hours later I’m wide awake again and buzzing with excitement to get out and explore. I think that may have been the deepest sleep I’ve had in recent memory, and I wake up after that nap feeling completely rested and re-energized. Unfortunately, Mike’s still sawing logs… not that I can blame him – he’s not used to lack of sleep the way I am. Trying to keep quiet and not disturb him, I distract myself with my emails and writing for as long as I can sit still, then tiptoe to my backpack and dig out my running shoes. I am convinced that a solid workout is my best way to tackle the jet lag, so off I go.

Our hotel in Cebu has a lovely little pool, and I chose here as our starting-off point exactly for this: it’s nice to have the first day of vacation free to lay around, and preferably on pool loungers basking in the tropical sunshine!

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This isn’t my photo – I took it from the hotel’s Instagram @questhotelcebu  (Somehow I was too busy enjoying the sunshine and a novel to take any photos!)

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It’s the next day now, and I’m back at an airport waiting for a domestic flight to Palawan…. the seemingly endless delays are handy, at the very least, for me to be able to jot down the day.

Cebu is in the middle of a party as we arrived – it’s the Sinulog festival this weekend and everywhere I look there are bright flags and artwork decorating the streets; a distinctive drum-and-xylophone song being played on a seemingly endless loop with costumed dancers weaving through the crowds. Speaking of crowds, we hadn’t realized just how much that would be when we set out to explore after breakfast. I guess our first clue should have been that the roads where we were headed were being closed to vehicles… but we didn’t know what we were getting into and set off anyway to see San Pedro’s Fort and Magellan’s Cross for a bit of local history.IMG_E0946

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Trying to get back in time for our flight was a bit of a challenge as well, as of course by then the streets were entirely closed to traffic.  Mike’s Google Map said it would be about a 35 minute walk so that didn’t seem too bad, and we set off.  Somehow, and honestly I’m still not even sure how we did this, we found ourselves walking upstream against the parade the whole time, even when we tried to veer off to other streets.  Actually, parade’s not even the right word – procession.  Which makes me feel even worse… we’re very sorry for any offence we might have shown.  We at least stopped and faced with the crowds when we noticed a holy image being carried.  It was beautiful, though, and a very humbling experience witnessing the devotion of so many Catholics.IMG_E0948IMG_0950

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That 35 minute walk took us almost an hour and a half; where we uttered sorry/pardon me/excuse us please/I’m so sorry probably about a hundred gazillion times.

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Cebu seems like a really great city, full of a very friendly population and some fun historical sites, but I’m really looking forward to getting out and on to the beaches of other islands!

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AirAsia from Cebu to Puerto Princesa late at night

Soaring Away (Happily)

My soul is tethered to a sail, I think. I feel a tug to follow the wind wherever it may go. There are times of course where that sail is rolled away and stowed, when I need to focus on people or life at home but that connection never severs; waiting, hibernating. And when my soul’s sail unfurls and that rush catches me I can’t help but want to seek out every edge of the earth.

Right now I’m in the Philippines on the island of Palawan, a place that easily lives up to its reputation as The Most Beautiful Island in the World. To say that I’m happy right now is such an obvious understatement it’s almost silly, but there you have it. I’m happy here.

I’ve been anticipating this trip for a long time, as months ago I’d found an incredible deal on flights and bought two tickets on the spot before my brain could tell me not to. I wasn’t sure who my travel companion would be but I was willing to bet I could talk someone into going with me; either that or I’d go alone again since the cost of two tickets was still less than I’d been expecting to spend on only one. And, again, I’m happy with how it’s worked out now that my boyfriend, Mike, decided to leap into travelling with me. He might not have been certain at first on the idea of being on the other side of the world with me but he’s been great – always up for adventure and willing to look for the positives in any situation.

It’s early morning as I write this post, and I’ve been sitting at a small table in the sunny courtyard of the hostel. A few minutes ago a little boy walked up to me to show me something. I smiled at him and was expecting to have to try to kindly tell him I wasn’t buying anything, but he just wanted to show me his toys. In a moment he was sitting down and playing beside me. Happiness personified in a sweet little face, even though he was more interested in playing with the camera than smiling for it. My new buddy, Zander

Yesterday Mike and I were able to see a little more of Palawan when we joined a day trip tour to an underground river. The scenery was spectacular, and while I sat in the canoe marvelling at the mangroves surrounding us the guide would point out something new to notice every few minutes. I loved how proud he was to show us a bit of his world. In fact, I was impressed all around with how well the community of Puerto Princesa has worked to develop sustainable tourism. I don’t know with any certainty but it feels like this area has tried to learn from its other SE Asia neighbours and avoid some of the problems that have plagued other top destinations. I think it’ll be successful, and I hope more people are able to come experience Palawan.Monitor Lizard crossing

How lucky am I that I’m able to soar away with the wind like this? To see the kinds of places filled with a kind-hearted population like this? This wind in my sails is calm and steady again as I contentedly coast along here in the Philippines.

Little Trips

I’ve been feeling a little mopey about the fact that I haven’t been travelling lately, and can give about a hundred reasons why “I deserve” to feel this way… (just look at what I was doing a year ago!) but then it was pointed out to me that it’s not an entirely true fact that I haven’t travelled – more so an opinion of mine.  And so, I guess I have to admit that yes, I did spend a week the Dominican Republic, then a day in Panama, and weekends in Vegas, Jasper, and Seattle.   Fine – if we’re going to get technical I supposed I still have had a pretty great summer adventuring around.  Why is it that I always feel the need to see more, go further, lose myself somewhere new??  (I could easily spiral into all sorts of ridiculous thoughts like; ‘My identity is a traveller: therefore do I lose my identity and fade away when I’m not away?’)

Glossing right past the silly existential questions for now, I want to share some of the moments that stood out for me this summer.  My most recent jaunt was to Seattle for a quick work event, and while I won’t bore you with those details I will tell about my day exploring Seattle’s famous sights.   I may have a grownup job now but I still really enjoy my aimless explorations, and so when I travel on my own I very happily throw planning aside just to see what comes my way.  I chatted with the hotel clerk and found out that I could take the free shuttle to the airport, then hop on the train from there to the centre where I would find the city’s highlights, so that’s exactly where I started.  Stop number one for me was the famous Pike’s Place Market.  I knew it was busy, but I have to admit some shock at JUST HOW BUSY it is!  I did a bit of digging after, and discovered that it’s in the top 40 destinations by visitor number in the whole world.  Crazy! ( Tourism stats )  I liked seeing it, though, even if I was almost equally amazed by the people watching as I was by the oldest continuously operated farmers market in the US.   My wanders took me through the market, along the piers, downtown to coffee shops, past the Space Needle and back to the water.  It’s a pretty city indeed on a sunny August day!

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Moving back in time, I had a previous work event that brought me to Las Vegas.  I’ve been there several times before so this didn’t hold the same wonder and awe for me, but I still had a great time walking the famous strip after dark to marvel at the neon lights, and sitting by the pool with a novel the next morning before my flight home.

 

More exciting for me was July and exploring my own ‘backyard’ in Alberta.  Have you ever been to Jasper before?  It’s stunning.  You should plan a visit.  Even though it’s an easy and scenic 5 hour drive from my front door, I haven’t been since childhood – I generally go to Banff instead, less than 2 hours away from me.  But a long weekend camping trip in the cutest little cabins has me convinced I’ll be back again!IMG_0653

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Continuing in my July adventures at home, I took in some time at the Calgary Stampede.  If this is something else you haven’t heard of, look it up and plan to come.  It’s a huge city-wide party, a cultural homage to our heritage, a thrilling competition and vibrant midway all packed together. ( Calgary Stampede )   And I just love it!

 

Prior to all this I kicked off my summer 2017 down South with a little quality beach time. Thankfully my cousin decided to get married in the Caribbean so I had a chance to visit Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.  I wouldn’t typically chose to go to an All-Inclusive resort, but I was thrilled with the chance to go and celebrate with family and friends.  So often I’m alone when I’m away from home and this made it an extra fantastic treat to be in the middle of a huge group of friends this time.  And now if I ever go to resorts again, I know I’ll want about 40 people I adore there with me.  At least.

Going into this week in Punta Cana, I knew that this would be my last trip with the freedom to just book my own employee-pass standby flights, so I wanted to make the most of it.  I didn’t know exactly how I’d be getting home until the day prior – when I saw that I could fly directly to Panama.  OF COURSE that called my name!  Spending time in Panama would mean that I’ve been to each of the North American/Central America countries and I just couldn’t resist.  (and, I plan to celebrate that milestone again if I ever go to each Caribbean nation.  I haven’t done that yet!)   I didn’t have long, but I made the most of it in Panama by choosing a charming hostel in the Casco Viejo Old Town in central Panama City.  This is the epicentre of the tourism in the city and gave me the freedom to walk and explore.  I loved walking along the bay and taking in the contrast between the glittering new high-rises and the old Latin/Spanish legacy.

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Pretty good for only 14 hours in the country, hey?   I hope I get a chance to go back and see more of Panama.

So looking back with a little more gratitude, I can clearly see that I had a great summer and even one worthy of dusting off my travel blog.    But let me tell you, I have higher hopes for my fall!

 

 

DRC Dreaming

I seem to remember saying that I’d write about my time in Central Africa, way way back and long ago… I’ve been wanting to get to this for ages, but somehow day after day I find myself without a single second to spare for creativity.  Shame on me.  But in my defence, it’s a bit tricky to get wrapped back up in the emotion of travel that took place so many years ago.  I have so many great memories, and I will never forget what it was like when I first opened the door of our aircraft and looked out at the little airport in Kisangani, but I’m struggling with the best way to translate that feeling to these words.

Here we are now, though, ready to zip back through the years and across continents.  I was 22 years old when I first arrived and completely unable to contain my excitement of the adventures ahead of me.  I was so naive to the struggles the Congolese population has had to endure, starting out entirely enamoured with my own thrill of the unknown.  I brushed off the well-meaning concerns from my family, friends, and colleagues; now with a little more maturity I feel bad about the way I handled that.  Remember the invincibility of youth?….    I’ve mentioned in previous posts how I used to be a flight attendant, well that’s also what brought me to the Congo.  The charter airline I worked for won a contract with the United Nations, flying support for the World Food Programme.   (Want to learn more?  Follow this link: WFP in DRC )   So we brought a little propeller airplane from Calgary to the Congo – a four-day journey and quite the story on its own! – and took up residence in a local motel compound in the city.

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Dash 8 in DRC
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That’s me!
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Lots of waiting at airports – finding shade under the wing
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Home Sweet Home

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The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a stunningly beautiful country.  I remember dense forests and jungle, massive rivers, mountains and volcanoes and lakes with shimmering water in jewel tones.  And actual jewels.  The country has so many natural resources, including diamonds and gold, that we would joke about wandering the riverbanks in hope of “accidentally” collecting gems in the tread of our shoes!  One thing absent from my memories of the Congo are wildlife sightings.  The first couple weeks I was there my I had my eyes constantly scanning the forest along the sides of the road hoping to see some of the animals Africa is famous for, but without any luck.  A long history of hunting has meant that very little wildlife remains anywhere near the cities.

Mountains and lakes in the North East
Near Goma
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Congo River
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Daily Drive

 

As a crew, isolated from our families and the familiarity of home we became close over the months we lived in the same compound.  Most of the time two other crews were also living there; I remember crews from South Africa and also from the Netherlands, and we became our own little community inside the high walls of our home motel.  We would have our meals together outside under a thatched roof in the centre courtyard, often sitting around and sharing stories until late in the evening.  I remember one ‘art vendor’ that would come by each Saturday night who must have been friends with the gatekeeper – he was the only one ever allowed to come in and show his wares to us.  We bought paintings and carvings, bracelets and earrings, but drew the line and all gasped in horror the one time he brought us an animal skin.  He seemed genuinely surprised that none of us wanted to buy the leopard pelt he unrolled with another painting.  That really wasn’t at all what I meant when I said I wanted to see animals!

The city of Kisangani is visually fascinating as well.  Home to roughly a million people, give or take by a wide margin, history is a part of daily life as old Belgian-style buildings from the Colonial days stand scarred by bullets and rocket grenades from the decades of conflict.  Take a turn down a side street and you’ll find traditional clay and thatch structures housing modern businesses or families each speaking on cell phones. FullSizeRender 57FullSizeRender 56

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Kisangani commerce

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Kisangani Gas Station
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Kisangani
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The Congo River is part of daily life
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The sweetest little server at an outdoor restaurant.  (photo credit to Jenilee)

And now, while I’m happily reviewing photos, here are a few more of my favourites.  I’m pretty sure these images are more interesting than any words I have left anyway.

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Joy personified

Looking back on it all, I can’t quite believe I got to live life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a place so few Westerners are able to see.   I remember the military, and how we would need to stop everything we were doing twice a day to show respect during the Flag Ceremony, when the country flag was raised in the morning and lowered at night.  I remember seeing small pickup trucks full of young men and machine guns.  I remember kind and generous individuals just happy to show me their home, and being amazed that so many people just seemed to exude happiness in a way I was unaccustomed to.  I remember having to require our passengers, mainly ex-guerrilla soldiers we were bringing to the city to start new lives, to place their guns in the cargo hold of the airplane and my UN provided security/translators trying to explain why an AK-47 couldn’t stay on their lap for the flight.   I remember the friendships I formed during my many months living there.

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Jenilee and I share a taxi

 

Angkor Wat Again

It’s -26 degrees celsius where I live right now, and as if that isn’t horrific enough we have the distinct displeasure of a windchill bringing the feel of the temperature to -33.   Yes that’s actually true and not a typo.  I have a cup of tea, a big cozy blanket, and blinds over the window so I don’t have to see the wintery misery outside; I’m directing my focus solely to happier memories of warmer climates!  And my first trip down memory lane brought me back to Cambodia, which I remember being more along the lines of 30 degrees celsius above zero instead of below.   Ahhhhh, feeling warmer already….

But I don’t think I’m going to write much tonight since I’m feeling much more visual than verbal.  Instead how about a few more of my pictures from Angkor Wat out of the 250 or so I took that day?

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These women came to Angkor Wat to celebrate a Buddhist Holy day.
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Temples hidden in the Jungle
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Ta Prohm temple ruins
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Gentle Guardians
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Ancient Hindu carvings on a temple wall
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216 faces of Buddha carved at Bayon, Angkor Thom
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This sweet Buddhist monk
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Serenity
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Just past a “Beware of Monkey Attack” sign, this cutie appeared
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A tourist (me) with a shot of another tourist taking photos of other tourists
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Angkor Wat