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

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.

Stunning Koh Samui

If I ever run away from home (ok, if I ever run away from home again) and you need to find me for some reason keep this spot in mind as the first place to look for me.  And pack a swimsuit because chances are when you find me, you’ll forget about why you were so keen on dragging me back.  I’ll save a spot on the sand for you. 

Koh Samui, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, is one of those places that’s probably on millions of screen savers as the perfect beach paradise bored workers daydream about.  And it’s even better in real life. 

Here’s a quick disclaimer about this post, though:  I spent a lot of time in a bikini and I’ll be including pictures.  If that’s going to be a problem you should probably skip this post, and return to my blog next week when I’ve returned to my modesty….  

I already mentioned in my last post that I spent a lot of time on the beach here; you may remember that I ruined my iPhone this way.  Tricia and I had 6 glorious days where the cumulative extent of our experience could be summed as such: brunch overlooking the water, beach, pool, beach, dinner overlooking the water, fall asleep to the sound of the air conditioner. (I wanted to say waves but I promised I’d be fully truthful in this blog!)   Oh.  If anyone is trying to plan a honeymoon, apparently this is what you should do.  Someone should get to experience this as romantic!! 

White powder sand beaches.  Crystal clear turquoise water.  Lush forest and dramatic bolders.  Teeny bikinis.   Yes. 

View of the beach
Feeling great!
Looking great!
Us in the sun
Is it more artsy (acceptable) to post without colour?

I shouldn’t say it, but sometimes I wonder why Tricia or I ever bother to wear clothes… (sorry, I did warn you that my modesty was on hiatus…)

There was one day we experienced more than just the beaches.  Good thing, because I’m sure there’s so much more to the island that one could see, if one were to drag themselves away from the perfect coastline.   For example, the Big Buddha. Living up to its apt moniker, this beautiful gold statue is a sight to see.  It’s not my religion, but I love visiting these temples and monuments.  I’m continually fascinated by other cultures; and learning about the way that religion, history, and geography has shaped the lives of the people around me never fails to amaze. 

Big Buddha
Big Buddha
Smaller Buddhas surrounded the base of Big Buddha
Bells surrounded the temple complex
Ringing the bells
Temple top

After spending the afternoon with Big Buddha we were ready to get back to the water, and fortunately found a great restaurant right on the water.  The views bathed in late golden sunlight were equally as delicious as the meals – my kind of place for sure! 

Tamarina Bistro & Bar

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! 

Cambodia: Part Two Angkor Wat

3:40 in the morning and my alarm cuts short the end of my dream; but I don’t mind because I’m about to go experience a real life dream come true!   We’re both a little groggy from lack of sleep and we have a quick deadline that doesn’t leave us much time to get ready – no time even for coffee or breakfast! – but I don’t care at all because nothing can dampen my enthusiasm for getting out to watch the sun rise over the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.  I’m buzzing with a giddy energy, and already envisioning all the epic photos I’ll be able to take.  
The drive from our hotel in Siem Reap to Angkor Wat was about half an hour, and some time during those thirtyish minutes  it started to rain.  The guide made a comment about how nice it was for us to be here in the rainy season, as it meant there would still be water in the ponds. “More much beautiful this way.”    Within three steps of exiting the van the rain intensified and all of us travellers made the instinctual decision to buy the plastic rain ponchos being offered us.  We finally enter the complex and try to get ourselves set up in the best spots for the sunrise photos, mostly by following the crowd of other ponchos and umbrellas.  Apparently we had about 25 minutes before the big moment.  But the rain kept pouring and it was starting to become obvious that we wouldn’t see a bright sunrise through all the rain and clouds.  I had left my umbrella in the room that morning, and the worst part was that I hadn’t forgotten it, I deliberately took it out because I didn’t want to be bothered carrying it all day; that fact added to my mood steadily souring as I tried to shelter my camera with a plastic bag.  Standing in the rain and mud I snapped a few photos but it wasn’t long before I was ready to give up.  Cliche as it is, I kept thinking “man, when it rains it pours!” because my list of little grievances was suddenly flooded.  No Sunrise. No golden photos. Ruining my camera in the rain.  Water dripping down my neck, mud coating my sandals and toes. No coffee or breakfast. Not enough sleep.    I finally bought another umbrella from a vendor because at least that could protect my camera, and didn’t even care that I paid his first price instead of barganing down to a more reasonable price.

Mood of the morning
Angkor Wat in the rain

Our tour group of seven made the unanimous decision to return to our hotel for breakfast in the hopes that the rain would stop during that time, and I’m sooo glad we did.  That was the reset I needed, and by the time we returned I was on my way back to being able to enjoy it all.  The rain did stop, sun came out again, and we were able to explore the three main temple ruins like we had originally planned – Angkor WatAngkor Thom, and Ta Prohm

Throughout the centuries in Cambodia’s history the religion practiced here changed between Hindu and Buddhism depending on who was in power.  It’s left behind an amazing mix of carvings depicting Vishnu and Rama next to statues of Buddha, both hemmed in together by the surrounding dense jungle.  

Hindu and Buddhist
Buddhist monk visiting the temple
Amazing ancient ruins
Monkeys!
Elephants!
The Tomb Raider scene
Ta Prohm temple ruins

The good looking group

Angkot Wat is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and exploring through the complex is still a complete dream come true.   If you ever get the chance to go there yourself don’t pass it up – but just be open to having a different experience than what you may have pictured.   I didn’t get the stunning sunrise photo like   seemingly the rest of the Travel Bloggers were able to but in the end I don’t even miss it.