Ali on an airplane

It’s early on a Tuesday morning at the moment, and I’m wedged into a tiny economy seat somewhere above the Alps. I’m pretending I’m a giant right now, with my long long legs folded up (gracefully, of course) nearly knees to nose and my elbows tucked in tight to my rib cage to avoid accidentally bashing any of the posse of passengers around me. In a way I have to be thankful for modern air travel – because the reality is I’ve got rather short legs and in a strange silly way I’m quite enjoying this moment of make-believe that I’m suddenly in possession of long lovely limbs! Who would’ve ever expected to be happy for airlines condensing the seats for increased capacity?!

Not long from now I’ll be touching down and disembarking at Dubrovnik, Croatia. And I realized just now that I have absolutely no idea what I’ll do or where I’ll go when I arrive! This trip has come about quickly and I haven’t spent any time yet looking up or making any plans. Typically I’ll book a room for my first night before I arrive… but I forgot to do that this time!

Honestly this is how I love to travel. I have no timeline or itinerary, no work to think about, and all my decisions can be entirely in the moment if I want. Look at me embracing the mindfulness movement!

—————————————-

Several hours later now and I’m settled into my bunk bed at a hostel in the city. It’s been a while since I’ve stayed in a dorm room-style hostel, but I’ve got a privacy curtain around my bed, a light and and outlet to charge my phone, and wifi so that’s all I need! I know I’m about a million years older than the rest of my roommates, but it doesn’t matter. I feel like since I’m in the same stage of life – unencumbered and trying to figure out what to do now with the rest of my life – that it gives me a pass to be here too!

I spent the afternoon walking around Dubrovnik, not the famous walled Old City yet, I’ll save that for later, but along the pier and around the central city. It’s beautiful here. The sea and the rolling mountains clamouring for space, white stone buildings with red tile roofs wedged in with a wild array of trees everywhere. A light rain started to fall while I was still out, the kind that doesn’t seem to soak but is just enough to add a sheen of sparkle to the world.

First glimpse of Dubrovnik
Take a Shuttle from the airport, only 45kn (€6)

As I was walking this evening, I chatted with someone who said that Mostar is a great place to go on an easy day trip from Dubrovnik. The weather here is supposed to be rainy again tomorrow so I decided I’d take up that suggestion and go! Bosnia and Herzegovina here I come!!

Via 8 hours in Shanghai

Destination: Cebu City in central Philippines, departing from Calgary, western Canada. That takes a lot of travel time between the two, especially when one is travelling on extra cheap tickets that aren’t as direct as could be otherwise. But do I mind? Nope – not a bit! In fact, I’m rather pleased with how it turned out, and that was even before I realized we totally won the Economy Flight Seat Lottery. You know how when you’re walking up to your departure gate and just hoping that the person who sits beside you holds similar beliefs in hygiene & personal boundaries as yourself… that’s hoping for a win in modern economy flying. And somehow on these flights Mike and I scored the jackpot: a free upgrade on the first flight, then an entire row of four seats to ourselves where we could stretch out and sleep on the next flight, and the only empty seat on the plane next to me on the last flight. The whole time I kept thinking how grateful I was for these little perks!!

I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if some of that luck may have been due to the agent who first checked us in. As he flipped through my passport he commented on how full it was, and we bantered briefly about my expensive addiction, then his face changed to mock shock when he saw Mike’s empty passport. The three of us shared a laugh about the drastic contrasts in our experiences before he wished us a happy journey and we rushed off to clear security.

Our itinerary included a nearly eight-hour stopover in Shanghai before the last flight, and I was fairly confident that would give us enough time to escape the airport so Mike could get a little taste of China. I had been a couple years earlier, and loved Shanghai, so I was excited about showing that to someone new. Generally a tourist visa is required ahead of time to enter China, but select cities will permit travellers with confirmed onward tickets 72 hours to visit the city. Our luggage was tagged all the way through to Cebu so we didn’t need to worry about hauling that around with us, and there is a separate line in the customs hall for temporary transit visas that moved quite quickly.

The easiest way to the city’s famous sights from the airport is to take the Maglev train. The station connected to the airport has a display where I learned all about the Maglev – for instance, that’s short for Magnetic Levitation – and this train reaches speeds of 430 km/hour. I loved that we could skip an hour-long cab ride for eight minutes on the train! Mike loved the train.Maglev Mike

After the Maglev we transferred to the underground metro, and then up to East Nanjing and the hub of tourism in Shanghai. It’s a little like Times Square with the busy pedestrian streets full of towering shops and bright digital ads… but unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of this – so I’m supplementing with shots from the last time I was there to at least give some visual…

 

IMG_7468
(Pretend this is a night in January and not a day in June)

After some rubbernecking and shopping we continued to walk through the light drizzle to the Bund, along the river.   Such a beautiful area.  One side is lined with huge old colonial buildings, majestic and stately; the other side across the river is a dazzling contrast of playful ultra-modern skyscrapers. IMG_0938IMG_0935

Strolling several blocks along the Bund, dodging selfie sticks wielded by other tourists and stopping for our own photos (ok, and selfies) we soaked up as much of the city’s sense as we could in the short time we had.  Circling back to the metro we caught the trains and returned to the airport, just in time to buy more coffee and board our last flight to the Philippines.  Perfect.

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.

FullSizeRender 51
Dash 8 in DRC
untitled-3074 (1)
That’s me!
untitled-3293
Lots of waiting at airports – finding shade under the wing
untitled-2950
Home Sweet Home

FullSizeRender 58

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
untitled-3907
Congo River
untitled-3569
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

FullSizeRender 53
Kisangani commerce

FullSizeRender 55

untitled-3860
Kisangani Gas Station
untitled-3570
Kisangani
FullSizeRender 54
The Congo River is part of daily life
untitled-3125
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.

Alison's Congo pics 087DSC00886DSC00897untitled-3064

DSC00887
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.

untitled-3351
Jenilee and I share a taxi

 

Sighing over Singapore 

Today’s post is starting out with an early morning airplane selfie… the shine in my eyes showing my excitement to be flying again after so many bus journeys lately!  (Well, that, and also I think I had a grease smudge on my camera from my breakfast croissantwich.  Tempted to leave the smudge – who needs a fancy beautifying app when a fingerprint over the lens hides wrinkles?!) 

Said flight was on JetStar Pacific, taking us from Ho Chi Minh to Singapore.  The final destination of the day was actually Phuket, but we broke up our travels with a long layover – just enough time to get a feel for the city highlights.    

With 6 hours to spare, the first thing we did after clearing customs in Singapore was drop our backpacks at the Left Luggage lockers and bought a train ticket to get ourselves downtown.  (One little asside I’ll mention here: even though the individuals we met in Singapore were all very lovely, customer service staff seemed less inclined to be helpful.  At the airport and again at the station we would get to the front of a line only to be told in a disinterested voice to “go to the counter there”.   This happened about 6 different times!)

Finally on the train I alternated between idly people-watching the commuters and reading the notices posted on the walls.  I wanted to show you, but one of the first signs I saw said No Taking Pictures.  While on the train it’s also important not to talk loudly or obscenely, don’t carry strong smelling food, no eating or drinking ($500 fine), no smoking ($1000 fine), no flammable goods ($5000 fine).   The effort to create a utopian state seems to work from a quick glance by an outsider; but later in the day our cabbie seemed to hint the control went a bit to far.  He said there are people out to watch all the time and will report anyone for the slightest infraction.  I’m curious, but I don’t know enough about the freedoms or lack thereof in the country to question for further comment.

This may seem strange after the previous sentence, but I couldn’t help but love Singapore while I was there.  I felt like I could easily live in the bustling downtown as an expat for a year or two, near a beautiful harbour and world famous gardens.  I just might google job opportunities in Singapore when I get home…. 

When Tricia and I first left the train and began walking around Marina Bay I couldn’t stop ooohing over it all.  I saw joggers on the boardwalk around the bay, and busy business people taking their lunch breaks on outdoor patios.  The gardens, of course, and the museums and the skyscrapers with cranes and cruise ships docked in the distance.   It was love at first sight for me.   Like any new love, in my besottedness I made some bad decisions; namely ordering an $18 drink just because I wanted a Singapore Sling in Singapore.  I could feel the bartender rolling his eyes at me from my table outside, but the waiter was happy!  I didn’t even like the drink, now I’m the one rolling my eyes at myself….

Skip the Sling

And without further ado, my shots from a quick walk around between flights.

On my way to pose nicely, but I ended up liking this shot best. Thanks Tricia
These are real – not plastic! photo credit to Tricia
Enjoying the sky gardens
Marina Bay Sands and the Merlion
Marina Bay Sands hotel


I wish I had captured more photos, but I chose to leave my camera behind and walk around lighter for the day.    So you might not know it from this post but I still remember:  Singapore is a beautiful place! 

En route 

One of my favourite ways to pass the time is to people watch, especially when cultural differences are at play.  Thankfully, 25 hours of travelling have given me ample opportunity to sit back and observe!  My route took me from Calgary to Vancouver where I met up with Tricia (more on that later!) to Beijing, and finally to Bangkok.  During the 10.5 hour flight across the Pacific I was reminded again that the North American concept of personal space is something I’ll need to say goodbye to for the next three weeks.  I had a window seat and when I indicated to my two seat mates that I needed to get up, they both smiled at me, collected some of their items, and leaned back in their seats.  It took me a moment to realize they expected me to climb over them, since I was expecting them to stand up and move to the aisle to let me pass.  And so I did my best to delicately walk past/over these two strangers without stepping on their feet or touching their legs or having too much of my body in their faces.  No easy feat in economy class.  I was trying to decide which way is more appropriate – should I have faced away from them or toward them as I clambered across their laps??Apparently they were unfazed because when I returned to my seat we repeated the whole hoopla again in reverse.

My friend Tricia was with me, but we weren’t able to get seats together on the flight due to an error I made earlier.  Too bad… I had anticipated using those hours to get her opinion on the various details of my messy life!  Instead I watched a Chinese movie by reading the subtitles and noticed throughout the film that the characters showed affection by teasing each other.  Maybe we’re not that different after all…

Are you wondering what error I would have made to keep us from sitting together?  For a self-proclaimed “travel expert” I sure pulled a boneheaded move; one that almost cost her missing the flight!!  Here’s the scenario that I’m super embarrassed to admit.  If you remember a couple weeks ago, I had both of our passports after bringing them to Ottawa in order to get our entry visas for Vietnam.  The plan was for me to make a trip up to visit her before our departure and I could bring her passport, but due to some recent chaos at home I ran out of time for that.  So, I told her she could just use her drivers license to fly from Edmonton to Vancouver, where I meet her, then I’d hand her her passport for our international flights.   Yeah… that was really bad advice.  She was able to check in for the domestic flight using other ID, but was not allowed to be checked through the connecting flights, meaning her her luggage needed to be picked up at the baggage claim after landing in Vancouver then hurried over to check in for the next flights, all while still making making it past the security line ups and back to the gate in time for boarding.  There was only an hour for all this to happen, and while she was running around dealing with it I spent the whole time worrying and kicking myself for not considering a potential negative outcome prior.   Thankfully, Tricia was able to charm the right people into helping her, and she arrived at the gate with minutes to spare!  But because she was the last person to check in for the flight we couldn’t get seats together.   But as she said after we were both onboard “we made it!  If this is the worst hiccup we face on the trip we’ll be in great shape!” 

Next post from Bangkok Thailand! 

BFFs arrived in Bangkok

Not much personal space

Snapshots of the Canadian Arctic

Next week I’ll be jetting off to South East Asia so pretty soon I’ll have all sorts of new posts, but right now I want to run back through my archives and write about some old experiences.  I missed #ThrowbackThursday… how about #FondmemoryFriday ?  Can that be a thing??  #Way-back-whenWeekend ?   Whatever we’re calling it, I’m taking you along as I reminisce on my time North of the Arctic Circle.

My memory was triggered last week when I visited the National Gallery in Ottawa and viewed the Inuit Art exhibit.  Beautiful collection, by the way.   I think I’ve mentioned in this blog that my previous career took me to all sorts of locations, and one of those was the Canadian Arctic.  This is a unique world unlike anything else I have ever experienced and I consider myself spectacularly fortunate to have had the chance to be there.

ali-in-the-arctic
This map is from the Inuit Art Exhibit.  I added in the stars at the communities I’ve been to

In 2007 and 2008 the company I worked for had a contract with one of the airlines serving remote Arctic communities, and I would spend two weeks at a time on rotation up North.  Dramatic landscapes, extreme temperatures, different languages, new foods – there were many times I had to stop and remind myself I was still in my own home country!  (At least until I started talking with someone again: I found Canadian Inuit people to be very generous and friendly!)    In summer the sun doesn’t set, and 24 hour daylight is something that takes some time to get used to.   But that’s a much easier adjustment than winter, where the constant darkness is made even worse by the incomprehensible temperatures.  (Negative 45 degrees Celsius in not uncommon during winter!)

1909996_29595465200_2658_n
A 10 minute walk in Yellowknife left me frosty
1929457_42562725200_8270_n
Beautiful Spring day in Yellowknife
1929457_42562830200_5322_n
Cambridge Bay, March 2008
DSC01717
Glaciers and mountains
DSC01764
Glaciers, lakes and mountains
DSC01762
Flying over glaciers and mountains
DSC01731
Pond Inlet Airstrip
DSC01813
Pond Inlet in Summer
DSC01792
Kids of Clyde River
DSC01747
This shop always made me giggle – I love the irony
DSC01712
Iqaluit, Baffin Island, in August.  Notice all the icebergs in the bay
DSC01773
An Inukshuk marking the way
DSC01797
Something magic about the Arctic

 

In the air & alliteration 

I’m back in my natural habitat again – on an airplane at 37,000 feet above ground.  It’s a red eye flight, overnight across the country, and despite the loss of sleep I love these flights when the cabin is all dark and cozy and quiet.  Out the window on my left I have the most spectacular view of the Northern Lights, and I’ve been watching them dance across the sky parallel to this plane for more than an hour now.  I wish I could show you the vibrant green lights bending and weaving through the glow and the tiny orange lights from the towns below glittering up. I tried to get some photos, but I only have my iPhone and not my real camera so the shots just ended up a blank black blur of nothing.  It’s breathtaking, but you’ll just have to take my word for it…. So instead I took a selfie. I needed something to show!

The lady sitting beside me has a book of crossword puzzles and I’ve never witnessed anyone whiz through a crossword so quickly!  I’m a little awestruck.  This is going to sound pretty nerdy, but I’m an eensy-bit envious and wish I had my own book of crossword puzzles…. Back in my days as a full-time flight attendant I loved the moments after service was complete when I could sit with the newspaper and work on a crossword puzzle, between jumping back up to refill a coffee cup (generally a pilot’s).   Not that it happened too often, but the times I was able to complete the crossword everyone would hear me crowing about it!  And other days those spare moments after service were spent just gossiping over trashy tabloids; I liked to keep myself well rounded!! Ha…. 

My flight will be landing soon so I’m going to wrap this up.  Short and sweet this time!  I’ll have more from Ontario coming up next time.