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!

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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!!

South Sudan – Seriously!

This story might be short, as I only have a handful of days in this next country to write about. Actually, I spent longer waiting for the entrance visa approval than I was actually on location, but somehow this makes it even more thrilling for me that I’m able to drop in on a whim like this.

The relatively new nation of South Sudan is not a place many travellers get to explore. Formed in 2011 when the mostly-christian South split from the Islamic-majority of the rest of Sudan after long civil war, and subject of significant fighting still; conflict has scarred the area. As is often the case in such locations, the United Nations has several disciplines deployed, and most “outsiders” who come to the country have some connection to this work or military. Myself included.

I came with a few preconceived ideas of what I’d expect when I arrived. My company has had staff there since last June, and I saw photos and heard stories, but that does nothing to dampen my subtle excitement when my flight finally touched down in the country’s Capital. I love arriving at airports like this, where I walk off the aircraft outside and immediately feel the atmosphere of the place, then cross the hot tarmac to a crowded concrete room and wait for my luggage, exactly the same as the vastly different people around me. It just feels like the start of adventure to me!

One of the things I knew about the country before I arrived was the red dirt and desert-like conditions. But as it turns out, South Sudan is much more diverse than I’d originally thought. I only spent my short time in 2 cities, but I was told that “next time” I come back I must go see the national parks and wildlife migrations and the river deltas and mountains. So hopefully one day I can!

In the midst of this city is a gorgeous oasis, The Acacia Village Hotel in Juba. I had two nights here and would have happily stayed way longer if the choice were up to me! I spent my free time birdwatching in the courtyard and consuming my body weight in tropical fruit. But this wasn’t a vacation I could extend, and early Monday morning the base manager took me to get my access ID and off to the next location for work.

My company has an aircraft and crew here, and my job was to ensure we were operating properly and as safely as possible, and to also check in with and encourage the crew who have been working here. It’s one thing for me to pop in to places like this for a few days; easy for me to romanticize and enjoy, but I have no doubt it would be significantly different to regularly spend 6 week rotations working in conflict conditions. I give them credit.

There’s not much I can actually write publicly about work details or the area we were at, but I do want to take you on a quick tour of “home base”. Here’s a snapshot of life as I saw it.

At the camp we’d often see these birds – which were equally fascinating and frightening. I’m not sure it’s clear from my photos, but picture a vulture about 4 feet tall. Eek!

I have so much more that I wish I could write about my four and a half days here, it was an absolute whirlwind and I feel like I was there for double that time. If you see me in person feel free to ask me to share more stories.

Until next time,

Ali.

Gallipoli

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

These war memorials get me every time.

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

Difficult terrain added to the troops’ problems

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

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

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

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

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

Paying respects

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

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

– Atatürk, 1934

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

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…

 

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(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.

Moving Forward

Forget Your Past.  I hear well meaning people say things like this a lot, and it’s generally really good advice, in the context it’s meant.  Or, it’s hard to spend 10 minutes online without seeing some variation of this as an inspirational poster:   Don’t Look Back.    Yes, yes. By all means, do not get so tangled worrying about your past mistakes that you tie up today.

I’ve been thinking a lot about moving forward again lately, so of course I’ve heard heaps of this.  I appreciate the advice, I do.  I’m just feeling contrary right now.  There’s so much still that I want to be able to remember with a smile, or tears when they come; and I think I may even be in a phase where I need to look to my personal history in order to figure out my best next moves.  Some of this I mean tongue-in-cheek, too, like how I need to look back at my past travels in order to sustain me through this current flightfamine I’m in.  Travel is my personal nourishment, and I’m fading away – my malnourished sense of adventure dwindling daily while I drudge to my desk.

So my next few posts will be all about looking back in order to move forward.  First step: Get deliciously lost in my memories and daydreams of previous trips while I look to start writing here again.  Second step: Gain back some momentum with my travel blog, thus inspiring myself enough again to find a way to convince my employer I’m due for a week (at least) off.  Third: Pounce on that time off and zip away to explore some more of this big beautiful world, camera and laptop in tow for the blog!     And in that happy frame of mind again, I fully expect to be able to sort out all these other life details I need to get to.

So that’s what I’m going to do.  I can’t wait to tell you about my time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo!