Pura Vida in Costa Rica with Heather, and Pants aka J Rock aka Jackie aka JjjaaaCQueLINUH (said in a very French, high pitched, haughty, pearl clutching kind of way).

What do I do if I encounter a Jaguar? What is that demonic screaming snarling sound?  No but like actually…what makes that sound?  What do I do if I come face to face with such a creature?  Why am I walking unaccompanied in this forest?  What do I do if there’s a BIRD?????????? Heart racing, hyperventilating, vision blurring, blood pumping in my ears; the terror inducing thoughts of unidentified BIRDS becomes all encompassing…breathe through it like a LaMaze class in the movies, hehehooooooo…keep walking everything will even out soon.

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In Tortuguero the jaguar population exceeds the number of police, in July 2017, it was 13 jaguars to 7 police; this is both a comfort and concern.  A comfort because Tortuguero is such a safe little hamlet that at once reminds me of my hometown, Harrington Harbour (very tame) and also a pirate port town straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean…but with souvenir shops and less public urination.  A concern because how do so few police protect a town surrounded nay besieged by ferocious wildlife?

Tortuguero is only reachable by boat, an approximately 1-hour ride down a winding river mostly bordered by thick jungle; you immediately get the feeling that you are going some place special and even after 10 hours of bus travel, it was still really exhilarating.  The only thing I knew about Tortuguero before going was that it was the turtle place…very scientific I know… basically the beach that borders one side of the town is a nesting place for different types of sea turtles and that one of the most prominent sea turtle conservation projects is located on the island.  You can go on night walks to see the turtles nesting on the beach, I don’t remember why we didn’t go although I do remember attempting to go on our own nightwalk.

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After spending a little too much time at the local Tavern…aptly named La Taberna, we crept out on to the pitch black beach and started walking down, but then one of us started asking questions such as, what if we’re not allowed here at night, what if we see a turtle….do they snap…what if I step on an egg and hurt a baby turtle…what if we see a Jaguar…What if there’s a BIRD!!!!!   (In case you’re wondering-I’m petrified of birds) I’m the farthest thing from a Steve Irwin wildlife enthusiast-animals belong in the wild but I probably don’t. Birds belong in a museum, with the dinosaurs…I like dogs…that’s it.  I’ve been on safari, but other than a strange desire to have a face to face, telepathic moment with a Lioness, I was happy to be inside the jeep.  What then, was I doing wandering around a National Park on foot without a ranger or guide of any kind listening to the screams from the 7th level of Inferno ringing out through the dense bush, potential Jaguar encounters around every bend and certain standoffs with BIRDS?!?!?!?!?!  I really don’t know, I was just following Jackie and Heather, they didn’t know what to do in case of Jaguar encounters either but I figured as native Floridians they’d certainly have instinctual survivalist skills at their disposal.

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We walked slowly, examining the tiny creatures skittering about, and hoping to spot a sloth.  Suddenly there was a tremendous sound of crashing leaves and branches as an anteater took a dramatic tumble out of a tree.  The startled little animal came rushing out onto the path cutting us off from one another, we all scrambled to the right and left trying to get out of it’s way while at the same time taking pictures.  Turns out Jackie and Heather had the same amount of instinct as me, none; the 3 of us hopped from one foot to the next going “Ah OMG!”.  Jackie tried to take a video of the little guy but he wasn’t into it and in his frenzied panic to get the EFF outta there, he reared up on his hind legs and took a swipe towards ol’Pants with his exceptionally long claws;  Jackie squealed and ran off, I ran a little one way turned and snapped a picture of the anteater chasing Heather in the opposite direction and then took off running and didn’t stop until I was sure I was not being followed.

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I waited for my companions to catch up and then we continued exploring, peering into the depths of the forest curious about what we couldn’t see but could probably see us.  The air was thick but the canopy brought sufficient shade for the temperature to be pleasant and the flora was fascinating enough to keep me focused on my surroundings and not the sweat rolling down my back.  Costa Rica is one big Botanical Garden but without the handy placards that tell you what the plants are.  Not having any interest in botany- I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever had, I killed a cactus; I have no idea what any of the plants were. Heather pointed out the delicate spider lilies, and I thought the rubbery, spiky red plants were really cool so I spent some time trying to photography them just right.

Movement in my periphery, faint rustle of leaves, I turn my head slowly for I am not really sure I want to see what’s there. Suddenly my spine seizes sending jolting electric shocks through my cranium, my eyes burning hyper focused, ears ringing, completely paralyzed with panic; I see a dark mass through the foliage.  As my eyes adjust I notice the curved neck, silky plumage, soulless eyes, pointy beak and the unmistakable strut of a BIRD!!! Oh Gawd, there’s 2, no 3 of them… a veritable nest of the demon species.  They appear to be flightless birds but I can’t be sure, usually that means they can run faster than Usain Bolt.  They don’t appear to have noticed me yet, I quicken my pace but soften my footsteps willing myself to blend in, trying not to let the breeze send my scent towards them, can birds smell?  Swiftly I move down the path, gliding smoothly on a steady stream of fear until I feel I have put enough distance between myself and those things.  Violently shaking and stomping off the intense NO! feeling that birds always give me, I took my first breathe in minutes and pushed onward.

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Still get that NO! feeling

The rest of the walk was uneventful, really quite serene actually after all the panic.  The screaming had stopped, I forgot about anteaters, Jaguars, and BIRDS and just tried to absorb nature.  I used to be quite the little explorer as a child, I would follow my big brother into the woods on our bikes, stomp around the rocks and cliffs and scramble around like a little Billy goat to my heart’s content, never scared or uncomfortable being far from the sights and sounds of civilization.  Somehow through my own personal evolution, I developed into the kind of person who feels uncomfortable in the wilderness. Was it a result of the increasing list of paranoias adults develop from watching the news, from fear of the unknown, or had I become too citified?.  Every time I immerse myself  in nature, be it the jungle, on a mountain, floating in the ocean; I vow to not wait so long to return next time but inevitably I go back to the hustle and bustle and I forget all about the cleansing comforts of the natural world.  I had a particularly joyous hour or two in Nepal when I thought I might just stay in those mountains forever, or the time I wanted to remain blissed out in the serene turquoise waters of Zanzibar, and this time in Tortuguero National Park I at last found solace in the lush greenery.

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Eventually I had to pee and since Jackie and Heather were taking too long, I hustled back to the park’s starting point alone…not once did I get scared though … post anteater episode, my wildlife anxieties receded; I mean if I could take on an anteater and live to tell the tale than certainly a bird or a Jaguar would be no match for me.  Upon returning to the entrance/exit of the National Park I saw the infographic that details how you survive a Jaguar encounter…turns out you raise your arms above your head and back away very slowly…NEVER turn your back on a Jaguar!. I thoroughly wished I had read this before entering the park as I realized the only wildlife survival method I knew was for polar bears (pretend you’re a rock); I definitely would have been eaten.  I forgot to mention the crocodiles in the river, that was another danger; fortunately I know you have to run in a zigzag and possibly climb a tree or is that for alligators or same same…

High in the trees above the entrance to the park, a gang of monkeys were swinging around with out a care, making adorable silhouettes against the blue sky.  Jackie and Heather took forever getting back but I didn’t mind because there were monkeys to keep me entertained.

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Tortuguero is a world all its own in Costa Rica; after arriving by river boat, you must walk to whatever accommodation you’ve rented-it won’t be a far walk; I think it would take approximately 20-30 minutes to circle the entire town on foot. There are no cars in town, there are no roads, only foot and bicycle paths. Where you get off the river boat there is an open area like a plaza, bordered by shops and restaurants and you can go either right or left to find more shops, restaurants, and accommodations.

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The action is on the riverside where you arrive, a 5-minute walk straight from the river will take you to the beach where it is mostly housing and hotels.  You can’t swim in the ocean here due to strong currents and sharks (people have died) and you cannot swim in the river either because of crocodiles (people have also died).

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We ate breakfast at a cute little restaurant right on the main strip near the plaza, I don’t remember the name of it but at the time (July 2017) they were holding yoga classes as well and it was very close to the center of town. We also ate at Soda Dona Maria which is attached to someone’s house.  I recommend both-food critic I am not but I loved the simplicity of the food in Costa Rica. Beans, salad, rice, plantains, and fish-all lightly seasoned.IMG-5634

We stayed at Cabinas Balcon Del Mar Tortuguero, which is on the ocean side of Tortuguero, very calm and clean, the owners were friendly and helpful and there were plenty of hammocks to go around.  Nothing says vacation like an end of the day beer in a hammock while reading or journaling; breathing sea salt air and listening to the surf crash onto the sand. The ultimate luxury in life is drifting off to the sounds and smells of the ocean, whether I’m in a shack or a 5-star resort.

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Our nights were spent dancing at La Taberna-rather Heather and Jackie danced and I pretended to enjoy the music but was really just happy to be there.  La Taberna both blends and stands out of its surroundings.  The architecture is quintessential river bayou-the back wall opening out into a terrace reaching out over the river. The décor can only be described as a divey disco/strip club on acid, complete with the neon silhouette of a nude women with a red thong wrapped around her ankles painted onto a black wall. Turns out I am really not into Salsa dancing, I loved absolutely everything about Costa Rica except the dancing.  I was hoping, seeing as how we were on the Caribbean side, that there would be a little more Reggae/Dancehall but I think everyone likes salsa because it’s a good excuse to socialize…so then only the weirdos wanted to talk to me because I didn’t want to dance with anyone!  I did have fun looking out over the river playing spot the croc in the moonlight.

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As small as Tortuguero is, I definitely could have spent a solid week hanging out, reading, writing, exploring, and avoiding wildlife.

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In case by this point you think I am a crazy, paranoid loser, well you’d be partially right but I’ll leave you with this anecdote from a tour guide in San Jose.

“My Uncle went to Tortuguero and one night he came back to his hotel and there were police outside his room. He asked what was happening and if he could go inside and the police said, well sure you can go in but there is a Jaguar on your bed!”

DSC_0400Zanzibar can take you by surprise, you think it’s going to be just another beach vacation but after a day you realize that you have never felt so relaxed in your life.  In Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, these beach destinations are over crowded with young backpackers and vacationers. In Zanzibar people are just living, moving, loving, feeling, all in the moment, there is no frenzy, everyone smiles and says Jambo!  Zanzibarians are friendly, happy, their laughs are genuine and without reservation, conversation is fluid and help is always offered without strings.

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For the budget conscious traveller wanting to partake in a few beach parties, Paje and Jambiani, on the South East coast of the island is a sure bet. The South East Coast is a beautiful refuge away from the hustle and bustle of Stone Town and the touristy Kendwa Rocks on the North end.  At times it feels like you are on your own private beach in Paje and other times during peak season (December) you still feel like you’re at an exclusive resort even though the whole beach is open to all.  In Paje there are no resorts that take over the waterfront leaving only a small crowded strip of sand for locals.  There are beach front hotels but they do not own the beach, you can set up in front of them, order food and beverages or not. You can walk down the beach at night and pop into various beach parties happening all over Paje, although normally the main party is at a different club each night.  At these parties you’ll be sure to find tons of people from all over, dancing barefoot to Swahili music, sweating buckets, drinking Kilimanjaro beer, and greeting everyone with a smile.  There are no glow sticks and toxic buckets of liquor but there are energetic people and freshly made, passion fruit cocktails.

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The tide goes out far in the morning making it difficult to go for a swim but once the tide comes back in, you can go bliss out in a colour field of turquoise sea and blue sky, the likes of which you won’t experience anywhere else.  25 USD will afford you a wonderful day out on the ocean on Zanzibar’s famed Blue Safari, you will snorkel over a coral reef discovering weird little fish and eat fresh fruit on the boat.  Just ask the hotel front desk/bar and they will set you up.  There are other tours as well; Spice Island tours where they take you to a spice farm to learn about how they are grown and you can taste test the local delicacies.  Another tour will take you through the Jozani Forest, one of the last places to see the Red Colubus Monkey, and lastly, a tour through history in Stone Town. I highly recommend spending a day or two in Stone Town; the tiny winding streets are a maze you want to get lost in; discovering buildings that are relics of colonial occupation, and the Omani style doors that are a throwback to the time of Oman’s rule of the island.  There is a wonderful little bookshop and café across the street from the post office on what appears to be the main street of Stone Town; you’d be remiss not to peruse the books and sit down for an iced coffee or eat local avocado and mango salad on a terrace overlooking Stone Town’s public beach.  Right before sunset walk down to the beach for a swim, before the evening football games pop up all along the beach.

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End your day in Stone Town at Taparia, a lovely wine bar, with their doors and windows open to the breeze light music playing in the background and groups of NGO workers discussing their cause at a gorgeous wooden table straight out of any home décor fantasy.

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Beachside Cafe Stone Town

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Walking along the waterfront in Stone Town

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Walking along the waterfront in Stone Town

In Paje, I stayed at New Teddy’s Place; I had wanted a private room but having just shown up instead of booking ahead, they only had dorm beds left. A little dejected I entered the dorm and realized that this was no overcrowded hostel in Spain but a civilized co-living arrangement; only 8 beds-no bunk beds, a power outlet at each and a large shelf dividing each bed space. For 3 days and nights of accommodation, food, and drinks I spent 140 USD, it was surprising how little I spent considering I was not trying to be frugal at all and obviously if I had been buying some of my own food at the grocery store and not drinking much I could have spent way less.  My daily routine was to wake up, go to the bar, eat my free breakfast, have a blended iced coffee and then take my book to the beach for a few hours of reading in the shade.  Once the tide came in I would head out for a swim and then come back in for avocado, mango salad.  Afterwards I would go up to the elevated lounge area and read or sketch and take a nap. Later on I would shower, eat dinner (usually fresh grilled fish, and then the party would start and I would sit and chat with travellers and locals until the end.  I walked into town only once, for sunscreen and discovered to my delight, that the little supermarket is air-conditioned, so if you need to cool down a bit, head to the supermarket.

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Usually at the end of a vacation I feel ready to go back to my home and life but this time I felt like I was being torn away from my happy place; I have never before or since felt so zen as I did during those lazy days on the beach.  When presented with the opportunity to revisit Zanzibar, I jumped on it immediately.  This time I went back with 2 friends, we stayed at New Teddy’s place but in a triple private room.  I booked the room 3 months in advance but New year’s eve is so busy that we had to move hotels for that night, we stayed at Summer Dream Lodge,which was nice but the dorm was huge and packed, I wouldn’t opt to stay there in a dorm again but would in a pinch go for a private room, mostly because they were a little ways to the beach compared to many other places in Paje.  Summer Dream did prepare an amazing seafood Barbeque for New Year’s Eve complete with lobster, crab, prawns, and fish for about 15-20$, worth every penny!  The big New Year’s party was at Jambo Beach Huts; it seemed like everyone in Paje and surrounding area was there, the music was awesome (as it usually is in Tanzania) and people were generally just joyous and content with life.

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NYE BBQ at Summer Dream

New Teddy’s Place menu had changed and the food was not as good this time, less fresh fish, more burgers and whatnot so we opted to head out for dinner down the beach.  DO NOT be in a hurry for food in Zanzibar, I swear they must actually be out fishing for our dinner because every time it would take about 2 hours to get food; you’re on Hakuna Matata time so just be chill and wait, it’s usually worth it.  At one restaurant we sat down to order and some haughty woman walked by us and said “Don’t expect to get your food for 2 hours” in a very rude manner, in front of the server/probably owner and then she proceeded to trip over something to which we all thought..Karma!  The server just kind of shrugged and walked away, later when he brought us our food he said “Sorry it’s late but this is Africa” to which we replied “Hakuna Matata,” because we’re on vacation, without anywhere pressing to be, no need to be hostile. If you want fast food in Zanzibar you’re out of luck; even a cocktail will take 10 minutes to make because they are literally cracking open the fruit and blending everything fresh, it’s quality over convenience.

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Zanzibar is the place to go if you want to lose yourself, in a paradise that envelopes you in their culture and makes you feel like you could exist there and not want for anything, except the occasional blast of air conditioning and a lifetime supply of SPF 100.

Delights of the Delta

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Motorbikes whizzed past me so close I could feel my nose hairs tingle, most of them carrying loads 5 times the size of a human, on paths wide enough for 1 bicycle. I looked at my friend with raised eyebrows, silently questioning her sanity pondering my decision to ride a bicycle on these paths for the next 4 days.

I readjusted my bike shorts, briefly wondering if this is what life in Adult Diapers would feel like; threw one leg over my GT Hybrid and set off into the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.

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Sweaty, Dusty, Dirty, Sore Butt Bones…still the best way to spend a day!

“BIG BIKE” shouted Tan, our guide. Big Bike meant motorcycle and to move to the farthest sliver of the bike path, even if that meant teetering on the edge of the river.  “LITTLE BIKE” meant, pedal bike and to just move over a little so we could pass each other safely.  “BIG BIG BIKE” meant motorcycle overloaded with Durian or some other fruit meant get to the edge and stop moving unless you want to suddenly be missing a limb or two.  Tan would also frequently shout out “HEAD” indicating low hanging branches and fruit up ahead, and the other warning heard frequently was ‘BRIDGE’.  The bridges were usually narrow concrete arcs crisscrossing the river and tributaries.  The first time we came to one of these bridges, neither my friend or I felt brave enough to ride over it so we dismounted and walked across like a couple of newbies.  Once we adjusted to our surroundings and realized that there would be many, many more bridges in our future, we took a deep breath and flew over the next bridge. Like ripping off a band-aid except less painful, more cold sweat inducing, panic stricken, and altogether nerve wracking as you pedal up the arc, summit and then careen down to the other side.  Once safely over the bridge little pleasure pops of endorphins rush through you making each subsequent bridge child’s play.

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These are either Durian or Jackfruit, either way, MOVE OVER!

That first day was like a crash course about life in the Mekong Delta.  We rode along mostly concrete bike paths that snake their way through rice paddies, along and over the murky river, through villages, farms, and jungle. Frequently the sweetest little “HELLO’S” were heard as children would pop up out of nowhere to wave and say hi.  The bike paths we were on are less for tourists and leisurely bike riders as they are for interconnecting various points of the delta by bicycle and motorbike, transporting fruit and all sorts of random goods throughout the countryside. In fact, Tan explained that many Vietnemese people thought the bike tourists were a bit nuts, like why do we choose to go bike riding for days, why not take a car, if we can afford to travel we can afford to drive.

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One of many ferry crossings

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A Coconut husking factory

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By bike and boat

Halfway through our first day, we reached a ferry crossing point and boarded a small boat with our bikes. There was a hammock in the back which I promptly stretched out in and swayed as the boat rocked it’s way along to the landing point.  We were only about 12 km in that day but already I could feel my sit bones getting sore, despite the bike shorts butt padding and a gel seat I had brought along. My wide leather cruiser seat at home had clearly not prepared me for a 4-day bike trip.  We rode about 30 km that first day from the side of a dusty highway, into the Delta, over the river, eventually ending at the most idyllic and peaceful little homestay.  The wooden cottages had open air windows, the perfect place to hang our hand washed bike clothes to dry.

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Our Homestay kitchen

We were treated to an introductory course in open flame Vietnamese cooking; demonstrating how to make papaya salad and spring rolls.  The papaya salad involved a lot of shredding and I suspect they choose this for us to make so as to avoid the tedious task themselves.  The spring rolls are made with a delicate lace like rice paper that you wrap your ingredients in and then drop into a large wok.  To remove the rolls, you have to be a Mr. Miyogi chopstick master; these are not your average chopsticks, they are as long as your arm and thick as a finger you need to manoeuver these behemoth chopsticks in the bubbling oil, plucking out one roll at a time without splattering searing hot oil on your skin…It would have been foolhardy for me to attempt such a task so I contented myself by observing and snapping a few photos.

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Making Papaya Salad

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Rice Paper for spring rolls

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Mastering the chopsticks

Dinner was an extravagant affair, the food itself was simple and delicious, but the presentation was fantastic!  The first course of which was the papaya salad and spring rolls.  I hate papaya but the salad version is delicious because the papaya is not totally ripe yet.  Afterwards we ate fish served whole, complete with the same glassy eyed expression the fish had when it realized it bit the wrong corn niblet that day.  Rather than explain why the presentation of our dinner was so delightful, I will simply show you in images:

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I want a job making cucumber people

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A solo biker sat at our table and we struck up a conversation, she confided in me that her ass bones were so sore she was worried about the 70 bumpy km’s we had to ride the next day. Relieved at not being the only one, I told her that I’d had an ice block wedged between my butt cheeks throughout pre-dinner drinks and dinner, and would continue to sit on the ice block through post-dinner beers until I went to bed.  She too asked the staff for an ice block much to their amusement and we talked over a few Saigon Bia’s.

Later that night, lying in bed I watched the shadows of Gecko’s flit around the room in that completely blissed out state that comes after a solid day of outdoor exercise followed by a refreshing shower and a few cold beers in the lingering heat of the day. As I sit in my classroom, waiting for the Canadian winter to end, reminiscing about that day is nearly an act of masochism.

The next 3 days were a whirlwind of pedaling through the Mekong Delta maze, stopping at a farmer’s hut for fresh mango, watermelon or sugar cane juice.  Anticipating what we’d have for lunch; every time something new (ordered by our guide) and so delicious I declared Vietnam my new favourite food country. The title was previously held by South Korea but to be honest, in retrospect, it’s really a tie between the two countries .  Even though on the 3rdday of biking I ended up having an allergic reaction to the pineapple that had made its way into my soup and had to sit out for the last 20km or so, I didn’t mind because the soup was so good and I had the pleasure of hanging out with our van driver drinking the magical concoction known as Vietnamese coffee.  Oh my stars, Vietnamese coffee could cure the most melancholic soul; each time they brought out that tall glass layered with sweet condensed milk and ice accompanied by a divine little cup of thick and creamy espresso, my heart very nearly exploded with happiness.  Do beware though; courtesy of a friend of mine who also visited Vietnam and fell a little too hard in love with their coffee; in particular, before boarding a train with only the most rudimentary of bathroom facilities, it will help things move swiftly so it’s best not to overindulge.

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Sugar Cane Juice-better than gatorade

Our last night was spent in a grass river hut reminiscent of the Louisiana Bayou.  We took a shower in the tiniest little bathroom, wondering where the water was coming from; both my friend and I were at that point in the bike trip where ample Butt butter was needed to soothe the angry ass chap that one experiences after 120-ish humid kilometres; despite religiously applying Body Glide throughout the day. The dining hall was filled with random backpackers and bikers but for some reason the host took a liking to Cat and I and decided to sit down with us for the evening.  After hearing that we were from Canada he proceeded to tell us that his sister apparently owns the most popular Banh Mi restaurant in Calgary.  He also told us how she came to be in Calgary by way of Indonesia, she had escaped Vietnam on a small boat but due to a storm they ended up in Thai waters.  If the Thailand authorities had caught them they would have been arrested and returned to Vietnam, instead the people who found them adrift, set them on the right course and they became refugees in Indonesia and eventually were resettled in Calgary, Canada.  This brought forth the harsh reality of Vietnam as a country with a recent enough history of war and human rights violations so great, most of us cannot even begin to comprehend. I felt privileged that this man would share his family’s story with us and was happy to know that my home country was able to play a positive role in their safety and success.

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The Mekong Bayou

Our final day of cycling, we were taxied down the Mekong through the Can Tho floating market in a narrow boat. The floating market is a traditional market where people sell mainly produce from their boats.  There were small boats laden with piles of watermelons and pineapples so large it was a wonder the boats didn’t sink or capsize under the weight. It was utterly fascinating to watch the goings on as people stood on precarious little outboards, steering their way through the chaos to pick up a load of onions or papaya. The whole time I kept anticipating some kind of accident like a wave upending someone into the water but nothing happened and eventually it was time to get back on the road to Ho Chi Minh.

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More watermelon than boat

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But seriously how does she not fall?

Our guide Tan needs a paragraph here, he was nothing but courteous and helpful but more than that, he was extremely knowledgeable and incredibly passionate about cycling.  On our second day of cycling we stopped at his parent’s house for tea and snacks, and on the last day he invited us to his home to meet his family, have dinner, and take a shower before our night flight to Hoi An.  I’ve been blessed in my travels with exceptional guides, 90% of the time I’ve booked them on the fly and went on instinct but Tan was assigned to us by a company (don’t remember the name) and we could not have asked for a more generous, and positive person to lead us through the Mekong maze.  If you’re in the market for a bike guide in Vietnam, send me a PM and I’ll put you in touch with him directly.  His wife made the best Pho of my life and his adorable children and mother took us for a walk around the neighbourhood and down to the river to watch the sunset. These are moments in travel that I remember the most fondly, that are more than just anecdotes at dinner parties, or art on the walls of your home; they are the little gifts that only you can truly appreciate.

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Tan, Master Bike Guide!

I haven’t published a blog post in ages and the main reason for that is, I had been battling immigration in Czech Republic from May 2018 until November 2018 and am currently battling with Canadian Immigration because they have refused 3 Visa applications for my legally married husband.  I would like to point out that I am currently 35 weeks pregnant and immigration for both CR and Canada are well aware of this.  Thus their immigration systems have been actively keeping my husband from me, his wife, and nearly newborn daughter. I am going to give Czechia a pass on this since I am not a citizen of that country and thus not invested in their politics, but I will say that the CR government makes no pretence about being anything but anti-immigration and anti-inclusion of Non-EU citizens in their society unless you are white and from Canada, USA, or Australia.  Canada on the other hand has recently been caught with their ‘immigration pants’ down as they claim to be open and welcoming to all nationalities.  Canada Immigration refuses to acknowledge their shortcomings, refuses to respond to a desperate and distraught soon to be mother, and refuses to reform a broken system that has long been a bureaucratic nightmare for anyone trying to apply for entry to Canada.

My husband, a Tanzanian citizen but current resident of the UAE has been refused 3 Visitor’s Visas to Canada in the last month.  The recurrent reasons for his visa denial is that he has not satisfied the IRCC, that he will leave Canada at the end of his legal stay.  Each time we were refused a visa we contacted an MP who acquired the case notes and thus detailed reasons for the refusal, as well as advice on submitting a new application.  Each subsequent application was more detailed than the next, including more supporting documentation of my husband’s intent to leave the country to return to the UAE for work.  Each refusal came with new reasons for refusing him, we have literally been caught in a Catch 22 and it is crystal clear that no matter what we do, say or submit, the Embassy of Abu Dhabi will not give my husband a visitors visa to Canada.

Because of outdated, racist, and blatantly discriminatory immigration policies of the Czech Republic, I had to quit my job and return to Canada where I haven’t lived in over 4 years, I currently have no income because I am not exactly a desirable candidate given my advanced pregnancy.  My intent however, is to return to work asap after my baby is born, provided there is someone to care for my newborn daughter.  We had intended for that caregiver to be my husband for a few months but well….. Thankfully I have an incredibly supportive family willing to take me and my husband in.  In fact my mother has written 3 letters of invitation for my husband, each more detailed than the last, provided a salary letter, bank statement, and 2 proof’s of identity; to assure the IRCC that my husband and I will be staying with her, that she can afford to support us if need be and that she is willing to be there for us through it all.

Because of Canadian Immigration, my husband will not be able to be present for the birth of his child, and unless I get on a plane and fly to Tanzania, he will not be able to meet his daughter for a long time, up to a year is how long Family Sponsorship would take.  Because of Canada immigration, my husband and I are considering uprooting his life in the UAE and mine in Canada to move to Tanzania where neither of us have employment, health care, or a home; simply so we can be together as a family.  It is unequivocally unacceptable to keep a family apart during such a crucial time in their lives.  My husband is not a criminal, in fact we supplied a police clearance certificate from both the UAE and Tanzania as well as his Biometrics, to solidify his status as ‘NOT A CRIMINAL; my husband has no affiliations with any religious, ideological or political organizations of any kind.  My husband likes football and fitness and would love to travel the world but can’t because of his passport.  My husband is really excited to be a Dad but he is being robbed of this by Canada Immigration.  My husband’s never illegally entered nor overstayed a visa in any country, he has spent the last 8 years working legally in the UAE, as documented by his work visas.  His present work visa expires in March 2020 and is eligible for renewal should both parties agree, but that and a proof of employment letter granting temporary leave, is not enough to prove he will return to the UAE for work.

At this stage I’d like to take a minute to ask my readers to share this post and to call on the general international travel community to cease applying for Visas to go to countries like Canada, USA, the EU, unless crucial, because these places do not respect your time, your efforts and the amount of money you have to spend to apply.  They do not respect you as a human being, your hopes, your dreams.  These countries only respect the size of your bank account, your country’s GDP and trade prospects.  These countries treat people as the sum of their passports and nothing else.  Instead of coming to these “lands of the free” instead of supplying them with millions of dollars in application fees, instead of spending money at their restaurants, shops, hotels, etc; go to a country that respects your right to enter without a 3rd degree review of your viability of a person deserving of basic decency.  Go to a country that would welcome, value and respect you for the taking the time and effort to visit that country.  I can think of several countries that I would include on this list but Canada would not be one of them, nor would anywhere in the EU or the continent of Europe for that matter, nor would Australia, or the USA place on that list.

I have been to Tanzania 3 times; once on my own, once with 2 friends, and once with my husband.  Each time I have been welcomed in the absolute most friendly manner, and I have been treated with such outright generosity and respect, that it breaks my heart that my country cannot repay that kindness to the citizens of Tanzania.  That even my legally married spouse, soon to be father to a Canadian citizen cannot be repaid his country’s kindness to me.

Here are a few other countries of note that I have had the absolute pleasure of travelling through but their citizens would have a very hard time enjoying that same hospitality from Canada:

Malawi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Morocco, Oman, Jordan, Nepal, Vietnam, Philippines, Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Seychelles, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Zimbabwe.

If you are Canadian but even if you are not, please bombard Ahmed Hussen’s (Minister of Immigration) email with complaints, your own Canadian visa refusal story, and call him to take action against a broken and backwards system. Use my name and my husband’s name (Chelsie Joy Evans and Moses Makoye Nguno) and tell him you are writing on our behalf.

His email is:  Ahmed.Hussen@parl.gc.ca

Tweet at him, and at Justin Trudeau and the IRCC.

If you are from a country with restricted movement; email your country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and demand they limit access for Canadians, Australians, EU citizens, and Americans to your country since your access is so severely limited.  Your rights and freedoms have been severely restricted by these governments, we need to level the playing field.

Here are some facts about the IRCC in 2017:

  • Over 600,000 visitors visas were refused at 100$ an application
  • Therefore over 60,000,000 Cdn$ in application fees collected from refused applicants
  • 75% of visa applications from the Middle East and Africa were denied.

In less than 6 hours of sending out a Facebook call to action I had 5 people on my friend list write to me and tell me about their Canadian immigration issues with their spouses and what they did.  In every case, it was a woman trying to get her husband a visa to Canada, leading me to wonder if it is easier for men to get their wives a visa to Canada.  According to my MP’s office they have seen heart breaking humanitarian cases such as mine not get approved but watched as old white men get their barely legal SE Asian wives admitted to the country.  Why are expatriate women having such a difficult time bringing their spouse to Canada. One close friend had to cancel her wedding in Canada, another friend was 5 months pregnant and was luckily able to get her husband a visa on humanitarian grounds, another has simply given up trying to deal with the Embassy of Abu Dhabi.  This is all anecdotal evidence of course but it is troubling nonetheless.

 

Thanks for reading, please share and comment and take action against unjust visa regulations.

 

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My Husband and I at our Tanzanian wedding celebration

1-  When are you moving ‘Home’?

The disconnect to ‘home’ is real and is probably the hardest thing to deal with.  Guilt trips from family about not being home for such and such a thing can be heartbreaking and the ‘when are you moving back’ questions can be awkward, because how do explain why you don’t want to live in your home country. At times I feel very selfish for living the life I do, away from my family; in particular, watching my niece and nephew grow up barely knowing their Aunt, breaks my heart.   I have to constantly remind myself why I got into this game in the first place.  I love to travel and living in other countries is an experience no one should ever pass up.  In addition, there are few opportunities for people my age in Canada, and as a teacher, unless I want to spend years on a sub-list or live in the middle of nowhere, there simply aren’t any jobs right now. Perhaps when the boomers finally retire out of the school system and there are jobs where I want to live, I’ll come back.

 

2- The Great Dating Experiment

Falling in love can feel awfully futile when you live such a temporary existence. Dating is horrendous in certain expat hubs like the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, because while the man to woman ratio there would appear to work in a woman’s favour, it does not give an accurate picture.  The following saying sums up the situation perfectly: “The odds are good but the goods are odd.”  Chalk it up to cross-cultural miscommunication and varied cultural dating norms or the flaky existence of most expats, but you’d be hard pressed to find a single woman satisfied with the GCC dating culture. If you do meet someone you like and might actually want to, if not totally deactivate but temporarily delete tinder for awhile; then there’s always the proverbial problem of: but he’s from xyz and I always wanted to settle down in abc so how could it ever work; or but I want to leave this year and he just got here!  When I met my now husband; I told him straight away I was leaving at the end of the year and he replied, “ok, I will go anywhere.”  My friends tell me I found a unicorn!

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My husband and I in the Seychelles

3- Love and Passports

Falling in love and marrying someone with a different colour passport than you can be a massive pain in the ass when wanting to travel to or move to a new country.  Visa restrictions are inherently racist and while it’s not something me and my Canadian passport has to deal with, trying to apply for a Visa for my Tanzanian husband to join me pretty much anywhere (even Canada) means jumping through bureaucratic hoops.  While he has to prove financial status that most of my well to do Canadian friends wouldn’t be able to achieve, just to get a work permit in Europe, but to collect said work permit he’ll have to apply for a separate tourist visa to enter the country; meanwhile I simply have to fill out some papers and get my passport stamped at customs.  According to the Global Peace Index, Tanzania actually ranks much higher than many countries that are in the same Visa category.  Bureaucratic BS aside, be open to love from anywhere, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I have to meet a guy from the same country as me.”  That’s awfully limiting.

4- Making Bank

Saving money and/or paying off student loans might be a main goal to your overseas move but it’s so easy to get sidetracked.  Most people I know barely saved a penny their first year in Abu Dhabi; so enamoured were they by fancy brunches, nightclubs, and hotels,  that they spent all their time and money ‘living the life.’  I definitely fell into that trap temporarily but the main reason I barely saved a thing was that I travelled as much as I could and also I am terrible at money management.  Don’t beat yourself up about it but do try to maintain foresight because international teaching positions can be unstable and you may need to up and move quickly.  Remember that you will eventually want to move somewhere else and you’ll want to have a little money to take with you to ease the transition process.

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Iftar at Emirates Palace will set you back a few hundred dirhams (photo by unknown)

5- Making New Friends 

Meetup.com and Facebook groups can be amazing for meeting people!  As much as I loved my nerdy male colleagues in South Korea, 2 months of watching them play video games while drinking copious amounts of Hite beer and soju started getting a little dull and depressing.  I took to the internet (before I had ever thought about the internet as a place to meet actual humans) and in one fell swoop I found an active expat group nearby and met a guy who I then dated for 5 years. In Abu Dhabi I made my first new friend by joining an Arts group  and going to one of their meetups and subsequently started an Arts Organization that held art shows and a festival.  Now on my pending move to Prague, I have joined a few groups on Facebook and Meetup.  In addition to seeing what’s going on in your new city you’ll also pick up tips about renting apartments, English speaking doctors, vegetarian restaurants, day trips, etc…

If you’re single then join tinder or another dating app; I know a fair few people who have met people who were terrible date prospects but turned out to be great friends.

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3 of the weirdest people I have the pleasure of calling friends

6- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (people you’ll meet along the way)

While we’re on the subject of friends; you will probably meet some of the greatest friends of your life; people that become your dysfunctional family abroad but you may also meet some of the worst people you never knew existed.  I will credit myself this one thing, I am fast judge of character, be it instinct, or I’m just a reserved, wary, and a judgy bitch but I can spot a disingenuous character across a ballroom.  I give everyone a wide berth at first but I have seen and heard so many stories go down in Abu Dhabi (in particular) from my friends who had a fast and intense friendship with someone but suddenly things went awry and that person stabbed them in the back and messed up their relationships with others.  The betrayal and anger felt towards this awful person was so that in the retelling of the events, those emotions were still evident years later.  Every story I’ve heard was nearly the same as the last and each one shocked me because I still can’t figure out how you develop a bond with someone and then suddenly turn around and betray their trust, except to assume that the person must be a narcissist and/or extremely immature.  One thing that is certain, international workplaces are often hiding places for people who either can’t hack it in the work place in their home country or are looking to ‘reinvent’ themselves because they burned all their bridges at home.

Don’t let that make you wary of new friends though because I am leaving Abu Dhabi with 4 of the most amazing friends.  We’ve shared every up and down moment this life throws at us and we have had the privilege of travelling to some wild places.  Apart from those 4 beauties, I also met an enormous amount of wonderful people who have had a positive impact on me in some way and of course I met my darling husband who can’t wait to continue this crazy expat adventure with me in Prague next year.

7- International Foodie

Your friends and family back home will both rejoice and be rightfully annoyed with  your expanded palate.  I am an awesome cook and I love to try making things I’ve had in different countries. I also like to experiment with those dishes; this usually occurs because I have to make do with the ingredients I can find wherever I am.  My friends and family are always excited for dinner when I am cooking because they know it’s going to be both delicious and unusual.  The downside to this is that I will inevitably say something like, “in Thailand you can buy this on the street for about 2$, ”  or “this makes me miss being in XYZ, soooo much!”  These statements annoy most people because they find them pompous or braggy, but in all honesty I am just stating fact.

The age old question of ‘What’s for dinner?’ becomes even more daunting when you know all the good things that are out there in the world and you can’t decide what you want to eat more.  My friend Maysa has an interesting technique which I find useful; you think of two things you want and pretend that you have one dish in each hand, then you pretend to take a bite of each and somehow your brain will tell you which one you want more.  Every time I move to a new city I have to play the ‘where can I get…?’ game.  Finding the Korean restaurants in Abu Dhabi was priority number one but finding a Korean grocery store was the ultimate treasure.

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Dinner in Korea

8- Welcome to your new addiction.

If you’re coming from Canada or the USA, the cost of international travel is daunting and dissuades many but when you’re living in a country connected to many other countries either overland or by short, cheap flights, you may not be able to resist when your friend says, “are you going anywhere for the 3 day weekend?”  I once went to Kyrgyzstan on about 48 hrs notice because it was the cheapest flight out of Dubai that weekend and none of us could think of a reason not to go.  No regrets by the way.  Another side effect of moving abroad, especially when you’re a teacher is that there is always another country to move to that needs your English teaching credentials and while the pay and benefits very greatly depending on where you go, the knowledge that I could spend the rest of my days teaching next to a beach in Costa Rica is always in the back of my mind.

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Climbing a volcano in DRC became an attainable goal

9- The Impossible is Possible

Before travelling and moving abroad I wasn’t in great shape, I could walk and bike for hours but climbing a mountain or biking for days was not something I ever thought I would do.  I started becoming regular gym junkie after moving to Korea due to some office chair induced weight gain after University and after some time I found I both enjoyed and NEEDED exercise.  Years later when a friend asked me if I wanted to go on a bike tour in Vietnam I enthusiastically agreed, the thing that felled me in Vietnam was not a fitness deficit but swollen sit bones from not being used to the skinny bike seat (I had a cruiser at the time).  A year later a different friend asked me to go trekking in Nepal, me 5 years prior would have laughed and said “hell no” but strong me was stoked.  Before my first international experience so many things would have felt unattainable but I have fulfilled so many dreams from my ‘previous life’ and new ones that I never would have conceived of in the past that on the cusp of the most life changing event yet (pregnancy); I am not afraid of moving to a new country and having to relearn all the day to day things or travelling with a minion in tow.  The future is so uncertain but I know that anything is possible and generally everything works out the way it’s supposed to. I have learned a strong sense of belief-in-self and positive thinking and that is definitely that most powerful lesson moving abroad has taught me.

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After a hot days ride trough the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

10- The Repatriation Blues

Repatriating is hell, there are a multitude of personal essays written on why it’s hell so I won’t go into detail but from my personal experience, I spent 2 years in Canada between South Korea and UAE and the whole time I couldn’t wait to leave.  If I hadn’t had a goal to leave I would have been pretty miserable. I once took a Greyhound across Canada and the USA because I didn’t know how to just ‘be’ at home.  Most people have little to no understanding of what you’re going through because often in their minds, nothing has changed, but you know everything has changed.  You forget the protocol for simple things like going to the doctor in your home country, and often instead of people being helpful they treat you like an idiot, or respond with snarky comments because they think you should know.

Something that can be quite difficult is to come home and find that your friends, who are less globe savvy, are really hard to relate to, there’s just not a whole lot to talk about anymore.  This sounds pompous or harsh but consider the following scenario:

You’ve just come back from spending a year in another country and you are sitting down to dinner with a friend who is sharing a funny story about a night out.  A year ago you might have related to the story with one of your own and your friend would have laughed and the conversation would have gone on.  This year you relate to her with a story that occurred on a night out in some foreign city and it’s met with an eye roll or the look that says, “Brag Much!”.

It’s not about bragging, but your jealous friend (and that’s what it comes down to is jealousy) doesn’t want to hear about your life abroad; it’s quite frustrating from your point of view because you literally just lived a year of experiences that you can’t really share with most people back home. Many will treat you like you’ve just come back from a week at a Cuban resort, they want the slideshow and 2-3 funny anecdotes and never to hear about it again.

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11-  Lay Down Your Heart

Living in another culture vastly different from your own, teaches you to not only respect but appreciate things that most of your compatriots might find “weird” or not “right”.  I remember returning to Canada from South Korea and telling a story about going to the dentist in Korea (I was simply going to comment on the price difference) but before I could even tell the story, someone interrupted with “Geez I would never go to the dentist in Korea”.  I was momentarily stunned to silence while I looked at this person wondering if they were being stupid on purpose or actually just an ignorant twat.  The latter was the case and I had to take a calming breathe before replying that “actually South Korea has incredible standards for dentistry and most types of medical procedures (in my experience) and that I had a delightful experience.”  Instead of him acknowledging that he was wrong, he shrugged and said “still I never would go to a dentist outside Canada.”  This is not an isolated incident, I hear this kind of ignorant talk all the time when I return to Canada or reading the news and comment sections.  People talking negatively about places they have never been to and don’t know all that much about except what’s appeared in the media from time to time.  If you tell someone you’re going to Malawi, they will respond with “I heard about a person in Nigeria who….”  because they don’t know the difference between East and West Africa; after all, Africa is Africa except for maybe the white parts of South Africa and the Pyramids of Giza, the rest of the continent is a war mongering, malaria ridden, aids infested land and there’s nothing to eat there anyhow.  I have the innate desire to ‘protect’ the reputation of any country I have travelled to because that place, for however a brief amount of time, changed my perception in some way, taught me something important, treated me with respect and hospitality and made me appreciate all things big and small.  I purposefully never post photos of poverty because I know many people will just nod their heads and say “yup just what I thought.” Those who travel far and wide lack fear of ‘others’, and with the current dehumanizing and xenophobic political rhetoric coming out of right wing USA, Canada, UK, and many European countries, it’s nigh impossible to sit back quietly and allow hateful ignorance towards people to pervade when you know the world is not even a fraction as scary as they would have you believe.  I think most people would prefer I keep my mouth shut around the ignorant, just to keep the peace at dinner, but to sit back and say nothing makes you an accomplice to the spread of hateful sentiments.  Freedom of speech is an integral part of a free society but ignorant, baseless, hateful claims about ‘others’ should not go unchallenged lest they think they have a right to a platform for spreading misinformation.  In summation, get ready to feel frustrated a lot.

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Gawd Africa, why do you have to be so…….awesome!!!!

Disclaimer:  The term expatriate (expat) means “a person who lives outside of their native country”; it’s a term that implies privilege and evokes images of the white professional having the freedom to choose when they come and go and often where they go to.  While the dehumanizing terminology, such as foreign worker or migrant; used for someone who comes from a less advantaged country to work as a labourer, maid, nanny, etc.. implies a person who has desperately sought work elsewhere, fleeing the poverty of their homeland thus assuming one has little choice in the matter.  In actuality the terms foreign worker, migrant worker, and expat apply to everyone who has moved to another country for work.  Many things I discuss in this post does imply a certain economic freedom to travel leisurely

For two years, I watched from my Reem Island, Abu Dhabi apartment while they constructed the Louvre.  My excitement peaked when one night, I looked out my window and saw the dome all lit up for the first time.  The illuminated dome at night is wildly impressive, rays of light streaming through the gaps in the roof as if a hi-def mirror of the night sky.  It would be at least another year before the museum opened during peak tourist season but I, a hater of crowds, decided to wait.  Finally in August, low tourist season, when the heat is too much to endure any outside activity, I visited The Louvre Abu Dhabi.

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Jean Nouvel’s brilliant dome

As you walk into the building area you’ll immediately become entranced by the intricate and overwhelming lattice dome, conceived of by Jean Nouvel.  The light streams through the dome as if through a canopy of trees in a magical, dense forest.  Your eye will eventually be drawn back down to the heavy set white walls and dark stone floor which feel a little too heavy and permanent compared to the ethereal, magnificence of the roof. The views from the Louvre stare straight out into the Gulf where on one side you see yachts and on the other you see the sand coloured industry that keeps this place going. This part of the museum is an Instagrammers paradise; there is a life guard on duty should any selfie-takers fall in the Gulf.

Upon entering, I must have missed the sign stating the theme of Wing 1, but after going through the museum chambers it became clear to me that the theme for all the wings was unity through art around the world.  Instead of having the “Africa wing” or the “Classical Art section”  each gallery spans a general time period and includes pieces from all over the world that have similarities.  Even though the theme was clear to me, I wasn’t convinced of it’s effectiveness and felt the execution was lacklustre. While the museum focuses mainly on European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian art and religion; there are a few pieces from West Africa (Gabon, Guinea, Senegal), and a few statues from the South Pacific Islands (Papua New Guinea).  They seem to have missed the Americas all together which was a bit disappointing, I would’ve loved to see some Haida Gwai or Incan art for example.

After a few wings of ancient art, I was getting a bit tired of seeing ceramics and miniature statues; obviously the large scale works were impressive but the galleries move far too slowly through the ages for my taste. The cosmography wing hosts a large globe and a fascinating and intricately illustrated world map before the continents had been divided up before mass colonialism.

Midway through I notice a nude male statue and see that the genitalia have been covered by a leaf but being unfamiliar with the sculpture I think nothing of it until I come to Antonio Canova’s sculpture ‘Le Combat de Creugas et Damoxene’ (1797-1803).  My eye immediately finds something amiss, as their genitals have been covered by the same ridiculous leaf.  As an artist I thought this covering of genitalia on a 200-hundred-year old masterpiece to be rather dubious.  My husband responded to my incredulous queries with ‘why do you need to see his penis?’  To me it’s not about looking at his penis but more about seeing the sculpture as a whole, as it was made and meant to be seen.  The modesty leaves disrupt the overall effect of the artwork.  After 4 years of living in the UAE; a country where you cannot even teach teenage girls about their own reproductive system or say the word breast in conjunction with cancer during Breast Cancer Awareness week (in an all girls high school), I was not surprised at the modesty leaves of course, just disappointed in the integrity of The Louvre.

I have been to many museums around the world, large and small, famous and obscure; the Louvre Abu Dhabi for all the money that was spent, hosts one of the least impressive collections I have seen to date.  More than being unimpressed, I was left confused as to the true identity of this museum. While most art museums display works from around the world, The MOMA for example,  is undoubtedly a product of New York City, the same can be said for the National Art Gallery of Canada. Sadly, I could not tell you what the purpose of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s art collection was other than to say, it was there for no other reason than to be there.

Beyond the lack of identity, I felt there were far too many galleries devoted to ancient art and there was just the briefest overview of modern art (1900 on).  In the same room there was a Kandinsky, Rothko, Pollock, Matisse, and Ibrahim Al Salahi; a modge podge collection of modern art without any kind of unifying theme. There is also a glaring absence of female artists present within the galleries. Historically, female artists and art work would have been difficult to come by but surely they could have found space for a few works in the Modern and Contemporary art sections. Obviously, they did not see fit to ‘See Humanity in a New Light’ with regards to gender representation.

In the final gallery “A Global Stage” Ai Wei Wei’s large reinterpretation of Vladimir Tatlin’s ‘Monument to the Third International’, stands startling bright and gaudy.  Ai Wei Wei reinterpret’s this piece by recreating the original steel structure and stringing glass crystals from the top and illuminating the sculpture like a chandelier.  While Tatlin’s original conception was austere and utilitarian, it was meant as a symbol of technology and industry in Soviet Russia.  Wei Wei’s artwork, in the context of the UAE’s rapid development and their obsession with ridiculous chandeliers and over the top luxury comes off as social commentary.  Although Wei Wei intends the piece as a statement on Chinese rather than Russian Communism, commenting on the divide between communist ideals and the lifestyle of the Chinese elite.  The artwork certainly works in much the same way, as a statement of social ideals in the UAE; concerning the glaring disparities between under qualified and overpaid locals and the overqualified and underpaid foreign workers.  The Louvre itself, is symbolic of an arrogant nation that has to buy culture to be internationally relevant.

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After all the hype, all the excitement, and the wait, The Louvre Abu Dhabi falls far short of  achieving international acclaim for anything other than it’s name.  The museum does no reach the same caliber as the Guggenheims, the Louvre Paris, The MOMA’s and many other museums and galleries world wide. If you already happen to be in the Emirates then by all means check it out, there are some interesting pieces and for an art nerd like me, I did get excited when I caught sight of a Titian, Matisse or Cezanne to name a few.  Jean Nouvel’s brilliant dome is a major crowd pleaser and is deserving of every bit of praise and recognition, that alone is a reason to visit, if you’re in the area.

At 10 am, parking was a breeze, except that finding the parking lot was a bit frustrating as there don’t seem to be any signs indicating where to go for parking until you are at the actual parking lot.  The ticket process is painless, we purchased our tickets online and as a teacher I receive a 50% discount (from 60 to 30 aed).  We spent about 2 hours exploring the galleries but there are plenty of bathrooms, water fountains, and seating areas throughout the museum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Regardless of whether you’re an avid traveller or a natural homebody, sometimes it’s just nice to get away even when it’s not possible.  Travel addiction can take over your life, your thoughts, and can push you to new limits.  For some, the prospect of being stuck in one place for an extended period of time can feel daunting and claustrophobic.  So what do you do when you’re jonesing to get away but for one reason or another you’re stuck where you are? Here’s a list of things to do, for every budget, and regardless of whether you’re an urbanite or small town dweller that will help you break your day to day routine and keep life interesting.

1. Head to a Hotel Pool:

Obviously this is season dependent, but if you want to feel like you’re on vacation, there is no better way than to spend a day at a nice hotel pool, ordering cocktails and food to your sun lounger.  If you’re lucky to live near a beach (lake/ocean) then head to a waterfront hotel or club.

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Saadiyat Beach Club, Abu Dhabi

2. Check out a tourist site in your area: 

This is an easy one, choose a tourist site nearby that you’ve never been to or haven’t been to in a while.  This could be anything from a natural attraction, to an art gallery, or historic site.  Perhaps you live in a town where there isn’t much to offer; then find the most special place your town has and spend some time there.  Photograph an ‘off-the-beaten-track’ location in your area and post it on Instagram to inspire others.

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Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, I go once a year

3. Pick a random area in your city and meander:

This one is not so easy if you live in a small town but you could try to pick another town nearby and take a mini road trip there for the day.  If you do live in the city than chances are, there are areas you may not be too familiar with.  When I lived in Montreal, I used to pick a metro station I had never been to and would jump off and explore the area.  I found some awesome cafes, restaurants, buildings, parks, and shops this way.

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Dubai Spice Souk

4. Treat yourself to a spa day or have a home spa day with a friend:

Depending on your budget, you can either head to a spa and get pampered; even getting your nails done and going for coffee with a friend can feel like a vacation.  If you’re as broke as I was in University, than you can make your own hair and face masks, choose a movie on Netflix, and sit back while soaking your feet and doing your own nails all while drinking the bestest, cheapest wine you can find.

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Treating myself to a Korean Sheet Mask

5. Book a hotel in town or nearby for a night or two, or go camping:

You may have some points from a credit card or another loyalty program or you can try to find a great deal on Groupon, book a hotel room in town or nearby for a night or two.  For some reason, being in a hotel room makes you feel as if you’re miles away even if your house is just 20 minutes away.  Camping is another budget friendly and fun option.

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Desert Camping cooking fiasco

6. Do something active outside:

Go skiing, sliding, or skating in the winter time, try out the hiking or biking trails in your area, go horseback riding, or kayaking.  Chances are, if you’re like me, you tend to spend too much time inside when you’re not traveling, so make a point to get outside and do something active or even just have a picnic in the park with friends.

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Hiking Jabal Jais

7. Try something new:

Often when people travel, they’ll try something new like zip lining, or a cooking class but you can also discover new things at home.  Go hang gliding, try wake boarding, or knitting, anything that is new and entices you to get outside of your comfort zone is worth trying out.

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Kayaking at Hatta Dam

8. Plan your next trip:

I am guilty of doing this at work when I know I should be grading or paying attention to my students, instead I often find myself in Lalaland, planning an overland itinerary through South and East Africa. Booking hostels, and flights, putting together an extensive google doc for friends complete with our budget and other pertinent information. This activity is both practical and a fun way to trick your mind into wandering off around the world while your body remains firmly planted behind your desk.

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9. Go to a new restaurant for dinner:

I’m not talking about going out to Olive Garden but going to the family owned Sri Lankan Restaurant you’ve been meaning to try but haven’t yet or you could always go to your tried and true Korean restaurant.  Any restaurant making food you wouldn’t normally cook at home or that makes you dream of trips past and trips to come.

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Getting my Pho fix in Dubai

10. Check out the nightlife:

A girl’s or guy’s night out can be a fun way to get out of your head, mingle, dance the night away and feel like you’ve taken a mini vacation from reality.  Try out a new bar/club to keep it fresh and exciting.

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Zero Gravity, Dubai

11. Listen or dance to different type of music

Go Salsa dancing or head to a reggae club, go to an African Music festival.  Music can transport you to a different time and place. For example, even if you’re dancing to a Congolese band in downtown Toronto, you can close your eyes and imagine hearing the music as you’re driving through the Virunga on your way to see the Gorillas or you could be listening to Swahili music, dreaming of nights spent dancing under the stars in Zanzibar.

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Belly Dancing in the Desert

12. Go see a foreign film or check out the events at local cultural centres:

Many cities and towns and have cultural centres supporting and promoting various immigrant communities.  I have seen centres promoting Indian, Islamic culture, Brazilian, and Caribbean culture around the world.  Alliance Francaise is very common; their primary goal is to promote French language and culture, they offer French lessons but in Abu Dhabi they also showed French films, theatre, and other cultural events.

 

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Alliance Française in Seoul, South Korea

13. Make travel inspired art.

 

Use your travel photos to make a collage, scrapbook, or simply print and frame some travel photos, draw, paint, or sculpt something inspired by your travels.  If you’re not so artsy then sometimes simply going through your travel photos and organizing them can be a necessary but fun chore.

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Artwork inspired by the Caves of Nerja, Spain

14. Redecorate:

Perhaps you bought a piece of art that you have yet to install in your home, pick a room and redecorate/rearrange it and install your new artwork.  You can also scour your local Consignment store for unique home decor items and redo a room based on your findings.  You’ll have a fresh space to relax in.

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Ugandan Art

15. Try a class:

Learn a new language, maybe the language of the country that is your next destination.  Go to a cooking class and learn to make an unforgettable Thai curry or try an art workshop.  Whatever you choose, the point is to learn something new and break your routine.

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It counts if I facilitated the workshop, right?

I occasionally get asked what items I cannot travel without and though that list will vary based on the length and location of the trip, I thought I’d put together a list of items I have found very useful over the years, for backpacking trips but also sometimes come in handy for easy little trips.  My criteria for backpacking trips is obviously ‘is it compact?’, ‘is it useful?’, and if a textile item, ‘does it dry quickly?’

Grayl-Water bottle :

This magical bottle is a MUST have for all travellers, I can fill it up anywhere and drink the water straight away because it both filters and purifies my water.  It saves me from having to buy bottled water which in addition to being inconvenient is both economically and ecologically unfriendly.  I did have to order it from the USA which cost a bit in shipping (to UAE) and to get cartridge replacements from abroad can be annoying but you just have to plan ahead.  I’ve used it in Nepal, Costa Rica, KenyaRwandaDRC,Uganda, Tanzania, Thailand.

*During my Nepal trek, I bought a crochet water bottle holder that wraps around me like a purse, it was an excellent purchase for the Grayl.

Nikon D3300 kit and telephoto lens:

I am not a photographer by any means but since I travel so much I wanted a quality camera.  This is an entry level DSLR and it is perfect for me.  I mostly use the kit lens but at times the telephoto lens comes in handy (safari, boat trips, and Nyiragongo Volcano).  I would like a wide angle lens since I take so many landscape photos but I haven’t had the money to spend on it lately.

Iphone and LifeProof Case:

I don’t normally travel with a laptop unless I am gone for more than a few weeks.  Thus my iPhone is essential.  Basically any phone with a quality camera is important for me.  I usually mix my trips between urban and rural adventure so my phone camera is very important for city photography (unless at a specific tourist site (Palace in Bangkok for example).  Obviously taking a DSLR around the city makes you a target.  I also always have a LifeProof case on my iPhone because I am the biggest klutz and have been known to go through a smart phone every few months.  The LifeProof case also somewhat disguises the type of phone you have making you less of a target as well.

Kobo Ereader:

There are a bunch of different brands out there, this is just the one I’ve had forever.  I was super happy with the book selection until recently when they opened a UAE site and thus title availability appears to be restricted and I can’t use the thousands of points I’ve accumulated over the years.  It’s an old model so it doesn’t light up, I solve this problem by using my iPhone flashlight.  During a 3 week trip I’ve been known to go through at least 5 books; it would be very cumbersome to carry 5 books in my pack but I also love that if I don’t like a book or need a new one, I can buy one anywhere I have wifi.  I still read paperbacks from time to time.

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Jack WolfskinSide Bag:

I like this bag a lot and have used it for city biking, day treks, and general travelling around.  It has a few compartments with zippers, I can clip my wallet on the inside and it has enough room to carry my essentials including, Grayl and Nikon.  You can also unzip the bottom to expand it when you need to carry more.  It’s certainly not the fashionable choice but it’s definitely pickpocket proof, durable, and practical.  I often bring a tiny little embroidered purse I got in Thailand for nights out so I can be both fashionable and less encumbered.

Gregory BackPack50-55L (at least a week trip):

I’ve had this pack for about 8 years and while it looks like it’s been through a lot (it has), it’s still tough as nails.  The only regret is that it doesn’t have a bottom zip.  I have lived out of this bag for 1-2 months at a time with a basic wardrobe and small toiletries. But during those long trips I always have to take the dreaded smaller backpack (wearing it on my front) so that I can bring along my laptop.  Solutions to this dilemna are welcome, do they make packs with safe-easy to access laptop compartments now?

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Me and my pack in Tortuguero, Costa Rica

LululemonWunderUnder Leggings and/or Girlfriend Collectiveleggings:

Regardless of what brand of leggings you like or how you feel about the trend; I find the garment incredibly versatile and convenient for travel; think long plane rides, all manners of physical activities, and if they are plain enough, under a dress or skirt for a day/night out.  The best part is they take up minimal luggage space, are easy to wash by hand, and dry quickly (unless in the mountains of Nepal-then nothing dries, EVER).

Whether you love or hate them, everyone knows Lululemon, I’m not getting paid to promote the brand but I will say that  I have had a pair of their leggings for 8 years and only in the last year have they become inappropriate for public viewing.

I love all my Lululemon leggings but the most comfortable and convenient for travel are their WunderUnder (Fullux) leggings for the following reasons: they can be worn for an impromptu yoga class, to trek up a mountain, or under a casual dress for city walkabouts.

A rather new company, Girlfriend Collective, has been producing exercise clothes that are simple and super well made at a slightly cheaper price than Lululemon.  All of their garments are made from recycled plastics in an ethical and sustainable factory in Vietnam.  The material compresses your legs and butt in a very flattering way; although these days, with my ever growing baby bump, getting them on can be a workout in and of itself.  If I had a choice, 99% of my leggings and exercise gear would come from this company.

Last I checked Girlfriend Collective had a limited shipping range, so I had my Mom order me a new pair to bring when she meets me in Prague this August. Thanks Maman!

Sea to Summit Quick Dry Towel:

I had another brand of quick dry towel before but it was thick and did not actually dry quickly in humid places.  I found the Sea to Summit towel right before going to Costa Rica (a very humid place) and will never take the other one anywhere again-in fact it has been relegated to the gym towel pile.  I have the medium size towel, which I would not use to cover myself to go to and from a shared bathroom (I use a sarong for that) but it’s the perfect size to sop up the moisture and dry within a few hours so you can pack it away for the next leg of your journey,

Quick Dry Underwear:I like to bring minimal clothing so I do end up doing laundry throughout my trips.  Quick Dry underwear are marvellous because for instance; you  forget that you’ve run out of underwear on your way to breakfast one morning, so you quickly wash a pair in the sink throw them out in the sun for an hour while at breakfast and voila!  Fresh panties!

In terms of brands, UnderArmour used to make these amazing thin and breathable pair that adequately covered my butt cheeks and don’t ride up but sadly they switched to another material which I find simply offensive-they go straight up your bum which is no good for any kind of activity.  Lululemon sells underwear that dry quickly and are quite comfortable.  I intend to try Patagonia’s panties but the brand is not available in my current country of residence.

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Desperate times-Desperate measures.

Combination Lock:

I often stay in hostel/backpackers accommodations but usually in a private room.  Normally, even the private rooms don’t come with a safe but hostels do ordinarily have lockers, you just need to have your own lock-you’d be surprised how many times I’ve been the only one of my group with a lock!

Sarong:

This, most versatile article of clothing can be worn to the beach, can be your beach towel, can be your communal-shower cover up; your airplane, bus, or train blanket, and if you’re desperate, a towel.  You can also use it as a cover up for temples or a head scarf for mosques.  The sarong also dries quickly!

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My husband and I in the Seychelles

Clif or Luna Bars or other similar types of bars:

When I know I am going to be stuck on a bus for a day and probably won’t have reliable access to food or if I am trekking a lot,  than I pack a few of these bars with me for those days.  They were a lifesaver when I took a 14 hour bus ride from Lusaka, Zambia to Lilongwe, Malawi.

Reusable Travel bottles (shampoo, conditioner, etc)

I always use the reusable travel bottles for toiletries for the following reasons: Firsly, the products I like usually don’t come in travel size and I make a few of my own things. Secondly, because why buy an extra thing when you can just bring what you already have. Finally, because it is much more earth friendly to reuse the same small bottles rather than buy new travel size things every time.  I used to buy the cheap ones from the dollar store or Daiso but after a few uses they would eventually break.  I bought my current set at Muji which is an amazing Japanese concept store, they have loads of useful and useless stuff for travel. Their travel bottles appear to be more durable than the dollar store version and my lotion set comes with a tiny spatula!

 

These items are a personal selection and I have not been paid to advertise for these companies, I just truly believe these products are useful and worth the money.  Brands vary and everyone has their favourites.  If you’re a first time backpacker, I probably wouldn’t go out and purchase all this stuff at once but some things-like the Quick Dry Towel are incredibly handy and you really won’t regret the purchase.

What are some of your travel essentials?  I am always on the lookout for products and tips that will improve the backpacking experience; I would love to hear from you, so leave a comment or send me a private message.

 

 

There is a lot of information on the interwebs about Petra, Jordan but from my perspective who, as a traveller ranges between over-prepared (check out these quick dry undies) to not at all prepared (I don’t remember the name of my hotel, have the address, or have access to the internet); here is a list of things I wish I knew about Petra before going to Petra.  You can check out my complete post on Jordan )Amman, Petra, and the Dead Sea for a complete account of my trip.

  1. The Accommodation Situation

I stayed at 7 Wonders Bedouin Camp,which was its own wonderful experience and they offered pick up and drop off for a reasonable fee, but it was far outside of town and felt a little isolating for a solo traveller.  The other guests were either couples or families and were not the most sociable. I would have preferred to stay in town. For the 2ndnight I stayed in the town of Wadi Musa.  It was a bit far from Petra and as such I had to take a taxi back to the hotel.  There are a number of budget hotels within walking distance of Petra that are good quality. Some friends stayed at Sharah Mountain Hoteland were very pleased with their choice for price, quality and convenience.

  1. $$$

The dinar exchange is high,like the euro, and taxis are expensive.  You can rent a car as it is easy to drive around Jordan.  I took a mini bus from Amman because I was too late to take the coach bus there.  Around Wadi Musa they will charge you more for taxis than getting around Amman hence, staying within walking distance.  Petra entry fee is 50 JD for 1 day but only 55 JD for 2, I felt it was totally worth it but I know a lot of people who complained about the fee.

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  1. Trouble in Paradise

The hotels in Jordan are generally very strict about unmarried couples staying together in the same room.  If you do not have a marriage license, they will give you trouble.  Although a friend told me that online bookings were easier to manage than walk-ins and usually larger chain hotels are less strict than smaller, independently owned lodging.

  1. The Season Matters

Obviously it’s important to check the climate before travelling but with Petra, the sheer size of it and the climbing up of hundreds of steps, makes it important to check the seasonal temperatures.  Whether or not you can handle the heat of August or need the cooler temperatures of Autumn is a major consideration.  I went in October and it was perfect, but a friend went in August and ended up with heat exhaustion by the end of the day.

  1. FOOD

There are a few little cafes throughout Petra where you can get some small bites to eat and restock up on water but if you don’t want to waste time stopping for food, bring snacks that are easy to carry and will give you energy to power up to the Monastery and back to the entrance at the end of a long, sweaty, dusty day.  Once I reached the monastery I was more than happy to sit down for a fresh lemon mint juice and relax but I definitely could have used a granola bar or two along the way.

  1. Bathroom Breaks

There are not many bathrooms around Petra so take the chance when you get it.  The reality though, is that it is so dry there that I barely ever had to go, even though I drank at least 4 litres of water throughout the day…where did it go?!

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  1. Physicality

Petra is huge and there is a lot of climbing which can be very difficult for anyone with physical impairments or low level of fitness. There are horses, camels, and mules you can rent from the Bedouins but the animals are generally not well cared for; unless you really need help, try to practice climbing stairs and get your cardio up to par before going.  Your sense of accomplishment will be greater and you’ll have the added benefit of ending the day with exercise endorphins pumping through your veins.  If you’re like me, who is a regular gym junkie but lives in a flat area, your calf muscles will be screaming at you the next day. Further more, to see Petra without feeling rushed, opt for a day and a half instead of doing it all in a day.  I spent the first half day exploring the upper areas and the High Place of Sacrifice.  The second day I walked faster through the upper areas and explored the main part and climbed up to the Monastery.  When I came back down, I took my time wandering around the sites off the main road and was able to just sit and enjoy the views and ruins.  Another thing to consider is that if you are afraid of heights there are some daunting places and there are no railings to steady yourself.

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  1. Getting Around

I knew about the history of Petra but I did not know specifics about the layout and features, I also didn’t stop at the visitor’s center or get a map the first day.  Luckily some people I met on the bus had picked up a map and I was able to follow them around. I would never have known about the High Place of Sacrifice which was one of the highlights of my visit.   At the entrance they may try to tell you that a guide is necessary; depending on personal preference you may opt for a guide but if you’d rather go it alone, know that a guide is unnecessary, you can absolutely wander Petra on your own, going at your own pace.  The people at the information desk will provide you with a map and the crucial information you need.

  1. Battery Operated

This seems like an obvious one but do learn from my mistake, make sure your camera battery is FULLY charged before going in or take an extra battery with you, there is no where to plug anything in.  I had stayed at a Bedouin Camp so I wasn’t able to charge my battery the night before either.  My camera battery died right before I climbed 800+ steps to the monastery and my phone camera at the time was garbage so I missed out on a lot of wonderful shots.  Luckily when I reached the top, some friendly tourists let me use their battery to capture a few images of the monastery.

  1. A little knowledge goes a long way

I have heard people comment about their visit to Petra, that they didn’t think it was all that interesting or impressive and while normally your opinion is your own and I respect that, in this circumstance I have to argue that those people are simply wrong!  They must not have known much or anything about the history of Petra and therefore could not appreciate what they were seeing.  I am by no means a history expert but to appreciate many historical sites you need have a basis of knowledge that will help you understand why it is a world wonder.  Technologically speaking, the feat of carving such enormous and intricate structures out of rock with rudimentary tools is impressive enough on its own.  Throughout my visit I would sit down away from the crowds (it was by no means crowded) and imagine what it must have looked and sounded like all those years ago when people actually lived there. Lucky me withmy imagination, I was rewarded with fascinating imagery! To those planning to visit Petra, I recommend doing a little light research so that you can truly appreciate where you are standing.

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**Bonus: If you’re looking to go to the Dead Sea after Petra, there is no bus to get there.  I didn’t have much time so I ended up hiring a driver for 60 dinar (2014), while everyone else was charging 70-80 JD.  I lucked out and 2 women staying at my hotel needed a lift too so we split the cost.  It was an awesome decision in the end because the scenery was unbelievably stunning; and the driver, Hussain, was so sweet he stopped and bought us fresh falafels, roadside cucumbers, and fruit and answered all of my questions with incredible patience and kindness.  When I was there Hussain was driving for the 7 Wonders Bedouin Camp so perhaps you can get in touch with him through them or The Rocky Mountain Hotel.

 

 

Orthodox Coffee

With no idea what to expect, I arrived at Addis Ababa airport around 4/5am with an ear infection (swimmer’s ear) that had flared up on the plane ride over. No stranger to solo travel, I had not planned anything other than my hotel for an easy 3-day weekend.  The hotel told me I could use American dollars for the taxi ride from the airport but I thought it would be a good idea to get some local currency for the rest of my trip.  Ethiopian Birr is near impossible to obtain or exchange outside of Ethiopia and it wasn’t easy to find in Ethiopia, even at the arrivals of their international airport.  After waiting in what is essentially a free-for-all horde for about 10 minutes, the cashier announced that they were out of Birr and there didn’t seem to be a clear timeline of when they’d have more.

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I arrived at my hotel, intending to drop my bags, eat breakfast and head out on an early morning city walkabout but without asking the hotel clerk checked me into a room free of charge.  Since the aforementioned ear ache was plaguing me I decided it would be wise to rest a bit before heading out.  At around noon, I woke up, took a shower and started to contemplate my wardrobe for the day when suddenly a chamber maid sauntered into my room, I pulled a cartoon style cover-up, wrapping my fully nude form in my arms, while the woman’s eyes and mouthed widened into a state of shock, let out a tiny scream and slammed the door shut, mumbling something in Aramaic.  Clearly they had not informed her that I had checked in early.

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The hotel, Edna Addis Hotel, was a pretty non-descript place, in some random part of town, so I was delighted when for breakfast, they served me a steaming bowl of fragrant porridge and the strongest, bestest hotel coffee I have ever had, AND it was complimentary.  Even paying for a coffee at a hotel, I am consistently disappointed and without fail, the fanciest of resorts in any country will serve the most tepid, dirty dishwater they like to pass off as “coffee”.   But this little random, basic hotel in one of the poorest countries in the world knows how to make a better cappuccino than 5-star resort in Dubai does.

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I set out towards the Holy Trinity Cathedralwhere Haile Selassie is buried, forgetting that some sects of Christianity are just as conservative as Islam and that bare shoulders and a tank depicting a female demon, advertising a Metal Festival, might not be the way to go for Orthodox Christian Ethiopia. I stood out enough on my own that I doubt most people even noticed the shirt. I was fine to wander around the grounds but was not permitted to enter the church which was fine because I was the only tourist on site, the patrons were legitimate Christians and I felt a whole lot of conspicuous.

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There wasn’t a whole lot to see around the Cathedral but there was something so delightful about the beige stone building, tombs surrounding the grounds and the severe, grey, stone statues looking down on you like a disappointed grandfather. Trees surround the grounds cutting you off from the traffic and diesel fumes on the street, a crisp blue sky forms the backdrop, while ethereal women float around in wispy white muslin prayer shawls.  It was both delightful and surreal, I couldn’t place this church in an architectural or cultural box but that was ok, no one bothered me, except when I tried to enter the Cathedral and a very ancient priest yelled at me in one of the worlds oldest languages.  I felt hopeful for the rest of my day and set off with a bounce in my step.

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Haile Selassie’s Tomb

Last minute trips with no planning can, in my experience, turn out one of two ways, a whirlwind of spontaneous ridiculousness, or kind of a let down.  In this case, Addis Ababa was the sadly the latter, in Paul Theroux’s words “Addis Ababa was a sprawling high-altitude settlement resembling a vast rusty-roofed village scattered over many hills. (Dark Star Safari, p.92-93)” Spread out as it is, you need wheels to get around and being the foreigner that I am, wheels cost more than it should and everyone wanted to “take me for a ride.” I did briefly look up things to do in and around Addis Ababa, my hotel booked me a day tour of the Blue Nile Valley and 13thC Monastery for the following day, so I had the afternoon to explore Addis. I often rely on hotel staff to have the best advice on what to do, but it doesn’t always pan out and in this case it really didn’t, as they didn’t seem too knowledgeable about or interested in the attractions in their city.

My ear infection was bothering me and draining my energy so I decided to head to a famous café I’d read about, I jumped in a shared cab, a blue and white contraption from the 1960’s, I still needed to get local currency so I had the cab drop me outside a bank near the café. There was a mass of people in the bank and no line to speak of.  If you’re going to survive in Ethiopia for any period of time you’re going to have to forget everything you know about line-etiquette and just enter the fray. I had not reached that level yet and so waited…and waited…and waited.  Someone took pity on me and asked me what I wanted, and then politely informed me that they did not have any currency to give me and sent me across the street to another bank.  As soon as I walked in a bank manager ushered me to an office and exchanged a giant wad of old Birr notes with my crispy American dollars. I figured since I didn’t know when I would be able to exchange money next I would exchange more than I’d likely need, this was both smart, and a mistake as the currency exchange center at the airport was not open in my terminal upon departure and I had to search high and low for a place to exchange the Birr in Abu Dhabi and the buy rate was so low, I lost approximately 40$.

The bank manager watched with amusement as I tucked bills into both sides of my bra, boots, a hidden pocket of my purse, and finally, the small bills in my wallet that I then clipped to the inside of my purse, finally I stuffed a scarf over my valuables…pickpockets would not be getting anything from me.  As I was crossing the street to the café, 2 young boys about 9-12 years old came up one on each side of me. The boy on my right tapped my arm continuously repeatedly going “hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey” while simultaneously trying to sell me a random magazine, the boy on my left was getting conspicuously close to my purse.  I stopped and put my hand out, said STOP, quite loudly, and as if timed perfectly, the light turned green and my short but powerful legs took me across the street and into the café before the boys could process that I was gone.

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Tomoca Café is not a sit down and chill, read your book, check your email kind of place. It appears to be a place where people stop in for the sole purpose of drinking a quick coffee and carrying on about their day.  There is no food served there so don’t make plans for lunch either as I did because you’ll end up starving with caffeine jitters.  You order your coffee at the front desk and then proceed to the back where you hand them your receipt through the crowd and watch in fascination as they manage to get everyone’s various espresso based orders correct.  They do not have a ‘to go’ option to my knowledge, so you can either take your coffee to one of the stand-up tables occupied by many and stand there awkwardly sipping coffee as people have conversations around you or you can accept the kind gentleman’s invitation to sit down on the only bench with other older men and cheers him with the best goddamn coffee you will EVER have in your life…I’m not joking.  You know when you have something for the first time and it’s so unexpectedly delicious, that it transcends all that your taste bud’s have ever known or could ever expect?  The rich, bold flavours cause your eyeballs to pop out of your skull, and you have literal tingles spread from your nipples to extremities, because you have never had something so wonderful and then you get emotional because you know nothing will ever be as good, not ever.  I got teary eyed as I wrote that, the memory (nearly 3 years old) is that strong.

Fun Fact about Ethiopia: coffee was banned by the Orthodox Christian Church until the mid 19th Century.

After my existential moment at Tomoca Café, I was in dire need of some food and a bathroom.  Someone directed me to a bathroom in a random building but I could not get passed the foot of murky water on the floor.  Nothing takes the wind out of my adventurous sails as the need to pee, one quick look around this area and I determined that I would neither find much in the way of nutrition or a bathroom so my survival instinct kicked in, I hailed a cab and directed the driver to take me to the Hilton.  I knew there was one in town and I figured they’d have reliable wifi, food, and a bathroom.  They had 2 of the 3…I had to pay for wifi…wtf!  Feeling a bit like a tourist who eats at McDonalds instead of trying local food; I ordered Fish and Chips and a Cider, got very sleepy and decided to call it a day.  I hoped my ear infection would be better after a good sleep.

I started my day with a strong coffee and hearty bowl of porridge and then jumped into a van with a driver and tour guide, off to explore the Blue Nile Valley (part of the Great Rift Valley), the 13thC Monastery, Debre Libanos, and a Portuguese Bridge.  This is an incredibly easy day trip from Addis Ababa and worth every penny, since I was alone it cost me a bit more (120USD) than if I had been with a group.  I didn’t see any other tourists there which is an unusual treat, I guess that shows how off the beaten track Ethiopia is for tourists and travellers alike.

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I knew I would have to dress conservatively for the monastery visit so I was much more appropriately attired than the day before, in addition, I brought a scarf to cover my hair.  This was not enough apparently and the most adorable little monk; he reminded me of a Christian Merlin; wrapped me up like a mummy in white muslin.  He told me in no uncertain terms that if I was menstruating or had fornicated in the last 48hours I would not be permitted inside the church. Wellllll…..I was menstruating but I had not travelled all that way to be turned away because my body was doing the biological thing that literally sustains our species, sooo I kept it to myself and entered the church.  I have not been smote yet and things have been going pretty good for me, so I can confidently say you should ignore that rule.

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Debre Libanos is one of the holiest sites in Ethiopia, pilgrimages are made by many, especially sick people, where they receive holy water from a sacred mountain spring, to cure what ails them.  The church, both inside and out is very basic and filled with the actual faithful and not a bunch of tourists which makes the general vibe very sombre, I felt like a voyeuristic gawker.  The most impressive part of the church are the stained glass windows that were made by Afewerk Tekle, a famous Ethiopian artist.  “Merlin”, the monk who guided me around the site told me Tekle’s artwork was sent to the moon but I could not find any information about this so I can neither confirm nor deny.

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Afewerk Tekle’s Stained Glass Artwork

The church and monastery on site are not actually from the 13thC, as it was destroyed a few times throughout history; the latest church was built by Haile Selassie in the 1960’s.  There is a museum on site that houses many artifacts and displays but I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much, except learning that in the adjacent cemetery, people build little houses over their loved one’s graves and pilgrims or those in need can stay in these little houses for a night or two, monks also stay there. Clearly their creepy senses are much lower than mine because I’m pretty sure that sleeping in a cemetery is how many terrible horror movies from the 80’s begin.

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Cemetery with the little grave houses

A local teenage boy guided us down the rocky foot paths to the Portuguese Bridge, the bridge itself is not so impressive, you can tell its quite old, and it’s curious as to why the Portuguese built this bridge in the middle of nowhere, but the waterfall under the bridge is stunning and the baboons that hang out on the bridge are fun to photograph, like furry bridge gargoyles.

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What is beyond impressive is the gorge that the bridge overlooks.  Apparently the gorge is comparable in size to the Grand Canyon and is 1km deep.  The wind was strong up on the cliffs so I stepped gingerly as I made my way around the waterfalls and up onto a point where my driver, guide, and I ate lunch. It truly bother’s me that I don’t remember their names or the name of the tourist company because they were really lovely and we had a lot of fun jamming out to tunes in the van.  The tour company had packed us all a lunch which is essential because there didn’t seem to be anywhere around to buy food. The lunch was a bit disappointing though because they packed me a western style lunch but the driver and guide had a traditional Injera lunch.

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The Cliff where I ate lunch

The teenager guided us back to the road and then presented 3 beautifully carved crosses made of different coloured marble and without a word pointed across the Gorge to a section of cliff that looked as though it had been scratched at by a very large cat.  My guide told me that the boy gets marble from the cliff and carves these crosses to sell to tourists. I was both confused and impressed as to how he obtained this marble from the side of a kilometre-deep cliff.   I wasn’t really in the market for a cross as a non-religious person, but they were so beautifully carved and the marble was so fine and otherworldly, that I bought one, hung it in my home and every time I see it I am reminded of that beautiful day eating lunch on a cliff in Ethiopia. That day I learned that swimmer’s ear can be cured by strong winds on a cliff top, because that evening when I got back to the hotel, I realized my ear ache was gone.  Henceforth, every time I finish a swim, I dry my ears out with a blow dryer to avoid swimmer’s ear.

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The next day I set out to go to the National Museum but it was closed, so then I asked the taxi to take me to St. George’s Art Gallery.  We drove around a lot, asked many people, and after a very long time, learned that it was close to the Sheraton and the cab driver dumped me outside the Sheraton, figuring it was my fault that we had gotten lost and didn’t know where the Art Gallery was. The Art Gallery happens to be an art institution in Addis Ababa but it was definitely my fault for not knowing it’s precise location even though I had presented him with a screen shot of the google maps location.  Did I mention the general attitude in Addis Ababa, toward foreigners is somewhere in between aloof haughtiness and a give me money mentality.  From Hotel staff to Art Gallery curators, to almost everyone on the street, they seemed disinterested regardless of whether you’re asking for directions or just saying hello. I tried to ask questions about various points of interest or the artwork in the gallery and for the most part the answers were non-committal mumbling, offering no insight or useful information whatsoever. I have only ever encountered this general ambivalence once before and once since, in Beijing, China and Harare, Zimbabwe. All 3 cities felt depressed and bleak, even when the sky is blue and the sun brilliant, the city feels shrouded in grey.   All 3 cities have been economically repressed and politically oppressed so I guess it makes sense.

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Despite the difficulty of finding the place, St. George’s Gallery was a worthwhile stop.  They have beautiful Art, furniture, jewelry, and textiles that are of high quality.  I bought a gorgeous turquoise, silk scarf that I left in a taxi 2 years later and nearly cried about it.

I kept hearing about this upscale, trendy area of Addis Ababa called Bole street, so on my last evening I thought it would be prudent to check out the nightlife, even though I had to get up at 4:30 am for my flight.  I had the taxi drop me somewhere on Bole street and started walking, it was a chilly evening so I wore a jacket.  The street wasn’t well lit and I kept seeing disconcerting dark figures off to the side whispering at me, I was also really hungry, so I stopped at the first place I saw and had Blue Nile Perch which was just ok.  I used the free wifi and found a bar not far from the restaurant called Black Rose Lounge.  The music wasn’t obnoxious so I stayed for a bit but it felt like the kind of place you go with friends so if you’re solo, there’s no where to set up shop and chill.  Eventually my standing around, turning in circles became just awkward and some men decided to talk to me.  They turned out to be very friendly and we had a good time shooting the shit and then we went to a nightclub somewhere else; these guys were the friendliest people I had met in Addis Ababa who genuinely just wanted me to have a fun night.

Finally, around 3am I thought I should get back to my hotel for a quick disco nap but drunk me forget to set the alarm, or I set it wrong, or I didn’t hear it.  Either way I was awoken by loud knocking at my door, thankfully sober me had arranged an airport transfer and they were waiting for me.  At the airport I was sent to a terminal that actually looked like a defunct airport out of a horror movie.  There was nothing open in the way of food or water, I was still drunk so I was in dire need of water.  Every seat was taken so I sat on the cold floor with my head in my hands in pure agony. The bathroom down a long hallway lit by one flickering light bulb was cold, dirty, water was everywhere and if a rat had scurried across the floor I would not have been surprised.  The flight was over an hour delayed so I got to Bahrain too late to catch my connection to Abu Dhabi.  The hangover was in full swing so I set up shop in the Irish Pub drinking Bloody Mary’s for approximately 8 hours.

Addis Ababa is not a city I’d return to any time soon but if I had the chance I would go back to Ethiopia to visit Lalibela and a few other places of note; the country boasts many fascinating historical and natural attractions, a unique cultural heritage, and the best damn coffee in the world.

 

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Goma, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Are we actually going to the Congo? We asked each other this questions on multiple occasions before actually going to the Congo.  The trip was booked we were in the deep and quite frankly I was thrilled, Maysa nervous but also thrilled.  If you check the advisories and the news and ask anyone who knows where the Congo is, they will tell you, you’re a damn fool.

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I’ve never been one to take these advisories too seriously, more often than not I feel like it’s your country’s way of not being liable for their citizens should they travel to a certain place, and often these advisories shroud an entire place in danger instead of explicitly calling out certain locations.

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At the end of the day, all the hyped up trepidation we felt was for naught…Not to say I’d be meandering around Goma on my own at night but the warnings of being raped, kidnapped, mutilated, and robbed was a bit far fetched.  I could see myself getting mugged there should I be wandering the streets alone at night but anything worse would be a slight on every single wonderful person we met while visiting the DRC.  I’ve had hotel staff in Nairobi who were uncomfortable letting me walk to a bank alone in broad daylight, and in Goma our hotel staff did not seem too enthused that we wanted to venture out for water and other supplies in the late afternoon/evening, but they gave us the directions nonetheless and didn’t seem too surprised when we returned with smiles on our faces instead of lines etched with paranoia.

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The most remarkable thing about Goma city proper is the sheer amount of UN vehicles you’ll see driving around or parked in hotel parking lots.  Another interesting aspect are the roundabouts which are decorated to memorialize things like the 2002 Nyiragongo eruption in which about 147 people died, destroyed thousands of homes and left over 100,000 people homeless. The eruption came through fissures in the side of the volcano letting lave stream through the center of town, 15 years later you will still see piles of lava rock on the side of the road and notice that some people have used the rock to make stone walls.  Since the rock and dust is black it makes Goma look a bit grimy, almost like a coal miner’s town in the Great Depression, but life is so vibrant and the landscape so green, its easy to enjoy the contrast.

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The absolute most fascinating thing I saw in the city of Goma were the boys on Chukadoos (wooden freight bicycles) transporting loads of wood at the speed of light.  Sometimes they were racing each other, usually with two young men on each-one steering, the other securing the load of thin logs. While we were waiting for our ranger, BienFait, to escort us to the Virunga I stood outside the ranger station on the street photographing and filming Chukadoo drivers.  I guess the few tourists that do come to Goma these days don’t usually get out of the car at 7am with their camera, as I received many a curious/incredulous stare.  David, our Goma driver and guide, told me that I could photograph and film anything as long as he was there but if I was on my own I could get fleeced for a photography license.

“The easiest way to extract money from a tourist is to catch him taking photographs.  In fact, the DRC’s ‘no photography’ regulations don’t seem to be enshrined anywhere; they probably fall under Mobutu’s famous Article 15–debrouillez-vous–that you have the right, indeed the duty, to ‘improvise’ or ‘get by’, making money anyway you can.” (Tony Wheeler, Dark Lands)

David took us to a popular local restaurant called Magali Fan Club where you eat buffet style, an awesome selection of traditional and fragrant Congolese food, it would be the single best meal we had in 4 days in the Congo.  We were recommended Nyumbuni Lodge another day for dinner, the food was not local and it was just so so but the restaurant has a calm ambience for an evening meal and drinks.

At really early o’clock, David picked us up at our hotel, Caritas Lodge, we stopped for a bit to wait for our ranger escort, Bienfait, and then carried on down some seriously harrowing roads to the Gorilla trekking station in the Virunga.  We drove by children waving, some with the hands out asking for money others yelling “Biscuit!” at us.  Is that a thing here, do tourists gives kids cookies in the Virunga?  In Tanzania, Kenya, and the DRC when I have gone on safari or in this case a gorilla trek, kids run out when they see the tourist vehicles looking to get money and gifts from tourists.  I have literally never thought to bring anything with me, can’t afford to hand out cash, and have always been told never to give money to random people but to donate money or items to a charity instead of giving to individuals.  I’m curious to know how often these children’s efforts are rewarded.

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We were ushered into a room with chairs set up facing a map of the park and a white board with the names of the Gorilla families and how many of each type of gorilla belonged to each family.  There were about 8 other people there eagerly awaiting to begin the trek.  We were given the run down of how we needed to act around the gorillas, what not to do and which families we would visit.  Were were split into 3 groups and then told to tuck our pants into our socks to avoid getting accosted by red ants.  Everyone was wearing long pants or leggings except me. I had worn a ¾ length pair of leggings and my hiking boots so there was a 2-3 inch space of bare skin.  My reason for this was that I knew it was going to be hot and I didn’t think about needing to cover my legs.  I felt that David or Amahoro tours should have mentioned this in their information package.  They had done an excellent job with everything else.  There was nothing I could do but brave the jungle in my ¾ length leggings and hope for the best. This didn’t detract from the incredible experience I had while watching the Rugendo gorilla family, a swarm of red ants could have been crawling up my legs and I would still have been wide eyed, in awe, snapping photos and just staring at the most magical creatures on our planet.

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We walked up and down small hills and through farmer’s fields for about an hour in the sun, one ranger in front and one in the back.  Our head ranger DeoGracias, went in front and I behind him.  We started to ascend a pretty steep hill, not sure how long we’d be ascending for, I stopped part way up because I hate being in front of others and I was hot.  Turns out it wasn’t long because the Rugendo family was just chilling on the edge of the forest and the farmer’s fields munching on bushes; secure in the knowledge that there were 2 rangers protecting them.  Once we got within 30 feet of the gorillas they told us to put our masks on, this is because gorillas can contract human ailments.  There are about 900 Mountain Gorillas left in the wild, just over a hundred are habituated to humans and they live between Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC.  The rest of the gorilla families are not used to humans and would become quite aggressive if we tried to hang out with them and watch them eat.  The Rugendo family does not mind our presence but you can tell that they only trust us because the rangers with us are known to them.  They still watch us, seemingly passively but as soon as we are near to the baby, Mom watches our every move out of the corner of her eye.  Baby wants to come play with us, babies like to play with the rangers so they are curious about humans.  The Rugendo’s 4-month old little nugget kept trying to stumble toward us like a miniature furry drunk, but we knew we had to stay 5 feet or more away.  It was awkward on the hillside rife with plants to scramble backwards from the baby so the rangers were cutting down bushes left and right for us to move back.

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The hour was up too soon, I could have spent a full day hanging out with these incredible animals, I so badly wanted to scoop up the baby and play with it and if a silverback had fist pumped me I would have been pretty stoked but sadly it was time to go.  The rangers are so nonchalant about what they do but their job is incredibly important and at times extremely dangerous.  Rangers get killed all the time by poachers and militia, in the last 20 years more than 160 rangers have died protecting the gorillas and the Virunga. About 2 weeks before we arrived 13-14 Tanzanian soldiers were killed in the Congo, the country is still incredibly unstable but for now the Virunga and Goma are safe.  How is it that a country so rich in natural resources can be so corrupt, violent, and poor?  I guess you can thank Belgium for fucking up a perfectly beautiful country.

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Returning to Goma, Bienfait, our escort blew a tire on the poorly kept road and we waited while he loaded his motorcycle on top of a ranger jeep. We bounced and jerked to and fro all the way back to Goma, passing the site where a huge military gun was left from the M23 militia uprising against the military.  They were trying to destabilise the Virunga so that Soco Oil could drill in Lake Edward.  The government won because the UN got involved and convinced Joseph Kabila to protect the Virunga and send Soco packing.  There is still much unrest in the Kivu region.  It’s a strange site to see a gun being overtaken by weeds, that just 5 short years early was being used against the town and the rangers, as civilians fled on foot and overloaded trucks to get away from the fighting.  The village in present day looks so peaceful and normal but you know the 10-year old herding goats down the road probably had to run for his life when he was 5.  When I visit Quebec City or Santo Domingo, DR, there are old canons lining ancient city walls that are left as a reminder of the past and who fought and won the right to call that place home, for our present day freedoms.  Those canons are simply a symbolic reminder of the past, why this massive gun was left outside this village for 5 years I cannot with certainty say but it seems as though its more because no one has thought or been able to get rid of it.

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The next day we would be climbing Nyiragongo for 5 hours and needed some healthy sustenance and a good sleep to get us up there.  I had read that the beginning of the hike was pretty easy and the rest got harder.  I felt moderately prepared, I work out 4-5 times a week usually and I trekked for 5 days in Nepal; I was not prepared. The first part of the hike is fairly easy and quite pleasant but the next 4 hours are awful, I mean the views are great but when your anxiety takes over and you can’t breathe you don’t notice the view.  Maysa stayed with me as I lagged behind literally taking 1 step at a time.  The whole time your feet are rolling around on loose lava rocks going steadily up and up for hours.  But once you reach that final rest stop, the wind whipping around your head, catching your breathe before the final 20-30 minute ascent, that literally looks straight up; you know you can do it and the effort will have been worth it.  I rarely give up on anything but about ½ way up I wanted to quit.  I powered on of course, I knew I had to see the lava lake.  We bought wooden walking sticks at the bottom, I was sceptical at first but after about hour 2, I was extremely pleased to have one; especially on the descent when rolling rocks threatened to dislodge your feet and send you tumbling to the ground.  We dumped our stuff in the cabin and piled on the layers, it was sooooooo cold at the top, like above the tree line cold.  The barometer read 8 degrees but with the wind chill I would have wagered it was 0 at most.  I really wished I had bought those ugly pink gloves in Dubai because as I was trying to photograph the bubbling lava, my fingers were solid blocks of ice.  Of course as a desert dweller for the past four years and having never been particularly fond of winter, I can’t handle weather much below 15 degrees.

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Nothing, no amount of google image searches, and blog reading can prepare you for the sight of hot, crackling bubbling lava lake in all it’s dragonesque, mordor glory; 700 metres below you at the top of a 3400 metre volcano.  Knowing this very pit of lava nearly leveled Goma in 2002, smelling the sulphur, and perched on the razor edge of a cliff trying not to let the wind get the better of you, its surreal.  I can’t explain it because such things should not be read but seen in person.

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After watching the lava lake in a gray haze for a little while we went down to the cook’s hut and sat next to the fire, warming our stiff and frozen bodies.  Thomas our cook served us a delicious potage and beef spaghetti.  The perfect meal after a hard climb and shivering at the edge of the lava lake.

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After dinner I went back up to the edge of the cliff to stare awhile longer.  The glowing red of the lava was even more striking now that the sky had gone black.  We shivered awhile longer, completely dumbstruck, I was extremely happy I had brought my telephoto lens so that I could get some really close shots of the lake.  I was so cold I just wanted to curl up inside my sleeping bag and drift to sleep. A little rum and hot chocolate would not have been remiss and if I had to do it again, I would have brought some.  I tried to convince the Rangers, Porters and Cooks that they should start a rum and whiskey beverage service and offer calf massages!

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My hopes of a warm, snuggly sleeping bag were dashed when I crawled in and realized that my sleeping bag was thin and had thinned out considerably around the zipper area leaving a substantial area of mostly nylon to shield me from the cold that permeated our little cabin. My sleeping bag was a worn out piece of crap that let my dwindling body heat slither out through the worn nylon into the night sky.  The cabin itself is outfitted with two small mattresses and pillows covered in vinyl and while the cabin blocked the wind it was not insulated from the cold.  I resolved that once I was tucked into my sleeping bag, I would not be getting up to pee until morning.  Maysa came down a little later needing to pee but not wanting to go down to the outhouse because it was so dark and the path precarious so she opted to squat behind our cabin.  Thinking that everyone had gone to sleep, she ventured out but to her dismay people were out and about with their flashlights so she got stage fright and couldn’t go for awhile, I think she may have been out their with her bare ass to the wind for a good twenty minutes; I tried to help by singing to her such bathroom classics as “Let it Go” and “You can do it put your back into it,” I was not being helpful she said so I stopped, ignored her pleas to the night gods for a quick and steady stream, and went to sleep.  I slept fitfully that night, woke up to Maysa talking incoherently in her sleep, feeling heavy gusts of wind violently shaking our cliff-side dwelling.

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Waking early the next morning, I was so miserably cold I felt certain that I could just not get up, that I would just have to remain a frozen popsicle in that cabin for the rest of my life, but my bladder got the better of my and I forced myself out and down to the outhouse.  The outhouse was an unpleasant structure to enter but it was open to the cliff side overlooking the most incredible views, so while you were trying to hover over the seat aiming your stream into the hole you were blessed with a view that lasts a lifetime.  The sun was still rising, the sky all pinks and purples, the hopelessness that I felt before I got up disappeared and I felt excited about the next few hours ahead.

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Thomas served up a hearty breakfast and we all began our descent down the steep cone of the volcano to the first rest stop.  Maysa’s fear of heights took over on the descent so it was my turn to wait for her as one of the Porter’s graciously assisted her all the way down.  I fell once and cut the heel of my hand, fell a few more times but did not suffer any more cuts or bruises.  One man fell quite hard as he was descending the first part and with already bad knees and his walking stick jamming into his ribs, he was unable to descend as quickly as the rest thus a ranger stayed by his side the whole way down.  It was precarious but I learned to watch the sure footing of the other guides, rangers, and porters and followed them down to firmer ground.  The last section of the trail is the most pleasant, descending through woods on firm packed dirt, watching out only for roots crossing the path.

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After 3 of the most incredible days of my life visiting the Gorillas, and climbing Nyiragongo, often called the most dangerous volcano in the world, I felt extremely fortunate and cheerful, completely exhausted but excited for the next 2 weeks of our trip.

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I never once felt unsafe while visiting Goma and the Virunga, in fact I left with the desire to see more of the DRC.  More people visit Rwanda and Uganda to see the Gorillas but with the rising cost of Gorilla trekking in Rwanda, more people are starting to head to the Congo.  Being able to also trek Nyiragongo and visit the famed Virunga was the selling point for us but all the little experiences we had while hanging out in Goma made me wish we had stayed another day, if only to eat more Congolese food and dance the night away to Congolese music.

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Eating Dahl in Sri Lanka was an existential experience; the kind of discovery where you realize your whole life is a lie, that you’ve been eating garbage and nothing will ever compare.  It’s that moment in The Giver when the main character starts to see colour.  Ayuna’s wife picks the curry leaves fresh from her garden right before adding them to the pot, that must be the secret that takes her Dahl from simply excellent to undeniably extraordinary.

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Despite taking a tramadol and downing ¾ of a bottle of red wine on our overnight flight, my memories of that first day are still pretty lucid, thanks in part to the slow crawl of traffic from Colombo to Kandy and our genius idea to take the airplane pillow for car naps.  My friend and I didn’t have much time in Sri Lanka for all there is to see there so we decided to throw money at the problem and hire a driver.  It wasn’t much money though and I am sure we got the best bang for our buck in this circumstance.  A friend referred me to Ayuna through her friend; my friend would be travelling with him directly after us.  Ayuna is a popular guide and driver amongst the Aussie crowd and is often booked up but he has a network of guides he can refer you to.  We told him what we wanted to do and he handled everything else including a homestay with his family and one of the best meals of my life.

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A Mahout sprays this bull with water to keep him cool at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Geographically, Kandy is not far from Colombo but because of the heavy traffic it took awhile to get to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which was the first stop on our tour.  I was a bit groggy from travelling and the aforementioned imbibing of substances so my main observation during this time was that is was HOT, like oppressively humid and when we were watching the elephants in the field there wasn’t much shade.  Nothing makes you feel like a trash bag full of rotting fruit quite like sweating out red wine and opioids after 5 hours on a plane and 1 hour of sleep in the back of a car; but there we were, and we had to make the best of it.  Fortunately, watching elephants stomp down the cobbled hill, past shops selling elephant poo paper, for a frolic in the river with the mahouts (elephant handler) was an excellent distraction.  Down by the river it was cooler, there was a languid breeze to uplift my wine soaked spirit.

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The elephants completely take over the town on their twice daily excursion to the river.  They playfully eye the tourists, flopping their trunks around at you, as if to say, “Hey you, lady, let’s chat!” I sat on the edge of the river while a playful Mama elephant flip flopped her trunk and made eyes at me trying to get me to play with her.  She let me rub her trunk and she waved it back and forth as I laughed, she looked quite amused with the situation.  Elephants are such honest and beautiful animals, I’ve been fortunate to see them in the wild in Tanzania and Kenya as well as in the orphanage in Sri Lanka. From what I understand, African Elephants are much more wild and can be dangerous and aggressive to humans whereas Sri Lankan and Indian elephants are used to human contact and are more docile. I’ve never personally tested this theory but their similarity is their humanity; if you’ve ever looked into the eyes of an elephant, you’ll see their emotions and their intelligence, it’s quite startling the first time.  I was in a van in Tanzania when a family of elephants popped out of the bush, I could see them go through a range of emotions from being surprised, upset, and then afraid of the van; that image is forever etched in my memory.

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Maybe you’ve heard the tales of animal cruelty and commercialism that many a travel blogger have condemned Pinnawala based on their feelings and opinions without a shred of actual research.  Obviously no one likes to see an animal in chains but there are circumstances where the chains are not only for human safety but that of the animals.  The elephants are rescued from abominable circumstances or are found orphaned, they are not a natural pack of elephants thus there are difficulties keeping all the elephants together, especially with aggressive males.  As to the commercialism of the conservation project, they have to make money to feed and care for the elephants and the easiest way to do that is through tourism.  I wholeheartedly object to zoos, I don’t see the point in having animals flown from other countries to sit in a box and have a bunch of people gawking at them, it doesn’t matter how you frame it.  I have been to animal sanctuaries that have the appearance of a zoo but the animals are local and have been orphaned or injured, or sick, and cannot care for themselves in the wild, this is an ethical way to see animals.  If you have questions regarding the treatment of the elephants at Pinnawala check out this article: the blogger gives a nice researched, balanced and reasonable view of what goes on at Pinnawala and why things are the way they are.

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I recently finished reading Paul Theroux’s novels ‘The Great Railway Bazar’ and `Ghost Train to The Easter Star.’  In both novels he travels through Sri Lanka during a dismal period, the first time during a food crisis and the second while the country was on the verge of civil war.  Still he describes his train rides with such fondness that it makes me wish I had taken a trainride in Sri Lanka.  Meeting Ayuna and his family and his expert guidance made our short trip far richer than if we had gone it alone.  When you have limited time, it’s best to hire a guide and Ayuna is world class. We drove around Sri Lanka from Colombo to Kandy to Nuwara Eliya to Hikkaduwa in the back seat of his sedan, chatting occasionally and lazily while staring out at the lush hillsides, careening around the never-ending switchbacks, through tea plantations that convey a feeling of being transported to British Ceylon circa 1830.  Eric Weiner in The Geography of Genius describes this feeling while in Hangzhou “I could for a split second, feel that era.  The past is like that. It is absent and then suddenly not absent.  When this happens, when the past arrives uninvited, we greet it not with shock but recognition.”   I imagined British Generals with pointy mustaches supervising the the growing of tea, sipping it to test for quality while sweating in their beige uniforms and stupid hats declaring the tea to be too tepid or poorly strained.

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Later that afternoon, after visiting a Spice Garden, we reached the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.  Apparently, one of four canines from Lord Buddha himself is preserved here and is extremely sacred, I presume the tooth was housed inside the dagoba (large white bell), as that is where Buddha’s relics are typically kept. I was fascinated by the flower offerings floating in water that apparently symbolize the fleetingness of life, and at that moment I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect.  The light of the day was on the descent, and while this day was a standout memory for me, I was but another tourist blip to all I encountered on their day to day. Travel is interesting like that, most of the time you’re just another tourist passing through; to the traveler though, seemingly mundane moments can be long lasting memories. Once in awhile you get to make meaningful and lasting connections and in the past you might have exchanged letters and photographs from time to time.  Nowadays you friend each other on Instagram and Facebook-occasionally seeing their posts, once in awhile writing a quick message.

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Making an incense offering before prayer or meditation helps focus the mind.

We stayed with Ayuna’s family, they have a guest partition on their house with a balcony perfect for relaxing after a shower and hot day. We drank a few beers on the front porch amidst palm fronds and other greenery that I cannot name. Ayuna’s wife cooking rivals no other and in addition to the life changing dahl, we ate mee kiri-buffalo milk curd and honey. So blissfully stuffed full of food, my friend and I retired to bed, desperately needing a solid few hours of sleep.

A restless dog barking relentlessly through the night and the surprising cold kept me awake despite being completely exhausted. My friend turned out to be a total blanket hog too…(I still love her though).

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The next morning, we ate breakfast and then Ayuna took us to the Buddhist convent next to his house that his family had donated land to.  All the nuns were off on some sort of retreat or mission except the oldest nun.  She was 90+ years old but she politely showed us around her home.  The convent was painted the same shade of yellow cake icing complete with white trim, as well as a soft hue of orange, there were white triangular flags and the blue, orange, yellow, and white Buddhist flags strung up all over the upper terrace and through the house were small glassed alcoves with statues of Buddha surrounded by flowers.  The nun, noticing how we admired the Buddhist flag, gave us each one and then wrapped a white prayer thread around our wrist to bless our onward journey.  I’m not a believer of religion but Buddhist spaces are the least austere, and ostentatious of the religions that I have encountered.  Every temple I have been to, honours the natural world around them and rather than dominate the landscape, blends with the forms and colours in the vicinity. Basilicas and Cathedrals, may architecturally fascinate me, but I certainly do not feel inspired by a godly presence under those heavy stone naves and buttresses. The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and in Muscat, even the Gaddafi Mosque in Kampala; these spaces have stirred a desire in me to lay down and meditate but I know I would not be allowed to do such a thing.  Buddhist temples make me want to find a quiet corner either inside or out to read a book or sketch with a nice cup of coffee, practice yoga and then meditate, for days.

Ayuna then brought us to Lankathilyaka Viharaya Temple that is both Buddhist and Hindu. Long ago when Sri Lanka was being settled (mainly by men) the men were Buddhist but they shipped their wives in from India who were predominantly Hindu so they built shrines to Hindu gods within the Buddhist temple so that their wives could pray at the same time and place as them.  Lankathilyaka Temple dates from the 14thCentury and houses certain deities from Hindu tradition that Buddhists also recognize for example Upulvan is identified as Vishnu, and Ganapathi is Ganesh.

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Dagoba-where relics are kept

I couldn’t find any solid information to back up Ayuna’s information about the Hindu brides except that there is a legend of Prince Vijaya, the first recorded King of Lanka who sent emissaries to Pandu and the King of Pandu agreed to send Vijaya his daughter as his bride as well as other women for his 700 followers.  The story of Vijaya is a mesh of fact and fiction thus I cannot confirm details or really figure out if this is what Ayuna was talking about with regards to the temple except that the time of Vijaya was during 543-505 BCE and the temple dates from the 14thC.

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Lankathilyaka Temple overlooks rolling, lush, green hills

We continued driving for a long while through lush, green hills and tea plantations until we reached Nuwara Eliya by late afternoon. In the mountains it was cold as balls and we were ill prepared for the temperature. Nuwara Eliya is a charming little town set on a lake in the middle of Sri Lanka, it was founded by the British as a refuge from the heat of the lower lands and was referred to as Little England at one point.  Many of houses still have their British style gardens and terraces and the post office in the centre looks straight out of small town Britain.

 

 

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View from our Hotel in Nuwara Eliya

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Postal Office in Nuwara Eliya

Sri Lanka is known for it’s sapphires, as the stone is abundantly mined there, Ayuna being a former sapphire sales man brought us to a jeweler and proceeds to negotiate 40% off the consumer price of the rings thus my friend and I both walked away with beautiful little sapphire rings. Ayuna told us that most guides will negotiate a cheaper price on rings for their clients but will take portion of the discount for themselves as commission for bringing them there.

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Buses careening around switchbacks

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Dense foliage all along the roads from Nuwara Eliya to Hikkaduwa

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That night we drank a bunch of local rum with Ayuna but ultimately had to nod off. Our room was an icebox so we requested extra blankets.  They brought 2 blankets up-one thick, and one thin.  My friend commandeered the thick one (blanket hog) and the jerk wouldn’t even let me stick my icicle toes inside her thick blanket, hence another poor night’s sleep.  I normally sleep like the dead for a solid 8 hours so this whole 3 nights of interrupted sleep really did me in.  Despite the joy of driving through some of the lushest countryside I’d ever seen, I conked out on the stolen airplane pillow much of the next day as we careened around a million mountain switch backs.  Eventually I sniffed the air and smelled the unmistakable scent of the sea.

To Be Continued…

 

Quick Guide Muscat, Oman

First Impression: Is this a city or a collection of mountain towns? Muscat is so spread out, it’s difficult to get a feel for the place as a city.    Everyone we met was really down to earth and helpful.

Where I stayed: Mutrah Hotel.  Basic, clean, nothing fancy, decent location for a city tour, we could walk to the souq from there and the restaurant across the street was pretty good.

What to wear: Conservative light and loose fabric-cover your knees, shoulders, and chest. I was there mid-October and it was still very hot!

What I did: The Grand Mosque is a must-see, woman must be covered from head to toe, men should be wearing pants not shorts.  We went ‘downtown’ to see the Sultan’s Palace and the first around here.  The buildings are beautiful in this area.  We went to the beach for Crepes and relaxation in the afternoon.  The Opera House was unfortunately closed when we went.  In the evening we went to the souq to shop for silver and fabric and for dinner.

Practical tidbits:

  • Always ask your front desk how much a taxi ride from here to there should cost as the drivers will try to charge you double or more, there are no metres in the cabs.
  • Not much to eat around Sultan’s palace so make sure you are fed and have water for maximum enjoyment.  FYI the guards are friendly if you try out your Arabic on them.
  • Eat Shawarma and Falafels at the souq.
  • Have a Dosa for breakfast
  • You can find beautiful old and original silver pieces at the souq, haggle for what you want.  I bought an old man ring 10 sizes too big so I took it to a jeweller at home to cut it to my size and clean it.

Last Impression/Wishes for “next time”:  Muscat was a last minute, poorly researched trip so I had no idea that Sea turtles frequented the beaches there otherwise I would have attempted to see them.  I think I would stay near the beach next time.   I would love to go mountain trekking and camping.

First Impression: I arrived at the butt crack of dawn and to be honest, in downtown Amman, I was intimidated by the near empty streets and every second man yelling out to me. My hostel I had booked through hostel world was under renovations so I was left wandering the streets looking for a new accommodation. Nothing was opened that early, to even sit for a coffee and get my bearings.  I found a hotel and slept till noon, at that hour Amman was a much friendlier place, albeit a busy one. 

Where I stayed: Art Hotel.  Very basic but affordable, clean and quite pleasant.  They let me check in to the room at around 7am.

What to wear: I was there in October, it was warm during the day with a slight chill at night.  I wore jeans, a t-shirt, and my converse shoes to tour the city during the day.  At night I wore a long skirt and long sleeved shirt and a pashmina around my neck.  The main thing is to make sure your legs, shoulders, and chest are covered.

What I did: The citadel, the Roman Theatre, Downtown Amman Souq Shopping and dining on Rainbow street and the Books @Cafe for an evening drink and excellent city views, FOOOOD.  In one day, you can easily do all these things and more, if you haven’t taken an overnight flight and slept till noon.  If you’re wandering on foot then you’ll have plenty of street art to look at as well.

Practical tidbits:

-If you are an unmarried couple, you’ll have a hard time finding a local hotel, especially as a walk in.  My friend said they had booked at international chain hotels online and didn’t have any issues but at Art Hotel they wouldn’t even let the guy go to my room.

-Taxi’s have metres so no need to worry there.

-Amman is a city of hills and to get around on foot you’ll be happy to be a fit person.  Even still my calf muscles were screaming at me the next day.

-Eat all the Zaatar Manakeesh and Hummus you can find.

-If you don’t get the coach bus to Petra (I missed it), go to the minibus station and for half the price you can get a mini bus to Petra.

For tips and advice on Petra, read my post 10 Things I wish I knew Before Going to Petra

Off the beaten path: Downtown Amman Souq and Hashem the best Hummus Restaurant.

Last Impression/Wishes for “next time”:  After a shaky start I wound up loving Amman and was genuinely bummed not to have more time to spend there.  I would like to visit the mosques and head North out of the city to Jerash.

I did the main tourist points in Jordan-Amman, Petra, and The Dead Sea, I wish I’d had more time to go to Wadi Rum and Aqaba. I truly enjoyed travelling around Jordan as a solo female traveller, I had one weird moment in Petra but I was not unsafe and it could have happened anywhere.  Otherwise people were friendly, respectful, and full of interesting conversation.