What I learned from 29 countries when turning 30

What I learned from 29 countries when turning 30

As I struggled with the idea of leaving my twenties behind, I scrambled to put together a list of accomplishments that allowed me to feel this youthful decade was valuable, fun, engaging, impactful, and overall worth it. I think it’s a common process that many 29 turning 30 year olds go through. And it’s disastrous.

There’s no grading scheme for a life well lived. There’s no meter to say “yep, you did alright, kiddo”, which I wish would be whispered in my ear by a wise old man with a southern drawl. It’s just life. Your decision, your stories, your relationships and that glimmering hope that you’re not screwing it all up.

In 29 years on the planet, one thing I have prioritized is travel. I was lucky enough to travel for work and for pleasure and for volunteering, and one of the reasons D and I decided to move to Budapest for his studies as it is a central point from which to explore. I believe travel is important to broaden your perspective, to understand the world and to try all the delicious things.

Barbeque lunch in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan
Barbecue lunch in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan
In my scramble to pull together what I’ve done in my twenties, I haphazardly had put together my list of countries I visited in my 30 years. Some I’ve explored thoroughly, and some I’ve visited only a city. It wasn’t planned, though that would have been clever (and I would have made 30!), but by adding in Canada (which I allow as I’ve traveled to every province and two of three territories) and remembering that afternoon in Monaco, my list totaled 29.

Midnight walk in Doha, Qatar
Midnight walk in Doha, Qatar
Here, I offer the distilled wisdom I’ve collected is from the from these twenty-nine countries, to be taken with many grains of salt.

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Ton Sai Teachings: How to Weather a Travel Storm with the Right Currency

Ton Sai Teachings: How to Weather a Travel Storm with the Right Currency

[This post is the fourth part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

Ton Sai and Railay are beautiful parts of the Krabi coastline on the southeast coast of Thailand. It’s that long gangly arm of Thailand that reaches out to hug the Gulf of Thailand.

The landscape was immediately striking. Peeking up at the lush hills, the rocky cliffs that rose beside the highway reveal the striking Karst landscape that the region is known for. The dark rocks held shapes that didn’t seem physically possible, while also being geologically beautiful.

We traveled there to see its rugged beauty. And we arrived on a different route than planned with lessons in planning, logistics and travel’s most important currency.

Landing at Ton Sai

Plan A: Arrive at the airport, take a shuttle to Ao Phra Nang, hop on a long-tail to Ton Sai, all before the boats stop running at dark. Although Ton Sai is part of the mainland, there are no roads, only boats, to the bay. Easy.

Plan B: Flight is delayed, leaving us with just enough time to reach the boat before sunset. I watched Google maps as we drove to Krabi Town onto Ao Nammao Bay en route to our stop Ao Phra Nang. I was following along Google Maps and the ol’ faithful blue dot and almost missed it. “Did he say Ton Sai?” Derek asked. We asked the driver confirmed that this was the stop to reach Ton Sai, two bays away from our planned pier.  Without being sure, we followed the drivers’ directions and hopped off the bus. The woman worked the boat ticket office confirmed: there’s a storm further up the coast and boats aren’t leaving Ao Phra Nang. The only way to arrive in Ton Sai is to take a long-tail from this more protected bay to Railay and then walk.

Signs of a storm from the shuttle.

The boat ride was beautiful, but it definitely sailed into a storm. We arrived in a torrent of rain. I was almost forgotten on the boat as I stuffed our valuables into plastic bags in the inside of my pack with the boatman was anxious to leave. Derek alerted the driver and I leaped onto the floating dock, and we ran for cover into the Railay trees.

The calm and the storm from Ao Nammao

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Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

{Disclaimer: this post discusses difficult content and may not be appropriate for all readers.}

[This post is the third part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

The Cambodian people are a warm, smiling, welcoming people. The people we met in our travels were gracious and kind. The kind of people who wave and smile brightly as you stand confused trying to cross the toad with never-ending traffic with your obviously-tourist pack. A wave and smile that doesn’t judge but says “Welcome to Cambodia!”. The capital of Phnom Penh is developing so quickly that if you stand still long enough, you can watch the city grow. However, this shift in development comes after a horrific period in their history, followed by international misunderstanding and mishandling in the wake of a genocide.

Cambodian countryside

I knew little of the Cambodian genocide until watching Brother Number One at the then called Global Visions Festival in Edmonton. It told the story of the genocide through one man’s journey to understand what happened to his brother after he sailed into Cambodian waters in 1978. It was powerful and gruesome and heart-breaking.

During our stay in Phnom Penh, the travel-savvy Camille organized a van to tour for our group, a fantastic hodge-podge of six visiting Canadians who happened upon the city at the same time. The van would take us to two memorial sites dedicated to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide: the Killing Fields and S21.

Killing Fields
The uncovered Killing Fields.

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What will be our Angkor Wat?: Explorations in Angkor

What will be our Angkor Wat?: Explorations in Angkor

[This post is the second part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

Walking past the people hawking elephant pants and the fresh fruit stands, I approached my first temple within Angkor Wat – Pre Rup, a temple in tribute to the king’s mother. A Hindu temple, built in the 10th century before the Cambodian people converted to Buddhism. Our tour guide explained how a whole town would have lived surrounding the temple and where we stood was once covered in water. He drew in the sand to detail the layout and used the hand carved leather works for sale to illustrate the symbols of the ancient civilization.

Pre Rup carvings

The endurance of the structure became clear as I slowly climbed the steps of the central tower, the cremation tower. The steps rose more than a foot each time, ensuring a calmer, more solemn pace, especially as centuries of footsteps followed by modern-day tourism have rounded the edges of each stair. The restored ornate carvings marking each doorway add an otherworldly charm. The dancing and fighting figures intertwined with plants and animals tell stories I only begin to understand after sitting and reading my guidebook and looking and reading and looking.

Exploring Angkor

The Angkor Archeological Park Complex is immense. It is larger than life and has withstood centuries of life. From weather to rediscovery to theft to the Khmer Rouge, this immense center of worship that expands over 400 acres is the largest religious monument in the world, Lonely Planet’s number one site in the world, and is hard to truly comprehend.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We explored it by van, by tuktuk, and by bicycle. By guide, by guidebook, and by gut.  The site is overwhelming and has a lifetime of exploration possibilities. After just three days and scratching the surface, I walked away with a feeling of awe and endurance.

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Bangkok Streets: The Savvy Sightseeing Way

Bangkok Streets: The Savvy Sightseeing Way

[This post is the first part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

Bangkok is a feast for the senses and a city of cities. I just scratched the surface and can only share my brief experience as one that made me want to go back. Bangkok was swept from a sleepy trade town to a scandalous city during the Viet Nam War (or, as they say in that end of the world, the American War) and has grown into a modern metropolis. It has architectural, cultural and culinary delights worth traveling for. For all its sites, the best way to experience it, in my humble opinion, was through its streets.

Bangkok Chess break on Silom Road
Chess break on Silom Road

Streetside sightseeing is my preferred way to explore a city. By keeping away from the main tourist strips and diving into side streets (in Bangkok, the intricate Soi system), back alleys and the less-trodden parts. On these walks, you can discover the everyday grit and atmosphere that defines a city as much or more than its brightest monuments or minds. Plus, it totally free.

Bangkok soi shop
A wee shop found on a soi off a soi off a soi of Silom Road.

We arrived in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, spilling out of the BTS airport line and into the warm evening air. The streets were disorienting in so many ways. The traffic flows in the opposite direction. (We tried catching a bus and ended up crossing an intersection five times). The sidewalks are jammed with …life. The waxing and waning strips of asphalt theoretically separating pedestrian and vehicular life are vibrant. There’s commerce, there’s love, there’s children’s play, there’s poverty, there’s chess, there’s fighting, there’s drama, there’s worship, there’s fruit, there’s greenery, and of course, there’s food. Oh, the food!

Bangkok pad thai
My first of many Pad Thai dishes.

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“Puszi! Puszi!” And Other Lessons in Hungarian

“Puszi! Puszi!” And Other Lessons in Hungarian

I finished my second Hungarian class just before the holidays. The finale was fun with a trip to Vörösmarty tér to put my fledgling magyar mumblings to use in the midst of the bustling Christmas market. Stumbling over double-letter letters (gy and ny ain’t easy) and creatively applying my limited vocabulary, my classmate and I successfully ordered a lángos and forralt bor, asked for prices and made small talk with patient, pleasant Hungarian vendors. With my head brimming with newly found knowledge and Hungarian wine, I wanted to share some of my favourite Hungarian language phrases.

This language is notoriously difficult to learn. Many people use this as an excuse not to, and in Budapest, you can generally get along fine without it. I can’t say I’ve reached the level of learning where I see this tremendous complication, though I can see it in the distance. For anyone considering learning it, go for it! For a beginner, don’t get scared off – basic Hungarian it’s no more complicated than any other language, and its full of verbal delights.

Heros Square
Heros Square: a monument to Hungarian history

The language has an interesting history, and the Magyars are fiercely proud of their difficult nyelv. This video provides the best summary of Hungarian I’ve heard yet, as well as a handy dose of Magyar history:

Yet, they are among the most generous, patient and encouraging people to language learners. Nearly every Hungarian has met my bumbling efforts with a kind smile, surprised eyes and a reply.  A friend recently told me that when foreigners learn Hungarian, it’s as though we’re stroking the soul of the country. If that’s not encouragement to learn, I don’t know what is.

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In Praise of the Humble Christmas Card

In Praise of the Humble Christmas Card

After a long, chilly December day, you make your way home. On your way to your door, you take a peek inside the mailbox. A small envelope with your name, hand-written, makes your day so much warmer as you bustle inside and shed your layers to open the mail. The envelope reveals a colourful Christmas card and a reminder of a loved one somewhere in the world*.

Christmas tree on a roof
A little warmth on a cold December night.

I am a big proponent of the Christmas card, as a recipient and a sender. In general, we give too much ‘stuff’ during the holidays. I know that pressure to give the people you love and appreciate …something to let them know that you care about them at Christmas time. This well-intentioned thought often leads to gifts that aren’t really needed and aren’t really right for that person. They sit awkwardly in the place of the words and emotions it was meant to convey. More often than not, a heartfelt card can capture and share that thought better than any poorly chosen gift. During the holidays, keep it simple, and simply send your love.

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A Simple Traveler’s Guide to Berlin

A Simple Traveler’s Guide to Berlin

Berlin is undeniably cool. It’s a city exploding with culture and subculture after a century of divisive politics that changed the world. It’s modern yet gritty, full of change-makers and fun to explore. I spent a weekend there in October, my second time to the German capital.

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Each time I travel, I try to minimize my budget, my impact, and my stress so I can better enjoy myself. Traveling is amazing, but it’s not without its challenges. In my journey to live simply, I’m trying to travel simply as well. Here are my takes on traveling simply in Berlin, saving you money and adding to your time.

Traveling Simply: For the Budget

Halle-loumi!

The large Turkish population in Berlin brought with it a delicious food tradition. The city is filled with great spots to enjoy falafel and halloumi. In fact, if you do a quick search for ‘cheap eats in Berlin’ (an important pre-departure step for any trip), the lists are limited in German options and packed with tasty, budget-friendly Turkish ones. Search for the lists, or just keep an eye out for a Turkish restaurant with a line and join in.

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On Donald Trump, the Berlin Wall and Leonard Cohen

On Donald Trump, the Berlin Wall and Leonard Cohen

I almost couldn’t get out of bed. Derek was up, opened his laptop and said “Oh my god.” I knew from that statement that what I thought couldn’t be true when going to sleep,  just might be true now.

The wave of statements that Donald J. Trump had said over the election felt very, very heavy. The racist, ignorant, sexist things he said were now words from the mouth of the President of the United States of America. The flashbacks to the video clips, the tweets, the new stories. It all seemed so incredulous and absurd. And yet, on the morning of November 9th, 2016, it became not a farce, but a real part of the American discourse as Trump became President-elect.

Twilight on Election Eve
Twilight on Election Eve

As a woman, I felt a guttural fear for the rights of women. Trump was on video stating that he forces himself on women. Changing rape culture needs to come from shifting attitudes from both sexes. What lessons are we teaching the young men about respect and consent when the President-elect has a history of abuse?

A Not-So-Great Wall

As a citizen of North America, I felt a deep worry about the insular and xenophobic nature of Trump’s immigration and (often vague) foreign policies. The most famous and seemingly ridiculous statement was the infamous wall:

“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me –and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” – Donald Trump

When today’s politicians talk about a wall, it’s a physical representation of a societal break. I saw the wall built on the border between Budapest and Belgrade. I saw the wall carving out land between Israel and the West Bank. To me, it represents a failing of our modern society. Are we so crude to need a wall to resolve a problem? As humans with decency and compassion, can we not find a stronger, more elegant solution?

<center> The dividing line of the former Berlin Wall, now the East Side Gallery
The dividing line of the former Berlin Wall, now the East Side Gallery

A wall is not sustainable. It seems we are forgetting our history. With poetic timing, Trump was elected on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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Architecture’s Dirty Secret: Mud’s Marketing Problem

Architecture’s Dirty Secret: Mud’s Marketing Problem

“Three billion people live in a house made of mud. For good reason!”

This fact leaped from the wall of text of the Mud WORKS! display as I perused the (obviously) impressively-designed Architecture Biennale in Venezia. Coming from Canada, the thought of mud-housing brings up images of poverty and hardship. However, for all the green building innovation, it may be the most cost-effective, hyper-local, cradle-to-grave-friendly building style.  Many people I know would love to live in a net-zero home. Yet, few would be excited about living in a home made of mud. All these benefits are obvious, yet the idea is somehow too basic.

It seems mud is too humble for its own good. Or, perhaps for our own good. Is this architecture’s dirty secret?

Gabinete de Arquitectura’s “Breaking the Siege” also highlights simple, locally produced materials.
Gabinete de Arquitectura’s “Breaking the Siege” also highlights simple, locally produced materials.

A Viennese en route to Venice

We were lucky enough to share our train couchette to from Vienna to Venice with a mud-loving architect named David. We first chatted about Central European weather, Austrian politics, bicycle design, and then the biennale where he was invited to participate in a student workshop. He spoke enthusiastically about his thesis project in South Sudan.

Our train arriving in Venice
Morning rail arrival to Venice

He worked with an Austrian non-profit and the local community to design a health center constructed with locally-sourced materials: mainly mud and wood. Mud was essential in providing the main building material, as well as a strategic tool in protecting the wooden structure from termite infiltration. As is often the case, it would have been easier to protect the structure using purchased materials, but costs rise exponentially. As a pair of enthusiastic thesis students, they pushed to use local, inexpensive and easily repairable materials. With ingenuity and a little maintenance, they built a locally-sourced, environmentally-friendly building. The structure can now be locally maintained with little cost, expanded with little cost, and ultimately, demolished with little impact.

Talking Dirty at the Biennale

This idea of elevating mud was further enforced at the Biennale. The theme was ‘Reporting from the Front’, focusing on architecture that is building to connect with civil society, building for the millions of new urban dwellers and building in ways that creatively manoeuvre around the complex obstacles of modern life.

Biennale entrance

The pavilions were filled with architecture tackling these problems in ways that are as beautiful as they are innovative. Displays stretched across two grounds, providing more rich creativity and context than I could reasonably process. In this expansive event dedicated to the leading edge of architecture and design, humble mud was put on a pedestal. On display for all to see and bask in its simple, sustainable merits.

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