Travel Zen in Africa

Few places in the world have ever inspired as much awestruck in me as Africa. Not only is the continent huge with an incredible diversity of ecosystems and culture, it is a friendly, beautiful and otherworldly place. I have had the tremendous fortune to spend time in countries in West Africa, East Africa and North Africa and I cannot speak highly enough of the experiences.

Continue reading “Travel Zen in Africa”

The Muslims I met When Travelling

Everyone is reeling from the awful, senseless terror attacks in Paris where so many civilians lost their lives. so I felt compelled to write this now even though I have 90% of my next post drafted.   The attacks have also spawned ugly and hateful backlash against Muslims in general. Muslims who are our neighbours, friends, colleagues and community members. In short, Muslims who are people like all of us. Continue reading “The Muslims I met When Travelling”

Finding the Zen in Travel Regrets

There is a certain glamour associated with not having any regrets.

This glamour.
Photo credit: www.themetapicture.com 

But regrets should not be treated as something to be avoided, rather they should be seen as lessons learned. This is very important when considering travel regrets since the stakes are high when travelling. Time is money, parts are unknown and strangers are everywhere, so it is easy to have regrets for many reasons. For example, not avoiding a dangerous place even though you’ve been warned and having your things stolen, not going to that place even though it came highly rated, or conversely, wasting money on things that were not worth seeing despite being highly rated. Despite the negative feelings associated with regrets, they come with a lesson and it’s our role as Zen-minded travellers to figure out what that lesson is.

Any self respecting traveller knows that learning lessons while on the road is a constant, so I’m sharing some of my travel regrets and the lessons they brought with the understanding that I’m sure many more lessons are in store for me as I continue travelling.

1) The crucial importance of details
I am typically someone who is in the middle when it comes to details. So I think I am slightly more observant than the average person, but not Type A about things either. This tendency was both a strength and a weakness when Philip and I planned a roadtrip to Colorado from Alberta one summer. After missing out on tickets to Austin City Limits which had a killer lineup that year, we followed the bands that we wanted to see all the way to Red Rocks in Colorado. Both Neil Young and Crazy Horse and My Morning Jacket were playing a day after each other. Instead of seeing them at the festival, we decided to drive to beautiful Colorado to see them at what we now consider an unrivalled venue. My Morning Jacket played the first show, and our minds were blown. They are an act that are consistently good live, who play for hours with seemingly impossible energy, so imagine our disappointment when we learned that they had played another set the night before with no song repeats. If we had just dug a little deeper and imagined the most perfect concert scenario ever, we could have seen a wonderful band play most of their songs live in back-to-back concerts at arguably, the world’s greatest music venue. Damn. Our only solace is at least one MMJ show at Red Rocks is enough to keep a person floored for years.

Red Rocks. Best. Venue. Ever. 

2) The crucial importance of compatibility
I’ve had the luck to travel both solo and with a crew,  and I have learned that I usually prefer a crew. To me, there is nothing like being able to turn to someone in your crew and know that they are thinking the exact same thing when you see something amazing while travelling. That being said, I have learned that some people are just not travel compatible. For example, while trying to travel to Coachella one year with Philip and some people I hadn’t travelled with before, compatibility became very important. We learned that while some people may be fun to have the odd beer with, going on a trip to a music festival with them is another thing. Our planning and travel styles differed greatly and ultimately Philip and I decided that we would have more fun travelling without them than we would with them. While I regret having something as fun as planning a trip to a music festival end up mired in drama, it was worthwhile to learn that respecting your own style will always guarantee you having the most fun.

One of Coachella’s iconic stages.
 Also a very clear example of  how taking pictures at a concert is a waste of time. 

3) Sometimes you will never know if what you did was right
When I was nearing the end of my 5 months in Mali, my affable host mother Fatamatou asked me to join her on a trip to Southern Mali for a religious event. It meant a very long and uncomfortable bus ride, and probably more uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, but also it meant the chance to spend some time with a woman that I had grown to love immensely, seeing a new part of the country and experiencing a truly unique cultural event. However, the same weekend two of my favourite people that I had met while in Mali would be spending the weekend in Bamako and I had the chance to show them the parts of the city I loved. I mulled over it for a long time, factoring in my recent and unfortunate experience with a parasite, and decided that a relaxing weekend in the city I loved with some people who I missed and didn’t get to see all that often was the best thing for me at the time. Now that some time has passed and I am no longer recovering from a parasite, I sometimes wonder if I should have opted to go with Fatamatou instead, since it was an opportunity do so something truly unique while travelling with someone who I now miss dearly. In the end, I think that I needed to do what was right for me at the time, which was to take care of myself and therein lies the lesson. Despite how amazing the experience would have been, I would have been no use to Fatamatou while feeling sick and I made some amazing memories staying home with my friends that I still cherish to this day.

Bustlin’ Bamako

4) Not fighting for what you want
Normally I would be the first to suggest taking a local’s advice, but there are moments where it is worth standing up for what you want to do or see. A few years back, my dad and I travelled to England to see some relatives and cruise around. Our relative took us to the area of Stonehenge but told us that it was “not worth our time”. Instead of paying to go into the site, he told us that he knew of a perfect spot to get a great picture and he would take us there. Once at the “perfect” spot, I realized that all I wanted to do was pay the stupid fee and see Stonehenge up close. I could have sent my dad and great uncle down the road to have an afternoon in the pub together and enjoyed the site on my own. Instead, it is years later and I still don’t really feel like I saw Stonehenge. Finding a compromise would have been easy enough if I had just spoken up.

Check it, I “saw” Stonehenge (sort of)!

In short, the above examples represent so-called travel regrets: missing a concert, trying to plan a trip with people who who have different travel styles, wondering if you made the right choice or wishing that you could do something over. But digging deeper into these regrets reveals some powerful lessons and the most important one is that travel is your time. It’s about you and your priorities and your well-being. No one else can travel the same path as you, so make yours count and be open to learning lessons along the way.

No regrets is right.
Photo credit. www.theoatmeal.com

Finding the Zen in Christmas Abroad

One of the most memorable and at the same time, challenging experiences a traveller can have is celebrating a holiday abroad. It is both exhilarating and eye-opening to enjoy a holiday while overseas, but can also make you miss home and your family more than anything else. Still, there is a certain magic in learning how other people celebrate holidays around the world and is something that all travellers should try at least once in their lives.

In Canada where I am from, without a doubt the biggest holiday we celebrate is Christmas. People fly all over this vast land to be with their loved ones to give gifts, break bread together and enjoy each other’s company. Many memories that I have of Christmas growing up were of lots of snow outside, big meals with extended family, presents under the tree and lots of rushing around. It’s pretty much still the same now, except now I make mulled wine every year, which is a tradition I picked up in France.

Christmas where Christmas is a Big Deal: 

While in high school, I had the opportunity of doing a semester abroad in Mulhouse, France. I left in October, shortly after Thanksgiving and was still there for Christmas and New Years. I was nervous about spending my first Christmas away from my family, but excited to see what it was all about in France. For the most part, I had not been too afflicted by the blues that can come with culture-shock during my time there, but I definitely felt a little down around the holiday season.

My blues were lightened a little by the fact that it had snowed the most in 10 years the year I was there, so everything looked white and lovely, just like home but with a French twist. Another delight of the season, was Christmas Markets. At the time I was told that they were relatively new to that part of Europe, so I considered myself lucky to have the opportunity to take them all in. The town square in Mulhouse where I’d usually eat my lunch, was transformed into a winter wonderland of quaint little market stalls selling artisan crafts and delicious treats. I remember how 17 year old me, revelled in eating melted munster on toasted baguette, warmed crêpes with nutella and mulled wine for lunch while taking in the festive sights.

My thoughtful host family also took me around to see the Christmas markets in some of the neighboring towns and cities, including the superlative Strasbourg, which remains to this day one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.

Strasbourg, the Christmas capital.
Photocredit: www.buzzwok.com

For the holiday itself, my host family and I travelled to Lyon, where we had an even more delicious than usual dinner, and opened presents on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas morning, like English-speaking Canadians usually do. I so enjoyed the experience, but was a little sad that my family wasn’t able to connect with me over the phone like they had planned. In the days before the ubiquitous cell phone, the international phone lines had been jammed, so despite a worthy effort on my parent’s part, they weren’t able to get through. Still, my host family went out of their way to make sure I had a great time during the celebrations and I liked meeting my host family’s extended family.

New Year’s Eve was quite the affair too. A classmate and her family hosted a party at their house that to me seemed to be a castle. There was even a “kids section” and an “adults section.” Close to when the countdown was about to happen, the kids were invited to the adults room where champagne and oysters were distributed. As a 17 year old from Central Alberta, I had never felt so fancy before. After the countdown, everyone gave each other “la bise” (double kiss on the cheeks) while saying happy new year and then the kids were kicked out again. Excepting the countdown fanciness and château locale, the party was very similar to one that could be hosted in Canada. I’ll always remember it though as the time when I received one of my most strange but rewarding compliments. About 3/4 of the way through the night, a person at the party who I had never met before learned that I was Canadian, and Anglophone to boot. He told me that he was surprised to learn that, and had thought that I was French but just a little…slow. So thanks, I think?

Christmas where the Locals don’t Celebrate Christmas:

Christmas in France was magical, but what about Christmas in a place where they don’t really celebrate Christmas?

I also had the tremendous opportunity to experience Christmas in mostly Muslim Mali. Not only is there no snow, it is extremely hot outside and Christmas is not a state-recognized holiday. Thankfully, the director of the organization I worked for was nice enough to give us expats a break from work. While the locals don’t celebrate per se, they definitely recognize the season. Imagine my delight, when one of my favourite lunch spots in Bamako was all decked-out for Christmas?

This proves once and for all, that yes, they know it’s Christmas. 

I celebrated Christmas with my expatriate friends. who were mostly from Québec, so we had a big dinner and opened presents on Christmas Eve, rather than in the morning. In the lead-up, we shopped for chickens from the “chicken guy” and picked up gifts for others at the outside artisan’s market. It was a unique experience for sure, but we had a blast and some of our Muslim friends joined us too. We achieved what matters the most, which is getting everyone together and having a good time. 
Bamako’s Artisan’s Market, beats the mall. 
For New Years Eve, I asked my host mom, Fatamatou, what we would do and she told me emphatically “We eat.” So I spent the day with her helping prepare the meal, but when it came time to eat, we still did it the Malian way: men and women eat separately out of communal bowls, and I was given my own serving in a pot to eat by myself. Visits happened throughout the day, rather than cumulating at meal time and cultural practices around dividing up food remained intact. I expected a bit more of a celebration considering how much work I had seen Fatamatou put into cooking the meal, but that’s the learning of spending the holidays abroad. Not everyone in the world does it like you. 
After eating, I headed out to meet up with some of my expat friends staying across the river. We hung out in their NGO compound, dancing and drinking until the countdown and then went to dance at a bar that looked like a house. We were all having a blast when to our surprise, the DJ cut the music off around 2 in the morning and told us to clear out. While we had been dancing up a storm, bar staff had set up dozens of tables with locals patiently waiting for their late night meal. As we were leaving, we saw people being served tasty-looking fish platters and I wished that I could join them. We went back to the NGO compound before deciding to go to a club in my neighbourhood. I used the trip across the river as an excuse to go home and sleep since dancing in night clubs until 6am is not really my thing. 
The front door was locked so I banged on it a few times until groggy-looking Fatamatou came and opened the door. She said nothing to me and looked thoroughly unimpressed that I had woken her up. The next morning, she told me that if I woke her up like that again she would pile my stuff up in front of the door and leave a mattress out for me. She was only half-joking. 
On New Years Day, I sat alone in my room and cracked open my journal. I read through all the entries from the last few years as well as what I had written since arriving in Mali a few months prior and reflected on how much I had seen, learned, experienced and changed since that first trip to France. It was the most unconventional Christmas holiday I have experienced to date, but it provided a tremendous opportunity for reflection and I am grateful for that to this day. 
In short, holidaying abroad can be both magical and challenging. It also provides an opportunity to learn about other cultures, see beautiful sights, participate in local traditions, and most importantly, to reflect on what you value the most back home. 
“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent in the ideas of living.” – Mary Ritter Beard