The Zen Traveller’s Great Cycle Challenge

Travel is at times, challenging, but it is important to remember that challenges also bring opportunities. Whether opportunities for learning, to push outside of one’s comfort zone, or for personal growth, challenges force you to look inside yourself for strength and resourcefulness that you never knew you had. Challenges can also be really fun if you approach them with the right mindset. Continue reading “The Zen Traveller’s Great Cycle Challenge”

How to Hack your Way to Travel Zen

As anyone who travels knows, time and money can be the biggest hindrances to getting out and enjoying the experiences that you dream of having. In my experience, finding the time to travel can prove to be more challenging than raising funds for adventures. This is because there are all sorts of “travel hacks” that can be used to keep costs low when travelling, but pesky adult responsibilities can get in the way of hopping on the next plane.

Continue reading “How to Hack your Way to Travel Zen”

The Upside of Down: How we kept our Travel Zen in 2015

2015 was a year of highs and lows for us at Zen Travellers.

 We started the year off on a healthy note with a nordic sweat session on a beautifully frozen Lake Louise, then continued the trend with some skiing in Whistler and long walk along the sea wall in Vancouver. All the while also enjoying delicious and unique YVR eats and craft beer. Yin and yang friends.

Seeking Quiet

So much is made of the sounds and motions of travel, but little is said of the exceptional silence and stillness that can also be present. I learned just how memorable the quiet moments can be one day during a 6 month African adventure as I was cycling in rural Mali. I started that day by pedalling 3 kms straight up a steep rural road, my legs sweating and burning as the temperature rose with my friend and guide in tow. Once finally at the top, we carried on another 14 kms through rolling calebassefields, peaceful villages and eventually the mangrove that would deliver us to our intended destination: a cool, clear natural pool where we could recharge and refresh. Upon arrival, I jumped in the water and floated blissfully, allowing time to get away from me. The chatter and splashing of other tourists faded away as I drifted across the surface, relaxed and suspended in no particular thought. Eventually, the sound of someone jumping into the pool from an outcrop brought me back, otherwise I may have been happy to float until nightfall.
Enjoying a quiet soak between bike rides
After my long and quiet soak, I ate lunch on a rocky ledge while tiny fish nibbled at my toes and reflected with renewed clarity at how far I had come. 17 kms through rolling terrain, in scorching heat, with asthmatic lungs and my friend wanting to give up the whole way; I could not remember a time where I had been more challenged, both mentally and physically. It was quite a feat, and more excitement was to come.

On the way back, I rode a fair ways ahead of the guide and my friend before realizing I was alone at the top of the hill where I had struggled at the beginning of the day. I stopped to catch my breath and enjoy a moment of solitude and stillness. Interrupted by the sound of cicadas buzzing excitedly, as if they were cheering me on, I started downhill. My pace quickened rapidly and this fast and stealth descent was my reward. I relished the cooling sensation of the wind whipping passed my skin while I was miles ahead of my companions, eyes closed to the wind, soaring down a dirt road in a faraway land. Yet as much as the fast descent was memorable that day, so were the quiet moments. When I think back, I recall the blissful soak and moment of reflection before starting downhill as much as the thrill of the swift ride.

Ever since, I seek those quiet and still moments as much as I crave adventures. I’ve learned that there is peace to be found in the stillness just before cresting a wave in whitewater rapids, or plunging into the ocean in SCUBA gear, or racing a bike down a steep, dusty hill. The quietest moments are easy to overlook but worth celebrating nonetheless, as they will stay with you as long as you keep them close.  

Off the Beaten Track: Coconuts and Cycling in Zanzibar

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.” – Martin Buber

Travellers know this to be true: there is a special type of satisfaction that comes with feeling like you’ve “discovered” something. Zanzibar is famous for white sand beaches, calm clear waters featuring fishing boats with romantic white sales, and a lush countryside ripe for growing fragrant spices.

*Swoon*

Many tourists come to this idyllic island to lounge on the beach sipping cocktails and spend their evenings dancing in night clubs. Given my extreme susceptibility to sunburns and inability to sit still for too long, I have never been very fond of lounging on the beach. So I was excited to learn while researching things to do that a lesser known attraction to add to Zanzibar’s magnificence is cycling.

Philip and I attempted to contact a cycling tour operator in Nungwi that we heard about on Trip Advisor prior to leaving Canada, but weren’t able to firm anything up. When we asked for information, the company rep mailed us a brochure and told us to come find them. Once we arrived, we attempted to call the number on the brochure but it was disconnected. We were starting to feel like our cycle trip may not happen. 
Luckily for us, Nungwi is a small enough town that we very quickly got our bearings and went toward the turtle aquarium to try to set up a ride. We had read that the cycling tour operator was located there, so that’s all we were going on. Once there, the ticket window attendant seemed confused when we asked about bikes. He checked with his friend, who checked with a friend while we waited for a long time, as it often goes when travelling in East Africa. Eventually someone began leading us toward a small shop back on the beach. The shop sold fair trade items but didn’t seem to say anything about cycling, so we would never have found it on our own. There we met Machano, who would become our guide for the afternoon. He provided an overview of the tour and had us pick out our bikes. 
The bikes were in better shape than other bikes I have ridden, but still could have used a good tune up and the selection of helmets was almost comical. I chose a pink, child size beauty while Philip got something a little more subdued, and Machano rocked a camo helmet. We took off through the village toward our first destination: a cave with “crystals” in it. 
Meandering through the village provided a much different perspective than Nungwi’s beach front which is developed for tourism. Villagers were going about their business uninterested in our passing through, except for the children who ran behind us singing “jambo muzungu!” as if we were celebrities. 
Eventually, we ended up on the same narrow highway that we had rode in a taxi to Nungwi from Stonetown a few days earlier. I had to chuckle to myself a bit because Philip had remarked, “can you imagine cycling along this road?” and now we were.

We definitely thought this through
After a short but tense ride along the highway, we turned off onto a road that seemed like little more than two tracks in the dirt. I began to have difficulty keeping the bike upright and eventually it tipped over to one side. Machano seemed worried so he advised us to leave the bikes where they were and continue to the cave on foot. After a brief jaunt walking with our bikes, we were at the mouth of the cave which our guide said had only been opened to people the year before. Two men were waiting for us with flashlights, as well as two teenage boys in their school uniforms. Together, our expanding posse continued into the cave. Our guide pointed out certain features and some lovely spiders, while the more outgoing of the teenage boys practised his English with me. We walked a short distance underground and made it to this strange “crystal” that was in the cave near its exit.

I asked Machano if he knew what the crystal was made of, but he said he didn’t and was hoping to get a geologist in sometime to confirm. For now, all he could say was it was probably some kind of stalactite. 
From the cave, we worked up quite a sweat while heading to little village to see a blacksmith. After trying the bellows and learning how the men melt down the metal to make the nails for the iconic fishing ships that pepper the coastline, we asked cautiously if we could have a fresh coconut to drink. 
Trying out the bellows while the pros look on. 
We were visiting Zanzibar during the month of Ramadan.Given that Nungwi caters to tourists, it hadn’t really affected us until then. Now in this small village, we knew we should ask permission to eat or drink  in front of others. Machano interpreted for us and the villagers said it was fine. So fine, that pretty much before I finished the word coconut, a young boy was halfway up a tree. 
He made it look so easy
He began throwing down coconuts for us when the blacksmiths started yelling at him and some villagers joined in too. We thought maybe we had been out of line by asking for a coconut but Machano told us they were telling him that he was picking the wrong ones. Eventually it became so heated, that another lad ran up a different tree and threw a few more down from there. Once the villagers had decided on which two coconuts were the best, they hacked them open for us and let us have the freshest, most satisfying coconut ever. This ended up being our favourite part of the day. No one seemed to mind us eating and drinking except a little girl who told our guide that she wasn’t Muslim so she could have some coconut too which made him laugh out loud. We all admired her courage though.

Again the village kids made us feel like celebrities by running behind us repeating “bye bye” and jambo” over and over until we reached the highway. Then we peddled to the last site on our tour, some Portuguese ruins and an inland salt water cave. It took me a bit of courage to jump in the water but I was glad I did. The water was cool enough to leave us refreshed for our approximately 8km ride back to town.

After dropping off our bikes,we walked back along the beach instead of taking the same way and enjoyed a quiet section of the beach, bathed in golden twilight, where I was able to take this incredible shot of some village boys playing football between the boats.

National Geographic feel free to contact me about this.

Cycling through the villages ended up being one of our favourite experiences in Zanzibar and we were eager to promote the excursion to other travellers we would meet afterwards. We also still chuckle about the villager’s enthusiasm toward selecting the best coconuts too.

A few months after our visit as I write this, it appears that Zanzibar Cycling Adventures is who guided our cycling tour and the company has since improved their web presence. It looks like a lot of people have been enjoying cycle tours with them since our passing through, which is fantastic as they are a great tour operator, and we are glad to see their business grow. Zanzibar is indeed so much more than a beach and we were happy to discover that for ourselves.