I wrote recently about how difficult it was to keep my spirits up when I was dealing with a serious knee injury last year. Part of why it was so difficult was because I was unable to do so many of the activities I loved like skiing and hiking. That got me thinking about Canadian winters and how they can be both brutal and beautiful at the same time. West coast winters are very rainy and dreary, but less snowy than other parts. The rest of the country typically experiences sub zero temperatures and big snowfalls. That is, unless it’s an el nino year like this one where winter comes all at once and then melts leaving everything brown and hardly conjuring images of the winter wonderland that people expect Canada to be.
2015 was a year of highs and lows for us at Zen Travellers.
|Back from Canada, eh? photo credit: Pinterest|
While our personal preference is to organize most of our travel ourselves, Philip and I have dabbled in organized tours as well.
My last post touched on a cautionary tale for letting go of the reigns when travel planning. Philip and I had a lacklustre, yet very physically demanding experience in the Rwenzori Mountains because we deferred the planning of that part of our trip to a third party, Amagara Tours. We agreed that if we could do it over again, we would research the different hikes in the area and choose which outfitter we would like to use and then pass those preferences on to the organizer. That being said, we do not regret partnering with Amagara for part of our 5 week East African adventure for a number of reasons.
First, while researching options for gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, we found that they offered the most affordable option. For less than $1000 USD (as of July 2014), you can do a 3-day gorilla safari including transfers from Entebbe or Kampala to Bwindi and 2 nights at the beautiful Byoona Amagara lodge on the superlative Lake Bunyonyi. Keeping in mind that the permit for gorilla tracking alone is $600 USD, this is an incredible deal, so booking with them was an easy choice. They were also very well-reviewed so we decided to reach out to them for planning some of our other activities in Uganda. Our itinerary was certainly ambitious, and Uganda doesn’t always have the best infrastructure for getting around, so having a driver for 11 days helped us make the most of our time there, all for a fraction of the price charged by other tour operators.
|*Ugh, Lake Bunyonyi is the worst.|
*Denotes sarcasm font.
Second, our driver was also our guide and friend. Bosco explained the local culture to us, had incredible knowledge about the plants and animals we saw along the way and we developed a rapport that made the trip both enjoyable and memorable. He identified birds, found us lions in Murchison Falls National Park and when we grew tired of being dropped off at overpriced tourist traps for lunch, he found us some barbecued pork and fried plantains to mix things up.
|Bosco waves at us while we finish our hike in Murchison Falls National Park.|
Third, Amagara has a well-established repertoire of environmentally friendly, community-driven lodging that it uses when booking. Some of which, we likely wouldn’t have found ourselves. Their most famous is without a doubt Byoona Amagara, but we also loved staying at the Boomu Women’s Group Camp near Murchison Falls National Park, Fort Murchison on the other side of the park, Ruboni Camp by the Rwenzoris, and Eagle’s Nest near Lake Mburo National Park which offered incredible views.
|View overlooking Lake Mburo National Park from our room at Eagle’s Nest|
In the end, we were able to enjoy a jam-packed itinerary that had us moving all over Uganda while enjoying the relative comfort of travelling in a private vehicle versus one of Uganda’s notoriously unreliable coach buses or cramped and sweaty matataus that only leave when impossibly full. We would experience all of those in Uganda; no trip to Uganda would be complete with out it after all, but for those 11 days, we rolled in what we considered style.
|Matatau riding, not so much in style.|
That being said, we are not likely to switch over completely to organized tours. There’s a certain satisfaction to be found in arriving somewhere yourself, even if it’s by matatau. But organized tours do have their time and place, and can be an affordable, efficient way to make amazing memories.
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.|
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.|
|Bamako’s Artisan’s Market, beats the mall.|
Research shows that experiences create more happiness than things and there are plenty of ways to gift an experience to a traveller. Discount websites like Groupon and Travelzoo offer deals on hotels, meals in restaurants, and activities that the traveller can schedule on their own. Many hotels offer gift certificates, as do some airlines. In short, it is easy to give a traveller what they would like the most, more travel!
|All the monies in the world!|
|Ibn Batutta’s tomb in Tangier, Morocco|
I’ve blogged before about how I really could have used a Go Pro Hero 4 during certain moments of my recent trip to East Africa. But in the absence of one of those fancy contraptions which I cannot justify buying for myself, a plain old travel journal will suffice to record memories. Gifting a travel journal to your favourite traveller will allow them to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Ibn Batutta whose journal has inspired explorers for centuries. It has the added bonus of making the traveller think of you every time they open it, so if you miss them when they’re on one of their rambles, you could think of it as a gift that guarantees you’ll always be in their heart, wherever in the world they may be.