The Zen of Living Abroad

Anyone who has ever lived abroad knows that it is a separate experience from simply travelling to somewhere.

To truly soak up the wisdom that a place has to offer, you must endure all the stumbles, minor annoyances and cultural misunderstandings before finding Zen in their new surroundings. In short, you have to live real life, instead of tourist life to understand a place.But there’s a rub. Real life can be hard, or dull, or so uninspiring that travel is what people may use to inject some inspiration back into it. Continue reading “The Zen of Living Abroad”

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”

The Zen Travellers Manifesto

The awesome folks over at BootsnAll Travel are hosting the 2015 Indie Travel Challenge to encourage travellers to think about what inspires them to roam and to share their learnings with others with the #DoYouIndie hashtag. By answering thought-provoking questions posed by BootsnAll, travellers are reflecting on and sharing why they travel, how they got started, and what there is to do in their hometowns. Today’s challenge is to come up with your top ten values for life and travel in order to create your own manifesto. Continue reading “The Zen Travellers Manifesto”

From Bamako to Barcelona: An Ode to Travel Friends

Earlier this fall, I had the tremendous fortune of being able to reconnect with a friend I made while travelling. I met Ari over 4 years ago when we were both working in Bamako, Mali’s bustling, crowded, polluted, yet undeniably exciting capital city. While there, we shared laughs, enjoyed lukewarm glasses of Castel lager, haggled in markets and overcame some of Bamako’s challenges together. Eventually, as is the case with all travel friendships, we parted ways. I returned to Canada and she returned to Barcelona. We sent each other the odd message over the years and I always looked back on those days we spent in that crazy city together with incredible fondness. Continue reading “From Bamako to Barcelona: An Ode to Travel Friends”

Getting to Know Kampala’s Rhythm

As our world becomes more urban, I often wonder if it’s possible to get a feel for a country without seeing its capital when travelling. Cities offer a different perspective on daily life, unique opportunities for entertainment, as well as a bustling and exciting environment. That being said, cities can also present a certain set of challenges and this was most evident during our trip to Kampala.

Kampala, a different kind of jungle in Uganda, with the Mosque in the background

After spending so much time in Uganda’s countryside, Philip and I thought it right to make our way to Uganda’s largest city, Kampala. We had spent our first week and a half in Uganda with a guide/driver organized by Amagara Tours and had passed through Kampala’s infamous “jam” but had otherwise not seen much of the city. 

As I’ve written before, the guided tour experience comes highly recommended and Amagara offers a good quality budget option for safaris and gorilla tracking in Uganda. That being said, I do typically prefer a more DIY style of travelling so after our last stop on the tour, our driver Bosco dropped us off at a bus station and said goodbye. He seemed more nervous about leaving us than we were about leaving him which I thought was rather sweet. 
His worry was well-placed as the bus did break down on the way to Kampala, just as Bosco had warned us could happen, but it only took a couple extra hours so weren’t too flustered by it.

I recalled bus stations being extremely chaotic in Bamako, so I warned Philip that we may be rushed as we stepped off and made sure to keep our belongings close as we got off the bus in Kampala. Instantly, there was a swarm around us of taxi drivers offering to drive us to the hotel which the guidebook said was just a short jaunt from the station. We enquired about prices as the swarm tried to remove our backpacks from our shoulders. One guy was asking the equivalent of $30 CAD for a trip to a hotel that we could see from the station. We dug our heals in, grabbed onto our shoulder straps and marched out of the station while trying to ignore the touts as much as possible. 

Although Aponye Hotel was visible from the station, figuring out how to get there on foot proved a little more difficult. As we paused to get our bearings, a man approached us and offered to walk us there. The man made small talk while sipping a beer and then informed us owed him $5 for the escort once we reached the hotel. We hadn’t realized that he expected to be paid for this, so I handed him a 2000Ush note and walked away. Thankfully, he didn’t follow us any further.

The hotel proved to be a nice respite after the eventful bus ride and hectic station experience and the restaurant served up the best french fries that we had in Uganda. After a good night’s rest, Philip and I left the hotel to tour the city on foot, hoping that we would be able to find our way back ourselves. 

Our first stop was Oweno Market, where second-hand clothes from Europe and North America are sold to Ugandans, since some believe that “used from Europe is better than new from China.” They might be on to something there. Unfortunately, while leaving the market, I felt someone tugging on my purse, I’m assuming to get at my wallet. As I turned around a young man pulled his hand back and smiled flippantly at me and I was glad that I was using a locked, Pacsafe handbag.  
From there we headed toward the Gaddafi National Mosque. There are not many mosques in the world that will allow non-Muslims inside, so we were keen to check this one out. As we paid for our admission, the attendant fished through a box of headscarves to find one that matched my outfit. Once her selection was made, she helped me into it and we began our tour around the mosque.

I think she chose well
Putting aside its unscrupulous origins, the building is beautifully decorated with exquisite tiling and paintings, but the highlight is definitely the 500m climb to the top of the minaret where you can have a 360 degree view of all of Kampala.

Halfway up
Kampala from the top
View from another direction
Kampala from another direction
After taking in the beautiful sights from the top of the minaret, we continued our foot tour of Kampala. We checked out a few more markets and a mall before eventually making it back to Aponye for more of those awesome french fries. Sadly, they were out of potatoes so I was denied that treat. We ordered some Nile Specials to our room instead and sat on the balcony watching the city life unfold below. As we reflected on some of the challenges we had faced in Kampala such as navigating in a big, strange city, dealing with touts and almost getting mugged by the market, we couldn’t help but be moved by the tremendous kindness of most of the people we met. The attendant at the Mosque who made sure my hijab matched my skirt, the ladies who sold us our limes with a smile, and even the men who apologized to Philip when he stubbed his toe on an uneven sidewalk. As much as Kampala could be overwhelming at times, it still featured a lot of the same things we loved about Uganda.

Also, being back in a busy African city make me think back on my time in Bamako and on how much I missed the people and frenetic energy there. There were many challenges to living in Bamako, but I was there long enough to learn its vibrant rhythm and to carve out little places that felt like home to me. Kampala reminded me that you can never truly leave a place that you’ve grown to love despite the challenges. 

Kampala had me feeling Bamako-sick, but then I found a little Bamako in Kampala 
Kampala had similar energy to Bamako; it was lively, bustling, colourful and loud. It had its differences too, but we were only there for 2 nights so we hardly had any time to get to truly know the city. That being said, I think it’s always worthwhile to spend time in the bigger cities of the places we visit, even if the main attractions are elsewhere, because each city has its own rhythm and pulse and feeling the beat is an experience in and of itself. 
Having felt Kampala’s heart beat over 2 days, we set off on a bus to Bugugali Falls where we would try whitewater kayaking for the first time which was a whole other adventure set to a different rhythm. 

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.