How to Get Your Zen Back After Being Sick While Travelling

Few things can harsh a traveller’s Zen more violently than getting sick on the road. It can be difficult just to get around and meet your needs in a strange place, but doing so when you’re sick is even more challenging.

To that end, my resolve was pushed to its limits when I came down with a mystery illness during a trip to Uganda. Having pushed myself physically with hikes in the Rwenzoris and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and whitewater kayaking on the Nile, I felt strong and in good shape for our 4 day climb up Mount Elgon, but an illness nearly flattened me.

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The Dreams that Lie in Wait

“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” – Henry David Thoreau


Last summer I made one of my lifelong dreams come true: I came within arm’s length of a wild gorilla. A silverback no less. 

My interest in great apes began in grade school when I had to choose an animal to do a report on. I chose mountain gorillas since they are both huge and intimidating, but also very rare. My initial reaction was to fear them on account of images we see of growling silver backs, but as I researched them I learned they are gentle, intelligent herbivores that live in mountainous rainforests. 
Gentle herbivores is right.
Photo credit: Google Images
As I learned more about gorillas, I became equally interested in their mountainous forest habitat and devoured any books on rain forests I could get my hands on. Yes, I was that cool. What can I say? No other animal had managed to capture my imagination as much as those gentle giants. I was so enamoured with them that I wrote all my grade 4 assignments about them and had at least 3 stuffed gorillas in my room. I dreamed of one day seeing one in its wild rainforest home, but it was just a silly childhood dream to be filed away along with so many others. By the fifth grade, I already had a new series of topics to obsess over and more dreams to add to the file.


But as the years passed by the dream returned. Upon seeing blue giant morpho butterflies in the Costa Rican jungle, I remembered just how much the mountain gorillas of East Africa inspired me as a child. Now over 20 years after that dream first occurred, I found myself perched precariously on a steep jungle hillside in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest wondering if I would in fact see an endangered mountain gorilla that day.  The day had started with an all too early wakeup call at 4am to make the over 2 hour bumpy drive from Lake Bunyonyi to Bwindi where a few hundred mountain gorillas call home.
 

The hills and rice terraces of Kabale, just outside of Bwindi.

Upon arriving in the park, groggy trackers are divided into groups of up to 8 people based on their ability to bushwhack for hours through thick jungle.  Still sore from a recent trek in the Rwenzori Mountains, I hoped for a shorter day of hiking but the Ugandan Wildlife Authority rangers had other plans. Our group of 6 tourists, 3 porters and UWA ranger named Stephen was assembled and briefed before setting off along a dusty road toward a clearing at the top of the hill.
“Gorilla tracking is easy.” Said no one ever. 
Once at the top, we paused for a much needed drink of water and took in the view of lush green rice-terraced mountains before entering the forest. Buzzing with excitement we trekked cheerily over unending rolling hills until our feet and legs ached. As the day stretched on, I sensed people’s energy levels draining and asked Stephen how long we had been walking.
“3 hours” he answered matter-of-factly and then gestured for us to follow him off the boot beaten path.
We turned sharply into dense rainforest, trailing Stephen as he chopped branches out of way with a machete. Thorns grabbed at our clothing while we achingly made our way up a steep ridge. Once we gained the ridge, Stephen told us that this was where we would be having lunch.
“Are we going to see gorillas at all today?” A trekker asked the ranger with impatience in her voice. “I hope so.” He answered solemnly.
“So there’s a chance we may not?” Another added rhetorically.
Then things got even harder.
Feeling discouraged, I sat on the cusp of the hill and ate my lunch in silence. I thought to myself that maybe this was only meant to be a dream while others in the group grumbled aloud. Meanwhile, Stephen radioed the rangers who had been tracking one of the families since sunrise. They spoke in Ugandan so I had no hope of gaining insight on whether our group would get to see the animals we flew halfway around the world to see. I resigned that I may indeed come away from the experience disappointed.

“Time to go!” Stephen ordered and we all stood up and shuffled along behind him.

We walked for another 45 minutes, growing even more discouraged and tired as time went on until Stephen gestured to stop and pointed to a bush in front of us. I strained to look but could only see green jungle plants, not the enormous black apes I had hoped to see. As we stood and stared quietly, the bush began to shake ever so slightly as a collective wave of excitement surged over us. Could it be?  Was this the moment of truth we had been waiting for? The moment we had walked laboriously for hours through dense rainforest for? The moment that I had first dreamed of when I was only 9 years old? The anticipation was stifling.
The shaking turned more violent as a giant male silverback pushed the brush out of his way making a window through the foliage to stare at us. He was quickly joined by several members of his family who crouched beside him and peered at us through their picture-perfect natural frame. 

At this point I was speechless.
The scene was breathtaking and we spent the next 60 minutes following the family through the forest as they ate, climbed trees and even slapped one of our crew for getting too close. It felt like a surreal, living dream.
Pictured: a Belgian about to be slapped by a silverback. 
Once our time with the magnificent creatures was up, I reflected during the long walk out of the forest on the importance of never letting dreams go no matter how far away in space and time they may seem. Some dreams linger quietly in the background until the time is right to pursue them, and good dreams may just follow you until they come true.
And what a dream it was. 

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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.  

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Best Sunsets and Sunrises for Earth Day 2015

In honour of Earth Day 2015, I have compiled a list of my favourite sunsets and sunrises around the world. I think that sunrises and sunsets are one of nature’s greatest shows, and taking the time to take either one or both in is a great way to bookend a day of travelling. By no means a comprehensive list, here are some of the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises I have seen around the world:

1) Pays Dogon, Mali 

Yup, I cried. 

After three days of hiking in semi-desert heat and eating dried out “cliff bread”, I was awarded with this superlative sunset from the top of the Bandiagara escarpment in Mali’s Dogon Country, which is one of the most unique and memorable places I have been.


2) Nungwi, Zanzibar

Pictured: bliss. 
Zanzibar sunsets will always have a special place in my heart, as that was where I first set eyes on the Indian Ocean. Sitting out on a table on the sand and watching fishermen bring their nets while sipping on a Tusker is about as blissful as it gets. 
3) Prince’s Island Park, Calgary, Alberta, Canada 
Inspiration can be found at home too. 
I used to have the luxury of walking to work through Prince’s Island Park, home to the iconic Calgary Folk Music Festival and the perfect place to spot a beautiful wintry sunrise. 
4) Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado, USA
Sunset and a storm. Two of nature’s best shows in one!
Great Sand Dunes NP is by far one of my favourite places I have been in the USA. Massive, Sahara-like sand dunes are dwarfed by the surrounding Sangre de Christo mountains making it seem like you’re on another planet. We caught this sunset while a storm approached. Shortly after taking this picture, we were huddling in our tent waiting for the rain to pass. 
5) Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Being up early is relatively easy when this view greets you. 
In order to make the 2+ hour drive and be briefed and ready at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to accomplish a lifelong dream of spotting a gorilla in the wild, we had to wake up at 4:00am to be almost left behind when our boat to the mainland where the driver was waiting left 15 minutes early. The only thing that mellowed that brutally early wake-up and the stress of almost being left behind on one of our big ticket items during our East African adventure was this otherworldly sunrise.
Oh, and the sunsets were pretty great too.
There you have it, among many other feats, the Earth does an amazing job of putting on a superb twice-daily show for us. Where have you seen some amazing sunrises and sunsets? 
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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

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The Zen of Real Life

Your work is to discover your world, and then with all your heart give yourself to it.” – Bhudda 

I haven’t been able to write for a couple weeks because real life has interfered with travel blogging life. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I write about travel because I love travel. And I travel, not to escape my real life, but to enhance it.

While I occasionally envy those travel bloggers who have made a career of it, I also appreciate the freedom to disconnect both while I travel and live real life.

When I was much younger, I dreamed of being paid to travel. Travel can be so expensive and I thought that getting paid to go overseas would mean that I could have awesome adventures all the time.

I learned a valuable lesson early on while doing a semester abroad in France during high school, which was that although I was in France,  I was still in school and had real responsibilities. It wasn’t a 3-month long backpacking trip, it was real life.

Again, after grad school I did an internship in Mali where I lived real life in a place that was very different than what I was used to. Of course I had some time to be a tourist and take in the sights and sounds of bustling Bamako and enjoyed many weekend escapes in nearby towns, like Siby. But at the end of the weekend, I still had a job to get back to. When you travel for work, you travel on someone else’s dime and someone else’s time. With that in mind, there’s something to be said for travelling on your own time and terms, even if for me it means that I don’t get to travel all the time.

Bamako: a very exciting city to live real life in. 

There’s also something to be said for loving your real life as much as your travelling life. There’s a lot of glamour attached to quitting your job to travel the world, but I can’t help but think that the money needed to travel has to come from somewhere.

For me, finding a balance between the good life at home and exploring as much as possible is key. Doing so means that I get many trips and blog posts to look forward to, and there is Zen in that.

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