Sustainable Travel with Wilderness Safaris

I recently spent three weeks traveling in Africa having some of the most amazing and fulfilling sustainable travel experiences of any of my travels to date. Let me share with you a little about why this trip was so different and so special to me.

For the first nine days, I traveled with Wilderness Safaris. They are a conservation company dedicated to protecting and rejuvenating wilderness in Africa, through tourism. What does that really mean? It means that their primary goal is to help restore any damages done to African wilderness through conservation and education efforts. From supporting anti-poaching units, to educating the local communities on harmful hunting practices, to tagging and researching elephants, wild dogs, rhinos and pangolins. To take it even further, they have spear-headed many national and international programs for conservation. They are leaders, not followers.

They have a wide variety of eco-friendly camps throughout Africa, most of which are built with a footprint so light that they could tear down the camps at any time, remove them and you’d never know they existed. I find this absolutely incredible.

When building these camps, every detail has been taken in to consideration from where to place the structures, to the materials that are used, to not cutting trees or driving over delicate areas, to not blocking animal highways, to not putting harmful chemicals into the earth. Every single detail is done with the animals and the environment as top priority. This is amazing!

I traveled with Wilderness Safaris and stayed at four of their eco-camps throughout Zambia & Zimbabwe. I find it hard to put into words what the experience is really like. Here is a quick list of my highlights from an amazing 9 day trip.

  • Walking with endangered rhinos in Zambia
  • Visiting Victoria Falls and exploring the park that surrounds the world’s largest sheet of falling water
  • Traveling in 6 & 12 seat bush planes
  • Staying at small eco-camps where often the number of staff out numbered guests on site. Not only did this lend itself to exceptional service, but also to an extra feeling of remoteness, tranquility and true African bush experience.
  • Meeting, dining with and laughing with the staff, guides, chefs and waiters who were simply the best kind of people. People around the world are generally kind, caring and helpful, but the people of Zimbabwe go far beyond this.
  • Incredible wildlife sightings including the endangered wild dog, hippos at sunset, leopards & cheetahs at the same kill sight, young lions playing in the early morning sun, elephants, elephants & more beautiful elephants!
  • Visiting the Scorpions Anti-Poaching unit. Learning about the importance of their work, the very real dangers of their jobs and their strong mandate to educate the communities to stop illegal poaching practices.
  • Visiting a local community in partnership with Children in the Wilderness where the Chief of the small town was one of the most welcoming, open-minded people I have ever met. He absolutely blew my (incorrect) expectations away.

If this kind of life-changing, perspective-altering trip to Africa is what you are seeking, get in touch to talk about traveling with Wilderness Safaris. You can reach me Monday – Friday by phone at 902 402 7646 or, you can email me at your leisure.

Stark Naked at a Turkish Bath

Turkish Tile Work

I had heard rumours that you had to be naked and that you’d be scrubbed so hard you would nearly bleed. Yet, I was curious what all of the fuss was about with hammams, or a Turkish Bath.

When I came to Turkey the first time in 2014, I had wanted to go but hadn’t found time. I was scared to go alone and vowed I would do it when I returned. Now I’ve experienced it and I lived to tell the tale.

The local family that I was staying with in Fatih, a local community within the overflowing metropolis of Istanbul, asked if I was interested in a Turkish Bath. They explained that their neighbour owned one and he would be happy to have me visit. I anxiously and tentatively said yes, and arranged to go the next day.

The owner of the hammam met me at the house with his two young grandchildren and we walked down the winding, narrow streets from near Molla Aski Terasi to the Tarihi Historical Hamami. With all of the twists and turns I thought I might never be able to find my way back home and it felt like a 10 minute walk, but I’m sure that it was only five.

As we arrived on the street where the Hamam was located, in broken english the man said “Men only,” and pointed to a door. About 20 steps later we turned a corner and there was a door immediately to our left with a curtain. He said “Women only. You go here.” He knocked and then spoke in Turkish from outside the doorway. Next thing I knew, a tall, thin woman came to greet me and introduced herself (in English) as Melitza, the owner’s daughter-in-law.

She welcomed me and invited me to sit in the main area. I looked around at the mixture of tile work that seemed to have no real rhyme or reason to it’s pattern, bordering the entrance to the bath which was surrounded by marble. There were small rooms with doors along the back wall that looked almost like Catholic confessional rooms, but clearly were not. Benches lined one wall and a small table with a drink and a pack of cigarettes were against the other wall, where Melitza took a seat.

It was slightly cooler in the main area than the midday sun outside which was still climbing and had already reached 25+ degrees. There was only one other lady at the hamam and she was introduced as Fatma. She was a short stout lady with an ample bosom who walked with her feet turned out as she scurried around in her night-gown like dress. I later found out that Fatma had been working at this hamam for 30+ years.

With a big smile, Melitza welcomed me again and began asking where I was from, how long I would be traveling for and if I had ever been to a hamam. I immediately felt comfortable with her friendly and open personality and concluded that I would be able to ask her anything I needed.

Come to find out, although she does work at the hamam sometimes, this day she just happened to be there for her own bath experience, but wanted to make sure I was comfortable.

We chatted for a few minutes about what the experience would entail and what services I would like to have. The Turkish Bath, peeling and massage would be 35 Turkish Lira (equivalent to less than $17 CAD). They also had a treatment with a combination of a coffee scrub and honey for 20 Lira. I was there to experience it all, so I said ‘Let’s go for it!’

Of course, with the thought of coffee and honey being spread all over my body, I thought it time to ask about dress code. Melitza explained to me that wearing underwear would be perfectly acceptable as many women do this, however, traditionally women would be completely naked, not just topless. I should do whatever made me comfortable. She explained how she was shy the first time, but now she really enjoys the experience. She was born and raised in Serbia, but had married a Turkish man. Now they live in Istanbul. She had her first hammam experience only a few years before.

I had asked the folks that I was living with about dress code they had told me I could wear a swimsuit if I wanted, so I had. It was a full swim suit as I don’t do bikinis. When I heard a better explanation of the peeling process and then about the coffee and honey treatment I decided that I did not want my swimsuit to be covered. So, just like that, it was decided that I would be going full monty. Why not? I was there for the real experience, I’m not ashamed of my body and it helped that I was the only one there at that particular time. However, I was well aware that others could arrive at any minute.

Melitza explained to me that they would give me everything I needed to enjoy my experience. Fatma then came over and handed me a small yellow basket with shampoo, a wash cloth and two large towels made of tea-towel-like material. I was given a key to one of the small changing rooms at the back and told to wrap the small towel around me and that the bigger one would be used for later.

Fatma then smiled a crooked, but uniquely charming smile, took me by the hand, led me up the stairs through the first marble doorway and then through the second doorway where I was enveloped in the humidity like a warm, but wet, blanket.

It was silent, although when you spoke you felt dwarfed by the size and stance of the great 400 year old building that seemed to talk back to you through it’s echo. The large room was about half the size of a high school gymnasium, with natural light trickling in through the carved holes in the beautiful, dome-shaped, marble ceiling. In the centre of the room, directly below the dome, was a large square marble slab about two feet thick and 8 feet by 8 feet in diameter. It demanded attention, but I wasn’t quite sure of it’s purpose. The walls were lined with ancient marble sinks, each with their own hot and cold water taps, about 15 separate washing stations in total.

Fatma led me to one of the stations, turned on the hot and cold water, hung my towel on a rod above the sink and there I was … stark naked in this large room where I was about to bathe myself, publicly!

Through words and hand motions, Fatma explained that I should pour water over myself, but not to use soap or shampoo yet, just water. For the next 30-45 minutes I breathed in hot, humid air and poured warm water over myself until my skin softened. I alternated between hot and cool water every once in awhile. The humidity was hard to get used to, so I found a bit of cool water helped me endure while still softening my skin to prepare for the peeling process.

At the 45 minute mark, Fatma returned and took me out to the front waiting area to cool off and get some fresh air. I sat and chatted with Melitza while other women and children began to arrive at the hammam for their Sunday cleaning ritual. Melitza prepared me for the next section of the process which would be the peeling, washing and massage part. She told me that I would know when to roll over as Fatma would slap my ass.

Yes. You read that right! This local woman was going to slap my naked ass to communicate with me that I needed to roll over. I won’t lie, I giggled …. slightly horrified!

When Fatma gathered me to go back into the sauna area, she motioned for me to lie down on my stomach on the large marble slab in the middle of the room. She threw some warm water over the marble slab so that I wouldn’t stick to it and I laid down near the edge, on my tummy, and tried to find a way to get my boobs comfortable while being smushed against warm marble. Before I could even find a half comfortable position, Fatma was busy ‘peeling’ away my dead skin with a rubber mit with rubber teeth. It is similar to being exfoliated, but with something soft and rubbery tugging at your skin instead of a loofah which is hard and scratchy. Somehow she balanced the pressure of her body and the pressure of her scrubbing so that my skin started to roll off in little packets. She scrubbed all over my back, neck, bum and legs and then slapped my ass and mumbled something in Turkish.

Time to roll over.

Now, being naked in public is one thing. Having another nearly naked woman peel dead skin off you is another. But really, the hardest part to get over is laying face up with your private areas exposed.

I awkwardly rolled over on the wet slab and laid face up while Fatma continued to scrub my legs, stomach and breasts. Sounds weird right? Well, I can’t lie, it is weird, at least for me! I just kept telling myself that she’s done this for 30+ years, she’s seen everything by now!

Coming from Western society where it seems like just about any same sex contact is ‘gay or lesbian,’ it was hard for me to let a stranger rub and scrub all over. I’m sure she could see my tension. I couldn’t open my eyes, as I couldn’t bare to look at her while she was scrubbing me.

She tugged gently on my arm and motioned for me to sit up where she held my arm against her body and methodically scrubbed everything clean.

By this time, an elder had entered the sauna area in her underwear and was sitting in the corner gingerly pouring warm water over her body. On the other side of the large room, two women and a young girl of about five years old, were frolicking and giggling as they bathed one another. The young girl’s enthusiasm for bath time made me smile. It was in that moment that I understood that the hammam was a tradition that was being passed down. It may have once been a necessity and a place for people to clean themselves once a week for lack of having access to water at their own homes. But now, it was more of a tradition and luxury which families would hopefully share with the younger generations. Occasionally I opened my eyes and saw the joy of this little girl and heard her squeals of laugher as her mom dumped buckets of water over her head. Each ear piercing squeal made the corners of my mouth turn up in a delicate little grin.

I had heard about the peeling process and people described it as being rubbed raw and then roughly pummelled with a massage. For me, although slightly uncomfortable, it really wasn’t anything at all like being rubbed raw or being pummelled!

The soft teeth of the rubber mit hitched slightly on my skin and then continued down my body taking a thin layer with it. It wasn’t painful. It wasn’t even uncomfortable. Mostly it just felt like being scrubbed super clean or having a massage with no oil. When Fatma was done scrubbing me down, she went to get water to clean the dead skin off me. I made the mistake of opening my eyes and seeing the rolls of greyish skin laying lifeless all over my body. Had I really been that dirty? I was almost sorry that I looked! But, before I could be too disgusted, a bucket of warm water hit my back, then each of my sides and my front. The dead skin washed away, down the drains, leaving me naked and one shade whiter than when I had arrived!

I was directed back to the wet marble slab and laid down on my front again. This time, Fatma rubbed a soft washcloth with soap all over my body and then gave me a soap massage. The massage lasted about 10 – 15 minutes and was concentrated on the knots in my back and neck, but also on my legs and feet. It was an ok massage, but nothing like the joys of going to a professional massage therapist for a treatment where they could actually help your body recover. It was more like a boyfriend giving me a massage that he felt obligated to provide. It wasn’t bad, but I’m not sure that it was great either. Another slap on the ass and I rolled over again to have my front soaped up.

The process of being bombarded with buckets of water continued until all of the soap was washed off. Fatma motioned to me to use the water to clean my lady bits and then back to the slab. This time my large tea-towel like coverup had been spread out on the slab drenched in water. I got uncomfortably comfortable on the towel, face down and then the sweet, delicious smell of coffee wafted past my nose. It was like a little slice of heaven as she covered my body with coffee grinds and began to use them to gently exfoliate my soft, tender skin.

Once both sides of my body were amply covered in fragrant coffee grinds, she gently exfoliated my face. The heavenly coffee aroma made me relax and smile, despite the fact that I was sitting naked in public covered in coffee grinds.

When she was done the coffee application, I opened my eyes and all of a sudden was shocked to see that I was now a dark shade of brown all over. I’m not sure why I hadn’t thought of it before, but it was interesting to see my skin as a different colour. After all, I already felt strange enough being naked in another country, why not try on a different skin colour too?!

Fatma washed the coffee off with buckets of water and then allowed me to wash it from my private areas where the water had carried the coffee grinds it on it’s way off my body. Then she sat me down, poured warm water over my head and washed and conditioned my hair.

I climbed back on the slab one last time for the application of the honey treatment. Pure, natural honey mixed with water was drizzled all over me and then spread around and left to melt into my skin for a few minutes before being washed away again.

Fatma slapped me on the ass one last time and drizzled honey over my front. The scent made my mouth water. Luckily with the honey mixed with water it was much less sticky than I expected and it washed away easily with one more quick soapy wash down. Fatma finished washing my hair and then motioned for me to cover up and head back to the waiting area.

Oops! I hadn’t brought my second towel in.  My first towel was soaked and covered with coffee and honey and there I was naked. Now what?

Fatma chuckled and shook her head at me and then asked Melitza to grab my towel from my changing room. I wrapped up and headed to the waiting area to sit, cool off and chat. There were a few ladies arriving and preparing to enter the sauna area, a couple women were cooling off  after their first 40 minutes or so and Melitza was there waiting to ask me all about my experience.

I sat for another hour, had a lemon drink and chatted with Melitza about Serbia, Turkey, why women choose to cover their heads and bodies and why not. She explained the challenges of being a Serbian, non-covering woman who married into a family where covering was expected and that she has always stood her ground explaining that they can wear what they wish and she will wear what she wishes. She told me about her psychology background and a school she had opened in Serbia to help special needs children learn better math skills through different teaching methods. What an interesting lady! I’m so glad that I met her and took time to hear her story.

Eventually, I decided that I needed to get lunch seeing as I had skipped breakfast and it was already 3pm. I put my swimsuit and clothes back on and Melitza’s mother-in-law walked up the hill with me, back to my apartment.

Now, as I think back on the experience and am so glad that I did it. Not only was it an interesting local experience, but also a freeing of my mind and liberation of my body. In a society where women spend their days covered, it was an interesting contrast to see them uncover completely as an indulgence in themselves.

If you are visiting Turkey, I highly recommend the experience. And, don’t go to one of the expensive touristy hammams in Sultanahment. Dig a little deeper and find a family run one that operates as they have for hundreds of years. Enjoy the true Turkish hammam experience!

I highly recommend visiting Tarihi Historical Hamami in the Fatih / Balat district for the full, original experience. They have not sponsored this post or asked me to promote them, I am just 100% pleased with the experience I had and would like to see them thrive.

As always, if you are planning a trip to Turkey (or anywhere), feel free to get in touch. I am a full-service travel agent and happy to help you plan your next great adventure!

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

Preface: Education by Travel
I am not a religious person. I very rarely discuss religion as, quite honestly, it frustrates me. When there are wars being fought based on what ‘power’ you believe in and people being killed in the name of religion, my heart aches over the irony. How ever you choose to believe in a God, or whether you believe in science, we are all here on this same big planet together. Although this blog discusses religion, it is not about trying to change your belief (or non-belief) in a higher power, simply a reminder of how to live as a good person. For me, it is a testament (pardon the pun) to my love of travel and the education that I earn every day by opening my mind to new cultures.

I hope you’ll take time to comment and discuss after you’ve read the following.

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

It was late afternoon when I was standing in the doorway to my private room-rental in the local community of Fatih in Istanbul with the sea breeze wafting past me into the kitchen. I was engulfed in a conversation with Babek, the building owner, who I had met only a few short hours earlier.

What started out as me asking questions about the week-long Bayram festival to understand more of the culture, as well as arming myself with knowledge about closures over the next week, turned into exactly the type of conversation that drives me to continue traveling.

Although my correspondence leading up to my stay in Fatih had been with Sourena, the son, Babek was the one to greet me at the un-numbered wooden doors. My transfer driver from the airport had chatted with Sourena only minutes before, so I was (fairly) confident I was at the right place despite not seeing a number on the building.

I was welcomed with Babek’s warm smile and then Sourena quickly peeked down from upstairs to say hello. Then the two men carried my heavy suitcase up the narrow staircase to their second floor home. I immediately noted that both of them had really good English. Of course, there is an accent and words here and there get confused or lost in translation, but overall, I was surprised at the level of their conversation skills.

Sourena showed me around the small apartment and then led me to the roof top to see a spectacular view over the Balat area and toward Emininou. Indeed, the view is worth seeing and was a great way for him to point out the attractions of the area, along with giving me directions. He welcomed me and offered me a Iyran (mixture of yogurt and sparkling water) to drink, which I promptly devoured in the heat of the midday sun.

I spent only 15 – 20 minutes with Sourena gathering information for my stay and then I settled in, cleaned up and took off for a meeting in another part of town.

After a busy afternoon I walked back home surprisingly, without getting lost. Babek came to offer tea, which is a staple of the Turkish diet and hospitality. Although I was too hot to drink tea, a conversation arose.

I asked Babek about the Bayram festival that I had been hearing so much about. My local contacts are expats, so I thought I would ask a local for the inside scoop. He explained that Bayram is a sacrificing festival, often celebrated twice per year for families. Many people who live in the city go to the countryside to be with their family for this week-long government holiday. Families buy (or raise) an animal to be sacrificed and then they share the meat with friends and relatives. Traditionally the meat was divided into thirds; one part for the poor, one part for friends and one part for family. The festival is all about sharing what you have with others.

Although I can’t say I agree with the practice of sacrificing a live animal, I do try my best to respect other cultural and religious beliefs. I was interested in seeing the ceremony and photographing it, as I had heard that it may take place in the streets or backyards in the communities. However, now-a-days, law requires the slaughterings to be done by a butcher, rather than just by anyone. In all honesty, it is likely more humane than many of our practices in North America with the way animals are treated before going to slaughter. And, it seems, that at the root of this festival, at least from my understanding, is the kindness of sharing with those you love and those less fortunate.

As I chatted away with Babek about what stores may or may not be opened and closed over the next few days and if there was an area that I could watch a sacrifice (horrified, but with camera in hand), he ended up telling me that he wasn’t really sure because he is not Muslim and it is a Muslim festival. I tried to hold back my surprise. Not Muslim in a Muslim society?

Many questions begged to be asked, but where to start!

Come to find out, Babek and his family are Iranian, not Turkish. Six years ago they moved to Turkey to escape punishment in their own country for their choice of religion. Three years ago, they relocated to Istanbul. They were Christians in a dominantly Muslim society in Iran. For this, they had been persecuted and they could have been killed. In Istanbul, although dominantly Muslim, they are more tolerant and accepting of Christianity with the religions existing side by side with little conflict.

Immediately, my heart sank for them, knowing that they had left their home because of fear.

Immediately, I also asked myself ‘If I had known the family I was about to live with was Iranian, how would I have reacted? Would I have made a different choice?’

I like to think that I am not prejudiced or racist. I like to think that I am open-minded. And, I truly believe that good people come from every country of the world. But, that belief was challenged when I found out that this family was not what I had ‘expected’. If I had known they were from Iran, would I have chosen another place to stay? I am sure that many people would have. For me, I also asked myself, if I knew they were from Iran, wouldn’t I have assumed that they were Muslim? And, if that were the case, what would be the difference between staying with a Turkish Muslim family and an Iranian Muslim family?

If my friends and family knew this (which now they do!), what would have been their reaction? It is so easy to say ‘Nothing would be different’, but I am positive that some of them would have a heightened concern for my well-being based on the fact that I am staying with Iranians and all we know about Iranians is the bad news that the media shares about war, terrorism and death. We never hear about their caring side, their hospitality or that they aren’t all the same! Imagine for a moment thinking that all Canadians were terrorists. Doesn’t that seem more than just a little ridiculous?

Luckily, in asking myself these questions, I also realized that in booking my stay with this family, religion never once crossed my mind and for that I am thankful. I try to be open to religions and cultures around the world and I try not to pass judgements, but treat it as an opportunity to learn about other beliefs. Having said that, it is not something that determines my comfort or happiness. Whether I stay with a Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Jewish family, for me, I will look for the opportunity to learn from the experience. Will I agree with all of their practices and beliefs? No, but I will be respectful as I understand that is what they believe.

Learning of their background led to a particularly deep conversation with a man I had only met a couple of hours earlier, sharing our thoughts on religion. He thoughtfully explained to me that at the heart of everything, his core belief is to not judge others. “Judgement can only be handed out by God. It is your job to live and love under God and not to act as God by judging other people.”

Seems simple enough.

In Canada, we hear about refugees in the news. We see them in our communities, some Canadians more accepting than others. We (as a society) often pass judgements on these people without knowing anything about them.

Now, let’s take God out of the equation for a moment, as not everyone believes in ‘a God’. One of my core beliefs is to treat others with kindness. And really, isn’t this similar to not judging? Who am I to pass judgement on someone else. I don’t know their story. I don’t know their struggles. I don’t know their beliefs. It is not my business to judge them based on their beliefs and upbringing, as I would hope that they do not judge me for mine.

I think what makes our world so beautiful is the differences in opinions, the million ways that people can do the same thing but in different fashions, our different religious beliefs that really all come from the same core, yet they are interpreted and taught differently.

Be kind.

In any religion that I can think of, at the core of that religion is a message about love and being kind. So, why, if all religions want the same thing, can’t we all get along?

Isn’t that the big question?!

For Babek and his family, like millions of others, believing in kindness and love has led to persecution. Since moving to Turkey, he and his family can never return to Iran for a very real fear of being killed, as they have chosen to believe in a different teacher than the mainstream of that country.

Regardless of my religious beliefs, I applaud these people for standing up for their beliefs. Regardless of our religious similarities and differences, Babek and I were able to have great conversation about religion and the world as we both try our best to ‘not judge’ one another.

At no time did I feel that Babek was trying to convince or convert me to believing in God, or ‘his God’, but yet it was clear that he is a religious man. It was in this, that we discussed how backwards it is in many cultures that you are forced to believe in any one thing. In Iran, his government and the community were busy trying to force people to all believe in the same thing. This force came through fear and persecution. For Babek and his family, this was not acceptable. Babek expressed his frustration that the leaders in his community were trying to forcefully get people to follow their religion.

Believe or die.

Rather than conforming to the beliefs of the people around them, they fled. Had they conformed, they would have been doing themselves an injustice, as they would have been living a lie. Sure, they would have been able to stay in their country, but if they stood up against anything they believed to be wrong, they would have been killed. If they in any way rebelled against or questioned Islam, they would have been persecuted or killed. Can you imagine living with this fear? Not just a fear of being outcast by your community, but a real fear of you and your family being killed for having a mind of your own.

The problem with the world and religion is not religion itself. The problem is the leaders of the religion who have manipulated the teachings of the religion to benefit themselves in the form of power and / or money. If you read the ‘book’ of most religions, they talk about kindness, love and being brotherly to your neighbours. This message is not the problem. I think everyone can agree that this is a good rule to live by. The problem is those who manipulate this message to gain power and then use their influence to teach people differently. Funny how religion and politics seem so much alike at the moment … or is it just me?

For me, on my first day in Istanbul, regardless of my religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), ‘Don’t Judge’ is a reminder of how travel has opened my mind in the last few years. It is a reminder that people do things differently and that is ok. It is a reminder that there are more good people in the world than bad. It is a reminder that we are human-kind and should not be defined by our color, country or religion.

Despite having fled his own country for fear of being killed for his religious beliefs, Babek did not speak ill of the community that did not accept him and his family. He simply spoke of judgement and that it was not his place or right to place judgement on others.

A lesson that we should all live by, starting with the smallest of things in our lives. You only know your own story. Leave your judgements behind and ensure that you are living your life with kindness and love.

I hope that next time you meet someone from Iran, that you let go of your hesitation, put your secret, media-driven, prejudices behind you and see these beautiful people for who they are as humans and all they have to offer.

Dare to Dream

It’s approaching 2am and I’m awake.
My heart is beating faster than normal, I can’t calm my thoughts and they are bouncing around like pin ball in my brain.

No, I haven’t had a horrible nightmare!

Instead, I’ve come up with this crazy amazing dream for the next year of my life and I’m so excited about the potential it has that I can’t sleep. After an hour of trying, I decided that writing would be a better use of my time then laying in bed wide awake.

When I started this whole un-plan journey over a year ago, it was just that, unplanned. I didn’t know where it was going to take me, how I was going to get there or how long it would last. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing or not, but I knew it would be the wrong thing not to try.

I’ve always said I’m more of a doer than a dreamer. Some people day dream their days away and never take action. Me, I get an idea in my head and I make it happen. Often though, I don’t really consider my ideas to be dreams. They are just the next step in my journey.

Tonight, I must admit, I feel differently.
The last time I remember having this strong, anxious-happy feeling was when I met Nora Gross and Brenda McAloney who inspired me to do my social awareness project – Young & Fearless – Inspiration of Cancer Survivors. The project started small and grew into two art shows and a published book. It gained a tonne of local media attention over the two years that I worked on the project, along with solidifying a strong connection with the Photosensitive project which gained me national exposure and publication in several other books. Now I feel like the time is right to follow this gut feeling again.

I’ve visited 11 countries in the last eight months. I’ve been on the road or in the skies more than I’ve been home. I’ve had so many amazing opportunities and experiences that many of them have never been told because I don’t have time to write about them all.

I feel like I have truly lived life in the last eight months. I’ve met amazing people. I’ve seen our beautiful world from boats, planes, trains, automobiles, bicycles, motoconchos and a hot air balloon. I’ve challenged myself and I’m sure I’ve challenged others (for better or worse!). I learned to surf. I can hold my own in Spanish. I’ve built life-long relationships with people I’ve met all around the world.

It’s not all roses though folks. I’ve been sick. I’ve dealt with the loss of important people in my life. I thought I found potential for love, but found out I was wrong (the hard way). All of this while being away from family and friends back home. Through all of the ups and downs though, I’ve learned an amazing amount and I have lived with my heart open.

After a short rough patch where I was feeling a little confined, sad and suffocated by the people and events surrounding me, I’ve emerged again. As I read about the devastation caused by the April 25th earthquake in Nepal, I was drawn to the images, the news, the search for survivors, the pain and the suffering of locals and volunteers who are living this horrible nightmare right now. I pondered if I could drop what I am doing in Argentina and head to Nepal to help out. However, two factors slowed me down. 1. I don’t do so well at altitude. 2. Nepal needs money not extra people at the moment. The thoughts of going to help these broken communities have been nagging at me, but I knew Nepal was not the best option.

I now feel like I’ve broken free from the confinement I had been experiencing and my brain has room to breathe. My mind went on overdrive in the opposite, but positive direction. After reading several articles about the Nepal earthquake, I found myself looking at volunteer options with a Canadian based organization Volunteer Abroad / Basecamp. I’ve worked with them before by sending travellers through their programs to work, including one girl to Nepal two years ago. I started meandering through the website and looking at placement opportunities.

There were two incredible volunteer opportunities (out of close to 100) that screamed for my help, my skill set and my attention.

The first one to catch my eye was the one that made the hair on my arms stand up and thoughts start jumping with excitement. It is a placement in Ghana, Africa to help educate women, children, and the community about the importance of education, to help stop the process of child and human trafficking and to discuss sexual health issues.

For quite some time women’s issues in Africa have caught my attention (from the missing girls in Nigeria to genital mutilation). I’ve often looked into various organizations or contacted people that I might be able to work with. Sadly, nothing has ever worked out, but maybe it just wasn’t the right time.

The second opportunity is in Tanzania, working with an orphanage to build a website / social media, including photography and writing. Then moving on to teaching local staff how to maintain it. This opportunity would give me hands on time with the local volunteers / teachers, as well as getting to know the children and their stories. Telling stories of people through photographs (and through blogging) is one of great passions. Here’s a chance!

Tonight as I chatted with a couple of friends on Facebook, my mind decided to dream …

What if I actually did decide to go to Africa and volunteer? What would that look like?
I’ll be in Nova Scotia this summer to get my yellow fever vaccine. I was already looking at the potential of staying away for a full year, just no solidified plans. And, I’ll already be in Europe for my Turkey Photo Tour come September / October which is a lot closer to Africa than I am right now!

Is this the year that I’ll see Africa and I’ll spend time making a real difference in people’s lives through a volunteer placement? Volunteering and travel together have been very important to me for quite some time, but somehow I haven’t made time recently to make it a priority. I’ve said for a long time that I should change this. Tonight the thought scurried out of the depths of my brain and had a little dance party.

 

NOTE: Initially this post was written at the end of April 2015 and I’ve revised it as of the beginning of June 2015 as I never got around to posting it. Shame on me!

Quick update: I have been in contact with Volunteer Abroad and am looking into several options for working with them later this year. I also have several new ideas that I am currently working on for potential projects with other Not for profit / Non-Government agencies.

Update coming very soon on my revised unplan for the next year of my life.

If you’ve been considering voluntourism, maybe this is your year too! Feel free to drop me a note to chat about your plans, or I’m happy to assist you in finding the right NGO/NPO to work with. Don’t be afraid to take the first step and get in touch.

Argentine country culture in the heart of the city

Having been in Argentina for a full two months now and not yet having made it to the countryside to see gauchos and estancias in action, I was pretty excited when I found out that every weekend the country comes to the city for a market.

The Feria de Mataderos happens every Sunday in the same location in the Mataderos district at the city limits of Buenos Aires, but some weekends, they bring the fun to different barrios within the big city.

Today, I caught the subte, line D to the Catedral stop (subway) and was only a block away from the excitement. With a start time of 11am, I was right on time, although I knew that this actually meant I was early. I made my way to the corner of Peru and Avenida de Mayo through a small part of the regular street vendors and the not-so-subtle calls of ‘cambio, cambio, casa de cambio‘.

I won’t lie, I was a little disappointed when I arrived and saw a huge stage still being set up and some stalls like a standard South American market. I was expecting horses and people dressed in traditional attire, but maybe my expectations were a little high and maybe I should have known better than to be on time!

I meandered around the first set of approximately 30 market stalls filled with deliciousness. Apparently I had wandered to the food side of the market! Great varieties of everything from bread, artisanal chocolates, cured meats, olive oil, honey, delicate pastries … a little something for everyone’s tastebuds. Don’t worry, I didn’t leave this section empty-handed. I picked up a few special chocolates as a gift for one of my friends here (and for me too!).

Next up, I wandered through the larger part of the market with handmade crafts and clothing. With somewhere in the vicinity of 75 stalls, there was plenty to look at, but slightly harder to take photos of when the crowd had picked up. There were many stalls of delicate, beautiful, hand-made jewelry with many of the artists working on new pieces behind their tables. There were leather belts, kids crafts and dolls, hand-knit socks and sweaters, plants and cacti, artwork, doilies and more. (I considered buying a few things and then remembered that I don’t have a home to put them in.)

After a brief visit to the famous Cafe Tortoni to wait for the action on stage, I walked back to the Feria de Mataderos in hopes that the entertainment was ready to start. The stage was pretty big, so I thought it fair to assume there would be good talent. I was not disappointed!

Starting off with a bit of dancing in the street, it was nice to get a feel for the local vibe and see everyday people get out and dance. Of course, there were a few people in traditional attire there to keep the dancing going, but overall, it was just locals heading out in the street with big smiles and a love for the tradition.

After a few songs, the entertainment on stage started with Percusion Buenos Aires. A multi-talented duo who brought their A game starting with several different percussion pieces and then, came back on stage with equally lovely traditional dancing.

All in all, a lovely two or three hours exploring something new. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to see the original Feria de Mataderos in my next couple of months here.

The Coastal train to Barrancas Station

If you find yourself for an extended period of time in Buenos Aires and are in need of a relaxing getaway, head toward Tigre where you’ll find a day full of wandering, meandering and treasure hunting waiting for you with la Tren de la Costa route.

It took far too long for me to get from Belgrano to the Maipu Station to catch the Tren de la Costa, but I chalk that up to a variety of bad luck, bad sense of direction and lack of planning. I took a bus to Plaza Italia (opposite direction) in order to catch the 152 bus that I needed to go the right direction. Sadly I wasn’t sure where else I could catch this bus, although I suppose I could have looked it up online. I’m sure it passed within a few blocks of my house.

With less traffic on a Sunday than other days, I was hoping that the trip would only take 30 -45 minutes. Over an hour in, we hit a traffic jam caused by construction and traffic was near a stand still. I hopped off the bus, walked one street back and hailed a taxi. I just couldn’t sit on a bus going nowhere any more.

The taxi took another 15 minutes to get to the Maipu Station, but eventually I arrived and followed the signs to the ticket booth, easy enough. I walked upstairs through a funky antique market, but only about a quarter of the stalls were open. The faint smell of dust and rust filled the air and there was a little of everything from old furniture to signs to trinkets and records.

At the end of the market you’ll find the ticket booth right at the edge of the platform. There are two fares, one for locals ($10 pesos one way to Tigre) and one for expats ($20 pesos one way to Tigre). You’ll receive a ticket, white for locals and purple for expats. You’ll need the ticket to get through the check point on to the platform.

Once on the train, there is a stop every two to five minutes. From the little map I had reviewed, I expected it to be five to ten minutes between stops, but I could hardly believe it when we stopped about one minute after the train started. At that pace I thought I could walk to Tigre! (well, it’s only 16kms) Ok, maybe a little stretch of the imagination, but none-the-less, the total train time was only about 30 minutes.

The main point of taking the Tren de la Costa (the coastal train) is that you can hop off at any of the 10 stations along the way and explore the station along with the small town or community. I had read about most of the stations, but decided that Tigre was my main destination so I would only stop at one other station along the way.

I hopped off at Barrancas Station where there was a lovely little antique market. Now, antiques aren’t really my thing, but none the less it was interesting to see some historical pieces of Argentinian history. Mostly trinkets and old tools, but a lot of historic television paraphernalia (action figures etc) and lots of old liquor bottles. It is literally a mish mash of everything. Some of the tables are organized, others are just piled high with treasures. All of them could use some dusting!

Once you are done wandering through the market, you can grab a croissant (medialuna) and coffee at the green and white Bikes and Coffee Cafe on the platform, or you can take a wander through town to grab lunch. I had wanted to try Parilla el Nandu restaurant for lunch, but being a Sunday it was particularly busy with a full house and over an hour’s wait to be seated.

A couple of blocks away you’ll find the entrance to Peru beach. Not quite sure where the name comes from as there is no beach, but it is a beautiful view of the water and the opportunity to try a number of watersports from windsurfing to kayaking to paddle boarding.

The small area was packed with visitors dining at the ‘beach’ restaurant, lounging on the grass soaking up the sun and taking selfies along the water with sailboats in the background. Sadly, I wasn’t prepared for swimming (in jeans and a t-shirt), so I gathered a bit of pricing information and decided another Sunday it would be worth the visit just to get out on the water for awhile.

Just to give you an idea of what prices to expect:

Kayaking – single – $150 Pesos per hour (about $15 USD) / double – $200 Pesos per hour (about $20 USD)

Windsurfing – 1 hour class $450 Pesos / 3 hour equipment rental $1200 Pesos / 5 hour equipment rental $2000 Pesos

Although I didn’t this time, I think next time I’ll rent a bike and take a peddle along the train-track-trail. The houses, scenery and art looked lovely from the train.

I wandered around Barrancas for about an hour in total. You could easily spend a morning, afternoon or full day there if you were to partake in some of the water sports, but if you are just stopping for a peek, a wander through the market and a quick bite at the Bikes & Coffee Cafe should have you on your way again in about an hour or hour and a half.

PS – the medialunas at the Bikes & Coffee Cafe are deeelish!

Santiago, Chile – 10 First Impressions

I like to think that I’m a little bit of a unique traveler in that I don’t do much research on a destination before I arrive. I don’t want to hear about the destination from other people’s views, I want to see it, taste it, experience it for myself and make my own opinions. Now, this isn’t for everyone. Lots of people love to read all about it before they arrive so that they know what they want to see and do. Me, I just like to arrive and see what I feel like. Since I’m writing a blog and you are reading it, I’m glad you are the type of person who likes to hear about other’s experiences. If we were all like me, I wouldn’t have anyone out there reading, instead I’d be sending everyone to Chile to experience it themselves!

We all know that first impressions are important, for better or worse, so here are 10 of my first impressions of Chile.

1. Mountains. Mountains. Mountains. For about the last 45 minutes of the flight approaching Santiago, you are soaring high above beautiful mountains. You land amongst the mountains and the city of Santiago is surrounded by mountains. The mountains run the length of the country, but also split the width of the country. They also are responsible for dividing the climate between coastal and humid to inland dry and desert-like. No question, the towering mountains are everywhere and they are spectacular.

2. Homeless. As I approached the historic centre of Santiago by taxi, the first thing that caught my eye in the green space dividing the main street was a person (man or woman, I’m not sure), sitting on a large tree stump with their pants around their ankles. I shouldn’t have stared, but it was really unusual and I just couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. That hot Friday afternoon when I arrived, the green space was laden with homeless people sleeping, peeing, defecating and puking. Not really the best first impression of the city, but none-the-less, I was there to experience the real Santiago, not just the tourist version.

3. Dirty. Despite seeing people out collecting garbage from the streets, the historical centre was a dirty area. Dust from the dry climate combined with lack of education for littering, left the streets strewn with garbage. The beautiful purple jacaranda trees were also starting to lose their petals, which left the streets carpeted with bright purple flowers.

Jacaranda tree, Santiago, Chile
Jacaranda tree, Santiago, Chile

4. Dry. I have never visited an area with such dry heat. I’ve always visited Caribbean areas that have high humidity, so I’ve always associated 30+ degree weather with sweating profusely. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to walk down the street in the afternoon sun and not need a shower 20 minutes later. The dry heat was a pleasant surprise and the sunshine on my face was most welcome.

5. Easy to navigate on foot. If you rent a hotel or apartment near the historic district, it is no problem at all to find your way around the central area of the city on foot. In fact, I did so without a map. However, if you have a map you’ll likely find all of the tourist spots much quicker and not miss out. Myself, I just wandered around the streets and then sauntered back to my apart-hotel.

6. No begging. No bothering. Despite what seemed like a lot of homeless people in the central historic area, I was never once asked for money or bothered at all. Even when I walked through the Central Market and down the main streets with stores, vendors and restaurants, I was not hollered at or begged to spend money on anything. Vendors simply existed there and if you wanted to purchase something you could approach them, otherwise, they continued about their day.

7. Tranquilo. A word aptly used to describe the overall atmosphere of the city, tranquil. No one was in a hurry, very few cars were beeping and over the weekend that I was there, there was next to no traffic. People walk slowly and take in their surroundings and conversations with friends. There were no fights or brawls. Simply tranquil.

8. Safe. Being in a new city is always a little bit intimidating for a solo female traveler such as myself. In any city it is best to always be on guard and follow general safety measures such as not wearing fancy jewellery, not carrying your passport or all of your money and making sure that you are aware of your surroundings. Personally, I felt very comfortable in Santiago because of it’s laid back attitude and slow pace. For a big city, it seemed to have a country attitude.

9. Street Art. After having visited Athens in October and going on a Street Art tour, I am much more cognizant of Street Art in other cities. Ranging from proper graffiti (with a purpose), to graffiti for the sake of defacing a building to murals and colourful drawings, Santiago does not disappoint with the street art. Although there is not much in the historic district, within about 10 blocks (near the Loreto Hotel) the streets come alive with bursts of colour and imaginative designs.

10. Hot dogs. Although I chose not to have one, hot dogs are a popular choice for lunch or a snack with hot dog stands spread throughout the historic centre. If you are not feeling like eating on the run, you can also choose a local restaurant on the street or in the market and chance are, they will have a hot dog with your choice of toppings or fully loaded that you can munch on while watching the futbol match of the evening.

Overall, I enjoyed Santiago. I felt safe and easily got my bearings. I had no safety issues and soaked up the dry heat whenever I could get outside in the sun. I was a bit disappointed that most shops and restaurants were closed on Sunday, but I managed to find what I needed.

Sadly, the homeless situation bothered me. Many large cities struggle with this problem and I certainly don’t know what the answer is, but I know that as I walked by men passed out on the streets in various positions, sometimes lying in their own vomit, that I felt horrible that there was nothing I could do to help these people in that particular moment.

Although it is not a destination that I will rush to return to, it is also not a destination that I dread returning to. I wouldn’t suggest spending more than one or two days in the city, but it is an excellent starting or ending point with lots of day tours that you can do to surrounding cities, mountains and vineyards.

20 things a non-wine drinker learned about wine in Mendoza.

As friends and family know, I’m not much of a drinker and especially not wine. Yes, I am well aware that it is a required taste. I’ve been trying to ‘acquire’ it for 20 years. I think it’s fair to say it’s just not for me. None-the-less, when you are traveling in Argentina, wine is a given at every meal and a winery tour is a must! It is such an important part of their history and economy that it was only fair for me to give it a try. While on my trip with Intrepid Travel, we did a half day wine tasting tour that visited three Bodegas (or wineries) in Mendoza. The three Bodegas were: Alta Vista, Dante Robino and Lagarde. We started around 9am and by 10am we were three tasting glasses in! Each winery gave us a tour and overview of their process and then served us three to four of their mid-range wines to test. Proudly, I tasted all nine wines that were put in front of me. I really disliked most of them, but a couple of the whites or sparkling wines were ok. I even had seconds on one of the ones at Dante Robino! Having said that, there were wine lovers in my group who enjoyed every single glass, plus the remainder of several of my glasses. Needless to say, everyone was pretty happy by 1:30pm when we finished at the last winery and headed to lunch.

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina
Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Here’s what I learned about wines during my tour.
1. All grapes are the same color on the inside. The skin is the difference in the color.

2. The amount of dryness in a wine is directly related to the sugar content. It ranges from Extra brut, brut, sec and demi sec.

3. Vineyards are good up to approximately 100 years.

4. The older the tree, the smaller the harvest, but the better quality of the grapes.

5. The type of ground that crops are planted in, determines the flavor of the wine. Rocky, earthy, sandy areas all provide different flavors.

6. Mendoza is best known for Malbecs (red).

7. Sparkling wines made with natural carbonation have very fine bubbles that raise up the glass in stems and collect along the edges of the glass. Cheaper sparkling wines that are carbonated artificially have larger bubbles (like soda).

8. In the Mendoza region, they have very few natural elements that will harm the grapes. However, when a cold front and warm front meet, they often create hail that can range from golf ball size to baseball size. Not only does the hail knock the fruit off the trees, but it can also damage the tree and cause it to not produce well going forward.

9. The crops are sometimes covered in netting. This is to protect the fruit from hail (not from birds).

10. Red and white wines go through almost the same fermentation process, but because white wines are the color of the grape, they get to final product more quickly. The reds have to have the skins added in for four hours (rose) to several days for a darker color.

11. Wines used to be stored in very large oak barrels but have been moved to smaller oak barrels to improve efficiency. With more litres in the large barrels, it takes longer for the oak flavor to infuse through the entire liquid. By moving to smaller barrels, the oak flavor dispurses more quickly and can be moved to market more quickly.

12. The oak barrels are used once, first, for the best wines. Second for the next best and third for a market version. The barrels are purchased for close to 1000 Euros each and then sold to be made into furniture or other decorations for approximately 25 Euros each after their three-year cycle. They are sometimes sold to other producers of whiskey or rye as well, but these are not made in Mendoza.

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina
Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina
Dante Robino Winery, Mendoza, Argentina
Dante Robino Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

13. Many of the best Argentinian wines are not exported at all. They produce a lower amount of these wines and keep them within the country for consumption. Many of the wines we tasted cannot be found in Canada.

14. Red wines are usually more expensive than whites because it is a longer process to make reds.

15. Lagarde makes one of top four wines in the country.

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina
Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina
Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina
Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

16. Henry (by Lagarde) is a blend of four different grapes and takes five years to produce. Each of the wines goes through the fermentation process individually and then they are mixed together in the end. Henry is well known outside of Argentina, but is produced in low quantities, more for awards than for sale. The quality of the wine brings prestige and integrity to the winery. They focus on the quality of this wine and not so much the profit.

17. Mendoza is situated at about 900 meters above sea level. Growing grapes at altitude works well because there are no problems with insects ruining the crops, so no pesticides are needed. However, they struggle with little rainfall to irrigate the crops and hail storms can ruin a crop within minutes.

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina
Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina
Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina
Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

18. When storing bottles in the cellar, they allow dust to pile on the bottles because it protects the wine from the light.

19. Use beer caps instead of corks during processing to make sure that no oxygen seeps in and that humidity (or lack thereof) doesn’t dry cork out and leave bits in the wine.

20. Most wines still have sediment in them when they are first bottled. Wineries will store bottles with the neck down and do a ¼ turn of bottle daily, or weekly, to help the sediment go to the neck. They then freeze the neck & pop out the frozen chunk then re-cork the top, leaving a sediment-free and clear wine for drinking. Seems like I learned a lot about wine making. Interested in knowing more? Well, you’ll just have to contact me and I can set you up on a fantastic Argentina trip!

The wine tour that I enjoyed was part of a week long trip with the wonderful folks at Intrepid Travel traveling from Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Vina and Valpo – Part 2

Valparaiso was the area that I was most interested in visiting as many people had told me of it’s beauty. I hadn’t realized that Vina del Mar and Valparaiso were so close to each other. In fact, there is no clear line between the two. The cities just gently join one another.

Valparaiso aptly translates to Valley of Paradise.

Valparaiso is the older of the two cities. It was originally the first port that ships arrived at when sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, it was the most important and best known port on the Pacific Ocean in South America. At the time (late 1800’s), it was a melting pot for all different cultures as many immigrants came to settle in the area for it’s prevailing prosperity and economic situation. Many of the immigrants were from Eastern Europe and Russia, but others came from all over the world.

It is known for being home to Latin America’s first stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, the country’s first public library and the oldest newspaper in continuous publication in the world. History truly runs deep through this enchanting city.

Other than being an important port for cargo ships, it was also widely known for the fishing industry as the cold arctic current turns the Pacific ocean into a highway for fish, bringing masses of them nearby throughout various seasons. Sadly, when the Panama canal was built in 1914, the route for ships was changed and Valparaiso was all but forgotten near the southern tip of the continent, causing a major economic downturn.

It is such a shame because Valparaiso truly is a unique area. Of course, the port was the main focus, but when the city grew by leaps and bounds, it had no where to expand except for up the surrounding steep hills. Houses were built mostly with cheap materials such as wood and corrugated metal and then painted with the same type of paint that was used on the ships as it was readily available and cheap. Today, most of the houses remain the same. Some say the bright paint colours were used so that the houses could be seen through the dense fog that covers the area every morning.

Valparaiso is also known for it’s variety and quantity of street art splashing the walls and gates with brilliant colours, throughout the residential areas, with beautifully designed paintings from artists around the world. Although street art is not officially legal, it is widely accepted as part of the community. Many locals seek out artists to design art for their outer house or business walls. And, many artists who find wall space available pitch their ideas to the owner and collaborate before permanently introducing their art.

And, they are very proud of their artistic talent in Valparaiso. Particularly, Pablo Neruda. We visited one of his houses which his wife turned into a museum after his passing. He was world-renowned in poetry, also a well-known and loved writer, politician and diplomat. Today, many of his works can be found translated into many other languages and some still grace the best sellers list.

House of Pablo Neruda
Writer, thinker, poet, diplomat and politician.

The central area of Valparaiso is protected by Unesco as of 2003. The areas warmly known as Happy Hill and Conception Hill have the only functioning funiculars in the area.

The funiculars were built starting in the late 1800’s to move people easily and cheaply up and down the steep hillsides. Every morning people would come down the hills to work in the centre or at the port and then in the evening, everyone would be tasked with climbing up the steep hills to their homes. The funiculars were put in place to aid the locals, mainly with their ascent up the hills. Originally there were approximately 26 funiculars throughout the city, painted in bright colours and street art to match the surrounding areas. But now, there are only eight remain in operation.

I was lucky enough to get to travel down on one, El Peral, built in 1902. The ride cost one Chilean peso and took about one minute. There are two funiculars at the same station. As one is traveling down, the other is balancing the gears by traveling up. It boggles my mind that any of the equipment still functions. From the clearly ancient gears, to the warped door that had to be wiggled just right in order to open and the questionable floor boards at the waiting station … it was quite the experience.

Sadly our tour was a bit rushed and I only got to view one or two of the other funiculars in passing. I didn’t have time to photograph them. I wish I had more time to fully explore the beautiful mess that is Valparaiso. I felt my time was too short and rushed to understand the community, but I could instantly feel at home in the disarray of streets and mess of colours. Despite the now poor economic situation, the city is alive with colour, culture and history.

Casas de Cambio

November 27, 2014

Oh Argentina, so quirky yet totally lovable.
(interesting that the word ‘lovable’ autocorrected to ‘livable’, not once, but three times …. is the computer trying to tell me something?)

I’ve just done something totally illegal and yes, I am admitting to it and even writing about it. Don’t worry, I’m pretty confident I’m not going to get arrested for it. It is all part of the game you play while traveling (or living) in Argentina.

Before traveling to Argentina I knew there were ‘money issues’. I read several articles about the US dollar value in Argentina. I learned about the blue market and how to check the rate. I understood that there are two different rates in Argentina – the blue market and the official rate. Ok, so I understand that there are two, but WHY? WHY? WHY? Even after reading several articles that explained all the ins and outs of changing money and the different rates I still didn’t understand why.

I had a local explain it to me and here’s what I understood.

There is a shortage of US dollars in Argentina and the government is ‘protecting’ them (or hoarding them). This means that locals are not allowed to use US dollars. It is illegal. This is driving the value of the Argentinian dollar down in other countries, therefore it is not very valuable. It isn’t so bad if you live in Argentina, earn pesos and spend them, but as soon as you want to leave the country, your hard earned money is worthless. You are not allowed to earn US dollars. Your bank accounts have to only be in pesos. The government is very controlling and the Argentinians just want freedom to earn and spend money freely.

Because of this governmental control, the blue market has been created by locals so that Argentinians have access to US dollars, and therefore, ‘freedom’. The US dollar is in demand, therefore local ‘casas de cambio’ or ‘change houses’ will offer tourists a better rate than the banks. In turn, locals can get dollars to use as they wish, although at a higher price, but better than not at all. Or, they can go to one of the bordering countries (Uruguay is easiest and quickest for most) to take out USD from ATMs. Although illegal to operate a change house, it is generally understood that police turn a blind eye to this practice, at least for the time being.

What does this all mean for tourists?

When traveling to Argentina bring only US dollars. Do NOT waste your time or money getting Argentinian Pesos in advance because your American dollar is worth MUCH MORE when you arrive.

Take just $1 USD for example. The official exchange rate is around 8 Pesos per dollar. However, the blue market ranges between 10 and 14 Pesos per dollar. That’s almost double your money if you exchange it locally (and illegally).

For those of you who have issues with doing something illegal, I get it. I’m not a great criminal myself. But, my understanding (although it could be wrong), is that changing your money is not illegal, it is just the people running the Change Houses who are doing something illegal. I’m probably wrong, but I’m going to keep believing this.

If you are only in Argentina for a couple of days, it is no big deal if you get the official 8 to 1 ratio. But, if you are staying for a longer time, you’d be crazy not to use the blue market. If you plan on spending $500 US, that could change into nearly double your money.

It’s a little bit like gambling or playing the stock market. In fact, I’m sure people do just that and make huge profits. For me though, it is just about making my money go as far as possible.

You can follow the Blue dollar rate on twitter at @dolarblue. They are supposed to post the blue dollar rate daily. I don’t always check it, but I have a good idea now of what is good (14 Pesos to 1 USD Or bad 8 Pesos to 1 USD)

There are few ways to get, use or change your US dollars to Argentinian Pesos.

1. Go to a bank in your home country and change Canadian or US dollars to Argentinian Pesos. Safe and legal, but you will get a bad exchange rate. Your money will not go as far.

2. Go to a bank in Argentina. Safe and legal, but you will get the ‘official’ exchange rate which hovers around 8 pesos per $1 USD.

3. Pay for purchases in Argentina with your credit card. You’ll get the official rate of the day, plus pay any fees that your credit card may impose. It’s not horrible, but again, you still only get the official rate, maybe less depending on your fees.

4. Use an ATM in Argentina to withdraw Pesos. VERY IMPORTANT: ATMs don’t always work. They only provide Pesos, not US dollars and they often run out of money, especially on the weekends. Don’t rely on this. Again, you’ll get the official 8 to 1 (approximate) rate.

5. Take US dollars to Argentina with you and use them to pay at stores, restaurants and hotels, whenever they will accept USD. Ask them what their rate of the day is. If it is the same or better than the Blue dollar rate of the day, go ahead, take it! They will calculate it for you and give you back the difference in pesos. I found this to be the best way, whenever possible. I often got a higher exchange rate from the restaurants than from a cambio house.
Note: $50 or $100 bills get the best rate vs $20 or $10 bills. Anything less than $10, don’t even bother.

Do you suck at math like I do? Here’s a step by step:

A) Your food bill is $100 pesos and you want to pay with $50 USD.
B) Ask what the exchange rate is. Today, my restaurant gave me 14 to 1 (which is awesome).
C) Multiply $50 USD by 14 to get the total value in Pesos (50×14 = 700)
D) You have the value of 700 Pesos … subtract the 100 Pesos for your food bill.
E) You give them $50 USD for your 100 Pesos meal and you should get 600 pesos in return.
F) Be proud. That means you ate grilled chicken, potato and tomato salad, bread and a pepsi for lunch for about $7 USD. To put it in perspective, that same 100 pesos, if you paid with your credit card would have been $12.25 USD. Big difference! It all adds up. Hard to understand. You’d think 100 pesos is 100 pesos, but it is not!

6. Ask a local who you know and trust if they can change the money for you. Often they know the places that will give the best rate, or they may have a reason to want the US dollars for themselves. Maybe they are planning a trip away and storing some US cash before they leave the country. They may be willing to give you a very good rate. There’s no harm in asking. Maybe just make sure they aren’t the local police! You know … just in case!

7. Last, but certainly not least, you can take your USD (preferably $50 or $100 bills) to one of the many obscure Casas de Cambio. It sounds sketchy, and it is! If I hadn’t be repeatedly told how normal, acceptable and easy it is, I would never have done it on my own. It is different than any other country that I’ve ever been to, and I’ve now been to 26 different countries!

In Mendoza, I changed $100 USD at a rate of 12.5 Pesos to 1 USD. It was at the local bus station in a store that also sold bus tickets … or did they? There was a man standing outside the door who asked if I needed change. You very quickly get used to listening for ‘cambio, cambio, cambio’. I didn’t ask for any bus tickets, I just got my local pesos and went on my way.

In Buenos Aires, it is the same, but different. You head to the well known ‘Florida’ street in the financial district of the city. It is a pedestrian only area filled with clothing and shoe stores, Starbucks, Burger King etc. You’ll find street vendors selling their wares in the middle of the cobblestone street and a mixture of passersby from tourists to locals, scraggly backpackers to businessmen. If you listen closely, you will hear the streets whisper ‘cambio, cambio, casa de cambio’. Just as you are honing in on it, it is gone. You look around and wonder where the whisper came from. You probably look a little silly standing still, turning your head. And then a man or woman will catch your eye and say it again … Not interested? Keep walking. They won’t hound you. But, if you need your dollars exchanged, walk up to them and ask what their rate is, don’t yell across the sidewalk, they are trying not to draw unnecessary attention.

In three or four blocks, there were no less than 20 people working the streets whispering ‘cambio’ to passersby. If you aren’t listening for it, it would easily just blend in to the dull hum of the conversations on the street. But, if you are listening for it, you’ll hear it everywhere. You almost can’t escape it.

I passed by about five people on the first street. Not quite sure why. I think I had to build up my confidence. Although they deal with people all the time who speak English (or other languages), it is always best if you can communicate in their language.

On the second street, I approached a guy standing in the centre of the street near a magazine / snack kiosk who had been saying ‘cambio’. I asked in Spanish what the rate of the day was and he told me 12 to 1, if I had a $50 or $100. I told him that I had just gotten 14 at a restaurant and he told me he could not do that high. He said a few other things, but I didn’t completely understand. So, I decided to try elsewhere.

I walked to the next street and it seemed like all of the ‘cambio’ guys / girls were really young. Not sure why but I didn’t feel I could trust the youngsters. They made me a bit uncomfortable. So, I continued on, past a police officer and past the two people near the police officer who were saying ‘cambio’. I didn’t think I would tempt fate by exchanging my money right in front of an officer.

I turned around at the end of the block and headed back. I was still building up courage to do this illegal deal on my own and the police presence had shaken me a bit! I found a lovely older lady about halfway down the block who looked friendly. I approached her and asked what the rate was. She told me 12.80 and I said sure. After all, it was better than the first guy and I liked her. (ha ha because that really matters when you are doing something questionable in another country!)

The pint sized woman walked me a few feet to a magazine kiosk (there are many of them), three men moved out of the tiny doorway and she gestured for me to go in. Really? Go in? I felt like they were going to close the door behind me and I’d never be seen again. Kind of like a magician’s disappearing person act.

I timidly poked my head in through the narrow metal door and before I could see anyone I said ‘Hola?’. I heard someone respond, so I stepped in a little further and the cashier smiled at me. She knew what I was there for, no need to explain or have a conversation about it. She showed me the math on a calculator, gave me my pesos which she placed under a black light to show me that they were real (because I totally know what I’m looking for with counterfeit money, right?). I packed them away, half in my purse and half in my backpack and scurried out of the tiny little metal enclosure hoping that the three men standing near the door didn’t follow me and rob me.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

It really wasn’t that bad … I had just heard a lot of stories about people being robbed in Buenos Aires, people getting fake money and the fact that the whole process is officially illegal. Nothing at all to be concerned about, right?

In the end, I managed to change money all by myself without the assistance of a local or tour guide (who aren’t supposed to help you with that anyway because it’s officially illegal). I got a decent rate, although not the best. And I made it through the afternoon and all the way back to my apartment without getting robbed.

I’d say it was a successful day of adventure for this solo female traveler in Buenos Aires! Hopefully next time I change money I’ll do just as well.