Covid-19 – A Travel Agent’s Opinion

Coronavirus, or Covid-19, is top of everyone’s minds these days. It’s impossible to avoid the information overload through the news and social media. It is extremely important to make sure you are taking in reliable, factual information and not just the hype and fear that many media outlets are spewing.

My business
I am just one travel agent in Halifax, NS with a small, but mighty business. To date, I have not had one cancellation due to Covid-19. I’ve had to rearrange flights to avoid China, but not one of my clients has cancelled their trip.

It’s incredibly busy though. Airlines, cruise and tour companies are all fielding more calls than normal. This doesn’t always lead to cancellations though, just a lot of questions! Clients are calling with travel concerns and insurance sales are soaring as we are one of the few still protecting people if they purchase insurance before an Avoid Non Essential Travel Advisory goes out. Many companies have revised their policies to exclude pandemics, but as yet (March 6th, 11am AST), our policies remain the same.

I currently have clients traveling in Australia, New Zealand, Qatar, Thailand, Hawaii, just returned from Caribbean Cruising and Portugal, 17+ people heading to Italy in the next 2 – 6 months on various itineraries, River Cruise season is soon starting and my mom and I are heading to Australia at the end of April.

Despite mass media and panic, what seems like worldwide, folks here in Halifax, at least my clients, are taking it all in stride.

You are going to get sick. #SorryNotSorry
In case you didn’t know …. At any time, anywhere in the world, you can get sick. Comforting right? HAHA In fact, I’m sick with a cold right now as I write this. I got sick in November when I travelled to Nepal and I often get sick when I travel to the Caribbean. I’ve had stomach problems in various countries, I’ve gotten parasites, colds and who knows what else. If I stopped traveling because I ‘might’ get sick, I’d never go anywhere!

The truth is, there are a lot worse things out there than Covid-19 and you haven’t cancelled your trips for any of those … so why would you cancel for this?

You travel to the Caribbean all the time where there is risk of Malaria, Zika, Typhoid, traveller’s diarrhea or Africa where there is Ebola and Yellow Fever (although there is a vaccine for that!), along with other mosquito-bourne illnesses. You may or may not get your yearly flu vaccine; do you have your hepatitis shots? No?

I don’t say any of this to scare you, just to point out the hypocrisy in it all. If we aren’t scared enough of getting the flu to go get our flu shot … if we travel without our Hepatitis A & B shots, if we go to Malaria areas but don’t take medication, if we go anywhere without checking the health risks, if we eat fatty foods, smoke cigarettes, vape or drink too much, then why are we so scared of Covid-19? If you get it, you’ll likely be sick for 7 – 10 days and then you’ll be well again. Many of the things listed above do not have the same happy ending, but we don’t seem to be scare of those!

The flu is all around you right now. You are probably going to get the common cold if you haven’t already had it, and you might even get the flu as it goes around every year.

While I’m not saying that we should invite Covid-19 in and spread it around, I think it is truly impossible to stave it off forever and, quite honestly, maybe not even worth trying. If it doesn’t hit Halifax this year, what makes you think it won’t make an appearance next year? Hopefully vaccines will be tested and effective by then, but let’s be honest, if you didn’t get a flu shot this year, are you going to make time to get one next year? Or get the Covid-19 vaccine?

Should I cancel my travel plans?
For now, don’t cancel your travel plans. Don’t worry about the potential of getting sick. Just have better personal hygiene, wash your hands properly, stop picking your nose and biting your nails. Sneeze and cough into your elbow and if you are sick, just stay home. We will all thank you for it!

Getting the right information.
Last, but not least, follow credible health organizations like the CDC or WHO for your updates, check the Canadian Government Travel Site for health advisories and check your destination before your book! Work with a reputable travel agent who has access to the most up to date information, and can help you navigate your travel plans if cancellations are required. Stop listening to the bad news and surround yourself with the good news of the thousands of people who have survived Covid-19! We’ll soon have ‘I survived Covid-19’ T-Shirts, I’m sure!

Stay healthy everyone. Keep traveling. There are too many amazing things to see in this world to stay home because you ‘might’ get sick!

Disclaimer: Before anyone gets offended over my opinion … of course I understand that everyone’s health situation is different. People with compromised immune systems and respiratory problems have different concerns about Covid-19 and everyone has to look at their individual health situation. For the vast majority of people though, it’s time to just stay calm and wash your hands at home and abroad!

Orphanage Trafficking – It’s time to stop it!

In late 2019 I had the pleasure of traveling to Nepal with Intrepid Travel. What an incredible experience! Beyond the obvious education and excitement that comes with traveling to a new country; meeting the people, seeing the sights, tasting the food, there was a very specific “purpose” and educational component behind this particular trip with carefully selected agents from Canada and the USA.  Geoff Manchester, co-founder of Intrepid Travel would also be adventuring along with us in one of his favourite countries! Little did I know that one of the areas of education for us would be about orphanage trafficking.

Initially, I almost turned the invite down as I thought Everest and high altitude trekking weren’t for me. Then I discovered that Intrepid has this beautiful Experience Nepal itinerary that visits the cities, nature and cultural sites of the Kathmandu Valley. It had some great small hikes and everything was at low altitude. Even I, as a pretty savvy travel agent didn’t know this! Now I do. And now you do too!

Click these links if you’d like to read about my experience White Water Rafting on the Trisuli River or the story of Kumari, a living child Goddess in Nepal.

I accepted the invitation to go on this special agent-only trip and came out the other side, changed.

As a special inclusion, we got to visit Forget Me Not in Kathmandu, a project supported by the Intrepid Foundation.

Forget Me Not is not a tourist destination. It’s not a store. There’s nothing to buy. It doesn’t provide services to tourists. It’s an organization … a very powerful one … one that I truly will never forget.

Photo of travel agents from Canada & USA with Forget Me Not
Photo: Louise Booth

Years ago, The Intrepid Foundation partnered with an orphanage in Nepal called Twenty Girls.  These girls had been in the orphanage system for four to 18 years. Having done their research, the foundation was confident that this orphanage was well run and well equipped to support these young women with suitable living quarters, healthy meals and education. All checks were in place to make sure that this was a positive care facility, not one of the poorly run orphanages that were rampant in Nepal, Asia and Africa perpetuating the cycle of abuse to orphaned children. This orphanage needed funds and the Intrepid Foundation stepped in to help.

Not long after this, an orphanage in Uganda reached out to Twenty Girls for support in reorganizing and learning how to better operate. Throughout a long process of auditing, it came to light that many of the children at the Ugandan orphanage still had living parents or relatives. It was discovered that the children had been taken from their homes in various ways.

Around the same time, the girls in the Nepal orphanage had become their own close-knit family. They had begun to open up to one another and they were sharing their stories and feelings from what they remembered, if anything, of their families and their past communities. Some of the girls were having dreams, others had encountered people in Kathmandu, strangers, who seemed to know them.

Eventually one of the young women spoke out to staff at the orphanage in Kathmandu. Despite staff being threatened by organizations and government to stay quiet, they spoke up and began an investigation to learn where these twenty girls had come from.

With few paper records from their past orphanage stays, fading or non-existent memories of their families and often no information about their birth-homes because they were too young to remember anything when they were taken to their first orphanage, it was a struggle to retrace each girl’s history. Not only was it difficult from a paperwork perspective, as you can imagine it was also a delicate situation as the girls were remembering bits and pieces of a life that they believed no longer existed.  Most of them had been in the orphanage system for many years, suffering mental, physical and sexual abuse, living in deplorable conditions and being forced into child labor either at the orphanages or on the streets. For years they had been told they were orphans, that their parents and families no longer existed, that they were alone or unwanted.

Learning that the orphans they were supporting weren’t necessarily orphans, put the Intrepid Foundation in an awkward spot. They couldn’t simply pull their support and see these girls without funding or send them back into the corrupt orphanage system, but yet they couldn’t continue to support an orphanage where the children were victims of orphanage trafficking.

A large audit and investigation began into the operation of the orphanage, where the girls came from and what was really happening. Little by little, with funding from the Intrepid Foundation, cooperation from the Nepali Government and the incredible efforts of child welfare and social workers, the stories began to be revealed and families of these ‘orphaned’ girls were slowly, but surely being found. In the end, 18 of the 20 girls from this orphanage were reunited with their families after many years apart.

Through all of this, a new organization was born, called Forget Me Not. This new organization would never again operate as an orphanage, but instead would focus on child welfare and reunification of families.

At Forget me Not, they proudly have a Change Makers Squad made up of five teens and young adults who were part of the orphanage system, four girls from the original Twenty Girls and one young man who spent several years in orphanages. These young Change Makers are bravely sharing their stories, spreading the word, educating their communities, raising money and standing up to governments, pressuring them to make changes to child welfare acts and to shut down improperly run orphanages.

Each of the change makers stood in front of us to tell us their role in the squad and their dreams for their future. Anisha, only about 17 years old, shared part of her story and brought me to tears.

Anisha and her sisters were taken to an orphanage when she was very young. Her dad had decided to give her and her sisters up and paid for them to have a ‘better life’, because in reality, he had wanted boys, not girls. Boys were perceived as more valuable in society.

Her parents had paid a handler to give them a better education and better life. The parents were tricked, as millions are, into trafficking their children to the orphanage system. While the parents believed they were doing something good for their daughters, as soon as they were out of sight, the children were taken hundreds of miles away and placed in illegal orphanages where physical, mental and sexual abuse (still, today) run rampant. They lived in unclean conditions with little access to food or water and many children are forced into child labor or the sex trade.

It’s easy for us to judge and say ‘don’t give your kids to strangers’, but it can be compared to paying for your kids to go to boarding school. Traffickers are well-dressed, educated, well-spoken and professional. They are friendly and seem trustworthy. They are offering a better education and better life for these children. It is a professional operation. It’s easy to fall for their charm, but never an easy decision for parents to give their children up.

It’s easy to place blame on the parents, but let’s get real for a minute and talk about you and I, as tourists, and how this is our fault too. Unknowingly, tourists are helping grow the orphanage trafficking trade. The more donations that orphanages receive, the more orphanages open and traffickers need children to fill the beds. Children are being stolen from the streets and lured from their parents with promises of a better future. The money tourists donate to orphanages rarely trickles down to the children that it was meant to help. Instead, it just creates more demand from the traffickers who keep getting richer. It’s heartbreaking. We are part of the problem and we can be part of the solution!

Children from these illegal orphanages are also being sent into the streets to beg for money from tourists, never keeping a penny for themselves, for fear of further abuse. While it is so very hard not to give a begging child money, I can’t stress enough the importance of this in breaking the cycle. The only way for these children to get off the streets is if there is no money for them to earn there. We must stop giving money to children on the streets immediately. The traffickers have money to take care of the children, they are choosing not to. When you give money to a child on the streets, you are not helping to feed that child, you are helping continue the cycle of orphanage trafficking. Let this sink in.

After moving between orphanages, each of Anisha’s sisters were eventually adopted by two foreign families. Anisha continued to be moved from orphanage to orphanage until she was taken to the Twenty Girls orphanage, supported by the Intrepid Foundation, where she found a sisterhood of 19 other girls. The girls became family and began to talk about their dreams and memories.

Eventually one brave girl spoke up about her memories and despite the controversy, an investigation was started in to the history of each of the girls at the orphanage. Where did they come from and were they indeed orphans with no parents?

Most of the girls remembered very little of being taken from their homes as they were so young. They didn’t remember their parent’s names or their communities. It took considerable support from the Intrepid Foundation, social services and the Nepali Government to reunite 18 of the 20 girls with their immediate family members.

Anisha was reunited with her mom, dad and younger brothers whom she had never met. She also reunited with each of her sisters who were adopted and currently live abroad.

If hearing her tell the story of her difficult life, and the emotional rollercoaster of reuniting with her long lost family wasn’t enough … just one year after they were reunited, her dad fell ill and passed away. She choked up a little as she explained that she never got to tell him how she felt.

Not a year after her dad’s passing, her mom also passed away, now leaving her and her two brothers orphaned, with no able relatives to care for them. This time she was truly an orphan. Being underage and not able to legally care for her brothers, they were placed in a legal orphanage in Kathmandu, where she can visit them regularly while she continues to finish high school.

Anisha bravely told us not only her story, but her dreams of becoming a lawyer and reuniting with her brothers to all live in one house as a family, when she is able to support them.

My heart absolutely explodes with heartbreak and admiration for this strong girl who has endured so much emotional turmoil in her short life, yet presses forward to pursue her dreams and take care of her younger brothers.

The Intrepid Foundation supports the vision of Forget me Not to fund the long and arduous process of tracking children’s families and reuniting them when possible. This means supporting the Change Makers’ efforts to raise awareness, educate the public and influence change. It also supports the counselling services needed for the children while they are dealing with the emotional turmoil that trafficking has created. While research and hard work isn’t very sexy or instagram-worthy, it is the right thing to do and drives Intrepid’s mission, through their entire business, of Purpose Beyond Profit.

The visit to Forget me Not is a day that is etched into my heart. It has inspired me to look for ways to give back and to never underestimate the power that travel has to change lives; mine, my client’s and that of the communities we visit.

Each year I choose a travel charity to donate to instead of sending Christmas cards to my clients. I feel the money is better spent making a difference in the lives of women and children around the world rather than paper and stamps in Canada. In 2019, I donated to Forget Me Not.

If this story has touched your heart, you can contribute through the Intrepid Foundation where every dollar you donate is matched (up to $600 000 AUD / year) and 100% of the funds go directly to the organization as admin fees are covered by Intrepid.

NOTE: This post is not sponsored. Views and opinions are my own. While I talk about Intrepid Travel and the Intrepid Foundation, it is not because they have asked or paid me to do so. It is because they are a company that I whole heartedly support for the way they are making positive change in the Tourism Industry and the communities we, as travellers, want to visit.

If you are interested in making a positive impact when you travel, doing the right thing, all while having a great trip, I would love to help you book your next adventure! I can be reached at 902 402 7646 or by email.

Nepal – Not Just for trekkers – Part 2 – River Rafting

Trisuli River Nepal

When I say Nepal, I bet you immediately picture snow capped mountains and sherpas trekking up narrow pathways, right? I bet not even one person’s first thought would be White Water Rafting!  Little did I know, there is amazing river rafting in Nepal. There are opportunities to raft on several rivers and I was lucky enough to enjoy a two day experience on the Trisuli River in Kathmandu Valley with Intrepid Travel.  Despite my initial apprehensions, it was one of the highlights of my trip!

The Drive to Trisuli River

I’ll admit, I was apprehensive about White Water Rafting in Nepal. The last time I did white water rafting was class 4 rapids in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic after a hurricane. While it was a helluva time, it also came with a sore back, a few waterfall drops and being flipped out of the boat under a waterfall. While I enjoyed it for the most part, I always wondered if I could do it again. I wasn’t a fan of being flipped out of the boat and caught underneath the pressure of a waterfall for a few seconds before being spit back up to the top. It scared me and I’ve never forgotten it.

I didn’t know what to expect for rafting in Nepal, but there was an option to sit the activity out, so I was safe. If I whimped out, I could sit out. Phew! That was enough of a safety net for me that I didn’t panic over being forced to do it. After our briefing with our guide though, it was clear that the rafting would be relatively tame in comparison to what I had done before. We’d be bopping along on class one and two rapids for a few hours, each of two days. And if we did it on one day and didn’t want to the second day, we could travel in the van (equally bumpy, by the way … just less wet!), to our next spot.

We drove about 60 kms from Kathmandu to Trisuli River, taking us about three hours to get there. Once outside of the city, the highway is not at all what highways are in Canada. It’s barely a two lane road, in various states of disrepair. This is the only road heading to the west, to Pokhara. It eventually splits where you can head to the south to Chitwan National Park and the Indian border, or there are a couple of branches off the main road to go to other cities or countryside areas. It is a very limited road network in general.

Being the only road between two of the major cities, Kathmandu and Pokhara, as well as connecting all of the other areas in the south and west to those two cities, as you can imagine, it is packed with traffic; buses carrying local people to the bigger cities, transport trucks carrying cargo, ambulances carrying patients to Kathmandu, locals going from home to work, or from one community to the next, tourists packed on buses and then us, tourists in a private van. Everyone uses this one road. There are no other options.

I can’t tell you how thankful I was for our stealthy, alert, non-risk taking and skilled driver who kept us safe the entire trip. We were safely tucked in to our clean van with an extra seat or two for space. Our luggage was all inside, not piled on top like on many buses. We had air conditioning, no crying babies and washroom stops. We could even request one if we needed it. You can’t do that on the public bus! The public buses, were standing room only, falling apart, dirty and dangerous. I can’t count the times they passed in precarious locations and the bus leaned so hard to one side that I thought it was just going to roll on over!

On one side of the road, the vehicle would be hugging the rock wall or dusty vegetation, which was only a foot from the window, separated from the road by a makeshift drainage system to keep the roads from flooding. The small drainage ditch had no recourse against mudslides though, which happen frequently during summer monsoon season, often creating damage so bad that it takes months to fix. On the other side were many sheer drops, only occasionally protected by cement block guard rails. Always, we were being overtaken by various trucks, buses and motorbikes weaving their way in and out through traffic, passing in the most precarious of locations with blind S curves ahead and patches of loose gravel everywhere. The buses and trucks have a way of communicating through beeps and blinker flashes to tell one another when it is ok to pass, but even still, it’s a dangerous situation. One of the only saving graces was that the roads were so narrow and bumpy that getting to above 60 kms an hour was near impossible.

We climbed up, up, up into the hills (they only felt like mountains) and started snaking our way through the S turns and switchbacks up, down and around the hills. The scenery was beautiful with its small communities perched high atop the mountains and intricately terraced rice fields spilling down over the sides of the hills.

We got stuck in a couple of traffic jams where it seemed like we might never move, but eventually the long line of traffic would crawl over the narrow bridge carefully or past a broken down vehicle, completely blocking one lane of the barely two lane road. Heavy trucks and buses struggled to slowly climb the hills, but most seemed to make it, eventually.

We passed through various communities and saw lots of rest stops, restaurants and washroom facilities along the way. Some looked better than others. At the halfway mark we made a pit stop for coffee, snacks and washrooms. While the washrooms weren’t sparkling, they did have one Western toilet and three squatter toilets. There was no toilet paper, but there were sinks with soap and running water. There was a coffee shop, chips, chocolate bars and local rum, which many of our group purchased to share around camp that evening.

As we passed the halfway point, the road levelled out and while still twisty and turny, it was considerably flatter as it travelled along the banks of the river. This made for beautiful views of the rushing waters, large boulders and suspension bridges stretching from bank to bank.

About three hours in to the drive, we took a sharp turn in a town and headed down a very steep road, on to a dirt road facing the river. We piled out, gathered our essentials for a day of rafting and got ready for the next part of our adventure.

White Water Rafting

Knowing the Trisuli River was fed by glacial waters, I struggled my way into a full-length wet suit with no sleeves. While the guide told us we weren’t going swimming, he said it cheekily and it was always questionable whether he intended to tip us or not. At this point, I still didn’t know what to expect for how big the rapids would be, so I decided a wet suit was the way to go. A couple of people in our group braved the trip without though and they survived just fine.

Trisuli River Rafting Nepal
November is peak season for tourism as the weather throughout the country is nice. In the Kathmandu Valley we had warm, sunny days of about 20 – 25 degrees most of the time. For the most part, swim suit, tshirt and shorts were fine for rafting, but it did get a little chilly if you were wet and in the shade, so the wet suits were a good decision!

After our safety briefing, we broke into two teams and hopped into our sturdy rafts. We practiced a few commands from our guide on the flat, calm waters and then we were off through our first class one rapids, smiling and bumping along, getting splashed with the chilly, refreshing glacial waters all along the way.

That’s me in the back!

We chatted amongst ourselves, laughed, shared stories, admired the beautiful hills, terraces and precarious suspension bridges. We rode the relatively mild rapids on and off for a couple of hours until lunch.

Here’s where my next big surprise came in. Our guide navigated us to the side of the river where we hopped off the boat and stepped on to a beautiful, soft, sandy beach. I was absolutely enamoured by it. Who knew there were beaches in Nepal? It was clean, soft and beautiful! The perfect little rest stop for us to refuel before our afternoon rafting.

Our guides and support rafters quickly busied themselves setting up tables, unpacking plates, cutlery and drinks. Then they whipped up lunch in a flash. There was no shortage of food: Croissants and breads with peanut butter or jams, potato salad, corn salad, salami and samosas. We sat in a circle in camp chairs and stuffed our faces, gathering energy for the afternoon’s ride.

The guides and support rafters packed up all the bits and bobs as quickly as they had gotten ready and once again we were ready to take on the river. In the afternoon we had a couple of stronger rapids, one big ‘get down’ moment where we all hopped in to the centre of the boat and held on while the water washed over us and then we leisurely floated our way to camp for the night, arriving mid-afternoon.

Our guides and support staff were super friendly and clearly were having a fantastic time on the river as well. It was interesting to learn that many of them travel to other countries, such as Japan to train and learn on different rivers. One of our guides was from Japan, practicing in Nepal, getting different experiences around the world!

Trisuli River Rafting Nepal

River Life Camp

Our guide had done his due diligence in preparing us for our accommodations for the evening to be basic. We’d be sleeping in tents on the river side, so we shouldn’t expect any luxuries. Much to our surprise though, we hopped off at another lovely river-side, sandy beach and were immediately greeted by friendly staff and the lovable camp dog, Jerry.  We peeled off our wet suits and safety gear, hanging it on the line, hopefully to be dry by morning and gathered by the riverside for tea, coffee, hot chocolate and popcorn to keep us going until dinner.

We were shown to our nearby tents which were much larger than I had expected. They had a cement floor, a wooden base for the bed, a thin, but sufficient mattress, electricity and a plug in to charge your phone or camera batteries. For a basic camp, it was looking pretty good. Of course there were shared bathrooms, but they were nearby, clean, had toilet paper and western toilets. The shower left a little to be desired with only cold water, but after all, it was a camp, not a hotel.

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

The sun went down early as we were hidden in a valley behind some hills, so everyone gathered near the camp fire and they fed us more popcorn, some papadam (local bread), bbq chicken and french fries.  It likely would have been enough food for dinner, but they had a whole other meal prepared for us!

Next up, the locals from a nearby village came to treat us to a small party as it was the end of one of their festivals. There was singing, dancing, lots of hot rum punch and blessings on us all! The red symbol on our forehead is a blessing. It’s made from rice, yogurt and red coloring. It’s quite common to see people all around Nepal with this on their forehead.

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal
L-R — Susan Williams, Shari Tucker, Geoff Manchester (co-founder of Intrepid Travel)

Around 6pm we moved from the riverside to the main dining tent where there was a feast of spaghetti, garlic bread and several side dishes. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling well by this time, so I didn’t eat much and went to bed early.  I tucked into bed for the night with warm pyjamas and a sweater, hoody and all! It wasn’t really that cold, but it was very damp as the valley we were in was humid and the sun didn’t really reach it for long each day to dry things out.

We had a leisurely next morning. Some of my fellow group members did yoga, stretching and read on the beach. I wandered around and took a few photos. Then we were served up breakfast of pancakes, porridge, eggs and sausage before suiting up for another day on the water.

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

Day two rafting

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

After we wiggled our way into our semi-damp wet suits, put on our wind-resistant jackets and life jackets, we piled into our boats and off we floated! We passed through a couple of fun class one and two rapids and then our guide directed us to a rocky shore where we had to clamour up over some rocks and boulders around a class four rapid. While they did not take us through it, the expert kayakers and supply raft made their way through with ease. None the less, it looked pretty crazy from the shore and I was glad not to be taking a chance with flipping out of the boat in the cold waters and being tossed around by the rapids.

Trisuli River Nepal

We climbed back into our rafts on the other side of the big rapids and meandered our way along the river, having a few good water fights between our boats along the way and riding some pretty good rapids! Along the way, we stopped at a hidden waterfall, enjoyed the great scenery, had lots of laughs and played a dizzying game with our paddles on the beach.

We also had the chance to hop in the water and float several hundred meters down the river. Three people from the other boat were first in, then my roommate, Susan. A few minutes later I decided that I’d probably never get to do this again, so overboard I went and I came up grasping for air. Holy! Cold! Somehow in my debate in my head on whether or not to jump in I had forgotten to weigh in the fact that it was a glacial river, so it was ch-ch-chilly … even in a wet suit. I stayed in for 5 or 10 minutes, where as the others stayed in for longer. You did get used to it and it wasn’t unbearable, just shocking!

Trisuli River Nepal

Trisuli River Rafting Nepal
We bobbed through our last couple of rapids early in the afternoon to our final stop where we had lunch and changed into dry clothes.

In the beginning I wasn’t sure if I wanted to partake in the rafting as I wasn’t sure what to expect. Even after the guides explained that they were small rapids and it would be unlikely to fall out, I was still skeptical. In the end though, even though I wasn’t feeling well throughout the two days, I am glad that I chose to participate. It was fun and relaxing. It was a totally different experience to have in Nepal than what I expected and I got to float in the glacial waters of Trisuli River!

If you are interested in exploring Nepal and enjoying your own river rafting experience, please get in touch. I’d love to help you find the perfect trip for an unforgettable experience! You can call me at 902 402 7646 or email stucker@tpi.ca.

NOTE: Many of the photos throughout this post were provided by the Rafting Company who photographed and videoed all of our antics for the two days. Thanks Intrepid Travel and Adventure Aves for the photo-memories!

Nepal – Not just for trekkers – Part 1 – Kathmandu

As a travel agent for the past few years I’ve chosen a career that not only allows me to make other people’s travel dreams come true, it also affords me the opportunity to see the world, and more important than everything an education far beyond what you can learn from hearing or reading it in a book. I get to choose when and where I go, how I see the world and I regularly remind myself to do so with open arms and an open mind. On occasion, I’m also rewarded with invitations to join exclusive travel-agent trips to experience a style of travel or a specific destination.

Sometimes though, I make assumptions and mistakes too. Despite all of the knowledge I have about geography, cultures and travel in general, sometimes I fall prey to stereotypes and misconceptions as well.

While I know in my mind that Nepal is a diverse country, I’ve only known people to travel to Nepal who want to trek to Everest base camp or who have lived in Kathmandu for work or volunteer purposes. While I know there are mountains and valleys, big cities and remote villages, Everest (and trekking) was still the only thing I could think of to ‘do’ in Nepal. Now, having spent 10 days in this unique, beautiful and welcoming country, I have experienced that Nepal is so much more than Everest. It’s not just for trekkers! Believe me, a trekker I am not.

I assumed that Kathmandu would be a large, hectic city. I had expectations that traffic would be bad, but having just arrived from Delhi, it couldn’t be THAT bad, right?

There are 29 million people in Nepal and one million live in the capital of Kathmandu. When you have that many people in a city, it is simply a given that the streets will be packed. There were cars and buses, motorbikes, people, dogs and the occasional cow wandering through the streets. Traffic moved at a snail’s pace and came to a stand still regularly. While motorcycles zipped in between traffic and people meandered in all directions, cars and buses simply couldn’t maneuver effectively around each other, many times because motorbikes had crammed themselves in the tiny spaces between autos. I had just seen this in Delhi, India; the traffic was the worst I had ever encountered.

Nepal was somehow different though. Almost instantly you realize that Nepalis are patient and kind. They beep to communicate rather than out of anger. They are careful not to run over dogs and pedestrians. They don’t road rage, yell or get frustrated, they just move forward little by little. This is vastly different from what I experienced in Delhi and was quite a welcome change from feeling like people in traffic hated everything, to people in traffic that was just part of their daily commute.

It took about an hour from the airport to my hotel, a total of 6.2 kms. Yes, you read that right. And so began this beautiful adventure into the patient chaos of Kathmandu.

Inside the city centre in the district of Thamel, the streets are narrow and winding and the buildings tall, blocking most of the sunlight from getting down to street level. Cars bump and crawl along in both directions, often on a street made for one vehicle, likely a horse and cart, after all the city was built over 1000 years ago.

Thamel is a hot spot for tourists, offering various types of accommodation, all of the services you need from ATMs to restaurants, souvenirs to top-quality trekking gear. It’s easy enough to get around here on your own if you have a good sense of direction and don’t mind getting lost in the winding streets without posted names. You can spend hours meandering through the narrow streets filled with prayer flags, decorative lights and (mostly) helpful storefront staff.

I was pleasantly surprised that once inside my hotel, on the other side of the lobby was a delightful courtyard garden. Other than the occasional car horn, you could completely forget about the chaos just 100 meters away. It was tranquil and just what I needed after the disorganization of the airport and the chaos of the traffic. It was a little reprieve from the real world outside. It was a moment of silence in an otherwise boisterous world.

That evening, I met with my travel group of six travel agents from Canada and the USA, two Intrepid Staff from the Toronto office, our local Guide and Geoff Manchester, co-founder of the Intrepid Travel Group from Australia who would be traveling with us for the next 10 days, which I must admit was an incredible opportunity.  Together, we would be enjoying the Experience Nepal itinerary, although ours ran backwards to the normal tour as it was a special departure date, rather than a regularly scheduled one.

First up for us was a day exploring Kathmandu and getting familiar with Buddhist culture. We headed off through the narrow, chaotic streets to the beautiful Boudhanath Stupa, best known and most important pilgrimage for Buddhists around the world and is a safe place for Tibetans to practice their religion freely. Many have immigrated to this area as they were ostracized from their own country.


The Stupa and surroundings are a large, circular complex surrounded by historic buildings, temples, monasteries and now, a variety of souvenir shops. Marked by the famous Buddha eyes on all four sides of the temple, we were reminded that Buddha is always watching and encouraging us to make the right choices. Locals and tourists alike wander clockwise around the complex spinning hundreds of prayer wheels that line the outside of the building. It is said that those who fully circle the complex with a pure heart create good karma, resulting in the fulfillment of all their wishes. Whether you believe in it or not, isn’t it nice to think that pure hearts and good karma exist in this world?

As we made our way around looking at the different prayer wheels and sculptures, we stopped to visit the Tibetan monastery (Guru Lhakhang Gompa), an important place of worship for pilgrims and visited inside to view the intricate design. No photos allowed inside.


On our way back to our hotel in Thamel we walked through Kathmandu’s Durbar square. Sadly, it was heavily damaged in the earthquake of 2015, reducing many of the centuries old buildings to ruble. Today, under Unesco supervision, many of the buildings are being reconstructed to their former glory, but the process is slow both from a construction aspect and I’m sure, due to the strict regulations of Unesco to ensure it is rebuilt the same as it was. Most of the buildings are covered with scaffolding, so I didn’t take photos, but peeking through the construction you could see the former beauty of the intricately carved wooden buildings. 3 – 5 years from now, there’s no doubt they’ll be returned to their former glory.


We also visited the Kumari’s palace. The story goes that Goddess Taleju  appeared to the king each night in human form to discuss important matters. If any other person saw her in human form, she would no longer appear. One night, the King’s wife followed him curiously as he stepped out every night after she went to bed. As she peered around the corner she saw Goddess Taleju in her human form. The Goddess was furious and instantly knew she had been seen. She disappeared forever from the King’s Palace. Later, she sent word to the King that in order to continue to worship her and partake in her guidance, the community would need to select a child to carry her spirit. This child would be the Kumari. This young child, pre-menstration, is chosen based on specific physical attributes (long dark hair, dark eyes, long fingers, unblemished or unscarred skin), as well as personality characteristics of fearlessness. She must never have lost a drop of blood from her body or she will be considered impure. It is believed that Goddess Taleju lives inside her and worshiping her provides power and protection. Still today, the Kumari lives in the palace and appears to the people to be worshipped, randomly, providing good fortune to those who lay eyes on her. On special occasions (13 times per year) she leaves the palace in a chariot pulled by many men and she is worshipped in the streets.

The current Kumari was chosen in 2017 at just three years old. We visited her palace in Kathmandu’s Durbar square and with good fortune, she appeared while we were inside. Before she was seen, the guards demanded silence and no photos. All cameras had to be set aside and they watched like hawks to ensure no one took photos. A young girl, just five years old, appeared for about one minute to be worshipped. The crowd stood in silence and then she was gone.

It’s hard to believe this ancient tradition is still upheld and we heard from our guide that child right activists are fighting to change the ancient tradition. They have made progress as the current Kumari has teachers who come to give her schooling. She has access to internet, books and magazines. Her parents are allowed to visit and she has playmates, the children of her caregivers. Otherwise she is not allowed to leave the palace except for the 13 special occasions throughout the year when she is worshipped publicly. There is pressure to end the tradition, but as it has been happening for so many years, it will take many years for the tradition to be abolished. It is hoped that this Kumari will be the final one of the tradition, once she is dethroned when menstruation starts and returns to peasant life with her family. Of course, she’ll never be a true ‘peasant’, as her family is compensated substantially during her reign as goddess and continuing through her life.

As you can see, Kathmandu has a lot to offer for tourists interested in culture, religion and history. Along with the locations mentioned above, you can also visit the Monkey temple, the Garden of Dreams, Pashupatinath Temple (Hindu), shop for incredibly cheap souvenirs in the markets or you can give back and make a positive impact by visiting and supporting social enterprises such as Seven Women Kathmandu by taking a crafting or cooking class.

You’ll need to be comfortable walking in busy streets, have an open mind for new religious beliefs and patience for the chaos. With that in mind you’ll likely feel as if you’ve stepped back hundreds of years in time and you’ll be won over quickly by the warm, friendly people, their incredible history and beliefs, different from your own.

If you’d like to visit Nepal I highly recommend considering a small group tour. I enjoy traveling this way because it gives me a chance to meet new people from around the world, share travel stories and bond over random adventures in new places. It also gives me a sense of safety and takes a load off my mind as activities are organized and I just have to follow along rather than plan and lead things! It’s much more relaxing to enjoy the best a country has to offer with the guidance of a local guide, rather than having to figure out each of your next moves on your own!

Take a look at the details of the Experience Nepal itinerary that I did with Intrepid Travel. I’d love to help you visit this amazing part our of world for a different view, with a company that not only gives you a great vacation experience, but also proudly supports women’s rights, animal rights, sustainable tourism, fair wages and giving back to the local communities.

You can contact me by phone at 902 402 7646 or email.

Private Vacation Rental Risks – Cancellation

I know a lot of people who use Air BnB, VRBO and Home Away in their travels. I too, have used Air BnB lots of times, all over the world. My first rental was in Vernazza, Italy. My most recent was here in Wentworth, Nova Scotia. In between there have been many in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Bangkok, Thailand, Panama City, Panama, Istanbul, Turkey, Georgetown, Malaysia and many, many others. Most of my experiences have been good, but a couple have been bad.  Now that I’m better educated, I know some of them were also not legal. If you are using private vacation rentals for your travels you need to know the risks, the first one being potential cancellation.

With the recent news about vacation rentals in Oahu, Hawaii shutting down, I think it’s important to address some of the risks you are accepting when you choose to rent from short-term rental sites such as those listed above. You can read the article about Oahu here, for reference (12AUG2019).

While this is just one article about illegal vacation rentals in Hawaii, it is a very real problem that you MUST understand before booking any private rental. This is commonplace in many countries. Private vacation rentals can easily be illegal and still available for booking. It can also be legal and unsafe (not meeting fire code for that country, for example). And of course, it can be legal, safe and wonderful, but how do you know?

Here’s the risk you are taking …

Every time you book a private rental you are taking a risk that they could simply cancel on you with very short notice leaving you in the lurch. In the case of this article about Oahu, huge fines are being enforced as vacation rentals are breaking laws. These are not new laws, as the headline suggests, rather they are old laws, being newly enforced. Due to these fines, vacation rentals are shutting down and cancelling current bookings (on very short notice) in order to avoid HUGE fines which in turn leaves the incoming vacationers in a panic.

Don’t think for a second that even if the rental IS legal that the owner can’t cancel. They can, and they do, regularly. Maybe their septic system needs to be pumped, they have a leaky roof, their fridge went caput, the renters who were there a day before you trashed the place and it needs repairs, or their family is coming to town and they need the place … so they cancel your reservation. Some even list their rental on multiple sites and if someone offers a higher price after you have booked they’ll cancel you to accept the higher bidder from another site.

What are you going to do if your rental cancels the day before you stay there? What if you are in transit and don’t get the notification until you show up and there is no one there to greet you? What if you do get one or two weeks notice, but you can’t find any other rentals in the same price range that are still available? What if everything is sold out because it is high season?

Sure, in most cases you’ll get your money back, but where will you stay for the night and for the rest of your vacation? How much time will it take out of your precious vacation to find a new place? And, how much is that going to cost you on short notice?

Lots of private vacation rentals go perfectly. I’ve had many of those experiences and met many wonderful people around the world! Those are the ones you hear about … the perfect ones. They can be great, but you need to know there are two sides and you need to decide, is the risk worth it for you?

If you’d like to explore vacation rentals that are legal, safe and operated by management companies rather than individuals, get in touch. Sure, they are not quite as cheap, but they do come with more support, more peace of mind and often more charm!

You can reach me by email or by phone at 902 402 7646.

Note: The included photo is of one of my favorite Air BnB rentals in beautiful Buenos Aires when I lived there in 2015.

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. Hopefully soon I’ll find time to write about many of these experiences more in depth.

  • 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 making it happen. You can reach me Monday – Friday 9am – 5pm, or in the evenings or on weekends for emergencies, by chance or by appointment. Or, you can email me at your leisure.

How the 737 Max 8 issues affect travelers

31JUL19
Earlier this year, tragically over 340 people were killed in two separate incidents involving 737 Max 8 planes, one in Kenya and one in Indonesia. While the sudden deaths have undoubtedly taken a toll on the friends and families of the victims, the world of tourism and the multi trillion dollar business of air travel has continued on, albeit with many modifications and changes.

In March 2019, 737 Max 8 planes were grounded worldwide until further information was gathered and until they could be deemed safe to fly.

Were the two crashes related? Was it pilot error? Lack of training? Equipment malfunction?

While every news outlet seemed to have ‘the answer’, somehow, all of ‘the answers’ were different which means, as usual, that while they were reporting on what they call ‘facts’, the real story would not unfold for months later. In fact, the real story is still unfolding and while we have new ‘facts’, the planes are not back in operation, so it seems to me, the story is on going and anyone stating a date when they will be back in operation is speculating.

WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW?
As of July 30, 2019,  it has been announced that Air Canada, along with Southwest Airlines and likely various others to follow, have pulled their 737 Max 8s out of rotation until January 2020.  Until today you were able to book a fall flight from Halifax to London, even though it might not exist come fall. Today, they removed that uncertainty and have cancelled or replaced the routes operated by the 737 Max 8s until January, giving passengers some relief and stability in booking their fall / winter travels.

WestJet has pulled 737 Max 8s until at least Nov 4th, 2019.

HOW  DOES THIS AFFECT YOU AS A TRAVELER?

1. Not only do airlines have to reroute passengers, most of them need to do so with fewer planes in rotation, at a time when more people are traveling. In the end, that means that demand for the available number of seats is higher.  More people traveling + fewer planes flying means that you need to book earlier than normal and you need to be prepared for higher prices than what you may have historically paid. This is not a price hike … it is simply that the cheapest seats sell out early and if you are waiting until 1, 2, 3 months in advance to book your flights, then there may not be any of the cheapest seats still available.

This also means that popular routes are more likely to sell out and that more people will be doing advanced seat selection to ensure they get the seats that they want, rather than waiting until check in when it is getting harder and harder to get your choice seats.

2. May of the flights that were previously direct out of Halifax to various parts of Europe no longer exist. The one most people are missing the most is Halifax to London with Air Canada.  Now, you can expect to fly to Toronto or Montreal before heading across the pond to Europe with Air Canada. You can still fly direct from Halifax to Dublin, London Gatwick, Glasgow and Frankfurt. The problem is the routes forward from those locations with partner airlines are not well priced or well connected.

If you’d like to see the extent of Air Canada’s route changes, take a look here.

3. Many routes that had twice daily or daily service have been cut back to once daily and a few times a week. This is in order to free up planes to take over routes that were operated by 737 Max 8s. In turn, this means that those routes are now twice as busy because trust me, none of this has stopped people from traveling.

4. You can now book your fall / winter travel with Air Canada (and other airlines following suit) with better certainty for your flight routing and air craft type.  There may still be time changes and aircraft changes, as there always have been, but it won’t involve you flying on a 737 Max 8 until they are cleared to return to service.

5. If you have a flight booked on a 737 Max 8 route from now until January 2020, such as Halifax to London with Air Canada, your airline or travel agent will be in touch with your new routing, or in most cases you’ll have the option to cancel for a refund. I have already seen changes coming through for clients up until November 2019, so I would anticipate that if you have flights for November / December that were on 737 Max 8s, that those changes will be coming in the next few weeks.

6. Telephone wait times for the airlines are always long, but now they are longer. Grab a tea or coffee, get comfy and try not to lose your mind. The call-centre agents are working through requests as quickly as possible. It’s frustrating for everyone. Try to be kind.

If you are working with a travel agent, they often have access to agent-only lines with special service, however, these wait times can be long as well, so also have patience with your agent. Many days I spend 30 – 45 minutes on hold with airlines, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day.

7. If you’ve booked with a travel agent (give yourself a pat on the back), they are likely already taking care of this for you and you can sit back and relax.  In my case, I advised most of my clients booking in the last couple of months, for this fall, to choose routings that avoided the 737 Max 8 as I did not have confidence that they would be back in rotation any time soon. That doesn’t mean that some of those flights won’t be adjusted though as they have to move aircraft around to cover different routes.

8. If you are booking flights in 2020, pay attention to your assigned aircraft. If you are booking a flight operated with a 737 Max 8, there is no guarantee that it will be operating in January, Febuary, October 2020. We simply don’t know when they will be back in service. Keep an open mind and know that if the planes are fixed and deemed safe, you’ll have the best route. If they are not back in operation, be prepared to be rerouted.

9. Travel Insurance is so very important to protect your travel investment and interruptions that you may encounter along the way. However, it is also important to note, that at this point the issues with the 737 Max 8s are ‘known’ variables and to my knowledge, most insurance policies will not cover you for issues due directly to change of routing / cancellation if you are booked on a 737 Max 8. If you purchased your policy before the flights were grounded, then you are covered. For full details on your policy, you should check directly with your insurance company as they all have different rules.

LOOKING FOR DIRECT FLIGHTS OUT OF HALIFAX?
Right now, your options are limited to other cities in Canada, USA, Dublin, London (Gatwick), Frankfurt and Glasgow. In the winter season, we’ll again have direct flights to several Caribbean options.

While not completely up to date, you can check the Halifax International Airport Authority Website for what we ‘normally’ have for non-stop flights from Halifax.

NOT SURE WHAT TO DO?
When in doubt, book with a travel professional who deals with all of these intricacies day in and day out. You may have to pay a professional fee for their assistance up front, but the time they save you, expertise they have and peace of mind you’ll have in knowing it is done right will be priceless.

If you are looking for a travel agent to give you peace of mind, save you time and take the stress out of planning, I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached by phone, Monday – Friday 9am – 6pm, evenings and weekends by chance, for emergencies or by appointment. You can also reach me by email at your leisure.

Surfing Adventures

Surfing Sayulita

I love the ocean; the colors, the waves, the underwater world full of fish and coral. The power of the waves amazes me, and the sound of them crashing relaxes me. Sadly, its churning motion, the ups and downs and rocking motion also have been known to make me sick. None the less, I’ve taken surfing lessons, gone on a week long sailing trip and been on countless boat rides for snorkeling, diving and transportation around the world without incident. Let’s not talk too much about the ‘with incident’ ones in St. Pierre & Miquelon, Koh Phi Phi and the Atlantic Ocean on my way to Bermuda.

It’s always a challenge for me to go anywhere on a boat as I know that I can get violently ill, and if I do, it is horrible. But, I keep the faith that I’ve been on far more rides where I have been fine than ill.

Other than seasickness, my second fear with surfing is getting pummeled by a big wave as it crashes and getting held under as it churns and throws you in every direction. It has happened to me twice; once in Lawrencetown beach, Nova Scotia while swimming with my sister and once in Sosua, Dominican Republic while trying to get past the waves to go for a swim. Clearly I survived both times, but those few seconds of confusion, no air and the pressure of the wave pounding you toward the sand were really disconcerting.

In 2015, when I was traveling in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I decided to take surfing lessons with a friend in a small town called Sayulita. It’s known for it’s calm waters and a great spot to learn to surf. After a one-hour land lesson and lots of practice getting into position, we were off to try our newfound skills on water. We paddled out to where the water was just over my head, turned toward the beach and the instructor told us when to paddle and gave each of our boards a little push to help us get the speed we needed. I stood up on my very first try and rode the wave in.

Surfing Sayulita

I remember the feeling of power as the wave pushed me forward and I slowly took my time to get in the upright position. It was like a friend coming up from behind you and jokingly pushing you, causing you to rush forward, but not fall.

I purposely jumped off the board at the end as I was in fairly shallow water. I was super stoked that I had stood up on my very first wave!

The second, third and fourth waves … well … Let’s just say maybe I had beginner’s luck.

I did manage to stand up on five or six different waves that day in Sayulita before becoming exhausted from paddling and popping up on my board. And it seemed by the end when this next photo was taken that I hadn’t really improved that much, but I did have fun!

Surfing Sayulita

When I visited Bocas del Toro in Panama to study and volunteer with Habla Ya Spanish Schools, I signed up for one day of surfing lessons. I expected a very similar experience to what I had in Mexico. I hadn’t done any research, and oh how wrong I was!

I was greeted by Michelle at Mono Loco, one of the best surf schools in Bocas Town. She was incredibly friendly, welcoming and I immediately felt excited to be doing surf lessons with a girl! I very clearly remember my internal dialogue saying ‘Wow. It’s really awesome to have a girl-instructor. I bet she’s really good.’ Surfing is a male-dominated sport, so I expected to have a male instructor and be with a bunch of guys in a class. Instead, I had a female instructor and one other girl in my class from Portugal.

Michelle exclaimed ‘The waves are so great today! I just got back in.”

Me, ‘By great, you mean small and good for beginner’s right?’

She chuckled a bit and said ‘No, they are really good.’

I responded with a nervous chuckle.

We would be surfing an area behind Carenero Island called Black Rock. We had a great classroom lesson on how waves work and how to paddle properly. The importance of scooping under the board was stressed because of the strong current in the area we were going to. I also learned (much to my dismay) that we would be surfing over a reef.

ALERT ALERT

All I could think of was being slammed by a wave and pummeled by the coral and then needing to contact my travel insurance on the way to the hospital with my open wounds.

Of course, Michelle quickly explained that the reef was 10 or 12 feet below and because of the type of waves, even if you got caught in the ‘foamball’, it wouldn’t push you far enough down to hit the coral. Somewhat reassuring I suppose.

She also explained that if we thought we were too late to catch the wave, we could wait for it and dive into it so that the power of the white water as it crashed would wash over us instead of taking us down with it.

I was really starting to wonder what I had signed up for. She was talking about three to five foot waves, in the middle of the ocean. Thinking back though, the waves were taller than someone standing on their board, so they must have been at least six feet, right? They’d be coming in sets and if we missed the first one, we’d just have to position ourselves quickly and we could catch the next. (mmm quickly? How quickly?) She told us how hard we would have to paddle, but then when we needed a rest we could get to the channel and stay there or we could get to the boat and hold on for a bit if we needed to rest.

On the flip side, what’s really cool about the spot where we went to surf is that it is like a giant wave pool, except it’s the ocean! There’s a lull where the ocean goes nearly calm and then a set of four to eight waves come in. If you catch the first one, it regenerates itself and gives you a second and then a third chance all on the same wave. How cool is that?! I could understand it on the classroom board, but would I be able to do it in real life? I was trying really hard not to think about my two fears: being seasick and being in the wrong spot at the wrong time sending me into the foamball.

We quickly positioned ourselves on a demo board and practiced our ‘pop-up’. Easy-peasy on the super steady floor with no rushing wave behind us! And then we were off to catch our boat, grab our boards and catch some waves.

The boat ride was only about five or six minutes and our surf spot was just behind Carenero Island. I’ve zipped past here many times on my way to Bastimentos, Solarte and Popa Islands and admired the crashing waves in the distance. This time, as we approached I got a little (more) freaked out by the size of the waves. They looked pretty big from the front. Oh and when we came around and approached from the back, they looked pretty big from back there too!

Remember my first surf lesson when I jumped off the board at the end because it was shallow? Ya, that clearly wasn’t happening this time. Nor was there any chance to rest with your feet on the ground.

Our boat anchored and within moments I knew I couldn’t sit in the bobbing boat, so I hopped in the water and waited for my board. After waxing up the boards to help us grip better, we set off paddling into the channel (the easy part) where we would go one at a time with the instructor out on the waves. I knew I was in trouble as soon as everyone started paddling and I started falling behind. I was having a hard time just balancing on the board on my stomach. I didn’t remember this part being so difficult.

Finally I caught up and we got the lowdown on where the safe zones were, what to watch for and where to “rest”. The other girl in my class has surfed a few times and was super excited, so off she went with Michelle to catch the first of the waves. Sure enough, she popped up and rode for a bit before paddling back to the safe zone.

I was off to give it a try. I very clearly remember Michelle telling me to get in position and yelling, ‘Get ready. Don’t look back. Just look forward. Start paddling…….. Now! Don’t look back!’ I followed orders and didn’t look back (thank goodness). I paddled as hard as I could until I felt the wave launch me forward like a javelin. I can remember feeling the water against my body, but somehow I was going the same speed, so it didn’t come over my head or take me down. I pushed into cobra position and stayed there. I was too wrapped up in the speed and power of the wave to even think about getting to my feet. As the wave slowed, it regenerated and there was that thrust forward again. This time I thought about standing but couldn’t quite figure out how to make it happen. Cobra worked just fine for me. The wave slowed again, regenerated and one last push put me to the end of the wave area.

I hadn’t made it to my feet but I was super happy to have caught the wave to begin with, to feel it’s incredible power and to have held my cobra position long enough to get me through all three waves.

High fives from Michelle as she had ridden the wave in with me and congratulated me for making it!

We started paddling toward the channel where we would be out of the wave zone and eventually Michelle kindly offered me a tow. I was tiring quickly and apparently despite my paddling, I wasn’t actually moving anywhere due to the current. How this tiny surfer girl who weighs about half of what I do could have enough strength to paddle herself and tow me out of this current was beyond me, but she did. She towed me as far into the safe zone as possible, made sure I was good and then took my classmate out on her next wave.

As I bobbed around in the channel, I was excited to watch each of the other students go out and stand up on the waves. I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t stood up, but reminded myself each of them had previously had one week or more of practice where as I had only ever had one, two hour class. And I gave myself a break.

I skipped my next turn and Michelle took one of the other students out and then returned for me. By this time, bobbing in the water was starting to make my stomach churn. We had been out in the water for a total of about 30 – 40 minutes at this point. I was determined to get another run in. We paddled out to the wave zone (much easier to paddle WITH the current), Michelle yelled at me to paddle and suddenly I felt the wave shove me forward. I got into cobra and held for a second. I started to pop up, but feeling a little tipsy, put my feet back down on the back of the board and rode the regenerations in cobra position again. So, I didn’t stand up … Next time I would get it!

As I struggled against the current to get into the channel, again I was stuck, moving nowhere. I’ve never been so tired from moving nowhere. It was exhausting! Clearly I needed to improve my paddling technique to make it effective. By the time I got back in the channel, the cold sweats were passing over my body. I knew there was no way around it. Soon, I would be sick. After Michelle congratulated me for my second run, I told her that I wouldn’t be able to go again, that I wasn’t feeling well. Disappointed, I headed back to the boat where she suggested I could at least hold on and not have to fight the current. Moments later, she was towing me toward the boat as I had no energy and was likely turning green.

We were within about two meters of the boat when I let go of Michelle’s line. As she turned to see why I had let go, I said, “I’m not going to make it to the boat.” A split second later I was in the water (instead of on my board), holding my board and ‘letting it all go’.

Vomiting while you are actually in the sea has benefits and downfalls. Downfalls, you can’t always keep your face out of the water, you might take in some salt water and you have to tread water to keep yourself afloat. On the other hand, there’s no clean up and relatively little smell, unlike being stuck with your face in a toilet.

Michelle tried to comfort me saying that I’m not the first one to get sick in these waves. That helped a little, but I was still disappointed.

While I was busy emptying my stomach, Michelle waved down a boat that would take me back to shore. She was concerned as she didn’t have any money to pay him, but I did! When they had recommended we leave whatever we could at the surf shop, I decided to take my wallet and cover up in my dry bag. At this point even if it was going to cost me $20, I needed out of the waves and back on land.

Exhausted from paddling against the current for 45 – 60 minutes and weak from puking in the sea, I had to find the energy to lift myself into the little boat. There aren’t any ladders to climb up, no sand or rocks to push off of, just pure upper body strength with a scissor kick of the feet. Attempt number one was hilariously unsuccessful. Attempt number two was successful but far from graceful. I lifted myself up to boat level which was well above my head and struggled to push up far enough to tip my balance into, instead of out of the boat. Chin first, I tumbled into the boat like a beached whale and sprawled out on the hard wooden seat. And then I giggled again at the ridiculousness of it all.

Michelle gave me my water bottle, dry bag and sandals from our original boat and waved me on my way. I thanked her for all of her help and sped off into the rolling waves.

I’m sure we took the long way back as the boat captain was looking for other tired surfers to take back to Bocas Town, but none were to be found. Everyone else was bopping around in the waves or popping up and riding the big ones in. When we docked, the captain asked for a measley $2. (I was prepared to pay up to $20 if I had to) I gave him a little over $3 and thanked him for getting me out of the waves.

Despite having been seasick, I don’t for a second regret the adventure. I just wish that I had done my research. If I had known I was going to open water I would have:

  1. Taken Gravol
  2. Not eaten pineapple pancakes for breakfast
  3. Maybe chickened out and not gone at all. Ok, probably not. I would have been nervous for longer, but I still would have gone.

If you are planning to try surfing for the first time, find out what the location is like. Prepare yourself if you are prone to sea sickness and enjoy every second of that pure natural energy behind you when you catch your first wave. Even for me, it is a feeling that I’ll never forget! I’ll give surfing another try one day. I think I’ll go back to the small, beach-break waves and maybe take some Gravol next time, but I’ll get the hang of it and you can too!

Royal Livingstone

Royal Livingstone

In the midst of planning my trip to Africa for 2016, I attended the Virtuoso Travel Week Conference in Vegas. Virtuoso is a consortia for some of the best luxury travel agents and suppliers in the world. I set my focus for the conference on learning more about Africa and connecting with the best of the best. I would say I met my goal with flying colours as I truly made some of the warmest connections ever.

One such connection was the lovely Emmanuelle who I met at the Virtuoso Active and Specialty Travel tradeshow. With a huge, warm smile she greeted hundreds of travel agents over and over and never seemed to fade. When I told her I would be visiting Africa she instantly said ‘You MUST come visit us.’ And so, it began. I contacted Emmanuelle with my dates and from there, the Royal Livingstone took care of my booking and making sure that my transfers were arranged seamlessly to fit in between my other two tours.

In all of my travels, I can honestly say this was the warmest, friendliest welcome I’ve ever received from a hotel. What a delight for my very first Virtuoso Experience! Not only were the staff wonderful, I was also treated to a welcome drink, canapés and check in from the bar/lounge instead of waiting at the front desk. I met the lovely on-site general manager and learned a bit about his history in the industry and how he had come to work at the Royal Livingstone. I was then taken by golf cart to my room, not allowed to lift a finger for my luggage and given a room introduction by my butler, Kennedy. Speaking of friendly, Kennedy had a smile that engulfed his entire face and although I didn’t call on him for much, he was there to assist with anything at all that was required. I’m not sure if all butlers are as good as Kennedy, but he anticipated my needs so well that he always seemed to beat me to whatever I might have needed!

The staff at the Royal Livingstone were truly professionals. They were attentive but not intrusive. Service was quick, friendly and always with a smile. Even the gardeners and maintenance staff smile and say hello as they go about their work. I hear that this service is part of the culture in Zambia in general, but I can say for sure that it far surpassed the service I had received in three other countries so far on my journey.

And the location. Oh the beautiful location with wild zebras and giraffe wandering around outside your patio window and on the grounds around the pool! And you could hear hippos grunting in the Zambezi River while you watched the sun go down on the most perfect day. Don’t worry, they have an electric fence to keep them off property.

Not only would I recommend staying at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, I would recommend if you are visiting Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, to make the extra effort to go to Livingstone, Zambia just for the hotel experience (they are bordering towns, separated by a bridge). And, of course, I can help you get there! Just drop me a line. I’d love to tell you all the details and help you decide if it is a good fit for you! Traveling solo? That’s ok, I was too! Don’t shy away from luxury hotels if you are alone. You deserve it too!

Check out a few of my favourite photos from my stay at my favourite hotel from my travels (so far), the stunning Royal Livingstone.

Travel Nightmares Part 4 – Night bus to Bocas

Panama City Rainbow
Bus travel has never been my favourite, but when given the choice between a $30 bus ticket and a $150 plane ticket (each way), I chose the cheaper one. On top of that, the planes from Panama City to Bocas del Toro are quite small and my luggage was considerably over the weight / size restrictions, especially after purchasing extra clothes and toiletries when my luggage was lost a week earlier.
After overlanding (large truck / bus like vehicles that you travel in for hours at a time) in Africa in October / November 2016, it was unusual that only minutes after starting to move on the bus in Panama that I did not feel well. The bus was dark inside and the sun was setting outside the window. I was squished against the window by the tiny human who had been maneuvered in between her mom and I in the seats made for two. I was annoyed, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
As the bus moved moved through traffic and across the bridge, I felt a wave of adrenaline pass through my body. It was a combination of the feelings you get when you trip and almost fall, and that which passes over you just before you vomit. As I sat there with this coldness that had passed over me, I didn’t quite know what to think of it. In my head I was trying to figure out if I was going to be sick or if the last turn on the bus just surprised me. As my mind went into overdrive and the cold claminess didn’t subside, I started doing mindful breathing to calm myself down.
And here I was 15 – 20 minutes into the bus ride doing what looked like Lamaze breathing. As much as I tried to calm my thoughts, they wouldn’t stop. I was obsessed with figuring out why I felt so strange. Was I getting sick? Was I going to puke? Was I having a panic attack? Was I scared? Was I uncomfortable? Was I having balance issues from the cold that I had had for the past couple of days? How could I stay on a bus for 10 hours like this? Over and over these questions ran through my mind at breakneck pace and I tried to answer them while breathing in and counting to six and then letting it go and counting to six.
This cycle continued for about an hour or a little more until the sun was completely down and the bus had gone completely dark. The mom beside me had picked up her child and was now breastfeeding, so I at least had a little more space to be comfortable, but that didn’t matter. It was time.
All of a sudden I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold it in. I knew that I was going to be sick, it was just a matter of time. My body was in a clamy, cold sweat and I had started to shake. I literally climbed on my seat to step over the mom and baby, as when I said I needed to get out, she just looked at me. I couldn’t wait, I needed out of that seat. I wobbled and rocked my way to the front of the bus as it charged along the highway. I knocked on the door that separates the driver and assistant from the passengers and as soon as the assistant opened the door, I immediately sat down on the floor, blocking the door from being shut.
The guy just looked at me, not sure what to think. I started to try and talk (in Spanish) and realized that I was breathless. I would say one word and then gasp for air before finding my next word. And then the tears started rolling down my face. In the best broken Spanish that I could muster I told the assistant that I was sick and that I needed to get off the bus. A combination of concerned and confused, he tried to explain that I couldn’t get off the bus at that moment. He asked what was wrong. Again I tried, through my breathlessness to spit out enough words that he would understand that I couldn’t breathe and that I couldn’t stay on the bus. It was in this moment that I realized I was having a full blown panic attack; something that has only happened to me once or twice in the past 10 years. Thankfully I recognized what it was and did not think I was dying, but none the less, I wanted off that bus. It’s a horrible feeling, not being able to control your breathing and not being able to calm yourself down, especially with no clear reason for why you are upset to begin with.
If you can imagine when someone close to you passes away and you find out suddenly. Then you start to cry, which turns into uncontrollable sobbing and thoughts swirling around in your mind like leaves in a wind storm. You cry so hard that you nearly forget to breathe and then you gasp for air before the sobbing starts all over again. For me, it was much like this except the tears were minimal and the gasping for air was amplified.
The assistant told me as nicely as possible that I couldn’t get off the bus because there was no where to pull over. We were on a twisty, turny highway going down the side of a mountain and sure enough, outside the window I could see there was no shoulder, just a ditch and forest.
He told me that I couldn’t stay seated there on the floor.
I told him that I couldn’t move.
He explained that our next stop (Santiago) was over an hour away and asked if I could wait until there. I told him no. Although I didn’t know what other option I had. It wasn’t like they could leave me on the road.

The assistant and driver chatted back and forth, but I couldn’t focus on their conversation (in Spanish). The best I could do was focus on breathing. They decided that there was a town coming up in about half an hour and told me they could let me off there. They told me there would be a couple of hotels there and asked if I could go back to my seat until then.

Wobbly and unbalanced, I made my way to the middle of the bus where I had been seated. Through my tears and exaggerated breaths, I asked the mom who was seated with me if she could move to the inside and she did. About five minutes later, the assistant came to the back to get me and brought me to the front of the bus to sit in his seat and he would stand.
Being too weak to carry anything and too sick to care, I left everything in my seat. My camera bag, my laptop bag, my money and my cell phone. Yes, I was THAT sick. You know it’s rough when you leave all of that stuff behind on a bus in another country. And yes, I knew I was doing it, I just couldn’t deal with it. The only thing I could deal with was trying to get enough air.
After the assistant got me seated and buckled in, he went back for all of my things and brought them to the front of the bus. He opened the window to give me a bit of fresh air, although it was hot and sticky, it was still appreciated. I couldn’t look down or turn my head to go digging through my bags as the motion was overwhelming, so I had to get him to find my cell phone for me so that I could try to call someone at my Spanish school to help me find a hotel at the next community. It would be even worse if I got off the bus and had no where to stay!

I tried one phone number, but being a Sunday night, there was no answer. So, I called one of the teachers from the school that I had a number for. And the process of me trying to spit out words while gasping for air and crying started again. It’s one thing to focus on your breath and try to keep yourself calm, it’s another to try and express yourself. Then, try to find words in another language because no one speaks English!

I’m sure the teacher didn’t actually know what was going on, but he understood that I was sick and needed off the bus. After a moment, I passed the phone to the assistant and asked if he could talk to the teacher on the phone. He looked at me like I was crazy, but said hello. The assistant was able to explain where we were and what town was nearby. From there, the teacher told me that he knew the area well and he would help me. My mind was so relieved, but unfortunately it didn’t help  me calm down.

The cold, claminess of my body had not passed, but all of a sudden another wave of chills rushed through my body. I had a plastic bag in hand, turned my head away from the driver and well, you know the rest. I don’t need to describe it. There I sat, in the assistant driver’s seat being violently ill while gasping for air through a panic attack.

The next few minutes felt like an eternity; it was relentless. Once my stomach had fully emptied out, the dry heaves continued.
I wanted to hide.
I wanted to stay still.
I wanted to breathe.
I wanted off the bus.

I felt horrible that I was vomiting in close quarters with two men who were complete strangers and were seeing me at my worst, not really knowing what to do with me. On the other hand, I was glad that they now knew I was really sick as well. The assistant handed me some paper towel and offered to take my plastic bag. I wasn’t ready to tie it up and part with it quite yet though!

As the dry heaves wained, I was able to check my cell phone messages again. Looking down and reading were not particularly easy, but I managed. I had to ask the assistant driver to respond to the messages as I wasn’t able to look down long enough to type. The motion was overwhelming. The teacher was able to secure me a hotel in a small town called Anton. The town was along the highway so the bus could just pull over and let me out.

I was glad to have not parted with my plastic bag as my heaves continued right up until the route flattened out and we could see a row of lights from the businesses along the highway. I certainly didn’t feel well, but I sure was happy to be getting off the bus.

The bus slowed and pulled over in front of the small hotel the teacher had told them about. The assistant helped me down the stairs and out the door as I was very shaky. And he carried all of my things for me. He rearranged the luggage under the bus to find my large, heavy red suitcase and took it inside the hotel for me. I didn’t think quickly enough to give them a tip, but I was able to say ‘Muchas gracias’ from the heart.

I’ll never really know if I was going to be sick, therefore I had a panic attack because I was worried about it, or if I had a panic attack that induced vomiting. Either way, they came together and were horrible. I wasn’t feeling particularly troubled by anything while I was sitting on the bus. I wasn’t worried about the journey. I was settled in for the next 10 hours. It really just came over me like a stormy ocean with lots of swells.
The best I can devise, without talking to a professional, is that the stress of a missed connection, lost luggage, arguing with Air Canada, the heat of Panama, being tired of traveling and the unfriendly turnstile lady, all exploded at once.
What I can tell you is this. Just like sobbing for hours and gasping for breath leaves you exhausted, so does a panic attack. After my things were in my room at the hotel, I went to buy water, brushed my teeth and went to sleep at around 9pm, with no idea of what the next day would hold for me. I would need to find a way to continue my journey (another 8 hours by bus and then 30 minutes by boat) to Bocas del Toro. Or, would I go back to Panama City and fly to Bocas? I knew that I was in no place to be trying to make decisions at that point.  Sleep was the only option.