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.

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.

Travel Nightmares Part 3 – Bus Station 1

Panama City Sunset
Panama City Sunset
As the sun was setting in Panama City, I was sitting on a big coach bus getting ready for a 10 hour overnight journey to Almirante, where I would catch a ferry the next morning to the islands of Bocas del Toro. Bus travel isn’t my favourite and bus travel in Panama is now on my ‘never again list’.
Bus stations in general aren’t the friendliest places anywhere in the world. They are often unorganized, chaotic and dirty. I had started my bus journey by arriving an hour early to make sure that everything would good smoothly, or so I thought. I asked the lady at the turnstiles (in Spanish) if I needed anything other than my receipt. She said no, so I thought I was all set.
In the waiting area, there were no easily accessible seats for someone like me with two carry ons and a suitcase. I strolled over to the wall where others were standing, leaning and kneeling. I set all of my luggage beside me and sat down on the dirty floor. I didn’t really want to stand for the next hour until boarding. I was wearing black work out pants and a t-shirt, what harm would a little bit of dirt on my ass do?
Not five minutes later, the same lady from the turnstile moved around the room at the pace of a sloth, and when she came to me, she told me in Spanish that I was not allowed to sit on the floor, I’d have to get up. I’m pretty sure I responded with ‘En serio?’ (which, in hindsight probably didn’t help me at the next point of contact). I got off my butt and squatted instead of sitting. Because, seriously, sitting on your haunches against a wall isn’t against the rules, but your bum on the ground is?
Eventually a seat opened up and I moved myself and my luggage to a chair that was about as clean as the floor I had been sitting on.
About half an hour later, the call for my bus was made and it was like a mad dash of sloths to the turnstiles. This cracks me up because it is so true. There’s no such thing as hurrying or rushing here. However, people will slowly move toward the gate all at the same time making sure to take up double the room necessary so that no one else can pass by. One person might be totally in your space, breathing down your neck from behind, but then the family in front of you has luggage and boxes strewn about in no particular order, blocking anyone from walking through the main path. It’s such an interesting (and frustrating) experience.
Finally, I arrived at the turnstile and I see people using a card to gain access to pass through the gate. I showed the same lady my paper and she waved me away. She didn’t use any words, just signalled that I could not pass. I stood my ground and asked her what I needed. She rambled on something about a card and waved other people to come past me. I didn’t move. I asked the lady (probably not in my nicest tone – in Spanish) where I could get this card. She basically said ‘Over there.’ and with a nod of her head in the direction of the ENTIRE busy hallway / bus station behind me. I mumbled ‘thanks’ (for nothing) and turned to make my way backward through the herd of sloths.
Another local lady was watching the situation unfold and she looked at me like I was a lost puppy.  ‘Tell the girl where she can get the card,’ she said, annoyed at the lady. The lady just looked at her and then pointed with her finger instead of her chin to where I should go ‘over there’. The local lady just shook her head with a look of embarrassment on her face.
I had been an hour early, asked if I had everything I needed and still was turned away at the gate 15 minutes before the bus was to leave. So much for trying to be proactive and have things run smoothly.
I rushed backwards through the crowds to go find this elusive counter and a card that I didn’t know I needed in order to catch my bus on time. I still don’t know what the card was for, but I paid a couple of dollars for it and in the end, it allowed me access through the turnstile and away from the nasty lady.
I dropped off my luggage for under the bus and got a ticket to show it had been received. I jostled for my place in line to get on the bus. It truly amazes me that people will actually push you out of their way to get on a bus that everyone is getting on anyway. And we have assigned seats, so it’s not even about getting a good seat. Locals pushed in front and all around me and physically separated a dad and child of about three years old as they were busy pushing their way on the bus and not worrying about the little one at knee height. Lucky he didn’t get kicked or fall over.
I settled in to my window seat. Ate my bag of bbq chips for dinner and crossed my fingers that no one would be sitting beside me so that I could stretch out a bit on the ride.
As the bus powered up, I was still sitting alone. Could I be so lucky?
No.

A lady and her toddler climbed on the bus last minute and made their way toward my empty seat. The lady smooshed the child in between us on the seats and settled in for what was sure to be a long ride.

And a long ride it was …

Photo Essay: Birding in Chobe

African Jacana

I never in my life thought that I would be interested in birding as a hobby. Going out and looking for birds in trees seemed, well, boring to me. And then I arrived in Botswana (2016). With over 450 bird species just in the Chobe National Park area, the search for the prettiest birds was on. It was like a little mystery as I would hear the birds but didn’t know what I was looking for!

Having birds, such as the Lilac-breasted Roller, which boasts 13 different colours on it’s body, and little itty bitty blue-cheeked beeaters which are bright green in colour, I just couldn’t get enough! I found myself looking at every bird, big and small and asking my guides what they were. Then I began listening to all of the amazing bird calls and asking which birds claimed each of the beautiful, happy and annoying calls. Take a look at just a few of my favourite bird photos from Chobe National Park and the Chobe River area. How could you not enjoy their beauty!

A big thanks to the guides with Ama Waterways and the Zambezi Queen on the luxury Chobe River Cruise who answered all of my questions and clearly were passionate about their jobs. If you have questions about taking a river cruise in Africa or birding, drop me a message. I’d love to chat with you.

Photo Essay: Light of Lisbon

Lisbon Tram

The famous ‘Light of Lisbon’ is no joke. If you’ve never heard of it, you should trust me and go experience it for yourself. With all of the intricate shining tiles of all different colours adorning the old houses, light reflects in every direction and creates a warm diffused glow. The light is especially spectacular in the late afternoon and early evening as the sun starts to wind down it’s day and slowly falls into the Atlantic Ocean for the night.

Below I have selection of my favourite photos from my time in Lisbon early in 2016. I hope they will entice you to visit Lisbon.

Enjoy!

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

As soon as I knew I was going to Nairobi, I knew that I wanted to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. It is a well-known organization started back in 1977 that rescues abandoned or orphaned elephants (and rhinos), hand raises them and then reintegrates them back into the wild by the age of 10. Many of the elephant’s mothers have been killed by poachers for their ivory. Others have been left behind because they were injured or fell down a hole or well. Without it’s mother, a baby elephant can only live for a very short time. They are dependent on their mother’s milk for the first two years of life. The Sheldricks started rescuing the animals and eventually found a formula to give the babies the milk they needed to grow and thrive.

When the elephants are reintegrated into the wild, they join other past orphaned elephants raised by the Trust and have an extended family. However, they also share the land with wild herds. One of the most exciting things is that they then are able to have families of their own which increases the dwindling population. This is a main part of why the Trust has won world-wide acclaim for it’s Elephant and Rhino orphan project.

When I visited, they had 24 baby elephants (up to 2 years old) at the orphanage and some who were over two, but under 10 years old. While one of the Trust’s employees told visitors about the orphanage and introduced each of the babies, the playful animals coated themselves in the red sand, drank from the water holes and approached the crowd a few times for short opportunities to pet them.

At lunch time, the handlers brought out large bottles of specially formulated milk to feed each of the babies. After their quick meal, a brief call and the elephants followed one of the handlers in single file out of the ring and off to enjoy the rest of their day, while the older ones galloped in to see the onlookers.

There were easily a couple hundred visitors for the hour long viewing that only takes place once per day. Although the presentation is from 11am – 12pm, ensure you arrive early so you can find yourself a spot close to the rope for optimal chance at interacting with the wee ones.

Here are a selection of photos from my time spent with the elephants in October 2016.

Journey to Africa

It was a warm October morning in Halifax and I awoke to my alarm at 5:15am. It was the day that I would take my first journey to Africa. Having done a considerable amount of travel in the past few years, you would think I would have the packing process perfected, but even after 33 different countries, I found myself fumbling around last minute to pack the last few things before I left my sister’s house for seven weeks.

Most international flights allow one checked bag of 25 kgs. I had managed to whittle mine down to 18.4 kgs, in a smaller suitcase than normal. I was still well over the recommended 15 kgs for small flights within Africa, but at least on this trip that wouldn’t be a concern.

I was excited to not be traveling alone, at least for the first part of my journey. It was a special treat to be sharing this journey with my sister. And, even better, most of the trip was free!

Free you say? How do you go to Africa for free?

In 2015 I entered a photo contest with On the Go Tours. It was open to the public and there were six or eight different prizes to be won. Having already been to several of the other locations that were being offered, I entered for the chance to go to Africa where I had never been before. For the next six months I relentlessly reminded my friends and family to vote on my photo entry. (Thank you everyone!)

Ccaccaccollo, Peru
Family Portraits

In February 2016 while out on a hike with my friend Tina from Germany who was visiting me in the Algarve region of Portugal, I received the very exciting news that I had won the Zebras and Zanzibar Tour prize.

The prize was flights for two to Africa and the 11 day Zebras and Zanzibar itinerary. I had never done much hard core backpacking, so this would be quite an adventure touring Kenya and Tanzania in dorms and tents. As part of the terms and conditions, of course the prize winner was required to take photos of the tour and do a write up on their experience. (coming soon)

I wasn’t long contacting my sister to tell her that I had won and ask if she was interested in joining me. With a husband and two children, I honestly didn’t think she would say yes, but she just couldn’t pass up travelling with me! Ok Ok, I’m sure the destination of Africa had something to do with it too.

Traveling with someone else always reminds me of the things in travel that are not new to me any more and are kind of a big deal. For example, large planes with three rows of three seats each, 13 hour flights, overhead bins that actually fit big items and open downward instead of the door flipping up and that not everyone has flown across ‘the pond’ (Atlantic ocean). My first foray across the pond was when I travelled to Germany and Poland with Coalition for kids International. And my first 12 hour + flight was when I visited Asia in 2012.

About 22 hours after leaving Halifax, Canada we landed in Nairobi, Kenya. Despite the obvious jet lag and sleepiness from a long travel day, I think it is fair to say we were both exceptionally excited to touch African soil for the first time.

More to come soon once I have a few photos, stories and first impressions to share!

Nomadic life in 2016

Robin and Shari Istanbul

It’s been awhile since I’ve written about my nomadic life, so I’ll catch everyone up a little with an overview of the first six months of 2016.

In 2016, I started out in Istanbul, Turkey. I was there (and a friend was visiting me) when the first of several bombings of this year took place. It was surreal and sad, but not really scary. I think, in general the world is scary, but I was so well taken care of my my friends and contacts in Istanbul, that I never really felt scared for my own safety. I followed precautionary measures, staying away from the bomb site and avoiding the big tourist areas and large crowds, but other than that, I went about my daily life as did all of the locals.

Robin and Shari Istanbul

A few days after the bombing, where 12 German tourists were killed near the Blue Mosque, my friend from Germany came to visit and stay with me in Istanbul. She thought long and hard about it, but I am so glad that she didn’t let fear win. We had a great time exploring, despite the chilly, windy, rainy winter weather.

As my total visa-time for Turkey was running out (only allowed 90 days every 6 months), I packed a small bag and left it behind with some of my contacts in Istanbul. I didn’t want to carry my tripod and a few other random items around for the next couple of months. I had decided that I would be returning to Istanbul as soon as I was allowed by visa regulations, tentatively end of April, and I would stay until the end of May or June.

I had to leave Turkey, so I made plans to visit with my friends Victor and Carolina from Argentina, in Amsterdam at the beginning of February. We spent five great days exploring the city by foot and bicycle and ventured off to Ghent, Belgium as well. The weather sucked for almost all of the days, but the company was good!

Shari, Victor and Carolina

 

Then what?

Believe it or not, I had no plans. I just knew that I couldn’t go back to Turkey right away (re. visa) and I needed sunshine! I made a somewhat snap decision (booked my flight only 1 week in advance) to head to the Algarve region in Southern Portugal. Sadly, the weather wasn’t as sunny, warm and fabulous as expected and it was too laid back for me. Maybe going from 10 million people of Istanbul to a couple thousand in Albufeira, was a bit too extreme for me. I spent six weeks in the Algarve region and saw amazing sites, but I needed more people in my life!

Lagos, Portugal

To throw a (good) wrench in things, I had won a trip to Africa with On The Go tours. After months of asking people to vote on my photo, I actually won the trip. I had chosen the Zebras & Zanzibar trip when I entered the contest and it was now a reality! Wowza! A trip for two to Africa. Where was that going to fit in to all of this?

After a few weeks, I ventured to Lisbon for a little more upbeat living with more to explore and more people to meet. I decided to book an shared apartment for two weeks to begin with and from that point I would decide what I was doing. Would I return home early? Would I return to Istanbul as planned? Would I go to the Dominican Republic for some sunny days, friendly faces and Spanish classes?

Lisbon, Portugal
I fell in love with Lisbon, second only to Istanbul! After about one week in Lisbon, I booked my apartment for an additional four weeks. I had made the decision to stay in Lisbon instead of return to Istanbul. With several other bombings in those couple of months, I decided not to return to Istanbul at this time. Honestly, I felt pretty safe about going to Turkey, but I thought it would cause my friends and family undue stress if I was living there. Although I try not to live my life for other people, I don’t really want people to worry about me on a daily basis either.

I made new friends from Portugal, Denmark, Spain and Mexico. Lisbon was starting to feel like home. It was a place I could see myself living long term.

Shari, JuanFher and Paloma

On my last week in Lisbon, I began looking into the process of making it my home. I knew that I would return to Halifax first, but I wanted to know the process in case I wanted to make Lisbon my home-base. Basically, I found out that I had to do everything from Canada which was fine as I wasn’t ready to make any commitments.

I spent 11 weeks in Portugal and that pretty much ate up my 90 days in 6 months that I was allowed for ALL of the Schengen Area (most of Europe). Coming in to the middle of April, I was in decision mode again. Would I go back to Istanbul for a couple of months? Would I return to Halifax a couple of months early? I also briefly looked at non-Schengen countries in Europe, but the cost of flights there and then home deterred me. Besides, I figured I’d rather spend that money in Africa since I’d be headed there anyway!

Here’s another wrench, just to confuse things. In order to keep my NS Health care, I need to reside in Nova Scotia for 152 days of the year. Not consecutively, but throughout the year. Since I had been away from January until mid-April, and I would be going to Africa in the fall, I needed to ensure that I would have 152 days back in Halifax.

After lots of ‘date crunching’, the decision was finally made for me to return to Halifax at the end of April. I wanted to go back to Istanbul, but I had made the decision not to. I also didn’t want to leave Lisbon. I wanted a few more weeks, I wasn’t ready to go back to Halifax. It was just getting warm and beautiful on a daily basis in Lisbon and I knew that Halifax was a month (or more behind).

I made the responsible decision, to go back to Halifax in order to keep my health care valid. This also allowed me a little wiggle-room in case I wanted to stay in Africa (or elsewhere) until the end of 2016. I would be in Halifax for May through September and possibly part of October. This would give me more than my 152 days in province and then I could be on my way again.

I landed back in Halifax on April 28th and here I am, July 24th …. Where has the time gone? I certainly haven’t spent it taking in the sun because it’s been so cold, foggy and rainy, but today it’s sunny and I’m writing from the balcony of Humani-T cafe.

When you live nomadically, there is a lot of adventure, a lot of decisions, crazy emotions and fun, but you miss out on a lot of things too … like your sister’s wedding, your grandfather’s funeral and the passing of not one, but two of my past photo tour passengers who were both dear friends. I don’t want to stop travelling, but it definitely reminds me to be more present when I am spending time with people I care about.

I’m living with my sister, her husband, 16-year old step son and my two nieces in Hammonds Plains (which feels like the middle of nowhere after living in the centre of Istanbul and Lisbon). I’ve taken my nieces to the Shubenacadie wildlife park and swimming at a friend’s place. We’ve had a water balloon fight, played at the park and survived a week of me taking care of them when my sister went to Jamaica. I’ve gone running and biking with Samantha and helped Elizabeth learn how to skip rocks. I even caved and played Cranium with them all the other night after Samantha’s incessant begging! We’ve been to the beach a couple of times, but it’s been CHILLY! My parents visited for a few days and I’ll visit them in Fredericton in September as well when I go to the town I grew up in for my 20th high school reunion. Yikes!

I’ve gone running, walking, cycling and kayaking but not nearly enough of any of those!

I’ve seen most of my friends at least once in the last two and a half months sharing laughs, tears and lots of food! Most importantly I was home to see my friend Kevin receive a commendation for bravery and the adoption ceremony of one of my best friend’s kids. Deciding to come home early was definitely a good decision this time around and I’m so glad I could be here for both of those very important events.

Kevin's commendation Ceremony

I’ve taken portraits of my friend’s and client’s growing families. It’s always so nice to reconnect and to see the kids grow up and new ones growing in mama’s belly!

Ember and Sarah

I’ve done several speaking engagements, including Mo Monday’s where I spoke about my 1997 plane crash and several Travel Talks about different destinations. I’ve been interviewed for the radio about the events in Turkey and I’m about to have another paid travel article published (this time online).

Shari at Mo Monday's

I’ve taught my Goodbye Auto, Hello Manual Photography course and will be teaching a Composition course this coming week.

All at the same time, I seem to have done a lot and not nearly enough. Somehow two and a half months have passed and I only have two and a half left!

I’m wrapped up in trying to enjoy the sunshine when it makes an appearance and growing my business with new clients while I’m in Nova Scotia. I’m also planning my next 6 – 8 months of travel including a huge adventure and luxury travel conference this August in Las Vegas, as well as visiting the Grand Canyon and then I’m off to Africa with my sister in October for the trip I won! Who better to take than my sister?!

I’m happy to be in Halifax for five and a half months to spend time with friends and family. I’m happy to be in one house with my clothes unpacked, a fridge full of food (most of the time) and two cats! I’m not happy about the weather, my lack of connection to the city, the high prices of everything (compared to Asia and even Portugal) and the thought of summer being so darn short here!

I still feel a bit nomadic as I’m not in ‘my own’ place, but I have to admit that it is nice to have some extra clothing choices and the same bed every night.

It’s funny to feel nomadic when I’m technically ‘at home’, but with more adventures in my near future, I guess I’m not ready to settle down quite yet. We’ll see what 2017 says about that!