Who uses a travel agent and why?

Adventure Travel in Koh Phi Phi
Shari Tucker in Thailand
Wouldn’t you love to visit Koh Phi Phi Thailand? Let’s Chat

With so much information on the internet, why would you want to use a travel agent? And, with booking flights online being so easy, why would you have someone else do it?

So many people ask me why I’m a travel agent and assume that we agents are a dying breed. On the contrary, we are becoming more and more in demand in specialty areas. My specialty being Adventure Travel and Around the World travel, with secondary passions for sailing and river cruising.

Well, here’s what you need to know!

I am a home-based agent with Travel Professionals Internationals. That means I work under their brand, with all of their products and resources, but I do so from a home office instead of a fixed office. They are a large, Canadian based company entirely made up of home-based agents. Our head office is in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In my case (I’m a little extra special), I have decided to travel the world and take my home office with me. I move around a lot and my work goes with me. It’s not like being on vacation because it isn’t very restful, but it is certainly adventurous!

I get to experience both the tourist and the local side of destinations and get a real in-depth experience that I can than pass along to my clients. You can’t argue that hands-on experience in travel is a pretty big value-add when you are taking on a new adventure.

I’ve been to over 30 countries and have several more coming up in the first few months of 2016. I bet I can tell you some interesting stories about places you’ve never even considered visiting!

My clients are almost all Canadian and I work with them just as I would if I were in an office in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Most of the time this is by email, but I can Skype, whatsapp, twitter … whatever works for you! The only difference you’ll see is that you can’t meet with me face to face in an office setting. Skype is a pretty good replacement for that though!

I can’t stress enough that, although I am traveling, I am not on vacation. I spend my working hours to send you on vacation and that allows me to continue living this amazing lifestyle where I can to see our amazing world. This gives me pretty high motivation to keep my clients happy and give them the best advice and vacations possible!

So, how do I get paid? Don’t worry, lots of people ask and for those who don’t ask, they want to, they just don’t know how to approach it. So, here it is … I’ll tell you so that you don’t have to ask!

I charge a $60 + tax consulting fee per person for any custom itinerary (although if it is an extended trip, such as round the world, I charge based on the amount of research required, so it could be $100 or $120 + tax for a couple or family depending on the destination, length of trip and services required). This would always be discussed up front, not a surprise part way through the planning.

NOTE: If you are booking a straight up all inclusive package, cruise, or group tour, I do not charge the consulting fee. This way my rates are the same as you would find online, however sometimes I get better deals due to our supplier agreements. Things that you can’t find online!

The $60 + tax fee can be looked at as a consulting fee and you can take as much information as I can provide you in one or two sessions and use it to book on your own, however you wish. The biggest benefit of this is having a trusted source of information from a real person who you know, rather than a random google search.

Although google has many answers, it also has many scams, incorrect information, out dated information etc. Wouldn’t you rather get your information from someone you know?

Or, you can think of it as a booking fee. I give you lots of information and then also go through the booking process for you with each of the individual companies so that you don’t have to (flights / tours / hotels / cars etc). The biggest benefit of this is that it saves you HOURS of time. If you have to call 10 companies in different time zones, sort out details and then give each of those companies all of your personal information to book a tour, it takes hours of time. I can do that for you so that you don’t have to. We also have systems that streamline the process to make it faster and more efficient.

What do you really get out of the consulting fee?
1. It gives you access to me as your personal resource for information. I’ve travelled 30+ countries in the last 7 years with many more on the horizon. I’ve been there and done that in a lot of places, so I have a lot of experience and knowledge to share. Yes, you can get that knowledge from the internet, but you never know how honest it is, was it sponsored, is it old / new / valid / trash. And, the internet can’t tailor information to your specific needs like I can!

2. Further to that, if I don’t have the experience in a particular destination, I can reach out to my colleagues who have personal experience or a gazillion tried, tested and true resources that we have as a company rather than randomly on google. I’ve also sent many clients to destinations that I have not yet been to. I have lots of experience in Australian and New Zealand adventures, but haven’t quite made it there yet. Same goes for Africa, which is on my list for 2016 / 2017.

3. I will spend my time researching your adventure so that you can just go and enjoy without the hassle of figuring it all out. You might spend hours on the internet, whereas I might spend 1 hour through our resources or I might know the answer to your question immediately through personal experience.

4. It gives you a real person to talk to instead of booking online. If you have a problem with your flight, need to make changes, etc, you can contact me. That will save you sitting on hold for hours. Many online sites are now charging booking fees as well, so it is quite normal, although sometimes they are hidden amongst other taxes and fees so you don’t see them.

5. Being a real person, I can give you options that you may not have thought of based on your particular interests / needs. Websites can only know so much about you. Not to mention that I’ve traveled with many of the companies we sell, so I truly know what they are like.

6. Flight bookings. Prices are set by the airlines, not by travel agencies. This is very important because it means that we all have access to the same prices. There are some exceptions but not that many. Generally speaking, if you search the exact same flight route / dates / times and class of service, we should get the same price. If you see a different price online (through expedia vs red tag for example), it is likely slightly different routing. OR, it could be one of them has a different tax or hidden fee somewhere.

Where I am better than the online sites is that I can look for connection options that they don’t see because their algorithm has set rules. I can often get long haul itineraries for the same (or cheaper) than the big online sites AND either get you there faster, or get you a cool stop over at little to no extra cost. We also have bulk buying agreements with most of the airlines, so often I can get you a slightly better price than what is offered online (but not always).

7. Exclusive insider knowledge on specials and discounts. Especially if you are following one of my social media feeds! Twitter – @ShariTucker or Http://www.facebook.com/ShariTuckerPhotoAndAdventures
Sometimes we get deals that are only open to our clients at TPI and cannot be found online anywhere. Sometimes we get advanced knowledge of upcoming specials or flash sales (usually on tours, not flights).

8. In case of an emergency, you have someone to help you through the situation. Whether it is arranging an alternate flight route due to a volcano eruption or reminding you to keep receipts and start a claim for travel insurance. If someone falls ill in your family and you need to be with them, the last thing you need to be concerned about is trying to cancel your vacation plans to get refunds. I can take care of that for you while you take care of your family.

Other than the $60 + tax consulting/booking fee for custom itineraries, I also get paid through commissions. (It would take a lot of clients at $60 each to make a living, so don’t be surprised that I get paid in other ways too!)

1. The consulting fee pays for my time / effort / knowledge to help you with your trip. If I were to spend four hours researching options for a client, giving them tips / advice and suggestions and then they booked everything online themselves, I would have wasted four hours and not gotten paid for anything. I’m sure you’ll agree, no one can make a living that way. So, therefore, I don’t work for free.

2. Commissions. Many of the companies that we work with pay us commissions for selling their products. I promise that I will always offer you options that are suited to your needs and you can choose what is best for you. We have hundreds of companies that we have great communication with and we can also work with lesser-known companies as long as they are reputable.

Who works with Travel Agents:
My top 10 types of clients are the following (but others are certainly welcome!)

1. Retirees who want to travel and enjoy doing some online research but have hesitations in actually booking online. Fear of making a mistake or not knowing all of the details.
2. Busy professionals (doctors / lawyers / executives) – They desperately need time off and have 4 – 8 weeks of vacation a year, but they are too busy to do the planning themselves.
3. Solo travelers of all ages – people who are tired of waiting for their friends to travel with them and are ready to see the world. Sometimes I help these people travel on their own, other times in small group tours so they are not so alone.
4. Adventurers – These are people who want to do something active on their vacation that is a little harder to plan on the internet, therefore they look for professional help in booking the trip that is right for their passions and skill levels. Think hiking the Inca Trail, climbing Kilimanjaro, hiking Mont Blanc.
5. People who are looking for round the world trips, complicated flights with multiple cities or stop-overs along the way to a destination. I can almost always get a better deal on these options than what is available on the standard expedia / red tag etc.
6. Groups of people looking to travel together, whether it be extended family or a girls trip. Who really wants to take responsibility for all of the planning for 6 or 10 friends / family? That’s what I’m here as an impartial professional. I gather all of the information, work with you to set the itinerary and make it all happen behind the scenes so you can have a fantastic vacation without the hassles.
7. People looking for sailing trips on large or small boats.
8. Honeymooners looking for something more adventurous than an all inclusive vacation. Whether that be paddle boarding in Hawaii, self-drive through Ireland, swimming with whale sharks in the Maldives or Greek Island hopping.
9. All inclusive Caribbean destinations. Sure, it is easy to book these online, but you’ll spend hours researching the best deals, locations and prices change before you can decide. Agents also come in particularly handy when you have friends traveling from different destinations, but want to arrive on the same dates, or share rooms.
10. Well traveled people who are either tired of doing all of their own planning, or they need new ideas about up and coming destinations that interest them.

Do you fit in one of these above categories?

Get in touch. We’ll chat about your needs and then I can give you suggestions and start the planning process whenever you are ready. I’m here to help. Don’t let the plethora of options overwhelm you. Let me help narrow them down for you!

Who I don’t normally work with, although there are always exceptions!
If you are the type of person who has lots of time, little fear and enjoys doing all of your own research on line, then you may not want to work with me. And, that’s ok. There are lots of people out there just like you!

If you are looking for the absolute cheapest option for anything and are willing to sleep in airports for 12 hour layovers to make it happen. If you enjoy bartering for every last little thing. If you will stay at a 2 star resort in Cuba or you want to arrive in destination and book your hotel when you get there then I’m not the best fit for you. If your money is that important to you, then you probably won’t see the value in paying me to help with your decisions. There’s no problem with this, but we’re probably not a good match.

If you are only booking domestic flights (Halifax to Toronto / Halifax to Vancouver or something into the US), it is likely just as easy for you to do that on your own instead of paying an extra $60 + tax to me. However, if you don’t have a computer, your internet doesn’t work well, you hate researching on line or have 10 people who need the same flight .. Let me help!

If you are going to Disney, I’m not the right person for the job. Disney is a category all of it’s own. I have no experience in this area, but can recommend people who do!

So, now you are armed with all of the information on how I work as a travel agent. My passion is helping people like you see the world and sharing my own experiences. If you are interested in a consultation or getting your next vacation booked, I would be thrilled to hear from you.

I am currently (Jan 2016) in Istanbul. Remember, I am working, not on vacation. The best way to reach me is by email. But, if you’d prefer to talk by phone or skype I’ll arrange a time with you, no problem at all.

Let’s chat!

Stucker@tpi.ca

A Girl and her hair

Voila!

A bad hair cut or dye job sucks. Come on ladies, I know you feel my pain and probably lots of men out there too!

For whatever reason, much of our confidence, for better or worse is built around how we look. It directly relates to how we feel. Hence, the old advice to dress up every day even if you have no where to go. Or, in business, to dress in business attire even if you work from home. (Advice I could never follow!)

You’ve all been there. You’ve all gone to a new hair-dresser, told them exactly what you wanted and ended up with something horribly different. Whether it is too short, the wrong color, styled like you belong in the 80’s … it sucks. We cry over it. We get angry. We refuse to leave the house. We rewash it immediately when we get home hoping that it’ll look better if we just do it ourselves.

Luckily for me, most of my life I’ve subscribed to the belief that my hair does not define me. Although I love my hair, I can’t be bothered to make it perfect every day, to get my roots coloured every six weeks (sometimes not even every six months) and hair cuts? Well, a couple of times a year is good enough for me. (three times in 2015!)

I had been staring at my lengthening roots since I was in Asia, being slightly annoyed with them. The blending that I had done when I was in Nova Scotia was growing out and wasn’t working for me any more. My hair is longer than it has been in probably seven or eight years and it was getting tangled. I’d roll over and get it caught under my shoulder at night or sometimes in my armpit. I don’t know how women deal with really long hair!

I had thought about it for several days, but being in Turkey, I was really only pondering the idea. I wasn’t really going to get my hair done, was I? I passed a couple of salons here and there, but never went in. What were the chances anyone would speak English anyway? I passed a few blonde women in the streets and thought about stopping them to ask where they had gotten their hair done, but stopped myself as that was a combination of weird as well as not knowing if they would speak English.

Finally, the other day, after working from a cafe for most of the day, I just up and decided that I was brave enough to give it a go. After all, it’s just hair right?

I walked out of the cafe, two doors down and realized that one of the salons I had been looking at was for men. Boo. Then I noticed the one right next door was for women! How convenient. And this is where it begins.

I walked downstairs to the empty salon that was below street level and was greeted by a man with a nervous smile. It was almost as if he expected me to ask for directions rather than asking about getting my hair done.

I asked if he spoke English, to which he said ‘a little’. Well, that’s better than none at all, right?

I showed him my roots and explained that I wanted blonde. To which he confirmed understanding by saying “Highlights!”

Ah. We’re off to a good start!

I asked him how much and he paused. I wasn’t sure if he was thinking about a price or trying to find the right words in English. In the end, I think it was both.

Him: “Two hundred and fifty lira.” (About $100 – $115 CAD)
Me: “Are you sure? That seems like a lot. That’s the same price as me getting it done in Canada!”
Him: “Yes. 250 lira. I give you beautiful highlights.”
Me: “Ah, that’s too much for me, I’ll have to go somewhere else.”

And, I started back toward the door.

Him: “How much?”
Me: “There was a place down the street for 150 lira.” (complete lie, but that’s as much as I was willing to pay)
Him (without hesitation and with a chuckle): “Ok. Ok. Come in. 150 Lira.”

** That’s 100 Lira less than he originally asked for which is about $50 CAD.

Picture me with my hands on my hips, smiling at this short, older man. He’s got wavy-ish grey hair and great laugh lines.

Me: “What if I had said 50 Lira? Would you have done it for 50?”
He laughs: “No, no. 150 yes.”
Me: “Are you sure you can make it pretty?”
Him: “Yes. Yes. Beautiful highlights. Come. Come.”

Next thing I knew I was sitting in the chair and another man was wrapping a towel around my shoulders and then a small plastic cape over top of that. He fumbled a bit with pinning both closed and I thought to myself that he hasn’t had a lot of practice. This is when I got nervous.

A couple of minutes later, the older man came back out with the dye all mixed up and ready to go. There was no discussion on color, no discussion on what I’d like the final product to look like, he was just ready to go for it.

Deep breath! Here we go.

He meticulously parted my hair and I could see him weaving the end of the comb in and out to pick out the pieces to be highlighted. He then put some plastic (not foil) under the first bit of hair and started slathering on the bluish white goo. The second guy had prepared the stand and was busy crumpling the plastic pieces and handing over clips to the hair dresser.

After a couple of plastic sheets were in place and more plastic was prepared, the ‘assistant’ started holding the plastic in place against my head while the hair dresser globbed on the goop a little faster; sometimes stopping to look closely at the ends of my hair to determine if he should color them or leave them sticking out.

As in any salon, the process of putting in a full head of highlights took about an hour or so. Throughout this process it became clear to me that the hair dresser was instructing the assistant and explaining things along the way. Of course, they weren’t speaking English, so I’m not exactly sure if it was just instructions for him to help out or if he was teaching him how to do it on his own.

They chatted away as I nervously watched them using plastic instead of foil and wondering if the hap-hazard sloshing on of product would be a nightmare in the end.

Every few minutes they would stop and ask me if I was ok. They would grin at me and give me a thumbs up. Or, the hair dresser would tell me how beautiful it was going to be. Almost reassuring … almost!

About a third of the way through, we had a bit of a conversation and I learned that my hair dresser, Ahmed, is Syrian and he had been living in Istanbul for about two and a half years. He also has family living in Vancouver. Then, there was Hussain, who was from Iraq and had only been in Istanbul a few months.

So, here I was, in Istanbul, Turkey, having my hair done by two men from Syria and Iraq who barely speak English. I was putting my confidence in their hands by letting them change my hair and wow was I ever hoping for the best.

I won’t lie. I sent a few text messages to friends saying that I was scared to death of how it was going to turn out! I wasn’t feeling very confident, but I was there and there was no going back!

After finishing the back, they moved on to the front and sides, doing so in a very different way than what I’ve ever seen done in Canada. They started with the three strips along the front and sides and then worked their way toward the back.

Ahmed, being only about five feet six inches tall, was tip-toeing to see the top of my head, so finally I slouched down in the chair. It wasn’t one of those fancy foot-pump chairs, just one fixed height! We all had a good chuckle over this and Ahmed jumped up and down a few times peering over the top of my head making fun of himself.

He finished up all of the highlights and went to have a cigarette in the office. Next thing I knew he was coming out, phone in hand, on face time. He was laughing and chatting and telling some guy on the phone to say hello to me. It was the weirdest experience ever. I was being shown off while in full foils by a man speaking another language (not sure if it was Turkish or Arabic at this point). Next thing I knew, I was fully on the camera saying hello, and then he was showing the guy my hair close-up and in great detail. I’m still not sure what this was all about. Was Ahmed asking for someone’s advice or showing off his great work? Was he proud to have a client because he hadn’t had one in quite some time? Or was it because I was blonde? So hard to know!

My FaceTime face
My FaceTime face

Ahmed finished up his phone call, gave me a very excited kiss on the hand and told me how happy he was that I was there. He said it with all of his heart. I don’t know the whole story, but I know that he meant it.

I sat by the sink while he removed the first layer of plastic foils and then Hussain got me some tea to sip on while the rest of the highlights continued to bake. Every few minutes he would come back and take out a few more of the foils. He could obviously see my apprehension, so he got a mirror to show me a couple of the front ones that he had taken out.

WOAH! They were white-blond. My heart nearly stopped. I think I was better off without the mirror!

After all of the plastic was out and the dye rinsed out of my hair, he proceeded to shampoo my hair and then give me the strongest and best head massage I’ve ever had in my life. This wasn’t just a little massage while he worked the shampoo through my hair, this was the royal treatment, hitting every pressure point on my head. I could feel myself relaxing even in the awkwardness of the sink / chair combo.

Once the shampoo was rinsed out, the process started over with conditioner. This led to a second head massage, including into my neck. At this point I was thinking I was getting a good deal for 150 Lira … hair dyed, cut and a massage! Yay me!

And, it wasn’t done! He then folded a hot, damp towel over my eyes, around my cheeks and chin, somehow leaving my nose and mouth open. And then came the gentle face massage.

I’m telling you … it was lovely.

When it was all over, I had almost forgotten that my hair could be platinum blond!

At this point, another man had arrived at the salon and was super excited to meet me. He started chatting away in pretty good English. He offered me more tea, gave me options of Earl Grey, Apple or regular turkish tea. Then he brought out sweets and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He asked all about where I was from and what I was doing in Istanbul. All the while, he communicated back and forth with Ahmed, filling him in on the whole conversation.

When it came time for Ahmed to cut and style my hair, this third man translated everything and Ahmed went to work. He worked on my hair like an artist with his masterpiece. He parted and combed it perfectly straight and then chopped and clipped to the beat of his own drum. A little snip here, some hard staring and then a big snip there … all in some kind of rhythm.

I have to admit, with my hair wet and combed all straight, the highlights were looking pretty good and the blond wasn’t quite as frightening once it was mixed in with the other shades of my hair. Either he had done a good job, or the massage had relaxed me enough not to care.

After drying my hair, he went about perfecting his masterpiece by curling my hair with the straight iron. And this was not a normal process either. He clacked the straight iron arms together in a beat while contemplating if he should curl toward or away from my face and then the dance began.

He would find a piece of hair, wrap it tightly around the straight iron, pull on it, twist it and then tilt his head, maybe screw up his face a bit. He’d release the heat and then whirl and twirl it around in loop and then let it bounce down into a corkscrew. This dance with perfecting my hair lasted another 20 minutes until I had perfect corkscrew curls all around my head.

To finish it all off, he ran his fingers through it to separate all of the curls and give it lots of body, fluffed it up, sprayed it and said ‘Voila!’

Voila!
Voila!

I really was happy with it in the end. How could I not be after the royal treatment, the warm welcome, all of the smiles and laughs throughout the past few hours.

The third man invited me to stay for another cup of tea and wouldn’t let me say no even though it was already 5pm. I stayed and chatted for another half hour and listened to stories about his family, life in Syria and his plight to find a better life in Turkey. He had come as a business man, not as a refugee. He is working on a vegetable oil import / export business and once it is in operation, his family will come join him in Istanbul or Ankara.

When it was time for me to leave, the two friendly men, who had known each other for 25 years, were truly disappointed to see me go. They told me over and over how happy they were to meet me, how happy they were that I had come in on that day and that 2016 would be a good year.

I left the salon with a much improved head of hair, a smile on my face and a full heart. Despite my own apprehension for getting my hair done by someone new, in a new country and our lack of communication skills, I felt good having helped out a struggling business and meeting the best kind of people … the warm, friendly, appreciative kind. It doesn’t get any better.

Yes, indeed, I think 2016 will be a good year.

Bangkok Photo Essay

Reclining Buddha Wat Po, Bangkok

In October 2015, I had the opportunity to do Urban AdventuresTuk Tuk Experience tour. I was invited along to take in a city tour by Tuk Tuk and share my experiences with you through this Bangkok Photo Essay.

Early in the morning I met my small group and we hopped in our Tuk Tuk’s to head off to Phra Sumeru Fortress. Sadly the fortress itself was under construction, but we still got to have a peek, as well as see the beautiful river views and learn about the murals nearby.

We were whisked off through the hectic streets to the bottom of the Golden Mount where we climbed 319 stairs to the top for breathtaking views. There were locals wandering around praying and presenting offerings. Inside you could see beautiful, colorful art, various statues and carvings.

Over the next hour or so, we wandered through the amulet Market, the flower market, a wet market and the Phahurat Market in Little India. All were filled with interesting history, unique scents and locals buying and selling nearly everything you can imagine, from fruits to trinkets, statues to flowers, street food, material, clothing and herbal remedies. It’s crowded and hectic, but as local as it gets!

Last, but not least, we zoomed our way through the streets to the famous temple of Wat Po where the world’s largest Reclining Buddha resides. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure what the ‘big deal’ was until I arrived. I had no idea how massive the Buddha would be and I had no idea how beautiful the temple would be. We spent about an hour wandering around the complex viewing everything from the stunning architecture to children’s music and dance classes.

And with that, we finished up the Tuk Tuk tour by returning to our starting point. The Tuk Tuk Experience was a great overview of some of Bangkok’s important sites and certainly a great way to get acquainted with the culture. Why not give it a try if you are headed to the city!

Hope you’ll enjoy a few of my favourite photos from the tour!

This post has been sponsored by Urban Adventures, a division of Intrepid Travel.

“Urban Adventures is about a new style of travel experience for those who want to get off the beaten path and really connect with a destination. The experience can be as short as a couple of hours, or as long as a whole day, but in every case our Urban Adventures tours take travellers to interesting places to meet locals, and to really see what makes a place tick.”

Underwater world experience

Scuba diving in the Philippines

As I threw myself backwards off the little boat rocking in the waves I closed my eyes and held the regulator firmly so that it wouldn’t fall out of the grasp of my teeth and drenched in salt water. Oh how I hate the taste of the ocean. I was the last one out of the boat and as I was falling over the edge, tank first, I was still wondering what I had agreed to.

I had just finished my PADI Discover Scuba Diving course in Alona Beach on Panglao Island in the Philippines. My friend Robin had enrolled in the PADI Open Water Diver course and although I wasn’t interested in the time or money required for the certification, learning to dive had been on my adventure to do list for quite some time. No better time to start than in the Philippines with one of your best and most encouraging friends.

After watching an hour-long introductory video about how diving works, the equipment involved, underwater communication signals and how air works in your body as you go up and down in water, it was time to get suited up.

A relatively painless, however, hilarious trip to the on-site gear closet had me tugging on the shorties for what seemed like forever, trying to get them to crawl even an extra inch up my thighs. After a not so graceful wiggle-dance, the wet suit was successfully in place above my knees. Luckily, they had sized me correctly and I only had to try on one wet suit and keep it on. I shoved my feet in my booties, sized my flippers and snorkel mask and then we headed to the nearby pool for our confined water training.

My instructor checked over my gear and helped me into it while my friend was in charge of checking and preparing her own equipment as part of her more in-depth open water certification. With my regulator clenched between my teeth almost as tightly as a dog clenches his bone, we were instructed to put our faces in the water and then submerge in the shallow end of the pool. We were then towed gently underwater to the deeper end of the pool, stopping every few feet to equalize by swallowing and/or blowing gently into a pinched nose.

Next up we got to practice inflating and deflating our BCD (buoyancy control device) to achieve neutral buoyancy. I must admit I didn’t do so great at this. I would definitely need more practice on this one before doing it on my own. We then practiced a few of the basic skills of diving, including clearing a mask that had started to fill with water, how to find our regulator if it were to become dislodged from our mouth, how to clear it to start breathing again and sharing our air if our buddy were to run out.

Although only one meter under water and in a pool, when I went from having the regulator in my mouth as my air source, to letting it float away, I panicked slightly. I was able to successfully wrap my arm backwards to find the regulator, but remembering all of the other steps was a struggle for me. I immediately held my breath instead of releasing air which is the cardinal rule for diving – ALWAYS breathe. If you are releasing air you are breathing, because you don’t want the air in your lungs to expand as you rise. I was fine up until the point that I had the regulator in hand and close to inserting it into my mouth. My instructor reminded me to continue breathing and letting bubbles escape. As I inserted the regulator back into my mouth I realized that I didn’t have enough air left in my lungs to clear it by blowing into it. Although we had been taught what to do, I had a moment (or a few) of panic when I wasn’t sure what to do. I remembered to use the release button on the regulator to clear it, but just as I gently pressed it I realized that I wasn’t blocking the opening with my tongue and everything was going to be pushed into my mouth. Hence, a stronger panic, as I felt like I was running out of air and was scared if I breathed through the regulator that I was going to take in water.

When my instructor signalled to ask if I was ok, my panic rose a bit more as I couldn’t remember the signs immediately. Finally, (likely only 2 seconds later), I signalled that I wasn’t really ok. I then pressed the release on the regulator a second time, remembering to place my tongue to block it from pushing back into my mouth. I then inhaled lightly and realized air was flowing just fine, so I took a deeper breath. We stayed there for a moment until I was able to give the ok sign. It took me a minute for my heart to drop back out of my throat. It was at that moment, despite being ok, that I really wasn’t sure if I could do this in the big open ocean.

We swam a couple of circles around the small pool practicing our neutral buoyancy and then started our ascent to the shallow end. I just couldn’t seem to get the whole neutralization thing quite right. At the bottom of the pool I would sink too far and scrape my knees. At the top of the pool I seemed to lose my balance easily and felt like I was being pushed forward all the time. When I finally took my regulator out of my mouth and was standing on my own two feet in the shallow end, I choked back tears and spit out, “I’m not sure I can do this.”

Our instructor was great, making sure that he talked me through what happened and then reassuring me that I wouldn’t have to do any of those skills on the dive, all I would need to do is breathe and use my flippers; he would take care of my buoyancy and guiding me. Robin, on the other hand, had to do a bit more work and testing while in open water for her course.

As we moved from the weightlessness of the pool to full on gravity it gave me a new appreciation for the weight of all of the gear on my back. I carry a lot of heavy camera gear in my backpack regularly and it didn’t even compare! We went directly from the pool to the small boat, handed off our gear to be loaded and hopped over the edge. I guess it was probably a good thing that I didn’t have time to sit and think too much about it. I was really unsure if I wanted to do the open water dive, but none-the-less I was going through the motions of getting on the boat. I would have at least a few more minutes to decide.

The rocky boat ride lasted only about five minutes to get to Garden Eel Reef. I was super glad I had remembered my Transderm patch the night before as it was perfect conditions for me to get horribly sea-sick. Choppy swells and a boat sitting without movement … my arch nemesis! Before I had time to turn green, we were plunging backwards over the edge into the waves with our vests inflated and regulators in our mouths. I was still nervous and unsure if I could do this.

The plan was to follow a mooring line down a few meters, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t able to release enough air from my BCD to start sinking. After a minute, the instructor assisted and I started going down, all of us stopping to equalize every few feet.

What an odd sensation when your head starts to feel heavier than normal and you can feel the pressure in your ears. It’s similar to descending in a plane, but somehow was much more intense for me. In my mind I revisited childhood memories of diving for pucks in the deep end of the Florenceville swimming pool where I was a life guard for several summers. I could vaguely recall the same pressure, but was only ever going down for a few seconds and then straight back up to the surface. This time would be very different as I would be staying under to explore the underwater world!

At the end of the mooring line, our instructor led us to a coral shelf that was full of corals and fish. We glided horizontally through the smooth water despite the choppy seas only a few meters above us. We then came to the edge of the coral where, all of a sudden, the shelf abruptly dropped off and there was nothing in front of us but the deep, dark, beautiful unknown beckoning us.

Despite my earlier panic in the pool, I was breathing normally and curiosity was slowly winning over my fear. The slow, methodical sound of my breathing was unusually calming as we glided through the open ocean toward a world that too few people see.

Our instructor slowly led us deeper and deeper with the coral shelf only a couple of feet to my left. Although I would never reach out and touch it, it was easily within arms reach. In fact, a couple of times I got a little too close and I was scared I was going to touch it by accident. Not sure if I was more concerned about damaging the environment or the environment biting me! Just as I was too close for comfort, the instructor who was guiding us from above, steered us slightly away and deeper again.

Although I was slightly nervous throughout the dive, I was able to relax enough to enjoy the beauty, knowing that the instructor was controlling my depth and direction. With this peace of mind, all I had to do was clear my mask occasionally and breathe normally. Luckily I enjoy deep yoga breathing and know that it calms me, so I was a conservative air user.

At 12 meters below the surface, it is amazing in itself just to be able to breathe freely. It is amazing that air can be bottled for consumption under water. It tickles your brain in a totally new way as you explore a whole new world below the surface.

Through the various depths, we saw schools of bright blue fish, beautiful black ones, the occasional bright yellow one and a school of Angel fish. Along the coral shelf there were blue starfish clinging to the side and small clown fish poking their heads in and out of sea grass. The size and textures of the different types of coral were a delight in the spotty sun that was reaching through the water. The plants and grasses were waving with the motion of the water and fish were dancing in the current.

We stayed at a depth of 12 meters for a short period of time before turning the dive and gradually making our ascent back to the top passing new schools of fish, a small grey eel wiggling vertically in the water, and hundreds more small, colorful fish.

At about three meters from the surface, we stopped for a non-mandatory rest and equalization period. Robin was tested on a couple of skills and then we self-inflated our BCDs until our heads popped above water and we were again bobbing in the swells waiting for our boat to draw near.

Scuba diving in the Philippines

We were underwater for approximately one hour. Somehow it felt like time stopped while we were there. I had no concept of time, nor any need to be concerned with it. That was a liberating feeling in itself. The only ‘time limit’ we had was the amount of oxygen in each of our tanks.

I’m still contemplating my feelings on the entire experience. It was nothing short of amazing to be able to breathe underwater. Despite there being three of us under water, nearly attached to each other, somehow I got lost in my own little underwater world, amazed at the beauty and color that exists where our eyes rarely see. And somehow, I still harbour an uneasy fear from my panic situation in the pool. I’m excited that I tried it, yet, somewhere inside me, I’m not sure if it is something I want to pursue further. I feel like I need to give it more than one chance, yet, I also feel like I’ll have to do some self-convincing to jump over the boat’s edge into the unknown. In the end, I hope that my curiosity will win over my fear.

Do you remember your first diving experience? What was it like? Feel free to share with me in the comments!

Istanbul Night Tasting Trail

In September 2015, I explored the foods of Turkey on a great tour with one of my favourite companies, Urban Adventures. They welcomed me along to enjoy their Istanbul Night Tasting Trail and share my food experiences with you!

I met up with my local guide, Beatrice, and four other passengers; two were from Germany and two from the United States. We set off from the Galata Bridge, taking the Tunel (one of the oldest in the world) to the top of the hill where we began our evening food adventure. Trust me, the two minute ride is well worth it, it is a steep hill!

The tour itself was presented as a day in the life of a Turk, through food. We started at a small cafe eating a breakfast food called su boregi (directly translated to Water Pastry) and a sampling of Turkish coffee or tea. The su boregi was light and mild. Layers of dough boiled and then flipped to keep the inside moist and the outside crispy. Sometimes they are filled with meat, cilantro, eggplant or yellow cheese, but ours was light and simple with just a sprinkling of white cheese inside, mixed with oil and hang yogurt. The texture is like eating pasta, but with no sauce, it is light enough for breakfast.

Su boregi
Su boregi

With Turkey being the world’s second largest tea producer, you might understand that it is an important part of their culture. Most of the tea is grown in the Black Sea area and Turkey as a whole, produces 1/3 of both tea and hazelnuts in the world. You don’t see Turks just sticking a tea bag in hot water though. There’s a delicate process where they use two tea pots with water in the bottom pot and loose tea in the top. They pour the boiling water from the bottom over the loose leaves. A bit of this extract will be mixed with more of the hot water and voila, the perfect cup of Turkish tea!

Turkish Tea
Turkish Tea

For ‘lunch’ we headed to a lovely little patio restaurant where they served up a bottle of Raki for us to share as we pondered our meze options. Raki is a local liqueur. When mixed with an ice cube and water, watch the magic happen as it turns from a translucent liquid into a milky substance that they refer to as Lion’s milk. It has a distinct liquorice flavour and is regularly compared to ouzo, but don’t say this out loud as you will start a big debate that cannot be finished!

Raki
Raki

Meze is a variety of hot or cold small plates, served with bread. Our group poured over the options, asking what each one was and then a handful were ordered to give us a little taste test of everything. From denim borulcesi (sea weed / sea beans) to atom (a powerful chili), kozlenmis biber (red peppers), patlican ezme (mashed eggplant) to the most delicious hummus I’ve ever tasted. Of course, it was accompanied by the standard onion, tomato, garlic, pureed salsa and haydari (hang yogurt with garlic and herbs). Add a spoonful of any of these tasty dishes on top of bread baked soft in the middle and crispy on the outside, and you have yourself a meal! Did I mention we were only on lunch at this point?

Meze
Meze

As we moved on from the outdoor patio to our next destination, we stopped for a quick bite of street food. Vendors throughout the streets of the Taksim and Galata districts are always hopping with the crowded night scene streaming by at a constant flow. As two men stopped for a quick snack from the muscle vendor, we joined in the fun. A muscle shell filled with rice, drenched in lemon and popped in your mouth is apparently the way to go for your mid-evening night-out-drinking snack! Seeing as we had already had our afternoon Raki, I guess we had caught up with the youngsters. I’m not a huge fan of muscles normally, but decided to give it a fair try. After staring down the shell convincing myself that I could do it, I popped it in my mouth and was pleasantly surprised at the mix of soft flavors and absence of distinct seafood taste. I almost had a second one and then remembered that I needed to save room for dessert! Oh wait, dessert isn’t next?

Stuffed Muscle
Stuffed Muscle

You can’t have dessert before you’ve had at least one more Turkish tea or coffee! So off to an open air cafe near the Passage Hazzopulo, we went! With a mixture of both tea and coffee drinkers, we got to enjoy the thick bold goodness of Turkish coffee, the smoothness of Turkish tea and the sweetness of emil cay (apple tea). Apple tea is my favourite, but apparently it is more of a tourist drink than one of the locals.

Turkish Tea and Coffee
Turkish Tea and Coffee

To give us a feel for a real ‘afternoon’ out in the life of some Turkish ladies, Beatrice offered to do a coffee grind reading for one of the guests. Often a way for ladies to pass the afternoon, is to sit and have tea / coffee with friends and then read each other’s fortune from the upside down settlings of the thick sludge at the bottom of the coffee cup.

We then meandered off through some of the narrow streets and were drawn in by the methodical clickety-clack of metal utensils on a hot metal cooking service. As the minced meat on the cooking service was broken up, tossed around and loaded up with spices, you could see people piling around to get it while it was hot and fresh. Kokorec it was called and our guide asked if we wanted to know what it was before or after trying it.

hmmmm … that doesn’t really sell it for me!

Kokorec is a very popular delicacy of cow or goat intestine mixed with spicy tomatoes and onion and then served on a small bun. I was sorry that I had asked what it was beforehand, but dug out my inner bravery and gave it a try. Much to my surprise, it was actually pretty tasty. It had the texture of minced beef or lamb, although maybe a little greasier, and the spices added a nice flavour. I even managed to take more than one bite, so it must not have been too bad at all!

Kororek
Kokorec

With our bellies warmed up from tea / coffee and spicy Kokorec, we headed off to a narrow, off the beaten track street for a taste of Efes, Turkey’s famed beer. Although I’m not a beer conosoeur, the gentelemen in my group described it as an “Easy drinking beer. Sweet and not too hard.”

Efes Beer
Efes Beer

After our ‘night out’ for a beer, next up was the typical ‘after-the-bar’ food; a little something called a wet burger. And, it was just that. It is a small, smoked, beef patty cooked with garlic and tomato paste and then smooshed into a small bun and left to get soggy. Chow down on a couple of these with a few big gulps of Ayran, a salty yogurt based drink and they say you’ll be hangover free!

Wet Burger
Wet Burger

At our final stop, we got to indulge in the delectable Turkish sweets. We were served delicious baklava which is many layers of phyllo pastry, filled with pistachios, baked and then drizzled with sugar water. To take the edge off the exceptional sweetness, we shared some gooey Turkish ice cream. The ice cream has the same substance as chewing gum, so it doesn’t melt quickly and is slightly chewy, but mouthwateringly delicious.

Baklava and Turkish Ice Cream
Baklava and Turkish Ice Cream

As if that wasn’t enough, Beatrice then pulled out a chocolate bar chalked full of hazelnuts which is one of Turkey’s big exports. I have a special soft spot for chocolate and hazelnuts, so I managed to find an empty spot in my tummy to try a couple of squares.

And with that, we finished up the evening near Taksim Square with full bellies, new friends and a feel for how the locals eat. I would highly recommend giving the Istanbul Night Tasting Trail a try for a great way to explore the foods of Turkey and a great way to see a bit of the amazing city by night.

This post has been sponsored by Urban Adventures, a division of Intrepid Travel.

“Urban Adventures is about a new style of travel experience for those who want to get off the beaten path and really connect with a destination. The experience can be as short as a couple of hours, or as long as a whole day, but in every case our Urban Adventures tours take travellers to interesting places to meet locals, and to really see what makes a place tick.”

 

Stark Naked at a Turkish Bath

Turkish Tile Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to roll over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street Art: Challenging Perceptions

Big cities around the world often have underground Graffiti and Street Art scenes, Buenos Aires is no different … or is it?

As part of this country’s deeply carved wounds in the political past, the graffiti and street art of today are a representation of the struggles, a reminder of the battles, a voice speaking out to create a movement.

From the outside looking in, the general public (at least where I’m from) view Street Art and graffiti as the enemy. It’s old. It’s ugly. It defaces and devalues property. It’s a hassle. It’s got to go. Rebellious kids are responsible for destroying property. Poor people and the uneducated are the cause.

In fact, this is exactly why there is a misconception of this form of art. It has been misunderstood by so many for so long. I’m here to challenge your perceptions.

Let me start with a very simple difference between Street Art and Graffiti as they are not the same.

Graffiti was where it all began. Various forms of painting large, blocky letters in public spaces. This was often done anonymously. Sometimes it would be legible to the average passerby, but often it was a language only understood by other graffiti artists.

Street art has nothing to do with letters and words, but everything to do with art, beauty and conceptual messages. Again, some may be obvious to a passersby, or it may be understood only within the artist community. Some displays are just for the beauty of it, with little conceptual meaning other than to give the viewer enjoyment.

Street Art in Buenos Aires
Street Art in Buenos Aires

Indeed, graffiti and street art in almost every city that has risen out of poor governments in power, loss of control or war. It is true, that in the beginning that those who went to the streets did so in the dark, illegally and in a hurry to avoid being arrested. They were driven by their passion for a cause, their audacity to stand against a dictatorship and to draw likeminded people together. They were the silent, but visual leaders of their time. Their art became a language to be shared and to unite them. They were not hitting the streets to destroy random property or to make their city ‘ugly’. They were going to the streets like men who go to war. They were fighting a battle of words against their flailing governments and building support without the aid of government funded media.

Graffiti in general started out as anti-government, or at least against specific government parties. It was a semi-permanent protest that could be spread across city walls by night and visible by day. It was a voice for those who were being silenced.

It’s a pretty dark history, but as with anything from the past, people learn and grow from it. Governments change, wars begin and end, cities make laws and then change them.

On my recent Street Art tour with Graffiti Mundo in Buenos Aires, I really began to understand more about the recent history of the art and how it flourished from the ugly past.

In the early 2000’s, the city went grey. Devoid of colour, devoid of hope. Huge billboards and public wall space was devoted to campaigning for government. Political propaganda was everywhere. Sky-high faces of leaders painted on previously blank spaces appeared.

Citizens were being silenced and the dictatorship was quashing any resistance. Artists started having secret gatherings in garages and clubs to discuss what they could do. They had no money, the government was forceful, and they were just a few people. What they decided was that they needed to put colour back into their streets. They needed to spread hope rather than disparity. They needed to move forward instead of being stuck. Artists began by painting the outside of their own homes and offices, making their own colourful art. The artists had no money, so they collected paint left overs from the street and started getting creative with mixing colours as well as trying new methods.

Spray paint is expensive to buy, although quick to use, so it was often the choice of Graffiti artists. Latex paint is free, if left over from someone painting their house, but takes longer to design with. This meant that you could not paint and run. People took to painting their own spaces, in broad daylight with whatever materials they could find. Painting, for the purpose of putting colour back in the streets; for doing something rather than nothing. This art also led to less space for political propaganda. It was a protective layer for their houses as propaganda messages from the government would easily be lost if they were painted on top of colourful art instead of on a clear blank wall.

The Artists thought that if everything else in their city was grey, boring and politically fuelled, that if they painted colourful art, with no political affiliation, it would stand out. It would disrupt the norm because it was different. And, so it continued to flourish.

A group of 12 artists collaborated on this wall below.

Soon enough, a few people painting one or two of their homes were asked by neighbours what they could do. The grand answer – Paint! Find paint and paint the grey away (or the politics away, depending how you read into it). Neighbours joined in by painting their own homes, or by offering up large blank building surfaces to be painted with full artist discretion.

Buenos Aires Street Art
Buenos Aires Street Art

The camaraderie, the appreciation of art and the common passion for revitalizing the city was thriving. No longer did artists have to buy spray paint, tip toe around after midnight and rush to pain their message on a wall before being caught. No longer was it a taboo. The city opened up and embraced the art with many businesses now commissioning artists to paint their walls. Sometimes these are paid gigs, other times artists do it simply for the joy of painting and sharing their vision.

Still today there is a law in Argentina that says you have the right to paint your house however you wish. Neighbours don’t complain about it being an eye-sore, if you own it, you can paint it.

A few years ago, Buenos Aires even hosted a large scale festival dedicated to painting the city. Well-known graffiti and street artists came from around the world (by invitation or by choice) to participate. Being a government run project, sadly, the festival rubbed many artists the wrong way as the funds coming in from the festival all went back to the government (to their consulting and construction fees) while none of the money went back to support the artists.

The festival was held mainly in an area of the city near Palermo Hollywood, but known for social housing, the city dump and a main bus hub. Not the prettiest or most desirable of neighbourhoods. Hundreds of artists joined the festival and painted a piece of themselves on the walls, brightening up this otherwise monotonous neighbourhood.

Two pieces of note:

Street Art in Buenos Aires
Street Art in Buenos Aires by Jim Vision
Street Art in Buenos Aires
Street Art in Buenos Aires by Jaz

Over the years, street art studios have opened and closed. Sadly, most of them are now closed. It has been a losing battle as the government prohibits artists from exporting their art to an international market. This means their art has to be purchased by other Argentinian’s, who for the most part are in the same constant struggle to get buy with the little money they have. They don’t have money to buy art, leading to the closing of many of the galleries and lack of exposure and recognition for deserving Argentinian artists.

Even today, as European and first world as Argentina appears to the outside world, it’s internal struggles are tormenting it’s people every day. They are stuck in a hamster wheel where they can’t get off. Their money is monitored, their currency has no value and citizens are not allowed to earn or spend USD.

In the year 2015, Argentina is still in political turmoil, but the vision and artistic passion of it’s people lives on through the streets. No matter where you look, you can see walls popping with colour, you can see images of conflict amongst images of roses. You can even find an entire street block filled with Homer Simpson’s face as an effort to be the world’s largest wall of Homer Simpson.

The spirit of these artists is friendly, open and without shame for the work that they do. Although their government stings them with restrictions that are unbearable for many of us to consider, they march on spreading their vision throughout the city.

These are not the poor, uneducated criminals that the media would have us believe. These are talented, educated, intelligent leaders who believe in a better Buenos Aires, a better Argentina. Their voice runs through the streets and colourfully joins neighbours and strangers together against the government’s disparity.

Tigre

Just 16 kilometres to the north of bustling Buenos Aires lies a small town full of life but at a much slower pace. Tigre sits at the mouth of the Delta and sprawls out from a grand riverway to a web like maze of smaller rivers and streams.

Rio Tigre
Rio Tigre

Serviced by two train lines, the Mitre and la Tren de la Costa, along with several bus routes, it is easily accessible for tourists, along with a great weekend day trip for locals.

Starting from the Maipu Station in the Olivos barrio of Buenos Aires, I hopped on the Tren de la Costa for the short ride to Tigre. This particular train route allows you the option of stopping to explore any or all of the costal communities along the way, then you hop back on the next train (approximately every 30 minutes). I made one stop at Barrancas and then continued on my way to explore Tigre.

At the Tren de la Costa station in Tigre you are met on the platform by a small market with a handful of local vendors and then more vendors line the streets to your right. Also on the right you’ll get your first glimpse of the amusement park. I headed left to find food as it was mid-afternoon and my tummy was asking for lunch.

I was traveling with a friend and we grabbed a spot at one of the first parilla (barbecue) restaurants that we found called La Isla. A parilla for two, with five different types of meat, a salad and two drinks totalled up to nearly $400 pesos. Yikes! On the bright side, the chimichuri sauce was devine and we were stuffed when we left. I’m sure the next few hours of walking did us good!

At this end of town, there isn’t a whole lot to see outside of the market and the amusement park. It was fun to watch the bungee jump-style ride from afar, but I didn’t feel the need to jump from a tower that day.

We followed the flow of people up the road and around a bend until we saw the river bubbling along, teeming with boats and the river banks filled with families and friends relaxing in the sun.

Rio Tigre, Buenos Aires
Rio Tigre, Buenos Aires

We walked up-river, dawdling along, people watching and checking out a few vendors along the way. I stopped to take a few photos, watch a bit of a busker show and poke through the market with the purple stalls. Then, we made our way to the bridge and crossed over to the other side of town.

The river banks were clustered with families and friends have picnic lunches, couples kissing, dogs and children playing and the elderly sitting on nearby benches over looking the river. A few vendors provided snacks and tourist trinkets along the way, but never once did any of them approach us to sell their wares. They just served those who approached them.

We walked to the bend in the river and followed the park-like path with even more people enjoying a lovely Sunday afternoon in the sun. It felt like one big picnic party, but I left my basket at home!

Relaxing by the Rio Tigre
Relaxing by the Rio Tigre

Along the way I marvelled at the beautiful buildings on both sides of the river and enjoyed the late afternoon sun. After all, we hadn’t arrived in Tigre until about 2:30pm, had lunch and then wandered for an hour along the streets before heading toward the Museo de Arte Tigre.

I had heard the the Museo de Arte Tigre was the most beautiful building in the city and it did not disappoint. Not only is it beautiful, but we timed it right to enjoy the late afternoon sun warming it’s outer walls with golden light. My only disappointment was that I didn’t have enough time to explore inside.

We did, however, get to take in a beautiful dance performance. It may have been tied into an election speech, but with my intermediate Spanish, I didn’t really know what they were talking about. I was just happy to see the beautiful performances.

We stayed around the Museo de Arte for about half an hour wandering the grounds and watching the performers before walking back the same direction in which we had arrived. After crossing the bridge, and my feet being sore, we decided to take the Mitre train line back to Buenos Aires. It was packed, but luckily I was able to hop on the train at the front of the line and nab us two seats rather than standing for the 20 – 30 minute ride back. The other benefit of this was that I was able to get off the train at the Belgrano station rather than heading all the way back to Maipu and needing to take an hour long bus or 1/2 hour taxi ride home.

Overall, it was a beautiful day. I’ll likely do the trip again in my next few weeks here. If the weather stays warm enough I may head back to Peru beach for some water sports. And, if not, I think a trip to Tigre just to wander the Museo de Arte Tigre would be worth the 30 minute train ride.

Love at first sight Photo Essay: Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana Castle, Slovenia

In September 2014 I went on a spectacular tall ship sailing with Starclippers. We were scheduled for six ports of call and I was least excited about Slovenia as I knew nothing about it and knew no one who had been there. I decided that I would do the day tour to the capital of Ljubljana without really knowing anything about it. It’s actually one of my favourite things about traveling solo … you can do as much or as little research as you wish. I had done very little (none actually) on Slovenia. I like doing zero research because then I have zero expectations. Now, it doesn’t always work out for the best, as sometimes research can be a good thing, but this time, it was perfect.

After a couple of hours by coach from the seaside town of Porec, in land to Ljubljana, our group hopped out and started walking toward city centre. It was a crisp, sunny autumn day. The sun was shining, everyone was a little chilly but the fresh air made me feel alive. I can’t quite pin-point it, but every once in awhile I fall in love with a city and this one was love at first site. Immediately I noticed the beauty of the old buildings – a mix of various periods of famous architecture. I’m not a history buff so knowing the difference between Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque architectures is not my strong point, but whatever the mix is that presents itself in Ljubljana is undisputedly beautiful. Take a look for yourself from the Ljubljana Castle to the city’s dragon bridge, the detail, history and strength show through. The streets were old, steeped in history but wide and open, interchanging with newer style architecture. A large section of the main core is pedestrian only and the streets were impeccably clean. I had 2 – 3 hours on a group tour to learn about this lovely city, along with taking in a local lunch of sausages, wine and potatoes. The quick overview didn’t even begin to scratch the surface. It did, however give me the yearning to go back, not just to Ljubljana, but to Slovenia in general. Check out some of my favourite photos of Ljubljana below.

If you are interested in a Slovenian adventure, drop me a message. I’d be happy to set you up with an interesting small group tour, a tall ship sailing that has a Slovenian stop or help you with your own custom itinerary!

Incrediblue was incredible!

For those of you who may not know, I chose to visit Athens, Greece in October as I was already planning to travel in Europe and there was an exciting travel blogger conference being held in Athens. Since I was in the general area (i.e. the same continent), I decided it would be a waste not to go to the TBEX conference and see what it was all about. The conference did not disappoint!

After three days of networking, connecting with other amazing travel bloggers and vloggers, doing a few tours and taking in an amazing amount of information, I got a really fantastic opportunity that kind of rocked my world.

If you’ve been following along with my blog, you might be aware that I have fallen head over heels in love with sailing. I’ve always loved boats and being on or near the ocean, but I struggle with sea sickness, so it makes it a love / hate relationship.

During the TBEX conference, I had entered a contest with Incrediblue, lo and behold, when the winners were announced, I had been chosen as one of them. The prize, a four hour catamaran sailing experience with a handful of other winners, a spread of beautiful Greek cheeses and Ela Gold Champagne.

It was a grey, chilly day in Athens, but we all joined together to set sail for a few hours just off the coast.
The bloggers: Lizzy, Scott, Suzanne and Paula. We were greeted by three friendly crew members who would take care of us on board. They helped us navigate the ropes to get on the catamaran and showed us to the kitchen where we were treated to a spread of champagne, olives, crackers, cheeses and sun dried tomatoes.

In case you are not familiar, Ela Gold is infused with 24 carat gold flakes. I’m not much of a drinker, but how could I pass up something so unique! It’s not like I get to taste the richness of gold every day. I am far from a connoisseur of any kind of alcohol beverage (although I do love a good fuzzy navel!), but I have to admit that the Ela Gold Champagne was tasty and paired well with the local snacks.

Once we had indulged in champagne for breakfast, the crew navigated us out of our tight docking spot in the marina and off toward open water. Despite the blah weather, it was a lovely day for sailing. The waters were calm and visibility was excellent.

Our small group spread out around the catamaran; some chatting with the crew, others lazing on the netting (until they were warned that they might get a bit wet). I took a few minutes to just sit and take it all in at the front of the boat, the calmness of the seas, the wind whistling by, the smell of the ocean …. When it all comes together it is so very relaxing. How could you not love the freedom of being on the ocean? After breathing it all in, I got back around to mingling with the other bloggers, staff and crew.

Incrediblue is a really interesting company. They are somewhat like an agency for people who own and operate sailboats of all different shapes and sizes. It is kind of like the Air BnB of sailing if you will. If you are interested in a sailing vacation you simply sort through their inventory by location, date and size of the vessel and then you contact the crew to ask as many questions as you wish. It is a completely tailor-made experience. They operate mostly in the Mediterranean, but are expanding. You choose your ship with crew, your destination and length of time sailing. How cool is that?

I was chatting with the crew about sailing the catamaran and next thing I knew, I was sailing the catamaran! Just take a look at my face and you’ll quickly see how much I was enjoying my time on board. (Thanks Intrepid Escape for capturing my joy!)

I learned a bit about when to turn the wheel and how far, but I don’t really think I was very good at it. I didn’t really realize how quickly the wind changes and that you have to adjust for it constantly. After a few minutes of trying my hand at sailing, I gave the wheel back to the Captain as the winds were changing. The crew rushed off to change the sails and shortly thereafter we were headed back to shore.

Despite the grey day in Athens, the sailing trip was a great glimpse at what Incrediblue has to offer and yet another chance for me to get out on the water and enjoy the relaxing lilt of the waves and the wind in my hair. Also worthy of noting, one more sailing adventure without sea sickness! Preventative medication is king!