Loule, Portugal Carnaval 2016 – Photo Essay

When I decided that I would head to the Algarve region of Portugal, I hadn’t even considered the fact that I would be visiting during Carnival festivities. About two days before departing Amsterdam for Faro, I learned that Loule, a community inland was known for hosting the oldest and largest Carnival in the Algarve region. With it being only 45 minutes or so away from Albufeira, I would have to make my way there to see the celebrations!

I walked 20 minutes to the bus terminal on the outskirts of town and arrived just in time for the 10:10am bus to Loule. I jumped on the bus behind a man toting a Canada flag on his back pack and immediately struck up a conversation with him and his three traveling companions. Turns out, one couple was from Halifax, Nova Scotia and the other from Miramichi, New Brunswick. Small world! We chatted away through the 45 minute bus ride and in no time at all we had arrived in the little city of Loule.

I headed in to the centre of town which was about a 10 minute walk from the terminal. I made the obligatory stop at the information centre to get a town map and a couple of pointers and then I wandered around taking photos of the historical old town and observing local life for the next couple of hours.

By 12:30, it had started to rain and I had seen pretty much all there was to see in the historic centre. It’s a pretty small area. I headed for lunch and wondered what I was possibly going to do with myself until 3pm when the parade would commence. After an underwhelming lunch of rice and two small chicken thighs that the restaurant ‘called’ chicken piri piri, I wandered around a bit more and then sat down for dessert at La Boehm Cafe. The warm brownie and hot chocolate warmed my spirits up and left me more satisfied than the sad little lunch I had eaten.

By 2:15pm it was raining again (or still) and I made my way to the parade route with my camera around my neck, my backpack rain protected and my umbrella above my head. I was awkward at best trying to use my camera and an umbrella at the same time. Luckily I didn’t take anyone’s eye out.

By 2:30pm the streets were lined with locals and tourists and the floats were starting to fill with participants. Media had arrived to interview and film the oldest carnival celebration in the Algarve region and bands were warming up with their samba beats. The build up of music and energy was infectious and I stood on the street tapping my feet and grinning. (Don’t mistake the ‘tapping my feet’ for anything near samba dancing though!)

Right on time, at 3pm, the music blared and the streets came alive with energy and colors.
The rain had subsided momentarily and the drummers and dancers were getting the feel for the beat as the parade began. Confetti and streamers were already dancing in the wind, filling the trees, streets and hair of everyone around with colourful reminders of the day.

Despite the chilly temperature of about 14 degrees, not to mention the wind and misty rains, lots of the performers put on radiant smiles and shared their energy and love of carnival with the crowd. Having said that, there were quite a few who couldn’t muster smiles through the rain. Some of the kids were pretty cold and not so happy to be there. I chose to focus on the excited ones though, so here’s a look at Carnaval 2016 in Loule from my perspective. Hope you enjoy!

 

Life is unpredictable

Sultanahmet square

 

Sultanahmet square
Obelisk in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, where the suicide bomber attacked in Jan 2016. 10 people killed. 15 injured.

In the old city of Istanbul, adjacent to Blue Mosque, stands the Obelisk. This photo was taken only a couple of days after the January 2016 suicide bomber killed 10 people and injured 15 others.

I was not in that part of the city when it happened. I did not hear or feel the bomb go off. It was a strong blast, but was only felt in the immediate area. A week later, it looks like most of the world has already forgotten about it and moved on to other news.

I was in Istanbul, only a few kilometres away, when the bomb went off. My local friends immediately began messaging me to make sure I was safe and to tell me to stay home, or at least out of crowded areas. I was shocked and saddened, but not really scared.

After the bombing, I never once considered leaving the city because of the events. I actually didn’t want to leave at all. I felt like I had the opportunity to show people that expats are alive and well in Istanbul and it is not a scary place to be. Yes, there was a bomb, but you can’t just run away from what ‘might’ happen next. Unfortunately my visa was nearing it’s end and I had to leave the country or I’d be there illegally.

The truth is, our world is a scary place. There are terrorist attacks, bombings, traffic accidents, murders, thieves, plane crashes and incurable diseases. All of these things are unpredictable.

Life itself is unpredictable.

I know many people are scared to travel, but to what end? I cannot stress enough what a negative impact the media has on travel. So many people believe that the entirety of Turkey is a dangerous place to be. When, in fact, the only areas that have strict travel advisories are along the borders with Syria. The other communities and cities are every bit as safe as any other large city in any destination, such as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Buenos Aires in Argentina or Barcelona in Spain.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but cities are not safe … ever. It is just that simple. There is petty crime, tourist crime, murders and traffic accidents in every single city. Then there are the mafia, drug crime and bombs … the list of ‘bad’ goes on. However, the stats show clearly, that the number of people killed by terrorist activities are far less than that from traffic accidents. Many more people are killed from hand guns than bombings. And let’s not forget traffic accidents. If you are operating a vehicle in Canada, you are more likely to be killed than by traveling to Istanbul or Paris or Jakarta.

Perspective …  There is no advance notice of either a traffic accident or a bomb and therefore you can’t purposely change your location to avoid it.

In the end, what I am saying is that you shouldn’t stop traveling to an entire country because a bomb has gone off in one small area of one city. Avoiding all of Istanbul because of the bomb in the Old City is like avoiding all of Prince Edward Island because a bomb went off in the centre of Charlottetown. Is that reasonable?

Isn’t it also amazing that the CITY of Istanbul is the same area as the entire province of PEI? Holy!

With that in mind, would you avoid all of Atlantic Canada because a bomb went off in Charlottetown? No, of course you wouldn’t. That would be ridiculous. But, if you are avoiding Turkey because of the bomb in Istanbul or because of the problems along the borders with Syria, it is the same thing. Media would have you believe that Turkey is a dangerous place and makes it seem so small, but it is not. There are hundreds of kilometres between Istanbul and the capital of Ankara. There are hundreds of kilometres between either of those cities and the borders with Syria and Iraq. Don’t let media scare you!

I ask you to remember the innocent lives lost in these tragedies around the world (Paris, Jakarta, Istanbul, 9-11, hurricane Katrina … the list goes on), but please do not stop living your life because of unpredictable circumstances. You might stay home for fear of a suicide bomb, just to find out that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. You might avoid flying because of two recent severe turbulence incidents, just to end up in a car accident.

I don’t say these things lightly. They are spoken from experience and from the heart. I was in a plane crash in Fredericton, NB in 1997. I let that hold me back for over 10 years. For 10 years I missed out on incredible opportunities to see the world. I lived in fear of getting back on a plane.

I am here telling you that life is precious and unpredictable. Do not let your fear of the unknown keep you from living, tasting, touching, feeling all of the amazing things our great big beautiful world has to offer.

I am thankful to be alive. Thankful that my life has changed and that fear does not reign any longer. I am thankful to have been in the beautiful city of Istanbul to share my experiences with you first hand.

Travel. See the world. Enjoy the beauty that surrounds us on your own terms. Don’t let the unpredictable control your life.

With love, and passion for travel … from Istanbul,

Shari

 

My love of Turkish food – Photo Essay

Turkish Food - Pide

In 2014 when I started my nomadic lifestyle, I had no idea that I would have a love affair with Turkish food. But let me give you a bit of the background first. I started off in Italy, famed for it’s food and bored to tears with my options. Pizza, pasta, olives, cheese, wine and sliced meats were everywhere. With so many foods named after the cities where the were invented, how could you not love the foods of Italy? I felt guilty, but underwhelmed at the famed flavours of the country. After more than a week surviving on carbs, I felt like a bloated mess. I can remember posting on Facebook that I was craving vegetables as I hadn’t eaten any for what seemed like forever. Italy’s one redeeming factor for me was it’s gelato. You simply can’t go wrong with Italian gelato.

Nearing the end of my trip to Italy, I found myself daydreaming about the food that I would have in Turkey. I had only ever eaten Turkish food a couple of times in Halifax, but had loved it. And, I was familiar with flavours from Lebanon and Greece. I couldn’t wait to leave Italy to go to Turkey and eat. Seems a little backwards doesn’t it?

Luckily for me, the food in Turkey did not disappoint and now, after my third visit to the country, I can honestly say it is home to my favourite food (in general) in the world. It beats out Thailand, Peru and Argentina which are all known for great eats! Pide, Tavuk Sis and the traditional Turkish breakfast were among my favourites.

Here are a few photos that should ignite your tastebuds!

 

Galapagos Islands Photo Essay

In 2011 when I confirmed that my very first photo tour would be happening in Peru in February 2012, I said to myself, “If you are going all the way to Peru, you must go to the Galapagos Islands. It is so close. And, what if you never get back to South America?”

And so began my love affair with South America.

At that time, I really wasn’t sure if I would ever go back to South America or not. Four years later, with two Peru: Through the Lens Photo Tours complete, two trips to Argentina (one consisting of four months in the beautiful city of Buenos Aires) and visits to Uruguay and Chile … well, let’s just say I love South America.

I flew to Quito, Ecuador and then off to Baltra Island of the Galapagos Archipelago where I would do an independent tour with Bamba Experience. It was their first year operating in the Galapagos, so there were a few glitches, but nothing could dull the amazing beauty of these incredible islands and the locals who went out of their way to assist me in every way they could.

I visited Santa Cruz and Floreana islands. Someday, I’ll return to visit more of the islands, but, being on a tight budget, a short amount of time and wanting a land-based itinerary, my options were limited. None-the-less, I’m glad to have the amazing memories that I do from one of my favourite places in all of my travels.

Want to read more about my travels to the Galapagos Islands?
Check out these past blogs:
Floreana Island – Dolphins
Lifejacket Complication
Fresh Fish Feast
Swimming with the sea lions

Is the Galapagos Islands on your travel bucket list? What’s stopping you?
Send me a message, let’s chat about all of the great options for an amazing, educational and life changing experience for you alone, with your friends or family. I’d love to help make this dream come true for you! Drop me a message.

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.”

Love Letter to Turkey

Dear Turkey,

It’s been two months since I’ve seen you and I still remember the kiss of your crisp fall air on my cheeks and your mouth-watering cuisine. I remember your bright colors, rich history, your friendly spirit and the beauty of every sunrise and sunset that I saw over your sprawling cities and weather-carved landscapes. I remember feeling happily breathless as I floated above your valleys, wafting in your light breeze in a hot air balloon at sunrise. You wrapped me in your warm welcoming arms and took care of me like I was one of your own.

I know that your government is a work in progress, that many of your borders are riddled with controversy and that no matter how much you try to help the Syrian refugees, the backlash seems to be an on-going battle. I know that being a primarily Muslim country in a time when Muslim’s are being bullied and discriminated against is not easy, but you have been strong throughout history and I believe you will keep your spirit alive.

After hearing the recent news of attacks in Paris and Beirut, I checked with the (Canadian) government to see if I should be concerned about coming to see you again. They say that I need to be cautious, but that as long as I stay away from the Syrian border areas, that are no immediate concerns. In fact, the concerns are the same as those listed for many countries that I’ve visited before that many people think of as safe, such as Peru.

Ah. What a relief to know that as of right now I can return without any serious risks. And, unless this changes, I know we will get to spend some quality time together soon.

I know that Istanbul has been known for it’s historical, very powerful protests and statements from artists. I was also there when a bomb killed people in Ankara in October. I saw your tears and pain. I hope that your healing has begun and that you continue to fight the good battle.

As you go through these difficult times, try to remember that bullies exist everywhere in the world and you are not alone. There are those from outside who scrutinize your every move and broadcast it to the world through television and media. Some of their findings may come from the truth, but they twist and stretch it so much that it is often unrecognizable. Sadly, people too often believe what these loud voices are saying without seeing with their own eyes. Keep whispering your truths until enough voices join together that it drowns out the lies.

In order to survive these difficult times, you need to find it within yourself and your people to continue doing good. For every bad story that reaches outside your borders, make sure that you are creating 10 good stories. Not as many of these good stories will reach the world, but for the one that does, it makes a lasting impact. And, don’t forget that the other nine good stories have a huge impact on your own people and their spirit. Bad news is immediate, but feel-good news lasts longer in people’s hearts and minds. You are strong. I believe in you.

I may be far away at the moment, but I think of you often and dream of when we will be together again. I may even like to make you my home for a few months, despite the difficulties you are enduring. Just as people stand together and continue to visit Paris, I will do the same for you.

I hope that in a few short months I will be sharing your beauty with some of my friends and showing them how to look at the world through their lens. I hope that they will then share your beauty and fond memories of your warmth and hospitality with their friends in their own countries. I hope that by continuing to visit, by continuing to believe in a country that embodies so much history, culture and beauty, that it will help people to look beyond the loud voices and see for themselves what you are all about.

Until we meet again, may your call to prayer be unwavering, may your tolerance for one another be strengthened, may your caring hands take care of many in need and know that I will continue to share your culture with the world outside your borders.

With Love,
Shari

St. Pierre & Miquelon Photo Essay

St. Pierre & Miquelon, France

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Newfoundland and then St. Pierre & Miquelon with a friend for about a week. We spent a long weekend in St. Pierre & Miquelon just to check it out and officially say we had been to France.

In case you aren’t familiar, St. Pierre & Miquelon is just off the cost of Newfoundland, Canada, but is a French territory. The communities speak French, have divine French pastries and use the Euro as currency. It is indeed a tiny piece of France!

The islands are small and don’t offer a lot of tourist attractions, but we did manage to fill our time for three days. From hiking the trail to the top of a large hill to look out over the colourful community of St. Pierre, to a ferry ride and day tour of Miquelon and Langlade where we visited very friendly ‘wild’ horses.

My primary tip if you are planning to visit … make dinner reservations every single day. If you just arrive at one of the handful of restaurants, you will be disappointed as they require reservations. Also keep in mind that dinner starts at 8 or 9pm, as per the usual in France.

It’s a unique little spot in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. If you love French culture and cuisine, this might just be the place for you to visit.

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!

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!