Surfing Adventures

Surfing Sayulita

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

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

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

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

Surfing Sayulita

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

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

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

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

Surfing Sayulita

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

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

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

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

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

I responded with a nervous chuckle.

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

ALERT ALERT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travel Nightmares Part 4 – Night bus to Bocas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travel Nightmares Part 3 – Bus Station 1

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

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

And a long ride it was …

Travel Nightmares Part 2 – Hate

My luggage

In continuation of my Travel Nightmares Part 1 – Love, not everything went so well on my journey from Canada to Panama in December 2016.

While being pampered in Air Canada Premium Rouge class with extra snacks and upgraded food, I advised staff that I was supposed to connect to a flight to Panama but that it had likely already departed. They told me there were a few others on the flight with the same connection and that there was no current update, but we could talk to Air Canada staff after we cleared immigration, about any arrangements that needed to be made.

This is where my luck ran out and everything went downhill fast (or maybe slow would be a better description).

I was the third person off the plane and second person in line to go through immigration when we arrived in Kingston, Jamaica. The officer checked over my passport, asked me a few questions and asked for my boarding passes. When she discovered that my connecting flight had already departed, that’s where the real ‘fun’ began. She asked me where I would be staying. I explained to her that I needed to find an Air Canada rep in order to find that information out. I also told her that I was told there would be someone to speak to after I picked up my luggage (which was after immigration). She would have nothing to do with it. She told me she couldn’t let me pass until I could tell her where I was staying. I tried to explain my case again but no luck. I told her there were others in the same situation and that I thought they had already passed through, but she stood her ground. She kept my passport even though I pleaded to have it back and sent me to the back of the hall to an information desk where ‘apparently’ I could talk to ‘someone’.

The information desk was unattended, but I hollered ‘hello’ and heard an ‘I’ll be there.’ So, I waited. A nice lady come to the front, but unfortunately I wasn’t my normal chipper self, having just had my passport held and denied entry into the country that I wasn’t even supposed to be staying in. She called an Air Canada rep over the intercom no less than five times. Eventually a lady sauntered over (I’m still not sure if she worked for Air Canada or not). I explained the situation, including that I didn’t have any information on my connecting flight as we were just arriving and Air Canada had not given us any information. Further to that, I couldn’t get past immigration to find out if my flight had already departed or find a rep to discuss my situation. The lady was quiet. Not mean or unhelpful, just not very communicative. She made a couple of calls and told me that Air Canada had arranged for all of us to stay at Pegasus hotel for the night, but that we would have to call Aeroplan (because each of us were flying on points redemptions) to rebook our flights. Apparently we could do that after customs and immigration. She told me to bring my passport and come with her, to which I had to re-explain that the immigration officer held my passport and wouldn’t give it back.

Off the two of us went to the desk to get my passport back and sort this out. Except, the immigration officer didn’t just need where I would be staying, she also wanted to know which flight I would be departing on. Now, I understand that to be let into a country they want to know when you are leaving. This is a fairly standard rule. But, my frustrations were ever compounding because Air Canada had not rebooked my flights or provided any information. At that particular moment in time I was stuck in a country being denied entry, but also not able to make any further arrangements. And, I’m not in possession of my own passport. Of course they wanted me to call Air Canada Reservations right then to get flights sorted. Um no. I was not paying roaming charges from Jamaica to call Air Canada and wait on hold to sort this out. There had to be another solution. After all it wasn’t my fault that the weather was bad, the connections were missed and Air Canada left us to fend for ourselves.

The lady who was trying to help me disappeared without a word (would she return? I didn’t know). I connected with two of the other passengers who were just about to try their luck going through immigration. And then the lady came back, asking us all to come to one specific immigration desk. Except, the immigration officer still wouldn’t give me my passport. I waited for her to finish with the next client and saunter her way over to the other desk. One of the other girls who had been on my flight had actually been sent to a holding room without any information or her passport and she was just rejoining us.

In the end, we all made it through immigration somehow and were told to go to counter 41 after we had our luggage. There we would find a phone and could call the Air Canada rep to come out and talk to us about our hotel, transfer and hopefully our new flights.

You may remember in Part 1 I talked about how much luggage there was for all of the Jamaicans heading home from Canada after Christmas. Passengers had too much carry on luggage that was then put into checked luggage, plus, I’m sure more than half the plane had two bags (or boxes) per person. It was a steady flow of luggage coming along the belt, but it went on for an hour or more before they loaded the last piece. The other passengers that had missed their connection had gathered their luggage about 45 minutes into the process and left to see what they could find out about their flights and transfers. I told them I’d catch up as I suspected my luggage didn’t make the connection in Toronto and I would have to file a lost baggage claim.

My luggage
Last seen when I took this photo in Halifax Dec 29th at 3:45am

I waited for the belt to stop and the remaining bags were removed from the belt. Mine was nowhere to be seen, so off to the baggage counter I went. Go figure, it was unstaffed. I asked another staff member if there was an Air Canada rep around and she said ‘Ya, someone was here,’ and then turned her back to continue her conversation with a colleague. A minute later I approached her again and asked, as politely as I could after all of this, ‘Could you please help me find the Air Canada baggage rep?’ She sighed, started asking a few people and slogged off looking to see if she could track someone down.

When I turned around, there were now four or five others lined up at the Air Canada desk. A few minutes later, I jostled my way back to the counter when the rep finally arrived. I gathered the required paperwork to fill out and quickly returned it to the desk, anxious to get out of there and on to the next obstacle.

Although I was the first person to hand over my paperwork, somehow I was the second last person in the line to have my paperwork completed. Seems as though mine was more difficult, or maybe I had someone new working on my file. After a good 20 – 30 minutes at the counter, I was sent to stand in a line up to go through customs with a piece of paper saying my luggage had been lost. Thankfully they had created a separate line up for us because 100+ Jamaicans were still waiting in the customs line up to have their luggage approved for entry. I’ve seriously never seen so much luggage!

I had no issues at the customs desk, returned the piece of paper to the baggage claim area and made my way out the doors, officially into the heat of Jamaica.  Now the hunt was on for counter 41 where I hoped my fellow displaced passengers would be waiting for me, although I was a little skeptical as I had been well over an hour longer than them in the baggage area. After checking with the info desk, I was directed a few hundred meters away to the departures area where I would find counter 41 and my ‘pals’ waiting for me. Apparently they had come looking for me a couple of times but weren’t allowed back into the baggage area, so they just had to wait for me to appear. They had used the phone and spoken to an Air Canada rep who had told them that we would be staying at a different hotel, the Knutsford Court Hotel and we would all be transferred there as soon as I arrived. They had tried to make arrangements for their flights, but there wasn’t a phone available for use for that purpose, so it would have to wait until we got to the hotel.

Of course, the Air Canada rep had gotten tired of waiting for me (for over an hour) and had gone on break or to do something else and told the others to call through on the phone when I arrived. Because I already told you that the story keeps getting worse, it’ll be no surprise that dialling through on the phone line got nothing but a busy signal for the next 15 – 20 minutes while we continued to wait and had no contact with the rep and no way to call our transfer driver to take us to the hotel.

One of the other passengers went to talk to staff from another airline and ask for help. I asked one of the airport staff to help us and eventually the Air Canada rep appeared again. She called our transfer driver, introduced us to him and as we were about to load our luggage into the vehicle, she realized he wasn’t the right driver, so she re-introduced us to someone else. Gah! Seriously?

The five of us piled into two different vehicles and off we went in what we hoped were the correct vehicles, going to the correct hotel. We had touched down at around 4pm local time and it was now after 7:30pm as we were arriving at the hotel.

Check in at the hotel went smoothly, thank goodness as just about all of us were ready to burst from frustration. The hotel even offered to let us use the business centre phones to call Air Canada to sort out our flights for the next day. Unfortunately Air Canada and Aeroplan 1-800 numbers don’t work from International phone lines and they don’t provide a regular number. One couple had a travel roaming package for their cell phone, but that also wouldn’t help because the 1-800 number still didn’t work from Jamaica. Frustrations mounted even higher. We had really been left in the lurch.

I was slightly less panicked than the rest of the people as I knew I would be able to use Skype to call the 1-800 number. (One of the many useful pieces of information I’ve learned while being a digital nomad.) I told the others, but of course not all of them had Skype, or laptops. I offered for everyone to come to my room and we could try to do all of the changes at once, if the internet connection would hold.

One of the girls dropped by just as I was dialling Aeroplan as we had been advised they were the ones that would have to take care of it for us. We waited on hold for 1 hour, 16 minutes and 12 seconds (Skype shows me these stats). At about 45 minutes, one of the other girls came to visit and said that she had messaged her parents in Toronto. They weren’t able to get through to Aeroplan because of the long wait time, but they had gotten through to Air Canada and her flight was all taken care of for the next day’s departure. She was in the clear. As we continued to wait on hold with Aeroplan, I had the idea to call the travel agent line from Air Canada. Originally I hadn’t thought of it because we were told to call Aeroplan specifically. (Good thing I just did 10+ hours of Air Canada certification training to help my agency keep access to this special service line because it sure came in handy!)

Air Canada Certificate

About 30 minutes later, the staff at our travel agent line had my flight and one of the other girl’s flights all taken care of. There were a couple of glitches, such as the internet cutting out and dropping the call … but in the end, a second call, even with a different agent on the line and everything was sorted.

What a relief, right?

We headed down to have dinner at the hotel restaurant at close to 9pm and the last couple of people still hadn’t found a way to contact Air Canada as the 1-800 numbers weren’t working from Jamaica. I went and ordered my food and then came back to check on them to see if they had found another number. They hadn’t. I called the 1-800 number for them via Skype on my phone and advised there would be quite a wait time. I left them with my cell phone hoping the internet connection would hold and went back to have my dinner.

Unbelievably, an hour later when I was done dinner, the poor lady was still on hold. Actually, she had spoken to someone, gotten nowhere and was back on hold. It was a never-ending story for these folks.

I jumped on Skype on my computer while she continued to hold on my phone. I called the travel agent line again and had it sorted for her in another 20 minutes. Meanwhile she had still gotten nowhere with the phone call she had been on for a total of 1 hour, 42 minutes and 7 seconds.

What a disaster.

Finally, around 11pm, all five of us were sorted with new flights for the next day. Our transfer had been arranged and with any luck, we would arrive in Panama City 24 hours later than planned.

Just when you think the story has a happy ending …

With a good night’s sleep under our belts, we headed to the airport on time and there were no line ups to check in at the Copa desk (one of Air Canada’s Star Alliance partners). The first couple checked in with no problem. Done. Ready to go. The other two girls were at separate desks. One agent was asking for the girl’s proof of departure from Panama. At the other counter, the agent was telling the other girl that she could only check one bag and that her second bag would cost $125 USD to check through to Panama. This was after the bags had arrived in Jamaica without any fee. The real kicker on this though was that her second suitcase was full of items that she was planning to donate when she arrived in Panama.

At this point, my lost luggage was actually a blessing in disguise. Imagine! Since I had no luggage to check with me, I was able to check her second bag as my own for no cost. Problem solved … until they had difficulties finding my newly booked flight! Seriously, the complications just don’t stop!

I’ve got to say though, that between all of us being rested and in better state of mind and the Copa Airlines staff who were super helpful, these issues were handled much better than those of the very long day before.

While I’m now checking-in luggage for my new friend and the Copa Airlines staff are trying to get my ticket to appear on their system, the girl at the other counter is stuck with the same problem … her ticket won’t appear on their system. Thankfully the Copa staff were proactive and started talking to the manager, conversing with Air Canada and making sure it got fixed rather than leaving us to sort it out on our own. What should have taken five minutes for us all to check in, took 30+. A big thank you Copa Airlines for doing what it took to find the problems, correct them and get us all on that flight.

Fast forward …

We boarded the flight to Panama on time, it was smooth sailing and we finally arrived in Panama City. I was hoping that my luggage would have been sent on the same flight routing as the day before and that just maybe, it might be on the baggage belt with everyone else’s. No such luck. I waited until the end of the luggage unloading and then went to baggage services just in case they had marked it and pulled it before it went around the belt as it would have been traveling unaccompanied. Again, no luck, but they gave me phone numbers to call and check on the status.

This incredibly long story started on Thursday, Dec 29th, 2016 when I left my sister’s house at 3:15am. Tonight as I’m writing the final few sentences, the fiasco is still living on with me as my luggage is currently MIA. It’s now Monday, January 2nd at 11pm.

I’ve been able to confirm that it was *supposed* to be sent to Kingston, Jamaica on Dec 30th. Not much of a confirmation as no one can tell me if it actually arrived there or not. I’ve been authorized by Air Canada to spend $100 USD on essentials which they will reimburse me for. And, I’ve been advised to call back in 24 hours. Apparently, although they take all of your contact information (at home, in destination, hotel address and phone number, email addresses) they tell me that I will not be contacted with an update on when to expect it to arrive. It’s still my job to continue following up. In fact, the agent’s exact quote was worth noting ‘You’ll definitely be contacted sometime maybe, but you should call back to follow up.’ #CustomerServiceFail

Air Canada and Aeroplan, if you are reading this … all five of the customers (including myself) who have gone through this ordeal deserve an apology, some kind of compensation for the hours of hold time, stress of being at an unplanned destination overnight, being denied entry into the country with little to no assistance and left to rebook flights on our own. So much of this could have been avoided if our flights were proactively rebooked for the next day and the information had been communicated to the staff in Kingston, Jamaica. Since hotels arrangements were made for each of us and that was communicated … I’m left wondering why the flights weren’t?

And, because it’s January 2nd and I’d like to start the year on a positive note, I’m very thankful to be in Panama City (finally) and have met a couple of great new Canadian friends! Although sanity was lost during the process, new friendships have been gained.

Ever had a travel nightmare of your own? Did you file a complaint with the company / companies involved? Did they ever respond? Leave me some comments!

Travel Nightmares Part 1 – Love

Air Canada Premium Rouge Menu

Anyone who travels regularly has had the unpleasant experience of delayed flights, lost luggage and bad customer service combining into various kinds of travel nightmares. Sadly, this is just part of the travel world. No matter how much preparation you do, you can’t control the weather, mechanical breakdowns, human error or just plain rudeness. All you can do is try to approach it all with kindness.

Errrrrr … hmmm ….

Great advice right? I tried. Really I did.

I’ve been delayed for flights before. I can recall a time when I was leaving for Asia and my flight was delayed due to fog in Halifax. The flights from the night before hadn’t arrived, so we couldn’t fly out. Mass chaos ensued, but being a travel agent, I managed to get a flight later that day with a different routing. United Airways was telling everyone no flights out of Halifax to anywhere for five days as they were booked solid, but I found the options that they were not willing to look for.

I’ve had flights delayed and ended up staying over in Houston, TX on my way to Belize. I’ve had flights cancelled in The Philippines due to political conferences and had to rebook. I’ve been diverted to Quebec city on the way home from Mexico only seconds before landing in Halifax.

I’ve lost my luggage on the way to Peru, on the way home from Mexico, while traveling to Namibia and most recently, on my way to Panama.

You’d think I’d be an expert at things going wrong. But, let me tell you, no amount of travel experience prepares you for all of those things happening in one day and being met with unsympathetic and unhelpful people.

On Dec 29th, 2016 I woke up at 2:45am to gather my last few things before my 3:15am pick up from the lovely folks at One Stop Limo. Thank goodness they are reliable because it is about the only thing that went right all day long! I arrived, got my luggage tags, checked my luggage which was thankfully under the weight limit and cleared security in a jiffy. All the signs of the beginnings of a great trip!

Flight 603 to Toronto for 5:25am boarded pretty close to on time and pushed back only about 10 minutes late to head for de-icing. All normal for traveling in Canadian winter. The flight was smooth until we started our initial descent into Toronto. The captain had warned us that there was weather moving in and that we might hit a bit of turbulence on the way in to land. We did indeed begin to feel a bit of turbulence, but really quite mild all in all. We took a couple of big turns and just as I was beginning to think that we had done a full circle, sure enough the Captain came over the speaker again to advise that weather had moved into Toronto earlier than expected. Snowfall had accumulated and they were clearing the runways with a backlog of traffic waiting. He went on to explain that we had initially been asked to hold for 20 minutes (hence the couple of big turns we had done) and had just been advised it would be 40 minutes. I really appreciated that he was keeping us up to date on what was going on because otherwise my mind gets extra anxious and wonders if something is wrong with the plane. He said we would continue holding for the next 20 minutes and if we were not cleared to land at that time that we would divert to Montreal because we would not have enough fuel to continue holding.

Errrr … mmmm … Not quite so happy to hear of a lowish fuel situation, but at least we had a plan.

Sure enough, another 20 minutes passed and we had not been cleared to land, so after stalling for nearly an hour in the skies above Toronto, we made another turn and off to Montreal we went. 35 minutes later we touched down turbulence free and taxied in to a fueling stop. We had time to check email and connecting flights. At this point, my connecting flight to Kingston, Jamaica had been delayed until 11:30am … there was still a tiny chance that I might make it.

Snow in Montreal

Another 45 minutes or so passed while we refuelled and then the Captain advised that traffic had started moving at the Toronto Airport again. Up, up and away again for our hour long journey back to Toronto. We were supposed to touch down in Toronto at around 7am local time. Instead, we were arriving at around 11am local time.

The staff on board the plane that day were apologetic about the situation, kept us very well informed and advised that there would be staff and a manager on hand at the gate to help all of us with our connecting flights. This was far more than I expected. Despite all of the delays and difficulties, until this point I actually felt it had been handled as best as it could be.

I waited my turn to disembark from the back of the plane and checked that my connecting flight was still delayed to 11:30am. I jumped the long line up of people (sorry people!) to quickly ask the staff if I should run for my gate or wait in line to be rerouted. With a couple of phone calls and a special note for fast security clearance (just at the doors between terminals), she told me they were waiting for me and sent me running.

The Toronto airport is too damn big! Although I set off running, that didn’t last for long seeing as I hadn’t run for at least eight months, plus I had 20lbs of camera gear and another 10lbs of laptop, paperwork and treats etc with me (Thanks for the M&M’s for Christmas mom!). I did what most people do, run, walk and try to catch my breath, run, catch my breath and then make sure I run to the gate so it looks like I ran the whole way. Come on, you do it too!

I got to the gate, went to the front of the line, panting, and said that I was there for the flight. The guy tells me ‘We just started boarding.’ Ug! I ran for that? I thought they were holding the plane for me. Then he tells me that they removed me from the flight because I wasn’t supposed to make it. And, that the flight is full so he would try to find me a seat but couldn’t guarantee it. Gah! I ran for that?

So, I put some money in a machine for a drink of water and ended up with ice tea. Go figure! Not even the vending machines worked right.

I watched priority boarding trickle through and then the masses of Jamaicans with soooo many kids and sooo many carry ons, form a huge line up for boarding zones 3 and 4. Then, my name was called. They had indeed found room for me. Lucky me, it was with priority boarding and in premium rouge class. I went to the front of the priority boarding line and boarded the plane. I sat my ass down in seat 1C, the very front of the plane. My luck continued as there was also room in my overhead bin for my carry on items. About 10 minutes after I boarded, they were already telling people they could not take their roller bags in cabin as there wasn’t enough room in the bins. People were not happy being told that they would have to check their large carry on items. Of course, many hadn’t packed carefully enough for that, so they were unpacking their roller bags to find medications, insulin, duty free, breakables and valuables that they didn’t want checked. What a mess. In all fairness though, this was not Air Canada’s fault. Let me tell you, people returning home to Jamaica after Christmas had a lot of luggage!

Finally, once everyone was on board and doors were closed, I could breathe a sigh of relief that I was at least getting out of the craziness of Toronto and the Canadian weather!

With a piping hot face cloth served up by the flight attendant, I washed the stickiness from my face from my Olympic sprint through the Toronto airport. I’m sure I should’ve received a medal! We were given tablets for our viewing pleasure, a menu to choose our meal option and our choice of orange juice or water … All before take off!

I went for the omelette with goat cheese and sausage. Let me tell you, the upgraded meal was a pleasant surprise! I’ve been known to skip plane meals all together because they often turn my stomach. This, however was served up in hot plates with lovely cutlery, a cloth napkin and tasted like real food instead of mystery mash.

After lunch, with another round of beverages, we were served warm, salted nuts and a choice of chips or a chocolate bar. I didn’t even crack my own treats while I was on the plane.

It’s hard to decide if the price of flying Premium Rouge is worth the extra cost or not, but for me it was a free upgrade and I truly thought the service was great. Good job on Part 1 Air Canada.

Oh wait. Then my luck ran out. Full Stop.

To be continued in “Travel Nightmares Part 2 – Hate” – coming soon.

Feel free to share your sympathies and commiserate with me in the comments!

 

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

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!

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

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

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

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seems simple enough.

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

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

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

Be kind.

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

Isn’t that the big question?!

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

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

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

Believe or die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Boca, Buenos Aires – Photo Essay

La Boca Patio, Buenos Aires

One of Buenos Aires best known barrios is that of La Boca. One of the poorest barrios in the city, sadly, riddled with crime and poverty. However, amongst the difficulties, there is an area of several streets showcasing some of the most amazing art of the city.

Buildings were constructed with whatever materials were available and often painted with left-over paint from the boats coming through the harbour, hence the variety of colours and materials used for the buildings.

Although, still struggling and not a safe area alone or at night, the tourist district of three or four main streets is a big tourist attraction for the colours, the history, the tango and milonga shows, food, and most of all the art. You can also find great food, museums and markets for all of your touristy spending pleasure.

Please enjoy this little photo essay of the area: