Embrace

It’s a natural thing, surely. People find comfort in familiarity. It’s normal to miss your favourite things, if you can’t get your hands on them wherever you are. But isn’t that part of the point of travelling, of living abroad?

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

People hear about Banff around the world and, when young adventurers get an opportunity to travel or work in Canada, it is a popular destination for them to choose. Banff is full of people from across Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, the Philippines, and countless other countries.

They (and I) have come to Banff, to this part of Canada, to experience life in the mountains, to get amongst the culture, to live a certain kind of lifestyle. Yet so often I hear about what’s missing rather than what’s here.

The cheese sucks, groceries are expensive, the fries are different, TV is worse … Often the exact same complaints I heard from North Americans in Australia. Surely the fries can’t be worse in both countries at the same time. It’s just different. And that’s the point. You wouldn’t have wanted to come here if it was the same as wherever it was that you just left.

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I’m not, by any means, saying I’m immune to this trend. I have most certainly wanted for things, and verbalised this, on my travels. I’ve complained about  Australian TV commercials, about Costa Rican cheese. Yet I have noticed the tendency to do this, in myself at least, diminishes with a greater leap in cultural differences.

Barbecue

It can be easier to compare and then – often – to criticise, when two worlds are, in so many ways, similar. For Australians in Canada, or vice versa, things can look very much the same. We speak the same language, have similar socioeconomics, and are, in the grand scheme of things, young Commonwealth countries. Then, when the cheese and the fries are different, it seems to have some real significance.

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Travelling El Salvador, or Morocco, or Vietnam, one expects everything to be different and is, I believe, more willing to embrace that. You’re not expecting the comforts of home, so you’re not as bothered when they aren’t there. You respect that this is a completely different culture, and you are there to explore it.

Hammocks

That’s not to say I haven’t heard complaints about the food, the transit, the relaxed view of time, or that I haven’t struggled with these things myself at times, but it’s less of a narrative.

Chicken Bus

So here’s the challenge. Wherever you are from, and wherever you may be going, whether it’s a different province, state, country, or continent … embrace. Embrace the people, the culture, the food and the drinks, the language, the traditions, even the weather. You’ve gone exploring for a reason, to see things and do things that are different. So when you get to somewhere and it is different, be thrilled that you found what you were looking for.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

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Coming Home

I am touching down on Canadian soil after one year, nine months, and two days away. It’s a different person arriving today, really, than the one that left almost two years ago.

Yogi on a Cliff

I haven’t cut or coloured my hair in almost a year, and I’m still living out of the same 60 litre backpack that I left with, though its contents have shifted a bit. My feet spent more time aching from long shifts at the bar, or overnight hikes in soggy trail runners, than from dancing into the wee hours in 4-inch stilettos. A lot has changed. And that’s just the surface.

Abel Tasman Since leaving home after high school, I have moved 17 times to 7 cities in 3 countries. For my university years, four months was the standard length of time to spend anywhere. After a year in Calgary in the same apartment, I responded to my itch to move in a big way and haven’t look back since. For a long time, this transience has been the only real constant.

IMG_1448 My first year was spent in Australia on a Working Holiday Visa; three months travelling, three months working in a tiny beach town in Queensland, and six months working truly excessive hours yet still managing to love life in Sydney.

Waddy PointDuring my year in Australia, I flitted between easy travel, working in a laid back beach town, splashing out on expensive sailing trips, and then buckling down for six months to somehow earn enough to travel for ten. Of course, I learned. Tangible things: how to bartend, SCUBA dive, repack a backpack in record time. And then the other stuff. I either learnt how or tapped into my ability to work extremely hard to reach a goal. I learned how to listen to my body after an injury when it was telling me I needed a break.

Dive & Sunset In those first few months in Australia, I met Tim. We’d gone our separate ways for a while, as we both had plans and adventures and things that needed to happen. In April, we both returned to Sydney and we jumped right in. Moving in with someone I’d spent about two weeks with was a decision that the freedom of travel allowed me to make. It would have been very easy to both think we should take it slower, or that things could go wrong, or that it was a bit crazy, but we did it anyway. I felt free to make the decision for a number of reasons. I didn’t have a network of friends on the ground who, for better or worse, would judge it. I was literally lightweight enough to move out at a moment’s notice if it all turned sour. We took a chance, because we could, and we wanted to. And it worked.

Car Those six months in Sydney were some of the fullest of my life – literally and metaphorically. I was incredible busy, routinely working 50 – 60 hour weeks which included 5:30 a.m. starts and 1 a.m. finishes. And I still managing to squeeze in weekend trips and after-work activities. Tim and I grew incredible close incredible quickly, and I developed fast and strong bonds with a number of people I know I’ll be lucky enough to know for years to come. Tim and his friends introduced me to an entire world of activities I had never even considered. Where, in the past, I would have spent my time with friends out at martini nights, shopping, at a cottage for a weekend, having moving nights, dancing at clubs, drinking sangria on rooftops … Now my weekends were full of rock climbing, hiking, and canyoning trips. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this undiscovered life.

Climbing - Wanaka 2 In October, a year after I had arrived in Australia, the real adventure began. I would be travelling for the next nine or ten months. My family visited for a month, and we had an amazing time exploring Australia and New Zealand.

Kata Tjuta with FamI returned to Sydney for a bit of relaxation and a lot of packing, and then Tim and I were off for a jam-packed month of adventure in New Zealand, culminating with an absolutely amazing family Christmas in Auckland.

20131213-IMG_5224 We were in Mexico in time for New Year’s Eve, and we spent the next six and half months travelling south, hitting every country in Central America, with a finale in Brazil during the World Cup.

20140618-IMG_0109 Saying it’s been an amazing trip, and incredible experience, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure doesn’t capture it. We saw things that surely must rival the beauty of anywhere in the world. We’ve done some of the most amazing things I could ever hope to do. Yet I know we will still be having such adventures for the rest of our lives.

Fuego Smoking And now, I’m not sure I’m ready to go home.

20140513-IMG_1638 I’m beyond excited to see my friends and family. I’m excited to be in a land that is familiar. To know how to ask for what I want. To understand, and to be able to communicate. I’m excited for hot showers, good cheese, and nice pillows. But I also know I will get my fill of all of those comforts very quickly.

Barbecue We are going to Canada, as it somehow seemed to become the place to go. Tim can get a visa and is excited at the prospect of work on a mountain. I’m meant to be putting in some career time – I’m sick of traveller jobs and want something more challenging, fulfilling. But now I’m not so sure. I had a moment, on my last flight, when it was taking off from Panama and jetting me to Toronto, when all I could think was, “Leave me here.”

Photo Credit: Tim Binks It’s not travelling that’s the hard part, it’s stopping. So the only way to survive the transition back to what many of us refer to as “the real world” is to think about it was the next great adventure. Have I lived in this place, worked at this job, known these people? This is what we, with our restless feet and our packed bags, must remember. We are always on the next part of our adventure.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Climbing Sugarloaf

Rio is a rock climber’s dream. From any vantage point in the city, countless sheer rock faces beckon, rising up from favelas and suburbs, adding a jagged edge to Rio’s beauty.

I would hesitate to call myself a climber. More accurately, I do a bit of climbing. I was only introduced to the sport a little over a year ago, and for half the time since then I have been travelling and have hardly touched a rock.

But here we were, in the city that offers probably the best urban climbing in the world. When we found out this includes the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain, we were chomping at the bit to do it. You know Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar in Portuguese). It’s that round, kind of pointy mountain that’s featured in nearly every photo of Rio.

20140714-IMG_2320Sugarloaf gets its name – are you ready for it? – from a sugarloaf. The shape which refined sugar was traditionally formed into. Like this. Not far off, I reckon.

Sugarloaf (the mountain) is easily accessible by cable car (official Bondinho website here). One car connects ground level to the top of Urca (which you can also walk to), and then a second car takes you all the way to the top of Sugarloaf. This method will cost you R$62 (about $30). And will be way less fun.

As we weren’t carting around the 20 kilo or so of climbing gear that would be necessary to haul our butts up the mountain, and also had no sweet clue where we were going, we decided to splurge and hire a guide. The opportunity to do the climb was too good to be missed.

After much googling, emailing, and researching, we opted for the crew at Climb in Rio to take us on our adventure. They let us know that Climb in Rio and Ancorauê Climbing are in the process of merging, so they are, for our purposes, the same.

Prices for a handful of different companies were pretty comparable, and Andrew at Climb in Rio got back to us quickly, answered all of our questions, was very professional, and chatted about the climb that would best suit our abilities.

Though most companies offer climbs all over Rio, we wanted to summit Sugarloaf, so that was the mountain we were focusing on. With over 50 routes on all sides of Sugarloaf, ranging from a North American 5.4 to 5.13a (and between 2 and 12 pitches long), Sugarloaf basically has something to offer to every climber. Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) has a useful climbing grade conversion chart here.

Italianos is one of the most famous routes on Sugarloaf, a 5.9 multipitch. Due to the fact that we hadn’t climbed in a while, and at best I would probably consistently climb at 5.10a on a good day, we opted to go with Andrew’s other suggestion, a 5.8 multipitch on the west face called Coringa, that included some unprotected hiking and scrambling, and then a handful of short 5.7 pitches to the top. Climb in Rio’s price for two people climbing with one guide for a half-day was R$600 total (around $300). This includes all equipment.

We waited a few days for the rock to dry off and then met Andrew and our guide, Eduardo, at the base of Sugarloaf at 8 a.m. After doing a quick gear sort, trying on shoes and harnesses, and loading up our packs, we were off.

We hiked the easy path up the base of Urca and, where it ended, jumped over the barrier and continued around the side of the mountain. After 10 minutes or so, we reached the beginning of our first pitch. Eduardo led the climb, I followed, and Tim picked up the rear, cleaning the wall of carabiners as he went.

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Photo Credit: Tim Binks

It had been awhile. Sugarloaf lends itself to balance, good footwork, and small movements. It was very different from most of what I’d been on before. It took some getting used to.

I had a rush go through me as I began to scale the wall. Despite being rusty, it was something akin to riding a bike: these movements were familiar. The rock felt trustworthy beneath my hands. I was doing it, getting closer and closer to where Eduardo had leashed himself to the wall at the belay station. At one point, I got stuck underneath a ledge, running my hands over the bumpy but smooth surface above me. There was nothing to hold on to. I knew what I needed to do but it wasn’t until Eduardo yelled, “Move your feet!” down at me that I mustered up the courage to simply try to walk up the wall, moving my feet bit by bit, and using my hands only to balance – there was nothing to grip.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Finally, I reached Eduardo and anchored myself, slightly awkwardly to the wall. When Tim reached us (much more quickly than I), we were crammed together around a single bolt. Eduardo took off again and, despite the fact that this pitch was harder, it came more easily. The rust was coming off.

20140714-IMG_2315We alternated between climbing and, thankfully for our aching feet, donning our running shoes to do a bit of walking/scrambling/crawling.

Not the least bit afraid while attached to the rope, as soon as I was asked to walk across some unprotected (and often slippery) stretches of rock, with a steep drop my only fate if I were to slip, I became a bit useless. I trust my feet a lot better if my hands are on the ground, and so that was the method I went with.

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Photo Credit: Tim Binks

On one of the final pitches, there wasn’t an established belay station, so Eduardo belayed us by just sitting on the ground and digging his heels in. “On this pitch,” he informed us, “It is best if you do not fall.” Considering that our very talented guide had free soloed a handful of the last pitches, we figured we could at least get up it without taking a bit fall.

Despite having chosen one of the easier options, the day was still exhausting. It was a triumphant but tired pair that finished the final pitch, with incredible views of the beaches and the ocean surrounding Rio. We consolidated our gear and hiked the rest of the way to the top. As we ducked under the guard rails, sweaty and carting a lot of rope, we got some funny looks from the well-dressed and very clean tourists that had arrived on the cable car.

20140715-IMG_2402We hardly cared. Literally grinning ear-to-ear from our accomplishment, we took a few minutes to enjoy the views from the top before riding down on the cable car (which is offered free to any hikers or climbers who need a ride down).

20140715-IMG_2526Eduardo was an excellent guide. I felt perfectly comfortable with his ability, he never rushed us during the climb, and he offered an interesting insight into carioca culture. He even showed us to one of his favourite restaurants after the climb after our request for lots of cheap food. Thanks to Eduardo and Climb in Rio for a truly epic day!

One of the absolute highlights of Rio, Brazil, hell – even the entire trip, this climb was a thrilling experience, a unique way to visit an established landmark, and a fantastic way to finish off our big trip.

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Border Crossing by Boat: Mexico to Belize

Our next destination was Belize. We got ourselves as far as Chetumal in Mexico where we had two options: continue our overland bus journey into Northern Belize or leave Chetumal on a water taxi and enter Belize directly onto one of the Northern Cayes, a handful of small islands found off of the coast. The second option appealed to us much more, so we organized ourselves in the morning in Bacalar and headed out to catch the 3 p.m. water taxi. Bacalar is about a forty minute drive from Chetumal, and inexpensive buses run several times a day between the two towns for 30 pesos per person. Taxis also make the trip, and if you catch a cab with a Chetumal label in Bacalar (or vice versa) they can end up costing about the same as the bus, as they have to make the return trip anyways.

We read in our sometimes-not-so-trusty Lonely Planet that immigration formalities have to be completed at the office in Mexico before departing, simply just ask your taxi to drop you off at the oficina de migracion. Bad advice. Doing this leaves you at an office on the outskirts of Chetumal, where there is nothing at all for you to do. The immigration formalities that need to be completed can be done directly before boarding the water taxi, and require no special effort.

Mexican Border

The water taxi leaves Chetumal and heads first to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, and then continues to Caye Caulker, which was our destination. The ticket costs 50 USD, and then there is an additional 10 USD “docking fee,” payable in cash and not featured on your receipt. We’ve heard since this is a bit of a scam, but I’m not sure how much of a fuss you could really put up about it. There is also a departure tax payable for leaving Mexico. If you have booked a return international flight to and from Mexico, the price will be included on your airline ticket, and you must present a copy of the receipt stating this in order to avoid paying it again.

We were loaded onto the water taxi, late, with a group of other tourists and all of the luggage. It took just over an hour to get to San Pedro, where everyone disembarked and passed through immigration. I’ve never been to an immigration office that has a sand floor before. No problems arose at immigration, and we were boarding a new water taxi bound for Caye Caulker shortly. Arriving by boat, with the sun long sunk below the horizon, to a foreign island was definitely a unique experience. We spent the next few days savouring the reggae beats, fresh cuisine, and permanently chilled out vibe of the caye.

Belize Immigration

Belize Immigration

In and Out of Cancún | Isla Mujeres

Lots of people go to Cancún. Millions. Cringing a little bit at the sardine effect of resorts along the main stretch of pristine, white sand that defines Cancún, we came and we left and I can’t even say that I saw.

Cancun

Anna is Tim’s old work mate from New Zealand, who is now living in Canada. She flew down to Mexico for about a week to visit, and we spent it on the Yucatan Peninsula. After a false start and a missed flight from Vancouver, we met up with Anna about twelve hours later than planned on the ferry dock to Isla Mujeres. Anna had been to the area once before and had suggested a trip to the island straight away. As she was escaping a dreary, if not overly rainy, Vancouver winter and the demands of a full-time job at PwC, we were happy to go along with the suggestion and log some proper island time.

Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is reached by an easy ferry ride from Cancún, tickets running 146 pesos round-trip. Isla Mujeres is a manageable island, though we only managed to explore the northern section of the island where we were staying; the south will remain a mystery to me. The island is known for beaches, sailing, diving, and snorkelling. The most popular beach is Playa Norte, which was close to where we were staying. The sand is almost pristine, the water clear, and the only real issue is that this (of course) brings the crowds and sometimes a patch of sand is hard to come by. Neverthless, we enjoyed our afternoon on the beach, particularly because of the slackline we set up. Despite my apprehensions of space and weight during our packing session in New Zealand, Tim had insisted on bringing along his slackline. It has been a consistent form of fun and entertainment, and always gets attention from locals and travellers alike, ranging from curious to enthralled. It’s a surefire way to make friends on the beach, though it became so popular that I think Tim only ending up spending about four minutes on it all told.

Slacklining

Photo Credit: Anna Wellington

We were planning on doing some diving in cenotes once we got further south, but neither Anna nor I had been diving in quite some time, and we both have problems equalising. We were keen to do a dive before the cenotes to get back into the swing of things. Tim discovered that Isla Mujeres boasts a very unique diving spot: the underwater museum. A number of sculptures have been placed in the water, designed to create an artificial reef. They are mostly people, and the sea life sprouting over the sculptures is just enough to begin resembling the crew of the Flying Dutchman from Pirates of the Caribbean. It was pretty surreal diving amongst the sculptures, which also included a Volkswagen Beetle. Our second dive on the trip was a reef dive where we were lucky enough to see a handful of puffer fish, lion fish, and two huge eagle rays.

Museum

Museum

We left the island with the next in mind: we breezed through Cancún for the second time, this time catching a shuttle down to Playa del Carmen where we hopped the next passenger ferry, this time destined for Cozumel.

All We Did in Puerto Vallarta was Rent a Car

We caught a local, second-class bus from Sayulita to Puerto Vallarta. There is a cheaper option than the longish-distance buses we were taking: these buses. They tend to serve smaller towns and not go as far, but you can certainly make your way around on them for the most part. The hour-long trip cost us 35 pesos each. Tim had picked up a surfboard in Sayulita and the plan was to sort out a rental car in Puerto Vallarta and spend roughly a week exploring the coast south and hitting a number of key surfing spots. Our limited online research for rental cars had left us a bit less than thrilled, as the prices seemed exorbitant and insurance policies fuzzy. We’d heard that the Mexican rental car insurance is a bit of a minefield, and wanted to make sure we were properly covered. We decided to pop into the airport in Puerto Vallarta to get some quotes in person. This helped us navigate the market a little bit, but it was essentially a waste of time. Walk in rates were around $30/day, including the mandatory third-party liability insurance. Online rates are cheaper, but you’ll still get hosed on taxes, airport fees, and the exchange rate. We ended up booking a car through Expedia, and a company called Fox Rentals, for 9 days and roughly 3800 pesos. The search came up with the lovely rental rate of 4 USD/day, but that’s definitely not what it boils down to.

Basic breakdown in USD: 28.10 for the rental, 179.82 for the mandatory 3rd-party insurance, 14.55 for the 7% airport fee, 35.60 for the 16% VAT federal tax = 258.07 USD which translates into 3,509.75 pesos at the rather abysmal exchange rate of 13.60. We also paid for an extra driver in cash, which was 24 USD and was the only part of it that seemed like a reasonable deal, particularly because of the fact that I am not yet 25 years old and should have had to pay a premium. We happily avoided paying for additional insurance (to cover damage to our rental car, theft, etc.) because I booked the rental on a credit card that offers insurance for rental cars, so long as you pay for the booking on that card. This is exceptionally helpful, and I recommend looking into whether your card offers similar coverage, as it saved us around 15 USD a day in extra insurance coverage. I also recommend doing this before you leave home / the day you want to rent the car, as I spent two hours on hold, with a flaky Skype connection, trying to confirm the details of my coverage. Certain American Express cards offer such coverage, and mine was offered through an MBNA MasterCard. Cards often offer lost baggage coverage, health insurance, and other benefits for travellers that you might as well take advantage of.

Most of our time in Puerto Vallarta was spent doing travel admin, but we managed to find a decent and reasonably priced (300 pesos for a private room) place to sleep – Hotel Lina on Calle Madero will offer all you really need. We also stumbled upon an excellent Italian restaurant on the same street. We bought the bare minimum of a main each – lasagne, as we’d both been craving a bit of comfort food – and were offered two lots of bread, a small entrée, and a handful of tiny biscuits and a shot of cinnamon liquor, all on the house.

Puerto Vallarta is a very popular destination for sun getaways for people from home, and I have no doubt you could have a very fun time there, sitting in a beach chair or on a balcony downing 2 for 1 margaritas, but it probably appealed to me the least out of anywhere we’d visited in Mexico thus far. You’d need to spend a little time there in order to uncover some of the local flavour, which is something I think most visitors miss entirely while they while away their hours inside their all-inclusive resorts. The ease and value of these packaged getaways certainly doesn’t motivate the majority of people to try to explore more of the “real” Mexico, as it would end up being more expensive with flights, accommodation, and food – and you wouldn’t be staying in a 5-star resort. It’s a bit of a shame, really, as Mexico looks exceptionally different and, in my opinion, exceptionally better, from the street, rather than from inside a resort.

Blue Agave

Ah, tequila. The source of so many questionable decisions, at the root of so much blame. Since my first visit to Mexico, in high school, I became enlightened about the varying grades of tequila and the sorry truth that, unless you’re willing to really shell out for it, most of the readily available tequila at home is utter trash. It also tends to make an appearance so far into the night, and after so many bottles of beer/wine/pre-mixed rye and cokes that the inevitable hangover that ensues is then blamed entirely on the tequila, and not the arsenal of liquors and sugars one had been consuming all night. I’ve always given tequila a fair go, so it seemed only right, upon learning of the existence of the town of tequila, to pay a visit.

Tequila is a couple of hours’ drive out of Guadalajara, accessible by bus from the old bus station in the city. As we drew nearer to the town, the prevalence of blue agave plants thickened. Tequila (and its closely related cousin, mezcal) are made from the blue agave plant. These spiky blue plants line the hillsides in neat, rolling rows, leaving the impression of a dusty blue hue as you scan the horizon. “Pineapples” are then harvested by jimadores, using primarily age-old techniques. These can weigh, on average, between 70 and 110 kilograms, depending on the region. These pineapples are then transported (now by front end loader, with questionable accuracy) into the ovens where they are slowly baked, and then crushed. The agave juice is what we are after, and the rest of it is waste or, depending on your particular distillery, recycled into feed, fuel, paper, or a myriad of other uses. Then the drink goes through the fermentation and ageing processes which, of course, vastly vary the product you get at the end.

TequilaTequila PiñasTequila Ovens

What YOU Need to Know About Tequila:

There are two main types of tequila, which are then broken down into several categories. These types are the most important part. There is 100% agave tequila, and then there is tequila mixto. 100% agave is, as you could probably guess, made entirely of agave sugars. Mixtos are made up of no less than 51% agave, and then the rest are other sugars – generally cane. Mixtos are also permitted to contain additives such as flavour and colour, further increasing the impurities of your drink.

If the tequila you’re buying does not say 100% agave, then it is not. It is mixed. It tastes worse, contains more additives, and will make you feel worse the following morning. Yes, that bottle of gold Cuervo Especial falls into this category. Both of these types of tequila can be aged, with the older becoming more complex in flavour, deeper in colour, and expensive in price. Añejo and Extra Añejo are the oldest varieties of tequila, with Extra Añejo being aged in barrels for at least three years.

With any alcohol, quality certainly differs from distillery to distillery and with age, but the vast range of tequila – from terrible, artificially coloured gold tequila mixto (which you can buy in this bit of the world for a handful of pesos) to extra añejo, 100% agave tequila (which will still run you hundreds of dollars in Mexico) the taste, experience, and quality is almost of another world. Not that I have personally had many (ahem, any) bottles of extra añejo, extra expensive tequila, but I have had some reasonably good stuff, and I can tell you that it does not even come close to that shocker of a drink I’d been exposed to for so long. Anyone in Mexico will tell you that tequila mixto is to be used for margaritas and margaritas alone, and even that can be questionable.

And if you’re not convinced that tequila doesn’t have to be a golden, liquid, hangover, come to Tequila. They will do their very best to convert you.

Cuervo