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

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

How to Visit Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer

As one of the most-visited sites in Rio, it should be reasonably straightforward. However, you can avoid a lot of confusion and a lot of standing in line by knowing a couple of key things about visiting Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain in Rio.

20140713-IMG_2298First of all, I know you are going to see the statue, not the mountain, but most tours, transport, and shuttles will list Corcovado, so if you see that, that is where you want to go. Second of all, make sure you keep an eye on the weather. There is no point in visiting the statue on a cloudy day, and the weather in Rio can be quite volatile. The transport companies will not inform you (until you are already halfway up, and have already paid) if the visibility is good or not, so it is your responsibility to judge it.

Here are your options:

1. Train. The official Corcovado train leaves from Cosme Velho. You can take several buses (or a taxi) to get to this point. The 583 from Copacabana or Ipanema, the 422, 498, 569 or 583 from Largo do Machado. The train costs R$50 round trip and includes admission to the monument. It is possible to buy your tickets online ahead of time here for R$55 which allows you to pick a train time and skip the queues. When we attempted the train option, we arrived at around 7:30 a.m., stood in line for an hour, and were informed the next available train wouldn’t be departing until 11 a.m. Granted, we were there in the midst of the World Cup, but the monument is almost always busy, and $2.50 is worth a few hours of free time in Rio, in my opinion. If you don’t buy ahead, just go early.

2. Direct Van. This was the option we ended up taking after we gave up on the train option. You can take a van directly from either Copacabana or Largo do Machado to the top of Corcovado. The cost is R$49 round trip during high season (and you save the bus fare as well). It is also possible to book tickets and a time slot online, giving you the ability to skip the queue (they won’t make this obvious, you kind of just have to butt the line and show your voucher. Website here.

3. Van From Cosme Velho. While waiting in line for the train at Cosme Velho, you will likely be approached by private van drivers offering to take you up, and telling you the wait for the train will be hours. They may not actually be feeding you lines, as in our case it was perfectly true. This van ends up costing about the same as the other options, but you do have to wait in a second queue at Paineiras, about halfway up, which could (or could not) negate any time savings.

5. Hike. This Trip Advisor entry gives great details on the hike up to entry of Corcovado. There is still an entry fee at the top. I have heard that there are relatively frequent robberies on this trail, but that weekends do have stationed guards. Do some research on the current situation before you choose this option.

All in all, despite the hordes of tourists you will be doing it with, Christ the Redeemer is an iconic site, offering unparalleled views of the city, and I’m happy we took the time out of our day and the money our of our pockets to make the trip up Corcovado.

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Jungle Ruins

The next morning, we travelled from San Cristóbal to Palenque. Palenque town is a bit dusty and a bit unremarkable, at least from the small couple of corners that we saw. Palenque ruins, on the other hand, are completely remarkable.

We travelled by taxi from town to a campground along the road to the ruins. There are numerous campgrounds, cabañas, and hotels in between town and the ruins that offer excellent, jungle-y escapes for as long as you want to spend in the company of howler monkeys and an abundance of magic mushrooms – I’ve heard the area is famous for them. The following day we woke up to rain, and thick clouds as far as we could see. We nevertheless stuck with our notion of heading to the ruins early, and we’re quite glad that we did. We were among the first to arrive near the entrance, mostly accompanied by people ready to start work in the shops, restaurants, or ruins themselves. Poncho sales were in full force that day. Though not normally the keeners of the tourist group, Tim and I were there before they opened their gates at 8 a.m., bought our tickets, and were the first ones through the door. Accompanied by a slight drizzle and thick grey skies, the ruins of Palenque emerged to us out of the mist, rewardingly missing the crowds of tourists who would descend on the grounds in a couple of hours. Bundled up in raincoats and shorts, we wandered the grounds of the ancient city, scaled the crumbling stone fascades, and admired the views of the surrounding jungle.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Palenque is one of the most amazing archaeological sites I’ve been to, for a number of reasons. The ruins themselves are impressive, and less restored than many of Palenque’s counterparts, which to me adds to the magic, if not the grandiose effect. The are also very accessible; roped off areas are few and far between and it’s not an issue to scale temples or explore the innards of palaces. The setting itself is amazing, as the ruins rise out of thick surrounding jungle. While Mexico and Central America offer no shortage of Mayan ruins, I’m very happy that we put Palenque on the list.

PalenquePalenque

Zihuatanejo

Zihuatanejo had been explained to us as one of the coastal communities that had managed to avoid the mass of development that had hit Ixtapa, Puerto Vallarta, and other ocean-front cities in Mexico. One person described it as what Puerto Vallarta was 25 years ago – still very Mexican, very local, very authentic. Well, I didn’t visit Puerto Vallarta 25 years ago, but I’m not sure I would go that far. Zihua is still very touristy. True, it is not overrun with high-rise all-inclusive resorts, but you’re certainly not overwhelmed with the local flavour of it all. The town is quaint, with day-time being relatively quiet (it’s still very hot in January) and the action heating up as the day cools into evening. There are your token stretch of beach-front restaurants, overpriced menus, and tourists sipping Coronas and margaritas at every one. As you go a couple of streets back into town, the prices drop, but the town is still surprisingly standardized: the shops are all in rows, built in the same style, with uniform signs hanging above the footpath (think coordinated mountain town, Canada.) If you go far enough (which isn’t really that far in this very walkable town,) you find the markets, one of the highlights of Zihua. From butchers breaking down hanging carcases, to juice bars towering with mountains of fresh fruit, to the very questionable corner selling quesadillas, you can find pretty much anything you could imagine for a quick meal or a feast at home in the markets. Spilling out from the edges are a number of other fruiteria shops and cheap clothing stores. Good bakeries (panaderias) are not a shortage in Zihua.

Zihua

The beach right in front of the main town isn’t terribly lovely for lounging, but it is probably the most interesting, as it is where the local fisherman still operate from. There are countless, almost identical, boats crowding onto the beach, among storage containers for gear, supplies, and paint. If you wander past after a haul has come in, you can see locals bartering over the fish spread out along the beach.

Zihua Beach

If gorgeous sand, a beach lounger, and a couple of blended drinks is more up your alley, it’s worth making the trip to Playa La Ropa. It’s ony about a 20 minute walk from town, but it does involve going up and down a rather decent-sized hill, which for comforts’ sake should probably be avoided in the middle of the day. The alternative is to take a quick and cheap local bus. The walk, though not spectacular, does offer some nice views of the town and the bay.  It also demonstrates, a bit more than the other part of town, the strength that the tourism is gaining – the hillside is lined with resorts and condos for sale. I had the good timing to arrive at Zihuayoga in Playa La Rope just as a class was starting, and enjoyed doing some downward dogs in the open-air studio facing the ocean. After that, I went for a quick stroll along the waterfront. The beach is covered in restaurants and lounge chairs, basically as far as the eye can see. You can get roped into anything that you want here, really – food, drinks, massage, water activities … I didn’t wander too far down, as it looks as though the same idea is just continued down until the end. As a place to hang out for the afternoon though, Playa La Ropa’s soft and beautiful sand would be hard to beat.

We also opted to visit Playa las Gatas, accessible most efficiently by boat from town, for 40 pesos round-trip. The beach is packed full of restaurants, luring you in with loungers, chairs, and umbrellas. We walked the full length of the beach to the end, where the restaurants stop, and found a patch of sand to lay our towels down on. The snorkelling was pretty average, but we saw a few colourful fish hanging around boat moorings and coral. The boat ride to the island was probably the highlight.

Playa las Gatas

Our next stop was Puerto Escondido, which required a bus transfer in Acapulco. We weren’t able to buy our tickets for the second leg of the journey from Zihua, so we hoped for the best and boarded a bus to Acapulco, which would deposit us in the city at about midnight. The bus we needed to catch left at 2 a.m. Luckily, when we arrived at the bus terminal, the ticket windows were open and the transfer happened pretty much seamlessly, which was more than we were bargaining for. We arrived in Escondido in the morning, and had a couple of days to explore the legendary surf spot.

The Road

So we’ve covered where we’ve been, but a big part of the adventure was the in-between. Isn’t there some famous proverb/quote/life lesson to that effect? It’s the journey, not the destination … that sort of jazz.

We’d been advised not to travel any parts of the road at night, with bright and early in the morning being ideal road trippin’ time. There were a couple of reasons for this. Primarily, the area is known to be patrolled by members of gangs involved in the drug trade, and there has been increasing violence and organised crime in the area. Secondly, and perhaps no safer, is that fact that speed bumps seem to be a highly sought after addition to any town in Mexico. The sheer number of speed bumps we sailed over would be difficult to estimate. I do feel a bit sorry for the shocks on our rental. The good speed bumps come with plenty of warning, have yellow stripes painted on them, and are a reasonable disruption to the road. We came across far too many, however, that were hiding in shadows, with no signs foreshadowing their existence, that were large enough to threaten knocking the entire front axle off of the car.

Along with the speed bumps, there are the general road hazards you would expect. They somehow became more dangerous than they would have, seeing as the great majority of the highway was in great shape – it lulled you into a false sense of security. Then you would come across large piles of rubble, entire chunks of the road missing, traffic coming head-on down your side of the road with no signs warning you, and craters in the centre of the road large enough to fit the entire Nissan we were driving. We also learnt its infinitely easier to ignore road signs when you don’t understand what they are telling you, which doesn’t necessary equal safety.

Driving

This stretch of Mexican coastline is incredibly beautiful. It’s dotted with beaches of all sizes, from tiny deserted coves to large sweeping arcs. There was consistent surf pummeling into the sand and the rock below us, as the road snaked the rocky coastline above. One of the prettiest beaches we stopped at was Playa Maruata. It actually snaked in and out of rocky headlands to create three distinct beaches. We swam from one, around a rocky outcropping, to another, timing our excursion well to avoid the rather menacing waves rolling into shore. On the way back, we were less lucky. I managed to get absolutely pummeled by a huge set of waves, barely clawing my way back to shore before the last literally knocked me off of my feet in about shin-deep water. When we looked into the beach in our guidebook after this little episode, we realized the beach that we had decided to swim at was known as Playa de los Muertos – Beach of the Dead – due to its strong rips and huge waves. This was a kindly reminder of the strength of the ocean, and I’ve since been spending a lot of time in the water, practicing my wave-evading abilities, with much-needed coaching from Tim. I will reiterate I grew up in the prairies, and oceans are a relatively new concept for me.

Playa de los Muertos

Not too long after that beach, the rumbling in our tummies grew to a rather obnoxious level and we started scoping the roadside for a promising lunch spot. We made a last-second pull-in to a restaurant on top of a hill, with incredible views down the coast. There was already a decent-sized group eating at one of the four outdoor tables, and it turns out one of the men recognized us from Sayulita, a town we’d been at a few days previous. We had a nice chat with them, during which we were convinced to try the oysters. This was another restaurant that didn’t have a menu, and when she came to me the options of pescado or camarón, I chose fish, as I’m not a bit fan of shrimp. We were unsure of what form our pescado was going to come in – fillets, fish tacos, fried? The delicious and gigantic oysters were a promising sign though, and the full fish that arrived in front of each of us didn’t disappoint. The meal ran us a reasonably steep 300 pesos, but for a dozen oysters and two fish, we still felt as though we were doing alright.

Oysters

Fish

As we neared the end of our meal, a truck full of armed men pulled up in the parking lot of the restaurant. This is not a particularly uncommon sight in Mexico, but normally the men in the back of the truck are adorned with police or military uniforms. These men were in plain clothes. There were a tense few minutes as the men scoped out the parked cars, chatted on a radio, and surveyed the groups assembled at the restaurant. The table of locals spoke with them amiably, but they had, quietly, become more alert. The kids continued to run around and play. When the truck drove off, it was as if the assembled group breathed out as a whole, and the tension in the air lifted. Backs got a little less straight, jaws relaxed. When we asked our local friends who the men were, we received a wry smile and the comment, “They are the police.”

Tim had another, slightly more sinister-feeling incident on his way back up the coast while he was stopped at Ticla. It involved an odd combination of barking dogs, American surfers where they shouldn’t be, and people in cars in odd places at odd hours. He wasted little time heading out of Ticla at a rather unreasonable hour to avoid seeing where it was all headed. A couple of rather thorough military checkpoints later, and he was safe and sound back in Puerto Vallarta, with time to catch breakfast before dropping off the car and catching the long bus back down to me, in Zihuatanejo. He smashed the massive drive out in an afternoon and a morning, and thankfully managed to avoid any real problems. I was more than relieved to get a message from him that he’d arrived in Puerto Vallarta.

This coast is an outstanding bit of Mexico, and it is relatively lightly trodden on by tourists. The unfortunate truth about a deteriorating security situation calls for keeping a sharp head and your wits about you, but does not mean that Michoacán and the surrounding areas should be bypassed.

Sayulita Dreams

Logistics. We were heading in the general direction of Puerto Vallarta. But we really wanted to go to Sayulita, a small surfing town about an hour north. We would have to drive right by the turnoff to Sayulita in order to get to Puerto Vallarta, but no buses operating from Guadalajara had an option to go to Sayulita. We could just turn right around upon arriving to Puerto Vallarta and get a bus back up north, so it wasn’t a lost cause, but we were lucky. I asked, but apparently didn’t get my point across, so we just piggybacked onto another couple that alighted at the turnoff to Sayulita, a couple of kilometres from the town itself. We luckily saw a taxi straight away, and completed our mission to disembark early.

We turned up at the Sayulita trailer park, located right on the beach. Next door there was another campground, but for the sake of security, power, and a real shower, we opted to pay a slight premium for our very own trailer site. We were paying 300 pesos a night, which isn’t particular cheap for a campsite, but Sayulita tends to have rather inflated prices, due, in part, to the large number of expats living there. Tacos ran closer to 20 pesos than 7, you could grab a smoothie for about 40, a cappuccino for 35, a margarita for 60, and a meal in a cheap restaurant for around 100. A number of holistic health and wellness practitioners operate out of the small town, charging essentially what you’d pay in the States for their services – aaround 60 USD for massage or acupuncture. Surfboard rentals were in the neighbourhood of 10-15 USD an hour  / 30 USD a day. This is the first place we had been where English had been even remotely prevalent, and it was everywhere. Signs and menus were printed in both Spanish and English, and the majority of people we dealt with had a reasonably grasp. Despite the influx of (mostly North American) toursits and expats, parts of Sayulita are still pretty hard to beat. We were lucky enough to have an amazing set of neighbours, Raime and Jen, a Canadian/Australian couple who worked in the film industry in Vancouver and opted to spend half their year, every second year, in their Volkswagen bus in Sayulita, along with their young daughter, Chia (sp?). They more than helped make us feel at home, offering us lights, bananas, and even a surfboard (for Tim) to use. They regaled us with travel stories; we of thoughts on what was to come. They felt a twinge of jealousy and the itching of the travel bug they had scratched far less since having their daughter (though they’re still doing a pretty damn good job). We admired the life they had cultivated for themselves and the freedom with which they decided to live. There was also beach, there was sun, there was surf. Our uncertainty of how long we would say stretched into four nights as we enjoyed finally relaxing for the first time since we’d arrived. Both Tim and I had a day of average health; I think we were both a bit run down from the last week (the last month, really). And some shrimp tacos didn’t really agree with Tim’s system, the first unpleasant experience either of us had had with the food or water. (For reference, the water in Mexico is generally not safe as drinking water. We have a Platypus GravityWorks water filter that is probably the most useful bit of gear we’ve brought, and it lets us drink the water essentially everywhere. This is thanks to extensive research by Tim, so don’t bother doing your own. Ridiculously easy to use, gravity-operated, lightweight. You can bring just the bits of the kit you need, we make due with the dirty reservoir and the filter.) We became regular patrons of Orangy, the juice bar in town (I recommend the Surfer’s Brunch) and tried out most of the taco stands along the street that has all of the taco stands on it. The one next to Falafel & Friends is more local – we may have ordered “head” one night. There is also tongue on the menu. Burrito Revolution is awesome. Eat as many fish tacos as you can. Fish tacos and smoothies – the Sayulita diet. And that was essentially it. With plans formulating for the stretch south down the coast, and a new surfboard under Tim’s arm, we set off to Puerto Vallarta. Sayulita