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

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.

Hamacas in Maya Mérida

We had a couple of days in between Palenque and when we needed to be in Cancún to meet Tim’s friend, Anna, so with little research and the promise of “a lovely colonial town” we booked an overnight bus to Mérida. We killed several hours in Palenque, wandering around, eating, and playing cards before our 11 p.m. bus departed. In Mérida, we wandered a bit before tracking down some nice accommodation close to the main square, which happened to include an amazing breakfast (and, as an added bonus, we got breakfast on arrival because it was still morning when we checked in.)

Mérida was the first city we visited on the Yucatan Peninsula, and it has a strong Maya population. This was immediately noticeable: people of Maya descent look markedly different than the rest of the people we have seen in Mexico. The food we encountered in Mérida was different again, and included Yucatan specialties such as stuffed cheese, turkey and lime soup, and a type of cornbread stuffed with meat and cooked in banana leaves. We also encountered the intense world of hammock sales.

Everyone in Mérida wants to sell you a hammock. And they “don’t buy to sell,” they will most often tell you they make their selection of hammocks themselves, in the small village they live in outside of the city. A number of Maya co-ops also exist, selling a selection of wares including, of course, the famous hammock.

Hammocks come in a number of sizes: single, double, matrimonial, and “family size.” These are designed to fit different numbers of people, of course, and the number of people depends entirely if you’re working on “Maya size” or “European size.” For example, we were told that a family size hammock could fit up to eight Mayas, and probably closer to three Europeans. Tim and I played with the idea of getting a hammock, because if you are going to buy one, this is the place. There would be no option but to get family size, just for comfort’s sake. In general, it’s a good idea to take any salesperson’s words here with a grain of salt. We were told that we should be after sisal hammocks, and were then shown many hammocks that were apparently sisal, as this natural agave fibre was traditionally used and creates the strongest and most comfortable hammocks. Upon further research, I’ve found that sisal hammocks are apparently very rare to nonexistent nowadays, and are also quite uncomfortable: sisal feels more like rope than anything.  Most natural fibre hammocks are now made of cotton. There are also nylon hammocks that are popular and less expensive. We were also told numerous times about a days-long Maya festival that would be starting that evening, and closing off the entire street. All of the shops were closing early for it. Well, the shops never closed, the street was never blocked up, and no festival atmosphere emerged. The same story was heard the following day, though this time it did actually eventuate with a street closure and an outdoor concert. Along with the hammock research, I found similar stories of festivals and early shutting hours – generally, I imagine, just to make the timeline to buy a bit shorter to add a bit of pressure.

These are most certainly transactions you should be bargaining on, as most salespeople ended up at about 1/4 of the initial price they quoted us, and we weren’t even that serious about shopping. Do not buy at the first place you find, make sure to try out your hammock, and make sure you’re comfortable with the price. Some hammocks were being quoted prices of 4000 pesos initially (400 USD) while others started at 1000 pesos. I wouldn’t want to pay more than about 300-400 pesos for a family-sized, cotton hammock. In the end, we decided to avoid the temptation of owning one of the beautiful, colourful, and comfortable hammocks, as it would be months before we saw it again and who knows when and where we’d have occasion to hang it up. One day, when a backyard or a balcony is a solidi presence in my life, I’ll have to make a trip back to Mérida, the epicentre of hammocks.

The rest of Mérida passed without much incidence as we wandered the streets, browsed the markets, and sampled the food. Lovely but not captivating, we were excited to move on to the coast and meet up with Anna.

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

Colonial San Cristóbal

A quick 12.5 hour overnight bus ride from Puerto Escondido and we had officially left the coast behind and arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. San Cristóbal is a stunning highland town that retains much of its colonial architecture. You are never at a loss to find places to eat or drink, the markets are incredible, and it’s all plunked among hills in highland Mexico which equals a literal breath of fresh air.

We’d gotten in the habit of, upon arriving to a city, booking our bus out. This habit is the cumulation of a number of factors, namely that the online booking system for the bus line we used the most in this part of the country does not accept international credit cards, travel agents (if you can find them) charge a premium, and we often ended up making the trip back to the bus station before our departure to buy a ticket, which is clearly a waste of time. The trouble with this is that it means making a blind call about how long to stay in a city. For San Cristóbal, we decided two nights, as we’d heard great things, and this was basically the maximum amount of time we could spend here while remaining on track.

I’m happy we didn’t sell ourselves short. The town seems like the kind of town where everything should be jumbled into place, radiating out from the main cathedral, but it’s not. The city is easy to navigate and is built on as close to a grid system as you’re going to get here. The main cathedral dominates the main plaza, and artisan markets – the best we’ve seen, by far – spring up next to two churches a few blocks away. Real de Guadalupe has a large pedestrian section and is crowded with eateries, shops, and bars. The streets are all ridiculously charming, and simply wandering around put me in a fantastic mood. The hills surrounding, a couple with churches perched on top, are less daunting than they appear to climb – despite the altitude – and offer outstanding views of the town and the hills and the surrounds.

San Cristobal

San Cristobal Hills

The markets were amazing. It seemed to be a quiet market day when we were there, as many of the stalls weren’t occupied and the crowds were thin. Nevertheless, the array of goods available was truly outstanding. Unlike many a Mexican market, it was clear to see exactly where most of the products were coming from, as the stall-keeper was often creating more as they sat and waited for approaching customers. The prices were significantly lower than what we’d encountered elsewhere, so much so that it was almost impossible to barter; the value of the goods already exceeded what they were asking – in North American terms at least.

We got into a discussion during one of the evenings, on a rooftop, over wine. There is a huge amount of money tied up, for each of these vendors, in inventory. As they sit and create more goods while minding the market, this is only exacerbated. If nothing was created, at all, it would probably take a year to sell all of the completed work sitting in that market. This isn’t an ideal business model, of course. The solution to this isn’t easy to come up with – do you sell to shops in town, form a co-op, try to figure out how to export? There are a number of established shops in San Cristóbal selling artisans’ work as well, from boutiques to co-operatives, at a scale of different price points, all higher than in the market. Is this better or worse or the artists themselves? For the community? I bought something from one stall, minded by a young boy. He asked for 60 pesos, I offered 50 and he said yes. He then stared at the 50 peso note as if it were the largest amount of money he’d seen in a while. I don’t know how long 50 pesos would last a family, how much wool they could buy with that. I don’t know what it really means to them. We’re going through about 500 pesos a day, each, so it seems like a nominal amount. But the cost of living there, even compared to much of Mexico, is so much lower, that these amounts really make a difference. I’ve got a Bachelor of Commerce degree in my back pocket somewhere, and have become increasingly interested in micro finance and international development, at least in theory. But when you actually look at a situation, and try to start thinking about how it might be improved, it becomes fraught with difficulty. Who are we, for one, to decide if it needs to be improved in the first place? Our western view of efficiency and effectiveness does not and should not translate to many countries in the world. Yet surely, there are talented and hardworking people, who are struggling to get by, who need not struggle, if only the whole operation were to be rearranged a little bit. And like this, we talked, in circles, until the wine was gone.