Monday, 24 December 2012

Ukraine - A Hidden Gem in Europe

Since leaving Moscow I have reverted back to my role as tourist. And what more unlikely place to go next than to Ukraine, right? When you think about Ukraine what do you think of... is it more like Russia? Or Europe? Is it even in Europe? What's so special about it anyway???

These are questions I asked myself upon my arrival in Kiev. I literally had no ideas or opinions about this country and didn't know a single soul who had been there. And it's never in the news. During the Kiev walking tour when the guide began talking about the Chernobyl disaster, I stupidly interrupted, asking "but isn't Chernobyl in Russia?"

This is the ridiculous level at which I underestimated this country. It is also the ridiculous level at which it impressed and exceeded my expectations. I was lucky to meet many locals and was able to learn a lot about Ukraine. Some of them also kept me well fed, legitimizing a comment made by someone on my train from Moscow to Kiev: "in Ukraine you will never go hungry."
Maidan Nezelezhnosti - the main square in Kiev
Ukraine was there before Russia
Ukraine may have lived in Russia's shadow for much of the past century, but Ukraine was actually the birthplace of Russian culture. Moscow was founded by a Ukrainian, Yuri Dolgorukiy, who is now buried in the famous Lavra Monastery in Kiev. Much of Russia's culture also originated in Ukraine. Russian's famous food is borsch soup and they also have a famous candy called korovka. But both of these originated in Ukraine.

Today Ukraine's linguistics are split between Ukrainian, mainly in the west, and Russian, mainly in the east and in the south, in the Crimean Peninsula. The vocabularies differ by about 25%. Most native Ukrainian speakers know Russian but not the other way around. Kiev, the capital city consisting of about four million people, is also the most bilingual.
Kiev claims to be the most romantic city in the world. They also love cats. 

Recent History
Unfortunately, the past century has not been kind to Ukraine. WWII is called the Great Patriotic War by ex-USSR countries and only encompasses the time of Soviet conflict with Germany. Ukraine was a major battleground and was under Nazi occupation for several years. Most of Kiev was flattened, but not just by the Nazis. The Soviets destroyed Kiev's main street, Kreschatyk, to prevent the Nazis from having it.

Stalin, probably the worst dictator in history, targeted Ukrainians in order to squash potential uprisings. He stripped them of their lands, and starved them on three different occasions during his regime. During the Stalin era, famines killed up to 10 million people, mostly Ukrainian. He also outlawed religion and blew up many churches and cathedrals in Ukraine.
St. Michael's Cathedral. Blown up during Stalin era. Rebuilt in 1989. 
At 01:23 on April 6, 1986 (I think!) the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, not far from Kiev, experienced a meltdown, causing an explosion with the force of 100 of the atom bombs which hit Nagasaki. Many brave people have died or risked their lives in the following months and years, bringing the reactor under control, then contributing to the cleanup of radioactive contamination. This tragic event serves as a reminder not to let such a grave disaster ever be repeated.

Grab Bag
Ukrainians invented the art of painting eggs. But while they paint them during Easter, they don't hide them for children to find. That only happens in North America.

Rich and lonely men come here to find a bride (what are you looking at me for?). There was even an advertisement for a bride service on my tourist map. I heard stories about men paying for messaging services to would-be brides, then coming to Ukraine only for the woman to never show up. While this is not something to boast about, it at least shows that the world thinks its women are beautiful.

Bomb shelters were built in Kiev starting in the early years of the Cold War. Today they serve as one of the deepest subways in the world.

Single women occasionally get together and participate in fun and games to determine their future husband. One such ridiculous game is to carry water in your mouth from one house to another. Along the way, men try to make you laugh and spit out the water. Then you have to mix your water into some kind of porridge. A dog then chooses which porridge to eat, and if your porridge is eaten you will be the next to marry.


Ukraine may be overlooked in North America as a travel destination but definitely not by Europeans. It has a rich history, proud people, and is tucked away in truly eastern Europe sitting by the Black Sea, making it an awesome summer destination. For tourists, it is relatively easy to enter the country and everything is cheap.

If you visit Ukraine, come in the spring, when the hazelnut trees bloom in magnificent colours and fill the city with its aroma.

Flickr photos:

Monday, 10 December 2012

My Adventure Through the Moscow Metro

Despite the fact teaching English took up most of my time, there were many other things I managed to see and do in Moscow. To write about my entire experience would be silly, so I will focus on one specific goal: to visit as many Moscow Metro stations as possible and to photograph them.
Arbatskaya Station - beautiful design and decor 
This project meant a lot to me. For the reasons I stated above, and for whatever other reasons, I am still not sure exactly. But I pulled it off and did the best I could, all in one day in which I spent nearly 6 hours straight below ground, shuffling from station to station, packing and unpacking my tripod and camera, and finding the perfect photo opportunities.

There were many obstacles to overcome over the 6 hour period. I wanted to take all my photos with a tripod because lighting is not always good underground and indoors, and because I wanted to capture the beauty of each station as best I could. But I soon learned that noone is allowed taking pictures in the Metro with a tripod.
Shortly after I took this photo, guards approached me and told me I cannot take photos in the Metro. I continued to do it anyway and was told this at five different stations in all.
Aside from avoiding the guards I had to keep calm and composure among swarms of people flowing to and fro of me, some giving me the evil eye. In addition, these difficulties discouraged me from changing my lens, and using my tripod at all times. I also took more time at each station than I thought I would, thus, visiting less stations than I anticipated. However, one day of this adventure provided both enough excitement and stress, and I will not be photographing any more stations.

Statue in Ploschad Revolyutsii Station 
These photos aren't professional, nor are they meant to be, nor still are they anything special. But to me they are special because of the effort I put into it, and so I hope you will enjoy this album, learn some cyrillic, and, above all, appreciate the beauty of the Moscow Metro.

I have uploaded about one third of all my photos taken in the Moscow Metro:

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Learning, Languages and Laughter - An Alliterative Love Story

The train ride to Kiev was rather long, the window filled with monotonous, fleeting, snowy landscapes. I managed to get some shuteye in my four bed sleeper compartment but, aside from that, it was far from boring. As a forward looking person, I should have been excited about new adventures and about being on the road again. But my mind was still taking in the past month spent in Moscow teaching English. This was an experience, like all experiences on my trip, new and exciting. However, this past month was on a whole other level and probably, overall, the best and most unforgettable experience in my life.
The Kremlin in Moscow at night
 My situation could be described, as simply as possible, like this: on a help exchange website I found an opportunity to teach English. Despite some hiccups in obtaining a Russian Visa, I found myself in Moscow. I was given free accommodation and a Russian tutor, all for teaching English 5 days a week and requiring no training on my part.

Teaching English without experience is as challenging as it sounds, and this challenge threw at me just about all I can handle in one month. In fact, despite being fluent in English, I had to learn its rules from scratch, something which, on day one, the students had more knowledge of than me. It's shocking to realize how little you actually know about the language you've spoken all your life, especially when you are being corrected by your students! But once I familiarized myself with the rules, and got past the in-class embarrassments (and of course with the help of my charming sense of humour), I took charge, becoming the master my pupils were looking for, converting their contempt into admiration, and channeling my invaluable experience as a first language English speaker into their spongy, thirsty minds, while providing an entertaining learning environment.
Some chicken scratch about things the class wanted to learn 
Every class became more and more fun, and we grew closer day by day. It helped that it was a very informal teaching atmosphere, and that the students really enjoyed playing ESL games that encouraged conversation. I even adapted many popular ones from North America such as Taboo, Scattergories and Jeopardy. Overall, my time with my students transcended the classroom atmosphere, becoming not only a place to learn, but also a place to gather as human beings, to share cultures and to share laughs.

If any sore spot can be found in this experience it was in dealing with the managers of the institute that hired me, a mother-daughter combo. Despite the fact that they provided me a rare and invaluable opportunity, they were still, at their core, greedy, heartless people. They ran their registered non-profit organization like a shady business, perfecting the art of corruption, profiting excessively, neglecting their duties and, above all, treating us with no respect nor showing regard for our well-being. They constantly pushed us to conduct more classes or promote their organization, putting us in an awkward situation between them and the rest of our colleagues. The teachers became used to using words like "bitch" and "hate" when the subject of their bosses came up. Despite only staying one month, I got caught in the web of negativity and sent them a brutally honest e-mail condemning their business practices and also themselves as human beings.
One of my extra duties sprung on me was a doing a presentation at a language
festival. I spoke for 40 minutes in front of at least 100 people!
Their looming omnipresence in my daily affairs really polarized my perspective of the organization. However, in the bigger picture, their business model provided an ideal setting which both teachers and students thrived off of. It is a model that should be replicated in other language institutions, with the exception of the neglect of the volunteer teachers. (Who knows, maybe it's something I could venture into in the future.)

Besides the business of teaching, I was constantly stimulated in Moscow, acclimating to the big city, learning about Russia and its culture, and of course the language, meeting cool people and making new friends. However, the most valuable wisdom I gained from the past month was the power of languages to bring people together. Teaching English makes me want to teach everyone else who has the passion to learn it, and learning Russian makes me want to learn all the languages of the world. And the people you meet who share this passion also share an open mind to different people, cultures and new experiences.
Seven-twelfths of my class on the very last day 
Back on the train to Kiev, you could see how crowded my mind was with thoughts. One thing I reflected upon was many people's curiosity whether I spoke Chinese or any other languages. I shamefully had to answer regrettably no, just English. However, though it's now too far in the past to lament the loss of my native language, and not pursuing more French in high school, it's never too late to fill a clean slate, such as my mind is.

I hope I can continue to build upon my Russian, get back to learning other languages in which I have a basic understanding, such as French and Spanish. If my experience teaching English truly left a footprint on my memories, I will walk the fulfilling path of teaching and learning languages for a long time to come.

Special thanks to my roomies Anais, Katie and Mathieu. You guys were mature, kind, and just plain super awesome people! Best of luck in Moscow and I hope to see you guys again in the future.

Photos of Moscow:

Also - blog and photos of Moscow Metro:

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Inspiring Encounters

My travels have evolved constantly since the day I flew out of Canada. It started out with a mix of culture shock and adaptation to life on the road. After finding our groove, Amy and I blazed a tourist extravaganza of museums and attractions, ending each day with pained feet and backs, ready to collapse into bed. Consequently, we started to find a better balance, building in more rest time and partying, phasing out touristy stuff. By the time Amy left, we were both pretty sick of the touristy stuff.

Slowly throughout this process, I have realized the true power of travelling lies within the people you meet along the way, which cannot occur in a typical "vacation." This aspect of the trip has become the highlight of my travels. I have met some truly wonderful people and the goodbyes have become much harder and harder.

This blog is dedicated to these people. Below are some anonymous stories of people I have met that are inspiring or just plain awesome, and whose memories will last beyond the touristy stuff such as The Louvre or Colosseum. There really have been too many great meetings to mention them all, and I apologize if I omitted you from here.


Amy and I, after walking around lost in 30 degree heat, weighted by our entire travel packs, finally found our campsite in a small Spanish town, teeming with people in anticipation of La Tomatina, the biggest food fight in the world. Eventually we found our two Couchsurfers but then, somehow, our group swelled into a formidable mini United Nations (3 Americans, 1 Romanian, 1 Japanese, 1 Danish, and us 2 Canadians). What followed was a Sangria-laced preparty, a wild tomato fight the next day, followed by rest, and dinner out with more Sangria, all with the same crew! As diverse as the crew was, everyone was fit in their own unique way and we had a flawless time together. Amy and I visited many of them in Spain afterwards. I intend, hopefully, to meetup with some more of them later on in my travels.

Olive oil tasting at
Salone del Gusto
It started out as two Aussies, one American and I, sharing a cute apartment-style hostel. The beautiful views and relaxing atmosphere at Cinque Terre really brought out the best in each of us. We shared in great chats, first over well-cooked food, then later on the beach. One of the Aussies and I decided to move on to Salone del Gusto, the annual Slow Food convention in Torino, which the American already left for a day earlier. We convinced another American in our hostel to come along with us.

The Aussie was an incredibly thoughtful, passionate and sympathetic person. We discussed our shared disgust for genocide and mutual shunning of technology. The American was one of the most ambitious people I have ever met, becoming a rock climbing instructor and moving out of the house at age 13, being a cook of diverse cuisines, managing her own cafe, managing her own catering gig, studying for two math-related degrees at one time, and living in a common-law relationship with her husband in a 5-acre home, growing organic vegetables, and she is just 23.

The 3 of us had a great time together and was also rescued on two of the nights spent in Torino by a wonderful Couchsurfing host, who impressed us with his cooking, his wine, and, also later on, by his mature outlook on life and the way he lives it.

Truffles! The big one
probably cost more than 500 euro
On the train to the annual truffle convention, near Torino, two ladies seemingly lost, asked me, possibly because I did not look Italian, if they were on the right train. They were heading to the same convention, so decided to follow me. They asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Italy. I returned the question and it turns out they are from South Africa, one makes jam and runs a cafe, and the other spent some time on a well-renowned organic farm and wrote a book about her experiences on it. I expressed my interest in working on farms in the future and, upon hearing this, they genuinely invited me to work on their farm sometime! Now I just need to find a cheap flight to Cape Town.

Upon boarding my train, I noticed some people talking in English, not sure if the train was going to Budapest. I confirmed this. One of them got on the train and, later on, swung by to inform me that we will have an unexpected transfer due to construction on the tracks. We decided to stick together so that we could either make it to our destination or get lost together. We started to chat and it turns out she is about to embark on long term travelling in India. I discussed my travels and eventually found out that she knew the Couchsurfer I am staying with in Budapest, and even once lived on the same street! When we finally arrived in Budapest, she guided me from the train station, by bus, right to my Couchsurfer's doorstep and we wished eachother best of luck in our travels.

Waiting for this Couchsurfing host outside his flat, I noticed another evident traveller, heavily clad in backpacks on his front and back, coat bulging with even more possessions underneath, holding a guitar case, and, strapped to one backpack, a whiteboard reading "Budapest." I knew at once he must be some hardcore hitchhiker with many interesting stories. It turns out he was waiting for the same host, who wouldn't be back for a few hours, so we sat down somewhere to eat and chat.

Well, to call him interesting is an understatement. He is travelling around the world with no money, relying on people's generosity in exchange for human connection and interaction, and is writing a book about it along the way. He plans on hitting up all 6 major continents this way. We chatted not only about his adventures but about eachother's pasts and philosophical beliefs. I gave him two of my bananas to quell his hunger. This man was truly inspiring and I genuinely hope he achieves his goal safely.

The host's place was filled up, with three other Couchsurfing parties joining the penniless man and I. The host himself was a sage among travelers, having hitchhiked to some far out places. You can't imagine the conversation between him and the penniless man about how to hitchhike through Afghanistan and Pakistan, or from Russia to North America. Among the guests there was also a German guy who is a celebrity in China because he married a Chinese woman and, together, rode a 125cc motorbike across China. In the morning I cooked eggs with truffles for everyone, and was rewarded with Hungarian homemade jam.

While in line to check-in for my flight to Tampere, Finland, an old man began talking to me. He lived in Tampere and offered me a ride to the train station so I could be on my way. On the plane I found him and sat next to him and his wife, who couldn't speak English. He talked about Finland and skiing, and I about Canada. I learned that 75% of Finland is covered by forest! After we landed in Tampere, his son picked us up and, on the way to the train station, we talked and exchanged useful info for eachother. After dropping me off, I soon discovered I left my phone in his car, but not long after, the son came back with my phone, thank goodness!

You, my dear, are the last but most special to me of all the meetings. As it started out, I couldn't leave your hostel, it was the most homey one I have stayed at in all my travels, thoughtfully laid out and ornately decorated, luring you to sit down, then discouraging you from leaving. Being in your company was fun and, above all, came easy and felt completely natural. It was a short stay, but only on my second day, I felt that maybe we had a special connection. On the third day, come time to catch my flight, I couldn't bear to leave and experienced my hardest goodbye.
I am not exactly sure if your feelings toward me were mutual, or if the future holds anything in store for us, but I do know that I intend to visit you again as soon as my Schengen rules allow it, wherever in Europe you may be.

Ironically, I just heard one of my favourite Linkin Park songs and feel it is appropriate to conclude this blog with its lyrics:

Weep not for roads untraveled 
Weep not for sights unseen 
may your love never end 
and if you need a friend 
there's a seat here along side me...

Latest photos:

Sunday, 28 October 2012

A Not So Typical Day

I have some more free time these days so I thought I would share the experiences of my past 2 days to give you a more intimate idea of my travels. Of course I picked the most trying times of my travels to blog about, simply for your entertainment!

OCT 27
I spent the day at a truffle convention in Alba. On the way there I helped two nice ladies on the train, lost and looking for the same event. We got to know eachother and in the end they invited me in the future to work on their farm in South Africa! They really were quite exceptional people and have got me seriously considering their proposal.

Later on at the truffle convention I met up with someone whom I had made friends with over a few glasses of wine the night before at Salone del Gusto, the Slow Food annual event in Torino. It was a wonderful day stuffed with truffle history, and samples of wine and olive oils, but no free samples of truffles, since they cost around 4 euros per gram! I was not planning on going back to Torino so I had everything I possessed with me. That is, a large backpack, a smaller but equally heavy backpack on my chest, which contains my laptop and camera gear, and a bag with some food, among other Salone del Gusto paraphernalia. I had to lock up my large backpack at a bar adjacent to the station. Fortunately I have many locks with me, so I secured my bag to a radiator and locked the zippers together.

After the event I had to go to Budapest and decided to get there fast and cheap. There was poor train access from Alba, also Wifi is rare to find anywhere in Italy. Fortunately I had looked up my itinerary the day before, all there was to do was ask where the bus stop in Alba was. I ended up taking a bus to Asti, then from there took four different trains: to Tortona, to Milano, to Mestre (just outside Venice) and finally to Trieste. At Milano, I nearly missed my transfer to Mestre because my arriving train was late. I had to "sprint," although it was more like an awkward trudging, all heavily laden with backpacks and gear, to catch my next departing train.

OCT 28
I landed in Trieste at 2:30 am. Coupled with the daylight savings I had an extra hour to kill in the dead of night in a small town at the extreme east end of Italy. The train station was occupied by many homeless people in sleeping bags or under blankets. One was awake and approached me gently. A bit scared, I gave him my change, which was less than one euro anyway. Once outside the station I found a hostel I previously mapped out. But when I got there it was closed so I ended up wandering the empty city in search of a place to loiter safely. Meanwhile, the wind started to severely howl and rain started to sprinkle the concrete and asphalt. I was wearing my warmest clothes: just one thin Marmot jacket over a t-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees. I ended up finding a karaoke bar to chill out until 4 am. I went back to the station where I managed to slip in a few hours sleep on the cold marble floor. In hindsight, showing up to a hostel in a small town past midnight had been a horrible idea.

After waking up and inquiring to the now open ticket office for trains to Budapest, I learned that trains did not run out of Italy towards Budapest, except for a circuitous route back through Vienna, which only ran as an overnight train. How ridiculous! Fortunately I found buses leaving soon out of this godforsaken town. However, the best route, which was through Slovenia, had already left, so I took another route through Rijeka, Croatia. I've gotten pretty used to these inconveniently circuitous travel itineraries by now. Of course, it was a really beautiful ride which made up for its inconvenience, a reminder of my time traversing this beautiful countryside not more than a month ago.
The countryside of Croatia
The train from Rijeka to Zagreb was nice too. Unfortunately, it got to Zagreb late, and I missed my transfer to Budapest by a few minutes. On the plus side I had visited this city before so was already familiar with it.

Fast forward to the present, and I am sitting in a hostel I stayed at during my previous visit to Zagreb. Earlier on I had eaten a large and cheap pizza, also a revisit, and tonight I won't have to sleep on cold marble, so now I am a happy duck.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A Tangled Web of Options

It’s 4 a.m. in Torino and I cannot sleep. This sleeplessness has been afflicting me more and more recently. My future is wrought with uncertainties and anxieties that are all spinning in my sleep vision, threatening my normally peaceful slumber. The road I have travelled for 3 months has been long so far but linear, predictable. But, as a spider’s strand of silk meets its web, my options are now branching out in all directions, and it is both scary and exciting.

Since my last blog I have visited Nice in France, Florence and Venice in Italy, Munich for Oktoberfest, the charming coast of Croatia, historic Rome, and northern Italy again, first Cinque Terre and now Torino. Cinque Terre was a real oasis during my travels. I met some amazing people and we shared two relaxing days enjoying blissful beaches, stunning landscapes, lovely wine and good conversations.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy
It was also my first solo destination after Amy flew home from Rome and signaled a new phase of my travels. Never since have I felt more disconnected from home, having loosed the shackles of the constraining Eurail pass and a travelling partner. No offense is meant to my sister by this statement. After a rough start, Amy soon adapted to the backpacking lifestyle, we slowly overcame early conflicts and in the end I was happy she came, especially to see her growing and maturing before my eyes. I think travelling with her has helped me mature as well. We got to know eachother more in those three months than in our entire lives previous and in that time solidified our sibling bond and provided me with satisfaction at fulfilling my role as big brother. However, now that she has left, I am completely free to fulfill my dreams and to let no decisions become hindered.

Since her departure I have wandered Italy’s countryside, a carefree soul, yet also yearning for some refuge from the constant moving around and unpredictability that comes with travelling without a plan… another problem looms: I am approaching my time limit in the Schengen Area, an administrative region of Europe in which Canadians can travel without Visa for up to 90 days. I need to get out! But what should I do? Work on a farm? A hostel? Or should I continue travelling outside the Schengen Area? I hope I can find these answers soon and silence the voices of anxiety in my mind.

Meanwhile I attempt to fix my gaze on the present. I am in Torino for Salone del Gusto, the ultimate gastronomic event in the city anointed the capital of the Slow Food Movement. In the next two days I will be visiting the event marketplace, which will be filled to the brim with organic, sustainable and ethical farmers and food producers from Italy and around the world selling the best and purest food the world has to offer! As well there will be educational workshops providing food information and cooking tips. My thirst for food knowledge shall be quenched and my hunger sated with just about every kind of food imaginable grown under the sun! And who knows, maybe I can find a job on a farm in Italy? Time will tell.

Bon appetite!

Saturday, 22 September 2012

¡Espana Es De Puta Madre! (Spain is awesome!)

Spain was one of the highlights of my trip and for good reason. I missed out on Spain on my grad trip four years ago. Since then I pledged I would go back and see it. Not only did we have a blast, but we enjoyed overall great weather, barely missing the heat waves, and enjoyed fairly cheap food, particularly fruits, vegetables and alcohol.

Amy and I spent over three weeks here. In that time we saw museums, castles, mountains and breathtaking city views, went hiking, swam in a waterfall, relaxed on the beach, did some shopping, eating and a lot of walking, were in a tomato fight, partied all night before, partied many more times, partied with Erasmus students, danced the night away, gained some friends, lost some weight, and even got food poisoning and nearly got some shit stolen.
Standing under a waterfall in Granada 

The mistakes made that led to the latter two were eating leftover pasta sauce in the hostel fridge in Granada and leaving my iPod under my pillow unattended in a hostel dorm room in Madrid. Thankfully I was able to recover my crappy but scrappy fourth gen four gig iPod but it sure made for an interesting experience.

Long story short, another guy had his cellphone stolen, I dialed it and heard the vibration in another person’s locker. After initial shock, then much deliberation, we badgered the suspect, searched through some of his stuff, soon after he tried to make a run for it hauling a large pack, we ran him down outside the hostel, ushered him back and called the cops. He eventually caved in and gave our stuff back, then took off before the cops arrived. Justice should have been served, but at least we got our stuff back. I am afraid this guy is back on the prowl in hostel dorms around Spain, despite his photo and passport photo having been distributed to many hostels in Spain as a result of the debacle. This story is just one example of a major problem in Spain. I have heard many stories about theft in hostel dorm rooms and pickpocketing in the streets and in the Metro stations. The most elaborate scheme I have heard of is of youth “pretending” to celebrate a soccer match victory approaching you, hugging you, hooking their legs around yours, then digging through your pockets.

Anyway, I don’t mean to scare anyone about coming to Spain. As long as you are aware of the dangers and keep your stuff safe, you will love it here!


The main highlight of Spain was meeting people and making friends. La Tomatina, the 50,000 strong tomato fight in Bunol, was wild, but wouldn’t be the same without the mini United Nations group we stitched together while there. We later visited many of them in their current cities of residence in Spain, and the whole group talks about a reunion in Prague. We had random conversations all over Spain, mostly at hostels, and, on occasion, it led to hanging out together. On a few occasions we even ran into the same people in different cities.
Warming up for La Tomatina!
Through meeting locals and going to museums, we learned a lot about Spain’s history and current affairs. Did you know there are four languages spoken in Spain? Castellano is the most common form of “Spanish.” Did you know the Arabs controlled the south of Spain for over 700 years? And that there was a civil war from 1936-1939 that resulted in a dictatorship? It would be ignorant of me not to mention the nation's recent troubles. The austerity measures are really hurting public services such as health and education. Many teachers and doctors among other professionals attended a massive protest last week in Madrid. As a tourist it is difficult to notice any trouble (except for all of the pickpockets) but times are really tough in Spain and it’s almost impossible to find a job.
Tomatoes, mozzarella and olives made by our Couchsurfing host! 
To name a few tourist highlights, there was La Tomatina, the wildest time I have ever had, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, by a large margin the most beautiful and unique church in the world, way beyond anything else you will ever see in your lifetime (this is no exaggeration!), Alhambra in Granada, an impressive castle constructed in Arabic style, and Museum of Modern Arts Reina Sofia in Madrid, containing mind-bending works by Dali and Picasso. We also ate a lot of good food, particularly tapas which Spain is famous for.
La Sagrada Familia - simply an architectural marvel  
Personally, I feel that I will return to Spain to achieve some unfulfilled goals. Firstly, I have started learning Spanish from PDFs downloaded on my laptop, and want to return to take a course in Castellano. Secondly, I want to complete some, most or all of El Camino de Santiago, a 1200 km long pilgrimage. Thirdly, I am simply not done with Spain. There is still Seville and Tarifa in the south, and San Sebastian and Bilbao in the north. Fourthly, as a side note, I bought a harmonica! If I can reach a certain level of proficiency with it, look for me buskering in the streets around Europe.


PS. Currently in Nice. The south of France along the Cote D'Azur is one of the most gorgeous places on Earth!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Paris & Thereafter

I can't tell you what a relief it is to get Paris done with.

No, no, this is not in any way a knock against Paris. In fact, we had an amazing time there and the city is unmatched on the world stage for museums and landmarks with the exception of maybe London. But 5 days in cities like London and Paris is just enough to scurry around like rats to check everything off our bucket list.
My best attempt at drawing the Eiffel Tower while staying completely still 
We did the touristy thing and it was awesome: Le Louvre, Musee D'Orsay, Les Invalides, Espace Dali, Catacombs, Tour Montparnasse (climb this instead of Tour Eiffel), Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, St. Sulpice, Pantheon, Luxembourg Gardens, Tuileries, Ave Champs D'Elysees and wine and crepes.
Le Louvre
But we were tired and nursed painful muscles and joints by the end of it and were relieved to find our next destination in Rennes, a much smaller city with a slower pace. Despite its lack of touristy activities, Rennes surprised us. There was a vibrant outdoor Saturday market, and a lovely park to visit during the day, and an amazing live band performance at night, then a cool light show which played against the backdrop of their regional government building Le Parlement de Bretagne. Overall we had a memorable and nice time there.
Live band in public square
And then, once again, there was more of the touristy thing. On a 1.5 hour bus ride out from Rennes, nestled on the north coast of France, was Mont St. Michel, a magnificent castle dominating a towering hill protected by sand and water. I won't say much more about it except that it was picturesque but overly touristy and tremendously lacked English information.
Mont St. Michel seen from behind while the tide is low 
The most tangible observation I made about France was that it's citizens have been unfairly reputed as being rude and snobby towards people not of their own native flesh and tongue. Speaking English hardly deterred me from being received with warmth and friendliness, even from citizens who knew only the most basic of English. They were willing to help us any way they could, whether it was using their English or our basic French, and sometimes it came down to a game of charades. The other tangible observation about the French is that they walk around city streets with a baguette in one hand, no butter required.

Rushing through Paris was necessary as part of the larger goal I set out since the beginning of this trip: to get to Bunol, Spain by Aug 29 to attend La Tomatina, an annual tomato fight (and we barely scratched out the train tickets for it). But it was also a significant benchmark on our trip signalling the end of intense agenda-crushing tourism. From here on out we plan on stretching time out like a lazy hammock for all our future destinations.

No more two date affairs, I promise. I just want to take it slow and get to know you better.


Friday, 24 August 2012

Belgium, the World's Capital for Indulgence

Part I: Indulgence of the Tongue

We spent about a week in Belgium, splitting time between lively Antwerp, beautiful Brugge, and capital Brussels. This poor inconspicuous little country seems like the underdog for international travel destinations. But maybe they don't mind it that way. They don't need extra fanfare because their cities' narrow cobblestone streets are already swimming with locals and European tourists alike, making for a festive and joyous atmosphere.
Le Tapis de Fleurs, Brussels
Belgium has largely retained its chivalrous charm and at the same time dominated the world's gastronomic stage. On its unspoiled European-esque streets you will find the world's best food and drink. This little nation has a reputation for producing the sweetest chocolates, tastiest beers, yummiest waffles and most finger-licking fries. Your sweet tooth will thank you very much for going. Your scale might not.

I managed to lock lips with several beers including Le Chouffe, Brugse Zot, Kwok, Jupiler, De Koninck, and their national favourite Duvel. Not a bad portfolio, however, I have a ways to go to try all of Belgium's beers as there are thousands of breweries and the selection is endless. Delirium Cafe in Brussels serves 2400 different beers, a Guinness World Record, including the world famous beer named after the bar itself.
Enjoying a Kwok beer, Brugge
Amy meanwhile succumbed to her weakness. However, she wasn't too impressed with the chocolates we tried. Since she has already had Belgium chocolates in Canada, the quality wasn't much better at the source.

Part II: Meeting of Open Minds

One of the highlights of our time in Belgium was meeting some really cool people in Brussels. It was probably just a coincidence that all these meetings occurred in Brussels but the fact that it's one of the capital cities of the European Union suggests a certain kind of mindset that exists there.

The first man is Ata, an old and remarkable Persian man, whose wife passed away and children living overseas. We met him in the morning at the subway station and, by chance, again at night. We had talked a bit the first meeting and by the second meeting, he invited us up to his apartment for snacks and refreshments. He had a very touching story.
Amy and I at Ata's house, Brussels
He worked in Rwanda with his wife while raising their children for 28 years. He worked as a doctor while his wife did humanitarian work empowering women. They also worked with orphans in Bosnia-Herzegovina. His message was strong and heartfelt: everyone is equal, no matter their race or religion, and to help those in need. We ended up coming back for dinner the next day. His message became a bit repetitve but nonetheless we appreciated his passion and conviction, and he enjoyed having our attention and the chance to share his life story.

The second man, who shall remain unnamed, let us stay with him in his squat. Now we weren't even sure at the time what a squat was until we entered our accommodations and, although we were a little turned off, we were simply happy just to have beds (or mattresses on the floor) to sleep in. The squat was an unhomely experience: messy, no hot water, limited appliances and other facilities, overrun by fruit flies.  But it was also very humbling, and for that we were thankful to have stayed. After this, we can sleep anywhere!

The squat dwellers were very warm and friendly. The man who let us stay with him was very pleasant, smiling and interesting. Not only did they not pay rent, but they didn't pay for food either. They declared their squat to be a vegan squat, and regularly went to food markets upon closing and asked for their leftover unsold food which would otherwise be tossed as rubbish. Surprisingly, they are successful at this and the farmers who contribute are happy to, since it meant the extra food didn't go to waste. This is quite a good samaritan way of doing business. I plan on doing this when I come back to Calgary.

Another couple we met at the squat were travelling through Brussels as we were. They were a very interesting British couple, all "hippied out" with dreadlocks and peace signs, driving a charming converted camper van. They were invited to this place by picking up a hitchhiker - one of the squat dwellers. They attend concerts selling their specially made and very tasty ginger beer. They also hadn't bathed in 3 months! But somehow didn't emit any nasally-offensive toxins. I think both of them used to have stable office jobs, and either quit or were laid off.

But they are happier now that they are on the unpredictable open road. They don't regret a thing!

And so far, neither do I.


Sunday, 12 August 2012

Sex, Drugs and... Bikes?

Four years ago Amsterdam amazed me with its open and liberal culture. It was the only city in the world that legalized both prostitution and marijuana. Coming back here, nothing has changed. Well, except that the “conservative” government in power is trying to make it illegal to sell marijuana to tourists and it’s so far worked everywhere except, thankfully, Amsterdam ;)

The liberalism here is off the charts, globally a number one hit. This city has it all: history, architectural beauty, dykes (the ones that prevent half the country from flooding) and an unlimited lifetime supply of what America brags about as their so-called “freedom.” Netherlands makes America look like a fading dystopia. By the way, just to clear the air, the country is called Netherlands; not Holland! Holland forms two provinces, a North and South, where most of the development and population resides.
I AMsterdam
Amy and I did the requisite tourist attractions: Van Gogh Museum, Ann Frank Huis, Artis Zoo and canal cruises. However, those were overshadowed by the unplanned experiences such as interactions with locals, and learning about Dutch life and politics. I learned from a young Australian worker that it's really easy to get a working Visa here. This fact has been shelved for future considerations.

My favourite museum was the Versetz Museum, or Dutch Resistance Museum, detailing the life and times during German occupation in WWII. As luck would have it, the Gay Pride Parade was in town and we checked it out. Amy had previously been to Toronto's version and said it was miniature compared to Amsterdam's. And I'm not talking about their speedos.
Gay pride parade
Our host was amazing and lent us her bikes to ride around the city. I learned a lot about the cycling culture there and want to bike more like the Dutch when I return to Canada. I saw a lot of bikes too; there are over 600,000 of these 2 wheeled beasts in Amsterdam!
Bikes, bikes, bikes!
As wonderful as Amsterdam was, we just had a very memorable time in an inconspicuous place. We just finished out stay with a Dutch family in an old farmhouse situated in inconspicious little Kloosterburen in the northeast part of Netherlands. The family belongs to a Couchsurfer whom I hosted early this year in Calgary. We have indulged in cheese, bread and wine, mingled with good conversation. We have also cycled through farm fields and quaint villages, checked out the main dyke protecting the Netherlands from the North Sea, and even played tennis! The picture below shows the dyke and dry land on both sides. That's because the tide is currently low, allowing for an abundance of vegetation to grow on the seaside. Livestock even crosses over to the seaside to graze!
Dyke protecting Netherlands, from the North Sea 
It was an ideal three day recluse from the whirlwind life of backpacking. But soon enough we shall be hitting the road. Next stop, Antwerp, Belgium!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The UK in a nutshell.

Greetings from Amsterdam! We have just completed the United Kingdom, having stayed in Glasgow for 3 days, Edinburgh for 2, and London for 6. Everything went smoothly for the most part with just a few setbacks.

London was just plain awesome, and one of the greatest cities in the world. We packed our schedule with museums and iconic landmarks. Being there during the Olympics added electricity to the already charged atmosphere on the streets. Edinburgh was easily one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. My one regret is not going on The Hairy Coo free highlands tour which works on tips only. But at least I did an amazing local hike called Arthur's Seat with amazing views of Edinburgh. I ran from the hostel, through highlands type trails, to the summit in only 40 minutes. Glasgow was a bit underwhelming and overly urbanized compared to the old world charm of the previous city. Despite this, Glasgow has an interesting history lying beneath the urban form.

View from the top of Arthur's Seat towards Edinburgh old towne
Here are some fun tidbits I have picked up from my time in the UK. Some of these are obvious, but hopefully some are not and those that are are fun to recount.

To Let = For Rent
pitta = pita
knackered = tired
no bother = no problem
I'm easy = I'm cool; or whatever goes
Oh, and Irish people do NOT actually say "top o' the mornin' to ya"
Amy and I are now fans of Haggis, Neeps and Tatties! Translated to North American English, this is sheep stomach, mashed carrots and turnips, and mashed potatoes
Ikea brand cider (~4.5% alcohol) is also pretty good
Their electrical plugs have on/off switches
Everyone drinks water straight from the tap
Everything is smaller!
You can drink anywhere in public!
Finally, some stuff can be found really cheap in the UK and especially Scotland, such as food, alcohol and accommodations. Grocery stores have amazing deals. For example, 4 pints or 2.27 L of milk is 1 quid (or pound) or $1.60 CAD. Alcohol is also cheap and is sold in grocery stores, usually one aisle down from the veggies!

I knew this beforehand, but coming back here has reinforced my love for Europeans! They are the most easy-going and happy peoples on Earth. Most importantly, they have learned to share their space with others and to live with less and, thus, value a minimal lifestyle with a focus on experiences.

One day in Amsterdam has been great so far! Blog on that coming soon...

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Sleepless in London

2012/07/25 1:31 am

Dear Diary,

It’s my first night in London. I have not slept a wink yet in my hostel bedroom, shared with my sister and one stranger. I even slept better on the 7 hour plane flight here!

I grab my laptop and start typing. My sister in the bunk above me tosses, then turns, and asks, what am I doing? She hasn’t slept a wink either!

I blame jet lag. But could there be some other reason for our refusal to enter dreamland? Some other internal workings keeping us fully conscious? Surely, we were already tired after the plane flight which provided, at best, 4 hours of turbulent sleep.

And since touching down at Gatwick Airport, we walked at least a couple of hours with our travel suit of armour, at least 15 kg of backpack gear on our chest and back, before finding our hostel. At least we stopped to take in Buckingham Palace along the way, as well as London streets, all glammed-up Olympic style. After settling into the hostel, using Barclay Bikes, London’s equivalent of Toronto’s Bixi Bikes, we leisurely cycled around Kensington Palace and Hyde Park, weaving through the multitudes of people enjoying the city’s wonderful park spaces. We capped the cool sun setting night with a stroll through a patio lined complete street where cars and pedestrians got along in harmony on the same strip of asphalt.

The highlight of the day though was seeing what at first looked like an old cathedral, but then noticing that it was actually a condo complex, a hybrid structure that was half crumbled cathedral and half modern steel and concrete. This is the kind of structure that makes cities like London magical, the ability to blend old nostalgia with new sparkle. (pics to follow soon)

Surely, we were even more tired from this first eventful day in London, which was a strenuous workout for our bodies. So why can’t we get any sleep? Must be jet lag.

A late party-goer enters our room. We say hi, you didn’t wake us, we just can’t sleep.

I turn off my laptop. Try to get some shut eye.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Driving Through 'Merica

My upcoming Europe-Asia tour has been much hyped and has been the central focus for my 11 month sabbatical. However, my sabbatical already started back on July 1 and, two weeks later, I consider my recently completed journey within my home continent to be the start of my adventure.

My friend Jackson and I just drove back from Calgary to Toronto through the United States and, despite being forced to brave long hours of monotonous freeway driving, relentless heat and humidity, and back-wrenching car sleeping, had a pretty awesome time. We drove through parts of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan.
Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota
Here is a quick list of my notables regarding our southern neighbour (caution: highly biased):
Cheap food - everything on the McD's menu is one to two dollars cheaper including $1.39 McChickens (I don't consider this real food, more manufactured stomach filler)
Cheap gas - we filled up for around $3.40/Gal or $0.90/L, except in Detroit where we somehow filled up for $1.33/L
Overweight people - consequence of the above
Credit cards - no insert chip payment
Road signs - too many, too many words, all in English
Road tolls - one thing they do right
Speed limits - up to 75 mph or 120 km/h on the interstates
Beautiful landscapes - we drove through rolling pastures home to happy grazing cows through much of Montana (rather contrary to America's reputation for factory farms)
Propaganda advocating God and condemning abortion
Liquor sold at gas stations
Detroit - a real ghetto. Also, liquor stores everywhere, not a single coffee shop
Surprise fact? Kinder Surprise is illegal. Guns are not; and
Gun shops
Abandoned house

I also had two fun interactions during my trip as well. As I was leaving a McDonald's one kid from a group of three said hi to me. I said "hey, I'm Canadian, eh?" and one of them asked me "is weed legal there?" The conversation ended soon after but I had a good laugh. Damned kids these days.

And pulling up to a red light there was a man sitting with a sign which wrote "homeless and hungry." I offered him 50 cents change. He refused. I asked "why?" and he just told me that he was hungry. I offered him a granola bar. He just shook his head. Before I could ask why, the light turned green. We drove away bewildered.

All in all, our drive through America was a good time and made for a good story. And knowing me, you can expect a moral to this story...

As pleasing to the ears as is the sound of someone travelling across the world, one cannot underestimate the experiences available close to home. I honestly can't wait to get back to North America so I can check out Utah, Yellowstone, the Oregon coast, Portland, North Saskatchewan and Yukon.

And, of course, I can't forget about my adopted hometown of Calgary and my adopted backyard of the Rocky Mountains. Just before driving off, two days of Stampeding in Calgary reminded me of its underrated and progressive culture, and five straight days playing in the Rockies reminded me of its matchless beauty and endless hiking opportunities to last the rest of my life.

Lake O'Hara, most beautiful spot in the Rockies

Are you excited yet?!

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Everyone and their cat these days seems to be posing this simple and straightforward question my way, yet everytime I think about it, the answer becomes more elusive.

ARE YOU EXCITED YET?! After a brief pause I usually say something along the lines of "to tell you the truth, I don't know..."

As busy as I have been preparing for this presumably exciting trip, I haven't had time to feel excited. And as someone who tries to live day by day, my focus should reside in my current place. But it can be hard to do this when it's easy to mentally checkout until it's time to travel.

I initially spent much of this past month being a hermit and enjoying simple things I won't have when I travel, such as TV. But I was just wasting what precious time I had left here, as well as neglecting the good times had and awesome friendships built over the past 4 years in my adopted hometown of Calgary. The past few weeks, and particularly this weekend, have changed that, switching my focus to spending time with friends.

As I write, I am languishing among the fallout from last night's farewell party consisting of empty wine bottles strewn about, broken shards of glass and wine and pizza stains on white carpet. The cleanup will suck, but in the meantime the mess is a pleasant reminder from last night. Today has been near perfect too. I went to the bar to watch some Euro Cup, got stopped by a photographer to take some pictures of me for some promotional company's Facebook page, stopped at a friend's place, then a cute little book shop. On this lovely day I walked everywhere, and on the final walk home, with the warm sun on my face and the cool breeze on my skin, I had one of those "life is good" moments that brought a quasi-tear to my eye.

Sure, I am probably excited about 11 months off, but I'm just as excited about the rest of my time in Calgary. So give me a call and let's hang out! Let's make some lasting memories to hold on to until I return from my 11 months.

11 Months to do Nothing and Everything

So I guess the secret's finally out. I will be taking about 11 months off to travel. But it's oh so much more than that. Unshackling from the 9 to 5 routine will be liberating and relaxing. Lush landscapes, pristine beaches, ancient landmarks and sexy parties await. But I am more excited for the experience to learn and grow. Ultimately, this trip will provide the opportunity for me to change my perspective, annd discover what makes me tick and what I am passionate about.

I will be starting off the trip with my sister. By mid-July we hope to touch down in the UK and tour Europe in 3-4 months. Among several countries we plan to visit, I am most excited about seeing Spain and Croatia. Along the way we hope to participate in the tomato fight in Bunol, Spain, and walk the Cinque Terre along Italy's east coast.
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After Europe my sister we're off to Asia. However, my sister only wants to see Japan before returning home. India, China and Indonesia are on the top of my list. In addition I am considering entering a monastery to study Buddhism, engaging in voluntourism, and learning Mandarin or a martial art. If I can fit half of the things I want to do into those 11 months I would be ecstatic. But I'm definitely not going to rush things.

The decision to embark on this 11 month trip is the culmination of the decisions and the path I have chosen in the last 4 years of my life post graduation. Until then I had never been a risk taker, never made a leap of faith, or never willing to stray from expectations. But my short Europe trip after graduation was a catalyst for change and a glimpse of what the world had to offer. Moving to Calgary helped me to finally grow up. It opened me up to new experiences and brought me to realize that I always held the key to any door I wanted to open in life, but was too afraid to turn it.

11 months later, upon my return to society, I will surely have stories to tell, but my ultimate hope is to learn important life lessons, understand what makes me tick and what direction my future will turn. And after working one more year in Calgary and achieving my Professional Engineer certification I will again stand at a similar crossroads: should I stay or should I go?

Hopefully I can figure this question out in those 11 months.