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Tuesday, 19 November 2013


Next week will mark three months since arriving in Italy. It is hard to believe how fast time is going and how quickly the seasons are changing. Milan has been giving me a taste of Jakarta with this ongoing daily rain. Thankfully, the rain feels clean and smells fresh (what a nice change!). This evening as it poured, I decided I needed to get outside and go for a walk. I bundled up in my raincoat, grabbed my umbrella and explored my area of the city a little more. As I wandered down side streets I had not yet seen, I found a variety of bars, cafes and even a little Christmas shop! As I walked in the rain, enjoying the open sidewalks I began to really re-appreciate where I am living. I am by no means a fan of rain, but there is something about the rain in this city.. the rain just seems a little bit more magical and a little bit more bearable than it does anywhere else. Or maybe it's not magical rain... maybe, I just really love where I am!

Living abroad has never been overly challenging for me. I find exploring the unknown and unfamiliar to be the biggest thrill in life! A teacher/mentor I used to work with once told me that she thinks of me as a chameleon in the fact that I can adapt to my environment so naturally. I thought this was a really nice compliment. I've spent the majority of my life moving and adapting. Growing up in a military family meant that a town or house wasn't necessarily your home. Your home was where your family was and there was always the possibility that it could shift or change. A feeling in which I wasn't overly crazy about as a child has now shaped my adult life.

CBC recently had an article about Canadian teachers moving abroad for teaching opportunities. With an incredibly limited job market for teachers in Canada, more and more teachers are exploring alternative options. Some go purely because it's a job offer, others desire the challenge or change, and many want the experiences of culture and travel. Teaching abroad has certainly been the best adventure of my life! I have come to understand and appreciate that living abroad means not always having things be familiar. It means stepping outside of your comfort zone and learning to adapt. Things are done differently, foods taste different, there are language barriers, and different approaches to living life. Although at times the unfamiliararties may become overwhelming, they are part of living abroad... and frankly why move to a foreign country and have everything be the same as it is back home? If that's the case, why not just stay home? I've always found that the people who don't stay abroad very long are the ones who don't embrace the differences. It's a lifestyle that isn't for everyone, but it's also a lifestyle that is so enjoyable when you decide to let go of the comforts of home and embrace your new environment for all that it is and all that it is not.

After living in the Bahamas and the UK, it was Jakarta where I learned the hardest lessons and the true meaning of being somewhere foreign. Because of my time in Indonesia I feel extra fortunate that moving to Italy has been such an easy transition. A country that is so rich in culture, yet has such a sense of familiarity. I absolutely love living in Italy and the opportunities that present themselves. I wouldn't change it for anything. But there are days when I miss the excitement of being somewhere completely foreign and so drastically different. I am fortunate that Milan has many of the comforts of home. It has been an easy transition and other than not speaking the language, it is a city that is easy to live in. It is clean, friendly, entertaining and has excellent public transportation. At times, things may not be as efficient as in North America, but with this being my fifth year abroad, I am becoming much more adaptable with accepting that time in North America is wildly different to the rest of the world, and despite being an inconvenience at times, is totally okay! I really have no complaints.. but I do long for more adventures that bring to me places that shock my senses and reveal things that I hadn't previously known existed!

When I first moved to Indonesia I knew very little about my new host country. I picked a totally random part of the world and dove in head first. My first week in Indonesia I was sick and had only been introduced to the "local" grocery store where there was nothing familiar at all. I remember one night during that first week where I really questioned my decision to move to such a random part of the world knowing so little about what I was getting myself into. I still did not have a roommate and my school had really left me to fend for myself the first week. Not knowing the language or my way around the city was challenging. I did my best to be adventurous and explore but had taxi drivers rip me off, people stare, and I was overwhelmed by the sights of extreme poverty, was constantly uncomfortable with equatorial temperatures and felt nauseous from the stench of pollution. I can plainly recall one of my first nights in my new home. I was sick and hadn't eaten in far too long. The only familiar food I had found was a cereal similar to rice crispees. I remember sitting on the tile floor of my living room by myself … no internet, no television…  trying to cool my body temperature by laying down on these tiles (my a/c was not yet working) and eating plain cereal because the milk was far too sweet and made me vomit. I sat on these tiles listening to prayer call from the local mosque, watching lights zoom by from dozens of ojeks (motorbikes) and wondering, "Can I really make a life here?" I later woke up to thousands of tiny ants invading my apartment and taking over my bathroom and kitchen! There was a strong odor of sewage seeping through the pipes in my apartment. That was it. I had that night to think "Crap, why did I move so far from home?". This was decision time. Let the fear of such a foreign place and a drastic lifestyle change take over - or, embrace the adventure, differences and unfamiliarity for all that they were!

I traveled to foreign lands, adapted to new work ethics, mixed and mingled with people of all walks of life, forced myself to go out alone and meet new friends, spent time traveling third world countries alone,  and pulled myself away from comfort foods to try eating more exotically (even after many horrendous episodes of food poisoning). My point is, it wasn't easy and I did make complaints along the way (part of being human, right?). But, I did it and my life is richer for having these experiences and doing my best to embrace it! I met friends I will never forget, taught children who made me a better teacher, and saw sights that words cannot give justice to.

I very much had a love/hate relationship with Jakarta. A Global metropolis with such an array of old traditions and new world luxuries. A city where glamorous malls are outlined by slums of starving families. The fourth most populated city in the world - a city where you can find fine five star dining from around the Globe and also see naked children eating garbage off of the street. Extreme opposites come together to form this city. Jakarta is a city of luxury for those who can afford it and sadly appears as a nightmare for those who can not.

The sights of Jakarta were enough alone to overwhelm anyone's senses. The city hosts some of the most intense traffic in the world. Mix in some goats, cows and street vendors crawling in and around the vehicles and look out your window to see a tiny human being holding their hands out and begging for money, food and hope. Add in the the cultural differences and you really realize you are no longer anywhere close to home. In my experience I often felt a major cultural divide in daily life. Being a "bule" (meaning: Caucasian person) meant constant stares, giggles, and being approached on a regular basis for photos or by someone hoping to practice a little bit of English with you. As silly as it may all sound, it became exhausting. A simple outing to buy groceries could often leave me feeling insecure and wondering why I must get so many stares and giggles. It was probably in these moments I missed familiarity the most. I sought after being somewhere so different, but was unprepared for the fact that I was what was different in this city. My Indonesian friends often tried to reassure me that it should be taken as compliments, but it wasn't always easy.  

By the end of my time in Jakarta the giggles, the stares, the differences in work ethic and perspectives on everything from how to dress to how women should act became more easy for me to understand. I learned that it isn't about one culture being right and the other wrong. It is simply two different view points due to so many factors.  This is after all what culture is all about and if you are going to live away from home, you better do your best to embrace it! Things are done drastically different and you have to choose your battles. This was the biggest lesson I learned last year. I was careful not to be taken advantage of as a foreigner, but also made sure to avoid coming off as an entitled North American demanding the luxuries of home in a country that I was a guest in.

Despite the challenges, heartaches and stresses - I do not for a second regret my time in Jakarta. I met people who have had entirely different upbringings from mine, who view the world so differently and value things that I hadn't before. I learned from these people and became richer because of them. I was a guest in their country and learned to adapt the best I could. 

From climbing one of the world's most notorious volcanoes in the Sunda Strait, to visiting a hill tribe in Thailand's North.  Working with rehabilitating injured elephants and crawling through the war tunnels in Vietnam. A surf lesson in Bali to walking the streets of little India in Singapore and caving in Malaysia. Being placed on a billboard in Jakarta to trekking the jungles of Indonesia. Learning about life from Monks to spending time playing with some of the world's most impoverished children.  Spending the worst moments of my life being interrogated and threatened for hours on end by immigration due to a visa nightmare to exploring new tastes, customs, and traditions.

Being abroad: It isn't home. It isn't always easy. Things are different.
But....Adventure is out there! There is beauty in even the most chaotic places and it is in these unfamiliar places you learn the most about the world. 

Monday, 28 October 2013

The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. - Gilbert K. Chesterton

It has now been a little over two months since I began the Italian chapter of my life and what an incredible time it has been! I have been making the most of my time here and feel so fortunate to be living in such a beautiful and magical part of the world. Every weekend I have the opportunity to easily access a different region of Italy or hop a plane and fly to a different country. The travel in Europe is extremely cheap in comparison to home and the short distances make a weekend or day away so easy to do and so hard to resist.
I've spent the past four weekends touring and wandering. As much as I love to research, I am not a big planner. I like to wander, get lost, find places that are off the beaten path and have experiences that are more authentic than touristy. Fortunately my roommate views traveling the same way so she has become a great travel companion!

Here is what I've been up to in the last month:

The Dolomites: Trento & Bolzano 

The Dolomites are a mountain range in Northern Italy. From Milan I took a three hour train ride to the beautiful town of Trento. My roommate and I had decided to stay here for the weekend and explore the city and venture into the mountains.

One of the sacrifices I had to make moving to Europe from S.E Asia was giving up a lot of luxuries. In S.E Asia travel is very cheap - making five star hotels, room service and spas very realistic options when traveling. Moving to Europe meant trading in those comforts for hostels and grocery store snacks as meals... a sacrifice I am more than happy to make if it means living in Europe!!

Trento is a small city and not overly touristy, so finding a hostel wasn't easy. In fact we only found one available hostel online and the reviews were terrible. People went as far as saying to avoid Trento if your only option is to stay in this hostel. Other reviews said it was noisy, dangerous and dirty. Maybe the commonsense thing to do here would be to take this advice and avoid the hostel. But, my roommate and I both agreed we had traveled in far more crazy places than Italy and thought how bad can it be??
We arrived at our hostel and braced ourselves for less than comfortable conditions. Much to our
pleasant surprise we opened the doors to a spacious, clean and friendly hostel. Our five bed room had one other guest and our room opened to a balcony with mountain view! Moral of the story: people find anything to complain about, so don't always trust reviews! (Sure my pillow case may have had a cigarette burn in it, but who cares when you're spending the weekend in the mountains!)

Saturday we toured the city, enjoyed the local markets and found ourselves at a German pub meeting some local beer makers! Later we ventured into a cable car and up a mountain into the most quaint little mountaintop village. There wasn't a soul in sight. We wandered through the fog covered streets and enjoyed every aspect of our journey. Eventually we found a little hole in the wall restaurant. We walked in and found a sweet old Italian man cleaning mushrooms. We were the only guests and there were no menus. We were told what they had in their kitchen for the day and we then ate one of the best meals ever. All local mountain food - beef, goat cheese, etc. 

The next day we woke up early and decided we felt satisfied with everything we saw in Trento and felt we should explore the mountains further. So, we took another train further North and ended up in a German region of Italy. This was the town of Bolzano - located close to Austria. We immediately took a cable car up into the mountains and enjoyed specatcular views on a clear, sunny day. When we reached the peak of this particular mountain we were greeted by an Austrian band. The whole village (including the whole police unit) had gathered around to enjoy the music. Fall had hit this area much earlier than it has hit Milan. The colours were beautiful and the whole atmosphere was magical. With only a few hours left, we decided we should keep going and see as much as possible. We hopped aboard a tiny mountain train and ventured even further up the mountains. At this point we were in the clouds and the rain started. We found shelter in the coziest German restaurant with views of mountain peaks and clouds all around us. 

A long journey of cable cars, trains and transfers and we were back in Milano ready for another week of work and preparing for another adventure...


My roommate Sarah and her friend in Sweden and my friend in Germany all met up in Norway for a fun filled weekend! This was a quick trip. Early Saturday morning we took the metro to the train station where we got on an hour long bus ride to the airport where we took a 2.5 hour flight to Oslo where we then had to get on another hour long bus ride to arrive in the city centre where we then had to walk until we found our hostel!!! Did I mention how much I love traveling? I live for these adventures. They may be exhausting, but they are so exciting!
We all met at our cozy little hostel in the heart of Oslo. It was so great to see an old friend who I met while living in Indonesia. We caught up over a Norwegian meal at a quaint little
pub and then enjoyed our time walking and touring the city.
We spent time at the Nobel Peace Centre, the waterfront, visited the Vigeland Statue Park, made a trip to see the famous 'Scream' painting at the Edvard Munch gallery, toured the Viking ship museum and spent a night out pubbing and clubbing Norwegian style!
Oslo is ridiculously expensive. In fact for many years it was the MOST expensive city in the world. It now ranks in the top three. So in the end we were pretty happy our stay was short. It is a beautiful city and I am thrilled I saw it, but I will not be in a hurry to return.

A friend who teaches at another school invited me to attend a truffles festival in Alba. Alba is a small town about three and a half hours Southwest of Milan by train. On the way we had to switch trains in the town of Bra. When we arrived we missed our train by seconds so we ended up having to wait an hour for the next train. We decided to wander around the town of Bra. There wasn't a whole lot to see, but we did have many laughs over the name of this town.
Once we arrived in Alba we wandered the streets looking for the festival. We saw a few booths and shops with very expensive truffles for sale, but even more exciting was a medevil festival we stumbled upon. The town had been transformed! The cobblestone streets were covered in hay, there were lines of vendors and games and everyone was in character. We had such a
fun afternoon playing medevil games and winning bottle after bottle of wine. Games included throwing darts at a sausage, fishing for bottles of wine and riding horses made of hay. In the evening there was music, mulled wine and medevil food! With our winnings in hand we were ready to take the long train ride back to Milan - stopping in Bra and Torino this time!

Ahh Venice... One of my favourite cities in the world. This was the place that made me fall in love with Italy and ignited my dream to live in this country. Ten years ago I visited Venice on a high school trip and fell absolutely in love. It was such a wonderful feeling being back in Venice!
Venice is really unlike any other city. It's a city you can wander around in for hours without feeling bored. Everything about this city is magical. The canals, the rustic apartments, the music, the food,..the list goes on.
It's pretty incredible to think that Venice is just a 2.5 hour train ride away from where I live - making day trips very feasible. I plan to return in February for Carnival!

October has been a great month and a busy one. This coming weekend my school is sending me back to Canada for visa paperwork. I will be home for a week and then will return just in time for Christmas season in Europe!!! Stay tuned for upcoming adventures to Poland and Belgium!

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Last week marked one month of living the sweet Italian life!

The days and weeks seem to go by so quickly here. My days are filled with teaching adorable Italian children and my evenings are often busy with meetings, planning and marking. However, my weekly social nightlife is a big upgrade from that of last years in Jakarta. My friends and I have been enjoying apertivos in the evening, dining on delicious pizzas, shopping, and expanding our circle of friends by attending Internations events. This is definitely a city where boredom doesn't exist!

A few weeks ago Vogue hosted Milan's Fashion Night Out. A big group of us ventured downtown and arrived to the busy streets filled with fashionistas, photographers and curious tourists. My roommate and I wandered into a few stores. We were greeted with cocktails and complimentary gifts, while DJs played in the background. The stores were more like clubs than shops! Our Fashion night out also led us to meet the wonderful Austrian designer, Arthur Arbesser (a friend of a colleague). It was a fun glam filled night!

Milan seems to have a long list of things to do and I plan to enjoy my new city as much as I can. But, I am also here to explore and travel Italy and the rest of Europe. So, a few friends and I took the 2.5 hour train ride to Bologna a few weekends ago. We spent the day wandering the beautiful city, enjoying perhaps one of the last sunny, hot days of the season. We dined, we wined, we shopped and we enjoyed our time exploring a new place!

The following weekend I had a trip booked to Cinque Terre. This was an area in Italy I had visited during my last time here and I always rave to everyone how it is one of my favourite places in the world! Unfortunately, the wicked back to school germs caught me and knocked me out for the weekend resulting in a missed trip and one sad little Canadian, while my friends all soaked up the Mediterranean sunshine! Looking at the positive side, I now only live a few hours away from this gem and I will definitely rebook a trip in the future!

This past weekend we had a few party nights out with lots of new friends. On Sunday I took the train to Saronno to spend the day with wonderful friends/hosts! Melanie is a friend I met five years ago while I did my University teaching placement here in Milan. We've kept in touch over the years and it has been great to have a familiar face around while settling in. She and her husband invited me to their town for the day. I am definitely more of a small town girl than a city girl, so I immediately felt more at home! The town has beautiful streets with quaint little shops and cafes. The sidewalks were filled with art displays and it had that home town feel where everyone seemed to know everyone. It was definitely a treat to visit this town. To top off a lovely day, Angelo also prepared the most AMAZING lunch ever. A great day with friends and a full belly later and I was on the train back to Milano. Thanks Melanie and Angelo for a wonderful day!!

As this busy week comes to an end I am preparing to escape to the Alps with my roommate this weekend. We are off to spend two days in Trento. Trento is a German region in Northern Italy nestled under the mountains and dotted with lakes and rivers. I can't wait for a German beer and a nice hike up the mountain (maybe not in that order)!
Other upcoming adventures:
Oslo, Norway next weekend and Canada at the end of the month!
Stay tuned :)

Monday, 9 September 2013

La Dolce Vita

Almost ten years ago at the age of 18, I took a trip to Italy. I fell in love and knew I had to live in this beautiful country one day. Fast forward five years of Uni, four years of living abroad and working in various International Schools...and here I am, living in Italy!!

The past two weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind with jam packed days, a few obstacles, a case of bed bugs and a bit of homesickness for the first real time in four years.

 After an over night flight from Toronto-Frankfurt-Milan, myself and three other new teachers from Ontario arrived in our new city. It was great to have others to travel with. I’ve gotten so used to traveling alone, that I forgot how much more fun it is when you’re with others! We were greeted at the airport and had a mini bus waiting to bring us and all of our luggage to our apartments. The following evening our school director brought all of the new teachers out for a lovely Italian meal (lots of pizza and wine!). There are a fair number of new teachers -mostly Canadian, but also teachers from the US and Scotland. It is great to have instant friends and we are conveniently all living within walking distance of one another and our school.

The next day our school brought us on a walking tour of Milan, treated us to gelato and showed us the main attractions like the Duomo. The staff at the school have been amazing. So many friendly and welcoming faces. The teachers seem like a really fun group of people who love to socialize. After our tour the owners of the school arranged a cocktail night at a bar downtown (which happens to be one of the biggest bars in the world). Here we met the whole staff, were treated to drinks and a lot of REALLY good food. Italians definitely know how to enjoy themselves!

The next day we traveled to Lago Maggiore which is North of Milan and close to the Swiss border. We spent the next three days doing workshops, taking walks along the water and through the village, singing karaoke and indulging in more wine and food! What a beautiful setting to kick off the school year. 
Sadly, during our time at the lake I received news that my Grandmother had passed away. It was definitely one of the first times I felt extreme homesickness and wished I could hop on a flight to be with my parents. Thankfully, I had just been in Newfoundland the week prior to leaving for Italy and saw my Grandmother for one last time. This and the fact that my Grandmother lived a long and incredible life brought me a lot of comfort and made it easier to accept being so far away at this time. 

Our time at the lake came to an end and we headed back to Milan. I had only slept in my apartment two nights prior to the lake and both mornings woke up with weird bites. While at the lake it was confirmed that my apartment was infested with bedbugs (one of my biggest fears). So upon returning to Milan, my roommate and I were put up in a hotel while our place was fumigated. Thankfully, our beautiful apartment is now bug free and after several nights of waking up at 3am in a panic and checking my mattress for bugs, I can now sleep much sounder! 

This past week at school we have been busy with more workshops, meetings and classroom/lesson planning preparation as the children will start school this Thursday. I will be teaching Grade 2 again (my favourite) and I am SO excited to meet my little Italian kiddies! The school is a PYP IB school which has been a career goal of mine for some time. I am looking forward to learning a new curriculum and approach to teaching!

The first two weeks have flown by and I feel like I haven’t stopped once. On the weekend a group of teachers and myself participated in the Colour Fun Run. It was a 5k run/walk through Milan (known as the happiest 5k in the world). After each kilometer you enter a fun zone where you get doused in a different colour of powder paint. It was definitely a great way to spend a sunny (and extremely hot) Saturday. The following night we had a pizza party at our apartment with our teacher friends and then went to a concert/party in a forest.

 After a busy first two weeks I am really looking forward to some quiet and relaxing time. A few of us are planning a trip to the sea side in a few weekends so we can explore, relax and soak in this beautiful Mediterranean sunshine. The travel opportunities here are endless. Those who know me well, know my love for travel and maps! I have strategically placed a world map next to my bed. Any early morning I wake up grumpy and not wanting to get out of bed, I plan to look at my map and remind myself of where I am and the opportunities that surround me! Looking forward to the adventures to come in the next two years of my Italy chapter and living my European dream. Stay tuned for updates!

Random Facts:

1. There are many transvestite prostitutes in my neighbourhood...and it is pretty entertaining to see what outfit they have on each night.

2. Italians eat supper around 8:00 or later. Restaurants don’t even open until 7pm.

3. Most stores/restaurants close for a few hours in the afternoon.

4. The bartender at the pub near our place already knows mine and my roommate’s names!

5. Not as many people speak English in Milan as I expected.

6. People here assume I speak Italian - unlike Jakarta where I stuck out like a sore thumb and nobody expected me to speak Bahasa. 

7. I will be starting Italian lessons soon!

8. Wine IS cheaper than water in many places.

9. The phrase “Welcome to Italy” is used extremely often when referring to how slow things are here. However, when I lived in the Bahamas I often heard “Welcome to the Island Life” and when I lived in Indonesia I often heard “Welcome to Indonesia”. I am beginning to think it isn’t the rest of the world that is “slow”, it is North America that is “fast”. 

10. Living without internet is REALLY hard!!! (Hoping to get it installed in the apartment soon)

11. Aperitivos are very common. This is when you go to a bar in the afternoon and pay for a cocktail or glass of wine and food is served with your drink. It’s like the Italian version of afternoon tea..except with booze! We’ve already had a few and I see many more in my future.

12. It seems like everyone in Milan has a dog. Wishing I could get a puppy!!!
13. It is way hotter than I expected. The temperatures mixed with the humidity and the lack of a/c everywhere (because apparently Italians think a/c makes you sick) is just like being back in the Bahamas...without the beach!

14. My new favourite snack is melon wrapped in proscuitto. If you have never had it, TRY IT!
15. Living in Italy seems like it will be a fairly easy transition since there aren't really any cultural shocks here.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

When I was a little girl I used to love playing the "globe game". I can remember countless times saying to my mom and dad "Watch me!" as I would place my finger on the globe and let it spin beneath my fingertip. When the globe eventually stopped rotating, my finger would be left pointing at a random part of the Earth. "This is where I'm going to live someday" I would eagerly tell my parents. I often think back to my six year old self and remember the little girl who loved looking at the globe and playing geography trivia with my dad during supper time. I wonder if I had any idea that my life would turn into a real version of the "globe game"?

Being able to not only visit a country as a tourist but spend time living in it, diving into the culture, and living day to day life in a place that is so vastly different from anything I know at home is possibly one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I could ask for at this point in my life.
As a child I would start preparing for the first day back to school pretty much right after the last day of school. Shopping for school supplies and picking out the perfect new backpack every year (sorry mom) were major priorities in my childhood. I had to make sure all of my markers and pencil crayons fit perfectly into my shiny new pencil case. The notebooks had to be just the right colour and my lunchbox had to have that perfect new plastic, back to school smell. The first day of school was so exciting. I loved the feeling of entering a new classroom, meeting my new teacher, finding new friends and breaking in my new scented markers. 

As you get older the excitement of something new and unfamiliar starts to fade away. The first day of a new job is much like the first day of a new school year  - full of unknowns. I love those kind of days! But, after you graduate and begin your career, how many more times in your life do you really have those days? This is one of my main reasons I absolutely love moving and traveling. Walking into the unknown, anxiously awaiting to meet new friends and explore new places brings me back to the excitement of bravely walking into my Grade 1 classroom for the first time. 

One of the really great things about my career is the fact that it is so portable. I am able to live wherever I can find a good school that will hire me. I can create a life where I have those first day experiences quite often, as I travel to new places and meet new people. The best thing about teaching in other countries is that you get such an authentic feel for the culture as you learn through your students and their families. Each time I travel to a new place I meet amazing people who are warm and welcoming.
My children in the Bahamas probably taught me more than I taught them. Life in the Bahamas was my first real experience of living away from home (if you don't count University years). These bright eyed, smiling, dancing children taught me that I could find a home away from home. I went to school every day feeling loved because of twenty three amazing six year olds. The children emerged me right into their culture from day one. Learning that pencils and desks actually make the best drum kits, singing is acceptable (even during tests), and words like "thingum" and "mudda sick" are totally normal to use in everyday conversations. These kids became my life - from my little body guard boys who would protect me from the bugs that ventured into our classroom to the little girls who constantly wanted to braid my hair and to the parents that made sure I was always well fed by sending in traditional Bahamian dishes. Much like my Indonesian children right now who have taught me that a knife is not needed when eating lunch as everything fits on your spoon, Bahasa IS easy to learn if I focus, and a hug and smile from an eight year old can make feeling homesick disappear.

Living far away from home and experiencing life in a way different to your life at home certainly makes you reflect on what it is you have left behind. While traveling and living abroad you meet other expats who have chosen a similar life - they have chosen to leave behind what is familiar and try a life that is so different. One thing I've noticed we all have in common is how much we talk about home when we are together. We compare our home countries, our foods, our sports and our home towns. We brag about our families and our childhoods. We compare notes on the weather back home (and I assure them we do actually get summer in Canada) and we become curious about how the other celebrates holidays like Christmas. As wonderful as it is to meet the locals in your host country, it can sometimes be just as exciting to meet a fellow expat and feel that connection to home or learn about their home country. You learn that the expat you've just met who you may have considered to be culturally very different form yourself at one time, actually feels like family as you come to see your values are so similar in comparison to the values in your current host country.

As you travel and move you meet friends from all around the globe. You meet people you would never have the opportunity to meet in your small town back home. You meet people you may not normally be friends with in "normal" circumstances, but find out that they may quickly become your closest friend in this foreign place. Being alone in a new culture forces you to be both independent and forward. Meeting friends in foreign cities can be a challenge at times and can revert you back to your primary school days where walking up to someone and saying "Can I be your friend?" is totally acceptable (and welcomed!).

Through my time traveling and living abroad I've gained such a greater appreciation for my home, my country and my upbringing. I feel so lucky to have been raised in a beautiful country that celebrates diversity and differences and values all types of lifestyles. I respect the cultures I visit, but I also often reflect on the differences and am proud to be from Canada. As I sit in my somewhat tiny apartment in the heart of the fourth most populated city in the world, listening to prayer call from the local mosque, where I am surrounded by makeshift houses, rivers overflowing with garbage and streets crawling with ojeks and cars, I begin to prepare to pack up my life once again. Everything I need fits into two pieces of luggage. This luggage, like my yearly childhood back to school backpack is filled with all of the tools I need to start another new and exciting adventure!

My year in Jakarta has quickly come to an end. It's been full of adventure, unfamiliar experiences and some challenges. It's been a roller coaster ride that I'm glad I hopped on, but I am definitely ready and excited to begin a new ride and live that "first day of school" feeling all over again.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

"The further one goes, the less one knows." - Lao Tzu


Thailand is often referred to as the Land of Smiles. It is a country with beautiful people, diverse landscape, and delicious food! When I first landed in Bangkok after my morning flight from Jakarta, I headed to the taxi stand outside of the Suvarnabhumi Airport. Each time I travel I like to do as much research on the country as I can - especially when I'm going to be traveling by myself. I had read on many forums to be weary of the Taxi drivers in Bangkok as they like to take advantage of tourists. Well, my first experience with a taxi in Bangkok couldn't have been more accurate to what I had read. All taxi vehicles have a large sign that say "Meter". It is actually the law that they use their meters when driving, but many drivers try to be sneaky and charge their customer a steep rate. The second I got in my taxi, I noticed the driver had a small towel laying over top of the meter with a Buddha statue sitting on top. I left the car door open and one leg outside of the vehicle so he couldn't speed off with me inside. I politely said "Meter please" to which he ignored me. I repeated again in a firmer voice. He ignored me again. At that point I said "No meter? Bye bye!" This was when he decided it was acceptable to scream at me and say "YES METER, YES!!" as he ripped off the towel and turned on the meter. After that I decided to head to 7/11 and buy a bag of chocolate. From then on I started bribing my drivers by handing a chocolate as soon as I entered the taxi. As I would hand them the chocolate, I would politely point to the meter and smile. This seemed to bring out the smile they're so well known for and assured me a meter rate and a safe drive!  

Finally at my hotel and out of Jakarta for a 9 day tour of Thailand! I had prepared to travel the country alone and had my binder full of maps, hotel info, tours, currency conversions, etc. Coincidentally a friend of mine from the Netherlands who also lives in Jakarta was in Bangkok at the same time on a business trip. We were able to meet up and have a fun filled weekend enjoying the sites and marveling at the ability to walk around the city without the risk of being run over - like in Jakarta! Each time I leave Jakarta I'm reminded how wonderful it is to be able to use sidewalks, walk to cafes, be in the fresh air (well maybe not so fresh in Bangkok), and be surrounded by trees, benches and sidewalk shops. These are things I look so forward to having again when I return home and when I move to Milan! 

     After enjoying the ability to walk around the city, visiting some markets and taking a few Tuk Tuk
rides, we headed to a Ladyboy show. Thailand is famous for their Ladyboys and Bangkok has many shows throughout the city. The Ladyboys range from quite manly looking figures with hair extensions and breast implants, to beautiful women who look like they could be models. I found myself questioning every woman I saw in the city thinking - "I wonder if she's a ladyboy??". The show we attended was a bit on the lame side, but still pretty hilarious. The ladyboys performed songs and dances - everything from Rhianna to Elvis. It was much like a resort show in the Caribbean. 

The next day we did a long 10 hour tour in the areas surrounding Bangkok. We started the morning on a bus ride to the countryside where we boarded a rowboat and headed to the colourful
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. With the sun beating down, extreme humidity, smells of spices, meats and fruits, marketers yelling to make sales and splashes from boats bumping into one another it became a bit of a sensory overload. It was certainly a unique experience and it combined two of my favourite things (boating and shopping) - but it's definitely not something I would care to do on a regular basis! Men and women sat in their own boats that were filled with everything from fancy shoes and knock off designer purses - to souveniors -  to beer and fish. When you see something you want, you wave over and the person in charge of rowing your boat does their best to fight through the crowd of boats to reach your destination.

The next stop was a Cobra show. I can't say this is something I would recommend doing. It felt a bit abusive to the snakes. Snake trainers came out and performed tricks like fighting a cobra, catching a jumping snake in their mouth, milking the venom out of the cobra (pretty much right over our heads), and swinging snakes bodies over the audience. At one point they rolled out a cage with a mongoose and dropped a cobra inside and let them fight for a few minutes. Although they didn't make them fight to the death, it seemed pretty unnecessary and cruel. 

After a stop at a wooden carvings furniture shop and a few hours of driving, we reached Tiger Temple. Another place I wouldn't recommend visiting. I had seen Tiger Temple on the Discovery Channel a few years ago and it was somewhere I had always wanted to visit. It is considered a sanctuary and it is run by Monks and volunteers. I can't say I was impressed! Upon entering you stand in a line and wait your turn to "visit" the tigers. There are about ten tigers chained to the ground completely passed out (sedated??!). A guide (not friendly whatsoever) comes over, grabs your hand, takes your camera and quickly escorts you to each tiger. My guide didn't say a word. She pointed at me to sit down next to the tiger, snapped a photo, and moved me to the next. It was all over within 3 minutes. I actually couldn't believe how pathetic it was and how sad it seemed for the tigers. I saw one monk, sitting to the side wearing aviators and smoking. I imagined him later to pull out a wad of cash and count the dollars he had made off of us naive tourists willing to pay for such a depressing experience. It all seemed way too crooked!

The final stop of this tour was to the Bridge on the River Kwai. This bridge was constructed during World War II. The Japanese used Allied prisoners of war to construct a railway that went from Thailand to Burma. Many people died during the construction due to such despicable conditions. This railway is now known as "Death Railway". The bridge was crawling in tourists and had souvenir stalls all around it. I know tourism is a major part of Thailand's economy, but it still seemed a bit wrong to be selling picture frames and magnets at a spot where so many had suffered and died. I imagined what it would be like if somewhere like Dachau Concentration Camp decided to set up gift shops and souvenir booths all over the grounds. How would people respond to that?

After an interesting few days in Bangkok, it was time to pack up and catch another flight. This time I would be heading to Northern Thailand.

This was one of my favourite areas of Thailand and possibly one of my favourites I've seen in S.E Asia. The quiet(ish) streets of Chiang Mai, surrounded with gardens, parks, trees, fountains, and friendly people kind of reminded me of home - at least what the Asian version of home would be anyway. I spent two days in this beautiful area of Thailand and wished I had longer. On my first full day in this region I made sure to jam pack as much as I could. I visited the beautiful Wat Rong Khun. This is a contemporary Buddhist temple that is purely white and silver. Much like traveling Europe, once you see so many Cathedrals, they all start to blur together - as do the temples here in Asia. However, this white temple in so unique and different that it's really quite fascinating. It almost seems as if it's a Halloween haunted house with the ghoulish heads hanging from trees, the hands reaching from the ground as if trying to claw out of their graves, and the inside has bright colourful murals with images of Spiderman and other superheros. There is even a painting of a demon with Bin Laden in one eye and George Bush in the other! The outside of the temple is completely white to symbolize purity and cleanliness. The bathrooms are completely made of gold. The artist apparently believed that gold is used for people who want to perform dirty deeds!

After visiting the temple and a stop at the Chiang Rai natural hot springs, I headed to the Golden Triangle and hopped in a boat to sail along the Mekong River. The Mekong flows through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Once aboard the boat, we sailed up the river to view where the border of Burma and Thailand meet. Unfortunately due to time restrictions and visa purposes, I was unable to enter Burma. I did however, sail into the Island of Don Sao in Laos. Once we entered into Laos and had a quick briefing about making sure to avoid all of the drugs that would be offered to us as this is the Opium capital of Asia, we headed to the markets and had our passports stamped. Our group was warned that receiving this stamp can make it difficult in the Thai airports as security often wants to do a thorough check on tourists who visit this opium region. After a tour of the markets, my tour guide proceeded to tell our group that the men could follow him to try a shot of whiskey (they would have a choice between: snake (cobra), Scorpion, Banana, or Armadillo - meaning all of these things were being soaked into the whiskey). He then told the women we could follow "to watch"..."if you're brave enough". Well, as much as I'm not a whiskey fan (especially with a dead snake in it) what I'm not a fan of even more is being told I can't do something because I'm a girl! So, I walked right over with the group of Asian men and I downed a shot of cobra whiskey! The cold I had been battling for the past four days suddenly seemed to clear right up!

After a boat ride back to Thailand, a traditional Thai lunch and some shopping at the Burma border, we ended the day with a drive into the base of the mountains where we visited three hill tribes. The first tribe was the Karon Long Neck Hill tribe. This tribe originates from Burma and fled to Northern Thailand after political turmoil in their country. The women in this tribe wear gold rings around their neck to symbolize beauty. The more rings around the neck they have, the more beautiful they are considered. Even the young girls (some as young as three) were wearing these. One elder in the tribe had thirty rings around her neck. Their two neighbouring tribes are the Akha (originating from China) and Yao hill tribes. They all share a village in this location.

The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is a rescue and rehabilitation sanctuary for elephants and other animals. It promotes a natural environment for the animals and ensures the safety and well being of the animals who live there. The park currently has 34 elephants, over 400 rescued dogs and several dozen rescued water buffalo.
Of course anyone who visits Thailand automatically thinks about these beautiful giant creatures that roam the lands. We all want to come face to face with these animals and go for an elephant ride through the jungle.
It's the tourist thing to do! It only makes sense that we associate elephants with Thailand. There isn't a corner you can turn in this country without seeing some form of elephant- be it a statue, a painting, carving, or the real thing roaming the streets of Bangkok. Elephants are considered sacred animals in this land, yet what most of us don't know is how these poor elephants are treated. It all seems quite hypocritical.
The majority of elephants in Thailand who are owned by tourist companies or private owners are certainly not treated the way any living creature should be treated. Many elephants throughout the country go through weeks, months and even years of abuse so that they become submissive to their owners. The very elephant that you pay to ride while on vacation in Thailand may have went through torture in order for it to be tame and calm enough for  you to ride it. Babies are often taken from their mothers and are locked up so they are unable to move at all. Men gather around and beat them with sticks, nails and other weapons. They stab them, punch them and beat them until they are so broken that they can do nothing to fight back. They are often stabbed and blinded if they try to fight back. Many suffer broken bones and hips or get infections from their wounds. This method of training elephants is an ancient ritual done by villagers and even medicine men. Although they view these giant creatures as sacred, they believe that by beating them they can use them for tourism. Obviously the concept of positive reinforcement hasn't crossed their minds!!?
Wild elephants are now protected by the government in Thailand as the numbers continue to drop each year. There are currently only an estimated 5000 wild elephants in the country. Although these wild ones may be protected, the ones being abused have no protection or rights. If an elephant is owned, it is considered livestock and can be treated however the owner wishes.
The Elephant Nature Park has done an amazing job rescuing abused elephants and placing them in a loving and safe environment. As a visitor to the park you are no longer a tourist, but a volunteer helping wherever help is needed. My day at this park was rewarding in so many ways. I may not have done the typical riding the elephant through the jungle, but I did get to bathe, feed and help put medication on several elephants. I snuggled up close with a big ol' lady that has broken hips and has to drag her back legs in order to walk, I washed the dirt and grime from an elephant who has a skin infection and I helped bathe an elephant that has a poor digestive system. I fed an elephant who had been blinded by it's owner.
The elephant was very depressed and sick and had stopped listening to the owner. The owner took sharp sticks and jabbed the elephant's eyes until she was blind. Each elephant has a story that could break your heart into a million pieces. To make it even more heartbreaking, elephants are much like humans in that they never forget the hard times they have been through. This causes a lot of stress, anxiety and nightmares for the elephants - which means the workers at this park have to be very careful in building a trusting relationship with these animals.
I am grateful that my experience with elephants in Thailand was so positive. Prior to this visit, I had no idea how elephants were treated and abused throughout the country. Of course not all tourist places you visit will have elephants that are abused, but after my day at the park I will encourage anyone who goes to Thailand to make sure they do their research prior to visiting an elephant show or taking an elephant ride.

From Chiang Mai I flew to the Southern part of Thailand and arrived in Phuket. From the airport I drove even further South and ended up in Kata. Flashback to my life in the Bahamas! White sand, clear waters, blue skies and constant sunshine. The only thing that could have made my time in Phuket more perfect would have to been to experience it with others. Traveling alone is rewarding in many ways, but it can definitely get lonely at times. My days in Phuket were filled with tanning on the beach, floating in the ocean, eating fresh sea food and island hopping. I took a boat tour to the Phi Phi Islands, did some snorkeling, visited Maya Bay (where the movie "The Beach" was filmed), made a visit to monkey Island (a beach with vicious monkeys running around), and met some other fun tourists! As beautiful as Phuket is with the turquoise water and tall, lush green mountains rising out of the sea, it's definitely overrun with tourists and I have to say the the Islands in the Caribbean still remain my favourite beach destination as far as anywhere I've traveled around the Globe.

My trip came to and end on a late night three hour flight back to Jakarta. I sat down next to a Thai woman who was just a few years older than myself. She had that friendly Thai smile that is so common throughout the country. Like usual, upon take off, my sneezing attack began. She leaned over and gave me a box of tissue. We then began chatting and she asked how I enjoyed my time in Phuket. I asked if she was from Phuket and she told me she had lived there her whole life. We chatted and chatted and I then asked her if she was there when the Tsunami in 2004 hit. She went quiet for a moment and then began to recall the events that occurred that day. Listening to her story was one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever heard. Her strength as she went through each detail of the morning of the tsunami shocked me. She explained to me that she was 23 years old at the time, and earlier that year her and her parents had taken a loan from the bank to start their own travel agency shop for tourists. They had built it near the beach and were doing really well. Everything changed on the morning of the 26th of December, 2004. Her and her parents woke up and headed to their shop. Her Mom and Dad dropped her off at the shop and drove down further to park the car. She had just entered her shop and opened the windows when she saw the wave coming. She said at the time she couldn't comprehend what it was or what was going on but she has the instinct to run uphill toward the highway. The wave hit her. She survived. She spent three days looking for her parents and finally found their bodies. She had lost her family and her business. The banks only gave Thai people three months before they had to start paying back their loans again. She had lost everything and couldn't possibly pay her debt so she was forced to sell her family home. She now had nothing. She explained how many locals in Phuket got together, shared what little money they had and shared their resources to rebuild as quickly as possible. People who were once wealthy business owners now had nothing and had to work for others. The people of Phuket showed their resilience and rebuilt and welcomed tourists back just weeks later. She told me that she became so angry and depressed that she was hospitalized and didn't speak for two years. She went through the last almost decade of her life and told me how she found strength again. Her story is inspiring. The little things I complain about in my life are so insignificant in comparison to what this woman has gone through.
One thing she said that really stuck out was how thankful she was that the tsunami hit at a fairly early hour. She said had it have been a few hours later more tourists would have been on the beach and many more people would have died. I couldn't believe considering she lost her family, that she would be thinking something like that. What an incredible person! We then shared a taxi and I heard all about her life. She travels a lot, just like me! We came to realize how similar we are in a lot of ways. I couldn't help but feel sad for how much love I have in my life and how she has no family. It definitely made me miss my family and reminded me how incredibly lucky I am!

I've been so fortunate in my somewhat short life to see as many places as I have. But what always amazes me more than the beauty of the land, are the people that I meet! No matter what country I'm in, what the culture is like, what religion dominates the population, or what daily struggles the people face, I always come across friendly and hospitable people who welcome me into their lives! What a beautiful world we live in!!!
My favourite quote:
“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear.” 
― Gene Roddenberry

Next post: Read about my time in Vietnam.