Thursday, August 12, 2021

Cities of Colour

It was so hot in the car. In the back seat, my three friends had all passed out in a sweaty heat-induced stupor. The man we hired to drive us from Fes saw me take a picture of them sleeping and chuckled to himself. He didn't make another sound the whole drive.

Along with two friends from Macedonia, I had the chance to travel and explore Morocco for two weeks in May of 2018. There were sand dunes, colourful medinas, wide starry skies, intricately tiled buildings out of a fantastic patterned dream, and there was the mesmerizing blue city of Chefchaouen.

It's not certain why all of the buildings are painted blue, but it seems that in the seventies the buildings in the city were required to be painted blue to boost tourism. As we wandered around the streets surrounded by blues in different hues, it felt so peaceful.

It also somehow felt cooler there, almost like we were near the ocean.

The uniformity of the streets made walking around almost dreamlike, and it was easy to get lost (which to me is one of the great joys of travelling). Wandering there, surrounded by an agreed upon colour, reminded me of my visit to the white city of Popayรกn in Colombia in 2012.

An equally mesmerizing place. We stayed with Borja and Luisa in their beautiful parkview hostel, Parklife, which was a trip in itself.

Sometimes I think of travelling to different countries as getting a click on your transit ticket, and when you ride, the inspector comes through and punches a little hole in it, leaving it a little less intact than it once was. Sometimes I reflect on all the people I've bonded with, hostels I've found by following cryptic directions, moments that just stick with me, and in many cases I have to think pretty hard and retrace my steps to remember which country I was in when that particular thing happened. Was it Venice where I met the girl from Mexico with the terrifying story of being followed in the street? Or was it in Belgium somewhere? Where was that awful hostel that had triple bunkbeds where I somehow ended up on the top bunk and bonked my head on the ceiling? What was the name of that bartender who gave me free cookies in Liechtenstein? Or was it Luxembourg?

Even still, among all my chaotic travel memories, Colombia still stays with me. And Morocco does too.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Chilling on a Boat in the Backwaters of India

The boat churns to a slow start on as I drop my bag in the bedroom. It has two double beds, and I'm not sure how all 9 of us will sleep here. This is our first glimpse at what will be our home for the next three days.

I went to India alone, a year ago now, and hadn't booked any portion of my trip in advance. In fact, all I had really done was looked at pictures of interesting places and highlighted them on a map:

When I first arrived in Mumbai, I was eaten alive by mosquitos in my hostel room while napping. Coupling my giant welts with having no idea where to eat or how to get a train, I was hoping for a friend. But for the first few days, everyone in the hostel was either violently ill or tanned and wearing a bindi and finishing their trip. I consoled two different women on two consecutive nights as they cried at the realization that their trips were actually over. Envious of their positive experiences, I wanted to fall in love with India the way they both had.

After spending my third night alone in the all female dorm, two solo backpackers came trickling in one night. When I awoke, the hostel was newly chatty and curious, couches filled with friendly travellers. We gravitated towards each other, and bonded over a walk through the Dhavari slum that day. Our friendships were solidified when we played extras in a Bollywood film the following day, (but that's really a whole other story). I remember the first night we met, someone mentioned wanting to "rent a boat with a group" to explore the backwaters of South India. I didn't even know then what the backwaters were, or that we would all be on a boat together just two weeks later.

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We hired a private boat for two nights and three days, and it took us all around the backwaters of Kerala with stops here and there to explore the way people live in this area. We docked for the nights at the river banks, and stayed up late swapping travel and relationship stories. During the days, though, we mostly just sat and watched the trees float by.

This trip was over a year ago, and I am still in regular contact with a few of the friends I shared this boat ride with. I'm not the first to say it, but I really do believe traveling solo is the best recipe for making a few more friends around the globe, as meeting on the road adds so much energy and intensity to a friendship. You instantly have shared experiences to bond you: where you've been together, what you've eaten, where you've slept, and who else you've met. The best part of all is that friends you meet on the road tend to be on the road again, making them easy future travel partners. In fact, last year I visited one of the friends I met on this trip in India when she was travelling in Egypt.

I don't know exactly why, but part of me was scared to visit India before this trip. (Okay, maybe I partly know why - thanks Chuck Thompson). I was worried I would get sick. I was worried I would get robbed. I was worried I wouldn't fit in with people talking about reiki and yoga (and yes I overheard the girl behind me on my flight talked about the reiki retreat she was going to do). Irrational or not, I was worried. I felt I had to "work up" to India... which involved travelling to most of Southeast Asia and South America first.

That made India my 49th country. When I was finally travelling around, I kept thinking to myself "why did I wait so long to come here?". Unlike Japan, English is spoken commonly, and people will approach you and offer directions and help. Unlike Peru, I didn't feel people sizing me (or my belongings) up. I shared smiles with women and their children on the all-female trains in Mumbai. They would ask me what stop I need, and tell me where to sit, and when to get ready to get off. I even had a woman walk me all the way along a series of platforms to help me find my train as she told me about her son in England. Almost every encounter I had in India left me feeling happy.

Why did I wait so long? I don't know, but I do know it won't be long until I visit India again.

Monday, June 29, 2015

An education at the Pyramids of Giza

It began with the chaos and scams of a visit to any other famous tourist site: Angkor Wat, The Eiffel Tower, The Grand Bazaar... After entering through the gates of the pyramids, our taxi driver let someone into the passenger seat, (arising suspicion that something fishy was going on), who seemed to direct the driver where to drop us off. Our taxi driver then let us off in the touristic area where people start tours of the pyramids by horse and carriage (confirming suspicion, as our taxi driver probably gets a cut if we spend our money on a horse and carriage). Our taxi then tried to charge us 100 pounds for a ride that cost 15 pounds according to the meter. I refused, of course, and handed him 15 as he asked for 50. I got out of the car and then he asked for 20. Then I said no and he said "you are right" and left. I guess he was just trying his luck.

Once we were out of the taxi, we were swarmed by several carriage drivers offering tours of the pyramids by horse. After insisting that we didn't want to hire a carriage - with a man walking alongside us with an empty carriage, lowering his price with every step, "80... okay 70" - we had to walk the sandy path out of the tourist trap to enter the pyramids at the actual entrance.

My patience was being tested in a real way, in addition to the sweaty heat, and we weren't even inside the grounds of the pyramids yet.

Once at the gates, we bought our tickets, a little over $10 apiece, and entered through the turnstiles. The pyramids looked bigger now than they had when they were peeking through the passing buildings as we approached in our taxi. They also seemed a lot more peaceful...

A few meters in, a man asked to see our tickets, and we refused as we'd already had them checked. We were asked a few other times, and surely unsuspecting tourists have been led astray by vendors posing as ticket inspectors.

As we walked toward the biggest pyramid of all, several camel owners offered to give us two hour camel rides around the pyramids. One camel owner in particular walked alongside us and seemed very keen to talk to us. While we chatted with him about the names of the different pyramids, several other camel owners came to offer rides, and we made use of our limited Arabic: "La, shukran" (meaning "no thank you"). This seemed to disperse the vendors, but one hat vendor came up to us after the others had left, confiding in us that he despises the culture of harassing tourists.

"Look around. There are just no tourists here now, since the revolution".

He was right. Where were all the group tours and families I expected to see? Where were the other backpackers? I realized then that we nearly had the whole pyramids to ourselves.

It was nice for us, but for the vendors and camel owners, it must be a true time of stress. Where hundreds of tourists used to flock every day, now there are only a few dozen. What effect does this have on someone who purchased a camel in the heydey of tourism? Now, the prospects of finding someone to hire your camel for the day look dismal.

By noon, several of the camel owners had given up trying to give rides that day, and we watched a group of them ride off together. I felt a pang of guilt for not supporting them.

The hat vendor walked with us, not selling, but explaining. He talked about the revolution, and how the country is in a counter-revolution now. He asked us to tell our friends about our visit to Egypt, and to encourage others to visit now. He said "most places" in the country are safe for tourists. The stroll became an education about current issues in Egypt.

As we walked along, I felt the magnitude of the ancient history in front of me, of a time completely disconnected from the major current events still unfolding in the nearby capital. I felt surprised at how quiet it was there in the desert.

It's strange to be a tourist sometimes. We are temporary, visiting for a moment a place where many make their livelihood. The dollars we exchange into pounds that we spend on a camel ride, or a souvenir, or a bottle of water, are someone's salary.

Upon exiting the pyramids, taking in the whole view through a fence, I realized I hadn't learned anything about the ancient monuments I'd been walking around. I don't know which pyramid is which, or which one was built first or last. What I had learned was about a nation's struggle to go on with daily life during a time of major social and political change.

We found a taxi to bring us back to the city centre, and stared out the windows as the city went by.

Monday, May 25, 2015

An afternoon in Paris

It had been 9 years since I visited Paris. Arriving 4 days after the initial Charlie Hebdo incident, the city was a bit quieter than it had seemed to me in 2006.

My flight to India had a 12-hour stopover, or passage, in Paris. Since the city is so full of beautiful famous landmarks, I was able to see a lot of special places I'd seen in my first visit to Paris.

Starting my passage en Paris, I went to my favourite icon in all of Paris - Sacre Coeur.

My perception in 2006:

and in 2015:

On the stairs leading up to the church, I was greeted by a smiling man who asked if I was married and how many children I had. After I answered, he asked to see my hand and I could tell something was up, so I just told him I didn't have any euros. He laughed, at my implication that he would be asking for money, and proceeded to take out a string. He asked me to point and as I kept insisting I had no money, we got into a light conversation about travel and life while he braided a quick bracelet attached to my finger. Once it was finished, he said I should think of it as a token of friendliness and to remember my time in Paris while wearing it. The bracelet fell off a few days later in Mumbai.

After the bracelet encounter, I reached the top and sat on the windy stairs, recalling the time 9 years earlier when I had shared a bottle of wine and strummed a guitar on these exact same stairs, staring over the same view, with a few traveler friends who I met at a hostel. To my surprise, I also remembered a particular lookout point where you could see the tiny Eiffel Tower in the distance.

The passage continued through the streets of Paris, passing the Moulin Rouge, the Palais Garnier, and reaching Jardin des Tuileries. The most beautiful sunset was emerging.

My friend who lives in Paris said she hadn't seen a sunset like this, ever. People were stopping to look and take photos.

The walk finished at the Notre Dame Cathedral, where you can catch the RER train which goes directly back to Charles de Gaulle airport. I was back with enough time to have a cup of tea and catch my flight to Mumbai.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

How many days in India?

If you asked me how long I've been traveling in India, I'd say a few weeks. Three at least. With days so full of new faces and foods, new smells and places, new friends and new reflections, it's hard to believe it's only been ten days. Ten days. Ten days into India.

From the street snacks to riding the ladies train into South Bombay to rickshaw troubles in Andheri to the set of a Bollywood film in film city to the warmest waters of Pallolem in Goa, it's only been ten days.  

Near Churchgate station, there are many Art Deco buildings with round corners, Mumbai

The thieves market, Mumbai 

Trying some new sweet snacks, Masjid Mumbai

The ladies train car totally empty on a Sunday night

Entering the Dharavi slums, Mumbai

CST station lit up at night, Mumbai

I'm now in Pallolem beach in Goa province, swimming away my afternoons in the sun. 

I've uploaded several videos to my YouTube channel from India so far, with more awaiting to be uploaded. Please be patient as strong wifi is hard to come by in beach town...

Twitter @expatkerri

Monday, August 25, 2014

Seeking alone time and getting much more in Indonesia

A month ago, I awoke on my last day on the largest of the Gili Islands, tucked between Bali and Lombok islands in Indonesia. I awoke to birds chirping, leaves lightly blowing, plates clinking, oceans waving; I awoke to the sounds of paradise. I also awoke to a deep sadness to be leaving not only a tiny beautiful place, but the unexpected group of friends I had made there as well.

Going to Gili Trawangan was my getaway. To rinse myself from the noise and pollution of Beijing, to take advantage of being in Asia again, to see a new place, and strap on my backpack again. It was mainly a scuba diving trip, as diving is a huge hobby of mine, and I don't have a chance to do it when I am in Toronto. I had heard from Brenna that there were lots of turtles in the water, and that the island was a good place to chill out and enjoy beautiful beaches.

I was going to be by myself.

Early to sleep, I'd wake with the sun for my dives. I'd stretch and meditate, and try my best to breathe slowly underwater to conserve my air. I'd look carefully under rocks and in coral for creatures of the sea, and move myself with subtle movements of my flippers. I'd be cautious and calm, and take every moment of the dive in. Once finished the dive, I'd go through the fish identification book with the other divers to determine what we saw. I'd learn the names of everything we saw and research them.

After my dives, I'd write in my journal on the beach with a cocktail or seashell in hand, and sand on my skin. I'd reflect on my time in Beijing and try to determine what it was that made living there so hard for me. I'd write about my life of late, and reflect on what it means to be almost thirty. I'd make a list of all the people I love, and write postcards to them. I'd spend these ten days quietly nurturing myself. I wouldn't meet many people, and I'd keep to myself.

It didn't quite turn out that way.

When boarding the boat for the 2 hour journey from Bali to Lombok, I met a traveller named Martin who enthralled me with stories of med school and hiking Mount Bromo. We rode the boat next to each other and exchanged ideas about travelling and realized we both share a need to travel that many of our friends at home do not understand about us. When we arrived on the island, we decided to share a room because it was cheaper than bunk beds at the popular backpackers. With that, I was inducted into the established travel-friend group of Martin. He had stayed at In Da Lodge hostel in Ubud a few weeks earlier, and had met a group of solo travellers there who were all travelling to Gili in the coming weeks. As soon as Martin and I arrived to the island, he kept an eye out for his posse.

Within a day, serendipitous reuniting hugs abound, the In Da Lodge crew was together again. There is something very sweet about meeting a friend at one time on your trip, and then seeing them again in another place. It feels extra special to see them again, and upon reuniting, those new friends feel instantly like old friends from the road. They shared inside jokes from Ubud and teased each other in a way that good friends do. Instead of being an outsider who wasn't among the original group, I was adopted in like I'd been there the whole time. I was greeted with hugs and smiles and curiosity and  warmth. I was on the receiving end of the openness of the travelling spirit.

We ate dinner together at the night market on the island, and more friends showed up. We gorged ourselves on pretty cakes and desserts and stories from our various adventures. Afterward, someone mentioned a silent disco, and we danced together in silence with earphones on until 3 am.

The next morning, I rushed to the scuba shop and was kindly teased for showing up 15 minutes late. I had to throw together my gear and barely had time to squeeze in a cup of tea before heading to the boat.

Once under water, though, the quietness came. The sound of my own breath and the entire ocean surrounding me, entirely wrapped up in the underwater world around me. Slow motion bubbles and an anemonefish with two tiny babies, barely visible in the swaying coral. An octopus curled under a shelf, camouflaged black, with only a large white winking eye to give itself away. A strong current pulling us along, leaving us expending almost no effort to move across the dive site. That precious dreamy sense of weightlessness that I can only know when I dive. The only sound is a distant tap of metal on tank as our instructor points out a family of sharks cozy between large boulders. I see three, and find out when we surface that there were six. The dream comes to an end as our tanks run light and we slowly surface. During our three minute safety stop, a massive hawksbill turtle comes up for air nearby, and I realize we are both going up for air in this moment, the turtle and I.

On the boat as we ride back toward the beach, I realize that diving was what I really needed. The dive was my meditation, it was all the contemplation I sought for this adventure. I didn't need the afternoon alone to write about it in my journal over a coffee. The notes in my logbook would remind me of the life we saw underwater. What I really wanted after those dives was the company of my new friends.

After a long chat with the friendly scuba staff, I felt so lucky to return to the room for a shower and then meet up with Martin, to ride bikes along the beach and find the rest of the gang for sunset watching over Bintangs on the beach, for storytelling and photo-taking and those momentary blips in time when you really feel like this is it, this is the sum of all of my life. This is where the choices I have made have taken me, and this is where I am now. These people are my friends now, and all of us have been brought here by different forces in our lives. Though we might not meet again, right now, we are watching this sunset together.

It gets me every time. Heading off for solo adventures, seeking time alone to contemplate the depths of my soul, but instead finding new friends and new places to bring you into the moment and realizing that "it wasn't being alone that I needed, but travel".

Flying home is always emotional, but this time I felt so full of life I could hardly contain it. Those mad feelings came out in tears and laughs and deep sighs during the days that followed my return. I glued the log book pages into my dive log just yesterday, and a seashell from Gili T sits on my bathroom shelf to remind me that the sea is never really that far out of reach.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

From a Woman's Perspective: A Message about Consent

In 2008, I was walking to my apartment at night and a man approached me to ask for directions. I pointed where to go and he grabbed my butt. I said "sorry" and walked away. "Sorry". I did nothing wrong and I apologized to a guy who grabbed my butt, because it is ingrained in me, and in others, to be polite. "Sorry".

Does it matter that I was wearing a short skirt that night? Does it matter that I didn't wear a skirt for a month after that?

Last week on a crowded subway in Beijing at rush hour, someone grabbed my butt. I swatted the hand away. I share these two stories as a person who has encountered unwanted advances. It happens.

With #notallmen all over Twitter, and in light of this recent expose, I wanted to share a bit of my life experience, as well as some musings on the word "no".

For some of us, saying "no" is hard. Even when someone is doing something unwanted, the word "no" might come to mind, but the politeness and preservation of the happy mood might lead us to say everything but "no".

For this reason, it's clear that "no" isn't always a word. In fact, in my life, I've only ever used the word "no" in a physical situation once, despite having been in multiple scenarios where the word "no" would have been useful.

"No" doesn't have to be said. It can be a look of the eye, a turn of the shoulder, a nudge of the hand, a turn of the head; no comes in many colours.

It could be "I don't know" or "I have a boy/girlfriend" or "I'll be late" or "I'm tired" or anything else that isn't a bright smiling yes. All of these are the actions of a person who doesn't want the advance. It could be "sorry". If someone doesn't want to kiss you, they probably don't want to do anything else.

There's a big difference between touching someone who wants it, and touching someone who doesn't.

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