Wednesday, December 23, 2009

To go or not to go (to Timbuktu, that is)

Ever since I started doing research for my upcoming year's adventure, I have been fascinated with the idea of going to Timbuktu. Some of the appeal, I admit, is just for the bragging rights -- how many people can say they've been to Timbuktu? -- but mostly it's the mystique of Timbuktu itself.

It's not much to look at now, I gather, as it's a small dusty town surrounded by lots and lots of nothingness. But it has an incredible history: it used to be the pre-eminent city in Africa, in the 12th century or so, as it sat at the crossroads of important trading routes through the desert. It even reached a population of 100,000 people, which surely would have made it one of the largest urban centres of the day.

It's still there, in the middle of the desert, with the harsh Saharan sun beating down on its mud mosques and gritty sand blowing down the unpaved streets. And I really want to go.

Trouble is, there have been a spate of kidnappings in this part of the world, and numbers are on the rise. Canada, Britain, and the U.S. (among other Western nations) have all issued travel advisories about that part of Mali, with very strong suggestions that travellers stay away unless it's essential. AQIM (the acronym for Al Qaeda here) operates in northern Mali, and uses the area as a location to hold hostages. There is also, apparently, very real risks of violence from drug traffickers and from Tuareg dissidents.

Hmmm. Getting kidnapped by al-Qaeda and held for ransom in the middle of the desert, or caught in the crossfire of drug wars, would really put a damper on my year off.

I might have to go back to the drawing board for the first part of the year ... planned West Africa jaunt might now become a more traditional African safari in the south. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

It's 5 o'clock somewhere in the world

So I was just having a margarita, even though it's 3:00 in the afternoon. Because I'm on vacation, and the usual rules do not apply. And I was sitting in Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville bar in Key West, so the margarita seemed appropriate.

I think I'll move here, actually. (I don't mean Margaritaville, I mean Key West.) You know how you just "click" with some places? (kind of like with some people) Key West is one of those places for me. with its tolerant and laidback and eco-friendly attitude ... a perfect place for expat wanna-be hippies. At least those that have half a million or so (US) to spend on a cute wee 700 square foot cottage.

Not sure what I'd do for a living, in order to afford the above-mentioned cute wee cottage. I think I'd like to be one of those people playing cheesy show tunes and easy listening tunes in a dark bar somewhere, except that I'm not sure that would pay for the cottage. Oh, well.

Maybe I'll table that plan for now. In the meantime, I am spending my days wandering the town, as it's absolutely gorgeous, or lazing in a hammock in the hot and humid weather. I have even tried to read Hemingway again, since I went to his house yesterday -- can't say I'm a fan yet (it wouldn't have killed him to use the odd adjective or two), but I'm liking the current read (A Moveable Feast) better than some I've tried.

Trip started off well, with me getting bumped up to business class for the Toronto-Miami leg of the journey. I even liked the cold snowy walk to the subway at 5:30 a.m. on my way to the airport. Everything is more enjoyable in the context of travel -- flying isn't quite as exciting now as my very first trip, but I still feel compelled to jump around in anticipation the night before. (First plane trip ever, FYI, was the one that took me to London, England, for a new life after graduation from university -- it's hard to top that!)

And it was utter bliss walking down the steps off the little plane that took me to Key West, into the clear Florida light and laziness-inducing warmth. And while I started out with an agenda of all the things I must see and do while here, that seems to be melting away in the heat and humidity; I am perfectly content to sit and watch the world go by, as I sip my margarita.

I'm not completely de-programmed from work mode yet, but I think I am well on my way. So the "must see" list will just have to wait, as this trip was all about letting go of stress and schedules and deadlines, and all those other things that made my work life too much some days.

Oh, I'm not going to spend all of the rest of my time here in a hammock, or sipping margaritas, tempting as that may be. It's too fascinating a town for that. I heard stories of Key West in the '70's from some of colleagues who visited a lot in their decadent youths; even though I think it's changed a lot, it still has an edge. One of my colleagues complained that KW used to be fun "before the straight people moved in and ruined it" ... but I like to think, instead, that we just bring another element of diversity to the place. :)

Ok, Hemingway calls. And my hammock. So I must sign off now.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

How do you define yourself?

I just started -- about 8 hours or so ago -- a one-year sabbatical from my oh-so-safe-and-secure government job. I used to love it, and maybe in some respects i still do, but ... really, I'm burned out. I need a break. I need to re-group and figure out how to define myself in ways that DON'T relate to my job.

The trouble is this: how the hell do I do that?? As a Type-A, over-achieving, first-born child, I am very used to the idea of defining myself by my academic or work accomplishments (both of which I have lots of). Problem is, I'm not going to be living that life for a year.

I'm going on sabbatical. I won't be showing up at my office until January 3rd, 2011.

That's a reaaaaalllllyyyy long time. (I have been hyper-ventilating for about the last four hours; however, tequila and singing karaoke appear to have helped calm my panic somewhat.) It's an even longer time when you define yourself primarily in terms of your job (as I have done for the last few years) and forget how to define yourself in personal, inter-personal, emotional terms. When you forget how to keep yourself open to new experiences and just go with the flow -- as I used to be pretty good at doing, but have forgotten how, somewhat, over the last few years.

I'm sure I'll figure it out. I have a lot of time to do so.

But it ain't gonna be easy. And in the meantime I may have a few panic attacks or minor meltdowns .. so bear with me. And remind me, occasionally, that I'm worth something outside of my job.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

December 6th, 1989

This has nothing to do with travel, really, but it's on my mind. And this is MY blog, so I get to write about whatever I choose to: that's the rule.

Some of you reading this may be too young to remember that date (hey, some of my Facebook friends were only born in the 1980's), and some of you have never lived in Canada so may never have heard of anything significant happening on that day.

But anyone who was, like me, a university student in 1989 (yes, my first year was 20 years ago) will remember this day. 14 women were killed by Marc Lepine at the Universite de Montreal's Ecole polytechnique on December 6, 1989. 14 women who could have been my sisters, or my dorm mates, or my friends ... or me.

I remember this day vividly. I can't believe it was 20 years ago.

It was the first time, I think, that I ever realized that evil in the world wasn't "out there" at some safe distance that could never touch me or the people I love. It's up close and personal, and if you are a woman, you are, sadly, more vulnerable to violence in the world, whatever culture or country in which you live.

Oh, Canada at least is probably a better place to be a female victim of violence that it was 20 years ago. The shocking events of December 6th at least woke people up to the reality of violence against women. Before then, a woman who was beaten was more likely to suffer in silence, and a woman who was raped was more likely to be belittled because she "asked for it". A woman who was harassed at work was someone who just couldn't take a joke: she was the one with the problem. You might stand a chance of being taken seriously now ... just maybe.

But it's not "fixed", not by a long shot, not even in Canada. And if you look around the world, the situation is much more grim in many parts. I shudder in horror when I read any news articles that suggest that a return to Taliban rule in Afghanistan might not be so bad, or that as many as 140 million women and girls around the world have been genitally mutilated; I shudder even harder when I hear the latter described as "circumcision" (as if it is as relatively benign as male circumcision), and a "cultural tradition" about which we have no right to get angry.

So be aware. If you know or suspect that this is happening to a woman you know, don't dismiss it as a personal matter, or a misunderstanding. When you read about the women and girls in distant countries who are raped as a strategy of war, or treated no better than chattel simply because they are female, don't be silent.

Get involved. Voice your outrage. It doesn't have to be this way. And the Montreal massacre never has to happen again.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Wanted: Personal Assistant

Working for a living really cuts down on my free time.

It probably doesn't help, of course, that I am a perfectionist workaholic who doesn't know enough to go home at a reasonable hour. It's compounded by the fact that I have 6 (yes, count'em, 6!) working days left and am frantically trying to wrap up a to-do list several metres long. I have a great replacement -- one of the senior analysts on my team is taking over, and I know she will do a bang-up job (probably better than me, and they won't want me back). But I'd like to leave things in as good a shape as possible so she can start fresh.

It definitely doesn't help that I am also trying to deal with recent personal losses. I have decreed to the universe that henceforth, every person and animal that I care about must stay well and healthy until they reach a grand old age along with me. Dying at something too close to my own current age is NOT ON, not for anyone, not anymore. Listening, universe? I'm not kidding.

In the meantime, I'm supposed to be planning for my year off. I have no time or energy by the time I get home from work ... or this week, home from about four parties of the kind that will last till the wee small hours (one of which is all about me ... $5 martinis, anyone?). So I'm still not much further along than I was two months ago.

Which brings me to my title: anyone willing to volunteer as a personal assistant? You'd have to take care of travel plans, keep my fridge stocked with food and clean the house from top to bottom. I won't offer to pay you since, well, I'm not going to have an income next year. But surely there are nurturing people out there who would jump at the chance to make my life just that little bit easier?

I could let you tag along with me to the corner of the world of your choice, in compensation. I promise I'm pretty easy to travel with (note to sisters: you are banned from commenting upon this statement).

And then I'd have time to actually decide how I want to spend the next year. Which I haven't had much of yet.

I realized recently, though, that I do NOT want to attempt West African travel entirely on my own, so I've been looking into tour options -- the low-key kind that basically just get you from place to place, make sure you're safe and otherwise leave you to your own devices. There are some good options out there, I was happy to see, even allowing for the somewhat last-minute nature of my planning.

The difficulty is finding time to get visas ahead of time, as I need one for just about every country I might want to visit in Africa. And I'm out of the country for two separate periods between now and the end of January, which means my passport must be in my hands, not tied up in some bureaucratic office somewhere awaiting the magic stamps.

So I thought maybe I'd need to start the African leg a little later. Then I thought of great ideas to spend the rest of January and part of February: dogsledding in Algonquin Park, going to see the northern lights in the Yukon and/or volunteering at a climate change research study in Churchill at the end of January.

All excellent ideas ... but if I just keep adding new things to my list for next year, without actually arranging any of the things I'd already decided upon, I will never get off the ground.

Which brings me back to that personal assistant. So send those resumes ASAP: I promise to give them my undivided attention from my hammock in Key West in a week and a half ... and if you're the lucky candidate, maybe you can even come join me. Hey, SOMEONE's got to make the margaritas.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What makes a traveller?

There is a difference. Between a "traveller" and a "tourist", that is.

I have long prided myself on being one of the former group and turned up my nose (figuratively speaking) at "tourists". But I have begun to realize, as I do research for my upcoming year's travels, that there is a whole other level of snobbery associated with long-term travel.

Okay, let's take as a given for the moment that I am not going to be a "tourist" next year - that category being defined vaguely by willingness to stay in all-inclusive resorts (or at the very least, hotels where they actually give you little bottles of free shampoo and towels) or expectation that people will speak English to you everywhere you go, and that your luggage will include all the usual accompaniments to your everyday life (such as hair products, blow dryer, and dressy clothes). There is nothing wrong with this kind of trip, if that's what you want to do -- just be aware that's it's not really "travelling".

(Hey, I did say there was snobbery involved, this is not my prejudice speaking. It's just the generally accepted rule.)

But it goes much further than that. There is "traveller", a camp in which I solidly believe myself to be. These are people who venture outside the tourist compounds of all-inclusive resorts, take public transit (e.g. chicken buses in Guatamala) and understand the concept of sleeping in a dorm room with bunks, because that's what they usually do. And consider a third change of clothes a luxury, considering you have to carry everything on your back.

But there's another level beyond that, I've discoverered, in the holier-than-thou "I'm a more authentic traveller than you" stakes of the long-term backpacking world. I have been looking into options for travelling around West Africa, as I am very nervous about the idea of doing it entirely independently (what can I say, the news about European travellers being kidnapped and held for ransom in northern Mali -- one was killed, one is still being held hostage -- kind of put me off). And there are some very reasonable alternatives that cater to the "traveller" spirit in me (which don't force me to become a "tourist") while still looking after my safety - the kind of group travel where they organize your travels from place to place, make sure you have guides (or armed guards) as needed for the more difficult bits, but pretty much leave you alone otherwise to do your own thing. Kind of like a "tour", but without the enforced togetherness and "if it's Tuesday, it must be Berlin" kind of feeling.

Well. Apparently that means, according to many backpacker blogs I have read, that I have sold out and can no longer count myself as an authentic "traveller", if I am even willing to consider such a thing. Unless you do EVERYTHING the most difficult and most dangerous way possible, it isn't "authentic" and it doesn't count as real "travel".

I have no patience for this. (No, that's not actually true. I am a little bit seduced by the reasoning, as generally i do think that Western travellers/tourists miss out when they opt to take an "easy" option instead of doing the hard-core, travel-like-the-locals options.)

But seriously ... when did it become somehow less valid to travel around west Africa in the company of other people and the occasional guide-type person who might smooth our way once in a while, than to try to figure it all out from scratch? I have come to the conclusion, more or less, that if I try to do West Africa with just a plane ticket to my first destination and some cash, that I will have a less than optimal experience -- this is not a place that is easy to get around, nor would it be a whole lot of fun to be the only white Western woman for miles around. (Okay, the marriage proposals might be good for my ego -- but i can live without the constant judgment about my standard of dress, my lack of male companions and what those things imply about my morals.)

I do believe that there is a difference between "tourist" and "traveller", and that you shouldn't pretend you've actually really seen Cuba, or the Dominican, if you've never left the resort for the weeks that you were there. You do have to embrace some unease, some stepping outside your comfort zone to really and truly "travel" ... but to think that you can NEVER take a slightly easier option, is madness.

And then there's the notion that somehow "far away" (relative to where you are) is automatically more "real" in the travel stakes than anywhere close by. So, for a North American, going to the Canaries is major points in the travel stakes -- but for a Brit, that's a cheap package holiday that isn't even worth mentioning. Vice versa for the Brits and N. Americans, when it comes to Jamaica, or Cuba.

And Southeast Asia, for example, no longer counts as real "travel", among the backpacker elite, unless you gone to Bhutan, or camped among elephants in the wild in Thailand, or trekked to a location in Nepal so remote that you're the first white face they've ever seen. And Australia/NZ/Europe? Forget it ... anywhere "Western" is far too easy to count.

Have you ever read the book The Beach? (It was a Leo diCaprio movie, too, but i haven't seen it.) That is a perfect example of the kind of snobbery i mean -- it isn't enough to find an unspoiled, little-visited beach in southwest Thailand to have an authentic "travel" experience. No, they have to find a beach that is so remote, they have to swim for a mile from the nearest island, then hike overland through a dope field, then scale a cliff to find their "real experience". (And then it goes all Lord of the Flies by the end, which presumably adds lots of "authenticity" points.)

I am learning to spot a backpacker snob at 100 paces or less ... they will usually try to compete with you over (1) the number of countries you've been, (2) the roughest conditions in which you've stayed, (3) how far they've managed to bicker down a price in a market, and (4) how many times they've been "threatened" (been mugged, pickpocketed, drugged, etc) because they've chosen to take local transport, stay in a local guesthouse (as opposed to chain hotel) and eat at street vendors. These things do not make your travel experience any more genuine --I don't buy this notion that you're not really "seeing India", for example, if you don't choose to *always* travel by local train/bus and eat exclusively at the cheapest market stall, staying in a place with cockroaches or bedbugs. This idea that travel somehow isn't "real" enough unless you're suffering as much as possible ...

I don't need to do that. As long as I keep an open mind, seek out experiences that are different that i would get at home and talk to local people somewhere along the way -- oh, and don't frequent western fast food chains or Starbucks -- then I'm probably safe still calling myself a traveller.

Even if I occasionally choose the flush toilet over the more "authentic" squat-over-a-hole-in-the-ground experience.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

So many choices, so little time ...

I thought when I started planning that a year would seem like all the time in the world ... how could I NOT go everywhere I want to go, do all the things I want to do, when I have a full 12 months to spend my time however I choose? (without ever having to set foot back in the office)

Well, I was wrong.

Oh, I don't mean that 12 months isn't a lot of time - and that I'm not very grateful to have the time, opportunity and money to be able to do this. It's just that, the more I research, the more things I find that I'd like to do and more places I'd like to go!

I've gotten some easy stuff figured out ... like a trip out west to visit my sister (on the train), down to Wyoming to ski for a week, and a week or so to laze around in the sun (I haven't actually booked that yet, but it's coming soon - probably Key West). But the "big trip" is harder - I've realized that I can't actually go everywhere, and that picking any one place to go means giving up something else.

And then there's the safety question. Much as this irritates me, it is just not as easy -- and in some cases, downright dangerous -- to travel to some parts of the globe as a solo woman. Particularly as a (relatively) rich, Western, white woman -- I have learned from experience that those characteristics invite harassment and too much attention in some countries, as there is a prevailing stereotype about Western women and their loose sexual mores that is only reinforced if you have the temerity to be travelling without a man. But there are places where it could go far beyond harassment, and much as I might rant about the fact that women "should" have as much freedom to travel where they want as men, I have no desire to pay for that freedom with my health or my life.

So there will be probably have to be some compromises in the way I travel if I am going to go to some parts of Africa, or to the Middle East, for example.

And then there's the question of timing -- how do I balance out all the places I will go in a year so that I don't end up in India during the monsoon, or hiking the Inca Trail in knee-deep mud, or fainting in 50 degree Celsius temperatures in West Africa? The "best times" to go various places don't seem to line up in a logical order for a round-the-world trip, and they will too often coincide with peak tourist season and make travel that much more difficult.

So here's the current thinking ...

First up:

A week in Key West, immediately after leaving work on December 9th. Possibly with a friend, although he is juggling family commitments and may or may not be able to go. This is where I get to unwind from work, relax, de-stress and leave the office completely behind ... so that I am recharged for the next year.


Train out west to see my sister in Vancouver. Then to Jackson Hole to meet up with a friend from England to ski for a week -- tried to figure out how to do Toronto-Vancouver-Jackson Hole-Toronto entirely by train, but the U.S. rail system makes it difficult. I eventually gave up and booked flights, except for the Toronto-Vancouver leg.


West Africa, for about late January to March (10-12 weeks). Timbuktu a must, everything else is a bonus. May include a short volunteer stint in Ghana. This is when West Africa is dry and not yet too hot -- but as it's not yet a big tourist destination, I'm not expecting to have to fight with hordes of other travellers for transportation or places to stay.


South America, for about 3 months (till June or July). Had originally thought about doing this first, but the rainy season in Peru -- which makes for oceans of mud along the Inca Trail -- is roughly our winter, so as Machu Picchu is one of my "must see" destinations in South America, I thought I'd better plan to be here when I'd actually enjoy the hike. And before peak season in July and August -- I'd rather not have to share the trail with hundreds of other people.


Round the world! Beginning in July or so ... Fly to London for a short visit, then over to Istanbul (skipping over the rest of Europe as I've seen most of it in previous trips, and one big backpacking trip back in the '90's). Overland from Istanbul to Kathmandu, as I am fascinated by stories of the old "hippie trail" of the '60's and '70's -- you may or may not know this, but I am really just a wanna-be hippie at heart, and if I'd been born a couple of decades earlier, I would definitely have been one of those intrepid travellers going off to find herself in Asia (and yes, probably doing too many drugs along the way, but we won't go into that. I don't plan to do that now!!)

How to do this is the question -- it's not an easy part of the world to travel (particularly, again, as a solo woman), and I'm not sure I'd want to go through Iran or Pakistan. (Afghanistan is, of course, completely out of the question.) The alternative -- going through the other 'Stans (Uzbek-, Kazakh-, Turkmen-, Tajik-, and Kyrgyz-) -- is more appealing, and probably safer if not easier. This might mean hooking up with a group to travel, rather than trying to navigate entirely on my own.

From Kathmandu, down through Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia) to Western Australia, and from there island-hopping in the South Pacific on my way home -- actually, by then, it would probably be just one island (no hopping), as this is a lot to try to pack into six months.


This year is going to fly. So are the next two months, as I attempt to figure out all the practical details. Would love to hear from any of you who have attempted long-term travel -- what are your tips?

Carol :)

p.s. And if you know anyone who needs an apartment for next year, I may be looking to sublet. Not sure yet what I'm going to do with it, but as it's a great deal (and I love the neighbourhood), I'm loath to give it up entirely. I also hate apartment-hunting, so would love to avoid that when I come back!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Not on the road, quite yet ...

You may think the title of this blog is misleading, as you read the next paragraph. But rest assured, this is actually going to be about travel, as I have next year off work to go gallivanting around the world. I just have a roundabout way of explaining first why that’s so important to me right now, prompted by the movie I rented tonight on the spur of the moment.

I just watched the film “Before Sunrise” again. If you don’t know it, it’s a story that takes place in one night, as Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train. They get off together in Vienna and spend one night wandering the city; the film shows the developing relationship and chemistry between them. I saw it not long after it came out in London (which was a little behind North America, Hollywood-movie-wise) sometime in the fall of 1995. I loved it then (and I loved it now), but at the time, in 1995, it was bittersweet. I’d gone to see it with my then-boyfriend (with whom I was living), and I remember walking out of the movie theatre thinking, “They’ve known each other a few hours, and I’ve known this guy for years, and we still don’t have what they have.” My relationship was not in a good place by then, and we barely spoke except to argue; it probably won’t be any surprise that it ended a few months later.

But I mention it not to reminisce about past relationships. What I love about the movie is the sense of possibility – the idea that in the space of few hours, before the sun rises the next day, life can change. You can meet someone, encounter something, see something, have a conversation … that changes you forever, even if that experience only lasts a short time.

That movie isn’t about romance, really, for me. It’s about being open to the world, and to life, and seizing the experiences that come your way. Appreciating the moments, fleeting though they may be, that remind you that you’re alive, remind you to be passionate and audacious and curious about everything and everyone who crosses your path. That you only get one time around, so you’d better grab hold of every moment that enriches this life while you can.

I’ve felt like that, at many times in my life.

I have talked through the night with dear and wonderful friends, happy just to be with them. I have loved, and been loved, and felt my heart break when it ended.

I have taken on what were, for me, formidable physical challenges (with that little voice in my head telling me “but you’re not an athlete”) and triumphed, joyous laughter bubbling up in my throat as I crossed the finish line of that marathon or accepted that brand-new black belt.

I have sat on the top of a Mayan temple in the Guatemalan jungle as the sun rose, listening to the howler monkeys as they woke, and on the top of a dune in the Saharan desert as the sun set.

I have danced for three days straight in the English countryside, with the DJ spinning trance or house out over the crowd of thousands of ravers.

I have felt enormous satisfaction at knowing I can take on a challenging professional job, and do it extremely well, using whatever intelligence and talent I am fortunate enough to possess.

I had that sense of possibility – the next adventure was just around the corner. I didn’t have to wonder, “What if…?” because I took a chance and tried it, whatever it was.

But I’ve lost that sense somewhere over the last few years. It isn’t an age thing … although it’s true that at 40, I don’t have the same feeling of unlimited time that I did when I was 23. It’s a mindset. I used to feel adventurous and bold and excited about my life, and now I feel like I’m going through the motions, that I’m just marking time for some vague and unspecified event that I can’t even name.

So this is where the year off work comes in.

If I stay here, that challenging and interesting job that I used to love will continue to demand all of my time and energy. And I will let it, because I care about doing a job – any job – well, and because it’s the one part of my life that feels like it’s going well and where I feel like I’m in control. And I could all too easily get addicted to the money I make (it's pretty nice) and the lifestyle and "things" it can buy me – none of which I actually need to make me happy. And none of which WILL make me happy, if I keep shutting off the rest of myself.

I miss the Carol who was willing to try new things, go to new places, meet new people. The Carol who would say “Oh, what the hell” when a friend called her up at midnight to go dancing, instead of worrying about getting enough sleep for work the next day. Who could live happily with just a backpack and a few dollars in her wallet. Who would risk her body to find out her physical limits, to accept the aching muscles later for the glory of crossing the finish line or making it down that ski run. Who would risk her heart and the pain it might later feel, for the chance to connect with a new friend or fall in love.

So I’m stepping out of my usual life for a little while. And going on the road. Somewhere along the way, I will find that Carol again.