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.