Friday, November 30, 2012

(Be Sure to Wear Flowers in your Hair)

Guess where I'm going next?

Clue: They've been on my "Go See Do" list for years.

Stay tuned for updates!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why travel?

I've been doing a lot of introspection lately - in part, for academic purposes as part of one of my classes. Although I initially resented the work of having to look deeper at myself and examine my motivations along with my skills and goals, the assignment really provided me with useful insight that I may not have otherwise gained.

For example, I know that the need to travel is an innate part of me. I like to think it's embedded in my DNA on a primitive level, that it's been hard-wired into my being since the beginning. How else to explain the fact that life seems unworth living if the opportunity to go places, meet people, see things and embark on adventures were taken away? Losing my passport seems worse than the prospect of losing a limb even when there is plenty of travel to be had on a national level. Travel is a non-negotiable part of my life equation. It all boils down to 3 simple words: Go. See. Do.

But why do I love to travel so much? Genetic explanation aside, I see my reasons as being multi-factoral. My family, for example, is one of those reasons. My dad's side has always lived pretty close by, but my mum's side lives across the country as well as on the other side of the world. When one goes back another generation, or further into the cousins section, both sides of my family are scattered around the world. I was a toddler the first time I travelled overseas to the U.K., and still a baby when I first travelled to the U.S. I was in elementary school the first time I flew alone "out West" to visit my grandparents, and in my 20s, I returned to England (by myself) to visit family and friends of the family for 3 weeks. It took me nearly a decade of saving and sporadic planning, but a couple of years ago, I took myself down to NZ to visit my uncle and his wife for nearly a month - people I was related to but barely knew. Heck, I've even dropped in on other people's family for a visit - my friend's cousin's fiancee's brother and their parents put me up for the night in the south of Switzerland when I was a random stranger passing through in 2005. Now that I live multiple provinces away from my nuclear family but closer to my mum's relatives, I've been working on getting to know some of them better with random, sporadic visits when time allows.

Friends, too, are one of my reasons to see the world. When I was hiking in NZ, I met a great group of people from all different parts of the world - The Netherlands, Scotland, Australia, England, NZ... I'd like to visit each of them where they live to see their countries through their eyes. That's one of the great things about travel: when you meet people who live in the places you are visiting, they enrich your experience by sharing a part of their everyday lives with you. Whether it's something as simple as running errands with them and seeing the types of shops that they frequent, eating at their favourite restaurant that may or may not be known to tourists, or a trip through the countryside to one of their favourite gelato places, these are my ways of working to understand the location as a local person does - especially if my visit is a short one. Tourist attractions are great - don't get me wrong - but I enjoy visiting the preschool that my newly-met little cousins attend, the beach that my other cousins like to walk on to find treasures, the pizza place that my friends love eating at, the church that a family friend rings the bells at every Sunday, or the local hiking trail that my friend just discovered and can't wait to share with me. I don't always want to see places as a "tourist"; I want to see how the locals live, too.

Stories inspire me to travel. In 2005, I jetted off to Zurich, Switzerland to see the Bahnhoffstrasse, the waterfront, and the infamous Swiss banking institutions (the subtle ones for people with serious money were harder to find), all because I had read about them in the Jason Bourne series of books by Robert Ludlum and wanted to see if they looked the same in real life as I had pictured them while reading. The next time I return to Italy, I will be looking for the places written about in The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown as well as shamelessly eating my way around the country as inspired (in part) by Elizabeth Gilbert's book Eat, Pray, Love. Bruce Kirkby's book, The Dolphin's Tooth (highly recommended adventure reading) has a number of places in it that I have added to my travel list. I'm inspired not just by the written word, but by word of mouth, too. Oh, you just came back from vacation? Let's talk about it! I'd love to hear where you went, what you did, how you found it, etc. Maybe that will be the key place that I did not know I wanted to see until I talked to you, or maybe you just added more excitement to a place I already want to see because you gave me more ideas for when I get there. Oh, you've lived somewhere else before I met you here? Great! What's your "back home" like? Tell me more about where you lived, what you liked to do there, what you'd recommend I try when I get there? Movies are another form of storytelling that inspire me to travel. As corny as some may think it sounds, I've always been interested in  South Africa after seeing my favourite movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, set there many years ago. I'm inspired to visit Southeast Asia now after part of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was set there, and the annual film/slide show event put on by my peers in the Ecotourism & Outdoor Leadership program always shows me new places to see and adventures to be had there (The Love of Travel by Mike Wenzlawe and 2012 ETOL Churchill Rive Expedition by Craig Oldfield, part of this year's entries).

I can't live without travel, and no one can live forever without food, so why not use food as a reason to travel? A few years ago, the other half and I starting doing trips that were based around trying food in its origins. For example, we went to Philadelphia, PA for philly cheesesteaks after researching to find who had originally started it. A trip to Atlantic City not only for the boardwalk experience, but for some salt water taffy, too. Twice we've been to Chicago, IL for deep-dish pizza, and what would a holiday in Switzerland be without trying Swiss chocolate (or 20 lbs of it, in some cases other than mine...)? Oh, you have a cool donut shop called Voodoo Doughnut in Portland, OR? Ok, I've never been to Portland before so let's go! Purdy's Chocolates originated in Vancouver? I can get them across the country, but I prefer to try them while I'm there. Oh, your ice wine is made in Niagara-On-The-Lake, ON? I'm on my way down there to try it. Poutine has its origins in Quebec? What better reason to visit La Belle Province? When we get ourselves over to The Netherlands to visit the other half's cousin, I plan to indulge in all of the Dutch foods I can get my hands on (except seafood/fish/marine life - I'm phobic). We've even planned a side trip to Belgium to compare Belgian chocolate to Dutch chocolate to Swiss chocolate. One of us is a chocolaholic and it isn't me... On a cycling trip through the Okanagan in BC this summer, my school friends and I were sitting next the orchard from which the apples for the cider we'd just bought came. One of my favourite parts while visiting NZ recently was discovering that Kiwis often enjoy a hamburger with a fried egg on it - delicious! Our pending trip to San Fran has already had a number of specific foods incorporated into the itinerary such as a trip to indulge in Ghirardelli chocolates and lunch at a restaurant in Napa owned by the author of a cookbook enjoyed at our house. Personally, I think no visit to Napa would be complete without a trip to ABC: Alexis Baking Company. I could be bias, but I doubt it.

What inspires you to travel?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Memory Coast - Prescription for Fun

Photos: 1) Good morning, Mount Baker! You are very clear today. 2) Canada won 26 medals in the 2010 Winter Olympics, just in case you didn't know. 3) Gorgeous scenery while snowshoeing at Cypress Mountain. 4) Goodnight, Vancouver Island. See you on my next visit.

It's another early morning. Anyone sensing a theme yet? Believe me, it's not intentional - I'm just one of "those" people. Anyway, I'm up early enough to take another set of photos of the sun coming up behind The Bridge! It's another clear, sunny day so Mount Baker is hugely visible in the distance. Exciting! This does not happen too often when I'm out here.

I use the time to tidy up around the apartment, hurl my scattered belongings into a pile that does NOT look as though it's all going to fit into one bag for the return to Calgary, and write a few postcards.

I hustle outside to meet Sare at the appointed time, but have a few minutes to photograph some poor cherry blossoms with frost on them. They seem rather confused: keep trying to bloom or give up and hibernate until this "cold" snap passes for good? Oh good, Sare's here! I haven't seen her for a few years, and we've a date to go snowshoeing at Cypress Mountain this morning. Last time I saw her, we did the Grouse Grind with her daughter, Claire. Any friend who enjoys being out and active is a good friend to have!

I'm not sure I've been up Cypress recently. I know my mum, Joyce and I went up Mt. Seymour for a looky-look last summer, but now I'm excited to see where (some of) the 2010 Olympic events were held at Cypress. It's like visiting history :). Wow, what a perfect day to drink in the great views and scenery! It's sunny (RIDICULOUS! I know, two days in a row!), blue skies, sparkling white snow, lush green forest. Oh-em-gee! We get our tickets and rentals sorted out, then sit down to figure out how the snowshoes attach to our feet.

Soon enough, we're stomping our way out onto the first uphill section. Given the fact that I last snowshoed when I was about 11 years old, in the old-school heavy wooden shoes, these lightweight, modern aluminum ones take a big of getting used to. I can't help feeling that I'm dragging my feet, normally a habit I abhor and avoid at all costs. Meh, who cares? It's gorgeous up here!

We consult our trail maps on occasion, winding our way uphill through the fantastic old forest. Oh cool! A deep snow sinkhole! Avoid, yes, but it's awesome to look down into it. Man, these trees are amazing, and everytime I look up, the sky is nothing but blue. The sun makes the snow gleam and I'm happy (and sweating like crazy). Sare and I manage to have great conversation as we shuffle along. We cross the nordic trails cautiously as some of these XC skiers look a bit intense as they whiz by. We've essentially got our trails to ourselves and there really aren't too many people out overall. I should come out here during the week more often!

A short break at the high hut involves some medicinal Snickers and water. I'm not going to argue with that. A cute little squirrel and some other snowshoers are nice company. Sare and I opt to continue slogging upward to the top of the nordic area. After all, that's where the great views and rarified air are, haha. I'm trying to figure out why I'm still breathing heavily uphill when I've been living at altitude in Calgary for the last 8 months. I'm acclimatized by now, and Cypress is at a lower altitude, but alas. I see no major advantage yet.

Winding our way back down to the lower hut in a big loop, we stop to admire views and pick trails. At one point, I can see the mountains in the Fraser Valley way off in the distance. That's how I know it's a nice, clear day :) No wonder my grandma loved the mountains. It's so much fun to be stomping around out here in such nice weather with great company. We encounter a mad group of students hacking around with XC skiis outside the lower hut, and duck into the quieter back room for a snack.

Refreshed and re-energized, we make our way back to the parking area in time for a photo to prove we returned safely. Back at the apt., we bid each other a fond farewell and I opt for the elevator to give my tired legs a break. After a rest, I run some local errands, snag a few photos of the end of the sunset, and tuck into bed early to enjoy my new book. Tomorrow is my last day here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Memory Coast - Happy Places

Photos: 1) Spring has (tried to be) sprung on the North Shore ... but might have suffered with the recent plunging temps. 2) Beach love in Ambleside in the early morning. 3) Nemo whizzing past some peculiar looking coral-ish stuff at the Vancouver Aquarium. 4) Dear Sea Otter, Thanks for making me smile today. Love, Alexis. 5) Sunset reflections in Vancouver and the North Shore Mountains as seen from Mo's place. The tiny building with the rounded roof at the bottom of the photo (left of middle) is her former school.

There were a few things I wanted to accomplish on this trip. To me, this isn't a typical vacation. Wait - do I ever take typical vacations? Regardless, as I've mentioned before, this time out here is of the reflective kind, a time to reminisce and learn to accept a rather significant change a little more so that I can keep moving forward. That being said, I wanted to spend some time alone with my thoughts and happy memories in some of my happy places out here. Today is that day.

Up early as usual, I start with a nice slow stroll along the seawall, east toward Ambleside. It's pretty cold out this morning (cold for Vancouver) so I've got my travel mug with tea in it for warmth. The sun's coming out over the bridge (SUN! in VANCOUVER!!) and I stop to look at things along the way. I love exploring beaches. They have so much cool stuff on them. I see a few mosaics that I haven't noticed before, and I spot Mr. Heron floating on a log offshore. I usually see him poking around at low tide, but the tide is in right now. Joggers and energetic walkers pass me at a torrid pace. Normally, I move at that same pace, but not this morning. I stop to take photos and eventually I get to "Come When You're Called Park" (can you tell we were naughty grandchildren who didn't listen well?) where I think about all the fun times we had playing here.

I find some smoothed beach glass and tuck it safely in my pocket. I examine cool pebbles and photograph some neat kelp. I briefly watch a man doing tai chi and remember that my grandma did tai chi in the mornings. I poke around the community gardens and find signs of spring with little flowers showing. I wander my way back to the apt and soon it's time to head over The Bridge! to Vancouver.
My first stop is another happy place: the Vancouver Aquarium. My favourite part are the sea otters because they're cute, furry and make me smile even when I'm feeling a little sad like today. I'm lugging around a bundle of flowers in a bucket as a thank you to my friend who is having me for dinner later, but I talk the girl at the desk into letting me leave them there for a few hours.

I wander around the Aquarium for a few hours, taking lots of photos, watching a few shows and just feeling better. The sea otters make me smile, the dolphins make me laugh, and the belugas make me want to visit the Arctic some day. The frog exhibit is still here, but some yummy mummy with a very loud voice (who knows everything) is annoying so I detour to the Pacific Coast section until she moves on. I find the jellyfish which is nice since I missed them last time. Oh look, an octopus! I overhear a volunteer saying that the previous octopus is in the nursery with her babies. I guess having 8 arms will help her care for them. I see the sea turtle swim overhead and I think of my Mum.

Soon enough, Mo finds me in the gift shop and we head to her place for dinner. Along the way, we stop to see the inukshuk at English Bay (how have I not seen this here since 1987?), I learn a bit more about Yaletown, and we explore a little park next to the Athlete's Village for the 2010 Olympics. I'm excited to see their quarters as I missed so much of the Olympics last year. Cool! Mo shows me the cute school she last taught at before she retired, then we're taking in the views of Vancouver and the North Shore from her rooftop deck. Wow! No direct sunset tonight, but her collection of sunset photos from the deck are great to look at online.

A lovely healthy dinner with some great conversation and the time is flying by. I'm glad to be getting a chance to know her better. She's also teaching me a lot about Vancouver as a life-long resident. As a periodic visitor for the last 34 years, there's still lots for me to learn. Pretty soon dessert and photos are over and I thank her for a great time as she drops me to the North Shore. A presto!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Memory Coast - We're snowed in!

Photos: (top) How to clear the snow off your car if you live in Victoria, BC. (middle) My Canadian pannekoeken (hybrid between a crepe and a pancake, kind of) at De Dutch. Seriously recommended! (bottom) Well, there WERE signs of spring in Victoria...

As seems to be my normal pattern, I woke up early this morning and pulled the drapes aside to check the weather. Holy cow, we're knee-deep in snow! Did I warp back to Calgary overnight? No, wait. I'm still in Victoria. Oh dear. I don't think residents here have much experience with 10-12 cm of fresh snowfall of the heavy, wet kind especially. Doesn't Vancouver share a single snowplow with Victoria, sending it back and forth on the ferry as required?

Soon enough, Karen's up and nearly falling over with shock at the sight of the yard. And did I mention it's STILL snowing? Time for breakfast so we can figure out our plan for the day.

Off we shuffle up the snowy street to a great restaurant called De Dutch. If you haven't yet tried this place, you're crazier than a bed bug. It is seriously good! My pancake is the size of a real Italian pizza and Karen is kind enough to let me try her two dishes of YUM. I'm thinking of my Aunt Corry while I eat. Being of Dutch descent, I bet she'd really like it here. In fact, I'm now feeling more inspired than ever to make a return visit to the Netherlands soon. Omnomnomnom.

On the way back to Karen's place, we stop briefly at the bank. This city is in chaos. The roads are not plowed (and they're icy under the slushy snow), schools are closed, the sidewalks aren't really shoveled, no one has snow tires, buses are not on time, and oopsie, there's a fresh fender bender across the street now. We overhear someone at the bank mentioning that a cabbie just went into Elk Lake which happens to be on the way to the ferry that I need to get to tonight. Hmmmm. Not good. Everyone's moaning about the drive to work, but they kind of give me the evil eye when I shrug, laugh, and tell them I live in Calgary where this is nothing.

Back safely at Karen's (where I watched a guy clearing off his car with a dust pan), we hatch a plan to get me safely to the ferry and keep her safe at home. Now we've got time to put on a movie and do some cooking together so that I have good food to take with me. Did you know that yams are really dense when you're trying to chop them? Oi! Must be why I never eat them.

Mmmm, the kitchen is smelling REALLY good and I'm just about finished packing. How the heck have I accumulated so much stuff in a day?! I have this strange pattern of usually leaving a place with way more stuff than I arrived with, almost always unintentionally. Karen's been her usual kind self and I bid her a quick but heartfelt farewell when my cab pulls up. I hope it's not too long before I see her again.

Arriving at the ferry without incident, I am delighted to learn it is arriving sooner than I had written down. Time to read...until the departures lounge fills with hords of loud tweens. Good grief, where did they come from?? No longer able to concentrate as they are louder than my iPod, I stare blankly out the window and try to imagine how the people who live across the way go swimming when the tide is out as the water receeds seemingly half a kilometer from shore.

The ferry ride passes the time. I get excited when I spot two seals in the water beside the boat as we steam through the Gulf Islands. A few years ago, on the same journey, I saw another seal in the same general area. It's the little things that excite me. I watch the hords of tweens outside on the deck in the blasting arctic wind, running into it and blowing back from it. At least their screeches and hoots are a bit quieter when they're out there. I don't know how they haven't frozen to death yet. Another bit of excitement when we're about to cross open water: the elevators get shut down because the seas are rough enough that they can't operate safely. Cool! I board my bus in Tsawassen, hail a cab at the downtown bus terminal, and soon I am back on the North Shore. No signs of snow here!

The Memory Coast - To Victoria...and beyond?

Photos: 1) View from the ferry through the Gulf Islands. Sunny! but windy and cold on deck. 2) Early signs of spring in Sidney by the Sea. 3) Karen and I can't get over the size of this boot! Too bad the shop only had one. 4) Holy crap! This breakfast cereal is reputed to be amazing. I don't know this from personal experience.

Whew! An early morning today. I forgot to bring an alarm clock because I thought there was one here, but I'm using my watch and cell phone alarms as my alternatives. Handy for me, my mom's three timezones ahead right now and I've enlisted her to call me to make sure I'm up in time to catch my cab to the bus station downtown. It's a long way to the ferry in Tsawassen from West Van, but it'll be worth it to see my friend Karen again.

Karen and I shared an office at the hospital in London (ON) where we worked. She moved to Victoria about 3 years ago, but it's been close to 2 years since I visited her last. We've both been facing different challenges recently so it will be good to reconnect.

The ferry ride over is about 1.5 hours and passed uneventfully. Filled with restless energy again, I wandered around the various decks, braving the freezing winds to take some photos of the scenery. I've never ridden the ferry in winter before, but after living in Calgary for a while now, I'm prepared with mittens, scarf and hat along with my wool sweater and wool socks. Bring it, ocean crossing!

Oh look, it's Karen! There's my cute, petite friend waiting for me in Swartz Bay, just as I remember her. We start chatting immediately and exchange big hugs. A moment of hilarity when we can't find the car, then we're off down the highway to Sidney by the Sea.

This is a cute little town if you ever find yourself nearby. It's very close to the airport and ferry for Victoria, and the main street has quite the collection of great little shops to explore. We amble along slowly, trading stories and memories. I help her find some new kitchen knives and she treats me to a yummy smoothie. I find a gigantic Emu boot and she shows me a lavender store filled with products from a local farm. Lavender reminds me of my Nana (my Dad's mum) which makes me happy. We both have success in a great shoe store and I meet Brutus the Magnificent, an Italian Mastiff with a fancy pedigree. His name is actually in Italian, but my Italian skills are not up to par so I wrote the English translation. He is a big, big dog but very well behaved. I learn from his owner that he loves shopping and has his own Facebook page.

A delicious lunch in a great little cafe, some more shopping success and we are on our way back to Victoria, tired but happy. We stop to pick up a few treats for the evening at a local organic store, make a few comments about the bit of snow falling, then it's movie time! We opt for some humour in "The Gods Must Be Crazy 2" after discovering we both love the original. My caramel chocolates from Rogers' Chocolates are delicious! You need to try some too. Our sun-dried tomato and cheese popcorn is quite tasty, and our fruity spritzers hit the spot. Some more chatting and reminiscing, then it's time for bed. Another day of fun awaits us tomorrow.

The Memory Coast - Peace. And quiet.

Photos: 1) 4 generations - My great-grandma Jack (maternal), Grandma, Mum & I. My great-grandma died not long after this meeting so I don't have any memories of her. 2) My early love for beaches and all of the neat things that can be found on them! 3) Grandma and I catching up in the living room at Silverdale, their place in the Fraser Valley. 4) Helping Grandma get rhubarb ready for freezing and canning on the front porch at Silverdale.

My first day out here was a bit of a long day. Luckily, now that I live in Calgary, the flight to Vancouver is ridiculously short! I had a good time chatting for a while with one of my seatmates who is originally from Kitchener (an hour down the highway from my last abode in ON), now living in Calgary and headed to Vancouver & Whistler to couch-surf with friends for a week.

My (mom's) friend Mare was kind enough to meet me at the airport and I happily accepted her offer of a cup of tea before she dropped me on the North Shore. Well, you know how it is with good friends. I ended up staying at their place for a while, enjoying great tea and a nice lunch along with lovely chats with Mare, Ian and their neighbour, Hazel. It's nice to catch up with such kind people. It snowed a little off and on while we visited, but kept changing to rain so I didn't think much of it.

All too soon I was heading upstairs to our place in West Van. Everything here is so familiar to me, and yet, on a fundamental level, there's unfamiliarity now. I'm glad that the elevator still smells like "old people" (sorry, Mum. I know you said I shouldn't say that) and as soon as the door to the apartment opens, it still smells like "the apt". Those are reassuring to me. But after Mare left, an unfamiliar silence appeared. I've never been here alone since my grandma died. This is my third visit in the last nine months, but my family was here the other times. I thought to myself, "It's so quiet" and I started to cry. I'm crying as I type this too. This is the hardest part for me, to accept the silence and learn to live with it. I know my grandma's gone, that she's not just in another room or having a nap, but the silence is another indicator of her absence that I'm learning to face.

I had myself a cry, then I called Sean and cried some more. It's funny: I couldn't sit still in the apt. I was tired from a few nights of not sleeping well, my body was an hour ahead and I hadn't eaten dinner yet, but I was filled with this restlessness as I talked on the phone and paced around. After talking with Sean for a while, I called my parents to tell them I'd arrived safely. I cried some more, and it made me feel good to realize that my mum understood exactly what I meant about the silence. She's had to face it too and I can't imagine how hard that must have been for her.

Feeling a bit calmer after my phone calls, I wandered around a bit more then made it an early night. It'll be an early morning as I head to Victoria for a visit with another friend.