All Aboard the Zambezi!
Here I was, in Zimbabwe, half way across the world, without a job, and celebrating my 40th country traveled. I was in Victoria Falls; one of the seven natural wonders of the world. And yet, as I stood glaring at the presence of this global wonder, I began to reflect on my 30 year old self. No… I wasn’t having my first life crisis but moreover appreciating the changes. Over the last year, I was feeling burnt out from what was looking like a dead end, unappreciated job; the only thing keeping me going was the determination to save as much as possible for travelling. I used up every vacation day I had accumulated, counting down the days, dreading going into work. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved my everyday co-workers but working in social services can lead to burn out and well…this is what I was feeling. Quitting was the most terrifying thing I ever did but it led to some amazing new adventures. Just five days after quitting, I found myself in Portugal, engaged to the best man-child that a girl could ask for…and well…just enjoying life.
Fast track a couple of weeks, I was standing on the edge of one of the wonders of the world. Holding up to its majestic views, loved by those who have been blessed to witness it in person. The sound of water forcefully falling over the cliff side into the Zambezi river below was spectacular. Visiting during the dry season allowed for a new perspective of how versatile this landscape is throughout the year. The rich, dry cliffs, barring all its greatness on one side, to the lush greenery and never-ending rush of water on the other. I felt that I was in two places at once.
To mark the celebration of the new chapters in my life, I decided to sign up for something a little adventurous. Signing my name on the dotted line for white water rafting on the Zambezi River, my friend signing up beside me, we sat at the hostel toasting with a Zambezi beer to commemorate tomorrows adventure.
Okay. Ill be honest. I was shit scared.
Although this was not the first time I had gone white water rafting, I had been forewarned that the Zambezi was one of the top places in the world to experience extreme level five rapids. I woke up with an adrenaline rush of nervousness as my friend showcased a calm exterior. However, I am pretty sure she was evaluating our decision making once we were geared up. We would laugh with a hint of hesitation and fear in our faces....
Nineteen rapids. Nine-teen. Now this seemed like a good idea on paper but on the water, in the African mid-day heat, I soon realized that I am very accustomed to Canadian weather. Our guide telling us to jump into the water from time to time to stay cool…in that calm water...where the crocodiles hang out! Hanging on the side of the raft trying not to think about what else was swimming in the water was the easy part. The difficulty for me was trying to get my sorry-ass back into the raft. You see...I have no upper body strength…so I heavily relied on the strength of my raft mates who ultimately would drag me by my life jacket back into the raft. It was not my most graceful moments in life.
Every rapid included some kind of swear word coming out of my mouth. And as water hit you straight in the face, you had no time to process that you might flip over. Suddenly! a solid paddle would hit my in the face. My friend on my legs as we try to grasp what the heck we were doing. Laughter in between breaths. Some tears and well more laughter. My body would hurt so badly in the morning but in that moment enduring the natural force of the Zambezi, I felt resilient.
Nineteen rapids. Success. And as we enjoyed the calmness of river to a close of our adventurous day...I suddenly remembered. I remembered that we needed to still hike. Yes, that is correct. We had to hike up the cliffs of the Zambezi river in Victoria Falls. Now, I am from Vancouver where hiking is popular. But I am no hiker...
My legs were jelly and with no shade in sight, I would take my time, feeling breathless. My friend determined to get to the top waiting for me along the way, I soon would tell her to keep going without me knowing that she could reach the top way ahead of me. Our raft guide would ultimately cheer me on... an out of shape westerner. I laughed to myself knowing that our guide does this hike on a daily basis. Locals, without shoes, paid to take the heavy rafting gear up the cliff side for one US dollar motivated me to appreciate the moment and take in the experience. Locals even were paid to piggyback people up the cliff side. Sparking outrage in my tired body, I watched tourists take the offer due to pure laziness. It was one of the hardest uphill treks I had done; especially after a full day experience of being rocked by level five rapids.
However, The best reward when I looked up to sky, so close to completing this challenge was seeing a blonde, blue eyed person starring down at me, cheering and smiling at me. My friend was holding a ice cold beer and once I reached the peak, she poured ice cold water over my head. I loved every moment.
Every time we head towards the Vancouver International Airport (YVR), my jet setting nerves fill with excitement. This time we were on route to Portugal. Grabbing our bags from the back of the truck and walking towards the check in line, I was filled with anticipation to see my family. Portugal, a place dearest to my heart and what I consider a second home was only two plane rides away.
Although Thomas and I had already travelled parts of the globe this year, we couldn’t resist saying no to the opportunity to surprise my family with a visit. After all, I was jobless… I had just quit my job five days prior to takeoff. My pursuit of wanderlust was just beginning. I was excited, knowing that this would be the first of many flights I would be taking over the next couple of months. After Portugal, I would end up in Africa with a girlfriend… soon to be checking off another continent visited.
We checked our bags, went through customs, walked to our gate and impatiently waited to board the plane. The day was beautiful. Clear blue skies. Spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains as our 8-hour flight to London began. It was no surprise, as usual, that I couldn’t sleep on the plane…so naturally I spent my time indulging in the various new movies available. By the time we landed in London, I felt my eyes burning caused by glaring endlessly at the screen. Thomas on the other hand...appeared well rested as he had been snoring quietly beside me throughout the flight.
Once in London, my brain began doing what it always does…counting the hours … 6. More. Hours.
Just 6 more. This included our layover and flight time. My body exhausted but my mind excited to see my family. I pictured myself laughing, eating, and hitting up the beaches and then eating again for good measure because that’s what the Portuguese do. Thomas and I strategized on how we would surprise my family, especially my cousins, thinking we were masterminds of the world. However, there was more to ‘our’ surprise than I knew.
Waiting to board our final flight, I passed the time capturing my typical airplane photo before boarding. TAP Airlines, Portugal Airways, a flight I have travelled on more times than I can count was the next 3 hours of our lives. Getting settled into the middle seat, I found myself sitting next to a vibrant New Yorker, who occupied the window seat, Thomas took the aisle seat. Thankfully our flight was on time. Soon into the flight, I began to have a great conversation with the American who expressed her excitement with visiting Portugal for the first time. Exchanging details about her planned itinerary, making suggestions, Thomas interrupted from time to time asking where he thought we were.
“Which country do you think we are over?” he asked.
It had been approximately 2 hours into our flight and as I looked out the window and watched the landscape change from small towns to farmlands, I stated that we would most likely be over Portugal in 20 minutes…his response was a simple “Oh”.....My conversation continued with the American from New York.
Suddenly, Thomas stood up and reached for his bag stored in the over head compartment. I asked what he was grabbing and quickly he responded with “NOTHING!”. Looking at him with a questionable look, I continued my conversation with the American. Then music came on.
Thomas had pulled out a portable speaker and began to stand in the aisle playing a song from one of my favourite movies: The Wedding Singer. The song: Grow Old with You. As Thomas pulled on my hand, telling me to stand up, I resisted and felt my eyes tearing up with happiness. Sitting in my seat, I don’t recall it, but Thomas states that I said “No, don’t do it!!!”. However, I do remember him courageously singing the song to me...out of tune and seeing him with a tear in his eye. Other passengers around us began pulling out their phones to capture the moment. The flight attendant unaware of what was going on, came up to Thomas and asked him to turn down his music but his response of “I’m trying to propose” made the flight attendant blush with embarrassment (again, something I missed! Haha) My hands over my face, Thomas took my hand as the song came to the end... and as he got down on one knee asking for my hand in Marriage, the entire plane was in silence for a response.
And don’t worry…I Said YES!!!!
The plane clapping and cheering as we shared a kiss in flight over Portugal. Excitement filled the plane.
Our partnership of 11 years, 38 countries travelled together, and a life we continue to make with each other took on a surprise when we got engaged in flight over Portugal. Arriving in Portugal, we were all smiles as we ventured to surprise our family and enjoy our new adventure in becoming Mr. & Mrs.
Off the coastline of Panama City, in between the shore-liner boats waiting to pass through the Panama Canal, awaits a ferry to the island of Taboga. Spending five nights in Panama City we discovered the tiny island after connecting with locals one night at the Mojitos bar in the old city. With a passenger ferry heading to Taboga daily, we felt it would be the perfect day adventure. In the early morning, we backed up our day bags, made pancakes at the hostel and filled up on our gluten filled breakfast hoping it would keep us full until the late afternoon.
We had been travelling along side two German female backpackers whom we had met back at the Lost & Found hostel located in the Panamas cloud forest. Making the trek together to the ‘big’ city, they joined in on the day adventure. Hassling for a fair taxi price to the ferry dock was simple and cheap; nothing out of the ordinary lives of a backpacker. By this time, Thomas had even grasped my amazing skills of bargaining. While we stood by the ferry dock, the old wooden slacks appeared to be withering away as the sea water splashed onto the dockside. The white, blue and yellow paint that marked signage had been slowly chipped away with time. The morning sun was beginning to heat our bodies but the sea breeze caused goosebumps all over my skin as we waited patiently for the ferry. Slow and steady we watched the little boat dock.
We were handed orange life jackets by the ferry crew, they motioned for us to put them on. Approximately twenty people took a seat on the handmade wooden benches. It wasn’t too long until I felt that back and forth motion of the sea as my body questioned that third breakfast pancake. But conversations with our new travel friends allowed my body to relax and my mind to wander as the ferry slowly made its trek to Taboga.
At first glance, Taboga appeared to be that enchanted getaway destination. Filled with charm, shades of yellow and white buildings and beautiful colourful flowers made me fall in love with this little island community. Walking beachside, I enjoyed picking up shells, finding the biggest one to take away with me for the day. Thomas was entertained by climbing up trees or finding sticks and rocks to throw into the splashing waves; caveman like activities. In the distance, you could see the shoreline boats and the bustling city buildings of Panama’s capital.
After playing around on the sandy beach, we walked around the quiet community in search of well… particularly nothing. I felt as though we were allowing our wanderlust feet make the memories as we passed by quiet little streets with no one in sight. When we reached any crossroad we randomly would choose left or right. Each decision put us in the right direction. When our stomachs began to grumble our decisions lied on one important thing…lunch time. However, soon we realized that coming to Taboga on a Sunday may have had some downfalls as we had no snacks, limited water and from the looks of it no businesses to be open.
Walking along a stone paved path we noticed some locals going into a house. On the side of the white painted home was red paint that wrote out various items of food “hamburguesa” “fruita asorta” “sopa”. The door was wide open and was completed by a painted blue fish on its door stating below “hay peces”. Thomas, Myself and the two Germans walked up the steps and took a peek inside realizing it was a home-based restaurant. As our heads poked in the doorway, an old man smiled back at us with excitement indicating to come in and take a seat. He pulled up four plastic chairs from the back of his home and as we sat down, our stomachs growled with excitement. The man welcomed us in Spanish and Thomas replied in his basic Spanish for the menu. With no menu available, Thomas sought out the menu options that were painted in red on the side of the house. Hungry, Thomas attempted to order in Spanish some hamburgers. None of us understood what the man said, but we understood we could not have hamburgers. Thomas attempted again “Quatro biftecs por favor.” Again, the polite old man replied in Spanish. None of us understanding what was being said. We understood, there was no steak to be had. Thomas attempted to order for a third time, “pollo”, or chicken in English. With a smile from the old man he replied in his best English “Today…Today we have fish!”. Looking around at the table, four hungry backpackers replied “vamos a comer peces”, “we will eat fish.”
We had no idea what kind of fish…
How much fish…
If it was cooked fish…
But Today. Today we were going to have fish!
…And there were no regrets.
After waiting patiently for thirty minutes our meals began to come out of the little kitchen in the hallway. Our plates included a whole fish on the bone and a side of fries or banana plantains. As I began to de-bone the fish and take my first bites, my stomach melted with delight. It was the best fish I had ever had!!! From the first bite taken, we knew it had been caught that morning and cooked with love from the wife of the old man in their kitchen. The old man even stepped out to purchase some Coca-Colas we had asked for as a beverage as he had run out of coca cola. He smiled and stated in Spanish that he would return shortly. Four ice cold Coca-Colas completed our amazing meal. Costing a grand total of $6-8US per person, depending on the size of the fish, we were so thankful for that homemade meal that our bodies craved from our travels. Heading to their personal washroom, I glanced into the kitchen seeing a little adorable lady that reminded me so much of my grandma. I introduced myself, thanking her for the perfect meal. The hospitality of these two local ‘restaurant’ owners made me feel as though I was a distant family member visiting. Thomas felt compelled to tip them and handed the man the only $20US bill we had. Being on a budget ourselves it was a small dent of gratitude for the best fish in the world. The man tried to decline the gesture but we insisted. They smiled with gratitude in return as we packed up and said goodbye.
We took the rest of the afternoon to hike to the top of Taboga, following markers along a pathway. When we reached the summit, the clouds had cleared up for us to see spectacular viewpoints completing the perfect day adventure. Luckily for us we had made it in time to take the only ferry heading back over to the mainland as our little hiking detour left us tired and slow paced. Taking a glance out from the water at this unique little island community, I reflected that we truly had gotten a taste of Taboga. I felt so fortunate that our not so planned day led us to the best fish dish I have ever had but more importantly the memory of the kind-hearted seniors who made us feel like family members in their home.
A place of tranquility and the slow-paced island life…
Where the calming music plays in the background as you walk to Waikiki beach...
Yep, this was life…well seven days and six nights of it anyways.
We got to experience just a dab of that Hawaiian lifestyle that has been on the top of my bucket list since I was able to write. But more importantly I had made a deal with the woman of my life, my mom. Flashback 15 years ago when I decided to tell my mom that ‘one day I would take her to Hawaii’ because why not?? I felt, after all, that she deserved it. This was the woman who supported me throughout my hormonal teenage years and put up with me through all my temper tantrums and wanderlust dreams so in my mind it was the least I could do. Over the years, it became an ongoing joke between the two of us, until one cold autumn night I turned to my mom and stated that it was time to book our trip. Of course, my mother laughed it off stating that I was crazy. As her laughter turned into a slight concern that I was actually serious, I hopped onto the computer, checking airline prices and began clicking those beautiful buttons that confirmed a future adventure awaited us. Soon we would be laying beach side in Oahu, Hawaii.
This was going to be our first mother-daughter trip. A true bonding experience and a time where we could shop, eat, and relax on the sandy beach while reminiscing about the cold Canadian winter back home. When we arrived in Honolulu, we instantly felt the warm humid air against our skin and prayed that this week would bring us good weather. My mom quickly realized that my backpacking bargaining skills would come in hand, especially when hunting for a taxi to take us to our hotel. That was an adventure all on its own as I set the price with the driver before entering any vehicle caring less about taxi meters. With Hawaii being so expensive, I was on a mission to save every penny we could. Fortunately, our first experience with a local (our taxi driver) was amazing and he provided us with some local options for food and beaches outside of the busy Waikiki strip.
We planned to spend most of the days ahead sun-tanning and cooling off in the lush blue ocean. At night we decided to treat ourselves to different dine out experiences along the Waikiki strip. We enjoyed people watching and sipping on a fresh pineapple drink. In all my travel experiences, I could not believe the extent of Waikiki’s shopping. Expensive stores including Gucci, Fendi and Chanel were jam packed of people all hours of the day. Japanese tourists flooded the stores and I can say that they sure do know how to shop!!! We were officially impressed! So much so, that we found two husbands asleep on a bench as their wives continued to buy their expensive skin products. However, it wasn’t too long until we found ourselves shopping for deals…but it seemed that all we left Hawaii with was a painted medal rooster that my mom found at a Ross store. We walked the street with pride as we showed off our purchase while a woman holding her newly purchased Chanel and Coach Bags passed us. To this day my mom still loves her colourful rooster, a prized possession in the family home.
Most mornings we were blessed with breakfast cereals complimentary from our hotel. In the background we listened to “somewhere over the rainbow” as a Hawaiian dancer performed for all the sun-burnt guests. Since we had already budgeted out our adventures for the week, including hiking up to the top of Diamond Head (a giant crater), we decided that it would be cost-saving to take public transit to the base of the park. As we waited at the bus stop for what appeared to feel like a lifetime, a rugged looking taxi driver wearing a sun-visor and traditional Hawaiian-flowered t-shirt pulled up in an unmarked van, asking us if we wanted a ride. Instantly, I felt my mother’s body language become hesitant by this odd man, questioning the legitimacy of the taxi, but I saw it as an opportunity to get to Diamond Head… for a bargain! (Also, I saw that a taxi meter was in the van and his id was posted on the side). I began to state that I was only willing to pay the same price as the bus ($2.50US pp, a total cost of $5US). The driver responded back with a price of $6US but I smiled back waiting for him to take the bait of my initial price. Irritated the driver gestured us to get in and away we went. Within that fifteen minute journey to the base of Diamond Head, this man was in disbelief about the “cheapness” of bargaining with a taxi. “You…you are cheap!” he stated. “You are a young beautiful woman, how did you learn to bargain?” he continued onwards as my mom continued to laugh, appearing uneasy as I played along with the conversation. Once we arrived to our destination, we thanked the driver and tipped him an extra $1US for his humorous disbelief that I would bargain any taxi ride.
Continuing on with our day, laughing about my new label of ‘cheapness’ in Hawaii, we hiked Diamond Head and enjoyed the breathtaking viewpoints. The mid-day heat had gotten the best of us as we were so distracted by our taxi experience we had forgotten to put sunscreen on!!! Trekking back down the crater, we desperately tried to cover up our poor shoulders, legs and in my case, nose! We decided that we wanted to try out public transit and began walking to the bus stop. Suddenly, we realized that our determined taxi driver was waiting for us, standing in front of his van, carelessly dressed with his shirt coming out of his fly (pants zipper). My mom was in disbelief feeling embarrassed that we had to acknowledge him. As he attempted to persuade us to take another ride for a minimal price, we politely declined. While we stood at the bus stop, the determined driver pulled up with other passengers already in the van and asked us if we wanted to join…we politely declined. Other tourists waiting at the stop appeared to be slightly confused but we smiled back as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. When the bus finally arrived we quickly sought out relief from our burning skin as we made our way to the ABC store, situated at every corner along Waikiki. Luckily for us Aloe Vera was on sale!
In the following days, we embraced our lobster-like appearance and decided to take day trips including visiting the Polynesian Cultural Centre and Pearl Harbor. As a backpacker at heart usually I would try to get to these locations by myself but I can tell you it is worth the time, hassle and money to get tours. Especially after our taxi driver experience! By the way…we would recommend checking out both sites in a heartbeat.
The Polynesian Cultural Centre allows you to get educated about the Polynesian islands, traditional customs and people. Ensure to take the early day tour and stay for the fire dancing show at night. Ninety percent of individuals who work at the cultural Centre, origin from Polynesia, and are students studying at the nearby University. The cost of your ticket provides these young people an opportunity to study aboard, and learn about their cultural customs for a discounted tuition at the University. The day trip to the north of Oahu Island provided that surreal green lush scenery, complete with those spectacular views made famous from the movie Jurassic Park.
Pearl Harbor was the last stop on our Hawaiian adventure. And this memorial site is worth checking into if you are a history fanatic like me! My mom and I were amazed by the impact Pearl Harbor still has on the island today. Thousands of people come to pay their respects to those who lost their lives on December 7th, 1941. It is important to book your tickets ahead of time as the memorial site is located in the heart of the US navy base and tickets are limited per day. I was surprised on how expensive this activity was to visit but considering I had it as a bucket list item to paying my respects, my mom and I decided that it was worth it. The tour guide provided amazing insight to this historic event and without hassle of time or stress it ended up being cheaper than going on your own.
However, the best activity everyday was sitting on the beach at sunset. The twinkle lights along the beach set the perfect mood for the evening; completing each day with happiness. I was honored that I was able to experience it with my mom, a mother-daughter trip of a lifetime but more importantly a commitment to each other in past years that was followed through. Today, we joke about the next adventure… Cuba? New York? Maybe back to Hawaii? Yep, that sounds about right…time will only tell.
Over the years of traveling to different corners of the world, I find myself searching the hidden cultural gems that lie between the hustle and bustle of modern life. Making the trip over to Southeast Asia, I felt the pull of wanting to visit the north of Thailand to learn more about the Karen Long Neck Tribe and the curiosity behind the tradition that attracts people from all around the world.
Arriving in Chiang Mai, and before heading out on a day trip into the north, I wanted to gain a little more understanding about the history and culture of this particular hill tribe. After taking a closer look, it was interesting to read the negative perspectives of visiting the hill tribes in Thailand; marking those interested in visiting these people as fueling a ‘human zoo’. However, underneath the controversial perspectives, there lied more behind the golden necks within the cultural traditions of this tribe.
After all, Thailand is a country fueled by tourism because of the amazing food, landscapes, culture and smiling people. These benefits often cover up the black market side of tourism, including promoting infamous Tiger Temples and Elephant Trek- Riding that have been in the headline news around the world for its controversial treatment of abuse. The night before we went on the day trip to visit six hill tribes, I remember feeling worried as though I made the wrong choice. I got no sleep that night.
Waking up in the early morning, our private guide picked us up and we began our journey. The hour and half drive was filled with information about the history of the hill tribes. Our guide told us why these elegant women continue the traditions of wearing gold around their necks, wrists and legs. There is a prophecy that any girl that was born on a Wednesday was blessed by the gods and therefore would showcase the gold rings to symbolize their importance within their society. The other theory on why the gold neck tradition appeared was because of protection from tigers in the jungle that hunted humans and attack the neck to kill its prey. Since women are child bearers and seen as the givers of life, they were protected by wearing the gold rings.
When we arrived to visit the Long Neck hill tribe, our female guide walked with us through the community so that we could be able to communicate with the people. After all, I didn’t have a chance to spruce up on my Thai before heading to Southeast Asia. But I soon found out that this hill tribe spoke a different dialect that was not Thai or Burmese! Luckily, our guide was able to translate in a different dialect to help us out. When we arrived on the grounds, each individual had to pay 500 Baht (approx. $20CAN). Thomas and I felt a little outraged by the fact that there was a ticket price to enter the grounds but our guide explained that the Long Neck Tribe made no profit from this as it is a fee that goes directly to the government for the refugee land.
After paying to get onto the property, we walked straight into a standard outdoor market place. Wood carvings, scarfs and other trinkets were showcased as the women with golden necks smiled welcoming you to take a look. Because these people are not allowed to work outside of the ‘refugee camp’ this was the way they were able to make a 100% profit to support their families. Speaking with a young woman no more than the age of twenty, she explained that she began wearing her rings at the age of five. As our guide translated our conversation, the young woman appeared to be proud to show off her culture and their beautiful golden necks. The young woman grabbed a sample of rings so Thomas and I could see how the process was done. Grabbing the bundle of rings, I was surprised on how heavy they were!!!
Taking a look around the market booths one woman smiled at us with black stained teeth. The woman was from another hill tribe but was very interesting to talk to. With laughter and conversation, she offered us to try some bark chewing tobacco which over the years turns the teeth black. Out of respect Thomas and I tried it but as I attempted to chew the concoction I began to choke on the disgusting flavor. I had to spit it all out. The woman laughed as I apologized.
My favourite moment of the day however, was with an elder who is known as the ‘famous’ long neck because she is one of the oldest women who showcases her rings to the public eye. Speaking with her (through our guide) the women stated that she has had her rings on for 52 years! As I stood there in amazement, she continued to talk about the other rings she used to have on her legs and arms but how she decided to take them off. Her smile was enlightening and kind-hearted. When Thomas said to me ‘she is so beautiful’, the women caught wind on what Thomas was saying in English and smiled, blushing, covering her face. We laughed in awe and shared a memorable moment.
While purchasing a bracelet made from the same material as the rings from the elder's shop, she asked if I wanted a picture. As we began to wrap up our time, I asked each individual who I had spoken with if I could capture a photograph so I was able to share my experience to my family, friends and the blog. One woman thanked me for asking her first. As we began to pack up our belongings, thanking the women for their time, I witnessed something terrible. Another tourist couple came marching into the market place, walked up to one of the woman and began snapping their expensive camera in her face without an introduction, a smile, and with no consent. Thinking back to what I read before about the so called ‘human zoo’, I finally got it. There are tourists who come for the quick photo opportunity and could care less about the person behind the golden neck. I felt how de-humanizing it must have felt for that woman trying to work at her shop as this abrupt, arrogant, western-traveler got into her space caring less about her history and culture. As we drove away the anger boiled inside me and I began to reflect back on the day and what I had learned.
Personally, I am happy that I had the opportunity to visit the Karen Long Neck women. I feel honored by the woman who talked about their way of life and made us, outsiders, feel comfortable asking questions about their traditions. If you decide that you are interested in visiting this tribe (or any other culture really…), please take away some of the following things that can help make it a positive experience for everyone.