Thursday, December 03, 2015

South Africa and Christmas Decorations

Merry Christmas month, my faithful readers! Tis the season to wear jumpers, drink eggnog and buy three kilos of icing sugar at a time. I’ve done two of these things, but I have yet to find eggnog. Anyways, I’m in South Africa! I’m still in culture shock. There’s a mall… with clothes… and grocery stores… and fro-yo. We’re in a marina, which is also weird. The mall was super busy the last time we went, cause for some reason they have Black Friday sales even though they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. It was really over-whelming, so it kind of put me off going for a while. We’re having a great time meeting new friends and exploring this amazing country. Recently, we rented a car and went on a three day safari, which was brilliant. There were rhinos, giraffes, elephants, zebras and heaps of different birds and animals. Unfortunately, there’s a very severe drought going on which has been on for three years. This means that most of the water in the park that we went to has dried up. They’ve actually had to start trucking in water for the animals. In the estuary where we went to see hippos and crocodiles, we saw flamingos at the mouth, which our guide explained meant that the water was incredibly low, because normally they only stand farther up the estuary where the water is shallow. Also, the estuary is now classed as a lake because it no longer connects to the ocean. Despite the drought, our safari was absolutely fantastic. Merry Christmas again, and I hope you’re all doing well, and eating gingerbread and frantically buying wrapping paper as the end of this year approaches. It’s gone so quickly, and I hope all of you had a great one, and enjoyed hearing a little bit about my travels. This year, I crossed the Indian Ocean and made it to South Africa, and I’m pretty proud of that. Happy holidays everyone.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Seychelles to Comoros to Madagascar: An Epic Voyage

Hello people who read my blog! Sorry it’s been awhile since my last post. We left the Seychelles for Comoros, a small, extremely poor group of islands located near Madagascar. The passage was dreadful. Huge lumpy seas and quite a lot of wind made for an uncomfortable sail. By the time we arrived in Comoros, we were tired, the boat was a mess, and we were missing the entirety of our wooden slatted deck. After we lost our ‘patio’, Charlie the cat would crawl up to the window and gaze out worriedly at the void of empty space. My reaction was similar. While in Comoros, we would have to find wood for the deck, a facet after our water tap snapped off and food, in a country where we spoke only a small amount of French, and none of the local dialect. Most people spoke high school level French, no English, but mostly the local dialect.
Comoros was definitely not a destination for inexperienced travellers. To find the market, you had to weave through a maze of ally-ways and dead ends, eventually coming out on a steep hillside where women swathed in brightly coloured sarongs balanced tubs of fruit and rice on their heads and men displayed cinnamon and cloves at their small stalls. There was an abundance of carrots, cucumbers and lettuce, but not much in the way of fruit, except for bananas. Lots of bananas. Also available at the market, but only at some stalls, were tiny bottles of a pale golden liquid. It was ylang-ylang, a very special perfume. The flowers were grown and distilled into a florally, fruity perfume that to me, smelt like roses and pears, which sounds kinda weird, but actually smells amazing.
We absolutely loved Comoros. Besides the language difficulties, everyone was incredibly warm and welcoming. My mum accidently crashed a wedding with some ladies from the other boats, and was invited to join in the dancing. All too soon, it was on to Madagascar.
Probably more of you have heard of Madagascar. We arrived in Hellville, (I giggle whenever I hear the name) and checked in pretty quickly. Hellville was much more touristy, and the streets were filled with cafes, shops and bijouterie. We had a lovely lunch at one of the many restaurants, and continued on to the Super Marché. Compared to a Western grocery store, it was nothing. But for us, it was freaking heaven. I found affordable strawberries (sadly we later found out that the strawberries had parasites). And tic-tacs. My parents found nice, cheap rum. Happiness all around!
We hung out with the other kid boats in a nearby anchorage called Crater Bay, while we waited for our friend Allison to arrive from the U.S. She arrived in due course, bearing the wealth of Trader Joe’s in her giant suitcase. We all got rather giddy. After snorkelling and hiking our way through the islands, we arrived at Nosy Komba, where we could go on the hunt for King Julian. We were led up the path by our guide, who called out to the lemurs, ‘makimakimakimakimakimaki’. Maki is Malagasy for lemurs. The lemurs leapt through the trees, making funny little snuffling noises as they sped toward the bananas held in our outstretched hands. Without any signs of fear, they leapt to our shoulders where they sat contentedly eating the morsel of banana that we offered them. They were incredibly gentle, soft, and light, and very cuddly. All too soon, it was over, and the lemurs hopped back through the jungle.
We’ve had an amazing time in Madagascar so far, and I’m looking forward to further exploring this wonderful country.  

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Seychelles: Ginger Ale, Mountains and Baguettes

My deepest and most sincere apologies for not writing while in Chagos. I’m sure you were all devastated and wept salty tears of despair every day of my absence. Well cry not faithful readers, for I have RETURNED! Chagos was beautiful and magical, a tropical paradise deserving of the name. Unfortunately, there was no food. Or people. Or much of anything besides palm trees, sand and sea. Which was fine for a while, but it got a bit old. So after a month, we set off for the Seychelles, that mystical land of cheese, revealing clothing and trees that aren’t palm trees. 

As we sighted the land on the horizon, hilly, beautiful mountainous land, I noticed something. Two things actually. One, it was almost chilly, and two, the sight of mountains is a very necessary thing after three months in a country where most of it is only about a meter above sea level. 

We’ve been here just over a week and I have discovered some very exciting things. They have proper ginger ale, they have French pastries, and, I’m allowed to wear shorts. Heck, I could wear a mini-skirt and crop top with four-inch heels if it struck my fancy! It’s funny what things excite you after a month with no city, town or even village. Also, they have a shower on shore!

On the week long passage from Chagos, we weren’t getting a lot of power from the solar panels, so we weren’t able to make a lot of water. This led to a very difficult choice each day. I could shower, and be clean, or I could charge my computer and watch something. Basically, I could be clean and bored, or be entertained and less clean. Ahh, decisions, decisions . . . Now that we have showers on shore, I can be clean and entertained. It just seems so . . . luxurious. 

Anyways, we’re enjoying the Seychelles and I will continue to describe my experiences here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Metaphoric Resonance of Straws

One of the things that I learned while at the Anantara Resort in the Maldives is that straws are a great equalizer. At this opulent, luxurious hotel situated on a private island with individual villas that cost upward of $1500 a night, they’ve improved on everything. The sheets are smoother, the temperature is more bearable, the doughnuts are squishier . . . They’ve even managed to make the whole freaking island smell nice. But as I sipped my freshly squeezed fruit juice out of a colorful glass, I was using the same type of straw that every fast food chain dispensed with their mega-size soft drinks. Now, either straws are just so perfectly constructed that they can’t be improved upon, or, as I mentioned, they are an excellent equalizer. The reason I was musing upon straws’ deep, metaphoric resonance was because I was ridiculously relaxed and also considering the fact that I might have been born for the life of a millionaire.

 In my last blog post, about traveling through Sri Lanka, I mentioned that I had been awarded the nickname ‘Five-Star’ when I complained about sleeping on a brick mattress. However, now, I was traveling at the other end of the spectrum. And I was completely fine with it. My mother, as some of you might know, is a travel writer. And that comes with certain perks. For example, staying at an awesomely fancy resort and getting free food.  Sometimes, I even get to come with her. LIKE NOW.

Note the mattress is not a brick
We arrived late Monday morning, and were greeting by the marketing coordinator and our villa lackey. We were handed cold jasmine scented towels and walked through the warm perfumed air to the restaurant, where we were offered fresh juice, small pastries and champagne. Then, we got on a golf cart and were driven to our over water villa, while sipping our champagne and admiring the scenery. I hopped off the golf cart and entered the large villa. Our villa lackey handed us the itinerary, the keys and a map and told us to enjoy our selves. I ran around in the air conditioning happily. We had a private infinity pool, a huge glass bottom tub, a patio, foot baths and a fresh fruit welcome platter. I couldn’t decide if I was more excited about the fruit or the bath. I wandered into the gigantic, airy bathroom, complete with day bed, and ran myself a bath. For those of you who might be wondering, I have literally not taken a bath in years. I’m not even joking. Years, I tell you. The tub even had a bath pillow. I didn’t actually know bath pillows existed! I splashed in the tub for a while, went for a swim, drank some tea and had a foot bath. Eventually, we all meandered through the shade to the restaurant for some lunch. Now, we got free food at a fancy, expensive restaurant. You’re probably all thinking that I got some tiny, gourmet, hard to pronounce dish. Heck no. I’m fine with that when I’m in a city where there’s a wide selection of food. Not if I haven’t been to a big grocery store since Bali. So I got a burger. Of course, it was still a gourmet burger. It had imported mustard and fancy cheese. Dessert was the tiny gourmet part. Anyways, enough about the food, I could go on for days.

After lunch, my parents went off on a tour of the resort, but I declined. I went back to the villa and lazed around in the pool for a while until my parents got back. We all lazed around collectively for a bit, until it was time for the cocktail party celebrating the Thai New Year. I got an elaborate fruit juice and a massage from the masseuses that were there to ensure everyone was appropriately relaxed and also to give everybody a sneak peek of the spa. We hung out there for a while and released a candle shaped like a flower over the pool in a coconut shell. Then it was time for the main event. The one you’ve all been waiting for. Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, I give you dinner! At! Sea!

Now Sea is a very special restaurant. It's gourmet, and expensive, but there are a lot of restaurants like that. No, Sea is special cause ITS UNDER WATER! I bet your jaws just dropped. Ha. Its one of only a few underwater restaurants in the world, it has eight tables, five course dinners and it costs $370 per person. We were the only ones there when we first arrived, and we were sat in the cool blue lighting next to a large observation window. It felt like a high end ‘Restaurant at the End of the Universe’ to be honest, what with the mirrored ceiling, the blue light, the crazy carpet and the colorful seat pillows. The waiter arrived and handed us giant menus, complete with pen light, due to the dim lighting. He explained that there were five courses with two options for each course, and each course was paired with a wine. Of course, seeing as I wasn’t drinking, he would be happy to get me a juice or a mocktail. We picked the first four courses, except not the dessert, and he bustled off, leaving us with some beautiful fish books to attempt to identify the fish swimming by. I won’t go into details, because the meal took three hours and any attempt to describe it would take longer, but I will say that it was fantastic and wonderful and is something I will remember for the rest of my life. I also met a lovely moray eel named Derek.

We waddled back home and tumbled into the intoxicatingly smooth sheets. I don’t know what it is about hotel sheets, but somehow they always seem softer, cooler and cuddlier then any other sheet anywhere. Needless to say, I adore them. The next morning we moseyed on down to the breakfast buffet, where I promptly gorged myself on doughnuts, leading my mother to suggest Doughnuts Anonymous. I’m still laughing. Ha. Ha. Ha. After relaxing in the villa for a while longer and taking another bath, we packed our bags sadly and called our villa lackey to escort us to our Maldivian cooking class. I sniffed and dabbed my eyes as I bid our villa a fond farewell. Ah, to be a millionaire.

The cooking class was lovely, except I was still stuffed with pastries so I was only able to manage a bite of everything. We were then walked down to the dock and waved back to Ceilydh and to our non millionaireesque lives. Which is perfectly perfect.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Seven Nights of Not the Fairmont in Sri Lanka, (But Still Awesome)

Being the daughter of a freelance travel writer can come with certain expectations when it comes to hotel rooms. I will readily admit that I’m a snob about hotels, (this leading to the charming nickname, ‘Five-Star’ from my darling mother). So when my parents told me we were going to spend a week travelling around Sri Lanka, by bus, train and van, and staying in guest houses and motels, I was slightly apprehensive. My experience of travel, (not counting the six years on the boat) had consisted of carefully structured days, following strict itineraries, dining in expensive restaurants and retiring to $1000 a night suites with chocolates on the pillow and a maid waiting at my beck and call. Like I said, I’m a snob.
The day we arrived in Sri Lanka, we checked into to the country with all due speed and immediately departed for the train station. The plan had been to get bunks in the first class sleeper train and then travel to the town of Columbo, take another train, arrive in the large city of Kandy and meet up with our friends on Totem whom we would be travelling with. At least that had been the plan. Unfortunately, the sleeper car was full and so we would be in second class seats overnight. That doesn’t sound too bad until you realise that second class seats cost four bucks and are made of sweaty, sticky, smelly vinyl and have absolutely no leg-room.

When we didn’t follow the plan, I got mildly agitated.  Luckily, after about twenty minutes of waiting for the train to leave, my dad found out that there had been a first class cancelation and grabbed the cabin for my mum and I. We hurried to the cabin and were greeted by a dismal sight. I (foolishly as it turned out), had believed that perhaps the magical land of first class would resemble something like the luxury train across the Rocky Mountains that I had taken when I was six. I was sadly mistaken. The floor was dirty rubber, somebody appeared to have stepped on our beds with muddy boots and it was stiflingly hot. Don’t even get me started on the bathroom. I tried to fall asleep but it was horribly loud and bumpy, and in the middle of the night the conductor burst in, shouting, to check that there were only two people in our cabin. You get the picture.

Luckily, the next train was better. We got first class seats in the optimistically named ‘observation car’ which promised air-con and a clean bathroom. However, the springs on the train were too soft, and whenever we went over a bump, we would go airborne and wouldn’t spot bouncing for about a minute.

Eventually we arrived in Kandy. We travelled by tuk-tuk to the guest house that us and Totem would be staying at. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sri Lankan forms of transport, the tuk-tuk deserves an explanation. The tuk-tuk is a small, three wheeled taxi that nimbly weaves between large trucks and buses at breakneck speed, while the driver looks over the back seat and cheerfully assures you that his tuk-tuk is brand new, and he’s been driving since he was twelve.

As we arrived at the guest house, I took a deep breath. We were greeted by the owner and shown to our room. It was small, cold and white. It was a fricken cell. The bathroom at least, had hot water. And ants. I could deal with the ants. It was however, when I sat down on my bed that the trouble began. It appeared to have been made from chopped up tires mixed with bricks. I sat down on my parent’s bed. Perfectly acceptable foam. I went to visit the kids from Totem. Their bed too, was normal. Damn. Later, we found out from our friend Behan, from Totem, that my bed was probably made from processed coconut husks pressed into a brick. However, despite the brick bed, Kandy was lovely.

 The people were friendly, the air was cool and the food was wonderful. At three o’clock, we visited a sari shop, so that my friend Siobhan could pick up the sari that she had had tailored the day before. When I was little, in Vancouver, I had always wanted a sari. The women wore them with such elegance and grace and they were so beautiful. So finally, here was my chance. I poured over the fabrics and gazed at the delicate patterns. Finally, I chose a purple-grey silk with a lacy copper edge. The blouse would be made of black silk with the same border. The next day I picked it up. Then, we travelled through the hill country of Sri Lanka to one of the abundant tea factories. When we reached the small stall that sold Sri Lankan tea, my mother asked one of the women if she could help me wrap my new sari. She bundled me up with a smile and sent us on our way. As it turned out, a foreigner wearing a sari in Sri Lanka was an entirely social experience. Almost every woman we passed would stop to adjust me and rewrap my sari to her satisfaction. The woman that we had encountered up until that point had been very shy, so it was fascinating how a simple piece of fabric could open the way to conversations and friendship.

Over the next few days, we traveled to the tiny town of Dalhousie whose claim to fame is a mountain is called Adam’s Peak where the locals believe Adam first set foot on earth. Every day, hundreds of pilgrims journey up the 5000 or so steps to visit the temple at the top. We left for the climb at 2:30 a.m. I was just starting to regret wanting to do this. The air was frigid but infused with excitement. You could feel the thrill tingling through the icy air. Sadly, about 1000 steps up, my bad ankle gave way, and so I waited in the tea house of a kind old couple for the Totems to come down. The elderly couple spoke barely any English, but showed me pictures of their children and grandchildren and gave me a blanket and insisted I wait on their couch. At about 6:30, my father came up from the foot of the mountain to fetch me. The couple took a photo with me, I thanked them and bid them farewell.

Hubert the Elephant

Charlie's cousin
The next hotel was the worst. The bed was too small, it was boiling hot, the bathroom was filled with mosquitoes and it was filthy. I was horrified. I got through it however, (albeit grumpily) and we traveled on. The next hotel was much better. The three Totem kids and I shared a dormitory like bedroom, with thick mattresses, air-con, T.V, a mini-fridge, and a clean bathroom. It was slightly sad how excited I got. We would stay there for three nights, and we were all ecstatic. The other kids and I spent the remainder of the day chilling in the air-con and watching CNN. Excitement. The next day was our safari. We were packed into a giant jeep and splashed off through the puddles. We saw a leopard, elephants, jackals, deer, peacocks, wild boar, and mongeese. It was fantastic. 

The following day, my parents and I travelled by bicycle through the ancient city of Anuradhapura. It was beautiful and fascinating. The ruins were interspersed with peoples’ homes, which helped to see how huge it was.
The next day, we left, and arrived home at the boat. I think I might have possibly left some of my hotel snobbishness behind. Maybe.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

My Red-haired Relatives--visiting orangutans

On Boxing Day, a large yellow and green boat pulled up next to Ceilydh. This was the boat that would take us up the Sekonyer River for three days while we go see orangutans. This was the trip we’d been dreaming about for months, the chance to go to Camp Leaky and also to see wild orangutans. Ever since I heard of the problems and dangers that orangutans face, I’ve wanted to help. We’ve given up palm oil, and we’ve adopted a young orangutan named Bayat, who we’ll receive pictures and updates of, in order to support Camp Leaky. For me, the most important part of this trip was learning more about the orangutans and how we can help protect them.

We would sleep, eat and travel on the boat with a small crew and a guide. Our guide was awesome. Her name was Rini, she was Muslim, she’d been to university and she was married to a university professor. She was very talkative and curious, asking about our travels and seeming especially interested in the komodo dragons that I mentioned.

 On our first day, we traveled up the river, stopping at the first feeding station at two o’clock. Rini led us through the forest, pointing out various plants and herbs for healing. “That one there prevents malaria. The orangutans eat it too,” she informed us. “And that one’s for mosquito bites”. There was such a huge variety of plants and trees and the palm oil companies were burning them and the illegal loggers were chopping them down. This forest is unlike any in the world. The horror of its destruction is just starting to reach the rest of the world, but luckily, Indonesia’s new president has pledged to stop the illegal logging.

Soon, we started to hear yodelling guides, (that’s the best way I can think to describe them) calling for the orangutans. We walked a bit more before entering a small clearing. I was dismayed. There were rows of benches and a roped off platform covered with bananas. “It’s like feeding time at the zoo” I whispered to my mum. Soon though, I felt better as our red-haired relatives swung down through the trees to grab bananas in their mouths and then scurry away. The thing that amazed me was their eyes. They had soft brown eyes that seemed ancient and sad and so human. They would stare at you, making eye-contact for a brief moment that stretched out forever.

The next morning, we headed off to the second feeding station. Rini pointed out orangutans, telling us their names, ages and a bit about them. Many were the children or grandchildren of the original orphaned orangutans that Dr. Birute Galdikas had rehabilitated and introduced back into the wild. Their parents had been killed by the palm oil plantations and the babies had been taken and sold as pets. The palm oil plantations and loggers are not only killing the orangutans, but destroying their habitat; the rainforest of Borneo. Palm oil plantations only produce for twenty years, after that, they’re simply cleared away; leaving an open space that will never regrow, due to the poor soil.

 The way the orangutans swung from tree to tree was incredible. They would climb to the top of a bendy tree and then fling their weight to one side, causing it to lean over and allowing them to grab the next tree. You could see and hear them coming from quite a ways away, because the trees would bend and rustle. They were perfect and beautiful, and I felt so lucky to be able to see them.
Next stop: Camp Leaky.  There were people from all over the world, come to see the ginger apes. The first part of feeding time wasn’t much different than the other stations, but after about twenty minutes, things started to get a bit more interesting. Sarah, (Our friend who’s visiting from New York for three weeks) got peed on by a young and mischievous orangutan. A mother with her two babies came walking down the path. And a ridiculous looking gibbon chased a wild pig.

The mother orangutan’s name was Uning and her oldest baby would be ready to leave her in a year or two. She was nineteen years old, and we got to watch as she taught her five-month old baby how to climb. First though, she whacked a wild pig with a stick. There are many wild pigs that hang around Camp Leaky and the feeding platform. They are aggressive, and have killed several baby orangutans. So before Uning started to guide her baby through the trees, she picked up a stick, and smacked the curious pig. Then, as we watched, silently cheering her on, she gently pried her baby off and wrapped the infant’s arms and legs around a low branch. Her baby reached out with both hands and feet, trying to find its mummy again. Uning pushed her child up through the trees, ignoring the baby’s grasping hands.

Then, a large man pushed in front of everyone watching with his ridiculously huge camera pointed at Uning. (Seriously, the camera was just silly; it looked like a missile launcher). Everyone sucked in their breath as he began to take rapid fire pictures, (with flash!) of the orangutans. His guide placed a hand on his arm and requested that he stop using the flash, as it disturbed the orangutans and was against the park rules. The man shook him off; “There’s no sign! You’re not a ranger! Get out of my way” he said in a loud voice, startling Uning and her baby. He got much closer than you were supposed to and continued to take pictures. So I stepped up.

“One of the basic park rules is no flash photography of the orangutans. You’re scaring Uning and her baby” I told him. He looked at me disdainfully. “Show me the sign little girl. You need to learn about obeying the rules!” Now I was angry. “You need to learn about respecting the beautiful creatures that we have all come to see, along with respecting the people that protect them. Enjoy the experience, and stop frightening the orangutans”. He blustered a bit but stopped and stomped off. Our guide, Rini grabbed my hand tightly, possibly to prevent me following him and ranting at him a bit more. “Thank you” she whispered, “You are brave to say whatever you want to say”.

A few minutes later, there was a commotion from up the trail. “Tom’s coming!” people called in hushed voices. Tom is the alpha male of Camp Leaky, and he’s huge and furry and orange. He came striding down the trail, looking very cool with a shaggy haircut and giant cheek pads. He was like a rock star, he had handlers, pushing people out of his way and clearing a path. He settled on the feeding platform and ignored everyone.

We were one of the last groups to leave, and I was so happy that we had gotten to see both Tom and Uning. The orangutans were so amazing, but what I found fascinating was how they seemed to show such strong emotions. They weren’t human emotions, but they were clearly reacting to the world around them. Uning seemed proud but a little sad when her baby got the hang of climbing and she was clearly wary of the wild pigs. Some orangutans were just young and playful, but every so often they would look at you, and you could see just how similar to us they really are.