a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘travel’

the things you learn in bars ;)

I am not quite sure how the travels of the past few months are going to find their way into this space… I have resolved to travel less in 2014 so can use the travels of 2013 to fill the lull periods 😉  I am on a plane to Bangkok enroute to Angkor Wat not long from now so it’s going to be more of a “find waldo” travelogue rather than a conventional one…

Right now we are going to one of the most mysterious places on the planet… Slovenia is like Botswana.  One of those places that isn’t a world power where things mostly work so it never makes headlines and no one knows where it is.

I knew it was eastern Europe but even I wasn’t 100% sure where to put in on the map when I met a couple of people in a bar in Amsterdam raving about Slovenia.  At that point I was on my way to Cairo so it just got put on the list…

Since I already knew Amsterdam and Paris quite well, I needed a third destination, something new and exciting.  The original plan was to get to Montenegro.  But I discovered, while the Balkans are definitely a tourist destination these days, the infrastructure is still a bit sparse, especially in September.

But one of the ways to get there is to fly through Ljubljana.  The capital of Slovenia!  There was a direct flight from Paris.  So I decided to abandon Montenegro and just stay in Ljubljana.  One of the best decisions of my life 🙂

That was about as far as the planning went.  Randomly flinging myself at the world is not at all how I used to travel but it allows for some small adventures…

I was pleased to see the taxi driver spoke English and seemed to know where my hotel was.  It was a sumptuous car, which I had entered after being swiftly whisked through the shiny, modern airport.  Once we left the airport, we drove through the forest!  Corn fields.  We eventually approached some Soviet style housing projects but there were mountains poking through in the distance.  It felt like Hansel and Gretel were ambling next to the highway.  I was seduced.

lost in the old town :)

lost in the old town 🙂

And then I woke up from my fever dream.  The taxi driver announced that my hotel was in a pedestrian only zone so he couldn’t drive me to it.  But it was only a five minute walk and he would give me directions.

Oops!  Perhaps a little more research would have been a good idea 🙂  I did know it was safe.  They were part of the EU and I didn’t need a visa.  They used the euro.  But I had no idea how to get to the hotel!

But it was in the old town, which is stunning!  The driver gallantly gave me some directions but they were sketchy.  The three bridges are famous here I have discovered so it sounds normal to say cross the three bridges – instead of cross that bridge in front of you, turn right, go two blocks and turn left.

But someone was yelling at the crowd on the square and the music started and it looked like the Russian pop festival in Latvia I’d seen on television.  It was a perfect blue sky day and the old town in Ljubljana looks like Venice or Amsterdam so I stopped to take some photos before attempting to find my hotel.

prettier than prague?

prettier than prague?

In the end, I had to ask for directions.  But everyone speaks English.  And walking the old town is delightful.  And once you get to the hotel, it will all be worth it.

DO go to Slovenia.  There will be more details in future posts… but it’s a teeny, tiny country so you can base yourself in Ljubljana and see it all on day trips.  It’s like Prague before all the tourists found it with a dash of the seductive power of Amsterdam.  One of the most amazing places you will ever see.

the amazing vander urbani resort!

the amazing vander urbani resort!

Go before people figure out where it is!  And stay at the Vander Urbani Resort.  More stories to come – it became so much more than a place to sleep.  But it IS a brilliant place to sleep.  Huge rooms.  Great design.  Delicious food.  Gracious staff.  The only hotel experiences to rival it were staying with my mom at Claridges and the amazing tents and camps AndBeyond has in Tanzania (also highly recommended :))

the view from the roof

the view from the roof


I am a jaded traveller who has been to 46 countries but Slovenia blew me away.  It was so refreshing to see I could still be impressed with the world at large.   You really should talk to random strangers in bars 😉

lake titicaca!!!

I am on line at pearson!!!  goal is to add one post per day… we’ll see… but I have been typing and still have lots to say about Peru.  You should go!  it’s amazing…

Apparently I am eating ceviche twice in one day!  But I am in Peru.  And menus are not always totally clear…

But the ceviche at lunch was delicious.  And apparently the trout is fresh from Lake Titicaca so I think it will be fine…

I finally made it to Lake Titicaca!  Unlike most people I knew about Lake Titicaca long before I yearned for Machu Picchu.  When I was about 15, a group in their early 20s came to our tiny, remote community.  I can’t remember the name of the program but its purpose was to link young Canadians with their counterparts in developing countries.

lake titicaca

lake titicaca

They learned each other’s languages and did work in the community.  The group our Canadian team was paired with came from Bolivia.

I think it might have been the slideshow from the Congo that I saw in third grade (someone from the town had worked there so his wife brought her slides).  It’s not entirely clear but it might have been the DRC pre-independence.  She definitely painted Africa in a wonderful light as an interesting place one should visit.

She was the first inspiration in my desire to explore the world.  I was also inspired by the history of my country, which emphasized brave Europeans who had discovered us… not entirely accurate of course but my childhood was full of new places and long journeys so exploring the world seemed a kind of birthright.

From an age so young I cannot remember it, I yearned to see the world – and was always pestering any foreigner who wandered into my path as to the real scoop on the place they came from.  As a teenager, I had penpals in at least 30 countries…. it might have been 50… so my theoretical knowledge of the world at 15 was vast!  But I hadn’t been outside my own continent.

Back then I had bonded with a young woman named Angèle.  She was from Québec so came and helped out in our French class.  I desperately wanted to learn French so this was a dream come true.  And, through my friendship with her, I hung out with the Bolivians.

So I learned about Lake Titicaca, altitude sickness and the frequency of military coups in Bolivia.  The Bolivians seemed very resigned to it. The only problem was that the coups tended to shutter the universities so getting a degree was a challenge.

This morning I got to wave at Bolivia.  It was only a few metres away.  Another trip…. but Lake Titicaca totally lived up to my childhood dreams!

The weather in Puno has been amazing.  A bit cold – but hardly the tundra everyone in Lima led me to believe J  I did break down and buy a pair of Inca mitts on my way to dinner but my hands are always cold – and my mitts have llamas on them 😉  This morning though I was overfleeced!  If I have any sage advice for a trip to Peru, layering is key – the temperature variation over the day is pretty exciting.  And check out Lake Titicaca!

Looking at it from afar is impressive but I recommend getting a little more adventurous… just keep reading…

DO talk to strangers ;)

Maybe not when you’re five 🙂  but my life would be a lot poorer if I hadn’t learned how to talk to strangers.  And I wouldn’t have an obsession with crawfish 😉

As my regular readers have learned to accept, we are time travelling again – and using geography as a tool to tie together disparate experiences.

So I am writing about New Orleans sitting in the airport in Panama City drinking premium rum (12 year old Abuelo – definitely a discovery!).  And crawfish is on my mind because I finally had some at the airport in Houston.

That is the beauty of travel.  I wasn’t planning to be in Houston last month when I was in New Orleans.  But, while I was trying to find a decent glass of beer and hear some jazz, I was eavesdropping on a lively conversation between some exuberant locals and guy with a questionable haircut and a hard to place accent.

But I mostly hang out in bars for the entertainment value – and chance to engage in lively discourse and meet locals.

I am very quick to smile and that gets people’s attention.  The mystery guy turned out to be Finnish and he was eating oysters from the Gulf.

I keep trying to love oysters but so far I remain on the fence.  But I have a lot of great memories that involve oyster eating so I think they ARE special 🙂

The Louisiana guys were making the poor Finnish guy feel bad that he had overpaid for his gulf oysters while they consume them by the sack for practically nothing.

What was more interesting to me was the discussion about crawfish.  Apparently it was crawfish season in the gulf and I determined that I should have some even if I didn’t exactly know what they were 🙂

I did manage a crawfish étouffé while I was in New Orleans but my time was too limited to seek them out again and really confirm exactly what a crawfish tasted like.  (But I did manage to engage in a lively conversation with the Finnish stranger about multiculturalism and the virtue of speaking lots of languages…)

Life is full of serendipity!  So there was a proper seafood restaurant in the Houston airport right next to my gate.

I think I got a few tourist points when I asked the server if it was still crawfish season.  It was!

They were deep-fried (welcome to the south :)) but I still got a much stronger impression of their flavour and texture.  And – if you share my fondness for shellfish – they are a great addition to your repertoire.

And I’m still not 100% sure how to describe them.  They are bigger than a shrimp, smaller than a prawn and not at all like a langoustine as I had imagined from the bar conversation.  The thing they most closely resemble is a spot prawn – a short-term delicacy of my home region.  Both are really worth trying, more fragile and succulent than ordinary shellfish.

I talked to lots of strangers in New Orleans.  It has become my new modus operandi when I travel.  My ten year old self is still in shock!!!

I think it’s a great example of how any human is actually capable of change.  I certainly support the proposition that you can’t change someone and should never enter a relationship with that as one of the goals in your five year plan.

It is a setup for disappointment – and conflict.  I have left all my relationships because I knew I couldn’t change the other person – and he wasn’t open to any modifications.

I have learned that is the norm.  But it’s kind of tragic.  When you get born into the world, no one says, “wow, I hope I will get parents and teachers and bosses who hold me to an almost impossible standard and constantly critique me ;)”

But, people, it has its rewards 🙂  It keeps you off balance.  It makes you strive.  It quells any opportunity to get arrogant before you have really achieved anything.

I continue to evolve.  I have conquered a lot of anxiety and I have become almost fearless.  But in a great way that relies on geek-worthy risk assessment and self-confidence borne out of life experience.

So… not only do I talk to strangers… strangers talk to me… I engage with the locals everywhere that I go.  AND I meet other travellers.  And hear their stories.  And am inspired to further explore the world…

Talking to strangers requires some finesse.  It needs to come from the right place.  You want to make sure it is a genuine interest in other people, not some lonely, needy gesture that makes the other person worry you might be a stalker 🙂

One of the highlights of my trip to New Orleans was making a new friend while were both perusing the menu at the Red Fish Grill.  Neither of is pushed it too fast so by the time we had both decided independently it might be far more enjoyable to dine together than alone, the choice was easy to make.


And what a great decision!  I met a fascinating man with a personal history to rival mine.  We talked about the arts, travel, the various cities and countries that had left a mark on us.

It was my first experience of Bourbon Street.  As previously noted, Bourbon Street definitely not a total class act –  but, luckily for me, I explored it with my new friend who embodied the concept of a Southern gentleman so he gave even the low rent aspects of Bourbon Street a borrowed sense of decorum.

It certainly gave tacky Bourbon Street a halo it hadn’t earned and etched yet another classic cinematic evening into my memory.  Those are the moments when I am so happy that I learned to talk to strangers 😉

I raise my glass of delicious 12 year old rum to everyone out there who talked to a stranger and came away with a special memory…

Hopefully I will finish the New Orleans stories before I get on the plane to Lima… 🙂

living la vita local (also dolce :)

I am back in New Orleans!   In my mind at least… there is still much to tell and recommendations to add to the internet so here we go…

Thursday night I just winged it, hoping I could at least find my way back to the hotel.  Friday night I knew I had to try a little harder.  My first impression of Bourbon Street was that it was pretty sleazy and full of drunk college students.  I think both statements hold but I wanted to see if there was more to it.

So I decided it was time to pull out the guidebook and see if having a plan might yield a better result.

My first stop was Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House.  It’s in a building from the early 1800s with an antique interior my mother would love.  Since I was in the house of Absinthe, I figured an Absinthe House Frappe was the thing to have.  As the bartender promised, it tasted like black licorice.  Worth a try but I decided to stick to bourbon…


and to move on to my next destination.  I had decided the next thing to tick off the list was to stand on a balcony so I could watch the cacophony playing out on Bourbon Street on a Friday night.  My guidebook had recommended a place called Krazy Corner so that was my next stop.

the flavour of bourbon street...

the flavour of bourbon street…

It’s definitely worth getting onto a balcony on Bourbon Street while you are in New Orleans for a unique perspective on the world but it’s a lot more interesting to check out the music so I headed downstairs to where the band was playing.

I don’t think I had even listened to an entire song before a gentleman who sounded like a local asked me to dance.  I’m not sure I will ever get to be a good dancer but I seem to manage to get pulled onto the dance floor in foreign cities as part of the free entertainment.

No one else was dancing – but Chris was a local and he was an awesome dancer so I just tried not to step on his feet or fall on the floor when he twirled me.  It was my “Big Easy” moment when Dennis Quaid makes Ellen Barkin dance 😉



And the band was wonderful.  That would be my discovery that night.  Bourbon Street is full of excellent cover bands.  If you love “Living on a Prayer”, this is your place 🙂  I think I heard it three times!

At that point, though, I was still on my mission to discover Bourbon Street based on my guidebook’s recommendations so, after five dances, I told Chris I was going to listen to some jazz across the street (the Maison Bourbon I have already written about).

a beautiful balcony

a beautiful balcony

I didn’t realize he was coming with me 😉  It changed my whole night.  That was the end of the guidebook.  I now had a local guide – with a delicious Louisiana accent 😉  One of the best life skills I ever developed was an ability to talk to strangers.  It’s more art than science but I always try my best to connect with locals when I travel so that I get a traveller experience rather than a tourist one.

As Chris confirmed, finding a local on Bourbon Street on Friday night is not an easy task.  But his friend had not shown and he loved to dance so there he was, looking for a dance partner.

He was more interested in cover tunes than jazz so I just went with the flow.  I knew I had two more nights to find some jazz and it would be more fun to just follow his lead.

So I heard a lot of Bon Jovi 🙂  And Aerosmith.  Some Def Leppard.  Chris knew all the tunes and would sing along.  He couldn’t believe I didn’t know this music.  But, when they played “4 Non Blondes”, I was the one who could identify the band!

An indie rock chick dancing to “Living on a Prayer” as interpreted by a Bourbon Street cover band is not a normal sight.  But I have always been very democratic about my musical experiences.  At heart I am a music snob – but opening yourself to new experiences and new people enriches your life.

You end up dancing until 4am.  You get to walk down Bourbon Street with a “to go cup” – and have some drunken kid bang into you with nary an apology so that you end up with a beer facial.  But your gallant local guide offers his sleeve to wipe your dripping face.  You learn some new tunes.  You get walked back to your hotel in the middle of the night.  You get some insight into the city you are visiting from a local.

And – most importantly – you create a unique memory that will last long after the trip is over…


getting to the “big easy” not so easy…

I have not abandoned my blog. I just made the usual mistake of booking travel time a couple of months in advance when my future schedule looked really quiet.  Eventually I will get to my semi-retirement phase and that will be true.  But working does pay for the travel so happy to NOT be unemployed 🙂

Last year I threw a splashy, almost year-long birthday celebration.  As I learned at 41, not many people are interested in non-milestone birthdays (unless you are under 21).  So I decided to take myself to New Orleans to celebrate.

It’s been on my list for a long time.  The image in my head comes from a few divergent sources.

The first – my mother’s obsession with everything Disney, which led to an early visit to New Orleans the way Walt visualized and imagineered it.  Part of me is expecting to see the entrance to a Pirates of the Caribbean ride down an alley off Bourbon Street 🙂  And a French quarter as pretty and fake as the one in Disneyland.

The second voice in my head creating images of New Orleans belongs to Richard, a boyfriend from my twenties.  The man who introduced me to jazz.  He felt it peaked with bebop and that the tenor saxophone is the most perfect instrument.  Not only do I still have his pictorial “history of jazz” in my memory box, I also have strong feelings about jazz, including a love of bebop and a weakness for great improvisation on a saxophone 😉

The final image I bring to the city is Dennis Quaid in “The Big Easy”, an early crush.  Not really on Dennis Quaid, but on the cop he played in the film.  The good guy with a gigantic slice of Cajun charm capable of seducing uptight northern girls…

I am writing this in the Denver airport en route…  so we shall see what kind of stew – or jambalaya – the city of New Orleans really is.

Will there be some cute Disneyesque architecture?  Will I hear some great jazz?  Will a Cajun gentleman with a southern accent sweep me off my feet?

That is the wonder of travel.  The anticipation of the unknown.  The discovery of other cultures.  The personal voyage as you mix with the new place and learn new things about yourself.

This is my first visit to the south.  Granted this is not really “the south” of the Confederates.  But they ain’t no Yankees!  Or laidback west coast Liberals.  I will be in a country I have travelled extensively but yet be in a foreign land.

Louisiana represents a fascinating piece of North American history.  Had the French played their cards better in this part of the world, we might all be learning French as our lingua de commerce instead of English.

Stay tuned for the full report on the REAL “Big Easy” circa 2013.  Post Katrina.  Post Saints Super Bowl victory.  Sans Dennis Quaid 😉


there really ARE kangaroos on the front lawn down under ;)

Of course, you have to be in the driveway of a sheep farm in remote western Australia after the owners have been away for a few days so the roos are partying on the grass – cause they know he is one of the only farmers in the ‘hood who doesn’t shoot kangaroos.  But I really DID see kangaroos on the front lawn and I told my Australian boyfriend at the time, “I am going back to Canada and telling everyone they can see kangaroos on the front lawn if they go to Oz” 🙂

roo from kitchen window

roo from kitchen window

Of course it amused me mostly because I was Canadian and used to foreigners thinking we kept polar bears as pets or lived in teepees.  This was decades before the internet or even cable TV so most people didn’t  think the world was flat anymore but detailed knowledge of foreign locales was in short supply.

So, when I arrived in Sydney in 1990, I had very little idea what to expect.  Aussies love their country so I was expecting a land of milk and honey based on all the glowing reports I had heard from expats on my three month European tour enroute to “the lucky country”.  If nothing else, I had just spent most of the month of December on the Canadian prairie with my parents where a proper “you can feel your breath freezing in your throat” winter had given my Australian boyfriend a taste of the “real Canada” – where the tough people live 🙂

So, arriving from minus 40 to plus 40 in a matter of hours, was enough reason to fall in love with Australia the minute of arrival.

Like the relationships  you see in montages on-screen in romantic comedies, there was a reality check.  Australia proved to not just be “Canada with lots of sunshine” as I had anticipated.  But it was my first expat experience.  And there was much to love about the country and the people.

The Australian boyfriend not one of my best ideas… but it was the way I got to his country.  I am sure I would have got there eventually but it would never have had the same impact.

Going to Oz was how I grew up.  It changed my life forever and I can’t imagine its trajectory without the Australian – or his country.  I know it would have been a lot more boring and I am really grateful I got to take the less-travelled path.

This is much to say about Australia – and Australians.  I lived there for eighteen months.  I have been back twice.  And will return for a third visit this November.  I wish I had stayed longer and become a citizen – but I tend to have a rather messy personal life.  I can recognize an Australian accent – and don’t think they sound English – or South African.

Today’s post though is to celebrate Elizabeth.  Because it is her birthday!  And also the first year anniversary of this blog!  I wasn’t sure if it could be sustainable but I really enjoy writing and – even if there aren’t as many posts as I had envisioned – there is a regular commentary.

I noticed a little while ago that the blog anniversary was coming up and was trying to figure out what the right post would be.  And then I realized the anniversary was Elizabeth’s birthday.  So the answer was obvious 🙂

As has already been noted, most of my friendships have an unusual genesis compared to the average person.  I am very interested in people and happy to put a lot of effort into maintaining friendships with people who impress me.

Elizabeth is definitely one of those!  Back in 1990, I was her boss.  We were working in a firm of chartered accountants and she was doing a work term so was only 18.  But she was so poised and a model employee.  I didn’t really have to “boss” her at all so it was easy for a friendship to develop.  It was unexpected since she was almost exactly a decade younger than me.  But she really wanted to travel.

So that’s how it started.  I had only started to travel at that point but had just done a three month tour of western Europe and we talked about travel and Europe every chance we got.  I inspired her future travel plans and she reminded me of my own 18 year old mindset.

wedding in oz

wedding in oz

When I left to return to Canada, we exchanged addresses and vowed to stay in touch.  So often that doesn’t amount to much but we were both good at it.  In the early days we sent letters and always exchanged gifts at Christmas and birthdays, trying to find something local.  It helped me hold on to Oz – and introduced her to Canada.

I also promised I would come back for her wedding.  It took a little while… but she had to find the right guy 🙂  Going to her wedding was one of the highlights of my life.  She comes from this wonderful family who had always welcomed me as the third child and much fuss was made of the fact that I had come from Canada for the wedding.  But I meant it when I told her I was coming 😉

She also came to Germany for one of my weddings (there were three – all to the same guy :)).  It was her first trip to Europe.  She had finally made the leap and executed the first of the plans we had made back in 1990 for her world travel.  Her enthusiasm was contagious and I was still a new immigrant and equally enamored of all the “cute” German towns.

german cakes :)

german cakes 🙂

She now has a daughter – whom I will meet for the first time in November.  She looks just like her mom.  I think she will be 5 by the time I get to Sydney so a really wonderful age to meet someone.  I am really looking forward to seeing them all.

Sadly, there will be no kangaroos on their front lawn.  It really is a sophisticated, developed country with some of the best wine in the entire world.  When I went for the wedding, I took myself on a wine tour of South Australia to get out of Elizabeth’s hair while she was doing wedding prep, and decided a case of wine from different producers with different maturity dates would make a great wedding present.  I’ll be able to hear the stories of the bottles in person…

So… in honour of the blog’s anniversary (and Elizabeth’s birthday), I will pour a glass of Australian wine and make a toast to “the lucky country” – and kangaroos 🙂  You should do the same.  Aussies do it all well – so pick your poison – anything from sparkling to Shiraz…  or combine them and have a sparkling Shiraz, a personal favourite!

beware of Japanese girls armed with credit cards!

I am still alive!  And hoping to add some new thoughts over the next week and in the year ahead.  I thought 2012 might be a little easier… but apparently not 🙂  And November through February always the scary part of my work year where extracurricular fun like writing gets punted in favour of client needs.

But it’s Christmas Eve so I get a couple of days off.  First, we will journey back to Paris as the tale was never completed.  The great thing with Paris is that everything is a bit larger than life so the memories stay in one’s imagination.

Where Paris really excels is in all matters related to art – that word applied in a very broad way.  And, in Paris, food is art.  I caught the end of some BBC or CNN program while I was in Germany and learned that apparently cheesecake is all the rage in Paris.  Unfortunately details were sketchy because the program was essentially over – but I was intrigued by the shop in the television images…

So did quite a bit of googling to see if I could figure out where I was supposed to go once I got to Paris… I wasn’t sure if I had it right but once I arrived I knew I had hit pay dirt.  And it was well worth the effort.  The bakery is called She’s Cake and is run by a charming woman named Sephora.  I had the fleur d’oranger – amande.  It was delicious and it felt like you had stumbled upon a special neighbourhood secret.


I also discovered I had come during the annual Paris Photo exhibition (mid November).  It required some waiting in line in the cold – but was worth the wait.  It is a show for galleries and collectors that is also open to the public so it is a little overwhelming but a great way to get an overview of world photography in a couple of hours and discover some new talent and be inspired.

Next door there was a fascinating exhibit called Bohemes at the Grand Palais.  The concept of Bohemia, gypsies and their role in art and European history.  Romantic, tragic, dramatic…

Normally the airport is not part of the story.  But the French have a flair for the dramatic… and a crazy love for bureaucracy.  And my Scottish genes make me cheap…

There is a wonderful VAT (value added tax) recovery scheme all over Europe called “tax-free”.  It’s not really true but you do get a decent amount of tax back so it’s hard to pass up.  When I got to Charles de Gaulle, I thought I was really clever popping into the first VAT-recovery station I found with my stack of forms, all completed and signed, my passport ready for a quick stamping procedure and on to my gate.

But NO…  every gate has its own VAT-recovery station apparently.  Seriously, France, do you think this might be why your economy is in the toilet?

At that moment I didn’t realize I had been condemned to hell by some random French customs officials.  I found the station that matched to my gate… but I also found a gigantic snaking line of beautiful young Asian girls clutching tax-free forms and giggling.  There was no choice but to succumb.

I was in line for a long time so was determined to figure out what the hell was going down.  I have never been in such a ridiculous line so my curiosity was peaked.  With enough time and careful peeking at passports, I discovered they were Japanese.  Apparently the Japanese still travel in packs.  I don’t know the connection between all the girls – other than a devotion to expensive shopping 🙂 – but they obviously had a handler and were all going through customs as the equivalent of a gigantic tax-free-form-stamping boa constrictor… better to stay on the sidelines than get eaten by it 🙂

And there was a small reward… when I finally got to the end of the line the customs officials were very happy to see me – mostly because I represented the end of the line – so they just grinned and stamped all my forms as quickly as they could 🙂

Travel is always full of new experiences and adventures.  An open mind, a sense of curiosity – and lots of patience – will make any travel experience an entertaining memory 🙂

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