Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Musings & Conclusions About Our Peripatetic Year

Now that our peripatetic year is over, I’d like to share some of my reflections on it.

Travel is part education part experience. At its best, it transforms us in ways that aren't always apparent until we’re home. You can't spend a year travelling and not come back a changed person. All those new experiences, those challenges you had to face and figure out, those insights into the way different parts of the world work – that has to make you into a different person.

I honestly feel that change begins with the people you encounter along the way. While there are vast cultural differences in the world, with lots to learn, when it all comes down to the core of who we are … there’s not so much difference. People are still people everywhere; warm, kind, generous, willing to help ... they ask questions of me and find my life interesting just as I do theirs.

 I am so thankful for all the people we met along the way. The people who touched our life, coming into it however briefly, just touching the edges, yet leaving a lasting impression. They expanded my world. I find myself thinking of them, hoping never to forget how they enriched the experience. 

Here are just a few:

  • Yut – a former saffron robed monk turned tour-guide in Siem Riep in order to help support his elderly parents. His gentle spirit. His quick laughter.
  • Alex – a tour company manager in Kenya. His trust in us when our payment to him was delayed by the bank.
  • Mary – Alex’s wife. A most gracious hostess. 
  • Agnes – our landlady in Paris. Her stories. Her easy-going nature. Her je ne sais quoi.
  • Anton – African tour guide/driver. His extensive knowledge. Working tirelessly to ensure our trip is all that it can be and more.
  • Thomas – our art history lecturer in Berlin. His ability to make what could be a stuffy lecture infinitely fascinating and informative.
  • countless waitstaff, hotel staff, and cabbies – the thankless jobs done with a smile. They provided an invaluable service and are the ones who truly made our year easy and relaxing.
  •  jungle guide, architecture student, leasing agent, boat drivers, and many others - their names I've forgotten, but not the time we spent together and what they taught me.
Being taught, input as we called it, was a big part of our experience. Erwin and I love seeking out grocery stores and markets in foreign countries; they’re always fascinating places to get "input" about people and their culture. The prepared food sections are generally mouth-wateringly spectacular, even if I don’t know what I’m seeing and smelling. And maybe I don’t want to. But, I’ll always take a sample when offered. Besides that’s what vaccinations are for right?

Yet sometimes when encountering a different culture, there are moments when you see something and your brain goes… “Huh?”

I still haven’t gotten over the cultural disconnect I felt (my preconceived notions) upon seeing…

  • a cell phone appearing from the folds of a Maasai shepherds red shuka
  • a satellite dish atop a straw hut on the shore of the Mekong river
  • a billboard in faraway villages for a north American product
  • a person of colour speaking a better German than I ever will (sorry if that sounds racist)
I also became conscious of how isolating, by comparison, our North American lifestyle is. Maybe not so much at home in Torbay, but certainly in the big cities we've lived in. The notion of “it takes a village” is not trending pop-psychology, but how things are done. Have always been done. The extended families or clans living, working, and playing together, looking out for one another; a powerful sense of community. I kind of envy that. The support that one can draw from that.

I got huge lessons in appreciation. The women working in the garment factories of Phom Penh, or building a mud hut in Kenya, or those wearing the full burqa; they will never know my range of freedom, they will never have my level of prosperity or education or even health. They will never be allowed to explore and grow like I do. I've also noted that many parts of the world men’s and women’s lives are quite firmly separated into gender-specific tasks. Men work and socialize with other men; women work and socialize with other women. Are they aware of the gender disconnect or inequality? And if they are, could they even do anything about it?

I've discovered a lot about myself too. Limitations that I thought I had but didn't, as well as short-comings that still need some work. I care more about certain things, and not so much about others. I have waaaaay to much stuff. I've felt the discomfort that comes with being looked at because I was different. I was in the minority. I stood out in the crowd. Hopefully I've weakened the obliviousness that comes from always being part of the majority.

I've gained confidence. We've spent this last year travelling; criss-crossing Europe, into Asia and Africa. Hiked in the jungle, meditated in incense filled cathedrals, came face to face with wildlife on the Serengeti, navigated unknown cities; in short, we did some pretty awesome things. And because of that I've greatly reduced my fear of stepping out of my comfort zone. What’s the purpose of life if not to break out of your comfort zone or becoming more adventurous? After accomplishing so much, I know I’m going to feel a lot more confident in my ability to achieve anything I set my mind to.


Finally, I think I've learned to adapt more readily. We dealt with over-crowded trains, slow buses, wrong turns, delays, bad street food, soaked feet, and much, much more. After a while, I learned how to adapt to changing situations and new realities. I learned to alter what I’m doing and move on. Life throws you curve balls and gets messy sometimes, but you go with it. Do your best. Why? Because if travel has taught me anything it is that it all works out in the end, and even if it doesn't, there’s no need to stress. Because I know I will cherish this year-long adventure forever no matter what went or didn't go according to plan.



Friday, 26 July 2013

A Year In a Video

Today is the last full day of our great big wonderful year long adventure before we start making our way back to The Rock.

To mark this occasion I've put together a video montage, a high-lights reel of sorts, set to a song entitled  "Millionen Lichter" by Christina Stürmer. The song, in German, talks about how you're not alone in the world, there are a million lights, a million colours, just like you and me.

Enjoy.

video





Sunday, 21 July 2013

Africa (in 1001 words)

Early last year when we were in the planning stages for our year of travel, Erwin asked me that if money wasn't an object where would I like to go – I didn't even have to think about the answer – I said “Africa, God’s zoo.”

Going to Africa to see the animals has been a dream of mine ever since I was a little girl. I would watch CTV’s half-hour wildlife series “Untamed World” on Sunday’s at 5:30 right before “Wonderful World of Disney.” My favorite family outings as a child were to places that featured animals such as Edmonton’s “Storyland Valley Zoo” or Al Oeming’s “Alberta Game Farm.” I’ve worked for PetSmart, Petcetera, and Pet Valu. Even during our stay here in Berlin I bought the zoo pass within days of our arrival and have used it countless times. In short – I adore animals.

Since it was my dream, Erwin let me plan, where, when, how, who with, and he would then take that information to use up the last of his Aeroplan points and fly us there first class. Yay!  

I soon discovered that when you plan an African safari, there are a number of things you need to consider, such as: which country you want to go to, therefore which animals you’ll end up seeing, the best time to go, what kind of safari you would like to experience - budget tents to luxury resort, and which company if any you want to guide you. The options were overwhelming.

After days of research and discussions I (we) settled on a private (just the two of us), seven day safari in Kenya using a small local safari company, staying at a combination of homestay and luxury resort. The company we settled on was All Seasons Safaris. We spent the first couple of nights in Nairobi at the home of the company’s director Alex and his wife Mary. They were the most gracious hosts. It’s always a delight to experience and learn about a new place by spending time with the local people away from the touristy settings.


We spent one day in Nairobi, touring the city and visiting the Giraffe Center – where we learned about giraffe conservation efforts – and I got to hand feed one.


Bright and early the next morning our safari began. First stop was at a viewpoint of the Great Rift Valley, a continuous geographic trench that runs 6000 kms. from Syria down to Mozambique. The expanse that stretches before you is stunning is all I can say. Kinda makes one feel real small.


We continued on our way through sometimes crazy hair raising traffic which Anton (our driver/guide) seemed to navigate effortlessly. The scenery along the way reminded us of south-western Alberta with its big sky, stretches of scrub brush mixed with farm lands, and mountains in the background. The road getting worse the further we went, Erwin blogged about that particular part which you can read here, but that’s all part of the experience. Or so I told myself.

We ultimately ended up deep into the Masai Mara almost on the border with Tanzania. Our resort was on top of a bush covered knoll with a room that offered a spectacular view over an almost biblical landscape: savannah that stretched to the horizon, big blue sky, and a fine dust that coats literally everything whenever there’s a gust of wind or a passing vehicle.



Our days consisted of getting up early to watch the 6:30 sunrise while enjoying breakfast,


...and then a morning game drive which usually lasted 3 – 4 hours. Back to the lodge for lunch, relax by the pool, and then an evening game drive of another 3 hours or so, coming back just as the sun was setting. Showering layers of dust off, fabulous late evening dinner, and then drop into bed to dream and cherish all that we saw that day. That was our routine for 4½ days. The best 4½ days ever. Nearly 8 hours (which felt more like 8 minutes) daily of driving around the savannah while mostly standing up in our safari vehicle on the lookout for animals...



...or sometimes just closing my eyes a letting it all sink in, being in the moment. 



What did we see? Too many animals & birds to count. The bird songs still ring in my ear. Colours I’ve never seen before. Everyone says you go to Africa to see the Big 5; elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino. We didn’t see a leopard, doesn’t matter, we saw cheetahs and as I said, so much more. I posted my top 50 pics on Facebook – here are pics of my Big 5.






On our last afternoon we went to see a Maasi Village. (Note the two “a’s” in Maasia when talking about the people, and one “a” when talking about the place, who knew.) Another eye opening learning experience that was fun too. We had brought along some pens, pencils, notebooks as gifts for them as per suggestion by our tour company. We also bought some over-priced crafts from them; a donation to the women’s effort in building a school in the village.


On our last night in Africa we ate at a restaurant called “The Carnivore” in Nairobi. It is considered “Africa’s greatest eating experience,” featuring an all-you-can-eat exotic meat buffet with such things as crocodile, ostrich, camel, and much more, all roasted over charcoal. I even dared to try bull testicles. Didn't care for that one. But all the rest was super delicious.

A very short sleep and we were back on a plane, hours of flying over the vast Libyan Desert, the Greek islands...


and back to Germany. Our safari over, but my long held dream come true, and another check on my bucket list.

If it wasn't for the literally hundreds and hundreds of pictures that we took I would have a hard time believing that it all actually happened. It’s still all so surreal. It still chokes me up emotionally... tears of joy & happiness.


Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Catching Up: The Coles Notes Version

It’s been a long time since I've updated my blog. Too long in fact. I apologize to those of my readers who are not also friends with me on Facebook. In the past two months since my last entry I've been using Facebook to post updates and pictures of our current whereabouts and adventures.

It’s not like I forgot to blog or didn't have anything to blog about … heck I even made some notes on possible entry subjects while on one of our numerous train rides  But once we got to a new destination, explorations and experiences awaited. That may be one of the reasons I’m having trouble sleeping at night. I’m downloading so much information during the days that I spend my nights awake in bed trying to process it. And then with spring/summer finally arriving just being outdoors was excuse enough not to be at a keyboard.

Today my body is telling me ... "rest already, and get a blog post up." So here goes, condensed posts that should have been written much earlier.

After my last blog on Venice, I had intentions of doing one comparing and contrasting Florence & Milan. We spent two consecutive weekends there with the MUN in Italy group of students. My summation of that experience …


while the Duomo di Milano is stunning, breath-taking, magnificent, etc., etc.


…that’s about it for Milan.

For me anyway. I much prefer Florence, the city that is known as the cradle of the Renaissance. With its wealth of art and architecture it veritably oozes culture.


Milan on the other hand is business minded. Designer shops abound. If I had to choose I’d rather visit a museum/gallery in Florence than a designer store in Milan. But that’s just me.

Shopping Gallery in Milan - Prada & Louis Vuitton shops
Florence - Ponte Vecchio over the Arno river

Another post idea was “Hiking the Post Card.” After Italy we went back for another visit to Berne, Switzerland. Our time there in October had been too short (and the weather horrible), Besides Erwin needed time to finish editing his book away from distractions, and we basically just wanted to spend time with our daughter and son-in-law. Oh, and I wanted to experience the post-card that they live in first-hand.

Well I did that…



and much more, such as my birthday present from them; a truffle making course at a chocolate factory.


Tania blogged (much better than I could) about that very fun experience. To read that blog click here.

While in Berne we took the train to Paris for a few days. That was a bucket list item for me. Paris in the springtime. The intoxicating fragrance of the Linden trees along the Seine, the flowering horse-chestnut trees along the Champs-Élysées, the parks & gardens … beautiful. 

Place de Vosges - Oldest planned square in Paris
A ride on the carousel near the Eiffel tower.


The city of love..


After Berne, came Africa. Yes, Africa. We went on, what for me was the highlight of our whole year, an African safari. That unforgettable experience deserves a blog post all its own. I still dream of it, still processing it. Hopefully blogging it soon. For now, my fav picture of us there.


As of July 1 we've been back in Berlin. Why Berlin again? Just because. It feels like home, (and it would probably be home if there wasn't such a thing as a job back at MUN.) We've seen and done soooo much this year, we decided that we need to start decompressing and mentally preparing ourselves for our return to The Rock and our life there. And what better place to do it than where we started this whole epic adventure, in Berlin.

So we've been trying to take it easier now, slow the pace. Hard to do in Berlin though. The weather has been fantastic so that draws me outside for bike rides through the Tiergarten, or strolls through the neighborhood or just sitting on a park bench and reading. We've attended a couple of art history lectures at the Gemäldegallerie, we delight in lingering over Kaffee und Kuchen at a local café or savor a Currywurst mit Pommes, and processing, processing, processing….

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Venice

I've been to Venice many times in the last few years. But, stepping out of the Santa Lucia railway station on a lovely spring afternoon recently, the gently rippling Grand Canal before me, the sunshine making Venice shimmer in the haze, was for me like meeting up with a dear friend after a long absence; my heart skipped a beat at that first glimpse. I remembered how much I adore Venice. The sights and sounds and smells; a quiet beauty unlike any other European city I've been to.


The color of water in Venice is a dusky sea foam green – almost opaque yet translucent – reflecting sky, palazzos and gondolas. My research tells me the Dolomite's are nearby and the chalk runoff to the sea creates this effect. Plying the canals are all manner of boats, vaporettos, and of course gondolas, with tanned gondoliers, their muscles rippling impressively under white-and-blue striped shirts, maneuvering their way through.


Erwin’s colleague Cristina was taking a group of students from Conegliano to Venice (some for their first ever visit) to introduce them to her Venice. Erwin and I were along for the fun of it. I say her Venice, because she is a graduate of the University of Venice and is able to show the students a side of Venice not seen by the casual visitor. Her ability to navigate the bridges, narrow allies, and palazzos incredible, her stories spell binding, but above all her love for this city, contagious.


We started out as a large group 18+ but soon broke off into smaller and smaller groups; every one eager to explore and experience Venice for themselves. At first blush navigating Venice may seem daunting. But, once you discover that all roads/allies lead (eventually) to either San Marco or the Rialto or the Ferovia, it’s all good. There’s a saying that if you haven’t gotten lost in Venice you haven’t really been to Venice. Besides, you can always stop and ask for help, or look up at the corners of buildings at intersecting paths for names or directional arrows indicating one of the above mentioned places.

As I mentioned earlier we've seen “the sights” of Venice before, but that didn't stop us from seeing some of them again, or at least just walking by them. You know, just to make sure they weren't just part or a long forgotten dream.

Bridge of Sighs
San Marco

Along the way we stopped for coffee at Caffè Florian; an establishment that’s been around since 1721, and boasts the likes of Goethe, Dickens, Proust, and Byron, among others, as former patrons. The live music added to the ambiance. It was a perfect place to spend an afternoon.


On our way to meet up with the others for dinner we stopped in a church just as they were having evening mass. Erwin wrote about that experience which you can read about here. The delicious dinner consisted of pizza and pastas in the piazza near the Accademia in the early evening. I, along with a few other brave students enjoyed squid ink pasta. I've had it before and was looking forward to savouring this wonderful dish again.


Just as the sun began to set, Cristina led a few of us on a leisurely stroll through deserted allies, and over bridges spanning the calm canals. We stopped here and there for pictures and to gaze at the marvels in shop windows, laughing and chatting, enjoying the company, savoring the moment and the place.





We arrived at the Ferovia (train station) literally a minute and a half after the train we needed back to Conegliano pulled out. Oh well, next train is in another hour, no rush, may as well sit down on the steps in front of the station over-looking the Grand Canal and watch evening descend over this enchanting city by the sea.


Friday, 10 May 2013

Conegliano

It seems like forever ago, since I last blogged. The passage of time has a way of doing that when nearly every day is a new adventure.

From Vienna we returned to Frankfurt for a few days. First of all, Erwin had bought tickets in November to Meatloaf's Last at Bat concert. He wrote a great post about it, which you can read here. But, more importantly, he needed to have some place less distracting (i.e. Frankfurt am Main) to finish up his book, the underlying reason for our Peripatetic Year, which he was able to do. Yay!

Here are the stats:

383 pages
106,752 words of text (no footnotes, appendix, or bibliography included)
111,938 with footnotes
125,712 with everything included
778,140 total characters
655,136 total characters (no spaces)
576 Footnotes
425 Bibliographic entries
24 Appendices

Very proud and happy for him.

On May 3rd, after using Frankfurt as a home base for nearly two months for our myriad of side trips, we packed up our remaining suitcases (two had been sent back to The Rock) and headed for Italy. We took a very loooong but super scenic train ride from Frankfurt, Germany, going through the Tirol, Austria and over/under/through the Brenner Pass, then through the Dolomites down to Venice and finally arriving in Conegliano ten hours later. 

Why Italy? For the last five years Erwin has been running the Italian Field School or MUN in Italy. You can find out more about that here. Even though this is supposed to be a year off from teaching, regular MUN stuff and head of department #$%?!, he wanted to continue the program this year. Plus, 22 students signed up for it. So, for the month of May, he’s donning his professor hat once again and we haaaaave to spend a month in Italy on the university's (for his expenses) dime. Life is tough, but someone’s got to do it. Besides, he/we were already in the neighborhood so to speak and he didn’t want to disappoint 22 students by cancelling the program this year.

This is the fourth time (a volcano cancelled one year) that Erwin has taken a group here, and my third time. We arrived about a week ago and it’s almost a feeling of "coming home"; at least to this part of Italy, Conegliano, a charming city of 35,000, about a 30-40 minute train ride from Venice. We recognized faces in the market, our favorite cafes, or in the piazza, and they recognized us. Very cool!

Until the 2nd of June the Ex-Convento di San Francesco in Conegliano, Italy will be our home. A monastery founded around 1200 on the outskirts of the town. Within the ancient walls of the convent, remnants of frescoes still cling to walls, ceilings, and the ambulatory. You can almost hear the prayers whispered by nuns past echoing from the dark corners and between the Tuscan columns. Early morning breezes come in through the open window ruffling the curtains and bringing with it the fragrance of spring and the sound of church bells, which start chiming at 7 am, the cuckoo birds even earlier than that. Heaven.




The scenery here is spectacular. Stepping out of the train station and looking up you see the San Rocco bell tower, the Duomo, a villa, and at the top, the remains of a 10th century castle surround by cypress trees. Beyond that, picturesque villas nestle in the surrounding hillsides, where vineyards and olive groves reign supreme and churches, with centuries of history, stand guard.




Strolling through town, it’s nice to stop here and there to observe a flower bursting with colour, or the light reflecting through the many shades of green in the canopy of tress.





Plants and flowers trellis from balconies and bleached stone window frames. Benches afford a place to savour and appreciate the ambiance.



While Erwin teaches, I read, explore, and relax in the sun. Side trips with the students will take us to Venice, Milan and Florence for even more adventures. We enjoy glasses of Prosecco in the piazza and cappuccinos or espressos in one of the many cafés and relish the best ever pizzas and pasta dishes.

Life is good, and I am thankful.