Tuesday, February 27, 2007

And my thanks goes to ...

In the spirit of the Oscars (and since Ian started all this), I thought I would continue with the Thank You speeches as well. Since Ian went first, the music is going to be playing for mine soon, so I'll keep it short.

Thank you to both family and friends for all your support. It was comforting going into this without anyone questioning our decision. Instead, the enthusiasm we received was wonderful.

Thank you to everyone who helped us clear all our possessions by taking some home. It was surprisingly quite successful and I hope you are all still enjoying them!

Thank you to everyone who followed us through our journey on our blogs. It was great being able to share our experiences with everyone else and knowing we weren't alone.

And lastly, and most importantly, thank you to Ian for taking the chance and coming out on this trip with me. Out of your comfort zone many times, I was truly impressed with you. It was one of my biggest dreams, and I'm so glad you were there to share it with me. Thank you for some of the greatest life memories I'll ever have.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Heading out west

Yep, that's right. We're heading out to Calgary on the 28th of Feb. Everyone we've talked to has told us its a booming place. We'll see! Everyone has also told me how cold it is out there. Really, it's cold but not that cold. At least not from what I've experienced the times I've been there. I might be eating my words soon enough though.

We're looking forward to the move. It'll be a good change and since we enjoy a lot of outdoor activities, it's definitely more suited to our lifestyle than Toronto is.

If anyone is heading out west, drop me an e-mail!

Lessons learned

What to bring, what not to bring, and words of wisdom. Here is a list of lessons learned from our trip.

What to bring

1. Good shoes. Very important. You spend most of your time walking and a comfortable pair of good quality shoes will take you far. GoreTex as an added bonus as well for those wet days.

2. Good backpack. Another very important item. You'll be lugging this thing around for a long time so make sure it's comfortable. I have a bad lower back and the back support on my bag is amazing. It actually takes away my back pain when I put it on.

3. Silk sleep sac. This was one thing I am so glad we brought. It's lightweight, easy to clean, and so very comfortable. It gives you peace of mind when you sleep in some dingy bed potentially filled with bed bugs. Highly recommended.

4. Daypack. A good sturdy daypack is useful. You'll need one everyday for the most part to bring your daily essentials (water, snacks, camera, first aid, etc.)

5. Flip flops. You'll need a pair of sandals/flip flops that can double as shower slippers. Almost 99% of the time, you do not want to walk into that bathroom with your bare feet. These are usually provided in the rooms in China but not anywhere else.

6. Sink stopper. Important if you plan on doing your own laundry. A universal sink stopper allows you to make any sink your laundry tub.

7. Lock. Useful for locking up your backpack on train rides and in hostels.

8. Unlocked cell. You can buy a SIM card anywhere you go and this gives both you and your family/friends piece of mind.

What not to bring
1. Whistle. I have no idea why I brought a whistle in the first place. It stayed in my backpack the entire time.

2. Mirror. I brought a little mirror which again, I never used. Sometimes, you don't see yourself for a long time, but you know, you really don't miss it.

3. Pacsafe. I had bought this on sale and brought it along. I did use it for flights and on overnight trains as well but it'd be easier to bring the lighter versions which pretty much just consist of a wire and lock.

4. Ear plugs. Thought we might use these on noisy train rides, etc. but to me, they were highly uncomfortable and I never used them.

Words of wisdom
1. Never let your guard down. You're always a target anywhere you go because you are a tourist. Be aware of your surroundings and be wary of anyone who may come across as extra friendly.

2. Try as much as you can. You're away in a different place. Experience as much as you can out there. It'll be worth it.

3. Be flexible. The rest of the world is not the same as Canada. Things happen at a different pace and in different ways. Take it as it is and enjoy the experience.

4. Be patient. You'll be surrounded by touts who want to make some money of you. It's easy to get frustrated since you're always bombarded but be patient and politely tell them no.

5. Learn to bargain. We really hated the concept of bargaining for everything before we left. Soon after though, we got used to it and in fact, even started enjoying it! It's a game and just take it all in stride and have fun. Never let it get too serious.

6. Enjoy! Really, if this is your dream, go out there and take it all in. Appreciate the fact that you are out there and getting this wonderful opportunity. Relish in it!

New Perspectives

Anyone doing a trip like this will most definitely come out of it with a different perspective on life. I came out with two.

First, after seeing and experiencing how others live in other areas of the world, I must say I've come to really appreciate being a Canadian citizen. We may often complain about our government and how things are run in this country but compared to many parts of the world, our government is doing an amazing job.
The support system this country offers is fantastic and it's so comforting knowing you can always rely on it. For instance, you know if you need an ambulance, it'll be there for you within a few minutes. If you need help on the streets, you know you can flag a cop down and trust them to help you out. In many other countries, these so called figures of authority are either so inefficient or corrupt you're probably better off trying to save yourself. I remember thinking when we landed in Zurich, on our way back from Nairobi, that we can now get sick and we would be okay. Being Canadian should never be taken for granted.

Second, I now realize I know so little. There is just so much out there in the world, we really are so isolated up here in the north. You really don't have a good understanding of events or the lives of others worldwide until you get there and experience it for yourself. Before our trip, I had read a lot and thought I knew enough about the places we were visiting. Unfortunately, what the media shows us is always filtered to their liking and we never really get the true picture here.

A good example would be Rwanda. So many I've talked to were surprised we visited Rwanda because the only image they have of that country is the genocide. Everyone thought it was still very dangerous but had the impression that Kenya was very safe. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Rwanda is currently one of the safest and most developed countries you could travel to in eastern Africa. Kenya on the other hand can get quite dangerous, especially in Nairobi.

Another example is Malaysia. I never understood why Malaysia was classified as a 3rd world country. From the outside, it looks amazingly advanced, more so than Canada in many ways. They have the Petronas towers (once the tallest towers in the world), they have a much better subway system, and they have gleaming shopping malls. How could this be 3rd world? After spending a few months there, I finally understood why. The way the country is run and structured is in no way as advanced as its physical structures. There is still a whole ton of corruption in that country and surprisingly, still a lot of racism. I never would have known this had I not been there for so long and experienced it for myself.

My last example here is based in China. First of all, I never realized the huge diversity this country had to offer. Did you know it has 56 ethnic groups? The Han Chinese being the majority. Unfortunately, the government is not so fond of its other ethnic groups and would prefer everyone conform to their ways. A good example of this is Tibet. Lhasa is slowly being taken over by drab Chinese stores and the Tibetan people and culture are being pushed into a smaller and smaller area. Where you see a symbol of another culture (i.e. the Potala Palace), you will always see somewhere close by, a large symbol of the Han Chinese culture. It's sad. I feel terrible for what the Tibetans have experienced in the past and are still experiencing to this day. They are being repressed and they are not the only ones in China going through this. I never would have thought that this was happening there until we got there and saw and heard it for ourselves.

These two new perspectives that I have in life today alone are well worth the trip we took. It was a fantastic journey and one that I would recommend everyone try to do at least once in their lifetime. Many think that it costs a fortune to do this but really, it doesn't. We lived out there for way less a day than we could ever do in Toronto. It's a life changing experience, I don't know what else to say. It's just completely worth it.


Since being back, I've been asked many times about what the highlight of the trip was. Surprisingly, this turned out to be a really difficult question to answer. I couldn't pick out one specific place or occasion, there had just been too many amazing experiences. So, here are the ones that stand out in my mind in chronological order.

Festival in Dali
We didn't realize there was going to be a festival in Dali the same time were there but we completely lucked out. It was a great experience being in the midst of it and partaking in their festivities.

Tiger Leaping Gorge
This trek will forever stay in my mind. First because it scared the hell out of me. And second because the scenery was breathtaking. It was fantastic trekking and staying at these remote guesthouses in the mountains.

Overland in Tibet
I cannot begin to describe how amazing this overland was. Like I said in a previous blog, the landscapes varied so much, it was hard to believe we were still in one country. On top of that, seeing Mt. Everest was spectacular and is something we will never forget.

Old town of Kashgar
Kashgar was definitely my favourite city in all of China. Oddly enough, it really didn't represent what most would picture as typical China. It represented more of the middle east and their old town was a fantastic mix of alley ways and stone buildings where life seems to be perpetually stuck in the 19th century.

Paharganj in Delhi
Given how India is so different from any other country we've seen and since Delhi was the only city we saw, it automatically becomes the most interesting one. All our senses were overwhelmed when we were there making it one of the most memorable places we've been to.

Serengeti & Crater
Yes, we complained a lot about the lack of wildlife we were expecting to see here. Looking back at our photos though, we did see a ton of animals, just not the ones we wanted to. Regardless, the scenery was breathtaking and the herds that we did see made the plains and crater even more mesmerizing.

Fantastic country. Mainly because only a little over a decade ago had this whole country experienced a genocide and it's amazing to see how much they have progressed in such a short amount of time. On top of that, Rwanda is a country of rolling green hills and is absolutely beautiful.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Back in Toronto

As most of you know, we're now back in good ol' TO. We've been back for a couple weeks and are adjusting but this weather is really not helping. We've heard about how mild of a winter this has been and just as we get back, it becomes insanely cold and apparently one of the coldest Febs on record. Yep, welcome back huh? My favourite line these days is 'What is wrong with this country??'

There was a bit of a culture shock coming back here. You remember what it was like but after being away for so long in mostly less developed areas, this seems a bit odd. The first thing I noticed leaving the airport was how smooth the roads were. Just arriving from Africa where we were used to driving slowly over massive potholes, the smooth and fast ride was a bit strange. Everything here is also so much more structured and clean. You can always expect the cars to be on the right side of the road, you know pedestrians get right of way, and you don't have to look out for animals wherever you are walking. Having to add tax and tip was also a bit of an annoyance as well when we were so used to paying for the price (or less) of what was displayed. After being here for a couple weeks though, none of this seems peculiar any longer.

Some things I've really enjoyed since being back are hot showers. It's so nice to know that its a guarantee every morning when it had pretty much been a hit and miss all year. I'm still relishing in this. Constant electricity and water are also an added bonus. I had been getting used to being in the dark, especially from being in Africa since we were camping almost the entire time. Having sushi has also been nice. Although available worldwide, it was something we didn't dare try anywhere else we went.

In a way, it's nice to be back to a familiar place where we don't constantly have to have our guard up since we know it so well. It's much more relaxing. But, I do miss the excitement of endless new landscapes, cultures, and experiences the world gave to us.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Amazing Africa

It's unfortunate we only had a month and a half to explore this amazing continent. It's even more unfortunate that we had to do it on someone else's schedule.

My complaints about our safari company may have come across as a dislike for this continent (based on some conversations I've had) but that is not at all the case. What we had seen in the short time that we've been there has just intrigued my need to explore it even further.

I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting before we arrived, but it probably included what the western media had portrayed to us. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to be introduced to some of the nicest people we've met on our trip and some of the most beautiful sceneries we've encountered. We were often greeted by complete strangers walking by, or when we were on our truck, children and adults would wave to us as we went pass. From the white sandy beaches of Zanzibar, to the vast views of the Serengeti and the crater, to a glimpse of the cloud covered Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the rolling hills of Rwanda, and really so much more, I couldn't believe this was Africa. It was definitely much greener than I thought!

I feel like we've only touched the tip of the iceberg with this continent and it's left me itching to see some more. Someday, it'll be nice to come back, rent a 4x4 and head off to see what else this mysterious land has to offer.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Photos are up!

I've managed to get some photos up on previous blogs (see below) and in the photo links on the right. Enjoy!

Giraffe Sanctuary

Still on the animal theme, we also visited the giraffe sanctuary in Nairobi. It was pretty cool because you stand on this platform so you're at eye level with them and you feed them. You can also get a kiss by putting a pellet in your mouse. Their tongues are really slimey so the kiss wasn't pleasant but giraffes are beautiful animals so I'm not complaining.

Elephant Orphanage

The elephant orphanage came highly recommended to us. Elephants were big on our list and since we didn't get to see any up close, we thought we'd give this a shot. I'm really glad we went. The elephants here ranged from 2 months to 2 years. It was educational and the babies were super duper cute. I just wanted to take them home!!!

Nairobi National Park

While in Nairobi, we went to visit the Nairobi National Park. It's a little odd because you can see the skyscrapers from inside the park while doing a game drive. All the comotion doesn't seem to bother the animals though.

With the great luck we've been getting, the public game drive bus that runs on Sundays broke down. After waiting for 2 hours, they tell us we can pay extra for a taxi to take us in. We gave up and decided to visit the animal orphanage instead.

To our surprise, the orphanage turned out to be fantastic! We were just in time for the feeding and the first animals we saw were cheetahs! As I was trying to take photos of them, the feeder asks me if I wanted to go inside. I asked him if he was serious and he said yes. I asked if it was safe and he said yes. Sounds good to me! He told me to go ahead and pet the cheetah, just don't touch her food!! No worries there! It was really cool, their fur was coarser than I had thought. What beautiful, sleek animals.

We also managed to finally see lions up close (even if they weren't "wild").

Monday, January 22, 2007

Africa Travel Co.

I cannot believe we had such a terrible experience with the overland company we booked with. It was the most expensive portion of our entire trip and the most disappointing. We're now done with them and aside for the fantastic leader, cook and driver, the impression we've come away with is that ATC is all about making money.

I've already blogged about the terrible experience we had at the Serengetti and the Crater. After speaking to others who have been there recently as well, it sounds like it's come down to the guide/driver you have during the safari. Ours was constantly in a rush and they seemed to always be on a schedule so we would be racing back to the stop point so they could break. It felt like we spent more time speeding around and resting than we did searching for animals. Others had amazing experiences out there because their driver took the time to find the animals.

I also talked about the Masai being closed. Well it turns out it wasn't closed! It was only closed to large trucks like the one we were in. They could have easily booked smaller jeeps and we could all have gone in. We've met or heard about different people who have been during the times we were supposed to be going and had great game viewing. It makes me so mad to think that they cheaped out like that. Not only did they cheap out, the money they saved from not taking us to the Masai was never returned to us.

This company had rated pretty well when I was researching so I am very surprised at the outcome. If anyone is researching a safari company, look elsewhere.

Nightime border crossing

I had forgotten to post about this crazy experience we had crossing the border into Rwanda from Uganda. We were trying to get to the border crossing by 6pm (closing time) but were driving on those crazy cliffs in Uganda. Since driving fast was out of the question, we knew there was no way we were making it on time. Our leader had friends at the border crossing so he made a call to get them to hold the border open for us.

Finally, at about 9ish or so, we get to the border. It was pitch black, our truck could not cross into Rwanda and neither could our leader because he lost his passport in a mugging in Nairobi before he started with us. We had to follow this so called trainee who basically drinks all day on the truck. Swell.

We all got off the truck on the Ugandan side with all our bags, hand our passports over to the trainee and stand around in the dark. After a while, some guy tells us to follow him. We all do so blindly and cross the border by foot, again it was pitch black. The trainee still had our passports and we weren't even sure where he was! Definitely did not feel legit at that point. We felt like we were being smuggled into Rwanda!

Once over in Rwanda, we wait around again and the trainee shows up with our passports. We fill out papers in the dark and hand them over to some guys. After about 30 mins, we all have our passports in hands with official stamps! It was quite the experience and by far the most memorable border crossing we've had!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

No more Masai :(

Well, we got the bad news yesterday. The Masai Mara game reserve is closed again. Trucks have been getting stuck. There goes our last chance of seeing big cats or elephants. What a complete disappointment this overland has been.

It looks like we'll be going to another national park instead but there are no cats or elephants there. We might try to go to a national park in Nairobi on our own but seeing that it's in the middle of the city, I find it highly unlikely we'll see anything good there, keeping fingers crossed though!

Our overland ends in a few days which we're both pretty happy about. It's definitely been trying the last few weeks travelling like this but we had some great moments seeing parts of Africa so it wasn't all wasted. Next time, we're renting a 4x4 and driving/camping through southern Africa! We've seen others do it and it looks like so much fun!!