My home is frequently filled with the Blues. Perhaps paradoxically, it is one of the things that brings me the most joy – listening to John play his guitar, his own noodling reflecting a distinct blend of the Fado of this heritage, his deep love of Muddy Waters and BB King, his fascination with Buddy Guy and Robert Johnson. He loves the legends, he loves the stories, and he lives for the sound. Heading down south to see where it all began has been something he’s wanted to do for a long time now, and the pact we made when we came back from Amsterdam was pretty simple – he’d finally get his license and we’d hit the road and see all the Canadiana and Americana that kids like us come to this continent dreaming of.
We touched on a total of nine states on this trip – driving down through Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, back up through Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana. We heard country and bluegrass in Nashville, rock and roll and blues in Memphis and delta blues in Clarksdale. We saw miles and miles of cotton fields, dragonflies and marshes in sizzling 40 degree afternoon sun, sipping sun-steeped unsweetened iced tea from impossibly large Sonic styrofoam cups. We heard stories of Johnny Cash and June Carter, walked around Elvis’ house, made our silent deals with the devil at the Crossroads. We saw the Grand Ol’ Opry (and the absolutely crazy hotel next to it), The Bluebird Cafe, Margaritaville Bar. We sat and listened intently as Ralph Stanley II brought the crowd to their feet at the Station Inn, the Memphis Jazz Orchestra serenaded dancing couples on Beale Street, Sean Appel hilariously nicknamed himself “the giant bedazzled blueberry” before charming us to pieces at Club 152.
It’s incredible to think that three powerhouses of music all died on the same day – Robert Johnson, Elvis, Aretha Franklin. I can’t imagine a world without their songs. Can you?
Portugal is changing, and it’s changing quickly! The last time I was there in 2011, it was much more run down than it is today. Tourism is booming, there’s construction everywhere and prices are skyrocketing. I don’t remember seeing expat-centric spots in Lisbon like the TimeOut Market, Heim Cafe or Comoba back then. Most food was very cheap, traditional and it was mostly seafood and potatoes. Now, it’s everything under the sun, and a lot of crappy overpriced tourist traps like you’d see in Paris or Rome, but also a lot of fancy joints that surprised me and are very glass-and-steel in tile-and-brick Lisboa. The neighbourhoods have completely changed (or maybe it’s just me that’s grown up!) and Bairro Alto, which used to seem so hip, now just seemed dodgy. I instead gravitated entirely to Principe Real – with their incredibly cool spots such as the Embaixada, Pavilhão Chinês and A Cevicheria – and Sao Bento, with it’s beautiful parks and cafes, blooming jacarandas and orange and lemon trees everywhere you look and smells of happiness. I also spent a ton of time at LXFactory, which is like Amsterdam-Noord, Christiania and Parkdale all rolled up into a nice little art bomb.
With travel, of course, comes the food fiesta. It made me laugh to see kogel mogel, a childhood treat that I got when there was no candy around (ahem. communism.) and I was permitted to swirl sugar and yolk together, being reincarnated as a luxury boutique delicacy. Sampling the foods of the different regions made me think about the hierarchy that we place on certain cuisines. Italian and French food equals fancy and upscale, and the majority of high-priced restaurants in downtown Toronto serve foods typically from there. Vietnamese and Mexican food is casual and cheaper, and Portuguese, Polish, Ethiopian, Greek, etcetera is super casual. There are of course exceptions here and there, but this is typically the drill here. So my brain exploded when I found myself sampling Presunto ham, Azeitao cheese and wine from Alentejo and realizing that Prosciutto, Roquefort and Chianti didn’t really hold a candle to these delights. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand the pride of a region in its products and the need to distinguish them from others, but I had that “Chinese dumplings are Polish pierogies are Japanese gyoza are Ukrainian varenyky” moment and for that second, the world seemed a little smaller. I also felt like I had unearthed a great secret, a Cava of Champagne proportions, and I felt enlightened. Sue me.
The wine regions of Portugal are devastatingly gorgeous. I have this fantasy that I’ll get a field job with UNESCO visiting their locales to make sure they still… I dunno… use the proper brass in their doorknobs or something, and get a chance to see every place in the world deemed a heritage site. The Douro Valley nearly brought me to tears with it’s gentle beauty, and the Algarve Atlantic coast stunned me with its raw, untamed and completely different topography than the rest of the country. I see why those clever surfers gravitate there. Those beaches will absolutely make you melt.
For my fellow Torontonians looking for a little romance (having already watched The Age of Adaline) in the form of a wee road trip, you really need to look no further than Quebec City. It’s a little bit of old stony heaven that’s a 9 hour drive away, with accommodations way cheaper than you’d think and lots and lots of really good food.
I haven’t been there since I first arrived in Canada when I was 7. Basically all I remember is our car being broken into at a St. Hubert’s (which is like Quebec’s Swiss Chalet) and my mom crying, and as a sensitive little kid if you see your mom crying then you just cry too, and there ya go, that’s my memory of Quebec. Misery. Wailing. Broken windows. So for me it was reason enough to want to go to just rewire my association to it.
In the car I did a rough Google search of the food that we could get in Quebec, and right away adored Buvette Scott. It’s teeny tiny, super non-fussy, packed solid with people, the cutlery is all mismatched and as soon as you open the door it smells like heaven. They’re geeky as can be about the plates that they bring to you, and talk with genuine enthusiasm about blood sausage and deer bacon and all those Quebecois cheeses! and the funk music playing overhead. There’s minimal decor in the room, the majority of the light comes from candles, and there’s that hushed whispery blanket of chatter that exists in places where people are conversational, excited, engaged, but maturely aware that they are sharing a space with others and not screaming SHOTS SHOTS SHOTS at the tops of their lungs and just being annoying. They also insisted that while we’re in town we check out their favourites.
Such as Chez Biceps BBQ. John was absolutely in heaven here (and all the SHOTS folks are here ;)) and said that it was the perfect fusion of his favourite Austin joints, his general adoration of Southern food, and Quebecois hospitality and trademarks – such as maple syrup pork ribs and poutine. Chef Vincent and Jason-Mamoa-look-alike Jean-Simon Pouliot, who are warm and friendly and brawly, constantly chat to their clientele and tease their staff, and everyone seems to be having a genuinely fantastic time. Oh, and the place looks like this.
Then there’s Kraken Cru. Daaaaaaaamn that’s some good seafood.
For the athletic crew, there’s skiing, sledding and tubing all over Quebec, and if you’re into the older sights like the Citadel or the Parliament buildings, there’s that. There’s an amazing little street called Sault-au-Matelot that’s packed with galleries and opens into a square that has tilework on the ground like Rossio Square in Lisbon. I’m boring as dirt so I like to walk around and eat, maybe listen to some live music, go for a whirl on the slide from 1884 just to see if I fall off, gawk at what’s happening at La Bordee, take in the art and architecture. There’s always one artist that blows my mind to absolute smithereens, and this time it was Virginie Schroeder. At first glance looks like just another optical illusion celebrity painting, right? The white space is just done by sgraffito scrape-and-reveal, whatever right? Nope. Look closer. Her technique is crazy. I don’t know if she uses software to plan it out and then dabs plaster on and then paints over the plaster and cuts it and splatters over it or what. Mind blown.
I will definitely be back in the warmer months, I know that buried under all that snow that Quebec has lots of spots for mushroom picking and maple syrup tapping, and you know… girl’s gotta eat.
What do you do when you love theatre and you have four nights alone in New York City?
You binge. Oh baby, you binge, on theatre and on food (and it’s also partly a trick question, because you’re never really alone in New York City).
Night 1: Grabbed a great last-minute ticket to 1984, and since we’re in a dystopia and times are tight, 99¢ pizza. My interest in seeing this show was mainly to see Tom Sturridge (whom I loved in American Buffalo), Olivia Wilde (whom I’ve met in person at Artists for Peace and Justice events and really like, so I wanted to applaud her in her Broadway debut), and the fact that I loved the book. I quite enjoyed the play, but it was really violent and had tons of strobe effects, which distracted me from the story.
Night 2: Despite everyone telling me I didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting any kind of rush seats to it, I actually got a fantastic last-minute ticket to see Hamilton, and in the process met the two sweetest Puerto Rican ladies in line that couldn’t have been prouder of Lin-Manuel Miranda. This show truly is everything that everyone says it is – I’ve never seen the public this happy and energetic at the theatre (ok, maybe Book of Mormon was a bit like that). Choreography was mild-blowing. Performances were astounding. There was no weak link. For me, Brian d’Arcy James as King George and Gregory Treco as Burr totally floored me, James for his comedic delivery and Treco for his vocals. Afterwards, starving and singing, I had trainwreck fries at Virgil’s because it’s a medley of everything from everywhere and well… it seemed fitting!
Night 3: Sweeney Todd at Barrow Theatre was fantastic, again, chatted to the box office before showtime and they had “secret seats that they rarely use” that were the only ones not sold, and gave them to me pretty cheap. The play came as a recommendation from the staff at Joseph Leonard, where I popped in for dinner, and darling Drew (who let me sit there way past my welcome and offered tips on great NYC spots) found out for me what the hot ticket in the area was.
Night 4: I thought that perhaps with the luck that I’ve been having grabbing tickets to difficult-to-snag shows that maybe I could see Oscar Isaac in Hamlet at the Public Theatre in Noho. Alas, it was an invite-only opening night event, and not even with my charm could I schmooze my way in. “Don’t you know who my father is?” I joked to the staff. They smiled that smile where you like someone but you’re not 100% sure that they’re not insane. I did see John Turturro in the lobby, and smiled broadly, hoping that it would translate into “you’re fantastic, I love you” without disturbing him during his private time.
I have much respect for Apple, by the way, for adding a theatre mode to the Apple Watch that minimizes disturbance during performances. I need to talk myself out of a snarky remark whenever I see a theatregoer activating their phone screen when the house lights are dimmed, so this is at least a nice gesture (although fifty bucks says no one ever remembers to actually enable it).
A small lobster meal at Lobster Place at Chelsea Market. Have been eyeing these babies every time I’ve been there, and resisted the urge. This time I treated myself, and as I sucked every last morsel out of every foot, crevice, and antenna, passersby looked at me with genuine amusement.
My flight home was interesting. Trump had shut down the airspace around NYC to fly to a golf game in the afternoon, so flights were completed messed up. Mostly cancelled, though some delayed, but basically no airline could recover afterwards, since once a chunk of day goes, delays just cascade down and it all falls apart. Newark International was complete chaos, filled to the brim with seething, self-important travellers, and in my calmness I did manage to somehow get hooked-up as a standby passenger on the last flight out (at 23:30, landing in Hamilton, which had me home at 3am). In all the screaming and threatening and customer service calls and apologetic service personnel that madly swirled about what I noticed was this: the way people come together and connect in times of disruption can be awesome. Completely overlooking the jerks, the remainder of folks kind of laughed it off, knew there was little that was in their control, sat together at the airport restaurant, had some drinks, met strangers, compared notes on where they were going, where they had been, where they were from. Typically, it’s such a cold, solitary environment – everyone in their world, on their phones, having somewhere to be, in their bubble. In this situation, there was nothing to do but wait and see, so people put their phones down (which contained wholly inaccurate information anyway) and chatted, met each other, commiserated. What stood out to me was people helping each other, comparing notes on what information they had, which flight was cancelled and which wasn’t, where to get some food, where they could charge their phones, where free coffee and water was, what remaining flights still had seats. Years and years ago, I met a man with his wife in a pizzeria in Tuscany, and without my asking for advice on life or anything, he looked at me and said “remember this one thing: always talk to people”.
That’s always stayed with me.
It has been a whole month and I haven’t written at all about New Orleans! The whole purpose of this blog was to note down my adventures so that I don’t forget, and I’m forgetting to not forget! So let me see here, what can I tell you about this beautiful and musical town?
Well, no surprise here, but there’s music everywhere. No need to reserve at places to go listen to music live, there were Big Bands all over the streets, so the music is inescapable, even when you step away from the French Quarter. Frenchman Street (which I actually liked better than Bourbon) was just littered with musicians. We did manage to see a fantastic show at Snug Harbour that was worth every penny, and John almost choked on his Skittles when he recognized the trumpet player that was playing the SNL Sturgill Simpson show recently. From the brunch time band playing at the parkette beside the French Market, to Ackroyd’s House of Blues, the Musical Legends Park, and Irvin Mayfield’s playhouse (sans Irvin himself – he’s moved on, folks!), this town does not fail to deliver the tunes. It’s uplifting and glorious.
As is the food. If you want fancy, this town’s got plenty fancy, but we kind of opted mostly to eat at the comfort local food joints instead. Cafe du Monde, naturally, for the beignets, ACME oyster house for the ridiculous baked oysters and various po’ boys, Cochon for everything (especially the Bourbon, oh lawd!), Superior Seafood for the raw oyster bar, Willa Jean and Ruby Slipper for breakfast, the Roosevelt for the Sazerac (ok, maybe we’re a little fance), Arnaud’s for a night cap, and all the food markets for snacks in between.
As for fun things to do, it was our first trip, so we had to do the cheesy stuff – Anne Rice’s house on First Street, all the Streetcar Named Desire / Tennessee Williams stops, Audubon Zoo, the Lafayette Cemetery, Natchez Steamboat, the St. Charles Old Streetcar Lines and of course the French Quarter with Bourbon street, Louis Armstrong Park, St. Louis’ Cathedral, all the Marie Laveau (the voodoo Queen of New Orleans) Shops (there are many!). New Orleans architecture is incredible, it’s got those very particular columns and iron exteriors, and the homes in the Garden District are something out of this world. It’s enough to just wander and gawk.
I have to gawk back. Go bawk. Whatever. You get it.
I have a serious attachment to my bicycle. I’ve never been particularly aware of it, but I’ve been in London for a month now and I’ve finally understood what that pang in my heart is about. Have you ever seen a kid staring at you wide eyed and licking their lips absently as you eat an ice cream cone near them? That’s how I stare at cyclists. Like a desert hiker without water.
I have the same attachment to my bicycle that I think people have to their pets. I love it without reservation for it has never led me astray. It’s not like that boy that you love madly but he’s always let you down so you’ll never really trust him. It’s like the one who’s never let you down so you love him even more.
It’s a recurring symbol of my life. My mom’s husband taught me how to ride a bike when I was 6, it was pink and had one of those wooden sticks in the back so that he could control it and keep me from knocking my teeth in. He might as well have taught me how to fly. Once I mastered stickless tricks, I bolted over to my friend’s house and got the crap kicked out of me by grandma when I came home long after dark because I lost track of time.
When I met a boy at a young urban dinner party eight years ago, he asked me out for a bike ride. I was in my mid-twenties, and surrounded by peers who drove BMWs and drank martinis and wore really high Jimmy Choo’s and talked about investment and mortgages and were super serious and super mature. I was none of these things. When he checked my tires for air and filled them up without hesitation, I knew I had met a kindred spirit.
And then, well, Amsterdam. Then there’s that.
I’m a kid. I think I know now that I always will be. But that little shit who got her wings at 6 in a crummy concrete Gdansk playground learned how to breeze through the toughest of times on two wheels that day. And that stays.
I’m flying back to Iceland en route to London. I finished up a contract at SapientNitro – performing a delta analysis on the content management group of a Canadian giant – and having failed to find an equally stimulating immediate next foray, I instead did the only thing I know how when my brain lacks challenge – I got on a plane.
Icelandair is quickly becoming my favourite airline. The staff exude a kind of calm pleasantness and sincerity that I realize now is characteristic of their countrymen. The food is good. Their earbuds are cool. They offer wifi on flights.
A Polish girl (I say girl, though upon initial conversation she reveals many life milestones that make her arguably more adult than I) is sitting next to me, and she’s terrified of flying. It takes a mere moment to figure out that she’s not a nutty drama queen but genuinely handicapped in this phobia. She whimpers quietly beside me with her sympathetic nervous system in overdrive, eyes darting around madly and sweat collecting between her brows. She asks if I mind that we talk a bit, because it calms her. I don’t mind, I tell her. My mom has always had bad anxiety and there were nights that I stayed awake massaging her legs to try to get her warm and blood circulating around her body. I offer up my hand to hold, should it soothe her, and she grips it instantly, clutching at me with cold, soggy fingers. She apologizes for the grossness of it all, almost releases me from my duty, but I smile that it’s no bother. It’s an intimacy that I tend to avoid like the plague. It embarrasses me to witness other people’s personal pain. In this teeny space, however, it’s unavoidable, and completely in my best interest to keep her from melting down.
We sat like that for four hours. The plane landed, and she gave me a quick hug before frantically dashing out the barely opened hatch and disappearing into the terminal.
Excerpts from my Madagascar journals
I’m scared stiff on my flight to Tana. My luggage weighed a freakin ton and Amsterdam was super dodgy at 5am. In the few minutes that I had to wait for a bus, three drunk dudes were already chatting me up and telling me that I’m a “nice girl”, and “wow, you’re strong to carry all that luggage” and “how long have you been in Amsterdam and when are you coming back?”. I really missed my warm sleepy bedsheets. Seriously considered not going through with it. I mean, Amsterdam in the summer is so much fun and I have everything I need there, right? But the flight is decent and I only have one other girl in my row, a 20 year old named June who is doing the same kind of expedition as I but with a company called Frontiers. Sounds a heck of a lot cheaper and much more basic. In an attempt to have a friend with me, even a brand new one, I chat her up. I applaud her for her bravery and feel like a fraud as I clutch my Air France blanket. To keep from losing my mind I watch Nebraska, an ultra depressing film about middle America and boredom and substance abuse, which does nothing to raise my spirits. Once I land I’m pleasantly surprised to find all of my luggage on the carousel and a cheaper Visa price than I had expected. I meet a sweetheart local lady who has just returned from Paris and she helps me to navigate the airport, which is super disorganized and maddening. The security guards take my passport and promise to return it in a mere moment. I stand there for a good 35 minutes wondering what the hell I would do if said passport was not ever returned. But it is, and once I’m out of the cattle pen I buy a SIM card and exchange a bit of money just to feel the rate out. There’s a smiley older man from the Ibis hotel shuttle waiting for me which is fantastic and in hindsight very necessary, since driving around Antananarivo was not at all what I would have expected. Wish I had suitable photos to convey the atmosphere at night, but it was much more dark and bare than I could have imagined. Sharing the shuttle with me are a Dutch guy and a bunch of researchers attending a TB conference. Need to find them later, especially the female physician from McGill, whom I instantly adore. We arrive at the hotel and I sleep like a dead person.
I was a bit concerned about accessing money via my Maestro card, so I stalked out the Dutch guy who had been on my airport shuttle, named Martijn. I got his hotel room number from the front desk clerk and when he opened the door in his briefs, 8-pack abdominals on full display, I applauded myself for my resourcefulness. I knew that he wanted to go back to the airport and figured it would be smart to share cab costs when I went to catch my Toliara flight. Plus it never hurts to have a giant man around when you’re withdrawing large amounts of cash in a third-world country. we became insta-best friends, chatting about life-in-general over monstrous bottles of THB. He spent all day at the airport, since his luggage never arrived from Paris, and hanging out with him sure beat waiting for my eternally delayed Toliara flight amidst nervous French and Polish folk. In apology, I received a free dinner voucher for the airport resto and scammed one for Martijn, who was getting increasingly worried about his luggage and malaria pill situation. His friend was joining him tomorrow so I felt that he was in good hands. I gave him one of my granola bars just in case and didn’t get a chance to say goodbye as I was ushered into the boarding area as I asked about the status of my flight shortly after dinner.
Side note: Malagasy beer is apparently, in order of good to shit, THB, Castel, and something else that is too crap to even name.
I had arrived at the Mahayana hotel in Toliara at 3am. Pickup by 4×4 to travel to the research site was at 7am. Normally, I would be a total piece of crap on so little sleep, but I’m surprisingly bouncy this morning. I instantly like my driver, a beautiful man with a warm smile and a calm nature. Plus it’s a really nice ride. Getting out of Toliara is a little nutty, but once we pass the city the views change drastically. Everything, as far as I can see, is in some way or another partly funded by branches of the UN, or WWF, or some other charitable organization. Wooden signs in Malagasy and French adorn everything, and there’s the smell of dust and sun and animals and food. I had a good zen vibe with the driver – we didn’t talk at all but seemed to enjoy each others company. The engine overheated a couple of times, but that’ll happen when you’re knee deep in sand. He had used his own drinking water to cool down the engine and smiled appreciatively when I offered up mine as he returned, sweaty and tired, to the car. We passed lots of little villages, where locals proudly displayed seafood, cassava, fruits and handicrafts. My driver watched my reaction to these sights with a certain amusement and brought me some Boca Boca for breakfast and a piece of cassava. We arrived at the research site at around 5 pm and before I knew it, the only friend I had in Madagascar shook my hand good bye and disappeared into a cloud of dust.
My first full day in Andavadoaka was nothing to write home about. Apparently with me also came the bad weather, so all of the fabulous things that I had planned went out the proverbial window. No 400m swim test, no SCUBA fittings, no pirogue adventures. I did meet my new Lord of the Flies posse, however.
From left: Jules, Ed, Eva, Rumeysa, Monica, Jordan, Alex, Me, Will C, Tom, Chris, Rachel, Ingrid, Keir and Richard.
Not pictured: Will K, Kaz, Louisa, JD, Emily, Dorothy, staff members Madison, Lisa and Sam and Coco Beach staff Aimee and Rigo.
Side note: Papozy is the little girl that sells samosas and boca bocas and homemade peanut butter on the stone steps between the village and our huts. She’s got the loveliest smile in the world and is smart as a whip.
So the weather bucked up a bit and Ill Will (as he came to be known) and I did our swim test with Tom the Dive Instructor, which was pretty hilarious. The tide had abandoned us and so really we were just being ridiculous and giggling and Will kept stepping on urchins and stuff that’ll kill him. It was so shallow that at some point I think we were “swimming” with our bellies comfortably resting on sand, but Tom couldn’t see that from 500m away, so he just kept giving us a giant thumbs up as Will and I laughed and choked on sea water. Once complete and cleared for SCUBA, I had a 1-on-1 with Lecturer Lisa and Scientist Sam on dangerous sea creatures and dive basics and camp rules and became convinced that if I don’t die in Madagascar, I will be an anomaly.
The No. 1 thing they teach you in Advanced Open Water is that you have to do a buoyancy check any time anything changes – your environment, your equipment, your body, your philosophies, etc., which was why it was particularly funny that my first orientation dive was a total bust and I was too buoyant. I will probably forget a lot of things in my old age, but the funniest scene in the world that will likely be replayed in my head until I die was having Major Madison, the Expedition Coordinator, literally jumping on me in the water, trying to get me to sink. It was like the scene from the Princess Bride where Westley tries to subdue Andre the Giant. In the evening we took an overnight homestay trip to Tompolove and pirogued across the jovially-named Bay of Assassins, though the boats were motorized so we got totally soaked. The scene was cozy as we ate octopus, visited sea cucumber and seaweed farms at midnight and played Charades by the light of torches and campfire. I decide that day that I’m in love with Will C.’s giggle and want it as my ringtone.
I scored on the Tompolove homestay and got a bedroom all to myself, complete with mosquito net, sink, table, and shuttered windows. I slept like a baby, and awoke to the sounds of chickens and goats and pots banging. We ate a hasty breakfast and arrived back at camp after playing lots of beach Bananagrams (Scrabble is my addiction). The pirogue ride was much drier on the return journey, and we giggled and reminisced over dinner and a bonfire.
Rest day. Decided that sleeping was boring so I went whale watching with Keir and Kaz along the Mozambique Channel, where we saw some whales and dolphins and snorkeled and swam. Went into town for the first time since my arrival with Rachel (from Toronto!) afterwards to peruse the local offerings and bought a hammock that Chris and Ed promptly mounted. There’s a lovely local woman that makes some extra money laundering our non-intimates, and walked around all the huts singing out the only English word she knows (“Wash? Wash?”), so I gratefully offer up my salty clothes from the Bay of Assassins shenanigans. We have been excitedly keeping abreast of the football match highlights via friends and family back home and are ecstatic to hear that we have been invited to watch the World Cup final at the President’s house in the village. Although we try to not be disruptive and go unnoticed by the villagers by watching quietly from the sidelines, we are quickly spied and excitedly ushered to the front of the screen like some kind of diplomats, where an elderly Vezu man has set up a private bench for our viewing pleasure. At bonfire that evening, Scientist Sam produces, from the depths of his fleece garments, the GOOD rum and we sing like crazies and wonder how we got to be so lucky.
I go on two dives today, at 9 and 11, and still struggle a little with motion sickness. It’s the rocking of the boat during the few minutes that the motor is off and we are gearing up that kills me. I come back happy but spent to learn that poor, brave Jordan has badly burst her ear drum and won’t be going in the water for the remainder of the expedition. Our mess-hall gets Mars bars and we freak out like one would expect when one is devoid of sugary treats for a few days.
Since I’m clearly on a roll, I go on two dives again today. Ill Will, having been grounded for cutting his feet on urchins and rocks at camp, gets clearance finally from the hospital to dive and dances excitedly all over camp. During classes that afternoon, we watched some videos on Vezu tradition which involved 35 ways to dispose of foreskin following a circumcision. I knew this would be a learning experience but never would I have expected this.
This morning there was some discussion on whether or not diving would be possible with the windy conditions. We decided to give it a whirl at 11, and the viz was so ridonkulousky bad that little could be accomplished. Did, however, play a wickedly fun round of charades underwater with Keir and quickly decided that he was the most awesome person I have ever met in my entire life. After we took part in a comical Vezo dancing lesson, Alex busted up her toe running around camp. The dangers are real, folks! Before sundown, adorable little Monica came to my hut with a baobab fruit and made my week, since it was delicious and exotic and fascinating and new.
Today was academic accomplishment day, and I passed my advanced underwater navigation test and my benthic computer test after my one dive at 11.
We left the sleepy warmth of our cabins (and in my case, of David Lee’s amazing sleeping bag, thank you again!) at the crack of dawn (not even, actually. it was a good hour before the sun got up!) for the neighboring village of Belavelouke for Open Day, a promotional BV thing with booths, talent shows, football match and hilarious sing-songy camion ride. Night snorkel upon return. Kind of amazing with phosphorescence/bio-luminescence and torches lighting up the water and that crazy, crazy starry sky. I have never seen a sky in my life like the sky in Madagascar. It’s the stuff of novels and soliloquies.
Another warm and sunny day, and the whole group of us, various personalities and temperaments and interests and what-have-you tanned ourselves taupe and made friends with the volunteer Italian doctors whom we had met at the Epi Bar and the clinic. In the afternoon Emily, Rachel and I went sailing with Goff and almost peed ourselves laughing when Rachel broke the outrigger and we almost capsized. All’s well that ends well. Bonfire jokes at night.
Sunday, free day. Nothing at all. Bought a papaya and some weird berries in town and mused and philosophized.
To obtain AOWD certification, one must do a big ol’ scary deep dive, which I was amping myself up for today. But it’s super windy so all dives have been cancelled. Instead took a trip to the baobab forest with Jacks, our local biologist guide, and then took part in fish lectures and chores in the afternoon. Did I mention that you have to filter your own water and sweep and check the equipment and whatnot? We also learned that visitors from the UN and several journalists are coming for a few days to assess sustainability efforts and the funding situation for the next few years. Ill Will got us involved in a game of Assassins for that evenings’ “Tantara“, which had everyone messing with each others’ heads and distrusting everyone.
Finally, with the bad weather subsiding, I completed my deep dive at 6am. I won’t lie, this will be something that will take me a few tries to enjoy. It’s intimidating the first time around, the water and visibility drastically changes at such a depth, and you really can’t tell which way is up. I can see nervous personalities having a freak out and abandoning diving forever at such a depth. But what you can learn is astonishing. We came across a forest of gorgonian leaves the size of yacht sails and were absolutely enchanted. Major Madison said that in all her 2876 dives, this made her Top 5. Coming back to my cabin, physically exhausted but spiritually sound, I thought it only fitting to watch Out of Africa on Rachel’s tablet as the sun went down in the background.
Maybe it was the deep dive. Maybe it was too much sun. Maybe it was iffy Zebu meat or too many Mars bars. Maybe it was my physical reaction to Meryl Streep’s Danish accent from the night before. Whatever the reason, I woke up feeling queasy, passed on diving, and slept for 24 hours.
Today didn’t fare any better. I thanked the drugstore gods for the anti-diarrhea and rehydration salt tablets in my bag and closed my eyes within 2 minutes of opening them. Cutest roomies in the world brought me plain white rice and bananas to keep hunger at bay and let me rest undisturbed. This solidifies a woman-bond that began in earnest when we picked our reef-inspired 007 names – Sandy Silver Sweetlips, Kaz Pale Damselfish, and Rachel Halfmoon Triggerfish.
With my tummy still icky but somewhat better, I push myself to fake-it-till-I-make-it and rejoin the adventure. I notice that at this point in the game, no one is judging anyone on eating habits, bowel movements, musical tastes or instrumental talents. We’re divers, travelers, and explorers, and all we care about are each others’ safety and [relative] sanity. Though the idea of shoving forkfuls of rice, beans, fish and beef down my throat makes me queasy, I am also well-aware of how fortunate I am to eat so heartily in this remote and rugged part of the world (or anywhere in the world, to be honest), so I cannot bring myself to decline an offer to eat dinner with a family in the village of Andava. Adorable little Monica joins me as I sit down with a family of 6. We quickly realize that no one can communicate verbally, in English or French or Vezo or Malagasy, so we bond through the universal language of Disney. I knew having all those jingle lyrics down cold would come in handy one day, if not on the glittering stages of Broadway, then on the dusty floorboards of Andava.
Disney cures all woes, clearly, and I awake feeling right as rain. I go on a good dive with great viz, clearly a reward for my “just keep swimming” attitude the day before. Scientist Sam shows us some mangroves, the subject of his Masters thesis, and we go to Andava to learn how to make Boca Boca’s with Jacks. Not as good as Papozy’s, so she won’t be getting a run for her money any time soon.
Today was quite possibly the highlight of the whole trip. Travel brochures and glossy magazines aside, we all know that even in the most incredible locations, you cannot have gorgeousness all the time as weather and factors beyond anyone’s control will wreak havoc on your plans every now and then. But today was filled with the most incredible snorkeling and fresh zebu milk vanilla yogurt that Papozy’s cousin made and wild, fresh coconut that Ed got down from a tree, and jumping silver sardine-like fish and all kinds of awesomeness. Saw octopus and lobsters and so many amazing fish. To top it all off in fun fashion, we trekked to the Epi bar with Monica and Richard in the evening, where I was summoned to a Malagasy dance off with “Frosty Tips”, a recurring character in my dancing adventures. Think, Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing but about a foot shorter, with bleached blond hair that’s grown out some and feet that can’t quit, won’t quit the shuffle. I won.
I dove, I watched shooting stars. Yes, you can spend all day doing that.
Again, the weather was kind of meh (welcome to winter, yo) so there was no diving, but I did use my boundless energy to create a mangrove presentation with Ingrid and Kaz and make samosas with Jacks’ wife. I am bewildered at how anyone can make samosas more than once. It takes all day!!
Today was nice again, so I dove twice. Afterwards, we took a trip to Andava with Jacks where we put our brainstorming powers to use to try to think up ways of ridding the town of the endless plastic water bottles that were washing up ashore. Burning them was not really an option, and neither was burying them. They were mostly broken in some way or another so making those fancy lights wasn’t really an option either since they couldn’t reliably hold water. So once JD decided that he could stitch together the bulk of the bottle body by slicing it open to create a plastic sheet, I decided that I could make plastic mats out of the leftover mouthpieces, and even create fancy visuals with the colourful bits that remained of the plastic seals. In the evening, encouraged by my earlier genius and fully convinced that I was brilliant, I decided to put together a scavenger hunt for my new friends. It all worked well until Will found the cookies early….
We tried diving at 9, but Monica’s ear wouldn’t equalize, and since I decided on baobab-fruit-introduction day that I adored her and couldn’t leave her alone to die an uncomfortable death, we aborted. Instead of feeling glum, we remembered our Andava homestay concerto, and sang on the boat on the surface. Anything, basically, that was familiar. Proud Mary. You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman. Grease. Probably some Beiber, I won’t lie. Dragged our tired vocal chords to the Epi bar before dinner and danced with the Italian doctors. Ingrid summoned me to a chess match in the evening, where our dusty skills got a bit brushed up, and the sun went down on chats on our porch with the crew about everything ranging from Geocaching and NYC’s Dead Drop to The Anarchists Handbook and Bear Grylls and how awesome he is and we want to be his friend.
Well folks, my last dive at 11. Three dolphins came to say goodbye and wish me well on my travels!! We just sat there in total shock and silence, absolutely transfixed and unable to move. They followed us for a while even while we roared the boat towards camp. Sam played a little harmonica after dinner. Epi bar with the whole gang in the evening.
Spider Tortoise Monitoring trip in Lomboara. Good wade on foot across Bay of Assassins, and nice quiet dry pirogue ride. I like the camion too. Evening sunset at the bar was epic with Ill Will and Kaz and zebu skewers and cold beer.
Sunday. I want to visit the town church before I leave Andava, since I can see that it’s a vital meeting place in the community, and I have been judged quite harshly by the Canadian staff for having any interest in it whatsoever. I recall encountering this same judgement when I lived in Canada, and I avoid a lengthy and heated discussion about the pros and cons of religion and simply explain that the boy that I have been teaching English to, Voafidy, would like to show it to me. I am surprised that Monica, Ingrid, Ed, Rumeysa, and Eva all eagerly join me. I am astounded by what I see. The villagers that we see daily, usually quite disheveled and animated, have turned up to mass in their most prized garments, all washed and pressed, with their hair done up in various ways, some wearing elaborate hats of all different colours, and jewelry that would make Hollywood divas envious. They walk quietly and respectfully to their seats, chat amongst themselves and greet their neighbours, their friends and their families. And they sing! I have never heard people sing as beautifully as I heard the villagers sing that day. I got ferklempt.
That evening we sail to a three course lunch at Laguna Blu resort, fresh from their renovation following total destruction in the cyclone of 2013, and it’s Richards birthday so we have cake.
I’m out. I hate saying goodbye so I casually hug the few people who have joined me for breakfast at 7:30, but miss saying anything to many of the others. It’s the digital age, for Pete’s sake, and where there’s love, there’s a way to connect. Plus I don’t want to get emotional, I need all my wits about me since I’m now alone again. But I spot my friend waiting for me, the driver from my ride up to Andava, and my spirits rise. We immediately settle into our comfortable silence and tears stream soundlessly down my cheeks as he drives away from Andava, Enya playing on the radio, a small finch flying right beside my passenger side window as we race on. I watch him in awe as he flaps feverishly, keeping up with the pace of the giant truck. We get to town fairly early, at 3. I relax at the Mahayana, check email, take a dip in the freezing pool, grab a burger and beer in town at La Bernique. I feel much more exposed now, more people are aware of me and it’s harder to walk around unmolested. I take a pousse-pousse back to the hotel after dark. Tried to read but fell asleep pretty much right away.
woke up and took a stroll through town. Got pastries and coffee at a nice resto called Le Boeuf. Found out that those little berries are jujubes, or zizibe as one local woman called them, from the Latin ziziphus jujuba. Walked around the market, saw a nice church, see that people do use the taxi-brousse (bus) quite a bit. Ranovola is rice water. Went to the airport, greeted the check-in clerk in Malagasy and added “Vao Vao?” which made him smile and may or may not have been responsible for him turning a blind eye to my 10 kilo baggage overage. Met an Italian couple in queue who traveled around but complained of a lot of beggars and rain around northeast coast. Sounds like I win. Flight delayed one hour. Unassigned seating, there’s a first.
Flight to Paris is uneventful, except that it’s been a month since I’ve properly showered and the Hermes-clad woman beside me keeps glancing my way anxiously. I’m ignoring her. C’est la vie.
Africa has such a strong romantic hold over so many people’s imaginations. This rich continent that is filled with sights, sounds, smells, textures so vastly different from what we are daily exposed to holds such a lure, such an appeal to many who grew up with something different. The liveliness of Africa, the bustle and energy and flow of it, so refreshing from the stiffness of Western society, the timidity of Western puritanism and the depravity of Western religions, wakes up all of the senses. It’s incredible how travel opens up your heart and your mind.
Now, I do realize that I’m making generalizations about the whole of Africa based on my experience of five days in Morocco, but gimme a break, I’m excited over here. It was a marvelous introduction to a continent that for me has largely seemed out of reach and out of budget.
Marrakech Airport is a lovely and modern marvel, and really close to the main city. Customs was quick and polite, and there were cute little stores at which to grab a bite and cash exchange stalls throughout. Once we arrived in the Medina, or “Old City”, which is enclosed by a six foot stone wall, the energy instantly amps up as ambitious shopkeepers and restauranteurs fight to lure you into their establishment. This is where you quickly begin finding the balance between rude, exasperated brush-offs and smiling, polite no-thank-yous. I found that if you acknowledge the seller but firmly say, “Thank you, No”, that that seemed to work best. Ignoring them outright not only does nothing, but seems to incense them and certainly leaves the impression of a rude Westerner. Saying “No” without smiling also seemed to result in conflict, with the seller defensively maintaining that he’s not looking for money and allowing you to look for free. Being overly friendly means you’ll be hanging out talking about Aunt Flo and her hip operation last year, and how your mother never thought you should waste your time in culinary school and your grandma was really pretty and looked a little bit like Marlene Dietrich and oh my is that the time?
The streets of Marrakech are, to me, a mix of the neverending windiness of Venice, the grittiness of Havana, the knick knacks of Mexico and the buzz of Istanbul. Getting lost is fun, when the sun is up. Once it’s set, the frustration of every street looking the same and local boys purposely trying to disorient you by giving you wrong directions becomes annoying pretty quickly. You can rest a little easier knowing that since the suicide bombing of the main square in 2011, and because right now the King happens to be away on business in the US, the city is swarming with plainclothes officers.
The main meeting place in the Medina is the Jamaa El Fna square, which sits surrounded by heaps of “souks”, or local shops. The square is a lot of fun during the day, crawling with snake charmers, henna artists, buskers, horse-drawn carriages and the omnipresent scooters and bicycles. The air is heavy with diesel fumes and smoke from cooking, and in the summer I’m sure that the heat doesn’t help. Going in November was a brilliant idea, as the days were a gorgeous 24° C with clear blue skies, and the nights were crisp and relaxing and encouraged much tea consumption without a fear of sweating your Djellabas off. At night, the market transforms into a plein air eatery, with 50 or so stalls offering local delicacies or tourist experiences. There are many repeats – there are about 6 stalls selling snails, another 6 selling hunja (spiced drink, made of ginger, anise, turmeric, cinnamon) and cake, about a million selling fresh squeezed orange juice, several selling brochettes and several carts with desserts, cactus fruit, avocados and dates, among others. What really sets them apart are the vendors. They cover the spectrum from aggressive and belligerent (Nr. 15) to shy and quiet (Nr. 69), loud and generous (Nr. 14) to grumpy and shady (Nr. 42). Of course we tried everything, but there were certainly standouts:
Nr. 14: the calamari guy (who also sells “bunkercrotch” – some kind of white fish?). These guys are amazing (say hi to Ali if you go!), are super generous with portions, salt everything well and throw in super-spicy peppers and limes with the orders. Loved this place. Avoid the sole, too many little bones, there are other things much more delicious.
Nr. 69: the hunja guy. This guy was my buddy. He rewarded us every time we came back with a little piece of cake here, a little sprinkling of Thymol crystals to clear our sinuses there, a little top-up everywhere. He smiled and tried to connect despite speaking zero English or French and shooed away anyone who pulled on our sleeves and whined at our backs.
Nr. 42: chicken brochettes, aubergine and fries. Yummy in my tummy.
I have to say however, that by far my favorite, most rewarding, delicious dining experience was when I approached a local stall off of one of the souk corridors. Clearly not meant for tourists, this literal hole-in-the-wall housed a young Moroccan man with a giant pot of chickpea soup and a milk crate full of day-old pitas. I watched for a moment as local Moroccan men walked up to him, sat at the little bench in front of his window, offered him a 5 dirham coin and received a small bowl of soup drizzled generously with olive oil, a sprinkling of cayenne pepper and a round pita. They ripped the pita apart, soaked it into the soup, and ate hungrily. I walked up to the man and asked if I could get one. He seemed confused, probably wondering if I was lost and asking for directions. I asked again in French. Same blank stare from him, but now one of the patrons in the corner perked up and said to me “Oui oui” and then instructed the man in Berber to pour me a soup while he quickly gobbled up what remained of his and offered up his seat at the teeny tiny bench. I thanked him and asked if the soup came with bread, and he smiled and said that it did. They watched with obvious fascination at my enjoyment of what is presumably a very modest local meal amidst what they must consider much more attractive tourist fare, and yet the soup was the most delicious of all. Seeing me finish my bowl, the owner signaled if I wanted a little more, and brushed my money away when I offered it to him. I wish I could tell you how to find him, but the best I can offer is to turn left when leaving the Photography Museum and then left again. He’s somewhere in there, in a blue and white tiled makeshift kitchen, keeping the neighbourhood happy.
After a couple of days of meandering around the Medina, we took off on a trek across the High Atlas mountains, through Ourzazate, countless Berber villages, and Zagora towards the Sahara desert and the Algerian border. We passed fields and fields of olive trees, orange trees, dates, ceramic shops, argan plantations and cactus plants. The roads were a flurry of donkeys, goats, children, women draped in bright-coloured kaftans and men in patterned gandoras, with the occasional nomad trekking along with all of his belongings atop some small animal. Once in Zagora, we left our vehicle and jumped atop a few camels and were led far out into the desert, where, just past sunset, we stopped at a tented Berber camp for some eating, drumming and singing around a fire pit. It warmed my heart that we were joined by a group of young University of Waterloo students who were working internships in Switzerland and visiting Morocco for the weekend, and it felt like by having those energetic, smiling young faces around, that my little brother was enjoying the experience with us. It was amazing. We caught a couple of hours of sleep, watched the sun rise over the gorgeous African landscape, and camel trekked back to Zagora where we proceeded to drive back to Marrakech.
All in all, I don’t know if we could have packed more into the timeframe. The trip was fantastic, and it feels a little surreal to be back in Amsterdam. Today I looked with some sadness at my creamed corn soup and mayo cucumber salad and wished that I could have some cactus fruit, chicken brochettes and mint tea. But I guess that’s how quickly you can develop traditions. In the shake of a donkey’s tail.
Istanbul is a gigantic town. I’m told that there are 13 million people living there, and what I notice right away is how light it is. For some reason, I was convinced that it was a city shrouded in darkness. I have no idea why, I just did, maybe because of the prejudices inherent in much of news and television, maybe because of my own biases, maybe because of pure ignorance, but it’s beautiful and sunny and light and warm. Mosques are airy, friendly and inviting, there are street vendors selling candies and mussels and nuts, people playing music and singing, trams and men with pushcarts scurrying by. There are seagulls everywhere, and the fish market is a bustling wonderland. Galata seems to have been adopted by many expats as their neighbourhood of choice, and little craft and art and candy stores line the whole stretch all the way to Taksim. Schoolboys mischievously hitch rides on the back of moving vehicles and poke passersby and giggle. The smell of baklava is everywhere and every street corner has a merchant with unique offerings. And people are very genuinely curious about tourists and not only engage in conversation, but keep it apolitical, respectful, friendly and light.
An enchanting experience, very humbling and very welcoming, amidst sophisticated, genuine and unbelievably warm people.