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.
Well if this isn’t the most exciting news since I learned that you can buy Oreo cookies without the filling, I don’t know what is – admission to Canada’s National Parks will be free in 2017 to commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary. That’s pretty amazing, and a great reason to pack up your car, make some PB&J sammies, and hit the road to discover all the beauty that this country has to offer.
I will be celebrating the occasion with a bunch of amazing people and amazing Canadian geography. Because what is Canada if not a spectacularly beautiful place?
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.
1. Buildings have names. You might work for Starbucks, but your office will be in Commander House or Senator House or something similar. How lovely.
2. People vape here. A lot. I never understood where the market was for these things since I never really encountered them in Amsterdam or Toronto. Now I know.
3. When I’m coming home from work at 6 pm or whatever, newsboys are handing out the London Evening Standard Post on every busy corner. It’s adorable.
4. Everybody seems to eat porridge for breakfast, and it’s offered as ubiquitously in eateries as donuts in Canada.
5. Hawksmoor has a full fat old fashioned that will make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven
6. You’ll get the best Pakistani meal at Tayyabs and pay so little that you’ll quicken your step on the way out, assuming that they’ve made an error and will getcha
7. Hackney Broadway Market is lovely.
8. The London buses are far superior in every way to the under- and over-ground
9. The Brick Lane Beigel House will feed you for a quid. No joke. You’ll be a little scared of the owner, who’s super no-fuss and will bark for your order and practically whip it at you from across the counter, but you’ll instantly forgive her ‘cuz she’ll call you “Lovey”
10. I reckon only 10% of people in London are British. Everyone is from everywhere.
11. If you want to go to Rennie Scott’s you’d dang better reserve ahead. It’s sold out every single time I try.
I’ve always been a big fan of escape games, and when the first live-action escape rooms started popping up in Amsterdam, I was beside myself. The opportunity to immerse myself in the creepy and crafty world of these puzzle games was impossible to turn down. I’m delighted, then, that Toronto seems to have a whole bucketload of these downtown. Some more legit than others, and several that appear to be full fledged theatrical productions. The one at Casa Loma, for example, looks amazing.
Now I must dash off, for I have been informed by those who love me well that there is a miniseries remake of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” with Charles Day and Noah Taylor, and knowing this does not allow me to sit here any longer. Love to you all in this new year – may it bring you as much intrigue and mystery as it already has brought me!
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 ridiculously bad that there was nothing to do but abort. 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 undisturbed. 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.
One of the most wonderful benefits of working for Blast Radius has been the receipt of a month-long sabbatical leave after three years of service to the company. While employees are free to do whatever their hearts desire with that time – including chilling out on a couch playing Call of Duty – the company intranet always encouraged the undertaking of a task that would expand ones horizons (both mental and physical) and allow you to come back a better, more open-minded version of yourself.
I approached the search with that spirit in mind. I wondered what would be appropriate. I could intern with a set-designer at London’s Noel Coward Theatre for a month and renew my love of the arts, but that wouldn’t take me to a city I had never seen. I could go to Chile for a month and travel around, but then I would be by myself and I still get a little weird being in my own head for a month. I would visit Antarctica, but I wanted warmth after the rain in Amsterdam. I could contribute to a worthwhile cause and volunteer for the CDC for a month, but as my contact quickly informed me, getting the necessary security checks and documentation in place didn’t work with my timeline.
And then I found it. Rather accidentally, mind you, but as soon as I saw it, it made sense to me. Blue Ventures is a company involved in conservation efforts in Madagascar and had an upcoming expedition in July. Warm climate? Check. Beautiful surroundings and valuable cultural experience? Check. Worthwhile cause that will allow my hard-earned money to actually make some impact? Check. Diving? Check. Young, awesome, passionate people? Check. Run by a country that doesn’t roll its proverbial eyes at regulation and maintains a certain quality standard? Check. A country that I was curious about? Check. Could accommodate my timeline? Yup. Friendly, knowledgeable, responsive person to answer the many, many questions that I had before departing? Big shoutout, Sarah Griffin, my shiny star.
Some pictures to showcase the experience can be found here
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.
This Remembrance Day we decided to get out of the city and drive out to Normandy to pay homage to those who fought and died bravely for all these freedoms and splendors that we so enjoy. And as I walked around, taking in all the beautiful foods and smells that the region boasts, I also remembered my grandmother Sabina, who loved her whole family madly, and who died on November 11th several years ago.
We made it to beautiful little Bayeux, where we were lodging, within a few hours (Danica Patrick’s got nothing on me). The region is known for it’s Calvados, Cidre, Poire, Cochon, and landscapes that I can’t even describe the beauty of. Cattle, horses, and wild birds can be seen everywhere, and beautiful stone towns that look like they are about a million years old. It’s an incredible mix of history and modernity, and the food is just to die for. You haven’t tasted foie gras, bread, oysters and cheese ’till you’ve tasted them here. FYI, Au P’Tit Bistro is not to be missed, should you be planning a trip there.
Next, we visited Omaha, Gold and Juno Beaches. I was especially impressed with the American Cemetery and Memorial, and how beautiful it was.
John was also giddy with excitement at the prospect of visiting Mont St. Michel, so out we went. It truly is an incredible sight – I really thought such things only existed in Disney movies – and we gawked at everything until our eyes were sore. To cap off the evening in an adventurous fashion, I got lost in the swampy, pitch-black parking lot, and was rescued by a couple from Montreal who decided that they couldn’t leave me to sink like Artax and drove me around the massive grounds until I found my little Giulietta. See, you make friends everywhere. Thanks guys!
Abbey St. Michel is spectacular. It holds a special place among the religious buildings that I have seen on my travels because of its beautiful, tastefully minimal stained glass that is unlike any I have seen. The building is not dark and dismal and busy, it’s light and pastel-coloured and gorgeous.
Honfleur was a beautiful little artist’s town that we visited as well. I’m a sucker for any charming spot with an abundance of cafes, awnings, galleries and boats, but throw in amazing oysters and narrow, cobblestoned streets into the mix, and I get all grinny. Like so.
The White Cliffs of Etretat were the last stop before our drive back to Amsterdam. We climbed to the top, and watched the sun set perfectly through the narrow opening in one of the arcs. It was incredible. Later that night, we dreamily drove back home, our tummies filled with chocolate crepes and gaufres, our heads with visions of the beautiful places that we had seen, and the trunk filled with camembert, baguettes and bottles of cider for us and our friends.