The Cobblestone Diaries

For those of us who grew up away from the picturesque historic centres of Europe, cobblestones are a rarity. They exist here and there in the tiniest sections of the prettiest cities, and seeing them puts hearts where our pupils are supposed to be. Growing up, I came across cobblestones every now and again. I’d pace over them excitedly, romanticizing the stony roads that transported me back in time to worlds that knew nothing of oil or electricity.

I didn’t mind that the cobblestones were uneven or that some of them jutted upwards so sharply it would pop the tire of a moving car. Cobblestones weren’t meant for speeding cars. The people tripping over their bumpy surface were moving too quickly and took for granted that these beautiful roads existed only in places that should be taken in with time.

I felt this way for quite some time. I spent years following cobblestones, moving slowly down the paths they created, allowing them to lead me from one sight to the next. I’d roll my eyes when I heard people complain that cobblestones were an annoyance. Our society had become so focused on efficiency and speeding from one place to the next that we’d forgotten to appreciate the simpler things in life. Then came the day that I moved somewhere cobblestoned.

Suddenly, something that was meant to be experienced only on special occasions became a part of everyday life. I walk over cobblestones on my way to work or when I go to see friends. At times, I find myself in a car bumping over them, hoping I’m not damaging the vehicle’s axle. My pace is stunted by crowds of tourists who dawdle their way down the road, unaware of the many people trying their best to weave around them without tripping.

The beauty I’d been so smitten by had vanished. Walking in heels had become a talent and getting anywhere on time meant battling through mazes of tourists. Cobblestones became nothing more than an ancient nuisance carried forth from the past because they looked pretty.

It took a fall to restore my affection for stone roads. I’d been texting, head buried in my phone, ignorantly thinking I’d mastered the art of walking whilst not paying attention. My left heel wedged between two cobblestones and sent me slamming down into the ground with such force that I began rolling down the slope of the hill I was on. The pain shocked my knees and I did my best not to let it show on my face as I got up and continued moving, giving in to the limp that would accompany my every move for the next week.

More than anything, I felt foolish. I’d stopped caring about the history and beauty of what surrounded me and had been silly enough to normalize something that I’d appreciated more than anything less than a year ago. When I walk over cobblestones now, I do it slowly. I leave for work a couple minutes earlier and join the wandering eyes of the tourists that crowd the sidewalks. Cobblestones aren’t meant for fast walkers.

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What is a Caesar? (updates from the homeland)

Photo from Safeway.ca

One of the most perplexing things about Canada might be its obsession with Caesar cocktails. The caesar was invented in Calgary, Alberta, in 1969. It is now considered Canada’s national cocktail and Canadians don’t realise they aren’t a thing in other countries until we go elsewhere and find ourselves searching bar menu’s for an establishment’s token Caesar. So, what is a Caesar, you ask? Strap in pals, this is gonna be a ride.

I want you to think of the most disgusting and seemingly random concoction of flavours imaginable. I’m talking clamato juice (tomato and clam broth), worcestershire sauce, tobasco sauce, ground pepper, and vodka all stirred into a celery salted glass with ice. These are the ingredients at the base of your Caesar, but most places add their own special touches. For instance, your Caesar could easily contain pickle juice, horseradish, BBQ sauce or lemon juice. I find bacon sticks in mine from time to time. Have I tickled your fancy yet? Don’t worry, there’s more!

A Caesar’s garnish is as important, if not more important, than the drink itself. While typical garnishes include olives, celery, spicy beans, and bacon, this tends to be where establishments get creative. Every so often, you’ll come across a bar that garnishes their Caesar with a tiny burger or grilled cheese. A recent award-winning Caesar was served inside a Peking duck, quite possibly cementing the cocktail’s status as the most glutinous drink on the planet.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered, the flavour of a Caesar takes some getting used to. They’re like cigarettes: disgusting at first, but give it a few tries and you’re addicted.

I was back home recently, so my brother and I went to get our favourite caesar’s in town and filmed it for your viewing pleasure. Yes, he says “worcestershire sauce” weirdly. We all laughed.

Content Challenges

I think one of the hardest challenges of this blog is limited content. I’ve been traveling and moving around for over three years now, but I only started committing to this blog three months ago. So much of my travel experience is blurred now and that makes it difficult to write about in the way that I’d like to.

The content is also kind of all over the place. It isn’t specific to any continent or region and it skips around from place to place as past inspirations present themselves again. If I’d started this blog when I’d first started my long term adventures, the content would flow from place to place and have a consistency that’s lacking now. I still travel a fair amount, but it’s nothing in comparison to the past three years which means I have less content rolling in and a bunch of past experiences that aren’t going to translate well into present day.

Having said that, when I think back to who I was three years ago and some of the stuff I probably would have posted on here, it’s embarrassing and I’m so glad I didn’t! The motivation to start a travel blog happened a bit later for me than for most travellers and unfortunately, that means I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of potential material because of it. Writing about eating street food in Pai, Thailand, isn’t as endearing if I’m writing it three years down the line, right? Unless the inspiration truly strikes me, it’s lost content.

It isn’t the end of the world. This blog remains, as always, a place of practice and improvement in travel writing, but how nice would it have been to have had every place and inspiration over these past years available to use. The reality of this blog is that it is going to bounce around from place to place for the foreseeable future. I haven’t found its niche yet, but I’m getting closer.

Arles: Where the eras collide

An amphitheatre sitting at the heart of Arles takes up most of the town centre. It’s ancient stones form two stories of massive archways that dwarf the houses and shops surrounding it. Statistically, the amphitheatre is underwhelming: Roman ruins are a dime a dozen in south France, and the amphitheatre built in neighbouring Nîmes is considered the most well-preserved in the world. Its scope is nothing to write home about either, ranking twentieth in size.

So what makes Arles’ amphitheatre so special? The brick tower fused to the top of the highest row of arches has everything to do with it.

When Arles descended into Medieval Times, its amphitheatre was converted into a fortress to protect residents from invaders. A small neighbourhood formed within the confines of the fortress walls wherein laid no less than 60 houses, two churches, and a town square. Four brick watchtowers were built around the fortress walls, one of which, the North Tower, still stands today, observing the town and confusing tourists.

The neighbourhood clung to life until 1826, when a final house was taken down after decades of slow deconstruction. It had been decided the year before that the amphitheatre should be preserved as a monument. Today, rows of reinforced seating circle the amphitheatre’s inside, covering its original ancient bleachers. Crowds gather in the summer for concerts and plays, adding a new layer of history to a structure touched by so many eras already. 

Van Gogh’s Arles

When the sun sets over Arles, it pulls away a blanket of heat that covers the town, exposing it to a gentle breeze that cools the streets. It dries the sweat on my arms and plays with the scarf I’ve wrapped around me while I sit on the wall of the river Rhône. I’d spent the better part of the day seeking shelter from the sun under what little overhang the buildings of Arles had to offer, but night had fallen now and I was free to roam as I pleased.

Arles existed with me previously in imagination and on canvases pinned up against museum walls. Vincent van Gogh did his best to capture the town’s serenity in yellow and blue brush strokes during his fifteen months here, introducing this small town in Provence to the world. Pieces of his inspiration remain preserved in the fabric of Arles, visible through archways and between pale houses that line its labyrinth of streets. It’s still possible to walk through the gardens of A Hospital in Arles and to dine outside on the Café Terrace at Night. The amphitheater remains in the centre of town and an occasional crowd can still be caught bustling in the open space surrounding it.

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From my perch along the river wall, I watch a final work of art come to life. The moon slows the pace of everything beneath it as it rises until the only thing left moving is the Rhône’s endless stream of water. It flows around the curves of the river banks and sweeps under a bridge whose image has been preserved forever at the centre of a masterpiece. A fragment of imagination, alive in my mind since childhood, begins taking form in reality.

The Starry Night Over the Rhône unveils itself as the stars and streetlights flicker on. It is the first of two Starry Nights, painted by Van Gogh in different locations. One is seemingly meant to symbolise cheer and the other, frustration. As I rise from my seat and walk into the canvas before me, it is easy to tell which is which.

I cleaned pay-by-the-hour hotel rooms for a week in Ecuador (Part Two)

I never said the landscape wasn’t pretty.

To recap Part One, I was on my way to volunteer at an ecohotel after severely spraining my ankle (resulting in a limp that would last for weeks), getting robbed two days in a row, vomiting on a bus for the first time, and experiencing food poisoning all in the span of six days. The money in my purse was all I had left until I could get hold of a new debit card from my bank in Canada. I’d arranged for it to be sent to the farm/ecohotel I’d be working at, but it was in the middle of nowhere with no known postal code, so I was anxious as to whether or not it would arrive. Still, after the week I’d had, I was eager to get there and get a fresh start on my trip.

The farm/ecohotel had sounded beautiful in the ad I’d responded to on Workaway. Tucked into the rolling hills of the countryside near Jipijapa, the ecohotel was located on a chocolate farm and doubled as a local swimming pool where people from town would come to hang out on weekends. I’d elected to volunteer here for three weeks to help out with the customer side of things like working at the pool bar and welcoming guests.

I was by no means expecting this place to be 5-star or for the work to be glamorous, and I feel compelled to say I’ve spent considerable time working on farms during my travels, so I acclimatize easily to these sorts of places. I’m saying this now because I need you to believe me when I say this place was the worst. Like, THE worst.

To summarize, the hotel and pool didn’t have any actual employees. Aside from the owners and a couple guys on the farm, it relied solely on volunteers from abroad, most of whom were looking to pitstop to experience the local culture and earn some free accommodation. This meant backpackers were in charge of everything, from cleaning the hotel to mowing the grass. My first task on arrival to strip the dirty unkept sheets off of my bed from the volunteer who’d been using it before me. I found some sheets I hoped were clean on a top bunk that looked like it was being used for storage and pulled them from a pile of linens, towels, and random items.

I’d come to learn that cleaning supplies were an urban myth in this place. The hotel hadn’t been properly cleaned in what seemed like years and the furniture reeked of mold from rain coming in through glassless windows that didn’t have shutters. The hotel had three rooms which were rented by the hour and tidied afterward by yours truly. It was one of many fun tasks I was given during my time here. Other responsibilities included cleaning an entire kitchen with a bucket of bleach and an old sock (re: cleaning supplies were an urban myth here), scrubbing a yellow-tiled shower only to discover it was a white-tiled shower, and trying not to think about the large number of tarantulas roaming around the chocolate farm behind the hotel.

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Fine, the kittens were adorable.

At night, I’d throw my earbuds in and listen to YouTube clips of Late Night with Seth Meyers and thank my lucky stars that the place I was now calling the Sex Farm had wifi. I’d rest my ankle, hoping the pain would be gone by the next morning and that my debit card would arrive so that I could get out of there.

I spent the next few days limping around the deserted hotel in the middle of nowhere, stripping freshly sexed sheets off of beds and doing my best to explore the area with a broken bicycle and tendency to get caught in the rain. At the pool, I’d review notes from a Spanish school I’d attended back in Quito and do my best to communicate with the people around me. I’d listen to the same song over and over again because the outdoor PA system was stuck on repeat. If you did not manually change the song, it played forever. I never need to hear Bongo Bong again in my life.

About a week into my stay at the Sex Farm, my debit card arrived. I just about died of happiness. I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life finding cockroaches hiding under overturned bowls in the hotel kitchen (true story).

A fellow backpacker told me he was quitting and leaving early the next morning. Jokingly, he asked if I wanted to come and for a split second, I let myself fantasize the idea of waking up tomorrow morning and walking away from this place where bugs lined the floors in clusters so thick we had to use brooms to sweep them outside. I thought about my friends still in Quito who were gathering to head into Colombia in two days time and about how I’d be able to join them if I were to leave here. 

To this day, Ecuador remains one of my favourite countries. I’d been there for six weeks with no intentions of leaving anytime soon, but the past 14 days had taken their toll. Ecuador’s message was loud and clear: move on. The idea of escaping back to Quito and traveling through Colombia with friends was too tempting to ignore, so I made up my mind. I was leaving. Tomorrow.

The next day, I caught a bus back to Montanita, where I hopped on a night bus back to Quito sans car sickness. I arrived at the bus station to find my bag had been put next to a container of dead fish whose juices had leaked out over the course of the night. My stuff reeked, but I’d be at the hostel soon and knew I could have everything laundered by the next day.

Three days later, I woke up at a hostel in Cali and began scrolling through a suspicious amount of worried messages from friends and family on my phone. I’d crossed into Colombia with my friends and we’d stopped in Cali for the salsa dancing. I’d known all along that I’d made the right call leaving the Sex Farm, but I was about to learn how important that decision ended up being. While I’d been out living it up in Cali, Ecuador had suffered the deadliest earthquake of 2016. Overnight, the country had erupted into a state of emergency and had I not abruptly changed pace and run to Colombia, I would have been in the centre of it.

Everything happens for a reason. If I hadn’t fallen, been robbed, gotten sick, or taken the worst volunteer job of all time, where would I be? If everything had worked out, what would have pushed me out of Ecuador? All I have to say now is thank you, cliff. Thank you food poisoning. Thank you to the assholes who robbed me two days in a row and thank you limp. Thank you car sickness, thank you cockroach, thank you old sock, and a standing ovation goes out to the Sex Farm. Thank you to broken bicycles and crates of dead fish. Whether it was coincidence or some strange form of destiny, all of it saved me from that earthquake.

I still listen to Seth Meyers when I’m going to bed sometimes. Every once in awhile, just as I’m about to drift off,  the show pulls a trigger and shoots me back to a time of falling asleep between dirty sheets and hoping tarantulas wouldn’t find their way in from outside. Thank, you Seth, you made those nights bearable.

I cleaned pay-by-the-hour hotel rooms for a week in Equador (Part One: The Leadup)

Hiking along the Quilotoa Loop about one hour before everything started to go wrong.

This story is too long to put into one post, so I’ve broken it into two parts. This is part one. You can read part two here.

Should you ever find yourself drenched on the side of the road while on break from your job cleaning a joint you call the Sex Farm, take a step back and question the decisions you made to bring you there. April 2016 was a wild one, folks.

It all started with a fall off a cliff. Maybe “cliff” is an exaggeration, but it was dramatic to say the least. We’re talking about a near-straight drop down a considerable distance, and if I hadn’t managed to snatch some handfuls of long grass on my way over the edge, I would have fallen a fair distance.

My friends grabbed me by my wrists and hauled me back onto the side of the path, where we pulled up my pant leg to examine my ankle. It had been less than 30 seconds, but it had already doubled in size. Wincing from the pain, I looked around at my friends, knowing we were all thinking the same thing: we were on day one of a three-day hike and our next shelter was still eight kilometers away over rough terrain. I made it, but within an hour of arriving the adrenaline had worn off and I couldn’t touch my ankle without experiencing searing pain.

Hitchhiking through the fog of day two. You can’t tell too much from the picture, but my right ankle and foot are severely swollen here.

There was no way I would be able to hike day two, so I hitchhiked to our next destination and met my friends there. We returned to Quito the following day, where my wallet was immediately stolen. The day after that, I was robbed of nearly everything else. My iPad, daypack, running shoes, and other random items such as dirty socks and my travel gnome were gone, leaving me with nothing but a busted ankle, a backpack half-filled with clothes, and my passport (thank God). Two robberies, two days in a row. It was a somber end to my time in Quito, a city that had been my base for the past three weeks.

I limped my way onto a bus to Montanita, a party town along the coast, with every intention of drinking my trouble away. I’d arranged to have new debit and credit cards sent to a farm and ecohotel where I was meant to start work the following week, and I had enough money to last me until then.

It was on this bus ride to Montanita that, for the first time in my life, I experienced car sickness. The all-night journey to the coast had been winding and jolty. A journey like this was nothing new for me, and yet there I was: vomiting into plastic bags and repulsing the poor man sitting next to me. I arrived in Montanita dehydrated and covered in my own vomit.

A couple days later, I got food poisoning.

I limped around Montanita for four days with various forms of headaches and stomach pains which seemed to manifest in sequence, one after another. By the end of four days, I was ready to get a fresh start at the ecohotel. I’m going to end here for now because this is a natural break in the story, but rest assured, it only gets worse in Part Two.

Moving Forward

When I first started this blog, I obsessed over its look. I wanted to create the perfect platform to publish my writing and I spent ages trailing different designs and formats. At a certain point, I realized something: I’d had this blog for a couple weeks and had yet to publish anything of substance. I was so busy trying to make the blog look professional and used that I forgot to fill it with actual content.

The purpose of this blog is and has always been, to provide an outlet for me to practice and develop my travel writing. There are no rules other than the ones I make for myself, so if I want to test-drive a new style or publish something I’m unsure of, I can do that. If the entire point of this blog was to experiment, why was I so desperate to have perfect formatting from the get-go? Did I think I’d have 5,000 eager followers excited by my every move or something?

Over the past couple months, I’ve become a bit more aware of the sort of travel writing I enjoy. I’ve been able to practice and discover new ways to express myself through written experience. I’ve starting to see this blog take shape in my mind and with it, the formatting and stylish flair that I was so distracted by in the beginning. To be clear, I haven’t actually moved forward with changing this blog around yet (in no way is this blog stylish), I’ve just been playing around with ideas.

It’s fun.

We Welcome the Darkness

img_0819The eve of November was warmer than anticipated. The crowd stood around me bundled in hats and scarves, having expected the icy chill so often felt this time of year. We were watching a parade of performers, most of whom wore body paint in lieu of winter clothes. At times, I was tempted to peel my jacket off and join them as they drummed and lifted themselves into numerous variations of pyramid.

It’s impossible to know when the tradition of Samhuinn began exactly, but in and around a thousand years ago seems a fair bet. The performers that partake in the ancient Celtic ritual are marking the end of the harvest and the transfer of power from summer to winter. On this night, the eve of the equinox, our world converges with another, allowing spirits and faeries to spill into our realm. If they make contact, they meddle with crops and project visions of the future into the eyes of priests. To avoid contact, Celts sacrificed crop and livestock into bonfires whose smoke rose to feed into the mouths of the spirits and keep them at a distance. Tonight, the performers have replaced bonfires with torches and batons which spin flames and ash into the sky.

Two kings, Summer and Winter, have appeared onstage. Everyone falls silent, watching eagerly as their battle begins. The two have met before, six months ago at Beltane, the festival of light, where Summer overthrew Winter and where winter goddess Cailleach was turned to stone, freezing her influence over the land. Six months later, they face each other once more as Cailleach stands behind them, waiting to be freed. The kings fight and we watch as Summer defends his throne and Winter battles for what he knows is his rightful place as ruler of the cosmos.

It doesn’t take long to slay the Summer King, who os worn from his last six months of rule. As followers carry his body out of sight, our eyes are drawn to Cailleach, who begins to move. Released from the shackles of the stone, she is returned to her human form and dances until she and meets Winter. Together, they raise their arms in victory, bound in their newfound power over the land. Everyone cheers as the wind starts seeping through the crowd, finding a way between our tightly packed bodies. It carries a chill that hadn’t been there before. Summer is over: we have welcomed the months of darkness.

The Perfect Hostel

(Featured photo is of Castle Rock hostel in Edinburgh, Scotland, and does not belong to me.)

What makes a perfect hostel? Backpackers are a pretty easy crowd when it comes to novelty hostel features. I’ve stayed in places with climbing walls, tattoo parlours (yup), and swimming pools. Wanna hire a live-in Santa Claus who hides little Halloween candies around the hostel for guests to find at random? We’ll think that’s dope. Wanna attach a small, indoor arbouretum to your hostel? That’s amazing! Is it perfect though? There’s a difference.

After years of research–sleepless, uncomfortable, waking up at 5am to someone else’s alarm-type research–I have finally gathered the necessary data for this post. As it turns out, the formula for a perfect hostel is a lot simpler and less extravagant than you might think. Take note:

Outlets

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Photo from Cable Wholesale (http://bit.ly/2z2LUa6)

You’re sharing a dorm with 11 others and you’ve all left by 9am. Eight hours later, all 12 of you return to the same dorm looking to charge their devices. You see outlets and power bars everywhere. It’s copious. It’s excessive. It’s perfect.

Multiple Shower Hooks

You’re off to take a shower. The bathroom floor is wet and you wear flip flops because it’s probably dirty as well. You’ve got your towel, shampoo, body wash, clothes to change into, and the clothes you’re currently wearing. You close the door to your shower stall and look for space to put your stuff. You see one hook on the back of the door. Enough said.

Hanging Storage for Top Bunks

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Photo from Amazon (http://amzn.to/2hl52qd)

I can’t believe I’ve seen only one hostel do this. We’ve all fallen victim to the top bunk. We’ve all positioned ourselves between the many items we keep on our beds (phone, wallet, book, passport, water bottle…) and hoped none of it would fall to the ground in the middle of the night. What if, and this is going to sound crazy, what IF, there was a storage attachment on the railing of the bunk? A small storage basket that fits your water bottle, your book, and the rest of the random junk that seems to have found its way into your sleeping space? Life changing.

Lockers With Keys

You get to your dorm and feel unsure of your roommates. Your gut is telling you to lock your stuff, but you forgot to bring a padlock and are only traveling for a few days. You glance at the lockers in your room, thinking you won’t be able to use them when you remember something. Attached to the same keyring as your dorm key is a key to a locker. You don’t need a padlock, these beauties lock all on their own! Your stuff is safe.  

 

A Kitchen with Oil and a Spice Rack

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Photo from Silver Apple Wood (http://bit.ly/2zOixWs)

I know this one is a little out there, but imagine! You’ve been traveling for months eating oats every day. You walk into your hostel kitchen and see a spice rack and cooking oil. Suddenly, your bland hostel cooking comes to life and you can enjoy the food you’ve got stored away in a plastic bag in a fridge. Stoked.

Curtains on Dorm Beds

In a world of zero privacy, a curtain is considered an utmost luxury. If you’re feeling a bit anti-social, you can pull that curtain across your bed and read in peace. You can doze off without seven people staring at your ugly sleep face. Bonus points for hostels that have little reading lights as well.

Garbage Cans in Every Room

You’d be surprised how many time I’ve emptied my day pack full of garbage and wandered around the room with a handful of trash looking for somewhere to put it. Usually the bathrooms will have them, but no one likes hunting around for a place to toss their stuff. It’s a small detail, but it’s noticeable.

Crazy hostel bars or cool hammock lunges are mega-pluses, but if we can’t charge our phones or have a place to easily keep clothes dry while showering, your hostel, as awesome as it may be, isn’t comfortable. So much of what makes a great hostel is in remembering to accommodate the things we take for granted when we aren’t traveling. Keep your travelers comfortable. We can take the rest from there.