Archive for the ‘Random thoughts’ Category

It’s my life!

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

It was someone’s birthday – really that was just an excuse. It seems that this particular crew always finds an excuse for a party on Wednesday nights at sea. We were in the middle of the Atlantic, on a container ship, with not much else to do. We, as well as everyone else on board, were invited to the crew lounge for a party.

At the appointed time, Scott and I sauntered down to the lounge. Fortunately, not many of the crew on this ship smoke (mostly it is the officers that smoke), and with the crowds people, it would have been very uncomfortable if too many of them were smoking in the small room.

The cook prepared some special treats for the party – chicken wings and other finger food. Upon walking in, the crew showed their delight at our joining them by  immediately offering us drink – beer, wine, whatever we wanted. I don’t know who paid for the alcohol for the party, but we were honoured guests so it wasn’t us. In hind sight, I think it was the person having the birthday that paid – opposite to our tradition, in the Philippines, where most of the crew are from – it is an honour to buy your friends drinks.

So, with drink in hand, we joined in the festivities. This group had karaoke setup and were pretty good at it. We sang some songs we recognized as well as many that we didn’t. I had to get up and do some Brian Adams – they didn’t have Brian Adams as a karaoke CD, so you just sung along to the CD – in the crew lounge any CD could become a karaoke CD. We even tried singing some karaoke in Tagalog (the language spoken in the Philippines). Scott was OK at it; the German apprentice onboard was very good. Clearly he has been practicing!

For many of the crew, karaoke night is not just a chance to party, it is also a chance to practice English. During the party, one of the ship’s mechanics watched the karaoke with a notebook in his hand. Anytime he saw a word he didn’t understand, he would write it down so he could look it up later. I was amazed at how a particular crew member could sing along to karaoke without an accent, and yet he could barely string together a sentence in English.

By midnight the party started to get pretty roudy – with lots of loud singing and dancing. I was the only female in the room, but that didn’t stop some of the guys from table dancing – it was that wild. Of course, when the camera came out, everyone had to jump into the picture – and then see the picture in the camera window – you have to love digital cameras!

A particular vivid memory was when they put on a Bon Jovi CD. Imagine, the whole lot of us, in the middle of the Altantic Ocean, on a very dark night, screaming “It’s My Life” at the top of our lungs.

It’s my life
It’s now or never
I ain’t gonna live forever
I just want to live while I’m alive

(It’s my life)

My heart is like an open highway
Like Frankie said
I did it my way
I just wanna live while I’m alive
It’s my life

That sound will forever be imprinted in my mind, with the image of all of us dancing and screaming out the words as if we were the only people on earth (we were in the middle of the ocean after all).

That was four years ago, and every time I hear that song, and I hear it often as it is the third song on my daily exercise track,  I smile (and sometimes I even scream although I try to keep the scream inside). It’s my life!


National Writing Month

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

November is national writing month. A couple of years ago, before I began my PhD, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). NaNoWriMo is a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel within the month of November. I chose to use that time to write reflections on our Going East adventure, in hopes of actually writing a book about our journeys. Having experienced NaNoWriMo, I find myself wanting to take on new writing projects every November, but needing to adapt them to my particular needs at the time. As such, I’ve come across a couple of off-shoots of Nanowrimo, ones that caught my attention are: AcBoWriMo (Academic Book Writing Month), AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month), and this year DigiWriMo (Digital Writing Month). Most of my November writing this year will be in the form of my research thesis proposal. I am officially declaring here that I plan to complete at least the first solid draft of my proposal before the end of November. I’ll track my writing in the DigiWriMo system, which will also include any blog posts and other writing related projects that I partake in during the month of November.

In honour of NaNoWriMo, I dusted off a little snippet from my first NaNoWriMo writings to share with you. I hope you enjoy it.


Before we even left home, we had to mentally grapple with the idea of receiving hospitality. We couldn’t afford to “pay” people to stay in their homes – we could not see how we could return the favour for the generosity that people were bound to be showing us along our journey.

Scott happened upon an article about receiving hospitality that really helped. The reality in “western” culture is that people love help but generally don’t know how to. When given the opportunity, people feel better for helping. So we would be giving people the opportunity to help us, and their reward for doing such is just knowing that they helped – that sounded kind of hokey, but upon self-reflection we find it to be true.

One person told us “we were happy we could be part of your journey”. By allowing us to stay in their home, they were now part of what we were doing – so they could own part of our success and celebrate it with us. That sounds like a pretty special gift to me.

One thing that I really needed to get over was the Canadian culture of not asking for what you need. It is certainly easier to accept hospitality that is offered – it is more difficult to ask for what you need. We are taught at an early age that it is not polite to ask things of our host – but if our host doesn’t know what we need, they don’t know what to offer, so they don’t offer it. So we could sit there being uncomfortable, and not ask for anything to change that. Our Turkish friends came right out and told us “if you don’t ask for what you need, we will think you don’t like us”. Wow – that was a reality check.

We vowed to ourselves, that if someone offered us random hospitality, that we would gladly receive it – these were the opportunities we were seeking on our journey – those happen stance opportunities where complete strangers welcome you to their homes.

There are a couple of times when this happened that I regret not taking the strangers up on their offers – both times in Labrador. First was in Port Hope-Simpson, when the owner of a barge offered us passage from Port Hope-Simpson to Newfoundland. He had to make the crossing when the barge was full of logs. It could take 3-days. It would have been fascinating to live on a boat for three days – but the complete lack of control over food and environment scared me. Plus we had connected with a friend’s cousin in Goose Bay, and I wanted to see Goose Bay – so we didn’t change our plans – and tackled the most remote stretch of the Labrador Coastal Highway – it is now even more remote than it was when we took it, as now you can go all the way to Goose Bay – we only went to Cartwright, were we took a 12-hour Ferry to Goose Bay.

The second time, was in Cartwright. We arrived after the last hotel room sold out. We didn’t have a place to stay, so we hung out a bit and hoped for an invite. We did get one, but I wasn’t comfortable with it. I wasn’t sure if the guy smoked. He was an older guy – a guide – who liked to tell stories. He described where his place was and said to just go inside and make ourselves at home. But again, that too was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to accidently go into the wrong home! So instead, we hung around longer – hoping for another offer.

Eventually, we did get another offer. A place to setup our tent for the night – right on the water. They had no room for us inside. The house was a trailer-park kind of size with a small kitchen, single bathroom, small living room, and two bedrooms. But everyone was home for a two week vacation – so the place was packed. They had six-adults and a child living there – and when the first ferry came in, some cousins came over to visit – it was crazy busy. But they were so friendly, it was wonderful. We had our own space – our tent, which made us happy.

The only thing that would have made me happier was a shower – it had been three-days of sweaty bug infested cycling, so I was feeling pretty grungy. I had done a wipe down in the restaurant washroom, but that wasn’t the same as being clean. We were so looking forward to the ferry – just so we could take a shower.

We had two ferry options – they both got into Goose Bay at about the same time, but one of them skirted along the coast visiting a few small towns before going up to Goose Bay – the Ranger. We thought it would be cool to take that boat, but when it arrived, it didn’t have a loading ramp for bikes or vehicle traffic. They couldn’t tell us if we’d get a room, and most of the folks on the boat headed straight to the store in Cartwright to stock up on beer – so that didn’t seem like such a great idea. Had we had a cabin, where we could escape and safely stow our gear, we would have enjoyed the experience – but it really didn’t feel right so we opted to wait for the evening boat – the Bond – which takes vehicle traffic directly to Goose Bay.

Of course, this meant waiting until the evening and I really wanted a shower! So, I decided to be bold and ask. People didn’t offer because they didn’t know that was what I wanted. In the morning, when I walked over to the ferry terminal – before anything was open, the restaurant didn’t open until lunch – I saw a lady on her front porch having a cigarette and a coffee. We had chatted briefly the night before – she lived across the street from the restaurant – she said she would have invited us to stay but it was her sister-in-law’s house. Anyways, she was enjoying a coffee, and I really wanted one – so I ask – if I could have a cup of coffee. She was delighted to invite me in for a visit and a cup of Joe – it was there that I learned that “good coffee” in Labrador was a particular brand of instant coffee – because instant was what everyone drank.

Debbie and Mick were actually from Goose Bay – and would be on the same boat as us later in the day. Mick grew up in Cartwright – and like everyone else from the area – spent a week or two there every summer. In the fall, he would come down for hunting. He did drywall for a living, and did six-week shifts up in Iqaluit. The money was good, but it was a transient lifestyle. In some ways, it wasn’t much different than fishing – you spend much time away, but were happy for the few weeks you could spent at home with your loved ones between shifts. Over his break, he was staying with his sister doing some drywall work on her home – he built a nice archway between the living room and kitchen in their home.

Later in the day, after we decided to take a pass on the Ranger, I popped by their place again. This time I asked if I could use the shower. We were both really grungy and knew that if we could feel clean we’d feel better. Actually, it probably didn’t really matter to Scott, but it certainly mattered to me!

Debbie called her sister-in-law to check that it was OK. Happily, she said it was fine, so we enjoyed a nice hot shower and chance to put on some clean clothes while we wiled away the hours waiting for the boat.

Funny the things you didn’t realize you enjoyed – reading serendipity

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

When we were on our trip, I often found it difficult to get my hands on English books. When they were available in bookstores, they were horribly expensive (I paid 20 Euro or $30 CAD for a paperback book!). This was in the time before kindle, so there were limited options for eBooks – Scott had a bunch of eBooks of varying sorts on his Nokia handheld (mostly classics and fan-fiction sci-fi), but I didn’t have an eBook reader and the types of books I normally read were not available as eBooks at that time. Its actually hard to imagine life before Kindle!

In planning for our vacation to Africa this spring, I’m finding that what I long for most is the opportunity to sit on a beach (or by a pools or someplace quite) with no time pressures and read a book or two, just for fun. Interestingly, when I look back our trip, I have the fondest memories of the random books I read– the books of opportunity – ones that I likely would not have picked out on my own, but that I read because they were the only think available at the time.

Now that I have an eReader (iPad and Kindle), I can bring whatever books I want. But I find that I am missing the serendipity of the random books. The choice of books is paralyzing me – I can have any book, so how can I possibly choose! To help me recover the serendipity, I’ve decided to limit my vacation books to free eBooks. I’ve subscribes to pixelofink and free books for kindle, and over the next few weeks I’ll scan the free options and download some random books to read. From those, I’ll still have lots of choice, but I’ll be choosing from about 100 books rather than the 100s of thousands that are available on amazon. Who knows what I’ll find!

Have you opened your TFSA yet?

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Update: I was wrong.  TFSA contribution room accumulates every year that you are 18 or older and a resident of Canada throughout the year. You do not have to set up a TFSA to earn contribution room.  It still may make sense to keep your emergency funds (if you maintain any) in a TFSA, but there’s no rush.  Moral? Check thoroughly if people in the financial services industry tell you something!

Canadians have a new Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA) this year.  Every Canadian resident over 18 gets $5000 contribution room each year, and any income earned is tax free (just like an RRSP). Unlike an RRSP, withdrawals are tax free too.

Now the important part. If you don’t open an account, you don’t get the $5000 contribution room. You don’t have to put money in the account right away, but you need to open it before Dec 31, 2009.

Go open one today!  And tell your friends!

  1. Take a look at a comparison chart of different TFSA accounts.
  2. Choose a company
  3. Open an account
  4. Deposit your $1, or $25 or whatever
  5. Put more money in when you have it. It’s a good place to keep your Emergency Fund if you keep one.
  6. Watch your money grow tax-free

Note that tax-free doesn’t necessarily mean fee-free.  Bank fees can eat up any gains you might get.  If you’re just opening the account to get the contribution room, and not putting much money in to begin with, I’d recommend the ING Direct TFSA Savings Account. Simple, no fee, and no minimum contribution.

Once you have more money in your TFSA and want better returns, you can take the money out of your first account, and move it to a TFSA Investment Account, where you can buy mutual funds, stocks and other things which can make a higher return.

The Government of Canada has details on How the Tax-Free Savings Account Works, and there is lots of other detail on the web.

Happy saving!

When right is wrong!

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

When you are a child, you are taught that if you must ride your bike on the street, that you should ride as far to the right as possible. This gives cars as much space as possible to pass you. However, as you grow older and bolder, and start to ride on busier roads, it becomes time to revisit this lesson in safe cycling.

On the way to work each morning, I ride on a couple of major city streets. These roads have two lanes of traffic in each direction; however, they do not have bike lanes. To make matters worse, they also have square curbs. As a cyclist, if I were to follow the “keep as far right as possible” rule, I would have no place to go when a car passes me too close. In addition, the further right I ride, the more likely a car driver thinks they can sneak pass me without changing lanes. To be safe, I ride in the middle of the right most lane. Once I started doing this, the car drivers got the message “to pass this cyclist safely, I must move over into the left lane.”

Taking this one step further, anytime I am riding on a street where I think it is unsafe for a car to squeeze by me, I ride in the middle of the lane. This requires cars to wait behind me, or pass only when the left or oncoming lane is completely free of traffic. I learned this lesson the hard way; when a car passing me in a narrow construction zone clipped my handlebars with its side mirror, knocking me onto the shoulder. This would not have happened had I been in the middle of the lane, as the driver would have been unable to pass me.

Of course, riding in the middle of the lane only works if you are very visible. If you are wearing dark clothing at night, and are not well lit, stay off the road!  Unlit cyclists are a danger to both cars and other cyclists.

Indian Reservation versus First Nation

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Travelling through Saskatchewan, our route took us along a highway that intersections with several “Indian Reservations”. In Saskatchewan the highway signs indicated “Entering Indian Reservation” and “Leaving Indian Reservation”. When we saw these signs, we both cringed at the terminology. Words are very powerful things, and the language used seemed rather offensive to us.

Prior to riding this section of highway, we had been warned about the road ahead. A kind person mentioned that all the stores in the area had bars on the window and warned us that it would not be safe for us to camp anywhere on the side of the road because it was Indian land. Riding through, we never felt uncomfortable or really all that different from riding anywhere else in Saskatchewan. Someone even pulled over while we were stopped to help ensure we were OK. So, we wonder at the power of language and if the use of the term “Indian Reservation” just reinforces stereotypes.

We wondered what alternative wording would feel more appropriate, and we saw it riding in Ontario – there was a sign announcing a “First Nation”. That certainly seems to be more politically correct, but also just feels better to us.


Like an ant crawling slowly over a giant machine

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Shortly after we left Banff National Park, we saw our first oil derrick pumping away. It looked quite pretty with its multi-coloured paint, so we stopped and took a photo. Little did I know just how much oil and gas infrastructure we would pass by in the following days.

Our first oil derrick

It was the ride from Rocky Mountain House to Lacombe which first gave me a flavor for the scope of the industry. It seemed every few minutes we would pass by another oil derrick, pumping station or processing plant. Then I started noticing the pipelines. Little signs by the roadside indicated the type of pipeline and owner. We never seemed to be out of sight of one. After a few hours of this, I started to feel like it was all part of one giant machine, and we were ants crawling slowly across. There was farm and ranch land everywhere, surrounding and covering all this infrastructure, but it felt like a thin covering, partially concealing the giant machine.

Approaching a processing plant, with flare stacks
Processing plant, flare stacks and nearby fields

Every so often, we would get a whiff of petrochemicals, either the complex scent of hydrocarbons or the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulphide from sour gas. Not exactly pleasant, and protests by locals and farmers against the sour gas wells have been ongoing for years. Lately there have been a number of bombings of sour gas processing equipment and pipelines, especially in British Columbia.

Sour Gas processing - dangerous
Warning signs for a Sour Gas facility

derricks and pipeline signs
Derricks and signs for the pipelines under the road

In the ensuing days, we saw more and more, sometimes pipelines, sometimes oil transport trucks, but never out of sight of something for more than a few minutes. Occasionally we came across some new construction, either the scar of a recently constructed pipeline snaking across the fields, or active construction on a new plant or well. Even when we entered Saskatchewan the machine stretched on around us, with storage tanks, steam injection systems and more wellheads and pipelines.

pipeline construction, recently closed up
Recently constructed pipeline

Another Sour Gas facility - note the windsock
Another Sour Gas Facility. The windsock is so workers know which way to run if any of the alarms go off, since un-perfumed Natural Gas is odourless

In Western Saskatchewan, oil and gas exploration and construction is helping to keep the small towns alive, as fewer and fewer farmers are needed to work the land. As part of our farm tour, Clem showed us the nearby oil and gas infrastructure, including a new natural gas-powered generating station, which will be used to power the large Enbridge pumping station as well feed power into the grid for the surrounding area. He also pointed out that crops actually grow better on top of a pipeline, so you can see where the pipeline goes, even years after construction. We had noticed the distinct lines, but assumed they must be due to different crops or recent construction. People have hypothesized that the heat from the pipeline may help get the crops an early start, or the turning over of the earth leaves the soil in better condition.

natural gas electrical generating station
Natural gas powered electrical generating station under construction

One thing we had not noticed was the underground natural gas storage facilities. These are massive salt cavern formations where gas is pumped underground until it is needed. I wonder how many other bits of this giant machine we missed?

huge storage tanks
Huge oil storage tanks, much easier to notice than the underground salt caverns

It is a massive amount of infrastructure, all pumping non-renewable resources east and south to the voracious appetites of Eastern Canada and the United States. All this to give us the gasoline to fuel our cars and the natural gas to power our electrical plants and heat our homes. I hesitate to think what the area around the Tar Sands must look like! I found the engineering for this huge machine to be fascinating, but it is also scary to think of all the things which could go wrong.

Even if nothing goes wrong, we’re behaving as if there is a limitless supply of this stuff, and the quantities we’re using are huge. Throughout our travels, we saw how people in other countries – especially the less developed ones – conserve the energy they have (people actually unplug TVs and appliances when they are not in use – they drive small cars and use public transport). Now that we’ve returned to Canada, we see so much waste it is no wonder our energy use and carbon footprint are so high. It is easy to wonder at the lack of sustainability in a typical Canadian lifestyle, and we wonder how our lifestyle will change when we get back home and become “normal” again.

Responsible travel blogging

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Throughout our journey, we have been reminded that freedom of speech is not a universal right. As travelers and bloggers, we have the opportunity to meet many people, and often we report our meetings in our journal. However, in some of the countries we visited, we suspect that stories we tell are read not just by our friends and families, but also by the various authorities within the country. We hadn’t really thought about this before we left, but part way through our journey, we learned how our writing could have a negative impact on our friends.

A fellow traveler reported something on their blog about current events in the country they were visiting, including some seemingly innocuous commentary by a local friend. Later, that friend was arrested and incarcerated for several days, and was questioned about the comments reported on the blog. We like to think are writing in our own obscure little corner of the Web, but it appears some countries are monitoring even the obscure corners…

We tell you this vague story to remind any fellow travelers that we have a responsibility to the people we meet while we are travelling. Some of these people live in places where our speech may adversely affect their health – so we must use our speech responsibly. Our new friends may be made accountable for what we say. We hope that we have been careful enough in our blogging to not get anyone in trouble. We don’t think our self-censorship has had much effect on the stories we have told, but are unhappy that we needed to do it.

Reflections on Jordan

Monday, January 26th, 2009

We spent 17 days in Jordan: 3 nights in Amman, 8 nights in Aqaba, 3 nights in Wadi Mousa, and 3 nights in Madaba. We left our bikes in Syria, so we cannot comment on riding in Jordan, but we can say that the hills on the Kings Highway are steep and there are significant distances between services, so be prepared.

The entire time we were in Jordan, Israel was bombing the Gaza strip. That definitely influenced our impressions of Jordan and the entire region. More than 50% of Jordanian citizens are Palestinian refugees. Every store that had a TV was showing the constant news reports showing blood soaked children. This led strong feelings of empathy for the people of Gaza, which could not help but wear off on us.

We met Egyptian hotel owners who were very friendly and provided great hospitality and yummy breakfasts.

We met an Egyptian trained doctor who was more than happy to give Becky more medication than she needed and possibly did more harm to her health than good.

We met Egyptian store owners, restaurant owners, and vendors who were more than happy to charge exorbitant prices and to see just how much money they could extract from tourists.

We met Jordanian Bedouins who were very friendly and welcoming. They were happy to share their culture and provided what felt like genuine hospitality.

We met Jordanian Christian hotel owners who provided hospitality that felt familiar to us.

We met Jordanians of Palestinian descent. One of them made some comments that we still find disturbing. His view seemed to be that no peace was possible while Israel existed, and he made several comments in favour of the Holocaust, including “Hitler did not kill all the Jews, so they would remember why he did what he did.” If this is a common sentiment, (and from what we understand, it is), there’s little hope of peace. Until Palestinians and Israelis can feel empathy for one another, and view each other as neighbours and fellow humans rather than faceless enemies, we don’t hold out much hope for the future.

We experienced a Jordanian state hospital whose staff gave the appearance of cleanliness but the bed sheets did not. We were later told that the private hospitals are much better.

We laughed at the story of a Jordanian tourist association who printed 50,000 copies of a brochure on desert tours in Arabic while only printing 20,000 copies in English. Do they really think that Arabs would come to Jordan to see the desert?

We enjoyed the stark and yet varying landscape of the Western Jordanian deserts. We spend many hours soaking in the sun and enjoying being alone in the desert.

We spent two days taking in the atmosphere and the awe inspiring vista of Petra. We rode camels and donkeys along the streets and pathways of Petra. Becky was given a gift of a necklace by a Bedouin girl that is one of her great treasures of this journey. Petra is a special place.

We saw the Dead Sea and enjoyed picnicking on one of its many cliffs. For 12 JD each (about $20 CAD) we enjoyed a brief float in the Dead Sea followed by a very cold shower!

We saw the rustic site of Jesus’ baptism and the construction of a tacky “baptism resort” on the Israel side of the River Jordan. We came within 5 or 10 meters of Israel, but never crossed over.

We drove through many police checkpoints with young men holding machine guns, smiling, and welcoming us to Jordan.

Overall, we very much enjoyed our time in Jordan although are wary of Jordanian health care, but were also very happy to return to Syria where you don’t feel ripped off every time you go to the market to buy vegetables. The influence of Egypt is strong (a country where poverty and tourism meet – such that tourists are constantly bombarded with scams and overinflated prices), but the friendliness and genuine hospitality of the native Jordanian’s provide a balance. It is definitely a country at the crossroads in the Middle East and is influenced by its various neighbours.

Thanks for the comments …

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

Hi everyone,

I’d like to say thank-you to everyone who has left a comment on our blog. It really helps keep me motivated to keep writing about our journeys.

If you see a delay between writing and posting that is because the comments are moderated. Once you’ve had a few accepted then your comments become automatically approved; until then, we must manually approve them. That allows us to keep the spam comments out.

You’ll likely see updates in batches rather than daily for the next while. We are soon about to enter rural Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and I’m not certain how often we’ll be able to get Internet. Once we make it to St. John’s, we’ll be sure to spend a few days updating the blog.