Home Sweet Home

Its wonderful to come home after months of traveling. Not only have I been away from home, but also homeless, in a sense of the word. On the road I’m constantly seeking out accommodation, either as the guest at someone else’s home, or the couchsurfer on some strangers couch. Not that I’m complaining… but its nice to finally be home again.

the natural geothermal area of Kyrsuvik

the natural geothermal area of Kyrsuvik

being a tourist at Gullfoss

being a tourist at Gullfoss

At the moment ‘home’ is Dad’s house, in the ‘countryside’ (this has a better ring to it in Icelandic). My bed is actually a couch there, but its my couch so I love sleeping on it. I missed drinking tap water, ice cold straight from the source, and showering in hot water that kind of smells like rotten eggs. But its okay because its smells like home.

I love bathing in open air, in an assortment of pools and hottubs, even the ice-cold sea, because there’s never a steam room or hot shower too far away. The wind on my wet skin and ice under my toes doesn’t even bother me after I’ve stayed long enough in the hottest hottub, and sometimes I purposely dip in the cold tub or sea just to remember how much more I love the heat.

Iceland is still one of my favourite countries to travel, especially impromptu road trips

Iceland is still one of my favourite countries to travel, especially impromptu road trips

The sun doesn’t rise until after 11 am and sets around 3 pm… and the days have gotten shorter every day. Tomorrow will be the shortest day of the year, but I don’t mind, because that means every day after that until June 21 will be longer. Its cold, but not that cold, so I was happy to clean the snow off my car yesterday for the first time – it might mean that we’ll have a white Christmas, even though every day last week was warmer than in London, New York or Vancouver.

some random, friendly horses

some random, friendly horses

I’ve been home nearly a week now, and the only thing I’m still missing are the Northern Lights and my horses. Both are within reach, so I don’t feel homesick anymore, but it’s amazing how you can’t get enough of home even when you’re finally home. Oh home, sweet home.

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Welcome to Iran

Here’s a letter I wish someone from the Iranian tourism authority had sent me before flying one-way into Iran alone. 

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

Dear Tourist,

Welcome to Iran. We are a land famous for beautiful mosaics, Persian carpets, and ancient empires, and a people known the world over for our hospitality and endless supply of tea. However, please be aware of the following things before traveling in Iran.

We have a rich cultural history surrounding our bath houses and hammams, but presently social bathing is illegal and all our historic bathhouses have been turned into museums. There are banks on every corner, but none will accept your debit card and withdrawing money from abroad anywhere in this country is impossible. Bring a lot of cash because visa and mastercard (or any other international credit cards) are not accepted, and get used to a lot of zeros because even small things, like a taxi fare, are counted in the hundreds of thousands. Our money is printed as and called rials, but people refer to tomans, which is ten times less, so don’t get ripped off by paying ten times too much or insult someone by trying to pay ten times too little. However, for anything touristic, such as entrance to a museum, you will have to pay for an entrance ticket three to ten times more than a local. Also a taxi ride or a hotel room will be (legally) charged at a higher rate, since the government enforces different costs for foreigners. The same cup of coffee will not cost the same for you and a local, even if you order together.

You are not allowed to wear shorts, skirts or sleeveless shirts or anything else that would show your knees or shoulders. Please learn how to read Arabic numbers, since house numbers, streets, costs and bus numbers will usually only be written with them. Drivers are a little crazy and crossing the road inside or outside of a car are equally dangerous. Make sure you ride the metro or public bus in the right compartment – men in the front, women in the back!

If you are a woman, please also note: You must wear a hijab or wrap your head in some sort of scarf in all public places and inside cars. You cannot wear a skirt, but you must have a long enough jacket or shirt or skirt over your pants to cover your hips, so make sure you layer your pants under more clothing, preferably black. You cannot sing or dance in public or infront of men. You are not allowed to drive a motorcycle, or get on a motorcycle behind a man driving, since touching another man who is not your spouse or family member is a crime. Walking down the street with someone of the opposite gender who’s not related to you is also not allowed. Depending on the city you’re in, it’s also illegal to ride a bicycle, smoke cigarettes, or play pool. You must sit in the women’s only section of public transport, and of course mosques have a smaller women-only section which you can enter after wrapping yourself (and every part of your hair) in a chador (a big sheet, usually supplied to you).

Facebook, Twitter, and wordpress are some of the websites blocked in Iran, so make sure you get a virtual hotspot app if you want to access any of these sites. Airbnb and Coucshurfing are technically illegal too, and some couchsurfers are simply using the site to find an outside connection for help out of here, either with a visa, a foreign wife, or better-paying job offer. If you are a single woman, some men may consider trying to marry you, so pretend you’re married and wear a fake wedding ring. Or better yet, travel Iran with a man; it will save you a lot of hassle from taxi drivers wanting your phone number, men in bazaars following you, or random creepy men that assume western women are all super horny and none of them are virgins.

Since you are a tourist, many of these rules slide, but if an ethics police officer harasses you more than 3 times for any of the above, the punishment is prison or lashes, and adultery or rape will get you executed.

Welcome to Iran. We hope you enjoy your stay!

Women only

Women only

Themes of the South Pacific

It’s interesting to travel here, since your day is governed by the sunrise and the sunset, waking with the rest of the village according to the suns wishes, and your diet is limited to the market’s availability. For a while it’s an overabundance of fresh papaya and watermelon, then its pineapples and eggplants. Trying to find avocados when its cucumber and tomato season is tough, but I’ve been lucky twice. Your activities are controlled by the weather, since the rain makes you stop wherever you are and worry only about finding shelter, and the shining sun makes you hide under shade until the temperature drops below 38 degrees and you can once again bare to start walking. An umbrella is a very versatile item, since it works as protection against the rain and the sun, so it’s not weird to always have an open umbrella above your head. The tides govern when you can get in or out of the water safely, or when it’s good to snorkel, or when there’s actually sand on the beach to lay on, or waves past the break to surf on.

Weird things I’ve learned is to always keep my bag shut in my room at night. If not, you’ll find a couple cockroaches who’ve moved in and you won’t find them til a few days later, a little groggy from lack of oxygen and food, but still alive and creepily crawling further into your backpack when you try to chuck them out. Buses don’t often have windows on them, so it’s also important to keep your mouth shut whiles it’s driving… the bugs and bees do not taste good flying in at 50km per hour. Another important lesson is that you can never have too much bug spray, and you certainly can never be wearing too much bug spray, because those damned mosquitos will still get you, even if you think you’re in a mozzy-proof net. They’re like cockroaches, they just never die… or they multiply faster than you can kill them, I’m not sure. And they come with horrible threats of diseases I hadn’t even heard of – like chikungunya – or the regular malaria, dengue and yellow fevers you’re equally weary of. But, I do know that if mosquitos were to die a horrible painful death in the burning depths of hell forever, I would not feel bad, or sad, or any remorse, since their total extinction wouldn’t make me mourn one bit.

There are a few common themes in the South Pacific that stay even when you change islands or countries. Fire dancing and other types of traditional dance are always present, in their own local flare. Some are done in grass skirts, some in sarongs (whose names can change from pareos to lava-lavas), some are scary (like the Maori haka – google it if you’ve never seen an All Blacks rugby game), most are beautiful, some are danced to percussion and body slapping, and others to the sound of ukuleles and beautiful Polynesian songs. All the South Pacific countries have memorable graves, each burial practice done slightly differently, but they’re usually very present, in the front yards of peoples homes, along the side of the road, or in mass graveyards decorated with colourful plastic flowers. They range from mounds of sand with a simple tombstone, to full-on housed shelters where the relatives of the deceased like to play or rest.

Tattoos are important, and visible mostly on men, but women will also often have them on their upper leg or a band around an arm or ankle. Maori’s have them on their face, and Samoans get a solid tattoo from their knees up to their midwaist which takes 6 hours a day for 2 weeks to complete the traditional way. Apparently everything is tattooed except the genitals… that’s got to be painful.

The food has, for the most part, been consistently bad. They don’t use much spice or flavor except for fried oil, and the staple is canned tuna, corned beef, instant noodles and different forms of potatoey-starches. Ive never seen so many different types and flavours of instant noodles – everything from Korean Kimchi to Maggi noddles and Indonesian packages I couldn’t read. The food was refreshingly amazing in Fiji, and some fully-catered hotels in Samoa had yummy curries and rice, which was a welcomed change to noodles or starch.

Women, men and children all wear flowers in their hair, live ones, plastic ones, white ones, pink ones, and most a variation of a frangipani or hibiscus flower. It’s funny to see it on the men, since it doesn’t take anything away from their masculinity, even if its paired with a pink sarong or flowery skirt, since that’s just become a normal, manly sight for me in the pacific. Every island has a different name for cross-dressing men (my favourite is the very feminine word fa’afafine in Tahitian), the flamboyant gay guys who are not gay guys but women who take female roles and like men. They’re a source of pride for any family who never has a daughter, since they fulfill the daughterly void, and even though homosexuality is illegal in many countries and the church would never approve, they bypass this sin since they’re simply fully-functional women (stuck in men’s bodies… but that’s not their fault).

Kava, which is a cloudy-brownish narcotic drink made from a root plant, has also been a reoccurring theme. Every island has its own kava – a special recipe, different names or pronunciation, a special time or place to drink it, and various ways the kava ceremony should proceed. When I had it in Fiji, it was from a small wooden bowl that we all shared by passing around and drinking until the cup was empty. It would be refilled and repassed til we’d all had enough, or our tongues became to tickly to hold up to the bowl, and I didn’t feel drunk or drugged but a lot of people acted like they did.

After five months in the South Pacific, it’s all starting to feel very familiar, and most things are comfortable except the heat and mosquitos. I actually met someone in Samoa whose name (in Samoan) was South Pacific Ocean, and first I laughed, but then I thought about it and realized that the meaning behind it is a beautiful thing to be named after. If it didn’t have such a terrible ring to it in English, I’d probably consider naming a child after the South Pacific too.

“Fa’a Samoa,” the Samoan way

There are 2 Samoas, the American one and the Independent, western one which is better known as simply “Samoa.” It was the first independent Polynesian island after all the colonies had finished dividing them up, but its funny to see the similarities between this self-identified island (who has closer connections to New Zealand and Australia) and American Samoa, which has the same cultural, linguistic and religious histories, but American Samoa, with all their big Ford trucks and diesel Dodges, tend to look down on the Samoans for having more poverty and people. The only differences I noticed was the American Samoa was less touristy but more expensive, and Samoa was a lot more social.

Samoans were so friendly, it was actually hard to match. I felt like I never smiled big enough or at enough people, since every glance, even if for a second, was met with a big toothy smile, and kids couldn’t wipe it off until you were out of sight. Sometimes the’d repeatedly yell hello and wave, or run after you to ask you your name. The adults always waved too, even at a passing bus or car, and I wouldn’t be left alone in on the street or in a village for more than 30 seconds before someone wanted to talk to me. The normal questions went pretty much exactly like this: “Whats your name? Where are you from? How old are you? How long ar you in Samoa? Do you like it? Where did you come from? Where are you going next? Where is the mister?” So after that interview formula, they knew all they needed to know about me, and then they’d ask if I needed help or if I was lost.

I got the feeling Polynesians were quiet, private and religious people, but the rumors about them being promiscuous is certainly true too. I’ve only been plain-out offerred sex once before American Samoa, by a grounds guard at the Beachcomber hotel in Tahiti. He just casually asked if he could accompany me to my room, and I just had to act equally casual about saying no, without any shock or terror in my voice, even when he asked twice more if I was sure sure sure. It happened again in Independent Samoa, this time by one of the fiafia dancers, who I nicknamed the coconut man. He could shred a coconut in about 5 seconds with his teeth and then crack it open on his head. He opened a few for me on the beach after the show, then assumed he could sleep in my fale, but I used a nervous giggle and the single mattress and narrow mosquito net as an excuse to stay alone.

fiafia dancers practicing for a big show

fiafia dancers practicing for a big show

Samoans are really friendly and hospitable in other, more acceptable, ways, and I loved traveling there. Besides sex, the normal things to be offered were usually coffee, tea, fresh bananas or tobacco in some form. If you got in a car with someone, it was a cigarette, and if you checked into your beach fale for the night, it was a cup of warm drink. If you sat with someone in their shaded fale, it could be a banana or some rolling tobacco, and they never let me stand on the side of the road waiting for a bus in the sun, so I often ended up in a fale eating or smoking with some elders while one of their children got sent to the side of the road, waiting to flag down my bus for me.

fales on the beach

fales on the beach

Samoan’s aren’t the best chefs, especially compared to neighbouring Fiji, and the quality of products (compared to Australia and New Zealand) was mediocre, and the selection of food minimal (compared to American Samoa and its super American imported super markets). Canned corned beef and instant noodles are staples, as well as anything fried, rice and taro (a rich potatoey thing). They did have very good table manners, and often sent a child or staff to stand over you fanning your food while you ate (to keep the flies off).

If you join Samoan’s for mealtime, the evening family worship has to be taken first. I attended one family service, which was all in Samoan, but I recognized the tunes of some of the hymns, and they closed with a prayer in English, which I could actually join in on since it was the Lord’s prayer. They have church service often, both at home and in church, since each village has a church or two or three. There may only be a few families in the village, and still there’s enough of a congregation to support all the churches. They’re all different denominations too – Catholic, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mormon, and even Baha’i’. Its amazing that it’s already the church capita of the world, and still I saw missionaries around. I don’t know who they’re saving, but it looked like they must have been Mormons trying to convert the already redeemed souls.

These are a few of my favourite things

I like to make lists. I make a lot of lists; to-do lists, grocery lists, travel lists… I started making a list of my favourite things: (and I hope it keeps growing)

Indian rugs. Persian hospitality. French Merlot. Pinot Grigio.  Dirty martinis. Napolitan pizza. Japanese girls. Argentine Tango. Salsa dancing. Belly dancing. Beach volleyball. Snowboarding. Swinging hammocks. Galloping Thoroughbreds. Icelandic horses. Arabian horses.  Chopin nocturnes. Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Steinway grand pianos. Antique Instruments. Used bookstores. Old Maps. Polka dot bikinis. Nonconformity. Spontaneity. Adventure. Couchsurfers. Chimes. Happiness

Then I thought of making a list of things that aren’t my favourite, like when cockroaches fly; when condensation drips from a cold glass; when people drive crazy; when idiots boast; talking rudely to people; and I dislike being disliked. (but I like that this list is shorter)

I made a list of stupid things I once believed:

  • That brown cows make chocolate milk.
  • That you could kick a street lamp to turn it on.
  • That it was hottest in the south pole.
  • That smart phones were too smart for me.
  • That I could be a lot of things but never grow up.

And then I made a list of things I don’t understand (answer if you know):

  • Why doesn’t the moon cycle west to east?
  • Why do people underachieve greatness when they’re great?
  • Why is it normal to drink soft drinks with a straw but not beer?
  • Why don’t all pretty people know when they’re beautiful?
  • Why do I have man hands?

Dear North American Currencies

Dear North American Currencies,

I had forgotten how expensive it is just to be in Vancouver, and how annoying and heavy your Canadian coins are, especially all those loonies and twoonies. And now that the US dollar is falling, everything seems unreasonably priced, especially books with two prices on the back (ie. $10.99USD, $15.99 CDN) when you have to pay the Canadian one even though its not anywhere equal to the USD one.

And, whats up with taxes never being included in the price? I can’t calculate 6.5% of $3.87 to know how much my pumpkin latte from Starbucks will actually cost, and when I sit down at a restaurant to have a sandwich for $9.65, I have to pay 7% provicinal sales tax, and then Im not sure what the difference is between government  sales tax and harmonized sales tax or when I pay them, but they’re each another 6 or 7 %, AND then I have to tip 10 or 20 %, so my ten dollar sandwich winds up costing $14.79. It makes me feel cheated like false advertising does. And why can’t things just cost even dollar amounts? Coffee? $3. Sandiwch? $10. No more of this dimes and cents business.

I dont like pennies, since they make my fingers smell like sulphur, and whenever you need a penny, you dont have one, since when you have pennies, they’re easier to throw away than carry around. Pay phones dont even take pennies, parking metres dont count nickels, and a dime only buys you 1 minute and 36 seconds of parking. Quarters are weighted so sometimes a Canadian Quarter doesn’t even let you make a call in an American payphone.

I just wish we could get rid of pennies all together, sell things for the advertised price, all have the same coins, and bring back the dollar bill to Canada so the tipping culture wouldn’t be so embarassing – no one likes handing a valet parker $4 in loonies. Or we could just get rid of this expensive tipping culture all together, use less coins and make less change with more even prices.

Sincereley,

the traveler who still uses payphones and doesn’t like heavy pockets

Dear World: Everything I like about you

If you’re ever down or bored, try writing a list like this. And if you do, I’d love to read it! Leave your your “like” list in a comment to share 🙂

 

I like painting my toes red or purple. I like tango dancing in red shoes.

I like sleeping with 3 pillows. I like candle lit rooms. I like meditating in old churches.

I like when butterflies land on me. I like when puppies attack me with love.

I like smoking cigars lit with cedarwood. I like fireplaces that burn real firewood.

I like eating before I go grocery shopping so I don’t buy too much. I like having exact change.

I like swimming naked. I like doing yoga in steam baths. I like hottubbing in the snow. I like towels that are actually bathrobes.

I like walking on the sunny side of the street. I like walking barefoot in sand that squeaks under my steps.

I like hosting parties of 3 or more. I like when awkward things happen but no one feels awkward about it.

I like riding crazy horses. I like feeling my heart pulse in my fingertips. I like listening to music that gives me goosebumps.

I like meeting people for the first time but feeling like Ive known them forever. I like smiling at strangers. I like people who have smile wrinkles around their eyes.

I like when my hair tickles my face from being blown around. I like watching the rain fall from under an umbrella, staying dry.

I like swinging in a hammock strung between two palm trees. I like balconies with a view of the sea.

I like spraying my scarf with 5 different perfumes at duty free shops so I smell really good, but not quite like anyone else. And that’s easy to do since I often find myself stuck in airports with huge duty-free shops where I can go wild experimenting with scent chemistry.