East Africa Travel Advice: how to normalize

Learn to squat for hole-in-the-ground toilets, and always carry toilet paper.

Exercise patience (people talk and work very slowly), and learn to talk and do things slowly yourself.

If you’re going to Tanzania or Kenya, learn some Swahili. If you’re going to Burundi, Congo or Rwanda, learn a lot of French.

People speak quietly, unintelligibly even, so practice focused listening, and never yell or raise your voice to be better understood.

Expect variations on the English words used in different countires. For example, public tansport can be called either taxi, bus, matatu, or special car, but they all refer to slightly different things, ie. A mini-bus, a coach bus, a local bus or a private car. A hotel can refer to a bar, restaurant, or an actual hotel, and I haven’t quite worked out what hostel refers to since there’s lots of them, but the most hostel-looking hostels are usually called guesthouses or backpackers.

Be grammatically flexible: prepare for misspellings, ie. You’ll stay at a ‘resourt’ and buy meat at the ‘butcer,’ get used to different pronunciations, ie. Bon-shuu for bonjour, and some phrases like “hello” are often replied with wrong responses like “fine.” The internet is called “network,” as well as cell phone service, and  you won’t have either “network” in many places outside of urban areas. When you do have network, you’ll realize how much you took for granted the fast internet connections we’ve grown used to.

Bring a book to stay away from your ipod, and buy an unlocked cell phone from 2004 to avoid standing out with a fancy smart phone.

Passerby, independent travelers aren’t the norm yet; people will as where you live or work since East Africa is full of expats, so be prepared to explain your story of why you wanted to backpack through East Africa.

Be prepared for missionaries and their prophecies; many will ask if you are Christian, so either say you are with some evidence to back it up, or learn to enjoy spontaneous bible lessons. These can come from white, American Missionaries from Kentucky, or your bus driver from the Serengeti. Even the most indigenous tribes are often Christian, and Masai’s are often renamed at baptism, so get used to meeting a lot of James’ and John’s.

Throw your East Africa Lonely Planet out the window. The Africa shoestring book as more pages on the Congo and Burundi than the East African book (7 pages on Burundi, and 5 pages on the Congo, a country 40 times the size of Rwanda). My East Africa journey was the first solo-trip I’ve ever done without a guide, and although Frommers and Bradt may be ok, Id still say throw you guidebook out the window – facts and things are so variable and dynamic that by the time anything is published on prices or times or places, they’ve most likely changed, and one person’s recommendation for how, where, when or why to do anything is always different from anothers.

Embrace the beauty of chaos and revel in the disorganization of freedom. You can talk your way in or out of almost anything, remember that no never means no, and become friends with the hard working African mindset that anything can be done, either with enough time or money.

Get used to walking between countries, and always crossing two borders to get across. One to leave the country you’re in, and one to enter the county you’re going to, that will have a $25-100 visa payable only in US dollars.

For Rwanda, most countries need to preapply online for a visa, atleast 24 hours before you arrive. NOTE: this may only be true for a little while, or only true of some borders, but there is no way for me to confirm or deny what the real truth is since the transmission of knowledge seems to act like a skipping stone – only some are privy to the truth, others can only speculate what the next skip is as they sink out of sight. Most visas are around $50, and you can only pay with fresh, new US dollar bills. It’s a different year for each country, but I remember cut off mint dates being 2000, 2004 and 2006.

There’s supposed to be agreement between Uganda/Tanzania/Kenya to offer an informal East African Visa, but Ugandan authorities don’t seem to know anything about it and it only dismisses you from paying a single entry visa more than once while not having to preapply for a multi-entry visa when moving between Tanzania and Kenya. There is still rumor about an actual East Africa Visa among all the Lake Victoria bordering countries, but who knows if and when that will be available.

US Dollars in denominations of $5, $10 or $20 get worse exchange rates, about 25% less, than bills of $50 or $100. ATM’s often give you about 5% less than a cash exchange rate, so come with a lot of US cash, especially since ATMs aren’t so common anywhere but large towns or capital cities.

The entire country of Burundi is off the international banking grid, so no ATMs exist and you cannot use any type of debit or credit card.

I still cant remember straight, but some East African countries drive on the left, others on the right, and both right and left-hand drive cars are used in both environments so it gets very confusing if and when you’re on the wrong side of the road.

You can skip the malarone and other slightly-anti-malarial pills, but sleeping without a mosquito net is not ok- so bring your own for the hotels and homes you stay in that don’t have one. It won’t protect you from the sound of creepy, heavy crawlies around or under your bed, but it will keep small bugs from buzzing around your ears all night and biting up your forehead.

Theft is unusual, if there’s any chance of being caught, since stealing is a big deal, even punishable by death. There was an incidence where a farmer in Tanzania walked to Burundi and stole some cows, and 3 days later, had been found by the Burundian farmers and hacked to pieces with machetes, and another where a young man stole a motorbike, and once caught, was doused in fuel and burned to death, right in the middle of the street.

The buses will always say their leaving soon, but they aren’t. They’ll leave the engine idling so you believe they are, and despite high fuel costs, they make the sacrifice as a tactic to try and get the next passengers onboard, which will make their bus filled first, and thus, their bus leave first. If you ask how long a bus takes, seven people will tell you different times, and all will be telling you driving hours not including stops, or they’ll tell you the distance. Knowing the kilometers unfortunately doesn’t tell you anything, because it depends on the road quality, weather, type of car, and if they have to fill up on fuel or wait for a paid passenger after leaving the bus station.

You’ll miss mzungus, and at the sight of one, stop yourself from pointing/waving and yelling “MZUNGU!” like everyone else does to you since you start to think this is a normal reaction. Then when you do see one, you’ll feel strangely intruded, wondering “what are they doing here?” Other times youll feel relieved, have someone to talk to at a more familiar level.

Know you’ll be experience such intense sensory overload that you actually start becoming desensitized. One may also call this a normalization: Normality shifts, time slows, your reactions mellow, your hygiene standards vanish, your comfort boundary expands, and your tolerance for everything and anything increases. One may also call this transformation a rite of passage, since this is the one piece of advice that you can only really understand after having travelled through East Africa yourself.



Lost in Translation

When I was a child growing up in Iceland, I spoke Icelandic, perfectly and fluently. Then at age 8, after moving to Canada, I almost failed grade 2 because I couldn’t understand why noone would respond to my Icelandic. I eventually spoke english well enough to be comfortable speaking only English, but then forgot all my Icelandic. Then I learned french, a lot of French – one of the perks of emigrating to a bilingual country. I studied abroad, in France and Australia, majored in English, and came out a pretty good bilingual Canadian.

My first, biggest, (quasi) solo travel experience was participating in a 100-day circumnavigation of the world, peetering around the equator on the MV Explorer with 600 other students. The program is called Semester at Sea, and for anyone who has done it or is considering doing it, just know that it will either make you an OCD travel addict or, leave you feeling like you never need to travel again. The former happened to me, so the following summer I embarked on my first, true backpacking trip through South America and the Caribbean for 2 months. The two summers after that I also spent backpacking in South America, so then I learned Spanish. First, it was just travel-survival Spanish, but eventually, I started thinking in Spanish and forgetting my French, even English at times.

Then to make matters even worse, I decided to move back to Iceland in 2008, which was when I realized I’d have to relearn Icelandic. Three years later, Ive only spent a total of 11 months actually in Iceland, in chunks of a few weeks or months here and there, so its coming together, but falls apart every time I go to  a French or Spanish speaking country and my second-language confidence switches between the three. Worst of all, the longer I spend trying to sort out my secondary languages, my english deteriorates, and my handle on the language fluctuates from good to satisfactory, then back to okay. Good friends of mine know this as “Katrin-speak,” and even speak it fluently, since I regularily mix up my syntax, make up words, and switch between languages in a way that they’re used to.

Now, Ive had my first full year away from University, and if it wasn’t for reading and writing in English, Im not sure what would happen to my ‘first’ or ‘strongest’ language. My family in Canada tells me I speak English with an Icelandic accent, Icelanders tell me I speak good Icelandic for a foreigner, and everywhere else people wonder where Im from, and when I answer Iceland, compliment my English for being so strong. This used to go unnoticed, but before I considered it a compliment, realized that the flattery is only intended by those who believe I am an ESL speaker.

So, I clearly have a language identity issue. Now, to make things more interesting, I have a cultural identity issue on top of all this, maybe stemming from the first problem, or perhaps reconfirming it. I’m an Icelandic born, Canadian raised, (soon-to-be) triple-passport holding daughter of a Guyanese mother, and Ive spent more time traveling than staying in any one place for the last three years. In North America, people think I look native American, so when I tell people I’m from Iceland, they picture some northern/Greenlandic indigenous group that I’m most likely descendant from. I only correct them half the time, since when questioned by an Icelander, “Where are you from?” I say Canada, and they probably picture very similar looking native North American ancestors.

Elsewhere, people think I look latin or middle eastern, but in Latin America they call me gringa and in Egypt, a “white” person, which Ive come to learn is a generic term meaning “rich westerner.” When people notice I look darker than most “white” people, I accredit my tanned skin to my mother, who’s from Guyana. “Ghana?” some ask, “No, GUYana” I respond. Then a short pause is followed by “Oh, Guinea!” and again I say, “No, GUY-ANA.” Then to save face, they dismiss their total confusion by asking “what part of Africa is that?” at which point I have to explain its actually in South America, that its not French Guiana, and then ask whether or not they really thought I look African. If so, then I’ve got a real identity problem; one can’t really look ‘African’ since the term only correctly refers to someone who lives in Africa, and the continent encompasses such a diverse and complex mix (of millions) of people, including those infamous ‘whites.’

Identifying with India

My grandmother on my moms side is actually 100% descended from Indian blood. This is a short story I wrote after my first visit to India, in 2006. Things haven’t changed much.


Here I am in the motherland. I am here for only one-hundred-and-nine hours, and that isn’t near enough time to absorb any of this country. I have been forewarned that India is so ugly, I’ll love it. I am surrounded by poverty and disgusted by filth, but there really is something so charming about the discomforts I feel. My experiences are only skin deep, my five senses bombarded, and I have yet to recover from the initial shock. After a while my mind overloads and sensations stop registering at all. This is when I close my eyes, inhale, exhale, and start over, just to feel again.

*                                  *                                  *

I am here in India surrounded by chocolate-colored faces that look wise and worn with crusted Hindi dots between their eyes. Heads like coffee-beans float comedically in their bobble-head shakes, but I have yet to figure out what the nod really means. All the women wear saris, each a different shade of the rainbow adorned with some form of sparkly trim. In Jaipur, the row of markets are equally dazzling in their broad array of bright colors, but when I get closer, I notice the thin film of dirt and dust covering all the items, even the shop owners.

Maneuvering through the streets is a constant struggle. I am easily side tracked by the large array of vehicles encircling me, perplexed at how camels, donkey-carts, 3-wheeled yellow rickshaws, cars, motorcycles and pedestrians can share the road in an organized way. When I think it may be safer to take a rickshaw, I’m nauseated at the abrupt stop/go braking and the last minute diversions from holy cows interrupting our path.

I try doubly hard to enjoy the tourist attractions while tourist-hungry locals intrude on  my peace. At the Taj Mahal in Agra, I give the same cold reaction to middle-aged men elbowing me in the breast trying to sell jingling anklets as I do little children tugging on my sides with the fingertips of one hand moving frantically from their lips to their stomach and back.

My senses again go into overdrive. Not even my imagination is flexible enough to understand the bewildering chaos around me. Blink, inhale, exhale, restart.

*                                  *                                  *

India is hot and sunny, with a beautiful coast line framing the south east city of Chennai. I dare not get too close and ruin the beauty and magic I believe to still exist there, but make sure to visit the beach late one night when everything is safely hidden in a blanket of blackness. I run barefoot across the sand that feels like cold diamonds under my soles and frolic in the shallow wake of the Indian Ocean that I am equally hesitant to see in the light of day. The wave sends a cold chill up my legs that is convincingly refreshing, so I chose not to think about how dirty I know the water really is.

The air in India is a sticky humid like sitting in the backseat of a car with no air-conditioning all day. It tastes like a lung full of carbon monoxide laden with piss and curry. My ears constantly ring with the sound of traffic and the occasional attacks in Hindi and Tamil for food, taxis, or just plain old hand-outs.  Cow shit and garbage blanket the curbs and walkways in a grandeur way, acting as a red carpet walkway for the locals to strut. The streets transform overnight into a large, never ending mattress as the homeless make beds of the concrete. Once the sun breaks, individuals claim parts of the sidewalk as private kitchens or public bathrooms, depending on which corner they wake up on.

Back at my hotel in New Delhi, my cold shower in a bathtub stolen from a spider is the only escape from the suffocating uncleanliness surrounding me. I feel like now I can finally breathe as more and more water streams over my face, down my body, eyes clenched shut.

*                                  *                                  *

The chaos and discomforts are so intense that they invigorate an awakened consciousness within me. I am enamored by all the overwhelming sensations because I have never felt more alive. By the time that I return to my temporary home on the MV Explorer, I’m exhausted.  I have forfeited any attempts to separate my memories, and given up trying to make sense of them. India has become one large sensual blur and I’ve left mentally dysfunctional.

*                                  *                                  *

The chaotic scramble across the country had plummeted my mind and body into thirty-six hours of unconscious recovery. I did not even leave my room to eat; I only woke to use the bathroom. I left India with an upset stomach, a high fever, orange stained henna across my hands and a complicated confusion mildly augmented by the few drinks I had had that last night. I truly had no understanding of what it meant to be part Indian until visiting India and experiencing the culture firsthand. Although I was not fully prepared for the intensity of India, I learned to find the beauty hidden within the layers of dirt and poverty. Even after being hurled into extreme culture shock, I could learn to love this place. As much as I wanted to leave and never return, there is an unconditional love that I have for my heritage that has maintained my affection for India. It’s in my blood, it’s part of who I am, staring me straight in the eyes, slapping me upside the head in a painful reality. Blink, inhale, exhale…

This is my heritage, this is my identity. I loved it as much as I hated it.

The Icelandic Staycation – why traveling around our own country has become cool

Iceland’s tourism industry has been booming recently, since Icelandic vacations have been on sale ever since 2008 when the kronur exchange rate took a nose dive.

Iceland’s typical tourism appeal include all the clichés of “The Land of Fire and Ice” and our world famous northern lights, but some visitors take Icelandair’s offer for a free stopover in Reykjavik just to see the airport, the Blue Lagoon, the nightlife, and, perhaps the Golden Circle on a guided tour. The more adventurous or spendy come for a week or two, bike or horseback ride crazy places, climb mountains, hike spewing volcanoes, or snowmobile across the largest glacier in Europe, and end up seeing more of Iceland than many natives have ever seen.

Many locals in Reykjavik are born and bred city folk, who actually don’t travel around the country that much, but so many have taken a cheap flight to London or Copenhagen, or a holiday in Spain or New York more frequently than getting up north to Akureyri. However, with the “kreppa” and our crappy kronur, the “Stay-cation” is becoming an attractive alternative. The ecological footprint of Iceland is already pretty big already (renewable energy can’t cover us all), so instead of taking another carbon heavy flight a few hours to Europe, perhaps this article can inspire you to just take the bus/car/ferry a few hours to a magical corner of Iceland.

I’ve been traveling around the world for the last few years, and 63 countries later, I’m still most excited to come back to Iceland and travel at home. Here’s a list of my top five Icelandic destinations, and what to do when there, in hopes of giving passer-by’s and Reykjavik locals an idea of where to go next.


The old homes in Flatey, depicting typical turn of the 20th century architecture in Iceland

one of the many shipwrecks surrounding Flatey's shallow coast

Between the wonderous Snæfellsness Peninsula and the West Fjords is Flatey, a tiny Island in Breiðafjörður – a 2011contendor for UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. In the long winter months, its almost totally deserted, with only a few resident farmers and their sheep, but in the summer its a bustling little tourist town when all the locals inhabit their summerhouses and run a few restaurants, shops and accomodation services out of their 100+ year old homes. Get there with a Baldur ferry from quaint little Stykkishólmur, or Brjánslækur in the north. Sailing through the archipelago in Breiðarfjörður is definitely its own highlight. Best thing to do there? Take a walk around the Flatey Nature Reserve bird watching, or, if you´re feeling polar worthy, go sea swimming in Stykkishólmur when you´re waiting for the ferry.


If you take the old way to Isafjordur, you'll drive this dirt road and arrive into the West Fjords with the most beautiful view

fishing boats docked in Bolungarvik

Most of us know about Ísafjörður, and one way to get there is to fly into the death-defying runway that convinces all the passengers on board you´re about to crash into the side of the mountain. The other way is to drive, since the road has just recently been paved all the way and shortened by a few kilometers. This way you get to see a few more of the tiny fishing villages and farmer towns along the way, my favourite being Bolungarvík at the end of the road. Best things to do when roadtripping in the West Fjords? Stop at all the natural hot pots hidden along the side of the highway and romp around the empty country side naked. Or just go fishing.

3. Grímsey

Puffins perching along the volcanic rock columns forming the steep cliffs around Grimsey's coast

This is the only part of Iceland truly in the arctic, with the northern tip of it crossing the 66th parallel. Like Flatey, you can walk around the whole thing in an hour or so, and the jagged cliffs forming the coastline are home to many nesting birds. There is a huge puffin population, infinitely outnumbering the 100 human inhabitants living in Sandvik. Take the ferry from Dalvík (with connecting bus service to Akureryi), and if you want to do as the locals do, harness yourself in some rope and scale the cliffs to pick seabirds eggs. What to do then? Eat one, raw.

4. Jökulársalón

Glacier Heaven - Jokulsarslon

By far the most picturesque place in Iceland, be dazzled by Vatnajökull glacier breaking off and melting into a ´glacier river lagoon.´ You´ll feel like you’ve reached Antarctica, and the water is so blue it rivals the Blue Lagoon. What to do there? Hike a glacier. Or just take a glacier cruise. And stay in nearby Skaftafell, a beautiful national park comprising part of the glacier and actually boasting real, wooded forest.


Haimey, last May, with the dark and destructive ash cloud of Eyjafjallajokull looming uncofmortably close

Vestmannæyjar are a group of spectacular islands sticking out of the sea, huge and steep, topped with lots of green grass (no trees, of course) and white fluffy speckles (sheep). The new harbor in Landeyahöfn means Herjólfur ferry only takes 20 minutes to cross the often sea-sickening journey, instead of the old 2 hr crossing, so its more accessible than ever. What to do when there? Smoke a puffin. Just don’t get stuck there next time Eyjafjallajökull erupts and covers them in a cloud of ash again.

While most of Iceland’s population is in south west Iceland, there’s so much more to see beyond that, and the amazing thing is it´s still a small enough country that you could actually see it all. Here’s to more  travel around this beautiful country!

My Thoughts on Cuba

the view of what looks like havan ruins, but is actually the neighborhood directly beside the old centerCuba is a crumbling colonial city – literally. The few buildings that comprise the center of Havana and also the small town of Trinidad are immaculately kept buildings, preserved in their same state since colonial rule, but the rest of Havana and all the more rural towns are filled with buildings that are literally falling apart. The stereotypical colour array of brightly painted houses  only applies to the lucky buildings, and the ones that are in the middle of being restored look quite different as colourless facades completely gutted and surrounded by scaffolding old enough that vines have overtaken them. The deteriorating state of homes may have something to do with the fact that they are all owned by the state; individuals are allocated housing and have no ownership to the property, and of course when something isn´t yours, its harder to motivate someone to take better care of it!

The women are as colourful as the houses, wearing a lot of bright, bold colours like red, yellow and white, that stick out beautifully against their dark tans. Some of the people are actually quite fair; green and blue eyed beauties represent the many that are actually of European decent. The antique cars that literally fill the city are also as colourful, immaculately restored to look like they’ve been newly made in the 60’s just yesterday. The rest of the 50 year old cars, mostly Russian Lada’s, are barely running, heavily pollutant, and definitely wouldn’t be street legal in any other country.

People in cuba really do smoke a lot of cigars, but not the Cohibas or Montecristos that are exported for foreigners; they smoke 1MD (moneda nacional peso – the equivalent of 5 cents) cigars that I think are just as tasty, so long as you don’t get one that is totally dried out. You can also buy ridiculously cheap churros and ice cream, but only if you are far away from tourist central, since they will charge foreigners the peso equivalent in CUC (aka pesos convertibles) which are actually worth 25 times more than one MD peso. This is an extremely confusing pricing system, since both are referred to as ´pesos´but one is pinned to the US dollar and actually converted at a rate slightly stronger than it, and the other is their ´old´peso currency, but both still circulate as legal tender. The most ludicrous business in Havana is getting on the internet; since it was just recently legalised to have computers and internet connection, expect to pay around 4 or 5 euro per hour!

I visited the tranquil Cementerio de Colón, which was extremely beautiful, but some aspect of reverence was lost when a man in flip flops walked up to the cemetery wall (from who knows where since there was just a highway beside it) and threw a dead chicken over it. Weird.

Traveling as a woman in Cuba isn’t easy if its your time of the month since they do not sell tampons, anywhere. Couchsurfing is also, for the most part, non existent since it is illegal for Cubans to host foreigners. And buses and trains operate with extreme infrequencies, with posted schedules a rarity, and even if they were accessible, tourists get different bus services and ticket prices – about 25 times more the cost for long distance buses that only run once or twice a day.

All in all it was a wonderful trip, but one of the more difficult latin american countries to backpack through since little tourism infrastructure exists outside of Havana or the resort hotels. People outside of tourism hot spots are not used to seeing tourists, and definitely not aware of how the industry works, and frankly, not interested in finding out since the laws on interacting, hosting or charging tourists are extremely strict; instead of looking like walking wallets, most tourists probably just look like a reason to get in trouble. The quietude I experienced from almost noone hassling me for my money was something that has never happened to me while traveling, and at times I enjoyed it, but other times, it made travel a little more difficult since people almost totally ignore you and are much less inclined to help you or spend their time talking to you if you have questions! Kind of bizarre, but I don´t blame them, and when I did get to interact with the locals, they were an extremely happy, friendly bunch.

Niagara Falls

I spent a few days in Toronto on my way from Cuba back to Iceland, and it was a cold, windy weekend. I was staying with a friend who lives a stones throw away from King and Queen street – the main shopping drags – as well as a few blocks from the CN tower, so I couldn’t justify taking any public transport and spent a few days just walking around in the blistering cold. I was wearing my Olympic gear jacket and hat since it was the only winter wear I packed with me and felt like that kid who was wearing clothes that were ´so yesterday.´ My friends lived in one of a set of 2 storey, 150 year old brick buildings that looked like they were straight out of the Mary Poppins movie set!

I wanted to go up the CN tower but it cost a cool $25 just to take the elevator up to the top and look through the glass floor apparently many people dont even have the stomach for. I instead observed it in all its glory from outiside, and was almost blown over by winds so strong that taking a photo of that was difficult.

The highlight of my visit to Toronto was a daytrip I took to Niagara falls, about an hour and a half drive away and directly on the border between Ontario, Canada and NY, USA. It was even more windy and cold there, with some of the water from the falls being blown back up instead of falling down, and coming right over the observation deck and soaking everyone and their cameras. It was soooo horribly cold, and you couldn’t even look directly at the falls since water was literally being thrown in your face, so Im not sure I got the best Niagara experience, but I did have my waterproof camera and managed to get a few shots. Even if you walked a few hundred meters away from the falls along the cliff edge, still with a good view of the falls, it was raining, and with the wind combined, raining horizontally, still going straight into your face. It was like battle of the elements as I struggled to walk forward and in a straight line with winds strong enough to blow you over. The American Falls, a set of falls on the American side of the river and half a km away from the main horseshoe falls, were more tame, and also far away enough not to soak me, so I took a couple photos of that too, but the sight of casinos, and other highrise buildings in the background in Buffalo took something away from this ´natural wonder´attraction.

Vancouver 2010: an Olympic Party

The fireworks set off outside BC Place, where the closing ceremonies took place inside

The fireworks set off outside BC Place, where the closing ceremonies took place inside

During the winter olympics that just passed, Vancouver experienced the biggest party of its life. It traditionally has no festivals, concerts or carnivals that are large-scale enough to bring hundreds of thousands into the city, causing every hotel, resturant and bar to be packed to capacity 24/7. In addition, road closures and traffic bans were made, allowing the same thousands of people to flood the streets for any combination of shopping, walking, dancing, drinking or celebrating, and overflowing all the buses and sky-trains, and sea-buses despite increases in frequency.

On big game days, mostly men’s Canadian hockey, but also some skating events, and other days for no reason at all except that it was the olympics, you would feel the Canadian love simply by the sheer masses in the streets wearing red, screaming “Go Canada” and being overly happy. Everytime Canada won a medal, one of the large cruise ships parked in the harbour would blow its horn loud and clear, so that everyone in the streets erupted in cheers, whether or not they knew what medal or event they were yelling for. During the qualification playoff, quarter final, semifinal and gold medal hockey game, this would happen every single time Canada even scored a goal, so the entire city, whether they wanted to or not, followed the game’s progress until Canada won, and the same chorus of cheers lasted just a bit longer and louder to let everyone know the game was over and subsequently, that is was party time.

On the last day of the Olympics, Sunday February 28th, the combination of the Men’s hockey final and the explosive, impressive closing ceremonies sent the city into a full day (I’m talking an 8 am party start time) and night (til 4 am the next morning) long celebration for the most successful Canadian Olympics ever, with Canadian pride pouring thick and the colours of red and smell of alcohol inescapable in all the streets of downtown Vancouver. Im sure this happened in other Canadian cities too, but what was so suprising was the intense silence that followed Monday morning. No more fans, no more athletes, no more red, no more Canada cheers; the entire city seemed like a ghost town as businesses and people returned to their regular, every day lives, and traffic began to fill the pedestrian-empty streets.

Goodbye Winter Olympics, we loved having you!

Patagonia: Terra del Fuego & Ushuaia

To actually get to Antarctica, I had to fly south from Buenos Aires to the small port of Ushuaia, affectionately called the Southernmost city (not town, which is in Chile) in the world. Not so proudly, it was also once the city of condemnation for criminals, where all of Argentina’s worst criminals were sent to be isolated in the cold, lonely island province of Terra del Fuego. It was called ‘Land of Fire’ because the first european explorers to discover it sailed along its shores noticing many fires and smoke rising from the land since the indigenous population there used fire often in their day-to-day lives. More than using fire for heat, they used it to cook, since they were actually an evolved type of man that barely felt cold – despite the cold temperatures and snow, they lived in small, uninsulated huts made of wood, wore no clothes, and ate over 10,000 calories a day that they easily burned up without being overweight at all.

Ushuaia, also nicknamed the End of the World, is the only city in Argentina that is actually on the west side of the Andes, forcing people to cross the massive mountain range and all its glaciers to get to mainland Argentina. Since the province is also technically an island, they have to cross into Chile before being able to sail across to mainland Argentina. Their tourist season runs all year round and is the main industry there, since they have the ski mountains to appeal during the winter months, and the 40,000+ cruise passengers visiting in the summer months to board their ships that sail to Antarctica. It still has a small-city feel, with unpaved roads, and the little bit of ‘rough-around-the-edges’ underdevelopment that still exists probably disappears under a blanket of snow every winter.

the andesTerra del Fuego National Park was one of the most beautiful parks I have ever seen, lush in mosses, vibrant flours, big forests, with colours of green, blue and brown dramatically lit by the long sun-hours. There is only about 1/3 of the park that you can access by car/bike, and the rest you could get lost in hiking around for weeks. The andes, glaciers, and not far-off Chile creates a spectacular backdrop, and without any fences or farms, horses seem to roam freely in open fields, bunnies hop around grazing, and breeding ducks and big hawks litter the ponds and air everywhere. If i could do it again, I would have given myself a lot more time, supplies and film to have spent weeks there, roaming the coast, fields and mountainsides for days on end trying to capture the natural beauty I find myself having a hard time trying to explain now.

Uruguay's Many Sides

Punta del Este's Atlantic beachAfter a week in Argentina, we traveled for 5 days through Uruguay which required almost as much travel time as actual down time since we ferried from Buenos Aires to the historical town of Colonia del Sacramento, bussed to Montevideo, and then finally onto Punta del este on the South East corner or Uruguay where the beach actually opens to a mixture of river and the Atlantic Ocean before coming all the way back to Buenos Aires in only 5 days.

Colonia was a beautiful small town, with cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, old vintage cars and a sleepy feel which was slightly disrupted by the really windy day we had there. It is only a 1 hr ferry from Buenos Aires to get there, and many tourists from Buenos Aires make it there just for a day trip to say they set foot on Uruguaian soil.

The entire downtown core is walkable in 5 mins accross in either direction, so after one night and a day there, we carried on to Punta del Este, a much larger, metropolitan and modern tourist destination that lies on a peninsula of land surrounded almost 360 degrees by water. The beach on the west side technically sits on the Rio de la Plata, and the beach half a kilometer away on the east side is the Atlantic side, with big waves, great surf, and a bluer tinge to the water. The main strip down the centre of town almost feels like Miami beach even Vegas, or some smiliar, busy, bright-light party town, with lots of shopping, nightlife, casions and tourist-infrastructure.

Prices were not cheap here, or atleast not comparable to the rest of Uruguay, and because of this, in addition to being there during the height of tourist season, we paid $25 per person for a hostel bed each, my bed being the top bunk in a set of 3 (inches from the roof) with 9 people in a small, windowless, basement room, and Steve’s bed being a mattress in the hallway beside all the storage lockers. We made the most of it by trying to cook a delicious steak dinner in their kitchen (also in a hallway) but ran into some complications when their only knife broke and we barely had enough pots, plates or utensils to prepare a meal for two.

Finally there was Montevideo, a big, sprawling city that was much more developed than I expected, with an old, historical core and then a new, more european-feeling, modern area surrounding it. We couchsurfed with a couple people who lived 3 blocks from the beach – the crowning jewel of Montevideo which makes it almost a better city to live in than Buenos Aires. The beach had perfectly soft sand, made of the tiniest grains that sparkled like pieces of gold in the sunlight, and the water would change from shades of brown to blue depending on how much river water could reach the banks after mixing with the open ocean water  a few kilometers away. It was strange to see the murky river water acting tidal, small waves of the Rio de la Plata crashing on the shore.

Uruguay definitely impressed, feeling just a little warmer, cleaner, and more expensive than Buenos Aires, but perhaps it was just my bias from loving the beach time I had while in the city when Buenos Aires’ Puerto Madero riverbank teased as the only waterfront area with no swimming access.


some crabeater seals on a drift icebergI wanted to go to Antarctica for a few reasons; first, because I am studying ecotourism for my master’s thesis and wanted to do a case study, second, because I LOVE penguins, and thirdly, because it is the 7th and last continent I had to visit. I actually booked this trip by accident, or at least with very little planning, since I was talked into going by a cute little japanese travel agent that gave me a price deal that anyone who is obsessed with traveling would have been crazy to turn down.

I sailed for 9 days from Ushuaia, starting due east out the Beagle Channel to avoid crossing into Chilean water (which is literally a few hundred meters away at certain points) on a 200 person capacity reinforced-hull cruise ship named the Clipper Adventurer with Quark Expeditions. Most of the other 120 passengers were either retired, rich, an American couple or questionably too old to handle the trip, leaving me as the youngest, brokest, loneliest passenger… until I made friends with the comparably aged crew. There were these two token ladies on the ship who always wore the same colour; one was always in yellow, the other, always in purple, and I mean head to toe in colour – shoes, pants, jacket, gloves, scarf, hat, glasses and even nail polish.

I shared a room with two hilarious Chinese women, who insisted they were from Alabama everytime you asked them where they came from even though they are American immigrants from Beijing with the furthest thing from a southern American accent. They were sea-sick the entire drake passage, as was most of the ship, and rightuflly so since the 5 m swells rocked our little ship, despite the stabilizers it claims to have. Our room was comfortable, and for the most part the ship was really luxurious (excpet for a minor issue with our toilet seat falling off) with the most amazing 3 course, porcelain plated meals a budget traveler could ask for (which was included in the cost of the curise).

Vernadsky, the Ukraine Antarctic research station we visitedMy first penguin sighting happened a few hours after departure, on a lighthouse island in the middle of the Channel. I smoked a couple cigars on the chilly deck, and managed to find a comfortable place to hang my hammock to try and counterbalance the sea-sickening rocking. Once we made it to the Antarctic continent 2 days later, we made 8 landings over the course of 4 days, visiting some active research stations, and other abandoned research stations or places that have been turned into museum-like historical points of interest.

There were all types of seals, lots of whale sightings, and the most dramatic, beautiful landscape of massive mountain peaks, thousand-year old glaciers, and icebergs the size of our ship. I saw thousands upon thousands of more penguins, of all shape and size, mostly Gentoo’s, Adelie’s, and Chinstraps, but also one each of a Macaroni penguin, King penguin and Emperor penguin, all of whom were far away from any of their species or breeding grounds. We had a polar plunge where 30 brave souls actually jumped into the water – it wasn’t just freezing, it was below freezing! We visited one Ukraine research station and got our passports stamped as if we had cleared customs in Ukraine – very cool.

lots of gentoo penguins and their chicks, with the Clipper Adventurer in the backgroundThe sail home was suprisingly calm, with barely any waves – very atypical of the Drake. Once arriving back Ushuaia, it was hard to lose your sea-legs on stable land, and the faint smell of exhaust from cars almost made me choke – confusingly stifling after a week of the freshest, cleanest, cool Antarctic air. I flew straight back home after this, 38 hours and 4 flights later from 54 degrees latitude south to 49 degrees latitude north. Going through the airport in Buenos Aires was a weather shock, with the humid, tropical air equally stifling and the torrential rain soaking me in seconds as I walked from the plane onto the tarmac to get into the terminal. I managed to miss one connecting flight in Houston, but got rerouted through San Francisco, upgraded to first class, and then had 2 hrs to spare to meet my bestfriend for lunch at In-n-Out burger.

Finally getting back home was a relief, but I am definitely still daydreaming about the surreal landscape of Antarctica.