Of all the places we have travelled, of all the trips that we have taken, and of all the adventures we’ve had with our children over the years. THIS is my favourite photo.
It’s not a particularly “good” photo. Our daughter is blurry. The light is too dark. The girl in the background is rubbing her eyes. And you can’t even see the soccer ball. But to me, this candid picture sums up so many important things about how we travel, why we travel, our parenting philosophy and our own personal values and beliefs. It reminds me of our personal growth, the way we pushed our comfort zones and limits, the way we redefined “normal” for our little family unit. And most importantly, it captures a moment in time that is pregnant with possibility, a window into a future that was yet to come.
This photo was taken in 2002 in the heart of a Malaysian National Park called Taman Negara. This was our first real stop, after acclimatizing to the 15 hour time change in Kuala Lumpur, on what amounted to our first BIG trip with children. We had saved and saved in order to take them on a 2 month backpacking adventure, and by the time they were 5 and 7 years of age, we were finally ready to take the plunge.
We were SO ready for this trip, having put our travelling on hold for so many years. And the kids were SO green… so innocent and so unexposed to the ways of the world. And so, this photo, from the first stop on our trip, represents a moment in time that was FULL of possibility! That feeling of novelty and of difference, tinged with a good perspective-jarring, reality-checking dose of culture shock, are what lie behind the pixels of this photo for me.
Taman Negara Park covered 4,343 square kilometres, and as such, was a vast tract of land, protecting a wide swath of tropical rainforest that is over 130 million years old. It was ancient. It was massive. It was so tantalizingly unfamiliar.
We had come to Taman Negara to go to a research station’s canopy walkway, a great series of catwalks and suspension bridges that went from tree to tree, high above the forest floor, to see firsthand what life was like high in the upper reaches of a rainforest. In our time there, we romped across those suspended, plank covered ladders in the sky, we explored the rainforest, scampering along its trails, we went to hides to try to spot elusive animals (tough to do successfully with young, active kids on hand!) and we took plenty of boat rides on lots of little excursions up and down the Tembeling River and along its little tributaries.
In this photo we were staying in what was then, a well off-the-beaten track place called Nusa Camp that was only accessible by travelling upstream in a rustic canoe with an affixed motor. The boat was so heavy and crude, and yet it went up each set of rapids with ease until we were finally at Nusa Camp.
Starting our backpacking adventure at Taman Negara turned out to be a fantastic way to begin our trip because it was so very, very different from anything that our children had seen or experienced before! The kids were five and seven years of age at the time, and because having children imposed some rather tight financial restrictions on us as young parents, the lean years prior to this trip had been restricted to simple camping trips or visiting friends and family in Canada to satisfy our inner travel bugs.
For us, this trip was a very big deal. And I’d be kidding myself if I said we weren’t a little nervous! Friends and family thought we were brave & a bit nuts (at best) and careless & reckless (at worst). But as we came to realize during this trip and others that followed over the next decade and a half, we really had nothing to fear. Things work out. Lessons are learned. You meet great people. The world becomes more fascinating. And the fabric of who we are weaves itself more richly in the process.
This picture captures so many firsts for our little family unit. It was our first time in a rainforest, and the wildlife was incredible. The noise of the cicadas at night set off siren calls that were louder than any city fire truck: we had no idea that nighttime in the jungle was so noisy! We saw our first banana tree and came to love the tiny fingerling bananas of tropical Asia, trying them here for the first time. We wrestled our shoelaces away from our first big rainforest bird: an audacious hornbill that the Nusa Camp staff had named ChiChi. The kids delighted in the resident porcupine that waddled around camp each day. The backs of our fingers broke out in beads of sweat from humidity unlike anything we had ever experienced before! We ate our first sticky rice and devoured our first meals out of bamboo canes, roasted on the coals of the camp fire. So many firsts….
Nusa Camp, tucked safely beneath the understory, was so dark because the plant growth was so intense and easily blocked out the harsh sunlight above. We were shocked by the way that the soil was not mucky or damp despite the torrential rains that came, almost like clockwork as they do near the equator, around noon each day. We stayed in a cabin that was perched on stilts over the sandy jungle floor in the densely forested floodplain of the river. The pathway outside the door, lined ever so quaintly with little stones brought up from the rivers’ edge, was a great place for the kids to find geckos and they chased and chased them. Just at the brink of nightfall each day, the spider monkeys descended into a gigantic tree at the centre of the camp and we delighted in watching them screech and play, tearing through the tree tops, racing up and down the trunks, and somersaulting over each other on the ground… and each evening, the children acted like spider monkeys in their play! So many firsts….
Nestled deep in the rainforest, the camp was run by an extended Muslim family and we learned to speak to them with smiles and gestures as they knew no English, and we could speak only polite greetings and count to 10 in their language. And yet, the children had no trouble playing with each other. They dug roads and tunnels in the sand together for the little matchbox cars. They made leaf boats and leaf and stick houses for little plastic dinosaurs and the cicada exoskeletons they found. They played happily and innocently, with much laughter. Despite not being able to speak each others’ languages, the children spoke non-verbally with tremendous ease. And of course, they all spoke the universal language of soccer!
Travelling with children opens doors into the day to day life of the world. When you travel with young children, people are far more welcoming and accepting, and as a result, you get to participate in intimate moments that you might otherwise never even know existed. We were lucky to be in the camp during Ramadan, and with our children playing each day with the local kids at camp, paving the way for our family’s acceptance, we were invited to experience some of the traditions surrounding this most important religious celebration of the year for the muslim people of the camp during the time of Hari Ryah, giving us tremendous insight into a culture about which we knew so little at the time. Another, very lucky “first.”
This photo has our daughter, right in there, rough-housing and playing soccer with two children of the camp, Allo and Hidayat, in the dirt clearing, barefoot. Not a care in the world. Simply living in the moment. Our son, feeling a little timid and shy, holds dad’s hand on the edges of the clearing, taking it all in, summoning the courage to join in, his body language radiating cautious curiosity. Dad is there, silently giving him strength and courage with his presence, and the gentle clasp of his hand, on the edge of the action. Or perhaps dad is holding himself back, being a soccer fiend at that time in his life, probably desperately wanting to play.
One of the reasons we’d chosen to come to this area of the world was to encounter difference, and as such, it was really important to us that our children see and experience the ways in which other people (and other cultures) live with less: less material goods, less wealth, less scheduled activity, less education, and less “opportunity.” Our lives in North America are so very, very comfortable. To me, this photo represents the way in which, in our first week of backpacking with the kids, we had achieved our main goal: we had hoped that by travelling in southeast Asia with our children to off-the-beaten path places, they would see, first-hand, and live the “making do with less” principle.
We took a chance. We risked. We did it.
This photo sits in the main hallway of our home in Canada as a reminder to our family of so many things. I have to believe that what it represents to me is woven into the fabric of who our children truly are as young adults. Despite the travels we did before having kids, this… THIS moment… is the beginning of it all.
This is IT.
This is the foundation of all the travel adventures and family times to come.
Snapshots is a regular feature, running every Tuesday on my blog when we are not away on our adventures. Each snapshot revisits some of my favourite photographs and memories of our years spent discovering the unique places of the world and the hidden recesses of our innermost selves.
Over the years, we have made a conscious decision to spend as much time as we could, traveling.
It began with a year-long backpacking adventure in 1989 that gave us such a taste for adventure, discovery, independence, self-reliance and personal growth. It continued through the early years of raising our children, where we wanted our kids to experience the way other people in this world live (and materially, often live with less than we do in our North American lives). And it continues to this day, now that we have come out the other side of our parenting journey with independent adult “children” (let’s face it, they’ll always be kids to me!) and more time on our hands to explore and adventure.
There are many ways to explore this world, and one of the most important ones involves learning from and being inspired by the adventures, experiences, perspectives, ideas and thoughts of others. It is an essential part of the way we like to travel.
Recently we attended some book talk and movie sessions at the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival. An annual two-week long event here in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, it is something I highly recommend attending.
There, you get to meet and be inspired by authors, adventurers and film makers from around the globe. Most importantly, you are introduced to new ideas, places and experiences, delivered by people who have a passion for what they do, how they do it and where they go.
Some of it is sheer greatness, and some absurd, half-baked insanity; nevertheless, being touched by their passion and enthusiasm for living is truly inspiring.
In our modern world, where information, ideas and opinions can be almost instantly known with a few clicks on a smart device, travelling and exploring is a relatively safe endeavour. You can surf the world from the comfort of an armchair, you can read about the experiences of others in travel blogs, you can go on pre-arranged trips, or you can backpack and see the world with no fixed itinerary (something that is surprisingly easy to do in today’s modern age).
BUT, there are few people left in this world who are true explorers. You know the type I mean… people who, like the explorers in the days of old, back when the world was thought to be flat, would risk everything, leaving their families and friends and their way of life at home, and hop on a ship and sail away, knowing that they’d likely fall off the edge of the earth, die of starvation and meet almost certain death.
There aren’t many opportunities to do that today, and there aren’t many people like this in our modern world.
Sarah loves to walk, and has been walking, as a National Geographic Explorer, for 20 years, crisscrossing the globe on foot on tremendously long expeditions. We attended her talk at the Banff Centre where she shared stories about her adventures, on foot & alone on unsupported expeditions, crossing the Australian outback over 17 months, and walking from Siberia through to the tip of Thailand over the course of 3 years.
Every once in a while, Nat Geo flies in a videographer to document her adventures and her survival skill techniques, and those are the images that filled the giant screen in the auditorium as she talked and talked without notes and with incredible passion about her adventures.
Do I want to undergo the extreme deprivation and the adventures that she experienced? Absolutely not! But I found her bravery and her passion, inspiring.
She is a woman who travels alone, often disguised as a man, in extremely dangerous conditions where her personal safety is most definitely at risk. (This is light-years away from my comfort zone!) How she had the strength of mind and character to continue her expedition through the Mongolian Steppes, being hunted down and taunted by men on horseback each night for weeks, I do not know. How she had the strength and of mind and body to haul a cart full of water across the Gobi Desert, lay flat on the ground to wait out wild desert sand and lightning storms, or go for days without being able to find or successfully catch food in some of the exceptionally remote, dry areas of the Australian Outback without calling for a rescue, I do not know.
There’s nothing like going and hearing someone talk about an experience that is so totally different from your own. While they may not inspire you to do what they have done or make you want to emulate or experience their unique blend of craziness, listening to them talk about it still makes you think outside of your own comfortable box. It lets you entertain a different world full of possibility.
And sometimes hearing a little jewel, a little tidbit at the right time in your life resonates deeply with you. Here are a few gems that she shared with us:
“We have to live this life. Eat it. Eat every second of it.”
As you can well imagine, much of Sarah’s time is spent trying to find food in extremely wild & uninhabitable places. So she is understandably obsessed with food. But I love her metaphor. It doesn’t just tell you to live life. Underneath her words she is demanding that you embrace it and experience it with a sense of urgency, eagerness and desire, implying quick, enthusiastic action, no matter what you do. I love it.
“If you do not see an option, you are not looking wide enough. Open your vision.”
Putting herself in extreme landscapes and having to survive has fine-tuned her outlook on life. Her experiences have taught her that there IS a way out of any situation, whether you have dengue fever and are surrounded by rebels and find yourself at gunpoint in the remote jungles of Laos, or you find that crocodiles in the outback wetlands have snatched all the fish that you catch, leaving you with nothing to eat.
“You need determination. You have to be okay with you. You have to have a mission.”
We all have internal, critical voices that we need to quiet. And we all need to have a purpose in life, something that fuels and inspires us to really live this life. Hers may seem crazy when seen through the images she puts up on the screen during her stories, but she sees her life mission as being the bridge between humans and nature. Helping us to see that we are all connected is key for her.
I like the notion that we have to have determination… and that we need to use that determination not just with our mission and with developing a sense of purpose in our lives, but with using it to come to a place where we are okay with who we are at our essential cores.
“It’s amazing to be outside your comfort zone. You learn, you grow. You become beautiful. Inside and out.”
This is something that she was insistent about. Deliberately making ourselves uncomfortable, or putting ourselves in what most would consider harms way, is essential for our own inner growth. It gives us confidence. It really does make us shine.
The funny thing is, that when I think back on all of our years of travelling, it is the uncomfortable moments… the times when we had to work the hardest to find food or shelter (backpacking in Egypt and living on $4/day for everything), or when we had to get from one place to another (as we did going from Budapest to Denmark without currency or a way to buy food for the journey, leaving on a Sunday as we did with nothing for sale anywhere in the early days of that amazing, post-cold-war city)…. these are the experiences that we remember the most vividly. And they’re what we remember the most fondly too… not that day cozy, relaxing, lying on the beach in Thailand, but the day spent running as leaches were dropping out of the trees and bushes, falling down the necks of our shirts and finding their way between our toes as we hiked along a picturesque river nearby. Do you know what I mean?
“Life. You’re in or your out. We are just a little bit in this universe. But how amazing is that?”
I love to hike in gigantic landscapes. Hiking in the mountains and taking all day to get to their peaks makes me feel alive. It also makes me feel very small, and reminds me of my insignificant place in this world. Sarah sees our “little bits” not as negatives, but as fantastic things. We need to embrace our small place in the world with enthusiasm and really live.
“Boredom. This is not such a thing. We are like an onion. Peel back the layers to the core of who you are. We are all born explorers. As we grow up we lose our connection together. And then we get bored.”
One of the people in the audience asked Sarah if, with no books to read, devices to use or people to talk to on her epic journeys if she ever got bored, and then what she did to overcome that boredom. Her reaction was instantaneous… and hilarious!
She shouted, “There is no such thing!”
[Then she paused, reconsidered, and went on to explain….]
Her solution is to look around you and see your connection to the natural elements of this world (the land, the creatures, the elements like sand and water) and to the people of each place that you find yourself in. Connection is the key. Stay connected and the questions will come, the learning will come, the comfort will come, your curiosity will develop… and you will never be bored.
“Find the best environment in which to grow. That’s my recommendation.”
It’s quite an environment Sarah has chosen for herself in which to grow, live and contribute to this world. One look at the photos in her book shows you the extreme discomfort in which she choses to live. And yet, it works for her. She knows that this life is not for everyone (and certainly not for more than a handful of people on this planet), but she is confident that everyone can find their best environment in which to grow.
Her parting words:
“Go out of this room. Live your wildest dream. Every second counts.”
So don’t just travel. Explore the world of ideas and experiences of others. By reading this blog and the blogs of others you’re already well on your way. If you’re into mountain culture, here is the Banff Centre’s List of books to inspire mountain exploration.
Next, try something that pushes the limits of your comfortable world.
Explore. Grow. And enjoy the journey.
Every culture, every country, every group of people has its quirks. Viewed from the outside, these common, every-day figures of speech, actions, or things considered normal seem strange, quaint, even bizarre.
I thought you might enjoy some of the amusing things that we saw or experienced when we were in Peru: things we felt were just south of normal. Keep in mind, these are only amusing to us, because of the cultural lens through which we see them. In no way do I mean to make fun of Peruvians, I just want to share some of their idiosyncrasies.
According to Carlos, a guide we used a few times while in Cusco, when you get a car in Peru, it is a BIG deal. This is because the middle class is very new to Peru’s society. It has only just recently become possible for people to work, and use the money they make from their work, to purchase cars.
Whether a new or new-to-you car, cars in Peru receive wildly elaborate blessings and celebrations. Carlos, explained this strange phenomenon to us as we passed car after car decorated like they were participating in a parade on our way out of the Sacred Valley one Sunday. There’s a very Hindu feeling to the way they are decorated.
In the ceremony, new cars & trucks are sprinkled with holy water (and sometimes beer) by a priest as a way to guarantee safe travel. To see what happens in this ceremony, visit this excellent blog post where the lucky photographer was there at the right time, and in the right place to capture it all, beautifully, through his lens.
Carlos said that while he was not Catholic, he, like all Peruvians, felt that it was important to mark the occasion in some way. It just so happened that he picked us up that particular day in his new car, and when we stopped at a roadside cevicheria to eat lunch, he surprised us by disappearing, dashing down the street, and buying two huge bottles of cusqueña beer! He then popped open the hood of his truck, shook a bottle of beer, and sprayed it all over the engine block. Then he took the second bottle and sprayed it all over his truck’s exterior: the windows & windshield, the doors and truck bed, the tires and side mirrors. All the while, we were videotaping with his phone so his mom could see that he was blessing it properly.
It seemed as though every morning in Cusco we woke far too early to the sounds of marching band music and firecrackers, like the sound of gunfire, coming up from the streets below. They filtered up from the walled-in school grounds. They drifted into our sleep from the large, paved church grounds (of which there are so many in Cusco), from the city’s central square, and from the streets themselves, beginning almost daily, at sunrise.
Perhaps it had something to do with the ancient Incas: when a new Inca was crowned King, the people had a month-long celebration with unlimited food and drink, all supplied by the Inca and his family and nobles. The cacophony often began at sunrise, or sunset: both important times for the Incas. And even though, according to the staff at our hotel, each early morning celebration marked the existence of a Catholic Saint, many of these saints had celebrations that lasted for three days or more. Apparently, there was a Patron Saint for every neighbourhood in Cusco.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, it seemed that many of the old Inca ways were incorporated into the special Peruvian version of Catholicism to make it more easily and more widely accepted by the people as their new religion. And many of these traditions continue to this day. Regardless, the celebrations seemed to be happening pretty much daily.
It was not uncommon to come across parades, large and small, snarling up traffic around the city square. These parades always involved brightly coloured costumes, the participation of a huge number of young people, and live marching band music (never music that was pre-recorded). It was also virtually impossible to sleep in on any given morning whether it be the due to the sounds of a sunrise salute to a saint, the sounds of a marching band practicing the same song again and again before classes began in a near-by schoolyard, or an early morning tribute to the national flag in a school ground.
Much as people raise backyard chickens or bees in North America, Peruvians raise guinea pigs. They are a food source, and not a pet, and they find it quite hilarious that we keep guinea pigs as pets.
Guinea pigs are raised in the country and in the city. All the homes we saw in Cusco had no backyards. As a result, people commonly buy food for their guinea pigs at the local street corner or in the markets. It’s not uncommon to see roadside piles like this for sale…
For the longest time and wondered why we kept seeing women selling giant bundles of grass. As it turned out, even in small mountain towns surrounded by grazing lands, women like the one in this next photo bought high quality grass feed for her guinea pigs.
Guinea pigs are served baked, boiled in a soup, and deep-fried. Though the parting comment of a friend of ours before leaving for Peru was, “eat something weird,” guinea pig was something that we never tried.
Speaking of the lack of backyards, it appears as though the dogs of Cusco’s homes are simply let out into the streets for the day. While there are stray dogs out there as well, the odd thing seems to be that these dogs, much like cats in North America, can roam the streets freely. Locals we talked to insisted that many of the dogs we saw out there (and heard, barking in the night) were pets. In Peru, they can lie in the way of traffic, and even wander into shops. They are never shooed away or scolded. They are simply there. They don’t seem to be hostile toward people or each other, and tend to wander & lie about in packs.
Everywhere we went, be it in the large and more western city of Cusco, a small Andean mountain village, a rainforest settlement or on our Salkantay Trek, everyone that spoke English, called tourists passengers.
Whether called by guides or tour operators, locals or hotel staff, it was always the same: riding in a van or train car, on a bike or on foot, in a building or a town square, walking a trail on foot or sitting in a restaurant, we were always passengers. It didn’t matter whether we actually were being passenged somewhere or not.
I asked a few times why we were called this, and no one I spoke with seemed to know. It seemed so strange when their mastery of the English language was otherwise so excellent, to misuse a word this way. These pictures all show locals and their passengers.
You don’t always get to know the country or its people when you travel through quickly, whisked from site to site. You certainly see and experience some remarkable things, but you don’t get a true sense of its people or see patterns emerging in its culture the way you do when you take your time and immerse yourself in its day-to-day rhythms. Spending the majority of our time in and around Cusco gave us this opportunity… and gave me the chance to share them with you here. I hope you enjoyed it, fellow passengers!
Touring the Sacred Valley by bike, rather than by tourist bus, is not the usual way to see the ancient archaeological sites of Maras and Moray.
Of course, watching your guide get thrown over his handlebars and into a cactus on a steep slope is probably not what tourists usually come to see in the Sacred Valley either. The usual tourist thing doesn’t involve pulling spines out of the seat of your guide’s pants and the backs of his arms. Nor is averting your eyes while your guide drops his drawers to have your husband check out his cheeks a typical occurrence! THAT is what I’ll always think of when I think of the Sacred Valley. But I’m getting ahead of myself…. Read More
There’s nothing like a good ridge walk. A ridge is hard to scale up, there’s no doubt about it. One look at a GemTrek map will show you that there’s lots of contour lines that need to be crossed to gain a ridge. But once you’re up and on a ridge, it’s thrilling because that feeling of being on top of the world, goes on and on and on as you walk along its length. Old Baldy, rearing its polished head up amongst the spectacular peaks of the area, did not disappoint.
Wanting to do a good shoulder season hike, we headed off into Kananaskis Country (K-Country as it’s known, locally) to get ourselves up high when there wasn’t a lot of snow yet, and see some fantastic mountain views.
Peruvian food, and especially the food of Cusco’s streets, hotels, homes and restaurants, is fantastic fare. The San Pedro Market, host to many of its fine ingredients, is the perfect place to explore. A window to the culture, it gives a unique perspective on Peru, its people and its food.
Let’s take a closer look at the Mercato San Pedro, now that we have a deeper understanding of the geographic, historical and ethnic influences on Peruvian cuisine that have made it into the wonderful fusion sensation that it is today…. Read More
What do the US Civil War of the 1860s, cotton picking, Chinese migrants, a Japanese insistence on six minutes, super-aggressive Californian trout and a terrible rain storm have to do with Peru, let alone the development of Peruvian cuisine?
We’ve seen a bit of the hustle and bustle of the San Pedro Farmers’ Market in Cusco’s historic old town, with its incredible stalls and the wide variety of produce and products that is sells there in its quite organized chaos. And we’ve explored the historical and geographical influences that have helped make the Peruvian food of Cusco so incredibly delectable. Now let’s delve a little deeper…
Chef José Luis proudly proclaimed in a candle lit corner of his Uchu Restaurant, over an incredibly beautiful dish of ceviche, “In Peru we do not eat. We taste.” Sitting at a small table, tucked away in a corner, getting to know Chef José, I looked down into the bowl of ceviche that had just been placed before me. It was stunning. What a way to begin our evening!
But it was not just that the bowl of ceviche was visually beautiful; its tastes were remarkable as well. Each bite was different. The flavours danced and played in our mouths while the ideas that he shared with us about the development of Peruvian fusion cuisine swirled in our minds. It was a tremendous way to start an evening, an evening of exploring Peruvian cuisine during a culinary tour of the city’s restaurants and street food stands.
I think that the biggest surprise in all of our travels in Peru was just how incredibly good the food was in Cusco.
Those of you who know me well, know that I love cooking and I love experimenting with my food. I knew very little about Peruvian food, other than the fact that quinoa and potatoes were used ubiquitously, and so I assumed that the food would be quite plain. Was I ever wrong! I was simply floored by the tastes & textures, the variety and the creativity that was inherent in the dishes we tried while in Cusco. THIS was no Costa Rican rice & beans food culture!
I just had to learn more… how did they create the flavours that danced in my mouth? What did they do to produce their signature dishes so well? What were their food influences? How did cooking here develop?
Stay with me over the next couple of blog posts and we’ll explore this phenomenon…
As Elvira, our cooking instructor put it, “In Peru, we don’t eat healthy, we just love to eat. We like to combine flavours and textures.” I wanted to know, to taste, to experience and to understand these flavours and textures.