Saturday, September 5, 2009

Now in Toronto!

Since I last wrote anything here, I can honestly say it's been an incredible period of my life, and something I expect I will look back upon for year's to come as one of the most remarkable of my life.

I've been to Indonesia, swam with manta rays and turtles, traveled across this amazing country of ours, moved to Toronto (truly a world class city), and got engaged! We've been to birthday parties, weddings, cottages, and many patios and the homes of family and friends in between, celebrating being back, and celebrating what is to come.

I don't know how much of it I will recap here in this space, but I do want to keep writing and seeing just what that means. Which brings me to the reason I am writing today: a change in the name. I've decided to change the web-address to to ensure the prying eyes of students and such have a little more difficult time finding what I write. Not that I believe anything I write here couldn't be for students' eyes and thoughts, it's just that there are some things better left out.

And so I hope the three or four readers of this will continue to follow. I'm not exactly sure how this space is going to be filled, but I hope to write here, at the very least, on a monthly basis, and hopefully it will be timely, thought provoking, but mostly interesting.

Sadly, what follows is probably none of those. Like I said, the period of May until now has been quite profound, but mostly for me. One thing I think I can adequately share is my enthusiasm for fulfilling one of my dreams - traveling across Canada by train.

This became a dream of mine for a few reasons:
1. I spent three years teaching Confederation to my Grade 8's in their history class, and the story of the railroad as the engine that really got Canada on the map, politically, economically, and literally is incredible.
2. This railroad of ours travels through some of the most stunning scenery found on the planet, and it just needed to be scene by my own eyes, as I've learned no matter how good the photo, it just never does Mother Nature justice.
3. After having been forunate enough to do some pretty good traveling over the last few years (I believe I have visited 22 different countries in just over 10 years) it was high time I did some traveling in my own country.

So if you ever have the time, and again I am very fortunate to have had some, take the train and explore all this wonderully HUGE country has to offer. West to east like I did, starting in Vancouver, or east to west. It doesn't mtter. And if you really have the time, like I did, you'll be able to hop off and spend time in places you have longed talked about or read about, but never visited.

And despite reason #2 clearly indicating that photos cannot do justice to an experience, at times they certainly beat words, especially my words. So here are just a few of the hundreds of photos I took on this journey east to home.

Not a bad sight to wake up to after your first night on the train!

The Columbia Ice Field...stunning!!

A lake with ice in June!?! Only in the Great White North!!

Banff! Not a bad main drag!

The Alberta Legislative Assembly - where Albertans count their billions!

Dinsmore, Saskatchewan...where it all began for the modern day Dinner clan!

Riel - traitor? hero? But definitely Canadian.

66 hours on trains, 9 hours on buses finishing off with one of the best skylines in the world - HOME!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Quick hitter

Didn't get to finish the top ten before heading out on the next adventure as I fell pretty sick as our time wound up in Korea (I did however get to use the ancient and somewhat gross Korean squatter...three times!!).

But seeing as I am now in Bali, I WILL NOT be writing on here again for some time as I need to be outside enjoying and experiencing all that is offered.

So take the chance if you like to review some past work which can be accessed on the side panel, or just remember to check back here sometime in July to see what I've been up to. Between now and then I will have visited the following places:

Bali, Vancouver, Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, Vancouver, Jasper, Banff, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg before arriving home on the 27th of June! Should be awesome.

Take care and thanks for reading. Peace

Monday, April 27, 2009

#3 - A proper birthday celebration

Consider this a public service for anyone who's ever wanted to throw the best birthday bash ever - do this!!
Blogger's note: what follows really is acknoweldged to not be all that smart, but sometimes fun and smart do not go hand-in-hand...sometimes fun is just that, fun, with no real thoughts of anything else. Oh, and I believe this could only happen in Ecuador!

What you need to do is invite just about every person you know, hope only half show, get a threat of rain that never comes to do just that, jam yourselves on top of a re-fitted bus that has its sides and seats torn away, which are replaced by six or seven rows of benches spanning the width that don't get used, flatten the roof, find a band to put on top of said roof that will play the same song over and over again, throw an addition on the back to fit 8 or 9, or 12 people but is really there so you can get to the band easier (if there's room up there), give everyone a whistle, a cup with a string to put around your neck so it doesn't get lost, have 48L of sugar cane booze on hand, throw the bus into drive, and cruise the city streets drinking, honking, drinking, whistling, drinking, dancing, drinking, ducking high-wires, drinking, ducking bridges, and drinking!!

Oh, and it certainly doesn't hurt to have the centre of these birthday shenanighans someone who can bring'em all so willingly together!

Twist. And have fun!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What's with Korea? - Part V - Baseball-mania

Here in Korea, what seems to unite the sporting population and allow for extra long lunch breaks is baseball. It hasn't always been this way, as Beckham-mania and soccer took root back in 2002 filling the stadiums as the country hosted and surprised in the World Cup and then the subsequent start-up of the K-League - which now plays in stadiums two-thirds empty.
These empty stadiums are a direct result of the restoration of baseball as the ruling sport. Baseball has a long tradition here, but it is the recent success on the international stage - twice runners up in the World Baseball Classic, Gold Medallists at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and epic contests against rival Japan - that has made it the spectacle it is now - mascots, dancers, a cheerleader, and tons of songs - and sent soccer back to the sidelines of the national sporting consciousness.

But I will attempt to keep this brief, if only for the fact that after weeks of careful planning, I only managed to take in two innings of action!
But unfortunately for you the reader, this was not because I was drunk or asked to leave, but because in the wisdom of the higher ups in the Korea Baseball Organization, they moved up the start time of the game to avoid rain. Not a bad idea, and from the 30,000 or so in attendance, all indications are many people knew about this late change, but as I am not an avid reader of the Korean dailies, and don't listen to the Korean radio, I was in the dark - this is the second time I've ventured to this end of town in search of sports, the first being for a soccer game, only to have the wrong information...ahh, the joys of travel!?!

Fortunately we had a friend join us, who was equally in the dark, but had two of his students inside the park who came out to find and rush us into our seats in time for the bottom of the seventh inning, just in time to see my new main man, #10, smash a frozen-rope two-run homerun, which turned out to be the game winner! He will forever be #10 to me, a Korean homerun legend as I've been told, as I cannot pronounce his name, even if I could remember it, but he is my main man nonetheless, and I've got his jersey to prove it.

That's him entering at the bottom left...solid homerun trot!

So despite missing seven and half innings we saw the most important hit of the game, downed a few beers, found a new sporting hero to cheer for, but even more important than that, because of my hero's homerun, got to witness 30,000 screaming fans chant and sing in unison, which is my favourite part of sport and is always equally exciting no matter what country it takes place in. And then to top it off, we got to participate in the time honoured Korean sporting event tradition of putting plastic bags on our heads! YES!!
Sports! Gotta love'em!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

#4 - It's called futbol!

I have always been and always will be a bit of a sports nut. If there is a competition, I want to watch, participate, comment, or in any other way be involved as much as I can. I find it interesting and entertaining to see how people preform under immediate stress, and there is no other arena where stress can be focused on one singular outcome while having no real impact on life. It is a microcosm of life, but fortunately, it is just a game.

In my recent travels, this love of sport has introduced me to games outside of the one's we associate with North America (hockey, basketball, football and baseball) and have grown to include rugby and cricket. Yes even cricket!! Did you know Canada is the most successful cricket nation outside of the test cricket nations, putting us somewhere in the realm of 8th or 9th in the world, meaning outside of hockey, cricket is arguably our most successful team sports venture! A Canadian even holds the record for the fastest 100 runs scored in World Cup history and we have recently qualified for our third straight World Cup in 2011!!

But more than any other sport, soccer has taken centre stage in my sports obsession as it is easily the most popular sport on the planet, and the one that is easiest to begin a conversation about while traveling.

And this brings me to #4 on my top ten list over the last couple of years, soccer in Ecuador.

#4 - It's called futbol

I knew when we left for Ecuador, soccer...ahem, excuse, was going to be a central part of my experience. We were headed to Quito which is home of the Ecuadorian national soccer team, and I knew like all South American countries, soccer is a part of the national fabric. But all second hand knowledge takes a back seat to first hand experiences, and in this case, nothing could be truer.

On arriving in Quito, I was instantly aware I was somewhere else on the sporting landscape when my Toronto FC shirt was instantly recognized. I mean this was August 2008, this shirt wasn't even completely recognizable in Toronto yet. But here I was, getting off the plane in Quito proudly sporting my city's kit, hoping to inform the masses about this phenomenon called TFC beginning to take root in southern Ontario, only to have it recognized for what it was instantly - a new team playing in a crap American league. Ouch! Fortunately this was the hardest lesson learned, the rest were enjoyable experiences punctuated with singing songs, marching, standing in the rain, hitching rides in the backs of trucks, falling out of trucks, watching police and fans do battle (with the fans often coming out on top - as with many things, who wants it more usually gets what they want), and with a feeling that life and death rests with the outcome of this game. I even got to witness some industrious individuals who found an interesting way to make a buck or two! (Blogger's note: take a moment with these next two pictures to really grasp what you are looking at! Yep, that's a keg in picture #2..nope that's not beer being pulled out of the false bottom!)

Three days after arriving in the city, we took in our first SD Quito game, and I was hooked. Solidifying this love affair was learning a few weeks later at the start of the school year that by supporting SD Quito I was now in direct competition with about 98% of the students at my school who were supporters of one of Quito's other teams, Liga de Quito. And anyone that knows me, knows I enjoy talking a little smack, and there is nothing I like more than talking smack with students - finally I can outwit...sometimes!?!

The next game we tried to take in was a double-header featuring the three teams from Quito playing in the top flight (there were two other teams from Quito playing in the lower league, with countless others playing at a multitude of levels from amateur, semi-professional and professional). My beloved Quito was playing in the second game of the day, but we thought we'd try to get there a little early to catch the end of the first match - boy were we in for a surprise. Despite having tickets for the games, there was no getting in as security had bolted the gates shut - no getting in or out. This seemed to actually be expected as many people waited patiently for the final whistle of the first game, but when it became obvious they were not planning on letting nearly as many people in for the second match as were waiting to get in (this might have had something to do with not being able to get out!?!), well then things took a little turn. Nothing dangerous (yet) or anything, just your average people scaling the wall surrounding the stadium, and then running in a million different directions, overwhelming the security and police on horse back. The term 'Chinese fire drill' comes to mind, but I believe that to be offensive to the Chinese, so if I ever witness scene that ever comes close to replicating this , it will forever be known to me as 'an Ecuadorian double-header'!

Eventually security relented and we managed to squeeze into the already packed stadium, finally making our way into the stadium itself. Problem was, we were about 12 deep in the standing room section making it impossible for anyone we were with to get a view (our passions hadn't rooted deep enough that we were willing to just be in the stadium for the sake of being there...yet). What finally ended our little escapade was when turning to inquire about the noise taking place at the doors immediately behind us only to see a group of fans(?) thrust past security, swing the security doors wide, and watch as 200 or more souls come crushing into the stadium. Fortunately being tall, and a gringo, I manage to avoid most of the crush, and fortunately, Tasha being small and quick, managed to duck into the washroom. On that note, we left, but another lesson was learned, get there early! Really early.

As I mentioned, Quito has a number of teams playing at a high level of competition, but there are two teams that reflect, and thereby divide, the population more than any others - SD Quito, with its history based in old-Quito, and Liga de Quito, the relative new kid on the block, representing new-Quito. Old vs. New. Proletariat vs. Bourgeoisie. And despite my feelings that sport should never be taken too seriously, this is not the case between the fan bases of these two teams, and tensions run high. But wanting to see this first hand, I took part in a rare experience that I will never forget - the march onto Liga's stadium.

Meeting at SD Quito's training facility a couple of hours before the game, a few hundred Quito supporters clad in azul y rojo (blue and red) begin the rouhgly 2 km walk over to the stadium, singing and dancing along the way, picking up stragglers so that by the time we reach the stadium we are in the neighbourhood of 2000 people. What makes this even more interesting is everyone knows we're coming so we are met and escorted in by police while getting jeered and yelled at by Liga fans. It was quite a scene, which was excellently captured by a gonzo journalist here.

And while professional futbol in Ecuador can divide a population, the national program does the exact opposite, uniting a population with one goal in mind, making another World Cup - Ecuadorians, while passionate about the game, understand that winning the World Cup is something that is likely to never happen, but qualifying and being better than other South American countries, well that is a tangible success they can get behind. The excitement and fervour even draws in the most casual of observers, who can't help but take part as the city comes as close to shutting as it can for one event. And we were fortunate enough to be around for the initial stages of qualifying for the World Cup on 2010, meaning we were in for a treat - meaningful games between continental rivals that I would argue exceeds even the European competition as it is the same 10 teams time and again battling for 5 spots.
But what it really is, is 60,000 fans crammed into a stadium that supposedly holds only 50,000. Dancing, singing, living and dying. Screaming, cheering, yelling, spilling beer, hugging, high-five'ing, cursing, all while crushing, or being crushed by, the person next to you. Standing in the rain for three hours to hold our seats - remember earlier lesson about arriving early - only to be told to sit when the game starts!?! Ecuador lost 1-0 to Colombia. Standing next to a fence hoping not one more person tries to come into the section and then not giving a crap when Ecuador scores goal and after goal!! Ecuador beat Peru 5-1.
For an excellent piece on some of the past qualifying games and South Ameircan qualifying, plus a rad picture I didn't take, check this out.

Sport can be an insight into the psyche of a nation - what it wants in it's athletes and teams is often what it wants in it's people - but more than anything, it's a rip-roaring good time!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

#5 - How this all came to be

One of the excellent aspects of traveling is throughout the experience you are afforded opportunities to learn new things about places and people, and thereby learn a little something about yourself. This is not one of those occasions.
However, what follows though is one of the greatest learning experiences I've had in my short time here. It showed me the character of someone I care deeply for, and proved to me once again, that many things can happen on a day, and it is how we eventually deal with those changes that makes life interesting and worth living. And in the end, life can be no different than how it is.
#5 - Quito to Toronto back to Quito to Toronto to Busan!?!

We had just finished an exciting, at too many times frustrating, year in Ecuador. But it was the end of June, a time that is difficult for any teacher to be anything but excited. The school year was over, we had fresh new opportunities to move forward, and best of all, we were headed home - truly there is nothing finer than returning home, no matter how good the travel has been. Needless to say we were excited about the summer and what the immediate future held.

Little did we know...

A little over 10 days into our return we learned some things that were going to make it impossible for us to stay in Quito for the following school year - I do not want to delve into it any more than that for now, as there still remains some anger and disappointment, but there is enough fodder for a future post about how to treat people, or more to the point, how not to treat people.

Anyways, the news came as a shock, especially as it came while we were home visiting, and had thought we were moving forwards in a positive light. To make matters even more interesting, many of the things we hold dear to us were back in Quito. After the initial shock of if it all wore off, we got down to the business of figuring it all out - and this is where the highlights (and lessons) come for me.

We could have easily cut our losses and figured out a way to stay home, but this would have made those losses particularly difficult to manage financially as neither of us had a well paying job to fall back on, and in fact, we had been counting on the relatively low cost of living in South America to get us back in the black. As lucky as we were to have teaching jobs in Ontario, they would not be available to us until September 2009, so we had to do something. And while there was a sense of urgency, and even panic at times, it did not take long to dive headlong into the next adventure - Korea!!

And so began an odyssey that took us from Quito to Toronto through Atlanta, back to Quito, again through Atlanta, for four days to pack up all of our stuff, and then turn around back to Toronto, through Panama and Houston this time, where we got to relax in the - find a job, figure out where we are going to stash all our crap, while getting visas, record checks, etc., so we could be ready to get to go to Pusan (through Vancouver and Seoul) for the start of our new contracts - kind of way!? That was twelve airports in five countries, at a time when we were supposed to be doing nothing but catching up with friends and family. To say our heads were spinning is an understatement, but it was also where the lessons of the experience revealed themselves.
Blogger's note: Houston wins for best airport as they had amazing burritos, thanks Bones, and a piano player playing on a grand piano underneath a big chandelier surrounded by the taco joint where we got our burrito, and other run of the mill food court establishments!

It was one of those times where you wish it wasn't so, but was kind of exciting at the same time, and the less we looked backwards at what could of been, the more exciting it made what we were dealing with. Sure we left great friends and a great neighbourhood in Ecuador, but we were pretty sure that what we were doing was going to be at least half as fun. It was certainly a challenge and at times frustrating, dealing once again with university transcripts, police stations and consulates, but what it showed, especially as I get to look back on that time, is the strength of character in one Ms. Forster, but also an opportunity to revel in the love and support we get from our families and the friends we have made along the way.

And in the end, I couldn't have imagined it all falling into place better. Sure there are times when we miss the people, and the vacation time of Ecuador, but coming here has opened so many other possibilities for us that it really seems this was all part of the plan from the beginning. I mean, we are now getting ready to spend three fabulous weeks in Bali soaking in the sun, relaxing in the - should I read my book on the beach or in this nice hammock? - kind of way, and I am even going to get my diving certification for a fraction of what it would have cost me in Ecuador. Then after Bali, we get to continue fulfilling dreams (which really life should be all about) as Tasha heads to Thailand for six weeks to become a yoga teacher while I get to check off from my life's to-do list, a cross-Canada train trip.

So it's not about how it was or how it should be, but about how it is, and it is always just as it should have been all a long.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

#6 - The Dragonfly Inn

Alright, for the two people who seem to be regular readers, things are going to be coming at you fast and furious over the next 10 days as I try to complete this top ten thingy we got going as well put in some final thoughts about our time here in Korea.

Hope you continue to enjoy.
And this brings us to number six...

You know that dream where you are opening up a hostel in an amazing setting, and generally living the life? Ya that one. Throw away the stresses of working for someone else, be your own boss and do your own thing. A great thought, especially while on vacation tipping back a few. But it is rare when someone actually acts on that dream, and when they do, you just have to admire their willingness to do something they believe will make them happy - of course opening and running your own hostel is actually an incredible amount of work, but we're going to stick with the romanticism of it all and not the practicalities.

To have a vision, act on that vision and see it through to fruition is a lesson I hope I can emulate as I continue along my journey. But when that dream and vision is this....

....well, it leaves me awestruck.
A beautiful building that is both luxurious and welcoming, in an Ecuadorian valley town found in a cloud forest on a river, that attracts birds, butterflies and other beautiful creatures -

- it is all enough to make someone never want to leave.

Aside from the incredible lay out and the beautiful location, the reason The Dragonfly makes the list is because of the times we had inside. We celebrated openings, births and imminent weddings. We drank, and sang, and danced. And most of all, we laughed!

Good friends and good times...all worth dreaming about, and an easy addition to the top ten! And as those good times continue down through the years, as they have this year, it leaves me longing for a return, but even happier in the knowledge someone has done something they've always wanted to, and it's brought happiness to them, their families and so many others.
Well done Todd, Lorena and of course Raycito!! And thanks!

Finally, if you would like to read more about the place, a really talented writer wrote a little piece about it here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

#7 - A hike worth doing...lots

Just to be clear. I've done a fair bit of exploring over the last couple of years on this little odyssey, but that is certainly not the case here in Korea. In fact, the furthest I've traveled in country is my daily hour commute to work. This is in part because of the fact I am in my once every three years 'nose-to-the-grindstone' mode where I am trying to save for what's next or pay off what was. In this case, it is both.
But it also has to do with the belief that again I might be in the nicest part of Korea anyways. A twenty minute walk to a beach, or a fifteen minute one to a mountain, not to mention a multitude of restaurants and entertainment options just out my door. But I have talked about this before. The reason I mention it now is because there are times in traveling there is no need to do anything else than enjoy something right around the corner, something you've done over and over again, and something you could do again and again. Which brings me to number seven on the list of things I've done over the last couple of years.

#7 - Hiking to Papallacta

To begin, Papallacta is pronounced 'papa-yacta' with the double-'l' sounding like a 'y' - kind of like tortilla (torti-ya). Got it? Good. Because this little village outside of Quito is a place I could visit time and again, and if you ever end up in Ecuador you have to go here.
By my count it was five times in my eight months in Ecuador that I visited this little slice of paradise. Which really isn't a whole lot, but when you consider everything I was trying to squeeze into our time there, to do something that much in such a relaively short period of time means it's got to be pretty special, and it was.
What made it so special?


But there is more! See this is a hike to a remote village high up in he Andean mountains - it is roughly situated at 13,000 ft. or about the same height at Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies....

....where you finish off with ecstatic cries to your god, usually reserved for the most private of places, as you dip your body into the physically and spiritually rejuvinating waters of the thermal springs.

OHHHH....god that is good!

You can of course take a bus from Quito almost directly to the village, but the true experience lies in the hike, where you get to traverse a trail that peaks at about 14,500 ft. before descending into the village where you get to drop your weary body into the hot springs after four hours of hiking. And sure the hot springs are more than enough reason to drag my sorry ass off the couch or away from the computer for a while, but it is the hike that makes this whole experience cathartic.

There are two nice things about this hike - obviously not including said hot springs - that make this something to do time and time again. First is the proximity to where we lived - it is roughly an hour bus ride to the drop off point from our loveable little barrio, Guapulo. Second, despite it's elevation, it is a relatively easy hike that even the most inexperienced hikers (or out of shape as the case was with me) can do. In fact, the hike is one of the first things visitors get to do after a few days in the city. Nothing says acclimatization like at stroll at 4000 metres.

I'm not sure there is anything more humbling or awe-inspiring than to be at the roof of the world and take in the expanse in which we find ourselves. It is not so hard to believe way up here, that this is a place the gods once roamed....

....or at least some really big animals!!

And then to be surrounded by mountain lakes walking around a new peak every so often, only to be blown away once again at the sights, is something I hope everyone gets to experience at least once in their lives. It makes you truly appreciate the gifts we have here on Earth and that they can be enjoyed at 4000 metres or at 1 metre, but that they just need to be enjoyed. Fully.

And so to be able to wake at a not too early hour on a Saturday morning, and some six wonder inducing hours later, find yourself soaking in hot springs with your friends, all in a similar appreciative mood, is truly a little taste of heaven here on Earth. And really there isn't anything else I can write to do justice to the experience....

Sunday, April 12, 2009

#8 - The Ecua-tour

One of the things that I have found interesting while traveling, is that often those visiting a country will see more of the place than many of the people who live there. In my time in Australia and Ecuador this was certainly the case in the sense that I feel I have seen more of those two countries than I have of my own (although I am working doggedly at that when I am on Canadian soil - BC, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia visited but in no way complete!).

Having said that, a year ago at this time, and for no other reason that is why it is this week's recollection, I had the chance to take in a lot of Ecuador over a two-week period, a time that has become known fondly as, "The Ecua-tour".
#8 - The Ecua-tour

For those of you sick of hearing how good us teachers have it when it comes to holidays, you may want to skip to the next paragraph. See, as most teachers in North America get a week at March Break, in Ecuador they wait until April for the Spring break, put it together with Easter (which is a pretty big deal in a country over 90% Catholic), meaning a solid two weeks off from school and a real chance to get out and explore.

We had some decisions to make - Columbia? Peru? The Jungle? The Beach? - and hindsight being 20/20 I feel real good about the decision we made to check out as much of Ecuador as we could in a two week period.

We started off with a quick flight to Cuenca, the other UN World Heritage City in Ecuador (the other being Quito's Old Town). Here we spent two days exploring the streets of this lively historic city and eating at an incredible sushi restaurant!? Other than great sushi, Cuenca is also where you can see remains of ancient South American cultures within city limits, and is the home of the Panama hat - despite it's name, the Panama hat has always been made in Ecuador, but got it's name because of the workers wearing them while building that canal thingy. It's a relatively small city, but it was a good taste of what was to come as we became even more fully immersed in Ecuadorian culture.

This was followed by a typical South American bus ride south, traveling along one lane roads with two lanes of traffic while negotiating cliffs rising from the road literally an arm's length away, while avoiding the periolous drops directly on the other side. Made for some interesting manuveuring and hair raising corners. I had never been happier to hop into a taxi than I was when we reached Loja. As our final destination was about another hour or so south (or so we were told) we hopped into said taxi, and by the end of the 35 minutes I was wishing I was back on board the bus. To say this guy was anxious to get back was an understatement, and he seemed bent on doing it as quickly as possible, or die trying (happily taking us with him as it seemed we had totally inconvenienced him by paying him too much money to drive us out there).

But after 10 and half hours of spine tingling travel we arrived in Villcabamba, and all was quickly forgotten. See Villcabamba is in a beautiful Andean valley, and is where many explorers have come in search of the Fountain of Youth. In fact, legend has it, that said fountain is in fact here, and that truly the water has magical powers of longevity (it is rumoured that many of the citizens of the valley live well into their 100's!!). And while I can't attest to feeling younger while here, I could certainly sense the slow and magical pace of life that would have most people in no hurry to leave this earthly life, and it has certainly left it's mark on me.

For five days we did our very best to make sure we slowed our pace as best we could - except when our guide was encouraging my horse to gallop to everyone's amusement but mine - I've never been one for horses, but these small sturdy horses made me feel like I was riding nothing more than a pony, that is of course my steed decided full bore was a good pace!

Are my feet touching the ground?
But for much of the rest of the time things were at a much more serene pace, and I was able to come to know Pachamama (Mother Earth) intimately - something I don't suggest for all because she can be easily angered at the crap we're capable of!!

We followed this up with a much nicer ride back into Loja for our flight to Guayaquil, and fulfill our beach portion of our trip. Of course, not truly realizing our scheduling, and the difficulty of arriving in the late evening, we were left with no choice but to put our faith into strangers to locate us a driver willing to drive us out to the coast, a not so easy 3 hour jaunt. After watching the Argentinian team come through the airport and the stir that caused, it only took us about 20 minutes to secure a ride - once again proving to me that there is so many more good people than bad on this planet of ours. This quick turn-around was however followed by another hour of driving around the Guayaquil suburbs (not exactly a must-see tour) as our driver first had to pick up his sister at her friend's house and drive her home before we could get under way. In the end a small, and interesting price to pay.

The destination this time was Montanita. And I don't want to get into it too much here as this place gets it's own spot on the Top 10 for one of the coolest things I've gotten to experience in this short life, but I will say now - SWEET ASS BEACH TOWN!

From Montanita it was a short ride up the coast to our next destination, a place not on any map but certainly a place that rates mentioning, Alandaluz. This complex/nature reserve/hostel has nestled itself nicely on the gorgeous western coast. We were surrounded by birds, bugs, and the freshest, most brilliant food we had yet to find.

But unlike our other adventures in arriving to our destination, nothing could have been finer on this occasion. We hiked our way out to the main road and within about 10 minutes hitched ourselves a ride in the back of a pick-up for a ride of a lifetime. Wind blowing, sun shining, all the while winding up and down the coastal hills and occasionally getting a glance at the coast from above. Most of us know the thrill of riding in the back of a truck, now add the incredible scenery of coastal Ecuador. Simply amazing.

The view from the truck at 60 km/h!

We spent a few nights here with the express purpose of getting out to "The Poor Man's Galapagos", Isla de la Plata. And had it not been for Bobby the Booby and some dude yelling "Penis" at inappropriate times, this could have been one of the biggest wastes of time and money in my time in Ecuador. The poor man's Galapagos is an overstatement, and an afront to the thrifty the world wide. Aside from a shitload of blue footed boobies, there is not much else out there. Yes the island and it's scenery is amazing, but when things are advertised as something akin to the islands of the Galapagos, expectations run pretty high. But like I said, thankfully the tragic Bobby the Booby made an appearance and kept it all interesting.

Bobby, is that you?

In the end, it was an action packed magical two weeks - historic Cuenca, crazy rides, chilling with Pachumama (Mother Earth) in Villcabamba, hanging in one of the true gems of Ecuador in Montanita, and a chance encounter with a bird whose story can't soon be forgotten by all who were there - sorry, it just could never be put into words, and really never should.

But if I can manage to squeeze that much out of tiny Ecuador in two weeks, I am looking forward to what I manage to find in grandious Canada and so many other places over the next 80 or 90 years....yes, I am living to at least 125! I visited the fountain of youth!

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What's with Korea? Part IV - Cherry Blossoms Galore

As the Toronto area experiences for the first time in recent memory snow in April (HAHAHAHAHAHA), or for those of you in Australia who've never experienced a changing season (you really are missing out despite what those from Toronto might say these days), I have the pleasure of sharing with you wonderful evidence of spring arriving in on the Korean peninsula.

The cherry blossom is the sure sign that spring has arrived, and if you find yourself in Vancouver or Washington, D.C. in North America you are treated to the wonderful site of these flowers in full bloom on a large scale. Or better yet, if you are in Japan, where these beautiful spring trees are thought to have originated, then around just about every corner your senses are overwhelmed.

And here in lies the peculiarity of the Korean cherry blossom experience. Because these trees are everywhere, just as they are in Japan. They line gardens outside of the massive apartment buildings, sit along side streets congested with traffic, and there are numerous cherry blossom festivals throughout the country celebrating the arrival of spring.

If you didn't know any better you would think there was a certain level of pride within the population regarding the yearly bloom that captures the attention of anyone who wanders about. And I certainly was a part of the ignorant group that figured everyone loved these trees, because who wouldn't, but the truth is, many don't.

In a telling response to the much-hated Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula for some 40 years in the first half of the 20th century, residual anger is now placed on these dastardly trees (although they do save some for the Japanese baseball team and it's players). Sure they're beautiful to look at, but they're Japanese - I was interested to learn plants have nationalities!? And while they are nice to look at for a while, they eventually lose those blooms, creating a mess that Koreans have to deal with. Then their fruits fall to the ground creating an even worse mess of crushed fruit all over sidewalks and streets!! And to top it off, festivals to celebrate these alien plants?? Well it's just about enough to start a war of words between the nations. A little tree, so much hate!?!

So while many happily snap away photos of these beautiful flowers, and revel in the fact that spring has sprung, others see them as the last remenants of time not easily forgotten. Of course much of what I have said here comes with a grain of salt (as I am pretty sure these trees pre-date any Japanese occupation), but the saddening part for me in all this, is the fact that much of the information I receive about Korean thoughts and attitudes come from the students I deal with each day. Where did they get these ideas?

I could go on here about the lessons this little tree teaches me about the lasting legacy of hatred (which it does), but instead I choose to see the room for forgiveness and renewal in this world that is apparent every spring.
Ahh, spring...what a great time!! You feeling it Toronto?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

#9 - A Long Walk on a Great Wall

So the dream of writing more seems to have lost out to other intellectual (??) pursuits such as watching the 1985 made-for-TV-movie North and South starring Patrick Swayze on YouTube (riveting stuff I tell you) and reading War & Peace (actually quite good in my opinion) - traveling sometimes finds you doing the strangest of things!?!

And fortunately for me, there have been more than enough strange and incredible adventures over the last two years, that one day the dream of actually being able to write about it, and maybe even expound on the meaning of it all, will be realised. But in the meantime, you'll just have to settle for this.....
#9 - The Great Wall of China

Almost immediately upon making the decision to come to Korea, Beijing became part of the schemes. I mean all that history, the largest nation on Earth, and who wants to pass up an opportunity to see a 4-storey statue of Yao Ming?

Sure it had a lot to do with the most recent Olympics - who wasn't captivated by that Phelps kid or 'The Lightning' Bolt? And the architecture of the Olympic facilities were sites to fact the contrast of architecture throughout the city was something to behold - hundred year old neighbourhoods surrounded by the latest and most obnoxious is something to see, and helped us appreciate that just because we can, doesn't always mean we should. But making Beijing the must-go destination for me on this side of the planet was and is The Great Wall of China.

After spending our first few days in frigid Beijing - the Chinese may have invented gun powder and fireworks, but are way behind on insulation - we took a ride out the Wall. To say we were traveling back in time is not an over-statement as we went from the congested and polluted Beijing of 15 million people to the countryside dominated by mountains, the Wall, and some hardy ladies selling Great Wall knick-knacks - post cards, t-shirts, books of photos, crayons(?), chopsticks, the list could go on. And yes, I bought a shirt if to prove I did it because according to Chinese history, those that walked the Wall were heros. I've always wanted to be a hero! But mostly I bought so our 'friend' didn't have to walk any farther.And what a walk it was. Ten kilometres - which really makes one appreciate the enormity of it all - scrambling over stones put in place hundreds, even thousands of years ago, all to protect the capital, although that eventually didn't work - I have a new appreciation for what a bad-ass Attila-the-Hun was, because even just walking on the Wall with no one around was tough enough - going against a Chinese army sitting on top of this Wall that sits atop a mountain range?? Bad ass!

For me it was difficult enough huffing and puffing our way over stairways that have worn away after hundreds of years and steep inclines I could barely carry myself over, let alone even think about hauling some ancient military equipment.

But a beautiful day of hiking and the sheer magnitude of this structure is reason enough to get this experience into anyone's top ten, but what really made this experience was the opportunity to help my good buddy with advertising for his landscaping company....

Wellscape - No job too small! No job too Great!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

#10 - The A's Have It

If you read my last entry, then you know I have loads of time on my hands these days - so much so that I have dedicated myself to reading, War & Peace. But it also means I am hoping to check in here a little more over the next while with a list of the Top Ten experiences over the last two years of running around, and before I head on another head-spinning, jaw-dropping trip of Bali and Canada...
Alright, so I am cheating here a little bit. This isn't about just one beach experience, it's two. I really tried to narrow the last two years of travel into 10 significant or extraordinary events, and it was tough...damn tough. And really where the hell do I begin? I guess at the start, but if I did that, it meant leaving out some other great beaches...sorry Canoa, incredibly, you didn't make the at #10 comes - Atacames and Ayampe.

September 2007 - It all began in Atacames really. We'd been in Ecuador about a month and it was time to get out of the city, at least for the weekend. We'd made some good friends already and were pleased with our decision to make Ecuador home for two years, but felt it was time to get out and explore. This was doubly important because even though we knew it wasn't going to always be sunny and gorgeous, it came as a bit of a surprise just how cloudy and chilly it was. We needed some sun, some heat and some sand.

And so it was off to Atacames. Only 350 kilometres away, but still close to 8 hours by bus. My first South American road trip, winding our way through the coastal mountains of the Andes, traveling down some 3000 metres to get closer to the level of the sea. And while this was not the best of the beaches we were lucky enough to visit, it was the place I fell in love with ceviche, the wonderul Ecuadorian dish that still gets my mouth watering. And having arrived in the middle the night, we were not sure exactly what we were in for (other than the obvious sun, ocean, and sand), but waking up and then walking towards the beach we saw that it was clearly screaming, "Welcome!"

We knew we had arrived!

But the beach trip that truly earns it's spot on this top ten has got to be Ayampe. It was March 2008, Carnaval! An extended long weekend for all in Ecuador, and wonderful party scene around the country. But what we did instead was gather some of the closest friends we'd made (traveling really does make for close friends, quick) and head to the sleepiest beach town we could find, with a wicked beach break directly out front.

Four days of chilling with your homies, with not a care in the world except if we really were going to go surfing today and stop all the chatter about it, or if we were going to continue to kick back because, "You know, the surfs not all that great, anyways!?!"
(Blogger's note: Truly I am still very much gun shy of the waves after just about killing myself in Byron Bay - on a boogie board of all I tend to stall by trying to come off as some expert wave dude because of my legendary Australian experience - where I drove more than I surfed!)

But what set this weekend apart from so many other great weekends was the Finca Punta Ayampe - a glorious hostel-tree house...

...sitting up the hill just far enough for spectacular views...

...but not so far that getting to the beach was anything resembling a hassel.

Another joy for me, and what firmly placed Ayampe (sorry again Canoa) in the top ten was the road trip where we dodged buckets of water (and at one point, even a 2L full pop bottle) being thrown from other moving vehicles - usually pick-up trucks with 10 or 11 people in the back armed with water guns and buckets - as is the Carnaval custom, out to a provincially protected beach, Los Frailes. Here we managed to soak in some rays at a spectacular beach in a beautiful inlet, all the while trying to keep my beers cool by burying them in the sand. Quickly discovering the sand was never going to keep them anything below boiling and that the surf was too strong for my plastic bag, I had no choice to suck a few back wherever I went....

.... and I even got in a nice little "beer-can body surf"!!

Up next...The Wall!