Finding Perfection in Place: Feeling At Home in Vancouver

Finding Perfection in Place: Feeling At Home in Vancouver

I have been planning to write this post since Valentine’s Day when I realized that I was in love again. I was in love with my new home of Vancouver. Love is one of those irrational feelings that you don’t need to justify. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that Vancouver has the trifecta of the mountain, sea and the city. Absolutely, it’s nice to be surrounded by badly dressed nature lovers who say “thank you” when they get off the bus and sincerely apologize when it rains. I love finally having friends that I see on a regular basis, people who willing to camp in the middle of winter, people who are willing to wake up before 5 AM to sit at a coffee shop and talk about their feelings. Hiking friends that suddenly become country-dancing friends who swap bathroom-cleaning secrets (yes, that was a clear indication we’re not 18 anymore). But love defies logic, and puts everything in a more positive light. I have a partner-in-crime that makes me smile even when we were drowned rats trudging through slippery slush for 18 hours and we have just as much fun adventuring in the kitchen as exploring the outdoors. Vancouverites still complain about things- Canada has some of the most expensive cell phone plans worldwide, domestic travel is ridiculously pricey, housing prices in Vancouver has skyrocketed in recent years and immigration can be a challenge. For me personally, my job at University of British Columbia still feels like a major step back from the autonomy and impact I had back in Auckland. But when you’re in love, those things don’t really matter. Yes, even after 2.5 months, I don’t know exactly what I’m doing at work but I have taken the opportunity to use the extra time for professional development and networking. I’m practicing programming, relearning how to do statistically modeling and finally writing up a paper that has been discussed for three years. Some almost-strangers have taken me under their wing, inviting me to networking events in Vancouver and colleagues from the past nominated me to represent physics at an important meeting about university reform. Sometimes people in love get criticized for seeing the world with rose tinted glasses but what’s wrong with that? Why do we have to focus on small imperfections when the fact that we’re living, breathing creatures on an awe-inspiring planet should always be reason for celebration? Things don’t need to be perfect to be worth loving, and life remains interesting because they aren’t perfect. If it didn’t rain for 6 months out of the year in Vancouver, the housing crisis would be infinitely worse! Advice from an Elder The final push to write this post came from a fireside chat with an indigenous elder on a group trip to the Yukon this weekend. He told an allegory of a studious young man whose teacher had him collect the shit from all the animals in the forest (his words not mind). The young man did as he was asked, and collected big shit, little shit from elk, deer, beers, beavers… all the creatures he could find. The teacher asked him to grind the shit into a fine powder, add some water to make a paste, use it to draw a circle on the ground and meditate inside it. The young man did as he was asked, then meditated in the circle for three days but he couldn’t figure out what his teacher wanted him to learn. On the fourth day, a crow saw him and started laughing and laughing at the fact that he was sitting in a circle of other’s people shit. And this was kind of the elder’s takeaway message, that we constrain ourselves, trap ourselves, immobilize ourselves by surrounding ourselves with other people’s problems and unrealistic expectations. Fireside chats in the Yukon in onesies At another chat, one guy finishing up his Master’s and getting ready to graduate was stressed because “I don’t know what I want to do with my life”. Of course, all the people around him said, “we don’t know what we’re doing either!”. Some of them were married, some are well-established in jobs they love so they don’t let that question bother them as much on a daily basis but there’s also a lot of societal pressures that create unnecessary stress surrounding that. Like I wrote in my last post, when people ask, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, that you can only do one thing, you should be neatly defined in one box. But the reality is that, these days, no one does the same job for 65...

An Impossible Romance & My Week As A Cowboy in Vinales, Cuba

An Impossible Romance & My Week As A Cowboy in Vinales, Cuba

Viñales is part of any Cuban tourist itinerary, recommended as a place to enjoy nature, cigars and rural culture and recover from noisy, chaotic Havana. Approximately a three hour drive from the Cuban capital, the straight roads along the “tobacco route” turn into twisty roads through dark forest which suddenly open up into a breathtaking valley. This UNESCO park is known for its limestone karsts or “mogotes” jutting up over the large fields, dotted with palm trees, lush vegetation and tobacco plantations. The town is no stranger to tourists, with a couple main streets filled with restaurants and almost every house containing a sign that it’s a government-endorsed casa particulares where you can rent a room. Just An Innocent Walk Through the Valley My casa was on the edge of the valley, and while my hosts offered to connect me for a guide for a walk or a horseback ride, I looked forward to exploring the area on my own. So I set out the next morning, with a giant bottle of water, following my host’s directions, “the path is behind the tree. Just go straight then when you can’t anymore, turn right!”. I found the path and the valley, walked by patches of trees vibrating from pruning by machete, walked across a sketchy “bridge” of haphazardly placed planks and suddenly, the foliage opened up to the valley. Vast fields, oxen hooked up to wooden ploughs waiting to start their workday and explosions of purple wildflowers caused my jaw to drop and I couldn’t help whispering “wow” to myself. I walked until I could no longer go straight, turned right and jogged past a sweet smelling bush that buzzed with bees. I found a wider dirt road that was flanked with tall bushes on each side so it wasn’t very scenic. Well, until a cowboy trotted by, in a small herd of five horses. “Quires un cabalagata? Hay una piscina natural” (Want a horseback ride? There’s a natural pool), he asked as I tried to avoid the miniature stampede. “No tengo mi ropa de nadar y estoy caminando,” (I don’t have my swimming clothes and I’m walking) I responded, thinking about how warm it suddenly felt, my cheeks flushing. I continued to march down the large dirt road, even though I couldn’t see anything over the tall shrubs. After about ten minutes, I admitted defeat and retreated to try the other path at the intersection, just to run into my cowboy friend again. “Change your mind?” he asked from under his cowboy hat, and I stubbornly said “I’m walking”. So I walked past the horses, tied to trees waiting for tourists, past the office and suddenly I was in the street of the town, lined with casas on each side. I sighed, because I was supposedly to be visiting the valley but it seemed my navigational skills failed me and I didn’t even have a map. So I slunk back where my cowboy friend was now sitting on the steps of the office. “Regresé. Una hora.” (I returned. One hour) I told him, and I told myself that a short ride would get me to oriented so I could continue to explore on my own, and there no other reason I gave into the guy that mysteriously made my heart beat faster. I hopped on “Cuba Libre” and we headed off. He was pretty quiet, punctuating the comfortable silence with occasional names of crops in his limited English. When he tried to take me to the coffee planation tourist stop, I declined, anticipating the awkward part where they’d want me to buy something. I started sharing random travel stories in broken Spanish, about drinking “cat-poo-chino” in Bali, with little indication if I was making sense from my silent tour guide. When we returned to the starting point and I tried to pay him but he refused and asked what I was doing later and offered “sunset, rum and galloping” as an option. “Soy libre. A que hora?” (I am free. At what time?), even though I knew it sounded like trouble. Fireflies & The Milky Way At 5, I returned to the office where I didn’t see Yasmani, so I found a dog to pet until I got covered in a dust cloud generated by a horse that halted in front of me. He hopped off to help me up, then climbed on behind me, kicked the horse into a trot and we headed further up the path to get a second horse. He pulled a plastic bottle of rum out of his gumboot, “Havana Club Especial” he explained with a wink as he...

Trapped: Exploring An Alternative Art Museum & Life In Cuba According to a Cuban

Trapped: Exploring An Alternative Art Museum & Life In Cuba According to a Cuban

It was Friday night in Havana and since I would need quite a few mojitos before I was confident enough to hit the Cuban dance floor, I decided to start the evening at Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory). A few years ago, they converted an abandoned cooking oil factory into a mixed use art space filled with unusual photography, film and dance studios, music venues, restaurants and bars. It was an absolute maze… when I thought I had seen it all, I turned a corner and a whole new section opened up. Exploring the Art Museum with A Local After my initial survey of the area, I decided to break for a $3 baguette to pass time until performances started and I struck up a conversation with the Cuban guy who was behind me in line. He was just starting his first year of university as civil engineering student. Most of his family lived in Washington DC and he was hoping he could join them some day, but in Cuba, you pay for higher education with two years of working for the government then men are obligated to serve a year in the army so it would be a long process. After eating, we decided to wander around together and seeing the museum through his eyes was a completely different experience. He brought me to a short animated film, where a girl continuously failed in her attempts to leave the island where she was marooned. She tried to make a boat out of a bucket but the bucket quickly filled with water and sank. She tried to use two palm trees as stilts in an attempt to call for help but the trees fell over. She tried to climb a flagpole to send a signal but the flag blew away in a sudden gust of wind. I interpreted it as a klutzy girl, unlikely to be a finalist on Survivor. He looked me in the eyes and solemnly said, “That’s us. We’re in jail here” referring to the situation of his county, his people. He took me to some of his other favorite spots in the museum. This included a collection of newspaper clippings from the 1950s about all the lies the government told the people, inciting fear of nuclear power, Chinese immigrants taking all the work and praising the strength of the Cuban currency. He took me to his favorite piece… it looked like an amateur photographer spilled a random collection of photos (mostly strange things and naked people) on the table. One photo included a sign of a bar that told people they were free to blaspheme and criticize the government. He said something along the lines of, “if only such a place existed”. Visiting Communist Cuba With Obama easing travel restrictions in Cuba, there were countless articles encouraging Americans to visit to see the country “before it changes” or before it’s ruined by the onset of Americans. Admittedly, I’m guilty of coming for exactly that reason. There’s some evidence of progress, like people hunched over their phones in wifi hotspots around the city and some modern taxis with air conditioning and even mini movie screens to watch music videos, but when people say visiting Cuba is like traveling back in time, it’s absolutely true. The cab driver who picked me up from the airport drove a car from 1956 and commented, “all the tourists say ‘your car is so beautiful’ but I’d trade this car in an instant a modern American one”. The Cubans maintained cars from the 50s and 60s because with the embargo, they had no other option. Now, the cars are UNESCO protected national treasures, often being “Frankensteined” combinations of parts from other cars within the body. Outside Havana, most taxis are horses with carts or bike taxis. It’s inspiring to see how Cuban ingenuity made the best of a bad situation but how long should we let this go on? It’s still a visibly communist country. When I waited in line at the bank to change money, I was entertained by a slide show of photos of Fidel Castro. In Vinales, I went to a disco party in a cave and they interrupted the evening for a 30 minute photo slideshow with songs dedicated to Fidel. Practically speaking, options are limited, even as a tourist. It’s hard to find markets or even places to buy snacks, non-Cubans can only travel with one bus company and Internet access is restricted primarily to controlled hotspots. Products are limited too- the market ran out of big water bottles when I was in Vinales. My Havana tour guide joked...

Traveling Central America: How to Do It Wrong

Traveling Central America: How to Do It Wrong

My recent trip to Central America proves that no matter how much you’ve traveled, there’s always more to learn.  Despite having visited approximately 60 countries at this point, my Central America trip was embarrassingly poorly planned.  Once I arrived, I realized it was actually really easy to get around, but the lack of clear information online led me to overcomplicate things.  These problems were compacted by trying to pack in a lot of miles into a limited time, in countries were things don’t always work according to schedule.  Fortunately, my trip was still fun.  Here’s a few tips to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes that I did, followed by reasons why a Central America trip is totally worth it.  1. Shuttles Are A Traveler’s Best Friend I planned to figure out the details of the trip when I arrived but I wanted to know about basic options for transportation ahead of time.  Travel information for Central America isn’t as well documented online as other places I’ve been.  Somehow, I missed the incredibly important fact that there’s shuttles connecting all the major tourist cities in Central America, with a hostel pick-up/drop-off service (ex. Gekko Explorer out of El Tunco, El Salvador, Atitlan Tours out of Antigua, Guatemala, Tierra Tours in Nicaragua) .  The shuttles cost significantly more than local transport (which is ridiculously cheap) but it allows you to bypass capital cities which are hard to avoid if using local transportation.  With shuttles, you don’t have to book things ahead of time (it’s easy to get a next day departure), it’s safe and an easy way to make ~10 new friends that you can hang out with in the next city! Almost all the guidebooks to Central America recommend tourists avoid capital cities since there’s not much to see/do there and a higher chance of crime.  Furthermore, I found that Central America capital cities don’t have helpful central bus terminals… for example, the minibuses leave from somewhere, the more expensive long distance charter buses leave from somewhere else (ex. TICA bus), the local “chicken buses” leave from assorted stops around the city center. What NOT to do: I wanted to fit in Nicaragua, a few days in El Salvador and the area around Antigua, Guatemala in three weeks.  I had cheap round-trip flights into and out of Managua, Nicaragua but that met I had to start and end my journey there.   I only knew about long-distance buses connecting the city centers, which don’t operate at night because of road and crime safety reasons (the earliest buses leave at 2 or 5 in the morning then operate until the early afternoon) so I spent an entire day getting to San Salvador on the TICA bus.  Then I arrived in San Salvador, was literally the only person in my hostel and the only way I could get to anywhere (Ruta de Flores, Santa Ana) but the beach was to hire a private driver (for $100+ USD). I thought my only option would be wasting another day to go back down a long-distance charter bus.  I also worried about the border crossings, which were actually quite straightforward with the shuttle (well, for us, the border between El Salvador and Guatemala included a two-hour game of Tetris and a bumper bruising incident but supposedly that’s unusual).  So I booked a one-way flight from Guatemala City back to Managua a week and a half into my journey (which cost ~$300 USD, more than my round-trip from the States to Nicaragua). That was a mistake for a million reasons.  First, I loved Guatemala and wanted to stay there longer even if it meant decreasing my time in Nicaragua.  I wanted to hike and camp on Acatenango Volcano outside of Antigua but those tours don’t leave every day so I ended up missing out on that.  What I should have done is taken a shuttle from Antigua to Copan, Honduras to see the Mayan ruins then taken a shuttle from Copan, Honduas directly to Leon, Nicaragua.  Instead, by landing in Managua airport, I had to take an expensive taxi out of the airport (basically $25 to go anywhere), then pay to travel back North to Leon and I lost the flexibility of deciding when I wanted to leave Guatemala.  *Sigh. DO take a chicken bus: That being said, you should try the local transportation at some point during your trip, for a cultural experience, if nothing else.  I used them in El Salvador but Guatemala has some of the glitziest camionetas around.  As “Make The Most of Your Time on Earth” describes and I have verified from personal experience that ALL of these things happen, “Pre-departure rituals must be observed.  Street...

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

If you are just learning about my sailing adventure, I’d recommend starting with the preface to how I end up spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met followed by part 1 of my stories at sea.  The following describes the final moments of mour trip when things looked bleak but some adrenaline, ingenuity, the right companion and a stroke of luck got me safely to share.  I’ll close with a reflection on jumping into the deep end of a new experience and how it relates to where my life is going next. Setting the stage Back before we even set sail, when we were preparing the boat back at Boot Key Harbor, Brandon dropped me off at the marina one day to catch up on while he ran some errands to fill up the propane tank and such.  In the middle of checking my e-mails in a the marina common room, some wild winds started racing through the garage-sized doors throwing around newspapers.  A few seconds later, a deluge of rain crashed on the ceiling and my phone beeped with a text from Brandon, “On the boat, waiting for the storm to pass.  I’ll come get you as soon as it does.” As the rain poured and the winds blew, I happily typed away on my laptop for a couple hours before checking in with Brandon.  He picked up my phone call and briefly summarized, “Minor emergency.  Mostly taken care of.  I’ll come back to the marina when I can”.  An hour or two later, he arrived, dressed in a rain jacket with a massive appetite, “so just after I texted you, a gust of wind flipped the dingy, submerging the motor.  It took a couple hours but Fernando and I were able to recover most of the stuff that drifted down shore”.  Apparently word travels fast around a marina because as we stuffed our faces on creole rice AND a sandwich, everyone already seemed to know about the incident.  Brandon’s friend Joe arrived with some motor oil, other people were texting him with advice for reviving a submerged motor and everyone wanted to hear the detailed version of the story.  I watched the exchange of information with a smile.  Brandon always jokingly called his sailing buddies “a bunch of bums that just want to have fun” but honestly, I was incredibly impressed with the boating community.  Most of the people we talked to had left secure and stable jobs to pursue a life at sea, because they found dealing with the daily challenges and victories made life a lot more interesting and rewarding.  They were always willing to lend a hand, provide advice and share skills they picked up over the years because there’s no exact science to sailing and, no matter how nice their boat is, because everyone has been stranded at some point. After our feast, we were able to get the dingy operable enough to get halfway back to the Aloha and one of Brandon’s Australian friends was happy to give us a tow the rest of the way, dispensing more advice as he dropped us off.  With a bit more tinkering, Brandon got the dingy working to escort us to a delectable enchilada party on his friend’s boat and back.  Since it was time to set sail the next day, we tied it to the foredeck and didn’t have to worry about it until we got to Dry Tortugas. When we wanted to come ashore to visit the fort, we assembled the dingy but couldn’t get the motor to start.  We spent hours taking it apart, replacing the spark plug, cleaning the clutch, even lighting the fuel on fire to test our gasoline to no avail.  It wasn’t a huge deal when we were anchored at Dry Tortugas because we had oars to row the dingy to the Fort, friends on a James Bond boat to give us a tow during a miniature afternoon storm and we had a big boat with a working motor.   Our remaining goals for the trip was to return to Key West and find a way to get me to shore… the first part was relatively simple since the motor on the Aloha keeping us moving forward on a second, stormy night sail and working like a charm until we were in eyesight of the anchorage at Key West. Anchoring Under Sail After two days of empty ocean, entering the Key West channel is a shock. Party catamarans are packed to the gills with intoxicated tourists. Motorboats blaze through the waters, flying paragliders like flags. Jet skis blaze by...

A Million Miles At Sea: Ups and Downs of Sailing The Florida Keys (Part 1)

A Million Miles At Sea: Ups and Downs of Sailing The Florida Keys (Part 1)

The vision: “The stars at sea are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.  180 degrees of complete illumination, hundreds of specks of light you never knew existed if you’ve only looked at the sky near cities.  And night sails are the best way to experience it… the winds are steady, the seas are calm, all you need to do is put the boat on autopilot and enjoy the view from the foredeck.” The reality: “You know what to do if one of us goes overboard, right?  You know where the ropes are?  You know how to press “man overboard” on the GPS?  First, you need to try to save me yourself, then you radio for help.  You know where the whistle is on the life jacket?  You’ll have to whistle like hell because the reality of the situation is, with the boat rocking like this, no light from the moon, the rain, there’s a very slight chance, I’ll even be able to see you out there”, Brandon hollers over the sounds of the gusting winds, clanking of the sails and crashing of the waves.  I grimace in a failed attempt to fake a confident smile and not puke, peering out of a crack in the cabin door where I have been placed to shout GPS directions since the torrential rains made it impossible to keep the tablet outdoors.  Brandon is decked out in the stereotypical sea captain yellow rubber overalls and headlamp, chained to the base of the wheel and has just given up trying to fight the sea.  We both hope that heading 270 degrees west won’t send us into any wrecks or rocks since that’s the only direction the boat will go.  In the cabin, my panicked thoughts race between praying that Brandon doesn’t get thrown overboard, trying to hold down my backpacker-bean-dinner and reprimanding my naivety for getting on a sailboat without realizing it could be the death of me.  Brandon calls me on deck to steer for a bit to relieve himself, realizes we’ve been dragging a crab trap for the past three hours and shouts over the wind, comes up with a  plan to remove it so we can move the wheel again.  He dangles over the edge, waving the gaff hook in the darkness to unhook the contraption.  He lets out a victorious yelp as we leave some of the trap behind, I feel the wheel get a little freer and tried to wiggle more strategically through the wild waves.  Apparently, I had been forgetting to breathe, release a huff of air and surprised myself with a weird sense of peace about the situation because despite all the chaos, he had a plan and I knew we were going to be ok. He takes over the wheel and I lie on the bench to calm my nausea, convinced that I would be too nervous and gripping on to the side of the boat too tight to sleep.  However,  at some point, I fall asleep on the bench, hanging on to side cabinet for dear life, and am surprised when the sunlight wakes me to significantly calmer seas.  A bit confused to awaken in such relaxed surroundings, I squint and see Brandon whistling to himself, relaxed behind the wheel.  “Good morning, sunshine” he greets me.  If our life belongings weren’t scattered around the floor of the cabin below and deck of the boat still damp, I’d barely believe what just happened.  Still overwhelmed, I give thanks that I was still alive, albeit a bit wary for another day at sea. “The difference between a fairy tale and a sea tale? A fairy tale starts with ‘Once upon a time’. A sea tale starts with ‘This ain’t no $hit’!” – Edith Widder If you read my preface sailing post about the events leading up to me spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met, you’ll remember that I undertook this adventure wanting to feel alive.  Well, seeing my life flash before my eyes several times certainly accomplished that mission.  You’ll also remember that I stepped aboard knowing nothing about sailing but on a trip like this, I certainly learned a lot… fast!  When Brandon and I embarked on the week long sail from Marathon, Florida to Dry Tortugas National Park and back up to Key West, I had no idea what to expect.  Supposedly, we experienced more disasters in 7 days than he had in four months of owning the S/V Aloha.  Maybe it was bad luck?  Maybe sailing and I aren’t meant to be friends?  Either way, I thought I’d share with all you some of the stories of our sail, some pieces of...