Bandwagon Blogger says Follow Me on Instagram! Story time is just getting started…

I will admit it – I have been a bandwagon blogger. I started the blog when I had an abundance of free time on my hands. More than enough. Too much, if there is such a thing. I’m sure some reading that sentence might cringe, or disagree in some way. But I was adrift.

Today, I am happy to say, I don’t have that problem! Free time is once again something precious, to be hoarded, and treasured. I am a graduate student. So you see, it’s not that I have stopped writing.

To reinforce this lifestyle, my tried and tested Nikon D60 has finally gone caput after a lot of use, and from time to time, abuse, at my hands. My trigger finger is getting itchy: and so my love for Instagram has finally taken flight.

So Follow Me on Instagram! 

More travel photos from around the world, as well as a whole bunch from my home, Canada, as well. Photos from Home and Away! Food, travel, the great outdoors.

I’m hooked you guys. So I’m here to say that I haven’t given up on the blog, just put it on the back burner on a very gentle, slow cooking simmer. It makes me happy to see that people still come to the blog as it is through search engines and other external links! The most popular posts continue to be those that I had some sort of experience or story to share – factual or fictional.

There are a ton of travel bloggers out there to be sifted through online, but true storytellers among them seem few and far between. That is something I am trying to keep up with on Instagram by sharing my photographs. Instagram is like the Travel Years, just distilled and concentrated down. Check it out!

 

 

 

 

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West Java, Indonesia: Experiencing Pangandaran with a Local

I don’t think I was ready to say goodbye when we did. I had grown attached to Vietnam, learned to appreciate the beautiful countryside, the moto-packed cities, and learned about the ease of making fast friends on the road. I was just getting a feel for a new country when a taxi drove us through town to the international airport, heading for Indonesia.

Eighteen hours later, we touched down on the rainy tarmac in Jakarta. Thirteen hours more and we were unloading from of a bus that had taken us across the island, from the capital to Pangandaran, on the south side of West Java. It was about 12am, and pitch black outside the gates of the ocean side town.

The bicycle rickshaw drivers spotted us immediately.

“Where you going?”

This is, of course, how all conversations with drivers start. We countered with the usual, “How far is it to town?”

After a small haggle, we took the offered ride – drivers almost always know where you want to go. After stopping at the gate to pay the entrance fee to the town, we made straight to the doors of Bamboo House. The group decided on the family-run guest house based on the general consensus of Trip Advisor. Bamboo House was my first sight waking up in one of my favorite locations of the trip and home for the next three days. It featured a gorgeous courtyard, reset-them-yourself breakers, and excellent banana pancakes.

Waking up in Indonesia after 30 hours in transit washed away any thoughts I had of missing Vietnam. Where life in Vietnam had been busy, fast-paced and full of things to catch your attention, Indonesia appeared to be more laid back, casual, and about relaxing. Maybe it was because it was so hot there being near the equator. Whatever the reason, it didn’t take long for us to seek out the beach.

A note of caution here people: DO NOT forget the sunscreen. The sun is big time hot. Especially if you’re coming from a cooler climate in the dead of winter. Anyways.

The beach at Pangandaran is wonderful. The darker black beaches of Pangandaran may not photograph as well as the picturesque white sand beaches of Bali, but they are no less desirable for swimming, suntanning, and acclimatizing to beach life. Hanging out on the beach is also a great way to interact with local people from the town and with other Indonesian tourists. Be prepared to possibly have your photo taken. This happened quite often on West Java, as well as in Vietnam.

Pangandaran is a surfer’s destination, with decent if smaller waves, and a sandy bottom. These two things make it a popular learn-to-surf destination – a fact that local Indonesians have not overlooked. On our first morning in Pangandaran, we had the good fortune of stepping out onto the beach next to Yoga’s Learn-to-Surf Camp. This meeting shaped our time in the town for the better.

The boys rented surf boards and hit the waves, after a on land theory lesson about paddling, catching a wave, and making use of the current. “Maybe later, I will come out and show you how it’s done, ah?” says Yoga. While the boys surfed, Yoga told Amy and myself about life in Pangandaran, asked us questions about our homes, and helped us become acquainted with the restaurant menu. We talked about the giant tsunami that ravaged the area in 2006.

Meeting Yoga and his brother is a huge part of what made visiting Pangandaran so special. Experienced travelers will tell you that seeing a destination through the eyes of a local can make all of the difference in the world, and really bring a place to life. This principle became clear to me that first afternoon on the beach.

Yoga came over and asked, “You know rambutan? ”

No… Who or what is a rambutan? A type of fruit, as it turned out.

“You want to pick some fruit? My brother has a fruit tree, with extra. You can come pick!”

A bit skeptical, we asked a few questions. How do we get there? “I pick you up, in my van.” How much for the ride? “Nothing, just come see the tree! Pick the fruit.”

It seemed too good to be true, so we packed up and left the beach for the late afternoon while the tide was low with our surf coach turned tour guide at the wheel.

The drive alone would have been enough. After Vietnam in the middle of winter, Indonesia is so green! You can look anywhere and see a mountain or a volcano on the horizon and the rice fields are lush and green. Yoga took us into a part of the town normally not accessible to tourists. The entrance is guarded by a lady manning a bamboo gate!

Driving through a wooded part of town, we eventually came to a group of houses with the promised rambutan tree centered in the front yard. For 30 minutes or so we picked our fill of the red spiky fruit, and met Yoga’s family. I poked around a bit, checking out the chicken coop and exploring with my camera. These ladies even asked me to take their picture! I didn’t have to be told twice. All told, it was a great introduction to Javanese culture and set the pace for Indonesia.

Pangandaran was also our first taste of Indonesian food. Some of it was standard, like fried noodles and rice, but served with a fried egg on top in Indonesia. Some of some of it was particularly memorable. The rambutan picking experience definitely qualifies as memorable. But so does the spicy as hell chicken dish we ordered for the first time at 1 in the morning after arriving in Pangandaran. The dish I dubbed ‘Beach Soup’ also qualifies – a rich, clear broth flavored with hot sauce, and floating tofu, meatballs, and fish balls ladled out by a man wandering the beach (10,000 IDR). Our first encounter with the local rice liquor, arak, was definitely memorable. Even more so the next morning.

Like many places we visited, I wanted to spend more time in Pangandaran. I would happily return to the beach town. We stayed three days, but two French Canadians we met there were spending two weeks there – “Who knows, maybe we stay longer.” Life was easy, relaxed, and uncrowded after the well-trodden backpacker loop we had gotten used to traveling in Vietnam. All that mattered was eventually getting to Bali, and beyond that to the Gili Island’s. And so we pushed on to Yogykarta.

You're waiting for a train...

You’re waiting for a train…

Vancouver or Toronto? And other questions Canadians are asked in South East Asia.

Not exaggerating in the slightest – the most common questions locals asked me when traveling through Vietnam and Indonesia was, “From Vancouver? Or Toronto?” While I am not from Toronto, or even close to it, the provincial capital was usually the closest landmark in Ontario I could choose that many people would recognize. Most local people assumed we were from Vancouver anyways – it seems that a lot of Canadian travelers are coming from the west coast these days. Coincidence? Probably not.

I wanted to talk about Vancouver because I am in the midst of spending 10 days on Canada’s temperate west coast! A lifelong resident of Ontario, the west coast has always held a certain draw for me. There is something about British Columbia that is captivating – I think this is true for many of us from Ontario. Same same, but different.

Vancouver? Or Toronto?

To people who aren’t familiar with Canadian geography, these are the main regions of Canada, along with Montreal. And understandably so – Canada is huge. In South East Asia most places can be reached by a couple of hours in a plane making the distances between Canadian cities and provinces vast. Toronto to Vancouver on a regular flight (YYZ to YVR) takes about 5 hours and can cost anywhere from $475 to $800+ for the flight.

Today's available flights. Direct flights are 5 hours, and can vary in cost.

Today’s available flights. Direct flights are 5 hours, and can vary in cost.

So why did many local people in Vietnam and Indonesia assume we were from Vancouver?

Possibly for these two reasons

1) Many of the Canadians we met traveling were from Vancouver. Or maybe they were from the Vancouver area, and identified the closest landmark. Much the same way I identified with being from Toronto, despite living a couple of hours away.

2) The Vancouver area has a large Asian community due to large population of Asian immigrants, increasing in numbers according to Canadian census data from 2014. One man we met in Hanoi asked if we were from “Hong Couver”, haha. The community of Richmond, in particular, is a more noticeably Asian community (cuisine, signage, population), in addition to a popular Chinatown and night markets near Stanley Park in Vancouver.

Canada… it’s cold there, right?

Yes, it can be cold here. So cold. And windy. The Finlanders know. And so do a lot of other people, but some don’t, and I found myself talking about the weather in Canada all of the time. Maybe I was just home sick, or feeling guilty over missing the worst part of winter for the first time in my life (the snow!). It can be fun explaining to people who never experience temperatures below the low 20s (Celsius) how our weather can drop to -30 C in the dead of winter.

But while winter weather can get extreme in the central Ontario region, the west coast of the country often experiences the moderating effect of being near the ocean and experiences milder winters. That’s not to say British Columbia doesn’t get extreme winter weather – they do. But the Vancouver and lower mainland area is known for having milder winter temperatures, with heavier precipitation. This past winter was particularly mild on the west coast.

And the summers are beautiful, no matter what part of the country you’re from.

Portrait of a Dog

Portrait of a Dog

Snowshoeing? Ice fishing? 

These activities are more common in areas with lots of snow! When winter is at least five months out of the year, Canadians need to get creative to keep entertained during the dark, cold months from November to April. In Ontario, activities like snowshoeing and ice fishing are extremely popular. In British Columbia, the Rocky Mountains are a main feature and there is less lower mainland snow – making the region known world wide for its top notch snowboarding and skiing.

Ice Fishing

We have been lucky enough to visit B.C. during the spring – which means hiking, exploring and making the most of patio season. Yesterday, we visited beautiful Stanley Park, on the edge of downtown Vancouver. The 1,001 acre park is bordered by Vancouver Harbor and English Bay, features approximately 200 km of walking trails, and is an amazing thing to find in the middle of one of Canada’s largest cities. Stay tuned for more details on our visit to Stanley Park and the sea wall.

What is the food like?

Fortunately, Canada supports a multicultural society which means multicultural food! Vietnamese, Japanese, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian, French, Italian… the list goes on – if you want it, there is probably a restaurant that serves it.

That being said, I have always found Vancouver to have a wider selection of the types of food that I like to eat – see back to my point about having a large population of Asian individuals. Being a coastal city, Vancouver also offers phenomenal sushi that Canadians from landlocked provinces just don’t have access to. We checked out Nikko Sushi, in Langley, and were not disappointed.

Nikko Sushi!

What I am trying to say is that food in Canada is whatever you want it be. We may take it for granted, but Canadians are very lucky in this respect. I did a little research before arriving in the Vancouver area, and stumbled across Wondrous Adventure, a beautiful travel blog put together by Christine, with many of the blog posts relating to hiking, food, and other activities in the Vancouver area. If you are planning on spending time in the region, Christine’s blog is a great place to start.

So far our time in Vancouver has been fantastic – although there could be a little more sun (for my liking anyways)!

Coming up: Highlights from our visit to Stanley Park, Granville Island, and my visit with fellow travel bloggers and soon-to-be expats Rob and Diane (Rodi) from Experimental Expats. You can follow their adventure of moving to Malaysia by checking out their blog here.

Vietnam – Travel Log: Hoi An and NHA Trang

I am getting a bit behind on the Travel Log posts – but only because each and every day is so busy! In addition, we have been so fortunate in terms of weather during our time in Vietnam. While up north it is cool and raining, we had managed to miss all of it. Moving into the sunny south, even clouds are becoming a rarity. With such perfect conditions, every day traveling is being taken advantage of.

Hoi An, Land of Tailors

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Chinese lanterns at the night market in Hoi An.

Last I left you all, we were making our way down the coast of Central Vietnam – beach hoppers, more or less. Hoi An was the next stop on our list, about half an hour by car to the south. An extremely popular backpacker stop, Hoi An is great because it has a small river town feel, with a definite European influence – but you can still get to the beach.

After settling into the new digs at the Greenfield Hotel, we headed down the street looking for Duna Tailor. Tailoring services, and generally the ability to have anything you could want custom made. I repeat: custom made. For a great price! For the extra tall, the extra small or the extra somethings among us, it can be a very exciting experience.

And so our time in Hoi An was structured around daily visits to the tailor’s. The boys had 3 piece suits and dress shirts made. I decided on a fitted summer dress and a blouse! First day you decide on style, fabrics and have measurements taken. They are very quick, so when you return on the second day, it is to try on the ‘first draft’, make adjustments and affirm the style. The last day is to finalize, try on and ship home. While some tailors may promise faster work, the days are worth it to ensure the best fit.

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Site of the only ATM in Hoi An where you can take out 5 million VND. We searched for this guy. Look for Songs Bank on the opposite corner from the MB ATM.

Beyond looking fancy, Hoi An is a great place to shop/bargain, visit the night market on the river, hit the beach or play drinking games that revolve around rat sightings. Being a smaller town, renting bicycles (15,000 to 20,000 VND) is an excellent way to see the city and one which we opted for. If you want to visit the ancient My Son ruins, the motorized scooters are the way to go. If you’re visiting the beach, head out Cu’a Dai Road (Street?) but keep left at the ocean. Right means resorts – left you will have the beach all to yourself.

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All of the backpacker bars in Vietnam after outrageous Happy Hour specials on already rock bottom prices.

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Outgoing and sometimes pushy (not this guy) promoters line the streets, trying to entice you in to their spot.

NHA Trang, Beach Town

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First impressions of Nha Trang, early in the morning.

After Hoi An we jumped to NHA Trang for a night and a day. The city is central for Russian tourists, as is evident walking around in the city. It seems like a pretty well off and developed city. Along the main beach stretch restaurants and accommodations can be pretty pricy, but heading back into the city you will find the street food deals and Vietnamese restaurants that backpacker’s love.

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The main beach in Nha Trang.

NHA Trang has a decent beach, the nearby Cham Towers to visit, and the relatively modern Long Son Pagoda – home of a 79ft Buddha and boasting great views of the city. Afterwards, enjoy views of the local shanty town directly beside it! There are also 19 islands to explore, some of the best snorkeling in Vietnam and the Vin Pearl Resort (home to the largest swimming pool in South East Asia). Also in NHA Trang, we discovered Lotteria – cheap, delicious Korean fast food that is apparently the devil. Korean McDonald’s?

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The 79 foot likeness of Buddha that overlooks Nha Trang and is the focal point of the Long Son Pagoda.

Next up: Dalat, motorbike adventures in Mui Ne and wrapping up in Ho Chi Minh City.

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The road to Dalat - always beautiful scenery from the window of a Vietnamese bus.

Before the dive

I adore this photograph. I annoyed my dive instructor and dive mates to get it so I’m glad it was worth it. Running late one Sunday morning, I snapped this picture looking across Lake Ramsey towards Laurentian University (Sudbury, Ontario). The lighting, color and peacefulness of the shot is everything I could have hoped for.

Worth getting up early for.

Worth getting up early for.

What’s so great about scuba diving?

Early, wet, and sometimes cold mornings. Long drives and overly enthusiastic morning people. A crushing need to look under the dock now, beyond just lying on top of it. These are some of the harder parts to take about scuba diving (Scuba Diver Life dispels more myths about diving here). But I got back in tanks after 10 years as a regular swimmer – so what’s the draw?

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This may sound silly but one thing only got me off of the couch and on my way to the Scuba Shop on Notre Dame one afternoon in July. It is one of the most beautiful sights to turn over on your back while under the water, and see the sunlight filtering down on a clear day. I was watching a television show about scuba diving (ever watched Descending?) and the camera person flipped over on their back to give the viewers a glimpse. I picked up the phone and called Mike in that instant, before I could hesitate, because I knew I had to see that again for myself. Soon.

There is so much beauty to be observed under the water! Saltwater, freshwater, warm water, cold water – it makes no difference to me. I first learned to dive as a teenager in 2005, surrounded by three of my cousins. The Open Water certification for recreational divers by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) consists of an in-class portion, pool classes, and open-water dives. It was a hell of a way to spend March break, but by the end of it we were all ready to jump in the pool – tank, fins and all.

While many memories fade, or are just forgotten about, my time spent in the Dominican Republic with them is crystal. It was the first time I was ever able to swim in the ocean, and the place where I learned to dive! I recall being nervous at first, but once you’re in that blue, blue water with visibility for days that all melts away. We were tested on our basic skills – things like regulator recovery and clearing, clearing a flooded mask, and the tired diver tow. My diving buddy quickly earned a nickname – Glowstick Panter – for the way his legs glowed white under the water, and how quickly he went through his air supply. Hope you’re reading this!! Scuba diving has always been something I have done with my family.

Some mornings, getting up early is worth it.

A father helps his son gear-up on Open Water testing day.

Our trip to the Dominican Republic sparked something in me – the travel bug. Since then I have completed a lot of school, scoured the internet planning my own trips and appreciatively/enviously looked at their travel photos. It was time to get traveling and back in the water myself!

Planning the trip to Vietnam and Indonesia, and advancing my diving education has moved in lock-step. The idea of traveling to Indonesia and not scuba diving there is inconceivable! And something I learned this summer? Scuba diving is similar to riding a bicycle – you never forget, and it comes back to you after a few kicks. So everything I learn now will continue to be useful, as long as I travel and dive. Costa Rica 2015… Yes please. More on that later!!

The point here? Diving and travel go hand in hand. When I first started considering the idea of scuba diving again, my travel companions and I were asking ourselves the question, “What jobs can we do that allow us to make a living, and travel at the same time?” One of the jobs on my list was Scuba Instructor, and so I started looking into that. Then we committed to going to Asia. I figured there was no better time to start the PADI Advanced Open Water certification. I found the blog of Astrid Fischer to be particularly inspiring – she just completed her instructor levels on Tioman Island and blogged about it here.

One more great thing? Besides being fun and awe inspiring, scuba diving is a hobby that is good for your health. Leg and core muscles are working, you are getting active (usually early in the morning), and there are benefits associated with swimming and being in water. This is true, no matter where you go.

So give diving a shot! Your certification never expires. It’s good for your health, your sense of beauty, your travel addiction, and your family life. Plus, being up early in the morning means some amazing pictures you wouldn’t have been able to take otherwise, and maybe some new friends that you wouldn’t have made otherwise.

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A sunrise I caught walking to the dive shop one morning.