Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

You know what’s awesome about travelling?  Getting out of your comfort zone.  Doing things you wouldn’t normally do.  Learning new skills.  Embracing life.  Stopping being your timid self and embracing a new moment.  I LOVE that about travel!  You can recreate who you are.  You can try new things.

I’ve been really getting into art lately.  By ‘getting into’ I mean exploring painting and watercolours and sketching.

My dad, Gerry, working away on a portrait. He makes it look so easy!
My dad, Gerry, working away on a portrait.
He makes it look so easy!  PS if this means anything to you – yes, that IS a Kenora Dinner Jacket!

In Florence, my husband blessed me by signing us up for this city tour that included an hour sketching lesson.  It was so special because he completely did it for me – wasn’t really his ‘thing’ at all.  It was really awesome because I got to feel like an artiste hanging out in the Florence piazza.

My dad is a gifted sketch artist and this summer I started learning some tips from him.  It’s amazing how easy he makes the process look…but it’s so nice to have someone to look up to and to encourage my feeble efforts.

When I was in elementary school, I always did poorly in art.  So I just stopped because I decided I wasn’t an artist.  Now at the ripe old age of 32 I’ve decided that I like art even if I’m not going to make millions (or cents) from my work.  It’s just this thing I do for me.

And here’s the awesome thing about travelling…I can go to galleries and sketch and paint all I want…and there’s no one over my shoulder asking why are you drawing? or you’re not really an artist so…was this done by you or a 2 year old?

It doesn’t matter how things turn out because I’m doing it for me.

What about you?  What things were you always hesitant about that now, in the life of travel and adulthood, you can embrace?

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Privacy: put your camera away!!!!

Privacy.  The ability to have your own personal space, thoughts, actions, and components of your life without the intrusion of others.

Privacy.  The ability to give away pieces of yourself only when asked.

Privacy.  Why, if someone drove by my house and started shooting pictures of my yard, myself, my window, I would call the police.

We demand privacy.  We expect privacy.  So why is it so hard for us to forget about privacy when travelling?

We drive by houses in rural Tanzania and, because the Masaii look different than us, we point and shoot our cameras.  Better if we can capture a Masaii herder, too!

How would you feel if a stranger started shooting pics of you and your house?

We see the most adorable child so we immediately start snatching her picture, without asking permission from the parent.  Or even the child.

How would you feel if some stranger started randomly taking a picture of your kid?

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Sometimes THIS is the best policy. And what better way to capture the moment – through your own eyes, rather than through your lens. (Picture courtesy http://www.iconshut.com)

We take away dignity from individuals every time we point and shoot, without the basic courtesy of asking permission.  We take away dignity from individuals every time we point and shoot, without thinking about the person impacted by the picture.  We take away dignity from individuals every time we point and shoot, and immediately upload to social media, so that this person, who we do not know, now has their image portrayed across the internet.

I was traveling just outside Jinja, Uganda, on my way to see the River Nile, when I caught glimpses of a pineapple market and started taking pictures.  A man on a bicycle raced up to me and angrily asked did you just take a picture of me?  what are you going to do with this? why?  I showed him my camera and the pictures I had taken, not of him, but of the pineapples.

He smiled and we began chatting.  Because his village is on the way to the river, many tourists pass by and take pictures of their community.  Although his English level didn’t allow him to put it into proper words, what he described to me was feelings of exploitation.  Villagers didn’t like that people were just snapping pictures of them living their daily lives.  And they really didn’t like that people would not even say ‘hello’ before, or after, taking these photos.

A community in Senegal I visited believed that taking a picture of someone is stealing their soul.  Imagine your inner turmoil if some stranger were to visit your country and take your soul from within you.  Imagine the feelings of parents watching, helplessly, as the soul of their child is snatched by a stranger.

Pictures are wonderful tools for capturing memories and showing others what we saw and experienced.  I’m very pro-picture.  But having spent considerable time with less fortunate individuals who are often that unknown face in a picture taken by a stranger, I encourage you to ask these questions before you take that picture on your next vacation:

Did I ask permission from the person whose picture I am taking?

Would I feel comfortable if a stranger came to my community and took this picture of me?

Am I respecting this person’s dignity through their right to privacy?

The first question, asking permission, is the easiest way to avoid any issues.  Just ask!  Often times people don’t mind at all…and light up at the fact that you respected them enough to ask!

Remember, the Golden Rule:  Do until others as you would have them do unto you.  We expect others to respect our own privacy; so lets respect the privacy of others, even when travelling.

Preparation for Gluten Free Travel

Whether you’re coeliac or, like me, are very gluten intolerant, anytime you leave home to travel, thoughts of will I be able to eat?  will I be hungry?  where will I go to eat?  is there going to be hidden gluten? linger.

If you are GF, you will have already developed many of your own survival rules.  I wanted to present you with mine which are important things to think about before travelling, especially to a new country (but really, anywhere).  And even though I’m talking specifically about “gluten free”, most of these concepts will apply for any diet

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Dear Bread, you are not welcome on this vacation. Yours untruly, Leah (picture courtesy http://www.thediligentwoman.com)

1) Do some research.  Type in the name of the city/country to which you are visiting and “gluten free” to get a general idea of what’s available.

2) Research the local food.  For example, I know that whenever I visit Thailand, gluten free isn’t too much of an issue for many of the meals.  Researching before hand can get you ready for what is naturally GF, and what isn’t.

3) Find out how to say ‘gluten free’ in the local language.  “Senza glutine” was one of the very few components of my Italian language skills – but really helped me when dealing with B&Bs and wait staff.

4) Bring food with you.  I am the absolute WORST at being hangry and those of us who have a gluten allergy know how easily people forget about our tolerance…and suddenly we are eating celery and peanut butter for the weekend.  Be sure to bring along some high protein snacks – nuts, nut butter & crackers, dairy – that will keep you feeling FULL and not sluggish.

5) Call 72 hours before your departure, if flying, to check again on your special meal.  Then ask again upon check in/baggage drop.  Even though you probably requested a special meal when you booked your flight, many airlines still require you to call 72 hours in advance to guarantee the fact that you’re coming and are still in need.  I’ve learned this the hard way – call ahead!  And then, just to be safe, when you’re checking in and/or dropping off your bags, get them to check in their system that the meal is available.  Often they will call the gate agents to ensure everything is in order for you.  If you’re connecting to another flight, get the agents at the first flight gate to ensure that your gluten free request is in order on your next flight.  Check your boarding pass(es)!  In most cases, it will say that you have a special meal.  If it doesn’t, ask!

6) Don’t be afraid of going into kitchens.  Italy was remarkably gluten free sensitive, but whenever I felt like the gluten free pizza was a little to good to be true…I’d simply ask to see the GF section of the kitchen.  This is of course imperative for anyone who is coeliac, but if you’re GF intolerant, make sure that there isn’t a communication error and that, yes, indeed, what you ordered is GF.

7) Research alternatives to eat.  In Rwanda, spaghetti is deemed as a very respectful meal to cook for foreigners.  Often I’d show up at someone’s house with the assumption that all I’d want to eat is noodles.  You probably do this at home, but it’s especially important when travelling to areas where gluten free might not be as common.  Don’t let people guess what they can cook for you!  Stating easy things – potatoes.  rice. – offers suggestions for what someone could easily cook for you instead.  Take the guesswork out of the planning.

8) Be wary of similar products.  Not sure if that local sausage has some wheat in it?  Pass!  Unaware of what maltodextrin is made of in this country?  Pass!  Don’t assume products that you called about back home are made from exactly the same materials in your new country.

9) Stick with nature’s basket.  Did you know that everything in the world that does not require any additional processing  is gluten free?  Meat.  Dairy.  Vegetables.  Fruit.  Stick with nature – she gives us the best bread basket of all.

10) Know when holidays fall.  Ken and I once walked way too long to stumble upon the one gluten free bakery in Paris…only to discover that is was closed for August.  We had a lovely walk nonetheless (we got engaged the very next day!!!!:) , but calling ahead given that it was August, the holiday month, would have saved us the hassle.

11) Make sure your travel partner(s) are aware.  Ken is always on the look-out for gluten free options for me, which means that if he happens to enter the small, middle of no where convenience store on the side of the road in northern Ghana that happens to sell GF crackers (true story – SO random!!!), he will buy them!  Having your travel buddies looking out for gluten free items means that you can share in finding something to eat!!!!

Allergies and intolerances should NEVER deter anyone from seeing the world…but it does give us something extra to think through.  With a little bit of pre-planning, you can travel worry-free and peacefully.

Anything else anyone does to ease travelling with an allergy, not just GF, please put in comments below!

Happy healthy travel!!!!

And Then the Rooster Crowed

I love mornings in new places.  It’s this mix of excitement and awe and enthusiasm mixed with a little bit of apprehension and nerves.  New sounds.  New smells.  New colours.  You are in your new home away from home for the next few days.

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The beautiful colouring of the rooster. The cock-a-doodle-doo quickly puts me back to that first morning in Ghana. (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia’s page on roosters! – where you should go and learn lots of amazing facts you never knew!)

I remember vividly my first morning in Ghana, August 2003.  I was 20 years old and had never been outside of North America.  We arrived late in the evening, as is often the norm when doing international travel from North America – those red eye flights are killer!

I awoke to the 6 am alarm of two roosters crowing away outside my window.

It bolted me out of bed like a flash of lightning, not just because of the disturbance of the sound when I was trying to get over my jetlag, but because I wasn’t used to my surroundings.  This sound of the rooster, accompanied by the smells of burning bushes and humidity, sounds of Accra waking up…all of this was new.  And different.  And exciting.  And very overwhelming.

To this day, when I hear a rooster crowing, especially in the morning, my mind reverts back to my twenty year old self in Ghana.  I remember different questions running through my head: did I really commit to spending an entire year in this new place? what was I thinking? what time is it back home? where exactly am I? will this ever feel like home?

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The peacefulness of my morning, right before I wrote this post. Whether or not you are a morning person, there are few things more enlightening than waking up to a morning that looks, feels, smells, and sounds different than your usual surroundings.

Very soon time passed in Ghana and the crowing of the rooster, though continuously there each morning, stopped waking me up.

I grew accustomed to the sound.  Which is, in my ways, a metaphor for my growing accustomed to the country and my new surroundings.

My advice from my lovely Ghanaian friend the rooster?  Embrace the newness of that first morning!  It’s purity and freshness is a feeling that you can never quite recreate again.  And make a point of memorizing, or journaling, those first few moments.  I can remember that morning far better than most mornings in my life…the smells, sounds, tastes…even the conversations.

Embrace that moment.

Embrace that rooster.

Coping With Your “Privileged” Status

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The ability to ‘holiday’ while doing my research presented me with such stark contrasts: I’d see complete abject poverty one day and then be among the world’s most elite, on a Tanzanian safari, or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the next. But we HAVE to grapple with these issues, not ignore them. And to me, consciously choosing tourism companies that I knew would help the local economy was a big factor!

So here you’ve stumbled upon my website and you’ve noticed that my blog post today contains a pretty presumptuous title.  By using the present continuous form of the verb “to cope” I am assuming that you, reader, are coping somehow with a privileged status.  Thus, I’m assuming that you do have some form of privilege.

Not I, you might bequeath.  And yet, here you are, reading these words, when 8% of men and 13% of women worldwide are illiterate (UNESCO).  Here you are, somehow accessing the internet to get on my webpage when 23% of the developed world and 69% of the developing world have no access to the internet (internet world stats).  In a world where it seems like every single person is on the world wide web…that it’s almost ludicrous to imagine getting a job or having a future with ZERO internet skills…imagine the 23 and 69 percentiles without access!

So here’s a truth:  if you take your literate, internet-possessing self, pack a suitcase with some clothes you somehow afforded to purchase, and get on a plane that cost more than the annual income of many (over 2 billion people live on less than $2/day, according to the World Bank)…you are among the world’s privileged.  You might not be rich.  You might still be struggling.  But especially if you travel to a disadvantaged community or country, you are going to be perceived as being privileged.  And you’re going to feel it.

And coping with being privileged can be mighty difficult!

There’s this term used in cultural anthropology called going native.  The concept depicts a person who enters into a different culture and, after time, tries to become a part of that culture, in every way.  This is not simply respecting the culture or getting to know the culture.  This is starting to almost envision yourself as one with the culture – sharing the same injustices, pain, and cultural values, so much so that you no longer relate to yourself as an outsider.

Anthropology students learn about this concept when discussing fieldwork.  If a researcher goes native, it can have severe consequences for the outcome of their research because it jeopardizes their ability to observe without bias.  And in anthropology, where fieldwork is often in the form of ethnography which takes months, if not years, to complete, the danger of going native is higher because the researcher is in the community for such a long period of time.

But watching travellers, student interns, and even myself, go in and out of disadvantaged communities for over a decade, there is something I’ve observed:  many times we try to go native as a way of coping with our privileged status.  We try to either hide, forget about, or make excuses for our background because we are embarrassed or unsure of how to deal with our privileged status.

We don’t know how to cope with being privileged, so we pretend it doesn’t exist.

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This is me in the Serengeti where Walt Disney got its inspiration for Pride Rock (The Lion King). My skin always experiences a lot of problems when I’m in Africa for a longer period of time. I like to think it’s God’s way of keeping me humble: is bad skin really the worst thing that anyone could complain about?!

But it does.  And as much as it’s a difficult reality with which to contend, in my experience it’s much healthier to recognize your privilege and deal with it head-on, rather than ignoring it altogether.

When I was in Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia conducting my PhD field research I was 26 years old.  In countries where less than half of children end up in secondary school, here I was, wandering around the education sector, getting information about lack of access to school.  My research wasn’t using deception, meaning that I had to disclose exactly who I was and what I was studying.  Which meant I received many comments, looks, and questions about how an unmarried woman in her twenties could possibly be working towards a doctorate.

Ten months of conducting my own research through foreign lands and this was probably the hardest thing for me – coping with my privilege head-on.  But eventually I learned the secret that is helpful in the majority of these privilege situations.  Confront it head-on.  And be honest.

Yes, but in Canada it is very normal for people to finish all of their education at a very young age.

I see that in Malawi people do their PhDs in their 50s.  In Canada, people often do it when their younger, and then start looking for a university job.

Recognize and speak to the differences in a way that doesn’t look down on either situation, but simply states the facts.

Three examples:

  1. I don’t get why I should act so privileged and take my ______ medication/get ____ immunization when people here get _____ all the time and seem to be fine with it.  I am not a medical expert, so obviously talk to your doctor and take his/her advice.  However, do either: take your medication in private or, if you’re unable to do so, explain that you come from a country where _____ doesn’t exist, so you have absolutely no immunity built up against it.
  2. It seems so upper class to be buying bottled water when everyone around me is drinking from the tap.  I don’t want to seem rude or special.  If the water is going to potentially make you ill, why take the chances of cutting short your time in this country?  Explain that the water in your country is different so this water makes your stomach upset.  If they came to your country, maybe they’d experience the same.
  3. I feel safer taking a plane across the country, and I can afford the fare, but it seems so bourgeois to not take the local bus.  I’ve been here too.  But sadly road incidents are higher and the airplane is safer.  Having the money to afford the plane fare already means you’re privileged…how does taking the bus change that reality?  

It can be difficult to contend with your privileged status, but being open and honest about the situation, without belittling the other person or culture, can be a great way to ease your feelings of discomfort without bringing harm.  More than anything, recognizing what you can afford that others can’t might help you empathize with those less privileged than you.  In a world where sometimes we complain about the most mundane of matters (see the unfortunately-named first world problems hashtag on Twitter), sometimes a little perspective can do us a lot of good!

Traveling Locally Through Transitions

So a little thing about me:  I love self-help books.  I love reading Gretchen Rubin’s thoughts on how I can keep my house more organized.  I love finding out ways to be more productive.  I love discovering how to live in the moment and concentrate on the here and now.  I have this backlog of information stored inside my brain which should, in reality, make me an extremely calm, zen, slow person.

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Have time today? Sip your favourite hot drink and just think: think about life, about love, about spirituality…if you’re like me and have a job that requires some form of creativity, sometimes it’s through these silent pondering moments that ideas come to us! And by the way, I would argue that jobs requiring creativity include most – the law case you need to crack, that business deal you need ideas for negotiating, that writing project underway….

But the knowledge that living in the present IS better always conflicts with the western ideal that says being “busy” is the most admirable trait.

How are you?  I’m soooooo busy.

How’s your week been?  Really hectic.  We have so much to do on the house/with the kids/at work/in the garden.

We put busy-ness on a pedestal so that, even though we are a generation of self-help reading, yoga-going, tea-drinking connaisseurs, in reality we feel either guilty about taking it slow OR we don’t even know how to do so.

We’ve just moved cities and while my husband productively goes off to work, I…

-can’t work because the proper paperwork hasn’t come through yet

-can’t get my apartment set up because we are still in temporary housing

-can’t go outside because it’s way too hot

And yet that western cultural pull to be ‘busy’ abounds.  Yes, yes, I do have things to do, but I feel compelled to put in a full day’s work when really, for one of the first times in my life, it isn’t necessary.

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Ken got me this awesome book for my birthday last year. I never take the time to look through it and come up with new smoothie recipes. I always just make the same old-same old. Today I made a mango-oatmeal smoothie that was DELICIOUS. Have time? What interesting meals can you stir up?

So many of the people around me are presently in transitions.  A friend who is recuperating from surgery.  A mother who just retired.  A father who is waiting for his next contract to start.  Friends who are on “staycations”.

If I were to write a self-help book (which would be about giving advice that I should take myself but rarely do) it would be entitled Traveling Locally Through Transitions.  

All those libraries you’ve never frequented.  All those little paths you never took.  All those picnics you always wanted to take.  The fitness schedule that couldn’t be maintained.  The people watching that you just didn’t have time to do.

My mom and dad went on a day trip the other day to a wonderful lakeside town about 40 minutes north of our hometown.  I love that they did this.  Not just because adventures are fun, but because even though on paper it’s only 40 minutes away…in reality when do we ever make time to travel to places closest to us?

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So my dad won this phenomenal Beatles trivia night!!!! Well, technically my sister, my dad, and I won…but it was pretty much all him!!!! What interesting and different things can you find to do you in your own city? This was awesome: it was part of the Beatles Fest and was something completely different from what we had ever done despite living there for 20 some years.

Are you in a transition?  Feeling like you should be more productive?  Remember what all the self help gurus tell us…take time!  enjoy life!  meditate!  be slow!  be mindful!

Today I’m going to visit where I live as a traveller…and journey through each moment of the day in a slow, peaceful, non-busy way.  I’m going to bring with me my sketchpad and my journal and a book…The most interesting thing?  It’s always when I’m most calm and relaxed that ideas for my writing projects abound.  Meaning?  taking the time and being slow IS productive.  So get out there!!!  Explore your city!!!!!

Happy non-busy day to you!

Helpful Resources for Educators & Researchers

If you’re an educator, or simply someone interested in furthering their knowledge of experiential education, here are some of my go-to resources:

  1. The Association for Experiential Education. http://www.aee.org => there’s an international conference and also geographically-bound branches.  For example, there are several chapters for US-specific locations, for Canada, and locations around the world!  They also have a blog – https://assnexpered.wordpress.com

2. The Journal of Experiential Education. http://jee.sagepub.com/  Stay up to date on current research in the area of experiential education, including international travel.

3. Her Own Way – http://travel.gc.ca/docs/publications/her_own_way-en.pdf – the Canadian government’s little booklet of helpful tips and information for female travellers.  I always give this to my female students and think ANY female going overseas would benefit from its reading.

4. David Kolb’s “Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development”.  This 1984 work was published by Prentice Hall and remains a masterpiece in the world of experiential education.  His graphs on learning styles and his experiential learning cycle are critical for thinking through the experiential learning process.

5. UNESCO’s site on experiential learning  – excellent for resources and other reading ideas:

http://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_d/mod20.html- http://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_d/mod20.html