Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Roaming Around Matka Canyon (Skopje, Macedonia)

Skopje isn't a city that will necessarily steal your heart, unless you're a big fan of Vegas and all things kitschy. It's full of wonderful people, and ample good food and beverage, but it's clear that the government is spending all its money to redesign the city as a giant grandiose homage to Alexander the Great and other famed historical Macedonian figures (and not all that tastefully.) It's important to commemorate your history, but not at the expense of your future. Almost everyone I spoke to, and we had the pleasure of being showed around by some great people, did not approve of the recent changes. We met up with a wonderful fellow named Vlad while we were there (thanks to our friends Andrei and Iva), and he was our tour guide and pal throughout our time there. I also got the feeling that he was none too impressed with all this money being spent on redecorating while the economy essentially fell apart and unemployment soared. I mean the new buildings and statues weren't terrible, but there was classical music playing out of the fountain below, and it was all a bit bizarre.

Luckily, you won't have to hear me rant about a city that I'm clearly unsure how I feel about. The place I'll be mentioning today, Matka Canyon, is a place I'm quite sure of how I feel about. It's not more than about a half an hour drive outside of the city, but Matka Canyon offers some serene beauty. This isn't lost on the Macedonian people as it's simply packed with people out there, but that makes perfect sense. Istanbul, I can tell you from personal experience, could use a natural sanctuary like this more than anything. Though, there is some pretty decent hiking not that far away, I shouldn't complain too much! I suppose it's just my frame of reference - I've spent large swaths of time in Istanbul, Seoul, and Toronto and these are cities where you can barely drive across a neighbourhood in 30 minutes. I'm quite sure that this enabled me to appreciate Matka even more, and Bri felt much the same.

When we arrived, there was an international kayaking competition in the works. Not a bad start to be sure.

The area originally served as a religious escape of sorts as the hillsides are peppered with old monasteries, cathedrals, and churches. Many of these sights of worship have been well restored throughout the years and look to be in good shape, despite being built as far back as the 14th century. More recently, Matka Canyon appears to have been developed to accommodate the demand of the Macedonian people to come and enjoy the natural setting. There are well built hiking trails, a man-made lake (Lake Matka, which is the oldest man-made lake in the country), and restaurants along the paths that serve delicious cuisine. The area, some 5000 hectares large, is the perfect place to spend a half or full day out of Skopje.

Being in Toronto at the moment, yet thinking more deeply about my experiences in Macedonia, it reminds me of the responsibility I feel that governments (both locally and nationally) have to look out for the welfare and happiness of their citizens - that is, after all, what they're elected to do. In Toronto, there's an abundance of parks and space for leisure, and in Macedonia they've clearly made some effort to look out for their people in creating and providing a space such as this. In Istanbul, there's really no emphasis on space for the people, as much as there is emphasis on land being sold to corporations and investors. It all just gets me thinking, how important nature and leisure is, as cities tend to get more "urbanized" by the day. Based on our experiences, I can only imagine that Matka will be enjoyed for millennia to come.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Just a Photo (Istanbul, Turkey)

This won't be a long post because, occasionally, you can say all that you need to say without the establishment of a hardened, lengthy manifesto (though, I've certainly done that before when reflecting on life in Istanbul). If my blog is a suppository of my ideas, and I in turn decide the format, then I suppose anything goes. And so I'll follow the waves of morning caffeine softly encouraging me and put a little something together, regardless of this posts yet determined arrangement.

What I want to convey is this - as an expat resident of Istanbul, I feel as if I'm almost always swimming upstream against a current of warnings, worries, and bad news. That's not to suggest that it's not somewhat substantiated (it is), but, as far as the media is concerned, it is indeed the only side of the story. I find deep joy, intrigue, and comfort living in this city, and so when there are moments when I find myself in the eye of a proverbial media hurricane, I turn to my catalogue of photos to find solace in what I think of as the other side of the story. 

I take refuge in what I know to be true about the city because of the tangible evidence that I've personally collected.

Just last week, when another bombing occured in Istanbul, and I watched the front pages of the world's news sources light up (with the usual incorrigible ignorance), I turned to my photos again, and I found one that summed up so much for me. It was a photo I took surrounded by friends on a rooftop, and encapsulates why, for the foreseeable future, my feet are staying firmly planted here. It reminded me of what can happen here, the soft subtle moments that form my memories of the city that never make it to the BBC.

For me, it's amazing how much a picture can convey...

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Speaking About the Silent City (Mdina, Malta)

I think when it comes to travel writing in general, it can be rather easy to write nothing more than pieced together cliches, sprinkled with some timely punctuation. That's likely due to the fact that you can make these blanket statements about particular sights that have a good chance of ringing true for all sights. My two favourites, which I see all the time and I'm sure I've been guilty of at some point, are "it was a perfect mixture of old and new, history and modernity," and "I was transported back x number of years when I arrived there." Unless you're writing about a town that was founded yesterday, you're pretty safe with those two. I've found, more times than I can count, that modern travel writing can be just plain tiring to read, especially when you read a paragraph that says precisely nothing and applies to absolutely everywhere. Where am I going with this? Well, I'm writing about a place in which my "two favourite travel blanket statements" actually finally do apply. So here's my attempt to avert the temptation to use them.

Mdina in Malta is the sort of place that, if you were a Game of Thrones character or family, you'd be more than happy to settle and further fortify it. It's large, robust walls are nothing short of intimidating, which makes a lot of sense considering it served as the small island's capital city from antiquity until the turn of the medieval period. And, speaking of Game of Thrones, Mdina's city gates were actually filmed as the illustrious city gates of King's Landing early on in the development of the television series.

Most people would agree that visiting Mdina while on Malta is a must, and I tend to agree. It's unique, striking medieval façade is nearly unparalleled. Historically, the city was known as "The Silent City," as after the capital was relocated in the 16th century, it lost its prominence, and the liveliness of the city moved onwards to Valletta, likely with the money as well. Today, despite the tourist crowds, the name still rings very true, but this time in a positive way. Unlike in Valletta (which is still very pleasant and "quiet" by Istanbul standards to be sure), you can escape the crowds in the back alleys, which are completely void of people. It was a surreal experience to walk through the cramped streets and narrow passageways, and only hear the deep echo of our own footsteps.

If there were only high walls and little streets, it'd be awfully pleasant, but in all likelihood it wouldn't be worth a blogpost, or a strong consideration for a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List. But, alas, I'm writing this blogpost, and it's currently on the tentative list to become a UNESCO sight. And so, what bridges the gap? (nice pun for a post on a fortified city, no?) It's the grandiose churches, the fine statues, the outdoor restaurants, and the purple flowers that climb up the walls like excited children. The view from the city isn't bad either, but it's the sum of the city's parts that really make it special. This could be misconstrued as one of those blanket travel writer comments, but I just have to say it in this case - there's just no other city like it.

I want to at least attempt to continue to avoid the travel writing cliches, so I'm not looking to make a concluding paragraph which suggests with certainly that town x is the most the special town on the planet. In truth, it's not, but it is worth mentioning that it is legitimately special. Mdina is a place you can get lost in, both voluntarily and involuntarily, though, thankfully, it's small enough to merely embrace your disorientation, focusing only on the soft, rhythmic sound of your footsteps.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

My Appearance on Vancouver's Roundhouse Radio!

Hey everybody, 

I don't need to add too much writing to this because I was able to speak quite a bit on my segment this morning on Roundhouse Radio. Namely, I just want to share the link to the show! I'm proud that they sought me out earlier this week to chat with me because of this very blog! 

>>>Here it is folks<<<


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Speaking Volumes Series - A Snapshot of Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Today I'll be doing a little something different, and perhaps it'll be the start of a little series of sorts. Recent posts have been focusing more on photography as opposed to writing, which has been great, but I want something different at the moment. In this instance, with something I'll call "speaking volumes," my aim is to convey the story of a photograph with writing. Essentially, to bring a photo to life with language. 

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua (2014)
I often wonder if people in "the Lagoon" still remember who I am, or whether I simply passed through like so many storms. I have a feeling that many would still remember me - walking through the streets, engaging in conversation, laughing, smiling, and sweating profusely.

Many of my days were spent at the local school, with its tattered rooftops and blue and white façade. Classes ran from early in the morning until just past noon, when the classrooms would become more akin to a microwave than a place of learning. However, my memories are usually centred on the warmth of the students, rather than the heat in the classrooms.

Pearl Lagoon was my home for a brief eternity, a month or so packed solid with a lifetime store of memories. The smells and tastes are as vivid to me now as they were then, and the music is just as loud in my head. My host family there put me up in a quaint, decent room that wouldn't be the top place on Expedia, but where you'd never feel more accommodated and cared for. To feel included and considered in a foreign place is all that we can over hope for.

I found my two friends routine and consistency there, despite all odds. But, I suppose that's easier to find in a town of 4000 than most other places. Looking back, I think I was assured that I'd "seen everything," after my first hour of wandering. And yet, upon departure I left with the feeling that there was so much more to see. Sometimes it's nice to remember that towns and cities aren't just a collections of sights to be checked off, photographed, and conquered.

A touch after the sun came up, I too rose, and put on pants and a collared shirt. Truthfully, all I wanted to wear was a bathing suit, but as I began my walk and saw students pouring onto the main road aside me, I was assured that I was wearing the right garb. My students, from grades 9-12, all just called me "Prof," and a "Prof" wears a collar, not a bathing suit. It's an interesting feeling trying to keep your cool in a classroom with dozens of students, when it's dozens of degrees above your comfort level. I might have had a different way to describe it back then, but memories have a way of gaining a fuzzy nostalgic gleam as time passes.

The desks were well used, and the whiteboards were barely there, but I never heard a single complaint. The students were quiet, humble and determined. And they were a joy to teach - all seven of my classes. As a teacher, it was a lesson in what the barebones of teaching really are. I was challenged to bring outdated material alive without google as a crutch, and that's an opportunity I relished. Whether I succeeded, I'm not sure, but I'd like to think I did, perhaps in some small but important way.

Everyday I arrived, and I saw the flags blowing in the wind, and I remembered that, no matter how hot it got, there was always a soft and subtle breeze.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Touring the Towns of Tuscany

Tuscany is one of those places on earth that is "as advertised." That is to say, it's a place that is a perennial tourist beacon, yet it doesn't disappoint. I don't mean to suggest that tourist beacons typically dissapoint, but I would argue that they're rarely as advertised. Something like the Tower of Pisa comes to mind as, when you arrive, you end up spending more time looking at people taking "leaning pictures" for Instagram than you do looking at the tower itself.

I think that part of it is also due to the size of the region, and the fact that its larger size cities are really quite quaint, at least when comparing them to Madrid, Naples, or Rome. One of these larger size cities, which may have ended up being my favourite city in all of Italy, was Siena.


As functional as it is picturesque, Siena has a charming, subtle confidence. We only were able to spend a handful of nights there, but I would have loved to spend more, just based on the vibe. At lunch, we were dining on incredible lunches overlooking the main square, Piazza del Campo, then night would come and we'd be in the middle of a street party as rowdy as any in Europe. It seems like there's a street party just about every other night in Italy in the summer. Alas, before I digress into a post about street parties, let me just say that Siena is a jewel, and I'd recommend it higher than almost any other Italian city. Namely, because the wine is good and reasonably priced, the food is delicious (particularly the salami and wild boar), and it's just downright pleasant.

Siena, as I was saying, is just wonderful, and it really seems like not much has changed in the last few hundred years. I can only hope that trend continues.

Yes, Siena is lovely, but one of the real highlights of Tuscany was using our Vespa to shoot around the countryside from town to town. Below I'll include a blurb and some photos for a few of the notable towns that really exemplified the glory of Tuscany.


It's small, compact, and worth a visit on the way to other towns on the Tuscan route. It was one of the Sienese fortifications which was built to keep Florence away from the heart of Siena. It was worth the coffee break and the peruse around the walls, and it won't eat up too much of your time. On a humorous note, I distinctly remember the information sign outside initially referring to Monteriggioni as the "unconquerable castle," then going later to talk about all the many times it was conquered. I should also add that, as an English major, I was please pleased with the notion that this town is actually mentioned in The Divine Comedy.

San Gimignano 

A town has stood in place here since at least the 3rd century BC, and it's a absolute must-see, but the problem is that all the other tourists also realize that as well. It's the type of Tuscan town that, unfortunately, has three parking lots outside the walls to accommodate the masses, and masses there are. But, it's still worth the glimpse, especially if you traverse your way up the tower for some unstoppable views. San Gimignano is a UNESCO heritage sight with towers, churches, and piazzas galore. I'd recommend getting food elsewhere though, as the prices reflect the tourist boom!

Castellina in Chianti 

Well there's no shortage of wine in Chianti, and I would have indulged in many more glasses had I not had to drive a Vespa home. It was a beautiful town, and though it was the most off the beaten path, the area surrounding it is simply stunning. We putted along on our Vespa with the shunning sun, and rightfully said that there was no place we'd rather be. 

I've only spoken about 3 of the towns in Tuscany, but there are just innumerable towns, and when I get back there, you can kindly expect another post of this nature. Let us consider this post one because if these photos call you now, they certainly call me back. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Most Underrated Capital in Europe

A lot of bloggers use titles like the one above to lure their readers in, "click bait" if you will, but I do genuinely feel this way about this city, and not announcing it in the title above was merely an exercise to see if anyone might actually guess what it might be before entering the post. Just for the hell of it, I encourage you not to scroll down and to take a wild guess at what city I'm referring to based on the facts below:

In the city I feel is the most underrated capital in Europe...
  1. More than 30 percent of the population of the country lives there
  2. The Old Town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and rightfully so)
  3. It used to be known as "Reval" from the 13th century until just after WWI 
  4. It gets mighty cold in the winter
  5. It's location on the Gulf of Finland has made it relevant since medieval times
Whether you guessed it correctly or, more likely, scrolled down a little too far and saw the answer anyhow, the city that has recently taken over my imaginary city travel throne is...

Tallinn, Estonia

I love Tallinn like I love pizza - any temperature, any time. Briana and I made our first visit to this illustrious city this past November, and instantly fell in love with it. I've never seen an old town so well preserved, nor a city that was more decidedly walkable. Not to mention, despite covering a rather large area, the main places to eat, walk, have a beverage and indulge in general tourist activities is extremely manageable. In four days, I feel like we intimately got to know the city of Tallinn, and I miss it like I miss an old friend. Needless to say, one day I know we'll return - though perhaps in the middle of summer or the middle of winter. I'd like to see it either blossoming with flowers or with its rooftops covered with a soft layer of snow. 

Each and every alleyway was worth walking down, and that's more than you can say about a ton of other capital cities, especially particular capitals I've visited like Bucharest, Managua, or Manila ( and where it might just cost you your wallet.) But that's the point, whether we were in the bustling Town Hall Square, or taking the long walk out of town to the Kuma Museum, we felt very at home. 

There really aren't very many cities this size that I feel like I could explore for a lifetime, appreciating every nook and cranny. And beyond its physical appearances which have an innate charm, the history is fascinating, for better or worse. Tallinn is no stranger to occupation (both Russia and Germany raised their flag in this city in the 20th century), but they're also no stranger to rebellion, both quiet and loud. That's really only a small tidbit of what makes Tallinn interesting, they've been a city worth of mention almost since the turn of the first millennium. 

The history of Tallinn is one of resilience, which has formed this city into what I can safely say is one of the most pleasant and agreeable on the planet. So, hats off to Tallinn, what I'll confidently call the most underrated capital in Europe. As part of me tipping my hat to the city, I'll show off a little of what the Nikon captured along the way.