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. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The 16 Photos that Prove Kruger National Park is Heaven on Earth

If you've noticed the moderately self-indulgent widget on the right hand side of my blog, which kindly reminds readers how many countries I've been to, then you'll know I've been lucky to see a lot. And, you'll be able to take the following sentence more seriously - there is nowhere on earth like Kruger National Park.

Areas of the now Kruger National Park have been protected since the late 19th century, but it was in the mid 1920's that Kruger received the distinction of South Africa's first national park. I'm not kidding when I say that visiting Kruger is a life-changing experience. Many with whom I spoke and asked for advice from before departure would actually argue that it's even a lifestyle. The people who truly know what magic this place withholds worship it with an almost religious exuberance, and it's entirely warranted.

The pre-departure/planning process was overwhelming in the sense that there's "so much to see." But, quickly, you realize that Kruger National Park isn't the type of place that you go to for a few days and rush around to see a few lions, and then promptly leave. At least not if you're doing it right. Bri and I were lucky to spend four nights there, but, if I had it my way, I'd spend four months there every year. Exaggeration aside, I can say with certainty we'll do everything we can to make sure we step foot back in the park sooner rather than later.

In brief, the park covers nearly 20,000 square kilometres, and includes almost all of the iconic African animals (and landscapes for that matter) that you could hope to see, especially the Big 5 (lions, leopards, buffaloes, rhinos, and elephants). During the day, you drive around the park with your eyes wide open searching for animals in your periphery. That's really the main goal for the day, along with cooking and the like, but it provides an inordinately fulfilling venture. That's certainly the case at least for a Canadian like myself, who was known to swoon over a loon or two in my childhood, but the closest I came to a lion was with the help of Disney and the Toronto Zoo.

We learned quickly not to speed and try to rush to see a ton of animals, as staying put and watching animals in their natural habitat could be considerably more rewarding than snapping photos and speeding off. Personally, we chose to stay in the south eastern region of the park, which tends to be pretty consistent as far as game sightings are concerned. For the first two nights, we stayed at Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp, and then for the following two nights we stayed at Lowie Sabie Rest Camp. Both were lovely in their own right. Croc Bridge offered a stripped down, more barebones experience I found, but Lower Sabie was nothing but pleasant, and neither offered a level of luxury that interfered with how "authentic" I felt the experience was, if that makes any sense.

I will say that, as far as planning, the official website for Kruger was helpful, but about a thousand times more helpful was the Facebook group, Camps and Roads of Kruger Park. The advice we got there was invaluable, and the selflessness of the people of the group in helping us, as well as their sheer devotion to the continued prosperity and preservation of the park, gave us a good indication of the community that existed in Kruger among those who visit (at least those who visit with the right intentions).

Alas, what I really wanted to share with you all was some of the photos we were able to snap, which do a good job illustrating our experiences. It's indeed difficult to capture with words what we were able to see and appreciate. I decided that I would go with 16 photos I thought truly captured what I wanted. 16 is my lucky number, and I know we felt nothing but lucky in terms of what we saw in Kruger, so let's go with 16 photos, shall we? The photos are a combination of the camerawork of both Bri and myself, as often one of us would pull over our big Toyota Fortuner while the other manned (or womanned?) the camera. As always, I hope you'll appreciate the experience we had through my words and photos.

I can't overstate this - put visiting Kruger up there with the great sights of the world, you won't regret it. Just remember to be respectful when you get there, because there's a lot at stake as far needing to preserve a place like this. A place like no other.

The truth is, with or without these photos, Kruger will forever be crystallized in my mind. However, I know Bri and I are certainly looking forward to blowing a few of these up on the wall, as a constant reminder of what exists, just on the other side of the world.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Welcome to Cape Town's Most Vibrant Neighbourhood

On our first day in Cape Town, fresh off the long plane ride, we walked from our hostel (Atlantic Point Backpackers in Greenpoint, which I'd highly recommend) towards central Cape Town to do a little exploring, and generally situate ourself in the city. Before departing, I had read about an area called Bo Kaap, which was known for its colourful array of houses. In my head, I imagined some of the energy and colour I had witnessed when travelling through Nicaragua, and specifically Granada. If you clicked on the link in the previous sentence, you can understand what kind of excitement I would have built up. 

As we walked towards Bo Kaap, a rather large silver Mercedes SUV pulled over, and asked politely if we needed any help. I suppose me carefully looking at the map on my iPhone was the giveaway. Anyway, we told them we were fine, and that we were headed to Bo Kaap. When we said this, they perked up a little and said to "be careful" because "it can be a bit dangerous." Being completely unsure of what was true and wasn't right at the beginning, we decided to skip Bo Kaap and get a little lunch on Cape Town's famed Long Street. But, boy am I ever happy that we went back on our last day in the country. 

Visiting Bo Kaap, as far as I'm concerned, is an absolute must in Cape Town. We saw plenty of little tour buses rolling through and stopping here and there, but that's not what I'm talking about. It's an area you need to walk around, to feel. Though, in response to the warning before, it wasn't entirely unfounded, so if you're going to go and do a little exploring, I'd recommend doing it during the day. 

Bo Kaap is also known as The Malay Quarter, a reference to the Cape Malays, who were Southeast Asian slaves brought over by the Dutch East India Company - as the alternate name suggests, they settled in Bo Kaap. It's area that's well known for its diversity and multiculturalism, also evidenced by the presence of the Nuru Islam Mosque, which was founded in the earlier parts of the 19th century. Needless to say, there's much to learn and appreciate about the area. 

Due to how utterly striking and vibrant the area is, I think it's best if I end my rant about the area, and prove some of what I've said above with a collection of photos. As always, I hope you enjoy them. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what makes South Africa such a marvel. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to be able to share that with all via the blog. But, just because an area like Bo Kaap is only a small part of what makes South Africa great, it doesn't mean it's insignificant. It's an area that will surely leave a lasting impression.