Tuesday, October 11, 2011

1 year later: Looking back from Canada

So one year later, we are all back in Toronto. It's unbelievable to think that just one year ago, we were just beginning an island hopping adventure in the Philippines, meeting members of my family, partying on the beach, diving/snorkeling, writing, making friends that we continue to keep in touch with today. Especially on days like today, where I'm wearing a scarf, toque (that's a winter hat for the non-Canadians), mittens and jacket, Asia seems a world away. Which, I suppose, it is. 

If you asked us a year ago where we would all be, Canada wouldn't have been any of our first guesses. But here we are! T bought a condo that we live in together. She's working for Easter Seals Canada as their Bilingual Administrative Assistant, administering the Access 2 card. I lucked out and got a job coordinating and producing digital media campaigns. Bit of a sell-out but it's temporary! Ania is slogging away at Osgoode Law School at York University. I'll be the first to venture out again, already sending out an application to work in Africa, but we are all certainly lifelong travelers. 

Thanks to everyone who has followed us, consistently or sporadically, through our adventures in Asia. Loved ones, acquaintances and strangers, it has been a pleasure! 

The Philippines held most of our favourite, most memorable moments. All of us together in a beautiful, musical country with super friendly people --how could it not?

Spontaneous singing (read about both of these in our entry “Living Up to the Hype”)
T: We were walking through an alleyway in Puerto Galera with a dozen masseuse promoting their spa services when one lady said out loud 'beautiful girls' and the entire group picked up and began singing 'all over the world, i could be chasing but my time would be wasted...' (B.o.B. & Bruna Mars's song 'Nothin on You') in perfect unison. That moment pretty much summed up the Philippines for me.

me: While waiting to pay for my delicious siopao at a 7-Eleven in Quezon City, Beyonce's "Halo" came on the radio. Five complete strangers broke into three part harmony. No one else batted an eye. It was so Philippines. 

Dancing up a storm
T: In Borocay, Philippines - we met a bunch of British guys celebrating a birthday, so we decided to join the celebration at a beachfront club. We danced all night and had so much fun. But the best part of the night was deciding to run into the ocean when it got too hot in the club. Perfect as we could continue dancing to the music just steps away but in the cool surroundings of the ocean.
New Years in the streets of Siem Reap with the PEPY crew! (photo: Conor Hallisy)
me: New Year's Eve in Siem Reap, Cambodia was the best December 31st I have ever celebrated in my life, hands down. After a fantastic day that included cycling, running around town in a scavenger hunt, going to a temple to listen to local music while the sun set and enjoying a large PEPY family dinner, we hit the streets, dancing with thousands of people crammed together. I got to spend it with one of my best friends, my mama and some great new friends from the ride. I was out til past 4 am and slept through the sunrise wake up...oops!

T: Chiang Mai, Thailand- Two days before Halloween, we had no costume ideas, and could certainly not forgo celebrating the best day of the year! Our attempt to find ready-made clothing which we could work with failed. You mean people here don't dress up like Sailor Moon characters? So we had to get resourceful: buying fabric and thread to hand-stitch 3 sailor moon costumes in 2 days. In the end, we succeeded, with a lot of on-the-body sewing and duct taping, we looked awesome and everyone wanted to be our friends. (Vote for us in this Value Village contest for best Hallowe'en costume!)

Honourable mention: My cousin Shawna came to Hong Kong to hang out for a couple of weeks. That was a blast, but the best part was her boyfriend’s reaction when he realized that his friend, who he didn’t expect us to see, was in the background of her vacation photos!


Under the sea
Taken by Ania on Apo Island, Philippines
A:  I love scuba diving. Dove some pretty sweet wrecks in the Philippines and had a great week-long live-aboard dive trip in Thailand. Sadly, the coveted whale shark continues to elude me.

Cambodia –period. (I wrote about my first bike tour in Cambodia with Ania in my blog.)
Ania's first day of biking in Cambodia!
A:  I love Cambodia. I am very grateful for the experience I had there and the people I met. It’s rare to meet such a group of people that consistently bring out the best in everyone they encounter, and make them believe they can actually affect change in the world. PEPY people are these kinds of people. Realizing how rare it is to just come by, I’ve been so much more motivated to seek out such people here since I’ve been home to create a similar community around me. I’m more involved in my school and wider community than I have ever been. Also, one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had and definitely the best New Years of my life. It’s nice to find a family away from home. (me: ditto)

T: Cambodia- This was my favourite country, and everything I did here was amazing. 
Wet and cold on Rinjani (Photo: Dave Brown)
me: Climbing Mount Rinjani with T was one of our favourite experiences in Asia. T was soaking wet and cold; wasn’t able to sleep; was pushed to her physical endurance limit; got altitude, car and sea sick; didn’t do the summit; and had to put up with me happily bounding up the mountain, singing and smiling through the sweat. And she still listed it as one of her favourite activities. So imagine how much I loved it with endorphins like crazy from speeding up the whole way, including being first to the summit!

A: Northern Vietnam - Motor biking is pretty awesome, especially when it’s through Vietnam’s highest mountain pass. This was the second most amazing experience I had this past year (after Cambodia!). I miss my Honda so... I wish Toronto weather wasn’t so vacillating. Ange is a tropical girl. Tiana is made for the Canadian cold. I love the mountains!
Honourable mention: We graduated...in Hong Kong!

Honourable mention 2: Hanging out with various people from our programs doing their placements and friends of friends who had done placements in Asia. Brian, Brandon, Mirabel, Min, Josh, Ying, Alam...plus friends Val, Will and Tristan who happened to be in Asia at the same time. Thanks for being such awesome hosts/company for us!
Consensus from us: She is amazing with maps, even when they aren’t in English and include typos. We never would have made it through Northern Vietnam on motorbike without her.

Opinion of herself: I don’t like being rushed. I’m kind of boring in a lot of senses, and I’m ok with it. I don’t like noisy places, I love to sleep in, sleep on beaches, sleep on hammocks, feel rested in general. I love laying back and reading a crappy fiction which I never get the opportunity to do at home. I love scuba diving, ice cream and staying in with a good meal watching a movie. I like nerdy touristy activities. I like history.

Surprise for T: I love Ania and we are great friends, but I discovered that our minds could not function more differently. I'm sure we both got annoyed with each other at various times, but that's all part of travels, and it was never enough to break up our friendship.

Surprise for Ange: She was a pretty good sport for trying new foods. She is super picky but even on the plane ride over from Buffalo, she ate a "seafood surprise" salad that I couldn't even attempt. 
Cramming into local taxis was a theme throughout
Consensus from all 3 of us in Ania’s words: “I was surprised with how she sometimes sought out the most dirty, gritty, uncomfortable situations for herself, seemingly voluntarily…”

Surprise for A: …And seemed to enjoy it too...(most of the time!).

Surprise for T: We are the A-team when it comes to travelling. After our trek down Mt. Rinjani, I had already suffered altitude sickness and car sickness before arriving to our already departed boat to an island where we'd recover over the next few days. I was in no mood to be angry or to argue with a boat captain or with a hotel manager to try to negotiate a good deal. This 10 second conversation became the epitome of our great friendship: Ange "how much are you willing to pay for a hotel?" Tiana "$5" Ange "I don’t think we can get hot water for $5, are you ok with $10?" Tiana "Yes" Ange "Ok".

T:   Also, that she is a robot. I mean, who can trek 8-10 hour days up some steep volcanic peak and be singing songs...out of enjoyment...while not out of breath. She can't be human.


Consensus from Ania and I: She can party! She got almost no sleep and would still have energy to dance the night away and drink out of plastic buckets.

T: I discovered that my breathing is not as normal as I thought. Trekking Mt. Rinjani (hunched over trying to catch my breath) to Ange "you know when you can't catch that 5th breath?" Ange "No" Tiana "You know, that 5th breath that allows you to take in all that extra air you're lacking" Ange "People don't breathe like that, Tiana" Tiana "Really? That explains a lot".

At Circa, a club in Quezon City, on our first night out of the trip!
T: It was the day after I joined Ange in the Philippines and Ange's aunt took us on a day trip to a waterfall. Ange and I, although exhausted and recovering from sickness, were inspired by the top 40s playing on the radio and opted that it was our first night back together, not to mention a Saturday night, and that we'd have to go out. So we went out clubbing in the apartment complex we were staying at. We got the full VIP treatment, being the only foreigners there, we were introduced to the owner, manager, DJ, booze rep and who knows who else. After a long, great night out, complete with a few complimentary beverages, we headed back to our apartment. Angela told me to keep it cool as we walked in, so in my mind I was contemplating what I could say to the lobby man. It was about 3 am and, for some reason, the only thing that came out of my mouth was “Good Afternoon, sir”. Good morning, Good night, Good evening would have all been fine! My bad.

me: Sleeping outside (twice) and cliff-diving in Laos. Will probably never do either again but no regrets! The things I do when I'm by myself...

A: Of the long list of things I liked about Cambodia, two of them were learning the language spoken there, Khmer, and their iced coffee. This isn't just any iced coffee....what they do is pour the coffee over about half a cup of condensed milk. Over the month that I spent there, I developed quite an unhealthy addiction to condensed milk (I'd eat it with a spoon). However, given that we were burning over 2000 calories a day cycling in the hot sun, I felt no guilt indulging in this delicious treat. During our bike rides I made an effort to ride along with one of our guides, usually Rithy or Joe, and annoyingly pester them to teach me Khmer phrases. Given my love for the iced coffee, I thought one morning it would be useful to learn how to order it on my own at our lunch stop. After a few hours of repeating the phrase with Joe until he seemed satisfied, we arrived at the restaurant. The waiter came to take my order, which I proudly pronounced, loudly for everyone to hear.
After a successful order (Photo: Melanie Robinson)

Instead of the waiter being delighted with my display of new found language skills and my efforts to communicate, my order was met with a puzzled look. I asked again. The waiter seemed even more perplexed. I looked at Rithy and repeated the phrase, only to be met with a raised eye-brow raised look. (me: And several people at neighbouring tables were staring.) Frustrated, I asked Rithy what was happening. When he realized what I was actually trying to say, he burst out laughing. See, the translation for iced coffee (with the condensed milk) in Khmer is quite literal. You ask for "coffee with water from the breast of a cow with frozen water." I innocently missed some key words, and seemed to have been proclaiming "breast cow ice" quite loudly for the whole restaurant to hear. How embarrassing! (me: And this became a bit of a mantra over our bike trip. Need a bit of extra energy? We would chant, in English, “Breast, cow, ice! Breast, cow, ice!”)


A: One thing I wish I had done: somehow I didn’t manage to find the time to trek... well until I got to Poland, which made for an amazing birthday in the snow-covered Tatry mountains! 

T:  Of course I wish I had more time to see more things, but when I really think about it, I would change nothing about this trip. The perfect company with the perfect setting. I enjoyed the fast pace travel and randomness of our day-to-day exhibitions and adventures.
T surfing in Bali
me: No regrets. I definitely will make sure surfing, more trekking, Malaysia and more of Indonesia are on travel itineraries in my future, though!


A: I highly do not recommend studying for your LSAT and writing it in a foreign country, while on vacation.

T: Do it! Best trip ever! Take a break after school or in between jobs. And don't let age stop you. We met people who had quit their job and sold all of their possessions (including houses) to travel in their 30s (or older). Why not? You only live once, and there is so much out there to explore and discover. 

me: Take time for yourself if you're traveling in a group! And try to learn as much of the local languages and cultures as you can. You'll get much more out of your trip by interacting with local people, especially out of the city centres. Seat61.com is amazing if you plan to travel by train, especially in China. Thorntree, the Lonely Planet's online forum, is a great resource, as well!

Finally, DO NOT USE ROUGH GUIDES SOUTHEAST ASIA. I can forgive price discrepancies since things change a lot very quickly within a year or two, but the fact that Ania’s 10 year old Lonely Planet had much more accurate maps is saying something. I am not a fan of guidebooks in general but if you’re going to have one, maps are definitely the most important feature!

Together again! 

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