Hola de Xela! 🇬🇹

¡Buenos días a todos!

Here I am at the moment, sitting in a cozy Guatemalan coffee shop, drinking an amazing latte (made with local beans), eating a vegan chocolate cake and writing this over-due blog post (tough life huh? 😌). I moved to the hippie-outdoorsy city of Xela five weeks ago para aprender español. I have always dreamed to learn a third language (unfortunately Chinese and I didn’t quite get along!) so I decided that Spanish was my best option (and I have in mind to travel to South America later this year!). After researching online and talking with my dear colleagues in China, I chose to come to Guatemala which is currently a very hot (and cheap!) destination to learn Spanish. Let’s not forget to mention that the country offers spectacular volcanoes hikes, some of the best Maya ruins in the world, glorious lakes and of course awesome coffee AND chocolate! I didn’t think twice before buying my one-way ticket! ☺️

Xela (short for ‘Quetzaltenango) is the second largest city in Guatemala where foreigners come either to hike, volunteer or learn Spanish (I came for all three!). Today, I am starting my 5th week of classes in the lovely family-run El Quetzal school. Every student at the school receives one-on-one lessons in the morning for 4 or 5 hours. In the afternoon, the school organises plenty of activities for us such as cooking classes, salsa classes, visits to museums, hikes in the countryside etc. In order to have the full immersion, I opted to stay with a local family (that doesn’t speak a word English of course!). At first, family dinners were definitely putting me out of my comfort zone! However, in four weeks only, I went from mumbling a few words into telling stories about my weekends’ hikes. I am also teaching English once a week to a small group of chicas at my school. It feels good to give a little bit of my time while doing what I like! So far, my stay in Xela has been muy bueno! No doubt I have a hard time leaving!

The 1st of November was El Dia de los Muertos; a day celebrated throughout Latin America where people commemorate the deceased. In Guatemala, families go to the cemetery for the day to eat, pray, play music and spend time with their loved ones who have died. Contrary to what one would expect, it a very happy and festive day! I have never seen cemeteries with that much colours, music and joy! Families come to paint, clean and decorate the graves a few days prior so that everything is perfectly ready for November 1st! As for myself, I decided to go to Sumpango for the day to attend the famous kite festival -another tradition of El Dia de los Muertos. The festival is also a prestigious kite competition where several groups work for months to build kites ranging from 3 meters to 30 meters high! After they have been judge on their aesthetic, the groups try to fly their kite for as long as they can (some flew for 2 hours, some only 5 seconds!). The atmosphere was surreal during the competition, so much excitement! What a great first Dia de los Muertos!

Only two more weeks left in Xela before I start my travels around this beautiful country! I must say I am very excited to finally pack my bag and explore Guat! Hasta pronto mis amigos! I’m heading to my yoga class now! ✌🏻

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Me fui a ser feliz, no se cuando vuelva ✌🏻

Hakuna Matata! ✌

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Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase. Hakuna Matata! Ain’t no passing craze. It means no worries for the rest of your days. It’s our problem-free philosophy. Hakuna Matata!

Does this catchy song ring a bell? Reminds you of a lion, a meerkat and a warthog happily singing in the jungle? Hakuna Matata was indeed a very popular song in the Waltz Disney movie of The Lion King. However, this wonderful phrase is actually an expression used across East Africa meaning ‘no worries’ in Swahili, describing the positive and easy-going African lifestyle. Well, this is exactly how I can recap my week on the heavenly island of Zanzibar.

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Since I’m having such a wonderful experience in SA, I decided to extend my contract at the orphanage for another few weeks. Therefore, in order to renew my South African visa, I had to leave the country for a few days to be eligible for a new stamp on my return (perfect excuse for a little vacation, right?). With South African winter at our doorstep, my holiday criteria were clear: heat and beach! I might be Canadian, but it’s getting freaking cold down here! Thus, I opted for Zanzibar, an exotic place I was dreaming of visiting. ☀️

Zanzibar is an archipelago of 50 islands with a population of a 1.3 million, nestling in the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean. Unguja, the main island, is located 36km off the African East coast and 6 degrees from the Ecuador. Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, which means they still have their own President and government, and they deal with their own internal matters. Over the centuries, Zanzibar has been colonized and occupied by explorers, traders and settlers of several nationalities (Swahili, Persians, Arabs, Indians and Europeans) becoming today a small nation rich in history and culture. For decades, Zanzibar was mainly used as a slave-trading port until this practice was abolished in 1890. Today, the economy of Zanzibar relies on tourism and spices exportation (Zanzibar was once the world’s leading clove producer!).

A few highlights of my trip…

-My visit to a spice farm where my senses were highly stimulated. I got the chance to smell, taste and feel dozens of local spices including cinnamon, coffee, nutmeg, ginger and of course cloves.

-I also had the privilege to pet and feed giant tortoises of over 200 years old in a sanctuary in Stone Town (the nation’s capital).

-Finally, yes I did enjoy the pristine beaches on a daily basis, but a visit to Zanzibar would not have been complete without visiting the underwater world. Therefore, I spent my last day scuba diving, exploring the depths of the Indian Ocean where I spotted turtles, starfishes and massive schools of colourful fishes.

It was the perfect Hakuna Matata type of holiday where I fully recharged my batteries before heading back to my ‘mommy’ role at Othandweni. It’s now time to make the most of my last moments with my little ones… 3 weeks before my big departure!

Next stop: South Africa 🇿🇦

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It’s been 6 months now since I left home and I’m presently visiting my 6th country on my itinerary, South Africa. So far my journey has been way above my expectations. The people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen, the cultures I’ve come across, have all changed my perspective on life. This experience has open my mind and my heart on a whole new level. I’ve learned to fully embrace every day, to appreciate the little things life gives us and to simply be happy! 😊

Ok enough with the cheesiness! 😝

I arrived in South Africa at the end of February to attend the Ultra electronic music festival, which I’ve been impatiently waiting for since last year! After having spent six months in developing countries arriving in Johannesburg (the largest city in the country) was a bit of a reverse culture choc, but at the same time, it felt good to be in a familiar environment. Flashing my Canadian flag throughout the festival was an easy way to make new friends, but also a great way to get the attention from the DJ’s. I must say I was pretty stunned when Skrillex yelled “Canada is in the house!!” during his set!! 🇨🇦

After the festival, it was now time to start my second volunteering project. I am currently based in Soweto for the next few months. Soweto is a large township outside Johannesburg with a population of two million (Soweto stands for SOuth WEstern TOwnship). It was originally developed in the early 1900 for the black population who were working in the gold mines. Soweto is also famous for being the hometown of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu; both Nobel Peace Prize winners. Despite being strongly affected by the apartheid, Soweto is now a modern and touristy place. I’ve been living here for three weeks now and I’m already feeling at home.

I am presently working at the Othandweni orphanage, which means ‘Place of Love’ in Zulu (one of the eleven South Africa official languages). There are 90 children living in this lovely government-funded children home. I’m mainly in charge of taking care of the babies in the nursery (bathing, feeding, changing, playing) but I also spend time with the older kids helping them with homework, house chores or simply being a shoulder to lean on. My goal for this project is to give as much love, attention and care to those beautiful little souls. These children all have different past and individual stories but they are all looking for the same things: affection, friendship and love.

“Give your hands to serve and your heart to love.” -Mother Theresa

Bienvenue au Sénégal!

Before pursuing my journey on the east coast of the continent, I decided to spend a few days in Senegal. I thought it would be nice to pay a visit to the big country surrounding the little Gambia. Although there is a lot that links the two countries, Senegal is a rich country with its very own culture, and I loved everything about it! The hospitality of the people, the diversity of the sceneries (from beaches to deserts to mangroves), the café Touba (coffee spiced with pepper), the non-stop nightlife, and of course, their national language! Enfin je peux parler français! 🙂

My first pit stop was Ginack Island, located at the border of The Gambia and Senegal. The island is actually a national park divided between the two countries. There is no electricity, no running water, no cars, and (almost) no tourist! It was just me, the ocean and the beach. What a great way to start my first solo backpacking trip! The next day I took a ‘sept-place’ (small vehicle that squeezes seven passengers) to the beach town of Saly-Portudal. I spent two days wandering around, relaxing on the beach, reading, sipping cold Flag (their national beer), la vie dure quoi! 🙂 And one morning, while I was running (it’s my favorite way of discovering a new place!), Gallo, the marathoner of the village, came up to me and asked me if I wanted to join him the next morning for a long sunrise beach run. Euh, of course!! We had an excellent workout while exchanging on our culture and love for running. It was great! This is one thing I’m enjoying a lot about traveling solo, the encounters and opportunities that spontaneously show up! And I’m not the one to refuse a cool invitation!

My highlight of Senegal was definitely my trip to the Desert de Lompoul! It was the first time I was seeing a desert. Oh. My. God. Perfect sand dunes, perfect blue sky, perfect sunset, perfect quietness, and let’s not forget the perfect sky full of stars at night. I enjoyed every moment of this escapade! I even had my own Mauritanian tent with a real toilet and running water! What a luxury! Then, on my way to Dakar, I made a day-trip to Lac Rose. Yup, I confirm, the lake is really pink! The color of the water is caused by the high level of salt (10x higher than the ocean) which, of course, makes you float like a boat! I tried to swim a few laps…Impossible!!

Finally, I finished my trip in Dakar, the national capital. Dakar is a large city (1 million) full of attractions, markets, restaurants, nightlife, but big city also means lots of traffic, lots of people, lots of noise, and it’s VERY hot! Thank you to my two Senegalese friends, Guillaume & Ouss, who were my private tour guides, driving me all around. We made sure not to miss l’Île de Gorée, an island used by Europeans for trade slave during the 18th and 19th century. Although Gorée has a difficult history, it is now a very peaceful (no roads or cars!), colorful and really artsy village!

It was a very short trip, but I think I made the most of my time in Senegal. I really hope to be back one day to explore more about this beautiful country. Merci et à bientôt peut-être! 🙂

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En route vers le Kenya!

Gambian holidays and final goodbyes…

It was the first time, in 28 years, that I was spending my Christmas holidays without my family, in a foreign country. I must say I really enjoyed the experience! Everyone should, at least once in their life, celebrate Christmas abroad, in another culture. Even if The Gambia is mostly Muslim, Christmas is still a public holiday. It is an opportunity for families and friends to gather and spend time together, exactly what I did. After a nice homemade déjeuner aux crêpes, my girlfriends and I went to the beach where we spent a lazy afternoon, swimming in the ocean and drinking sangria under the sun! I did not have a white Christmas this year but it was a very sunny and warm one! I surely did not complain! At night, we went to the Open Mic festival at the national football stadium. It’s an annual event held every Christmas night where dozen of Gambian, Senegalese and Liberian artists come to perform all night. We walked back home at 6am, admiring the first rays of sunshine. A moment I will never forget.

 

My big sister Renée then came to visit me for a week. I really enjoyed my role as a tour guide, showing her around (on bikes!), teaching her about the Gambian culture, presenting her to my friends. We even spent one night in Bwiam, where we visited Ndey’s family and village. We were warmly welcomed as always. For New Year Day, we went to Banjul for the festivities. The streets were filled with parades, musicians and street performers. It was a very colorful and musical day! And of course, Renée and I took the time to enjoy the beach, the nightlife and the Gambian gastronomy! It was a quick but very busy week where we really got the chance to experience the Gambian lifestyle! Merci pour cette merveilleuse visite! 🙂


My last week in The Gambia was filled with lots of love and yes (of course!), tears. I made sure to say goodbye to everyone that had an impact in my time here, friends, roommates, coworkers, training buddies etc. My last day at the NSGA was one to remember. They organized a small farewell ceremony for me. I received beautiful goodbye words from everyone, but also a very nice African blouse and even some cake! Gambians really know how to make you wanna stay!!

 

Reflecting on my time in The Gambia, I just can’t help myself but to smile! (I totally understand why they call it The Smiling Coast of Africa now!) I’ve only been here for three months, but those months have been beyond my expectations. I ran with all my heart across the country, I made many wonderful new friends, I’ve learned to live in a different culture, and I’ve just been simply happy! I’ve learned that happiness is a choice. It is found within ourselves and the people that surround us. The rest is just extra. Thank you to everyone that was part of my Gambian happy journey. It was a memorable one! Abaraca! Jerrejef!

 

The Gambia was my first country on my itinerary and it did set the bar pretty high! I’m so exited to continue my travels on this beautiful continent and to learn about other cultures and meet new people! Now let’s wipe those tears, an ending only means a new beginning. En route pour le Sénégal! 🙂

Farewell dear Gambia!

 

Living on the Smiling Coast

Sorry about the wait! I finally decided it was time to start this blogging thing to give you guys an update of my new Gambian life but also to keep you posted throughout my journey on the African continent!

It’s been almost a month since I finished my 424km fundraising run across The Gambia (you can follow my adventure on love4gambia.com). I am now temporarily living and volunteering in the country until January. When I first decided to take a sabbatical leave from work, my plan was to come to Africa to travel and volunteer. In June, I attended the 25th anniversary dinner of the Nova Scotia Gambia Association (NSGA) to meet everyone from the organization I was going to run for to raise money. During the evening, they presented a video about their drama troupes: devoted, talented, young adults doing drama to raise awareness on health issues in schools and communities… What an amazing idea! As a qualified drama teacher, I knew instantly that I wanted to work with the NSGA. I was very impressed by their work already. I will write more about the organization and my volunteering in my next blog.

So, after the run, I enjoyed a few days of well-deserved rest and recovery. All I did was lay on the beach, eat anything but rice and sleep like a baby. It was awesome. Soon after this little vacation, I was ready to roll again. Most of you know I can’t stand doing nothing for too long!

After starting my 8 weeks contract with the NSGA, I moved into a nice house in the neighborhood of Old Jeshwang, in the region of Kombo (50% of the national population lives in this region). I am living with ‘Papa Mo’ (our landlord), Danielle and Aisha (two other Canadian working for the NSGA) and Ismael (a Gambian working in the area). We also have the daily company of Ndey and Mariama, two young women working for Papa Mo. They take really good care of the house, but they also are excellent tour guides, cooking teachers and clubbing partners!

My week days mostly consist of working (which means following the drama troupes around the region), running (yes, I’m already back on the road), going to the gym (22$/month for a personal trainer is not too bad of a deal!) and doing my shopping around the numerous markets. Fruits, vegetables, meat, bread, condiments, toiletries, clothing, everything is found at a different place. As much as I don’t like Walmart, I must say it has its advantages…

During my weekends, my Gambian husband (aka my bike) and I cycle around the area to do all the touristic things (monkey park, crocodile pool, botanical gardens, beaches) and at night I do the social stuff (drink Julbrew -the local beer, go clubbing, have tea and shisha, hang around with the housemates). One thing I know, I won’t get bored while I’m here! There is so much to see and to do. Everyone is also very welcoming and want to make sure I’m making the most of my time in The Gambia. So far so good!

My key to happiness (and to prevent homesickness) is to keep myself active and busy by doing what I love and be surrounded by people who make me happy. I’m trying to learn as much as I can from this magnificent culture. I would say that I’m adapting pretty well to this Gambian lifestyle and I am enjoying very much my time on the Smiling Coast! 🙂