Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Homeward Bound

So. Here we are. Our last day. After 444 days of adventures around our glorious planet, we can finally say, with no small amount of excitement and anticipation, that today, we are homeward bound!

How to summarize our trip? We've been to 18 countries, and one principality over the last fifteen months. We've traveled by train, plane and automobile. By foot, bicycle, bus, bus roof, campervan, auto rickshaw, cycle rickshaw, tuktuk, tri-shaw, metro, funicular, monorail, ferry, catamaran, longtail, glass-bottom boat, kayak... We've marveled at the sun rising over the snow capped Himalayas, and set behind Cambodia's Angkor Wat. We've met the friendliest locals, ate the most delicious food, and witnessed the most inspiring displays of humanity, and humility. We've been overwhelmed by the generosity of strangers and have had plenty of time to consider our roles, responsibilities and impact on the communities we've visited. We've contributed our time through volunteering in Lao, Cambodia and China and felt incredibly lucky to have been let into the lives of people in each of those places. We've mailed 434 postcards and 6 packages. We've visited old friends, and then made new friends and visited them as well. We've spent time with family and made friends so close that they felt like family. Its really been a fantastic, eye-opening, thrilling, exhausting, frustrating, educating, epic, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

That being said, we are also super happy and ready to come home. Home. A word that represents so many wonderful things to me. Especially after being away from it for so long and all my memories are especially rosy. Whenever we fly anywhere with WestJet, the flight attendant always comes on the announcements after we've landed and says something like, 'We've landed in Calgary, ladies and gents! If Calgary is home to you, then lucky you, welcome home...!' Welcome home. No matter what, even though I don't live in Calgary, or Toronto, or Vancouver, or wherever it is that we've just landed-no matter- I feel that sad little prickle of tears behind my eyes. Pathetic, I know. But, 'Welcome Home.' Welcome home. It gets me every time. Sweeter words I really can't imagine. Home. Its an all encompassing word for me. My country, my province, my street, my awesome friends, my incredible family, everything that is the most important to me. Though, its not really a physical place as much as it is a feeling. Its where I feel most happy, most loved, most comfortable. Its where I belong. Home is where I belong (when I'm not travelling, of course). And someone, even though she's just the West Jet lady and may or may not mean a single thing by her words is nice enough to welcome me to all this. Welcome Home. Welcome home. Welcome Home.

Home. Canada. I'm always proudest to be Canadian when I'm traveling abroad. At home its not so special. Everyone is Canadian. To be honest, I miss hearing the Canadian accent. I miss people who say 'eh' and know what a toque is and where Newfoundland is. I miss being around people who understand that it is offensive when people first mistake you for an American and then follow it up with 'Well, close enough, right?' Umm. Well, physically, I suppose. Oh! And Tim Hortons and everything Presidents Choice makes. And maple syrup. I miss Canada's majestic rocky mountains, the red roads and lighthouses that dot PEI' s coast, the pristine north channel, the prairie sky, Newfoundland's rocky shore, and, more than any other slice of our great country, the windswept pines, moody waters and the perfect in every way, 30,000 islands of Georgian Bay. No, I haven't been gone long enough forget all Canadian geography- I do know that I can't just hop in the Mooney-mobile and drive over to Vancouver Island for the weekend from Niagara Falls. Yes, I do still know that I actually live no where near the west coast's mountains or the east coast's lobsters. But I just love knowing that hey are there, somewhere in our vast country, my home, and that they are just one quick West Jet seat sale away. No passport required.

Its really been a fantastic, live-changing adventure that I wouldn't trade for all the tea in China, and believe me, that's a whole lot of tea. But now we are ready and excited for the next chapter in the Adventures of J&K- life back in Canada.

In the words of fellow Canadian Michael Buble, 'It'll all be alright... we'll be home tonight.. we're coming baaack hoommme!!!'

ps. See you at the airport TONIGHT Mom and Dad Mooney! Be ready for the Morning of Maple tomorrow Mom and Dad Moldie and GG! (Cutest Gramma in the whole world- its official now- we've checked)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Iceland: A Winter Wonderland

When our plane was descending upon the little island of Iceland I couldn't help but be completely charmed. Down below, was Reykjavik, the northernmost capital in the whole world! The city sits up on the peninsula jutting out into the ocean. It gets better. Miniature houses were lit up by warm yellow lights, smoke billowed out of miniscule chimneys and everything in sight was covered by a blanket of thick, fluffy looking snow. It was like a real-life miniature Christmas village spread out before me. It could have actually been twinkling with sparkles. I would have believed it.

It was six in the evening. It was cold, clear, dark and white. Snow! Winter! It had been so long since we had seen the snow and it was dazzling. Everything was white and fluffy and wonderful. Well, it is now, anyways. I may have felt differently in those first few hours. I didn't appreciate the snow at first, of course, because I was too busy being tired, annoyed, cold, wet and hungry as we trudged through the (incredibly inconvenient, stupid, cold...if you had asked me at the time) snow looking for a place to spend the night. 'Look at how beautiful this is!' J exclaimed every five steps twirling around in a circle, as if it would make me take notice to the winter wonderland that surrounded me. I didn't look. I was concentrating on scowling and not falling on my frozen bottom on the snow-covered, unplowed, slippery, bumpy sidewalk. I have no idea how, seeing as we had booked this flight nearly a year ago, that we could be so utterly unprepared for our arrival in Iceland, the land of fire and ice. But we were (J: says K) . And I was annoyed.

As always, everything eventually worked out, J speedily found me some food (smart man) and the wonders of Iceland began to make themselves apparent to me. Almost like they had been there all along. hmm. Downtown Reykjavik is so wonderfully festive and lit up like no other city we have ever been to. The city has reason to put so much thought and effort into their lights- they have more darkness in which to show them off. This morning, at 10:30, when we had set off down the main street to find an ATM-we were still appreciating the light show. It was still dark! By eleven-ish the sky was a tad lighter-that eerie 6:00 am kind of blueish-grey light, that at home lasts mere minutes and here continues on into the afternoon. Its a strange, strange feeling to be wandering down a festively lit main street-completely deserted besides ourselves- on a Sunday morning that looks like its 2:00 am on a Monday but feels like its transported out of some horror show where you are the only ones left on the entire planet. Creepy and fascinating at the same time. By early afternoon Reykjavik was as bright as it was going to get. It was light in a grey cloudy winter afternoon kind of way- which made sense, considering it was a grey, cloudy afternoon. By 16:00 the light had faded back into the twilight, grey sky and by 16:30, everything was black again. And that just about sums up the sun's brief appearance in Iceland today.

Being here in the Holiday season not only allows us to see all the festive lights (almost all day long) but we also get to learn about Icelandic Christmas traditions. One that I find especially fun and interesting are the 'Yule Lads.' These 'lads' are descended from trolls and have a terrifying ogress as a mother. Starting Dec 12, one Yule Lad comes down into town from his mountain cave every night until Christmas Eve. The Yule Lads traditionally get themselves up to all sort of trouble from door slamming and pot licking to swiping sausages and window peeping. These are actually their names too- so you know exactly the sort of trouble you can expect from 'Spoon Licker' and 'Candle Beggar.' The boys are usually looking to steal some food and pull a few pranks. This is mild compared to their cannibalistic mother who, it is said, always keeps a pot boiling on her stove in case there has been a child in town that was particularly naughty and needed to be eaten straight away. Needless to say, the Lads and their mother were traditionally used to terrify poor children into behaving here in Iceland. It got so bad that in 1746 the Icelandic authorities issued a public decree forbidding parents to frighten their children with such tales. The lads began to behave themselves a tad and fear was transformed into bribery. Good little boys and girls could now leave an empty shoe by an open window and each night, the arriving Yule Lad would drop a present in their shoe on their way past. Bad boys and girls would wake up to a lonely potato in their shoe. Mother 'Gryla' Ogress comes into town from time to time these days. We saw her Saturday night, actually (seriously) wandering down the main street, waving and greeting the little children she passed, warning them to behave. Oh, and Mrs. Ogress has a cat too- that attacks and eats anyone who hasn't received a new item of clothing for Christmas! (What a shopping excuse! 'Sorry hunny, I had to or, you know, The Yule Cat....) These lads are no Santa Claus, however. 'We have no needs for your big, international, fat, jolly, capitalist, greed-mongering Coca Cola Santa Claus here in Iceland, as we have thirteen of our own that are much cooler...' (The Reykjavik Grapevine). Wowzahs, Iceland. Tell us what you really think. Suspiciously enough, the photos of these new, less threatening Yule Lads portray the lads, all white haired with long white beards and jelly bellies, dressed in red and green and looking very Santa Claus-esque indeed. All pettiness aside, I think the Yule Lads are a fantastic tradition here in Iceland. Warning to Dad, Uncle Dan and your sopressata: Tonight, Dec 20th, is the fateful night that the Sausage Swiper lad comes to town. 'The name of this guy says it all. He snuck up in the rafters and nicked the sausages that hung there for smoking. It was all full of soot and smoke up there, but that didn't bother him. If there were sausages to be had, he was in the house.' (Reykjavik Christmas Guide) Maybe someone should stand watch...

Monday, December 19, 2011

On Our Last Legs

More than once during our adventure people have replied to something or other that we've said with, "You have way too much time on your hands!" And as we are quickly coming to the last leg of our trip we can't deny it: we have had almost nothing but time to think.

Maybe you could call it 'free' time. The issue with calling it so, however, is the idea that free time is only the leftovers or scraps of time remaining after everything else that is more important is done. It tends to be approached in a passive gait. It is no wonder someone who feels overworked can look at another person who talks about enjoying 'free' time and ask, "How does she do it?" In the nearly nine years Kristen and I have been an item, many people have asked us this question. And we've queried plenty of people this as well. Whether they were talking about a long trip or a short trip, a regular time to pray, a regular tee off time, or whatever it happened to be, their answers were the same as ours. They didn't hope to find scraps of time leftover to do whatever it was that they enjoyed doing. They gave a degree of priority to their 'thing' and made time for it. In other words, they took an active approach to their free time rather than being overly passive about it. In our particular situation we made sacrifices to open up room in our lives for a fifteen month adventure. But it isn't the amount of time that is of primary importance.

What is most important is to give yourself enough time to still your mind and body, and to regularly take that time to come out of the driving currents that carry along most of the daily schedule. And, of course, you don't need fifteen months to do this. You would be surprised with what can happen when you dedicate five to ten minutes each day to this. Things long forgotten or ignored are then given a space to wake up and remind you that despite how busy your life has become, you are still you and your depths are still stirring. I have a small example. As a child I loved to draw. On this trip my love for drawing reasserted itself and it lead me to carry a sketch book around to capture some scenes along the way. It is a true joy to be reminded that sketching something here and there is an activity I want in my life, even though it will probably occupy only a very small part of my time. It was an enriching rediscovery for me.

For us, we have had time on this trip to really piece together our more deep-seated interests into a possible framework for our life in Canada. We might say it has given us some perspective on what we think is a worthwhile way to live out our life together. So, yes, we have had a lot of free time. We are happy we scheduled it in. And we have a feeling that the echoes from this trip will continue happily and hopefully into our lives, gently shaping our married life for many years to come.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Few of Our Favourite Things

Over the past fifteen months we have tried to let you into our life on the road through our blog. If you are really interested in what our ups and downs have been you will get a better picture of what they are by reading our blog posts. Of course, lists are helpful sometimes, especially if you're short on reading time. So here it is: a few of our favourite things from this fifteen month romp.

Favourite places:
There are so many! Cameron Highlands (Malaysia), Ningaloo Reef (Oz), all of New Zealand, Northern Thailand, Angkor Temples (Cambodia), Litang (China), Gili Islands (Indonesia) Langmusi (China) Zhanjajie (China), Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay (Vietnam), Ninh Binh (Vietnam), Ashok Nagar (India) Naggar and Vashist (India), Golden Temple (India), Rishikesh (India), The Cadbury Factory (NZ) and of course, British Columbia (Canada), Hiking the Annapurna Circuit (Nepal), Haputale (SriLanka), Cappadocia (Turkey), Bruges (Belgium), Lyon & Paris (France), Belfast (Northern Ireland-as always), London (England)

Favourite Major City: Kathmandu (Nepal) (More so in July, the off season), Istanbul (Turkey)

Beach: Northern New Zealand beaches, Western Australia beaches, especially 50 Mile Beach, Nha Trang (Vietnam), Ko Jum (Thailand), Gili Islands (Indonesia)

Food: Everything made by Raj or her family in India, Pad Thai and Curry in Thailand, Fresh spring rolls from Hoi An, Vietnam, Jacqui's Ozzie chickpea burgers and Darwin market food, Maureen's vegetarian dinner in Auckland, the western food with Paul and Dorothy in China (real butter!), The Darwin mango, fresh tropical fruit in SE Asia, Pulled rice noodles (China), Moroccan breakfast with Dave and Bron (Sydney), Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies with the Haberstocks (Thailand), Nepali momos, Everything in Singapore, Malaysian rotis (esp those with chocolate and peanut butter!) Thanksgiving Dinner 2010 in Vancouver, Sri Lankan rice and curry and kotthu rotti, A. Eileen's cooking, Belgium chocolate and fries, French cheese and Racette,

Drinks: Raj Mahal chai (India), Lemonanas (India), Fresh fruit shakes in SE Asia, 'Top Cup' Mango Ice drinks (China), ice cold water on a hot day, A. Eileen's tea, oreo shakes (Lao), Ceylon tea (Sri Lanka)

Desserts: Keer (similar to rice pudding) (India),

Country with the most consistently good food: India, Northern Ireland (Belfast in particular), Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka

Spiciest Food: Sri Lankan, with no competition

Animals: Turtles, tropical fish, sharks and kangaroos in Australia, monkeys everywhere, goats, cows and water buffalo that wander the streets in India and Nepal

Most Amazing Thing: The people we've met along the way

Most Frustrating moments: When they wouldn't sell us a bus ticket in Sichuan, China so we would be forced to pay for private transport. When Budget Car Rental in Vancouver charged us $300 for a dent we didn't cause and has still, over a year later neglected to respond to any of our numerous emails. The Budget Boycott lives on.

Scariest: Bus rides in the mountains in China

Best Balconies: Cat Ba Island (Vietnam) Naggar (India), Vashist (India) Nuong Kiaw (Lao), Gili Air (Indonesia),

Best Hikes: SO many in New Zealand, Black Tusk in B.C (Canada), lots in Tibetan China and the Hill Stations of India, Annapurna Circuit (Nepal)

Most surprising thing: How good Chinese food really is in China.

Best Sunset
: Christmas Eve 2010 from the beach on Gili Air (Indonesia), The Darwin Sunset that Jacqui and Josh ordered for us

Best sunrise: Watching the first rays light up the mountanin peaks in golden light from the window of our room in Bragha, Nepal (Himalayas)

Fav activities: Hiking, snorkeling and sitting on balconies with fantastic views

Fav view to wake up to: Almost every morning in 'Adama' our campervan in New Zealand. We had a 'room with a different view' almost every night!

Fav Birthday Moments Abroad: K: Walking into the atmospheric dining hall where the Tibetan monks were chanting before their lunch

Hottest Place: Northern and Western Australia- it was 50 degrees Celsius!!

Place we wish we could have stayed longer:
Sejuk Cottages, Gili Air, Indonesia. Private shaded rooftop in our own fancy bamboo hut with a hammock, pillows and free delivery of frozen drinks... a two minute walk to the ocean...what more could you want?

Word Jonathan couldn't wait to use: Bamboozle!

Most Festive Festival: There seems to be a festival every other day in Asia. We were privileged to experience a great festival in Lovina, Bali (Indonesia) where we were invited in to take part in the family celebrations, the Flower festival in Chiang Mai (Thailand), Ganesh Festival (India) and many other festivals the origins and meanings behind which we didn't know, but we were dosed in water, flour, confetti and fun just the same! Fete D'Lumiere in Lyon (France)

Most Titillating Architecture: Golden Temple (India), Angkor Temples (Cambodia)

Best Snorkelling: Ningaloo Reef (Oz), Gili Islands (Indonesia)

Worst Public Transit: Indian Hill Town buses. Hands down horrible.

Biggest Ripoff: Money exchange at the Siem Reap Airport in Cambodia

Where we would go back: Pretty much everywhere, but we would make sure we went in the right seasons. Where we would go back to next, besides Western Canada and Belfast? Probably New Zealand and India

What we miss the most about home: Family, friends, the cottage, flush toilets and general sanitation, traffic rules, maple syrup, green salad, baking cookies, sidewalks (that you aren't allowed to drive on)

What we are looking forward to at home: Christmas, meeting all the new babies, church, baking cookies!

Favourite Souvenirs: Suits and scarves that Raj gave me, keychain with my name written in Chinese on a grain of rice from Winter in Yangshuo, dangly earrings from Thailand and China, pearls from Halong Bay in Vietnam, cashmere scarf from Kathmandu, chocolate from Bruges (although this souvenir probably won't make it home...) sarongs from SriLanka

Saddest Things: Pollution and garbage of every kind, everywhere, animal abuse, poverty

Best thing I packed: K: sunglasses and camera. And the sarong I got in Indonesia. Sarongs are the greatest invention, if you can call a square piece of material an 'invention.' Sarongs are like chameleons: skirts, dresses, bathing suit wraps, towels, beach loungers, blankets, walls, a device to hide you from creepy indian men on trains... so many uses! J: a second pair of underwear

Stressful Moments: Often, usually on transit days, in the heat

Best books we read, en route: First they Killed my Father, The Girl in the Photo, Born to Run, Three Junes, Indian Summer, A Year in the Merde

Starriest Sky: New Zealand- the stars actually twinkle

Most Memorable Night: So many! Especially our first night in the camper in NZ. We looked up through our moon roof and right above us in the starry sky, was the southern cross, a constellation you can only see in the Southern Hemisphere!

Friendliest People (friends and family aside): Kiwis, Cambodians, Balinese, Nepalese (outside touristy areas), Sri Lankans

Most foreign culture: Han Chinese

Most fun places to shop: A scarf storage emporium that I had all to my self in Lijiang, China- two floors of scarves and me (J: and unfortunately, me too). Also, the sale in Dharmashala, India where every scarf was less than $1 and the shop owner distracted Jonathan long enough for me to choose a whole bunch! The night markets in Chiang Mai (Thailand) and the Night Market in Siem Reap (Cambodia) were also great fun.

Best massage price for husbands who need to be detained while his wife finds all (ALL) the "bargains": $2 per hour at the Siem Reap Night Market

Best advice we were given: 'You can't see it all' and 'Don't feed the monkeys'
oh, and of course, 'Every'ting is possible!'

Things we can't wait to try at home: Cooking all the food we have loved to eat on this trip. Be warned Gord and Cathy, J is determined to make his own pulled rice noodles!

Best chocolate: Cote D'Or (Belgium), Chocolate Line Chocolatier (Bruges, Belgium)

Fastest Day: Oct 13 2010- It didn't exist! We lost it when we flew over the international date line!

Fanciest Airport: Delhi (India) was pretty fancy

Grossest Thing: Flower dump...I can't bear to write the details. You'll have to ask Jonathan what he saw (but not when I'm around).

Moving Moment: When Vikramjit, Raj, Pradesh, Rohan, Rabu, Mrs. Sandhu, Sandeep and the family all came down to the train station to see us off, waving and smiling and chasing the train down to pass us cold water bottles through the window to go with the packed lunch they had already prepared for us....

Favourite Hotels: SriLak View (Haputale, Sri Lanka), Sejuk Cottages (Gili Air, Indonesia), New Yak (Braga, Nepal). There were plenty more, of course, but we can't remember their names...

Favourite (almost) Christmas moment: We were in Belfast a couple weeks before Christmas, jonesin' for some Christmas tunes. We found a free radio station on the internet playing Christmas music and were really excited! It was beginng to feel a lot like Christmas and we were coming home for the holidays! 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas' was the first song to come on- one of our favs. 'Look!!' J exclaimed pointing behind me. I turned around and looked out the window. It was snowing!!! In Belfast! Big, fat, white snowflakes!!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Thank You! Thank You! Thank You!

Each of you really helped make this one of the best times for us yet!

Laura & Rosemary; Adam; Hazel & Brent; Kathy & Steve; Maureen & Maurice; Josh, Sharon & Jade (congratulations on the engagement!); Dave & Bron; Sophie; Jac & Josh; Jacqui; Sandra; Joel & Sonia; Ani, Rini & Indir; Dalen & Abbie; 100 Day Crew; Banana; Taylor; Steven; Swedish Couple; Haberstocks; Satit & family; Didi & Sunshine School; Saba, Jock, At & Phout; Randall; Tobias; Luba; Lis, Ian & Libby; Mark & Rachael; Paul & Dorothy; Attila & Candy; Sophie & David; China-boy on the bus; Mila & Quiz-Night Friends; Zhouyue Students; Marvin; Vikramjit, Raj, IFM & EM; Amritsar Family; Mr and Mrs Sandhu & family; Mr and Mrs Ram & family; Mommyjit; Everyone else who welcomed us in Ashok Nagar; Ladies of the Shack; Kevin & Vicky; Marco & Nadine; Couple in NZ who brought us the coffee cake; Amy & Mike; Antonio & Andreas; Mark & Claire; The Nepal Threesome; Aunt Eileen & Uncle Trevor; Pappy; David, Holli & Jake; Rosie & Jane; Jean, Trevor & family; Everyone who read our blog; All our family and friends for your support and blog comments; and Sarah and Ed for getting married on October 2nd and starting this great time off!

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Chimp (and her Hairy Husband) are Loose in London

As expected, we had a blast in London with Lis and Libby. The first thing we did, after arriving in London town was hop straight over to a proper English pub for some tasty pub grub. Welcome to a typical Thursday night in London. Well done, us, we were experiencing the culture already!

And we didn't stop there! It was a very cultural weekend, indeed. Friday morning began with a big Ole' cuppa tea. Because, while in London, I was dedicated to all things English, you see. We went to the Christmas market 'Winter Wonderland' in Hyde Park, which was perhaps slightly more German than British, but it was a British interpretation of a German Christmas market anyways. I know this because there were significantly fewer stalls selling meat on a stick and more selling fried bits saturated in sugar. British, I say.

Later that afternoon, because we have amazingly important friends, we had our very own private tour of the Parliament building! It was absolutely amazing and so interesting. Eli, our tour guide knew everything-most importantly the scandalous tibits, and even after an hour and a half -I still wanted to hear more. Fascinating stuff- like a clock given to the Queen by Mary Antoinette, where all the single ladies sat to display themselves to the Lords in Court and where William Wallace was put on trial!!

After all that learning, Libby decided we needed another cup of tea (of course we did!) and took us to the cafe at the National Gallery for traditional High Tea. It was delightful! Laughter, sandwiches, scones and sweets... and tea of course, enjoyed with a view over the massive Christmas, glittering tree in Trafalger Square! How lucky we are.

Libby and ourselves scooted up to Picadilly Circus (no tigers) next to meet up with Lis' boyfriend Ian and go to the concert. What concert? Not only are our friends super cool, but they are also super talented. Lis plays the violin in an orchestra and they were performing that night at St James' church! Awesome, right? It was a fantastic night of great music, finishing off with a wonderful Anderson Christmas medley that had us humming all the way to the post-concert pub. Of course our second and last night in London came to a close in an old, atmosphere pub! It was a weekend of, and intriguing lesson in, British culture, after all.

We has such a wonderful time with Lis, Libby and Ian. We are so lucky to have met Lis and Libby in Vietnam, and to have stayed friends with them since then, and hopefully for a long time to come. We have such a great time whenever we are with them! It was far too short of a visit, sadly, but thanks to our friends, our two days in London really packed a British punch. Culturally, I mean.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Another Hoddesdon Hangout!

My Aunt Anne loves to dig up family relations that have gone astray over the years. We love that she does this too- especially because it has lead us to Jean, Trevor and their jubilant family here in England, just outside London. Whenever we are stopping through the area, which is relatively often for being across the ocean, we call in for a little visit. We love our little rendevous' here. Its always a non-stop, action packed adventure catching up, looking at photos both old and new, and getting together with their hilarious, fun, welcoming children and grandchildren. They're a real hoot.

On this particular visit Jean and Trevor were nice enough to pick us up at the airport- what a lovely feeling! We came back to their festive house for a delicious lunch and a bit of relaxing before the whirlwind visit of their wonderful family. By the time everyone had gone home for the evening, my belly as full of Christmas cake and tea, and my cheeks hurt from all the laughing!

The following day we were treated to a scrumptious Christmas lunch at a beautiful old manner decked out fore the Holidays. It was the perfect way to end our short visit and it really felt as though we got to share in the Christmas celebrations with Jean and Trevor! We can't wait to visit again!

ps. There's a post everyday until we get home on the 21st! Woohoo!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Belfast: Home Away from Home

We love Belfast. It really holds a special place in our hearts. This is mostly due to the fact that J has the most fantastic family here in Belfast. J's Dad is originally from Northern Ireland and J's Grandpa, Aunt, Uncle and only first cousins (and their adorable kids) live on this side of the pond. We try to visit Belfast as often as we can, and over the years Aunt Eileen and Uncle Trevor's house has become to us, like a second home. We love spending time with J's family here. Belfast is always a place in our travels we can't wait to get to. Especially for us on this trip, Belfast was for us, a taste of home to look forward to when we were missing everything comforting.

J's family is welcoming, warm, generous and fun. Pappy (J's grandfather) is an inspiring man of 94 years! You may even recognize Pappy as having been one of our most consistent and thoughtful blog commenter over the last 15 months. It is a true pleasure to sit with Pappy, who is a brilliant story teller, and listen to his tales of life in Africa, life as a missionary, life with Nanny, and of course, his jokes. Aunt Eileen is a fantastic cook and wonderful just to be with. Uncle Trevor is funny and thoughtful. David and Holli are great, fun, cousins and their 2 year old son, Jake, is just adorable. It was the first time we had had the opportunity to meet Jake, and he really made quite the impression. He is a little blonde hair, blue eyed ball of life. His smile lights up the room and his laugh is infectious. He has his mischievous side too. The first time we met him, he and Holli had come to the all-ages Live Nativity service at church. The children were all about, as carolers, angels and shepherds. Jake isn't the kind of little boy who likes to sit still, so he set off ambling about the church, charming three-year old girls with his radiant smile. His strolling led him to the alter and the trough where baby Jesus lay. Holli was close by, about to pluck him from the alter when Jake scooped the baby Jesus doll out of the trough and held him tight. Jake wanted to be friends with Baby Jesus! The congregation all burst out laughing and the miniser, who was jut finishing up some announcements at the podium declared, with a smile, that he should finish up before he was really upstaged. Its never a dull moment with little Jake.

J's other cousin, Ali and her husband Ed live across the English Channel in Birmingham (for the moment.) Unfortunately we didn't get the opportunity to see them in person, but we were lucky enough to catch Ali and her two boys, Archie and Toby, on Skype one evening. Toby is just a year,and we had yet to meet him, so it was great to see him moving about. We had met Archie when he was just a baby and it was amazing to see him as a llittle man, streaking across the computer screen behind Ali.

There were many highlights from our time in Belfast. We enjoyed the Christmas market in front of City Hall. We had a lovely time at a lunch we attended with A. Eleen and U. Trevor's friends at a gold club Sunday afternoon. Like themselves, A Eileen and U Trevor's friends are a blast to be with. Rosie and Jane even took us on an impromptu tour of Belfast's Titanic quarter and up to see the night view from the top of Victoria Square! J got to spend lots of good quality time with his Pappy, we sorted through and were delighted by hundreds of old slides of A Eileen and J's dad in their younger years, we had a nice family dinner with David, Holli and Jake, we took Jake to the park and we even went to the theate to see a musical rendition of one of J's favourite childhood books 'The Little Prince.' As usual, we had a fantastic time in Northern Ireland left Belfast with heavy hearts, mentally calculating when we could next return. Thankfully, we were on to London, where more smiling, familiar faces awaited our arrival!


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Luminecent Lyon

We went to Lyon to see Laura, one of my best friends from back in our University days, who was studying in France for a semester. She was the first person from home that we have seen since leaving Canada in October 2010. Coincidentally, she was also the last person we saw before we left Canada! We had flown west for a Vancouver visit before hopping across the ocean to New Zealand, all those months ago. Things were coming full circle... only now a little backwards, since we were in France for this rendezvous.

As soon as we arrived in Europe, we had started preparing ourselves, mentally, for our homecoming to Canada in December. We know that it will probably be overwhelming for us to see so many familiar faces of family and friends all at once, after not having seen a single one for fifteen months. What I didn't prepare for (in this manner) was visiting Laura in Lyon. I suppose I was just too busy being excited about it. Looking forward to cheese and bread with Laura in France was one of those thoughts that we used as comfort whenever we were missing normal-ness (and cheese) in Asia. It was all going to be ok.

To my surprise, seeing Laura, someone who I was close to, who I'd known for longer than a year, who I had plenty of pre-trip memories with, who was from Canada and knew obscure places like Prince Edward Island (haha)... threw me into shock. I think what was most shocking was looking up on the train platform and seeing a face that I knew from home. For the last fifteen months we'd being seeing people who looked like people we knew back home... but we never actually knew them! It was surreal, but familiar somehow, in the most unfamiliar way. It was something I had never experienced before. Like the world was going on at a normal pace around me, but my brain was in slow-motion and couldn't catch up, couldn't put the pieces together of this new reality. Laura bear-hugged me. I was so happy and excited, but I think I really just looked confused. 'Laura's reaction was waaaay better than your's,' J tells me. Jeez. No breaks there, eh J? Thankfully, Laura is an understanding and fantastic friend and wasn't weird-ed out at all at my perplexed looks, my eyes narrowing and widening at her, my shocked silences and jumbled thoughts. The wheels in my brain were chugging on slower than usual and it took a good hour or so before it finally all clicked: We were hanging out with Laura! In France! Fete D'Lumiere! This was awesome! And then everything switched from slow motion to fast forward.

Lyon was a blur. Its a fantastic city, really, but the highlight was catching up with Laura. We could have never left the house and I would have been happy as a clam. Ohhh, and the Fete D'Lumiere! Fantastic. The whole city comes out to celebrate the lights! There are candles in windows, light displays to music in every square, a 3D looking elephant in an alleyway, a pinball machine of lights shone on a building that you could actually play... my descriptions just can't do it justice- it was all super impressive and a very, very fun night. In fact, I can't imagine a better way to celebrate our last night in France.

The next morning wasn't near as fun. We said goodbye to Laura and she was promptly whisked away on the subway to her exam. It wasn't fair! I just got used to this wonderfulness... and now we were all alone again... I slumped through the station to our connecting train. I was very sad. Why was everything going so fast? At work time crawls at such a sloth pace that sometimes I'm sure the clock is ticking backwards and here time was in Lyon moving at the speed of light. I was biting back tears, because I'm a whimp like that. Just then a song started blaring through the station. 'Dooo do do do do do do DON'T WORRY! BE HAPPY!' Bobby McFerrin suggested. Reggae style. I smiled (how can you not?) and thanked my lucky 'etolies' that the French were so keen on English music!

Everything seemed a bit better. Plus, we were headed to Belfast later that night and I knew that the second we saw Aunt Eileen at the airport, our lives would be altogether perfect.

Monday, December 12, 2011

How Much Does it Cost to Travel Around the World?

We have kept a detailed daily expense book throughout our trip. So we know how much a Thai tea cost us in Chiang Mai and what we owed at a side of the road toilet stop in China.

If you have more specific financial questions about this trip, feel free to message us. Otherwise here we will give some helpful cost parameters for each country we visited in Asia. We will also give the date we were there, which is important to know when visiting Asia: one year can make a big difference in what prices can be for foreigners. That can be annoying when the most recent guidebook is two or three years out of date. Also these numbers will be only food and accommodation costs. These costs could be much smaller if you where on a shoe string or much more, depending on your own style of travel. We ate good food, were always full and always (except for one night) had bright, clean and private rooms full of natural light. Most of the time we even had our own attached bathroom.

As for transportation, in each of the following countries public transportation was uniformly inexpensive. Whether you are taking a cross town bus or travelling twelve hours on bus or train, it rarely cost us more than $4 or $5 for the both of us. The exception to this is China, but we made a note of that below.

Prices are in CAD and are for the two of us together. Here's our trip, anyway.

Singapore (New Year's-January 2011)

High and Low price range for rooms: $58 (New Year's Eve...everything is expensive)
Average daily food costs for us: $4

Notes: Singapore food is so tasty, varied and cheap! Also, we were only here for three nights.

Malaysia (January 2011)

Most usual room price for us: $6 to $8
High and Low price range for rooms: $6 to $16
Average daily food costs for us: $10 to $20

Notes: Search out Malaysian will NOT be sorry you did. We spend a lot on is so delicious! We were only on Peninsular Malaysia.

Thailand (January, February 2011)

Most usual room price for us: $9 to $12
High and Low price range for rooms: $6 to $16
Average daily food costs for us: $10 to $16

Notes: The rooms and food on the islands are much more expensive than in mainland Thailand.

Lao (February, March 2011)

Most usual room price for us: $7 to $10
High and Low price range for rooms: $6 to $12
Average daily food costs for us: $10 to $12

Notes: If you are Canadian your Lao visa will cost more money than if you were a citizen of any other country in the entire world.

Cambodia (March, April 2011)

Most usual room price for us: $10
High and Low price range for rooms: $9 to $16
Average daily food costs for us: $15 to $20

Tuk tuks around the Angkor temples cost between $6 and $10 for the day. To go to the furthest temples it cost us $20 to $25 for the day.

Massages cost about $1 for 20 minutes or $2 to $3 for one hour. We knew these charges very well.

Notes: These numbers only represent Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Cambodian food is really tasty. Tourists only use USD in Cambodia, not the local currency. Even the ATMs dispense USD. Weird, isn't it?

Vietnam (April, May 2011)

Most usual room price for us: $7 to $10
High and Low price range for rooms: $7 to $20
Average daily food cost for us: $10 to $15

Cost of bus/boat (including food and entrance tickets) to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay, return: $48 ($24 pp)

China (May, June, July 2011)

Most usual room price for us: $8 to $11
High and Low price range for rooms: $7 to $20
Average daily food cost for us: $10 to $20

Notes: Don't fret: if you are vegetarian you can eat well in China. You will just need some patience. Except for Xi'an, Chengdu and Chongqing we were only in small town, rural China. By a large margin, these large cities were much more expensive for food and accommodation. Transportation was much more expensive throughout China than in SE Asia, BUT was of a higher quality than in those other countries. That isn't to say, however, that the emissions were any better...China might be single-handedly killing the world's environment. Also admission prices in China are quite dear. If you really get angry being around second hand smoke, you will be angry in China. Smoking in restaurants, hotels and even buses is pretty overwhelming and pretty gross.

Nepal (July, August, September and October 2011)

In the Cities:

Most usual room prices for us: $6 (in July and August) and $6 to $15 (Sept and Oct)
High and Low price range for rooms: Same
Average daily food costs for us: $10 to $15

On the Trek:

Most usual room prices for us: usually free, if we ate at the guesthouse (shows how ridiculously overpriced the food is!)
High and Low price range for rooms: Free to $5
Average daily food costs for us: $10 to $35 (this is mostly just for rice, oatmeal and tea)

Notes: We only ate two meals per day and had some snacks to keep up our energy levels in the afternoon.

India (August, September 2011)

Most usual room price for us: $8 to $9
High and Low price range for rooms: $4 to $10
Average daily food costs for us: $4 to $10 (Yes, this is for two people)

Two hour Yoga class in Rishikesh: $3

Notes: Kristen had a song in India that went like this: Four chai for fifty cents! Repeat this over and over and over and over again and then you too can sing the song!

Sri Lanka (October, November 2011)

Most usual room price for us: $13 to $15
High and Low price range for rooms: $11 to $20
Average daily food costs for us: $9

Notes: The emissions from vehicles in Lanka could rival those found in China.

That's it for our Asian Leg. We hope this helps and happy trails!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ten Things We Love about Paris

10. Strolling (relatively) aimlessly, hand in hand, though the picturesque streets on a cool, crisp, bright, December day with the sun warming our fingers and highlighting Paris' most glorious buildings.

9. Laughing, knowing that singlehandedly, J and I were making a serious impact on Paris' fashion scene. As in we were dragging it down. Between our leaky shoes, worn pants, scrubby shirts, rain jackets for winter coats and bargain-bin hats and mitts we had the feeling that if didn't already have plans to leave the city in a few days - the Parisians would be kicking us out. Man, these people are beautiful.

8. Muse D'Orsay- on free day, of course. What a fantastic collection of impressionist paintings. Maybe one of our favourite art museums! Nothing can really compare to seeing a real, original, life-size Monet, Manet, Cezanne or Degas.... If only I could remember more from those art history classes I took.

7. The hilarious book Sandra (see #1. favourite thing about Paris) lent me to read while we were visiting. 'A Year in the Merde' written by a Brit (Stephen Clarke) who moved to Paris for work and has now written a fantastically funny account of his adventures. Look for it- especially if you've been to/lived in France.

6. Les Puce- or, in English- 'the fleas.' Translation: the flea market! Sandra took us on a rainy Saturday morning. Les Puce is a fascinating (and huge-7 hectares!) market selling everything from valuable antiques to knock-off Gucci pumps and handmade knits. You could wander here for days. Some of the stalls are set up like period rooms, displaying all the antique furniture, lights and pictures. There are postcards from the 1800s, old pictures, jewellery... There's fashionable clothes, leather purses and fancy hats... There's roasting chestnuts and Nutella filled crepes....

5. 'Tis the Season! Paris has a fun, festive Christmas market on Champs D'Eylsee and and Galleries Lafayette has an amazing display of Christmas lights and window displays. Champs D'Eylsee is lined with adorable white huts selling a delicious variety of chocolates and treats, fried things (like 'churros'- a cousin of the Beavertail), decorations and any variety of christmas gift ideas- all this to a Christmas soundtrack- its enough to get any Scrooge in the holiday mood. If not, of course, there's always the secret anti-scrooge weapon- the Galleries Lafayette. The whole building- from ground to roof is covered in impressive lights arranged in a rather intricate design- like the details of a snowflake (or a Turkish carpet?). Its up for interpretation. When (and if you can) get close enough- the window displays are very impressive. This year the windows were full of little moving people puppets that were rocking out in their very own concerts! No bahumbugging here!

4. Mouth-watering French wine, cheese and baguettes. Available at every corner- in abundance. 'Nuff said.

3. Rugby. We were very, very lucky. And we have a very, very fun, well-connected Parisian friend for a host. For a surprise on Saturday afternoon, Sandra took us to a rugby game at Stade de France! Stade Francais Paris was playing was playing Racing-Metro 92- if this means anything to you, then you know this is a big game between rivals. What does this mean to us? More fun, of course! We had fantastic seats and before the opening celebrations had begun, even before the revving Harleys had roared out of the gates and made their way around the arena waving the home team's bright pink flags... we knew it was going to be a great night! And boy-was it! I still don't really understand all the running and passing and piling... but who really needs to understand the game when there is a fantastic neon pink wave circling the arena? And incredibly buff men running around in spandex... And fireworks!

2. We went with Sandra and a few friends to a restaurant called: Chartier. Since 1896 Cartier has been devoted to providing Parisians with delicious French food at an affordable price. My kind of place. The atmosphere hasn't changed much since the restaurant opened and it gives the place a great old-time feel. Under Sandra's persuasion, I even tried escargot for the first time! How classy-right? I even managed to extract and slurp up the snails without flinging them across the restaurant, which I am filing away as a great success. Why else is Cartier my kind of place? The whipcream. Not just any whipcream either-the richest, most creamy, flavorful whipcream I have ever had in my whole life. 'Chantille,' as the Parisians purr. Its not just a topping here in Paris-its a dessert in itself. Apparently I'm not alone in this opinion. I know this because, on the menu, there it is, clear, in black and white (well, in French, anyways)- under the dessert heading, standing there on its own- a bowl of whipcream! You can order a bowl of whipcream. Just whipcream. Sorry, Chantiiiiilllllle. Like I said, this is my kind of place.

1. The single best thing about Paris though? Easy. That award goes to our wonderful, fun, generous, interesting, funny, thoughtful Parisian friend Sandra. As you may have noticed, Sandra is the reason behind many of the items on our Top Ten Paris list. Without her, Paris couldn't have possibly been as great of an experience as it was. We feel very lucky to have Sandra as a friend and to have had the opportunity to spend time with her while we were in town. We are so thankful that Sandra was patient and generous enough to have us at her flat for five whole days. That deserves a bowl of whipcream in itself! (Or two!) We've now travelled in Bali and France with Sandra... Maybe Canada is next? We're keeping our fingers crossed!

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Town of a Million Chocolatiers

When our plane landed in Belgium, it was the perfect Fall day. The sky was a radiant blue, the leaves that were left clinging to the trees were bright orange and yellow, the air was cool and crisp, and the smiling faces of our good friends Kevin and Vicky were waiting for us at the arrivals gate at the airport. (Insert gigantic sigh of delight). And Belgium only got better from there.

Why were we in Belgium? Well, besides being the birth place of all that is wonderful in the world (ie: Belgium chocolate), the country is also rumored to brew a pretty good beer, not to mention it's waffles and cheese sauce- and above all we had a generous invitation from a wonderful Flemish couple that we had met more than a year ago now while traveling in New Zealand. They were on a five month trip through Canada, US, NZ and Oz. They had already even been to Niagara Falls! We met at a spaceship convention near NZ's glaciers on the South Island. 'Spaceships' being the cleverly named, bright orange and white campervan rental company- not actual alien-driven spaceships from outer space. As if I just had to specify that. There were spaceships all around us, in our parking-spot sized camp sites. It was close quarters- perfect for meeting fellow space travellers. A big ol' party of bright orange campervans, all crammed into a tiny corner of the campground-isolated from all the non-spacey campers. We didn't take too much offence. The concentration was of course, the result of this specific campground offering a special discounted price to any spaceship which chose to land its domain. Kevin and Vicky told us that our spaceship, whose name 'Adama' was painted in white across the driver's side door- was the important captain from Battlestar Galactica. This we did not know. Kevin and Vicky thought that our being Adama was very cool, and therefore, by association, we must be cool as well. We immediately liked this idea. We immediately liked Kevin and Vicky. And so began our Belgium planning.

Kevin and Vicky were determined to give us the complete Belgian experience. It was a pretty tall order, seeing as we, unfortunately, had only 2.5 days with them in Bruges. I mean we had to fit in chocolate, beer, chocolate, waffles, chocolate, fries, chocolate, and well... chocolate. And that's just the food list. Against the odds, Kevin and Vicky had wild success- we feel like we really experienced Belgium's highlights and had the best tour guides in the country.

Kevin and Vicky were perfect hosts. The first thing Vicky did after we arrived at their apartment was to pull out a box of chocolates for us to sample. Cote D'Or too- my absolute favourite. What a sweet way to start Belgium! Not only that, but our hosts had thoughtfully left us a large bowl at our bedside over-flowing with chocolates and chewy toffees! Sigh. They had me at hello. haha It was more than just chocolate-of course, that made our stay in Bruges so wonderful. Kevin and Vicky were warm, welcoming, fun, thoughtful, generous- and have an impeccable taste in comedies and music. Vicky was a fantastic cook too!

What we loved most was wandering around the adorable, atmospheric streets of Bruges with our favourite locals. Vicky regaled us with fantastic local legends and stories related to the city's long ago empires, royals and dramas. I loved it. We were standing on a bridge admiring the far-too-gorgeous for-its-own-good view and Vicky was telling us the legend behind the name 'Minewater' where we were standing. It started how all good tragedies start...'Long, long ago, there was a boy who loved a girl but...' the three of us were totally enthralled. The drama! The scandal! We were soaking up every word she said, practically biting our nails, wondering how it would all end. Kevin was starring a Vicky with surprise and admiration (and maybe a bit of disbelief). How did she know all this? Man, she's fantastic. When the story was over we all sighed impressed by Vickys detailed knowledge and memory. 'I just read all that this morning,' Vicky says, pulling a guidebook out of her pocket. We all burst out laughing.

Jonathan and Kevin discussed ice hockey and video games and Vicky and I gazed longingly into the windows of chocolate shops. We could have spent many happy days like this. We just seemed to connect with Kevin and Vicky. We chatted constantly about everything and nothing. The time flew... and suddenly, it was time again to sample more Belgian chocolate!

Another great advantage to having local friends is that they know where all the really good food is. (By food I mean chocolate.) And we like good food. (Chocolate). Seeing as (literally) every other shop in Bruges is a chocolatier, it was fantastic that Vicky knew the best one. Why waste calories on the second best? All the research was already done. Tough job that must have been! And we appreciated all that legwork. Plus, Kevin and Vicky even knew where a Chocolate WORLD was! Chocolate W.O.R.L.D. I don't think I need to say anymore. Our bellies were bigger-but boy we were we (was I) happy.

Kevin and Vicky had gone far out of their way to stock their fridge full off their favourite Belgian beers for us to try. Manly varieties for Kevin and Jonathan and fruity sweet beers for Vicky and I. This was going to be fun. Apparently they forgot one of the beers that we should sample,so we all went on an excursion the supermarket to rectify this. We arrived at the beer aisle and practically fell over- and we hadn't even had a sip of beer yet. Allow me to paint you a picture. The aisle was as big as one at Costco. From floor to ceiling, down the whole aisle- was beer. Beer doesn't come in 24s here, so its not like there was just stacks of boxed Canadian, Blue and Coors Light. No. There was literally a hundred kinds of beer. All in 4 packs. All with wonderfully creative labels- none being the beer Kevin was looking for. 'They don't have a very good selection here,' Vicky says. Jonathan and I don't say anything, because we are still concentrated on picking our jaws off the ground.

We crammed so many fun things into our short time in Belgium, thanks to our hosts. We explored Bruges quite extensively, wandering down streets, through hidden passageways and into churches (and chocolatiers), we went on a fantastic tour of the only brewery left in town (Half Moon), we watched the movie 'In Bruges' (to see the town through the eyes of Hollywood), we baked (!!!) and then artfully decorated cupcakes, we drove out to the coast and strolled along the beach, I learned how to make a scrumptious cheese sauce, we ate waffles and witnessed a special visit from St.Nicholas and his little helper, we went to a cute Christmas market, visited the Atomian (Belgium's answer to the Eiffel tower), and laughed. A lot.

Ohhh and Belgium fries. Can't forget that little treat. The perfect combination of crunchy and soft- so full of flavour, and maybe a little fat. The secret behind Belgium fries? Shhhhhhh.They are fried- twice. And rule is that they must be fully cooled before they are fried for the second time. I would say that maybe this is a tad excessive- but the fries are so good- perfection, really- who am to argue with an extra round in the deepfryer? And ketchup? scoff. No way. At the fry shop you have a choice of approximately twenty sauces- creamy, spicy, chunky, smooth. Belgians really do bring the fry experience to a whole new level of deliciousness. Really, who can be bothered about all these calories with the double frying and mayo-based sauces when eating Begian fries is such a life changing experience? Who, I ask?

Stuffed full of chocolate and everything else that is wonderfully Belgian (plus some wrapped up for the road) and still high on our fantastic time in Bruges with Kevin and Vicky, we boarded an early morning train to Paris. As we smiled and waved a sad goodbye to our friends from our seats on the train, we couldn't help but feel like we were the luckiest people around.

ps. Happy Birthday A.Eileen and A.Marlene!

pps.Home in less than 2 weeks!!

ppps. More pics in Flickr!

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Feast of Saint Nicholas

I'm not a big fan of Santa Claus. I was, but I'm not anymore. I am, however, of the mind that remembering a person who those around him felt that he (or she) wholeheartedly and meaningfully participated in the life of his community is time and thought well-spent. And that is what happens at feasts. At Christmas dinner stories about my great-aunt and great-uncle always come up. For me and my family it would be impossible to think of Christmases Past without them and their home. Out of their love and generosity they have left us with some very special memories now that they themselves have passed away. In the same way, that's what the feast of St Nicholas is about: making room for stories and traditions to be reborn in ourselves.

The historical Good 'Ole St Nick was a fourth century bishop in what is now modern day Turkey (he isn't Santa Claus, but the present day Claus is a construct (maybe you could even say 'a mutation') of earlier characters that were inspired by the real deal...don't mix them up now). There are more than a few traditions surrounding his life, but there is one in particular that is better known than others. There was a family who had a daughter but no money to offer as a dowry so that she could be wed. Just like many places nowadays, once the daughter reached a certain age her family would shed their financial responsibility towards her and she would have had to find a means to live elsewhere. If she were to marry, her husband and his family would do this. But without a dowry this wouldn't happen. Life would have been quite desperate. And of course, desperate times call for desperate measures: if nothing else, it would have opened the door of possibility to a life of prostitution for the daughter. Seeing and understanding the girl's situation, tradition says Nicholas left three gold nuggets on the family's window one night so that with them the family had a dowry to offer for their daughter. A happy ending, right? If you have ever found or even gave a mandarin orange (or three) in a stocking and never knew why that sort of thing is done, now you do. It is the tradition of this story being kept alive. The mandarins symbolize the gift of the gold nuggets.

An example like his is a good one to keep in mind around Christmas holidays. Sometimes the holiday might look more like Stuffmas. Of course, the gold nuggets are the gift in the story, but they wouldn't have been if someone hadn't looked hard enough to really consider what was important to the daughter. Part of the gift was his involvement in her life, which is how Nicholas was probably able to become aware of what was important to the daughter and her family. When we concentrate (not just at the holidays) on truly being as fully present as possible with and for the people we love, what just-the-right Christmas gift for them would be should become clear.

Every year December 6th is St Nicholas' feast day. The date flies under the radar of most North Americans, but in Belgium it is a BIG day. When we were there every single chocolate shop in Brugge (and that's no small number) was filled with chocolate St Nicks. Though we weren't in Brugge for the 6th, by the stroke of luck, he came to visit us, along with Kevin and Vicky, so to get us really excited for his upcoming feast!

Happy St Nicholas Day!

p.s. Ho-ho-ho hold your breath...we will be back in Canada in just about two weeks!

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Two Advents

In 1948 Dick and Mac shut down their successful restaurant to make changes. Upon re-opening three months later, the hungry public found that the brothers had whittled their once large menu down to essentially one item: hamburgers. Since then, the restaurant franchise has become a globally recognized brand. The name of the restaurant? McDonald's.

Nowadays this type of drastic simplification is embedded in our daily lives. And food is hardly the only thing that has been turned into an easy-to-understand and uninteresting commodity. Many nuanced traditions have been thinned out as well. Advent is a case-in-point. A time to buy a Gaudily decorated calendar with twenty-five chocolates inside is the extent to which it is widely thought to be about now. As enticing as that might sound, no one could expect such an idea to actually capture and hold a person's imagination. But like many things, scratch the surface and we might discover something that compels us to think about its hidden layers and depths.

Look past the countdown chocolate calendars and you just might find your interest being piqued by the forgotten themes of Advent. This type of curiosity doesn't come from the usual loud and bright-colours (not to mention chocolately) sort of show that jolts you into a frenzy of activity. Its rather quite the opposite. Advent tells us to stop moving, be quiet and breathe deeply. It also says it is okay to wait because there are things worth waiting for. And not only are these things worth waiting and hoping for, but they rightly should be expected; from me, from you, from other people and from God. Even with only this most cursory mention of some of its larger themes it is clear why Advent can't and doesn't comfortably co-exist with the typical North Atlantic lifestyle. It really wouldn't be far off to suggest that Advent is a counter-cultural observance.

With our fifteen month adventure abroad swiftly coming to an end, we have been talking a lot about Advent in that context. It is exciting to countdown how many days until we fly home. We have certain expectations and hopes of what that will mean for us. Returning to Canada will require a transition period and it will probably be at least a bit demanding on us and on our family. Without going into any details, you might be able to see how this could give us a one-off framework with which to discuss and reflect on Advent this year. Our expectations, hopes and uncertainties about returning home fit right in with Advent.

It is important to add that with all this hoping, expecting and just generally looking ahead, we aren't forgetting to be fully present where we are. We can't thank Sonia (and Joel) enough for reminding us of this sage advice.

Alright, now you can go have today's Advent chocolate.