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The Thai Challenge

New Years resolutions are so 2011 (and hard to keep, too!), which is why I decided to do things differently this year. Instead of dropping my usual resolution within days, I went a different route and chose to take on a new language. Next month, I will be heading off to Thailand so I’ve decided to take on this crazy challenge on an extremely tight schedule. Within the next 30 days, I want to learn Thai. That’s right, by the time I leave on February 4th, I want to be comfortable with the basics of Thai so that I can get around Thailand a little easier.

What?

Learning basic Thai in order to be able to interact with people using simple sentences for common situations such as asking for directions, ordering food or trying to bargain when possible. I don’t plan to be able to hold a conversation but I want to be able to flesh out the conversation instead of relying on hand gestures and saying ‘yes please’ repeatedly.

When?

I’m leaving in 30 days so this is basically a month-long challenge and it gives me exactly 4 weeks to reach my goal. I will put the focus on different things every week but the idea is to learn as much as possible in that time.

How?

This isn’t the first language I learn so I’ll probably rely on proven methods (lists of words! Cue cards! Phonetic learning! Chocolate?) to be able to learn as much as possible in as little time as possible. I do have a few reference tools like my trusty Lonely Planet and an iPad app, which will probably be the 2 tools I’ll use the most. I don’t plan on buying a dictionary or anything like that as I won’t be gone long enough for it to be worth the money and at the end of the day, I’ll learn the words phonetically, not the spelling, so a dictionary wouldn’t be the best tool anyway.

Why?

I’ve never felt like I had to learn a language before heading to a foreign country for two reasons; I don’t travel for more than a few weeks at a time and I’ve simply never felt the need to. I can usually get around easily with the languages I know as I’ve always been to places where French, Spanish or English are spoken either as a first or second language.

Things are different this time around as Thailand, much like Asia in general, simply feels like a whole different world and as the saying goes, when in Rome, do as Romans do. Obviously, it’s also a sign of respect to at least be able to use a few basic words, even if most of the conversation will probably end up being done in English.

Stay tuned to follow my process and see if I’ll be able to reach my goal or if I’ll need to rely on hand gestures, smiles and nods when I get to Thailand in February!

Are Upgrades Worth It?

I’ll start the New Year with a confession; I always shop around for what sometimes feel like forever for the cheapest plane tickets I can find. It’s no secret that almost everyone does it but when you’re flying from Eastern Canada, even the most basic flights usually end up more expensive so shopping around is often the only way to spend a little less on plane tickets in the hope of maximizing the budget and focusing on the trip itself instead of the getting there. I never bothered giving much attention to the prices listed as “Elite”, “First Class” or anything relating to something other than cheap seats and questionable meal choices. In reality, I would have sold my soul for a seat/bed in first class when I flew to Australia but the $8000 price tag brought me back to reality rather quickly.

When I flew to Belgium this year there were still upgrades available at the time of boarding and although my flight was only about 7 hours, I caved in and decided to splurge on an upgrade. The good thing is my original ticket was so inexpensive that, at the end of the day, the total price was still more than decent for a flight to Europe.

Now onto the upgrade itself;

Seat space is probably what I fell in love with the most. I’m not a giant but apparently 6 feet is enough to feel stuffed in regular seats on quite a few airlines. This time, I had room to spare and to be honest, I loved every extra inch of it.

Flight attendants attention is something that really stuck out to me. Don’t get me wrong, I respect cabin crew people beyond words; their work ethic and professionalism always impresses me, but I never came close to that kind of attention before. I truly command them on the work they do in general but particularly in first class, which is obviously a section with a large amount of demanding guests and even more varied services offered.

Food certainly could have been first on my list but I felt better putting it in the middle so I don’t sound like someone who paid quite a few dollars for better food. The fact of the matter is, the food was plentiful and it was so very good. There’s absolutely nothing I would say I didn’t enjoy; which is a lot more than I can usually say about airplane food! Obviously I wouldn’t upgrade just for the food but it’s certainly a perk I enjoyed.

Alcohol is always available on planes but free alcohol is so much better. I’m sure I’m not the only one but I always felt weird paying $6-8 for a tiny glass of cheap wine to go with a bland tasting meal eaten with plastic utensils.

I have to admit right now that I’m a sucker for goodies and freebies in general. I have so many things from launches and work-related evens that I could potentially do a giveaway every day for maybe 3 months and still have stuff to spare. I didn’t include this just to brag but to say that the little goodies bag with a blanket, inflatable pillow, socks (!) and more is pretty much a bag of awesome if you ask me.

So there you have it; I think that about covers all the cool things you get from an upgrade (I won’t mention priority boarding or being the first off the plane but look at them as added bonuses!) and in a way I’d say all those things make for a fun experience but you really need to weigh the price for what it gives you in the end; you might be better off saving your money to visit, eat or make purchases once you get to your destination.

Do you usually fly first class? Any reason in particular? Is it the luxury, the comfort or something else?

My 2011

Before ringing in the new year tonight, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and do a quick summary of how my year looked like on the travel front.

– Countries

Although some of my original plans fell through this year, I still managed to visit my 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th countries in 2011. 3 out of those 4 countries, namely Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, had been in my plans since my non-trip in 2008 so I was more than happy to finally visit them. I also spent a quick week in Panama, which was, to date, my favorite experience in Central/South America.

I also roamed around Canada a fair amount and got a few more U.S. stamps in my passport but the “new countries” are definitely the highlight of my year.

I didn’t quite make it to my 5th continent but that will happen in 2012 and I’m more than satisfied with the experiences I’ve had while traveling this year.

– Bucket List

Do I keep a bucket list? Yes, ,I do. Do I plan my trips around it? No, I don’t. That being said, I still managed to cross a whopping 3 items off of it this year and also did some work on a fourth item, making 2011 a very successful year in terms of shortening the proverbial “list”.

I flew first class for the first time on my way to Belgium, which was a rather uncharacteristic splurge for me and although the flight wasn’t overly long (just over 7 hours), I absolutely enjoyed the experience. For the comfort alone, I would be more than willing to replicate the experience in the future and let’s be honest, the food and booze aren’t half bad either!

Although my visit to the Netherlands was a little short for my tastes, I managed to see Ann Frank’s house, which was definitely one of the things I didn’t want to miss out on while in Amsterdam. I had heard horror stories about the never ending lines in front of the museum but I lucked out and although pictures aren’t allowed inside the house (one of my biggest pet peeves about museums in Europe!), I was happy with the experience and glad to have included the visit in my itinerary.

In Germany, I finally managed to visit a concentration camp (I actually visited 2, considering they are plentiful in Germany), after failing to do so in 2008 and coming so close while in Belgium a few months before. While Auschwitz remains a place I desperately want to visit in the future, getting to spend a few hours in Dachau and Sachsenhausen was the highlight of my trip to Germany.

One of the long-lasting items on my bucket list is to visit 100 countries, which is obviously a work in progress but adding 4 countries in a year is a step in the right direction.

– The Road

I rarely travel with other people, both by choice and because I don’t always pick the destinations my friends are thinking of when they have time to travel, so when a friend of mine said he would like to visit the Gaspé peninsula and see Percé Rock, I was more than happy to tag along for a quick road trip. The tip of the peninsula is located at the far end of the province of Quebec and although the drive was rather dull at times, it was definitely a cool way to spend a long weekend. I had been meaning to visit the region for a long time but never quite got around to it so getting to explore that little corner of my province was something I was glad to finally do.

– Business

Although Ontario is the neighboring province, I somewhat ironically visited it more for business purposes than as part of an actual trip (layovers at Pearson excluded, of course). I had planned a few things to do while in Toronto but the schedule got a little hectic and it turned out to be all business. On the bright side, I got to see Suzie McNeil and the Barenaked Ladies perform, the Staal brothers being interviewed by TSN’s James Duthie and hear a speech by Bell Canada’s president George Cope, which made the whole event fairly cool to attend.

– So Many Ways

Blame it on my habit to travel solo or on some weird quirkiness but every once in a while, I tend to start counting random things involving travel. How many nights slept in a hotel/hostel, how many flights I was on or how many means of transportation I used are among the things I usually work with as they are somewhat easy to recall and count. Obviously, those are totally random facts and don’t have much of an impact on anything but the fact that I don’t spend months traveling each year makes it more than doable to simply sit and add up those things. They’re also a good way to pass the time when flying; which is usually the moment I choose to count those little stats.

For the record, in 2011 I;

Was on 10 flights
Used 8 different means of transportation
Spent 30 nights in a hotel or hostel

That’s it; a short (and sweet?) post about my travels in 2011.

Happy New Year & safe travels!

2011; Year of Almosts

The last few weeks of a year usually mean a whole lot of posts involving lists of various “top” accomplishments, experiences and sights seen but the moments that didn’t happen, just like the sights we didn’t get to see are quickly forgotten and usually go completely unnoticed. After all, they didn’t happen so why bother mentioning them at all?

I decided to focus on those moments, not as a reminder of what I missed this year but as a way to prove that it can be OK to miss out sometimes. It happens and more often than not, it’s not the end of the world.

Concentration camp (Belgium, May 2011)

Getting to visit a concentration camp has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember and I had every intention of finally checking it off while in Brussels. Unfortunately, due to a “perfect storm” of last minute planning, a bus driver who dropped me off at the wrong stop and a subsequent issue with ATMs throughout the city the following day, my plan fell through. The rest of my trip went without a hitch and I actually got close to Breendonk but not close enough to explore the camp, just a village that happened to share the camp’s name but was nowhere near my original destination.

Continent #5; Africa

Assuming North and South America are considered two continents, Africa almost became the 5th continent I set foot on. Granted, the only real reason why I didn’t book a trip to South Africa this year was seeing low-priced tickets and waiting too long to get them because I was conflicted between two destinations. When my mind was finally set, the price difference cooled down my desire to go. I still had Africa on my mind though and focused on other destinations on the continent but with the political unrest in Egypt and the drought/famine in Somalia that forced massive amounts of people to seek refuge in neighbouring Kenya, I was running out of destinations and felt that the logical thing to do would be to postpone Africa. It almost happened and in a way, it probably should have happened in 2011 but I know for a fact that I will set foot on the African continent in the future.

Continent #5 redux; Asia

In a rather ironic twist of faith, I set my eyes on Thailand as a replacement to South Africa (completely different destinations, yes, but also both very different from the trips I’ve taken so far). Unfortunately, I needed to travel on fairly specific dates and it happened to be right in the middle of the floods that hit Thailand in the fall. I kept a close eye on the news and still planned to go until more and more countries issued travel warnings for their citizens and airlines began waiving fees and offering travellers the chance to modify their plans without penalties. A week before I was scheduled to leave, I caved and spent some time on the phone with Continental to find the best course of action. The fees were waived, yes, but my plans had to be postponed and moved to a much later date. It felt as if I simply wasn’t meant to visit a fifth continent in 2011.

There are quite probably a few more non-events that I forgot to list but those 3 are the main ones and they all influenced my plans this year and some of my plans next year as well. There’s no denying that I would have loved to make all three of these things happen this year but it turns out that I had a blast on the trips I was able to take and with some perspective, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Is there anything you wish had happen when you travelled this year? Anything you came close to do but just didn’t quite make it? What it the end of the world?

A Career in Travel

The topic of this week’s #TNI chat on Twitter made me ask myself if a career in travel could be something I would easily perform in and enjoy in the long run. After all, traveling to the far corners of the earth, or across the country, and be paid for it seems like a no brainer for anyone who has even the smallest of interest in seeing the world.

Travel Agent

Call them dream-makers, guardian angels or simply resources of the uttermost importance; travel agents have played a pivotal role in the travel industry for ages and even with the introduction of new resources, they still remain essential for many. There will always be a need for travel agents and their expertise is crucial for a large percentage of travelers who simply will not rely solely on a website and good luck to make sure their travel plans are without kinks.

Could I see myself as a travel agent? No.

Not because I don’t respect the work that they do but because every customer, every trip and every flight I would deal with would make me want to travel. Need help booking an Alaska cruise? No problem… but you have to bring me with you. A safari in Kenya? Good choice. Can I tag along?

Do I feel like it would drive me mad? No. I’m absolutely certain that it would.

Airlines

I’m probably the only person in the world who thinks they would love the weird/crazy/awkward schedules flight attendants and pilots have (maybe that’s the topic of another post; travel & insanity?) but I highly doubt I would make it in that field.

A little like the travel agent dilemma, flying travelers all around the world and often not getting enough free time to enjoy the destination would probably make me end up hate people who have done absolutely nothing wrong.

That leaves a desk job as a possibility but this hardly seems like it would have enough of an awesome factor to keep me interested in the long run.

Would I consider working for an airline? Probably. It would depend on a quantity of factors but I would more than likely weigh the pros and cons of the offer itself before seriously considering it.

Airline representative

Spending an extended period of time in a foreign location to welcome, guide or assist travelers seems like a job everyone would jump on without much consideration. While it does mean spending a lot of time away from home; there are definitely worst situations to be in and the amount of crises that need to be handled, in my opinion, are absolutely outweighed by the perks of the job.

Of course I could complain that such a position would probably mean staying in the same place for a while and not traveling the world like a globetrotter but that hardly feels like a true down side to having a job like that.

The one thing I feel a little irked by is that a lot of people, especially people who are somewhat used to traveling is that airline representatives often seem to be taken for granted and not really appreciated unless their help is absolutely crucial. While it makes sense, in a way, to value their presence more in a time of need, it seems ridiculous that a crisis is required for them to be seen as necessary.

Tour guide

Wether it’s done locally or abroad, tour guides are present on a very broad scale as tours can go from a simple hour-long walk through a city to a 3-day hike in the jungle or a trek through the desert. They are a mix of Wikipedia/guidebooks/gps and maps, meaning they are always useful and sometimes even mandatory.

As much as I enjoy some guided tours, though, I feel like heading the same tour several times a week for months would become redundant quite fast and the job would quickly lose its’ luster.

In a way, I wouldn’t mind putting on the tour guide cap occasionally but I don’t think it’s the type of job that I would enjoy in the long run. Somehow, the whole “Hi everyone, my name is Travel_Version and I will be your tour guide today! Let’s get started!” just wouldn’t motivate me very long.

Looking back, it seems that travel, as much as I am completely obsessed with it, is a passion but it might not be the best career path in the long run. Besides, is it really healthy to mix business with pleasure?

I left travel writer out of this post, not because I don’t think they have a valued place in the travel industry but because I feel like their presence is different, in a way, than more “typical” jobs, which is why they should be a different post entirely.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Alright, so I found this title to be somewhat fitting with the whole traveling concept of my blog and it also follows a trend of me naming stuff after song titles or popular quotes. Not only that, but this particular title was summarizing the topic of my entry quite well; after all, traveling is about being somewhere else or at least about the journey to reach that place. I think it’s been more than established, or at least blogged about, that the journey can be either physical or metaphorical; isn’t it all the same in the end? Whether you physically traveled somewhere or went through your own personal journey without leaving the comfort of your daily life, a part of you went through a journey of sort in the hope of gaining something in the process. When you physically leave all the material behind to go and discover some foreign land isn’t it about the same feeling as someone who realizes that maybe he isn’t in the right field at school and needs to change so that he won’t have to do any classes uselessly? In both cases, you enter some completely unfamiliar ground and you leave your comfort zone to explore your surroundings, or a far-away land. While the journey to discover ancient remains of an old civilization using come to an end at some relatively precise point in time, coming to the realization that you aren’t exactly in the place you want to be in your life is a whole lot different.

That’s exactly where I feel like I’ve been this past week and I have to say that I hate it; it’s like being thrown in the dark without a flashlight. I love change and I’m all for it but not under these circumstances, not when I don’t have any control over what’s going to happen. This isn’t the same as consciously realizing that something isn’t to your liking and that you should consider changing it, it’s about coming to the conclusion that maybe you made a mistake. And it’s hard to admit. It’s definitely tough to admit when you realize that you aren’t perfect and that, like everyone else, you make mistakes. Oops.

I realized that I end up, for one reason or the other, in the same place almost at the same time every year. A sort of winter blues? I wish I knew.

Ugh, I think I need a vacation and bad

Canada; What, When & Why?

In case you didn’t know, yesterday was Canada Day and I’ve been juggling with ideas of what to write for my country’s national holiday. Keeping in mind that I haven’t been everywhere (we are the second biggest country in the world after all), I didn’t feel like I could truly capture the best of what Canada has to offer in terms of sights, activities or culture. I trust that there are several outlets available out there for anyone looking for things to do in Ontario or the best restaurants in Alberta so I’m going a different route. I want to put the focus on the country itself and maybe catch some interest not by listing a top 10 activities or the best national parks but by shedding light on what makes each and every one of the 13 provinces and territories unique and different but also pivotal in the shape that Canada has today.

Nunavut

The youngest territory and 13th division of the country, Nunavut officially became recognized as a territory just 12 years ago. April 1st 1999 is when it took the Northwest Territories spot as the northernmost territory in Canada. Not surprisingly, it’s also the home of the northernmost permanently inhabitable locale in the world; Alert.

Being a rather remote area, it has one of the lowest density of population in the world and yet, if it was a country, Nunavut would be the 15th biggest country in the world; edging out every single European country besides Russia.

Northwest Territories

Quite surprisingly, mainly due to its geographical location, the Northwest Territories are home of the 13th longest river in the world. The Mackenzie river runs through the territory on a length of roughly 4200 kilometres (just over 2600 miles)

It is also home of the only unshared UNESCO site of the three Canadian territories; Nahanni National Park Reserve.

Yukon

Yukon is home of the highest mountain in Canada; Mount Logan, which is also the second highest peak in North America.

For some reason, while Yukon has its own international airport in Yellowknife, it only offers direct flights to 3 other Canadian cities (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton) one in Alaska (Fairbanks) and to Frankfurt, Germany.

British Columbia

After Vancouver’s winning bid for host of the 2010 winter Olympics, British Columbia became the third province in Canada to host the Olympics. It is also the only place in Canada to have “coffee shops” similar to the ones in Amsterdam. The major difference is that they are not allowed to sell the product; they simply offer a place to use it.

Alberta

With 5 sites out of 14, Alberta is the province with the most UNESCO sites in Canada. It is also the 5th biggest energy producer in the world and Edmonton, the province’s capital, is where the world’s biggest shopping mall is located; the West Edmonton Mall.

Saskatchewan

Regina, the province’s capital, is where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police recruits train as it is the only training academy licensed to offer training to the RCMP.

All of the province’s boundaries are man-made; setting it apart from the rest of provinces and territories. To be exact, the province is wedged between Alberta and Manitoba, right under the Northwest Territories and above the states of Montana and North Dakota.

Manitoba

The town of Elie, Manitoba, was hit by a F5 tornado in June 2007, the first category 5 tornado to ever touch ground in Canada.

Winnipeg, the province’s capital, inspired the naming of Winnie the Pooh, where it was originally purchased. Not only that but Winnipeg is also the Slurpee capital of the world even though the temperatures are below freezing point for about half of the year.

Ontario

Ottawa is where, during World War II, Princess Margriet of the Netherlands was born. As her family fled the Netherlands because of the war, the hospital ward her mother was in was momentarily declared extraterritorial, making it possible for the princess to only have Dutch citizenship.

Quebec

Although English is commonly used in several areas of the province, French is the province’s official language. This makes Quebec the only province to have French as its official language.

Throughout history, Quebec has attempted to become an independent state on two separate occasions; in 1980 and then again in 1995. Both referendums ended with a majority of Quebecers choosing to remain a part of Canada instead of seceding.

New Brunswick

While French communities exist in other provinces and several areas of Quebec use English on a daily basis, New Brunswick is the only province to be officially bilingual; having both English and French listed as its official languages.

New Brunswick is home to four unusual natural phenomena;
– The largest whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere (and second biggest in the world) is located between two of the province’s islands; Deer and Indian islands.
– The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world and they rise at a rate of 1 metre per hour.
– Due to the force behind the high tides, the Saint John River flows backwards twice every day. The phenomenon can easily be observed as the tide overpowers the regular current, causing it to flow upstream.
– Magnetic Hill, located in Moncton, isn’t as magnetic as its name may imply but drivers can put their cars in neutral and watch with amazement as it drives itself up the hill, without any help from the driver.

Nova Scotia

Halifax, the province’s capital, is where the first decorated English Christmas tree was located. In 1846, protestant Martin Luther (not to be confused with Martin Luther King!) tried to reproduce the effect of stars shining through evergreens by placing candles on a spruce.

Nova Scotia was the first settlement north of Florida and named after Scotland.

There are 150 lighthouses in the province; the most in all of Canada

Prince Edward Island

The only province to be considered its own country according to the Travelers’ Century Club because of the distance between it and the mainland; officially making it the smallest province and the only one to be considered its own land.

Newfoundland & Labrador

There are no snakes or poison ivy found on the island of Newfoundland but the province has its own kind of dog and pony (originally named the Newfoundland dog and the Newfoundland pony)

A few “firsts” also occurred in Newfoundland;
– First province to respond to the Titanic distress signal
– First place to have a wireless communication in the world
– First transatlantic flight departed from Newfoundland in 1919