If you have the luxury to hop on a plane you're lucky. And, I was one of the lucky one this year. My exploration of the world had unfortunately been on a bit of a pause, but in 2019, I was able to fly to the other side of the world and land in Africa. This trip was a great reminder that travel is a gift.
Like anyone who returns home after a holiday, I was filled with mixed emotions. Although, it's nice to be home--it was quite fabulous to be away on vacation. A vacation for me, means my senses are in overdrive, my brain is buzzing, every day is different, and filled with new friends and meeting the locals. Now that I'm home, I have the luxury to process what 'went down' so to speak and will blog about it in the future. But in the interim, I will keep it short and sweet. I want to mention one of the things I was reminded of while I was away...I wish everyone had the privilege of being able to travel to a foreign country.
Travel is a Gift
Travel opens your mind and heart in a way that cannot be opened unless you're immersed in a world that's different from the one you were raised in. Morocco is one of the most stunning countries I have ever set foot in and the Moroccan people are friendly and kind. THEY ARE LOVELY. Morocco's population is 99% Muslim.
In today's unfortunate climate of 'them vs us,' travel shows you there is no 'them,' it's 'we.' And, 'we' are all in this world together. I HIGHLY recommend travelling to Morocco, or Central America, or Asia...anywhere that's different from the familiar. I am most grateful to have been able to explore Morocco and so many different pockets of the world. I can hardly wait for the next adventure.
Now, back to processing. Stay tuned for 'what went down.'
Since my return from a cycling vacation, I feel like I have one foot in Morocco and the other, in Canada. To assist myself with the post-vacation slump recovery, I've put together a photo compilation of some of my favourite Morocco moments. I hope you enjoy the pictures and are enticed to explore this absolutely magnificent country.
We cycled with a fabulous group of people; to respect their privacy I have opted to post pictures that do not include close-ups of their lovely faces.
A Traveller's Guide to Respectful Photography
I’d like to think…I’m a little more subtle than the paparazzi. I haven’t resorted to hiding in bushes nor, have I engaged in a high-speed motorcycle chase in the pursuit of a good photo. That said, when I’m travelling, I’m obsessed with getting pictures of local people while they are engaging in their everyday activities.
Now, I will be the first to admit...if the situation was reversed and it were me—here in my lovely Canada, pursuing the cereal aisle in No Frills and someone jumped in front of me and clicked away—I would not be thrilled. So, what is it that makes me turn paparazzi as soon as I leave my homeland?
When I’m abroad, if you are a minority man, woman, or child, nun or a monk—I am particularly fascinated with you. Fortunately, for the privacy of the latter, I haven’t overcome my shyness and feel quite uncomfortable invading someone’s personal space by sticking my camera in their face. Although, I must confess sometimes I wish there was a little paparazzi in me because I love people shots.
Not Some of My Finer Moments
During my travels, I have taken many pictures of the local people in ways that I’m not particularly proud of. I’ve skulked in a corner at a market in North Vietnam pretending to be taking a picture of a particularly interesting mound of bananas (I’m sure you will agree...bananas are fascinating), when my camera is really aimed at the hilltribe shoppers dressed in their brightly coloured traditional clothing.
From a street corner, I’ve zoomed until I can zoom no more and snapped away at a Burmese gentleman sitting cross-legged in a barber’s chair under a tree. I’ve also been horrified albeit envious by a fellow tourist’s photo prowess while out for a walk in Yangon, Myanmar. He stopped dead in the middle of a sidewalk, swung around and backtracked until he had positioned himself right in front of his subject. An elderly pink robed nun, with a red umbrella poised high over her shaved head AND she was wearing large Jackie-O sunglasses. She was magnificent! But, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t capture this incredible woman on digital.
I know, I know…taking pictures is a BIG part of the whole travelling experience. Who doesn’t want to capture the essence of the country you’re standing in? It’s not too often you hear someone say, “I don’t take pictures, I’ve got this committed to memory.”
Two Rules for Respectful Travel Photography
Sometimes, I’m pleased with my pictures but often—I’ve wished that I had the nerve to walk right over, perfectly aim and zoom right in on people going about their business just as my tourist friend did. Soooo, what do we shy polite photographers do? It’s quite simple. I have two rules for people photos.
Rule #1: whenever possible, ask for permission.
Be it from the individual directly or if I am on a tour, I will ask the tour guide before we arrive at the destination if photos are permissible. While I was in Asia, there were times when a photo inquiry lead to an open palm expecting money. But more often than not—I was blessed with a beaming smile.
I was in China, prior to the 2008 Olympics. When the torch passed through Shenzhen, I was among the throngs of people who went to witness this event. My colleague and I missed the torch because so many people were asking for our picture. We were happy to oblige, were grateful to be asked and didn't mind foregoing the torch because we met so many fantastic people that day.
Rule #2: be forthcoming and respectful.
I’m proud to say I’ve put my skulking behavior behind me. If an opportunity presents itself and I’m not in situation where I can request a photo i.e. someone was prostrating around Mount Kailash—I take a picture from a polite distance. I will never, EVER put myself right up in someone’s business even…if this means (I can now accept this)—forgoing a picture of an elderly Burmese nun wearing Jackie-O shades because I was not brave enough to ask for a photo. Besides, I figure…if my inner compass is telling me this is awkward (just as it was that faithful day) than it probably is--so don’t do it.
True to character, I will admit…it took me awhile to work my way out of this photo taking derve. As I continue to travel and abide my people photo rules it’s safe to say I’ll never be hired to do a little freelance work for the paparazzi. And, should I encounter any tourists in No Frills I can only hope their inner compass guides them to the very fascinating bananas.
Photographer in Action
Prostrating @ Mt. Kailash. I didn't get it right. I got it right.
In an effort to be respectful I have A LOT of back pictures :)
As a child I desperately wanted a pet monkey. I would have gladly given up the option of having a family dog in favour of one of those incredibly cute two-legged creatures. But, I grew up monkey deprived. Over the years, my monkey love had to be satisfied with a trip to the zoo or a National Geographic documentary. Soooo, can you imagine my excitement when the opportunity ‘to walk among monkeys in their natural habitat’ presented itself?!
I was in Ubud, Indonesia heading towards one of Bali's most popular tourist attractions--The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. It's a nature reserve that is home to over 700 monkeys and sacred Hindu temples...sounds great, right?!
The Sacred Monkey Forest
With monkeys in sight, I practically sprinted to the entrance of the sanctuary. The little fellas were casually draping themselves over the entrance sign and the surrounding fence—an advertising executive couldn’t have positioned them any better. With the entrance fee paid; I was more than ready to be one with nature.
As I entered the sanctuary, the signage clearly stated:
“It is important to treat the monkeys with the utmost respect as this is their home and you are a guest in it. Moreover, if you wish to feed the monkeys do so carefully, and if they take food from you do not attempt to retrieve it.”
This guest couldn’t have agreed more.
It doesn’t take long for me to process that there were monkeys everywhere. And, I mean e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. There were monkeys in trees, monkeys sitting on rocks, fences and monkeys strolling around like they had nothing better to do. I couldn’t believe it! Holy smokes! I had to capture this awe-inspiring moment.
Not being technically inclined, I was a little nervous to take pictures with my brand new, never been used, digital camera. No sooner was the camera out of my knapsack and gingerly unwrapped from the plastic bag which was protecting it from the light drizzle falling; did a monkey sashay over and whip the camera from my unsuspecting hands.
Lady! Respect the Monkeys
Holy crap! In shock, all I could think of was…that monkey has my brand new, never been used digital camera! Much to the monkey’s disbelief—I snatched back the camera. My relief at having my camera back in my possession was only temporary because I received a VERY stern reprimand from of one of the sanctuary staff who was under the impression that I was behaving disrespectfully towards one of the precious little monkeys.
Although shaken from the scolding and the attempted theft, I wandered deeper into the sanctuary in search of one of the beautiful temples. My camera was now safely stuffed in my backpack and would remain in there for the duration of the sanctuary visit hence, the lack of pictures.
Recovered, I stopped to admire one of the temple’s architecture. It’s quite amazing what can happen in a sanctuary when you stop moving for just a second, because that’s all it took before a monkey in single bound jumped on my shoulder and then, positioned himself comfortably on the top of my head.
How lovely, I was in the middle of a sacred forest all by myself with a money perched on top of my head. A few thoughts in rapid succession crossed my mind.
I was mistaken when I thought it couldn’t get any worse. The second monkey opened his little mouth as wide as he could and sunk his crooked yellow-stained teeth into my leg. My thoughts drifted, and I found myself wondering…does my health insurance cover monkey bites? I was fairly confident that—it didn’t.
I must confess, I have always prided myself on being an independent woman who can successfully navigate herself around the globe; but at this precise moment…I wanted someone who could get these stinking monkeys off me. Much to my relief, the very helpful sanctuary guide suggested that…I ‘keep moving.’
Gee, thanks. Have you ever tried to ‘keep moving’ with a monkey on your head? I can tell you…it’s not easy. Moreover, did you know that a monkey can remain firmly planted on your head even when you shake your head vigorously back and forth? Well, as vigorously as you can with a monkey parked on your head.
Aussies & Dogs are the Best
During my travels, I have always gravitated to Aussies. They’re fun and now, I know—they’re also dependable. A very kind Aussie gentleman came to my rescue and dislodged the monkeys from both my head and leg. If he had of asked, I would have married him on the spot. As for the sanctuary guide, I was ever so appreciative of the role he played during my monkey bonding time.
It is safe to say…at that moment, I did not understand why The Monkey Forest Sanctuary is a top tourist attraction. In fact, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Once safely outside of the sacred grounds, I reflected on the last 30 minutes of my life. I concluded…as does anyone who has had the pleasure of a monkey encounter--they’re not those incredibly cute two-legged creatures you thought they were. I then, took the opportunity to deliver a silent prayer of thanks to my parents for allowing this dog lover to grow up monkey deprived.
Tips for Visiting The Sacred Monkey Forest
Should you decide to visit the sanctuary (and you should) for your safety and a more enjoyable visit than mine ensure you follow the guidelines and I've included some suggestions of my own:
Is a visit to the Plain of Jars worth the epic bus ride?
Cloudless cobalt sky. Heat so intense the perspiration slowly dribbled down the contours of my body. Anticipation rose in my throat because I was about to set my eyes on one of the world’s ancient mysteries--the Plain of Jars, in Laos.
Would it be worth the legendary 12-hour bus journey from Vientiane on roads with twists and turns that forced me to travel the entire distance with a clenched backside to avoid landing in the isle or in a stranger’s lap? A road that had the Laotians vomiting out the windows at regular intervals and me quadrupling up on anti-nauseous pills all the while thinking …this better be good.
The jars are situated in Northeastern Laos, in the sleepy town of Phonsavan. Depending on whom I spoke with the ‘jar experience’ varied. To some—they were just…just, jars scattered over the countryside. But for others, it was an experience worthy of a crazy bus ride. For this history enthusiast, the verdict was TBD.
A Walk to Remember
Before one can venture into the jar sights, the reality of what it’s like to be a resident of Phonsavan strikes. At the entrance to one of the three jar sights, I found myself standing in front of a red MAG (Mines Advisory Group) sign. I was mesmerized by the warning.
Now, I am a rules girl and certainly when travelling I tend to respect the signage. BUT, the message was usually ‘don’t touch the exhibits’ and the consequences for touching would be a reprimand. Or, at worst, a person could be requested to leave the premises. Not in Laos—where disobeying the signage can result in the loss of limbs or death.
Laos was Neutral During the Vietnam War
For a country that was ‘not’ involved in the Vietnam War, the impact that is still felt in this region today is shocking. In the small town of Phonsavan every week a landmine kills a person. Have you ever heard about this? I certainly hadn't. But in this small town, on the other side of the world—it’s normal. And, so is walking among the many bomb craters that litter the countryside.
Did you know...during the Secret War, the US dropped more bombs on this small neutral country than all of the bombs that were dropped during World War 2—making Laos the most heavily bombed county in the world.
The Jars Up Close & Personal
I was cognizant of every step. Despite the heat, I chose to forgo a cold beverage and risk dehydration to get to jars as fast as I could. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d seen pictures of the jars and had heard the critiques of fellow travellers, but I was anxious to form my own opinion. Each step brought me closer until I found myself face-to-face with the mysterious jars and about to get an introduction.
At site 2, one of the hills is barren except for the lone deposit of jars and the other hill has leafy green trees who offer the jars some relief from the piercing rays of the morning sun. Some of jars stand proud. Some sit among trees with twisted trunks, while others lean at varying degrees pulled towards the earth’s parched surface. Others lie flat gracing the earth in their eternal slumber.
A closer look revealed the jars are in various states of decay and perfection. Their openings are circular; the insides bare. The jars and their secrets belong to Laos—they’re majestic, magical and I couldn’t get enough of them. I must have taken a thousand pictures of jars. I took pictures from every angle—kneeling on the ground, lying on the ground, draped over and head inside. I ran my fingers over rough surfaces; touched crevasses and bullet holes in hopes that they would whisper their secrets to my fingers.
What were the jars used for?
Archaeologists will likely unravel the mystery of the jars although, the popular theory is that they were a part of ancient burial rituals 2500 years ago. But I prefer to believe the local legend and that being the jars were giant's drinking cups. Time will tell what their purpose was but in the interim, I like to envision an expansive plain that once hosted a giant party.
It was a place where male and female giants animatedly discussed the latest gossip, while others reclined—their massive bodies stretched out in the sun. Off in the distance, but within their parent’s vision, the children played. Jars filled with giant's homemade brew were scattered over the landscape's table. The antics of the children's games caused the earth to shake, some of the jars tipped over, spilling the giant's drinks all over the ground.
So, you may be wondering…was it worth it? Absolutely! I left, as I arrived—by bus. While the journey to Phonsavan was one filled with anticipation, my departure to Vientiane had me once again hopped-up on motion sickness pills, backside determinedly clenched and my head filled with the images of jars and giants.
To this day, (over 10 years later) I remain under the spell of the Plain of Jars. So much so, I included the jars, in my book Beauty Beneath the Banyan (BBTB). I also recommend that travellers who have a passion for anything ancient go to this UNESCO world heritage site. Hopefully, the road is fixed now but even if it isn’t…I say…GO FOR IT! A sunset viewing of the jars is bound to delight fellow travellers and I’m sure the giants will enjoy it too!
People Pictures are the Best
When I’m travelling, like most, I adore taking pictures of the local people. There are some fantastic faces out there. If you travel, I know you have encountered these faces and you know what I am taking about. These faces seem to hold the essence of their country. And, I want pictures of these people. I bet you do too.
One of my favourite people pictures, is the novice monk above. I’d like to share the background behind this memorable photo and how I was gifted with more than his shy smile.
My Fascination with Monks
I remember my first monk sighting was at Siem Rep, in Cambodia. I was much like a child poking my companion in the ribs with an excited whisper, “There’s one. There’s one.” You’d think the novelty of seeing monks would have died down after 6 -months of travelling through Buddhist countries and 17-days at a Thai Buddhist meditation retreat but—it didn’t.
I remain captivated—in awe of their peaceful life style, their serenity. Even the gentle swishing of their robes, as they appear to glide rather than walk over the earth’s surface causes me to stop enthralled by their every step.
Now, I am not the only one who is charmed by monks. I have seen many tourists putting their digital cameras to good use trying to capture monks as they go about their daily routine. Whether it be on the sweltering streets of Bangkok, Thailand; chanting in a candlelit temple in the darkened depths of the Bayon Temple, Cambodia; sitting cross-legged on the back of a motorcycle on a dusty side street in Luang Prabang, Laos or reading under a shaded tree in Yangon, Myanmar. Most of the monk pictures I have taken are from a respectful distance, while others have been snapped when an individual has willing posed.
This brings me back to my point (FINALLY). Out of all my monk pictures, I have a favourite. It’s not because it’s the perfect backdrop, great lighting or a flawlessly posed subject with their eyes open. It’s perfect, because I had the pleasure of getting to know the person in the photograph.
Pha That Luang Pagoda, Vientiane
While visiting Pha That Luang pagoda in Vientiane, Laos a novice shyly approached me wanting to practice his English. He was 17-years-old, very self-conscious, lean and had a shaved head which was darker in the spots where the hair would soon require another shave. His face is almond shaped, his eyes as dark as chocolate and kindness surrounded him.
As we spoke, it soon became apparent that conversing in English required a great deal of effort. He spoke very slowly; carefully pondering each word before he released it. When he was trying to recall a word, his eyes shut, lips pursed—sometimes, both hands would come up and rest on his cheeks in an effort to squeeze out the right word. He was adamant about trying to figure it out for himself. It was only after much effort, when the desired word would not appear that he would ask for my assistance. I’m not sure if the gratification that lit up his face when he remembered or, learned new vocabulary was more rewarding for him, or for me.
His veracious appetite for the English language extended to learning about the world beyond Laos. He was interested in me. In my life. Canada. He wanted to know…if I had parents. Why did I have only one sister? Did my parents really only want two children? What was it like to be a teacher? Did I like teaching? What’s it like to live in Canada? What does snow feel like? What do you wear when it’s cold?
I also wanted to know about him. His life. How he came to live in the monastery. And, here’s what he told me. He was from the south. He used to live in a bamboo-stilted house, was the youngest of four boys and from a very poor family. He came to the monastery when he was 10; because his mother had been very sick and died and, his father could no longer care for him. He told me with tears in his eyes that he still missed his mother. He missed his father. He missed his brothers and the life they had together. “We are very, very poor. But we were very, very happy.”
As I sit here and look at his picture, I am reminded that all of the faces in my travel photos have a story. People are more than just a face who I’ve deemed interesting or intriguing—a face who is picture worthy. These encounters are a gift and what travel is all about.